Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Tale of Two Brownies

from top: my mom's Betty Crocker brownie; the Williams-Sonoma brownie; both brownies side by side

all photos by Anthony Palatta

My mother, who's famous for her brownies, always keeps a batch in her freezer, just in case a grandkid happens to drop by. She's made them so many times that when I recently asked her for the recipe (from the Betty Crocker Cookbook she received as a wedding present over fifty years ago), she was able to recite it over the phone by heart.

Which was why I was shocked to learn in my first cooking class that my mother was making two crucial "mistakes" with her brownies. First, her brownies had Crisco rather than butter as a shortening. Second, my mother used Baker's Chocolate rather than a higher rated brand like Ghirardelli or the highly esteemed Callebaut or Valrhona.

"But my mother always uses Baker's for her brownies!" I blurted out.

"Let me ask you something," said my teacher. "Do you like your mother's brownies?"

"They're great," I told him.

"Then they're great," he said.

Still, I became curious to explore other brownie horizons, and so I began experimenting with various recipes until I hit on one that's become my go-to: the Classic Dark Chocolate Brownie from Williams-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking, an oversized cookbook with color illustrations that could sit proudly on my coffee table if it weren't covered in crumbs and food stains.

Both my mom's Betty Crocker brownies and the Williams-Sonoma variety are based on unsweetened rather than semisweet or bittersweet chocolate. However, the Williams-Sonoma packs a much more intense chocolate punch, probably because it uses THREE TIMES AS MUCH CHOCOLATE as Betty Crocker, not to mention two teaspoons of vanilla for added kick. The Williams-Sonoma brownie is intensely fudgy, thick, rich, moist, more like a chocolate truffle than a brownie. By contrast, my mother's brownies are slimmer, cakier, and more sugary than chocolatey.

Recently I made both recipes and brought them to one of my classes at NYU to taste test. The verdict? Most people preferred the taste of the Williams-Sonoma fudgy brownies, but couldn't finish them. On the other hand, by the end of the class period, all of my mother's brownies were gone.

In a perfect world, I would go for the Williams-Sonoma brownies baked in a larger pan than the typical 8 x 8, so they come out thinner, with a nice crunch on top and bottom as well as a dense and chocolatey center.

One of my students (who preferred my mom's brownie) suggested that one's brownie preference could be used as a kind of personality test. Are you cakey or fudgey? Chocolatey or sweet?

Try them for yourself, and see how you come out. The Williams-Sonoma recipe is copyrighted, but if you go on their Amazon page, you can "look inside" and see the directions. My mom's recipe is below:

Brownies by Mom (via Betty Crocker)

2 squares of Baker’s Chocolate (2 oz total)
1/3 cup of shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
¾ cup flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350. Grease an 8 x 8 light metal brownie pan. Melt the chocolate and shortening in a double boiler. Remove from heat and beat in sugar and eggs with electric mixer. Mix in dry ingredients with spatula. Spread and bake 23 minutes in Mom’s oven and mine (or until toothpick in the middle comes out clean or pretty clean, about 20-25 minutes). Cool in the pan.


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