Bertha Palmer Birthday Brownies

When researching family histories, sometimes I end up in cemeteries. It’s an occupational hazard of being a genealogist. Traipsing through graves searching for tombstone inscriptions can seem a little macabre at times, but when the cemeteries are as pretty as Graceland Cemetery, it’s not so bad. The cemetery sits on a busy intersection on Chicago’s North side, but it’s actually very peaceful. In fact, it was designed to resemble a park, and served as a picnic site for families in its early days. That’s right, you could go eat lunch with the dead folks. It is also the final resting place of many of Chicago’s most elite, including Marshall Field, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan.

While I was at Graceland a while back, I snapped a few shots of the monument of my favorite resident of Graceland, Bertha Palmer.

Bertha Palmer Grave


If you don’t know who Bertha Palmer is, you should. She is no joke and I think everyone, even those who don’t live in Chicago, should know who she is.

Bertha Honore Palmer

At age 21, she married Potter Palmer, a partner of Marshall Field who was 23 years her senior. He gave her the Palmer House Hilton (AN ENTIRE HOTEL!!) as a wedding present. It would burn down soon after during the Chicago Fire, and was later rebuilt.

Even though she was a Chicago society lady, she was involved with a group of working women who looked for ways to address the city’s issues. Among other things, the group led efforts to introduce the Kindergarten system and lower the price of milk for those in need.

During the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Bertha was appointed president of the Board of Lady Managers, whose purpose was to highlight the accomplishments of women.   After her husband died, she moved to Sarasota, Florida. By the time she died in 1918, she had begun developing the land she owned in Sarasota and had increased the fortune her husband left her substantially.

In Chicago, she is probably best known for donating personal collection of Impressionist art to the Art Institute, and today her collection serves as the base of the Museum’s Impressionist collection. Basically, she’s amazing and I love her.

Another amazing thing? She is responsible for the creation of the brownie. What’s that you said? You heard me right. While Bertha was flaunting her badassery all over Chicago during the World’s Fair, she approached the Palmer House Hilton’s chef about creating a dessert that wouldn’t be too messy and could go into ladies lunch boxes at the Fair. 

And, it was her birthday yesterday! She would have been, oh, 167. In celebration of her birthday, I thought I would make some of these famous brownies, using the Palmer House’s recipe,* which hasn’t changed in 123 years.


The Palmer House Hilton Brownie

Brownie ingredients:
1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 sticks of unsalted butter
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 cup of flour
4 whole eggs
1/2 tsp of vanilla extract
3/4 cup of crushed walnut

Brownie instructions:
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

In a medium-sized, heat-proof bowl, combine the chocolate and butter. Place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water (i.e., double-boil it). Stir the mixture often until completely melted together and glossy.

Line an 8×8-inch brownie pan with parchment paper, and lightly spritz with a spray cooking oil. (This will make your brownies super-easy to remove from the pan.)

Lightly beat eggs in a medium sized bowl, then add the vanilla and beat together.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and sugar.

Slowly mix the melted chocolate into the flour and sugar. Mix very well, for about two minutes.

Add in the egg and vanilla mixture until all very well combined.

Pour the mixture into the the baking pan and sprinkle the crushed walnuts on top, gently pressing them into the mixture.

Cook for 25-35 minutes. When you test them by poking a toothpick in the center, it may not come out completely clean, but it is done.

Let the brownies rest in the pan for about 30 minutes before lightly brushing on the hot apricot glaze.

Apricot Glaze ingredients:
1/2 cup of water
1/2 cup of apricot preserves
1/2 tsp of unflavored gelatin

Apricot Glaze instructions:
Thoroughly mix all three ingredients in a small saucepan.

Bring to a boil and allow to boil for two minutes.

Lightly brush on the hot apricot glaze, after the brownies have rested for about 30 minutes. Place in freezer for about 3 hours before cutting.

*I used the Palmer House’s recipe, but I halved the recipe and made other minor adjustments.

Guys, these brownies are tasty. I’ll be honest, I was not expecting much from a 100-plus year-old brownie recipe. But these came out delicious, and fudgy, but not painfully rich. And, if you’re like me, you may be a little turned off by the idea of putting apricot glaze on your brownie. Please don’t be. You will be pleasantly surprised. Thanks, Bertha!

One thought on “Bertha Palmer Birthday Brownies

  1. Pingback: National Blonde Brownie Day + Brown Butter Blondies | The Hungry Genealogist

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