Fudgy Chocolate Brownies: infinitely adaptable

Experimenting with peanut butter and salted caramel brownies.
Experimenting with peanut butter and salted caramel brownies.

Recently, I was asked in an interview, “what do you contribute to a team?” The first thought that popped into my head was brownies. However, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a professional way to answer the question? So, instead I answered something about how I am a really good team player and the many different skills I’d bring to the team, rather than saying that my contribution is a baked sugar high laden with chocolate. I meant to mention my excellent brownies at the end as an aside, but I forgot.

Immediately once the interview was over and as I reflected on how it went, I wished that I had led with the brownies though because it would have revealed more of my true self. My flatmate and colleague concurred (now assigned to the status of previous flatmate and colleague: that teaching job contract having just ended and we’ve moved out). Though, we then agreed in the next breath that my crack cookies are my best work. So, another time, I’ll be that little bit braver, relax and say, “brownies and cookies.”

The first time that I made these during lockdown was at the beginning of marking many, many student essays whilst living at my sister’s. I’d broken a personal record and spent 5 hours on a paper, checking for plagiarism and looking up citations, and still hadn’t finished it when thoroughly fed up and discouraged, I decided to put it down until the next day. A WOD (workout of the day) with 100 burpees and an evening spent singing, baking these brownies put me in a better mood. I left it out on the side to cool down and develop even more flavour overnight. My sister said that her contribution to my happiness was not diving into them that night. I shared a photo of them on a work group chat and subsequently made friends with a colleague who wanted the recipe.

Pretty Raspberry Brownies
The raspberry burst brownies which fuelled the essay marking

Awkwardly, I didn’t have the recipe at hand to share. It lived in the form of an excel spreadsheet, a hangover from my baking business days. Instead, I sent her a link to my raspberry burst brownies and made a mental note that it was time to publish this recipe.

I created this recipe in Cambodia whilst supplying brownies for a cafe because I wanted to create a brownie with more height and volume that I could adapt with a variety of fillings, such as cheesecake and salted caramel. In addition, my usual go to, very easy brownie recipe which the raspberry burst brownies are adapted from suddenly stopped working for me after I upgraded my oven. They were coming out cakier. Some people prefer their brownie consistency like that but I much prefer them to be fudgier with that delightful cracked top. The timing of it might have been purely a coincidence and have nothing to do with me switching from one of these electric toaster ovens to a standing oven cooker. I’ve shared the only decent photo that I appear to have of my toaster oven for you. If you’ve always lived in the UK, then you may have no concept of what I’m talking about. In most parts of S.E Asia, ovens do not come standard in a furnished kitchen. This is the oven in which I began my baking business and I used it for the first 2 years. It only allowed me to do one tray of cookies, a cake or brownies at a time and by the end it wouldn’t heat above 150°C. When I moved and invested in a new oven, it was a game changer.

My toaster oven that lived on the floor
My toaster oven lived on the floor. I’m piping coconut churros.
my new oven
I moved apartment and my new oven fitted into this space perfectly. This was taken the day the oven was delivered and fitted. If you look carefully you can see I had to buy extra long wiring because the power socket was on the other side of the room.

Anyway, it gave me an excuse to try out a new brownie making method for me that I’d seen Ed Kimber use in this video in which you mix the eggs and sugar for about 10 minutes until they form into a ribbon stage (I’ve explained what ribbon stage is in step 4 of the method) and then add the melted chocolate and butter. Mixing the eggs and sugar for that long, creates volume and structure and I deduced, would help me create that dense fudgy consistency and crinkly top each time. It did. At the bottom of the post, I’ve also included for you, a few photos of the different flavours that I’ve played with and how I’ve adapted them.

I played around with the sugar quantity. Most brownie recipes ask for larger quantities of sugar, but I’ve always liked the challenge of seeing how little sugar I can add to baking and it still taste good. From experience, 150g is too little but anything between 200-230g is perfect. I’ll adapt it depending on the additional flavours I want to add. For example, with salted caramel, I use less because of the added sweetness from the caramel. With raspberry I use more to counteract the tartness of the raspberries.

Brownies components ready to mix together
All the components ready to mix together

I prefer to make these in a stand mixer using the whisk attachment because it is easier to leave the stand mixer running during the egg and sugar whisking part whilst getting on with other tasks, rather than holding an electric hand mixer for 10 minutes.

Top tip 1: if using an electric hand mixer, place a tea towel underneath the bowl to keep it stable and stop it moving around.

Top tip 2: once baked, leave these to cool down completely, cover and place in the fridge overnight. Not only will they taste better as the flavours mature and deepen, but they will also be cold. Cut them with a sharp knife and you’ll get those beautiful clean lines.

So here’s the recipe for the Infinitely Adaptable Fudgy Chocolate Brownies. They’ll make between 12-16 brownies or 20 mini brownie bites.

Ingredients

  • 150g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • 150g dark chocolate (at least 60%), broken up, roughly chopped
  • 3 large eggs
  • 200-230g caster sugar (depending on how sweet you’d like them and the additional flavours you want to add)
  • 100g plain flour
  • 20g cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp of instant coffee granules (optional) – I use it because it helps bring out the chocolate flavour
  • And then whatever flavours* you’d like to add, or not.

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/355°F/Gas Mark 4. Line a deep tin. For this quantity a 20cm square tin or a rectangular 27×20 or 28×18 will work.
  2. Melt the chocolate and butter together and just after it has melted, add in the salt, vanilla extract and the optional instant coffee granules and leave it on the side to cool down. There are various ways you can melt chocolate and butter.
    • The more cautious, ahem proper, approach is to use a bain marie, that is put the butter and dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl that can sit on top of a saucepan with simmering water. Make sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the hot water in the saucepan. Slowly melt the chocolate and stir regularly. This way you won’t burn the chocolate.
    • Another easier way is to use the microwave. Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl, place a paper kitchen towel on top of the bowl so that butter won’t pop out as it melts. Melt it in 20 second bursts, stirring each time.
    • My way, is to use a heavy bottomed saucepan. I put the chocolate and butter in it and melt it at a low heat, stirring regularly. I take it off, just as the last few chocolate/butter bits aren’t quite melted because they will melt in the residual heat of the saucepan.
  3. In the meantime, measure out the flour and cocoa powder into a small bowl. Sieve it if there are lots of lumps in the flour and cocoa. Otherwise, use a whisk to loosen and mix them together.
  4. As soon as the chocolate/butter mixture is off the heat, crack the eggs into a medium sized bowl and add the sugar. Use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer on high speed to start whisking the eggs and sugar until they are at a ribbon stage. Ribbon stage is when the egg and sugar mixture are a pale yellow colour, doubled or even tripled in volume and when you lift the whisk over the mixture, the batter will fall slowly and leave a trail like a ribbon that will hold its shape for a few seconds. It will take about 10 minutes. I still use a timer to make sure I beat them for long enough. Don’t start beating the eggs/sugar until the chocolate/butter has melted because the chocolate/butter mixture needs this time to cool down.
  5. When the eggs and sugar have reached a ribbon stage, reduce the speed to low and add the melted chocolate and butter mixture to the eggs and sugar. Whisk until it all appears to have mixed together. If you are using an electric hand mixer, you may need to turn off the mixer, add the chocolate/butter and then switch it back on again to avoid a mess. I speak from experience, haha.
  6. Now fold in the flour and cocoa powder using a spatula, or a spoon until it is well combined.
  7. Pour into the baking tin.
  8. Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes. They should be firm to touch at the top but still wobble when you shake it. Leave to cool completely in the tin and if you can bear it, cover them and leave them overnight in the fridge. They will be easier to cut and the flavours will have deepened.

*You can add various flavours to this, or not if you want them plain. I’ve given you a few of suggestions and photos below. Do let me know how else you adapt them.

For raspberry burst brownies 2.0, I add 90g of raspberries. I mix in half before I pour it into the baking tin and then scatter the remaining half where there are spaces.
For raspberry and white chocolate, do the above and add 100g of chopped white chocolate. Mix half the chocolate into the batter with the raspberry and then fill the spaces with the remaining 50g.
Walnut Brownies
For nutty ones, I use 100g of nuts. For this one, I’ve used walnuts. I pick out 12-16 walnut halves to place on top for evenly then roughly chop and mix in the rest to the mixture before I pour into the baking tin and then place the remaining walnut halves on the top.
Salted Caramel and Hazelnut Brownies
For hazelnut and salted caramel. I made these to use up leftover ingredients as I was packing to return to the UK. Use 100g of roughly chopped hazelnuts and 100g of salted caramel. I mixed in half the hazelnuts into the mixture, then after I poured it into the tin, I blobbed salted caramel with a teaspoon evenly and scattered the rest of the hazelnuts over the top.
Swirls of cheesecake in brownies
Swirled cheesecake brownies, but I’ve realised that the salted caramel and the cheesecake ones are a little more complicated, so I’ll post those recipes another day.

What happened next with that interview? How many points have I accumulated? In this current job hunting cycle, I racked up 103 points. Incidentally, I got offered that job, even without the promise of these brownies. So, I’m currently in the throes of transition once again and relocating down to the Midlands.

Understudies in Nigella’s Chocolate Banana Bread: Introducing Whiskey and Currants

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I know this is a rather strange title for a recipe: this is another one of my cakes that appeared, as it were, from the magic created when the actors of a recipe are not there, one looks for the understudies and BOOM! the result is far better than the original. I say ‘another’ because it isn’t the first time that I’ve improvised with ingredients whilst baking. My baking history is chequered with them, for example the courgette and walnut cake when my cupboard lacked most of the ingredients in and the carrot and pinenut cake that was created when I put baking powder in the wrong bowl of herman…

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The smell of this banana cake, that I conjured up, is of Christmas. No wonder as I used sloe whiskey and currants to substitute the called for dark rum and sultanas, respectively.

Have you ever come across – ? No! Have you ever tasted a banana cake that’s like a Christmas cake? You’ll now start posting recipes in my comments box to tell me of various banana cake recipes that do 🙂 *giggle* I would welcome them.

While I’m asking – do you know what makes a cake into a bread? I don’t know. Why is it that most banana cakes call themselves breads? Is it to do with the loaf tin that they are made in?

mixing egg
So… a confession. I made this cake because I was being made to pack up house, again! Do you remember the previous times that I moved flat and I found myself just having to make two lemon and ginger cheesecakesand bramble jelly? My fellow resident tutors and flat movers, David and Lucy, were really worried about the lengths that I went to avoid putting things away. So now, I’m very aware that I bake to distract myself from the pain of packing boxes; there’s always good reason. This time, I had a hoard of frozen bananas, 12 as it turned out, that needed to be used up. Well, why not strike a compromise with the chore of packing and this golden (brown) opportunity, and try out quick and easy banana bread recipes.

So, I did with Nigella’s and Deb’s (from Smitten Kitchen).

 

According to Nigella (How to be a Domestic Goddess), ‘[T]his is the first recipe anyone hesitant about baking should try: it’s fabulously easy and fills the kitchen with that aromatic fug which is the natural atmospheric setting for the domestic goddess.’Well that sold it to me… as if I needed any convincing. Nevertheless, there are even easier, equally enticing banana cakes out there. Cue: Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked Up Banana Bread. I made her banana bread at the same time that I made Nigella’s and it is just a tad easier to make. I’ll post that recipe later, because this variation of Nigella’s banana bread recipe, with the whiskey and currants, supersedes it in taste, flavour and richness.

 

banana and chocolate cake ingredients

 

Ingredients (and a suggestions box of other substitutes for the dried fruit and liquor at the bottom of this post)

  • 100g currants.
  • 75ml sloe whiskey, or any whiskey
  • 150g plain flour
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 90-100g soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 large or 4 small very ripe bananas, mashed (about 300g in weight with the skins off)
  • 60g chopped walnuts
  • 100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Method

1. Put your chosen dried fruit and liquor into a small saucepan (I measured the currants and whiskey directly in the saucepan for ease) and bring to the boil. Now, remove from the heat, cover the saucepan and leave for an hour or so, in order that the currants can plump up as they absorb the most of the liquid. After which, Nigella says, to drain the currants. I decided it was a waste of the sloe whiskey, so I ended up adding it all, currants and whiskey, to the cake mix at the appropriate step. I’m rushing ahead of myself here. While the currants are plumping up, move on with the rest of the recipe.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and line a 2lb loaf tin. I only have a 1.5 lb loaf tin and it just about manages it.

banana and flour
3. Measure out the plain flour, cocoa powder into a medium sized bowl. Now add in the bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and give them all a good mix with a metal or wooden spoon. This means that you don’t get any lumps of salt, cocoa powder or bicarbonate of soda in the eventual cake.

4. Melt the butter. I’ve used both methods of carefully zapping butter in the microwave (um, careful and zap don’t seem to be natural partners but what other word describes what happens in a microwave?) and melting it in a saucepan. Both work. If you are going to zap it in the microwave, choose a large pyrex bowl that is big enough to make the cake mixture in, as it will save on the washing up later.

stirring butter and sugaradding the banana - looks really yummy!
5. Once melted, add the sugar to the butter and stir well until the sugar is well blended into the butter. It should look almost toffee-like in colour because of the brown sugar. Follow with the eggs. Beat them in, one at a time, to the sugary buttery mixture then add the mashed bananas and beat well.

6. Now add the currants and the remainder of the liquid in the saucepan, along with the walnuts, vanilla extract and the chopped chocolate to the mixture and stir well.

adding the chocolate, nut and fruitadding flour to chocolate banana mixture
7. Add in the flour mix (see 3) but do it a third at time, stirring well after each addition. Once all of the dry mixture is mixed in, add the cake mixture into the loaf tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 1 hour. I check after 40 minutes and if the cake looks like it is browning at the top too quickly, then I cover it with some baking paper to protect the cake from burning. Sometimes the cake takes a little bit longer to bake, so don’t worry if it needs an extra 15-20 minutes in the oven. You’ll know when the cake is done when you insert a cake tester, or I use a sharp knife, into the cake and it comes out clean.

adding flour to chocolate banana mixwet banana and chocolate cake mix_1wet chocolate and banana cake mix_2
8. Leave the cake in the loaf tin to cool down completely, before slicing it up to eat. It does smell absolutely heavenly at the point the cake leaves the oven, but the inside of the cake steams up and collapses if you cut into it when it’s warm. Trust me. I made that mistake last week at Baking Club when we were far too impatient to wait because we were experimenting with various liquors and naturally wanting to taste the different flavours.

Verdict? Scrum-dili-O-cious. Honestly, this version is truly scrumptious and rich in flavour. I’ve made a few variations (listed below) but there is something to be said about how the flavours of whiskey, chocolate and banana complement each other and stand their ground against each other in this cake. You know how I said to leave the cake to cool down completely before cutting into it. I discovered that this cake gets better with age. The chocolate, whiskey and banana mature well together if you can bear to leave it a day or two before eating it and you’ll have a more complex flavour to savour. Leave the cake in an airtight container for at least a week and it won’t dry out… if it lasts that long!

Baking Club came round last Wednesday laden with various liquors. We tried a few out.

  • Banana, Date and Toffee Bread: 100g chopped up dried dates, 75ml of butterscotch schnapps, subsitute half of the soft brown sugar with dark brown sugar. I’d also leave out the 25g of cocoa powder with replace it with plain flour so that the toffee has a chance of coming through.
  • The original Banana and Chocolate Bread: 100g sultanas, 75ml dark rum – this is Nigella’s original recipe. Tastes alright but the whiskey and currants one tastes even better. I might try this one out later without the chocolate and compare it to Smitten Kitchen’s version.
  • Banana, Apricot and Chocolate Bread: 100g chopped up dried apricots, 75ml apricot brandy. – gave this one away before tasting it.

chocolate banana whiskey currant bread
 

An alternative to Christmas cake, perhaps?

Courgette (or Zucchini) and Walnut Cake: a ‘don’t–have–enough–of, so–how–about–kinda’ cake

2 courgette and walnut cakes

This is a cake recipe that I adapted out of a “not enough of” so “how about” moment. Have you had any of those moments? I had quite a few of those “uh-oh” moments on a summer’s evening last year. Sarah, my then-housemate, and I had a baking evening in the midst of the bumper courgette season. Oh, we laughed A LOT

and somehow ended up… with a yummy cake.

This is the original List of Ingredients for Zucchini and Walnut Cake. I’ve included it so that you know what the original plan was. If you’d like to, why not try them both out and tell me what the differences you come across. A year on, during another bumper courgette harvest, I’ve finally gotten round to baking the original recipe (below in italics) with a few modifications below. At the end, I’ve written a wee note about the differences I came across between each of the recipes – but the cause of yummy cake is not lost in either one.

245g walnuts (separated into 185g walnut pieces / 60g walnut halves)
500g zucchini – grated (500g is about 2 medium sized courgettes)
250ml canola oil – I couldn’t find this in Sainsburys so used sunflower oil
330g raw sugar – I halved it to 170g demerara sugar
3 eggs
310g self-raising flour, sifted
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg

I mean, who normally has canola oil, and what is raw sugar? I had no idea until I saw it in this recipe. My google search tells me that demerara sugar is one type. Ah… a sigh of relief. I have some of that. But not enough walnuts, or self-raising flour… ho hum.

So, here’s my List of Ingredients for my ‘Don’t-have-enough-of-so-how-about’ Courgette and Walnut Cake. Oh, I might as well write courgette instead of zucchini, since I’ve changed so many of the ingredients already.

245g mixture of walnuts, pecans, brazil nuts and hazelnuts
500g courgette, grated
250ml vegetable oil (lighter than olive oil)
170g demerara sugar
3 eggs
310g wholemeal self-raising flour, sifted
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
a splash of milk, if necessary

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas Mark 3
  • Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin.
  • Weigh out 185g of the nuts, saving 60g of the other nuts to decorate on top of the cake mixture later.
  • I grated the courgettes in a food processor that had the grater option and finished the end bits by hand. It’s the easiest way to get through 500g.
  • Mix together courgettes, oil, sugar, eggs so they look like this
courgette and walnut cake mix1
  • Add the chopped nuts.
  • Gradually add the flour, cinnamon and nutmeg to this mixture.
  • Add a splash of milk to the mixture to add a bit more wetness to the mixture. If the mixture looks and feels gloopy once you’ve mixed it, then it’s right.
gloopy courgette and walnut cake mixture
  • Pour the mixture into the tin and use the remaining nuts to decorate the top of the cake.
  • Bake in the middle of the oven for about 1 hour 10 minutes, until a cake tester (or knife) comes out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake.
    NB. If you bake them as muffins, then they need 30-35 minutes, but check them with a skewer to ensure that they are done.)

    Top Tip: Check on the cake at 55 minutes. If the nuts look very brown as if they’re likely to burn, then cover the top with a sheet of baking or greaseproof paper.

  • Let the cake cool in the tin.
  • Enjoy and smile as you ask those around you to guess the mystery ingredient 🙂

So, what are the differences?
When I was used white flour, I had too much mixture for my 2lb loaf tin. Therefore, I also made 5 muffins, which I then decorated with chocolate frosting and finished it off with a walnut. I’ll be enjoying them as a treat with my mum later. As for the verdict on the flavour? Both cakes have a lovely nutty, spiced taste because of the nutmeg, cinnamon and nuts. The wholemeal version somehow, just tastes… more wholesome. I like it. My photos of the wholemeal cake are currently stored on Sarah’s camera, so I’ll add them on at a later date.

p.s. I discovered that this cake freezes well. This is entering a new territory in baking for me because I had never frozen a cake before. What I did was double wrap it with foil, once the cake had completely cooled down. Then wrapped it again in a plastic bag before popping it into the freezer. I defrosted it simply by putting it out on the side. The cake was yummy to eat.

Happy Courgette Season!