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Cake-Style Or Fudgy? The History and Evolution of Brownies

The brownie, perhaps America’s favorite baked treat, was “invented” in the United States, though no one is quite sure where. Evidence suggests brownies were first made in New England at the beginning of the 20th century. Although cake-like and baked in a cake pan, brownies are classified as bar cookies rather than a cake. There are thousands of recipes for brownies, both “cake-style” and “fudge-style” and everything in-between. What determines the style of brownie is its ratio of flour to chocolate and/or cocoa.

Where Did The Word “Brownie” Originate?

It’s easy to see that the brownie got its name from its dark brown color. But as with most foods, the origin of the “brownie” is shrouded in myth. The brownie is relatively new to baked goods, making its first appearance in the early 20th century. A legend is told that a chef mistakenly added melted chocolate to a batch of biscuits. Another legend claims that a cook was making a cake but didn’t have enough flour and baked his batter anyway. Voila, the brownie!

The most popular legend tells of a housewife in Bangor, Maine, who was making a chocolate cake but forgot to add baking powder. When the cake didn’t rise, she just cut and served the flat pieces. This tale relies on a cookbook published in Maine in 1912. However, years earlier the first chocolate brownie recipe was published by one of America’s most famous cookbook authors, Fannie Merritt Farmer, in 1906.

Was Fannie Merritt The First?

Numerous sources cite the first-known recipe for brownies as the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, but this was a recipe for a molasses candy merely called brownies. The name honored the elfin characters featured in popular books, stories, cartoons and verses of the time by author Palmer Cox.

Larousse Gastronomique, regarded by many as the ultimate cooking reference, states that a recipe for brownies first appeared in the The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, written by Fannie Farmer in 1896, but that was for a cookie-type confection that was colored and flavored with molasses and made in fluted Marguerite molds. However, as verified by Jean Anderson in “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes Of The 20th Century,” the two earliest published recipes for brownies appear in Boston-based cookbooks: the first in a later edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.”

The First Recipe

Culinary historians have traced the first “brownie” to the 1906 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, edited by Fannie Merritt Farmer. This recipe is an early, less rich and chocolaty version of the brownie we know today, utilizing two squares of melted chocolate. It is not known whether Fanny Farmer obtained the recipe from another source, printed it or adapted it, or just provided the name.

The Second Recipe

The second recipe, which appeared in 1907, was in Lowney’s Cook Book, written by Maria Willet Howard and published by the Walter M. Lowney Company of Boston. Ms. Howard, a protege of Ms. Farmer, added an extra egg and an extra square of chocolate to the Boston Cooking School recipe, creating a richer, more chocolaty brownie.

Chocolate or Cocoa?

Today, brownies are baked with either cocoa or melted chocolate or a combination of both. Artisan bakeries, like Ruth’s Brownie Kitchen, even use special premium chocolates and cocoa, like fabulous Valrhona chocolates, from the famous French manufacturer, to give their baked goods an extra special deep, satisfying one-of-a-kind chocolate taste.

Cake-Style or Extra Fudgy?

While the original brownie recipes were all “cake-style,” that is with the texture of a cake but somewhat richer and denser, over the years recipes for brownies have evolved usually by increasing the proportion of chocolate to flour. Some of today’s recipes are even actually more like fudge than cake.

Each type of brownie has its diehard adherents, but it seems that the fudge-style is winning out with two-thirds of those who voice their opinion preferring the richer, denser, creamier version. Still, one-third of all people are solidly in the cake-style camp.

The Nation’s Favorite

While the first brownie recipes were published and variations began to evolve in the first years of the 20th century, it took until the 1920s for the brownie to become the country’s absolute favorite baked chocolate treat, a position it still maintains today.

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