Make the Easiest Brown Sugar Blondies Without a Mixer

Each of America’s little bites—cookies, candies, wafers, brittles—tells a big story, and each speaks volumes about what was going on in America when the recipes were created. In her latest book, American Cookie, New York Times bestselling author Anne Byrn takes us on a journey through America’s baking history. Below, she shares an expanded excerpt on the history of the blondie, written specifically for Food52.

In 1943, an Associated Press columnist shared a recipe for “light colored brownies” with readers nationwide. It contained brown sugar, vegetable shortening, and a handful of chopped chocolate in lieu of cocoa. It is what we know today as a blondie. Back then, it was much more.

Photo by Ty Mecham

Blondies—the fair-haired cousin of brownies—likely originated during World War II due to the need to bake without rationed ingredients like chocolate and white sugar. It seems odd, I know, because packed as this treat is with butter, brown sugar, and eggs, it just doesn’t seem like a recipe in which you are doing without something you love.

Ration books controlled home sugar consumption, you baked with whatever sweetener you could find, or sweetened desserts with corn syrup, folded raisins and dates into cookies and cakes to make them taste sweeter, or just ate fruit. It was a bittersweet time cooks knew all too well. They relied on the steady counsel of these home economists turned newspaper writers such as Mrs. Alexander George who shared the blondie recipe and told Americans each week how to plan nutritious meals with ration stamps.

Mrs. George was a home economics teacher turned columnist and known from 1929 through War World II for guiding home cooks through rationing, planning Victory meals, and leading them to nutrient-dense foods. And so it was with economy in mind that Mrs. George shared the recipe for blondies—“Light Colored Brownies”— in 1943 as a way to cut back on chocolate. She made those first blondies with vegetable shortening, dark brown sugar, and a handful of chocolate “pieces.” Later versions of blondies contain some white sugar as well as butterscotch chips, chocolate, pecans, you name it!

Photo by Anne Byrn/Rodale Books

Many had lived through similar scenarios in World War I when the national mantra was to save wheat for the troops and allies and to use oats or rye instead. They endured financial hardship during the Depression and the decade following. And women who had never dreamed of working outside the home did now.

Researching my new book, American Cookie, I was surprised by how many classic cookies we bake today have roots in hard times—blondies, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter cookies, no-bake cookies, Crybabies, just to name a few. Baking through adversity is an important chapter in our foodways, and thankfully, the recipes have endured.

It’s completely understandable that sugar cookies back then tasted sweeter when you knew your month’s ration of sugar was in that one batch. These recipes were crafted by hard-working, ingenious cooks, and they are as relevant today as they were yesterday. Chances are the ingredients used in these hard times cookies and sweets had a lot to do with their continued popularity. It just so happens that brown sugar—with the hint of molasses—enriches the taste of any cookie dough. And it keeps cookies and bars chewy and moist for days.

Today, we don’t deal with rationing stamps and we can shop for any ingredient at the store or online. But we still crave ease of preparation and recipes that take us back to simpler times, common causes, and everyone gathering in the kitchen.

The following version is a much simpler and less sweet recipe. It’s a saucepan method of making blondies that might take you back to World War II America. You don’t need a mixing bowl—you mix in the pan—and you don’t need to cream the butter and sugar together, add eggs, then flour, etc. I’m sure Mrs. George would be glad to know her economical recipe had staying power.

What’s your favorite bar or cookie? Is it a classic, like the blondie?

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