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The Evolution of the Brownie September 14, 2008

Posted by Janet & Hich in : SANDWHICH musings , comments closed

The Evoloution of the Brownie.  The Most Excellent Brownie.

Don’t get all excited – this is not a history of America’s favorite dessert, but instead a history of *my* favorite way of making it.  As usual, the slightly self-indulgent, but hopefully entertaining food writing from over here at The Courtyard – not The Courtyard by Marriott, mind you, but the little cute shopping area in Chapel Hill…oh, you know where we are.

But I do have a funny and nice story about The Courtyard by Marriott and now I can’t decide which story to tell first.  I’m really going to try and make this a moderate-length e-mail, as opposed to the Magna-Carta-length ones I usually write.  I don’t actually know how long the Magna Carta was.  Maybe it was one nice concise page.  I really should know, since I was a history major 85 years ago.

I’m going to start with the brownie and I think I can sum it up like this:  maybe it is the eggs that make it so good.  And let me throw in here lest anyone read on and feel disappointed at my lack of humility: in general, I’m nice, but I don’t think I’m particularly famous for my humility.  And in specific, with regard to this brownie that is my very own recipe?  In specific, I am absolutely, unapologetically NOT humble.  It is a very good brownie.

So back to the eggs.  There are twenty in the recipe, which is a lot of egg-cracking.  I used to painstakingly count them back in the olden days of Sandwhich.  Then I’d lose count, so I’d look into my KitchenAid bowl and count the yolks.  I’d pull those three aside over there so I could count the others, but then the three would wiggle back to the center.  So I’d try to just lightly touch each yolk to be sure I had counted it, but then I’d not be sure if I had already counted that one over there, or that other one that seems to be underneath one of the ones I am sure I counted.  I eventually got the hang of it, counting them before I cracked any.

It is also probably the chocolate, which is always a slightly whimsical combination of Valrhona and El Rey of varying “cacao percentages” which I do understand, but about which I really can’t launch a discussion right now while I’m trying to talk about brownies.  I don’t always buy the exact same chocolate – sometimes I use the El Rey 70% and combine it with the Valrhona Manjari 64%, sometimes I use exclusively the Valrhona 71%, and so on.  This is HERESY in the pastry world.  But I think it is fun, in its own disorganized way.  I’ve talked a good bit about Valrhona, which makes up the majority of the chocolate we use at Sandwhich (and this – using Michelin-5-star chocolate at a lunchtime restaurant – is also its own sort of heresy).  I used to work for Valrhona, so I have that lingering loyalty thing.  I also used to work for El Rey, which is very yummy chocolate from Venezuela, so I have a little loyalty there too, except that the boss was grumpy with me one time.

I grew up in a baking family and to this day, my brother Norton Dickman makes the best damn pie you ever had IN YOUR LIFE!  His two specialties are pumpkin pie and apple pie.  He starts with actual pumpkins from the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, and apples he goes and gets from the orchard person at some orchard in Virginia that he likes.  He always brings at least one of each to Thanksgiving.  Norton also paints houses with the same perfectionist flair, but now I’m really digressing worse than the digressing that has already happened.

Our mother is the one who got us started on brownies.  They called for 3 eggs, but one time she said that you could put 4 and then added, “eggs just make it richer, you almost can’t have too many” sort of leading me, age 7 at the time, to take what she said literally.  When I was creating the Sandwhich brownie recipe, I knew I wanted them to taste exactly like my mom’s brownies tasted when they had just come out of the oven, minus the scalding temperature.  I wanted them to almost taste like the batter of my mom’s brownies, which are delicious, but more cake-like than the Sandwhich recipe, by the time they cool.  So I figured that adding extra eggs might do the trick.

And while I was at it, I substituted Valrhona/El Rey chocolate for those Baker’s Unsweetened cubes.  I also made a point of using actual vanilla extract.  I could have left it out, but no way.  I couldn’t leave out the vanilla extract. 

Testing the various versions of the recipe, I made very many batches of brownies.  Very, very many.  There was nothing bad about an excess of brownies, so I didn’t mind.  Finally, I figured out exactly how to get them to that perfect texture that I love.  The eggs, then, make the brownie more like a baked pudding.  They’re moist, but also fluffy.  When you bite them, you don’t get teeth marks where the bite was taken out.  When you break them, little crystals of whatever chemical thing happened when they baked – maybe sugar and protein or something – sparkle a tiny bit if you kind of lean the broken part into the light the right way.  On the top is a very fine layer of that chocolate “parchment” stuff – the little flaky niceness that sometimes absorbs back into our brownies b/c we wrap them in plastic wrap.

This is not a short e-mail.  I try earnestly each time, though.

The brownie at Sandwhich – the “Most Excellent Brownie” is a really good brownie, is all.  That’s basically what I’m trying to say, lack of humility notwithstanding.

As to The Courtyard by Marriott story, I’m going to tell you another time.  I know you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat saying to yourself, “Dang! She decided against telling that one!  I was really wanting to hear it!”  So – in the next e-mail, here’s what you’re going to get:

- The Courtyard by Marriott story, which is a very nice story, and
- A recipe from Hich which he promised he’d give me so I could write it down.

Finally, our Moroccan Tea goes very nicely with the brownie somehow.  Maybe something that is sort of salad-y in the tea counteracts the dessert experience of the brownie.  But that’s all I’m going to say for now.

Janet Elbetri

407 West Franklin Street - Chapel Hill, NC 27516 - (919) 929 2114

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