20 January 2010

Brownies, French-style

Adapting and converting French recipes into American measures and methods is not straightforward. The same is true in the opposite direction, American to French. American recipes give amounts for most ingredients by volume — a cup of this and a half cup of that — while French recipes specify non-liquid quantities by weight. I don't normally do all these conversions for my cooking at home.

By the way, with all the recipes available on the Internet these days, one thing Americans, Australians, and British cooks need to realize is that a cup is not always a cup. A pint is not always the pint you think it is.

Weighing ¾ cup (U.S.) of sugar...

Specifically, a British cup is 10 fluid ounces, and a British pint is 20 oz. An American cup is 8 fluid ounces, and an American pint is 16 oz. ("American" here means "North American", including English-speaking Canada.) Cups, pints, quarts, and gallons, then, are 20% larger in the British (a.k.a. Imperial) system, compared to American measures. That can make a huge difference, especially in baking.

...and ¾ cup + 2 Tbsp. of cocoa

In the French system, weights are specified in milligrams, grams, and kilograms. When I say "the French system" I'm not talking about the whole francophone world, however. In Québec, quantities that in France would be given as weights are often specified by volume — but in milliliters or decilitres, not cups and fluid ounces. I saw a French cooking show about Québec a few days ago, and the French host was surprised that amounts of flour were given in milliliters, not grams.

About the only way to prepare many French recipes is to use a kitchen scale. Once you get used to weighing everything, it all starts to make a lot of sense. For American recipes, you need a set of measuring cups — a cup, ¾ cup, ½ cup, ¼ cup, and so on — and spoons — 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, ½ teaspoon, etc. In France, these are not easy to find. When a French recipe calls for a teaspoon — une cuillère à café — of an ingredient, it doesn't mean that you need to get out the measuring spoons. You just use a regular teaspoon.

Brownies are good with chopped walnuts or pecans in them.

About the only way to convert American recipes into French terms is to measure out the ingredients in American measuring cups and then weigh the result. That's what I did to translate this recipe for brownies made with cocoa powder, which I found on www.epicurious.com. I've been making it for a couple of years now.

I measured out, for example, 1¼ cups of granulated sugar (sucre en poudre, in French) and then weighed that quantity on a kitchen scale. I did the same for ½ cup of all-purpose flour (farine ménagère) and ¾ cup + 2 Tbsp. — yes, that's the quantity the recipe calls for — of unsweetened cocoa powder (cacao non sucré). I also rounded off the quantities slightly. There's no point in specifying 96 grams of cocoa, for example. Most kitchen scales are not that sensitive.

Best Cocoa Brownies

Here are the quantities I came up for the recipe:
Best Cocoa Brownies

150 g unsalted butter
280 g sugar
100 g unsweetened cocoa powder
a pinch of salt
½ teaspoon powdered vanilla or sucre vanillé
2 cold, large eggs
75 g all-purpose flour
50 to 75 g walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

(Go to the Epicurious web page for the instructions...)
In going through the recipe this way and comparing it to French recipes for brownies that I found on the web, I noticed two things. This recipe has a lot more sugar in it than most of the French recipes do. That's typical. American baked goods are a lot sweeter, overall, than French pâtisseries.

The American recipe also calls for just 2 eggs, whereas most of the French recipes I found call for 3 or even 4 eggs. I'm not sure why there is that difference. Are American eggs larger? I wouldn't be surprised. Or maybe French cooks like eggier cakes. I used just two (French) eggs and I think the result is fine.

One ingredient in the brownie recipe that might be a problem for a French cook is liquid vanilla extract. I can't find that here in Saint-Aignan. You can, however, find what is called sucre vanillé. That's sugar flavored with vanilla, and it's sold in little packets like the sugar packets you get in American restaurants. You could substitute one of those for the liquid vanilla.

At the supermarket in France, you can also buy vanilla powder — the tiny jar I have is called « vanille poudre sucrée ». That's another good substitute for liquid vanilla. You can also buy little vials of vanilla-flavored caramel syrup, and fresh vanilla beans, of course. Some of the French recipes for brownies say to flavor them with rum instead of vanilla.

Cocoa, both SuperU brand and Van Houten's

Finding powdered cocoa — cacao non sucré — is not a problem, as you can see from the picture. There's a name brand, Van Houten, and there's also a store brand at SuperU. I'm not sure why I started making brownies with cocoa rather than baker's chocolate. I'm not much of a "choco-holic"in fact. In reading about brownies, I learned that there are two kinds of cocoa, natural and Dutch-process. That's another complication...

By the way, the brownies are delicious. Sweet, moelleux (tender), and chocolatey.

Here are some French recipes for brownies from Marmiton and a couple of other sites:

Brownies au chocolat avec 4 oeufs
Brownies au cacao avec 4 oeufs
Brownies avec 2 oeufs
Brownies avec 3 oeufs
Brownies avec 4 oeufs


  1. This explains why my recipe for "Ruth's chocolate pudding", a recipe given to me by my friend Ruth who got it from her Canadian aunt, only ever works when I make it using my measuring cups rather than the "1 cup = half a pint" rule someone told me.
    It is also very sweet and I only put half the stated amount of sugar in it.

    Those brownies look fantastic.

  2. Ken,you are indeed a scholar and a gentleman :)) Thanks so much for taking an interest in the Brownies recipe conversion :) I love these photos, too!

    I'm glad that you reminded me about the difference to take into account between British and American measurements for the same words (like cup and pint). Huge issue! I had completely forgotten.

    Your Brownies look amazing :))


  3. Hi Ken,

    Waving hello from a reader in Western NY!

    Re eggs: the more eggs you add, the more the brownies will have a cake-like texture. the fewer eggs you add give the brownies a more fudgy texture. 2 eggs = fudgy and 4 eggs = cakey.

  4. I usually add and extra egg to make the cakey brownies when I'm using a mix. I haven't found a brownie that I don't like yet!

    I have a brownie recipe that is sinful. There's a fudge icing on top of a nutty rich brownie. I cut in into very small pieces. I think these brownies would be too rich for a French person.

  5. Regarding the myriad of Brownies recipes, I think it's also interesting that there is no baking powder in these, yet still only 2 eggs-- and the result is clearly fabulous. I wonder if it helps keep them from becoming too hard if baked an extra couple of minutes, which usually happens to the baking powder type if they're baked just a few minutes too much. I was thinking that maybe some of the French versions had 4 eggs because they were thinking of using them for extra leavening, as they do with cakes?

    I also found this recipe for Brownies aux Noisettes, from Estelle's blog at Le Hamburger et le Croissant. I haven't had a moment to compare her proportions to Ken's. They look delicious, too.

  6. Oh, wow. I'm going to have to try this one; it'll be a hit at my (French) work! Without a scale or measuring cups, I've gotten good at estimating amounts of everything, but that keeps me away from baking in general.

    I can get vanilla extract at my local supermarket, but not peanuts. Funny how availability varies by region here--but I think the same could be said for the US.

  7. i have to try this recipe looks good

  8. not to mention that an Australian tablespoon holds 20ml/4 teaspoons not the UK 15ml/3 teaspoons and how many Australian cooks are sent into a frenzy by "sticks" of butter which we know are not the 250g or 500g local supermarket sizes and "double acting" baking powder.

    Only the brave translate recipes and it's too hot to bake today in the mountains behind Sydney.

  9. Yankeegirl, thanks for the comment. That's what I was thinking — more eggs make for brownies with a cake-like texture. The ones I made are pretty fudgy.

    Harry, thanks for the information about Aussie measures and ingredients. Yes, the original Epicurious brownie recipe called for 1¼ sticks of butter. A stick is 4 ounces, so that would be 5 ounces, or about 140 grams.

    Judy, actually I forgot to take the brownies out of the oven when the timer went off, because I was busy doing something else in the kitchen. They stayed in the oven a good 5 minutes longer than they ought to have. And still, they were moelleux à souhait, nice and tender.

  10. Interesting about the scarcity of vanilla extract. When we were in Tahiti, they told us that vanilla extract was one of the major exports from French Polynesia (after pearls and some gummy extract from a plant I'd never heard of).


  11. Hi Susan, people here seem to use the packets of sucre vanillé more than anything else, and of course some use vanilla beans. You can easily make your own sucre vanillé by putting the vanilla bean pod into a container of sugar and letting the flavor infuse.

    Rebecca, I hope your co-workers enjoy the brownies.

    Evelyn, those brownies do sound good, though rich. Maybe you could send me the recipe...

  12. It is a little strange how avability changes depending on where you are in France. I can find vanilla extract in my corner of France too. Although you have to pay an arm and leg for it and it comes in the tiniest of bottles (I feel like it is sold by the tablespoon!). I like how you 'translate' your recipes. I will have to keep that in mind.

  13. Ashley and Rebecca, are you sure it is vanilla extract that you are finding in the supermarkets near you? What I find here is vanilla-flavored caramel syrup. That's not the same thing. And Rebecca, do you have an Ed store near where you live? Our Ed store in Saint-Aignan always has big bags of peanuts roasted in the shell. So does SuperU, now that I think of it. Salted, shelled peanuts are available in all the supermarkets.

  14. Ken, I think so. Here's what I have: http://www.vahine.fr/tous-nos-produits/arome-naturel-de-vanille/index.html (bought at the local Casino, which belongs to the group Monoprix)

    I can find roasted (& salted) peanuts for an apéro, but I wanted to cook with them, so I was a little disappointed that I couldn't find them un-roasted. It turned out all right, though.

    I'm not familiar with Ed stores. There's apparenly only one in Gironde!

  15. Rebecca, I'm not sure raw peanuts are available anywhere here. They're not easy to find in the U.S. either, unless you live in an area where peaunts are grown. They spoil very quickly, don't they? In California, I used to get bags of roasted, unsalted peanuts in the shell.

    About the vanilla, I don't think the Arôme naturel de vanille you find is the same thing -- but that might be a quibble. We don't have Casino stores around Saint-Aignan, but we do have Vahiné products. The vanilla extract I have, which I brought back from the U.S., contains just water, alcohol, and "extractives of vanilla." Who knows what that means? Your "arôme naturel de vanille" is composed of glucose sugar, water, natural flavors, and "natural vanilla extract." I admit I haven't tried it, but it's probably about the same thing. How much does that 20 ml (0.68 fl. oz.) container cost, I wonder.

    I do buy almond extract here. It's in oil, not in alcohol, so it's different too. But it's good.

  16. Hmm, you're probably right. I never bothered to read all of the components of a lot of things before leaving the US, which leaves me happy enough when I find something that seems to be close enough!

    I don't remember what I paid for the bottle, except that I thought it was reasonable.

  17. Thanks for the recipe :o)
    I replaced the cocoa powder by real chocolate and I only put the half of sugar quantity ! I added also more walnut. :o)
    I left the cake 13 minutes in the oven because my oven is an old oven. And traditionally it burns everything :o)

    The bronwnies was good :o)


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?