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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
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.