Like most people I know, I have a “thing” for brownies. Not just any brownies, mind you, but perfect brownies. At times it feels almost like a crusade or maybe a quest, like Don Quixote, an impossible dream: perfection in a brownie.
Permit me to expand a bit (and not my waist, but that is a sad byproduct of this quest). Brownies must, of course, be brown. By that I mean sinfully chocolate. Dark unsweetened chocolate has reached the culminating point of its being: the reason for which it was created. The chocolate has moved through various phases of its lifecycle from cacao seed pod through fermentation to cocoa liqour, separation, and processing, to reach the final point, its reason for being: solid cocoa, the bitter essence of the elixir of the Aztec royals. It is THE reason for brownies. One might consider a brownie as a cocoa delivery package.
Let’s continue our considerations. One should find it difficult to sense that flour was in the room when the brownie was baked. I mean, well, it HAD to be there, but, understanding its place, it stays well out of sensory detection. Flour is joined with the usual ingredients of leavening, butter or margarine, eggs, and a little salt. These are all solid performers working behind the scenes to ensure success. They are unsung heroes in this drama.
Then we come to sweetness. The perfect brownie is pleasantly sweet, the way a delicious piece of semi-sweet chocolate is sweet. The sugar is added until there is just enough to bring out the true majesty of the chocolate; a hint of the savage in the chocolate remains, that residual bitterness beneath the sweetness.
Finally, there are the well-respected optional additives. Nuts if you must; good ones and in sufficient quantity to make an actual contribution to taste and texture without overwhelming the overall essence of brownie. Chocolate bits: semisweet only, please, and a particular favorite of mine. However, in all truth, chocolate morsels are not required to be a part of the perfect brownie. It must be said in their defense that the presence of these little packages of pure taste would never detract from perfection.
I have heard it argued that warm brownies are so much better than ones that have cooled. Perhaps this is true, but not because warmth adds to the flavor directly. Oh, I am well aware that the warmth allows more of the sense of smell to be involved, enhancing the experience. But that is true of many things and I contend that warmth is a nice-to-have but not a prerequisite for brownie perfection. It does however point to a larger truth which we will examine in a moment.
It follows from the warmth considerations that being in the kitchen when brownies bake is an added bonus, making the total brownie experience closer to perfection. Who am I to argue with the total experience? Yet this really is about the quest for the perfect brownie.
We are talking about an object of chocolate delight that is consumed slowly, lovingly, with immersion of the senses of taste, smell, touch and vision, and leaves a memory of complete delight. It is not about an overall brownie-making experience. That would be a different topic altogether. And don’t get me started on batches of brownies gone bad, those left a bit too long in the oven until they become hard or, gasp, burned.
I think the reason that a warm brownie is viewed by many as closer to perfection than a cooled one actually points us to the true essence, the underlying soul of what a truly perfect brownie is. The warmth enhances an otherwise less-than-perfect brownie to respond physically in the hand and mouth as if it were more perfect than it might be when cooled. Therein, I believe, is the uncloaking of the essence of a brownie that aims at perfection.
A truly perfect brownie is a package of chocolate goodness that is not too dry, not too crumbly, holds together well with some bulk to it and has a sense of moisture without it being under-baked. It has “tooth”. It is the 2010 USA derivation of that mystical Aztec drink. OUR cocoa is a baked cake with unique, almost magical properties of chocolate, sweet, substance, moistness, firmness and an almost indescribable experience of its consumption.
Unlike so many food fine food items, this brownie, this noble arrangement of chocolate and its supporting cast, is meant to be eaten. In the hand. Slowly, with milk if at all possible. And then pondered. Considered. The chocolate works first on our noses, then our mouth, then in our stomach. Each place is caressed by the experience. It is enough to stop a conversation. Enough to make adults into children. It may even be that which makes peace between enemies or gains friendship among strangers.
And there, my friends, is the true perfection of a brownie. Well made, it serves a more noble purpose than to simply nourish. It is a currency of our civilization. Serious. Important. Honest.
And oh so delicious. Amen.
Copyright 2010 by Mark Szewczak