According to the internet, the East Coast of the US is about to be swathed in an apocalyptic amount of snow. Meanwhile, over here, it's just miserably gray, as it always always always is this time of year. I can't remember the last time I saw the sun. Hugo, who is really into SAAHN! and MOOOON! and DAHK! and LIGHT! and COWDS! is very confused.
Luckily, I have just the thing for all you over there and all of you over here to make while the winds howl and the sun remains stubbornly behind that impenetrable bank of clouds: Brownies. Bittersweet ones. With SALTED PEANUT BUTTER FROSTING. (If you can, imagine me yelling those last four words, getting increasingly louder with each word.)
For the past five years, I've been loyal to one single brownie recipe: Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies. They're easy, they're fudgy, you don't need a single special ingredient and everyone who eats them falls instantly in love with them. Why, even my husband now knows how to make them. (This, my friends, is saying a lot. Ahem, Mister Instant Mashed Potatoes, ahem.) I was pretty happy with my one single brownie recipe! It felt pretty good to have found The One. After all, at least on the brownie front, I didn't have to do any more looking.
But. Then. Along came Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt and her beautiful, vulnerable, touching first cookbook called Date Night In (more on that in a second). In one flip of a page, her recipe for bittersweet brownies with a salted peanut butter frosting very unceremoniously kicked those sweet little cocoa brownies right off the ledge. Pow!
Ashley used to have her own custom cake company, and before that she learned the tricks of the trade at Spago, working under pastry chef legend Sherry Yard, so when it comes to sweets, she's a voice of authority. In Ashley's brownie recipe, you build layers of rich flavor by first browning the butter and then using a combination of chocolate and cocoa. She also gives you tips on how to get the fudgiest brownie possible (just use 2 eggs instead of 3) and that lovely crackly top, but the salted peanut butter frosting is really the, uh, icing on the cake, the cherry on top, the gilding of the lily. It's the whole raison d'être of these brownies (though they are pretty fabulous on their own, too).
You whip peanut butter, butter and confectioners' sugar together, beating them together at high speed until the mixture gets lighter and lighter, and then spread great swoops of it onto the cooled brownies. Ashley has you sprinkle the pan with flaked salt at the end, but I happened to have some of this fancy French butter with salt crystals hanging around and used that in the frosting instead, eschewing the salt sprinkling at the end.
But whatever path you take, definitely include salt. It's an essential finishing touch that keeps all the flavors together, that cuts the richness, that makes you sit up and take notice. It's no coincidence that Ashley's blog is called Not Without Salt. These aren't just any old brownies, no sirree. These are paradigm-breakers.
As for Ashley's book, which is a collection of seasonal menus (from cocktails to dessert) that she's made for a weekly date night at home with her husband Gabe, it really is so lovely. Each menu is preceded by a little story she tells about her marriage and its natural ups and downs. With busy jobs, three children, and 10 years of marriage under their belts, several years ago Ashley and her husband found themselves drifting apart. Determined not to slide into a deeper hole, they started going on dates at home every week. Gabe would mix cocktails and Ashley would create a restaurant-worthy menu just for the two of them, no kids allowed. Through this very purposeful, conscious way of approaching their marriage and their need to connect again, they created a whole new level of commitment to each other. It is, to say the least, inspiring.
Also mouthwatering, because Ashley really knows food. A few of her menus are ambitious (for a tired working mother, at least), but that's sort of the point. It's her way of showing her husband her love and commitment and she expects no less from her readers. And there are plenty of menus that are more straightforward. I've already earmarked the recipes for their perfect burger, the French 75 cocktail, salted toffee popcorn, a pickled vegetable salad and salmon cakes with chiles and fresh herbs. (Plus, thrillingly, Ashley includes a recipe for pickled peppers in the style of Mama Lil's, which Molly sent me for Christmas once and which I haven't stopped thinking of since!)
Now all I have to do is get my husband to mix me a cocktail...
Ashley Rodriguez's Bittersweet Brownies with Salted Peanut Butter Frosting
Adapted from Date Night In
Makes 16 square brownies
Note: The original recipe calls for unsweetened chocolate, which isn't available in Germany. Instead I substituted an equal amount of 70% chocolate and then reduced the sugar from 300 grams to 175 grams. I was thrilled with the result, especially paired with the sweet-salty frosting. Depending on your taste, though, if you go this route, you may want to up the sugar amount to 200 grams.
3/4 cup (170 grams) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
3 ounces (90 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (40 grams) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons (85 grams) butter with salt flakes, at room temperature
3/4 cup (100 grams) smooth peanut butter
1/3 cup (40 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1. For the brownies: Preheat the oven to 325 F (160 C) degrees. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Line the pan with parchment paper so that a couple of inches hang over the edge. Then grease the parchment.
2. Place the butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium-high heat. Allow the butter to cook until the milk solids bubble up and then settle into the pan and caramelize. Swirl the butter in the pan in order to see the color of the little bits on the bottom. As soon as the milk solids are golden and the butter smells nutty, about 3 to 5 minutes, remove the pan from the heat.
3. Pour the browned butter into a medium bowl and add the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 1 minute to melt, and then whisk together. Whisk in the sugar and vanilla while the butter mixture is still warm. Stir in the eggs, and salt until well blended. Sift in the cocoa powder and flour. Fold the ingredients together until just combined using a spatula.
4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle pulls out clean. Let cool to room temperature.
5. For the frosting: With an electric mixer, whip together the butter, peanut butter, and confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Continue to mix until everything is well combined and the frosting has lightened in color. Frost the cooled brownies, cut into squares and serve. Brownies can be made 1 to 3 days in advance. The frosting can be made up to 1 week in advance.