The Brownie-Cake Borderline

February 27th, 2012

brownies sideshot

So I was leafing through the latest issue of Donna Hay and came across this nigh-irresistibly named-and-photographed Caramel Crunch Brownie. A brownie covered with a crunch-filled caramel and a layer of chocolate ganache sounded like something that needed to be coming out of my kitchen posthaste.

Aside: I’ve been making a lot of brownies lately.  A lot. As in running out of chocolate and baking pans more than once. So you’d think I would have hit my brownie brick wall a while back. Credit the beautiful production of DH magazine, as usual.

brownies overhead

Also credit the singleminded fascination that overtakes the obsessive. You know-when you’ve been thinking about something way too much, yet you can’t stop thinking about it, and you start coming up with strange thoughts and theories about the subject at entirely random times.

This is totally an excuse for the rest of this post if it doesn’t make any sense.

For something that’s meant to be a cornerstone of the home baking repertoire, something simple to execute and a foolproof crowd pleaser, I’ve noticed that brownies seem to inspire endless debate over the perfect recipe, almost as much as pie crust. There’s the cakey-fudgy-chewy texture debate. There’s using chocolate vs. using just cocoa. What kind of chocolate to use. Baking in a glass pan versus metal pan. Cutting fat to increase chocolate flavor. All these considerations have led to a wider variance in ingredient proportions and method than one would expect for such a simple dessert.

I  like my brownies to be a simple dessert, which is why the brownie of this post is a bit of a departure for me, and leads to my second brownie observation. There’s quite a number of elaborate brownies out there, which feature any number of additions and toppings and fillings and frostings. To be clear, I’m not against these recipes – far be it from me to presume. They just bring up an interesting question in my mind: when does the line between a brownie and a cake disappear?

When I made this brownie and bit into it, it felt like eating a cake. The thickness of the top two layers, combined with the intensity of the various flavors, almost made me miss out on the bottom layer of brownie. Now, this can be easily solved by having thinner layers in a future iteration, but still, I think, how is this different from a layer cake? I’ve noticed that in these complicated brownie recipes, the brownie portion is usually a more straightforward, utilitarian version, almost like a basic chocolate cake – isn’t that intriguing?

My wholly unscientific and likely under-researched (despite all the dirty pans in my sink) conclusion is that the brownie is really a more flexible instrument than appears at first impression. While the classic concept of the brownie may be a pure and decadent expression of chocolate, there’s a second, equally valid function for the brownie as a component of a larger dessert. Perhaps the sturdy nature of the brownie makes it a better choice than soft chocolate cake as a dessert base. Perhaps, just as the brownie represents glorious indulgence, there’s no such thing as too much gilding of the lily or a brownie with a little too much extra.

Perhaps for all the endless search for the perfect brownie, I think it makes more sense to have a brownie wardrobe: One for when you just want a chocolatey hit, one that’s a good base for experimenting with add-ins, and maybe a couple of fancy ones for when you’re really looking to impress. I’ve spent a great deal of the last few weeks trying to hone in on my ideal brownie recipe, but this latest sidestep has led me to think that I’ve got some sideroads to travel still.

Notes about this particular brownie recipe: I like this brownie. Don’t conclude from my ramblings above that I’m some sort of brownie purist who only takes her brownies straight up and unadulterated. I would make the caramel and ganache layers a little thinner just because I prefer the balance better; when you are filling the pan, you can hold back some of the caramel and ganache for other uses. The caramel crunch is pretty addictive on its own.

sesame crunch layer

When you cook the caramel, you may be tempted to take it very dark, but I would keep it closer to golden, as otherwise the resulting caramel will become a little too stiff and toothsome instead of soft and pleasantly chewy. I really liked the addition of the black sesame, both for the extra crunch and the extra depth of flavor.

I also put in some orange extract; combined with the sesame they nicely balance out the dark (I used a mix of Guittard 64% and 72%) chocolate, but feel free to experiment just like I did; I’m sure you’ll find your own preferred variant, your personal best brownie.

orange sesame brownies trio

Orange Sesame Crunch Brownie

One 8 in x 8 in pan of brownies

Brownie

  • 100 g bittersweet (72%) chocolate, finely chopped
  • 125 g unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (175 g) light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup (100 g) all purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Sesame Caramel Crunch

  • 2 cups (440 g) sugar
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) water
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream
  • 50 g unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups (52 g) puffed rice cereal
  • 2/3 cup black sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons black sesame powder

Orange Chocolate Ganache

  • 300 g bittersweet (72%) chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon Grand Marnier or orange extract
  • For the brownie: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line bottom of an 8" x 8" square pan with parchment paper. Lightly grease inside of pan with butter.
  • Place chocolate and butter in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until melted. Remove from heat.
  • Add in brown sugar and whisk to combine. Add in eggs and whisk to combine.
  • Add in flour, cocoa powder, and salt, and whisk until smooth and combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes until just set. Remove and let cool while making sesame crunch.
  • For the sesame caramel crunch: Place sugar in a medium saucepan. Add water, making sure sugar is completely wet. Heat on medium heat until sugar is fully dissolved.
  • Turn heat to high and cook at a boil for about 8 minutes, until mixture reaches 350 degrees F and turns golden brown. Add in cream and butter - mixture will bubble up violently so be careful. Stir until mixture is well combined.
  • Add in the puffed rice cereal, sesame seeds, and sesame powder, and stir to combine. Pour caramel mixture over brownie and let set for about 30 minutes.
  • For the ganache: Combine chocolate and cream in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate is melted and fully mixed with cream.
  • Add in Grand Marnier and stir to combine. Pour ganache over caramel layer and let set for about 3 hours or until set.

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