The first Ferris wheel, neon lights and the forerunner to the zipper all made their debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. So did Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat and Cream of Wheat. But bakers and chocolate lovers the world over fell in love with another invention, quietly unveiled at the Women’s Pavilion during the fair: the brownie.
Chicago socialite and philanthropist Bertha Palmer had asked the pastry chefs at her husband’s hotel, The Palmer House, to create a dessert that wasn’t as messy as a cake or pastry and that could fit inside box lunches for ladies at the fair.
“She wanted a kind of picnic dessert that was rich, and the chef at the time put something together and came up with the brownie,” says Fabrice Bouet, pastry chef at the Palmer House Hilton.
Fondness for the delicious dessert spread, and in 1896, Fannie Farmer published the first brownie recipe in her Boston Cooking School Cook Book, though her sweet treat was more of a molasses cookie confection made in individual fluted molds.
The original recipe developed at the Palmer House was handed down, chef to chef, and the hotel continues to serve a variation of that first brownie.
“The brownie is our trademark dessert,” Bouet says. “When you make brownies at home, you don’t need to use expensive chocolate. In fact, regular semisweet chocolate is best because it’s got the right ratio of sugar to chocolate.”
From its origins at the fair, the chocolate brownie has become one of America’s favorite desserts. In the world of brownies, there are two key types—“fudgy” and “cakey.” For hardcore “fudgies,” the perfect brownie is a dense, chocolaty confection that practically sticks to the roof of your mouth. In the other camp are “cakies,” who say the ideal brownie has leavening and extra flour and tastes more like a piece of cake than a piece of fudge. But no matter whether you like brownies that are chewy and fudgy or cakey and light, with dark chocolate or white, with nuts or bits of dried fruit, the brownie reigns supreme and is perfect as a Valentine’s Day treat.