Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Spice is Right

If, as I’ve already declared, that chocolate is the key ingredient in my Valentine baking, then there’s simply no question about one item to be baked: brownies.

Growing up, I liked brownies, but I don’t recall having them frequently or considering them my favorite dessert. That all changed a few years ago when I found a couple of excellent brownie recipes, learned that using melted chocolate in place of cocoa made for richer brownies, and decided that underbaking a recipe for that warm, gooey center was the only way to go.

Now when I want a truly satisfying chocolate dessert, loaded with dark chocolate and offering a bliss-inducing mouth-melting succulence, I’ll reach for one of my brownie recipes, a big block of unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate, and whip up a batch.

I’ve got a number of favorite variations: brownies laced with Grand Marnier, brownies speckled with homegrown mint, cappuccino brownies with a dark hint of espresso, fudge bars with a pecan-graham crust, and peanut butter brownies. But one of the simplest, and therefore one I reach for most often, is the Mexican brownie recipe containing more than a dash of sweet-spicy cinnamon.

One of the reasons why I love this recipe so much is that I can melt the chocolate and butter in a sturdy saucepan and finish mixing the batter in the same pan. But one of the other reasons for making this a favorite is its variability. Once you’ve had really good brownies with a hint of spice in them, it sets your mind free to explore other possibilities.

So that’s what I did this evening. Still enjoying my recent Indian cooking kick, I decided to enhance the intense chocolate flavor and cinnamon seasoning with other chai spices: cardamom, ginger, and cloves.

Perhaps that’s not such an outrageous combination any more, since more and more I see chocolate and spices mingled in desserts, truffles, and even tea. And it’s a combination that’s catching on for a very good reason: chocolate and spices are made for each other.

I managed to wait almost an entire half-hour after the pan emerged from the oven before I cut into it to sample a small piece. (That quality control check is critical when you intend to share your baked goods, you know.) It had the perfect texture, moist and even-crumbed with glistening specks of chocolate scattered throughout, and the quantity and variety of spices was just right.

Another time, I might try cinnamon and nutmeg and chili powder or some such exotic blend, but for now, I’ll settle for the chai spices, knowing that they’ll be a big hit with all the lucky Valentine baking recipients.

As long as I don’t eat them all first…

Chai Spice Brownies

The original recipe for “Mexican brownies” came from the August 1996 issue of Bon Appetit (found on Epicurious) and included a cream topping that I’ve never tried. Make the brownie without cinnamon, and you have the perfect blank slate brownie, ready to doll up with other flavors or to enjoy unadorned. Me, I like the spices. Hope you do, too.

4 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/2 c unsalted butter
1 c packed brown sugar
1 T ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c flour
1 c milk chocolate chips (about 6 oz)

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease 8-inch square baking pan.

Melt unsweetened chocolate and butter in heavy large saucepan over low heat, stirring until smooth. Cool 5 minutes. Whisk in sugar, spices, and salt. Blend in eggs, 1 at a time, and then vanilla until batter is smooth. Add flour and stir just until blended. Stir in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing surface. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack. Cut into 16 squares and serve warm, if possible. (Otherwise, store in airtight container.)

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