Friday, 10 February 2012

The Essence of Brownies

Oh yes. I'm going there. Brownies indeed.

At first I wasn't sure about including brownies. I thought they might not really be 'essence-y' enough. To be honest, I thought they might just have been rich chocolate cakes.

But I did my research (not entirely without encouragement from my friends, who often get the benefit of my experimental results), and soon made my decision. I think they're just about different enough from cake to get their own category.

I'd say there are two most notable differences. One is the chocolate - obvious. The other is the fact they are unleavened. This may already be causing some controversy, because some brownie recipes do have leavening - baking powder. The trouble there is that not all recipes contain it. And you probably know how I feel about things which aren't needed. So I have left it out of my essence of brownie, because a brownie is still a brownie without it. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's more of a brownie without it. One of the defining characteristics of a brownie is that it's dense and solid, not light or fluffy like a cake.

The overall definition of a brownie is what I'd call an extremely rich, unleavened chocolate cake. The richness is because it has a tiny amount of flour compared to the amount of egg. sugar, chocolate and butter. The lack of leavening just adds density, to make it even richer.

It didn't take me long to do my research on this one. I looked up every brownie recipe I could find, and wrote down the proportions of the ingredients (standardising them all in terms of chocolate = 1, of course). Then I looked over all the ratios, and simplified them and averaged out the ratios, until it was simple enough to bother with. Then I experimented. And lo and behold, first time, they came out brilliantly. Perfectly moist and gooey in the middle, but with just a hint of cakeyness near the top. A slightly crispy top, and big chunks of chocolate. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, they were wonderful.

And so without further ado, I'll move on to the ratio. I hadn't expected it to be this easy, but that just shows how ratios really are implicit in every recipe, even if the maker of the recipe themselves didn't realise it. It's as if brownies themselves are more aware of their own ratio, than anyone who cooks them. And just by looking at the 'wisdom of crowds' of a large enough sample of brownie recipes, it's easy to distil the pure brownie essence from them.

4 chocolate : 4 butter : 3 egg : 6 sugar : 2 flour

  • Remember what I said in my last post about muffins? Cook things at 180. Brownies aren't special or different enough to be an exception, so assume the same.
  • In order for the chocolate to become part of the mixture (as opposed to just a garnish, like in a chocolate chip cookie), it needs to be in a form where it will combine with the other ingredients. In other words, liquid. So melt your chocolate, until it's pretty much runny.
  • The butter will also combine better in liquid form. The added benefit of this is it contributes to the density of the finished brownie. Because if you add butter from cold or room temperature, there has to be some form of creaming or beating in order to incorporate the butter into the other ingredients. And this will always (even unintentionally) incorporate air bubbles, giving a more cakey texture. Which is the opposite of what we want in brownies, so melted butter helps the fudgy texture. I normally melt the chocolate in the microwave until it's almost fully melted, and then add in the butter and blast them once more until they're both liquid. You could just as well do this in a bowl over a pan of boiling water (the standard non-microwave technique for melting chocolate).

  • I said we don't want to incorporate too much air, in order to keep the right texture. But there's no avoiding getting some air in there, in fact it would be almost inedible if it was completely flat. So the only air comes from the way the eggs are incorporated. Put the eggs and sugar into a bowl together, and then beat them together, just for a minute or two until they're fully combined. You're not doing it with the intention to incorporate air, just to mix them together. But it's important that you're aware that you will be incorporating air. Eggs are so good at foaming up, that you can barely do anything to them without it happening anyway - they're almost an inadvertent form of leavening in themselves.
  • Next it's time to combine the two sets of ingredients. Like I talked about in muffins, you should beware of your hot ingredients being too hot when you add them to the egg - scrambled brownie batter is unappetising, to say the least. Use your common sense, it's not a likely occurrence, but you should just be aware of the risk.

  • Finally, time to add the flour. Sieve it first, so it doesn't get lumpy. Stir it in fairly gently, you don't need to mix it loads, just until it's all evenly combined.
  • Now stick it in your dish. You want a pan that's the right size so the mixture will be an inch or so thick. You could have them thicker or thinner, but that would affect the cooking time and the texture - I encourage you to experiment of course. I made a batch with a ratio based on 200g of chocolate, and that was just the right amount for a roughly 9x9 inch dish.

  • For my batch, I also added some chunks of roughly chopped chocolate. I sprinkled them on top of the mixture once it was in the dish, but you could just as easily mix them into the batter, as well as nuts or anything else you feel like adding. I used half the amount of chocolate in the recipe again, for the chips on top, which seemed like a good amount.
  • Now get cooking, they will take about 25 minutes, maybe more or less depending on your oven and your batch and so on. Because the essence of a brownie has a slightly squidgy centre, the standard 'clean inserted skewer' test doesn't quite apply here. Instead, you want a toothpick/skewer/butter knife to come out with just a few sticky crumbs on it when you stick it in the middle - perfect brownies.

I can safely say these brownies are one of the best things I've ever cooked. And the most exciting thing is, I didn't use a recipe! I feel like it's a massive boost for my methods that I made something using just a self-deduced ratio, and it was absolutely delicious.

I'd also like to add two special mentions here. One is for my friend Hannah, my new sous chef. She took some of the photos, and helped out with the recipe. And a mention for my mum, because apparently I haven't referred to her yet in this blog! Also she loves brownies. And she's the best.


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