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Today: The secret to the chocolate brownie of your dreams? Take the chocolate out.
A genius brownie has been tricky to pin down -- until now.
I've been searching with the same vigor as the genius roast chicken hunt of 2012 -- a stab at science, driven by memory and chewy, chocolate lust.
What I've found is that most brownie recipes out there are remarkably consistent: chocolate is melted with butter, then mixed with sugar, eggs, then flour. They come together fast, and you are a happy clam. Still, I figured something even better had to be out there.
But these brownies, in their various guises -- from squat, melting fudge to pliant shingles of cake -- were all unfailingly, suspiciously, good.
If all brownies are genius, aren't no brownies genius? I gave up.
Then pastry chef Shuna Lydon told me about a recipe that was different from the herd. It did not surprise me at all that it came from Alice Medrich. She's written close to a dozen books on baking; she's the First Lady of Chocolate, and the one who brought out macaroons' punk rock side.
"Alice knows chocolate. It speaks to her. We're lucky to have her as a translator," Lydon wrote to me. "Alice's cocoa brownies changed my life."
The recipe comes from Bittersweet, the 2003 IACP Cookbook of the Year -- it's one part of a master brownie recipe Medrich designed to use whatever chocolate you have in the house.
But the best version happens to be the one you can make when you've eaten all the 70% bars you bought for baking, and only a forgotten tin of cocoa powder remains on the shelf.
By taking out the chocolate, with its inevitable fat and almost-inevitable sugar, Medrich was able to control and fine-tune the proportions of both. When she added back in the fat (via butter), the middles stayed softer. When she added back in granulated sugar, the crusts were shinier and more candy-like.
She also threw in 40 strokes of beating with a wooden spoon, to set the batter straight (don't worry -- there's so little flour, you won't overwork it).
What kind of cocoa, you ask? Anything you've got will work.
However: "When I teach, I make two batches of the brownies, one with (my favorite) natural cocoa powder and one with Dutch process cocoa," Medrich told me. "People often think the darker (Dutch process) brownie is going to taste more like chocolate. They are usually surprised to find that this is not true!"
She has continued to tweak this recipe over the years -- you may have seen the browned butter version on the cover of Bon Appétit a few years back. "Those are Best Cocoa Brownies 3.0 or 4.0 or something like that."
Oh, and that sprinkle of flaky salt on top? That's not Alice, that's us. But I don't think she'd mind.
Recipe adapted slightly from Bittersweet (Artisan, 2003)
Makes 16 large or 25 smaller brownies
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
Photos by James Ransom