She looks normal, my friend Jenny – slim, medium height, blond and cheerfully energetic – but she’s the Takeru Kobayashi of sugar. I have a sweet tooth, as does my husband and all of my kids, but in a sugar-eating contest the six of us would be groaning with pain under the table while Jenny could keep putting away pies, cakes and cookies with contented ease.
Descended from a line of great bakers, Jenny’s been in training since birth on both the production and consumption of sweets. Her lovely mom Angie, the image of Mrs Claus with perfect snowy hair and twinkling blue eyes, was the kind of mom who had fresh-baked cookies waiting every day after school, and each Christmas she baked scores of caramel sticky buns to give out to friends and family. When having lunch out with friends, Jenny’s impish dad Bob would order two slices of pie and a pint of Guinness – and at home could eat a whole of Angie’s fresh pies in a single sitting.
Because of her unreliable oven at home, Jenny often bakes in my kitchen. She loves not only the double ovens but – bless her patient heart – the enthusiastic child labor as well. Her sons are grown, but she still rolls out decorated cookies for them every Hallmark holiday, and my kids love to create with her rainbow collection of edible confetti.
But blondies drive Jenny crazy. Every so often she attempts a batch, using an index card handwritten with her aunt’s recipe. Every time they are cakey, and she wants chewy. This has been going on for years.
In the blogosphere, there are two leading blondie recipes: Mark Bittman’s from his 1998 classic, How to Cook Everything, popularized by Smitten Kitchen in 2006, and Cook’s Illustrated’s from 2005. The two recipes are similar – flour, brown sugar, melted butter, egg and vanilla – but Bittman uses only egg for leavening, while Cook’s Illustrated adds baking powder.
Someone has already done a side-by-side comparison of the two recipes (thanks, How to Eat a Cupcake!) and found them near identical, with Bittman’s recipe just a bit fudgier. But Jenny wants chewy, not fudgy, and since the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is sized at twice Bittman’s, it seems a better base for our crowd.
No surprise: Cook’s Illustrated’s genius recipe is a winner. But with our history of failure, Jenny and I have thought a lot as to why:
- No electric mixer: Air is the enemy of chewy blondies. For many baked goods we strive for lightness, but with blondies we want dense chewiness. Minimal mixing is the key. (Jenny laughed when she realized this – always full speed with her electric mixer, with blondies her efforts were counterproductive. Jenny’s aunt was one of the non-bakers in the family, so it makes sense that she probably did minimal mixing by hand, not out of intent but out of a lack of enthusiasm.)
- Ratios: Both Bittman and Cook’s Illustrated use equal parts flour and brown sugar, and half the volume of melted butter. This gives enough structure to hold but not enough to be cakey. Brown sugar, light or dark, is the key to the butterscotch flavor and chew. You could probably reduce the sugar a bit (Deb at Smitten Kitchen notes that these days she reduces the sugar from 1 cup to 3/4), but if you want significantly less sugar, you shouldn’t be making blondies.
- Add-in restraint: It’s easy to overwhelm the delicate butterscotch flavor of a blondie. We love nuts and chocolate, but the blondie taste is eclipsed in their strong presence. Some of the kids liked the plain blondies best, but blondies with some add-ins have better structure. Cook’s Illustrated recommends white chocolate chips with walnuts or pecans, and of the add-ins we tried, white chocolate complemented the blondie flavor best.
The great thing about blondies is how easy they are to make. Melted butter, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking powder and salt.
Melted butter makes this mixing easy. Mix with brown sugar, then eggs and Cook’s Illustrated differentiator: an extra-generous dose of vanilla.
Add dry ingredients, with minimal mixing.
This batch was half plain, half sprinkled with toasted walnuts. I ended up squeezing my nutty half, since I knew the kids would prefer plain.
In another batch we mixed in monster chocolate chips.
These blondies have a shiny, crackly surface, like a good brownie. Plain blondies were gooey and wonderful, though a bit limp. Toasted walnuts were crisp and delicious, but I got a little too enthusiastic with the amount.
The chocolate chip blondies were like ultimate chocolate chip bar cookies: less blondie-like, but decadent.
Purist or tricked out, these are the blondies we’ve been waiting for.
This is the Cook’s Illustrated recipe from July 2005, as featured in Food 52, but I’ve eliminated the lining of the baking pan with foil. You may if you want to lift and cut the whole batch in one go, but to this lazy baker it seems an unnecessary use of time and foil.
- 1 cup pecans or walnuts (4 ounces; optional)
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), melted and cooled
- 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 6 ounces white chocolate chips (1 cup) or chopped bar, or 3 ounces each white chocolate and semisweet chocolate chips
- Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 13×9-inch baking pan.
- Spread nuts, if using, on large rimmed baking sheet and bake until deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer nuts to cutting board to cool; chop coarsely and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.
- In a large bowl, mix together melted butter and brown sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into butter-sugar mixture until just combined; do not overmix. Fold in chocolate and nuts, if using, and turn batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with rubber spatula.
- Bake until top is shiny, cracked, and light golden brown, 22 to 25 minutes. Do not overbake: if a tester comes out gooey, give it another minute or two; it if comes out with a moist crumb, it’s done enough. Cool on wire rack. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.
Makes 24 2-inch squares.
Here’s the link to a printable version.