A brownie can bake up feathery, or sturdy and toothsome. It’s always rich in chocolate, sometimes sinfully moist, and occasionally frosted. No matter whether you like them cakey or fudgy, you’ll find a lot to savor in Orange County sweet shops. From fancy patisseries to homey neighborhood bakeries, local chefs offer an array of heavenly goodies for kids’ sack lunches and grownup coffeebreaks. See if your favorite made our list.
1. Tomgirl Baking Co.
An uptown baker from New York City, chef Wonyee Tom doesn’t make your mama’s brownie—unless you grew up in Paris. Cradled in delicate, round baking paper cups, they’re light and airy with chocolate chips or sweet hits of caramel. Each eggy, custardy treat, made with Callebaut chocolate ($2.75, or 95 cents for the mini), is finished with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, but it’s so ethereal it should be wearing a diamond tiara. 9048 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, 714-965-1695, tomgirlbaking.com
2. Christopher Garren’s Let Them Eat Cake
This showy bakery specializes in towering cakes, and its regular brownie stands 2 inches tall, topped with chocolate chunks and walnuts, drizzled with dark chocolate ganache. They’re sold for $6.50 per pound. Supercreamy, it might come on too truffle-y for cake-brownie fans who probably would prefer the Kahlua Cheesecake Brownie ($7), which is made in two layers: dense cheesecake sits atop a chocolate brownie. Sporting a little spray of cocoa and a striped white-and-dark-chocolate pirouette, punctuated by a dark-chocolate-covered roasted almond, it looks like tiramisu, but it’s so much more substantial. South Coast Collection, 3321 Hyland Ave. #H&J, Costa Mesa, 714-445-0189, letthemeatcake.net
3. The Queen’s Bakery
Enter and you’re overwhelmed by the color-saturated whimsical décor that looks as if the Mad Hatter is about to pour tea. You’ll see brownies—surrounded by cupcakes, petit fours, and cake pops—in the display case. We prefer the Butterfinger ($3), supersweet like its namesake candy bar: a soft chocolate layer crowned with a toffee-ish topping that adds a subtle crunch and peanut buttery flavor. 2950 Grace Lane, Costa Mesa, 714-540-9500, queensbakerycafe.com
Chef Cathy Pavlos, better known for pasta and charcuterie, found this brownie at the Que Sera Sarah Bakery on Nantucket Island in 1982. She begged chef-owner and cookbook author Sarah Leah Chase for the recipe, and added a couple of tweaks of her own. The resulting treat ($3) has a dry, firm exterior with a formal appearance of smooth chocolate ganache decorated with white drizzle icing. Inside, bittersweet chocolate gives it richness and a moist flourless-cake texture. 6507 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine, 949-725-1773, luccacafe.net
5. Plums Café
Two kinds of brownies ($2.50) sold in this strip-mall bistro please all palates. The midnight-black Marble Cocoa brownie with chocolate chips for an extra hit of flavor, makes a not-too-sweet impression: smooth and fudgy, with a swirly cream cheese topping. The Walnut Espresso is for no-icing fans. It’s moist inside, has a bold cocoa flavor, and gets dusted all over with powdered sugar. 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949-722-7586, plumscafe.com
6. Blackmarket Bakery
Chef Rachel Klemek makes the ultimate brownie for cork dorks—with flour made from the pulverized skins and seeds of wine grapes. Rich, chocolaty, and chewy, these Cabernet Brownies come in three-packs (a tryptich of flavors for $8) or individually wrapped ($3). We recommend all three versions and provide our own wine pairings: Extra Brut dark chocolate (Napa cabernet), Nutty Noir with toasted hazelnuts (Oregon pinot noir), Special Preserve with dried cherries and currants (Paso Robles syrah or zinfandel). 17941 Sky Park Circle, Irvine, 949-852-4609, blackmarketbakery.com
7. Rockwell’s Bakery
It’s the bakeshop treat of your childhood dreams. Rockwell’s fudge brownie ($2.50) is moist and chewy, with dark chocolate chips, no nuts, and a slight crust, spread thickly with frosting. It looks like it might be a sour cream or cream cheese brownie, laced with white icing and dotted with white chocolate chips, but it’s not. The topping is just window dressing that provides a creamy balance to the dark chocolate. 17853 Santiago Blvd., Villa Park, 714-921-0622, rockwellsbakery.com
The chain cake shop known for its layered creations makes a cakey brownie ($3) with a dramatic contrast between the inside and out. A dry, crumbly exterior gives way to a fudgy interior without nuts or icing. It’s plain and looks as wholesome as the uniformed, fresh-faced twentysomething kids always hard at work in the display kitchen. 2043 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, 949-646-6881, susiecakes.com
This patisserie in an unlikely seaside setting confounds surfers seeking doughnuts. Chef Joel Reno, formerly of the Patina Group and Quince in San Francisco, brings a touch of class to the neighborhood with artisanal breads, glamorous tarts, and other goodies including Le Brownie ($3.50), a French version of the American treat that’s not always in the display case but can be ordered ahead by the dozen ($36). A smooth, silky mousse sits atop a feathery cake layer. The whole affair, coated with dark chocolate ganache and swiped with a single gilt stripe, creates a luxurious synergy. It’s best eaten with a fork. 120 Fifth St., Huntington Beach, 714-969-1700, baguetier.com
photography by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.