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The brownies became famous almost as soon as the doors of Proof of the Pudding opened in 1979. Perhaps they would not seem so extraordinary today in a world where artisanal extra dark chocolates flavored with lavender or chilis are sold in every grocery store. But timing is everything and their arrival on the food scene in Atlanta helped put our store on the map. I owe some of that to Elliott Mackle, an Atlanta food writer who made his way to the shop not long after we opened. He was the first to write about them, dubbing them "medium rare" to describe the fudgy rich centers that are their hallmark.
The brownie recipe has a long family history that predates even my marriage to Buck. Goldstein family lore has it that the original version came from "Aunt Nora," who was not actually Buck's aunt but somehow related to his Aunt Pat Papper by marriage. It seems Aunt Pat, who by mysterious means obtained the already famous family recipe, shared it with her then sister-in-law, Grace Goldstein, my mother-in-law. After Buck and I married and it looked liked I was in the family to stay, Grace, in turn, sent me a handwritten copy of "Nora's Brownies" which I still have in my recipe files. I was instructed to never reveal the source of the recipe because it could get Aunt Pat in a lot of trouble. Until now I never have. While researching this history and comparing the original and the production recipe we used in those early days at the Proof, I discovered that Margaret Ann Surber, our founding chef, had obviously amped up the level of chocolate. MA innately understood that one can never have too much chocolate. Thousands are in her debt.
I had the pleasure of a visit from Vagn Nielsen recently and of course, we talked food. With a career at Proof as Executive Chef that has spanned thirty + years, he is a living bearer of the company's long culinary history. He told me that when he does a tasting for clients or even potential staff he likes them to taste something of the history of the company. He shares three desserts: the Chocolate Brownies representing the beginnings, the "Mystery Bar" developed during the 1996 Olympics and finally the Almond Horn, a Danish cookie representing the influence of his homeland.
I am still astonished at when and where someone will reminisce about the brownies. Several years ago I was dining with friends at Bittersweet Restaurant on Martha's Vineyard. We bantered with the talkative waiter as we perused the menus. He let on that he was from Atlanta and Buck responded that I had been the founder of Proof of the Pudding. Right then and there, the waiter literally dropped to his knees tableside in the middle of the restaurant, bowing repeatedly, and started exclaiming about the brownies and roulades. It was clearly a religious experience for him and an embarassing one for me. As the bustling restaurant grew quiet, I, tugging on his sleeve, blushingly urged him to right himself.
Through the years, when our children brought home "special" friends, tasting the brownies was almost as important as meeting their parents. The moment of truth as the first bite was taken was observed with intent interest for the appropriate reaction. How could you really be close to someone who did not melt with pleasure and surprise at that moment? Was there a sigh, a closing of the eyes or a whispered, "OMG?"
I am sharing my own family version of "Medium Rare" Brownies. I have never been good at following directions exactly, even my own, so this is at least the fourth iteration of Nora's brownies and is not the one Proof uses for its mass production of the treat. But you won't be disappointed. You can even substitute gluten-free Cup 4 Cup flour with no noticeable difference. The last time I made them I even added some sea salt just for fun. The flavor key for me in this recipe is to use a high quality chocolate such as Scharffen Berger, Valrhona or Callebaut. The other warning, prominent in Grace Goldstein's handwriting, is to not overbake them. I wait until the surface of the baking brownie just begins to crack before taking them out of the oven. As the pan cools, the gooey center, rich with butter will solidify. These freeze very well and I often wrap a few (or a whole pan), freeze and microwave for an individual treat.
Proof of the Pudding, which is now 35 years old still makes and sell thousands of their recipe each year. A conservative estimate of the number of Proof brownies produced over those years would be at least three quarter of a million brownies!!! I often say I wish I had a nickel for each of them that were sold. But I have gladly settled for the smiles of my family and friends when they walk in the door and smell them just out of the oven.
3 ½ sticks unsalted butter
5 ounces bitter chocolate (I recommend a high quality chocolate such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger,
or Guittard or Callebaut)
5 ounces semisweet chocolate
8 large eggs
3 ½ cups sugar
1¾ cup all-purpose flour ( you can substitute Cup 4 Cup gluten-free flour)
3 ¾ cups walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a small saucepan over very low heat or in the top of a double boiler. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add sugar, then the hot chocolate mixture and vanilla and optional sea salt. Fold in flour, then the walnuts. Pour the batter into two greased and floured 9 x 9-inch pans and bake for approximately 30-35 minutes. The brownies should be chewy, not dry or cake like. Do not overcook!
Makes 32 brownies.