Fudgy, gooey or nutty? Three formulas for the perfect brownie

Diana Henry reveals her three favourite brownie recipes
Diana Henry reveals her three favourite brownie recipes - Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton

Many moons ago I made brownies to take on a second date. We were going to a fancy cinema, the type that sells cakes you have to remortgage your house for, so I decided to bring my own. They were fudgy with a papery crust that gently shattered as you bit into them. We ate them sneakily with paper cups of black coffee while watching the film.

They sealed the deal. After that, we became an item and I was known, only to my boyfriend, as CBG, chocolate brownie girl. But I wonder if our break-up made me fall out of love with brownies, or maybe I had just baked too many, because eventually I became indifferent to them.

Brownie aficionados are not indifferent. They have extreme feelings about the type they like – cakey or fudgy, plain or studded with everything from salty pretzels to popcorn. Over the brownie years I made them with a layer of peanut butter (requested by the boyfriend), booze-soaked dried cherries, lime, raspberries and coffee. The idea of making rocky-road brownies, or anything all-singing-all-dancing, has always been anathema to me, though as brownies are American, excess is part of their appeal; American baking is not restrained.

I hadn’t touched brownies for years until I was in Oxford on a rainy Sunday afternoon just before Christmas. I love to find a good café – just as much as I like to find a good restaurant – and stumbled across the Opera Café. The windows glowed in the grey light, and it looked alluringly boho. Three of us ordered different brownies and mine – a Biscoff brownie – was so good I fell in love with them again. Every mouthful was rich, dark bliss

I was late to the party when it comes to Biscoff spread. It looks rather like smooth peanut butter, and has the flavour of Belgian speculoos biscuits – cinnamon and other spices, and touches of caramel. Detective work led me to the maker of the sensational Biscoff brownie, an ebullient Mexican called Maria Gonzalez. Her female-led Oxfordshire bakery, Maria Bonita, produces stunning cakes and traybakes. Maria is obsessive, as the best bakers are. She worked the brownie recipe over the page until she’d perfected it. Don’t ignore the timings, or the instructions about how the bake should feel under your fingertips.

This is the most challenging thing about brownies. Undercook them and they’ll be raw in the middle, cook them too long and they’ll be dry. The number of minutes between the two is difficult to ascertain. The skewer test – where you pusha skewer into the centre of a cake and if it’s ready it comes out clean – doesn’t work for brownies. If the skewer comes out clean, you’ve gone too far. Persistence and knowledge of your oven will eventually deliver perfection.

There are many myths about the creation of brownies; someone forgot to add a raising agent to her chocolate cake but divided the result into squares and served it anyway, or chocolate fortuitously fell into a cake batter and voilà. Most popular is that the wife of the man who owned the Palmer Hotel in Chicago asked her pastry chef to come up with a dessert that would work in lunch boxes for ladies visiting the World’s Fair in 1893. There’s a theory, though, that these were blondies rather than brownies. Blondies have a similar texture – cakey or dense – but a butterscotch flavour.

The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, by Fannie Farmer, published in 1896, had the first recipe to be called a ‘brownie’ but they were dark because of treacle, not chocolate. Sue Quinn, author of Cocoa (Quadrille, £25), suggests that the updated 1906 Farmer cookbook has a brownie recipe made with chocolate because chocolate was becoming fashionable at the time.

Whatever their origin, and whether you like them fudgy, extra fudgy or cakey, there is a brownie just for you. The recipes here are my favourites.

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