Build a better brownie
Along with death, taxes and Meryl Streep landing another Oscar nomination, add this to the "life's certainties" pile: the spontaneous "Omigod" that follows a first bite into a Palm Beach Brownie.
All of the standard brownie superlatives are inadequate for this Towering Monument to Fudgy Goodness. That it is an almost ridiculously easy recipe to prepare — although, at first glance, it might not read that way — only piles on the reasons why this crusty-topped bar should be in every chocolate lover's baking repertoire.
The PBB is a legacy of the long and illustrious career of cookbook legend Maida Heatter. I can recite it from memory, that's how many times I've prepared it, after a former colleague introduced me its splendors in the late 1990s.
One valuable lesson that I've absorbed from those countless iterations — aside from the unfailingly enthusiastic reception it receives — is the recipe's forgiving nature, a quality that all bakers can appreciate. Name the screw-up, and I've surely done it. Yet the brownies survive.
Thrive, even. Sometimes I'll play around with the flavorings. I generally prefer more vanilla extract and less almond extract, and I've been known to leave out one or the other if I didn't have any on hand. I've absent-mindedly added an extra egg — because apparently I cannot be trusted to count to five — and disaster didn't strike.
When it comes to the espresso powder — I buy Medaglia D'oro brand, it's in the coffee aisle at most supermarkets, a small jar with a green plastic lid — I almost always double the amount, with winning results. If our pantry is short on unsweetened chocolate, I'll fill the gap with bittersweet.
Following Heatter's directions to the letter will lead to a slightly scorched cake, an intentional result that flirts nicely with the brownies' intensely chocolaty bite. But after coming to appreciate a less-blackened flavor, I began making adjustments to Heatter's original formula (if you prefer a more aggressive outcome, then, by all means, stay true to her dictates).
I've slightly decreased Heatter's preheat temperature, from 425 degrees to 400. Heatter prescribes a 35-minute baking time, but experience has led me to shave a few minutes and then add them back, if needed. The goal is to see a few cracks developing across that firm top layer. If they haven't appeared at the 32-minute mark, keep baking, a minute at a time, for up to three more minutes.
An hour or two of post-baking refrigeration is another element of Heatter's original formula. Fine, but better to freeze them, at least overnight. It does wonders for the texture. This is such an outstanding make-ahead recipe that they're probably going to end up in the freezer, anyway. True confessions: I always feel better knowing we have a pan of PBBs stored next to the emergency stash of Dufour puff pastry. You will, too.
Yes, Heatter's thorough instructions could be interpreted as a trifle, um, controlling. But steps such as that tedious 10-minute mix are essential contributors to the PBB's remarkable sturdy-yet-gooey duality. Even the whole aluminum foil liner routine isn't necessary, but in the end it's awfully helpful, and highly recommended.
As for embellishments — frosting, powdered sugar, chocolate sauce, sea salt — do as Heatter does, and skip them. Instead, consider a glass of cold milk. Better yet, ice cream. Vanilla is fine, but coffee or salted caramel are aces.
When it comes to the Palm Beach name, I'm unsure of its origins. I'd like to think that Heatter came up with a brownie so luxurious that the only logical solution was to christen it after a playground for the rich.
Palm Beach Brownies
Adapted from several Maida Heatter cookbooks, including "Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts"
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for pan
8 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dry instant espresso powder
3 3/4 cups sugar
1 2/3 cup flour
8 ounces (2 generous cups) walnut halves, roughly chopped
Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Invert a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and drape it with a piece of aluminum foil, shiny side down, long enough to cover the pan's sides. Using your hands, carefully press down on the foil around the sides and the corners to shape it over the pan to create a foil liner. Remove foil, turn pan right side up, place foil liner in pan and carefully press into place. Place 2 tablespoons butter into prepared pan. Place pan in oven for 1 to 2 minutes to melt butter, then brush melted butter evenly across bottom of foil-lined pan.
In a double boiler over gently simmering water (or in a microwave oven), combine chocolate with remaining 1 cup butter, stirring occasionally, until chocolate and butter have melted and are thoroughly combined and smooth. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.
In the bowl of an electric mixer on low speed, beat eggs, vanilla extract, almond extract, salt, espresso powder and sugar for 1 minute. Increase speed to medium-high and beat for 9 additional minutes. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl, reduce speed to medium, add cooled chocolate-butter mixture and mix until combined. Reduce speed to low, add flour and mix until just combined. Stir in nuts.
Scrape batter evenly into prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 16 minutes, then rotate pan halfway. Cover pan loosely with aluminum foil and continue baking for another 16 minutes. At this point, the brownies should be pulling away from the pan's edges and the top should have developed a few modest cracks. The brownies should have a thick, crisp crust, but if you insert a toothpick in the middle, it will come out wet. If no cracks have appeared, remove aluminum foil cover and bake an additional minute (up to three minutes, checking after each minute). Do not overbake.
Remove from oven, transfer pan to a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Cover with aluminum foil and freeze at least overnight.
When ready to serve, thaw brownies. Cover with a wire rack or cookie sheet and invert, removing the pan and peeling away the aluminum foil layer. Cover with a cutting board and invert, leaving brownies right-side up.
Using a serrated knife, trim the dark, dry edges (saving as a treat for the baker, with a glass of cold milk) and cut brownies into squares or rectangles. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Wrap individual brownies in plastic wrap, or store in an airtight container. Makes about 2 dozen brownies.
Per serving: 347 calories; 20 g fat (9 g saturated fat; 52 percent calories from fat); 41 g carbohydrates; 30 g sugar; 66 mg cholesterol; 41 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 2 g fiber.