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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chocolate Ganache Brownies and My Dad

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I have been told I'm the devil.  And by my own dad, too.  You see, my dad and I share many traits.  We both have blue eyes, we're both dreamers, and we both have a terrible weakness for chocolate (an unfortunate family trait that we both try hard to resist).  Every time I make him a deliciously chocolately dessert (like these killer brownies), he eyes them hungrily and says, "Oh Mary, what are you making now?" Then, shaking his head, he tells me, "You're the devil." I know he's teasing, because in his heart he believes the exact opposite of that.

My dad is a complete softie.  He's generous to a fault and would do anything for his family, coming to our rescue on numerous occasions. (My brothers and I seem to excel at providing these.)  Loving us unconditionally is like a drug for him.  My brothers and I even make fun of his goofy way of telling us at the end of a phone call how much he loves us--one "I love you" just doesn't cut it.  I've even accidentally hung up on him once or twice because I didn't realize the "I love you"s weren't over yet.

My dad is also a pretty smart guy.  I used to think that earning his Ph.D. and directing a college mechanical engineering program was no-sweat for him because of his super intelligence.  But lately I've learned that the amount of work my dad put into his career was far more than I previously thought.  This revelation came to me during one of my dad's many stories.

My dad has a story or theory for every occasion.  Among the top ten are his repotting theory about making life changes and the story about selling his beloved corvette in order to get married.  (The stories involving my mom are classics, and some of these have grown to epic proportions.) Even today, after years of hearing his stories, I am still hearing new ones.  His theory about the importance of perseverance was recently explained to me over a plate of pasta at a favorite family bistro.  (Ever the scientist, he even drew a diagram on the paper tablecloth cover.)  I'd like to share this theory with you:

The Perseverance/Ability Theory:

There are basically four types of people:

1.) Those who have high perseverance and high natural ability.  (These are the Henry Fords and Steve Jobs of the world.  My dad didn't have to push students like these.  They flew on their own.)

2.) Those who have high perseverance but low natural ability.  (These are the hard workers, the ones who are determined to succeed no matter what.  These are the students who came to my dad for extra help.)

3.) Those who have low perseverance and low natural ability.  (My dad did his best with this group.  He challenged all of his students so much that this group was forced to either join the high perseverance group or change majors.)

4.) Those who have low perseverance but high natural ability.  (These are the students who could be great, but they coast on their ability and let their potential go to waste.  Whether it was by love, laughter, or humiliation, my dad targeted this group, determined to light a fire under them.)


I was shocked to find out that my dad considered himself one of the low ability/high perseverance crowd.  The answers I thought came so easily to him were only the reward of great effort on his part.  Success and happiness don't come easily to anyone, it seems.  You have to work at it.  My dad's stories and his life prove this.

Even though I've known my dad my entire life, there are depths to him I know nothing about.   But I do know this:  He will never stop teaching us.  He will never stop loving us unconditionally.  And he will never stop tagging on those extra "I love you"s whenever he has the chance.

Even though my dad tells me he loves everything I bake, I always try to make him the most delicious desserts.  These brownies are without a doubt the best, most luxurious brownies I've ever encountered and, therefore, worthy of him.  Even if it does make me something of a devil.

I love you, Dad!

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Chocolate Ganache Brownies

WARNING:  These brownies are not for the faint of heart.  If you're squeamish about fat and calories, then these brownies are not for you!


BROWNIES:

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (65 grams, though some brands may weigh more) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process) (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, about 25-28 minutes.  After pulling brownies out of the oven, prepare the ganache. (I prep the chopped chocolate while the brownies are baking.)

GANACHE TOPPING:

8 oz. good quality chopped semi-sweet baking chocolate
8 oz. (about 1 cup) heavy cream (Don't skimp--use heavy cream!)

In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water, combine the chocolate and heavy cream.  Stir gently until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is entirely smooth.  Pour over the brownies and let sit until ganache is set--this will take several hours. (I usually make these in the morning for an evening gathering.)  When cooled, pull the brownies out of the pan using the parchment sling and cut into 16 or 25 squares.

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Best Cocoa Brownies and Trust

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Life can be scary sometimes.  It doesn't matter if you're five years old or 105, there are going to be moments when you just want to close your eyes and make it all go away.  When you're five, and your fears amount to a darkened room or not getting the gold crayon before the other kids, it's easy to soldier on.  But when you're an adult, life's scary moments can be much more frightening.

It's true there are plenty of upsides to being a grownup, but a major downside would have to be losing that unshakable trust in life.  It's easy to trust things are going to work out when your parents, your teacher, the bus driver, and even Santa Claus are in charge of keeping you happy and safe.  And when things get a little scary, all it takes is a hug from your teddy bear to make everything right again.  Trust is not so easy for a grownup.  Santa can't help you with a new job, and your teddy bear just doesn't understand about Roth IRAs or 401ks.  But no matter what your age, sometimes the best remedy for life's scary moments is a nice, warm brownie and someone to tell you it's all going to be okay.

When the world doesn't make sense, these amazing brownies are enough to renew your trust.  One bite of their rich, chocolatey goodness, and your faith in the grand scheme of things is restored.  A world that produces such a perfect brownie has to be good.
As far as brownies go, I used to be a box mix junkie and no recipe could make me change my ways.  That is, until I found the Katharine Hepburn brownie recipe.  As an avid fan of her acting, I had to try her recipe, and I discovered a new universe of from-scratch brownies. 

But I still couldn't find a brownie recipe that reminded me of those box-mix beauties until I came across this one from Smitten Kitchen.  Not only do they resemble everyone's fudgy box mix favorites, these babies far outweigh them.  And since they are made with cocoa powder, there's no need to mess with melted chocolate, and they come together very easily.  Trust me.

Whether you're feeding a hyper party of five-year-olds or just need a comforting indulgence at the end of the day, you can place your trust in these brownies.  So, go ahead, pour yourself a glass milk, grab a brownie, and know that all is well.
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Best Cocoa Brownies

From Smitten Kitchen
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

INGREDIENTS:
10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (65 grams, though some brands may weigh more) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process) (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (75 grams) walnut or pecan pieces (optional) (I didn't use them.)

DIRECTIONS:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes is Medrich’s suggestion, but I baked them for 25-27 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies and the Joy of Christmas

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Christmas is upon us.  Big sales and even bigger lines.  Must-try peppermint flavored treats everywhere you look.  Non-stop Christmas music on the radio.  Magazine covers touting the best holiday decorating ideas.  But above all the activity, there is something magical about Christmas, something wonderful and joyful.  In those moments in between writing out the Christmas cards and wrapping the gifts, you can feel it.  That Christmas joy seeps into your soul even when stress is uppermost in your mind.

I think that’s why cookies are such an important part of Christmas.  They’re simple, sweet and joyful, just like Christmas is supposed to be.  They're little, tasty reminders that your first priority, no matter how many tasks are on your to-do list, is to feel the joy and be happy.  And these Soft Sugar Cookies are, without a doubt, the sweetest, happiest cookies you’ll taste yet.

Baking Christmas cookies is one of my favorite things of the season.  Just like Christmas, a cookie is a gift of pure happiness.  Christmas cookies, to me, symbolize the love, joy, and generosity that this season is all about.

And so, I’m going to let my every Christmas activity be a reminder of that Christmas joy.  I’ll try to let every sparkly decoration I see give me pause to feel the magic and love that is everywhere these days.  A special little baby is on his way, and it’s my job at Christmas to enjoy the excitement!

I found the recipe for these soft frosted sugar cookies–which were modeled after their grocery store bretheren–on Annie’s Eats.  I had never been drawn to those grocery store monstrosities.  Besides that, my family already has a frosted sugar cookie recipe, so there was no reason for me to make these.  And yet, they kept calling to me, so I finally gave in. 

After baking and frosting them, I tasted one…and good golly almighty!  It was amazing!  It was one of the most deliciously joyous cookie experiences I’ve ever had!  Biting into this little pillow of sweetness was like entering another dimension where joy is everything and stress is non-existent.  I definitely encourage you to make these.  You will not be disappointed!

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Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies

Yield: about 2 dozen large cookies

INGREDIENTS

Ingredients:
For the cookies:
4½ cups all-purpose flour
4½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
5 tsp. vanilla extract

For the frosting:
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
7-8 tbsp. milk (plus more, as needed)
Food coloring (optional)

DIRECTIONS

In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt, and whisk together to blend.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and beat together on medium-high speed until soft and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the bowl as needed.  Blend in the vanilla.  With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients mixing just until incorporated and evenly mixed.  Cover and chill the dough for 1 hour.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.  Scoop a scant quarter cup of dough and roll into a ball. 

Flatten the ball slightly and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the cookies at least 2-3 inches apart.  Bake about 10-12 minutes or just until set.  (Do not overbake!  The edges should be no more than very lightly browned if at all.)  Let cool on the baking sheet for several minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

To frost the cookies, place the confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl.  Add the melted butter, vanilla, and milk to the bowl and whisk until smooth.  Whisk in additional milk as necessary, 1 teaspoon at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.  Tint with food coloring if desired.  Use an offset spatula or spoon to frost the cooled cookies.  (If the frosting begins to thicken as you decorate, just continue to whisk in small amounts of milk to keep it workable.)  Top with sprinkles if desired.  Store in an airtight container.

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