Poor cocoa powder. Of the three main offspring (or rather, products) of the cocoa bean, it’s the obvious ugly duckling.
First, there’s cocoa butter, that rich, luxurious stuff we associate with the texture and fattiness of chocolate. It’s loved. Adored. Eating it isn’t enough, so we slather it on our hair and our bodies. We are one with cocoa butter.
Then, there’s cocoa mass – a roughly equal mix of cocoa butter and cocoa powder. We don’t think much about cocoa mass at all. But it’s often the first ingredient in good chocolate, so if we knew about it, we’d probably love it too.
And finally, cocoa powder. Dry, dusty and bitter, the thought of eating it by itself can make us shudder.
But cocoa powder, too, should be loved. Because cocoa powder cares for you, in its own inanimate way. It delivers more good stuff than its siblings – minerals and flavonoids and other mysterious, healthful things – without all of the saturated fat. It contains a happy hit of caffeine. It’s cheap.
And it’s accessible. Cocoa butter and cocoa mass are hard to track down, typically showing up on commercial shelves as chocolate, where they’ve been mixed with other stuff. Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is everywhere, often in its pure form or processed simply with an alkalizing agent that makes for a less acidic, darker powder (“Dutch process”, it’s called, after the Dutch fellow who came up with the idea). So when you use cocoa powder, unlike chocolate, you get more control over the flavours that make it into your final dish.
Today, in celebration of this under-loved ingredient: my favourite brownie recipe, a cocoa-heavy concoction that calls for elemental sorts of ingredients like unsalted butter, eggs, vanilla and pecans. In fitting with the simplicity kick, it’s a one-bowl affair that comes together quickly and bakes up to produce a brownie at its best: rich, dense, chewy and intensely chocolatey, even though there’s no real chocolate in sight. Make them, for the love of cocoa.
Best Cocoa Brownies
Adapted from epicurious.com, where it was source from Alice Medrich’s BitterSweet
Makes ~25 brownies
Notes: Dutch process cocoa (the darker stuff) and natural cocoa (the lighter stuff) will both do the trick here, the former making for a dark, mellow brownie and the latter for a lighter, more fruity and flavourful brownie. If you like your brownies a little salty, sprinkle the unbaked brownies with a bit of flaky salt, or swap the 1/4 tsp of table salt with a slightly heaping 1/4 tsp of flaky salt.
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch-ish pieces
1 1/4 cups white sugar
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp table salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large, cold eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup pecan pieces (optional but delicious)
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an 8x8 square pan with parchment paper or tinfoil (I’m currently without an 8x8 pan, so I used two 8x4ish loaf pans).
Put the butter, sugar, cocoa powder and table salt in a large, heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a large skillet of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have melted together into a grainy mush that’s hot to the touch and there are no bits of butter visible. (Alternatively, you can melt the ingredients together in the microwave, stirring every minute or two, until everything comes together.)
Let the grainy chocolate mess cool until it’s warm but no longer hot to the touch. With a wooden spoon, stir in the vanilla extract, then stir in the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition until the egg is fully incorporated.
Stir in the flour until it’s no longer visible, then give the mixture another 40 strong stirs. Add the pecan pieces, if using, and stir just until they’re dispersed through the batter.
Pour the batter into your prepared pan and gently spread it until it’s level and reaches the edges of the pan. Bake in the middle of the oven for 20-35 minutes (it’s a big range, I know!), or until a knife inserted into the centre of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs.
Let the brownies cool completely on a wire rack. Remove the brownies from the pan and cut into 25 little squares (remember to peel off the foil/parchment!). Store in an airtight container in the fridge for ultimate chewiness.