Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chile + Chocolate = a very satisfying brownie

Quick! Raise your hand if you've ever seen the movie Chocolat?
Quick! Raise your hand if you're tired of the whole chiles and chocolate with sweet thing?

Has the trend of pairing chiles with chocolate in sweet baked goods faded into sweet oblivian?
Or did it kind of flicker on the horizon and then disappear just as quickly?
Or has it just barely fluttered its wings out of the nest of culinary trends?

Honestly, I have no idea. I just know that I love chiles; I love chocolate and putting the two together produces some very sweet things indeed. My favorite lovechild of this amorous couple is brownies (sweet and spicy hot chocolate is a close second).

A rich chocolate brownie that showcases the potential of chiles is tricky to pull off successfully. Honestly, I have never produced good results on my own, so when I found a recipe for Aztec Brownies from Barbara Fisher's blog Tigers & Strawberries, I was over-the-moon ecstatic.

Barbara's recipe looked promising and oh-so appealing. It was rich with chocolate, with a complexity of flavors that looked to be swoon worthy. Best of all, it featured a chile that I had never considered before--ground chipotle!

I was convinced I had to make this recipe--especially for a show 'n' tell to a potential employer/client (more about that later). I made a mental note to make a trip downtown to The Savory Spice Shop for my ground chipotle.

Three days later I readied myself in the kitchen to start baking. I was preparing my "mis en place" and was just about finished when I realized I had forgotten to get my ground chipotle!

I don't allow mess ups like this to set me back in my kitchen, so I dug around for a substitute: Urfa crushed red pepper paired with cayenne.

Urfa is a Turkish pepper that is sun dried during the day and then wrapped up tightly at night (called sweating). The sweating infuses the pepper with its own moisture produced during the day. The result is a very flavorful, complex, almost smoky tasting pepper that is dark purple at the end of processing. It is ground into flakes and often used as a condiment in Middle Eastern cuisines. While highly flavorful, it only has a moderate amount of heat--hence the pairing with cayenne pepper.

The result of my efforts was a wonderful and satisfying brownie that hits all the right notes for me--rich with chocolate; complex with the addition of espresso powder, Saigon cinnamon, and vanilla; and just the right amount of smoky spice that hits you in the back of the throat and then fills your entire mouth with wonderful warmth.

The only other change from Barbara's original recipe (besides the chile substitute) was that I bloomed the chile powders, cinnamon, and espresso in the warmed melted chocolate and butter mixture--instead of mixing them with the sugar. I thought this would allow even more flavor to develop, and I think this was right on the mark.

Also, for high-altitude purposes, I raised the oven temperature from 325 to 345. This change allows the brownie a quicker rise and a faster set, as the only leavening in this recipe is eggs. At this altitude, such a recipe needs higher heat in order to rise and set properly before it dries out in the oven.

Also, some high altitude bakers may need to add a little bit more salt to this recipe for the flavors to come out fully. I don't know what it is about high altitude, but often times recipes need more salt (but just a pinch or more--don't go overboard). I don't seem to have a problem with the salt in most of my baked goods, but if you make this, and you think the flavor is a bit muted, just add a bit more salt next time.

This recipe calls for 62% chocolate, and Barbara swears that if you use a higher percentage chocolate, the brownies will be too rich. I would take her word for that one.

One last thing before I present the recipe: I conclude with Barbara that this is a very fudgy brownie. Let it cool COMPLETELY before you even attempt to cut it into squares and serve it. In fact, I chilled mine for about an hour, then sliced them up (worked beautifully). Then I allowed them to come back to room temperature before serving. If you follow this guideline, you will have a prettier looking brownie.

Aztec Brownies
originally developed by Barbara Fisher, some changes made by me

4 oz. 62% bittersweet/semisweet chocolate
4 oz. unsalted butter, cut into large pieces

1 tsp. Vietnamese (Saigon) cinnamon
1 TBS. espresso powder
1.25 ground, dried chipotle pepper OR
1 tsp. Urfa crushed red pepper flakes, &
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1.25 cups sugar
.25 tsp. salt (table grind)

.75 cup all purpose, unbleached flour
2 TBS. Dutch processed cocoa

3 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 345 degrees F. Line an 8″ square glass baking pan with foil and spray with some sort of flour spray like Baker's Joy.

In a double boiler, melt butter and then add the chocolate, stir until the chocolate is completely melted.

Add the cinnamon, espresso powder, ground peppers, and vanilla to the hot chocolate mixture to bloom them. Set this aside to cool (although, if melted correctly, the chocolate mixture should just be barely warm anyway--just a bit warmer than body temp).

Place sugar and salt together in a mixer bowl and blend well.

Put flour and cocoa in another bowl and mix well.

Scrape chocolate mixture into the sugar mixture and beat on medium speed about 30 sec. to 1 min. or until the sugar becomes incorporated into the chocolate. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl and beat another 20 seconds or so.

Add eggs, beat to incorporate, scraping as needed.

Add ½ of flour mixture, and stir on low speed until mostly mixed in. Scrape bowl and add rest of flour, mixing until incorporated. Scrape bowl.

Beat on medium high speed for about 45 seconds, or until mixture lightens visibly. This is to incorporate air, which is the only leavening in the batter.

Scrape into prepared pan and bake at 345 for 25-35 minutes. A toothpick should come out just barely wet, but not liquid-like. The middle of the brownie should just be set when touched, but not firm. You want them to finish baking out of the oven so that they don't over bake and dry out.

Allow to cool in pan for fifteen minutes. Lift out foil and place on a wire rack and allow to cool COMPLETELY before cutting (they can be chilled until firm for easier slicing, and then allowed to come to room temp for serving).

Keep these tightly wrapped to prevent them from loosing their fudgy texture.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Re-embracing Banana Bread

No one thinks much of banana bread.

Banana bread seems to be the tired, old whore of the baking world. Every one's had a slice, and no one's impressed anymore.

Frankly, most versions of banana bread are dull. I find most to be dry with an insipid banana flavor that does not leave me craving another slice. For the past 5 years, I've been tinkering with a certain recipe for banana bread--one that I was introduced to during my days as a pastry flunky at the Inverness Hotel & Golf Club. The banana bread served at the hotel was actually moist, with a decent banana flavor, but it had no punch, and it relied too heavily on nuts for its climax.

Because I have so many friends, family, and customers that do not care for nuts or are allergic, I wanted a banana bread that spoke to them.

I wanted a banana bread that sang heavily of bananas but also played well with other notes, perhaps a hint of cinnamon, the heady scent of vanilla, a twinge of citrus, and maybe a little note of caramel.

To keep the bread moist, I used low-fat buttermilk and full fat sour cream as my dairy/liquid base. The slight tang also underlined the caramel note that I wanted to develop.

For the light caramel flavor, I used browned butter, and I replaced some of the white sugar in the original recipe with light brown sugar.

For a full banana flavor, I used bananas that were fully ripe, with a few that were over ripe. I don't advise using bananas that are so ripe that the skins are completely black; these tend to have a bitter flavor that is hard to counterbalance. Luckily, bananas freeze extremely well, so when they reach their fully ripe stage, but you don't have the time to use them for baking, you can just toss them into a freezer bag (with the skins on) and freeze until you are ready to use them. I also used more bananas than what most traditional recipes call for--6 medium sized bananas for 2 loaves of bread. This ensured a heavy distribution of bananas throughout each loaf.

I brought in a stiff shot of vanilla, a whiff of Vietnamese cinnamon, and the grated zest of one medium orange to backup the banana flavor and to make each bite of bread so interesting that you can't hold back to just one slice.

Banana Bliss Bread
(note: all measurements are for 5,000 ft)

1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar--packed
3 large eggs
6 medium sized, fully ripe to slightly overripe bananas--mashed until just chunky
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup full fat sour cream
2 tsp. vanilla
Grated zest of one medium orange
6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, browned and slightly cooled

3 cups all purpose flour (stir, dip, & sweep method)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1.25 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1.5 teaspoons Vietnamese cinnamon (Vietnamese cinnamon--also called Saigon cinnamon--is very potent stuff so a small amount goes a long way. If you need to use supermarket cinnamon, increase the amount to at least 2.25 teaspoons.)

Preheat the oven to 360 degrees F.
Lightly grease 2, 8x6 inch loaf pans

To brown the butter:

Put the butter in a clear glass or stainless steal heavy-bottomed, 2-cup sauce pan (or a small skillet). Over medium heat, heat the butter until it stops foaming. Very quickly, the milk solids will fall to the bottom of the pan and will begin to brown. Once it reaches a deep brown (but not black, be careful not to burn it!) and begins to smell of toasted nuts, pull it off the heat and let it cool. I suggest transferring it to a heat-proof ramekin to stop the browning.

For the wet stuff:

All eggs and dairy should be at room temperature.
In a large bowl, combine the first nine ingredients and whisk thoroughly to combine them.

For the dry stuff:

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

Pour the dry stuff over the wet stuff and fold the two together using a large rubber spatula. It will be a somewhat thick batter, but you are looking for no large streaks of flour to remain (small lumps of flour are fine and will integrate into the batter as it bakes).

Evenly divide the batter between the 2 loaf pans. Bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean--30-45 minutes (depending on your oven and your particular elevation).