SALTY AND SWEET
When I was about eight or ten years old, my father bought an ice cream maker. Revelation! You see, we were an ice cream family: our freezer was always well stocked with gallon containers of everyone’s favorites, an array of flavors to suit each one of us, chocolate, coffee, Neapolitan (I would only eat the chocolate and vanilla stripes, leaving the strawberry for my brother) and Checkerboard. Out would come the tub of whipped topping, the jars of chocolate and berry sauces, the bottles of colored sprinkles and we’d go to town. The sky was the limit: as our parents were each as ice cream nutty as we kids were, there were no rules as to when or how much; ice cream, for all intents and purposes, was in our blood.
Ice cream sandwiches and ice cream on a stick were choice after-school snacks and how many times a week would dad pile us all in the car for a trip to Dairy Queen for a cone or a cup? The familiar tinkling music of the beloved ice cream truck every summer afternoon had an almost spontaneous effect and we would drop whatever we were up to and dash out into the street, coins clutched in expectant, eager hands. Maybe the Florida sunshine and heat created this yearning, this overwhelming need for ice cream, but I don’t think so. My grandmother up in her northern home, half the year under snow, practically lived on ice cream, even more so as she entered her 70’s and 80’s, a habit (or a diet) her daughter, my mother, has quickly taken on as well. So snow and ice or searing heat and beaches makes no difference where our family is concerned, ice cream is simply our way of life, one of our basic food groups.
So when dad brought home that old-fashioned hand-crank ice cream machine we were ecstatic! It was adoration at first sight, love at first bite. I have only vague memories of us sitting on the driveway in front of the house, churning ice cream. I don’t remember much about the ice cream itself; there may have been vanilla and peach, possibly strawberry. But I do remember the chocolate ice cream that came out of that maker. The flavor haunts me to this day, and, like a Pavlovian reflex, just pulling up the memory makes my mouth water. Maybe it was the rock salt that we had to pack around the central canister, but the chocolate ice cream, light and icy, had a salty undertone that I simply loved! I had always been a kid intrigued by unusual flavors and flavor combinations, eating peanut butter and salami sandwiches, for example, so the hint of salt in the chocolate ice cream was the best thing that I’d ever tasted!
So, well before the trend of salt and chocolate, I was into it. The clashing sensation amazed me and still does to this day. Sweet and savory is my favorite way to go with meat dishes, but in a dessert it is utterly delectable and astounding. I find it rather intellectual, the unexpected discord, which somehow goes so perfectly together, creating a balance of salty and sweet that makes the tastebuds tingle and the palate come alive. Think chocolate-covered pretzels and potato chips…
My son is now home, as you well know, and he hovers around me asking for baked goods, snacks to feed his sweet tooth and man-sized appetite, yet he always demands, nay, requires, the same things over and over again. At the top of the list are brownies, simple, cakey rather than dense, fluffy rather than gooey, chocolate and plain with only a handful or two of chopped pecans to alleviate the usual, adding just a bit of earthy crunch to an otherwise, well, plain chocolate cake. I succeeded in sneaking in a splash or three of Cointreau on top of the orange-infused baking chocolate in the last batch and the occasional addition of Amaretto doesn’t illicit so much as a raised eyebrow, so this time I thought that I would be safe in using a large quantity of salted butter to add that subtle salty undertone. The salty flavor is subtle indeed, barely perceptible, rather leaving a beautiful, indescribable lingering bouquet in the mouth, begging for more. This is the ideal recipe for those craving a brownie or two yet want something cakier to assuage the brownie hankering without the guilt – my men gobble them up for breakfast. Soon, I’ll post a more adult version of this one, the dense, gooey, decadent brownie bite, but for now I leave you with a lighter, more delicate cupcake version of the brownie.
LIGHT & FLUFFY BROWNIE CUPCAKES
From Brownies by Linda Burum with a salty twist
Makes 48 mini cupcakes
3.5 ounces (100 g) semisweet chocolate
0.7 ounces (20 g) unsweetened chocolate *
16 Tbs (1 cup/225 g) salted butter, softened
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups (266 g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup (140 g) flour
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
* You can use a total of 4 ounces (120 g) semisweet chocolate if you prefer
Slowly melt the butter and chopped chocolate together in a bain marie or in a heatproof bowl over gently simmering water, stirring to keep it from burning. Remove from the heat when the chocolate is almost but not quite completely melted; continue stirring until completely melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line 48 mini muffin/cupcake molds with paper cups (mine measure just under 2 inches/5 cm at the wide open end).
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until combined and smooth. Whisk in the melted chocolate and butter until very smooth. Stir in the flour and then the chopped nuts, fold and mixing until well blended and smooth.
If you like your brownies or chocolate cupcakes saltier, simply add pinches of fleur de sel or table salt to taste.
Using a spoon, carefully drop tablespoons of the batter in each paper cup, filling each about ¾ the way up. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until puffed up and just set in the center. Remove the muffin trays to a cooling rack and carefully pop each muffin out of the mold. Allow to cool on cooling racks.
You can top these bites with a dollop of your favorite buttercream frosting, ganache or freshly whipped, barely sweetened cream. Or eat just as they are with a mug of coffee or a tall glass of cold milk.