Palm Beach Brownies

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Palm Beach Brownies

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Bake a better brownie

  • Article by: RICK NELSON
  • Star Tribune
  • August 29, 2014 - 9:01 AM

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.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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