The Skeleton in My Cupboard–Brownies

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more perfect example of a love-hate relationship than the one I have with brownies.  What’s not to love, right?  They are fudgy, chewy, crispy, crunchy, chocolatey, gooey, and delicious.  They make me happy.  They’re perfect alone or with ice cream, any temperature, at any meal.  And usually *usually* one is enough.  Whether you prefer the middle or the corner, with nuts, with chips, or au natural, brownies are a winner.  Unless you’re me and you can’t figure out how to bake a good batch.  Then, they’re your nemesis.

I’ve tried SO MANY recipes, and they all promise to be foolproof, only adding to my shame when I screw them up.  Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is that the mix you can buy for $2.99 in a box at the grocery store tastes and looks better than my homebaked, expensive, high-end, chocolatey expression of love?  What’s a girl to do?  I turned to the internet and some trusted baking sites, some favorite cookbooks, and some less fancy chocolate.  I aimed for simplicity.

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Flour, sugar, chocolate, butter, eggs, vanilla, salt.

That’s it.  It should have been so easy, so fast, so delicious.  20 minutes at 400 (I even have an in-oven thermometer!), then into an ice bath to cool.  Granted, I was supposed to use an 8×8 metal pan, which I don’t own, so I used glass, then put the brownies (on foil) into a different container so as not to shatter my pan, but still.  The center was raw.  Not in that good, ooey-gooey way–in a gross, drippy, uncooked, raw way.  You guys, I *like* brownie batter.  And when I say I like batter, I mean there is no need to wash the bowl when I’m done with it.  (I’m sure J is cringing as he reads this, grateful that I don’t lick bowls in public and wishing that I didn’t admit to doing so in private all over the internet.)  I do not fear salmonella.  I had every reason (after my overbaked, dry mess last time*) to love these brownies, even if they were a little underdone.

*Below – the last, terrible batch

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I did not like them.  Once again, I went to the altar of internet searching and begged Google to help me.  Multiple baking chats reassured me that this was a common problem and said I could put those babies back in the oven to firm them up, just as long as I was careful not to overbake them.  15 more minutes (nearly double the original time) helped a little, but only a little.  They tasted better, but they didn’t look too pretty and they fell apart when cut.   As you can see in the photo above, my last batch looked lovely, but didn’t taste good at all.  (Seriously, we threw them away.  I NEVER waste chocolate.  This hurt.)

Just once I’d like to bake brownies that taste AND look nice (and wouldn’t be better off hidden under multiple scoops of ice cream!)

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So back to the drawing board I go.  Brown Eyed Baker’s Baked recipe, buh-bye.  Baking Bites Perfect Fudgy Brownies, ciao for now.  (I may return to you once I own a metal pan, and next time I’m mixing far less so as to keep that sugar crystallized to make a nice crust.)  I’m not sure where to go next, but I’m not giving up.  I have learned to make a buttery, flavorful pie crust.  I have mastered both chocolate and vanilla cakes, something many professional bakeries don’t get right.  I’ve got a repertoire of muffins, cookies, frostings, and specialty items.  Brownies, I’m coming for you.

The night wasn’t a total loss.  Boo made sure we were still smiling in spite of my brownie-tastrophe and J’s endless school work.

Unlike the cats in this video,

Boo entertained herself without harming anyone or damaging anything:

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Love.

Celebrate all Occasions with Pie!

Or balloons.

March 12, 2011

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Personally, I love birthday cake.  I mean I love all things birthday and all things cake.  All kinds, all reasons. (Don’t get me wrong, I also love cookies, brownies, mousse, crisps, crumbles, breads, and all other gluten and glucose laden foods.)  Pie, however, I came to appreciate later in life, having had an unfortunate blueberry pie experience as a child.  *What?!?*

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Houston, Texas sometime in the early 80s

“Time for my after school snack,” she thought to herself happily.  “I could have chips and queso, or cheese and crackers; hmmmm, let’s see what’s in the fridge.”  She opened the door of the side-by-side refrigerator, perhaps expecting to find some leftovers from dinner or maybe some coldcuts, and broke into a toothy grin.  Right there on the middle shelf, at arms reach, but just high enough that she couldn’t see all the way inside, sat a pie.  As she pried the foil off the top, the dark, gooey center called to her.  “Mmmmm, chocolate pie.”  With only a brief thought that this might be for an occasion and thus, she shouldn’t eat it, she dipped her index finger inside and with eyes closed in anticipated bliss, licked her finger.  But the delight she expected was instantly replaced by revulsion as she tasted something unfamiliar, and definitely NOT chocolate.  Sadly she learned that this unpleasant surprise was blueberry pie.

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Although I still suffer from intense disappointment when reality does not meet my expectations, I have since learned that blueberries are delicious in many forms, including pie.  But I have to confess that it took me a long time, and vanilla ice cream training wheels to learn that.  In any case, here we are tonight, celebrating with pie.

Yesterday was J’s birthday.  Those of you who know me well know that birthdays MUST be celebrated.  There is always much hoopla, many treats, fun times, and presents!  (Unless Hurricane Irene blows up your plans or your birthday is on the first day of school.  Then you just wear a monkey-festooned badge announcing to all who encounter you that you are the Birthday Girl.)  J doesn’t always share my belief that birthdays are so special. (I must interrupt myself here to note that when J and I disagree, he’s almost always right.  Yes, I just posted *that* for all the world to see.)  In this case however, he couldn’t be more wrong.  Once a year, those who love you are granted the opportunity to lavishly display their gratitude, to remember for themselves and to demonstrate to you how lucky they are to know you and how happy they are that you know them, to celebrate you.  And as the birthday boy or girl, you get to appreciate another day and another year, with all the promise that the future holds.  Birthdays rock!  But I try to respect his wishes, so I kept my promise that there would not be a surprise party.  I didn’t send anything to his place of work, nor did I encourage his students and colleagues to make a fuss (this year, see photo above for evidence of my previous bad behavior.)  I simply had a lovely dinner with him and gave him some gifts.  (And sent multiple “happy birthday” themed texts throughout the day.  A girl’s entitled to some indulgences!)  At the insistence of our neighbors, J and B, we will also have a belated celebration both of his birthday and the end of grad school this weekend.  But yesterday, I didn’t even make him a birthday cake.  Before your eyes bug out of your head, know that I offered.  Someone at work had made him a cake, and he insisted that he’d had enough sweets for the day.  Besides, he admitted, he’d rather have birthday PIE.

So today that’s exactly what he got.  And coincidentally, tomorrow is Pi Day!  (Middle school teachers are such dorks!)  While J diligently wrote lessons, logged internship hours, and drafted essays for grad school, I hung upside down at yoga class and baked pie.  (Other than a minor burn and a nick on my finger–rough day in the kitchen for me–I definitely got the better end of that deal!)  In the One Girl Cookies cookbook I found the perfect inspiration for a recipe–strawberry rhubarb pie with a twist.

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I’ve always associated strawberry rhubarb pie with summer.  I love the balance of sweet and tart, the fresh bite of the berries against the soothing cool of vanilla ice cream.  But Dawn Casale of OGC had an interesting idea.  She added orange zest to the filling and made an oat crumble topping that included crystallized and ground ginger alongside ground nutmeg to build a bridge between the warm winter fragrances and the fresh spring berries.  Considering that today is the day we removed our martenitsi, the timing was perfect.  (For more on the Bulgarian tradition, see here.)  So, having seen the first cardinal of the season, the crocuses and daffodils blooming, and the first flowers on the cherry tree, we celebrated his winter birthday and the beginning of spring with a seasonal pie.

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I made some changes to the recipe, first omitting the recommended crust and instead using my favorite, the Smitten Kitchen all butter, really flaky pie dough.  Additionally, I added a little extra rhubarb and left my slices on the large side because I like the tartness and the texture.  Lastly, I substituted 1/4 cup of almond flour for 1/4 cup of all purpose flour in the topping recipe because I wanted a little less floury flavor, and I thought the almond would be a nice addition with the oats.  The end result is a beautiful blend of tart, crunchy rhubarb and sweet, soft strawberries, light, flaky pie crust and crispy, spicy crumble.  It’s a little wet inside…next time I’ll probably pre-bake the pie crust a little, and make the bottom a little thicker.  (You can see in the picture that I had a little excess on the sides and definitely misjudged the shrinkage, thus, my crimping job is “homemade” in appearance.)  Perhaps in the future I can find a way to vent it a little bit too?  It’s not the prettiest pie I’ve ever made, and luckily, it doesn’t have to be because it’s not being presented as a whole.  This time, all that matters is that each slice tastes delicious, and it does.

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Pies for birthdays?  Pies for spring time?  Pies for Pi Day?  Pies for dinner?  You bet!

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Gone to the hips…

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