In a recent post, I mentioned that I’d just gone up to my family’s Tahoe cabin for a few days with my dad. I mentioned ice cream and lounging by the lake. What I didn’t mention is the grand renovation that’s taken place this past year making our humble, rather tiny cabin into something a bit less humble and much less tiny. When I really think about it, our Tahoe cabin is the one stable house in my life. My folks are divorced and live in different houses than the one I grew up in, and if you’ve been around the blog for any period of time, you know I’m a serial mover. So the Tahoe cabin is it. It’s where I’ve been coming at least twice a year since I was two years old. Same little town, same street.
During the renovation this year, my dad just kept saying how I wouldn’t believe it–how much different it was. I’d overheard conversations about reclaimed barnwood and tile, about a courtyard breezeway and flat screen TV’s. So when I drove up, I’ll be honest: I expected to be a little sad. I braced myself to put on a big happy face for my dad and thought of all the ways I could tell him how great it was. I figured I’d miss our funky little cabin and all its quirks. After a record breaking personal best of 3 hours and 15 minutes, I pulled up, parked, and saw a totally new house. The funny thing? I wasn’t at all sad or nostalgic or disappointed. Don’t get me wrong: it was different. But it was great, too. The sleeping loft was still there, the windows looking out onto the lake were still the center of the house, and the stools at the kitchen counter–all there. It just got a face life. A fancy face lift.
Kind of like these brownies. Now if you’re anything like me, you have your go-to brownie recipe and probably aren’t interested in hearing all about someone else’s. And up until just a few days ago, I was like you: married to the brownie recipe I’ve been making for years. But I was encouraged by some friends who love this new recipe I’m about to share with you, so I gave in. The thing I like about these brownies is their insanely dark flavor and the way the gently straddle the line between fudgey and cakey (although they definitely err on the fudgey side). They’re studded with bits of dark chocolate, have some definite heft, cut beautifully, and would be the perfect brownie to serve with ice cream. Or alone. Like the Tahoe house, they’re a little fancier. A little different. But no less fabulous for it.
So it turns out brownies and vacation homes share a little something. Who knew? They’re both a good lesson in not anticipating your reaction to something before it happens. Allow yourself to be surprised. Allow yourself to feel (or taste) in the moment. I so often try to prepare for new situations by anticipating what it’ll be like, who will be there, how it’ll all go down. Pre-judging. I’m all about pre-judging–it’s how we Capricorns navigate our way through the world. But the truth of the matter? You can’t always plan for everything. You can’t always anticipate how it’ll all go down, how you’ll feel as you pull up to a new house, sit down next to a new acquaintence, or cut into a brand new brownie recipe. Be open to surprises…and whatever may come. Because of this, I’m looking forward to new memories in a new house and many, many more batches of these brownies.
After making countless brownies in my lifetime, I’ve come to realize there are a few important considerations that honestly make a ho-hum brownie kind of amazing. Here they are, along with the much anticipated recipe. Oh, and if you’d like to share your very favorite brownie recipe in the comments, I’d love to hear about it. I’m on a little bit of a brownie kick these days.
A Few Brownie Tips:
-Use room temperature eggs. Just do it. I won’t go into the chemistry of it all, but it helps immensely when mixing them evenly into the batter.
– Buy the absolute best chocolate you can afford. I know people say that a lot with baked goods, but with brownies you really should because chocolate’s the star here. Splurge. For this recipe, I used Scharffen Berger 62 % for the chopped chocolate and Valrhona 100% cocoa powder.
-A note on cocoa powder: it’s important to pay attention to whether your recipe calls for natural or Dutch-process (also known as alkalized) cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powder is quite bitter and acidic on its own, but in baked goods imparts a deep fudgey flavor. The recipe below calls for alkalized cocoa powder. This cocoa powder has been treated with a tiny bit of alkaline to reduce its natural acidity, giving it a smoother flavor. Read your recipe carefully; don’t swap one out for the other.
-Let those suckers cool. The composition of the brownie changes so much after cooling. So while I’m not going to lie and say I never cut off a little square warm, you really should let them cool all the way before slicing or doing any heavy sampling.
-How to make your brownies look a little more professional and a little less ‘my-kid-sister-hacked-into-the-brownies’? Get a hot cup of water, dunk a sharp knife in it, and wipe away the water each time you slice through a row. This will allow for clean, easy cutting. To be honest, with this recipe I haven’t needed to use this trick. They slice beautifully.
Adapted from: Ad Hoc
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour the bottom of a 9 X 9 inch glass or metal baking pan and set aside.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt and set aside.
Melt half the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally so that it won’t burn. Put the remaining butter in a heat-resistant bowl. Pour the melted butter over the bowl of butter and stir to melt. After a minute or so, the butter should have a creamy appearance and should be close to room temperature. Don’t worry if there are bits of unmelted butter.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for 3-4 minutes or until it’s thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. Then, on low speed rotate adding in 1/3 of the dry ingredients and 1/3 of butter. Continue until both have been incorporated. Don’t overmix here–just combine. Add in the chopped chocolate and quickly mix to combine (This batter can be refrigerated for up to 1 week).
Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. If it comes out wet and chocolaty, you may have hit a chip so try again. You don’t want to overbake these brownies. Cool until the brownies are at room temperature, run a knife around the edges of the pan, and invert onto a cutting board. But into 9 large 3″ brownies or 12 smaller brownies. They can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days although they’re best eaten the same day.
Early Fall Baking
Last weekend we went apple picking up near Yakima, a good three hours east of Seattle. We drove over to Harmony Orchards with our friends Brandi and John and met up with many other groups and families to amble about the rows and rows of apples in the unusually warm sun. We missed the annual picking last year as we were on our honeymoon, but the previous year was the one in which we made the colossal mistake of picking over 70 pounds of apples. I've never made so much applesauce in my life. This year we practiced restraint in bringing home a cool 38 pounds and after getting them all situated in the basement, I started to leaf through a few cookbooks looking for a great apple recipe -- something, preferably, that used quite a few apples, wasn't too sweet and could double as breakfast or dessert (really, the best kind of recipe). And that's exactly what we have in these Custardy Apple Squares.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.
I rarely make muffins at home and never order one when I'm out and about as I find they're often far too sweet and never truly that satisfying. I realize, too, in looking back at my cookbook that there's only one muffin recipe throughout. Case in point: I'm tentative on muffins. But not these. We've been pretty thrilled to have this healthier version of Morning Glory muffins on the counter this week; they have little bits of apple, raisins, walnuts, and grated carrot and are cloaked in a buttery oat crumble topping -- quite the opposite of your boring coffeeshop fare. I thought long and hard about doing a Valentine's post, some festive cookie or confection that would be share-worthy this weekend, but the more we talked about what our weekend would really look like, it involved something special for breakfast instead. I don't remember the last time a Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, so we have big plans to have breakfast in bed and if your plans are even remotely similar, these muffins would be a fine inclusion.
I generally work on weekends. It's something I've come to terms with only because I know it won't last forever. I write. I bake. But those two things don't always pay the bills, so I work retail on the weekends and dream of the day when I'll have a Sunday like this one: