So there I was, weekday night, watching the second installment of the Hunger Games for my utopia/dystopia class. It was the party scene in the Capital, where one of Katniss’s fancy make-up artists was explaining to Peeta the properties of a small goblet of lavender liquid. It’s for when you’re full, says one. It makes you sick, the other adds. So you can go on eating! The first one smiles. How else could you taste everything? This then becomes a segue into Katniss’ and Peeta’s disgust at the lavish excesses of the Capitol, as well as its related political and moral failings.
Then, naturally, I started thinking about blondies.
I admit it wasn’t the most opportune moment. Focus, I thought. Focus on the movie. Look, here’s Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Want. Blondies. Now?) He and Katniss are having a freighted conversation. (Buttery crumb. Golden deliciousness.) Okay, he just said the party is appalling. Appalling. People are starving in District 12. How can you think about baking at a time like this?
Then Philip Seymour Hoffman said: Still, if you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun.
That was it. I abandoned the movie and scooted into the kitchen.
I had been thinking about these blondies all day, ever since reading a post about them on Food52 where they were an entry for their column “Genius Recipes.” It’s originally a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, so you know it’s got to be at least partially genius; those folks at America’s Test Kitchen sure don’t mess around. The picture, of course, was beautiful — a pile of straight-edged caramel-hued blondies, thick and substantial, soft and chewy, waiting to be grabbed off the plate as an after-school snack. But what stuck with me about this recipe, along with its utter simplicity, was its call for four teaspoons of vanilla. Four teaspoons! Sassy! I’ve never used that much, except maybe for an enormous bread pudding: it felt like a decadent and yet obvious thing to do. Plus, I liked the details: the warning not to overbake, the chocolate mix of white and dark, the use of all brown sugar, the note that they freeze well.
So I did my typical evening baking routine: a quick in-and-out with hasty mise-en-place, simultaneous calculations, speedy wash-up and put away as the house starts to smell good. A rather different version of the Hunger Games, but where the odds are always in your favor.
Cook’s Illustrated Blondies, from Food52
Note: I only had coconut palm sugar in the pantry, so that’s what I used. The package says you can do a 1:1 substitution for brown sugar, but if you have the light brown sugar, I’d use it — these blondies came out rather dark, more like brunettes than their golden-flecked sisters, and with a cake-like softness compared to the original’s dense, dryer crumb. I liked the way their flavor turned out: they have a brûlée-like undertone, that almost burnt edge that really good caramel has. But I wasn’t crazy about the texture. Oh well — now I know. Cook’s choice!
- 1 cup pecans or walnuts (4 ounces)
- 1 1/2 cup 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 cup 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° F. Spread nuts 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.
- While nuts toast, line a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with foil, leaving enough overhang to help you lift the blondies from the pan when they’re done. [Here are Cook’s Illustrated’s measurements, but you can just wing it: Cut 18-inch length foil and fold lengthwise to 8-inch width. Fit foil into length of 13 by 9-inch baking pan, pushing it into corners and up sides of pan; allow excess to overhang pan edges. Cut 14-inch length foil and fit into width of baking pan in same manner, perpendicular to first sheet (if using extra-wide foil, fold second sheet lengthwise to 12-inch width).] Grease foil-lined pan with butter or oil.
- Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl; set aside.
- Whisk melted butter and brown sugar together in medium bowl until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture until just combined; do not overmix. Fold in chocolate and nuts 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. Cool on wire rack to room temperature. Remove bars from pan by lifting foil overhang and transfer to cutting board. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.