Creating a new baking recipe can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day. Not February 2nd, but the Bill Murray movie, which carries lessons for life, love, and apparently recipe developing.
The first time I make a recipe, I happily measure, mix, and stir as my way towards a new creation. The second time, frustrated and fearful of a long process, I rush through, anxious to get to the other side and hopeful that it works out. Here is where it might be easy to call something good enough and move on. But, what is the point of putting another recipe out into the world if it’s not just right? I pull the sugar and flour containers back out and get started on batch #3. This one turns out perfect! But wait, the brownie layer is meekly thin and overpowered by the cream cheese top.
Now, I’m making the same recipe for the fourth time, and I’m questioning the entire process of blogging and recipe development as I spoon and level my flour. What is the point of putting another brownie out there? Will anyone appreciate the three pounds of butter, four pounds of chocolate and countless cups of sugar that have gone into perfecting this recipe?
Just as I’m hitting a low, waiting for the last batch to come out of the oven, I remember: The point of blogging or creating a recipe (or doing whatever you feel pulled towards doing) is to put something into the world because something in you needs to. (Check out Elle Luna’s great article The Crossroads of Should and Must for more on this.)
I fixated on my ideal cream cheese brownie and I feel like I finally nailed it. Pockets of tangy cream cheese dip through each bite of cake, which is studded with pockets of melted chopped chocolate. The ratio of top to bottom is well-balanced: about 1/3 cream cheese to 2/3 chocolate. Finally, I’m released from the repetitions and ready to share the recipe.
I’ve been working on my brownie recipe for years, and the base of this one has grown out of countless tests, tweaks, and revisions. The topping is inspired by a Cook’s Illustrated recipe and I drew on their method for swirling the chocolate batter in without too much mixing. The secret is pulling out a 1/2 cup of batter before adding the cream cheese layer. After scraping the remaining batter into the pan, you top it with the cream cheese mixture. Smooth this out almost to the edges, then dollop with the remaining 1/2 cup batter. Then, use a chopstick or the tip of a butter knife to swirl the batter into the cream cheese.
I could look at those swirls all day. They are mesmerizing! There’s something so satisfying about creating something that is not only delicious, but beautiful. Now what are you waiting for? Time to get swirling!
The Ultimate Cream Cheese Brownie Recipe
Recipe by Lindsay Hunt
Makes 24 brownies
For the cream cheese topping:
8 ounces cream cheese
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon fine salt
For the brownies:
3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces, plus more for the pan
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
¾ cup natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
2 ¼ teaspoons fine salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (1 cup)
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cup packed dark or light brown sugar (dark is recommended)
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped (1 cup)
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Make the cream cheese topping
Warm the cream cheese in the microwave or in a saucepan over low heat, whisking frequently. The cream cheese should be completely smooth with no lumps remaining.
Transfer to a medium bowl and whisk in the sour cream, flour, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Set aside.
Make the brownies
Preheat the oven to 350º F with a rack set in the center. Butter a metal or glass 9-by-13-inch pan. Line with parchment paper with two flaps overhanging on the sides long, then butter the parchment.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa, salt, and baking powder; set aside.
Combine the unsweetened chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler set over a pan of simmering water. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted, 3 to 5 minutes. (You can also do this in the microwave)
Transfer the chocolate-butter mixture to a large bowl. Whisk in both sugars and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking until incorporated and scraping down the sides as necessary. Stir in the vanilla.
Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Fold in the semisweet chocolate. Remove ½ cup of the batter and set aside. Scrape the remaining batter into the prepared pan and smooth with an offset spatula.
Dollop the cream cheese mixture evenly over the brownie batter. Smooth with a clean offset spatula. Dollop the remaining brownie batter on the cream cheese layer. Use a chopstick or the tip of a butter knife to swirl the batter and cream cheese. Do not overmix.
Bake the brownies, rotating once, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting into 24 squares.