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Today: The one baking ingredient you should never be stingy with (and the blondies you'll become known for).
Blondies deserve better. They're not just a brownie that's timid on chocolate, nor are they a chocolate chip cookie whose dough we were too lazy to scoop. They shouldn't be an also-ran at the end of the bake sale, not something to settle for.
I know we've been burned by bad blondies before. But with a just-right recipe, they're an animal unto themselves, worthy of all the obsession more obvious treats command. One that -- once you've shared them with friends -- you'll be expected to tote to every picnic, potluck, and barbecue from here on out (just ask Sheri Warshaw, our Managing Editor Brette's mom, who turned us on to this recipe and has been stuck making them for us ever since).
You'll start to expect the same of yourself too -- if you go to the freezer and there isn't a stash of blondies in it, you will want someone to blame. It's you.
This particular just-right recipe comes from America's Test Kitchen and their famous perfectionism and rigor. As ever, they were relentless in dissecting what normally goes wrong in a stiff, cloying blondie, and reverse-engineered the standard to make it right.
Their first act of genius was in de-cake-ifying them (my fake word, not theirs). Many of the qualities we don't want in a cake -- chew, heft, density -- are marks of a very good blondie. So they axed anything that would render it cake-like: they cut back on the butter and eggs, and melted the butter rather than creaming it, all of which would have otherwise made the whole operation fluffier. For sweetness, they went the butterscotch route: all brown sugar, plus salt to keep it in check.
But the most surprising move was this: they quadrupled the vanilla extract. We think of vanilla as a volatile ingredient, like cayenne or salt -- all-but-impossible to correct once overdone. But it's harder to overdo it than you'd think.
And there's a very good reason to overdo it, just a little. Once we stop putting a teaspoon into baking recipes because it's what we've always done, we can embrace vanilla as a flavor all its own -- complex, haunting, memorable. It's a bit like when you get the chance to actually taste a bay leaf, and realize how impressive it is once you strip away all the mirepoix and thyme and other things that we assume have to come along.
This revelation stands to change the way you bake: Brette now doubles the vanilla in most baking recipes, or just pours from the bottle -- depending on her mood. Yes, vanilla is expensive, but even this quad-strength recipe will still only set you back 4 teaspoons, and any non-artificial vanilla will do.
Brette first pitched me this tip in 2011. You might wonder why it took me so long, until you count up how many times she's brought me blondies to prove her point between now and then.
The Warshaws would also request that you err on the side of under-baking them -- 22 minutes is the magic number for them (the ones pictured are a little overdone by their standards, and they're right, unless you like them especially chewy -- I'm sorry, Sheri!). One final Warshaw tip: these make very good ice cream sandwiches. With vanilla ice cream, obviously.
Adapted slightly from Cook's Illustrated (July 2005)
1 cup pecans or walnuts (4 ounces)
1 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoons table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), melted and cooled
1 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 ounces white chocolate chips (1 cup) or chopped bar, or 3 ounces each white chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom