Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011
Is there actually anyone out there that doesn’t love a great brownie? The key word there is “great.” There are so many brownie mixes on the market that many people have gone away from even trying to make them from scratch. A really great brownie—usually nothing more than melted chocolate, butter, sugar, eggs and some cocoa, all lightly mixed together with a bit of flour—is a decadent, luscious, yet simple treat. And… the brownie is one of America’s favorite desserts.
The brownie was born right here in the U.S. of A. We just aren’t quite sure when or where, although evidence points to somewhere in New England in the first few years of the 20th century. Although it is baked in a cake pan, the brownie is classified as a bar rather than a cake. There are literally thousands of recipes, both “cake” and “fudge” types. Both are perfectly correct—and delicious.
The brownie got its name from its dark brown color. But as with most foods, the origin of the brownie is shrouded in myth, even though it is a relatively recent entry to the food pantheon, first appearing in print in the early 20th century. The legends are told variously: a chef mistakenly added melted chocolate to a batch of biscuits…a cook was making a cake but didn’t have enough flour. One tells of a housewife in Maine who was making a chocolate cake but forgot to add the leavening. When her cake didn’t rise properly, instead of tossing it out, she cut and served the flat bars. That theory, however, relies on a cookbook published in 1912, six years after the first chocolate brownie recipe was published by America’s most famous cookbook author of the time, Fannie Farmer, in 1906.
The actual “inventor” will most likely never be known, but here’s what we do know: The first-known recipe for brownies I found was in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, but this was a recipe for a molasses confection merely called brownies. Larousse Gastronomique, regarded by many as the ultimate cooking reference, writes that a recipe for brownies first appeared in the 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, written by Fannie Farmer—but that recipe was for a cookie-type confection that was also colored and flavored with molasses and made in fluted marguerite molds. However, as verified by Jean Anderson in The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes Of The 20th Century, the two earliest published recipes for chocolate brownies appeared in Boston-based cookbooks—the first in a second edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
Most boxed brownies mixes will never be able to compare or even come close to a homemade brownie, made from quality ingredients and most importantly real melted chocolate. I don’t know about you, but when I read the list of ingredients for my brownies (or any other foods), I would much rather read a list like bittersweet chocolate, cocoa, butter, vanilla, salt, and flour than something that includes any words that I can’t even pronounce, let alone have a clue to what they are. I don’t believe in better living through chemistry.
A great brownie doesn’t even have to involve having a mixer. If you have a couple of bowls, a whisk, a rubber spatula and a little bit of time, homemade brownies can be yours in minutes. You don’t have to be a professional baker or have a mix to prepare basic, delicious, baked goods.
The real keys to successful baking from scratch are simple and finite—use the best quality ingredients you can get your hands on and follow the directions.