Salted Caramel Brownies

Not a recent batch, but close.

These brownies have become my go-to for bake sales. Not only did I make them for the Japan bake sale (where we earned more than $11,000 for earthquake relief!), but I also made them for the recent Bastrop bake sale (where we brought in more than $14,000 for wildfire relief!) and, most recently, the BK’s school Halloween carnival.

I am a big believer in bake sales. In fact, I have a post percolating about bake sales and how they can go really, really right (see above) and how they can just be seventeen kinds of wrong. Stay tuned for that.

For now, here is a recipe, adapted from Baked Explorations

Salted Caramel Brownies

For the caramel

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons golden syrup or agave nectar
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine the sugar, golden syrup, and water in a medium saucepan. Cook on high heat for about 6 or so minutes or until the mixture is golden brown. Don’t get jumpy and pull it off the heat too soon; just watch closely until you hit that perfect shade between dark amber (think of the mosquitoes in Jurassic Park) and the color of a glass of Fat Tire. If you pull it too soon, the caramel will not thicken enough. Remove from heat (I take it off the burner altogether) and slowly add the cream (be careful, because it will bubble up) and the sea salt. Set aside.

For the brownie
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate chips (I use Guittard or Whole Foods brand)
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spray the sides and bottom of a 9 x 13 inch cake pan. (NOTE: if you are using a nonstick pan, don’t use spray. Use butter.) Line the bottom with a sheet of parchment paper.
Whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder in a medium-sized bowl.
Boil some water in a saucepan. Put the chocolate chips and the butter cubes in a large stainless steel mixing bowl and stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are melted. Remember that the bowl will be hot, so plan accordingly.
Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan; add both sugars. Whisk until completely combined and remove the bowl from the pan.
Add three eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Add the remaining two eggs and whisk until just combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined.
Sprinkle the dry ingredients mixture over the wet mixture. Fold until there is a just a trace amount of the flour mixture visible (watch for pockets of flour mixture toward the bottom).

Pour half of the brownie batter into the pan and jiggle it until it is relatively smooth on top. Carefully pour the caramel mixture evenly on top of the brownie batter, but don’t add it all, and be careful to avoid the sides. Strategically place the rest of the brownie batter over the caramel layer and smooth it across the top. If you have any caramel that has escaped and is snuggled up against the parchment, just use your spoon or spatula to nudge it back into the batter. The caramel gets absorbed into the brownie during cooking, so you won’t be messing with the aesthetics of a layer by doing this.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. The brownies are done when the toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs; sometimes I don’t need the full 30 minutes, sometimes I need a few extra minutes. Stick as close as possible to the 30 minutes if you like a fudgy, supermoist brownie.

(At this point, you can choose to drizzle the remaining caramel on top of the brownies, or sprinkle some coarse sugar or fleur de sel on top. I don’t do either of those.)

Cool the brownies on the stove top for about 15-20 minutes, then chill them in your freezer or fridge until completely chilled (I use a metal pan; use your discretion with a glass dish). Remove the pan from the freezer/fridge, use the parchment paper to lift the brownies out onto a cutting board, then slice the brownies. Chilling them should help you get clean lines instead of a crumbly mess. Enjoy!

Jack Allen’s Kitchen

I don’t usually do restaurant reviews here, but I’m making an exception for my newest obsession, Jack Allen’s Kitchen.

(Don’t worry, Olivia, Contigo, and La Condesa. I still love you, too.)

When my dissertation chair, the elitistacademic, invited me to lunch at JAK, she pitched it as “serious farm-to-table fare.” I usually don’t take much convincing to check out a new-to-me restaurant, but then I looked at the menu. HOLY PIMENTO CHEESE, HOW SOON CAN WE GET THERE?!

(Side note: When I was in high school, I went to a tiny Southern Baptist church in Crockett, Texas. Once a month the youth group would have a Sunday-night volleyball game in the annex, and the church ladies would make us sandwiches and provide chips and drinks and stuff. Every time they served pimento cheese, I would act like a five-year-old and make yuck faces and just generally be a brat about the vile orange glop. One night, one of the ladies pulled me aside and schooled me, rather fiercely, about my rude and childish behavior. I now have an enormous appreciation for pimento cheese, as well as for how annoying children who make yuck faces at the food you’ve made for them. So, sorry church ladies. But that stuff in the tubs from the Safeway was pretty darn gross.)

Anyhoo, I met up with the EA around noon-thirty today and after perusing the menu (I was curious about the Navajo chicken taco, but because spinach isn’t in season here yet, it’s not currently being served. I LOVE THAT.) we made our selections.

We started out with the pimento cheese appetizer (you get a wee sampling taste as a sort of equivalent to the basket of bread you’d get at another restaurant). I really, really had to restrain/pace myself. The housemade flatbread crackers were thin and crunchy and nicely seasoned, and the pimento cheese itself was creamy and mild.

Despite the wealth of truly fattening and enticing items, I opted for a salad, something called the Chicken Club Fancy Salad or something. It has achiote grilled chicken, sliced apples, figs, and blue cheese in it, and is tossed in a champagne vinaigrette. The chicken bore a surprising bit of sneaky heat, but nothing too overpowering.

The EA boldly ordered the chicken-fried pork chop. Look at this beast!

Underneath that monster is mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley that had zucchini and pattypan squash, as well as some others. EA sliced me off a piece and let me tell you: you have not had chicken fried ANYTHING that tasted as good as this pork chop. “You can tell this is local,” said EA, “because you can actually taste the pork and not just the [perfectly seasoned and crisp] breading.”

Because we were going whole hog, we asked to hear the dessert selection. There was apple-pecan cobbler. Banana toffee cream cake. And wah wah wah wah and also wah wah wah wah. We stopped listening after “banana” and “toffee.”

Friends, I have no words. “It reminds me of my Big Mama’s banana pudding,” I said. “It reminds me of the pies we ate when I was a kid,” said EA. It was pudding-y and cream pie-y and … well. I had to force myself to stop eating it because I was stuffed beyond comprehension. In fact, I skipped dinner tonight, I ate so much at lunch.

But I also got a souvenir!

Oh yeah, baby.

The space itself is lovely: open and airy with a lot of natural light and clean lines. Each table or booth is afforded its own generous footprint; there’s none of that elbow-to-elbow nonsense here. Our server, while scruffily goateed and ponytailed, wasn’t the burnout of my first impression. He was informative and polite and efficient and didn’t hover. Well played, sir.

So, all told: solid, solid dining experience. I called my husband on the way back into town and told him we had to go there together immediately. I think the words “homemade pimento cheese” and “chicken fried pork chop” sealed the deal.

(P.S. Sorry the pictures are sort of blurry. I think I need to clean my phone’s camera lens.)

Apple crisp

It’s October. Technically fall. Apples and pears are in abundance at the grocery stores and farmers’ markets. And yet it’s still 90 degrees outside in my town. Oy vey, times a thousand. It’s supposed to drop down into the 70s this week, so we’ll be able to think about soup and hearty meals for about fifteen minutes, but this terrifyingly hot and dry summer has got my sense of the seasons all out of whack.

That didn’t stop me from making an apple crisp, though. Sure, apples and oats and cinnamon and brown sugar scream sweater weather, but these were organic fujis (ENORMOUS) on sale at the grocery store (kind of ironic that just this morning I got up on my high horse about cheap food; on one hand, I think it devalues food in our minds, but on the other hand, I like the idea of affordable organics for people who have less money to spend on food). I got a little over three pounds (about five apples) and let them sit on the counter for a few days before deciding what to do with them. I was thinking about apple butter for Christmas gifts because I really want to emphasize handmade gifts this year (that and books). But I am really, really busy right now and decided to go with something that would take an hour and would require as few dishes as possible.

I would also like to point out that the dish of apple crisp in this picture rests on top of my completed (!!!!!) dissertation. That doesn’t mean that I will stop talking about my project here, because its roots run deep and the ideas within it reach to many corners of food culture. But for now, I am enjoying the sense of pride and liberation at having reached this particular milestone. I hope to get my defense on the calendar for sometime before Thanksgiving.

Apple Crisp
(adapted from Simply Recipes)

5 large Fuji apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
juice of two lemons
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup dark brown sugar (I like the deeper, earthier taste of dark brown sugar)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I used McCormick’s roasted Saigon cinnamon, but they did not sponsor this post)
1/2 cup chopped roasted almonds
1/2 cup unsalted butter (that’s one stick, y’all)

    Preheat oven to 375 F.
    In a large bowl, toss the apple slices with the lemon juice and vanilla (be aware of any lemon seeds that splurch into the bowl).
    In a separate bowl, mix together the brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, and almonds. Use a pastry cutter to cut in the butter and mix until blended.
    Place the apples in a casserole dish (I used a gigantic 11×15 dish, but a 9×13 would work here, too) and sprinkle the oat mixture evenly on top.
    Bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream (or go crazy and top it with one of those seasonal flavors, like pumpkin. I bet a chai-spiced ice cream would be good with this, too).

(I hesitate to designate this recipe as gluten-free, since rolled oats are a controversial ingredient when it comes to gluten contamination, but if you’ve got certified GF oats, you are good to go with this recipe.)

Figs in Syrup

My apologies for the unannounced hiatus. This semester is kicking my hiney. My mantra these days is COME ON, DECEMBER. (Meanwhile, I also am in a constant headspin, all, “Where the hell did September go? Oh crap, LK’s birthday is in two weeks and we haven’t planned a party at all! Eep!”)

Of course, I’ve found a little bit of time to cook and think and queue up future blog posts, so stay with me! I’ve got lots to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainable food practices in the world and in my home. Part of it was inspired by seeing the documentary Dive! about a month ago (it’s about food waste and everyone should see it). I wondered while watching the movie whether the freegans in the movie practiced old-school methods of food preservation, like canning, drying, and so on. Obviously, previous generations knew that preserving food was a great way to reduce waste and cut down on food costs.

Around the same time, I went to visit my grandparents in East Texas and took them a jar of confituras salted caramel pear butter. Over breakfast on Labor Day, we sat at their table eating toast with pear butter and reminiscing about the pear trees at their old house and all the pear and apple butter they used to make (and we used to eat!). I also have fond memories of preserved figs in sweet syrup that I just loved as a kid. I would extract a whole fig out of the jar and smear it on a slice of buttered toast. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and the back of my palate tingles as I recall the experience.

Not too much later, figs went on sale for $3.99/lb at Whole Foods, which is the best price I’ve seen for figs all season. So I bought about three pounds or so and got to work, using this recipe.

I was very nervous about my first canning effort. I worried that if I didn’t submerge the jars completely in the boiling water, I’d end up poisoning people. None of my pots were deep enough, so I borrowed one from a friend. After processing, the lids started popping, a sound I came to receive with glee and a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve given out a few of the jars to friends (I made something like 10 or 12, I think), but have yet to try the figs myself. I am a little nervous about whether they are safe to eat, but I think I’m also worried that they won’t taste as good as I remember.

I definitely plan to put up more fruit this fall. I really want to do some spiced apples and/or pears. In the spring, I want to try my hand at fresh-picked berries, if the drought allows.

Do you can? If so, what are some of your favorite things to put up?