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The “food-onality” of the brownie

March 3, 2010

Guess what?  We’ll be baking these!  Mmmmm….

Looks matter

Believe me, we aren’t totally superficial for being offended by an ugly cheesecake, or a dainty rib-eye steak.  When the appearance of a food contradicts its essence, all of our other senses are instinctively put off.

The hunter-gatherers regularly encountered unfamiliar food, and those individuals who could better discriminate between the good/edible and bad/toxic using their sense of sight held the survival advantage.  So it is only logical that we are hard-wired to judge food critically with our eyes.

So then what is the essence of a food?  The essence of a food is its abstract character that can never be altered by external manipulations/experimentations or by changing human tastes.  I like to think of it as sort of like the food’s personality, or “food-onality”.  And I believe that this “food-onality” is what ultimately defines a food’s evolution.  Which explains why 12 oz rib-eye steaks have maintained resistant to cuteness, despite the overall evolutionary advantage of cuteness.

The bottom line is that I believe taking the time to understand and appreciate the essence, or food-onality, of a food is the best way to bring out its best!


The brownie you never knew….

Grasping the food-onality of a food is mostly intuitive.  For example, you probably already knew doughnuts are friendly or that blondies are coquettish.  No?  Not to worry, we’ll get to know our food one at a time.  Right now, we are going to focus on the brownie.

I believe the food-onality of the brownie is best summarized as cute.  People have the tendency to assume that “cute” strictly refers to the physical appearance of something,  but in reality “cute” is abstract and can be used to describe sounds, smells, textures, behaviors, personalities, food-o-nalities, etc., or a unique combination of them.  Keep this all in mind as I attempt to capture (in words) the essence of the brownie.

1. Linguistics: the word brown-“ie” is cute

The “-ie” affix is a diminutive in language structure.  What is a diminutive?  Wikipedia says it is a form of a word “used to convey a slight degree of the root meaning, smallness of the object or quality named, encapsulation, intimacy, or endearment.”  Here are some examples:

doggie (vs. dog); auntie (vs. aunt); Maggie (vs. Margaret)

So as you can see, words ending in “ie” are in essence, playful, endearing and/or mini, or at least more so than their root counterparts.  And playful, endearing, mini things are almost always cute (puppies, babies, etc.).  Below are some other cute sweet treats you might be familiar with to prove my point:

pixie stick; tootsie roll; whoopie pie; cookie; brownie (!!!!)

2. Texture: the texture of a brownie is cute

Texture is a great indication of whether a sweet is cute (vs. pretty), in essence

Texture Examples Cute Pretty
Brittle/Vitreous pulled/blown sugar candies X
Chewy jelly bellies, brownies X
Fluffy marshmallows, cream puffs X
Silky ganache, custard X
Squishy mochi, gummy bears X

But the most reliable reference is YOUR intuition…

When you see and feel a sweet treat, do you feel the urge to be violent exert forceful energy upon it?

If so, the treat is more likely than not cute, in essence.

3. {Symmetry + chubbiness/roundness} = cute

It has been scientifically proven that symmetry is inherently attractive to the human eye.

Follow the directions on How-to-draw-Hello Kitty.  Next, follow the directions again, only rotate the oval for her face 90 degrees (before drawing her eyes, nose, mouth).  What do you think of slimmed-down Hello Kitty?  Are you offended?  I was.  Hello Kitty has lost her essence.  If you still find her attractive (she is in fact, still symmetrical), at the very least, I’m sure you’d agree she is less cute than before.  Therefore, we can deduce that the combination of symmetry and chubbiness/roundness somehow makes things cute.

How is this relevant to the brownie we’re trying to get to know?  First of all, the classic brownie pan is a perfect square (8×8 or 9×9).  More importantly, the classic brownies are optimally served in chubby squares…and for a definite reason.  Skinny/flat squares lack the proper bite!


Bringing out the best in the brownie

Key Traits

Now that we have become more familiar with the food-onality of the brownie, how can we bring out the best in it?  With cuteness in mind, we should aim for the following familiar traits:

  1. chewy chewy edges
  2. tender, crackly top crust
  3. moist, gooey center (cakey brownies are a no no…. just make cake if you want cakey)
  4. super chocolaty flavor

The Pan

Baking the perfect brownie is dependent on more than simply the recipe and skills of the baker, and the folks at Bakers Edge are clearly aware of this (see right).

Mmmmm…. more chewy edges!  Then again…. unless you plan to eat the whole pan in one sitting (which is honestly completely fine), this pan can actually only give you 1 more chewy edge per portion (assuming that the person serving you hogs the corner pieces).

What creates the chewy edges?  The metal in the pan conducts heat much faster than the batter, so any part of the batter directly exposed to the metal will receive more heat.  When heat transfers to the brownie batter, it progresses from ganache-like → gooey → chewy → crunchy.  We never want any part of the brownie to be on either extreme, and this is a difficult thing to do since it is very easy to over bake the edges in order to have the center cook to its proper level of gooeyness.

The solution?  We need a pan that has the smallest possible volume to surface area ratio in order to maximize the amount of chewy edge in every bite, while minimizing chances of having any portion of the brownie swinging out of the gooey ↔ chewy range.

And we have it: The Wilton 24 cup mini muffin pan!

Brownies that I have made in this pan never fail to achieve the right texture.  And the best part?  This pan simultaneously makes the cutest brownies, by definition.

The Recipe

Before I share my favorite brownie recipe with you, please check out the basic outline (with important tips) below:

  1. Chocolate:  Always use a ganache as your source of chocolate, never cocoa powder.  A brownie ganache is made by melting a proportion of chocolate and butter.  Starting your batter this way will significantly increase your chances of getting that fudgy center and flaky top crust.
  2. Dry ingredient mixture:  Make sure to properly sift all of the dry ingredients (flour, salt, and a leavening agent).  Use all purpose flour.  Cake flour has less protein, which results in a weaker, more fragile brownie.
  3. Wet ingredient mixture:  Gently combine your wet ingredients (eggs, white sugar, vanilla).  Never beat!  And ideally, use a recipe that uses a bit of instant coffee/espresso powder.  The bitterness in this surprise ingredient really helps bring out the chocolate flavor.
  4. Add-ins:  Chocolate chips, nuts, candy, etc…. anything goes!  The secret here is to coat your add-in(s) with flour.  The flour helps the chocolate chips/nuts/candy, etc. evenly distribute throughout the batter, and keeps them from sinking to the bottom of the pan.

There are actually a good number of great recipes that follow these basic guidelines.  But fortunately, I have the best one to share with you.  Check out Ina Garten’s Outrageous Brownie.


Let’s Bake!  Finally.

I’ll be using Ina Garten’s Peanut Swirl brownie recipe in this guide since I made them anyway for a housewarming party in Brooklyn this past weekend.  It’s the same as her outrageous brownie recipe (-) walnuts and (+) peanut butter.  And please forgive me for the crappy photos!  I still don’t have a camera, but I was able to document everything with a chocolate covered blackberry phone.

Ina Garten’s Peanut Swirl Brownies

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound unsalted butter
  • 1/2 pound plus 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, divided
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 3 extra-large eggs
  • 1.5 tablespoons instant coffee granules
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/8 cups sugar
  • 1/2 and 1/8 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ~1/2 cup smooth peanut butter

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350°.

Did I mention that I work in a humble kitchen?

The dial on our oven control fell off a while back.  To get the proper temperature, I have to rotate the remaining stub at the same angle between the “off” and temperature on the dial.

I’ve become a pro (didn’t actually need to align it to know where 350º is), but it is usually problematic for others who for some reason opt to use our kitchen.

2. Melt together the butter, 1/2 pound of chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate in a bowl over simmering water. Let it cool for a bit.

It should have a silky consistency and glossy shine.  Can you see the reflection on the right?  I spent a lot of time to give you that thumbs up!  Taking pictures of a reflection with chocolatey hands ain’t an easy thing.  I also had to wait for the ganache to cool.

3. In a big bowl, gently fold together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the ganache into the wet mixture, and allow it to cool completely.

4. In another bowl, sift together 1/2 cup of flour, the baking powder, and salt.  Then slowly add it to the cooled chocolate mixture while gently stirring.

5. Combine the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate chips in a medium bowl with the remaining 1/8 cup of flour, then add to the chocolate batter.

6. Pour the final batter into a buttered sheet pan.  Place dallops of peanut butter over the batter and make swirls using a knife.

I used the perfect sheet pan!

7. If you opt to use your standard 9 x 9 sheet pan, bake for approximately 30-35 min.  If you opt to use the awesomest mini brownie/muffin pan, bake for approximately 15-20 min.

8. Let the brownies cool thoroughly before removing them from the pan.

And the finished product?  You’ve seen ’em already… those mini chubs at the top of this entry!

Phew.  Are you exhausted?  I am.

Let’s just cut it off here and eat.

Until next time….

xoxo

HH Contessa

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. jee permalink
    March 4, 2010 10:08 am

    lynnie, this was an amazing entry! i’m highly entertained and inspired 🙂
    keep up the good work!

    • March 4, 2010 6:22 pm

      Thanks Jee! I’m flattered that I was able to entertain such an amazing writer 😀 Hope all is well…

  2. Kaila permalink
    March 4, 2010 11:05 am

    This blog is so great and hunger-inspiring, especially since I’m bad at baking (but good at cooking!)

    I also thought your observation of how putting “-ie” at the end of things makes them so much cuter — haha I tried explaining this to some girls in my Korean class at Sogang:

    Kaila- Putting “-ie” at the end of words makes them cute! Like doggie or piggie!

    Chinese classmate- Cattie!!

    Kaila- ::flummoxed::

    • March 4, 2010 6:26 pm

      Hey Kaila!! Very happy to make you hungry 🙂 So you cook?! We’re going to have to do a recipe exchange. And I love the comments about your students… of all words to cutify… she chooses cat? oye.

  3. janet permalink
    March 4, 2010 5:14 pm

    wow… where are you getting the ideas for these topics? and how long did it take for you to research/write all this?

    • March 4, 2010 6:42 pm

      The ideas come from meh brain 😀 I have a natural tendency to personify objects (for example, food), and objectify and/or animal-ify people…. and I suppose this weird habit provides a new perspective on food. But to answer your other question, the “research” is a culmination of +9 years of watching the Foodnetwork, reading a ton about food, cooking a ton of food, eating a ton of food, and just plain lovin’ food…. don’t you know that’s why we get along so well? because we both love food!

  4. Jackie permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:06 pm

    Love this entry! Great balance of pics, humor, useful tips, silly analysis, step-by-step instruction and a strong Lynn voice 🙂 And the brownies look deliiiiicous– I love brownie edges. These are my dream brownies!

    • March 4, 2010 9:26 pm

      Jax,

      Now that I have your approval I have the confidence to proceed! Haha, no, really 🙂 You already know that you’re one of my favorite writers. And I am psyched that this blog sounds like me!! Me and jean might be going up to Boston the third weekend of March btw! I’ll keep you posted… thanks so much for the support!

      xoxo

  5. March 26, 2010 2:32 am

    damn it i want brownies now. and yes the chewy part is absolutely the best part of a brownie. seriously, damn you. i didn’t have dessert tonight either. i hate not ending the night with something sweet.

    • March 26, 2010 11:46 am

      mattatouille,

      not to worry. you’re going to 11 madison, right? and if that’s not enough, you’re staying right by momofuku milk bar. lucky.

      xoxo

      HH Contessa

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