I devote serious amounts of my time either baking brownies or worrying about the fact that there aren't any brownies in the house. And even I wasn't convinced that the world needed an entire cookbook, and a big one at that, devoted to the subject of brownies.
In the world of desserts, brownies are the little red-headed kid that even child-hating maiden aunts have to smile at. About the only person I know who will say no to a brownie is my husband, and that's only because he's allergic to chocolate.
Brownies can be homey or sophisticated. They are utterly self-sufficient, yet willing and able to be partnered with a host of other edibles. Vanilla ice cream, dried cherries, fresh strawberries, heavy cream, chocolate sauce -- all of these become magical and even a little wicked when seated next to a brownie.
And yet. A whole book on brownies?
It's true that there are many ways of making brownies. They can be divided into two families: cakey and fudgy. If you ever want to start a brawl at what had been a friendly get-together, just get everyone talking about which is the best kind. Have a table handy to duck under.
Cakey brownies are exactly what they sound like. They result from creaming the butter with sugar. Fudgy brownies happen when you melt the butter instead.
I always thought that was pretty much all one needed to know on the subject. Once you've chosen your camp, you can use melted chocolate of the unsweetened, bittersweet, or dark variety, or even unsweetened cocoa powder; throw in chocolate chips or walnuts; frost them or leave them plain. 'Nuff said.
I picked up Bev Shaffer's book in this skeptical frame of mind, and came away a believer.
First of all, she's a wonderful writer. She's funny -- in the book's dedication, she thanks the people who contributed their waistlines to the book -- and she doesn't believe that there is any such thing as a stupid question. This is a book that novices and kitchen-proficients alike can turn to with pleasure.
I admire her absolute dedication to using the highest quality ingredients. I know I get on my readers about using only real vanilla (as opposed to that horrid imitation trash). I'm easy on you. Shaffer wants you to make your own vanilla. She actually makes it sound easy to do. I may just try it.
Her short chapter on "Chocolate Info" is quite good, as is her brief list of ingredient preferences and sources.
But the real test of any cookbook, of course, is how good the recipes are. Shaffer's are fun to read and gorgeously illustrated by photographs taken by her husband; but how do they turn out in a real home kitchen?
I have, of course, my own much-beloved recipe for brownies. I make them often and always share, happy in the knowledge that the more I give away, the more of an excuse I have to bake yet another batch. I have been told that eating them is a religious experience, which I take as a compliment. I don't consider myself in pressing need of a new method.
Which is exactly why trying out Shaffer's offerings was so tempting. I'd hate to get in a rut.
First I baked "Crusty-Top, Soft-Center Brownies." (As the book is dedicated to one kind of dessert, the titles have to be pretty descriptive.) It sounded like the brownies my mother used to make. I remember how the surface would crinkle and shatter while the underside remained an adorably gooey mass.
Shaffer's weren't a perfect match. If I make them again, I'll leave out some of the flour she calls for. But my friends liked them, and my son, who finds much of what I bake too rich, was in heaven. He loved their mild sweetness and delicate crumb.
I next tried "Old-Fashioned Brownies," because it looked simple yet decadent. These were a big hit -- richer than the first batch, but not overwhelmingly so.
The next time raspberries are on sale, I'm going to make "Brownie Cake Poked with Red Raspberries," if only to see how raspberries hold up in the oven in a bed of chocolate. "Waiter, There's a Truffle in My Brownie!" calls for actual truffles in the brownie batter, which should win some kind of award for sheer decadence. And the cream-cheese swirled brownie featured on the cover is definitely on my to-do list.
So, to answer my original question: yes, this book is not merely a good idea, but a necessary one. Thank you, Bev.