Top | Sugarspeak Baking
(post, Jenny Weber)
I am perhaps my own worst enemy. No worst critic exists. Okay, perhaps the cousin who I have yet to make the perfect cookie for. And, yes, my father most definitely is. But I look forward to his critiques. He is quite honest and has a very particular palate that is usually driven by his own very particular moods. Without fail he will always tell you exactly what he thinks of whatever you give him. The man has never censored himself and I truly believe he does not possess the gene to know how to. If it tastes like something that would be better served by a pooper scooper then you will know and you will know quickly. He is not like my mother who loves anything sweet and silky and accompanying the description “frosting.” Or not like my youngest brother who will eat anything placed in front of him. Sure, he will have his favorites and you will know because he will request those again and again (this evening an order was placed for my chocolate espresso cupcakes) but otherwise so long as it is passable it is good. That is not good enough for me. Until something passes my father’s inspection then back into the kitchen I must go until it is just right. And when it is just right—my Baklava Redux or my coffee flan—the compliments come quickly. Apart from my father I am, yes, my own worst enemy. It is not rare for me to do what I have coined “putting myself into competition with someone who doesn’t exist.” That means after I stare hours at pictures of pretty cupcakes you will then find me in my kitchen attaching butterfly sugar cookies to carefully marshmallow topped vanilla cupcakes. You might have caught a picture or two of these already. You didn’t? Here you go … Last night I was chatting with one of my best friends, another baker. She told me she had made brownies the night before but they had come out with the texture of a chocolate cake. Her exact words? “If I wanted a chocolate cake, I would have made chocolate cake. I wanted brownies!” She had no idea where she went wrong. So started the discussion of the various techniques I have been told about and those I have been instructed to do—my aunt’s advice to make sure the melted chocolate is at room temperature before adding it to the egg and sugar mixture or the baker’s requirement that my eggs sit in a warm water bath as I prepare all other ingredients and that they stay as warm as possible before I start to put all of the ingredients together. The common thread? The eggs and the chocolate should be at the same temperature if you want the typical chocolate fudgy brownie instead of a crumbling cakey mess. Brownies, unfortunately, quite recently, have become my achilles heel in the kitchen—replacing the space most recently held by pancakes (thank you yogurt for being its savior). The last few times I made them they have come out a little too fudgy or downright undercooked and fit for nothing more than my garbage can. I have been anxious to try another recipe, another technique, a different pan, different chocolate, different temperatures, different additions, no additions at all, just something to see if I could reverse the curse. Yes, a curse. What else would you call the loss of so much chocolate? Catastrophe? Inspired by my friend and after finding a recipe hidden in my folder of “to try” I went into the kitchen. The technique called for was something I had never tried before. Never even seen before. And I was tempted to just take the basics called for (measurements and such) and use the technique learned in the bakery (warm eggs, warm chocolate). But my inquisitive side took over and I wanted to see exactly what would happen with this recipe. The yield itself was small enough (not too much of any one ingredient used and so not too much guilt should the garbage can be fed instead of my ego) that experimentation was called for. Welcome. Begged for. What is the technique? Quite interesting. And uses no more than one pot—the same one used for melting the chocolate—and so it requires so much less clean-up. Melt 3 ounces of chocolate with four ounces of butter (I used Ghiradelli unsweetened) over a low heat. Once the chocolate-butter mixture is completely melted and smooth, remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar until smooth (I used light brown sugar). To this add in three large eggs one at a time, whisking each one in completely before adding the next. Then add your flavorings. Mine? Espresso powder and vanilla extract. Sprinkle some salt and then exchange your whisk for a spatula and fold in your flour (I used all-purpose, unbleached). Pour the batter into your prepped 8x8 baking dish, place into an oven of 325 degrees and then sit back and swim in that espresso scent wafting through your entire apartment. Dream of whipped cream and the cobble-stoned streets of Trastevere. Remove once you insert a toothpick, which I never have on hand so I use a fork, into the center and a few crumbs come out. This is what you are supposed to do. What did I do? Instead of trusting my nose and it’s “we’re ready” alarm I waited a spell and the brownies were pulled out perhaps two minutes too late. No moist crumbs clung to my fork and I thought all was lost. I let it rest and cool on my counter top while I prepared the white chocolate ganache—a mixture of white chocolate and heavy cream. When ready (ganache slightly firmer and the brownie completely cooled) turn the brownies out onto parchment or wax paper and pour the ganache into the center of the brownie, spreading it with whatever you have handy and that works—spatula, spoon, butter knife, etc. Sprinkle cinnamon on top and then place into the fridge to allow the ganache to set completely. The result? Ah … this is where the beginning of this rant comes into play, my being my own worst enemy. The brownie was, well, ordinary when first tasted directly out of the fridge. The cold had muted all of the flavors. Where were my dreams of little cups of frothy espresso and stylish Italian men walking by the sun drenched streets? All gone. Those were replaced by the plastic-wrapped reminders of the Little Debbie brownies my mother always included in her weekly groceries if the sales were in place. Yes, I had created a Little Debbie brownie. Not a feat I am proud of. Something kept nagging at me so right before bed I took out the brownies from the fridge and placed them in a container that I left on my counter top. The next morning I took a bite and there they were—the espresso, the vanilla, the white chocolate, the oh so slight hint of cinnamon. And there was the chocolate—not firm but tender. Not like the brownie I am used to but something I don’t mind licking my fingers for. And, yes, each one requires a licking of the fingers. One can’t let good chocolate go to waste.