pita pita patter

When I did my experimenting with sourdough (starter and loaf) at the end of last year I became a little obsessed with reading about different kinds of bread; how they are all made, the differences in each process and the origins and stories behind them.

My main question that I desperately needed answered was how pita bread gets the big bubble of air in the middle, that convenient little pocket we all use to stuff in our favourite ingredients.

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Surprisingly it has nothing to do with a cleverly shaped or hollowed out wheel of dough but it actually is all on the way it’s cooked.

Similar to the way a naan bread is speckled with charred air bubbles from the immense heat of the oven they are cooked in, the expansion of a pita bread comes from the heat of the pan or oven they’re cooked in. Essentially, as the active yeast begins to rise, the water within the dough begins evaporating – splitting the dough in half as it tries to escape, forming the helpful hollow we find so useful.

And this is how easy they are to make:

1 cup of warm water
2 teaspoons of instant yeast
2 ½ cups of flour
2 teaspoons of sea salt
2 teaspoons of olive oil

Step one: mix it all together.

Step two: knead I for five minutes.

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Step three: place in a bow, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for an hour.

Step four: divide into eight equally sized discs, a bit like a UFO.

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(Note: step 3.5 should be heat the oven to 240°C with a tray in to heat as well)

Only once the oven is hot enough should you even think about cooking your pita breads, if it isn’t hot enough then they won’t balloon up and you may as well have just made bread rolls.

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Keep an eye on them: they will only need about 3 minutes – oh, the beauty of a hot oven!

They are best served hot, but delicious at room temperature too. I smeared mine with roast pepper hummus and stuffed them with pomegranate meatballs and fresh spinach. But to be completely honest, I would have eaten them plain, that’s how good they are.

 

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salted caramel chocolate brownie tart

Since we are in December now, it’s totally okay to start talking about Christmas, and by that, I mean what we are all planning to eat on Christmas. In my family I am put in charge of the menu each year and the pressure to start planning is applied as early as September.

Even though I like to use Christmas as a time to experiment with new recipes, I know there is a lot riding on everything coming off as a success. Desserts are always the area that make me the most anxious – it’s not as easy to wing it with something that requires a strict set of ingredients, so I decided to do a test run of my planned salted caramel chocolate brownie tart.

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The name of this recipe is a bit of a mouthful, and it’s just as much of a process making it – a chocolate biscuit base, a layer of gooey caramel topped with a rich, dark chocolate brownie and glazed with a layer of even richer chocolate ganache.

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I adapted a recipe from the Akaroa Cooking School and used a sweet pastry base for my test run because I had some I needed to get rid of and wasn’t sure if all of the chocolate was going to be a sensory overload.

While the pastry was blind baking, I heated a can of condensed milk with 75grams of butter and several tablespoons of honey. I also added a teaspoon of sea salt because I love that salty juxtaposition. Once the butter was melted and the condensed milk had morphed several shades darker, I poured it over top of the base and baked for 10 minutes at 170°C. The caramel comes out another shade darker and had thickened nicely.

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While the caramel was cooking I got started on the brownie – 150grams of melted butter, ½ cup of cocoa powder, ¾ cup of sugar combined to a thick paste. I whisked in two eggs and folded through a cup of flour, a pinch of salt and another of baking powder. This makes a rather thick mixture and since I want it to pour evenly over the caramel layer, I might thin it with a bit of water next time.

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I popped it back into the oven for another 20 minutes before leaving it to cool.

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The ganache is simple enough; ½ cup of warm cream and 200grams of dark chocolate poured over the cooled brownie and refrigerated until set.

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This slice of heaven is definitely a chocolate lover’s fantasy, and while the pastry base is a nice touch I think I will be making a chocolate base come Christmas time – in my mind, you can never have too much chocolate!

 

aquafaba meringues (how the internet lied)

I am not one for ‘health foods’ or self-enforced dietary ‘requirements’, I steer clear from trendy health regimes and stick to food that just tastes good. But I recently stumbled across a fad that was just too intriguing to pass by – aquafaba.

I know that it sounds a little like a low-impact form of exercise for senior citizens, but aquafaba is actually the salty, gelatinous brine that chickpeas are stored in. I have often pondered at how to use it; I attempt to be as zero waste as possible and chickpea brine was the one thing that I couldn’t find an appropriate use for. Cue vegan meringues…

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Aquafaba meringues are a great example of why you shouldn’t believe everything that the internet tells you; after scrolling through countless pictures of cute little tarts topped with crisp and egg-free meringue, I thought I was on to a fool proof new dessert. It appears I was wrong.

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First step – drain the liquid off of a can of chickpeas and eat the chickpeas for lunch. Next, whisk the brine until it forms firm peaks, like you would if you were making meringue in an ordinary universe. Surprisingly, it works – and as the liquid plumps up with air bubbles, the salty flavour seemingly evaporates.

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Whisk through ¾ cup of sugar and a pinch of baking soda until the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is nice an firm. Spoon dollops onto a tray of baking paper and bake for 30 minutes at 140°C. Or so they say…

I opened my oven, hoping to see a tray of crunchy white globes. Instead, I was greeted with this:

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A tray of sticky sugar syrup, amber in colour and bubbling at the surface. I don’t know if I hadn’t beaten the aquafaba long enough, or hadn’t added enough sugar. Maybe it can only be used like Italian meringue, or maybe the internet had lied to me. If anyone can help me with my vegan-induced dilemma, I am all ears!

speculoos – belgian spice cookies

What I love about travelling is how easy it is to carry on dreaming about the holiday long after it has finished; flicking through an album of photos on a rainy day, recreating dishes in your own home, or getting really desperate and taking a tour through a city on street view on Google Maps.

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My first trip when I arrived in Europe was to Brussels, where I discovered the magic that is speculoos – a bronze coloured treasure that I was delighted to find, accompanied almost any cup of coffee ever served in France. They were so readily available that it never occurred to me that I was more than capable of giving them a whirl in my own kitchen.

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I am happy to announce that I have since remedied this problem.

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Speculoos, also known as Belgian Spice Cookies, are dark caramel in colour, sweet and gingery in flavour and brittle in texture. Describing them almost as a crunchy piece of gingerbread may not be the most glamourous of definitions, but it is certainly the most accurate. The perfect consistency for dunking into a cup of coffee or steaming hot chocolate, they are also decorated with the cutest little pictures.

For this recipe, you will need:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon of ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon of allspice (or you could use ground cloves)
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 cup of butter
  • ½ cup of white sugar
  • ¼ cup of raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla

I know it sounds like a bucket load of ingredients but that’s all part of the punch of flavour that comes hand in hand with these biscuits!

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Begin by sifting the flour with the spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a larger bowl cream the butter with the two sugars and vanilla extract. Even though I have used raw sugar here, you can use brown sugar if you wanted; it will give it a smoother finish but I like them a little granulated for extra crunch.

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Gradually combine the dry ingredients with the creamed butter until you have dough that is soft, yet firm. As with any dough mixture; if it’s too dry, add a bit of water; and if it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. You shouldn’t have this problem because it is almost saturated with butter, keeping it smooth and silky.

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Form into a ball, wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate from at least an hour.

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On a layer of baking parchment, roll your dough into a thin, flat rectangle. For a nice finishing touch, roll over the layer with a patterned rolling pin (aren’t these so cool?!)

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Baking at 175°C for 25 minutes, the dough will still be soft and spongey when it comes out – don’t continue baking it! It will harden as it cools down, and it’s at a perfect consistency to slice into squares with a pizza cutter (or a knife, should that be easier).

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Enjoy with a cup of coffee at break, or after lunch, or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Perfect for a bit of happiness when the weather is grey and dreary.

the chapter continues: making sourdough

I have always imagined that becoming an artisanal baker would be a rather idyllic and romantic way of living life. That is probably because while my imagination cascaded ideas of kneading dough and eating crusty bread, drenched in olive oil, it also conjured up an image of doing so in a 17th century villa surrounded by fields of sunflowers that doubled as my (currently non-existent) children’s magical forest play land.

I know the reality of that ever happening is slimmer than a slice of biscotti, but it’s nice to have dreams, isn’t it? Maybe I would settle for having a house with a wood fire oven, that way I could make pizza too!

It’s great to have things we want to attain in life, but most of the time we have to start out small; in this case, a small oven – this is how my first attempt at making sourdough went.

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To say it was a dreary morning sounds like the beginning of an unoriginal film noir script, but it was. I only mention that because the drear filled me with dread that I was not in the best of weather conditions for bread making. But I did it anyway – I’m a trooper.

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I measured out two cups of my pungently fresh sourdough starter and swirled through a tablespoon of melted butter and ½ of a cup of warm milk. Next, I sprinkled in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar before sifting in 3 cups of plain white flour.

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The best way to make bread dough is with your hands, though I do suggest loosely combining the mixture with a wooden spoon before taking to it with fist one and fist two. Tip the dough (and any particles that haven’t stuck together) onto a floured surface and knead with the heel of both hands for about 5 minutes. You will probably definitely need to add a touch more flour.

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Using your fingertips, roll the dough into a big, flat oval and roll up like you would if you were making a cinnamon roll. Knit the edges together between thumb and forefinger, place on a tray and leave to rise for about 3 hours.

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If you’re a little bit phobic about it not reaching the optimal rising temperature like me, try putting it in a warm oven for the time it takes to rise.

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Remove the loaf from the oven and heat to 190°C. Bake the bread at this temperature for 10 minutes before turning the temperature down to 175°C and baking for further 40 minutes.

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It is ready to eat at soon as you pull it out of the oven. Dense and zingy, it is perfect just smeared with a layer of butter, but it also makes a great accompaniment for dinner because it is so flavoursome and savoury. Serve on the side of a stew or top with left over tamarillo salsa!

a chapter on baking: sourdough starter

They say a holiday has been successful once you start missing reality; once you have reached your capacity of relaxation and have exhausted your to-do list of enjoyable activities. In the meantime, it is helpful to use this new found free time constructively as well as lying about lazily, curled up with a book and a glass of wine.

I spent the last week doing just that at my parents’ house in the countryside. The fresh air, the warm breeze, nature, paddocks and orchards as far as the eye can see; the perfect environment for making a sourdough starter.

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Sourdough uses wild yeast as a rising agent, so there is something ancient and traditional in the process; very at one with the earth if you don’t mind my hippy frame of reference. Catching nature’s own yeast particles from the rolling spring breeze is what gives the bread its unique and zingy flavour, a palate that will be specific only to that ball of dough – an imprint of the landscape in bread form, if you will.

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Like most things medieval, the process takes several days and is far from methodical. Begin with ½ a cup of flour and mix with an equal amount of water. You can use any flour; because the dough will have no commercial grade yeast, it will be denser than a loaf we would expect to buy today – so fluffy, refined white flour isn’t a bad choice. I used a bag of organic flour I found in the cupboard. A shade of mousy brown, I can only assume that it was wholegrain, bran or rye, but I really have no idea – all part of the mystery I say!

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Cover the bowl with cling film or (preferably) a tea towel and leave somewhere warm – near the fireplace or oven, and ideally somewhere near an open window and leave the yeast to work its magic.

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The following day, add another ½ cup of water and flour, combine well and leave to grow.

Repeat again on day three, the yeast should be becoming quite strong by now, and the mixture should smell of old beer. Bubbles should be forming on the surface as small bursts of carbon dioxide begin to form.

The next day, after the fourth addition of flour, the mixture should have the consistency of thick custard and the aroma of sulphur. Like me, your first thought will probably be that it’s all gone terribly wrong and you have somehow created a bucketful of caramel coloured toxic waste; don’t panic, it’s meant to smell like that. You may want to add a little less water than flour on the last day if it looks a little watery.

Based on how much wild yeast has inoculated and environmental factors such as temperature, your starter may need a fifth day with an additional dose of flour. But if it’s nice and bubbly, and perfuming the room like the Heineken Brewery, you know it’s ready to rock and roll!

Tune in next time for my recipe on how to make the dough!

peppermint chocolate cake – an experiment with italian meringue

Recently, a friend of mine and I decided that it would be a good idea to establish a local chapter of the Clandestine Cake Club but following my recent botched attempts at cake-making, I thought it wise to give myself a little more practice before unleashing any more of my creations onto the general public. I was also recently gifted a bottle of peppermint syrup. These two mutually exclusive factors coincided over the weekend into a chocolate sponge cake with peppermint meringue icing. I can now say that I will never be making Italian meringue ever again.

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The cake itself turned out rather well, aside from forgetting to add any baking powder to the batter. I actually think I prefer it without too much spring, the batter still comes out light and fluffy; pillowy like a sponge cake but not as aerated – it still feels substantial as you sink your teeth into it. Unlike the last attempt at sponge cake, the sea of pots and pans that is my kitchen cupboards parted to reveal the electric mixer, which makes beating together eggs, flour, sugar and butter easy and breezy. I definitely recommend it.

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The failures began with the cake icing. For starters, I didn’t have any icing sugar so I wasn’t able to make a standard icing. Instead, I opted for an Italian meringue icing because I could use regular sugar to make syrup and I like how it spreads like a thick layer of cloud.

Whisk one egg white to firm peaks, soft peaks won’t cut it and you will end up whisking for what seems like days. I added a teaspoon of vanilla essence and a tablespoon of peppermint syrup.

Heat 200grams of sugar with a ¼ cup of water to make a boiling simple syrup. Once it is as clear as glacier water and looks like molten glass, it’s ready. One of the (only) draw cards of Italian meringue is that there is no need to cook it, so you need the syrup to be terrifyingly hot to cook the egg whites. The heat also gives the egg fluff that little shock it needs to puff up nicely.

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I thought that was the final step; ready to lather over my perfect chocolate circle. Not the case. The meringue needs to be whipped until room temperature; by getting as much air into it as possible we get the fluffiest, smoothest result. This result is not achievable in less than 15 minutes, by which stage my arm was numb and my kitchen was covered in pale flecks of meringue from each time I lost control of the beater.

What an ordeal. And after all of my struggle, I realised that I had far too much meringue – out of fear of having too little, I doubled the recipe. Isn’t it always the way?

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Luckily for me, it freezes well and coincidently makes a great base for sorbet… watch this space!

dried herbs; parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

I once dated a chef who detested dried herbs. And I really mean detested, to the point of often commenting to wait staff when a dish used dried herbs, and I don’t mean nice comments. It’s safe to say, we are no longer together.

I love dried herbs, I think they are handy in every style of cooking. And even though they never have the same flavour as fresh herbs, I wouldn’t necessarily say their flavour wasn’t as good.

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The issue I find with fresh herbs is that, unless you keep them in a little pot on the windowsill, you run the risk of never using them because, like me, it is far too much of a hassle to run to the front porch to pick some parsley while you’re in the midst of cooking.

Because of this reason, I noticed that a) I was hardly ever using fresh herbs and b) my herb pot was barely noticeable underneath the tangles of lime green that used to be a quaint little parsley plant but has more recently transitioned into a fully-fledged tree. It was going to seed and I had to do something about it.

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So, I spent the better part of an hour snipping any useable leaf off the plants before some serious pruning; cutting the plants back to within an inch of life. Obviously I did all of this while trying to avoid disturbing the snails and other creepy crawlies that have set up shop down amongst the weeds.

Drying herbs is by no means a difficult task and there are a range of ways to do it; from hanging it in bushels above the window, dancing in the breeze and basking in the sunshine, to using a dehydrator or slow cooker. I opted to do use the oven because I was not overly confident that the sunshine wouldn’t give way to rain, and there was a table hen in my slow cooker.

Low difficulty factor aside, the time factor is rather high – it does involve having the oven on for most of the afternoon so it’s a great excuse for avoiding any social contact on a day when you would rather be sprawled out on the couch or sipping a mojito on the veranda.

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Rinse your herbs, pat them dry and leave on a tea towel until all surface moisture has evaporated. Spread them artistically on a baking tray lined with baking paper and take a moment to admire their pure, green beauty. Insert the tray into an oven which is set at slightly above body temperature – mine was just below 50°C and prop the door slightly ajar with a folded tea towel.

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Depending on how much you are drying, and I suggest you make the quantity rather large, the drying process will take at least 3 hours but do not take them out until they are as dry as a dead autumnal leaf. The low temperature won’t set them alight if they are left in slightly too long – I went to bed and woke up in a panic-stricken state at 2am because I hadn’t turned the oven off, and mine turned out fine!

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Once they are out of the oven and completely cooled, crush them and store in a jar or airtight container, this can be done either by hand or with a mortar and pestle. The leaves will break up as you jam them all into the jar anyhow.

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One last word of advice; make sure you label the jar rather boldly, we wouldn’t want anyone seeing it and assuming it’s something else… you all know what I mean, don’t make me say it!

today i made a cake

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get this burning desire to bake a cake. And that is what happened today.

I enjoy eating cake as much as the next person, probably more. Even though I am completely adequate at making them myself, my experimentations don’t always work out. I don’t think they even equate to failure, more often I would describe it as a lack of success. Delicious as it was, my latest cake lacked the finesse and technical completion that I was ideally after.

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Oftentimes my cake’s shortcomings occur because of my lack of discipline with my measuring cups, but this time it was a prime example of my ideas not being totally thought through from the get-go. I was trying to get creative with the simple concept of a Victoria sponge cake. Fluffy clouds of sunshine yellow batter cut in half by a thick layer of sweet cream and crimson strawberry jam, elegantly topped off with a dusting of icing sugar. What could be better?! I thought my idea was going to be better; I wanted to replace the layer of cream with a layer of meringue.

I hate cutting a cake in half to add the centre; I brilliantly decided to bake the meringue in between two layers of cake batter and safe myself some time.

Here’s how it played out.

The whole event was a bit of a trial – to begin with I couldn’t find my electric beater. Even though sponge is so light and fluffy when its cooked, the batter is unusually dense and I had a very difficult time incorporating the butter into the sugar and flour with an old-fashioned beater – a task similar to mixing cement with a wooden spoon. I fought back tears and curse words, and gave up at least twice before I was ‘happy’ with the batter. And then I moved on to the meringue with as much positivity as I could muster.

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I love making meringue, even when I have to use a hand-held beater; I love watching the egg whites fluff up and adding the sugar teaspoon by teaspoon makes it seem like there isn’t that much sugar going into it. As I added the final dash of sugar and a whisper of vanilla, a new sense of optimism had been whipped into me. That feeling didn’t last long.

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After smearing the bottom of my cake tin with half of the sponge batter, I topped it with the meringue and dotted it with flecks of blood-red jam. It was at this precise moment, as I stood there admiring the how smooth and plump my meringue layer was, that I put two and two together – I was about to cover my meringue, silky and light, with this thick and heavy cake mix.

Gravity is a thing that we have known about for centuries; what goes up must come down and all that jazz. Like a multi-coloured cocktail, a heavier substance will sink to the bottom of a lighter one. I almost lost it as I watched the top layer of cake getting swallowed up into a pure white sea of sugar. I baked it anyway.

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It was edible, it was delicious, it was not at all what I had wanted to create. The base was light and spongey, bright yellow from all of the egg yolks that I had used and the top was sweet and crunchy. It was kind of like a spongey, jammy version of my meringue cake, funny that!

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Even though the main event was a bit of a fail, each component worked relatively well, here are the recipes I used:
1 cup of self-raising flour
1 cup of diced, slightly warmer than room-temperature butter
1 cup of sugar
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of baking powder

2 egg whites and 1/2 of a cup of sugar made more than enough meringue. Because of the meringue, the cooking time was longer than a usual sponge – 40 minutes at 170°C as opposed to 20 minutes normally.

nostalgia moment: slutty brownie

I know I have been a little bit slack on my ‘Will Write for Food’ posts recently, I haven posted anything since the beginning of Blogging 201 but I am back, with a vengeance, and some nostalgic culinary anecdotes.

“Maybe you didn’t flush meringue down the toilet, but surely you have some stories about food that readers would enjoy.”

Using this statement as a springboard, the ideas that come to mind are endless, some of which are too embarrassing or ridiculous to mention – I want to maintain a certain level of dignity, providing hilarity is important, but dignity is paramount. However, one particular failure stands out above the rest, a failure of quite epic proportions. Everyone who doesn’t currently live under a rock has heard of Slutty Brownie, but for anyone not so familiar, let me enlighten you; a layer of cookie dough, a layer of Oreos and a layer of chocolate brownie. Gooey goodness dripping with naughtiness.

“oh so easy, and more than a little bit filthy”

It sounds rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Rosie uses one box of cookie dough mixture, a couple of boxes of Oreos and a box of brownie batter. All you need to do is add a couple of eggs. A student at the time, I decided to make my own batters – more economic than buying the boxes of mixture, and you know what’s actually going into it. So that’s what I did.

Worst mistake ever.

I don’t know what to blame; the variation in density, the quantities I used, maybe a slight difference in ingredients or just my dumb luck. The air in our tiny flat was dense with  chocolaty aromas and the scent of burning sugar, the minutes ticked by, and with our noses but an inch from the oven’s blackened door, we deemed the brownie done. It seemed like it took hours to cool, when in reality it was really only 15 minutes. I tapped the top, noting the satisfying crunch but because of the layer of cookies inside, I couldn’t get a knife the whole way in to test the baked-ness of the cookie dough.

I held the bottom of the tray steady, Flatmate 1 and 2 slowly guided the outside of the tin down while Flatmate 3 watched in glee and excitement. A look that quickly turned to horror as liquid cookie dough rushed in every direction possible. The result was what I can only describe as the most liberal interpretation of Eton Mess you can imagine, and floors, arms and faces smeared with raw cookie dough. Delicious, yet disastrous. Flatmate 4 did not seem amused when she emerged from her room to four messy grownups eating the mixture straight out of the mixing bowl, licking our spoons with the joy of children who are given pudding before dinner.

I still have never built up the courage to try making Slutty Brownie again, I prefer to keep the three elements separate when possible.