Blondies you’ll become known for

Blondies deserve better. They’re not just a brownie that’s timid on chocolate, nor are they a chocolate chip cookie whose dough we were too lazy to scoop. They shouldn’t be an also-ran at the end of the bake sale, not something to settle for.

I know we’ve been burned by bad blondies before. But with a just-right recipe, they’re an animal unto themselves, worthy of all the obsession more obvious treats command. One that — once you’ve shared them with friends — you’ll be expected to tote to every picnic, potluck, and barbecue from here on out (just ask our managing editor’s mother, Sheri Warshaw, who turned us on to this recipe and has been stuck making them for us ever since).

You’ll start to expect the same of yourself too — if you go to the freezer and there isn’t a stash of blondies in it, you will want someone to blame. It’s you.

This particular just-right recipe comes from America’s Test Kitchen and their famous perfectionism and rigor. As ever, they were relentless in dissecting what normally goes wrong in a stiff, cloying blondie, and reverse-engineered the standard to make it right.

Their first act of genius was in de-cake-ifying them (my fake word, not theirs). Many of the qualities we don’t want in a cake — chew, heft, density — are marks of a very good blondie. So they axed anything that would render it cake-like: they cut back on the butter and eggs, and melted the butter rather than creaming it, all of which would have otherwise made the whole operation fluffier. For sweetness, they went the butterscotch route: all brown sugar, plus salt to keep it in check.

But the most surprising move was this: they quadrupled the vanilla extract. We think of vanilla as a volatile ingredient, like cayenne or salt — all-but-impossible to correct once overdone. But it’s harder to overdo it than you’d think.

And there’s a very good reason to overdo it, just a little. Once we stop putting a teaspoon into baking recipes because it’s what we’ve always done, we can embrace vanilla as a flavor all its own — complex, haunting, memorable. It’s a bit like when you get the chance to actually taste a bay leaf, and realize how impressive it is once you strip away all the mirepoix and thyme and other things that we assume have to come along.

This revelation stands to change the way you bake: Brette now doubles the vanilla in most baking recipes, or just pours from the bottle — depending on her mood. Yes, vanilla is expensive, but even this quad-strength recipe will still only set you back 4 teaspoons, and any non-artificial vanilla will do.

Food52’s Brette Warshaw first pitched me this tip in 2011. You might wonder why it took me so long, until you count up how many times she’s brought me blondies to prove her point between now and then.

The Warshaws would also request that you err on the side of under-baking them — 22 minutes is the magic number for them (the ones pictured are a little overdone by their standards, and they’re right, unless you like them especially chewy — I’m sorry, Sheri!). One final Warshaw tip: these make very good ice cream sandwiches. With vanilla ice cream, obviously.

Cook’s Illustrated’s Blondies

Adapted slightly from Cook’s Illustrated (July 2005)

Makes 36

1 cup pecans or walnuts (4 ounces)

1 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. table salt

12 Tbsp. 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 tsp. 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.

This article originally appeared on Food52.com: http://food52.com/blog/10431-cook-s-illustrated-s-blondies

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