I have very specific ideas of what constitutes a good brownie. Mostly, those ideas are defined by what it is not. It is not cakey. It does not have icing, chocolate chips nor chopped nuts of any sort; even you, my beloved hazelnut. It is not a vessel for tricking children into eating spinach. It does not contain leavening agents nor does it come from a box mix. There has been an effort in recent years to convince people that box mix brownies are acceptable. Lies.
This is one issue where I not only show my bias, I am unapologetic for it.
An Iconic American Dessert
However, in Stella Parks’s Glossy Fudge Brownies, I have found the Platonic ideal. Deeply chocolatey with a crinkly, whisper-thin top; the crispiest of edges and the darkest and squidgiest of middles.
It is but one of the masterful recipes in Parks’s Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts and if you have even the slightest interest in baking or just plain good food writing, I highly recommend it.
Not only do the recipes work – sadly not a guarantee even in the priciest cookbooks – she offers an origin story for all those desserts you grew up eating and still crave at an almost cellular level. In regard to the brownie, while we know it is definitively an American creation, its true origins are somewhat murky. There are numerous claims on it but the nexus seems to be the anticipation or the result of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Brownies in the White City
Whenever I hear of this time and place, I can’t help but think of Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City. A book that has absolutely nothing to do with brownies and a great deal to do with serial killer H.H. Holmes.
It’s much more than that though. Larson reveals how the events that unfolded in Chicago 1893 were emblematic of The Gilded Age overall. Of how the heights we achieve when we yield to our better angels is equally rivaled by the depths of our depravity. As quoted by Larson, political activist and journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote of the Fair “as revealing to the great mass of Americans ‘possibilities of social beauty, utility, and harmony of which they had not been able even to dream.'”
This is in stark contrast to Larson’s depiction of day-to-day life, not just for the average Chicagoan, but for any city-dweller of the era:
Anonymous death came early and often…There was diphtheria, typhus, cholera, influenza. And there was murder.
In the time of the Fair, the rate at which men and women killed one another rose sharply throughout the nation but especially in Chicago, where police found themselves without the manpower or expertise to manage the volume. In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred violent deaths. Four a day. Most were prosaic, arising from robbery, argument, or sexual jealousy. Men shot women, women shot men, and children shot one another by accident.
The same event that ushered in the City Beautiful movement, gave us Cracker Jacks, the Ferris Wheels, and signaled to the world that America had come of age also gave us the man who is thought of as one of America’s first serial killers.
So, too, somewhere amongst it all, the brownie was devised; itself bitter and sweet and entirely American.
I heard you like prep so I put some prep in your prep so you can..oh just stop already
[Already know what you’re doing and just the want the recipe? Want instructions for a gluten-free variation? Click here!]
To me, mise en place is not optional when baking. Baking is chemistry and it’s essential to have the ingredients accurately measured both in terms of weight and temperature.
So, I feel like this recipe requires a couple of preambles regarding equipment and ingredients.
For equipment, Parks recommends a 9×13 anodized aluminum pan. If you have one, awesome. I don’t. I used a 9×13 non-stick aluminum coated steel pan and these brownies turned out magnificently. Parks cautions against using a glass Pyrex-style baking dish and I know her reasoning behind it is sound.
However, if you’re dying to make these brownies and that is all you have to work with? Go for it. I used that type of pan for years and never had a bad brownie in doing so.
The other piece of equipment I highly recommend is an accurate kitchen scale. While I have included volume measurements below, my preference is for measuring by weight. In addition to being more accurate which makes for a better finished product, measuring by weight is just plain faster than measuring by volume.
My favorite is the OXO Good Grips 11-pound Food Scale. At about $50, it may seem pricey. However, I have used mine daily for at least 10 years; it has more than paid for itself.
As for ingredients, I generally use whatever I can find at the grocery store that is a good balance of cost and quality. I don’t believe you need expensive or elusive ingredients to make good food. There are a few exceptions and cocoa powder is one of them.
Grocery story cocoa powders are the pits. For why? Well, the FDA requires cocoa powders to have 10% cocoa butter content. Therefore, producers can save money by JUST meeting the legal requirement. This a problem for bakers because low-fat cocoa powder yields a finished product with less flavor and crumblier texture.
So what’s good? I use Cacao Barry Extra Brute, but Valrhona and Droste are excellent as well.
[Side note: There is another distinction – natural vs Dutch-process cocoas. They really can’t be used interchangeably, but that is a post for another day. Suffice to say, this recipe uses Dutch-process which includes the aforementioned cocoa powders.]
Phew, still here? Let’s mise it up.
Preheat the oven to 350 and set a rack in the middle position.
Prep your pan by lining it with aluminum foil making sure it hangs over the edge of the long side and it is flush with corners. The overhang will act like a sling when you want to remove the brownies from the pan to the
forever very temporary home of your cutting board.
To make sure you get all of the brownies you worked so hard for, Parks recommends using pan spray on the foil. I don’t feel comfortable arguing with a pastry chef about this. However, I’ll do it anyway and tell you my preference is to use butter. With pan spray, I feel like I always miss a spot. So I use butter because I have to actually spread it over the surface with my fingers and I know for sure everything has been covered.
Turn your attention to the ingredients. Weigh out and sift together the flour and cocoa powder. Chop AND THEN weigh your chocolate. I do this because I find that between a little meltage (that’s not a word) and the bits I just can’t scrape off the board, I lose some the some of the chocolate in the chopping process. So I chop and then weigh to make sure I get all of it.
Am I the Anal-Retentive Chef? Possibly. But do you want to miss out on the amount of chocolate that is rightly due to you? Yeah, didn’t think so. Moving on!
Browned Butter Makes Everything Better
Let’s get that butter browning before we finish up with our other ingredients.
In a 3-quart stainless steel sauce pan, melt three sticks of butter over medium-low heat. When completely melted, increase to medium and simmer. Stir with a heat resistant spatula, scraping up any brown bits that form along the pan. It’s ready to go when the butter is, as Parks says, “golden yellow and perfectly silent”
If you accidentally burn the the butter rather than merely browning it, no worries. Simply pour the butter through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the burned solids.
Remove the now browned butter from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Restrain yourself from drinking this magical elixir.
Finally, weigh and combine your white sugar, brown sugar, salt, eggs, vanilla and instant espresso powder, if using, into the bowl of stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip on medium-high speed until very thick, very fluffy and very pale in color. This will take about 8 minutes.
When the sugar-egg mixture reaches billowy perfection, reduce the mixing speed to low and pour in the chocolate-butter. Mix until incorporated.
Next, turn the mixer off, tilt the head up and pour in the flour and cocoa powder all at once. Give it a few folds with a flexible spatula. I like to do this so that I don’t end up wearing the flour when the mixer is turned on. Mix on low speed until well combined. After stopping the mixer, give the batter a couple more folds with the spatula, making sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake until the brownies are glossy and just barely firm, about 25-30 minutes or until it reaches an internal temperature of 205°F. Yes, I temp my brownies and if you have a food thermometer handy, I suggest you do the same. As Parks notes, “the timing of this recipe is based on anodized aluminum, and will vary significantly with glass, ceramic, or non-stick pans, materials that will also affect the brownie’s consistency.” I used non-stick aluminum-coated stainless steel and they were finished in 30 minutes.
Now, the hard part – you have to let these cool. The texture will just not be perfectly fudgy and dense if you don’t cool the brownies in the pan to room temperature. Find a way to occupy yourself for two hours.
Finally, use the sling created by the foil to lift and remove the brownies from the pan. You can get up to 24 two and half-inch squares out this gorgeous glossy slab. These can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to a week.
Glossy Fudge Brownies
This is the platonic ideal of brownies - deeply chocolatey, a crinkly, whisper-thin top, the crispiest of edges, and the darkest and squidgiest of middles.
- 12 ounces unsalted butter, plus more for the pan about 3 sticks
- 6 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate about 1 cup
- 16 ounces white sugar about 2 1/4 cups
- 2 ounces light brown sugar about 1/4 cup, packed
- 1 3/4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
- 6 large eggs straight from the fridge about 10 1/2 ounces
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder optional
- 4 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal about 1 cup, spooned
- 4 ounces Dutch process cocoa powder, such as Cocoa Barry Extra Brute about 1 1/3 cups, spooned
Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 350°F. Line a 9- by 13- by 2-inch baking pan with foil to cover the bottom and long sides of the pan. Lightly grease the foil with butter (my preference) or pan spray
In a 3-quart stainless steel sauce pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When completely melted, increase to medium and simmer, stirring with a heat resistant spatula. Continue cooking and stirring, scraping up any brown bits that form along the pan, until the butter is golden yellow and perfectly silent. Remove from heat and stir in the chocolate.
Making the Batter
Combine white sugar, brown sugar, salt, eggs, vanilla, and instant espresso (if using) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip on medium-high until extremely thick, fluffy and pale, about 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, sift together the flour and cocoa powder. When the foamed eggs are fluffy and thick, reduce speed to low and pour in the warm chocolate-butter. Once incorporated, add the cocoa-flour all at once and continue mixing until roughly combined. Finish with a flexible spatula, scraping and folding to ensure the batter is well mixed from the bottom up.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake until the brownies are glossy and just barely firm, about 25-30 minutes or to an internal temperature of 205°F.
Cool the brownies to room temperature to ensure the ideal fudgy texture. Using the foil overhang as a sling, lift the slab of brownies from the pan and onto a cutting board. This recipe yields twenty four 2 1/2-inch square. In an airtight container, the brownies can sit at room temperature for about a week.
Gluten-free version: Replace all of the flour with 7 ounces (1 3/4 cups) hazelnut flour or an equal weight of toasted, skinned hazelnuts pulsed with the cocoa in a food processor until powdery and fine, about 1 minute and very finely ground hazelnuts. Proceed with the recipe as otherwise written.