Americans loosely refer to those few weeks from the end of November to the first of the coming year as “the holidays.” Normally, we specifically mean Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Lesser-known holidays during the month of December include Ice Cream Day, Bill of Rights Day and National Maple Syrup Day. Saturday is National Brownie Day. You thought the 24th was Christmas Eve? Also, it’s National Chocolate Day. Talk about a month of celebrations!
Brownies are distinctly American and likely got their name from their dark color and chocolaty ingredients. With their ever-increasing popularity, home cooks now have the luxury to make brownies with a box mix or in the microwave, or buy them frozen or in the deli. Furthermore, everything from chocolate chips to nuts can be added to spice up this delicious dessert.
Many people believe the first reference to “brownies” was in an 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog, but the term was used to market a molasses-based candy.
Brownie recipes are a simple mixture of butter, chocolate, sugar, flour and eggs — not much room for controversy, but the mere creation of the current-day brownie has mysterious beginnings.
TheNibble.com suggests a couple of explanations: Early stories point to Fanny Farmer, a famous cookbook author and chef from Boston who, in 1905, adapted her chocolate cookie recipe to a bar cookie and baked it in a rectangular pan.
Alternatively, another favorite version, cited in Betty Crocker’s Baking Classics and John Mariani’s The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, tells of a housewife in Bangor, Maine, who was making a chocolate cake but forgot to add baking powder. When her cake didn’t rise properly, instead of tossing it out, she cut and served the flat, chewy, fudgy pieces to her guests. This recipe has been printed in various cookbooks as Bangor Brownies.
The origin could be as simple as the passed-down tale of the chef who accidentally mixed chocolate into a biscuit batter, and the result was more of a “cake style” confection.
Once you decide on brownies’ origin, there is the question of fudgy texture vs. cake; the crisper, chewier edge pieces or soft, moist middle-of-the pan cuts. One thing is not up for discussion: Since early in the 20th century, the snack food has captured the hearts of many Americans for its rich, satisfying taste, ease of preparation and the variety of extras, such as coconut, caramel, nuts and frosting that can make a simple treat a to-die-for delicacy.
Try one of these personal recipes from chefs and a regular reader.
Courtesy of Maribeth Alexander, mother of Candace Tomboli, owner of Chef Candace in Cabot. The recipe is featured in their new collaborative cookbook, which is available at the restaurant.
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
14 ounce bag caramels, unwrapped
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup chopped pecans
In a mixing bowl, beat butter, sugar and eggs until fluffy. In a separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa and salt.
Add flour mixture to creamed mixture. Mix ingredients together well. Mix vanilla into batter.
Pour half of the batter into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan that has been lined with foil (foil needs to extend out a couple of inches on each end.) Spray foil with nonstick cooking spray.
Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
In a microwave-proof bowl, place caramels and heavy cream. Microwave at 30-second intervals until caramels are melted. It may take about 2 minutes. Make sure to stir between intervals when the caramels begin to melt.
Take the brownie layer out of the oven. Spread with the melted caramel, taking care to leave 1/2 inch on each side, NOT spreading to the edges. Sprinkle with pecans.
Add remaining batter on top of the caramel/pecan layer in heaping tablespoons, then spread.
Return to oven and bake about 20 to 25 minutes more until top layer is firm to the touch.
Cool completely on wire rack. Use the foil to remove brownies from the pan, and cut into squares to serve.
COCOA BROWNIES WITH BROWNED BUTTER AND WALNUTS
Courtesy of Misty Holt, owner of The Lunch Box in Oil Trough in Independence County
Nonstick vegetable-oil spray
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, chilled
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup walnut pieces
Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 325 degrees. Line 8-by-8-by-2-inch metal baking pan with foil, pressing foil firmly against pan sides and leaving 2-inch overhang. Coat foil with nonstick spray.
Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of pan, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; immediately add sugar, cocoa, 2 teaspoons water, vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon (generous) salt. Stir to blend. Let cool 5 minutes. Add eggs to hot mixture one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition. When mixture looks thick and shiny, stir in flour until blended. Beat vigorously with 60 strokes by hand. Stir in nuts. Spread into pan.
Bake brownies about 25 minutes until toothpick inserted 2 inches away from sides of pan comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Using foil, remove brownies from pan and cut into squares.
Courtesy of Jean Boyce, Newport, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reader
1 box yellow cake mix
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips (can substitute butterscotch)
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour an 11-by-13-inch pan.
Combine half the cake mix, water and eggs, butter and brown sugar in a medium-size mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly. Blend in remaining cake mix. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts. Spread in prepared pan.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes until toothpick inserted 2 inches from the side comes out clean. Cool. Cut into bars.