Today feels a good day. To me, a good day doesn’t necessarily mean that everything goes my way, or that everything is perfect (and yes, I do have a mental hierarchy of what constitutes different days that could be considered “good,” yay for having a selectively analytical mind). This particular type of good day has nothing to do with anything other than me, sitting in my kitchen, and the space around me; everything seems beautiful and uniquely interesting. I find myself smiling at all the ingredients I’m using for breakfast, even though they are either splayed all over the cutting board or smeared on the counter, and being fascinated by the way my coffee swirls in its cup.

 On these days, I’m acutely aware of being human in the physical sense, and heartily enjoy the simple sensory pleasures one can very easily overlook. I just get so wrapped up in my head, what with being stressed about this and that, feeling bad about something that happened the night before, and missing people who live far away, but today I feel like I can be a girl in a kitchen, smelling her warm, delicious coffee and waiting for chocolate chip pumpkin squares to come out of the oven.

 These chocolate chip pumpkin squares, not quite blondies and not quite cake, are perfect for a good day like this because they are basically small squares of sensory overload. The squares smell like fall and brown sugar, look all orangey-pumpkin beautiful with melty chocolate chips, and, warm from the oven, melt in your mouth. I would even go so far as to say these chocolate chip pumpkin squares could turn a not-so good day around, because you can’t help but stop, smell the roses, and enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Squares

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart)

Yields about 24 squares in a 9 by 13 inch pan

Notes: The original recipe calls for all-purpose instead of cake flour and granulated sugar instead of brown sugar, but I love the fine crumb of cake flour and the slight hint of molasses that come together in the finished product. Come next time, I might sprinkle chopped walnuts over the top before baking.

Ingredients:

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup, or 2 sticks, unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 1/2 to 2 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, or chopped chocolate

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a 9 by 13 inch pan with parchment or greased foil, leaving a few inches overhang to pull bars out of pan once baked.

2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth. Add egg and vanilla, and then mix until smooth.

4. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir just until all streaks of flour disappear, taking care to scrape the bottom of the pan while stirring. Stir in chocolate chips or chopped chocolate.

5. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan and smooth top. Bake in preheated oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.

6. Let pumpkin squares cool completely in pan before lifting out and cutting into individual squares.

Bars can be kept at room temperature, in an airtight container, up to 3 days.

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Mint Julep Brownies

October 21, 2011

I want you to close your eyes and imagine the following scene. There’s an open bottle of whiskey on the counter and brownie crumbs, not to mention smears of melted chocolate decorating the countertops, sink, and all unfortunate kitchen appliances within reach. If you watch Arrested Development, think Tobias and blue paint. (If you don’t, watch it. Now.) I’m standing at the counter, in my disgusting pink apron, with a bowl of melted chocolate, holding a spoon en route to my mouth. The chocolate from the spoon is dripping all over the floor. My roommate, K, walks into the kitchen and that’s the first time she sees me today. I’m heartily ashamed, but she takes one look at the whiskey bottle, one look at the floor, and then one last look at me, and then gets really excited and happy that there are good things going on in her kitchen.

These mornings serve to remind me not of my embarrassingly hedonistic tendencies but of how awesome my friends are. She not only continues to take me seriously EVEN after she finds me standing in a pool of dripped melted chocolate and whiskey and eating it out of the bowl before 11 am, but also joins in by taking her finger, running it alongside of the bowl, and picking up rogue brownie crumbs to pop in her mouth. I love these moments so much, when a wonderful relationship, or thing, becomes almost brutally clear. Brutal in the sense that the amazingness and all its parts and manifestations seem simply to be laid out before you and, for a brief second, you can see  how perfectly everything fits together.

Like these brownies, too, all the flavors work so well together that you’ll consider not eating anything else for the rest of day because, psh, how do you top the mint-chocolate-whiskey combination?!

Mint Julep Brownies

(Recipe adapted from Fragrant Vanilla Cake)

Yields an 8 by 8 inch square pan, serving anywhere from 6 to 9, depending on how you slice

 

Notes: I halved the original recipe, which made a 9 by 13 inch pan of brownies, and it worked beautifully, so I’m copying down the recipe using half portions. I baked my brownies in four 4 ½ inch tartlet pans with removable bottoms, but in my experience the baking times don’t differ much between the tartlet pans and an 8 by 8 inch square pan. I also omitted the vanilla extract called for originally and used an extra tablespoon alcohol instead. The last note is my use of whiskey instead of bourbon. From what I understand (which is not a whole lot, as you’ll see), some whiskeys are bourbons and all bourbons are whiskey. It’s also what I had on hand, so there’s them apples. My last note concerns the amount of mint; I eyeballed it and may or may not have added more than necessary. I’ve found that mint is easily overwhelmed by chocolate when you bake with it, so I erred on the side of caution, used almost a ¼ cup mint leaves, and was rewarded.

 

Ingredients:

1/4 fresh mint leaves

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

½ cup, or 1 stick, unsalted butter

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

3 eggs

3 tablespoons bourbon/whiskey

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup all-purpose flour

 

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. If using an 8 by 8 inch square pan, line with foil, leaving an inch and a half overhang on at least two sides, and spray with non-stick cooking spray (a spray especially for baking or a non-flavored oil spray, such as canola). If using removable bottom pans, just coat pans with non-stick cooking spray.

2. If you have access to a food processor, or similar kitchen contraption, combine mint and sugar and process in food processor until mint is very finely chopped. If can’t use a food processor for this step, chop the mint as finely as you can and rub into sugar using your fingertips, until mint is evenly distributed.

3. Melt together butter and chocolate, either in a microwave, mixing every 30 second interval until melted, or in the top of a double boiler.

4. In a medium mixing bowl, combine melted chocolate mixture and mint sugar. Whisk until smooth.

5. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, followed by the bourbon. Whisk until mixture is uniform and smooth.

6. Whisk flour into batter. When batter is smooth, pour evenly into pan(s). Smooth top, making sure batter is distributed evenly.

7. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until a cake tester comes out with just a few crumbs attached. Be careful not to overbake!

8. Cool brownies in pan until pan is cool enough to handle. Remove brownies from pan and let brownies cool completely (room temperature). Once cooled, top with chocolate ganache (recipe follows). Let ganache set for a few hours before slicing.

Chocolate Ganache

Ingredients:

6 ounces bittersweet or dark chocolate, chopped

¼ cup milk or cream

Optional: 1 teaspoon whiskey

Method:

1. Using a double boiler or microwave, melt chocolate and milk.

2. Stir until smooth, then let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before using.

Store left-over ganache refrigerated and in an airtight container for up to a week.

 

Moving day is approaching way too quickly for comfort – I have four days to finish packing and it’s a little frightening to think about all the work and tasks that have yet to be accomplished. The good news is that I swore to myself that I wouldn’t leave everything until last minute and I’ve kept my word. There are boxes all ready to go, laundry bagged and sorted, and rooms almost completely packed up. Let’s see, there’s the living room, storage closet, kitchen… wait! Kitchen? Really? I packed up the kitchen already? Yes sir, it was the first room I attacked with cardboard and tape. Random room knick-knacks and mountains of old receipts? Still got ‘em. Baking pans, pantry supplies, pot holders, cook books, silverware, cups, etc? Gone until Tuesday.

There is no method, people, only madness. It’s not like the kitchen is my favorite place in the house or I’ll need supplies to make food or bake for my friends. I was definitely kicking myself in the rear-end for it all when I wanted to make something for a friend, who was in need of a sugar pick-me-up. After rummaging through everything that didn’t belong to me, I came up with a large pot, a spoon, and a pyrex casserole dish. Thinking about her favorite desserts and my lack of kitchen utensils, I found a solution. Rice krispie treats! There aren’t a whole lot of ingredients (I don’t want to have a lot of food lying around before moving) and you don’t need a whole lot of kitchen stuff to make them.

I decided to do a “split personality” sheet of rice krispies – one half original topped with M&Ms and one half peanut butter krispie treat with chocolate ganache. The candy didn’t stick to the treats very well, even though I pushed them in pretty hard after pressing the krispies into the pan. I’m not sure if that was a me-mistake or just some sort of unwritten rice krispie rule of which I’m unaware. Regard the peanut butter personality, I went a little crazy with the chocolate ganache (using ¾ cup chopped dark chocolate melted with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter) and it overshadowed the peanut butter. Next time I’ll drizzle the chocolate instead of glopping it everywhere. It also took a long time to set on account of the muggy pre-hurricane air. Grievances aside, I loved them. It has been so long since I’ve had a rice krispie square and I loved how I got the choice between peanut butter and original. I didn’t do anything to change the recipe, so I’ll link you right to it.

(Once I’m moved and settled you’ll see more interesting and original recipes, promise!)

You know what I hate most about the moving process? The moving process. Yes, all of it. It seems like every life skill in which I’m deficient is nicely rolled into one long, boring process. Organization? I know where everything is, thank you, I certainly don’t need to confine myself to one single system. I’ll totally remember what’s in this box when I unpack it, don’t insult me. Oh, I have to pack the box before getting defensive? Well, that’ll be a problem, I’m the queen of not only procrastinating but also coming up with excuses that seem to justify said procrastination. For example: That box doesn’t need to be packed now, for goodness sake, I have a whole ten days! Spelled out, it doesn’t seem convincing, but I’m easily manipulated, even if I’m the one in charge of manipulating… myself? Finally, I have a mental block when it comes to tasks that, once done, have to be undone in a matter of days. Cue reader eye rolls and the utterances of ‘quit yer complainin and DO IT ALREADY.”

Time for a little perspective, just to make sure I keep in mind why moving is important and why the process will be more than worth it. I’m so lucky to be moving into a beautiful new apartment with one of my closest friends. This coming year will be all kinds of awesome if only because we’ll be looking out for each other. She’s helping me move in little by little, knowing that help will be scarce come moving day, because she cares about me and that, well, I could think of all the negative things concerning moving and they wouldn’t even come close to the feeling that someone cares enough about you to go out of their way to help. I’ll definitely miss my one roommate but take great comfort in the fact that she and I will always be friends, no matter where life takes us. She is, after all, my hetero life-mate. She’s stuck with me. (You hear that?! No escape!)

Now that I have some perspective and my excitement is gaining momentum, I need some delicious, sugar-laden comfort food. Something a little like cookie cake. Yeah, that hits the spot. I’ve made this a few times over the past year and loved it every single time, sticking to the original recipe or, in this case, adding some ingredients I want to use up before moving. Check out the peanut butter chocolate chip cookie cake, too!

Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake

(Recipe adapted from Lemonpi)

Serves 8 to 10 people, in a 9 or 10 inch round cake pan

Notes: I added coconut and walnuts but the original recipe just calls for 1 ¼ cups chocolate chips. The final product was a lot less cakey than the original, more like a giant cookie blondie, but I didn’t complain. The almond extract is optional but highly recommended!

Ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 stick, or ½ cup, unsalted butter, room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 egg

1 cup chopped chocolate, dark, or semi-sweet chocolate chips

½ cup walnuts, toasted and cooled

½ cup coconut (mixture sweetened and unsweetened), toasted and cooled

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare a 9 or 10 inch pie plate, cake part, or fluted tart pan by buttering it generously.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, cream butter, brown sugar, and extracts, until lighter in color and fluffy in texture.

4. Add egg to butter mixture and beat until combined, making sure to scrap bottom of bowl to incorporate all ingredients.

5. Add flour mixture and stir just until combined well enough that a few flour streaks remain.

6. Stir in mix-ins until just combined and ingredients are evenly distributed throughout dough.

7. Smooth dough evenly in prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven 18 to 22 minutes until sides are puffed and lightly browned. The middle will appear under-baked.

8. If using a cake pan or pie plate, run a butter knife along the sides of cookie cake after taking it out of the oven. Cool in pan until cake reaches room temperature before removing from baking dish.

Store cooled cookie cake in an airtight container at room temperature up to three days or freeze, double wrapped in plastic, up to a month.

In totally unrelated news, there's a tomato on our tomato plant! What a cutie!!

My relationship with oat bran started a little something like this, “Hi. I know we just met but I love you will you marry me?!” Oat bran responded with a resounding “yes!” and we rode off into the sunset, just like that. Happily ever after. Me ‘n my bag of oat bran.

I still love oat bran but we’re experiencing a little interpersonal cabin fever – I’m using oat bran for the same kinds of almost healthy breakfasty baked something-or-others, and oat bran is getting a little sick of my looking at it the same way, all day, every day. I’ll never get tired of oat bran on waffles or with yogurt, but it’s time to be a little creative. And add a little sugar. Whenever I run into any sort of problem, food-related or otherwise, my first attempt at resolving it involves copious amounts of sugar. If that doesn’t cut it, I resort to other methods, like actual problem solving and maturity.

In this case, sugar was just the cure. Brown sugar, to be exact, and lots of it. Not to mention butter. And chocolate. And almonds. I was thrilled to find a brownie recipe using oat bran and ending up enjoying the finished product a mite too much. The brownies themselves aren’t very sweet (somehow, even with all the sugar) but are intensely chocolate-y with an interesting texture from the oat bran and almonds. I ended up eating way too many of them in one sitting, enthralled by the bits of oat bran in a brownie setting. I’m not sure the people with whom I shared these brownies enjoyed them as much as I did, so you might want to evaluate your relationship with oat bran before trying this recipe.

 

Oat Bran Almond Brownies

(Recipe adapted from Freelance Muses)

Yields one 13 by 9 inch pan of brownie, but halves nicely in an 8-inch square pan

Ingredients:

1 cup, or 2 sticks, unsalted butter plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and put aside

2 cups light brown sugar, packed

¾ cup unsweetened baking cocoa

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

4 eggs

½ cup whole wheat flour

1 cup oat bran

1 ¾ cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate

1/3 to ½ cup slivered almonds

Optional: 2 to 3 teaspoons sea salt

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare a baking pan by lining it with parchment, with an overhand on at least one side with which to lift out brownies once baked and cooled.

2. Melt together 1 cup butter and brown sugar, either in the microwave or over the stove on very low heat, being careful not to burn the butter. Mix until combined and smooth, then take off heat.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine melted butter/sugar mixture with baking cocoa, salt, baking powder, and both extracts. Mix until well combined.

4. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition.

5. Add both flour and oat bran, stirring just until combined.

6. Fold in chocolate chips or chopped chocolate.

7. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Sprinkle slivered almonds over surface, then brush with 2 tablespoons melted butter and sprinkle with sea salt, if using.

8. Bake brownies for 25 to 30 minutes, until top of brownies are dry and a cake tester comes out with moist crumbs attached.

9. Let brownies cool completely in pan, set over a wire rack, before slicing and serving.

Storage: Once brownies are cooled and sliced, keep covered at room temperature up to 3 days, or freeze for up to a month.

You know those people who keep the recipes from every butter, margarine, cool whip, graham cracker box, pudding box? Those people who have shoeboxes of cardboard recipe clippings dating from god-knows-when until the present? I’m one of those people, guilty as charged. Except the shoeboxes would be a step up on the organizational level for me, right now my cardboard pieces are shoved awkwardly into folders, and the folders shoved wherever there’s space on my bookshelf. I took it upon myself to do some organizing the other day, and part of that plan was to go through my recipe clippings, sort them, then place them into a notebook somehow, making it easier to flip through them and make notes if need be.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, because we live in the world and things happen, my plan started out clear as day and ended up as… nothing. I ended up just sorting through them, oohing and ahhing over the ones that looked good, fondly remembering the ones I’ve made, and not remembering at all why I clipped some recipes in the first place. I think I might have been on the verge of grabbing a notebook when I saw a recipe for sugar-topped brownie cake, peaking it’s head out of the “looks crazy delicious” pile. Not sure why it didn’t stop me before (probably because I was still enthralled by the going-through of recipes instead of starting to organize, hooray for procrastination), but I scooped up the recipe and stuck it to the fridge. This baby’s gettin’ made. No question.

The most interesting part about this recipe is that it turned out RED, as in, red-velvet-cake red. Once upon a time I read that red velvet cake started out as a thing because the cocoa powder reacts with the leavening agent, creating a red color instead of normal chocolate-cake brown, and thus far the phenomenon had remained an abstraction to me. My red velvet cakes didn’t turn out red if I failed to use food dye or some sort of natural coloring agent, and my chocolate cakes didn’t turn out red. This is the first time I’ve seen it in my own baking, with my own eyes. So it really does happen! I can totally understand how red velvet cake became a ‘thing’ and can now appreciate, yet another, example of how science-y stuff applies to baking. Be forewarned that this comes out more like a cake than like brownies. I know the title says “cake”, but it also says “brownie”. Didn’t want you going into it and being disappointed. Now that I’m thinking about the sugar and chocolate crust, though, I doubt you’ll be disappointed, regardless.

Brown Sugar-topped Brownie Cake

(Recipe taken from a Land-O-Lakes package of margarine)

Yields one 9 by 13 inch pan of brownie cake and brownies can be sliced large, around 15 servings

 

Ingredients:

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

½ cup butter, softened (almost melted)

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1 ¼ cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate, dark to semi-sweet

 

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare a 9 by 13 inch pan by greasing or lining with foil.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. Add milk, butter, egg, and vanilla to dry ingredients and stir until well mixed.

4. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over top of batter, then do the same with the chips or chopped chocolate.

5. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until a tester comes out clean. (Check around the 27 mark if you want your brownie cake to be slightly under-baked; I baked it for 30 minutes exactly and got an even cake-like texture but might under-bake it next time.)

6. Let brownie cake cool completely in pan, and cool completely before cutting.

Store brownies at room temperature, in an airtight container for up to 4 days and just covered up to 2 days.

This post begins with a warning. My roommate (bless her heart and soul) came home from work the other night with three bags of whole wheat flour and gave me full access to them. What does that mean? You’ll probably be seeing a whole bunch of recipes using whole wheat flour, on Variety Flour Thursdays and beyond. “Warning” was perhaps too strong a word. Consider this a “heads-up” then.

As much as I appreciate all flours, as they provide the basis to some of my favorite things in the entire world, whole wheat flour is definitely in my top two favorite flours to use (the other being buckwheat). Not only does using whole wheat flour make it easier for me to pretend what I’m making has some sort of health benefit other than being delicious, but it also lends a more interesting, earthy flavor. Your baked goods have a bit more oompf. There are even options to use whole wheat flour in fluffy cakes and delicate pastries – whole wheat pastry flour and even white whole wheat flour to a certain extent.

My preferred way to use whole wheat flour? Cookies. I love the chew factor and nutty flavor that whole wheat flour can give to cookies without being overpowering or ruining the texture. This week I was feeling like something extra gooey and ridiculous melty, so I decided to make a s’mores treat and substitute some whole wheat flour in for all-purpose to see what happened. Much to my delight, adding whole wheat flour to these bars was a success. However, I didn’t follow the instructions and used marshmallows instead of marshmallow fluff, even though it was clearly stated in the original recipe. I was way too lazy to go back to the store and paid for it. The bars were great, don’t get me wrong, but the marshmallows kind of evaporated (as they tend to do when baked) and left the bars with the occasional white puff and a thin layer of sweet. So, word to the wise, follow the instructions and use marshmallow fluff to get optimal gooey-ness.

S’mores Cookie Bars

(Adapted from Crepes of Wrath)

Yields one 8 inch square pan of bars, between 16 and 20 bars

Ingredients:

½ cup, or 1 stick, unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ cup light brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups all-purpose or whole wheat flour

¾ cup, about 8 whole crackers, graham cracker crumbs*

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

2 king-size milk chocolate bars, or about 1 ½ cups chopped milk chocolate

1 ½ cups marshmallow fluff (not marshmallows, as we’ve learned!)

*If you have a food processor, you can pulse the graham crackers to get crumbs. If you, like me, lack this marvelous kitchen tool, you can crumble the crackers by hand or with an appropriate kitchen tool (like a potato masher). It takes longer and you don’t get as fine a crumb, but it works!

Method:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and either grease or line with parchment an 8 inch square baking pan. Lining with parchment is nice because you can just pull the bars out of the pan when cooled.

2. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and both sugars until light and fluffy.

3. Beat eggs and vanilla into butter mixture until fully incorporated.

4. In a smaller mixing bowl, whisk together flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, and salt.

5. Add dry ingredients to butter mixture and stir until all ingredients are combined. Divide dough in half.

6. Press half of the dough into the bottom of pan. Next layer chocolate over dough, then marshmallow fluff over chocolate, and, finally, press remaining the half of dough on top. It’s okay if there is some marshmallow visible through pressed dough on top.

7. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until top is lightly browned. If corners brown too quickly, as mine did, cover edges with tin foil.

8. Let bars cool completely before cutting into squares.

Keep bars covered, at room temperature, up to three days.