A few years back, I developed an unhealthy brownie obsession. It started after I’d decided to pursue a romantic fantasy to quit my day job and open a cafe. To see if the dream had legs — and to try my hand at the business — I managed through luck (living in the right zip code) and a little chutzpah to enter a free baking program for low-income workers at a school in Long Island City. Little did they know, I wasn’t poor just creatively unsatisfied.
Here’s what happened next: For six weeks I’d spend from 9 to 12 listening to people’s problems. Then, at noon, like Clark Kent learning that Lex Luthor was about to invade Earth, I’d toss off my Anne Taylor dress, grab jeans, t-shirt, and a baseball cap, dash to the subway, and emerge 20 minutes later at the Consortium for Workers Education & Artisan Baking Center magically transformed from staid, nerdy psychologist into hip, flour-encrusted baker. Then, from 12:30 to 4:30, I’d knead dough, fill pastry bags with frosting, and haul tray after tray of breads and sweets into hellishly hot ovens. I was in heaven.
Mid-way through the program though, I came up with a new idea. Perhaps, rather than open a cafe (a potentially money-losing prospect anyway), I’d create a product. A brownie product. A very special brownie product: Brooklyn Brownies.
Now Brooklyn Brownies wouldn’t be like ordinary brownies with walnuts and plain square shapes. No. Brooklyn Brownies would be round or rectangular and have flavors styled after Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Coney Island with marshmallows and salted peanuts or Greenpoint filled with cream cheese and sour cherries.
The idea was inspired. I envisioned my brownies supplanting the cupcake craze. But just to be sure, I embarked on a whirlwind brownie-tasting tour to sample my competition.
You see the brownie I envisioned was very specific, hovering in the liminal space between cakey and fudgy. Neither overly cloying (e.g., topped with frosting) nor flat, dry, and square like so much unleavened bread, my brownie, my ideal brownie, exuded a mature chocolaty je ne sais quoi not sullied by childish accoutrement.
Happily, my tastings left me wanting (and not for more) with only my hips appreciating the “exercise.” And so, after numerous trials and oh-so-many errors, I finally created a recipe I thought achieved crustulum perfectus. The Brooklyn Brownie was nearing completion.
And then I met Joe.
Like me, Joe had a day job. And, like me, he too harbored fantasies of changing his life. Only he aspired to a more noble calling: he wanted to find creative and successful ways to fight poverty. So he’d started working for Madécasse, a company that produced single-origin chocolate bars made entirely in Madagascar, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world but home to some of the world’s finest cocoa.
Madécasse was founded by two former Peace Corps volunteers who, after living in Madagascar, realized the country wasn’t poor because it didn’t produce enough cocoa, vanilla, and spices, but because it only produced those things.
This realization led them to a unique proposal: why not fight poverty not with development aid or “Fair Trade” but by involving the Malagasy people at all levels of chocolate production — from bean to bar to wrapper. That way more of every consumer dollar spent on the end product would benefit the island. The result? A higher-quality bar that could hold its own against competitors and yielded four times more impact to the Malagasy people through farmer training, higher wages, and increased employment.
Joe had inspired me. What if I too could make a difference by using Madécasse bars in my brownies? So one afternoon, Joe came to my apartment and we made them using Madécasse 70% cocoa and Sea Salt & Nibs instead of my usual source.
I was humbled. They tasted amazing.
Now, thanks to Joe, I not only have better brownies, but a greater appreciation for the economy and politics behind chocolate. And, if I ever do launch Brooklyn Brownies, I know exactly where I’m getting chocolate for the ginger and coconut-infused Flatbush!
Learn how Madécasse chocolate bars are made, then go make your own Malagasy brownies!
“The pod is the size of a football. It’s purple, green, and yellow. It’s just beautiful. It hangs off a twig, and you whack it off the tree and catch the pod. They use an interesting tool. It’s curved, and you have to crack the pod just right. It slices the pod open and the middle looks like bug larvae — white, pulpy, and gooey. All the stuff around it though tastes good. Inside it looks like a garlic bulb or a football with little beans inside. You have to break the pod just the right way, because if you damage one clove, you damage them all, because it quickly degrades the whole fruit.
Once you get the insides out, you separate each bean by hand. You ferment them to develop the flavor, then dry them in the sun. You spread them out every day in the morning and before night scrape them inside. You do this for a couple of days and, as you do so, they turn from white and pulpy to the dark brown color we know.
Now normally those cocoa beans ship to other countries where they’re sold to middlemen who then sell them at a higher mark-up, after which they’re shipped to Europe or other countries where they start to work on them. They put them in machines that crack and separate the inside of the bean, which is called the nib, from the outer shell. The outer shell is then blown away and it looks creepy, like a brain, folded, with nibs inside, densely packed. That’s what chocolate’s made from.
You break those apart and grind them to a certain consistency. Then you smash the nibs which, when you crush them, release a liquid that looks and tastes like chocolate and is then separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which is basically fat.
To make a chocolate bar, you combine the cocoa solids and cocoa butter with sugar, vanilla, and binding so it holds together. Then you mix it for a long time to release the unique cocoa flavors, and that’s what makes for a fine-quality chocolate bar.”
Serving: 8-10 rectangular brownies
9 oz. chocolate (1/2 Madécasse 70% and 1/2 Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)
7.5 oz. unsalted butter
8 oz. granulated sugar
2.25 oz. pastry flour
4 large eggs at room temperature
Pinch of sea salt (only if using regular chocolate not Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)
1. Break chocolate and butter into small pieces and place in the top of a double boiler with the bottom pot filled halfway with water. Alternatively, simply set in a small pot over a slightly larger pot filled the same way with water.
2. Place double boiler on stove top over low to medium flame and gently stir chocolate and butter with a wooden spoon until fully melted. Remove from heat.
3. Measure sugar into a blender or Cuisinart and grind to a finer consistency.
4. Stir pre-measured pastry flour into sugar to combine. Then stir into chocolate until dissolved.
5. In a separate glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk eggs until slightly frothy.
6. Remove chocolate mixture from pot and scrape into medium to large bowl with a rubber spatula.
7. Pour eggs into chocolate and fold in gently until combined. The chocolate should have a thick, pudding-like quality. *If you didn’t use Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs, add pinch of salt at this stage.
8. Cover bowl with plate and allow to sit for 30 minutes until thickened.
9. After 15 minutes preheat oven to 350 degrees.
10. Very lightly coat the bottom of each loaf, muffin, or Silpat container with unsalted butter, just enough so brownies slip out after baking; too much and the bottoms may be slightly greasy.
11. Using a spoon or measuring cup, fill each container three-quarters of the way with brownie mixture.
12. Bake on middle rack of stove for 30 minutes or until tops have a solid, marbled appearance. Brownies may be slightly soft in center.
12. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
13. Use a knife to gently loosen edges and remove each brownie by hand.
Brownies can be stored in a plastic container in the refrigerator or on the counter top for a few days. They taste even better the second day!