I used to have this recipe memorized. Starting from about age 16, these brownies were a mainstay in my nascent baker's repertoire, such that I could make them blindfolded. Though, why would I ever want to make them blindfolded? They are almost (almost!) as gorgeous to look at as they are scrumptious to taste.
Since it always seems to be about a man, I first made a batch of these brownies for a high school boyfriend. I spied them on the cover of the March 1990 issue of "Food & Wine" in all their chocolaty goodness and towering height such that I swore I could smell them as though they were on a plate in front of me and not beckoning me, two-dimensionally, from a magazine page. (This particular issue also features a story about "Learning to cook after divorce," which I must say I've never noticed until now and is a rather interesting choice for the cover.) Mom has one of those pull-down recipe-holders mounted under her kitchen cabinets, and this magazine has been sitting on that little retractable shelf since the issue was published in 1990. That's 18 years, folded open to the page containing this recipe. It was not hard to find this "Food & Wine" when I wanted to consult it again for this post, which should give you a fairly good idea of how often we've baked these brownies in nearly two decades.
Once I learned how easy and quick this brownie recipe was, nothing stopped me from making them for various friends, family members, the boyfriend (again and again), strangers who passed by the house, etc. It was my standard baked good: a from-scratch recipe about which I could brag to less-culinarily-inclined teenagers who most likely did not care about being culinarily-inclined.
Beautiful in its simplicity in terms of hardware, the recipe requires only one saucepan, a wooden spoon and a brownie pan. No bundt cake pans, no copper bowls, no pandoro molds, no dough hooks. Though all that specialty equipment that was waiting for me, just around the epicurean bend, it was too early in my chronological and culinary life to possess such glorious and specific kitchenware. This brownie recipe was just right for my 16-year-old self to exploit for romantic and social purposes: melt some butter and chocolate; stir in sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour and salt; pour into pan; bake; wait to cool; impress people.
In the years since I was 16 (and somehow, quite unbelievably, that was more than half my life ago), I have found many occasions to bake these brownies. But given how easy they are, you really don't need an occasion. You are just as likely to impress yourself with these brownies as you are to win friends and influence people. They lean toward cake territory, but if you are careful not to overcook them, do retain some fudgy bits here and there. The recipe calls for nuts, and I believe it was these brownies that instilled in me the somewhat unreasonable expectation that everyone should like nuts. I don't have a lot of patience for people who say they don't (allergies are another story), so I was resolute in never omitting the nuts from these brownies. I still put them in every time; sorry, nut-haters.
The next time you are inclined to reach for a brownie-mix-in-a-box, do your very best to control yourself, put the box down and step away from the supermarket shelf. This recipe is just as easy and quick, tastes heaps better than the ready-made stuff and, best of all, you can tell people (honestly!) that you made them from scratch. Said people might not stick with you forever (note: I did not marry my high school boyfriend), but they will be impressed by what you can do with one pot, one spoon, one pan and a handful of pantry staples.
Adapted from "Food & Wine"
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 generous c. walnuts, coarsely chopped (about 2 oz.) [OK, OK: optional]
1/2 generous c. pecans, coarsely chopped (about 2 oz.) [OK, OK: optional]
In a large saucepan, heat the butter over low heat until it's half-melted. Add the chocolate and stir until the butter and chocolate are completely melted and combined. Be sure not to burn this mixture; nobody likes burnt chocolate and the friends you might be trying to win with this recipe might just run the other way. Remove the butter and chocolate from the heat and stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon until incorporated.
Using the wooden spoon, beat in the eggs, 1 at a time, stirring after each addition until the eggs are fully incorporated and the chocolate mixture is shiny. This will take a little bit of work with the wrist, but be patient: it will come together. Stir in the vanilla extract. Add the flour and salt all at once and mix until blended. Stir in the chopped walnuts and pecans (if using).
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the brownies are slightly firm to the touch and a toothpick or bamboo skewer inserted in the center indicates that they're moist (but not dry!). Do not over bake. Let the brownies cool completely in the pan.
Cut into 35 smaller bars, or about 20 big ones that are totally rich and painfully filling.