By SHANNON WATKINS
Sometimes, in the course of daily life, you need a quick fix for whatever’s gone wrong, or even right. You had a bad day, you need to reward your loved ones in a small but remarkable way, your sweetheart requires a touch of romancing, your best friend needs cheering up, your coworkers’ potluck needs a dessert and you’re too tired to bother. Rare and precious is the thing that can cover all bases.
Brownies, I have found, constitute the little black dress of baking. Baking, of course, is always a comfort; the scent of baking already implies a warm oven, careful effort, and generous bounty. But bread is time-consuming, even basic cookies are fiddly, pies are far too much work in a when you’re constrained by time and fatigue, and cakes have to cool and then be frosted.
No, brownies are pretty much perfect. They’re a mood-lifter for the unhappy, a great snack for kids, a sweet gesture for the beloved; they partake of both sinful indulgence and homemade kindness, all for minimal work and time. Trust me on this.
There are a million recipes and therefore a million opinions on what makes the perfect brownie; some people prefer them cakey, some like them studded and swirled with extra ingredients, some stick to a mix, which I did until I found and tinkered with a recipe that tastes better than a mix and is about as easy.
Things nobody will tell you: real butter and vanilla are infinitely better than margarine and flavoring. Yes, they cost more, and yes, they’re worth it. Also despite what you’d think, melted baking chocolate doesn’t have the richness and flavor you get with powdered cocoa and it’s much less complicated to work with.
Every so often whatever minor deity is in charge of your brownies will decide that even though you added the right ingredients and mixed them well, they must emerge from the oven as flat as pancakes or as fluffy as biscuits. Pay no mind. If they taste good then eat them anyway. If not, toss them and start over. (That’s the other great thing: if your pantry is stocked, bad brownies are a cheap mistake.)
But there’s not much that goes wrong with my favorite recipe, which I found on the internet and have lost the origins of. So thanks to whoever dreamed them up, be it a loving baker or a corporate test kitchen; they’re fudgy, smooth, rich, and right for every occasion.
(Also worth noting: you can double this recipe in a 9” x 13” pan, but only use three eggs, not four.)
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ to 1 tsp instant espresso powder (optional; see notes below)
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 cup cocoa powder
½ cup flour
½ cup chocolate chips or nuts (optional)
Preheat your oven to 350F and grease an 8” x 8” or 9” x 9” pan; metal, stoneware, or glass is fine. Each may have a slightly different effect on the final outcome and if you have more than one kind you can experiment with them.
Melt the butter and stir the sugar into it. Mix the eggs in thoroughly and add the salt, baking powder, instant espresso powder, and vanilla; stir well. Add cocoa powder and incorporate thoroughly.
At this point you will want to lick the spoon and so will everyone else; likely if you’re not careful you will be adorably freckled with cocoa that poofed up from the batter while you were stirring and that makes you smell irresistible. Depending on who you’re making them for, they may decide to nibble you. Whether or not you shoo them away is up to you.
(Of course they might just demand that you clean up and hustle it along before they tilt the bowl back and eat the batter plain. Especially likely if you’re doing this for your kids.)
Stir in the flour and possibly become dusted with a light coat of it as well. Que sera, sera.
After this, you can leave them as is, and they’ll be good on their own, or you can add chocolate chips or nuts, or swirl in cream cheese or peanut butter, either one perhaps lightly sweetened with powdered sugar if you like, or raspberry puree. I’ve heard of pretzels and potato chips and M&Ms thrown in; use your judgment and whatever you have to hand.
Smooth the batter out—you may have to spread it with a spatula—and put it the oven for 20-25 minutes. The top will be shiny and have a slight crust. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean and crumbless, barring any smear from melted chocolate chips. Wait as long as you can stand it and cut into 9 or 12 or 16 pieces. Serve however, with whatever, and to whomever you please.