Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.
The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.
Our recent trip in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic served as a fine reminder that Europeans have some special talents when it comes to taking advantage of the fun factor of making and enjoying desserts. A cafe many of us from the choir tour group found on our stop just before crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border had a menu loaded not only with bright, shiny pictures but dessert items guaranteed to put any dedicated diner into a happy but instantaneous snacking coma.
All of this enticement aside—and I did, however reluctantly, lay it all aside despite the strong temptations, having already eaten a pretty substantial and dairy-laden traditional European meal of ‘fried cheese’ (crisply crumb-coated slow-melt cheese served with a sweet tartar dipping sauce)—there are other dessert paths to my heart, even in the heart of dessert-magical Europe. So I waited a moderate amount of time for my digestion, stroll aided, to recover from lunch before I opted for a much smaller and less elaborate dessert. elsewhere. It was only a single scoop of Stracciatella gelato, but it was cold, creamy, rich and delectable all the same. I’m not made of stone, you know.
When I worked for my uncle’s construction company, the lead painter and I would look at something shabbily built and laugh that we’d been sent in to fix what the carpenters evidently couldn’t, with a mythical substance and/or application process we sometimes referred to as “half-inch caulking.” While a good job of caulking the edges and cracks around trim and other carpentry is an important step in preparing a built object or room for its paint, any gap as large as a half-inch would in reality need more serious care than mere caulking—perhaps even rebuilding—before it was worthy of being painted, and there’s no such thing as caulking truly made for such massive applications. Curing, caulk would soon enough shrink and pull away from the trim and leave a gap nearly as visible as the one it was intended to fill, and no amount of daintily applied paint would make it as pretty as if it had been assembled and prepared properly. Still, on our best days, we amused ourselves with the notion that whatever the previous workers had failed to build or fix nicely, we painters with our magic powers could doll up sufficiently to save.
I think that I am even less fooled, nowadays, by the idea that a vigorous application of fine chocolate to my innards by means of cheerful ingestion can cure anything that might ail me. But I am no less pleased to entertain that myth than the aforementioned one, and don’t mind that any proof in the positive results of chocolate-eating on my attitude is likely a placebo effect, psychosomatic or flat-out delusion. Whatever the truth, I continue to fill in the gaps of my frayed moods with chocolate, and it nearly always helps to smooth over the flaws better than nearly any other restorative out there.
Casa Cortés ChocoBar, our fantastical find of an eatery in San Juan, not only offered a plethora of chocolate treats for the repair and maintenance of body and soul but had a wonderful wall tiled with antique chocolate molds that may well have been used to cover a multitude of sins in the building construction itself. That makes the place, in my estimation, extra potent and all the more inspiring. I may be on the hunt now for chocolate molds with which to tile my next kitchen wall, but I won’t want decommissioned molds, preferring to fuel myself with the contents as I install. It seems the respectful thing to do.
Nearly every time I get in the mood to bake something I’m missing one or more of the necessary ingredients. This happens often enough when I’m making non-baked goods, but it’s almost a given with baking, because I simply don’t bake all that often: too much wheat flour and sugar makes this sweets-addict too likely to get tummy aches or just plain to overindulge. And the fact that I don’t bake terribly often means that, in that most scientific of culinary skills, I’m the least a genius about getting the fussy proportions and timings and temperatures correct. But I still do like to bake once in a while.
Though I feel pretty safe making all sorts of substitutions in cooked and raw dishes, simply finding analogous items–ingredients that have plenty of similar qualities and can therefore be expected to fill similar roles in the combination–I know less about what the ingredients used in baking are supposed to do, unless you’re talking about spices and flavorings, and so have always been more timid about fooling around with the recipes for baked goods. But lately, I’ve come to be more of a believer that life’s too short not to have a little kitchen adventure more often, and that if I’m not using outrageously expensive ingredients the worst that can happen is that a batch of something goes so far awry that it’s just plain a failed experiment. That’s what trash bins are made for, no? I’ll bet few scientists ever made their paradigm-shifting discoveries without a few boneheaded false starts and cock-ups and misdirections and outright failures along the way either, and, well, brownies are not exactly rocket science.
Ingredients: Plain ‘classic’ brownies call for the following ingredients and proportions:
4 squares (4 ounces/113 grams) Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate–I substituted semisweet baking chocolate. It’s what I had in the cupboard.
3/4 cup butter–while baking recipes almost always specify unsalted butter, I almost always use salted butter anyway unless there’s a lot of additional salt in the recipe; salt heightens sweetness and intensifies other flavors as well. And I love salt.
2 cups sugar–I substituted dark brown sugar for a deeper flavor.
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour–I substituted instant masa flour (a fine corn flour usually used for tortilla- and tamale-making)
Then I added a few ingredients of my own to make a darker-chocolate brownie and give it a slight Mexican twist:
1/2 tsp baking soda–since the masa flour wouldn’t have gluten like the wheat flour to make the brownies rise a little, I figured they should have a boost in leavening. Look at me, being all fake-scientist-like!
1/2 tsp salt plus 1/8-1/4 tsp ground black pepper–again, wanting to intensify the spicy chocolate of the brownies–plus 1 large tablespoon Dutch processed cocoa–yet more chocolate boosting–plus 1 tablespoon cinnamon
Heat your oven to 350°F–mine runs hot, so I heated it to 325°.
Line a 13×9-inch pan with an oversized piece of baking parchment, folding it at the corners to fit and cover the sides as well as the bottom. One piece, no leaks.
Microwave the chocolate and butter together in a large microwaveable bowl on high until the butter is melted. Stir until the chocolate is melted and completely combined with the butter. Blend in the eggs and vanilla. In another bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients. Add them gradually to the wet mix, stirring until everything melds, and pour the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it into the folded parchment corners to fill them.
Bake 30 – 35 minutes (again, with my super-hot oven, I baked mine for more like 20-23 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Better to under-bake these than the opposite–fudgy, chewy brownies are good; dry, not.
The parchment will let you easily pop the whole sheet of brownies right out of the pan.
Makes 24 brownies. Mine were still a little too baked, thanks to the hot-hot oven, so I quite happily compensated for the slight dryness by frosting the ones that weren’t immediately devoured. (A number of them were. Clearly, the over-baking didn’t destroy them so badly that the members of this household wouldn’t cheerfully destroy them in another way.)
No, I’m no fussy decorator. But I loves me some tasty frosting. And I wanted something that was earthy and yet juicy, something that would stand up to the depth of the spiced brownies and still have a little homey heartfelt quality to it, even if it wasn’t very frilly. I chose strawberry frosting; after all, las fresas are a fantastic favorite fruit treat in some of the Latin-American cuisine I’ve had the pleasure of
inhaling eating. And this is just an easy take on buttercream icing.
Grind about one cup of freeze-dried strawberries to a coarse powder. I did mine in the blender, but if they’re dry enough you could even crush them with a wooden spoon in a heavy bowl–leaving some bits rough gives a little burst of berry flavor in the finished frosting and reminds us there are real berries involved. Add to the berry powder about a cup of powdered (confectioner’s) sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, a cup of soft butter, and a tablespoon or two of heavy cream. Blend them together well, adding more sugar and/or cream as needed for flavor and texture. Apply liberally to the brownies, cake, cookies, tongue, etc, as needed for improved state of bliss.
I sprinkled them with some edible glitter just for good measure. A little extra pizzazz never really hurt anything. But you could just sprinkle yours with the stardust of your affection and it’d be just as glamorous and grand.
This whole brownie-baking urge of mine was motivated in large part because I felt like making a sort of Valentine’s Day treat; since we’ll be in the car on a work-related jaunt much of the actual Valentine’s Day, I figured today was a reasonable substitution for the occasion. Since both my husband and I love chocolate and baked treats but do better with less wheat flour, I figured substituting corn flour could be a decent and respectable enough Tex-Mex way of dealing with that part of the equation. And since neither of us is a stickler for celebrating only on the official or ‘correct’ dates for anything, we’re both quite willing to celebrate the American holiday of love-and-romance any old time we can. Because for love, there really is no acceptable substitute.