Calling all Brownie lovers. Our award-winning food historian shares her take on the beloved Brownie, dives into its naming history, and even shares a recipe. Warning: You’ll be craving one by the end of this article.
In my humble opinion, there is nothing quite as decadent and naughty chocolate Brownie, but when it comes to describing the perfect chocolate brownie the world splits into two camps on the
issue: crumbly and cake-like or dense and fudgy, and there are a whole range of recipes to accommodate both sets of brownie devotees. Last year I was honoured to receive a Great Taste Award for my Decadent Chocolate Brownies and I was delighted to read that the judges enjoyed my entry.
Judged by more than 100 discerning food critics, chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, buyers, retailers, producers, food writers and journalists, Great Taste is the most coveted of all food and drink awards and entries are now open for the 2024 edition. I’ve been directing my focus towards what makes a Brownie stand out in a chocolate sea of other award-winners, and I am wondering which Brownies from my range I should enter —– decisions, decisions!
What’s in a Name?
A true American Brownie should be dense and fudgy, and is a far cry from a chocolate sponge cake. With its distinctly cracked top, it should be moist, gooey and a shrine to decadence. As we sit down with a frothy coffee and a chocolate Brownie, it is easy to think that we are enjoying a modern treat, yet we have the Victorians to thank for this classic bakery delight. There is no doubt that whilst the Brownie is now a part of modern all-American culture, it has its origins steeped in European influence. The exact history of the dessert is difficult to reconstruct for there are many conflicting stories on how they came to be. Even the name itself is a subject of debate.
Some say the name is most simply derived from the colour of the treat, whilst others insist that the name is derived from the mythical pixie-like characters common in children’s stories from the same era. The latter explanation does carry some probability.
Back in 1887, the author Palmer Cox released his humorous series, ‘The Brownies’ , which was all about mischievous fairy-like sprites and popularised the name. Palmer’s book was a renowned success and it wasn’t long before savvy commercial businesses seized on the advertising opportunities to develop advertising tie-ins. Kodak even named its popular box camera the “Brownie,” and a host of confectionary companies loaned the name for their sweet treats. So, in light of all this, it is fair to say that perhaps the name of the beloved American Brownie is steeped in the land of the fairies.
Chocolate: The King of Ingredients
Whilst it boasts a Victorian heritage, no one can dispute that a Brownie is not a Brownie without the addition of chocolate and so it could be that it has a longer culinary
lineage than initially recognised. It is certain that whilst chocolate brownies are often a recipe that we attempt early on in life, getting the perfect chocolate brownie is far from child’s play and getting the recipe right is a problem that has been with us bakers for generations.
In 1670, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard each successfully petitioned the city of Boston “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the sellinge of Coffee and Chucalettoe
.” (1) and the record of their petitions is one of the earliest documentations of the presence of chocolate in the British American colonies. As in Europe, chocolate was the source of mixed reactions, it was
considered so addictively delicious by the elite who got to sample it that its popularity soared. However, the more conservative members of society considered it to be a decadent indulgence that was sinful.
Chocolate was not destined to be stopped by a few killjoys though, and its popularity soared seeing it gradually filter from being the preserve of the gentry classes to being the universally enjoyed treat of
The nineteenth century brought with it changes in chocolate taste and from that encouraged and allowed for experimentation in cooking and baking. It was during this century that the face of chocolate changed
forever. As the first chocolate bar was produced in Britain (in Bristol), it wasn’t long before America developed its own. Chocolate in baking increased dramatically in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries due to more consumer friendly prices and forms of chocolate, as well as a wave of chocolate manufacturers creating recipe booklets that encouraged cooking with the confection.
Back to Brownies
Today there are reams of recipes that call for copious quantities of chocolate to be incorporated into them, but back in 1893 when the first documented evidence of the Brownie’s existence emerges the significant quantities of chocolate and fats were unusual. The origin story goes that a wealthy socialite called Mrs. Bertha Potter Palmer made a special culinary request to the chef at The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, to create a dessert that could be tucked into a box lunch for ladies to eat while attending the Columbian Exposition. The chef diligently obliged and created a rich, indulgent, fudgy-chocolate confection – and voila! The Brownie was born. It remains on the hotel’s menu today, testimony to their sustained gastronomic and nostalgic appeal.
The early version was topped with walnuts and an apricot glaze, and was a little different to the popular recipes we enjoy today.
Despite their Victorian roots and the earliest published recipe appearing in the Boston Daily Globe in 1905, chocolate brownies didn’t become widely popular until the 1920s, when chocolate became more readily available and chocolate cookery became the height of domestic prowess. It is interesting to reflect on how the recipe for chocolate brownies has changed very little in well over a hundred years – which just goes to show that perfection needs no modification.
Whilst some of their history is as clear as a bowl of hot fudge, Brownie popularity is enduring and and spans generations, still playing a leading role in our kitchens today.
Bonus Recipe: Seren’s Chocolate Brownies
My recipe demands a mixture of cocoa powder and chocolate, for ultimate richness of flavour without heaviness, and intensive beating. Indeed the classic brownie consists of just a few ingredients:
butter, sugar, chocolate, eggs, and flour. Yet with such a simple recipe comes variable results. Indeed a batch of brownie mix can turn out cake-like, chewy, fudgy, dry or under-baked in the centre, bearing testimony to the fact that baking truly is a form of alchemy. My thoughts on what makes for a perfect Brownie are that they should always be on the dense and fudgy side and should be a scrumptiously, rich treat that you enjoy in small portions. A crisp layer of chocolatey goodness should hide a rich inner layer, and this is how I like to bake mine. Enjoy!
250g 70% cocoa chocolate
250g salted butter
300g caster sugar
3 large eggs, plus 1 extra egg yolk, lightly beaten
60g plain flour
1⁄2 tsp baking powder
60g good quality cocoa powder
1tsp orange flower water
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C, and line a 23cm x 23cm baking tin with baking parchment.
2. Set a bowl over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water, and add 200g of the chocolate, broken into
pieces. Allow to melt, stirring occasionally, and then remove from the heat immediately. Make sure no
water gets into the chocolate s it will seize.
3. Meanwhile, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, and break the rest of the chocolate
into bite sized chunks.
4. With the mixer still running, gradually add the eggs, beating well between each addition to ensure it’s
thoroughly incorporated before pouring in any more. If the mixture starts to curdle then simply add a
dessert spoon of flour. Leave mixing on a high speed for five minutes until the batter has a silky sheen,
and has increased in volume.
5. Remove the bowl from the mixer, and gently fold in the melted chocolate and chocolate chips with a
metal spoon, followed by the sifted flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and orange flour water.
6. Spoon the mixture into the tin, and bake for 30 minutes. Test with a skewer; it should come out sticky,
but not coated with raw mixture. If it does, put it back into the oven for another 3 minutes, then test again.
Prepare a roasting tin of iced water.
7. When the brownies are ready, remove the tin from the oven and place in the cold water bath. Leave to
cool for an hour before cutting into squares. Store in an air-tight container; they’re even better the next day
and so it’s well worth resisting the temptation to eat them as soon as they come.
Author bio: Seren Charrington-Hollins