Earn brownie points

Earn brownie points


Earn brownie points

Ultimately, there’s nothing you can make with chocolate that’s better than a brownie,” said Renato Poliafito, owner of two Baked bakeries in New York City with his partner and co-founder, Matt Lewis. “You can make things that are fancier, or lighter, or creamier, but they won’t be better.”

If such a title is possible, Matt and Renato are brownie shokunin, a Japanese word for artisan or master that denotes years of advanced study and daily practice. Their deep dark brownie — an immediate hit when the bakery opened in 2005, touted by Oprah Winfrey and admired by Martha Stewart — was crafted specifically for dark chocolate fans. Its bitterness is accented by espresso powder.

The recipe calls for both cocoa (for warm chocolate flavour) and dark chocolate (for fruity chocolate flavour). And, like all brownies from Baked, it is mixed entirely by hand to prevent a caky texture — the nemesis of a good brownie, which should err on the side of fudgy. “If you want cake, by all means have cake,” Renato said. “But part of the genius of the brownie is that rich density.”

Smart spinoff

Once a shokunin has perfected a recipe, you may think it is best left alone. But no. Bakers are a persistent and curious bunch, and they keep trying to improve. Home cooks spackle layers of cream cheese and peanut butter onto their brownies. They weave in Oreo cookies and chocolate chip cookie mix. (This delectable British creation is called a slutty brownie; keep in mind that “slut” in Britain often refers to a woman who is a lazy housekeeper.)

The people at Baked have experimented with mint, coffee, chili and other variations — but the only one to join the permanent roster is the sweet and salty brownie, an ingenious combination of blonde, bittersweet caramel and dark, bittersweet chocolate that now outsells the original. They are not the first bakers to note the affinity of caramel and chocolate, but by emphasising the bitter, sweet and salty notes in both, they’ve made that rare thing: a perfectly balanced bite.

It is a spinoff of their sweet and salty cake, a layer cake with multiple components and extraordinary flavours that are equally compelling in the form of a brownie that you can make this very afternoon. In addition to a brownie batter, all it takes is a basic caramel. (Do not stop reading. Making caramel does involve high heat but the process doesn’t have to be terrifying or traumatic.)

Getting the basics right

Many recipes for home cooks call for melting down Kraft caramels or using store-bought sauce. That sticky substance is a world away from the creamy, tangy,
complexity of this homemade sauce. You can thank the sour cream. And use the
extra sauce on ice cream, cookies or cake. Here are tips for a painless caramel:

Use a large saucepan and moderate heat. It’s OK if the caramel cooks slowly.

Use part sugar and part corn syrup, which prevents it from crystallising, so don’t worry about the caramel seizing up.

There’s no need to track the temperature with a candy thermometer. As long as you can tell the difference between iced tea and iced coffee, you are capable of spotting when the caramel is cooked enough.

Some people like a smoother, less bittersweet caramel; if that is your target audience, let the mixture cook only until it is golden brown, not amber.

Adding a dairy product quickly stops the cooking and makes the mixture thick and creamy.

And now to the chocolate. Buying chocolate at a supermarket these days is like navigating a Minecraft landscape: plowing through thickets of a repetitive landscape, you are lured in random directions by visual cues that may be meaningless. Labels that shout fair trade, shade grown, single estate and non-GMO may make you a virtuous consumer, but they don’t make better brownies.

Renato has a way to cut through the onslaught; find chocolate that is clearly
labeled with 60 to 70% cocoa solids (this may be listed as cocoa beans or cocoa butter), and then taste. Eleven ounces of good chocolate is not a small investment, so it’s only sensible to ensure that the main flavour component of the recipe is delicious. “As long as you are in that range of real chocolate,” he said, “the best kind to use for brownies is the one that tastes best to you.” Some commercial brands taste terrible; some artisanal brands taste terrible; usually for different reasons, he said.

For sprinkling on top, it is not necessary to buy salt brought down from the
Himalayas or hauled up from the Tasman seabed. Any flaky salt is fine. And in the brownie batter, the texture makes no difference: It only needs to be salty, to push that popular sweet-salty button. “Sweet with salty seemed like a passing trend at first, but now I really believe it’s imprinted on the American palate,” Matt said. “Salted caramel was the gateway.”

Salted caramel brownie recipe

Total time: 1¼ hours    Yield: About 2 dozen brownies

For the caramel:
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
½ cup heavy cream
3/4 tsp salt, plus more to taste
¼ cup sour cream
For the brownies:
2 sticks unsalted butter (cut into 1-inch cubes, more for greasing pan)
1 ¼  cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate (60 - 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
Coarse sugar (such as raw or turbinado)
Flaky salt, for sprinkling


Making the caramel:

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and corn syrup with 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat, stirring gently, until an instant-read thermometer reads 350 degrees or until the mixture is dark amber in colour (6 to 8 minutes). Remove from heat, slowly pour in heavy cream and salt (it will foam up) and whisk. Whisk in sour cream (it may look lumpy at first) and set aside to cool. Taste and add salt if needed to give the caramel a good balance of salty and sweet.

Making the brownies:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Use butter to lightly grease
a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Line the bottom with a sheet of parchment paper and butter the parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt and cocoa powder.
Melt chocolate and butter together, either in the top of a double boiler set over
simmering water, or in a microwave at low heat, working in 30-second bursts. Stir until chocolate and butter are melted and combined. Whisk in sugars. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Using a sturdy whisk, add eggs one by one, whisking just until combined. Stir in vanilla.
Gently pour chocolate mixture over flour mixture. Using a spatula, fold together just until few streaks of flour are visible; do not over mix.

Pour batter into the pan and let settle. Drizzle caramel sauce over batter until batter is almost covered. (You may not use all the caramel.) On the surface, use the tip of a butter knife or icing spatula to swirl the batter and caramel together.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. At the 30-minute mark, shake the pan gently to test for doneness. When done, the brownies will be barely set in the centre and puffed, but not dry, around the edges. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with coarse sugar and salt.

Let cool to room temperature before cutting. After cutting, if desired, drizzle any remaining caramel over the top. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

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