Brownies inspired by Sylvia


My friend Susan’s mother passed away recently, just two weeks shy of her 99th birthday.  With her went the secret to some of the best brownies I’ve ever eaten.

Sylvia Cohen was a charming, gracious and accomplished woman who graduated from Radcliffe in an era when few females went to college. As was expected at the time, she gave up her personal ambitions to raise three children and support the academic career of her husband, Nathan Cohen, who went on to become dean of the School of Social Welfare at UCLA.  She was a lifelong defender of social justice and surely wouldn’t have considered her brownies a significant contribution to the world.

Yet her incomparable brownies came up time and again as her family remembered this remarkable woman last month.  Although Sylvia had shared her recipe freely, no one else had ever achieved the voluptuous texture that she did using the most common ingredients: Baker’s unsweetened chocolate, margarine, sugar and flour.  Her brownies were dense, moist and incredibly silky with a generous portion of walnuts for a crunchy counterpoint.

“It was the consistency that was so amazing,” Susan recalls.

meltingchocSome things are clear.  Everyone knew that Sylvia undercooked her brownies.  As soon as they came out of the oven, she topped them with waxed paper, bundled them in a towel and whisked them into the freezer.  When they were cooled, she trimmed off the edges, keeping only the fudgy center, before returning them to the freezer.  In later years, she served them straight out of the freezer, which only seemed to improve their already irresistible texture.

But why couldn’t anyone else get the same results?  I’ve made variations on the recipe several times in the last couple of week and I suspect, in part, it may be an issue of ingredients. No one I know still cooks with margarine, much less the same brand Sylvia preferred.  Some family members think she might have used Imperial, the brand with a crown on the box.

Flour, too, can make a great difference.  A moderate protein flour, such as bleached all-purpose Gold Medal, delivers a more tender crumb than the higher protein unbleached flour that many cooks use today.

batterinpanTechnique and experience also are critical.  Chocolate is a delicate ingredient and needs to be treated gently, warmed just enough to melt.  Alice Medrich, who knows chocolate better than anyone, calls for melting chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set in a wide skillet of barely simmering water so you can monitor the temperature of the water easily.

Perhaps just as important, only Sylvia knew what her brownies should look like when they were done.   By trial and error, I finally decided the edges should be set and look a little dry while the center should have lost most of its gloss and be just firm enough to touch lightly.  A toothpick stuck in the center should come out very moist.

Baking at the right temperature is essential, too.  Since ovens vary widely–mine runs almost 50 degrees colder than what it says on the dial– it’s a good idea to use a thermometer to ensure the correct setting.

abrownieIn the end, it seemed foolish to try to replicate Sylvia’s brownies.  I’m not going to cook with margarine, nor do I want to use ordinary baking chocolate when there’s so much better quality available now.  Instead, I took her brownies as inspiration for a new recipe made with the best ingredients I could find.  I also opted to wrap the baked brownies tightly in heavy duty foil rather than a towel before stashing them in the freezer.  They fit better that way.

If the texture isn’t quite the same, the flavor is remarkable.  Good chocolate–I like Scharffen Berger unsweetened–contributes a fruity note and faint undertones of cinnamon while brown sugar brings a new layer of complexity.

These brownies are my tribute to Sylvia, who proved once again that good food makes great memories.

Makes 16 2-inch square brownies

1 cup walnuts
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter plus more for greasing pan
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate (I like Scharffen Berger), finely chopped
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (see: Note)
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup bleached all-purpose flour
Good quality cocoa for dusting, optional

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Butter an 8-inch square baking pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper long enough to hang over two opposing sides.  You will use the paper to lift the brownies out of the pan after they’ve cooled.

Scatter walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted and aromatic, 5 to 10 minutes.  Remove pan, let walnuts cool, and chop coarsely. Set aside.

Place butter and chopped chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl set over barely simmering water in a wide skillet.  Stir occasionally until both butter and chocolate have melted and blended together.  Mixture should be very smooth and uniform in color.

Remove bowl from water and stir in brown sugar until sugar has melted.  Add vanilla paste and salt, stirring well.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs with whisk until pale yellow and well-blended.  Beat in granulated sugar until mixture is thick and frothy.  Stir egg mixture into chocolate mixture.  Fold in flour until all traces of white have disappeared and batter is smooth.  Stir in chopped walnuts.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top.  Bake 20-25 minutes (start checking at 20 minutes) until the edges appear dry and the center has set and is barely firm to a light touch.

Remove pan from oven, cover top of brownies with a sheet of waxed paper and wrap tightly in aluminum foil to seal.  Place wrapped pan in freezer to chill for at least four hours.  When brownies are chilled through, use the overhanging parchment paper to lift them out of pan.  Cut into 16 squares, place in a plastic storage bag and freeze until ready to serve.

If the tops aren’t as pretty as you would like, dust with a blanket of good quality cocoa before serving.

Note:  Vanilla paste is available at specialty stores such as Sur la Table.  If you can’t find it, good vanilla extract will do.

–Aleta Watson

4 thoughts on “Brownies inspired by Sylvia”

  1. Thank you so much for this tribute!

    The only thing you got wrong is that my mother wouldn’t have loved to think of these brownies as her legacy. She would have been delighted. For her, food and family were intertwined with remembrance. Though she made different recipes than her mother did, and I cook differently than my mother, meals and cooking became a forum for story-telling of other family events and eras. My Aunt Sadie’s chocolate cake, my grandmother’s potato pancakes for the entire extended family… things I ever tasted, yet I heard about many times.

    So, you have passed this bit of our family lore and a remembrance of my mother, Sylvia, to many people whether or not they ever try your version of Sylvia’s Brownies. — Susan

  2. Oh dear. She always was so interested in the world and everyone she met, I feared calling the brownies her legacy would somehow trivialize her other accomplishments. And for the record, I don’t even think of these as a version of her brownies—more a tribute inspired by hers. As we know, only she could make Sylvia’s brownies.

  3. I hope that Susan will see this and possibly be able to help me.

    Thanks to Sylvia, I became a librarian (now retired). I was working at the UCLA School of Nursing in the student affairs office when she was staffing an outpost of the campus counseling office at the School of Medicine across the hall. The job wasn’t a career for me and I decided to stop in at Sylvia’s office hours. She was everything that her friends and family have mentioned here and elsewhere.

    Sylvia decided that I should help out with the Book Exchange that her friend had founded at the UCLA Faculty Center. I wasn’t able to then but have been recruited to help with the annual “culling” (that we librarians call “weeding”) tomorrow morning.

    I’ve been wracking my brain to think of Sylvia’s friend’s name. All I can recall is that she had blonde hair (perhaps with that color on top of a natural gray?). She might even have been a widow at that time (late 1970s). If her husband was also in social welfare, I’m not finding his name in the catalogs from 1970 or 1980.

    I would like so much for Sylvia’s friend to get credit for this wonderful institution. The people managing it now think it was started by someone who actually took over responsibility much later. I think she would be pleased to know that it has grown substantially from the time it was housed in a closet in the downstairs lounge.

    Not only did I improve my scores on the GRE substantially after buying the study guide Sylvia recommended (only one of the things she did that helped me get to the right place in my working life), but I feel that piece of advice also helped many others when I passed it along.

    With great appreciation,


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