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Famed Palmer House brownie remixed
Deep dish pizza. Shrimp de Jonghe. Chicken Vesuvio. All Chicago culinary classics with enduring spots on restaurant menus. Yet another, arguably as important to the history of the city’s eats, isn’t seen as much: the Palmer House brownie.
An iconic symbol of the city and its role hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the brownie was created in Chicago, the story goes. Bertha Palmer, president of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers, is said to have asked the hotel chef for a dessert to serve at the exposition — and thus the Palmer House chocolate fudge brownie was born. Nearly 125 years later, we decided it was time for an update.
We asked Alison Cates, the 2017 Jean Banchet Award-winning pastry chef formerly at Honey’s, to put a new spin on the recipe, last published in the Tribune in 2004. Her approach was to keep much of the base the same, making a few tweaks, and update the topping of walnuts and an apricot glaze.
“I liked the original brownie recipe,” Cates. “The base is really solid. It just needed some salt. And I wanted to keep it a little bit more exciting but still approachable enough, so people won’t be scared making it.”
Cates used bittersweet chocolate rather than the semisweet called for in the original recipe. And she avoided “super-expensive” chocolate because of the high percentage of sugar in the recipe.
“I think that’s kind of a waste,” she said, referring to using high-end chocolate here, “but staying in the bittersweet realm is smart because usually brownie recipes have a high amount of sugar in them and you don’t want to add extra sugar (with a sweeter chocolate).”
Cooks trying the recipe should be careful melting the chocolate, because scorched chocolate would have to be replaced. Cates brings the water up to a simmer, turns the heat off and then puts the bowl with the chocolate over the water for melting.
For the topping, Cates went with a fig chutney and toasted macadamia nuts, a combo she used in a dessert at Honey’s.
“I love macadamia nuts, and I think they are completely underutilized. You don’t see them a lot in pastries, so I thought they’d be fun,” she said. You could, if you wish, substitute lightly salted and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
Cates thought a fig chutney would have an acidity and a brightness to counter the brownie’s chocolate richness and offer more interest than a glaze made with apricot preserves.
What to pair with these brownies? Cates suggests a glass of port.
Macadamia Nut Brownies With Fig Chutney Glaze
Adapted by Mark Graham in the Tribune test kitchen from a recipe by pastry chef Alison Cates, who herself was updating the Palmer House brownie.
Prep: 45 minutes
Cook: 52 minutes
Cool: 3 hours
Makes: 12 brownies
1 bag (12 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips, 63 percent cacao
11/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, cut in tablespoon-size pieces
1 cup sugar
1 cup cake flour
2 teaspoons, each: baking powder, salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3/4 cup (4 ounces) macadamia nuts, lightly toasted, whole or roughly chopped
2 cups dried figs, stemmed, quartered
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup water
1 vanilla bean, split
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon gelatin
1 cup water
For the brownies, lightly grease the bottom of a 9-by-12-inch straight-sided baking pan; line with parchment paper. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Melt chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until smooth and very shiny. (The water level should be low enough so that it does not touch the bottom of the bowl.)
Stir together in a separate bowl the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt until thoroughly blended. Add the chocolate mixture; mix on low speed with an electric mixer or a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl during mixing as needed, about 4 minutes. Add eggs; mix on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Batter will be thick.
Spread batter evenly in the prepared pan, using an offset spatula; top with macadamia nuts, pressing them lightly into the batter. Bake until just set, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan set on a wire rack, about 1 hour. Refrigerate until cold, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the chutney. Heat figs, vinegar, water, vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed and figs have softened, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat; discard vanilla bean and cinnamon sticks. Pulse fig mixture in a food processor to make a chunky chutney, about 5 pulses.
For the glaze, bloom the gelatin in the water, 5 minutes. Stir together fig chutney and gelatin mixture in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat; simmer, stirring frequently, 2 minutes. While hot, spread glaze with a pastry brush in a thin layer over the chilled brownies. Chill until set, about 2 hours. Cut into 12 pieces to serve.
Nutrition information per brownie: 508 calories, 31 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 62 mg cholesterol, 61 g carbohydrates, 44 g sugar, 6 g protein, 486 mg sodium, 6 g fiber