One of our closest friends here is a couple from the US. They introduced us to Thanksgiving, and tomorrow we are going to celebrate together Cinco de Mayo. Originally a Mexican historical event, it is felt strongly by the Latino community in the US and as such adopted by all the people, especially my friend, who comes from California. We have been chasing ‘the best Mexican food of Nordrhein-Westfalen’ together for quite a while now: my friends love Mexican food and they miss it considerably. So far we have had no luck. Even the best Mexican food here seems to be pretty mediocre. So, tomorrow we are going to have a real fiesta at their place. I volunteered to bring dessert and decided it had to be a chocolate one.
I actually use my blog quite a lot: after all, I am collecting here my favourite recipes with my own notes, which is definitely useful, at least for me. I was quite shocked then when I realized I had not talked to you about the best cocoa brownies yet – a recipe by Alice Mendrich I’ve been making for quite a while, and I’ve also been sharing with all the people who have tasted them. There is something about these brownies that the others don’t have. I normally prefer chocolate to cocoa in cakes; however, although chocolate brownies are good, to me they miss some essential brownie quality. I can’t really explain it better than that, but I always had the feeling that chocolate brownies were a mere fattier and sweeter version of molleux au chocolat. These cocoa ones are totally satisfying on their own, on the other hand. Maybe, like Deb says, it is that they taste as if they may come out of a box, in a good way, and I associate that mouthfeel with brownies. Anyway, I’ve found myself baking this recipe in many occasions: it is totally fuss free, very good, and it does not require me to have chocolate bars at home when I want to whip up a batch. Chocolate bars are not a cupboard ingredient to me. They tend to disappear too quickly to qualify.
I ended up twisting the recipe considerably this time. First of all, I decided I wanted to make them spicy. After all, it is a Mexican fiesta. Secondly, I’ve been cutting the amount of sugar from the original recipe since when I first made them. I just don’t like them with that much sugar, however the sugar contributes to keeping them soft and fudgy, it is not just a taste matter. So I swapped sugar with natural cane sugar, and added in some apple syrup. I have noticed that often syrups, honey and molasses help retain moisture, so I thought they will work both for flavours and for consistency. They did. The brownies taste fudgy, have a melt-in-the mouth feeling that will leave you craving for more, without being overly sweet, with a bite from the spices. It is difficult to distinguish exactly if that fudginess comes from the smoky piment d’espelette or from the apple syrup or the dark sugar. Probably a combination thereof, together with Valrhona cocoa, with its rich flavour. The amounts of spices give a nice, clear bite, with a strong hint of cardamom and barely distinguishable cinnamon. You should adapt it to your personal taste. Personally, I hoped the chilli would be stronger, and may even scale it up a bit next time: but I’m after a ‘wow, that’s hot!’ effect here, so maybe this is something you don’t want in your chocolate. If you are just looking for a tingle in the back of your tongue, leave the chilli off completely. You can substitute piment d’espelette with any smoked chillies you happen to find, although I have to say piment d’espelette, although expensive, is incredibly rich in taste. More than nuts or walnuts, I’d love to try adding to these brownies some cocoa nibs, but I have trouble finding them.
One note: these brownies freeze perfectly. They actually improve after freezing. You need to chill them to be able to cut them anyway, but I usually try to make them rest a few days in freezer before eating them. This makes them for me an ideal treat to keep there frozen for when you need some chocolate. Just in case.
A (historical) note from 6th of May: Sometimes history is full of surprises and makes you want to exclaim, boy, is the world a small place! I was reading a bit more in depth about Mexican history, after Cinco De Mayo, and I happened to meet a familiar figure, Massimiliano, or Maximilian. Cinco De Mayo was just a temporary victory for Mexico: they ended up losing the war against the French, who installed a European emperor there. The future Mexican emperor built maybe my favourite place in the whole world, il Castello Di Miramare. I had not connected him at first, although I knew already he was later killed in Mexico, and had a very sad personal story, which just increases the slight melancholy I always associate to Miramare, for personal reasons. It is so much easier to remember facts and historical figures when you are aware of how they have shaped the places surrounding you. And the pictures on Wikipedia do not do any justice to Miramare. You have to get lost in that park, know all of its hidden corners, spend hours gazing at the shores of Istria lost in the mist, smell the pines and the sea before a storm, climb every centimeter of the underlying white limestone emerging to the light a few kilometers away, in Napoleonica or la Costiera, before it can enter below your skin. I have always wondered how Maximilian could leave it to go and die to the other side of the world. And yet, I left it as well.
Ingredients (for a 24×24 cm square pan; makes about 35 small brownies)
210 g butter, unsalted
250 g brown natural cane sugar
50 g apple syrup
125 g cacao (I used Valrhona)
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel de Guerande, or other quality salt
1/3 teaspoon piment d’espelette
3 cardamom pods
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
/23 teaspoon chilli powder
2 teaspoon natural vanilla extract
100 g all-purpose flour
Line the pan with non stick paper. Heat the oven to 150 Celsius. Break the cardamom pods and extract the seeds, then grind all the spices and salt together until reduced to a fine powder. Heat a double boiler. Put inside butter, sugar, apple syrup, spices, cocoa. Heat, stirring frequently, until the butter is melted, The mixture will look a bit gritty at this point, but don’t worry. Add the vanilla extract, mix well and taste. Adjust now the level of spices: bear in mind that the heat will be slightly toned down by cooking, while the spice flavour itself will not. When you are happy with it, add the eggs, one at a time, and the flour. Mix until incorporated, then mix for 44 times more (there is a magic in numbers),
When the mixture is quite smooth (but still you can see the sugar grains: don’t worry, they’ll melt cooking), pour it into the prepared pan, making sure it is level. Cook in the oven for about 20-25 minutes: it is ready when a skewer in the center comes out with a few crumbs (it will still be a bt gooey, but the borders will be slightly puffed and set). Remember, when in doubt don’t overdo it: like Ottolenghi says, ‘There is nothing worse than a brownie that turns into a cake. It is worse even than overdone meat.’
Let them cool down, then leave for a few hours in the freezer before cutting into squares.