"Unsalted butter is the best for baking because you can control the amount of salt used. I don't find that you have to use a super fancy type of butter — if you have it, use it, but it's not totally necessary." For chocolates, Ima says that there are all kinds out there to buy, but she prefers using a Baker's chocolate because it's packaged in small pieces and is easy to use. Since it's not sweetened, it's not an ideal nibbling chocolate. You can get nibbling chocolate for baking, though, in either chips or a bar. The shape doesn't really matter because you are going to melt it down, anyway. She says that the important thing is to taste the chocolate, and try to bake a batch of brownies with the chocolate you always use and then bake a batch with another type to see which you like more and what the difference is. A tasting party with your friends never hurts.
Brownies are simple, but there are also a lot of little things you can do to make them different. Ima suggests changing how much Baker's chocolate you use (which has no sugar) or how much dark chocolate you use. Play with a little more this and a little more that to see how you like it. It's an ongoing, lifelong pursuit and process of exploration to see what you like. And of course, your preferences could change over time depending on what you're in the mood for.
Ima likes to have her ingredients measured out and ready before she begins. Part of this process includes taking her eggs out of the refrigerator as she gets started so that they are at room temperature when the mixing begins. (This doesn't matter as much with butter because you are going to be melting it anyway.) The benefit of this is that you have everything ready to go, and it looks pretty.
Timers come in very handy when you have a lot going on. Ima usually sets her timer for five minutes before the brownies are supposed to be finished — for 30 minutes instead of 35, for example — because you can always bake it for longer, but you can't go back in time.
It's really important to know your oven because there are cold and hot pockets. Does she recommend turning the pan halfway through the cooking time? Not unless you know that your oven has a cold corner.
One thing that's important no matter what kind of brownie you're making is to not overmix; if you overwork the dough the batter won't come out the same. Her mantra for brownies is to incorporate so that it's mixed well enough and just enough. Luckily, the batter is very forgiving (it is chocolate after all), but as you're mixing it in, she says that you'll see that the egg is no longer in pieces and has become part of the batter. Once you get the mix you like, the batter is quite simple, and then you can play around from there.
Ima loves topping brownies with all sorts of treats, like chocolate pieces, marshmallows, or nuts. She says that you can mix the nuts right into the batter if you want them incorporated or press them on top of the pan right before you bake. But if you found that you've already baked the brownie and want a topping, or are really craving a brownie with nuts, then she suggests making a ganache with some cream and chocolate and spreading it on like a frosting. Then you can mix in or add on top whatever you like, such as crushed pretzels, M&M's, sprinkles, or swirl in peanut butter or caramel — the possibilities are endless. As she likes to say, "That's when you become an artist and the brownie is your canvas."
This is one of her favorite questions to ask customers who come to the truck: “Corner, center, or side?” And it’s a great question that you can ask friends at home. They might just think that you are the best host/hostess ever!
Part of Ima's job is quality control, so she has to try everything. One thing Ima loves to do is slice the brownie in half horizontally so that you can make an ice cream sandwich. You can either eat it right away, or for a party, put them in the freezer and then slice them into little squares so they are bite-sized frozen sandwiches. Of course, you can always play around with different types of ice cream, too.
Have fun. If you bake something, people will love it because you made it. Try not to take the process too seriously, because whether its overbaked, underbaked, or too gooey, your friends and family will love it (and you).
Click here to see the Bittersweet Chocolate-Caramel Swirl Brownies recipe (pictured at left).