Other people’s recipes: Claire Ptak’s Rye Chocolate Brownies

Here in my home office, in front of the bookcase to the left of my desk I used to have a very large pile of cookbooks waiting to be scanned for interesting recipes and ultimately shelved in the kitchen bookcase with the other cookbooks. That pile is now down to just four — and that means I have a lot of new(ish) cookbooks that I am slowly starting to search when I’m looking to make something. Among those cookbooks was Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2015). Ptak is a Californian who now lives and owns a bakery in London, and her cookbook is another entry in the growing list of English cookbooks crossing the pond to North America. This has its good points (yay! more recipes with flour measured by weight!) but also some downsides (hmmm, I don’t have a dish with anything like those dimensions — or, as in yesterday’s recipe for korvapuusti, where TF do I find fresh yeast?!). One of the recipes that immediately intrigued me was “Rye Chocolate Brownies” (p. 153); it’s unusual to see rye used in baked goods aside from bread, and rye bread in this country nearly always has caraway in it, which I hate, so I don’t normally even keep it on hand. In the headnote to this recipe, Ptak credits Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine with the idea of using rye and chocolate together; Violet’s brownies were originally made with spelt flour.

Mise en place
Of course we always start with a mise en place. Clockwise from bottom left: 300 g of Valrhona Caraïbe, chopped into rough chunks for melting; 150 g of unsalted butter; 50 g of cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process after noting that the recipe does not use baking soda for leavening); 200 g of light brown sugar and 200 g of granulated sugar (Ptak calls for “unrefined” sugar but doesn’t say anywhere what she actually means by that — my view is that sugar is only unrefined when it’s still inside the cane); 200 g whole rye flour; pure vanilla extract (1 tbl is used); 1 tsp salt; ½ tsp baking powder; and four eggs (as close as I could come to the 200 g that is called for with the eggs in my fridge — the recipe calls for “medium” eggs, but I know that egg sizing is not the same in Britain and the US).

Chocolate and butter melting in double boiler
The recipe proceeds along familiar lines, if you followed my “Browniefest” series from a couple of years ago; I forget what I called this particular method back then, but it’s a lot like making a genoise, except much denser (and without the careful folding). Numerous brownie recipes follow this same procedure, starting with melting the fats (chocolate and butter) together in a double boiler or microwave. I used the double boiler in this case, just because it’s a bit slower and easier to monitor. The melted fats should be allowed to cool a bit before they are used.

Dry ingredient mixture
All the dry ingredients (rye flour, salt, cocoa powder, baking powder) are just whisked together until well mixed.

Egg foam
The eggs, sugars, and vanilla are whipped together in a stand mixer until the mixture is light in color and has expanded significantly in volume. The melted chocolate-butter mixture is then drizzled in, with the mixer running, followed by the dry ingredients, mixed just until they are combined. I’d actually suggest taking this off the mixer and folding in the dry ingredients by hand, although it’s not what Ptak calls for, nor what I did this time, just because it’s a lot easier to ensure you don’t overmix the batter that way.

Brownie batter in mixer
The finished batter is quite viscous and sticky. Ptak says to pour it into a prepared, parchment-lined 8×12 baking pan — I suppose 20×30 cm may be a common size in English kitchens, but I don’t have anything like that. The closest I could come is a quarter-sheet pan, which is just about eight inches wide, but enough longer than a foot that I was a bit uncertain whether it would work or not. (Of course, the standard baking pans for brownies and other bar cookies on this side of the pond are 8×8, 9×9, and 9×13 inches — the 9×13 is very close to the volume of two 8×8 pans, so it’s common to halve or double recipes intended for these pans.)

Brownie batter in a parchment-lined quarter-sheet pan
As we all know, the thing these days is putting salty and sweet together. After spreading the rather stiff batter onto the parchment (while holding the parchment to keep it from sliding around the pan!), a teaspoon of Maldon sea salt is sprinkled over the top and the brownies are baked in a 355°F (180°C) oven for 20–25 minutes. I took mine out after 21 minutes, but they probably could have stood the whole 25. (And 5 F° is really excess precision; your typical home oven is unlikely to maintain better than a 25 F° range of the set point; many are much much worse.)

Finished pan of brownies cooling on rack
After baking, the brownies must sit in the pan on a wire rack until completely cool. I made sure there was a bit of parchment overhanging one side to ease depanning.

Brownies after portioning
Using the parchment “sling” helps to avoid a multi-flip extraction, which keeps the crinkly surface from being crushed. This recipe — unlike nearly every other brownie recipe I’ve ever tried — actually calls for reasonable (bakery-size) portions, with a specified yield of twelve. That’s vastly easier to achieve than the 18 or 24 brownies many recipes allegedly get from a 9×13 pan, so even before trying one, this recipe rises above my expectations. When passing brownies around at work, however, I found it useful to cut these portions in half, because some people look at a normal bakery serving of brownie and think “I couldn’t possibly eat that much”. (Perhaps that’s how they stay so thin. If that’s the price you have to pay, I’d rather eat brownies, thanks.)

Close-up of single brownie
Seriously. Who can say “no” to that, who is of sound mind and not gluten-intolerant or vegan? These brownies are amazing, and everyone at work loved them, even the salt-hater (after she carefully brushed the Maldon flakes off the top of her serving). This recipe is at least as good as my previous favorite, King Arthur Flour’s whole-wheat double-chocolate brownies, with fewer ingredients and an easier prep.

Single brownie, edge on


Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 2⅔″×3″ rectangle
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 461 Calories from fat 202
% Daily Value
Total Fat 23​g 35%
 Saturated Fat 14​g 68%
Trans Fat 0​g
Cholesterol 82​mg 27%
Sodium 428​mg 18%
Total Carbohydrate 49​g 20%
 Dietary fiber 8​g 31%
 Sugars 31​g
Proteins 7​g 15%
Vitamin A 8%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 4%
Iron 7%
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1 Response to Other people’s recipes: Claire Ptak’s Rye Chocolate Brownies

  1. Gary Wollman says:

    I’ll have to try this recipe sounds good, especially the portion size.

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