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February 13, 1986|MINNIE BERNARDINO | Times Staff Writer

The humble brownie, with all of its variations, has established itself as an all-American comfort food and is an easy dessert to whip up. This old favorite standby now has gone upscale, appearing in the dessert repertoire of exclusive restaurants, caterers and gourmet takeout shops.

All brownies are not created equal.

Some are fudgy, whereas others are cake-like and spongy.

Some are crusty on the outside and gooey inside. And then there are brownies that are just thin, crisp and chewy.

Brownies aren't brownies if they aren't glazed, some people think, whereas others frown on any fleck of frosting on top.

Some brownie freaks love to have these cookie bars cold, grabbing their sweet "fix" straight out of the freezer. But there are also fans who insist on having them fresh from the oven, comfortingly warm and wafting with the aroma of cocoa.

And what good are brownies if they don't have nuts? Or if they're missing the sinful chocolate that makes them so addictive? But then, too, blond brownies or butterscotch brownies have quite a following, justifying their tasteful existence.

With all this sweet controversy, brownies will never attain a perfect image of what they should be. It all depends on individual tastes. In fact, this flattened creation that stands between a cake and a cookie may have started out as a mistake, back in the 1920s. Folklore tells us that the brownie evolved from a fallen cake . . . possibly the leavening could have been left out.

The humble brownie may not be as classy as a snobbish Napoleon or as dressy as a gateau St. Honore, but through the years it has proved itself to be an all-American comfort food, or even better, a reviving food. However, guised in the same look as before, the little guy has gone upscale these days. You'll find brownies in the dessert repertoire of not just bakeries but quite a few exclusive restaurants, caterers and gourmet takeouts waiting to appease the appetite of a brownie-loving soul.

In deepest chocolate tones contrasted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, a luscious truffle-like brownie generates return customers to Julienne, a country French gourmet takeout kitchen and bistro in San Marino. "Brownies are such a subjective thing," says Susan B. Campoy, one of the shop's three owners, "but I like them fudgy. Our truffle brownie evolved from a combination of several recipes, which I fooled around with and added more eggs and chocolate."

Indeed a dieter's "evil" friend, Julienne's rich brownies call for a whole pound of chocolate in a single recipe. As in many fine restaurants, the San Marino kitchen uses Callebaut brand chocolate, but according to Campoy, if this is not available to the consumer, an ideal substitute is Peter's chocolate (bittersweet or semisweet). Formerly exclusive to commercial bakers and restaurateurs, the Callebaut product, however, can now be ordered through mail-order food houses. A good source is S. E. Rykoff; to place an order, call its toll-free number, (800) 421-9873 or write for a retail catalogue at S. E. Rykoff & Co., P.O. Box 21467, Los Angeles 90021.

Freely sharing her recipe, Campoy advises: "It's important to whip up the mixture until it turns light colored and mousse-like. In fact, you can even turn the same recipe into a mousse by separating the eggs and omitting the flour."

Among the brownies that The Times' Test Kitchen tested for this feature, Susan's Raspberry Brownies turned out to be a special sensuous treat. The combination of chocolate and raspberries never fails, it seems.

The beautiful brownies were created by Susan Holtz of Dessert Design, a personalized dessert catering service in the San Fernando Valley. She says the dessert is a loose adaptation of a recipe from Judith Olney's book, "Joy of Chocolate" (Barron: $14.95). Moist, dark and thin brownie layers are filled with raspberry jam, spread on top with melted chocolate, then marbled with a white chocolate glaze. To gratify the senses, the fresh raspberry finale on top is an expensive must.

Holtz's original creation for her catering repertoire is more wicked than the recipe we've provided here. She fills and tops two dark brownie layers with a thick white chocolate frosting, and for each serving makes a pretty design of a chocolate-stemmed raspberry nesting in a molded dark chocolate cup.

As with any brownie, the type of chocolate used will make a difference in flavor, Holtz remarked. Cookbook author Elaine Sherman in her "Madame Chocolate's Book of Divine Indulgences" (Contemporary: $15.95), which incidentally offers a number of brownie recipes, agrees with this. She writes: "Bittersweet will give you the deepest chocolate taste; semisweet will give you a rich sweet but chocolate taste; and milk chocolate will afford a more subtle taste."

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