The devoted brownie baker and recipe developer explains why these bar cookies are so beloved— and, she shares the history of brownies, as well.
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leah hyslop mixing brownie batter kitchen
Credit: Courtesy of Leah Hyslop

You might think that there isn't anything special about a brownie, it's just another bar cookie. Leah Hyslop is here to tell you that whether you're celebrating, in need of consoling, or somewhere in between, there's a brownie to mark the occasion. "Brownies are the great uniformer," she says. "Whatever kind of person you are or whatever kind of day you've had, brownies can bring joy."

In her new book The Brownie Diaries, My Recipes for Happy Times, Heartbreak and Everything in Between ($20.24, bookshop.org), the food writer and editor shares more than 50 brownie recipes. There are "First Day on the Job Blondies," "Did I Mention I'm a Vegan?" Brownies, "I Like to Recycle Brownies," even brownie pancakes and brownie mudslides.

"Brownies are such a blank canvas," said Hyslop, who started recipe testing for the book just as the world was locking down due to the pandemic in 2020. "I thought of the moods and moments that everyone can relate to, like the brownie I wanted when I broke up with someone or the panic you feel when you're having people over for dinner, and someone says, 'Oh, I'm gluten-free."

Yes, there is a gluten-free brownie recipe in her book; and there's a recipe for brownies with dates, oats, and almonds for when you don't feel like turning on your oven. Hyslop also shares the science of why brownies work, including tips on how to swap out different ingredients—just don't mess with the number of the eggs, she says.

She digs into the history of the brownie which is, as so often is the case, a bit of a mystery. The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago claims it invented the first brownie in the late 1800s when a group of socialites asked the chef to make them boxed lunches with a small cake that could be eaten neatly with their hands for dessert. The chef made what became known as a chocolate brownie with walnuts and apricot glaze. Hyslop writes about this dessert and other things like the provenance of chocolate. "I love a bit of trivia, and I couldn't resist sneaking some in," she admits.

While grocery store shelves are packed with boxes of brownie mix, Hylsop—who grew up in England, was introduced to the classic sweet treat later in life that most of us here in the U.S.—reminds us of the magic of homemade brownies. The ability to control the texture quality of chocolate and have the recipe be as complicated or as simple as you need it to be is a joy. Plus, Hyslop's warm commentary on each brownie makes this more than simply a cookbook. It's a book you want to read with a glass of wine or a cup of tea and reminisce about your first job, or that summer full of too many pina coladas, or even a first love.

Whether you're team fudgy brownie or cakey brownie, or all about the underrated chewy brownie, you'll find recipes to love and plenty of laughs and lots of comfort in The Brownie Diaries.

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