Who needs box mix brownies when you've got these?
Next up on my unintentional adventure through chocolate history is one of my favorite chocolate treats: the humble brownie! There's just something about a chewy, rich brownie that really hits the spot, especially when you get to eat them when they're still warm. Another reason they're one of my favorites? They're crazy easy to throw together when you need to bring in a baked good for work, or a party! Box mix brownies taste so good, sometimes I almost wonder why anyone would ever bother making them from scratch.
Recipes like this might just be the answer.
Now, I have made some from scratch brownies before (you may remember the s'mores brownies I made earlier this year!), but I'd never done much thinking about their origins before. It's a dessert that just kind of feels like it's been around forever, right?
Like most baked desserts (and food in general), the secret origin of the brownie is a little murky. There are a couple different claimants to the title of "very first chocolate brownie", but the earliest goes back to 1893. Allegedly, Bertha Palmer of the Palmer House Hotel approached a pastry chef with a request. She needed something like a cake, but small and capable of being tucked in box lunches for ladies attending the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. The chef came up with a chocolately not-quite-cake with walnuts in it and an apricot glaze, and it was a hit. Apparently, you can still get this dessert while visiting the Palmer House today!
The apricot glaze on the brownie sounded kind of gross to me, honestly, and apparently, this treat wasn't actually formally called a brownie until after other recipes started to pop up in 1896 and 1897. The original recipes are more cakey than fudgy, but by 1907, "Bangor Brownies" had found their way into cookbooks and magazines. They get their name from the town of Bangor, Maine, where legend says this particular recipe originated.
Other stories claim that brownies were the accidental result of cakes gone wrong - they never rose, or too much chocolate was added, who knows! The result was our favorite cakey bar treat.
The recipe I decided to use is from 1897, and is apricot free. I was kind of tempted to try the original Palmer House brownies, but I actually really don't like fruit jam in my baked goods generally, and when I stumbled upon this version of a 1897 recipe published in a Sears Roebuck catalog, I knew I had found the early brownie I wanted to make. Maybe we'll go back to the Palmer House brownies some other time!
The recipe has relatively few adaptations, as the author of the blog post wanted to make the authentic brownies for National Chocolate Brownie Day, which is December 8th. You start off by melting down two squares of baking chocolate. I used a semi sweet dark chocolate, and melted it down in the microwave because it's less hassle than using a double boiler if you do it correctly.
I let mine cool down a little bit before adding the two lightly beaten eggs and one cup of sugar. A teaspoon of vanilla gets stirred in next, and then one teaspoon of baking soda and 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt are sprinkled over the top of the batter as evenly as possible. I'm not sure why - maybe to make sure it's distributed evenly? It's definitely not an instruction I've ever been given before!
Finally, one cup of flour and a half cup of chopped walnuts get added and then mixed in.
Generally, I turn my nose up at brownies or chocolate chip cookies with walnuts in them - I don't like them distracting from the chocolate and the gooey texture! - but since virtually every brownie Samantha would have enjoyed in 1904 seems to include them, I decided hey, why not?
The batter gets turned into a greased 8 x 8 pan. It was super, super thick, and I had a really hard time getting it spread evenly into the pan. I was left with sort of a weird, lumpy texture on top, but figured it would probably be okay as is.
The final touch, and what drew me to this recipe in particular, is a sprinkle of fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a hand harvested sea salt, which is scraped from the top of salt pans before it sinks to the bottom. It's very, very salty and moist, and I was really excited to see how it paired with the brownies. This isn't period accurate, but I like the combination of salty and sweet stuff, and wanted to try out fleur de sel, so I decided to go with it.
According to the blog post, these should cook in the oven at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes, as the original instructions wanted you to leave it in the oven for 35 minutes, but that left the brownies too cakey and dry for the author. Once again, I'm not sure if this was my oven being faulty, or if I've just got to agree to disagree with the author's interpretation of the recipe, but mine weren't cooked through after 20 minutes.
I wound up leaving them in for about 35 minutes just like the original recipe said, and they did look a little dry on the top. They didn't have that glossy texture brownies usually have on top, so I was a little worried they'd be super dry and cakey.
They did come out of the pan easily, though! The recipe makes about sixteen brownies, but you can cut them up smaller if you want to. But fair warning, I wouldn't say this batter makes enough to make a batch in a 9 x 9 or 9 x 13 pan. The brownies weren't super thick, and I think using a bigger pan would dry them out more in the oven.
To be totally honest, I went into this kind of expecting not to like these much. I'm more of a gooey brownie girl, and early brownies definitely sound more cakey than anything else. Still, I'm obviously always up for trying a (mostly) authentic historical recipe, so I was still excited to give these a try as soon as they cooled down enough to eat safely.
And I'm happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised! The thing that really made these was the fleur de sel, and I'm already thinking of other things I can sprinkle it on. Cakes? Chocolate chip cookies? Lava mug cakes? Nutella? The possibilities!!
But the brownies themselves were tasty too. They weren't the fugdiest brownies I've ever eaten in my entire life, but they had a good chew to them and they weren't dry. I was really worried about that! The walnuts didn't even bother me too much - I think maybe because the brownies were a little firmer and weren't extremely chocolatey. They were a big hit with my taste testers, too, and reminded my mom of brownies she had as a kid. I would definitely make them again. In fact, I definitely want to make them again...
So, whether they're the invention of a high society lady and thus a treat Grandmary would definitely approve of, or just a baker's mistake turned into a delicious accident, the brownie has had a pretty successful one hundred years of history. Even if they've been tweaked a little to suit people's personal preferences over the years, they've stuck pretty true to their roots, so our modern brownies would still be something Sam would recognize and enjoy if she was around today.
And, you know. Not fictional. Still, if you're ever throwing a Samantha themed party, you've got the green light to include these on the menu.
Next stop on our tour of chocolate through the ages, we're going to be shooting forward to the 1930's! Until then, I need to resist making another batch of these brownies.
They didn't stick around for very long...