September 12, 2011

Ginger Spice Brownies

Lately, my mind has been on health. Diabetes has affected both mine and my wife's families, and as we put our twenties behind us, it's clear that we aren't in the best of shape either. In addition, while looking at innovative kid's food on Macheesmo, I followed a link in the comments to another blog about the deplorable conditions of school lunches; more links followed, and soon I was watching the entire first season of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on Youtube. I'd missed the show when it came out initially, because it was advertised as a companion to the cloying, in-your-face inspiration porn that is "Extreme Make-Over: Home Additon." While sometimes I find that "Food Revolution" does get a bit heavy handed with the importance of what they are doing, Jamie Oliver has a message I can get behind. It also helps that he's not this guy:

(Ty Pennington wants you to be really, REALLY inspired)

This surge of motivation is causing changes at home. While we already tended to eat healthy dinners, Wife and I have begun planning her lunches so that she doesn't eat the proccessed food readily available at her employer. We have been cutting out the least healthy parts of breakfast. I've been swinging by the farmer's market to get fresher, more inspiring produce. So for my first cooking blog in two years, all this inspiration has led me to make.......Brownies?

Yes and no. I'm serious when I say that I have been fired up about making healthier, more natural foods. I made the brownies less as a piece of that inspiration, and more to get them out of the way.

See, I have these co-workers (whom I'll just call Happy and Mouse) who constitute my nerd posse. We share comic books, play Dungeons and Dragons, and have a litany of inside jokes. Mouse, especially, helps make work feel like recess. During the semester break at the university where we work, our D&D group began meeting in the morning at Mouse's house. Unfortunately, a third nerd who was supposed to be my ride lost her character while moving, and I was in a pickle. I have a deep hatred of the local bus system, which can barely muster up hourly routes and doesn't run past seven at night. I could be stuck in a transit nightmare, or I could convince Mouse that gaming at my house would be better. She would have to bike home, which was just as inconvenient for her as the bus system was to me. Fortunately, one of the things I have learned working with her is that she enjoys her sweets. I used a bribe. I told her I would make her whatever she wanted.

"Ginger Brownies." It threw me for a loop. I had never heard of or considered putting ginger in a brownie before. Still, it didn't sound that bad. I told her I would get right on it. Then a couple of weeks passed. The brownies were still in the conceptual stage heading into this weekend, and I knew that they needed to be dealt with before I could commit myself fully to eating better.

Baking isn't my strong suit in the kitchen, and so I immediately went to Google for a recipe, but apparently the ginger + brownie equation wasn't a popular one. I did find one recipe, from a blog whose writer decided to go all "Julie and Julia" on a Martha Stewart cookie collection, but she described the end result as a "mysteriously bad, possibly unedited or unproofread recipe." Not the sort of thing you want to make a friend as a reward. In the end, I decided to go with a regular brownie recipe, and just adjust the seasoning myself.

adapted from Nestle's "Chewy Cocoa Brownies"
Makes 12 "real-sized" brownies, but the other recipe claims it made 24.

Once I decided to go with a regular recipe, I went from too few options to too many. In the end, though, I chose to eschew the endless bounty of the internet and stick with the recipe written on the side of my cocoa powder.

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 sticks of butter, melted
2 Tbs. water

I mixed the starting ingredients together in a mixing bowl, and preheated my oven to 350 like the recipe told me to. I also greased up my trusty 13x9. I was tempted to begin my improvising already, and replace the water with rum, but the look Wife gave me made it clear: this was not rum for cooking.

(my tiny workstation)

2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract

The next two ingredients were supposed to be mixed right in with the butter-sugar combo, and that's what I did, but not without some hesitation. I looked in my fridge, and alas-medium eggs. After fretting a bunch and looking for egg conversion charts on the web, I put them in at the same quantity. What resulted was a shiny yellow mix, ready for some chocolate to join the party.

(the wet ingredients)
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup baking cocoa
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cloves

(the smell of the spices was faint, but noticable)
I mixed the dry ingrediens together with a fork in a tupperware, because Son recently broke our best mixing bowl. This is where I began to put my stamp on the recipe. Ginger, cinnamon, and cloves went in alongside the traditional cocoa powder. I used the "bad Martha" recipe to get an idea of how much ginger and clove one might use, since the review chastised texture more than taste, and adjsted to my own sensibilities. I decided that I wanted cinnamon to be right about in the middle of those two flavors, though it wasn't in any of the recipes I had seen. It just felt right. It was time to combine the dry and wet ingredients.

As soon as I started stirring, I began to doubt my recipe. The mix was as thick as melted taffy, and my arm was getting quite the workout from stirring. I had picked Nestle's recipe because I imagined that most recipes on product labels were the results of dedicated Midwestern housewives, and suddenly I had lost faith in the Midwest. It looked good. It smelled good. But it was just so dense.

(Stuck to the bowl like pudding)
(tamed and in the pan)

For the record, the recipe I cribbed also had the ubiquitous "nuts, optional" on the list, and I had some pretty good looking macadamias in the pantry, but whenever we find cookies at work, Mouse would exclaim dismay at those which had nuts in them, and these were her bribe, not mine. The macadamias will have to find a home in something else.

So that was it, the basic brownie with a bit of ginger Not that I was done. When I first intended to make the "bad Martha" recipe, I misread it and ended up buying candied ginger. When trying to determine how I could best integrate this extra ingredient, one thing stood out in my mind:


I put my brownies in to bake, cleared my small kitchen of all baking apparatus to make chilli for dinner, and busted out my mixer as soon as Wife and I had eaten and the brownies were cooling.

enough to coat all twelve brownies, with a little extra

4 T. butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup candied ginger, finely diced

I threw everything in a bowl, set the beaters to cream, and watched as the ginger and cinnamon became integrated into a basic sour cream frosting recipe. All that was left was to add:

2 cups confectioner's sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar

Blend until the brown sugar breaks down into the frosting, and the whole thing takes on a nice, rich tan color of sorts.

(you can't really tell, but the frosting is freckled)

So how did it all turn out? I have to say, it's a mixed bag. The brownies themselves were great, just the classic, chocolatey, perfectly textured (neither too dense or too cakey) treat, but with a subtle hint of the spices I had added. It just gave the brownies.................swagger.

At the same time, the frosting was an exciting surprise. If you haven't had it, candied ginger is very sweet, but still has the spice that makes fresh ginger so much more interesting than the powdered stuff. It was a perfect complement to sour cream frosting. As I licked spoons and fingers, I envisioned all the great things I could do with it, from giving carrot cake a little extra pizzazz to making cupcakes with my kids.

The only problem came with the combination. Wife tried to warn me, but I was obsessed with my plan to integrate candied ginger into this recipe. I smeared on the frosting, and while everyone loved the flavor, roughly half of the people (including Mouse) found the dessert too sweet. The data pool is relatively small, but one thing I noticed is that only girls were overwhelmed by the amount of sugar, where as the two boys and one girl had no issue with the combination.

So, in conclusion, I would definitely make these again. While the frosting worked as the perfect showcase for both the flavors I was trying to harness and the edible flowers I needed to use up, however, I would either seperate it from the brownie recipe to be used in other applications or serve it as a side. Everything here was too good to ruin it by overwhelming my audience. I hope you give some or all of this recipe a try and let me know what you think!

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