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.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.