It's always crucial to keep our priorities in order. Even a person who's getting married in less than three weeks needs to keep working on the quintessential brownie recipe. What a revelation it can be, then, to discover that the recipe was actually within easy reach all along. And what an analogy for life-altering events: sometimes what we most want is within our grasp, if only we can see it, find it, take hold of it.
When I was a child, I was fond of the many children's books by British author Noel Streatfeild, which fed my fantasies of a) being British, so that I could eat trifle and have "cream teas", whatever they were, and b) being an orphan who would end up at a professional children's school, to be trained for a "useful" profession -- like the stage, of course. In particular, I loved Ms. Streatfeild's first book Ballet Shoes, where the orphans seem to constantly be preparing for the Christmas pantomimes. A production that figured largely in these preparations was Maurice Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird," in which two children set out on travels and adventures to find the Blue Bird of Happiness -- only to discover, at the end, that it was in their own back yard all the time. It's a sort of "no place like home" allegory, which is a good one to dwell upon, I think, as I plight my troth (whatever the hell that means). I mention all this because I finally rediscovered the brownies of my dreams right in my own back yard -- or in my own kitchen, as it were.
Over the past several years, I've made many batches of brownies, searching for that apotheosis of deep chocolatiness combined with true chewiness. Chewiness should not be mistaken for fudginess. Fudginess, in my opinion, is easy to achieve, especially if you undercook your brownies a bit, and then stick them in the fridge. But chewiness is when you create a bar cookie that has almost the toothiness and snap-back of a caramel. I tried recipes with corn syrup (eeekk), substituting molasses or honey or sometimes golden syrup. I tried using various blends of sugars. Many of these recipes were good, as were their resulting treats -- and often popular with the populace upon whom they were bestowed. But for me, they were missing something.
So I tried a tiny psychological exercise on myself. When had I had brownies like the ones I was thinking of; what were the ones that had the qualities I wished for? There was only one right answer. I searched inside the battered sheaf of old newspaper clippings and back-of-envelope scrawls until I came upon the two bits of paper. There was an ancient insert from an ancient box of Droste's cocoa, with modifications jotted next to the quantities. And on the back of an envelope, there was a further metamorphosis of the same recipe, with the words "Ellie's Brownies" at the top. Ellie was my mother's name -- and the name that will be given to my niece-to-be, as she and my nephew-to-be dive into the world, later this spring or early summer.
My mother's brownies. Of course I didn't really want to be an orphan.
Over the years, she refashioned them from the modest version on the little insert in the Droste's box. Bit by bit, she upped the cocoa content until they were deep, dark brownie wonders. She kept the butter content low, and added a bit more brown sugar, which gave them the extra chew factor. And she perfumed them with orange -- grated rind, a squeeze of juice, a splash of Grand Marnier. When they were good, they were wonderful -- perfect, in fact. Occasionally she became distracted, and overbaked them, in which case they still tasted chocolatey but were beginning to move over to the crunchy side. A few times, in an effort to give them more of the citrus perfume she loved, she put a bit too much orange juice and Grand Marnier in them, and they turned cakey. But most of the time they were lovely.
In addition to their delectable chocolatey chew, these brownies are actually not nearly as deadly as many other versions you might set your teeth to. Firstly, they're made with cocoa rather than chocolate. Secondly, for an entire 13 x 9 inch pan, they require but one-half cup of butter. Consider, by contrast, Nigella's Domestic Goddess brownie recipe, which has 13 ounces of chocolate and one and 2/3 cups of butter. Or the Barefoot Contessa, whose Outrageous Brownies call for a pound of butter and over two pounds of chocolate. I also think these particular brownies are a perfect vehicle for lots of crunchy walnuts, a protein/fiber/omega 3-laden superfood. But don't make these for their health benefits. Make them because they are really and truly good. I'm really not much for stinting on ingredients when it comes to dessert. I make these because they actually satisfy my brownie jones better than the richer kinds.
My best beloved G prefers them nutless, of course, and without orange -- pumped up instead with a handful of Ghiradelli or other good bittersweet chips. It's easy enough to make a batch of batter, scoop half into one side of the pan and pat it down with a smattering of chips. The other half gets the walnuts and the orange elements, and so we're both happy, eating brownies together. A good metaphor, I think, for how to conduct a marriage.
Sometimes a recipe is more than a recipe; the act of rediscovery is a reminder of the absolute love that's right here at home, after what feels like a lifetime of searching the wide world over.
I've upped the cocoa in these even more, to good purpose, and given the brownies a nice salt kick. The orange elements are certainly optional, but quite delicious. The layer of batter is a bit thinner in the pan than what you may be used to, but this also ups the "chew" factor.
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 cups brown sugar, packed
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp. Madagascar vanilla extract or vanilla paste
1 tsp. kosher salt or sea salt
3/4 to 1 cup sifted good-quality cocoa (I'm using Bensdorp at the moment; Droste's is, of course, wonderful in this recipe)
Grated rind of one large orange
Squeezed juice of 1/2 orange
1 Tbsp. Grand Marnier
1 cup sifted AP flour
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts and/or bittersweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 325F. Line the outside of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with aluminum foil, and press it to the shape of the pan. Carefully remove the shaped foil, and fit it down into the inside of the pan. Butter the foil very well. This promotes easy removal of the brownies (a trick learned from Maida Heatter, to give credit where it's due).
Melt the butter in a large saucepan -- big enough to mix the brownie batter in, so you can have a one-pot recipe. Mix in the sugar till well-blended, and then the eggs. Stir in the vanilla and the salt. Mix in the cocoa, and then grate the orange rind directly over the batter. Cut the orange in half, and squeeze the juice of one half into the batter, being sure to pick out all the pips that fall in. Save the other half to slurp at while the brownies are baking. Lightly stir in the flour, and then the walnuts. Don't be alarmed if the batter is quite thick, more like a dough.
Pat the batter/dough evenly into the foil-lined, buttered pan. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, but start testing at about 25 minutes. Take them out when they're no longer wet, but there's still a bit of fudgy crumb clinging to an inserted toothpick. Cool in the pan ten minutes or so, and then lift them out, foil and all. Cool to room temperature before cutting. They cut more easily if they're refrigerated for a few hours first, but this depends on your degree of restraint. I like to cut them small, so that I can justify having another one. The brownies from the edges are always a bit crunchier and chewier -- my preference. Some people like the softer middle pieces best. Keep in the refrigerator for up to five days, or freeze -- they taste pretty divine straight out of the freezer, too.