If it is possible to hate a particular dessert, I could easily say that I loathe dry brownies. They lure you in with the promise of chewy chocolate and a tight, dense crumb, only to leave you disappointed with a brown mass that seems to immediately fall to pieces when you bite into it. Come on brownie, lets get a little resilience here. Now I realize that some of you might condemn me for detesting any dessert with almighty chocolate as the main ingredient, but at the risk of prompting shouts of sacrilege, I will say it again: To me, a dry brownie is not even worth one single bite.
Because I hold this opinion, brownies in general don't rank high on my list of favorite chocolate desserts, or high on my list of desserts in general; however, when I opened my mailbox a few months ago to find the February issue of Bon Appetit, I was immediately awestruck by the gorgeous dark chocolate brownies gracing the cover. The visual alone set off immediate chocolate cravings, but then Bon Appetit piqued my interest even more with the huge text proclamining "BEST-EVER BROWNIES."
Wow Bon Appetit, that is a pretty bold statement to make.
Both the delectable photo and the 'best-ever' proclamation broke down my initial brownie barriers, so it was only natural that I check out the recipe - and that was where Bon Appetit upped the ante even more. You see, they had an entire feature section devoted to chocolate desserts penned by none other than the lovely Alice Medrich. For those of you not familiar, Alice is an author, baker, and chocolatier that has been affectionately called 'The First Lady of Chocolate.' Is it not appropriate then, that a recipe by her should be deemed 'Best-Ever Brownies?' As if I wasn't convinced enough already, I scanned over the recipe and realized that these brownies were a one-pot recipe. Done. I was sold.
But then things in my head started churning, and I thought I remembered a similar recipe floating around somewhere...and not only that, but can a brownie recipe that only has cocoa and no real chocolate yield a best-ever brownie??? My renewed sense of doubt sent me on an internet search; sure enough I discovered Alice's original recipe for Best Cocoa Brownies that she had published in her cookbook, Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate. (You can also find her Best Cocoa Brownie recipe on Epicurious, where it has four stars from reviewers, or on Smitten Kitchen where Deb raves about these 'fudgy, dark and rich brownies.')
The only real difference between her original Best Cocoa Brownies and these Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter and Walnuts is the browned butter.
Browned butter bits at the bottom of the pan.
For those of you new to browning butter, it is essentially the process of cooking butter until the milk solids and any salt precipitates out and browns. After cooking, the liquid will be a lovely honey color, there will be browned bits at the bottom of the pan, and the butter will smell toasty and nutty.
I think the browned butter, combined with the natural nuttiness of pecans, gives the brownies a more rich flavor and enhances the savory notes. Since I like all my chocolate with a little extra salt, the only real addition I made to her recipe was to add more salt to the brownie batter and to sprinkle a bit over the top before baking.
And now, did I think these were the best brownies ever??! Drumroll please...
Maybe. I can't quite decide, which might mean they didn't win the best-ever title. However, they definitely were 'Pretty-Damn-Good.' They were thick and fudgy, they had a super shiny, crackly top, and the salt made me over the moon. No where was the brownie even the slightest bit dry (not even at those pesky edges of the brownies!) and I think even the most discerning chocolate connoisseur would agree the rich chocolate taste was spot on. Taste and texture aside, I was almost convinced to call this recipe best-ever simply because it can be made in one pot and one pot only. Maybe these would be my best brownies ever if I had omitted the nuts altogether; I am not really a nuts-in-my-brownies kind of gal, so that might have soured me a bit. And honestly, labeling a recipe as the best brownie ever is really a tricky thing to do.
But if you really twist my arm, I might, just might call these the best-ever brownies. Maybe in a moment of weakness. I can say that these Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter have elevated brownies in my eyes. Now suddenly I am finding myself craving brownies all the time... Make them, you will see what I mean.
Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter
Adapted from Bon Appetit, February 2011, recipe by Alice Medrich
1 1/4 stick unsalted butter (10 tbsps) cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cups cocoa powder
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup pecans, chopped
Extra sea salt for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and line the inside of an 8x8 square baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving 2-inch overhangs and pressing the foil tightly to the sides of the pan. (If you like spray the aluminum foil with non-stick cooking spray, though I didn't find this necessary.)
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, stirring often. The butter will first melt, then foam, then form more clear bubbles. Once the butter has only bubbles (and no foam) and there are browned bits at the bottom of the pan, remove the butter from the heat. Stir in the sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, salt, and 2 teaspoons water. Let the mixture sit for about 4-5 minutes to cool, then mix in the eggs one at a time, beating quickly after each addition. Once the chocolate mixture looks relatively smooth, mix in the flour, and then beat well for a few minutes. Mix in the chopped nuts, and transfer to the prepared pan, smoothing the top before baking.
Bake for about 30 minutes or more, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean - if there is still a tiny bit of moist batter at the very bottom that is ok. Remove the brownies from the oven and cool completely on a cooling rack. Once cool, remove the brownies from the pan using the aluminum foil overhangs; then pull the aluminum foil away from the brownies and cut them into 16 square pieces. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container.