For someone who is a self-professed ‘non-baker’ during the holidays, there certainly has been a lot of baking going on in the Neufangled Desserts kitchen lately! I recently splurged on a post-birthday present of a heritage Bundt pan for myself – and of course, needed to break that in immediately – so I made Mom’s Orange Olive Oil Bundt cake from Baked Explorations (post certainly forthcoming; it was amazing and came out beautiful!). I made Mint Chocolate Thumbprints, also from Baked Explorations, with my niece this weekend to satisfy our chocolate-peppermint holiday craving (and come on, wasn’t that holiday baking video with Matt and Renato wonderful? I could watch those two bake all day, of course.) I’m having some dear friends over this upcoming Friday after a theatrical reading I’m participating in, so of course, I have to make a cake (maybe in the official Baked Bundt pan, advertised on their blog this week, which I also splurged on—? Yeah, I’m pretty pathetic – I buy myself holiday gifts AND I am an official Baked junkie – but was there any question by this point?) I suppose baking becomes inevitable at this time of year – why fight it, right? Being a tremendous aficionado of anything chocolate + spicy (especially cinnamon), I was super-stoked to add the Spicy Brownies in Baked Elements to my baking roster this week.
I’ve made lots of brownie recipes over the years, and I have to say the Baked Brownie recipe is definitely among the best – if not, THE best. The only other brownie recipe which comes close is Ina Garten’s, which I’ve probably made the most (see my older “Ultimate Brownie” post). Ina’s recipe, however, leans toward the slightly greasy side, as she uses a lot more butter (there’s an entire pound in the recipe!), and the Baked guys have definitely experimented and tweaked things a little to make sure there are just the right amount of essential ingredients to really ‘get it right’. Oprah raved about Baked’s brownies when they were just getting started, and as you can imagine, Oprah’s touch was golden to getting them headed toward the success they enjoy today! Many of my friends have remained huge fans of Baked’s Sweet and Salty Brownie variation – which I could probably make in my sleep by now!
The wonderful thing about brownies is that they really are not difficult, bearing in mind a few pointers and suggestions, which I elaborate upon below. Once you have your favorite recipe down, you can continue to use that recipe and tweak it any way you want. With the Spicy Brownies, the Baked boys take their fabulous basic brownie recipe and amp it up a little by adding ancho chili powder, cinnamon, and ginger. It took me a little while to find basic ground ancho chili powder – you can find it in fine spice stores, like Penzeys, or a Mexican grocery. Do not use your regular chili powder – in a lot of ways, that is a misnomer. When bottles of spice in the grocery store say ‘chili’ powder, they basically mean a combination of spices suited for flavoring chili (as in, the meat and beans entree). These combinations include extra salt, cumin, garlic and the like – which you don’t want flavoring these brownies. You want the actual ancho chili pepper, ground into a powder – so this may take a little label reading on your part.
Though my photo shows a sprinkle of ground ginger, I opted to take Baked’s suggestion and used freshly grated ginger, from ginger root. It added a nice little bit of heat as well as some chewiness/chewy pieces throughout, which I didn’t find off-putting. As for the cinnamon – Baked suggests using freshly grated, and I had cinnamon sticks in my cupboard, but I used my ground Vietnamese (read: extra-spicy) cinnamon instead – if anything, because I adore its pungent flavor so much, but also because I read that my fellow bloggers, when trying to grate their sticks, found that they shattered against even the finest of spice graters.
For those of you who may love to bake, but are hesitant to break out the mixer, good news: making brownies typically does not require a mixer – and I would skeptical of the recipe if it did require it. Your overall aim is ‘fudgy-ness’, which requires no over-beating and a by-hand approach. Simply melt your chocolate and butter together and let them cool for a touch. Add your sugar(s) and eggs (and vanilla, if the recipe calls for it) – yes, all by hand – then gently fold in your dry ingredients (those spices smell phenomenal at this point when you make these particular brownies). Pour this delectable batter into the pan – making sure you sample a lick from your spatula – then bake!
I don’t claim to be as big a brownie expert as the Baked guys are, but at the risk of being a know-it-all (smack me now), here are a few tips and things I’ve found out and stick by when whipping up a batch:
* This probably goes without saying, but really try and use the best chocolate you can reasonably afford. I know most of my fellow blogging bakers will probably gasp when I say this, but I typically use Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips for most of my chocolate-based recipes. Truth is – of course, I would love to use a Scharffen Berger or Vahlrona, but let’s be reasonable. I work for a nonprofit for a living. I can’t afford to buy expensive chocolate, much as I’d love to and much as I consider myself a ‘serious’, dedicated home baker. So – again, use the best you can afford. Don’t break the bank, but don’t use a poor, generic brand in a good brownie recipe either. When baking book authors say use ‘good-quality’ chocolate, they mean it. The star of the brownie is the chocolate.
* Double boilers are a smart tool, yes, but seriously – why dirty up or use an extra pot? When you’re melting good chocolate, true – you don’t want to scorch it, so be careful – especially if you’re melting it in a saucepan on low, direct heat. For recipes where you are melting it into butter or cream, however, simply melt the butter or heat the cream completely in the saucepan first. Have your chocolate ready. Turn off the heat, then add the chocolate. Chocolate has a very low melting point. It doesn’t take much for it to completely melt and blend into the butter or cream. Simple whisk gently and you’re good.
* A really good brownie recipe typically does not have any leaveners like baking soda or baking powder in it. That’s not to say I haven’t had perfectly good brownies that have contained these ingredients, but technically, I’m leery of these recipes when I find them. A brownie doesn’t need any kind of ‘rise’. It’s best when it’s dense, in my opinion. That’s the point of a brownie. It’s also why you don’t want to over-beat your eggs in the batter when you whisk them in. Over-beating can turn your brownies quickly to cake.
* I’m come to the conclusion that really good brownie recipes – like Baked’s – have a combination of (white) granulated sugar and a bit of brown sugar. That brown sugar gives the brownies the little bit of oomph they really need. It steps the brownie up a little. Look for brownie recipes like these, or experiment with your own personal favorite by changing up a portion of the granulated sugar with brown sugar. Let me know how they turn out!
* General rule of thumb: when baking brownies, always choose to underbake rather than overbake. ‘Nuff said.
* Brownies require a ton of patience and willpower. This isn’t saying they’re difficult to make, they just require time. Before putting them together, make sure your ingredients are room temp. After you take the brownies out of the oven, resist the huge temptation to cut right into them. It’s difficult, I know. Believe me, I know. Your cuts won’t be very attractive (sometimes, that matters if you are serving these to guests or gifting them), and your brownies really need some time to fully ‘settle’ after their baking soiree in that hot oven. I usually try to let mine cool completely, then I refrigerate or even freeze them. Cutting them is much cleaner and easier when they are chilled, and you’d be surprised how delicious a cold brownie is. Overall, I like to make brownies on a weeknight – I let them cool on the counter overnight, the pop them in the fridge during the day when I’m at work. It gives me a reward to look forward to when I get home after a hard day’s work!
* Lastly, this is a very weird habit of mine, and I do not blame any of you for thinking I am truly a bizarre person for doing this… but there is a method to my madness. I actually separate out the chewy, gross chalazae inside my eggs. The chalazae is the white, squiggly part which suspends the egg yolk in the white. The reason I do this: brownies are usually best when slightly gooey and underdone. There is nothing worse than sinking your teeth into a delicious brownie, starting to chew the melty goodness, and all of a sudden – ewww! – you’re gnawing on a rubbery piece of egg. That’s usually a piece of chalazae. Yuck. I choose to take the time and extra step to pinch this piece of yuckiness off of every egg I put into my brownies. I don’t do this with every recipe I make – some cookie and cake batters whip the egg up nicely in a Kitchen Aid mixer, and the chalazae is somewhat ‘dissolved’, but with recipes such as brownies, custards, custard pies, puddings – taking this extra (yes, goofy) step is totally worth it to ensure silky smoothness.
Needless to say, I absolutely adored this spicy spin on an already perfect brownie. Much as I love the original Baked Brownie, I may be making them this way more often from now on. My first bite – I was in love. The warmth and slight kick of the spices immediately sets in as the brownie hits your tongue, but it isn’t overwhelming or disturbing. It’s really ‘just right’. The texture was dense and fudgy, not cakey. Perfect with a cup of coffee or cocoa on a winter day. I find that I prefer my brownies right out of the fridge, and like the Baked Brownie, these are good either cold or at room temperature. They cut up perfectly when chilled. If making these for a holiday gathering, arrange the squares haphazardly on a platter with cinnamon sticks scattered throughout, so your guests know ahead of time that they’re not tasting their typical kind of brownie!
What a winner. Definitely one of my favorites from the new book. Kudos, Matt and Renato. As usual, you won me completely over with this one. Try them with your holiday baking, folks. It’s like a decadent Mexican hot chocolate in solid form! The recipe: http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/12/03/in-the-oven-spicy-brownies.
And in case some of you didn’t catch my pop culture reference with the title of this blog, I offer this bit of fun nostalgia for you. Of course, I would hope, however, that you would not need Alka-Seltzer after eating these brownies… yikes!