If the chocolate chip cookie is the quintessential All-American Cookie, the brownie is its somewhat edgy and disreputable but tolerantly adored younger sibling. The chocolate chip is crisp and buttery and enjoyable, but no amount of tinkering with a chocolate chip cookie will make it seem anything less than wholesomely straightforward. The brownie, on the other hand, even in its plainest, most unadorned form, is flirtatiously naughty as it flaunts its mahogany cocoa depths. You know, when you’re sinking your teeth into a brownie, that it’s more than an afternoon snack; it’s an indulgence. The only people I know who don’t love brownies are the (if you ask me, somewhat suspect) individuals who don’t care for chocolate at all, and while there is plenty of room for a disappointment if you’re buying a commercial product, there are few pleasures more reliable than a fresh-from-the-oven brownie — even, I have to admit, if it’s just from a mix.
That said, opinions on what a really good brownie should be are bitterly divided. The Fudgy and Cakey Camps are as far apart as the Montagues and the Capulets, with recriminations and scorn awaiting anyone who dares to set foot in the enemy’s territory. This cold war is even at play in my own household. The Lord is adamant that the only good brownie is a cakey brownie, and he will actually turn up his nose at anything else. While I love him dearly and respect his solid and sound judgment in a great many things, he’s dead wrong on this point. A good brownie should be dense and sinful, dark and chewy beneath a crackly top crust, redolent of butter and so heady with cocoa solids that you can practically feel the tropical sun and smell the verdant fields of an equatorial cacao plantation with every bite. A good brownie should recklessly skirt the dangerous line between cookie and flourless chocolate cake, not stray into the murky no man’s land between cookie and insipid devil’s food cake. The only ground I’m willing to concede on this point is on the question of additions: I’m a walnut fan, but I can respect those who insist that nothing should sully the purity of the chocolate experience.
There are a lot of very good recipes for brownies at the fudgy end of the spectrum (many more, I think, than on the cakey end, since every time I look for a recipe more to the Lord’s taste, nothing I try ends up satisfying him). My standard recipe lately is from Ghirardelli, although I’m not blindly loyal to it and will happily try any others that look promising. The nice thing about Ghirardelli’s is that it’s simple enough to throw together with very few ingredients and half an hour of time, and it responds well to tinkering. Tonight, I increased the amount of vanilla to use up the last of one bottle, threw in a spoonful of espresso powder, and added both nuts and white chocolate chips.
(I know, I know, white chocolate is an abomination, but I bought them for a recipe and have been trying to finish the bag ever since. This seemed like a benign place to put them, and they really are fine as an adjunct to something genuinely chocolatey.)
These are dense, fudgy, rich in chocolate flavor, and practically effortless to put together. If they’re not the absolute ideal of brownies, they’re close enough to count as…
Makes 1 8 x 8 pan of brownies, or approx. 16 brownies depending on how parsimoniously you slice them
4 oz high-quality semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon espresso powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cut walnut pieces
Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8×8-inch pan with parchment paper so that the edges hang over the sides to form handles for lifting out the brownies later, then butter and lightly flour the pan. Cut the chocolate and the butter into roughly one-inch pieces and combine in a large microwave-safe bowl. Microwave until just melted together, checking frequently and stirring often. Let cool to room temperature.
When the chocolate mixture has cooled, stir in the brown sugar, espresso powder and vanilla. Add the eggs, mixing very well.
In a separate bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Fold the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture until well-combined, then stir in the chips and nuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top, and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is firm and a tester comes out mostly clean. (Underbake slightly if you want a really fudgy texture.) Let cool, then pull the brownies out of the pan with the parchment paper handles, and slice into squares.