BROWNIEPALOOZA AND THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS
My eyes snap open as the remnants of dreams evaporate like dust in the darkness. I am wide awake much too early and as I lie in the warmth of my bed in the obscurity I am suddenly aware of the eerie calm and I realize how this city sleeps alongside of us, still snuggled up in a star-studded haze at six a.m. No trucks rumble through the streets, no gaggles of teens chattering like magpies clatter across the cobblestones on their way to school, no voyagers scurry across the square on their way to the train station. All the city seems to be asleep. Or else tiptoeing on velvet slippers so as not to wake my still slumbering men.
And I smile to myself as I realize that we are a family again, all tidily tucked up asleep under one roof, the four of us, and it comforts me. Simon arrived home yesterday from New Orleans, tall and lanky, face brushed by sideburns, with nothing more than a backpack strapped to his twenty-year-old back for his 3-week stay. Nonchalant and casual as always, he gives us each a hug, wrestles with Marty until his embarrassment and the sudden blush of redness on his cheeks dissipate, then he slides right into the household as if he has never left. Clem, on the other hand, shows an excitement that he rarely allows to bubble to the surface and he tumbles out of his bedroom office to giddily greet his little brother, proffering his hand and prattling on and on a mile a minute, verily gushing over his sibling, his face glowing with happiness. Stranger things have yet to be seen.
But as Simon collapsed into bed and passed out from exhaustion from the long journey, the house was all a-bustle with activity. Friends we haven’t seen for two years came for lunch, arriving a short time after Simon disappeared into his bedroom. Their own son, one of Simon’s closest friends, trailed in after them, even taller, lankier and more nonchalant than ours. We began catching up over bowls of olives, marinated artichokes and spicy accras as poor Léo, all alone without Simon, stared off into the distance, wondering why he had bothered coming. But miracles do happen, and it soon came out that he, like Clem, was now studying architecture, so instead of heading back home he was speedily welcomed into the conclave of young dudes in the back room, architectural students all. Finding common ground, they chattered and laughed happily among themselves.
And thanks to JP, lunch was a success. Normally, for some strange reason, some uncontrollable urge takes over whenever I know that guests are coming for a meal. I comb through cookbooks and invariably put together an impossible menu comprised solely of dishes that I have never made before, all time-consuming and last minute. I, of course, end up panicking, rushing and ruining everything. And twist myself into a bad mood on top of it all. This time, JP and I sat down ahead of time and planned the menu together from beginning to end. No home-baked bread, no first course, just a fabulous, flavorful oven-baked chicken that was placed in a marinade the night before and only had to be breaded and tossed into the oven with an armful of fingerling potatoes right before the guests arrived. Dessert was my luscious Lemon Charlotte, also prepared a day or two ahead of time. JP ran out first thing Sunday morning (as I did the final leg of house clean up) and bought bakery bread and an array of nibblies for l’apératif. And wine. Smooth sailing, indeed.
Rarely has our home been so alive! The four “grown ups” in the diningroom, the four architecture students in the kitchen; the food was delicious and abundant, enough for everyone to enjoy this hearty lunch. The noise of talking rose above the clatter of knives and forks, laughter resonated from room to room. At one point Raymond, our friend, intrigued by the animated conversation, the vivacity coming from the kitchen, sidled up to the doorway, finger pressed to his lips, to listen in, wondering that his son could so easily slide into the bonhomie of the group. He soon disappeared completely only to be discovered a few minutes later with the guys, hobnobbing congenially with the young dudes. I pulled out the tray of Lemon Charlottes from the refrigerator amid the brouhaha, the stacks of plates, empty serving dishes and restless bodies and began divvying out the goods to a roomful of ooohs and ahhhs. And dessert was served and savored. And in no time at all, the young men hustled back to the computer room (overheated and wreaking of young men, if I may say so) leaving the adults alone in a quiet space and me facing an impressive amount of cleaning up to do.
And where do these brownies fit in? Rich and decadent, I have been forgoing baking brownies since Simon went away as husband and I have been avoiding these calorie-laden goodies and Clem’s friends clamor for my macarons. But somehow or other I’ve been bitten by a peculiar craving and have pulled my cookbook of Brownies by Linda Burum off the shelf and have gone on a Browniepalooza. And no ordinary brownies will do, no siree! I began by baking Amaretto-infused Amaretti Brownies made special by the addition of ground Italian amaretti cookies and folding in light and airy whipped egg whites, which lend a meltingly smooth, ethereal quality to a super moist, chocolate-rich confection. Adult indeed; this is as comforting as it gets! Elegant and sophisticated, the Amaretti Brownies with Amaretto would feel right at home at any dinner party. I then selected another amazing Brownie, a dense, chewy espresso and Amaretto brownie with a rum and Amaretto-spiked ricotta cheesecake swirl.
Absolutely fabulous, this crowd pleaser pleased them all! I asked the young dudes to taste and give me their honest opinions before posting on my blog. The pan rapidly disappeared only to turn up, half empty, in the back bedroom cum office where they gather. Fingers were licked, smiles spread across young faces and the brownies were pronounced absolutely delicious. I grabbed the pan and scarpered with whatever was left to serve with coffee after lunch. Which I did. Flavorful and elegant yet scrumptious and satisfying, these brownies are a riot of flavors, the heady scent of rum and Amaretto, the kiss of cinnamon, chocolate touched by the earthiness of coffee, the sweet lightness of ricotta cheese, all melding together into a mellow yet astonishing luxuriously fragrant brownie.
As all good times must come to an end, this party finally did as well. And as I find myself standing before a sinkful of dishes, humming and smiling to myself, I am thankful for the family and the friends that I have, and I find that I don’t mind the washing up as I usually do. My frazzled, bleary son straggles into the kitchen and plops down beside me in a jet-lagged haze and starts to chat and as we nibble on the last chunks of brownie sitting among the crumbs on the plate I find that life can actually turn out to be pretty darn good.
The good news is: our first From Plate to Page Workshop is sold out. The other good news is that you can already register your interest for the second From Plate to Page Workshop provisionally scheduled for Autumn 2011 in Italy. We are blown away by the excitement and interest this workshop has generated and thank you all for your support!
I will be hosting Magazine Monday on November 15 for Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice and I am very excited! To participate, you simply need to find a recipe in one of your many magazines you have spread around the house, cook or bake that recipe and then post it on your blog. Send an e-mail to either me or Ivonne (see how to here) with your name, blog name and blog url, the url of the link to your Magazine Mondays post, the title of the recipe and the magazine the recipe is from before November 15, the day I will be posting the round up!
ESPRESSO BROWNIES with SPIKED RICOTTA SWIRL
Adapted from Brownies by Linda Burum
Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling:
1 cup (250 g) ricotta cheese
2 tsps rum *
1 tsp Amaretto or brandy *
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
1/3 cup (65 g) sugar
1 large egg
4 tsps cornstarch
* the alcohol may be replaced with 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ to 1 tsp almond extract to taste.
Place the ricotta in a wire strainer over a bowl and allow to drain for one hour. Skipping this step may add that extra liquid to the mix and create a soggy brownie.
Remove the ricotta from the strainer and place in a medium bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Beat with an electric mixer only until smooth. Don’t worry if there remain “crumbs” of ricotta.
Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling
5 oz (150 g) good quality semisweet chocolate (I used a dark, slightly bitter dessert chocolate 70%)
6 Tbs (90 g) unsalted butter
¾ cup (95 g) flour, spooned lightly in a measuring cup and leveled
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup (135 g) sugar
2 tsps Amaretto or brandy *
2 tsps dry instant espresso powder
* the alcohol may be replaced by 1 tsp almond extract
Once the ricotta has drained for one hour and the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta Filling has been prepared, preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter an 8-inch (21-cm) square brownie pan.
Cut the butter into about 4 large chunks and coarsely chop the chocolate. Place the butter and chocolate in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Place the pan over very low heat and, stirring, melt the two together until the chocolate is almost completely melted. Remove from the heat and continue to stir the mixture vigorously until completely melted, only returning the pan briefly to the heat if the remaining chocolate doesn’t melt. The mixture should be completely smooth and creamy. Allow to cool.
Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and whisk or stir to combine.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer until light and thickened. Add the vanilla and sugar and beat for 2 minutes, then beat in the Amaretto and espresso powder. Beat in the melted chocolate-butter mixture gradually and then finally beat in the dry ingredients.
Pour 2/3 of the Espresso Brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. Pour the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta mixture evenly over the Espresso Brownie batter in the pan. Pour the remaining Espresso Brownie mixture over the Rum-Amaretto Ricotta mixture and very gently and carefully try and spread it out just so it isn’t clumped up. The brownie mixture is much thicker and firmer than the ricotta mixture so be gentle so as not to mix the two together. Now marble the brownies by cutting through the batter with a sharp knife quickly from side to side adding a large zig-zag in the other direction.
Bake the brownies for about 35 minutes or until puffed (the top may be a little cracked in places) and just set. A tester inserted halfway between the center and the edge will come out clean. Allow to cool on a cooling rack for 2 hours then cover with aluminum foil and allow to set ideally overnight or at least for several hours to allow the flavors to mellow.