When I was young, an old lady at the bottom of our garden used to bring us brownies. Not literally, of course – she lived on the next street along and her house backed onto ours – but I used to love the silly image this reference conjured up; a little old lady tucked away amongst the shrubs and fairies, happily baking brownies somewhere between the garden shed and the compost heap.
This neighbour of ours lived alone – her kids had worked abroad, eventually settling in the States – and every so often she’d come round to babysit, armed with a plate of dark, chewy brownies. I don’t know if it was something to do with the seeming exoticism of her far flung family, but I always associated these treats with America. I knew they were brownies, but their crisp crust and chewy texture felt a far cry from the cakier, fudgey version I sometimes made with my Mum.
In hindsight I have a feeling they may have been made with Betty Crocker instant brownie mix, but at the time I wasn’t such a baking snob. I loved the chewy texture, the shiny, flaky crust and dense, muddy middle, the way they stuck to the roof of your mouth and retained an imprint of your teeth after you’d taken a big bite. More cookie than cake-like, they definitely weren’t my Mum’s brownies, but they were good.
And so goes the age-old brownie debate; the crumbly, cakey crowd vs. those who prefer a dense, more fudgey fix. In The Perfect Scoop, one of my favourite dessert books ever, David Lebowitz acknowledges this fact by providing recipes for both camps, and in her ‘Perfect…’ column for The Guardian, Felicity Cloake provides more rigorous research into the various opinions out there than I’m going to go into here. Suffice to say, I’m torn between camps; while I’m always searching for that perfect brownie recipe, part of me thinks there should be more than one to suit different occasions, from lighter tea-time treats to giant, brick-like slabs (I’m thinking Flour Power’s Ultra Chocolate Brownie here).
Nonetheless, when I saw that Signe Johansen had posted her version of the ultimate all-American brownie on her blog, I had to give it a go. Her ultimate chocolate chip cookies are my go-to cookie recipe and, when it comes to baking, I think she’s bang on the money. This recipe is adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, in which the eponymous Fannie is credited with inventing brownies back in 1896 by reducing the amount of flour in her chocolate cake recipe to produce something more akin to cookie than cake. The creditials are there – her recipe is certainly the original, but is it the best?
Signe’s recipe goes steady on the sugar, ups the cocoa content and, unusually, contains a generous dollop of chocolate spread. The resulting brownie is rich and chewy, the thin shiny crust flaking beautifully as you bite in to reveal a treacly slick of brownie beneath. It reminds me a lot of those brownies our neighbour used to bring round all those years ago, the sweet chocolate spread giving it a slightly candy-like flavour; one friend even asked if I’d used Nesquik in the batter (sorry Signe!).
The verdict? If I’m completely honest, I think I slightly prefer the nutty undertones of golden to icing sugar, and would like to see a little melted chocolate going into the mix, but for an all-American classic, chewy brownie, this recipe is going to be hard to beat.
What’s your favourite brownie recipe? Do you like them dark and earthy, light and crumbly or rich and fudgey? Or are you more like me, a brownie addict striving for perfection, but more than happy to do a lot of tasting along the way…?
Chewy chocolate brownies (recipe from Signe Johansen’s blog)
- 125g butter
- 75g cocoa powder
- 175g Nutella or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
- 2 medium free range eggs
- 1 medium free range egg yolk
- 150g icing sugar
- 50g flour
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Grease and line a 20 cm square baking tin.
Melt the butter then stir in the cocoa powder and chocolate hazelnut spread til smooth. Set aside. In the meantime, whisk together the eggs and sugar, making sure you don’t incorporate too much air into the mixture. Add the chocolate-hazelnut butter mixture and stir til smooth. Fold in the flour, vanilla extract and salt with a large metal spoon. Your batter should look dark and treacle-y.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 20-25 minutes. It’s always better to remove brownies from the oven sooner rather than later – check them after 20 mins or so and if a firm crust has formed, remove. Another way of checking if they are done is to insert a skewer in the middle – little bits of gooey crumb should still cling to it when removed, but not a complete sticky mess.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before slicing.