No slumber party with my nephew is complete without a baking adventure in my kitchen. The Little Chef came over the other night while his parents went out for their anniversary dinner, and when I presented him with a few different scrumptious-looking goodies on my To Bake list, he naturally chose the most decadent option. (Is this kid related to me or what?) I’d had my eye on these Browned Butter Brownies for quite some time, and I was really happy for an excuse to make them with my little buddy.
These brownies were the cover recipe in the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. They are the creation of Alice Medrich, whose masterful book Bittersweet continues to give me great insight and understanding when it comes to working with chocolate. This recipe is similar to her Best Cocoa Brownies in Bittersweet, as both recipes produce a brownie with the most incredible soft texture and a crisp candylike crust on top. In this sublime version, the butter is cooked to a speckled brown before being blended with the cocoa and the rest of the ingredients. This simple-yet-ingenius step imparts a layer of fabulous nuttiness that dances perfectly in tandem with the richness of the cocoa.
As the Little Chef and I measured out dry ingredients and got to work browning the butter, I told him a story about my first year in New York when I cooked for a family in exchange for room and board. During my interview with them, I informed them that I had years of cooking experience, having trailed my mom in the kitchen since I was six years old. I made a point of telling them I had been occasionally hired to make cakes when I was in college and had actually catered post-concert receptions for friends. I was elated when I got the job.
Now I’m not sure what kind of cooks they’d had before I moved in because it took them a while to trust me in the kitchen. Eventually I won them over, but it was a long process that began with what I refer to as the Brownie Mix Incident.
One morning the mother (whom I’ll refer to as Mrs. K) informed me that they were hosting a big party at their home the next night, and while they were having the event catered, she wondered if I would make some sort of dessert for the evening. As visions of beautifully arranged fruit tarts and decadent chocolate tortes danced through my head in that instant, Mrs. K’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Do you know how to make brownies? Could you make brownies but not from a mix? ”
I resisted the urge to giggle. I replied that I could make whatever she liked and had absolutely no problem doing brownies from scratch if that’s what she wanted. “Great, because I really don’t like brownies from a mix,” Mrs. K said, still sounding unsure of whether or not I was up to the task. As she continued to harp on the evils of brownie mix as though she hadn't heard me, I finally had to spell it out that I had made plenty of brownies without ever using a box mix in my entire brownie-baking career, and that in fact I would be happy to make something even more festive for their party if she so desired.
It was a much longer conversation with a lot of debate and suspicion woven in as I tried to convince her that I really did know what I was doing. But in the end, I made two beautiful cakes—including my poached pear cheesecake—both of which were big hits with the guests and hostess alike. Actually, Mrs. K could hardly believe that I had created these in her kitchen, and she kept remarking on how professional-looking the cakes were and how glad she was that I could bake something other than brownies-from-a-mix! I do think she began to trust me a little bit more after that.
As I told this story to the Little Chef, he looked at me with a quizzical expression and said, “Louise, didn’t she know what you were capable of doing in the kitchen???” I laughed, cracking up to realize how well my nephew knows me and being glad that he has an appreciation for my baking even at his young age. While I tried to explain that sometimes you have to give people an opportunity to trust you and discover what you're capable of, he kept saying, “But that’s just crazy, I can’t believe she thought YOU might not be able to make brownies without a mix! It’s like asking Peter if he thought he might be able to draw a stick figure!” (His dad—my brother—is an incredible artist. And yes, he refers to his dad by his first name.)
These brownies may look average enough, but their taste is out of this world. I'd even venture so far as to describe them as the Superman of the brownie world, masquerading as Clark Kent in ordinary appearance but delivering an extraordinary taste impact. And while a plate of brownies may not be as visually stunning as an elaborate cake, all I can say is that if Mrs. K had tried our browned butter brownies, she wouldn’t have known what had come over her.
One Year Ago: Asparagus Pasta
Two Years Ago: Sumac Skirt Steak with Pomegranate-Shallot Sauce, Puerto Rican Chicken with Saffron Rice
BROWNED BUTTER BROWNIES
Barely adapted from a recipe by Alice Medrich in Bon Appetit, February 2011
Use the best cocoa you can, as it will only enhance your results. (I'm quite partial to Valrhona.) The original recipe calls for walnuts, but I used pecans to great effect. I also reduced the amount of sugar by ¼ cup, and I sprinkled the top of the brownie batter with a few pinches of flaky Maldon salt, as I love the interplay between salty and sweet.
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 heaping cup sugar
¾ cup natural unsweetened cocoa (spooned into a cup to measure, then leveled)
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cold large eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup pecan pieces, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
a few pinches of flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (optional)
Position your oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 325°. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 metal baking pan with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on opposite sides to facilitate easy removal of the brownies. Spray the foil with an even layer of nonstick spray and set aside.
Make the browned butter by melting it in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. The butter will create a white foam as it melts, but keep stirring until it stops foaming and begins to form brown bits at the bottom of the pan. This will take about 5 minutes. When the browned butter is nutty and fragrant, remove from the heat and immediately add the sugar, cocoa powder, water, vanilla and salt. Stir to blend well and let cool for about 5 minutes.
Add the eggs to the warm cocoa mixture, one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition until the mixture looks thick and glossy. Add the flour and beat vigorously for exactly 60 strokes until blended. Stir in the nuts, if using, and pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with a few pinches of flaky sea salt, if you wish.
Bake the brownies about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out almost clean with a few moist crumbs attached to it. Let the brownies cool directly in the pan on a baking rack, then use the foil overhang to lift the brownies out. You can cut these into whatever size you like, but I suggest doing three lengthwise cuts, then three crosswise cuts to make 16 brownies. If you have the self-control to not gobble up these freshly baked brownies immediately, these can be made 2 days ahead if stored in an airtight container at room temperature.