I’ve come to the conclusion that baking is by far harder than cooking. When I’m cooking it’s easier to improvise as I go, tasting, tweaking, coming up with new twists on standard things without really feeling pressure. The minute I start baking I lose all self-assurance. I might not really be a failure when I’m baking–I’m following the recipe, cookies come out of the oven as planned–it’s more that the end result is sometimes just not what I want or rather not what I imagined. This might explain why I just don’t bake that often besides some utilitarian bran muffins when the healthy-food mood strikes.
A few nights ago I started thinking about brownies, specifically how the formative brownies of my youth (ha!) I had no idea how to bake. See, my paternal grandmother always had brownies in the freezer. I usually ate one after every meal or in between meals when she wasn’t looking. These brownies had nuts (walnuts?) in the layer of brownie beneath a dense layer of chocolate fudge unlike the cake-like box mixes of my youth. Duncan Hines brownies have their place, I’m no hater. But my grandmother kept a constantly filled stash of cold as ice fudge brownies in the freezer. I miss those everyday.
We were never close. I didn’t see her, as so many people do, as an inspiration for cooking. We butted heads. She could be tyrant at times. I was mostly just young, afraid of her sternness, her lack of respect for me putting ketchup on everything. She was one tough lady, though, doing things like sewing her underwear out of curtains (I tell no lies). In retrospect, a part of me wishes it had been different between us because I bet she was a fun, adventurous, and great cook in her own right. I think she must have been a great cook because sometimes I catch myself remembering meals spent with her, the kind I was sure I had forgotten.
So I went searching then for a dense, chewy brownie just like for my next recipe in the Mark Bittman 102 Essentials challenge. Of course, Bittman has considered that not all brownies are created equal before too. I believe he would have liked my grandma’s freezer brownies because they were not under-baked chocolate cake. Bittman’s recipe has no chemical leavening, a revelation to me. It’s just melted chocolate, butter, sugar. eggs, and a little bit of flour to do the impressing.
Of course, I inserted my own tastes into the nostalgia. I added roasted and salted peanuts as I’m always in craving a meeting of sweet and salty. I swirled peanut butter into the prepared batter, right before baking. As the brownies baked I mixed up a peanut butter chocolate ganache to spread on top to achieve the dense fudge layer. Then I froze those bad boys for hours. I have brownies for days.
So while I won’t be a weekly baker anytime soon, I’m glad I know a little more about making a brownie of my youth.
Peanut Butter Brownies
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.
Makes 12 brownies
- 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1 stick of butter, more for greasing pan
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup roasted, salted peanuts
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
- Line a 8 inch square pan with tin foil. Grease. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a sauce pan start to melt chocolate and butter until just melted. Remove from heat and slowly stir until all the chocolate is melted.
- Stir in sugar. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Add the vanilla extract then the flour. Mix until flour is incorporate. Fold in the roasted, salted peanuts.
- Pour into prepared pan. Using a fork swirl in the peanut butter. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until set.
- To make the ganache: bring the heavy cream just until a boil. Pour over the chocolate and peanut butter in another bowl. Let stand for 3 minutes. Mix until chocolate is melted.
- Pour ganache over brownies. Stick in freezer for a few hours. Keep frozen. Just trust me.