I rarely bake brownies from scratch; I use a mix then add a personal touch. Chocolate or peanut butter chips, walnuts, pecans, M&M’s, or mini-marshmallows, shredded coconut, liqueurs (orange-flavored is my favorite) stirred into the batter.
This week, one of my food history students chose “chocolate cake” as her research project submitted a batch of brownies for her classmates’ approval. Simultaneously, another student did his food research project on Hersey, PA and made a batch of brownies, a happy, unplanned coincidence. Neither batch resembled the other. Both were very good.
Brownies became a household staple after World War I. The origins of this all-American treat disappeared in the smoke of some long-ago oven, but the first written recipe appears in Fannie Farmer’s 1906 edition of her cookbook. Ms. Farmer never noted where she got her recipe.
According to one legend, brownies were a pastry chef’s error. While making a chocolate cake and a batch of cookies simultaneously, the chef turned his attention to a kitchen fire. Fire out, he poured the wrong batter into the baking pan. When he saw the results, he cut the dessert into squares and served it anyway.
Another story credits a housewife, named Brownie, who forgot to add the baking powder to her chocolate cake batter. When the cake didn’t rise, she served it anyway.
Whether the discovery came from a professional or a home kitchen, the main ingredients for this cross between cake and cookie vary only slightly from recipe to recipe. Semi-sweet or unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder provide the flavor. Cocoa powder makes a cake-y brownie; melting chocolate, a richer one. The brand of chocolate makes a difference, too. Changing leavening agents changes texture, too. Use eggs for rich bar cookies; baking powder makes lighter, fluffier ones.
I bake brownies a minute or two short of the time directed in the recipe – or the package. Slightly undercooked like this, they firm up to a fudge-y consistency they cool. I take them out of them oven when the tester has a few moist crumbs still clinging to it.
KANSAS CITY SOUR CREAM BROWNIES
The recipe here directs cake-like brownies. The sour cream adds the richness.
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sour cream
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
Pour batter into a greased 8-inch square cake pan. Bake about 25 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center should be dry. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into squares.