I’ve got an absolutely amazing brownie recipe for you. Dense, fudgy, moist, a resounding wallop of chocolate amidst an unexpected touch of spices and a subtle nudge of saltiness upon encountering a buried almond. Now, I’m fully aware that I am often given to hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating when I say these brownies are some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Make them yourself and I bet you’ll feel the same.
It’s not because of my skill at baking, which can more accurately be described as the ability to read and generally follow instructions. This brownie is based on a great recipe from Smitten Kitchen who adapted it from another great recipe from Baked in Brooklyn. Eat anything from these justly celebrated dessert creators and you’ll probably bust out the superlatives too. Plus, it’s got a lot of butter in it, and we all know the important kitchen equation: butter = awesome.
But the brownie got me thinking more about the food we eat and how it’s produced. If you just want to skip ahead to learn how to make these brownies yourself, scroll all the way down. But first, some brownie pondering…
Sitting at my crumb-covered kitchen table with a belly almost uncomfortably full of dessert and one hand still clutching a few chocolatey morsels, a surprising realization came to me: I almost never eat brownies made from scratch.
Do you? I’m curious. Think about it. Despite being a fan of brownies, I rarely buy them from bakeries. Restaurants don’t often offer brownies on the dessert menu, and even if they do, I’m not likely to order something I can just as easily bake at home. And that’s the thing – brownies are a homestyle, comfortable, familiar, fifties housewife/school bake sale kind of dessert. A dessert that almost universally, at least in my world, came straight out of a box.
A brownie recipe from my childhood would look like this: pull the Betty Crocker box out of the cupboard. Pop the plastic bag of brownish powder, add an egg and some vegetable oil, stir in a big bowl, bake in a pan and cut into squares. No need for complicated baking equipment, kitchen knowledge, or really any degree of thought or effort.
On the contrary, baking brownies from scratch takes not only a fair amount of time and effort but also a great deal more money. I decided to make spiced brownies for the Rambling Cafe at Somerset House Design Fair over the holidays and found myself choosing between a box of brownie mix under £2 and the ingredients to make them myself for almost £8, which didn’t even include the flour and spices I already had in my cupboard. Since we care about making good, real, food with high-quality ingredients at Rambling Restaurant and it fits into my general ethos of food and cooking, I went with the expensive choice. But I was annoyed that these were my options. I’m willing to put in the work; shouldn’t that save me money?
I was chatting about this mid-brownie devouring with my friend Alexis, who mentioned that a roast chicken from her supermarket costs less than buying the whole raw chicken and taking several hours to season and roast it herself. Like so many pre-made items in our supermarkets at refrigerators these days, you have to be crazy to make it yourself. Or you just have to be willing to spend more money, take more time, and expend more effort. You have to love the process of cooking and appreciate the taste of homemade food and value the act of creating something yourself (and enjoy the kudos you get for preparing something delicious from scratch). Sure, sometimes the professionals do it way better, and that’s absolutely worth paying for. But too much of the time, you’re trading flavor, health, and taste for convenience and price. And all too often, the money you save reappears as hidden costs externalized in our health care system, the polluted state of our environment, serious issues with factory treatment of workers and animals, the little time spent enjoying the sharing and eating of food with people in your life, the disconnect with where our food comes from, and so many more problems associated with our current methods and industries of food production and consumption.
Michael Pollan, in books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, has written a great deal about the American food industry over the past century and how governmental systems were put into place with the goal of creating cheap calories so people could afford to eat. In addition, companies like General Mills (owner and creator of brand name Betty Crocker) produced convenience items that allowed people, almost exclusively women, to spend less time in the kitchen and more time pursuing their own careers or interests. It was a profitable enterprise for those huge conglomerates that arguably had the positive social benefit of achieving more gender equality in the home and workplace (I’d actually be very interested to research that exact connection). But these industrial methods also made high-calorie treats like brownies and chocolate chip cookies and french fries and microwave pizza widely accessible, affordable and effortlessly replicable in your own home. Which, in turn, have contributed towards making people extremely unhealthy and so we find ourselves in the midst of this obesity crisis the United States and increasingly more Westernized countries face today.
Browsing a bookstore a few weeks ago, I flipped through a few pages of Michael Pollan’s new book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (full review and commentary coming soon from Irene Bean!). One of the rules talks about the notion of treats and how we’d all consume a lot less junk food if we had to make it ourselves. Imagine how much work it takes to produce a french fry and how much less you’d eat them if you had to peel and slice potatoes, purchase and heat large quantities of oil, and risk first-degree burns instead of sidling up to the McDonald’s drive-thru. And you could probably cut down your brownie eating if you had to spend $10 on chocolate, eggs, sugar, and flour rather than $2 on a box of dehydrated chocolate mix.
Clearly this doesn’t make sense for plenty of people who have neither the time nor the money nor a general idea of ‘fun’ that includes two sticks of butter and a cupboard full of spices for experimentation. But it speaks to a way that perhaps we should all be eating, both for our own health and the health of our planet. New York Times writer Jane Brody covers this idea succinctly in her recent article on Pollan’s book, ‘Rules Worth Following, for Everyone’s Sake.’
So take a stand. Make those expensive, rich, chocolatey, effort-full, amazing brownies. Shun the prepackaged and the processed in favor of the butter and the eggs and the chunks of good chocolate. They might take a bigger chunk out of your wallet, but you can feel good about making them. And most importantly…they just might be the best brownies of your life.
Ridiculously Good Spiced Brownies With Almonds
Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen recipe who adapted it from another great recipe from Baked. I added a few more spices, took out some other ingredients I didn’t have around, got rid of an egg (my mom walked by while I was baking and said ‘5 eggs? Do you really need 5 eggs?’ and I said…you know, probably not. And I didn’t miss it). Feel free to play around with the spices depending on what you like and what you have in your cupboard. Also, I only had chocolate with almonds in the kitchen, which I never would have bought but ended up being surprising little crunchy bites of toastiness.
What You Need:
1 and 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp white pepper
12 ounces dark chocolate with almonds, or add separately if you want ’em. Or walnuts. Whatever’s your bag, really.
1 cup (2 sticks yeeaaaah) butter, chopped into small chunks.
1 and 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
What You Do:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter the sides of a pan.
2. Mix the flour and all the spices in a bowl.
3. Stick the butter chunks and the chocolate chunks into a heatsafe bowl over a pot of boiling water. Stir every so often until the mixture becomes chocolatey smooth, so silky and fragrant that you could pour it into a chocolate fountain and jump in. Don’t though – you have brownies to make. Unless of course you’ve changed your priorities.
4. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugars. Once the mixture has cooled a bit, whisk the eggs in one at a time, trying not to overmix or the brownies will get cakey.
5. Fold the flour/spice mixture into the chocolate soupiness using a spatula.
6. Bake for about 30 minutes. Important note: contrary to what you might have learned back in the day from Betty Crocker about using a toothpick to test for doneness, you DO NOT want your toothpick to come out clean or your brownies will not be moist and fudgy. You want a few little crumbs on the toothpick. For an adorable illustration (complete with brownie-eating monster!) check out this drawing from the amazingly talented Claire Murray. She’s got some other fantastic and whimsically illustrated recipes as well as some funny random drawings.
I wish I had a brownie monster friend to help me finish off the pan sometimes. Eating way way way too many brownies is just a possible side effect of baking some of the best brownies you’ve ever eaten. Oh, and I’m still curious. When was the last time you ate a brownie from scratch?