To say that I am a huge fan of chocolate is an understatement. Chocolate, like music, has the power to capture my attention among so much competition and slow down my world to where, for a moment, there is nothing else. It is a sweet ballad with layers of satisfying depth just enough to leave you yearning for a tiny bit more.
It’s holiday baking season and I promise I’ll follow up with something a little less decadent next week. But until then, let’s indulge the darker impulses. The batter here is laced with chocolate and spices and I didn’t add the nuts until the end. The basic recipe is an excellent vehicle for the many variations of brownies out there. With only seven players on the roster and four simple steps in the game, you don’t need a science degree to make these delicious brownies from scratch.
This week, it’s party after party, but I took a time out to celebrate my grandma’s 87th birthday. After a full week of work (and play) I went out to Coney Island in Brooklyn, taking the F train to the very last stop. I popped into the Russian grocery to collect a few pickled items and some wonderful desserts that I have yet to try in my own kitchen and crossed the street to where they finally took the scaffolding down. I opened the door to the hallway without having to buzz in this time because last year the door stopped locking on its own. As soon as I stepped in I was enveloped by the unmistakable aroma of Grandma’s cooking, the best smell in the world. Walking down the hallway, I made sure to put my foot in the single black tile that has the missing piece in the shape of the top of a man’s shoe, something I’ve done since I was a kid. I always thought it was my father’s footprint. I rang the doorbell and Grandma opened the door smiling in her house-dress, telling me I’m too thin and wrapping her arms around me.
The unwavering love of a grandmother is a dangerous thing. It’s the kind of love that can mess you up. It envelopes you and changes you slowly in an act of attrition so that you’re completely unprepared for your return to the colder, less caring world. Even though it was Grandma’s birthday, she insisted on waiting on me hand and foot. At dinner, as per usual, she wouldn’t sit down to eat until I’d finished eating everything she put on my plate. And she kept refilling it. She served me the middle and best piece of her meatloaf, ignoring my attenuated cries of protest. In the morning, when she served the smoked salmon that she got just for me because it’s my favorite, she gave me the thickest part, reserving the thinner, end piece for herself. When she saw me trying to share or leave extras for her she yelled at me, “There’s plenty. Take. I won’t starve.”
We went out later in the morning to go shopping for odds and ends and among other housewares Grandma found two beautiful highly discounted books that seemed out of place in the store we were in. One was the history of Fenway Park in Boston and the other was the history of football. In a Russian neighborhood where English and knowledge of American history are sparse, I could see why these might be steeply discounted. These were books my grandpa would have loved if he were still around. He was the biggest fan of baseball facts and history I’ve ever met. He also knew every college football march song by heart. Grandma picked up the books and flipped through them. Then she put them in her cart, a little embarrassed and whispered, “I can’t not. Grandpa would have loved them so.” I agreed and we got the books. She put them on his shelf right next to his baseball almanacs. If I’m ever to be a grandma, I’ll try to be a bad, mean one for the sake of my grandchildren. So the world won’t break their hearts.
I told Grandma that I was making brownies for a party this weekend and she gave me her recipe, among others. This isn’t that recipe. I promised her it would remain our secret. But it’s not very different from this genius recipe, which can be enriched with Mexican spices or made nutty, gooey or extra chocolatey (see variations below). Have a wonderful week and happy baking!
DECADENT DARK CHOCOLATE BROWNIES
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- pinch salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a square baking pan with butter or line it by overlapping 2 pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil crosswise and grease the lining.
Combine the butter and the chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally. (Or microwave them in a large microwave-safe bowl on medium for 10-second intervals, stirring after each.) When the chocolate is just about melted, remove the saucepan from the heat (or bowl from the microwave) and continue to stir until the mixture is smooth.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl (or use the bowl you put in the microwave) and stir in the sugar. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Gently stir in the flour, salt, and the vanilla if you’re using it.
Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until just barely set in the middle. Cool on a rack until set. If you used parchment, lift it out to remove the brownies. If not, cut them in squares right in the pan. Store, covered, at room temperature, for no more than a day.
If you use parchment paper (or foil) to line the pan, leave an extra inch or two overhanging each end. When the brownies are cool, grab each flap and lift them out of the pan.
Err on the side of underbaking: An overcooked brownie is dry and cakey, while an undercooked brownie is gooey and delicious.
Nutty Brownies: In Step 3, substitute 1/4 cup finely ground hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, or pecans (use the food processor or blender to grind them) for 1/4 cup of the flour and add 1 cup lightly toasted, roughly chopped nuts to the batter.
Mexican Cocoa Brownies: After the brownies cool a bit but are still warm, put 2 tablespoons cocoa, 1/2 teaspoon chipotle pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a small strainer and shake it over the pan to dust the tops of the brownies or you could lace it into the batter in step 3.