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Ever since I started making homemade brownie mix, I've wanted to nail a vegan variation. Not because I'm vegan myself, but because I enjoy the process. It's only when I remove an ingredient that I can truly understand its role and how essential it is (or isn't) for success.
That knowledge makes me a better baker and recipe developer overall, which I find to be a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself. But, on a personal level, many of my friends are vegan, lactose intolerant, or have children who can't eat eggs. I love being able to whip up a dessert that everyone can enjoy, without qualification.
Which brings me to these chocolate brownies, which are chewy around the edges, fudgy in the middle, and glossy on top. They're vegan brownies, to be sure, but unless you announce that fact at a party, no one would ever have to know.
My original recipe starts with refined coconut oil to make a shelf-stable mix, but it's spiked with malted milk powder to create some of the toasty, brown flavors that butter would normally provide.
I knew from experience with my vegan chocolate chip cookies that a bit of dry malt extract can play the same role in a nondairy formula, making it an easy swap. Look for DME in home brew shops or online; my favorite is Sparkling Amber from Briess.
I also knew that I could trade the coconut oil in that recipe for aromatic cocoa butter, an ingredient that's readily available these days in health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods. Aside from giving my vegan brownies a head start in the flavor department, cocoa butter is quite firm at room temperature, providing more structure to the eggless brownies.
Eggs play a wide variety of roles in baked goods. In some recipes, like chocolate chip cookies, they serve primarily to bind and hydrate the dough. In others, like an angel food cake, eggs provide the batter with volume and loft. In other recipes, like carrot cake, they offer structural support. And sometimes, as in my original brownie recipe, eggs do all of the above, while also emulsifying the rich batter.
Emulsification is, in short, joining two dissimilar substances (generally oil and water) into a smooth, homogenous mix. Eggs do this so well because they contain a lot of lecithin, a substance that's attracted to both oil and water. Without that unifying force, a pan of my brownie batter would turn into a bubbling cauldron of water and oil in the oven.
Rather than using high-moisture products like fresh soy milk and tofu, or something with the fibrous quality of a soybean purée, I use powdered soy milk as an emulsifier for a shelf-stable, vegan brownie mix. Most any brand will do; I use one called Now Foods the most, but I like Druids Grove as well.
Aside from the cocoa butter, dry malt extract, and soy milk powder, the rest of the brownie mix looks exactly like my original recipe: organic powdered sugar, high-fat Dutch cocoa, dark chocolate, flour, and salt, with a pinch of espresso powder for depth. The vegan recipe also includes a tiny bit of baking powder to make up for the gentle puff eggs would normally provide.
The technique itself is even simpler than the original, since there's no coconut oil that you have to handle with care. Everything goes into a food processor, where the mix is ground until powdery and fine, with no discernible lumps of chocolate or cocoa butter.
Because it's so important that the chocolate and cocoa butter are ground as fine as the flour, a food processor is essential for this recipe (we've reviewed our favorites here).
Technically, the chocolate could be grated with a Microplane, but cocoa butter is typically sold in chips or chunks rather than bars. What's more, cocoa butter is extremely hard at room temperature, making it difficult to grate, even if it came in a conveniently sized chunk. For that reason, it's virtually impossible to powderize cocoa butter without a food processor.
As with my original brownie mix, the prepared vegan brownie mix can be transferred to an airtight container. It will keep on a shelf at room temperature up until the date stamped on the package of cocoa butter itself. Even better, the high melting point of cocoa butter also makes the mix more stable when room temperature edges into the upper 80s.
Whether you want to make brownies the moment the mix is prepared or stash it in the pantry for a while, the process couldn't be simpler: Stir in boiling water and a splash of vanilla extract.
If the brownie mix is freshly made, this can be done right in the food processor, but it will come together just as easily by hand. Just keep at it until no lumps of dry mix remain. Once the mix is relatively smooth, scrape it into an eight-inch square cake pan lined with parchment.
The batter will seem thinner when made in a food processor and thicker when stirred together by hand, but these textural differences won't affect the brownies. In either case, spread the batter into an even layer.
Bake at 350°F until the brownies are puffed, glossy, and firm around the edges. In an accurate oven, this will take about 35 minutes in an 8- by 8-inch aluminum pan.
The structure of the vegan brownies will continue to develop as they cool, so try to let them hit room temperature before cutting or at least hold off until they're no warmer than 80°F. Prior to that, they may seem gummy and wet, but with time, they'll set into a vegan brownie that's chewy, fudgy, and firm.
Whether you're baking for yourself or for a friend with specific dietary concerns, this is a recipe that will satisfy everyone's craving for chocolate brownies without any caveats or disclaimers. It's more than a good vegan brownie, or a good eggless brownie, or a good nondairy option.
It's a good brownie, period, with a complex chocolate flavor from a combination of Dutch cocoa and dark chocolate, bolstered by the aroma of cocoa butter and vanilla, with the sort of delicate, papery crust that sets brownies apart from cake.