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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.