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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Get Baked!

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got
to have a what-the-hell attitude."
Julia Childs

I feel cooking is progressive. I know everyone wants to go 'back' to the way things were, but honey, those days are gone. What we CAN do is work towards the future while respectfully acknowledging the past, but ultimately, the future is where it's at.

Today's post is about two fabulous men in our own little New York, Renato Poliafito and Matt Lewis. These two boys have taken the best traditions of the past and made them very new and cool. They're stars, so the last thing they need is a shout-out from little old me, but when coolness, fabulousness and flour come together, praise MUST be given.

These boys have been written about everywhere. They're publicly loved by Oprah and the Big Kahuna herself, Miss Stewart, and they used to work in marketing. They're a big deal.

And yet they wrote back to me via Facebook, saying I could quote from their recipe and book. Brilliant.

I made a few of their recipes out of their new cookbook, BAKED. Today I'm blogging about their brownie recipe. Friday will be about one of their cookie recipes.

I always feel commercial bakers who write books for home cooks need to be reviewed. Why? Because they're accustomed to cooking in a commercial bakery and not in a home, like the rest of us.

I've been seriously home cooking for 15 years and let me tell you, not every Martha Stewart or Jamie Oliver or Jacques Pepin recipes works in a home kitchen. Worse, they're bland. It's not the fault of commercial bakers, but once you start making dishes for restaurants or bakeries, you're cooking like a mo' fo' and have to adjust everything to accommodate...sometimes, you lose touch with the reality of home cooks.

Most people I know won't spend more than 15 minutes in the kitchen. All they want is to grab a rotisserie chicken (or rubbery pre-cooked chicken breast) and throw it over a bag of lettuce. Or better yet, take-out.

I used to find this insulting. I mean, life happens over food! Don't you care what your putting in your body? Are you so out of touch with how 'real food' tastes, you've lost any motivation to cook? What about feeding yourself and your family?

Why is our home eating culture almost dead?

Because the majority of America heads into the kitchen only because they must.

We've forgotten how moist and tender chicken sauteed in a light white wine sauce and served with paper-thin lemons and capers tastes can be. We can't remember the sting of the capers, followed by the layer of tart lemon juice and the delicate flour coating on the velvety chicken.

Few of us know the way fresh pasta feels in our hands, or the way sunlight plays off of the flour as it floats through the air and lands, gently, on our wooden cutting boards as we roll and roll our dough. And even fewer of us know how it feels to see the expression on our families faces when they bite into a slice of fresh, warm homemade bread.

One of the things I always try to do is inspire non-cooks to cook. Cooking is an art form. Once non-cooks start cooking, they never stop. They love how good it feels to create and feed people.

Confession: I'm not a huge chocolate fan. I've baked endless pies and cakes and torts and cookies and cupcakes and bread, bread, bread. I've found 50% of the recipes in print turn out unforgettable. Except for Julia Child (and my personal fave, James Beard), the other half are flawed and uninspired.

I grew up with pies and cakes. Loads and loads of pies. I grew up in the Northwest so my mother (of very limited baking skills) could bake two things very well: Banana Bread and Country Berry Pies. These were about the only culinary skills she passed along to me (except for a love of drinking wine and getting partially sloshed whilst baking and/or cooking at night).

Given my appreciation for the limits of time and my lukewarm love of chocolate, you can be sure if I say these recipes are good, they're friggin' brilliant.

FOOD FOR MOOD: As everyone knows, I am all about how FOOD affects MOOD. Here is the science on chocolate:
  • Phenylethylamine (PEA) is found in chocolate. PEA is an adrenal-related chemical that is also created within the brain and released when we are in love. A neurotransmitter called anandamide has been isolated in cacao. Anandamide is also produced naturally in the brain. Anandamide is known as the bliss chemical because it is released while we are feeling great. The purer the chocolate, the stronger the effect!
And more chocolate fun...
  • Chocolate may be used by some as a form of self-medication for dietary deficiencies (eg, magnesium) or to balance low levels of neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of mood, food intake, and compulsive behaviors (eg, serotonin and dopamine). Chocolate cravings are often episodic and fluctuate with hormonal changes just before and during the menses (I love that word), which suggests a hormonal link. A combination of chocolate's sensory characteristics, nutrient composition, and psychoactive ingredients, compounded with monthly hormonal fluctuations and mood swings among women, will ultimately form the model of chocolate cravings. The goal is to harness this knowledge and harness the power of chocolate will.
Makes a girl think!(NOTE: The boys suggest using Valrhona cocoa powder in their brownies, so of course I had to get it. True to their word, it did impart a deep and earthy chocolate base to the brownies, but it is a bit elitist, expensive and hard to find. In NYC, you can get it at only one authorized retail store: Food Emporium at Trump Plaza by glamorous Hunter College on the corner of 68th and 3rd avenue. Inside, there is a chocolate shop which is simply AMAZING. Loads of chocolate in an Upper East Side location. But fair warning: all of the clerks there were the rudest people I've ever met. And I've lived in NYC 22 years. One clerk didn't speak to me, another yelled at me to 'stand ten feet away when you talk' and another said she hates chocolate and only works the job to pay for her 'babies to eat.' I refuse to go there again. I'm much too fragile. I'm going online. So should you: ).

So, without further ado, I give you BAKED:

I rarely buy new cookbooks. I use a lot of magazines, buy used books, or corner poor, unsuspecting old women and demand they give me their secret family recipes.

But a few months ago, I was doing my standard once-a-week spin around the cookbook section of Barnes and Noble, when a dark brown book in the baking section caught my eye. I was annoyed. When a book calls me, I'm in trouble. I hesitated. I stared at it and then sighed as I pulled it from the shelf with a sharp exhale.

I flipped the first page back, ready to scoff at the tone or the writing or the recipes. Most new cookbooks are so impractical and silly. I love Martha, but if she had her way, I'd have to buy duckling eggs, raise them from birth, feed them whole grains every day of their pathetic existance and slaughter them 2 hours before dinner for the meal to be kinda fresh.

Ina has a kitchen the size of most of my friends apartments and Gina can't POSSIBLY eat the food she makes, so I distrust very popular cooks.

I flipped and flipped and flipped the pages. I couldn't stop flipping! I threw it on the ground, fell to my knees and thrust my clenched fists to the food gods in the sky and demanded they deliver me from this mad temptation (I tend towards the dramatic)!

But I'll be damned if I couldn't put the book down. All cookbooks make me want to cook, but this cookbook made me want to cook AND read. Very rare (outside of the prose by James Beard in his cookbooks).

The book was ego-less. The cover was absent of a manic TV chef, all teeth and forced happiness. The inside opened easily and would stay open on the kitchen counter. The prose were fun, smart, direct and gave delightful side notes. The book wasn't crammed with endless recipes, but a nice, solid selection of varied goodies. The tone was fun, light yet serious.

If you are smart, you will buy this as well. Let me make it easy for you. Here is the Amazon link. Go now. Click and buy.


The (infamous) Renato and Matt

The boys give props to Lesli Heffler-Flick in inspiring the recipe, so I feel it only right to so here.

What you'll need:

I have modified this slightly as opposed to the original published recipe...don't hate me, boys...
  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose, unbleached King Arthur Flour (please use King Arthur
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder* (see rant above regarding Valrhona)
  • 14 ounces dark chocolate (72% cocoa)**, coarsely chopped (such as Godiva or Scharffen Berger)
  • 1 cup (yes, 1 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder***
  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 5 jumbo eggs, room temperature
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract****
A few home cook notes on all of those damn asterisks:

* - Cocoa powder - you don't need to get Valrhona. Try any unsweetened cocoa powder - DARK for maximum flavor is the key. Just don't buy Key Foods brand. Cook with cheap products, your shit is gonna taste cheap.

** - You know how confusing it is to see percentages on dark chocolate? This is telling you the amount of cocoa in each bar. Find any highly reputable supermarket brand at 72% and you're good to go.

*** - The words "espresso powder" confuses everyone. Just get the small plastic jar which reads: "instant espresso coffee" and you'll be fine. It looks gross, but it isn't.

**** - The boys advocate 2 teaspoons but I found it lacked in vanilla. I added 3 and it was great. Also, I'm sorry, but there is no difference in taste between pure vanilla and artificial. None, nada, zilch. Get either.

Take your eggs and butter out of the fridge and put out on the counter. Cut the butter into four pieces. Do this FIRST. Let it rest and get to room temperature. All the cooks are right - room temperature eggs and butter are essential. So there.

Get out a 9x13 or 10x14 pan (Pyrex is great) and coat lightly with butter (don't forget the corners and the sides). Put aside. Stop licking your fingers.

Cut up your chocolate and measure out your cocoa powder and have these nearby in SEPARATE bowls. Prepping is the key to fun cooking! Oh, dear. I'm veering into dangerous Martha Stewart language here.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. It's very important you do this before you start. You want your oven to be at a nice, even temperature. Not doing so can kill even the most well-planned home baking events. Just like baking a cake for your husband on his 40th birthday saying, "You're not getting older, just wiser!".

All home cooks really must have an oven thermometer. Why? Heat within an oven is not consistent. There are many hot and cold spots.

The fine folks at anal-retentive Cooks Illustrated had this to say about their test of ovens in 2005:

"Though we might have suspected otherwise, we found that the bottom of our electric test oven tended to run hotter than the top, usually by between 5 and 15 degrees. We also found that the rear of our oven ran hotter than the front by roughly 5 to 10 degrees. There was also a stunning difference from right to left in our oven, with the right side sometimes running up to 50 degrees hotter than the left!"

It's futile to argue with Cooks Illustrated. They are Gods of research and they will beat you up with their statistics if you don't give in. So give in. Buy a thermometer. Preferably the Cooper oven thermometer at around $6. It will last at least 3 years in a hard working oven.

In a medium bowl, whisk your flour, salt and cocoa powder. Easy does it. Handle this part with care. This recipe is all about just mixing. Put this bowl of dry ingredients aside.

Now, if you've never melted chocolate and sugar and butter on the stove, it's fun but a bit tricky. The idea is to heat water to simmering in a Dutch oven and then put another pan on top of this pan but you don't want it touching the water. You are creating a fake 'double boiler' to safely melt the goodies. You can do it in a microwave, but this is more practical for later steps.

So get out the Dutch oven. Pour water inside and put on the stove. Heat to simmering. SIMMERING. Not boiling. Slow and easy does it with baking.

Place the bowl without anything inside ATOP the Dutch oven with the water. When you are happy it isn't touching the water, put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso into the bowl and slowly melt until it's a drippy, gooey mess, using a spatula, not a wooden spoon. Can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes in a nicely warm bowl.

Trust me, this shit is a bitch to clean. But don't think about that right now!

Turn off the heat, wait a few minutes, then slowly add the sugars, a bit at a time, mixing, mixing and mixing until all of the sugar is melted and the chocolate mess in the bowl is now a diabetics worst nightmare. Get close and take a smell. Dear, Lord. Friggin' brilliant.

Carefully remove the bowl with the chocolate and sugar goo off of the Dutch oven and place on the counter and let cool. DON'T RUSH THIS PART. The mixture must cool and get to room temperature. If you are impatient, the eggs will actually cook when you put them into the mixture. So...chill.

Most people are terrible at cracking eggs, so crack three eggs into a small, light colored bowl so you can see all of the shells you left in there ('cause you and I both know you left them in there). Lightly mix the eggs and whisk them into the chocolate goo until you can see only tiny streaks of yellow.

Add the other two eggs and mix until the yellow is almost gone. Now add the vanilla and stir until just combined. I'm going to shout now because this is where all cooks screw up major time:


This is why Racheal Ray doesn't bake. She's got ADD (she even admits it!) and baking requires you to chill. Baking is meditative. You must go easy, slow and enjoy it at home. You're not baking for TV or for a crowd, so chill.


So -- mix until barely combined. Now, sprinkle a third of the flour mixture over the chocolate, egg and vanilla goo, barely mix it in. Keep doing this until all of the flour is in. In the end, you must be able to see streaks of flour...very visible streaks of flour.

This method and underbaking is the key to the success of this disk. Barely beating = tasty goods which are not cakey.

Pour gently into the buttered pan and smooth the top with your spatula. Put in the oven.

Now, the boys totally freaked me out in the book. They wrote " even slightly overbaked brownie is not an Baked Brownie." Oh, Christ. Talk about pressure! I was hunched over the oven, staring inside like a rabid English Setter staring at two mating squirrels. I knew I'd fuck this part up, and of course, I didn't. But it was very unnerving.

This is the deal - every ten minutes, poke a toothpick into the center of the brownie and you want to see if you have a few wet crumbs on there. If you do, it's done. Mine took 28 minutes. Check at the 10 minute, the 20 minute and then every minute from 25-30 (max cooking time).

Be careful as a few of the corners in my pan were undercooked, so cook just a minute past when you think you should, and you'll be good to do.

Put them on the counter, let them COMPLETELY COOL, cut into pieces and wrap them up, and disperse them to grouchy people everywhere! They need them. You'll get 20 nice sized pieces out of this recipe, not the 24 the boys wrote.

Or better yet, find a model and tell them these are made with fat free (and rare!) European granola. Watch them scarf them up. Models are cranky because they're so damn hungry. They need love too.

COMING FRIDAY: Baked Part Two - the making of their Ooey Gooey Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie! (this one almost gave Andy a full-on cardiac arrest).


Mikey Bryan
Your Galloping Gourmet Food Therapist!

1 comment:

  1. the writing fun to read. And, are these the brownies that we'll make for the big 4th of July party! I'm psyched! Can't wait. Love you so much! Rock on my talented brother!