This month, How to Eat is savouring a chocolate brownie. Is this a snack or a dessert? Does it need ice-cream? And would you pair it with tea, coffee or, erm, sauvignon blanc?
Like communism, the chocolate brownie is an amazing idea undermined by disastrous execution. You rarely eat a truly great one. Too many brownies have all the fudgy moistness of desiccated artefacts found in ancient Egyptian tombs or are closer in texture and their parsimonious lack of chocolate to 1950s sponge cakes. Wheres the goo? The squidge? The impossibly rich interior retained beneath a surface as crisp and cracked as a muddy puddle that has baked hard in the Mediterranean sun?
But the utopian ideal of the chocolate brownie is so compelling we keep fighting for it. We keep eating them, for that 1-in-25 moment when this cookie-cum-cake-cum-block-chocolate hybrid achieves a perfection that transcends all three. How did Samuel Beckett (or was it Paul Hollywood?) put it? Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Does the newness of the chocolate brownie explain why we so often get it wrong, too, in the way they are served and eaten? First recorded in print in 1896, in (possible Viz character) Fannie Farmers Boston Cooking School Cook Book, the first brownies featured no chocolate, just molasses. In one of the various other versions that claim to be the original, were even given an apricot jam glaze. Ye gods!
The chocolate would come later, as would our general understanding of what the brownie could be. Britain came late to the party. The brownie has only really taken off in Britain over the past 20 years, with the rise of coffee shops. Mentions of the brownie are so scarce in the Guardian before 2004 that the start of the modern brownie era is, arguably, traceable to Nigel Slaters still revered recipe, published that year.
If our enthusiasm for the brownie has grown without due reflection, then that is where How to Eat [HTE] the series exploring how best to eat Britains favourite food stuffs comes in. It is time to brew up, sit down and consider the chocolate brownie.
When and where
The when is crucial. Not just in defining what the chocolate brownie can be, but what it is not. From the when, everything else follows.
This is not a dessert; it is a snack. That is not to downplay it. Elongate that pleasure for as long as possible. Revel in that chocolate brownie. But this is a food to be eaten, as an infrequent, rarefied treat, outside meal-times at 11pm, 4pm or similar and on its own.
The chocolate brownie is too rich to follow other foods and serving it as pudding detracts from its essential appeal. A good brownie is its own self-contained world: sweet, slightly salty potentially, dense with the cocoa, berry and tobacco notes of high-quality chocolate. It needs no augmentation.
Restaurant kitchens, however, find it impossible to send a chocolate brownie naked into the world. They inevitably sauce it and garnish it, and turn the now muffled brownie into a mere component in a confused mess of a dish. They also insist on serving brownies hot, often unforgivably microwaving the heat in, when a brownie is most expressive at room temperature.
Chefs nervously gild the lily like this because they mistake the chocolate brownie for a common chocolate dessert, 90% of which (especially cake-based desserts) taste of less than the block chocolate used and fail to offer a complementary expansion on that core ingredients possibilities. At their best, brownies are a rare exception to that rule. In their textures and careful flavourings, they offer a mouthful of greater variety and depth than chocolate itself. But the hardest lesson chefs ever learn is: less is more. They cannot leave well alone.