A chocolate brownie is one of those desserts that, depending on the vicissitudes of your particular childhood, can take on mythic proportions. Halfway between a wedge of cake a square of fudge, when done right a brownie is a perfect calibration of very good chocolate -- a baker's edible geometry.
Built with whatever chocolate the baker prefers, the brownie is a way to showcase that chocolate but also to translate it -- the relative proportion of flour and butter, eggs and sugar, determining the texture and density of the final product. Some people like cake-y, crumbly brownies, others prefer theirs dense and insanely rich, more closely resembling fudge. Maybe you add nuts to provide a counterpoint to all that cocoa, or a dusting of powdered sugar like snow, or you might just go all in and add a strata of frosting, on the principle that, when it comes to chocolate, more is always better.
Baked in tins or on sheet pans, brownies have been a quintessential American confection since the 19th century. According to Alan Davidson, they first appeared in print in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog -- which is about as American as things get. 116 years later, the brownie is still going strong, not only in your kids' lunchbox and on potluck tables, but in many of the best bakeries and pastry shops in town. Here are a baker's dozen of the very best.
Milk is is the sort of place where you'd expect to find stellar brownies: a retro sweets shop with lots of ice cream and old school goodies. So it should come as no surprise that behind the counter there are not only blondies and peanut butter brownies, but a classic chocolate brownie. And, even better, that these terrific squares, built with 58% Guittard semisweet, are also used in making awesome brownie sundaes. Of course you don't need to get your brownie fix under a mountain of ice cream and chocolate sauce -- but why not? 7290 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-939-6455.
This adorable Sherman Oaks bakery and café has a few kinds of brownies in their pastry case, but it's the chocolate brownies with meringue topping that we liked best. Made with semisweet Cacao Barry chocolate, these are dense and rich, the chocolate notes more sweet than bitter. The topping is a brown sugar meringue that's been run under the brûlée torch, kind of like an excellent marshmallow on top of your mug of cocoa. 13824 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-788-2832.
11. Short Cake
The dessert case at Short Cake, in the Original Farmers Market at the Grove, is the kind of thing you linger over, the plates of pastries and sweets are so utterly pretty that you find yourself ordering a lot more than you might have initially wanted to. Maybe blame the happy cacophany of the espresso machine or the crowds of shoppers -- or the fact that the stuff is so damn good. Short Cake's brownies are fantastic dark squares of intense TCHO chocolate, in fairly unadulterated form. Dense and cakey, these are classic iterations of the comfort dessert. And after you've had a couple, you'll maybe have the energy to tolerate shopping nextdoor. (Frank Sinatra tunes! Fake snow!) 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-761-7976.
Annie Miler's much-loved café and bakery has a surfeit of riches to choose from -- the place is a comfort food treasure trove -- but you'd be remiss to ignore the plate of brownies, which come in both butterscotch and chocolate. The chocolate are of the classic sort, dense squares made with a combination of bittersweet and 99% Scharffen Berger chocolate and loaded with pecans as counterpoint. Find a table. Order a coffee. Turn off your phone. 1751 Ensley Ave., Westwood; 310-552-1080.
Wander into Christine Moore's Pasadena shop around the holidays, and you may be forgiven for forgetting to order your breakfast or lunch, at least until you survey the contents of the shelves and tables -- jams and bottles and books and bags of candies, all gorgeously packaged and all of which you suddenly really, really want. There are the sea salt caramels and enormous marshmallows which built the Little Flower empire, along with all manner of Christmas decorations. Once you calm down, check out the stuff in the pastry case, specifically the brownies. So enormous that they come not only in full-size but in halves, these are thick and relentlessly chocolatey -- built with enormous amounts of Valhrona chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar so that they look kind of like the Christmas decorations that fill the shop. 1424 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; 626-304-4800.
Joan McNamara's bake shop and cafe on Third Street -- and soon to open in Studio City -- is one of those magic places where you tend to lose your mind a little as soon as you walk in the door. The tables and shelves and cases are so loaded with glorious stuff, the white wood and glass and metal design is just so damn pretty, and the food itself is so overwhelming that you tend to order the things you always do, just for the sake of sanity. So don't overlook McNamara's chocolate brownies, made with TCHO chocolate. Dense and dark, not too intimidatingly lofty, these are a classic iteration of the dessert -- and something that goes nicely with any number of McNamara's comfort food main courses. Although, with a cappuccino, they're damn good for breakfast too. 8350 W. Third St., Los Angeles; 323-655-2285.
A tiny storefront in Atwater Village, Sweets For the Soul has many lovely desserts behind the big glass case that takes up most of the footage. But owner Lilly LaBonge's featured confection is the brownie, and she has many iterations of the dessert to chose from. All of the brownies in question are made with Valrhona chocolate, as well as farmers market eggs and organic flour, and so it's really just a matter of tailoring her brownies to your taste. The flourless brownies, made with Manjari chocolate, are stellar, as are those made with Texas pecans and unsweetened chocolate. You can also get vegan brownies and something called an Obama brownie, which has both dark and white chocolate chips, for obvious reasons. Maybe somebody should send a box of them to a few members of Congress as Christmas presents. 3169 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village; 323-668-9338.
A mainstay for a decade on Beverly Blvd. in the center of the city, Susina is the sort of place where you go for coffee and a pastry and maybe end up staying for the afternoon, if you can, lingering over a couple more pastries and cups of coffee. There's that many pastries. Don't be distracted by the shortcakes and tiramisu, the Saint Honore and cheesecake, and forget the humble brownies, stacked in a box above the enormous pastry case. These are short and dense, built with Callebaut chocolate and walnuts -- or absent the nuts and with a thin layer of chocolate frosting instead. More chocolate being a very good solution to most problems. 7122 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-934-7900.
Sqirl, Jessica Koslow's crazy popular toast and jam spot that is far, far more than a toast and jam spot, is like the answer to a hipster lightbulb joke. But it's not so much a question of the lightbulb as it is one of how many hipsters you can cram into an impossibly tiny cafe at any one time and still be able to order and eat your brown rice and sorrel pesto bowl. The answer? A surprising number. While you're waiting -- and you will be waiting -- do not forget to chose a few of Koslow's stunning pastries, which she's conveniently placed right next to the cashier so you won't miss them. The cakes and tarts are remarkable -- and so are the brownies, made with Guittard 65% chocolate and not very much else. These are more cake than fudge, with no nuts or frosting or anything to distract you from the chocolate-y goodness. 720 N. Virgil Ave., East Hollywood; 213-394-6526.
4. Euro Pane
You will be forgiven for overlooking the brownies among the surfeit of riches behind the glass at Euro Pane, Sumi Chang's much-loved Pasadena bakery and café. The giant French macarons are flashier, the kouign-amann and tarts more artistic. But you'd be missing out on a serious ode to chocolate. Made from 64% Noel and Van Leer semi-sweet chocolate and laced with chopped walnuts, Chang's brownies are insanely rich iterations of the classic treat. These are very, very fudge-y brownies, silky smooth and incredibly intense. 950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; 626-577-1828.
It should surprise no one that pastry chef extraordinaire Karen Hatfield does not make an ordinary brownie at Sycamore Kitchen, her Hollywood bakery and casual restaurant. Sure, she's doing comfort food here -- unlike the plated desserts she makes at nearby Hatfield's -- but these are not your mother's brownies. Maybe an homage to the flourless chocolate cake on so many dessert menus, or maybe a gift to the gluten-free brownie lover, Sycamore Kitchen's brownies are flourless. Made with brown rice flour and pecan flour instead of the customary wheat flour, and 70% Callebaut chocolate, these are more cake-y than fudge-y -- and proof that comfort food can be elevated and, well, comfortable at the same time. 143 S. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; (323) 939-0151.
Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne's Brentwood outpost of empire is a lot more than just a restaurant: It's a brunch place, a to-go and catering resource, a gorgeous dinner destination, a bread shop with a daily baking schedule, a sometimes stop for President Obama and a glorious place to read the paper over a sandwich. It's also a great sweet shop, with a giant case of pastries and cakes and chocolates -- and fantastic old-fashioned chocolate brownies. Loaded with three kinds of Cordillera Columbia chocolate, they're made with 100% and 65% chocolate in the batter, and then dolloped with melted white chocolate -- which look kind of like bits of Macadamia nuts. The result is a perfect balance of a brownie's cake-y and fudge-y qualities. (And don't forget to get a loaf of bread on the way out.) 11648 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; 310-806-6464.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Zoe Nathan and her bakery crew know how to hit the sweet spot between comfort food and fancy desserts, using pastry chef techniques to rework classic pies and cookies and breads. The chocolate brownies at Huckleberry exemplify this: enormous thick slabs of moist cake-y chocolate. Made from 66% Valrhona, they use no leavening, an "insanely small amount of flour" and proportionally large quantities of butter and eggs. Sometimes topped with sliced almonds, sometimes with other nuts, sometimes plain, these are über brownies, your Mom's afterschool snacks reworked as a chocoholic's Platonic ideal. 1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-451-2311.
Want access to our Best Of picks from your smartphone? Download our free Best Of app for the iPhone or Android phone from the App Store or Google Play. Don't forget to check out the full Best of L.A.® online at LA Weekly Best Of.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.