Peanut Butter Brownies


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

Ingredients:

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

Ganache:

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

Directions:

  1.  Line a 8 inch square pan with tin foil. Grease. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Pour into prepared pan. Using a fork swirl in the peanut butter. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until set.
  5. 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.
  6. Pour ganache over brownies. Stick in freezer for a few hours. Keep frozen. Just trust me.

My Favorite Bread Baking Books

I seriously love baking bread because I get it wrong, all the time. Of course, I also bake bread for the instant gratification of breaking open a warm crusty loaf. My (finally) success in sourdough rekindled the love of bread.

All this bread appreciation got me thinking about how I came to bread baking and why I keep going; the love of bread cookbooks. Sure, the internet is a glorious place int terms of culinary instruction but I have yet to be able to find a resource the way my trusty bread baking library serves me.  So in honor of my love of bread and  here is my humble bread baker’s library. I believe these selected books provide a great starting point with a wide range of skills and technique covered. I often find myself comparing book-to-book when free-forming a dough or changing a recipe; it’s great to have a strong base of knowledge at your finger tip when tackling bread.

Introductory:

These books are not really introductory, rather, they are the type of bread cookbook that gets you hooked on the craft. Both utilize slow rises and limited kneading which is easy for a beginner to understand but complex enough for someone looking to get more flavor and crumb structure out of their loaves to enjoy. I find the the no-knead approach is the easiest way to introduce bread making because the results are so great, you can’t stop from wanting to bake more.

My Bread, by Jim Lahey: This book is for anyone who has tried the Bittman/Lahey No Knead Bread from the NY Times. The recipes all riff of that same technique of a wet dough plus a slow rise. The walnut/currant recipes is simple but a testament to what slight changes and additions can do to a great no-knead boule.

Kneadlessly Simple, by Nancy Bagget: Nancy Baggett covers almost everything from a no-knead pot boule to no-knead cinnamon swirl bread. Her instructions are thorough. The bread always works.

Moderate:

Artisan Bread Everyday, by Peter Reinhardt: While this Reinhardt book is also based  mostly no-knead techniques I have set it apart from the first category because I find Reinhardt’s bread to be more complex. With Reinhardt you will do some kneading, explore complex shapes, hearth baking, and even developing sourdough. No book has improved my bread baking more than this book. Even when I adventure into harder challenges I keep coming back here to replicate tips and techniques.

Intermediate and Beyond:

I place these three books together because they offer traditional techniques, superior explanation of the science behind bread making, and fairly involved formulas for breads. These are not meant for the instant gratification bread baker but I find their complexity of skill/instruction has helped me branch out into artisan quality breads, especially sourdough, while really beginning to understand the science of bread.

Bread Bakers Apprentice, by Peter Reinhardt: What more can be said about Peter Reinhardt than he is a bread baking master? Here you’ll get everything, from baking shaping, preferments, to formulas.

Bread, by Jeffrey Hammelman: This book is a master class is bread baking. That is all. Please run out and purchase it.

Tartine, by Chad Roberston: Tartine is all the rage these days. What I love so much about this book is the desire to teach bread baking not as a route memorization but a skill that is honed by feel and touch. I also love the description of cultivating a wild yeast starter in the beginning; he really instills that capturing yeast is less precise than we think, it’s just water + flour + time.

Local Breads, by Daniel Leader:  After visiting Paris in 2011 and trying Eric Kayser’s bread I became instantly fascinated with sourdoughs or pain au levain. Daniel Leader does a great job of relating the process of achieving master European breads.

Have a favorite bread book you think I’m missing? Please do share!

 

An Ode to Allston, MA with a Bowl of Homemade Pho Ga

 

The Allston neighborhood of Boston–which I happen to live right near though not in–is more often than not ridiculed as a college slum. It is affectionately called Allston Rock City because of its music scene and do it yourself house shows and Allston Rat City, well, because there sure are a lot of rats come trash day.

I will concede that there are more than a lot of college kids in the heart of Allston. Harvard Avenue, the main drag filled with food, bars, and cheap furniture stores, fills up on  most nights with college kids in every direction. The trolley or T  that runs out to the neighborhood is notoriously slow and glutted with students. Then there’s the crowding into apartments and subsequent waste that accumulates every time a semester or lease ends. On September first it’s even called Allston Christmas since on every corner a mountainous pile of futons, cheap lamps, and discarded couches grows dangerously high in a mere 24-hour period as college kids either move out, move in, or simply start new somewhere else in the city. (Be wary of taking something you find on the street. There are rules to Allston.)

But despite all this, I have to admit it I actually love Allston, because below the surface, there is so much culinary flavor and cheap eats, how could I not come to love the place?  There are at least two shabu shabu restaurants, the kind that serve big portions for low prices, blocks away from each other. There is middle eastern, sushi, Korean BBQ and Fried chicken, Salvadorean, VEgan pizza, and Nepalese to name a few and bars with more craft beer than is humanly possible to try (two of which were named by Draft Magazine as part of the 100 best beer bars in America!)  I dislike the constant ragging on Allston as a college-this or college-that because it obscures the fact that thriving immigrant communities live and make Allston interesting too.  At a point making fun of and trashing the neighborhood as a result of it’s college reputation seems to close to trashing on the other people that live there.

The crowning jewel of my love for Allston is the Super 88 grocery store and food court (or is a Hong Kong supermarket now? The sign still hasn’t changed.) It’s part pan-asian supermarket and part pan-asian food court. Mostly, it is all awesome. In the food court side, you’ve got everything from Hong Kong style dim sum to Northern Indian take out to Koream bimbimbap. My favorite is the Vietnamese counter, where you can get massive bowls of pho bo and pho ga for under 10 dollars. If you feel inspired by the tastes of the food court the grocery store has everything under the sun you may need to recreate the cuisines of Asia. I’ve spent so many lazy sundays in the Super 88, waiting out the harsh Boston winters with bowsl of pho or tracking down that final ingredients for a new recipe. Galangal ginger! Purple basil! Thai chilies! Oh my.

So when I finally decided to a try making a version of pho ga at home, Vietnamese chick noodle soup in my over simplification of this immensely popular national dish, it seemed only right to dedicate the effort to Allston in all it’s rough-and-tumble glory. Firstly, because my love of pho is born of my time at the Super 88, my Allston go-to. Secondly, because I’m always thankful to I can hop on a bus and appreciate the little extras the neighborhood has, experiencing it underneath the empty stereotypes. And lastly because homemade pho seems a perfect way to honor a section of the city where everything comes crashing at once, from college kids to rock shows in basements to hardworking immigrants to cheap eats from all over the world. It’s not about making the most authentic pho, or finding the best in the city, its just about the process.

I like you just the way you are Allston, rats and all. (Okay, maybe fewer rats would be better for everyone…)

Quick Homemade Pho Ga

Adapted from: Steamy Kitchen & Chez Us

Serves 4-6

For the Broth:

1/2 white onion
1 3 inch chunk of ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
3 star anise pods
fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon
1 cinnamon stick
8 cups of chicken broth
1 small bunch of cilantro, washed
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)
2-3 cups of water

Main:
1 whole skinless and boneless chicken breast. Mine was around 1.5 pounds of breast meat.
1 lb of noodles

Toppings:

mint, roughly torn
basil, roughly torn
scallions, sliced
quarters of lime
bean sprouts
thinly sliced red onions
Sriracha
Hoisin sauce

Directions:

1.  In a broil safe pan (like a cast iron skillet) brown the peeled ginger and onion until beginning to blacken, around 10 minutes. Peel away any burnt areas.

2. Toast the coriander seeds, the anise pods, fennel seeds, and cinnamon stick in a deep stock pot until just fragrant. Be careful not to burn.

3. Add the chicken broth, onion, ginger, 1 small bunch of cilantro (stem and leaves), and the fish sauce to the stock pot with the toasted spices. Bring to boil. Add the chicken breast. Reduce to just below a boil. Poach the chicken for around 20 minutes until cooked. Remove and shred.

4. While the chicken is poaching cook the rice noodles according to the package.

5. The Pho Ga stock may have reduced now by some. Taste and adjust for taste. You may want to add another 2-3 cups of water. Once ready, remove from heat.

6. Strain the chicken broth in a fine mesh colander. I found lining the colander with a paper towel helped catch any small spices that may have broken down while simmering.

7. Divide the broth into bowls. Add noodles, shredded chicken, and then top to your fancy.

8. Store leftovers in separate containers so you can quickly reassemble for another meal!

Sriracha Salt & Here’s Looking at You, 2012

Homemade gifts tend to be a theme of my December as I’ve inherited the cheap gene (thanks, Dad.) I’m also inclined to making catastrophic messes in my free time. This year I made around five batches of biscotti, salted caramels, spiced nuts, flour free peanut butter and dark chocolate cookies, and sriracha salt. The former were all on purpose, the latter a surprise impulse last gift but now a personal favorite salt.

Now that the time of homemade gift giving is basically over, I’m able to reflect on the things I made, the burnt chocolate, the scorched sugar, and the wooden spoon that appeared to be permanently stuck to the bottom of the beloved pot. And it’s interesting to see the tricky dance and politics of making it from scratch at the holidays.

I’m speaking directly to an New York Times article from last month titled “‘Store Bought’ Spoils the Potluck Spirit“, which caused a little internet stir about whether it was fair to criticize people who brought store items to holiday potlucks and such. I happened to read this article a few days before I had decided to bake around thirty biscotti cookies for an office cookie swap party I signed up for on impulse. I didn’t think much about the debate-does this author pretend all people (and specificaly women) have the time to cook? Does store bought really ruin tradition?- since I literally had a lot of cookies to make in a few short hours.

But after making a fairly disappointing bunch of cookies (undercooked, flavor all off, etc), I didn’t feel so sure making something from scratch really meant anything more than well, deciding to make something from scratch with my time. I could see exactly the backlash against the an article criticizing those who don’t want to do it themselves or just decide not to.

Let’s be honest: sometime making something can be a disguised judgement of others, trying to say “Look I’m great! I’m skilled!” I admit it,  I started out thinking: I Will Bake The Worlds Best Cookies   ,Everyone Will Love Me. In the end, I didn’t even like what I made. But I brought them in, swapped cookies, and realized that my personal effort in baking cookies really wasn’t the point. Serving cookies that looked misshapen, kind of like mangled fingers, was an epiphany of sorts. Making things yourself should not be about forcing other people to recognize your skills or about judging the free time of others. It should be about having fun, or not having fun and realizing you aren’t much of a baker, or about watching Home Alone 1 and Home Alone 2 back-to-back while creaming butter and sugar. Food shouldn’t be a judgement of yourself or others, or a responsibilty, since it ignores the privilege some people have in taking the time to cook.

I happened to find out during the cookie swap that my favorite coworker made cookie was based on a store-bought sugar cookie mix, too. They were awesome, spiced with chai tea and glazed with eggnog.

That’s why I’m in love with this sriracha salt  because it isn’t stuffy or put-on. It’s easy, not really homemade as it’s based on store-bought ingredients, but still a little crafty. If you are of the rooster sauce persuasion you can sprinkle this salt on anything:  eggs, popcorn, shredded meats for tacos, soup.  I’ve been keeping it in a little jar by the stove,  making everything I eat from breakfast to dinner a little rooster-y.

Sriracha salt, believe it or not, is symbolic of my 2012 theme: don’t take yourself so seriously, Lindsey, but make things count. I’m changing up the meaning of my blog, too. I’m making this blog less serious in a way. That is, I want this blog to be about both food and writing, recipes and thoughts, not just a blog I feel I have to write to be A True Food Blogger. I quit my ad network as a way of rethinking everything here too. The world of food blogging  became so serious in 2011, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and I’m not sure what I want out of blogging about food but I do know I want it to be less serious and more fun.  I’m lessening the restriction and just freeing this space, to make and write about food in a new way. The emphasis is still on tinkering and D.I.Y., but also about the ideas behind what I’m making and eating.

So I hope 2012 is a full of traveling the US, baking better bread, writing & Sriracha salt.

Sriracha Salt
From The Sriracha Cookbook (accessed from Epicurious)

Makes 1/2 cup of salt

Ingredients:

1/2 cup kosher salt
5 teaspoons Sriracha

Directions:

1. Combine salt and sriracha in a bowl. Mix thoroughly.

2. There are two ways to dry the salt: the first is just leaving the salt out on a parchment lined cookie sheet for a day or two. The second method is to preheat the oven to 200 and turn off immediately before placing the salt on a parchment lined cookie sheet into the oven to dry out slowly over a few hours.

Olive Oil Granola & Ruminations on D.I.Y.

I’ve been thinking about a recent opinion piece in Washington Post “The new domesticity: Fun, empowering or a step back for American women?” for a while now, especially as I made homemade ricotta last week for the first time and while I baked the olive oil granola recipe below. In the peice Emily Matchar argues that there is a degree of feminist dilemma in women returning to the so-called retro domestic arts in real life and in blog communities. She ask’s the reader, does the purported hipness of cooking, canning, knitting, and a  blogosphere celebrating these types of activities challenge feminism. Although she is not entirely sure, she does argue their is at least a partial contradiction at play.

Not so fast I thought, after finishing the piece.

What Matcha misses in her opinion piece is twofold: For one thing, it is not just women tinkering in the kitchen after work, blogging about food, canning, or starting sourdough starters. Some men are just as interested in these things–whether you call these activities part of a hip retro domestic wave is an argument for another time– as some women are as is evidence by the many male authors on blogs big and small. I also happen to live with one of those men for what it’s worth. He is just as involved in the content of this blog, mixing up no-knead bread, buying cookbooks, figuring out how we can do more stuff from scratch; it’s just I’m the one who wants to write about it. Secondly, in my own all- purpose version of feminism made simple for blogging purposes, feminism is about women making their own choices and having a society that is structured to enable freedom of women (and all people.) Women choosing to make bread or sew a skirt is no different than women deciding to scuba dive or ride a moped; I see no dilemma at play.

I’d argue wanting to feel connected to the things you make, whether fixing old cars to perfecting a baguette at home is about personal enjoyment and fulfillment. That’s why I made this granola after all, why I played with the flavors, pumped it up with my favorite dried fruits (figs & cherries) and ate it over plain yogurt, drizzled with honey while reading. It wasn’t an obligation. It about the pleasure of the making things not connected to my office life, the hustle of the everyday (harsh at times) world, even the consumerism of everyday.

And that leaves  me with the simple facts about olive oil granola: It’s awesome because it’s salty sweet, a blank slate for meshing whatever flavors you desire. Not to mention it’s got that slight floral taste that only a good olive oil imparts.  I started with a NY Times recipe, one that’s been around the blogosphere and back. Granola is meant to be improvised every time so I added things my way. My only recipe advice is to watch granola diligently as it cooks. Burnt granola is a bummer. I know from first hand experience.

 

Olive Oil Granola with Chinese Five Spice & Dried Fruit/Nuts

Makes about 7 cups of granola

Ingredients:

3 cups of rolled old fashioned oats
1 cup raw whole cashews
1 cup of sweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice power (make your own here or buy at a local Asian grocery store)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
1-2 cups dried figs, cut into bite sized chunks
1 cup dried cherries

 Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 250.

2. Mix everything except dried fruits together coating thoroughly. Spread on a cookie sheet.

3. Cook for around 40 minutes. Really, I just cook while tossing and turning the granola every 7 minutes or so until the granola is lightly browned and crisp. The time is a framework as ovens vary widely. Just watch yours and taste to know when done.

The Roasted Turkey

We successfully roasted a 20-pound turkey yesterday. It involved a lot of last minute thawing, fears of an eternally frozen bird, and more time than I ever want to spend with my hand stuck inside the cavity of a turkey. Good thing that our first turkey was not meant for an actual Thanksgiving feast but for the more manageable pre-thanksgiving potluck. I think we did pretty well . The  turkey was golden and crisp on the outside and still juicey inside. Next time, since we have mastered actually getting it roasted, I’d play around with getting an even juicer bird. It takes time. I’ve been warned. The roasted turkey is an ever changing feat.

We adapted of a recipe for Clementine and Salt roasted turkey.  Next time I’d probably  use more Clementine salt. I love citrus savory preparations.

Brian and I are heading to western New York early tomorrow morning so I will be quiet with cooking and posting while we are gone for the week.

Happy thanksgiving!

Friday Links

Knit Chicken from The Knit Etsy Shop

Hurray for Friday! I’m going have a beer, sleep in tomorrow,and then eat whole wheat waffles with jam for my late breakfast. Enjoy some food related linkage for now:

A Year of Slow Cooking | I am a bit behind in finding awesome food blogs, but now that I have my big old crock pot with me, this blog is indispensible.

What is the Best Way to Cook Rice? The Kitchn | I’m always debating how to perfect rice.

Can You Make Hot Sauce At Home? The Paupered Chef | Ah! I love hot sauce!

two failed recipes, and some shortbread

I am on a losing streak when it comes to cooking and baking. First, it was coveted Pumpkin Scones, inspired by (yes, get ready for it) Starbucks. I followed a few recipes online, but for some reason my scones came out tasting like hard lumps of tasteless dough. I just can’t figure out what I left out. Butter? Baking Soda?

Humph

Then, overestimating my ability to make confections without any experience, I decided to make toffee. I followed a recipe but because I do not have a candy thermometer, I made butterscotch instead. I knew this would happen after reading in The Joy of Cooking that toffee requires a very precise temperature. But did I listen? No. I wanted some goddamn toffee! Now, what am I do with a whole bunch of butterscotch?

I then made some almond shortbread. Sadly, I only like it a bit. I chose a promising recipe from The Bake Sale Cookbook. Almonds? Butter? Count me in, I thought. I followed the steps exactly, but I’m just not sold on the taste of the final shortbreads. Maybe the almond gives the cookie a too grainy taste? But Maybe I’m just bitter with all that butterscotch sitting in the fridge.

Anyway, I’m going to drink a beer and rest from the kitchen for now.

But I will make toffee someday. No one can stop me.

post-thanksgiving update


I am back in Massachusetts from a mini vacation in Western, NY. I enjoyed the food, the relaxation, and the time spent watching cable. While away, I took a small break from cooking. Although I love creating and making things, I also love eating everything and anything made for me by others. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been brain storming while a dinner guest elsewhere

At thanksgiving there was a Linzer tort that I loved so much I just have to make one sometime between now and Christmas. There was also an Italian soup, with bacon and white beans, that I need to remember the name of. I’m also whipping up a bread starter right now, for my (dun, dun dun) first try at french baguettes or batards. A french culinary history book, gifted to me over the mini-break, inspired this daredevil move. And don’t get me started on the cookies and candies I want to make as gifts: biscotti, English toffee, the quientessential gingerbread men, etc.

My only pressing question is, has the time of the pumpkin passed? Because, I really want to bake some pumpkin scones.

Expect updates soon. I’m hunrgy already.