My Favorite Brownies

Courtesy of Google images

I am a brownie hound.  The richer, thicker, and fudgier, the better.  I’m also a brownie purist and strongly believe that a brownie should never be cake-like; otherwise, it would be chocolate cake, and it is not.  I have been in constant search of the perfect brownie recipe ever since I graduated from boxed mixes (it’s funny how differently they taste now that I’ve had good, homemade ones) and nowhere did I find one that was as decadent, luscious, dense, and dark as I wanted.  After many, many transformations, I finally evolved an old recipe into something approaching the perfect brownie.

This recipe makes a thick, unbearably rich, and luxuriously fudgy brownie.  For the dark-chocolate lover and all my fellows who scoff at “cake-like” brownie recipes, this brownie is the one for you.

CLASSIC BROWNIES:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 6 ounces of unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Directions:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.
  2. In a small bowl, combine your flour and salt.
  3. In a small saucepan melt butter and chocolate, over low heat, stirring the mixture constantly (take your time with the melting, chocolate can be a tricky thing sometimes and you don’t want to burn it)
  4. When the chocolate and butter are melted, remove from heat, and stir in your sugar. Allow this to cool slightly (3 minutes, or until just slightly warm).
  5. Pour the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and beat in your eggs one at a time, mixing well after each, then stir in the vanilla (don’t over-mix here, stir until just combined)
  6. Stir in your flour and salt.
  7. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
  8. Bake in oven 20 to 25 minutes (I cheat here and under-bake.  I take them out when an inserted toothpick still has some brownie clinging to it).
  9. To make your brownies a little denser (and prevent over-cooking while in the pan), you can stick them in the fridge and lay a ziplock with ice in it over the top.

Tips:

This is sort of the ultimate brownie rule: never, ever over-mix your batter.  I would recommend hand mixing this entire thing with a wooden spoon (not an electric mixer).  The more you mix the batter, the fluffier the end product becomes.

When you’re looking to try a new brownie recipe, always look to see if it calls for chocolate or cocoa powder.  Cocoa powder yields a drier and more cake-like brownie.

Using unsweetened chocolate (if the recipe calls for semi-sweet or bittersweet) may make your brownie too dry and crumbly.  Sugar holds things together and keeps pastries moist.

Review:

This recipe is incredibly easy to make, consistently delicious, and simple.   It yields an intensely dark, rich fudge brownie (and it tastes amazing as batter, too).  This is a classic brownie and works as a great base with room for improvisation (like adding nuts, caramel, toffee bits, ginger, raspberries, espresso, etc.).  It uses the classic brownie “cheat”: under-baking, but who cares when it tastes so smooth and luscious?  The search for the perfect fudge brownie continues, but so far, I haven’t found anything to top this one.
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Ginger Pear Poundcake w/ Salted Caramel Frosting

Courtesy of Google images

My parents hate poundcake.  Or, at least, they thought they did until they tried this cake.

I made this several weeks ago, after a bad knee sprain had me off my feet and out of the gym.  I was managing my frustration by cramming as much sugar and butter into my system as I possibly could, when I came across “pound cakes”.  I figured any cake that originated from a recipe calling for a pound of butter, a pound of eggs, and a pound of sugar couldn’t be anything short of bliss.  While this recipe calls for less than a cup of butter, it was everything I had imagined and more.

(the original recipe made cupcakes, I adapted it for a 9″ round cake and made a few minor adjustments)

GINGER PEAR POUNDCAKE (base):

Ingredients:

  • 3/4  cup unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 cup cake flour (I used all-purpose and it turned out wonderfully)
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger (if you like a stronger ginger taste)
  • 1 large ripe bartlett pear, chopped into 1/4 inch cubes

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F.
  2. In a medium-large bowl, cream butter and sugar together.
  3. One at a time, beat in your eggs.
  4. Alternate beating in flour and milk in 2-3 additions.
  5. Add your vanilla and your fresh ginger to the mix.
  6. Beat on medium-high to high speed for two minutes.
  7. Then, fold in your pears.
  8. Pour the batter into a 9″ cake pan (if not non-stick, make sure to grease prior to this step).
  9. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until the cake is a rich gold, the top is springy, and a toothpick comes out clean.
  10. Take the cake out of the oven and let it cool slightly before taking it out of the pan.  Let it cool completely on a baking rack before frosting.
  11. When the cake is completely cool, carefully cut it in half so that you can spread frosting in between the halves as filling.

Meanwhile, while your cake is cooling…

Courtesy of Google images

SALTED CARAMEL FROSTING:

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 candied ginger (optional, I used some in the filling)

Directions:

  1. Pour your granulated sugar into a small saucepan and gently shake it to even out the sugar (uneven sugar will cook unevenly and burn).  Wait until the mixture begins to turn liquid and brown, do not stir.  If you so desire, turn off heat before all the sugar is completely dissolved so that some crunchy sugar chunks remain, or you can wait until everything is completely melted (just make sure not to burn it).  Now, you can stir.
  2. Remove the caramel from the heat and slowly add in your cream and vanilla, stirring with a wooden spoon until completely smooth (it will fizzle and spit and look very scary while you do this).
  3. Set aside until cool to the touch, about 25 minutes (or you can speed it up by sticking it in the fridge).
  4. Beat your butter and salt in a medium bowl at a medium-high speed until it becomes light in color and fluffy (about 3 minutes).
  5. Reduce the speed to low, add in your powdered sugar (you may not need all of it, remember you’ll be adding in caramel as well), and mix until completely incorporated and the mixture has the consistency/sweetness/saltiness you desire.
  6. Turn your mixer off and scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add in your caramel. Beat the frosting on medium-high speed until airy and thoroughly mixed (about 2 minutes).
  7. Cover and refrigerate until firm, but not too stiff (about 10-20 minutes) before frosting.
  8. Spread a little less than half the frosting in-between the two halves of your cake (you can sprinkle your chopped candied ginger inside the filling here), use the rest of the frosting to cover the top and sides of your cake.  The recipe makes just enough, so if you like more frosting/filling, make sure to increase the recipe.
  9. You can use more candied ginger as a garnish on top of the cake, or leave it plain, the frosting looks gorgeous on its own!

Review:

This cake was a total hit.  Everybody who tasted it had seconds (if not thirds, and, in my case, fourths).  Best of all, it was so easy to make.  The poundcake was incredibly moist and thick, without being soggy.  It was dense, like a typical poundcake, but not over-rich and it had a wonderful, smooth fullness to the texture.  The amount of sugar was absolutely perfect.  It gave the cake a soft quality and didn’t overwhelm the gentle, sweet flavor of the pear.  The ginger was essential; it gave a fantastically exotic and mesmerizing spice to the cake.  The salted caramel frosting was the perfect complement to the ginger and pear base.  This was what really got people hooked; everyone agreed the combination of rich, smoky sweetness with softly pricking saltiness was absolutely addictive.  Its raw intensity was happily balanced with the mellow spice of the cake base.  All in all, this was a beautifully done recipe with an exotic and wonderfully complex product.

Baking Science I – The Egg

I remember when I was a little girl and just learning to bake with my Mom, how magical it was that you could put a bunch of ingredients into a bowl, mix them, bake it, and have the whole thing turn into a cake.  As I grew a little older, I stopped wanting the magic and I started wanting the science.  I wanted to know why butter melts as it grows warmer, but an egg turns solid as it gets hotter.  I wanted to know why you put flour into a cake when it always makes the batter taste worse and why my randomly dumping ingredients together never produced a tasty result.  Recently, I’ve started researching the science behind baking and it’s been incredibly illuminating.  Baking is not a mysterious magic trick, but a fantastically precise art.  Learning these basics has transformed baking into a wonderful sort of edible alchemy.

For the first section, I wanted to start with the ingredient I was first, and most, curious about: the egg.

I.  The Anatomy

So, everyone knows an egg has two parts: yolk and egg white (and there’s also the shell, of course).  But that’s not really true.  An egg is far more complex than you may think.  There is a yolk, an egg white, and a shell, but there’s also a chalaza, middle albumen, vitelline membrane, nucleus of pander, germinal disk, yellow yolk, white yolk, air cell, and several more.  Prepare to get science-y.

There is a really great (and very in-depth) article on the anatomy of the egg, but here’s the quick summary:

Albumen (aka Egg White) – provides additional nutrients for the embryo.  It’s an excellent source of riboflavin and protein.  Egg whites are composed overwhelmingly of water, with the rest made up of proteins.  They contain little to no fat nor carbohydrates.  Since they contain so much protein, it is possible to whip them into a stiff foam by breaking and releasing the proteins (more on cooking foams later).

Chalaza – this is the thick, twisted, white mass found in the egg white.  It helps keep the yolk centered and is a good indicator of freshness; the more twisted the chalaza, the fresher the egg.

Yolk – feeds the developing embryo.  Some of you may not know this, but yolks are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals (including vitamins A, D, E, and K).  The yolk also contains a fair amount of protein.  However, the yolk is where all of the egg’s fat and cholesterol can be found.  According to the USDA, one standard egg yolk contains an average of 210mg cholesterol and 4.5g of fat.  It also contains an emulsifier, lecithin, which helps thicken and bind non-combining ingredients (like oil and water).

Air Cell – forms when the insides of an egg contract as they cool after being laid.  Air cell size is used to grade eggs; the smaller the air cell, the fresher the egg.

II. Baking:

If you have baked, you have probably baked with eggs.  But, if you’re like me, you didn’t know exactly what those eggs did.  I understood that egg whites make something fluffier and egg yolks make it moister, but I didn’t know how or why.  Now I do, and here’s a brief explanation of how it works:

Eggs are often used as binding agents in cooking (due to the function of lecithin as an emulsifier).  They can be used to make the consistency of a mixture more even and help ingredients like fats and water combine smoothly.  Egg whites are used as leavening agents; when heated, the proteins inside break open and expand, causing the pastry to rise.  However, they also push out moisture, which can leave the pastry dry.  You can also break open and release the proteins by beating or whipping the egg whites, which creates a foam and can be used to add airiness to a pastry.  Egg yolks are used to moisten and combine baked goods; they add richness help create a smooth texture.  Egg yolks can leave your pastry too wet, however, if the correct proportions are not used.

III. Tips:

Peeling Eggs – to more easily peel boiled eggs, run them under cold water and start peeling from the air pocket

Preventing Eggs from Cracking – to prevent eggs from cracking while boiling, prick a small hole in the air pocket. Eggs crack because the air becomes heated, expands, and pushes at the shell, cracking it.  You can also let the eggs come to room temperature and, most importantly, place them in the water before you turn on the heat; do not place eggs straight into boiling water.

Judging Freshness – heavier, fuller eggs are fresher because, as eggs age, water evaporates through their porous shell.  Therefore, in water, an old egg stands on end, a rotten one floats, and a fresh egg sinks. A small air chamber is another sign of a fresh egg; to test, hold an egg up to the light and look for the air cell.  When cracked, the egg white should be thick, solid, and slightly cloudy.

Whipping Eggs – when whipping eggs into a foam, make sure to start with room temperature eggs.  This makes it easier to release the proteins and helps them create a stronger structure.

French Toast Cupcakes w/ Maple Syrup Cream Cheese Frosting


This recipe comes from one of my favorite food blogs, The Cupcakery.  I have been making a lot of chocolate desserts lately (I’m huge on chocolate, the thicker, richer, and darker, the better) and I decided to try something new that contained absolutely no chocolate.  So, I found this cupcake recipe and it sounded absolutely divine. Plus, as I adore anything cream cheese, this frosting had me sold.

I followed the original recipe pretty closely, but I did make a couple tweaks, so I’ve listed the modified recipe below.

Ingredients:

(cupcakes)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. maple extract
  • 1/2 tsp. praline extract
  • 1/2 cup milk

(frosting)

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp maple syrup (make sure it’s also at room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 dash of cinnamon (for dusting/decorating)

Directions:

(cupcakes)

  1. žPreheat your oven to 350° F. Line your muffin tin(s) with baking liners (recipe yields 12 smaller cupcakes, or I suppose 6 large ones)
  2. Whisk together your flour, baking powder, cinnamon, clove, and salt in a cooking bowl
  3. žBeat butter, sugar, and eggs until creamy in a medium/large mixing bowl. Add in maple and praline extract
  4. žWhisk flour mixture and milk into this, in roughly three additions of flour and two of milk. Then beat until smooth
  5. žUse an ice-cream scoop to divide the batter into the cupcake tins and bake 20-25 minutes (mine took about 23 minutes).  They’re done when they’re  a golden brown, tops are springy when lightly touched, and a toothpick comes out clean
  6. Let the cupcakes cool for a bit until they separate away from the tin, then take them out (I used a fork and my fingers to gently nudge them out, but you could also just carefully invert the pan)
  7. Let them cool completely on a rack before frosting

(frosting)

  1. žCream together your butter, cream cheese, and salt (keep in mind cream cheese is already a little salty).  Add in your maple syrup
  2. Reduce speed and carefully pour in sugar 1/2 cup at a time until the frosting has the sweetness and the consistency you want (I prefer my cream cheese frosting more tart and thicker, so I used much less sugar than the original recipe).  Beat on medium-high until smooth
  3. Refrigerate the frosting for 5 minutes or so to reduce melting while you pipe it onto your cupcakes
  4. After frosting your cupcakes, decorate with some dusted cinnamon on top
Review:
This is a wonderfully crafted recipe (no surprise coming from The Cupcakery).  It yielded a perfect 12 cupcakes with just enough leftover batter for a delicious fingerful.  The cupcakes rose without any fuss and did not overflow their cups at all. They smelled absolutely heavenly (think a spiced combination of Christmas and chai tea) and they tasted exactly the same.  The frosting called for much more sugar than I used, and I don’t feel it needed anywhere near four cups of confectioner’s sugar; it was sweet enough with less than half of that.  Just by itself, it had a mild maple syrup flavor, which, while pleasant, wasn’t as powerful as I was expecting.  On the cupcakes, however, the flavor was drawn out as it played off the delicious spice of the base.

Chocolate Raspberry Pavlova

I found this recipe a while ago in the massive clutter-pile of food articles on my mother’s desk and I had been waiting to make it until raspberries were in season. But, staring at the gorgeous picture on the recipe, I just couldn’t wait any longer and so I made it a little ahead of schedule.

I was very excited to try this dessert (fun fact: it’s named after a ballet dancer and originated in New Zealand) as my mother had never made one (very surprising) and my father had never eaten one (more surprising). I was a little hesitant since the dessert is meringue-based (and I really, really hate meringues), but it was a simply fantastic little treat.

This recipe is simple and turned out perfectly, but from my pavlova research (courtesy of Google) I have found that there are several things that can go wrong with this dessert (and often do). The two biggest problems seemed to be with having your egg whites refuse to whip up (or having them collapse after the other ingredients were added in) and having the entire pavlova collapse once it was taken out of the oven. The solutions I found to these are at the bottom of this post (under tips); they were simple to do and I’m sure they worked since I didn’t experience any of these minor disasters.

Chocolate Raspberry Pavlova with Whipped Cream and Fresh Berries:
Recipe:

(base)

  • 6 egg whites (room temp.)
  • 300g powdered sugar (careful if you want to reduce the sugar, it may affect how well it whips up)
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 50g dark chocolate, chopped to smallish bits (I chopped mine to roughly the size of average chocolate chips, but don’t use actual chocolate chips, because they don’t incorporate or flavor the cake as well as chopped chocolate)

(topping)

  • 500ml heavy cream (this really depends on how much whip cream you want on top)
  • 500g raspberries (again, this one’s more to taste/looks)
  • 2–3 tablespoons coarsely grated dark chocolate (same as above)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a large, shallow baking pan with a silpat pad (you can also use a similar non-stick mat or a baking sheet, this is just what I used)
  2. Beat your egg whites into peaks (the recipe was vague on what kind of peaks, so I did them somewhere between soft and stiff and it worked just fine). Little by little add in the sugar
  3. žAdd in the cocoa a tablespoon at a time, then add the balsamic vinegar (some recipes have you fold in the cocoa, but I beat it in)
  4. Fold in the chopped chocolate, take care not to crush your egg whites
  5. žPile the batter onto the baking sheet into a pile and carefully round and smooth out to a 9inch circle. You want a slight indent in the center, but don’t go gouging out a hole; it’s a slight indent
  6. Now, turn your oven down to 300°F, and set your pan (with the pavlova in it, of course) into the center of your oven. Bake for about 1 hour (mine took about 45 minutes, but my oven bakes a little faster than most). It’s done when the top is springy and it looks like every online picture of a chocolate pavlova. Careful checking this dessert; it’s very delicate, so only open your oven if you absolutely have to and try to open it as little as possible.
  7. žWhen your pavlova is done, turn the oven off and open the door slightly to let the pavlova cool off (we just stuck a sturdy wooden spoon in the door to prop it open about an inch or two). Slight cracking may occur.
  8. žWhen it’s cooled, take it out and either invert it onto a serving platter or carefully transfer it on (I had my gracious mother help me with this one, and we opted to transfer it by lifting it on the silpat liner and carefully folding the liner away until I was left holding the pavlova. This definitely requires two pairs of hands)
  9. žRight before you’re ready to serve, whip up the heavy cream (you can add in some powdered sugar, but you’d essentially be sugaring a meringue and that’s most definitely not necessary). If you’re not planning on eating the entire pavlova in one sitting, I’d cut slices first (which, as you will see, is easier said than done) and then put the topping on those pieces. Otherwise, your cream will sit on the pavlova and make it soggy, etc.
  10. Finish it off with the raspberries (side note: I’m not a huge raspberry fan, but they really are the perfect thing for this dessert. While other berries would be pleasant, the raspberries are essential) and the grated chocolate

Review:

After reading all about pavlovas, I was a little nervous about this dessert, but this recipe made it easy. While the original was a little vague in the directions and obviously was meant for more savvy bakers (hopefully, I’ve managed to simplify it a bit), the final project was fantastic. The outside is sugary and crunchy, while the inside is sticky and, dare I say it, almost a little gooey. While the base of the cake is sweet (unsurprising since it’s essentially just egg whites and sugar), the plain whipped cream topping and raspberries make it refreshing and very summer-y. One of the best things about it is how fun it is to eat; it’s definitely a different gastronomic experience than other desserts. The crisp top and the gooey bottom mixed with the creamy topping make for a very enjoyable texture experience, while you get the play of flavors from the sweet cocoa of the base and the freshly-tart burst from the raspberries (I imagine this is even more incredible when the raspberries are actually in season). My favorite part is how light this dessert is; I had a sizable slice and I didn’t feel the slightest bit full from it. There is serious danger of eating the entire cake.

Tips:

Keep your egg whites pure. Make sure absolutely no oil touches them and no egg yolk gets in. Make sure your bowl, beaters, wooden spoon, and whatever other implements touch them are clean, clean, clean. And keep your fingers out of the bowl!

Egg whites whip up better when they’re at room temperature, so leave your eggs out for 30 minutes or so.

After your pavlova is baked, turn the oven off, but leave the pavlova in the oven. Just crack the door a bit and let it cool off in there. This should prevent it from collapsing.

When transferring your pavlova to a serving platter, be very gentle, they are extremely fragile (especially the bigger they are).

Not mine, found this one off google!

Buttermilk Pancakes vs. Martha Stewart

Making a 6am morning well worth it

I had never made pancakes before and, while breakfast foods aren’t usually at the top of my recipe box, I figured if they have “cake” in the name, I might as well have a go at it.  I settled on one old-fashioned buttermilk recipe and one for classic pancakes (courtesy of Ms. Stewart).  Making the two different batches at the same time was a little challenging, especially at 6am (not my finest hour), but they both turned out wonderfully and my family thoroughly enjoyed their stint as my guinea pigs.

First, the buttermilk:

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 dab of butter for the pan

Directions:

  1. “Sour” the milk with the vinegar in a medium cooking bowl (big enough for all the ingredients)
  2. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and sugar in a separate bowl
  3. Whisk egg and oil into the “soured” milk
  4. Pour in the mixed dry ingredients and whisk the batter until the lumps are gone (some small ones may remain, but the batter should be pretty smooth)
  5. Heat your favorite skillet over a medium flame and spread your dab of butter around in there (obviously you don’t want your pancake swimming in butter, but it’s ok if you use a couple extra dabs, especially in between pancakes to make sure the skillet keeps well greased)
  6. Scoop about 1/3 cup (or more/less depending on how big you want your pancakes) of batter and pour it into the center of the skillet (I used a ladle and eye-balled).  After the first one, I used the back of my ladle to gently pat down and spread the dough a little because the pancakes fluff and thicken as they cook, and they were making me nervous with how thick they got
  7. Once the bottom is a medium-golden brown, flip the pancake and cook the other side.  If one side is not quite done, go ahead and flip it back (pancakes, unlike hamburger patties, are no worse for wear after a couple extra flips, though I would try to reduce extra handling anyways)
Review:

These really had a fantastic taste to them, very deeply layered and rich.  They were a little denser, though still fluffy, and almost imperceptibly drier (which in no way detracted from their soft, golden, goodness).  The batter was easy and kind, pleasantly thick (and rather tasty).  While my family preferred Ms. Stewart’s pancakes to these, it’s still a great recipe for buttermilk pancakes.

Second (though, actually, simultaneously), the Martha Stewart pancakes:
Review:

This is THE classic pancake; the recipe really undersells with the title “Basic Pancakes”.  These pancakes were lightly flavored and incredibly fluffy with just a hint of sweetness.  The batter was a little thinner than the buttermilk, but cooked up just fine with no problems.  The pancakes had a wonderful little crisp to the outside and a gentle airiness inside. I used oil instead of butter, and maybe next time I’ll try them out with butter, just for fun.  There will definitely be a next time for these pancakes. I didn’t do the oven-warming, but since it takes a while to get all the pancakes done, I’ll definitely use that little trick next time.

Tips:
To make pancakes fluffier, sift your flour, whip your eggs, and you can even substitute in seltzer water (though I was more than happy with the fluffiness of these recipes).

The secret to perfectly cooked pancakes is patience.  It’s better to cook them a little slower and more evenly, than try to rush them (they’ll end up burnt outside and undercooked inside)

As far as toppings, etc.  I made a few plain from each batch as well as almond, pecan brown sugar, chocolate chip (I used semi-sweet and white chocolate), and one with chopped crystallized ginger (which was very yummy and exotic).  Basically anything I could grab out of the front of my pantry. For all of those, I simply pressed the nuts, chocolate, etc. into the uncooked top of the pancake after I scooped the batter into the skillet.

They were absolutely delicious, especially with some salted butter and fresh berries.  Made 6am worth it.