What says ‘I love you’ better than deep, dark chocolate? To me, the purest confectionary expression of love is a classic treat: BROWNIES. There are a million brownie recipes out there. Some are fudgy, some are cakey, some are heavenly, some are downright terrible. You can stop looking now; this is the best one. My favorite bakery, located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, is BAKED, and I first fell in love with them for their brownie recipe (me and Oprah, that is). Yes, that’s right, I can be bought and sold for brownies. This is the dreamiest, most decadent brownie that ever graced this Earth, lingering in the perfect zone between fudgy, cakey, and gooey– trust me, I’ve conducted extensive, detailed research on the matter (read = eaten my weight in brownies), and no better one exists.
These brownies are also very easy, requiring just a handful of kitchen vessels and tools, and a minimal amount of active prep time. The aroma of baking brownies will fill your kitchen with rich, chocolaty goodness, such that waiting for them to bake and cool may be painfully uncomfortable, but such is the suffering of a baker…
There are also a million bakeries out there, some of which are amazing, while others are mediocre or worse. An impressive concentration of them is located in New York. (As wonderful as the San Francisco food scene is these days, nothing compares to NYC for me…) While I have many beloved spots for pastries, for me, there is no other like BAKED. They came to my attention when I purchased their first cookbook several years ago (housing the coveted brownie recipe), and I have since visited the actual bakery a number of times; in fact, I try to make an annual pilgrimage. BAKED specializes in classic American-style desserts with a twist– my favorite genre of pastry to bake and eat. Among their most popular items are the Sweet & Salty Cake, brownies, and their extraordinary array of bars.
Left: Sweet & Salty Cupcake of my dreams; right (clockwise from top): Peanut Butter Crispy Bar, Millionaire Bar, Coconut Caramel Cluster Bar.
I clearly recall that my first trip was like finding the Holy Grail– the brownies! the cookies! the cupcakes! the bars! Everything was delicious and beautiful and unique; I could hardly wrap my head around this little gem of a place tucked away in Red Hook. I had never heard of this “Red Hook” before, and it was quite a trek by subway and taxi to this remote hamlet… before I learned that there was a bus that lets you off right in front. You might have heard of Red Hook about 1 ½ years ago, as this charming residential/industrial/hipster/slightly-rough-around-the-edges neighborhood was badly battered by Hurricane Sandy. In fact, BAKED sustained a decent amount of damage, but in their typical fashion they bounced back and opened up shop just a couple of days later, with warm treats for their neighbors and a basement full of water.
Anyway, not for a second did I regret the excursion to this far-flung corner of Brooklyn; BAKED has influenced my baking world more than any other single chef/book/bakery. Every visit brought new, heavenly treats, such as the Brookster and Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars. They released two additional cookbooks, and in truth, they were partly the inspiration for the existence of this blog. I discovered an online baking group called Baked Sunday Mornings, which has been baking its way through the BAKED books one recipe at a time for a few years now. I had been tossing around the idea of starting a blog for a while, and I badly wanted to join the group for the release of the third book in Fall 2012, but I didn’t have a blog… Thus began Stellina Sweets! I have not only met new friends and baked challenging and delicious recipes, I have also become friendly with Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, owners of BAKED. Two of the nicest and most dessert-obsessed individuals I’ve met, they were kind enough to give me a tour of the bakery on my most recent visit in June 2013. Yes… it’s now February 2014. I’m a little (okay, a lot) embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to write about my visit, but fortunately it turned out to coincide perfectly with Valentine’s brownies. I’m getting all shmoopy about brownies and BAKED and New York; of the many BAKED treats that I’ve made, this recipe holds a special place in my heart, and I ALWAYS grab a couple when I visit the bakery, even though I can make them at home.
Happy place. Goofy grin.
Not only does BAKED make superior baked goods, the ambiance of the bakery itself conjures all manner of warm fuzzies. Its unassuming brown awning perches above the charming orange door with circle windows, opening into a cozy café space that feels like Brooklyn-meets-mountain-lodge. The décor is heavy on warm wood, clean white tile, deer antlers, and retro accessories, which are juxtaposed by oversized jars of cookies and sprinkles.
Love this guy.
The pastry cases are brimming with banana bread, bars, cupcakes, scones, and muffins, among many other items– it would be seriously impossible to choose just one thing. In examining these creations, it is clear that they are crafted with care and attention to detail– loving drizzles of chocolate, plump dollops of frosting, colorful garnishes of nonpareils abound. They are beautiful and whimsical, without being clichéd or kitschy. I WANT TO EAT EVERYTHING. And you will too.
Clockwise from from top-left corner: Brown Sugar Blondies (amazing), Strawberry Whoopie Pie, Chocolate Chip Banana Bread, whoopie pies and biscotti, Lemon Lime Bars, and the famous Brookster (chocolate chip cookie filling in a brownie crust).
BAKED is the perfect setting to pull up a mug of coffee and dig into a hulking slice of 3-layer cake. Or a caramel-filled cupcake. Or a cheesy slab of focaccia. Or a cream-stuffed whoopie pie… I think you catch my drift. I would love nothing more than curling up in one of their comfy armchairs with my treats and watching the passersby all day… but they might want their chair back at some point.
Incidentally, they also offer up a wall of BAKED swag: books, packaged products like homemade granola and marshmallows, mugs, T-shirts, and all kinds of fun stuff. Get the trucker hat– you won’t be sorry.
Exciting things are happening in the world of BAKED. In this calendar year, Matt and Renato are opening a second location in Manhattan (though it’s hard to beat the charm of the original Red Hook shop) and releasing their fourth cookbook– I can’t even wait. If you are a fan of BAKED and own a blog, consider joining Baked Sunday Mornings– good baking times will be had! And if you don’t own the three BAKED books (Frontiers, Explorations, and Elements), do yourself a favor and purchase them immediately– you have a lot of baking ahead of you. Without further ado…
The BAKED Brownie
Adapted from BAKED: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Yields approximately 30 squares or 60 triangles (quantity of hearts varies depending on size of cookie cutter)
Make sure your eggs are at room temperature. Seriously. This is 100% crucial to the success of these brownies; cold eggs are hard to mix into the batter thoroughly and you will end up with rubbery white streaks throughout your brownies… and you will be sad.
As always with chocolate desserts, use good-quality chocolate. The quality of your chocolate is directly related to the tastiness of your brownies. My affordable-yet-good chocolate of choice is Guittard (72% Coucher du Soleil couverture wafers, in this case), and brands such as Valrhona, TCHO, Scharffen Berger, etc. will likely make people weep tears of ecstasy.
- 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder, such as Valrhona
- 11 ounces dark chocolate (60-72%), coarsely chopped
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 5 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
Preheat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13-inch glass or light-colored metal baking pan. Alternatively, line the pan with non-stick aluminum foil so that it overhangs on two sides, and grease the foil lightly. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and cocoa powder, and whisk to combine thoroughly. Place the chocolate, butter, and espresso powder in a large heatproof bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water on low heat. Stir occasionally until all ingredients are completely melted and smooth.
Turn off the heat, but leave the bowl over the saucepan. Combine the sugars in a small bowl and mix them evenly to break down any lumps of brown sugar. (This makes it easier to incorporate into the chocolate mixture.) Add the sugars to the chocolate and whisk until everything is combined well, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be at about room temperature.
Place 3 of the eggs in a small bowl and beat lightly. Add the eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk carefully until combined. Beat the last 2 eggs in your bowl and add them to the batter; whisk to combine. Add the vanilla extract and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter or your brownies will be cakey. Pre-beating the eggs reduces the amount of stirring needed for a smooth mixture. (As noted above, make sure your eggs are not cold– it makes all the difference in the success of these brownies.)
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the brownie batter. Switch to using a spatula and fold the flour mixture gently into the chocolate until just a few white streaks are visible.
Pour the batter into your prepared baking pan and smooth the top. Bake for approximately 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Keep a close eye on them during the last few minutes of baking– mine usually bake up perfectly in 28 minutes. Test the brownies by inserting a toothpick into the center; they are done when it comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely, then cut the brownies into squares and serve. I often cut each square into triangles because they are insanely rich. For Valentine’s Day, I like to cut out heart-shaped brownies with 2- or 3-inch cookie cutters, then dust them with confectioners’ sugar. (Because it’s super romantical and your sweetie will be ever-so-smitten with your efforts.)
A very important question must be addressed: edges or no edges? This is a heated debate that cannot be resolved in a single blog post without rigorous empirical evidence; I personally prefer no edges because I like the slightly gooey middle brownies. Also… I get to nibble on the edges, and this feels like I’m not *really* eating brownies…
They will keep for about 5 days in an airtight container at room temperature, and they ship really well for gifting. Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your loved ones! :)
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.