3.21.2013

In Like a Lion...


Today is the first day of Spring. I love Spring. Who doesn't? What's not to love about Spring? But, in all honesty, if you stuck an ice pick at my temple and forced me to pick my favorite season, I'd have to come clean and say that Spring is not my absolute favorite season of all the glorious seasons. But I do love it.

What I love most about Spring, other than the extraordinary, floral scent in the air, the flowers blooming and making the landscape a rainbow of beautiful colors, the longer days, being able to show off a little skin again, the new produce at the market, getting back into the garden, rosé, getting back into the grilling, Fred's ice cream, or even the Lillet, is the promise of New. The promise of change, growth, new life, new chances, do-overs, new opportunities, and, I must confess, Lillet. I kid. Sort of.

Every Spring, I see those little blossoms bursting forth with new life, to become big, bold beautiful flowers, with gusto as though it's never been done before nor will ever be done again. And, realistically, for that flower, it has not and it will not. That naivete, that wholesome, honest, holistic and true naivete is what I love about Spring. The world is my oyster! Again!

And this Spring, I feel, holds extra promise. Some change is afoot. Something is brewing, but I'm not quite ready to spill the beans, yet. Soon... soon.


The onset of Spring also means Easter. Now, as I've mentioned before, Easter for me has never been about religion. Up until two or three years ago, all I knew was that it was when little baby Jesus came back to life. Then a friend illuminated me for the better part of Easter Sunday, over Bloody Marys and peel and eat shrimp, about the whole elaborate, biblical deal. Which I don't really recall. So many details. And, around Easter, I also think of Passover; my favorite Jewish holiday. 

As a small child, I recall Easter meaning waking up that Sunday morning and going through a very minor search of clues to discover my Easter basket. I just got in touch with my mom to find out if that was the case, to which she replied, “The Easter Bunny left the basket out for you. HE used to put the basket in unusual places. Are you implying I had something to do with it?” 

So there's that. 

Try as I may, I can only vividly remember one basket. It was filled with pastel-colored, plastic eggs stuffed with jelly beans, foil-covered, hollow chocolate bunnies, little plastic toys, Cadbury Cream Eggs (my favorite, favorite, favorite), all tucked into giant tufts of that neon green plastic grass inside of a stripey wicker basket with a handle.

If you think about it, the whole Easter basket thing is really cool. I think I want one this Easter. You hear that, Bunny?!



As an adult (with zero religious affiliations), Easter doesn't mean whole lot. It's on a Sunday, and that usually means brunch and a crossword. That's always special. But I was curious about what others, like me, think about in regards to Easter. In the food realm, of course.

I heard a lot about Peeps. A lot of folks were also all about the chocolate. Some jelly beans. One person said rosé (good on ya). And a lot of ham. I say Cadbury Cream Eggs. But then I remembered a radio interview with Nigella Lawson I heard years and years ago. You know what she said? Lamb. I like that. And come to think of it, though, it doesn't seem like it would make mountains of sense since I don't entertain on Easter, or go places where one is entertaining me, I get it. Somehow, I get the whole lamb thing.

So to sum it up, I'd say Easter makes me think of chocolate things and lamb things. It's funny, I have never been a chocoholic. I did not grow up with dessert as an option, and I never order dessert when I dine out. I have never had the sweet tooth. More of a potato chip tooth, I'd say. But for the past six months, I have really been enjoying a small, sweet treat a couple hours after dinner.

Whether it's a chunk of chocolate, a cookie, a couple of bites of pie or cake, a salted caramel (or twelve), I have relished that after dinner sweetness. And unlike the potato chip, I have absolutely no problem in the discretionary portion department.


This means there has been a sudden boost in the baking department of my kitchen. Come to think of it, the very last post was all about chocolatey cupcakes. It was my first chocolate. Dessert. Chocolate. Baking. See?

Maybe this Spring there will be a burst of baking in my kitchen. Maybe I'll finally master Bread. I know I've said that one before, but I can say it again, because it's Spring. And anything is possible. Do-overs, start overs, start agains, go forward, go back; it's all new.

And until I'm ready to let my cat out of its bag of intrigue of all things new brewing in this camp, I will leave you with this impossibly decadent, delicious, rich, sweet and salty, caramel-y, chocolate bomb of a dessert. Make it for yourself. Make it and give it to friends. Make it for Easter. Make it for Spring. After all, this is the time. The world is your oyster. Your salted-caramel-cocoa-brownie oyster.




Salted Caramel Cocoa Brownies with Walnuts
(recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 16 brownies

Caramel

1/2 cup granulated sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (or salted, but then ease up on the sea salt)

Heaped 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt (or 1/8 teaspoon table salt, more to taste)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

Brownies
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup walnut pieces (optional)

Make caramel:

Set a square of parchment paper over a medium-sized plate. Lightly butter or coat the parchment with a spray oil, just as an added security measure.

In a medium, dry saucepan over medium-high heat, melt your sugar; this will take about 5 minutes, stirring if necessary to break up large chunks. By the time it is all melted, if should be a nice copper color; if not, cook until it is.

Remove from heat and stir in butter. It may not incorporate entirely but do your best. Stir in cream and salt and return saucepan to the stove over medium-high heat, bringing it back to a simmer and melted again any sugar that solidified. Cook bubbling caramel for a few minutes more, until it is a shade darker.

Pour out onto parchment-covered plate and transfer plate to your freezer. Freeze until solidified, which can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.


Meanwhile, or when your caramel is almost firm, make your brownies:

Preheat oven to 325°.

Line an 8x8x2 inches glass baking dish with foil, pressing firmly into pan and leaving a 2 inches overhang. Coat foil with nonstick spray; set baking dish aside.

Melt butter in a small sauce-pan over medium heat. Let cool slightly.

Whisk sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl to combine. Pour butter in a steady stream into dry ingredients, whisking constantly to blend.

Whisk in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition. Add flour and stir until just combined (do not overmix). Stir in walnuts. 


Assemble brownies: When caramel is firm, remove it from the freezer and chop it into rough 1-inch squares. Gently fold all but a small amount of caramel bits into batter. Scrape batter into prepared pan, spreading until mostly even. Scatter remaining caramel bits on top. 

Bake until top begins to crack and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached; about 30 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cool completely in pan. Using foil overhang, lift brownie out of pan; transfer to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.



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