I’ve come to the conclusion that for a rather detail-oriented person like myself, the last weeks of pregnancy can feel like preparing for the apocalypse. I’m trying to fight this feeling with everything I have and remind myself that after the baby is born, grocery stores will still be open, we’ll have family visiting, and friends will drop by — but still, I’ve been cooking up a storm and straightening up the house as if the baby will really care. In recommending recipes to me in emails and in your comments on my last post, many of you mentioned not forgetting breakfast or something sweet, and I realized amidst the carne asada and beef stew, it’d be nice to have a small treat, too. As I scanned the archives of the blog, I realized that brownies are a bit underrepresented here, and this batch of super fudgy crackly-top, salt-sprinkled beauties is just the thing to remedy that.
Here in Seattle, we happen to have a handful of friends who either own their own food businesses, are food writers, or are generally enthusiastic eaters. Because of this, strong opinions abound regarding restaurants or recipes people are passionate about. For me, this takes the form of visiting new bakeries, and the first thing I tend to look for is the brownie. While there are certainly far more complex (and even interesting) additions to the pastry case, a good brownie is actually something that takes some thought to execute well. I love the brownie at Tartine in San Francisco, and will always make a special detour to get one if I’m in the city. The brownie at Flour Bakery in Boston is very, very solid. And the espresso brownie at Spruce Confections in Boulder, Co is worth a stroll down the hill if you happen to be a chocolate-loving college student in need of a distraction (It’s possible I’m speaking from experience here).
There’s always a lot of talk when it comes to brownies: cakey versus fudgy? Nuts or no nuts? Dense versus crumbly? The list of qualifiers and distinctions goes on and on. Personally I love a dense, fudgy brownie with a slightly chewy, crackly top. In her cookbook Date Night In, my friend Ashley gives some tips for how to achieve that crackly top — along with the recipe for her addicting Bittersweet Brownies with Salted Peanut Butter Frosting. While very different in personality, I also really like Thomas Keller’s brownie recipe, which are admittedly more in the cakey camp, but have a really deep, complex chocolate flavor thanks to the generous hit of both cocoa powder and dark chocolate. And then, a new favorite has strolled into my life this week thanks to The Violet Bakery Cookbook.
I received Claire Ptak’s cookbook in the mail last week and spent the good part of an evening in bed, folding down pages and reading about her approach to baking and opening a small London bake shop. I’ve had an odd from-afar obsession with Violet for a long time. I remember about five years ago when Sam was designing the website for my granola company, Marge, I’d brought up Claire’s bakery website as a model. I loved the simple logo and was drawn into the photos of cinnamon buns and beautiful little cupcakes. Like me, Claire started out at farmers markets and the storefront she opened in 2010 looked charming and unassuming. Violet became my bakery crush. My friend Janet visited London for work and I told her she absolutely must go. Had I been, she asked? What should I order? I explained to Janet that I had not, but that I had a really good feeling about it.
In addition to killer brownies, The Violet Cookbook has a really nice mix of sweet and savory recipes to suit everyone’s palette. Claire used to work at Chez Panisse and the influence is noticeable — there are lots of seasonal fruits and simple understated flavors, along with many recipes that rely on natural sugars. One of these days, I’ll actually visit Violet in person, mini brownie lover in tow. For now, these are a solid stand-in. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
Megan’s Note: I’d be remiss not to mention the rye flour here, one of my favorite flours to bake with. It’s smooth and silky and adds a subtle nuttiness to these brownies. If you can’t find rye flour, spelt flour would be great, too — or use what you’re comfortable with and have on hand. Brownies are forgiving.
When buying chocolate for this recipe, splurge if you’re able as you really will taste the difference. I love Valrhona, but I used Ghiradelli 60% for these and I always find that it’s a really nice mid-range option. Claire doesn’t call for nuts in her version but I added a generous handful of walnuts so feel free to follow suit (or not). And the sprinkling of salt really does heighten all of the flavors — I wouldn’t skip this step and, in fact, I add an extra sprinkle when they come out of the oven. Claire mentions that the brownies are best eaten the day they’re baked but we had some sliced and covered on the counter for up to two days afterwards and they were just fine.
Only slightly adapted from The Violet Cookbook
Preheat the oven to 355 F. Butter an 8×12-inch baking pan and line with parchment paper.
In a heatproof bowl, melt together the butter and the chocolate over a pan of water that’s been brought to a boil and then taken off the heat. Allow the mixture to rest, stirring occasionally as it melts.
In another bowl, whisk together the cocoa, rye flour, baking powder and kosher salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the sugars, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy. Slowly add the melted chooolate, followed by the dry ingredients. Mix just enough to combine; fold in chopped walnuts. Pour into the prepared baking pan. Smooth the top with an icing spatula or rubber spatula and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon or so of big, flaky salt.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the brownies are set but with a slight wobble. Sprinkle with remaining bit of flaky salt. Leave to cool completely in the pan before slicing into 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 always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
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.