So, funny story… I was having a Facebook conversation with a fellow Baked Sunday Mornings blogger about where to get ancho chile powder for this Spicy Brownies recipe. I was thinking, “I can’t imagine having trouble finding ancho chile powder in this part of the country,” given the ubiquitous Mexican and Southwestern cuisine in California. (Ancho chile powder is made from ground, dried poblano chiles, which are very mild compared to high-heat varieties like habañeros or jalapeños.) I planned to make my brownies that evening, and I didn’t think twice about whether I had what I needed at home. The evening came and went too quickly, as it usually does, and suddenly it was 11:00pm before I was finally starting the brownies. I hastily got my chocolate and butter melting over a saucepan before measuring my dry ingredients, since the melting step takes a while. Then I started foraging for the necessary spices: cinnamon, ginger, and… ancho chile powder. All of a sudden, I came to the terrible realization that I had used the last of it a few weeks ago when I made Cinnamon Cupcakes with Chocolate-Chile Buttercream. I looked around in panic; is there anything I can substitute? Do I have time to run to the store? Would they have it in stock? All manner of emergency calculations seemed risky and uncertain. It was too late to abort the brownies– I would ruin almost a pound of chocolate and two sticks of cherished Irish butter…
Fortunately, I was able to keep my wits about me enough to remember that this recipe has a variation in the Baked Elements cookbook: Peanut Butter Brownies. While not my favorite flavor combination, I could certainly foist them onto ravenous peanut butter/chocolate aficionados pretty easily. The ones I was really looking forward to were the Spicy Brownies, and I had every intention of making them, even though that meant making two batches. (I mean, really, like having two batches of brownies is *ever* a bad thing…) I had to make a quick decision; PB was a go. I am happy to report that this first batch was made uneventfully after the great Ancho Chile Powder Crisis of December 2012, and they were terrific– another blog post for another day…
Before I get back to Spicy Brownies, a little BAKED brownie background: Like many bakers, I roamed the land searching high and low for the perfect brownie recipe for years. I coveted a brownie that lived at the oft-missed intersection of fudgy, cakey, and chewy; it had to be moist, ever-so-slightly gooey, and decadent beyond words. This was a surprisingly difficult balance to achieve– many brownies are either too dry, crumbly, soft, or some other paltry imitation in-between. When I discovered the BAKED brownie in their first book, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, I knew I had found the holy grail of brownies. I have never made another brownie recipe since then, and I am completely comfortable in my belief that it is the undisputed best brownie in existence.
When I visited BAKED in Brooklyn on three separate occasions in recent years (lucky me!), I happily sampled different brownie varieties, including the classic version and the Sweet & Salty (with salted caramel, my favorite). But BAKED always continues its industrious mission to create new and amazing brownies… When I first cracked open my copy of Baked Elements, I’m pretty sure I squealed (audibly) with glee when I discovered Spicy Brownies in the Cinnamon section of the book. (By the way, I love that many recipes in sections other than Chocolate are heavily laden with chocolate anyway!) The recipe is almost identical to their original brownie, with a few modifications. First, some of the dark chocolate is replaced with milk chocolate. More noticeably, they have added warm, yummy flavors to spice things up: cinnamon, ginger, and ancho chile powder!
Use the best possible chocolate that you can afford. In recipes where chocolate is the star ingredient, it is essential to use high-quality chocolate– it will make or break your brownies. For the dark chocolate, I used my usual Guittard “Coucher du Soleil” 72% Chocolate Couverture Wafers. In this book, BAKED suggests experimenting with milk chocolate, as there are some wonderful new varieties on the market these days (a phenomenon known as “The New American Chocolate“). I thought this would be a great recipe for trying something new, so I picked up a bag of TCHO SeriousMilk “Classic” 39% Chocolate Discs, which happens to be a local San Francisco company. This chocolate is luscious and complex– notes of caramel, honey, and vanilla. YUM.
Good-quality spices will also yield the best results. I have never grated cinnamon sticks before, and let me tell you, I could think of many other things I could have done during the 20 minutes that it took me to grate 2 teaspoons of cinnamon by hand! I considered whether this was a good idea, but I wanted to try it the way the recipe is written this first time. I used the recommended freshly grated ginger as well, though I cut down the amount slightly.
After procuring the ancho chile powder and preparing the other spices, I was finally ready to get started. The batter is made by gently melting the dark and milk chocolates with the butter in a double boiler, which will result in a gorgeous, silky-smooth mixture.
While this is happening, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and beautifully colored spices in a small bowl.
Once you stir the sugars into the melted chocolate/butter mixture, it will have a smooth consistency with a grainy texture. The mixture then needs to cool off the stove before adding the room-temperature eggs… unless you want chocolatey scrambled eggs. (Who am I to judge?)
The batter will look thicker after the eggs are incorporated, at which point the flour, cocoa, and spices are folded in; make sure to use a spatula for this step, not a whisk. I’m always worried about over-mixing brownie batter, and this time was no exception– it seemed to take longer than usual because there were more stubborn flour clumps, probably due to the wet ginger holding them together. Nevertheless, the finished batter was dark, smooth, and shiny, flecked with tiny ginger bits.
The brownies are then baked for about 30 minutes, and mine were right on time. Pulling them out at the right moment is another crucial step in attaining that fudgy/cakey/chewy dream, so you do not want to over-bake them. I generally pull them out a few seconds early, as I would rather err on the side of gooey than dry. However, when you stick a cake tester in to check for doneness, it should come out with some moist crumbs attached, not wet batter.
Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to try these brownies. It’s *possible* that I may have cut a small piece while the pan was still warm, but I can neither confirm nor deny this allegation. 😉 The spices are certainly perceptible, but they were not as pronounced as I expected. They are more like soft background flavors accenting the chocolatey goodness. Which I guess is how they should be! The most prominent spice flavor that I detected was the ginger, while the cinnamon and ancho were very subtle. I’m not a huge fan of ginger, so I will probably reduce the ginger even more next time and bump up the cinnamon. To enhance the cinnamon on this batch, I lightly dusted the brownies with Vietnamese cinnamon, which gives them a nice visual spark too. Given the arduous and time-consuming task of grating the cinnamon, I will use pre-ground cinnamon next time, since the fresh stuff didn’t seem to pack significant flavor. If you choose to go this route, I recommend Penzeys Vietnamese Extra Fancy Cinnamon. Similarly, though I used fresh ginger for this first attempt, and I may try jarred minced ginger or ground ginger next time.
I often think up different variations on my favorite recipes as I’m baking, and for these brownies, I may try a Mexican Chocolate riff by omitting the ginger and adding a small amount of cayenne pepper!
Tips for success with BAKED brownies:
- I cannot emphasize how important it is to use room-temperature eggs here. In the recipe for the classic brownies, there is a specific note about using room-temperature eggs, and a couple of times when I forgot to warm them up, I ended up with gloppy batter and weird white streaks in the finished batter (unincorporated egg whites). This is not the way a BAKED brownie should be.
- If you forget to put the eggs out on the counter to warm up, or prefer not to let them sit out, you can quickly warm them by running them under a stream of warm water for a minute or two, or by putting them in a bowl of warm water while you prep the rest of your ingredients.
- One important step in achieving the coveted fudgy/cakey/chewy texture is minimal batter stirring. I recommend stirring the white and brown sugars together before adding to the chocolate/butter mixture, in order to break up any sugar lumps. It will dissolve into the chocolate waaaay faster. I also suggest lightly beating the eggs before adding to the batter. You are less likely to have unmixed egg streaks in your brownies.
Hopefully, you too will fall in love with BAKED brownies. I will never, ever go back to another brownie recipe– they are that good! These are absolutely decadent, addictive, and pretty easy to make. Also, the warm, spiced chocolate is perfect for your holiday baking. I promise you will have people begging for more… if you decide to share them… 😉
You can find the recipe for Spicy Brownies at Baked Sunday Mornings, and check out what the other BSM bakers have whipped up this week too!
UPDATE: I take back that whole business about the cinnamon not packing a punch. I would venture to say that these brownies are even better on the second day– they were much more spicy than on the first day! I’m not sure if it was the fresh cinnamon or the cinnamon that I sprinkled on top, but either way… YES, PLEASE!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2012.