Thursday, March 08, 2007

Variations On A Theme

The good (and very very clever) people at M80 and Nestle sent me a new chocolate to try (Nestle Chocolatier Baking chocolate) as part of what I understand to be a grassroots advertising campaign - they make bloggers do all the work for them. See? Clever. Again, as I understand it (or imagine it), Nestle is trying to compete with Ghirardelli in the upscale chocolate chip market – you know, an option besides the Hershey’s or Tollhouse “chocolate flavored” chips. Ick.

Try out the chocolate I did. I have been a baking machine for the last week. A machine, I tell you. One pain in the ass cake and two batches of brownies later, I am approaching baking burnout (hee) but still have a ton of chocolate left over and some very happy lab-mates, who have been the direct beneficiaries of my baking binge.

So, the pain the in ass cake. I am desperately unoriginal in my desperate love of Julia Child. However, taking in the sight of my kitchen, with every bowl and appliance dirtied from making one of her recipes, I almost (almost) fell out of love. With a splat. The fifteen thousand steps that went into making the Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheeba) cake required the use of pretty much everything in my kitchen. I may be exaggerating (a little), but it was a pain, and close to one of the most complicated things I have ever baked.

The cake consists of almonds ground with sugar, mixed with chocolate, and lightened with beaten egg whites. Sounds simple enough, right? Sure. The instruction that broke the camel’s back was Mrs. Child asking me to sift cake flour. Sift. Cake. Flour. Look, lady – the whole point of cake flour is that is has been twice sifted before packaging. Some nice person in a big plant did it all for me. Why do I have to do it again?? Is this a French thing? A torture-the-grad-student thing (oooh that’s redundant)? What?

But I relented (as in, sifted). The cake was finished, the ganache icing went on, the kitchen was resuscitated, and all was well. The cake itself was light, with some texture provided by the ground almonds. I should have used a little more chocolate in the cake than I did… the consequence of that being that I couldn’t form an opinion on the chocolate that I used (other than tasting the naked chocolate itself).

This is why I made the brownies - to test the chocolate… not at all to make a ton of brownies. Yeah. I first heard about these brownies on an NPR food podcast (I know I am a dork) and they sounded great. Thick and fudgy, stuffed with nuts and chocolate, complete with a fantastical story of their origin – apparently, the recipe was Katharine Hepburn’s own. Whether that is true or not I cannot say, but the brownies sure are good.

I made two batches – one with almonds/almond extract, another with almonds/almond extract and dried sweetened cherries. Mmmmm. Heavy, smooth, just barely set, with a depth of flavor beyond the ordinary brownie (I really wanted to type "pedestrian brownie" but stopped myself. For a second). They were the intersection of brownies and fudge. The striking thing about the brownies was the strong chocolate taste – not the sugary, candy-like chocolate taste, but the slightly bitter, fruity chocolate that grown-ups like, probably from including both cocoa powder and chocolate. The Nestle chocolate chips were very soft and fudgy. Even after the brownies had cooled, the chips were smooth and crunch-less, almost melting into the batter, yet still maintaining their own chocolate chip identity. I am not sure if the depth of chocolate flavor was there in the chips themselves, but they served their purpose marvelously.

Chocolate Fudge… Brownies
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for NPR Food.

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces (or not cut, if you are as unobservant as I am)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup toasted almonds, very coarsely chopped (or ¾ cup almonds and ¼ cup chopped, dried cherries)
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Butter and flour an 8-inch square baking pan.
- Whisk the flour and salt together.
- Put the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and place the pan over low heat.
- When the butter starts to melt, sift the cocoa over it while mixing. Continue to cook, stirring, until the butter is melted and the cocoa is blended into it. Remove from the heat and cool for about 3 minutes.
- Using a whisk or a rubber spatula, beat the eggs into the saucepan one at a time. Next, stir in the sugar, vanilla, and almond extracts (don't beat anything too vigorously — you don't want to add air to the batter), followed by the dry ingredients, nuts and chopped chocolate. Scrape the batter into the pan.
- Bake for 30 minutes, at which point the brownies will still be gooey but the top will have a dry papery crust. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the brownies cool for at least 30 minutes.

I am out of butter. Again.


JC said...

Oh man, the cake and brownies sound so good. Chocolate cake is my favorite kind of cake. I love to bake, but the size of my gut is currently keeping me from baking anything. Since I tend to eat most of what I make.

They're really pushing that chocolate, it was featured on an episode of Top Chef.

Ben Chen said...

Bake me a cake! please? Thanks

Anna said...

JC - My friends pretty much hate me for frequently feeding them my baking experiments. I don't eat what I bake. I taste it, of course, so I know, but I don't eat the stuff. Take whatever you make to work! That way you will be (even more) popular and the sweets will be out of your hands. See? Brilliant.

Ben - I provide local service only. I do not travel to bake on site, I am afraid. I'll see what I can do.

JC said...

Your willpower is much stronger than mine. I have a sweet tooth and so I am tempted greatly by the baked goods. I never understood how chefs could make all that great food and not want to eat it!

atp said...

Those brownies look amazing, but hang on a minute, pre-sifted cake flour?!

Isn't the point of sifting flour to make it lighter by incorporating more air? Surely if it's been sifted then packaged and plonked on a shelf for weeks (months? years?) on end before being used, the flour will just become compacted again?

Anna said...

Alright, yes, it will become compacted again BUT it is still a pain in the ass to sift something pre-sifted. It's a matter of principle, don't you see? (And my flour doesn't get plonked, thankyouverymuch).

atp said...

I wouldn't dream of suggesting that you would be doing the plonking, but I bet the shop assistants don't have the same respect for delicate sifted flour as you do.

Anonymous said...

Just an FYI....cake flour isn't just flour that has been sifted twice. Cake flour is made from softer spring wheat and has a higher moisture content which lends to the flour clumping. Also cake flour has a far lower gluten content than All purpose or bread flour.

oh ya BTW I'm a Pastry Chef for a hotel in Boston

Anna said...

Thank you very much! I definitely didn't google cake flour thoroughly enough. That is good to know. Which hotel do you work for? Can you say? Just curious. I am rounding up all the chefs I know (all two of them) for a series of interviews (and photos of their tattoos :) ).