Peanut Butter Brownies

I used to think I didn’t like brownies. I was wrong. I just didn’t like lots of the brownies I’d tasted. They were too sweet or too chocolatey or so gooey that they always left me feeling a bit sick.

Over the years, I’ve come to realise my ideal brownie. She’s on the cakey side and not too sweet. If I’m honest, she’s a bit salty (rather like myself). That’s why the recipe I’m about to share with you is one of my favourites.

The peanut butter balances the chocolate beautifully and lends a savouriness that make this brownie particularly moreish. It really is a winning combination rather like peanut butter and jelly. At least à mon avis.  

Part of what I didn’t understand for years about brownies is that they serve a specific purpose. They are neither cake nor cookies. In a sense, they’re perfect for the person who wants a smackerel of something sweet but can’t be bothered to bake and frost a cake. They’re for the impatient and greedy who still want nice things to eat.

I hope you enjoy them.

prebake

Ingredients:

115 g unsalted butter

100 g light brown sugar

100 g caster or granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 tsp vanilla

65 g flour

35 g cocoa powder

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

4 tbsp + 2 tsp natural peanut butter (I use crunchy, but use smooth if you like)

 

Method:

Preheat the oven to Gas4/350F/180C.

Melt 115 g unsalted butter.

Mix it with 1/2 c light brown sugar and 1/2 c caster sugar.

Add the 2 eggs and the vanilla.

Sift in the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

Stir in 4 tbsp of crunchy peanut butter.

Pour the batter into a greased lined square pan.

Drop the remaining 2 tsp of peanut butter randomly on top of the batter.

Use a butter knife to swirl the peanut butter through the batter. It will have a nice marbled look.

Sprinkle with a bit of extra salt if you desire, then bake for approximately 25 minutes.

Allow the brownies to cool in the pan before lifting them out, cutting, and serving.

Peppermint Bark

“Gargamel to Jokey.  Come in, Jokey.”

“Jokey Smurf here.  Go ahead, Gargamel.”

“There is Charlie all over the place.  I repeat: There is Charlie all over the place.”

“What do you want me to do?  Head north on Rossmore?”

“Yes so we can pick you up before Muirfield.  Can you copy?”

“Ten-four.”

“Hurry!  Over and out.”

This is how my parents picked me up from school one year the last Friday before winter break.  It was 1997.  Ally McBeal was all the rage.  Everyone smelled of CK One or Thierry Mugler’s Angel and car phones were the size of small laptops.  When I rang my parents from school it was via the pay phone in the hall for which we had a Sprint pin so I never required quarters.  The conversation above was thanks to the Motorola walkie talkies we had.

My family always went away someplace snowy for Christmas.  We would leave the moment school let out.  This is why my parents were anxious to pick me up as soon as possible.  15 hours in the car is a long time.  Add a moody teenager and a Maltese who gets carsick and that’s a really long time, like the Magi’s trip down the Silk Road to Bethlehem long.

How did we pass the hours?  Eddie Floyd, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Dead President’s soundtrack, slurpees, Red Vines, Cool Ranch Doritos, Algerian pop music, I spy with my little eye, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album, beef jerky from Chevron, turkey jerky from Chalet Gourmet, The Rolling Stones, Vegas!, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, Dire Straits, Dwight Yoakam, The Judds Christmas album, Blur, Elvis, The Home Alone Soundtrack, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on CD, sandwiches from Greenblatt’s, Evian, Gatorade, Fish Lake, pit stop, pee stop, stretch your legs, walk the dog, In-N-Out, Grand Junction, Aspen.

Aspen is beautiful no matter the time of year, but I love it most covered with snow.  It was a weird place though in that we would drive 900+ miles to escape Los Angeles only to be surrounded by all the same people we’d usually see back in Los Angeles.  All that had changed was the scenery.  Not that I’m complaining.

I loved going to Aspen.  I loved how on the first night, my dad would give my mother and I new flannel pajamas.  I loved that their ice skating rink had a women’s hockey team called the Mother Puckers and that not only did I start landing my first axel jumps there, but I also mastered a mean sit-spin with the help of a coach called Lisa.  I loved dog sledding and lunch at Krabloonik.  I loved that the Christmas tree we got in Aspen was different from the one we got in Los Angeles.  There we’d always get a sad little Charlie Brown tree, one that was small and lopsided and missing lots of pine needles.  The tree no other family would have chosen, that’s the one we chose.  We’d take it home and decorate it with strings of cranberries, popcorn balls, cookies, and millefiori beads my mother helped me make with a craft kit from Klutz.  And for the next two weeks, we’d tell it it was the most beautiful tree in the world.

There was a producer my father worked with who invited us to his house near Snowmass. He had reindeer and kept it decorated like Christmas year round.  The thing I remember most about this house was the endless supply of Williams Sonoma peppermint bark.

Williams Sonoma was the gold standard for kitchen shops in America when I was a child and their peppermint bark was the ultimate Christmas candy.  It still is.  Essentially, it’s a thin layer of minty chocolate topped with a thin layer of white chocolate and on top of that are crushed peppermints.  There are lots of copycat recipes.  Here is mine.

One taste and I feel like I’m young and back in Aspen at Christmastime again.  Waiting with my dog in the backseat of the car to pick up my dad from the base of Ajax.  Mama belting out “Beautiful star of Bethlehem” with Wynnona and Naomi in the driver’s seat.  Her pointer finger raised telling me to shush a minute until she’s finished singing.  Little do I know that years later Mama’s version of this song is all I’ll want hear once December rolls around.

Ingredients:

400 grams of good chocolate (I mix 250g Lindt milk with 150g Valrhona dark)

peppermint extract

5-10 Oreos, pulverized (I remove the white creamy filling first)

200 g white chocolate

5 mini candy canes, smashed

Method:

Line a jelly roll pan with foil then non-stick baking paper.

Sprinkle cookie crumbs all over the paper.

Oreo crumbs.

Oreo crumbs.

Heat the milk and dark chocolate in a double boiler until melted.

Stir 1/2 tsp of peppermint extract into the chocolate.  Taste it.  If you want the mint stronger, add a drop more.  Be careful not to add too much.

Pour the chocolate over the Oreo crumbs.  Smooth the surface with a spatula.

Allow the chocolate to cool for 30 minutes.

Now heat the white chocolate in the double boiler until it is smooth.

Pour the white chocolate on top of the dark chocolate.  Smooth the surface before sprinkling smashed candy canes over the top.

I know. It l

I know. It looks like Christmas elves are about to go on a bender.

Cool completely.  I allow mine to rest overnight.

Slice into pieces and store in a tin to serve at a later date or enjoy straight away.

Peppermint bark cross section.

Peppermint bark cross section.

I store mine in a tin then keep it in the refrigerator.

I store mine in a tin then keep it in the refrigerator.

Scarily Good Ghostie Meringue Cupcakes

ghosties

Today was the first bake sale of the school year.  Being a new reception(that’s kindergarten if you live in America) parent, I took the opportunity to show off a little.  I asked my daughter what kind of cake she’d like me to make and she said CUPCAKES!  At first I thought, ugh too twee but the more I thought about it, the more I realised Claire Ptak’s sweet wine cake would probably not be appreciated by the kinder set as much as I love it.

So with Halloween around the corner, I decided to make chocolate buttermilk cupcakes with chocolate buttercream, Oreo cookie crumbs, and Swiss meringue ghosties.  Everyone loved them.  Except for Helena.  I am ashamed to say she bought a pink sparkly fairy cake that came in a plastic wrapper instead.

 

 

Ingredients for the cakes:

2 ½ cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 heaping tbsp cocoa

¼ t. salt

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1 cup strong hot coffee

 

Method: Mix ingredients together except for the baking soda and hot coffee.  Dissolve soda in hot coffee then add to batter and gently stir to mix.  Don’t be alarmed by how liquidy the mixture is.  This is why the cakes are so moist.  Fill cupcake holders ¾ full. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 18-20 minutes.

 

Ingredients for the chocolate buttercream frosting:

250 grams (about 2 sticks if you’re in America) unsalted butter, softened

4 cups powdered/icing sugar

1/4 cup cocoa powder

75 grams melted dark chocolate

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp salt

 

Method: First, put the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a small simmering saucepan of water.  Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.  When the chocolate has melted, set it aside and allow it cool to room temperature.  Then combine all ingredients in a large bowl.  Use a hand mixer or standing mixer to beat the frosting until fluffy.  If you think it’s too thick, mix in some milk a tablespoon at a time until you get the consistency you desire.  Be careful though, thicker is better for this frosting.

 

Ingredients for chocolate cookie crumbs:

1 sleeve of Oreo cookies

Method: Simply put the Oreos in a food processor to blitz.  When they are all crumb, put them in a shallow dish.

 

Ingredients for Swiss meringue:

6 egg whites

220 grams of caster sugar

1 tsp cream of tartar

thermometer

 

Method: Whisk the ingredients in a large heatproof bowl.  Once combined, place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water and continue whisking.  Place the thermometer in the mixture.  When it reaches 160°F/71°C, remove it from the heat.  Using an electric mixer, start beating the mixture on a medium speed.  Increase the speed after a few minutes high and keep beating until shiny stiff peaks form.

*Heating the meringue to 160°F/71°C will pasteurize it, just in case you’re worried about eating raw egg white.

 

Other items you will need:

black food coloring on a plate

a birthday candle with a plastic holder attached and/or a matchstick

a pastry bag with a wide nozzle

 

How to assemble the cakes:

  1. Once the cupcakes have cooled, frost them with the chocolate buttercream.
  2. Gently dip the frosted sides of the cupcakes into the Oreo crumbs.
  3. Spoon the meringue into the pastry bag.
  4. Pipe ghosts on top of the Oreo cookie covered frosting.
  5. Dip the pointy end of a birthday candle holder or a matchstick into the black food coloring. Carefully dot it on the meringue ghostie to make eyes.
  6. Using the bottom of a birthday candle, dot on a mouth doing the same.

For transport, I used a Freddie’s Flowers box!  It was perfect.  Who knew?

 

 

in-a-box

Saturday’s Sundaes

Sometimes when the sun shines and the sky is blue, life feels like a Kinks’ song.  On Saturday, I found this especially true when surrounded by good food and family in the Chilterns.  As the sun came up, the t’wit t’twoo of the previous night’s owls gave way to birdsong.  At breakfast, gray skies rolled in and rain poured threatening our afternoon of fun.  Thankfully the sun soon emerged and everyone sighed a sigh of relief then began basking in its glow.

My three year old sat listening to the ticking of the clock in the foyer (she can’t tell time), until her cousins arrived for lunch at half past noon.  This is when the real fun began.  The kind of fun that starts with the holding of little hands in the garden, laughing at grownups, and racing up and down the lawn.  Of course this merriment ends with grass stains, wine stains, coffee stains, and endless laundry for days, but all of that scrubbing is worth every giggle and good moment.

Post chicken, ham, and leek pie, we taught the little ones about spread betting.  We had to.  It was the Grand National.  Unlucky for us, we were placing a bet on Many Clouds at the last minute but the William Hill server was too busy and the race started before our transaction completed.  C’est la guerre.

The children had no interest in the Oxford Cambridge boat race and thusly engaged in their own championship game of Beetle.  The winner got the rest of last weekend’s Easter candy.  The losers got sour grapes, marmite toast, and tea with Super Ted.

Finally, we had an all family boules tournament fuelled by brownie sundaes.  With hot salted caramel and chocolate sauce to choose from, everyone was a winner.  Below are my recipes for both.  I hope you enjoy them.  The brownies I made were Alice Medrich’s from Food 52.

through the window

foyer flowers

grand national

boat race

beetle tea with super ted

boules

henry

misti

 

 Sundae Sauces

Ingredients:

300ml of thick cream (double cream)

100g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), broken into pieces

2 tablespoons golden syrup

1 cup of caster or granulated sugar

100 grams of butter (cut into cubes)

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

fleur de sel

 

Method:

For the chocolate sauce – In a heat proof bowl, combine the chocolate and golden syrup.  Place it over a simmering pot.  Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water.  When the chocolate begins to melt, stir it.  Add half the container of cream and continue stirring to incorporate.  Take off the heat and add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste and a pinch of fleur de sel.

For the salted caramel – Put the sugar in a small pot and melt over low-medium heat.  Stir constantly until melted.  When it starts to turn tawny in color, add the butter.  Be sure to keep stirring though take caution as the butter can cause the caramel to sputter.  Once that’s incorporated, add the remaining cream.  Take off the heat and add 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel and 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste.

Serve over your favorite ice cream and enjoy.  Keep the remaining sauces in glass jars in the fridge and reheat as needed.  I keep them for about a month.

sundae sauces fleur de sel hot fudge caramel brownie sundae

Why is Life Worth Living? (A Cream-Filled Cupcake Recipe)

I watch this scene from Manhattan whenever I want to be reminded of all the beauty life has to offer.  The simple pleasures–Groucho Marx, the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo’s.  The exquisite pains–Swedish movies, Marlon Brando, Flaubert.  And while I love Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues, were it my list, I think I’d substitute it with Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk.  I’d also trade Cézanne’s apples and pears for Matisse’s Bouquet of Dahlias and White Book, Frank Sinatra for Hoagy Carmichael, Tracy’s face for my daughter’s, and I’d have to add my Grandma Helen’s cream-filled chocolate cupcakes.

These cupcakes are a perennial family favorite.  They have made an appearance at almost every birthday party and Fourth of July barbecue my life entire.  I have made one adjustment to my Grandmother’s recipe.  Taking my cues from The Barefoot Contessa, I use fresh hot coffee instead of hot water.  I find this adds depth and intensity and makes what is already an amazing cupcake that much more so.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I always have.

chocolate cupcakes

 Grandma Helen’s Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

 

2 ½ cups flour

2 cups sugar

5 heaping tbsp cocoa

¼ t. salt

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup buttermilk

2 t. baking soda

1 cup strong hot coffee

 

Mix ingredients together except for the baking soda and hot coffee.  Dissolve soda in hot coffee then add to batter and gently stir to mix.  Don’t be alarmed by how liquidy the mixture is.  This is why the cakes are so moist.  Fill cupcake holders ¾ full. Bake at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 18-20 minutes.

 

FILLING:  

 ½ cup caster or granulated sugar

½ cup milk

2/3 cup Crisco

¼ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp Water

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup powdered sugar

 

Mix caster sugar, Crisco, water, milk, salt, and vanilla together.  Beat for 5 minutes.  Then add powdered sugar.  After cupcakes have cooked, use a pastry tube to squeeze the cream filling into each cake.  Be careful not to fill too much or the cakes will crack.  Frost with chocolate frosting.

Frosting:   

6 oz. dark chocolate (at least 80% cocoa)

1/2 lb unsalted butter

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 c powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

1 tbsp instant coffee dissolved in a tsp of hot water

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and set aside until room temperature.  Beat the butter with an electric mixer in a large bowl until light and fluffy.  Add the yolk and vanilla and continue mixing for a few more minutes.  Gradually beat in the sugar.  Lastly, incorporate the melted chocolate and instant coffee.

Marshmallowy Macaroons

I am so over French macarons.  They’re everywhere and they have become what I refer to as fake fancy.  Marks and Spencer’s sells them.  Tesco’s sells them.  As does the bakery in the little village where my in-laws live. I still love Ladurée, but let’s face it. Macarons have become the paninis of the pastry world–everyone makes them; yet few know how to make them well.  Besides, they’re a little too refined for me these days.  I want something less fussy, something rougher.  That’s why I’m bringing back the coconut macaroon.

My coconut macaroons are really marshmallowy because that’s how I like them.  I tend to make plain ones that I then drizzle with melted dark chocolate or I like to add the zest of 1-2 limes, depending on how much citrus sunshine I want to taste.

Below is my recipe.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Ingredients:

3/4 c coconut chips

3/4 c desiccated coconut

2 large egg whites

1/4 c caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/4 tsp salt

the zest of 1-2 limes (optional)

melted dark chocolate (optional)

 

Method:

Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C/Gas 4.

Toast your coconut in a large skill over low-medium heat.

057

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form.

Gradually add the sugar and continue whisking until stiff peaks form.

Add the vanilla and salt then whisk some more until the mixture goes all shiny and marshmallowy.

Finally, fold the toasted coconut into the marshmallowy mixture.  If you want lime in your macaroons, now is the time to add the zest.

059

plain marshmallowy macaroon mix

 

with lime zest

with lime zest

Spoon the mixture into 12 small rounds on a lightly greased baking tray (I use coconut oil).

Bake for 10-15 minutes.  Once cool, drizzle with melted dark chocolate if you like.

068 071

Things That Stick to Your Ribs (A Profiteroles Recipe)

1236885_514840076151_878437945_n

Yesterday, I walked a mile uphill in English rain just to drop an essay in the post to a magazine that does not accept submissions via email.  I got soaked along the way as I carried no umbrella.  Couldn’t.  I was pushing my stroppy daughter who bandied her legs about under the dryness of her stroller’s plastic cover.  In protest, she doused the inside with apple juice.  Spill-proof sippy cup, my eye.

This journey into the local village made me feel like an aspiring woman writer from yesteryear.  It was all very “Gosh, I hope the ink doesn’t run off the envelope in this storm and jeepers, wouldn’t it be swell if I heard back from the editor soon?  Note to self: don’t forget milk for the baby on the way home.”

When I came out of the post office, the downpour had stopped and there was a rainbow in the sky.  At the end of it was something better than gold.  It was Hand Made Food.  Hand Made Food is the best cafe and shop in Blackheath and their cheese selection is tops.  I decided to stop in and see if I could find any special ingredients as our friends, Alexei and Linda, were joining us for dinner.

Lucky me.  I found the creamiest Stichelton to substitute for the Iowa Maytag I knew I couldn’t get for my blue cheese dressing.  It was extremely subtle for a blue cheese and perfectly tangy.  Nothing at all like Roquefort whose piquancy borders on the rancio.  It was the perfect accompaniment to one of my favorite salads, that ubiquitous iceberg wedge of America in the 1950s served with piccolo tomatoes and crumbled bacon.

The rest of our menu was equally brawny.  Rump steak, wilted spinach, buttered potatoes with parsley, with bottles of Dao and Barolo to drink.  For dessert, I couldn’t help myself.  Perhaps I should have made something lighter but I didn’t want to.  Summer has left and England is going cold.  Besides my flirty, 60 year old, Cockney butcher with glinty eyes and a shiny smile made even sparklier because of a few gold teeth, told me I looked like I was wasting away and he’d make it his business to build me up before winter so I wouldn’t fade away.  Yeah, I made profiteroles.

Aptly described by a friend of mine as “Godless bundles of temptation,” profiteroles have always been more seductive to me than forbidden fruit to Eve.  Last night, they proved the same for Henry and our friends.

 

For my choux, I use Ina Garten’s profiteroles recipe.  Though the chocolate sauce I make is a little different from hers.  The recipe is below.  I hope you like it as much as our friend, Linda, did.  She gave it the thumb’s up.

baking cooling

profiteroles1

A&L

Ingredients:

100g bar of dark chocolate (I use Chocolat Menier), chopped

3 tablespoons Lyle’s golden syrup

3/4 cup double cream

1 teaspoon cinnamon

pinch of sea salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

 

Method:

Place the chocolate and syrup in a double boiler.  Or if you’re like me and haven’t got one, place them in a bowl atop a gently boiling pot of water.  Once they begin to melt, add the cream and stir constantly to emulsify.  Before taking the syrup off the stove, mix in the cinnamon, salt, and vanilla.

Spoon the sauce over the profiteroles then garnish with toasted slivered nuts and soft fruit.

Store the remaining pastry in an airtight container.  Pour the chocolate sauce into a glass jar and refrigerate.  I promise this dessert is just as delicious and beautiful a day later as evidenced below.

a day later