Cocoa Brownies with Brown Butter and Walnuts
About a year ago, I read a charming book called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
It takes place during World War II and tells the story of what happens to the residents of the British island Guernsey during the German occupation. The colorful characters on Guernsey gather clandestinely to talk about their favorite books and eat dessert, anything from Cherries Flambé to, yes, Potato Peel Pie. Their secret gatherings create a sense of community for those on the island, a sense of warmth and connection in a hard time.
The book gave me the idea to start a book club, not because we are facing anything remotely similar to the people of Guernsey, but as a place to get together, talk about things big and small, and of course, eat dessert.
It’s officially called The Austin Literary and Chocolate Cream Pie Society, though we are not very official. Like most book clubs, we drink a lot of wine and eventually get around to talking about the book. In the half year that we’ve been meeting there have been some very good books (from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) and some very good desserts (buttermilk pie, honey hazelnut cookies).
In honor of April’s book, the memoir Poser by Claire Dederer, I made cocoa brownies with brown butter and walnuts. In the book, Dederer writes about how doing yoga transformed her life. Don’t worry, it’s not what you think—she doesn’t become super toned and self-righteous, and she doesn’t become spiritually enlightened in a preachy way either. Instead, the years of yoga have inspired a sense of self-compassion, a sense that it’s OK not to be perfect.
Not to say that these brownies are just OK, they are actually really tasty. Though made with cocoa powder rather than melted chocolate, the flavor is rich. But what I think the author would like about these brownies is that they are easy. Really easy. No overly ambitious planning and slaving away for hours involved.
The hardest part about these brownies is the first step, which is to melt the butter and then keep it over medium heat until it begins to brown and smell fabulously nutty. The directions on this were perfect—to keep watching until the foam begins to subside and brown bits form on the bottom (which is just starting to happen in this photo).
Then you stir in the cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, and salt and let it cool a bit before adding eggs, flour, and nuts. That’s right, the entire thing takes place in just one saucepan. Easy, tasty, and good enough to share with friends or eat all by yourself.
Adapted from a recipe by Alice Medrich from Bon Appetit, February 2011
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup walnut pieces
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a 8 x 8 x 2-inch metal baking pan with foil. Press the foil firmly against pan sides and leave a 2-inch overhang. Coat the foil with nonstick spray. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of pan, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; add sugar, cocoa, 2 teaspoons water, vanilla, and a generous 1⁄4 teaspoon of salt. Stir to blend. Let the mixture cool 5 minutes (it will still be hot). Add eggs to hot mixture 1 at a time, beating thoroughly to blend after each addition. When mixture looks thick and shiny, add flour and stir until blended. Beat vigorously 60 strokes. Stir in nuts. Transfer batter to prepared pan.
Bake brownies until toothpick inserted into center comes out almost clean (with a few moist crumbs attached), 25-35 minutes*. Cool in pan on rack. Using foil overhang, lift brownies from pan. Cut into 4 strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 4 brownies. Makes 16 brownies.
*My brownies took 35 minutes, but I suggest checking after 25, as per the original recipe.