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One of life's little joys is being able to surprise your friends with something small and homemade, like a cake, or a pot of chutney, or a card made from pasta and far too much glitter. Over the years I've turned up at many friends' houses with something tasty, and knocking up something for an unexpected visitor is a piece of cake - aha - but I'm starting to think that perhaps this is wearing a little thin, because for the past month or so I've been using my friends as guinea pigs.

Not too long ago I started dismantling the pile of Saturday glossy supplements that come with my newspaper of choice, ripping out the recipe articles and sorting them into a much smaller pile than the one with all the magazines in. Something struck me as the pages were removed; there was a lot of a certain type of recipe in these pages. I would never accuse some of these writers of laziness, of course, but there are only a limited number of things you can do and repeating oneself is only natural. Except... the particular recipes I was noticing never really seemed to agree with each other. The quantities were slightly different or combining the ingredients was done in a peculiar way, and even the contents themselves were never identical.

For the past month or so I have been experimenting with these recipes, trying out different combinations and merging two or even three recipes into one, and trying to come up with a definitive answer, hence using my friends as guinea pigs. I don't think they've minded too much, though, because:

B... is for Brownies.

The big issues in the Great Brownie Debate are seemingly straightforward, but there are many. A Great brownie cannot be cakey, or dry in any way. A Great brownie must be dense and fudge-like. The mixture should be more like a batter than a sponge, and when it comes out of the oven it must have that crispy, flaky top that disintegrates as you touch it and sticks to your fingertips. The chocolate must be of the best quality, the eggs fresh, the sugar... ah.

At this point we start to get into the question of ingredients. Once we've got through chocolate and eggs - and I think we can all agree on the stringent requirements for both - the debates start to happen. Should the sugar be caster? Unrefined? Soft brown? Muscovado? How about the butter - should it be salted or unsalted? Do we need vanilla essence, or cocoa sifted with the flour? What about nuts? What about adding extra things to the mixture like rum, or bananas, or even oranges?

Going through my pile of recipes I found a lot of examples where additional ingredients were used to make a brownie more interesting, which to my mind is gilding the lily. I certainly wouldn't want to trust a recipe which demanded bananas to make a brownie better, because the brownie should stand up on its own merits. To be perfectly honest, I stand firmly on the side of the "no nuts" camp, too. Brownies shouldn't need nuts, in my opinion, and whilst I wouldn't turn down a nutty brownie I might wonder why the cook felt the need to add them. Or chopped up Rolos, or fudge, or jelly tots, for example.

All of a sudden the question of chocolate comes into view, and at this point I will admit that I do get slightly obsessive somewhat in my chocolate of choice for brownies. Chocolate should be high-quality, 60% cocoa solids or better, but I'm afraid I have a preference for Green & Black's Maya Gold (which is 55%). It has a faint spicy orange taste which lends itself to brownies very well, the Fairtrade roots have always appealed to me, it has a suitably high enough cocoa content and it has an excellent consistency when melted. You may have your own favourite chocolate which you will want to use, and I hope that you'll give that a try, but please avoid using white chocolate if you can help it. The idea of a white chocolate brownie is just wrong, at least in my mind.

The sugar question is tricky. I have been informed that the softer and darker the sugar, the fudgier the brownie gets, and my own experiments have agreed with this. Can a brownie be too fudgy? Some people may say not, and I think I'll leave this to your discretion. I encourage experimentation in the kitchen for this sort of thing, and using 250g of caster sugar might produce a brownie more to your liking than using 250g of muscovado. If you're having a brownie crisis - as we all do from time to time - there may not be 250g of soft brown in the cupboard, so feel free to try 100g of caster with 100g soft brown and 50g of whatever else you might have.

Butter: I use salted. You may prefer to use unsalted and add a pinch of salt to your mixture, but you do need some salt in there. Many sweet things are enhanced by the addition of a pinch of salt (caramels are one example) and brownies are no exception. Try to use good quality butter, though, and margarine is not an acceptable substitute, I'm afraid. Brownies are not a component of a low-fat, low-carb lifestyle.

After all of that, the list of ingredients is fairly short; butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate, flour, a pinch of baking powder and cocoa powder. Some vanilla essence helps too, but is by no means essential. Add nuts if you must, but make sure that they're fresh - not a half-used packet of chopped hazels you opened six months ago - and they're good quality.

Next, combining the ingredients. You wouldn't think that there would be many ways in which you can mix chocolate, eggs, butter and sugar, but they are myriad. Whisk the eggs and sugar. Separate the eggs. Melt the chocolate. Melt the chocolate and butter. Beat the sugar and butter together, add the eggs, then the chocolate. Honestly, some of these methods seem to be making mountains out of molehills, but they all produce remarkably different variations on a theme. Some methods are more trouble than they are worth, some are very simple, and some are a mix of the two. Remember the cardinal rule, though: brownies are not cakes. You want some air in there but not too much, so don't overdo the baking powder and it is more important that everything is mixed well, than folding as much air into the mixture as possible. Just as an aside, one of the experimental days consisted of two batches, one with baking powder and one without; the one without just came out with completely the wrong texture.

There's a fine balancing act to be played out with brownies; the desire for quick results versus the desire to get a perfect brownie. Muffins and brownies are some of the fastest treats a person can make, but with the latter you can spend a lot of time getting things just right or you can spend a very short amount of time getting things pretty darn decent. So, everybody should have at least two brownie recipes. The one which requires little effort and produces a great brownie, and the one which requires a reasonable bit of work but produces a brownie of beauty. After testing out various recipes I think I have my two definitive ways of making brownies, but as with all things your mileage may vary. Experiment, use the kitchen as a lab, involve members of your family and have fun whilst doing it.

Just don't overcook them.

 

The Day-to-day Brownie

110g chocolate

50g butter

150g soft brown sugar

2 medium eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

50g plain flour

30g cocoa powder

pinch of baking powder

 

melting chocolatePreheat the oven to gas mark 4/180C/350F. Take an 8" square baking tin - a small roasting tin will do - and tear off a length of baking parchment bigger than the tin. Scrunch up the baking parchment into a ball, unravel it and use this to line the tin. Break up your chocolate of choice and put into a glass bowl over simmering water to melt.

chocolate brownies mixingWhilst that's melting, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract until light and frothy. When the chocolate has melted, take it off the heat and add the butter, stirring it in as it melts. When combined slowly add the sugar and egg mixture to the chocolate whilst stirring, making sure that the chocolate isn't too warm (otherwise the eggs start to cook). Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder and fold this into the mixture, making sure that it's well combined.

pour brownies into panPour into the lined tin and put on the middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes. Insert a toothpick into the middle, and if it comes out with wet mixture on put it back in the oven for another five minutes.

 

You want the toothpick to come out with clumps of barely-cooked mixture, not wet mix; the brownie will solidify as it cools. If after the first five minutes it is still wet, put the tin back in, but this time for three minutes, and check at three minute intervals.

pan of baked chocolate browniesWhen it looks right remove from the tin, but leave in the baking parchment until cooled, then slice into as big or small pieces as you like - I normally chop into 12. You can eat the brownies warm, but they're much better if left alone for a bit.

If the toothpick comes out completely dry the brownie is overcooked, but that's ok and rescue-able; just make some chocolate buttercream (which I'll get to in D is for Decorating) and pretend it's a cake.

 

The Something Special Brownie

This one needs a lightly bigger tin - a roasting tin is ideal. There's no point in doing things by halves when they're this good. Lining the tin in the same way as above is fine; scrunch up a length of baking parchment and just stuff it into the corners.

 

300g soft brown sugar (but note my comments on experimenting, above)

250g butter, softened

250g chocolate (experiment!)

3 large eggs

60g flour

60g cocoa powder

pinch of baking powder

 

Preheat oven to GM4/180C/350F, line the tin as before. Break the chocolate into pieces and melt in a glass bowl as before. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, and has lightened in colour; I'm not a huge fan of food processors so I do this by hand, but feel free to use a processor if you wish as it can take a while.

mixed browniesCheck on the chocolate whilst you're doing this, because you want to take it off the heat as soon as it has melted. Beat the eggs slightly with a fork, and slowly add these a bit at a time to the butter and sugar, mixing well between additions. Add the chocolate - use a rubber spatula to get it all out of the bowl! - and mix well, then sift the cocoa, flour and baking powder into the mixture, carefully folding it so it is well mixed, but still keeps as much air as possible.

pan of browniesPour this into the tin, and bake for 30 minutes on the middle shelf; check with a toothpick as before, and if it is still wet put back in for five minutes, then three minutes if it needs a bit longer. Again, you want it to be a bit gooey, not dry or wet. Leave to cool and chop as you wish; this one is almost more like ganache than a brownie, and the extra effort involved is worth every second.

 

B... is also for Baking Tips.

1. Make sure that your oven is the right temperature for baking. Borrow an oven thermometer and make sure the dials say the right thing. Fan-assisted ovens can be a few degrees cooler than recipes say, gas ovens are highly subjective and sometimes just knowing the oven well over time is enough. Also remember that the top of an oven is hotter than the bottom. If a recipe says "put the tin on the middle shelf" it really means it. 

2. The hint given in the brownie recipes about baking parchment also works in round - and other shaped - cake tins, unless you want a cake to be perfect. Scrunch up a length of baking parchment, unfold it, and it'll fit into the corners of your baking tin. You'll lose some crisp edges, but for quick-and-dirty it's much easier that trying to cut perfect circles.

3. Good quality ingredients make a huge difference. Try it for yourself. A cake made with fresh eggs, well refined flour, and quality sugar and butter is an absolute joy.

4. Rubber spatulas are great at getting everything out of a bowl and into a tin. Wooden spoons are great for beating or creaming ingredients, metal spoons for folding them. Use the right tool for the job.

 

B... is also for Bread.

 

I cannot stress highly enough just how much fun making your own bread can be. Yeast is like magic, adding little tiny bubbles in the middle of some stretchy dough which expand when heated and create the soft crumb that makes bread such a nice, enjoyable foodstuff. It is also very simple to make, and can be a great thing to get the family involved in. Dough can be used for many different things when it comes to getting the kids involved in the kitchen - loaves, buns, pizzas, oddly-shaped breadsticks - that wet Sunday afternoons can be helped along quite nicely with some flour, water and yeast. However, because we're running out of space I'm going to talk about bread in K is for Kneading.

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