View From Lodi, CA: Make Mine A Brownie, Please
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[Previous Baking Columns

Not An Immigration Column! Or, "Baking in the Hot Sun"

Krispy Kreme Kraters (Plus: Amazing Joe Doughnut Recipe)

Bon Appetit, Julia Child!

Fruitcakes—As Memorable As A Story by Capote

Keylime Pie for Christmas!

What To Do About Bananas]

Now that school is out for the summer, I can turn my attention to where it really should be—my test kitchen.

I'm gearing up for the San Joaquin County Fair and the California State Fair baking competitions, two of my great summer distractions.

The fun thing about baking is that if you follow the directions exactly as they are written, there is a better than 50-50 chance that everything will work out just as it is supposed to.

Unfortunately, in other aspects of life, things don't always happen that way no matter how attentive to detail you may be.

The secret to winning ribbons is, no surprise, entering a large percentage of chocolate goods. People win for zucchini bread, I know. But the more certain prizewinner will have chocolate as its principal ingredient.

This year, I'll be entering three versions of America's favorite treat, the brownie.

Brownies are more American than apple pie. They first appeared in the 1896 Fannie Farmer cookbook but were, unbelievably and unappealingly, made with molasses.

Ten years later, a Boston-based confectioner replaced the molasses with chocolate and a legend was born.

Europe has nothing that compares to the brownie. That's why, according to pastry chef Steve Kic of Washington D.C.'s Zaytinya, the great European masters like Pierre Herme and Ferran Adria have embraced the brownie.

Why enter brownies, you ask? The answer is simple. Everyone likes brownies and they are easy to make.

I've made them with junior mints, dried cherries, toffee chips, ancho chile powder and coconut cream and rum instead of butter and vanilla.

But the brownie debate ultimately gets down to this: do you like your brownies fudgy or cakey?

To me that isn't much of a debate. I have never heard anyone say, "I like mine cakey." After all, if you want cakey brownies, you might as well bake a cake.

Cookbook author and Brownie Queen Maida Heatter, a much more reliable source than me, says this about cakey/fudgy: "No one I know likes cakey brownies although I keep seeing things in recipes that say, 'If you like cakey brownies.' I don't know why though."

For those who can't make up their mind, King Arthur Flour has developed a recipe for "On The Fence" brownies that it published in its essential new book, "The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook."

Here are a few brownie tips that I've culled from here and there that I'll use in this summer's fair bake-offs.

Since competitive baking is more intense than you might imagine, I'm looking for every possible edge.

  • Improve the flavor and texture of your brownies by refrigerating the batter for several hours or up to two days before baking. The brownies will have a glossier crust and will be chewier and richer.

  • If you prefer a crunchy top, heat the melted butter and chocolate to 150 degrees, then add sugar and ice-cold eggs. Stir vigorously before pouring into your pan and baking.

  • For a really crusty brownie, bake them in a Bundt pan, according to the test kitchen director at King Arthur Flour. The batter will rise and fall making an almost total crust with a soft, gooey and intensely chocolate center.

  • For the darkest, richest brownies you have ever seen or tasted, use black cocoa available at King Arthur Flour.

  • Julia Child recommends beating your eggs for about three minutes until they are dark yellow and thick before adding them to your batter. This will give extra lift to your brownies once they are in the oven.

  • To give your brownies a slightly caramel flavor, substitute dark brown sugar for white sugar. Or add a small amount of almond extract and instant coffee or espresso power.

Right now, I'm optimistic about my chances. But as the old saying goes, "Many a slip twixt cup and lip."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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