As a frequently proclaimed chocolate-lover, one would likely assume that the brownie would be a beloved staple of my confectionary brain space. Yet a consistent reader may have clocked that nary a mention of the food has been made here. In truth, I don’t often find myself yearning for them. While they are a convenient way to satisfy a baking urge with their easy prep and minimal ingredients (depending how simple I go) this is one reason why I don’t find myself making them often. As a baker, I typically crave a complex bake when I have the time. This is especially ironic, as one of my most renowned products for bake sales, parties, and general evenings at home are Alton Brown’s Brownies – some of the most thick, cakey, dense, chocolaty brownies I have had to date. They are such a rich chocolate bomb that they are almost not even brownies, but a chocolate decadence in their own right (and utterly orgasmic as the base of a brownie sundae with some high quality vanilla bean ice cream). Even this past break I made brownies that were a little more down-to-earth and humanly brownie-like purely due to inspiration from a New York Times article about Katharine Hepburn’s recipe that looked like, and was, a stellar brownie (especially with my own special addition of bourbon salted caramel. This made it basically caramel fudge, but there were certainly no complaints).
Despite all this, I have long viewed the brownie with a fair amount of apathy. Perhaps it is my general “more is more” attitude that turns me off of the basic bar. Yet a chocolate chip cookie is similarly simple and has a firm grasp of my heart. It may be the lack of visual excitement. A basic brownie offers little in that realm with its consistent brown uniformly covering the square. The problem may even lie in its shape, as circles are my all-time favorite and I think that squares often steal their spotlight. And while brownies are easily elaborated on with walnuts and caramel and marshmallows and practically anything under the sun, I find little sense of adventure in these. This feeling especially confuses me, as brownies can be like a little form of cake. Which I love! But even moister and chocolatier! That sounds like my dream! But when I use that logic to try and gain more love for the brownie, I just think about wanting cake.
I am not even averse to the idea of the bar, as I recently had a peanut butter and jelly bar (which will be written about here soon) that rocked my world, and in my youth was enamored with my mother’s Hello Dollies (squares of graham cracker crumbled base topped with moist coconut, walnuts, and chocolate and butterscotch chips. And I didn’t even like coconut at the time. They’re that good!). I am always more excited by creations such as these when considering a bar venture.
This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good brownie. When done well it can hit exactly the right spot in the soul that needed filling. When an amazing brownie is discovered out of the blue it can be the highlight of my day to consume such a bar of deep chocolate wonder. I find myself appreciating them most when there’s ice cream involved, either in a sundae or as little moist morsels mixed into a soft serve. These applications are the ones that ignite a love of brownies in me, if only momentarily. I also have a fondness for things involving brownie batter. This flavor is distinctly different from its baked result and well utilized, again in an ice cream context, in Ben and Jerry’s Brownie Batter Core pint, which I have consumed by myself in one sitting more times than I would care to admit.
So, it is for all these possible reasons that I have not ventured into the world of the brownie yet here. But before I tell you of that premier brownie voyage, we must discuss what I’m even looking for in one. I don’t see brownies as a time to hold back. They are not a place for the words “light”, “fluffy”, or “subtle”. For me, they are the essence of richness. A bite should be met with resistance and pervade the mouth with rich chocolate, the darker the better. There is no skimping out on flavor concentration here. If you’re selling me a square of nuthin’ but chocolate, it better be damn chocolaty.
When it comes to texture, there is a wide variety of options. It could be a thick wall, fudge-like in density with the batter’s bake hardly seen. It could also be notable through its moisture, perfectly combining pillowy with chewy, as if an idyllic piece of cake was shrunken down and condensed to a 2×2 square. Lastly, there is the actually cakey option. This one is probably least appealing to me, as it usually results in being too airy with a diffused flavor, making me really feel the emptiness of the empty calories I’m consuming. However, if a cakey brownie is to truly succeed, it must strongly deliver on the flavor factor even more than the other categories. In addition, I will most likely be looking for a physically bigger brownie to make up for the air that is inevitably there from the creation of this texture.
Finally, I should mention that as with chocolate chip cookies, I am in the process of reformation from my childhood walnut-aversion. I am also strongly in favor over other additions, so long as they don’t become the focal point of the dish, yet do their part strongly and with confidence. They should result in a symbiotic relationship between brownie and its flavor addition, not one with a hint of the other.
With all this in mind, we may now move onto today’s brownie in question. It was my day off from rehearsal this past Sunday and I was aiming to fill it with homework and errands. After helping a friend film a self-tape, I was venturing from Astor Place down to Trader Joe’s to pick up some groceries then zip back home to get some reading and writing done. As I thought about groceries, though, I realized I was in need of a snack. And you know what they say about going grocery shopping hungry. So it was only logical that I see if there was a new sweet treat location in the Vicinity of TJ’s to knock off my list. But first I had to narrow down my desire. Something small for sure, but something that would truly treat me on this day of non-restful rest. I looked at my list and saw a lack of checks in my brownie category, and realized my neglect. Perhaps today was the day to change that. And conveniently, Balthazar Bakery was right by the Spring St. 6 stop where I was getting off. So a brownie at Balthazar it was.
The bakery in question is actually connected to the larger Balthazar restaurant next door. Unfortunately, the large space of the main dining area results in a miniscule amount of space available for the bakery, just enough for one or two people to stand and order and leave. But there were not just one or two customers looking for a baked good that day; an family of four, a couple, and a handful of individuals cramped together in front of the counter to trying to get a look at the offered items. Luckily, they had some brownies left, and I was able to quickly pay and leave.
Once in the freedom of the outdoors, I was able to examine my item. Clean and elegant, it certainly looked enticing. The chocolate hue was a good darkness, and even one with variety as I discovered a thin layer of icing on the top, a brownie addition that I am a fan of when executed well. Atop this icing was the added bonus of a thin dusting of cocoa powder. This gave a variation in visual texture that I appreciated and piqued my interest to see what it would to for the flavor of the brownie. I have tried raw cocoa powder often, always forgetting that it is not at all meant for straight up consumption. There also seemed to be a healthy sprinkling of walnuts, though I could not get an accurate idea of their prevalence. The texture of the brownie itself looked solid, leaning towards fudgy/moist. Yet, the weight of it did not agree with my visual assessment, being light for its size. I was therefore unsure of what exactly I was in store for.
First, I licked just a bit of cocoa powder off the top, just to confirm that I was in fact dealing with the unsweetened baking ingredient that had plagued my tongue many a time before. The answer was an undeniable yes as the visceral bitterness shot through. With this confirmed, I dived into the brownie in full to see if this bitter dust would aid in creating a pleasurable whole. In a surprising twist, this dusting of cocoa ended up being my favorite part about the bite. The brownie itself disappointingly aligned itself with the lightness of its weight and did not give my mouth much to chew on in both senses of the word. I seemed to swiftly pass through the chocolate with the purpose of arriving at a walnut rather than experiencing the brownie with the added joy of walnut crunch. That crunch was, instead, the major textural element. The icing, while perfectly enjoyable, was a thick ganache atop a bar that did not allow it to shine. I appreciated the contrast of rich/airy, and I can see that as actually being an endearing aspect for some. But for me, it only added to my disappointment in the brownie itself. The things that should be used as enhancements, nuts and icing, were instead the redeeming qualities attempting to distract from an average brownie.
But as I said, one of my favorite parts ended up being the dusting of cocoa. This thin coating provided a slight bitterness to the overall average chocolate flavor that allowed for some much appreciated depth that was lacking everywhere else. I imagine that with a brownie of better-executed texture leaning toward the fudgy realm this would be a stellar technique, and I certainly want to experiment with it in the future.
I ate my brownie as I walked toward Trader Joe’s, which ironically brought me in front of Dominique Ansel Bakery, the home of my heart and beloved patisserie of many. How disappointing that I had chosen to take a chance with such an average brownie when only blocks away a pastry case full of perfection was waiting to be worked through. I finished the brownie quickly, as there was little there that gave me need to take time to savor. Unfortunately, this first brownie exploration left much room for me to find a greater product somewhere else in the city. While it was clearly attempting to beautify itself as best it could, the result was only a visual success. My search for a brownie that I find deserving of praise has only just begun. In the meantime, I highly recommend the recipes of Alton and Katharine Hepburn if you’re looking for a good brownie time!