Mark Bittman’s Butterscotch Brownies and Blondies: or, How to Mess Up a Really Good Recipe

Many years ago I sat down in the Yale Co-op and read Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything from cover to cover. I was thinking about buying it, and I wanted to be sure that before I bought this BIG FAT BOOK that it had enough stuff in it that I’d want to cook. I was not smart enough to discern whether or not it was a good cookbook; but I somehow had faith that it was. The question was, Was it operating at a level that I, then a real novice in the kitchen, could deal with?
The answer was Yes, and I bought the book and never regretted it. Many of the recipes in it became standards from which I’ve barely deviated over the years. The one category where I often ran into trouble was the sweet stuff: desserts. Baked goods. These were almost always failures. I eventually decided that Bittman’s tastes in desserts were just really different from mine, and accepted this. His biscuits never let me down; the cornbreads and variations were spot-on; innumerable entrees and pasta dishes work beautifully. But with desserts — I could have removed those pages from the binding and been ok with that. (And given the shoddy quality of the binding of those early printings, it might not have been a bad idea to lessen the weight that that poor spine had to bear.)

It was only a few years ago that I gleaned — in a roundabout way, via Smitten Kitchen — that Bittman’s How to Cook Everything did, in fact, have one gem of a dessert in it: the recipe for blondies. Blondies are like brownies but without the chocolate; it’s a bar cooky that should taste of brown sugar and butterscotch and be a little sludgy and have a ripply, craggy top. Sometimes you put in chocolate chips. Sometimes you don’t. A good blondie is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and finding a perfect recipe is a miracle.

One of the great  things about the Bittman blondies from that original cookbook is that you mix it up in one pot; it takes about four minutes to put it all together. You take a stick of butter and melt it in a pot. You whisk in a cup of brown sugar and let it smooth out into the butter; then you whisk in an egg, a bit of vanilla, about 1/8 of a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of flour. Stir this all together, and plop it into a greased and parchmented 8×8 pan; bake for about 20-25 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Done. You can do all of this in the pot you melted the butter in. It could not be simpler. And it is delicious.

Now:

This week, my husband asked me if I’d like to receive Bittman’s new cookbook, How to Bake Everything, as a Chanukkah or Christmas gift. I said, “Let me read it first and let you know.” When I was at the public library on Tuesday, I found the book on the shelf and was pleased to check it out. I began to read it while I waited for the bus home. I finished reading it that day, and decided that while it was interesting, and there were a few recipes I was curious about, I didn’t think it had enough original material to be worth taking up residence on our very very overcrowded shelves.

But today, I wanted to bake something nice. I had this lingering obligation to send some cookies to school with my daughter — to give to her teacher — and while no one’s pressing me on it at all (in fact, the obligation is entirely in my head), I thought it’d be nice to get the treat to school before the Christmas vacation started. “I’ll use the new Bittman book,” I thought brightly. “Surely the blondie recipe is in there.” I looked in the index — there it was — I turned the pages, and I took an egg out of the fridge and set it on the counter. Bittman’s introduction reads: “This bar has less in common with the brownie and more with a chocolate chip cookie, if that cookie didn’t have chips in it and was baked in a pan. Blondies have a rich butterscotch flavor and a wonderfully chewy texture.” This is all true. In fact, in How to Cook Everything, the blondies are called “Butterscotch Brownies,” not blondies. But we know the truth: they’re blondies. And Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen knew that, too, which is why when she wrote up her experiments with Bittman’s butterscotch brownies, she restored the correct name, blondies.

Assuming that I had landed on the correct recipe in How to Bake Everything, because I naively assumed that the recipe as it appeared in one book would be essentially the same as what I remembered from the other book, I started melting the butter. Next, I thought, the brown sugar. How much brown sugar? I checked the book. “Wait,” I said to myself. I looked at the page. This recipe called for white sugar, not brown sugar. “Really?” I asked myself. “How can this be?” But instructions are instructions. I thought it was weird, but didn’t argue, a fact I would later regret. I added my 3/4 of a cup of granulated sugar to the butter, whisked it smooth, and added the egg. I added the vanilla; I added the salt; I added the flour. I whipped it all into a nice smooth batter, and it looked exactly as I remembered it, except that it was a creamy yellow color instead of being the rich tan I remembered from previous blondie-baking sessions. I sighed: this wasn’t going to be the same thing at all.

But I decided to make the most of it. Feeling whimsical, madcap — Fran Lebowitzy, if you will, if Fran Lebowitz gave a shit about baking cookies —  I added some mini marshmallows and some shredded coconut. I spooned the mixture into my prepared 8×8″ pan and then I sprinkled some mini-chocolate chips on top. I drew a knife through the top of the batter to marble it slightly, and then I put the pan into the oven. “This batter is not like I remember it,” I said to myself. “But it’ll be fine.”

Two hours later, when I went to cut these blondies and serve them to my family, I had the sad realization that these were not the blondies of our dreams or our memories; worse, they weren’t even that good on their own terms. “Goddamnit,” I said, as I took a bite. “You’re not taking any of these to your teacher,” I said to my daughter, who was eagerly cramming a blondie into her uncritical maw. “Why not?” she demanded. “They’re good!”
“They suck,” I said. “I am not sending these out into the world.” “They don’t suck!” my daughter insisted.

“Well, ok, they don’t suck,” I admitted. After all, it wasn’t like they tasted of salt, or had some other awful flavor you wouldn’t want in a cookie; it wasn’t as though they tasted oddly of hot dogs. “But they’re boring, stupid cookies.”

Mark Bittman — whether by design or through editorial error — has taken a perfect blondie recipe and turned it into something insipid and sad. Even my coconut and marshmallow embellishments cannot rescue these blondies. They are so boring I am mad I wasted a stick of butter on them. How did this happen? Did Bittman consciously decide to change the type of sugar, and in the process ruin the recipe? I don’t believe so, because his introduction specifically mentions the butterscotch flavor — a flavor that only comes with brown sugar. Whether it was an editorial decision, or a copyediting oversight, either way: this recipe is crap.

Mark Bittman and his staff and editors need to make an effort to fix this problem. Future editions of this book should be amended.

It did not inspire faith in this book, let me tell you, to have the first recipe I cook out of it be such a dud. But this morning I decided to give it a second chance (mostly because my daughter had asked I make chocolate brownies today, so that she could bring cookies to hear teacher). I examined Bittman’s new brownie recipe, which is significantly different from the old one in How to Cook Everything. I dimly remembered that the one in that book was boring, so I decided to give this new one a roll. The batter mixed up nicely, it baked beautifully, and the resulting brownies are good. They’re very sludgy — two bites was quite enough for me, and that was one-half of a brownie! — and rich. I needed to drink eight ounces of milk after eating two bites. But it’s not a child’s brownie, it’s an adult’s brownie. It’s not a bake sale brownie. It’s a “put this out for guests with a bowl of candied nuts  and maybe some port, or a little glass of nocino.” I’m once again left thinking, “Bittman’s not at his best with desserts.” It may be I need to temper my expectations, but I can’t help but feel frustrated.

I wish I could recommend this book. Maybe I will try a couple more recipes and see how they go. For example, I should try the bialy recipe and see how it goes. But sadly, I really can’t recommend it right now, and my instinct is to say, “Even you novice bakers: skip it.” I suspect Bittman’s spreading himself too thin these days. He’s been busy — leaving the Times to go be a Purple Carrot, and then leaving Purple Carrot a few months ago… and it’s showing in the books. The books always had their flaws, but really, this recent work is not showing well so far. Not a good thing. Not a good thing.

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In which we solve the problem of honey cakes being Jewish fruitcakes

This past weekend, aware that Rosh Hashanah was coming up, I was moved to think about making a honey cake. The problem is, of course, 99% of honey cakes are stupid, vile, tasteless, dry slabs of brown crumbly crud. There are not enough glasses of milk to help me gag down most things called honey cake. It’s like the Jewish baking community was trying to make gingerbread but went hideously wrong and wound up with honey cake. Furthermore, I don’t even know anyone who likes honey cake. Yet year after year, countless Jewish women — it’s not just me! — feel obligated to serve honey cake to their families. It is the Jewish version of Christmas fruitcake. I am not the first person to make this observation; but you can be damned sure I won’t be the last.

Deb Perelman has a nice discussion of the sadness of bad honey cake and provides for us Marcy Goldman’s honey cake recipe. I’m sure that for those who want orange juice and booze in their honey cakes, this is just the ticket; but I am not one of those people. I personally solve the dismal honey cake problem by adopting the Mollie Katzen solution: add chocolate. There’s an old Moosewood cookbook that has a fairly ok chocolate honey cake recipe. I made this cake for years, and it was definitely a step up from the old Jenny Grossinger routine, but it still wasn’t really what I had in mind. This year, I decided to investigate: had anyone managed to come up with a better version of a chocolate honey cake?

Some idle Googling on Friday night led me to remember that Nigella Lawson’s Feast has a recipe for a chocolate honey cake, and, very good sign indeed, her recipe calls for boiling water. (This is, as we know, something I like to see in a chocolate cake recipe.)

The year it was published, I received Nigella Lawson’s Feast as a Christmas gift from my mother in law. I remember that I sat down and read it on Boxing Day, and thought it looked marvelous, and then never cooked out of it. Over the last few years, though, I have found it to be a wonderful resource, in spite of my initial apathy. When I am trying to plan a holiday meal, or any meal that needs to have a little more oomph than my normal evening fare, Feast often has something in it I can do without too much agony that comes out really, really well. At the very least, it will jog my memory in the direction of some perfect thing I already know how to make but had somehow forgotten about.

It was clear to me that the thing to do was pluck Feast off the shelf, put it on the kitchen counter, and get to work on Saturday.

The recipe is fairly easy: https://www.nigella.com/recipes/honey-chocolate-cake. You cream butter and light brown sugar together, and then add honey, eggs, chocolate, flour, baking soda, and boiling water to create an extremely thin batter that takes a ridiculous amount of time to bake. You think, “This cannot possibly end well,” because the cakes take so long. Have no fear: it ends very well.

The ingredients list, for those of you who won’t click on the link:

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate

1 1/3 cups light brown sugar

2 sticks sweet butter, softened

1/2 cup honey

2 large eggs (I used jumbo eggs)

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup boiling water

Clever readers will notice the recipe calls for four ounces of bittersweet chocolate. For reasons I cannot fathom, I had none on hand when I got to making this on Saturday night. I did have rather a lot of cocoa powder, so I looked up online substitution calculations. (This not having bittersweet chocolate is a chronic problem of mine. I never seem to have bittersweet chocolate around. I should really work on that. And, yes, you’d think I’d have these substitution measurements memorized by now. I’m almost there, but not quite.) Were I following the recipe strictly, I’d’ve used something like 12 tablespoons of cocoa powder, 4 tablespoons of sugar, and 4 tablespoons of butter to pull this off. But as I measured, I thought, “This is a LOT of cocoa.” It seemed excessive, even to me. So I decided to hold off a bit, and I used 10 tablespoons of cocoa, of which one tablespoon was Hershey’s Extra Dark cocoa; and I put in three tablespoons of sugar; and one tablespoon of butter on top of the two sticks already called for in the recipe. I was leery of using the technically recommended amount of butter, lest the cake turn greasy.

I creamed all the butter and sugars together, and then added all of the cocoa powder. It took some scraping down the bowl to get everything incorporated nicely. The cocoa powder had a way of settling in and caking at the bottom of the Kitchen Aid bowl. Adding liquid (in the form of the eggs) helped but to be honest the batter didn’t loosen and mix properly until the boiling water was added — but it was easy to manage, as long as I was diligent about scraping the bowl with a spatula very thoroughly. At the end, the batter was exactly the kind of dark and very thin goop I’ve learned is a Good Sign when making chocolate cakes.

Nigella advises us to use a 9” springform pan. I do own a springform pan (though I think it’s 10”) but I wanted to make three loaf cakes. I have this idea that honey cakes should be loaf cakes. So I buttered two little tiny stoneware loaf pans and one larger stoneware pan and then lined the bottoms with parchment (with cakes, I always worry about turning them out, and feel parchment is maybe unnecessary but a good safety net); the paper was cut long so that I would have a parchment sling to help me get the cakes out when they were done.

Pouring the batter between three pans was easier than I anticipated; I’m getting good at eyeballing this kind of thing. A better person would use a scale to determine that the batter was evenly distributed between the mini-pans and went mostly into the big pan. Even my sloppy, measuring-by-eye system worked well.

This is a cake that rises but not very much — it sort of bakes like a pound cake. It gets puffy and then develops a little sad streak on top, when you take it out of the oven. Nigella says to bake the cake for up to an hour and a half, which seems ridiculous, until you remember that pound cakes can bake for incredibly long times. The two baby cakes I did took about 45 minutes, and the larger loaf took a bit over an hour. If you were doing it as one large cake, I can easily see this taking an hour and a half of baking time.

You do not rush to tip these cakes out of the pans. Set the pans to cool on a rack; after maybe half an hour, you can safely lift them out using the sling of parchment paper and peel back the parchment and let them continue cooling. These are very very tender cakes; be gentle with them.

Here we get to the part in which we see how cosmically lazy I am.

Nigella’s recipe calls for making a sticky honey glaze, which doesn’t look at all difficult. But I was too lazy to assemble it and pour it on any of these cakes. I left the plain, on the racks, overnight. Sunday morning, I awoke and was cheered by the sight of these three dark cakes. When my husband and child saw them, they said “Ooooo!” and looked at me expectantly. “Uh-uh-uh!” I said: “These are for Rosh Hashanah.” My plan was to have one baby cake be a snack cake for me and my daughter; to have the large cake be dessert for our nice Rosh Hashanah dinner; and to have the last baby cake to give to a friend as a gift.

I could have wrapped them; I could have at least draped them in Saran Wrap. But I didn’t. I just let them sit on the counter for days. Treated this way, a normal cake would dry out and be rather unappealing. But when my daughter and I finally cut into one of the baby cakes, at about noon on Monday, it was perfect. I mean, perfect. It was a dense, almost fudgey cake, and it tasted like dark chocolate with a honey aftertaste. It didn’t need any glaze (but I admit, the next time I make these, I’m going to make the glaze, just to see how it improves the cake). It utterly lacks the Medieval quality that so many honey cakes have: that grim, wholesome, heavily spiced thickness. This is, by contrast, a genuinely lush cake. It is just the thing to start off a New Year. It is divine. Shanah tovah, folks.

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