People sometimes tell me that they think I am an obese person trapped inside a thin person's body. I think this is often intended as a general comment pertaining to the fact that I love to cook and I love to eat, and I can, on certain occasions, consume quite a substantial amount (such occasions usually being marked by either a significant amount of exercise or a significant amount of stress; quadruple portions needed if both factors are present). It isn't, however, entirely accurate, because if people looked closely at this blog, my recipes and the kind of things I eat, they'd realise that actually most of it is pretty healthy.
Sometimes, though, I like to get into the kitchen, put on my apron, and let that obese girl within me cook whatever the hell she likes.
These times usually arise when there's baking to be done for someone else. I enjoy such occasions, because it means I can go crazy with the butter and sugar without worrying that the fruits of my labours will be sitting dangerously on the worktop for days forcing me to gorge myself upon their sumptuous goodness. I don't believe in deprivation, but I do believe that having to single-handedly polish off an entire cake or batch of biscuits/brownies on a weekly basis is probably not very good for you.
I revel in the things that find their way into my kitchen on these occasions. Slightly out-of-place things that probably feel a bit alien there, that don't generally make much of an appearance. Chocolate, for one. I just don't eat much of the stuff; not because it's unhealthy, more because I'm not that bothered about it. I'd much rather have a big slice of fruit pie or cheesecake than anything chocolatey. I have been ridiculed over my ability to make a standard-size Dairy Milk bar last more than a month.
But when there's baking to be done for chocaholic friends, family or neighbours, I do rather enjoy the process of melting voluptuous waves of glossy dark chocolate in a bowl or pan, stirring its viscous form through flour, eggs, sugar, butter and whatever else finds its way in there. There's always a spoon or bowl to lick, and it always makes me wonder why I don't eat more chocolate.
Derivatives of chocolate also apply. Ganache, for example. There's something obscenely decadent about melting chocolate and swirling through delicate silky folds of double cream. I love the magic that takes place as it transforms from runny liquid to thick, smooth, spreadable icing.
Caramel is another thing that my kitchen doesn't see very often. Oddly enough, the last time I made caramel was for a savoury dish: a Vietnamese chicken and sweet potato coconut curry, that features a good dose of light caramel added to the sauce where it lends a gorgeous honeyed sweetness to the spicy coconut overtones. It sounds weird, perhaps, but it truly works. Other than that, apart from the occasional caramel for a tarte tatin, I generally don't find myself indulging in that magic alchemy of sugar, butter and cream very often.
When I do, though, how I enjoy it. There's something mesmerising about the ability of solid sugar to melt and turn golden, bubbling ferociously and combining lusciously with double cream and a little butter to form a glossy, golden mass of sweet honeyed goodness. I always add salt to my caramel, because I just don't see the reason not to: it completely enhances the taste experience, taking something just plain sweet to dizzying heights of mouth-filling richness. If your only experience of caramel has been that horrible sickly runny stuff that pours out of a commercial chocolate bar, you really need to sort your life out. Salted caramel is on another plane altogether. It's like comparing a supermarket frozen pizza with the kind churned out by an Italian pizzeria on a daily basis.
A while ago I was sent some 2012 vintage cacao beans from the wonderful Blyss Chocolate. They're Arriba Nacionale beans, grown in Ecuador, and - unlike many commercially treated cacao beans - their subtle fragrance and aroma is preserved by ensuring they are never subjected to heat over 50C. I've been meaning to try them out in a recipe for months, and while I'm incredibly excited about their apparent potential for use in savoury dishes like a chicken tagine, my initial thought was that they'd be excellent in a brownie.
You may have heard of cacao nibs before - those dark, crunchy, bitter nuggets of pure cacao that have become quite trendy recently and add wonderful texture and flavour to desserts, as well as carrying a host of purported health benefits. Chopping up my cacao beans and removing their beige, papery skin yielded basically the same thing. They have a wonderful flavour, like the darkest dark chocolate, bitter yet fragrant and aromatic, with a delicious crunch. They also have a beautiful slight purple sheen to them.
I'd seen a ridiculously decadent recipe for salted caramel brownies with cacao nibs over on the excellent Poires au Chocolat a while back, and decided that these would be perfect to show off the beautiful cacao beans to their full advantage. You make a brownie mixture by melting a load of delicious things (butter, sugar, golden syrup, chocolate) together in a pan and adding flour and eggs, then into this you swirl a glorious few dollops of salted caramel - made with sugar, cream, butter and, of course, sea salt. A scattering of the cacao nibs, and into the oven they went.
I love the way the cacao nibs look almost like rose petals strewn over the top of the brownie. The chocolate mixture turns rich and gooey, while the caramel and its salty sweetness permeates throughout. In each bite there is a beautiful blank canvas of slightly bitter dark chocolate, through which run veins of sweet and salty caramel. On top of all this gooey sweetness are the bitter crunchy cacao nibs, fragrant and delicious. Every mouthful is different.
I adapted Emma's original recipe a little - I added a bit more flour to give a more solid, chewy texture. I had to use some honey as well as golden syrup, as I ran out of the latter. I used a bit less chocolate, again because I ran out. I also almost halved the amount of sugar in the brownie mixture, because I figured the caramel would be very sweet and they might be a bit sickly otherwise. The result is perfection: the brownie isn't too sweet, it has a slight bitter tang from the 70% dark chocolate, which means the ripples of salted caramel provide a contrasting and delicious burst of sweetness, which also contrasts with the tang of the cacao nibs over the top.
Incidentally, if you don't have cacao beans to scatter over the brownies, use roughly chopped pecan nuts, as I did in another batch - the combination of toffee-scented pecans, caramel and chocolate is just ridiculously good.
I think these are the perfect vehicle to show off the beautiful cacao beans, while also being one of the most gloriously decadent things I've ever made. I have to say I enjoyed every minute of sugary, buttery, sticky, messy activity that these entailed, all the more because it's not very common in my kitchen.
This, my friends, is what happens when the trapped obese girl gets to cook. I think I should let her loose in the kitchen more often.
Salted caramel and cacao nib brownies (makes 2 batches of 20 brownies; easily halved):
(adapted from Poires au Chocolat)
For the caramel:
- 150g white caster sugar
- 100ml double cream
- 20g unsalted butter, in cubes
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
For the brownies:
- 200g unsalted butter
- 200g caster sugar
- 150g light brown sugar
- 50g golden syrup
- 60g honey
- 450g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), broken into pieces
- 8 eggs
- 160g plain flour
- To decorate:
- 4 tbsp cacao nibs or chopped pecan nuts
Put the sugar in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan in an even layer. Heat over a medium-high heat until the edges start to melt. Swirl it around the pan occasionally (don't stir it!) until all the sugar has melted and turned golden. Place back over the heat and cook until it is a golden-bronze colour.
Quickly take the pan off the heat and whisk in half the cream, to stop the caramel cooking (I wear oven gloves to whisk the cream in, as hot caramel can spit and cause very nasty burns). Keep whisking and adding the rest of the cream as you go, then whisk in the butter and salt until smooth. Set aside to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 160C. Grease and line two 20x20cm tins (at least 2.5cm tall) with greaseproof paper or baking parchment.
In another large saucepan (I used a Le Creuset casserole dish), add the butter, both sugars, syrup and honey. Gently heat until it is all melted together, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until it is all evenly melted in. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl then beat into the chocolate, then finally fold in the flour and stir until smooth. Pour this mixture into the two prepared tins.
Divide the caramel between the two tins, spooning it evenly over the top of the chocolate mixture. Use a knife to lightly swirl it through the brownie batter. Scatter the cacao nibs or pecans over the top.
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove and leave to cool in the tin. When cool, slice into twenty squares per tin. Eat as they are, or with some ice cream for dessert. They can be stored in the fridge and eaten cold, and they also freeze very well.