There's just something about Norwegian brownies that makes you want to retreat. You take a bite, then another one and with some effort, manage to finish the piece. You're left with a palate in tears and a buckled vertebrae. It's bloody awful. They're a far cry from the tasty, moist and delicious brownies I recall from my childhood, made by my American neighbours. Norwegian brownies could at best be defined as ersatz – chunks of sugar, mixed with chocolate and butter resembling mashed potatoes and bordering on the grotesque. I haven't had one over here that wasn't sugar-filled fondue-resembling, wet, under-baked oozing goo. Absolute shams.
Brownies aren't supposed to be fancy, ornate treats. Ideally they should be simple and unadorned, yet filled with delicious ingredients. In my humble opinion, a brownie should have a thin, somewhat flaky crust – no icing please – and be chewy and moist. Many recipes (notably non-American) recommend under-baking the brownies for, quote, ‘a fudge-like, moist texture’. All I have to say to that is that fudge-like/moist and wet is definitely not the same thing.
Ingredients are naturally of utmost importance, but I repeat, it should remain simple: chocolate, sugar, butter, eggs, cocoa and flour, with nuts if you wish. What else you put in you brownies is none of my business, but you need to have the basics. But then you reach a crucial crossroad; the amounts of each ingredient. How much sugar you should add, for instance, is debatable. In Norway, they tend to stuff so much sugar in the brownies that, no matter how long you bake them, they will always be gloopy. Brownies recipes that call for over half a kilo of sugar are never tried by me. I don’t particularly like being raped by sugar, thank you very much. Nick Malgieri uses brown sugar in his Supernatural Brownies, but I am not utterly convinced it's the right way to go. As a third alternative, Scandilicious uses powdered sugar for a ‘smooth, chewy interior’. It's up to you.
Then there's the question of nuts. I've been told a true American recipe would never use nuts, although many still do. I once had a brownie at Starbucks with walnuts which, frankly, made it oily. Hazelnuts seem to fare better, especially roasted; I find they add that certain je ne sais quoi to the ensemble. My friend uses pecans, which is weird. Peanuts should be banned from ever entering a brownie. And the most important ingredient – chocolate – is also essential, of course, to the final outcome. Bad chocolate will get you nowhere – too dark chocolate will make it too rich. We’re all tired of hearing more than we need to about the benefits of cocoa in chocolate, but sometimes – honestly – it does make a change. Nigel Slater says you should always use chocolate with 70% cocoa solids in any cake. In my experience, 65% - 70% is about perfect; at 80% you’re pushing it and at 90%, you might as well just throw the cake away. I once bought a chocolate in France with 99% cocoa solids and it left me (and my friend) gasping for water. It might have been healthy, but it was utterly disgusting.
Finally, there’s the question of temperature and baking. Scandilicious recommends a low temperature; Nigel Slater says that a skewer placed in the middle should come out with spongy batter. I’d recommend the edges of the brownie to be sponge-like and springy. A skewer should come out semi-clean (although not as wet as Mr. Slater wants them), but not completely clean and definitely not liquid.
So, after all the brouhaha and quite a lot of research, I ended up with three alternatives:
Number I: My friend’s chocolate and roasted hazelnuts version. Somewhat dry, I’ll admit, but the hazelnuts are wonderful.
Number II: Malgieri’s Supernatural Brownie, with more butter and less chocolate. Exquisitely American; yummy and perfect, but perhaps a bit too sweet. One complaint, though: when are Americans going to realise that metric is master? This whole business with sticks of butter and ounces of water is just a waste of time.
Number III: Olive Oil Brownies from The Traveller’s Lunchbox. Admittedly, this is perhaps not traditional American either, but it’s delicious, with just a hint of Mediterranean (that’d be the oil).
But none of them were exactly what I was looking for. So, at the height of this week’s brownie obsession, I created my own recipe. The base? The Supernatural Brownie; substituting the butter with olive oil (just because I felt like it) and roasted hazelnuts for walnuts. On the bottom of the ban, I dusted some cocoa powder. To top it off, I sprinkled some flakes of fleur de sel on top, for a French touch. Not that it always needs to be French; I just love salt. And eureka! A brownie, completely to my taste – dense, chewy, but not overtly so; sweet, but not cloying. The crust is thin and light, the texture perfect; not cake, but not goo either. An chocolate and nut flavour, with a hint of oil and salt, mixed with the bitterness of the cocoa powder. My brownie nirvana.
Do you have any fool-proof brownie recipes or any other tips? Let me know! Have a good week guys!
150 ml olive oil
230 g. chocolate, chopped
½ tsp salt
50 g. dark brown sugar, such as muscovado
150 g. granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract (if using vanilla sugar, use Bourbon or Mexican. No synthetics, please!)
180 g. flour
90 g. roasted hazelnuts
1.Butter a 22 x 33 cm baking pan and line with lightly oiled (or buttered) parchment paper. Preheat oven to 180º. In top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, or a bain-marie, melt the chocolate. Once melted, add the oil and let cool. In a large bowl or mixer, whisk eggs. The more you whisk 'em, the better the crust turns out. Whisk in salt, sugars and vanilla.
2.Whisk in the chocolate mixture. Fold in flour, until just combined. Add the hazelnuts and stir them in. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and beginning to crack on top. A skewer placed in the middle should come out semi-clean. Cool in pan or rack.