A brownie fiasco, some tips for successful baking, and Dorie’s brownies
Disclaimer: There’s a lot of rant to follow. If you’re looking for the helpful hints on successful baking, click on the read more bit, or scroll down past the 3rd image. For the recipe, scroll down to the 4th image (brownie description above the image).
As someone who loves baking, who scoffs at NZ’s hottest home baker, who has contemplated making macarons just for the challenge (I actually don’t really like them…don’t hate me. Meringue and I just aren’t that fond of eachother)…failing at making a pretty easy batch of brownies is one of the most humiliating things that could happen to me. It’s amazing how quickly that excitement initiated by the sugar rush of spoon licking can collapse when you peer into your oven and things just don’t look right. Then there’s the crushing defeat your feel when you cut into the first slice, which feels not soft and gooey, but hard. See, I don’t even have to taste things to know that they’ll be awful. I get it. Mostly.
Apart from the fact that they looked nothing like the pictures glaring back at me, they were most definitely not soft and gooey as promised. They also tasted just awful, salty despite the fact that I’d used the specified amount and acrid and I’d-like-to-stop-thinking-about-it-now. Pathetic tears may have almost escaped me, as may have some equally mature sentiments about the bitter brown slab confronting me. A long hot shower was had. I mumbled incoherent insults at myself in my sleep that night. The anticipation of chocolate had made me a little crazy, okay? I even stated this publicly on a few blogs which I will not name (sorry! I was pretty frantic). The loss of two bars of precious Lindt chocolate infuriated me even more. Tip: do not calculate how much your failure just cost you if you used good ingredients. Do not let your mind wander about the things you could have made with said ingredients. Further agony will be guaranteed.
Then of course, my stubborn arrogance flared up the next day and I was determined to get these brownies right. Yay for stubborn arrogance, because the next batch was perfect.
To the left is the cause of much anguish. To the right is a gooey, finger-licking bar of glorious chocolate perfectiondom. So, how does one avoid the scenario to the left and achieve the scenario on the right? Instead of babbling more at you about what I did wrong, I thought I’d put together a guide for good baking in general.
Tips for successful baking
1. If trying a recipe for the first time, don’t change anything major.
I’m all for creativity, but often this leads to a complete disaster and then you forego a perfectly good recipe due to meddling. Anything major includes: quantities of major ingredients like flour, sugar, chocolate, cocoa, eggs, or butter.
2. Preheat your oven if the recipe tells you to. Properly.
Some ovens will have a little light indicating when they are actively heating up the element. When this light turns off, it means the oven has reached that temperature. Only when there is an indication that your oven has reached the temperature you’ve set it to, is the oven properly preheated. PREHEAT! PREEEEHEEEAAAAT. If your oven doesn’t have an indication, then 10 minutes is usually standard, or 15 for higher temperatures above 200C (400F).
3. Use the skewer test for cakes, not the spring test.
The spring test can be pretty deceiving. The skewer test just involves poking a knife or skewer into the centre of the cake/brownie and, if it comes out clean, the cake is done. If it wobbles, it is definitely not done, unless the recipe specifies otherwise.
4. Timing is everything
Pay careful attention to cooking AND cooling times. Also, with cakes and brownies and cookies, check 5-10 minutes before the recipe says so, just in case your oven is too hot. If it’s undercooked, you can leave it in there, but if it’s overdone, there’s no saving your baking. For bread, the rising and proofing times are really really important. Some recipes will be more lenient (like the Artisan Bread in 5 recipes) but even so, stick to the recipe the first time around, then experiment with extending/shortening times only once you’ve baked a successful loaf.
5. Use the appropriate rack
The centre rack is usually the most prized, because whatever your baking will be about as cooked on top as it will be on the bottom. If you’re not baking on the centre rack, don’t expect an evenly browned cake or load of bread. If you want to do two trays of cookies at the same time (I don’t recommend this, but if you really are short on time, then…), arrange a rack on the bottom and on the top, and switch them over halfway. Just don’t tell anyone.
6. Don’t disturb your cake
Unless you know your oven doesn’t bake evenly, try not to open the door to check on your cake halfway through the indicated baking time. If you really need to take a peek, and your oven light is broken or something, do your peeking super quick. Same goes for swapping trays over – do it quickly to prevent halting the cooking process or losing too much heat from your oven.
7. When melting chocolate, be very very patient, and use a very low heat
I find that even putting a glass bowl over a pot of simmering water can make the bowl too hot and make the chocolate taste burnt. If you can’t comfortably feel the bottom of the bowl with your hand, then it’s too hot. If melting butter with chocolate, melt the butter a little first, then put the chocolate in. Melting chocolate for a recipe can make or break the final result. If you’re feeling nervous about it, don’t use the best chocolate you can afford. It makes me cringe to say that, but trust me, even properly melted average chocolate (such as Whittakers, no offence) tastes a whole lot better than burnt good chocolate!
8. If using good chocolate, don’t use instant coffee
Actually, after my first batch of brownies, I would advise against using instant coffee powder altogether. If the recipe calls for a shot of espresso that’s fine (taste it first!), but otherwise flag it. Let the chocolate speak for itself.
9. Use unsalted butter
If the recipe calls for it, listen to the recipe. Even if it calls for a pinch of salt as well. This is especially the case where there is proportionately a lot of butter in the recipe.
10. Use the right baking pan
Some recipes are forgiving about this, and others will punish you dearly for using glass or ceramic pans instead of a metal one. Just remember that thick stuff takes longer to heat up (ie glass/ceramic). These will affect your baking times.
11. Use the correct flour
In NZ, you can basically get three types of wheat flour (at supermarkets I mean). Plain white flour is used for everything that isn’t bread or pastry. High grade white flour is used for bread and pastry. Wholemeal flour can be used in pretty much anything, although generally they appear in healthy recipes. Most supermarket flours, unless otherwise stated, are steel-roller-milled. Stone ground flour is available at some higher end supermarkets, and they will specify this. Stone ground wholemeal flour is much tastier and healthier for using in bread, as it retains the wheatgerm which also contains the most nutrients in the grain. However, they usually are also organic and are thus more expensive. Stone ground white flour is also available but unlike regular white flour if used in bread you’ll get a brownish loaf due to the presence of the wheatgerm. The wheatgerm isn’t particularly grainy feeling, nor does it have that slight bitterness to it that bran has, so it’s fine to use in cakes, brownies, and some cookies, as long as you don’t mind it being a slightly different colour. Some say that it’s nuttier but generally I flavour my cakes etc anyway and the nuttiness isn’t noticeable…ok, are you still there? Let me know if there’s anything else you think should be on that list!
Now to brownie making! The end result was a very soft, gooey brownie with a crumbly, delicate top. This otherwise melt-in-your-mouth delight was littered with crunchy walnuts, which I highly recommend you using. Normally I am a diehard brownie-only fanatic, but I think they work well in gooey brownies like these. They weren’t too dense feeling which was nice, and despite being described as fudgy I have to say I agree more with the description at Random Anderson: they taste like a melted candy bar. On board yet? If not there are these more cakey brownies I posted about ages ago (they’re buried in a word file downloadable from this page). To make up for the effort getting the recipe, I promise the recipe itself is a cinch to make. No melting chocolate, just butter. I have brownie lust now so sooner or later I’ll post about Julia Child’s best ever brownies unless there’s another epic failure.
Dorie Greenspan’s soft, gooey brownies
makes one 8×8″ relatively thin (about 2cm) brownie. Thanks to Meeta for providing the original recipe.
Method edited ever so slightly for lazy buggers.
75g unsalted butter, chopped into 5 pieces
113g bittersweet chocolate, 57g unsweetened chocolate (in NZ, it would be fine to just go with 170g of 60-70% cocoa bittersweet chocolate)
3/4c white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract (use real stuff)
tiny pinch salt
1/3c plain (not “high grade”) white flour
1c walnut pieces*
optional: 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder – I don’t think this brownie needs it though
*If not using walnuts, I’d make this in a smaller pan because otherwise the brownie will be quite thin. An 8″ round cake pan would work fine for example.
Grease a square piece of aluminium foil big enough to line an 8×8″ tin. Line the pan with the greased aluminium.
In a medium saucepan on the lowest possible heat setting, partially melt the butter, then add the chocolate and melt together, stirring every now and then to blend the melted chocolate and butter. Do not let the bottom of the pan get so hot you can’t touch it. If it does, remove from heat immediately and stir like crazy. Once fully melted, preheat your oven to 160C (325F). Whisk in the sugar with the butter/chocolate to get a grainy mixture. Whisk in eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and whisk mixture vigourously. Mix in coffee if using, then flour and salt until just incorporated. Fold in walnuts.
Pour batter into prepared dish and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a dull knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
Allow to cool completely in pan on a wire rack before turning out, peeling off the aluminium and cutting. I threw mine in the freezer once warm to hasten the cooling process.
EDIT: To cut these neatly and cleanly, refrigerate for a few hours before removing the foil and slicing.