“Ultimately, there’s nothing you can make with chocolate that’s better than a brownie,” said Renato Poliafito, owner of two Baked bakeries in New York City with his partner and co-founder, Matt Lewis. “You can make things that are fancier, or lighter, or creamier, but they won’t be better.”
If such a title is possible, Mr. Lewis and Mr. Poliafito are brownie shokunin, a Japanese word for artisan or master that denotes years (even decades) of advanced study and daily practice.
Their Deep Dark Brownie — an immediate hit when the bakery opened in 2005, touted by Oprah Winfrey and admired by Martha Stewart — was crafted specifically for dark-chocolate fans. Its bitterness is accented by espresso powder. The recipe calls for both cocoa (for warm chocolate flavor) and dark chocolate (for fruity chocolate flavor). And, like all brownies from Baked, it is mixed entirely by hand to prevent a caky texture — the nemesis of a good brownie, which should err on the side of fudgy. “If you want cake, by all means have cake,” Mr. Poliafito said. “But part of the genius of the brownie is that rich density.”
Once a shokunin has perfected a recipe — like our Supernatural Brownies or Baked’s Deep Dark Brownie — you may think it best left alone.
But no. Bakers are a persistent and curious bunch, and they keep trying to improve.
Home cooks spackle layers of cream cheese and peanut butter onto their brownies. They weave in Oreo cookies and chocolate-chip cookie mix. (This delectable British creation is called a Slutty Brownie; keep in mind that “slut” in Britain often refers to a woman who is a lazy housekeeper.)
The people at Baked have experimented with mint, coffee, chile and other variations — but the only one to join the permanent roster is the Sweet and Salty Brownie, an ingenious combination of blond, bittersweet caramel and dark, bittersweet chocolate that now outsells the original. They are not the first bakers to note the affinity of caramel and chocolate, but by emphasizing the bitter, sweet and salty notes in both, they’ve made that rare thing: a perfectly balanced bite.
It is a spinoff of their Sweet and Salty Cake, a layer cake with multiple components and extraordinary flavors that are equally compelling in the form of a brownie that you can make this very afternoon. In addition to a brownie batter, all it takes is a basic caramel. (Do not stop reading. Making caramel does involve high heat, but so does making pasta: The process doesn’t have to be terrifying or traumatic.) Many recipes for home cooks call for melting down Kraft caramels, or using store-bought sauce. That sticky substance is a world away from the creamy, tangy, complexity of this homemade sauce. You can thank the sour cream. And use the extra sauce on ice cream, cookies or cake.
Here are tips for a painless caramel:
Use a large saucepan and moderate heat. It’s O.K. if the caramel cooks slowly.
Use part sugar and part corn syrup, which prevents it from crystallizing, so don’t worry about the caramel seizing up.
There’s no need to track the temperature with a candy thermometer. As long as you can tell the difference between iced tea and iced coffee, you are capable of spotting when the caramel is cooked enough (at any point between the two).
Some people (and many children) like a smoother, less bittersweet caramel; if that is your target audience, let the mixture cook only until it is golden brown, not amber.
Adding a dairy product quickly stops the cooking and makes the mixture thick and creamy.
And now to the chocolate. Buying chocolate at a supermarket these days is like navigating a Minecraft landscape: Plowing through thickets of a repetitive landscape, you are lured in random directions by visual cues that may be meaningless. Labels that shout fair trade, shade grown, single-estate and non-G.M.O. may make you a virtuous consumer, but they don’t make better brownies.
Mr. Poliafito has a way to cut through the onslaught; find chocolate that is clearly labeled with 60 to 70 percent cocoa solids (this may be listed as cocoa beans or cocoa butter), and then taste. Eleven ounces of good chocolate is not a small investment, so it’s only sensible to ensure that the main flavor component of the recipe is delicious.
“As long as you are in that range of real chocolate,” he said, “the best kind to use for brownies is the one that tastes best to you.” Some commercial brands taste terrible; some artisanal brands taste terrible; usually for different reasons, he said.
For sprinkling on top, it is not necessary to buy salt brought down from the Himalayas or hauled up from the Tasman seabed. Any flaky salt is fine. And in the brownie batter, the texture makes no difference: It only needs to be salty, to push that popular sweet-salty button.
“Sweet with salty seemed like a passing trend at first, but now I really believe it’s imprinted on the American palate,” Mr. Lewis said. “Salted caramel was the gateway.”
At a recent Baked pop-up shop in Tokyo, he said, the saltiness of the caramel brownie was puzzling to Japanese customers: “It hasn’t sunk in there yet.”
Even more troubling for them, he said, was the hefty size of a standard American brownie; Japanese sweets tend toward the tiny. “They would take a few bites,” he said, “then look worried, like, what am I going to do with the rest of this?”