Until now, my all-time favourite brownies were English. They came from Nigel Slater and were called unashamedly, "my very good brownie recipe" or "24-carat brownies". I still love them, but I have found a worthy contender for the best brownie recipe. Nigel Slater. His wit, humour, attention to the little details that make life a pleasant experience. I used to wake up early and cycle to the Munich Central Station to buy a copy of the Observer to be able to read his weekly column of a Sunday. His brownies are fantastic, taste a thousand times better than the one he recommended from Borough Market in London. BUT, admit it, if you've tried making them, the recipe is a tad fiddly. You end up with lots of washing up and have to scramble around the kitchen melting chocolate, beating butter and sugar, adding cocoa, flour, blah blah.
The challenger recipe came from Cook's Illustrated. I was really intrigued by the concept of a magazine without any colour photographs, that clearly ignored food pornography to focus on the recipes. How puzzling. When W went to Seattle for a work trip last month, he was asked to bring me, among other items, an 8-inch brownie pan and Cook's Ill. Not to be picky, but for the sake of geeky detail love, I must say he brought me the Fall Entertaining special instead of the plain September issue. A blessing in disguise, considering that this was where THE recipe was hiding. On the cover, a sexy apple tartlet. Within, many delicious and traditional New England Fall recipes, from Roast Turkey to Cream Biscuits, and with the best gravy to dunk them in.
If, like me, you're new to Cook's Ill, let me tell you that if you're a geek in the kitchen, this is the magazine you've been waiting for your whole life. I know I have. As it were. It's nothing fancy like BBC Olive or Saveurs. It's plain beauty, thoroughness and precision we're talking about. Black and white photographs, illustrations (hence the name) and step-by-step explanations as to why the recipe is the best of all that have been tested. If they offer a recipe for biscuits, then they have tested ten of them with subtle variations just to get it right. Let me quote Pam Anderson, who wrote the Brownie recipe : "After extensive research, I identified three brownies styles--chewy-gooey, dense-and-fudgy, and mild-and-cakey. I made a batch of each style, observing that all three exhibited both assets and liabilities..." on and on for two full, small-print pages, she goes on to explain what she did to achieve the perfection of the featured recipe, adding more unsweetened chocolate, less butter, etc. etc. before moving on to the cheesecake swirls, a mystery unto themselves. Heaven for geeky cooks.
I used to follow recipes so accurately that it hurt, especially if the result wasn't up to my expectations. Now I've grown a little more relaxed about cooking and often change this or that, or force myself to follow my instinct more often and often with good results, but as these people seem to know what they're doing, it seemed only fair to follow their painstakingly accurate steps.
And the brownies turned out really fabulous, thick, dense but gooey, rich and intense, yet somehow soft and light. Even if, as a French person, I don't know what brownies are supposed to be (this is a wink at something I read by David Lebovitz, who is a great observer of the differences in foodie lifestyles on both sides of the Atlantic), I'm pretty sure these were the best I ever made, and also, ate.
Cream cheese brownies (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
2/3 cup (3,5 oz) flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 oz (110g) 70% chocolate
2 oz (56g) unsweetened chocolate
1 stick (110g) butter
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
2 tsp vanilla
Cream cheese swirls
8oz (225g) cream cheese
1/4c (1 3/4 oz) sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 large egg yolk
Preheat oven on 325°F or 160°C. Put the rack in the lower-middle position. Prepare an 8-inch square brownie pan. To make removing easier, spread an overhanging rectangle of foil or parchment across the pan.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave, then melt in the butter. Beat in sugar and vanilla. Let cool a little, before adding eggs, one at a time, beating until smooth. Add dry ingredients and blend them in.
In a separate bowl, mix the cheesecake ingredients thoroughly.
With illustrations and precise steps, they explain how to pour the batters and make the swirls in the pan. Personally, I found my brownie mix had nearly solidified by the time I was ready to pour, which made swirling difficult. A more perfectionnist geek would have been miffed, but in the end, it looked OK and tasted even better so I just say, swirl as you can, don't fret too much about it.
Bake until the edges have puffed up and the center still wobbles. Be careful not to overbake as a good brownie is rather underbaked. A toothpick will come out from the middle with some moist crumbs attached to it. 50 minutes or so should do it. Cool in the pan for 5 mins, then lift out and let cool completely on a rack. Let them sit in the fridge for at least three hours before stuffing face with and achieving chocolate heaven.
You know, you don't really have to make the cheesecake swirls to enjoy this brownie. I don't think would be much different without them. I will surely make them again without and will report back to let you know. In the meantime, I urge you to give these a try.