Growing up in a middle-class American family with an American meat-and-potatoes diet, Nestle, Duncan Hines and Hershey’s essentially ruled my chocolate universe.
As far as I was concerned, cake, pudding and muffins were made using box mix. My favorite snacks included buckets of generic ice cream, graham crackers with canned frosting, bacon-flavored easy cheese and pretty much any awful sludge compartmentalized and neatly sealed within cling wrap and found in the freezer. TV dinners were reserved only for babysitting nights or when they went on sale at the grocery store. Starting with the main dish, I would neatly finish every bit of soggy mashed potatoes, pigs in a blanket, flavorless corn in a puddle of murky starch water, eagerly anticipating the final course: a doughy, preservative-laden, lab-created monstrosity that companies had the gall to call a brownie.
Little did I know there was a whole world of brownies out there somewhere beyond rubbery dough cubes and boxed quick mix, smothered under ice cream, packed full of nuts, swirled with caramel and made from more kinds of chocolate than I knew had ever existed.
Perhaps it was this upbringing that drove me to the opposite end of the spectrum: the commercial kitchen, a world of gateau au chocolat, gianduja and all treats fanciful and cacao-laced, brownies included (only made with real chocolate).
Throw a rock and you will hit a place that serves some variation of the brownie. Though pie and cake are more highly regarded as desserts due to their association with special occasions, brownies maintain a special place in the hearts of Americans in a quieter way: wrapped neatly in a lunch box, eaten straight out of the pan after an especially crappy day, or brought over to neighbors as a housewarming gift.
Alison Collins serves up a signature brownie at Boots, her bakery/lounge mash-up that has since become the holy land to vegans, those with celiac disease and others with various dietary restrictions. Everything she serves is either vegan, gluten-free or both.
“I just make everything that way so that whoever comes in can have just about anything,” she says.
Boots’ signature boozy brownie ($3.95) is one of the many creations to come out of the mind of Collins, who aims to make her food “vegan but you wouldn’t know it.”
When creating the brownie, she not only had to find a proper binding agent as well as the perfect flour mixture to create a a chewy, gooey treat. If you have ever experienced the joy (or lack thereof) of gluten-free baking, you know that it can be a royal pain the ass.
Black bean puree was tried and rejected due to its overpowering earthiness when combined with chocolate. Bean flours of every kind were also crossed off the list. Finally, Collins was able to make the magic happen with a perfect powdery fine flour ratio, and silken tofu allowed a clean, sweet chocolate flavor and unmatched dense, chewy texture.
What makes the cherry on top of this proverbial brownie sundae is that she finishes the fudgy squares off post-bake with a dangerous combo of Tia Maria, caramel whiskey and chocolate vodka.
“You know, I would make everything in here boozy if I could,” she laughs. Teetotalers and kiddies are not forgotten, though, as she always keeps a stash in the back unsoaked for those who just like their brownie sober.
And how has the public responded to her flour-free, egg-free, butter-free answer to an all-American classic?
“Well, let’s just say if there aren’t any in the deli case I’ll hear about it.”