With Valentine's Day literally upon us, some of us may be casting about for a last-minute sweet to give as a gift - more specifically, a token of affection whose sum signifies far more than its individual parts. And, of course, the spirit of the occasion dictates that the main ingredient be chocolate.
While there's nothing wrong, technically, with the traditional heart-shaped box of chocolates, a handmade sweet offers a most personal - dare I say intimate - affirmation of the holiday's sentiments. Even for the amateur cook who is intimidated by the thought of hand-rolling truffles, we have some options.
One of the most underrated baked goods, in my opinion, is the gourmet brownie. Because the brownie has been defined in the popular imagination by the box mix, we tend to ignore the brownie's greater potential as an almost candylike, high-end sweet.
When we start making our own brownies and realize what we've been missing, Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker start looking like the arch villains of American baking,
The following recipe is from "Baking with Julia," which is one of the finest cookbooks on baking ever written. This recipe produces a rich and gooey brownie that can be eaten alone or topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce. One bite and your Valentine will get the message.
Because texture is everything for this brownie, follow the mixing instructions to the letter.
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs
Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
Sift the flour and salt together and set aside.
Melt the butter and chocolate together in a medium saucepan over low heat (or in a simmering double boiler), stirring frequently and making certain the chocolate doesn't scorch. Add 1 cup of the sugar to the mixture and stir for half a minute, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour the mixture into a large bowl.
Pour the remaining 1 cup sugar and the eggs into the bowl of a mixer (or a mixing bowl if you are using a handheld mixer) and whisk by hand just to combine. Little by little, pour half the sugar and eggs into the chocolate mixture, stirring gently but constantly with a rubber spatula so the eggs don't set from the heat. Fit the whisk attachment to the mixer and whip the remaining sugar and eggs until they are thick, pale and doubled in volume, about 3 minutes.
Using the rubber spatula, delicately fold the whipped eggs into the chocolate mixture. When the eggs are almost completely incorporated, gently fold in the dry ingredients.
Pour and scrape the batter into an unbuttered 9-inch square pan, preferably ceramic or glass. Bake the brownies for 25 to 28 minutes, during which time they will rise a little and the top will turn dark and dry. Cut into the center at about 23 minutes. They'll be done if they're just barely set and still pretty gooey.
Cool in the pan on the rack. Cut into bars to serve.