March 13, 2011

Quest: the perfect brownies

Actually, I've never tasted brownies until after we moved to the United States. And then I learned new things, and new words: cabinet, not cupboard. Cookies, not biscuits. Biscuits, not scones. Band-aid, not plaster. And so on. And I was introduced to brownies, the food. Dessert, they call it. Yum. I liked it, very much.

When my firstborn was a little over a year old, we made a road trip to Santa Barbara to visit my professor from grad school. There, I tasted the perfect brownie, at a cafe that I can no longer recall the name of. It is odd, as we visited the cafe a couple times more during our trip (on top of that tacos place so loved by Julia Child), just to savor the brownie again. I know that after the trip I also talked about that brownie with a fellow mom online and she looked up a book she had containing recipes of famous dishes from Santa Barbara restaurants, but that brownie recipe was not in there. I even wrote the chef at the cafe, and she wrote me back a few months after, thanking me for my compliments but politely declining my request for their brownie recipe. She did promise that she would send me a copy of the recipe should they decide to go public with it.

So I am waiting. For those dreamy, perfect brownies. A thin crust, just enough for you to experience the crispiness from being perfectly baked. Then a chewy, delicious chocolate layer beneath, with just the right touch of sweetness, held in balance by a slight hint of bitter chocolate. Those brownies were enjoyed with a wonderful cup of coffee, sitting out on a sunny and crowded patio.

I cannot keep count how many brownie recipes I have made since, in those nine long years. Some were good, some mediocre, some failed. None were exactly like those Santa Barbara ones. Almost everyone, it seems, claims to have a perfect brownie recipe. I am just not finding it yet, but I am beginning to suspect that it is in my memory that its championship place had never been swayed. And that perhaps my tastebuds are just biased.

Recently, I made two different recipes of brownies. One was adapted from Carole Walter's "best brownies" recipe, which my family thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, R felt those were the best and that I should stop hunting for more brownie recipes. The other is a gluten-free, egg-free version that I tried for my friend K. It uses flaxseed meal to replace the eggs, and I am not particularly thrilled with the results. The brownies had a good flavor, but a bit on the dry side, and kind of crumbly. K reported that they paired perfectly with vanilla ice-cream. She thought too the flavor was good, but the texture was not the chewiness that she enjoys in brownies. I am posting the recipe below in case anyone wants to try, or improve upon it, or make it using another egg replacement. Please report back if you do!

(And also, I am trying to do better with my photos. It's a challenge, because I am rather impatient with the technical aspects of excellent photography, and also I feel the real test is in the eating, and I just want to get to the eating part quick quick quick! If you have useful tips for taking droolicious photos of food, I would love to hear!)

I like to cut them bite size so I can keep popping them into my mouth!

 Almost-perfect brownies
Adapted from Carole Walter's recipe

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 5 oz bitterwseet (or dark) chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar (sifted)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  1. Position rack in middle of oven and heat to 350F. Butter a 13" by 9" baking pan.
  2. Melt butter over low heat in a medium saucepan. When butter is almost melted, add the chopped chocolate. Remove from heat after one minute and let stand until chocolate is completely melted, stir occasionally.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs lightly, then stir in sugar in a steady stream. Add the warm chocolate mixture, and stir lightly with whisk to blend. Mix in vanilla extract and salt.
  4. Sift the flour over the chocolate mixture in three additions, folding the flour gently in each time with the whisk. Whisk till flour is just incorporated. Fold in the nuts and the chocolate chips with a spatula.
  5. Immediately transfer batter to the baking pan, spreading evenly and smoothly the top with the back of a large spoon. Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out slightly moist, a few crumbs attached. DO NOT OVERBAKE.
  6. Cool brownies in pan on a wire rack for at least 4 hours before cutting. (Get out of the house if you cannot resist temptation! -- I did.)
  7. Store brownies in an air-tight container, up to 5 days. They can be frozen.

Gluten-free, egg-free brownie
Gluten-free Egg-free Fudgy Brownies
Recipe taken from Elizabeth Gordon's "Allergy-free Desserts"

  • 3 tablespoons plus ½ cup freshly brewed espresso, cooled
  • 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed meal
  • 1¾ cups Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All-Purpose Baking Flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (I did find this recipe a tad sweet, you may want to reduce the sugar a tiny bit)
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon xanthan gum
  • ½ cup canola oil (I used melted coconut oil)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup gluten-, soy-, dairy-, egg-, and nut-free semisweet chocolate chips (I added a handful more, it didn't seem enough! :-) )


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan with oil.
  2. In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of the espresso and the flaxseed meal and allow to thicken for 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. In another small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and xanthan gum. Pour in the cconut oil, vanilla, and the remaining ½ cup of espresso. Stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined and smooth. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until the brownies are firm and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the brownies cool completely in the pan on a rack before cutting them into triangles.
  5. Store the brownies, tightly wrapped and refrigerated, for up to 5 days.
The batter before being sent into the oven, yum!

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