Vanilla or chocolate? If I have to choose--most recently at the ice cream trucks tinkling through my ‘hood—I’m vanilla all the way. My affection for the bean began with Carvel soft-serve (shout out to my East Coasters!), grew with Nilla wafers, and was affirmed with Jell-o instant vanilla pudding after childhood meals. My teenage job torching crème brulées, and eating the rejects, at Chez Pierre sealed the deal.
I’m so vanilla I used to wear it as perfume.
With the scented oil dabbed on my neck and wrists, I once got stopped by a rotund customs’ officer, who queried “Are you hiding cookies in your carry-on?” Like a slobbering dog on the hunt for drugs, he sniffed me hungrily, ignoring my pleas that I wasn’t packing any baked goods. Though awkward, this incident revealed the root of my chocolate-chip cookie predilection: vanilla.
Imagine my delight when I discovered blondies. The original, pre-cocoa cookie bar unfettered by chocolate. Sans chips, my taste buds could hone in on my oh-so-cherished vanilla, as well as brown sugar and butter, the delicious duo behind butterscotch. As Melissa Clark remarks in Saveur, the “inside of a just-cooked blondie is one step away removed from raw cookie dough." I second that emotion.
A few weekends ago, I offered to bake blondies for a pool party. Normally, my go-to guy is Mark Bittman – who smartly taught me that the addition of bourbon transforms the bar into a boozy delight. Yet, my online search for the recipe led me down a blondie hole, revealing a dizzying degree of variations. Thin or thick pan? To brown or melt the butter? Like its chocolate-chip cookie cousin, the options were endless to this seemingly simple dessert. I had to experiment.
Luckily, I had a good batch of taste testers, with my childhood pals as the party guests and my brother in town belatedly celebrating his birthday. I chose two blondies from Food52 the community-based recipe blog I peruse often. The first was a hybrid of my beloved Bittman. The second aptly came from Cook’s Illustrated, the nerdy tome of recipe testing and inspiration behind my dessert lab. (How delighted I was to discover that this version was posted by my friend’s daughter, Food52’s former managing editor, Brette Warshaw. The food world is small. )
To minimize variables, I kept to like-minded ingredients: flour, brown sugar, butter, salt, eggs, and vanilla; considering my love for the latter, I selected two recipes that doubled the normal vanilla ratio. Both teetered on under-cooking, treading into the aforementioned raw dough territory I so enjoy. Being a Pecan Sandies-lover, pecans were picked for my nut. Here were the differences:
Pan Butter Sugar
Cooks 9x13 (thin) melted light brown
Bittman 8x8 (thick) browned dark brown
The results? The Cook’s Illustrated was butterscotch-y, moist, cookie-like, and dare I say light, if you can use such an adjective when baked goods are involved. Bittman’s were dense (fudge comes to mind), hearty, and rich with molasses. Both blondies were stellar, but there was no clear favorite among my tasters; like sports in elementary school, everybody won. I preferred Bittman’s, whose complexity was redolent of whole grains, even though the flour was as white as snow. Which blondie are you?
Thick/Molasses/Hearty (adapted from Mark Bittman's Butterscotch Brownies)
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
4 teaspoons good-quality vanilla extract (I used Trader Joe's bourbon vanilla)
1 3/4cups dark brown sugar
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped and toasted
Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Swirl it around a few times. It will foam and spatter. After 3 to 4 minutes, it will start to smell nutty. Don’t walk away. It’s ready when the sizzling quiets down and you see little brown bits drop to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a large bowl. Cool completely (about 30 minutes).
Heat oven to 350° F. Prepare your 8 by 8-inch baking pan with butter and flour, parchment paper, or aluminum foil. Set aside.
Whisk together flour and salt. In another bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla. Set aside.
Add brown sugar to the cooled butter. Mix with a wooden spoon for about a minute.
Add egg/vanilla mixture to butter/sugar mixture. Mix until combined and shiny, about 20 seconds.
Add flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Mix until there are still a few pockets of flour visible.
Add pecans. Mix until evenly distributed and all flour pockets are gone, but be careful not to over-mix! Spoon dough into your prepared baking pan. Spread evenly with the back of your wooden spoon (it will keep its shape). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. You can’t do the toothpick test with this because it always comes out clean. Instead, look for a crispy top that's just starting to crack. Firm slightly-browned edges. And when you press on the center, you don’t want it to feel really soft. Don't stress. You can always throw it back in later. Just know that once it's cool, it will firm up quite a bit. I'd veer on the under-cooked for this.
Remove from the oven. Cool completely before removing from the pan. Cut into desired sizes. Can keep a few days in an airtight container (store with a piece of bread to keep them fresh). Or, they freeze well for future snacking.
Thin/Butterscotch/Light (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
A note from Cooks Illustrated: Be very careful not to overbake the blondies; they dry out easily and will turn hard. Start checking the oven a couple of minutes before they will be done.
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (7 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used Trader Joe's bourbon vanilla)
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped and toasted (4 ounces)
Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. 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, 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). Spray foil-lined pan with nonstick cooking spray (or grease with butter)
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 over-bake! 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.