Thank You Mrs. Palmer

August 12, 2010

I made brownies from a mix the other day. I wanted to see what they were like.  Dump the mix in the bowl, stir in oil and an egg and put it in the oven. Very easy, but so are made from scratch brownies. You have to melt the chocolate with the butter and add some sugar but that’s hardly difficult and you get the added bonus of the smell of melting chocolate.

So how was the taste of the boxed brownies? They weren’t inedible but they definitely weren’t great. They weren’t very chocolaty and had an aftertaste of preservatives. With just a few more steps you can get something so much better.

Brownies, like chocolate chip cookies, are a classic American invention. Many of the desserts we love have English, French or Italian pedigrees but not the brownie.

We indirectly have Bertha Honoré Palmer, a Chicago socialite, to thank for the creation of the brownie. In 1893 she was president of the Board of Lady Managers for The Chicago World’s Fair, held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus‘s arrival in the New World. Mrs. Palmer asked the chef at the Palmer House Hotel to prepare a dessert that wasn’t as large as a piece of cake and could be part of a box lunch. He (I assume it was a man) came up with the brownie.

The chef’s original version included apricot glaze and walnuts but variations appeared soon after.  And we haven’t stopped modifying them since. Each recipe you read is distinct and every recipe has its own way of making them. You can have them with nuts (all kinds but mostly walnuts), dried fruit, white, milk or dark chocolate chips, brown sugar, peanut butter, cream cheese or caramel. There is a store in New York City called The Fat Witch that sells over half a dozen different kinds. Today you can even find brownies at Parisian patisseries.

Obviously the type of chocolate used is a big flavor driver.  Many recipes use unsweetened and some bittersweet. When I make brownies, I like to add some cocoa powder. It deepens the chocolate flavor.

People have strong opinions when it comes to brownies. Fudgy vs. cakey, nuts vs.  no nuts. I am definitely fudgy with no nuts. How do you like your brownies? Who in the city do you think makes a brownie you crave?


  1. Brownies are my very favorite! I didn’t know about the origins and now think Mrs. Palmer’s birthday should be celebrated as a national holiday.

    I think they should be fudgy instead of cakey with no nuts. Chips or add-ins are okay to add occassionally, but plain with lots of chocolate flavor, whether it’s bittersweet, dark, or milk, is the best way to go. Cocoa powder is a great way to deepen the chocolate taste. They shouldn’t need icing either.

    I’ll try almost any brownie put in front of me but, unfortuately, most aren’t all that good. Finding the perfect brownie is a worthwhile lifelong quest!

  2. My favorite type of brownie is fudgy, w/out nuts. Besides homemade, I like Dancing Deer brownies (from Boston or just outside Boston).

  3. Brownies should be fudgy with no nuts. I prefer mine with no glaze or topping, although as a pastry chef many people ask me to make frosted brownies. Homemade rules! Always. I think that would be my dessert of choice for my last meal – the perfect brownie.

  4. I definitely prefer no nuts. And I’m sure it’s a corruption, but my mother used to make homemade “grasshopper” brownies – delicious moist brownies topped with a little bit of mint butter cream frosting, then drizzled with unsweetened chocolate. I can’t even imagine them without thinking of her.

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