by Pam Vukelic

Whether you like them gooey or cakey, nutty or plain, frosted or dusted with powdered sugar, it is hard to resist a rich chocolate brownie. No doubt you have your favorite recipe, maybe the one you got from your mom or grandma, and you’ve been using it for years, but there’s always room for improvement, right?

Every good baker will tell you if you use good ingredients you have won half the battle. Most brownie recipes call for melted butter. The best butter to use in dessert recipes is unsalted butter. It tends to be fresher and more predictable than salted butter. Several companies known for good quality chocolate (Ghirardelli and Scharffen Berger, for example) make excellent cocoa powder. Hershey’s offers a “special dark” cocoa with a richer chocolate flavor than their traditional cocoa powder. Many brownie recipes call for either espresso powder or left-over cold coffee, both of which will enhance the chocolate flavor. For a special dessert following a Mexican meal, add a few teaspoons of cocoa chili blend to your brownie mixture. This is a McCormick product that includes chipotle peppers.

Move beyond walnuts and pecans to add decadence and crunch. Stir in mini peppermint patties, melted caramel, peanut butter dollops, raspberry preserves, chopped pretzels or macadamia nuts. Ubiquitous chocolate chips can be upgraded by using chocolate chunks or mini chocolate baking bars, toffee bits, peanut butter chips, butterscotch bits, or swirled morsels.

Always use the pan size recommended in your recipe, especially for brownies, which are notorious for developing over-done edges. They’re done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out barely moist. To ease removal from the pan, line the pan with foil slings. Grease two strips of foil well, press them carefully into the pan letting the ends extend beyond the edges, and once the brownies have cooled slightly you can easily lift the entire batch from the pan.

Specialty pans can be used to make brownie pops. Insert sticks mid-way in the baking process so the brownies can be dipped in melted chocolate and eaten like lollipops. Without a stick, the pops are a simple version of a petit four and portion control is facilitated! Small pans, such as a muffin pan or a shortcake pan, create lovely individual servings that can be topped with ice cream and hot fudge.

Cut brownies made in a traditional baking sheet with tall cookie cutters or a specialty combo cutter that will cut several triangles or ovals with one cut. Once the brownies are cut and the crumbs are brushed off, place the cut-outs on a cooling rack sitting in a baking sheet. Prepare a chocolate ganache that can be poured over the brownies for a smooth, glossy finish.

Before the ganache fully sets, sprinkle with toasted coconut, toasted chopped nuts, mini M & M’s or sprinkles appropriate to the occasion.

One of the easiest toppings for a pan of brownies is a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Use a fine mesh sieve to create a light top coat. For a special touch, before dusting with powdered sugar place a stencil, such as a lacy paper doily, on top.

Brownies store and pack well. Bundle up a few and pass them along to someone you appreciate – your mailman or UPS deliverer, barber or beautician, mother-in-law or son-in-law, co-workers or boss, neighbors or book club friends – or anyone you want to surprise.

Ganache

Heat 2/3 c heavy cream to simmer. Pour over 4 oz bittersweet chocolate cut into chunks. Whisk until smooth. Small quantities of various flavorings, such as peppermint extract, can be added. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes and pour over cut-outs. Spread with off-set spatula to smooth and cover edges. Refrigerate to set.