Monday, 19 September 2011

Courgette, chocolate and cardamom brownies

I'm generally quite good at suppressing the need for a chocolate biscuit to go with my cup of tea. To me, a cup of tea is a highly important entity in itself, not merely the support act for the headlining baked good. It's why I'm always slightly wary of accepting a proffered cup of tea - unless I know I'll be able to drink it slowly, in a civilised fashion, sipping it daintily at first so as not to scorch my tongue, then proceeding to take larger, though still restrained and relaxed, gulps, all the while able to put my mug down and take a nice deep breath in between mouthfuls, I won't accept. It's why I would never have a cup of tea when sailing on HMS Tracker during my time in the Oxford University Royal Naval Unit. 

OK, so the fact that we had to drink inferior tea with milk that had previously been in the freezer, out of questionably clean mugs with a piece of clingfilm over the top to stop the tea spilling everywhere at sea didn't really whet my appetite for a brew, but the main reason was that I knew I wouldn't be able to give it the attention it deserved. 

It's why if I know an appointment is going to last only ten minutes, I'm not going to say yes to the beverage proffered politely by the person I'm meeting - by the time we're finished, the tea would have just about cooled down to drinking point, and I'd have to leave without drinking it. It's why if I'm told "we'll have a cup of tea, and then we'll [insert strenuous and time-consuming task here] as soon as we're finished", I'm not going to indulge in said cup of tea, because I know that everyone else will down it like a glass of water and start working, while I look like a slacker because I want to sit there for a while and concentrate on the sheer joy that is a cup of tea.

A good cup of tea should be savoured as it is, with no time limit, with no other tasks to distract from its relaxation-giving properties - except perhaps reading a magazine or, in my case, writing a blog post. For me, reaching for the Yorkshire Tea tin doesn't automatically necessitate a reach for the biscuit or chocolate tin. I treat tea almost as a meal in itself; it can be remarkably satisfying if you have a growling stomach, sating the appetite for half an hour or so and allowing you to get through the long gap between lunch and dinner without snacking. 

Yet having said all this, sometimes, just occasionally, I like to have some form of baked good with my cup of tea. Usually because it's been a very long afternoon, lunch was hours ago and dinner is hours away and I need an energy boost. Maybe because I'm planning to go to the gym after said cup of tea, and know I won't be fully productive without a little bit of food to line my stomach. Whatever the reason, I like to have something to hand that I can nibble on should this need arise.

To this end, I'm always looking for vaguely healthy recipes for baked goods that I can justify eating halfway through the afternoon. Firstly, I just don't have the metabolism to be able to eat cake every day. Secondly, it's well-known that eating sugary things in the afternoon gives you that sought-after energy boost, but it's swiftly followed by a sugar low that leaves you feeling sluggish and tired. Not ideal unless you're able to have a little nap. In an ideal world, I would eat the cake and then have a nap. 

I love naps. I'm lucky in that I'm one of those people who is able to nap and then wake up able to carry on with the day, rather than one of those people who either lie down for a nap and wake up six hours later, or lie down for a nap and then wake up feeling even more tired than they were before and consequently unable to do anything at all except scowl at the world. I fully credit the role of naps in enabling me to get a First from Oxford. For the two months or so that I spent in a hellish pit of despair revising for my Finals, naps were pivotal in preventing me from hurling myself off a dreaming spire, textbooks in hand. 

This is one of the many reasons why I'm afraid of entering the world of work. The Real World. Exiting the Oxford Bubble. I just don't think, in any normal job, my boss would take too kindly to me heading off for a little snooze after lunch. This I see as a real problem with working life. I suspect I'm not the only person in the world who is immeasurably more productive if they have a short power nap after lunch. It seems ridiculous that employers don't offer beds where employees can have a short snooze if they so wish, to enable them to return to work at their full potential, rather than half asleep. Millions of pounds are lost every year due to the inability of employees to nap; I'm sure of it. 

So, for those days when I'm not able to curl up on my bed and doze away mid-afternoon, there are these courgette, chocolate and cardamom brownies.

I normally get a bit annoyed at the notion of "healthy" cake recipes. I spend a lot of time at the moment flicking through the foodgawker app on my iPhone - it shows you a gorgeous gallery of beautiful food photos from bloggers all over the world, with a short blurb under each to tell you what the recipe is. I'm inevitably sucked in by delicious-looking cakes that purport to be "healthy", only to find that the reason they've declared themselves so is because they contain fruit. There's still the oodles of butter/cream, sugar and white flour that constitute a normal cake, but apparently the inclusion of some apples or peaches negates this. Or, another common one, the recipe just uses oil instead of butter. Perhaps a little less high in saturated fat - but it's still FAT, people. Disappointed, I move on, declining to add them to my 'Favourites' (naturally, the ultimate rebuff for any recipe writer).

It's the same when I read cake books that include recipes involving vegetables, and then automatically declare them to be "healthy". Yes, a beetroot chocolate cake might be marginally healthier than a normal chocolate cake because of the inclusion of veg, but it's still not exactly healthy. Ditto carrot cake - there's enough oil in a slice of that to deep-fry a portion of chips. To me, a healthy cake is one that has less butter, sugar and white flour in it than your average cake. If it has fruit or veg too, even better, but don't show me a piece of carrot cake and suggest it's almost as good for you as eating some carrots.

So when I found this "healthy" brownie recipe on foodgawker, I was delighted. Not only is it fat-free, it also contains lots of veg and you have the option of using wholemeal or spelt flour. Admittedly it still has a fair bit of sugar in it, but you can't have everything. As chocolate cakes go, this is probably as nutritious as you can get. You could think about replacing the sugar with a healthier alternative, like honey or agave nectar. I'm not even sure the recipe needs the full amount, but I've listed it below for people with more of a sweet tooth - go ahead and adapt away if you'd like.

I admit, I was sceptical. I've read recipes for courgette and chocolate cakes before, and everyone is always adamant that they're delicious, but I just couldn't imagine how courgette would taste in cake form. It shouldn't sound that weird, really - it's only the same principle as carrot cake, but with the addition of chocolate. As the vegetable cooks, its natural sugars bolster the sweetness in the cake and its juices add a lovely moisture to the texture. Courgette is renowned for being quite watery, and this results in the most incredible gooey, delicious texture when it's baked into cake or bread.

These are, quite honestly, amazing. The texture is not as dense and fudgy as a full-on, buttery, sugary chocolate brownie, but it still has a gooey centre where the chocolate chips all melt together. The rest is light and cakey. The courgette is completely undetectable in flavour; you can see tiny green flecks in the cake, but they're the only indication of its presence. Instead, it contributes a delicious moistness to the brownie and a slight sweetness that's heightened by dark brown sugar and chocolate chips. This recipe really is ingenious; you'd never guess there was no fat in it, but a clever combination of egg and apple purée binds the mixture together without the need for butter or oil.

The cardamom and pistachio flavouring lifts this basic chocolate goodness to another level. I can't get enough of the pairing of chocolate and cardamom, ever since I first coupled the two in a mousse with coffee. The spice, with its citrus notes, lightens the rich dark flavour of the chocolate, and gives an incredibly moreish flavour to the brownie. The pistachios on top just add a delicious crunch and a deep, savoury nutty flavour. 

I'd urge you to try this recipe. You'll never guess it's ever-so-slightly good for you, and I'd go so far as to say I almost prefer it to a normal brownie, because it has that beautiful contrast between airy, light cake and dense chocolate pockets where the chocolate chips melt into the batter. A couple of squares with a cup of tea are about as close to chocolate heaven as I have ever been. However, these are also delicious warm from the oven with some good vanilla ice cream for dessert. They're even better if you leave them for a couple of days, because they become even more moist and gooey in the centre.

Yet as with all 'healthy' baked goods, there is a problem - the overwhelming temptation to eat the entire tin because it's 'good for you'. A word of caution: yes, these are vaguely healthy, but probably not if you eat them all at once.

"Healthy" cakes - a great idea, or impossible and against the spirit of cake? What do you think? Do you have any healthy cake recipes you're particularly fond of?

Courgette, chocolate and cardamom brownies (makes 16-20 pieces):

2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
90g light muscovado sugar
90g dark muscovado sugar
1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced, simmered with a little water to make a thick purée
150g spelt flour
45g unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
8-10 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed to a powder in a pestle and mortar
2 large courgettes, grated
100g dark chocolate chips
A large handful of pistachios, roughly chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 175C. Grease and line a 20x20cm baking tin, or brownie tin, with baking parchment.

Whisk together the eggs, vanilla, salt, sugar and apple purée. Sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon and ground cardamom and mix with a large spoon to combine.

Fold in the grated courgettes and chocolate chips so they're mixed evenly into the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and scatter over the pistachios. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the brownie has set and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares to serve.

(Adapted from food + words, here)

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  1. I just recently found out you can use zuccini for sweet stuff as well.So thank you for this yummy looking recepie;)

  2. Generally I think if you're going to indulge you should just go the whole hog, but these do sound pretty interesting. I made beetroot brownies a little while back and they were beautifully moist (although with an ever so slight aftertaste of beetroot which I wasn't sure about). Your courgette version looks beautiful, and I guess there is something to be said for reducing the calories in brownies :-)

  3. Thelittleloaf - I totally agree - generally I'd much rather eat healthily most of the time and then indulge in a proper piece of pie or brownie rather than trying to make insipid lower-calorie versions. But these really are amazing, and I tried them more out of curiosity (courgette and chocolate? really?) than anything else. I won't pretend they're the same as traditional brownies, but certainly far more delicious than you'd expect given their health credentials!

  4. Lovely ingredients Elly! I really enjoy the combination of chocolate and zucchini. The cardamom is a wonderful addition (and pistachio is welcome in any recipe as far as I'm concerned!). These do sound heavenly... I don't tolerate sweets very well mid-day either - (except for a square or two of 75% cocoa chocolate :) - these brownie delights would be an evening treat.... yum!

  5. Hello Elly! I just found your blog by clicking on this yummy looking photo on 'Pinterest', honestly, you have made my week! Wonderful to find such a vibrant UK food blogger, mixing iconic traditional ingredients with such delicate approaches, I aspire to cook such wonderful food!

    I have had a lovely evening reading through your recipes, I think this will be the first one I try, as I have a zeppelin of a courgette who i'm sure would love to become a delicious brownie!

    Looking forward to your next post!


  6. Beautiful! I found your photo on foodgawker and was excited to see that you used healthier sweeteners and flour along with the zucchini. I could go for a piece right now!

  7. Gorgeous! Absolutely stunning! I just HAVE to try that recipe.

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments, I'm so glad this recipe seems to have been a success!

  9. I agree with your conclusions and looking forward to your coming updates. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Courgette brownie? Now I'm curious.
    But have to wait until June before we start harvesting courgettes again...


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