For as long as I’ve had my own kitchen, I’ve been making scratch brownies out of the 1971 BETTY CROCKER COOKBOOK. People say things like this, “That’s the best brownie I’ve ever eaten in my whole life.” And you know why? It’s not because I’m the best brownie baker or Betty’s the top of the recipe developers, it’s because most folks are used to boxed mix brownies made with cocoa instead of luscious whole bars of melted chocolate. You know, brownies are nothing but fudge on steroids. Think of them as fudge with flour… and eggs… … and sometimes a little leavening. But unless you make scratch brownies, you don’t know that.
I don’t remember if I made brownies before I tried BETTY CROCKER’s practically perfect process. If I did, they might have been from a mix because most brownies Americans make are out of a box, right? And have been, for how long? Maybe 70 years. In fact, thinking about it, I have since made brownies out of a box when really pushed for time with children wanting a fast dessert, or a bake sale or pot luck deadline looming in…oh, say…45 minutes.
But it has probably been 20 years since I’ve been that desperate–and even then it was only rarely. To say I was grateful for the easy fix would still be true.
So why is a brownie made with unsweetened chocolate so much more tasty than one made with cocoa? One word: fat, or more precisely, cocoa butter. While the word “fat” is otherwise a swear word in our culture, in the brownie world, it’s the consummate compliment. Blocks of baking chocolate have the one single incredibly flavorful ingredient that changes everything no matter what you’re cooking. Think scrambled eggs or toast without butter (perish the thought) and you get idea. While cocoa makes the treat of a cold evening when mixed with hot milk, sugar, and the tiniest smidge of salt (or even with a splash of peppermint schnapps), fatty bar chocolate it ain’t. Aside: there are people (I don’t know any) who swear by cocoa brownies–see the LA TIMES article link down below.
These days, you won’t find me opening any boxed mixes, no matter what. I have all the time in the world to melt chocolate. The time is well-spent. (What else would I do with those minutes? Dust?) I will admit that 90% of my chocolate melting has been done in the microwave since 1982 (except when I lived in Europe and left my microwave in storage), despite the constant and consistent recipe advice to use a double boiler or a really heavy pot. I do it at full powder, too, with no ill effects. Let’s talk simplifying and doing less dish washing.
There is this one thing about buying unsweetened baking chocolate; it’s sort of hard to get with the exception of one or two brands. I admit to being no expert on chocolate, but only give my take on it. Here in the U.S., we often bake with unsweetened chocolate, but bittersweet or semisweet chocolate bars from Europe are often of a much higher quality and are the typical go-to for continental baking for good tasty reasons. Think pain au chocolat or a chocolatine and you’ll know why. This is why most of Americans who travel to Paris go all that way simply to buy decent croissants or pains au chocolat — basically croissants with a layer of bittersweet chocolate melted in the center! (Ok, maybe only a small exaggeration on my part.) Our own last Paris hotel room was situated right above where such olfactory-thrilling baking starting at 3am every morning. I could do nothing but lie still in bed with my eyes wide open, unable to move for the aroma. I sniffed around silently, waiting forever for the baking to finish and the first coffee to be made in the hotel’s tiny breakfast cafe– because I could smell that, too.
Even my husband, who is not a chocolate eater per se, ate them every. single. morning.
Here in the states, if you’re searching, unless you’re lucky or live in grocery store heaven, you may only find Baker’s brand unsweetened baking chocolate. In years past we also had easier access to Hershey’s and occasionally Guittard or Ghiradelli — all American chocolate companies. Today, we can “Fedex-Food” (or find in specialty markets) other varieties of chocolate–such as Scharffen Berger, Lindt, Callebaut (Belgian), or French Valrhona chocolate from amazon or other places, but we’ll also pay for it dearly or simply find it too sweet for some of our uses. Sweetened chocolate and unsweetened chocolate are not easily interchangeable–even with adjustments. So in the interest of accessibility and cost, I most often buy Baker’s for brownies and frostings and am done with it. Aside, a rant: Baker’s Chocolate used to come in 8-ounce boxes and now comes in 4-ounce size only. For my frosted brownies, I’m forced to buy two 4-ounce boxes and, of course, it now costs more.
For the last week or so, I’ve had a note on my fridge reminding me to figure out a “Brownie Cupcake Sundae” for a Valentine’s dessert on the blog. My thought was a cooled cupcake, split in half, with ice cream in the middle and whipped cream and a strawberry on top. Maybe a chocolate drizzle. I had a feeling my basic brownie recipe would work for this, though just for giggles, I checked out brownie recipes from a few of my favorite bakers. (see above) Some of them contained twice as much chocolate and less than 1/2 as much flour as my go-to! I even went back and read up in my husband Dave’s Grandma May Mays’ 1948 BETTY CROCKER–just to think about a little contemporary brownie-baking history. By the way, Betty’s recipe hadn’t changed much over twenty-some years from ’48 – ’71 with the exception of a little more flour in the doubled recipe.
In the end, I went with the recipe I knew so well, though I added a little coffee flavor to amp up the chocolate. When the first cupcakes came out of the oven (scroll down for photo), I knew there was no splitting these babies in half. Most of them had sunk at the middle and, just briefly, so did my heart. Punt, Alyce; I would just fill those little cakes with whipped cream (or even peanut butter frosting some other time!?), garnish them and be glad with it all. I piped the whipped cream into those holes or indentations in some cases, and added half a strawberry to each right on top. I had a bite of one and Dave finished the rest of it in two bites. I sent a couple more to next door neighbors Sara and Mike (below) for testing.
And while I haven’t heard back from the Hillman’s yet, I have not a doubt in the world that you should try this:
Whipped Cream-Filled Brownie Cupcakes
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate cut into pieces
- 2/3 cup butter
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 ¼ cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups heavy whipping cream
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 or 2 tablespoons powdered sugar to taste
- 2 tablespoons cocoa
- 10 ripe strawberries trimmed, and cut in half
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and set rack in upper third of oven.Melt chocolate and butter together in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat or covered for 2 minutes on full power in the microwave, stirring half way through. Remove from heat, stir in espresso powder, and let cool a minute or two.
- Stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Add remaining ingredients and stir until totally mixed.
- Using a sprayed or greased large ice cream scoop, fill the cupcake liners about ½-way full. You’ll have some batter leftover to bake 4 more cupcakes. Bake 16-18 minutes or until firm at edges and just barely baked at center. Remove pan to cooling rack for 3 -4 minutes and using a small offset icing spatula or table knife, carefully remove each cupcake and let cool completely on rack. The cupcakes may fall a bit at the center, which is great for the filling. Let pan cool before baking the last few cupcakes.
- Whip the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla until firm peaks appear. Fill decorating bag with whipped cream and pipe about ¼ cup whipped cream into the center of each cupcake, first creating an indented space for the cream with fingers or spoon if desired. You can also just spoon the whipped cream on top of the cupcakes if you like. Sift a little cocoa over the whipped cream. Garnish each with half strawberry and serve immediately.
ALYCE’S BASIC BROWNIE THOUGHTS
Brownies hit all the necessary smiling places for taste: fatty, chewy, chocolatey, sweet, crunchy on the edges, good with red wine, and maybe even a little salty.
Sometimes they feel like a nut and sometimes they don’t. Your choice.
They’re an easy dessert for a dozen or more people. Brownies can be made by anyone of any age and by using just one bowl, one spoon, and one pan.
KID COOKS: You have milk in the fridge, right? Nuff said.
ADULT COOKS: You have port in the fridge, right? Nuff said.
Brownies can be dressed up to the nines. Think peppermint ice cream at Christmas, big drizzles of caramel sauce over brownies in bowls, m&ms, almonds or peanuts stirred into the batter, berries on top, or hot fudge all over. Read the Peanut Butter Cheesecake Brownie recipe, which is also on the current Baker’s Chocolate Box.
Dark chocolate is good for your heart…and your soul. Go for it.
BROWNIE/CHOCOLATE READING + RECIPES
“The Best Brownie in London” (David Lebovitz)
“Are You Baking with the Right Chocolate?” (BON APPETIT, Rochelle Bilow)
“Brownies” (US History Scene)
Ina Garten’s Brownies (Food Network) Uses over a pound of chocolate chips plus unsweetened chocolate, 6 eggs, etc., to make a whopping big 1/2 sheet pan of brownies that serves 20 hungry or 40 not-so-hungry people.
Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Substitute (Genius Kitchen)
Baker’s Chocolate and Ghiradelli Brownie mix photos courtesy amazon.com
Cook at home for the best food,