Archive | Brownies RSS feed for this section

Xmas Baking for the People I Love

8 Dec

Hello again, my nine readers.  How’ve you been?

I’ve obviously been busy with other projects–other writing–but I’ve almost narrowed down the bakery I’ll be giving to my family and closest friends, which is what they’re getting because I have no money to give them anything else.  I mean, because I care.

The trick to giving bakery as gifts is this: Portability.  Your people need to be able to take your bakery home with them. Freeze it. Pack it in a lunch. Clean the tub with pieces of it shoved in their mouths.  Make it rich, make it pretty, and make it small.

So here’s what I’ve got so far.  Let me know what you think:

  • Some kind of cookie bar topped with meringue: Pretty. Will keep well. Interesting mix of textures.
  • Cookies with some sort of spice combo: Chai-ish, I’m thinking, a bit crispy and half-dipped in, I think, 70 percent bittersweet if I can keep the cookies light in color.
  • Fudge: I know an oldster who loves the stuff, but do I stick with chocolate?  I’m thinking butterscotch, with marshmallows and Werther’s bits.  Real sweet tooth, that guy.
  • Brownie cupcakes with mint patties: My recipe, and my amazing frosting, but credit Martha Stewart for the idea.
  • For the office: Bite-size crispie treats with miniature choc chips, dipped in semisweet. Remember, if it’s for the office, keep it simple.
  • For the office: Nutella sandwiches with pretzel crackers, dipped in white chocolate. (Okay, these are already done and they’re amazing.  I guessed on these. I guessed right.)
  • For the office: Brownies, of course.  They’ve been requested. These I’ll make with an easygoing, natural cocoa, though. Nothing challenging.
  • Cigarettes.

I’ll publish what happens, crap and all, as I go along.  Now as for you, I want your thoughts, your ideas, the stuff you’re baking, questions, complaints… whatever you’ve got.  I’ll be waiting with a whip.

Baking on the Cheap: More Information

21 Sep

Note: Please click here for the original recipe.

Yesterday, I wrote in to give you a brief first impression of the super-cheap brownie, which was based solely on the batter.  I hadn’t even taken the sumbitch out of the oven yet, but given my impatience with weeknight baking, plus my absence over the past two weeks, I felt compelled to write something.  But I am happy to report tonight that my first impression was in fact wrong.

These brownies, made with flour, sugar, eggs, cocoa, instant coffee and imitation vanilla from Aldi, turned out wonderfully, and I’m not kidding about that.  I expected the flavor would somehow be wrong: a little metallic from the bleached flour, maybe.  Or, because bleached flour tends to resist gluten formation, I thought the flavor and texture could be too floury and dry, like a cake doughnut.  I thought the chocolate flavor would be like something out of an Easy-Bake oven, both childish and papery.  And the instant coffee?  That stuff really does smell terrible.

Now, the batter really did support my assumptions.  But the actual result?  The flavor is rich, very adult, almost as if the cocoa were Dutch-processed.  It has a distinct fruit note to it as well, reminiscent of chocolate sourced from Ecuador.  Your tasters may not enjoy this as much as I did, but I for one am very excited that something so interesting can be had for so cheap.

This is not to say that they are perfect yet.  I mean, they’re damn close, but I wouldn’t have spent, what, the better part of two months working on stupid brownies if damn close would do.  Here are some small issues, all easily fixed.

Flour:  The flour did not impart any odd flavors, nor did it resist gluten formation to the extent that the brownies seemed grainy or dry.  (I suspect this lot has a protein content in the 10.5 to 11 percent range.)  That said, despite a desirable chew, my tasters did detect a slightly drier texture right away which, although they’ve set wonderfully overnight, leads me to believe they may not stay that way.  My recipe calls for one stick of butter; as a remedy I would add, to start, another two TBL of butter.  This will add a) a bit more saturated fat to help combat this dryness; and b) a bit more water to encourage, as best it can, a little more gluten formation.  I do think this recipe, using bleached flour, could use up to another four TBL if necessary without becoming greasy.

Coffee:  I used three TBL of the instant coffee here.  And while it enriches the flavor, this much does unfortunately impart a coffee aftertaste.  After setting overnight, this is far less noticeable, so it’s not a dealbreaker, but it still shows up a minute or two after you’ve tasted it.  Two TBL, however, should work just as well.  You may also want to consider substituting some or all of the 1/2 c. of water with brewed coffee, depending on your taste.  Either way, I would not again use three TBL of instant coffee when making this recipe with house-brand ingredients.

Vanilla:  Because house-brand vanilla is a little, well, vanilla, I also bumped this quantity up to three TBL.  (If you are using a densely flavored vanilla, for example, you may not need as much.  Using an American, or at least Americanized, imitation vanilla, you very well may.)  I would recommend that when baking these brownies with house-brand ingredients, including the vanilla, you use a full three TBL.

Salt:  My recipe already calls for a lot of salt–two tsp–but either because of my adjustments or the behavior of the bleached flour, the flavor, I found, lacked ever-so-slightly the full body that makes bakery a success.   These things are right on the edge, but to be safe, when using house-brand ingredients, I would use 2-1/4 tsp of salt.

Process:  I decided that instead of adding the sugar to the chocolate mixture, I added it to the egg mixture where I could let it set, activate, then stir it every few minutes, starting the process all over again.  I did this because I was concerned right away with the cocoa: The more active the sugar, the better results I might get from the cocoa.  I’m not sure the cocoa needed any help–I am honestly impressed with it–but this is an easy process change that can only help the flavor.  And at the very least, this very active sugar added more shine to the top, and gave the edges a lovely, slightly caramel flavor and the perfect bite.

The best part of all?  The price, of course!  Nothing was more than $2 in whole and certainly far less in part.  I would estimate, then, that per 9″ x 13″ pan these brownies cost approximately $2.32.  The initial test?  The very first one, the brownies made with the organic ingredients and flippin’ $12 vanilla?  After splitting out the ingredients, those cost $8.32 and were not, I repeat, not even close to being comparable, let alone, better.

Please let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll see you tomorrow!  I promise I’ll come up with something new to bake then.

Baking on the Cheap, Test No. 1

20 Sep

Here are some quick first impressions.  A more detailed report will follow.

1. House-brand cocoa is not terribly chocolatey.  The flavor of the batter would indicate that at 1-3/4 c. it cannot compete with 2-1/2 c. of sugar.  The question will be how to adjust for this.  Of course, this point may be moot once they’re done.

2. The house-brand flour I used appeared, felt and behaved like flour with a higher protein content than typical all-purpose flour.  That said, it’s not by much and to be honest, in a pinch, it’ll work better than I’d originally thought it would.

3. House-brand imitation vanilla?  Not as good as the Mexican versions available in more urban areas, but again, it’ll work in a pinch. I still maintain that in something like brownies, oatmeal cookies–less than delicate bakery–imitation vanilla will work even a bit better than pure extract every time.

4. House-brand instant coffee: Wow, I wouldn’t recommend using that stuff if you can help it.  The point here though is to make something great out of next to nothing, so I used 3 TBL to mimic the usual espresso paste.

5. They still smell fantastic!

Stay tuned.  I’ll report on the actual finished results tomorrow.  See you then!

Baking on the Cheap

19 Sep

I’ve got a new project.  Now that I’ve thoroughly tested my perfect brownie recipe, I want to find out if holds up under distressed conditions: House-brand cocoa; house-brand, bleached all-purpose flour ; and seriously cheap, house-brand instant coffee.  All I have left to buy is the generic–and yes, imitation–vanilla.  I’ll be using ingredients that are thought to be maybe a half-step better than that stuff that comes in no. 10 cans with a plain white label, which I’d use for this test if I could find it.

Now, I’m certain several tests will be necessary.  House-brand, bleached all-purpose flour has a protein content than can vary not only by the store, but even from batch to batch in the same store.  It will take some work, I suspect, to develop a general rule for baking with it.

Flavors will likely be an issue as well.  Like the flour, house-brand cocoas,vanillas, and instant coffees can vary in flavor and quality, and all within the same store.  It really just depends where the store sources its products from contract to contract. I plan to keep my methods constant, but I’ll develop all new proportions and adjustments with this variance in mind.

See, one of my goals here is to make baking as accessible as possible.  Not just the directions and the science, but the cost, too,  And while I already insist on using ingredients that are easy to find, it’s time to figure out how to bake great things with the ingredients that’ll make your typical food jag laugh at you behind your back.  Let’s show ’em that real skill and confidence–and taste–has nothing to do with name and price.

I can’t wait.

Dominican Vanilla

14 Sep

I used some of this the other day, in my last batch of brownies.  I’m not sure why I thought testing a new vanilla in this way was a good idea; there’s really no way to discern differences in the vanilla when it’s used in fantastically chocolatey brownies.  What I should’ve done was use it to make a frosting or ice cream or something.  But I didn’t.

What I can tell you is that it has a distinctly floral scent, but I can’t tell you much else about it yet.  There’s nothing specific about the flavor online.  I’ll keep you posted as I find out more.

See you tomorrow!

Have You Heard Enough About the Brownies Yet?

12 Sep

No?  Good.  Because there’s more.

Well, not really.  I just made them yesterday, while the bread was rising.  I decided to use up the last of that organic, natural cocoa I was stuck with from my initial test.  Plus, I had a new Dominican-style vanilla to try, which I’ll discuss later.

But, I also made them without the jam, and failed to pour any fruity syrup of any kind over the top because, well, I forgot.  And I forgot to blend the sugar.   Yeah, I was tired.  I never seem to get to these things until, like, 8 ‘o clock at night.

Anyway, they’re still fabulous.  I do still prefer the flavor of dutch-processed cocoa, but seriously, I’ve got no complaints.  And neither does anyone else.

Football or Baking?

26 Aug

Pshaw!  Football, of course!  I know it’s just preseason, but my Green Bay Packers are on right now in a game against the Colts.  What of it?  If you’re not watching, the rest of my site is clearly awesome.  Take a look.

WHOAWAITTOUCHDOWN, PACKERS!  BYE!

More About Those Brownies

24 Aug

Obviously, I have not revisited my problems with perfectionism yet.  Right now I’m just happy I don’t have a headache, and that I do have replacements for some of the Time-Life Good Cook books lost to a move, plus a new-to-me biography of Anton Chekhov.  I’m just in no mood to get existential about all my shit at the moment.

Now, I say obviously because yeah, I’m still thinking about those brownies.  They really are a massive success, but they do soften up more than I expected overnight.  It’s not a dealbreaker, but I’m not a big fan of it, either.

I thought about how, with such a balanced proportion of fats, wet and dry ingredients, this could possibly be happening.  They really should dry out a bit like any other baked good, yes?  Well, no.  If you recall, these brownies have small jar of jam in the recipe–eight heaping tablespoons.  And guess what’s in nearly all commercial jams and jellies, and in great quantities at that?  No, not fruit.  Please.

Nah–it’s corn syrup.

If you’ve read other posts of mine, then you know that like honey and brown sugar, corn syrup is highly hygroscopic.  And A/C or not, it’s been a humid summer here in the heartland, so there’s plenty of hot hygroscopic action to go around.  I also keep my cake plate near a window of my 120-year-old house, which is dumb.

So there you have it.  Figuring this out solves another issue I was having with the lack of actual fruit flavor in these brownies.  See, in order to prevent the brownies from going soft–and again, it’s not bad by any stretch–the jam can be removed from the mix and instead heated and spread across the top in syrup form.  Well, depending on the humidity, maybe that’s a step to hold until just before serving; even just resting the jam on top will cause far less softening, but there will be a bit of softening nonetheless.  Either way, the fruit flavor will be far more evident if it’s withheld from the mix, as your tasters will be able to better discern the two different flavors.

Until tomorrow then, when I’ll fit in a post between exercising and White Collar.

Baking Wishes and Baking Dreams

23 Aug

I’m at bit of a loss tonight. I don’t know what to write about, except to say that even with the carb-free lifestyle the roommate and I live most days of the week, those brownies are nearly gone. Man, did they ever turn out. Thanks to Penzeys for the great cocoa, and to Cook’s Illustrated and Shirley Corriher for being willing, like so few other resources, to make the science known to us here on the ground. And of course, thanks to me for putting it all together.

I will note, however, that as well as those brownies turned out, like the writing I do, the work’s never done. I’ll continue to think and retest until I’m completely satisfied with the recipe, which will be never.

For example, do I pursue an relatively airy brownie that would better feature the fruit flavor? Do I let that sugar sit and steep for even longer–say, 10 minutes or so?  Would that help?   Do I add chocolate chips?  Is it too chocolatey for most?  How do these resolve overnight?  What about the fruit bits I discussed in an earlier post?  Whipped cream? And if so, do I make a stiff batch of it, or keep it natural?  And so on.

The issues this presents, though, are those of time and purpose. The brownie recipe I’m discussing here is an exceedingly easy one, but there’s time for prep, 30 minutes in the oven and, in this case, a very long time to cool. And all to test what to me are very important changes, but in the big scheme of things really are not that big of a deal at all. It’s personally fulfilling for me to get things just right but I’m wondering if I should rethink the loose limits of my perfectionism.

Do you find yourself wrestling with when to stop?  How do you decide?  When are the changes worth it?  When have you finally done enough?

Fruit Swirl Brownie Test No. 3: Process Changes

22 Aug

Note: This post will necessarily be long. Please read about the flavor changes for more information.

I’m afraid that I’ll be detailing the home version of the Fruit Swirl Brownie with yet another headache. I’ll do my best to keep it together for you, but I wouldn’t expect to win a Pulitzer with this post. I appreciate your patience, which is probably more than I have for myself at the moment.

As you recall, the recipe for the Honeypie Big Fruit Swirl Brownie piqued my interest because of its simplicity, coupled with a richness that as depicted in the photo compelled me to test the concept and the science of the recipe. Because if it actually worked, it would really be a bit of a breakthrough.

But, as you’ll also recall, I did find that although the concept was a great one, the flavor and texture was somewhat lacking in the richness that caught my eye in the first place. I used the same ingredients noted, and went broke buying them, but the brownie’s flavor was a somewhat thin-tasting and sugary slice that overnight became disturbingly spongy and greasy. Which is okay in a bakery, where the goods sell out quickly and are served with accompaniments, but this is not my project. My bakery needs to start perfect and stay perfect. Period.

Now, I do not want to disparage Honeypie’s recipe at all. I wanted to prove the concept to be a great one: That fat can carry cocoa flavor to the extent that a seriously chocolately brownie could be made with cocoa only, rather than with the added hassle and expense of melted baking chocolate. But even minute differences in techniques, air quality, and certainly equipment can create additional issues for a bakery recipe made in the home, so accomplishing this in the home kitchen simply needed a different approach. And I was determined to find it, because I hate being wrong.

In my second test of the recipe, I’d made significant headway in terms of the flavor. Only a couple of tweaks, and I knew the flavor would be sorted. So the texture was my first order of business.

Process Changes

I remembered reading about the types of fats used to give box brownies their chewy texture. (Thank you, Cook’s Illustrated.) I didn’t necessarily need to make a chewy brownie, per se, but I did want to maintain the high fat ratio necessary to create a superior chocolate flavor, but that wouldn’t become greasy overnight. Cooking oil, which is used to make chewy brownies, remains the same no matter the temperature so I could not only maintain the fat ratio, but also create a texture that wouldn’t degrade over time on the cake plate. Rather than use the three sticks of butter used in the original, I reduced the amount of butter a bit, then split the remaining quantity with oil

The seven eggs used in the original recipe also proved to be an issue, if you remember: The high quantity of eggs caused the original batch to bake unevenly because using seven (seven!) eggs properly requires a bain-marie, and that’s too much work for brownies. I also couldn’t really grasp the science that would call for seven eggs, when I really thought about it. I could be mistaken—absolutely possible, that—but rather than force the issue, I cut down the eggs to two whole, plus two yolks. The two whole eggs is a pretty standard quantity that would incorporate more easily and in a proportion that requires no special care in the oven. And if you’ve made chewy cookies, you know why the extra egg yolks will help your cause.

These fixes—the oil, the eggs, plus a higher proportion of dry ingredients—solved the greasiness problem. The sponginess still needed to be addressed, however, but this was solved easily by skipping the creaming step. I’d thought initially that it was necessary to incorporate air into the structure to keep these brownies from becoming too dense, but in the end it created a not-quite-cakey texture that was odds with the flavor and did not adequately support the fats.

Using melted, rather than creamed, butter (and the oil, too) gave me a way to create the intense flavor of melted chocolate, too. This is done by simply adding the sifted cocoa to the warmed butter, the heat from which also allows the flavor to bloom fully. (In a pinch, cocoa and oil can be mixed to create unsweetened chocolate for baking, and sugar can be added to create bitter- or semisweet chocolate right to your taste). Add the espresso paste and the water to this, and you in effect seize it, giving it the actual mass that intensifies the flavor for your final product.

If you’re concerned about what this lump of chocolate will do, don’t be; a tablespoon of oil can be added to decrease the density if you’re more comfortable with that. But that lump does mix in smoothly with the egg/vanilla mixture regardless.

The best part about these process changes? For a more refined look, I do still think it’s important to sift your dry ingredients and process the sugar to a superfine texture. But this isn’t completely necessary. So if you skip that, you needn’t pull out your mixer and all its attendant parts at all. The most complicated thing you need to do in my recipe is melt butter. You could even use the microwave for that if you want. Everything else is mixed quickly and easily by hand.

Please contact me here with questions. You can find the final recipe here.