A really good brownie is always appropriate. With a glass of cold milk or a cup of strong coffee, they make a darkly delicious punctuation point in even the grimmest afternoon, for sweet-toothed chocophiles of all ages. And served warm with fruit, ice-cream or sorbet, they're an easy, unstuffy way to end dinner.
But let's face it, there are some horrors out there, besmirching the good and happy name of "brownie". I'm not really talking about homemade ones – even the failures have their charms. I'm more ticked off with the commercial ones. They're so often a pretty joyless affair – dry, crumbly, cakey, with none of the melting seductiveness of the real thing. For me, brownie nirvana is a crackled, shiny top beneath which lies a rich, dense and chewy middle, verging on the underdone.
Making them at home is easy. It's remarkable, almost indecent, that one of the world's great sweet treats takes so little effort. And it's a comfort to think – with a hot oven and a reasonably well-stocked kitchen – you're never more than an hour or so away from a fudgy little square of joy.
But there are a few tips for perfection. Use the best chocolate you can, and you want it dark – anything less than 60% will make the finished result too sweet. A pinch of salt, a few drops of vanilla and/or a splash of strong coffee will enhance its flavour and give it depth. I'm also rather devoted to the all-cocoa brownie, not least because I've pretty much always got the ingredients for a batch standing by (whereas, somehow, when it comes to real chocolate, I'm always finding empty wrappers in the larder). The centre is surprisingly truffle-y and rich without being too heavy – and it seems to be easier to produce the great shiny crust so beloved of brownie purists.
The other exception to the "only the best dark chocolate will do" rule is blondies. Made from white chocolate, which contains no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter, it makes a pale and interesting change from the trad version. On its own, I find white chocolate too sweet, but it takes other flavours well (today's recipe includes cardamom and coconut).
Once you've gathered your ingredients, there are a few things you can do to ensure success. To get that great crust and soft interior, beat the sugar with the eggs really well at the beginning, then with a light hand stir in the flour, cocoa and any nuts or chocolate chips you're adding – overmixing will make your brownies tough. Then, when you get them in the oven, be vigilant and don't overbake them. Like an omelette, they'll keep cooking as they cool, so remove from the oven when a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. At this point, American chocolate guru Alice Medrich recommends plunging the tin into a sink filled with a few centimetres of iced water to stop them cooking further and help create the longed-for crackly top. This also has the unarguable bonus of cutting down the cooling time, so shortening the period between pulling them out of the oven and tucking into a soft little square.
Good cocoa powder, browned butter and muscovado sugar give these rather grown-up brownies an intensely chocolate-y depth of flavour. Add walnuts or chocolate chunks to the batter at the end if you like, or leave them in their pure state – both taste delicious. Makes 16.
200g caster sugar
100g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g cocoa powder
50g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
100g walnut halves or chopped chocolate (optional)
Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Lightly grease a 22cm x 22cm x 5cm brownie tin and line with two strips of baking parchment. Let the strips hang over the sides of the tin by about 8cm – this'll make the brownies easier to remove when they're cooked.
Place the butter in a medium-size saucepan and melt it over a medium heat until it turns golden brown and smells slightly sweet and nutty. Set aside to cool.
In a mixing bowl, and using an electric hand mixer, beat together the sugars and eggs until very thick and glossy – when you lift up the beaters, a ribbon of batter should stay on the surface of the mixture for several seconds. Beat in the vanilla and the browned butter.
Sift together the cocoa, flour and salt into a separate bowl. Gently fold this into the batter with a spatula, being careful not to overmix. Fold in the walnuts or chocolate chunks, if using, and scrape into the prepared tin with a spatula.
Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out of the middle of the brownies with a few moist crumbs attached. Place the tin on a rack and let the brownies cool completely. Lift them out of the tin with the parchment and cut into 16 squares.
Blondies with macerated strawberries
White chocolate contains no cocoa, just cocoa butter, and has a mild, sweet flavour which makes it great for combining with other ingredients. Serve these while they're still slightly warm as a pudding with macerated strawberries or strawberry ice-cream. Makes 16.
80g desiccated coconut
Juice and zest of a small orange
80g unsalted butter, chopped
300g white chocolate, roughly chopped
100g light muscovado sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
180g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
4 cardamom pods (or ¼ tsp ground cardamom)
Icing sugar, to dust
For the macerated strawberries
500g strawberries, larger ones halved
A good squeeze of lemon juice
2 tbsp caster sugar
To prepare the strawberries, tip them into a bowl with the lemon juice and sugar, and refrigerate for an hour.
Put the coconut into a small bowl and pour over the orange juice. Stir and leave to soak for 30 minutes.
Put the butter and 200g of the chocolate into a heatproof bowl and place over a saucepan of barely simmering water (don't let the base or side of the bowl touch the hot water). Melt, stirring from time to time, and heat only until just melted. Cool.
Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Prepare a 22cm x 22cm x 5cm brownie tin as in the previous recipe.
Whisk the eggs and sugar in a bowl with a hand-held mixer until thick and creamy (when you lift out the beaters, the mixture should leave a ribbon trail on the surface of the batter). Stir in the vanilla and the melted chocolate mixture until well combined.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk in the cardamom and orange zest. Using a spatula, fold the flour and coconut into the batter in batches – flour/coconut/flour/coconut/flour – folding until just combined. Gently fold in the remaining chopped chocolate.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin and spread to the edges. Bake for 25 minutes, until the edges are beginning to pull away from the sides. Cool in the tin, then cut into 16 squares (though if you're serving these as a pudding, cut them when they're just warm). Dust with icing sugar before serving with the strawberries.
Peanut butter and chocolate brownies
Chocolate and peanut butter are one of the great flavour combinations. These layered, swirled brownies look great and taste even better. Makes 16.
For the brownie layer
240g dark chocolate, at least 70%, finely chopped
120g unsalted butter, diced, plus a little more for greasing the tin
120g light muscovado sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
120g plain flour, sifted
¼ tsp salt
For the peanut butter layer
380g cream cheese, room temperature
227g jar of smooth peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g caster sugar
3 tbsp double cream
3 tbsp plain flour, sifted
Heat the oven to 170C/325F/gas mark 3. Lightly grease a 22cm x 22cm x 5cm brownie tin and line with baking parchment (as in the preceding recipes).
Stir the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water until smooth, then set aside to cool. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and eggs until very light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the flour and salt until just combined. Spread the batter in the tin, though keep back about six tablespoonfuls for later.
Next, make the peanut butter layer of the brownie. Beat together the cream cheese, peanut butter and vanilla until very smooth. Gradually add the sugar, beating until it is well blended, light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the cream. Gently fold in the flour. Spread the peanut batter over the brownie layer and dot the top with spoonfuls of the reserved chocolate mixture.
Using a wooden skewer or a thin knife, swirl the spoonfuls of chocolate batter through the peanut butter layer, so it makes a pattern on the top of the brownies. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the edges of the peanut butter layer are puffed up and centre is set. Cool in the tin on a rack and cut when completely cold.
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