In the kitchen: S'mores Brownies

Food is a very sense-memory thing for me. (Sense-memory being an acting technique buzzword in which certain stimuli help to evoke memories or emotions, helping you get into character.) I've never used food as a way to get into character for a role I've played, but it certainly triggers memories and emotions for me in my day to day life. BBQ chips remind me of time spent snuggled up on the couch with my Dad, watching our weekly episodes of Star Trek or any of the brilliant James Bond movies. Warm, currant-filled scones remind me of my  Great Grandmother, Nana - she made the BEST authentic Scottish scones I've ever eaten - made on a hot griddle, not in the oven. The way her Granny did it. A salty, savory dirty martini instantly gives me butterflies and takes me back to that time I fell in love with the Man of my Dreams while sipping on one at a charming theatre bar out on Long Island. These are things that not only remind me something intellectually, but eating or drinking, or even the aroma of them gives me goose bumps or makes me smile.

I'll give you another, easy example: s'mores. What do you think of when you bite into, or even think about a s'more? For me, I think: camping, family, campfire, warmth, deliciousness, chilly nights, smoke, childhood, friends, burnt marshmallows. There's something about a s'more which can instantly transport you back to the last time you sat bundled up in a plastic, fold-up chair situated just close enough to the roaring fire to keep warm, but still far enough away so that you didn't fill your lungs with the burnt, smokiness billowing from it. To me, it is a comforting sense-memory. One that makes me feel warm inside. Relaxed. Content.

We've been back from our honeymoon for almost a month now, and already I'm jonesing for a night spent in the middle of nowhere, underneath the stars. You'd think two weeks would have satiated me for awhile, but apparently not. I am happy to be back in our home with our furry beasties tucked happily in our apartment and the energizing vibrancy of the city outside of it, but re-entry into Real Life can be quite jarring after several weeks away. And it's amazing how quickly I forgot that relaxed, content feeling I had while sitting around the campfire dreaming big dreams with My Love 'neath the stars. 

So although I can't transport my Real Life to the campsite (at least not yet, anyway), I can bring a little bit of the campsite to my Real Life. And that is precisely what I did when I made these…

Ooey, gooey, s'mores heaven. Or: Camping in a brownie. The graham cracker crust makes a nice, crunchy base for the cakey brownie. After a quick, rough chop to some chocolate and another graham cracker, I added that to the top of the brownie before piling high with mini-marshmallows and popping under the broiler for a few minutes. Some folks like a melty marshmallow - I prefer a burnt marshmallow. A bit of smoke and charred sugar to add to the gooey sweetness inside. Different strokes for different folks. Even the smell of these brownies is enough to take you back to The Happy Place, but the taste! So good. Good enough that it inspired me to embrace my current location, put a few brownies on a plate and sit on couch in the living room with My Love - the room lit by candles, not campfire - dreaming big dreams 'neath the noisy footsteps of our upstairs neighbors.

And that will do for now.

S'mores Brownies
Recipe by Alison Walla

For the crust:

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
110 g. graham cracker crumbs (about 1 cup, or 8 graham crackers)
25 g. granulated sugar (about 1.5 tablespoons)
Pinch of salt

For the brownie:

10 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
270 g. granulated sugar (1 1/4 cups)
85 g. unsweetened cocoa powder, natural or Dutch-process. (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
112 g. all-purpose flour (about 3/4 cup)

For the topping:

1 Cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 cups mini-marshmallows

Crumbs of one graham cracker (about 1/4 cup)

To make:

Pre-heat oven to 325ยบ.

Line the bottom and sides of an 8" cast iron skillet (or an 8" baking dish) with foil and lightly grease the foil. Set aside.

For the crust: In a small bowl, mix the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and salt until well combined. Add the melted butter and mix with a fork until the crumbs are evenly and well coated. Pour into prepared skillet/dish and flatten out using the back of the fork. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the edges look a little dry and the crust is nice and golden.

For the brownie: Combine the sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and butter in a medium sauce pan. Place over medium heat and mix all the ingredients together, stirring occasionally, until all the butter is melted and the mixture is thick and hot. (Watch it carefully, so that it doesn't burn on the bottom!) Remove from heat and allow it to cool until it is warm, rather than hot.

When the chocolate mixture has cooled a bit, mix in the vanilla and then add the eggs, one at a time. The mixture will be thick and shiny and beautifully chocolatey. Once the eggs are fully incorporated, continue to beat with for about a minute - 40 more strokes or so. Add the flour and mix just until the flour disappears - do not overmix. The batter will be very thick.

Spoon the brownie batter over the graham cracker crust and smooth out the top. Place the skillet back in the oven and bake for another 30-35 minutes - until a toothpick comes out just slightly gooey. (If you like a more fudgy brown, bake a little less.) The top of the brownie will have a nice, dark matte look to it. Remove from the oven. Set the oven to Broil.

For the topping: Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top of the baked brownie. Dust some of the graham cracker crumbs over the chocolate chips, and top it all off with as many mini-marshmallows as your little heart desires. Sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the marshmallows.

Place the mallow-topped brownies back in the oven, making sure there is 6-8" between the brownies and the broiler. Broil for 1-2 minutes - or if you're like me and you like burnt marshmallow - a solid 2 minutes. Just watch them carefully - never take your eyes off them, really - until they're browned/burnt to your taste.

I suggest letting the brownies cool a bit before you cut into them, just enough to let the marshmallow cool off a bit. It will help with the cutting. Speaking of: When you cut the brownies, I also suggest dipping your knife in a glass of water before each cut. Sounds a little tedious, but this will help keep the marshmallows from sticking to your knife and thus creating a sticky, rather unattractive brownie.

// A few notes... //

When creating this recipe, I tried it several ways, but the version posted above was my favorite. However, the variations beg mentioning...

Should you be more in the mood to Sandra Lee these brownies - feel free to use a boxed brownie mix for the brownies. Voila! Semi-homemade... but really good semi-homemade.

Should you be gluten-intolerant - feel free to use the faux graham crackers (found at Whole Foods) for the crust, but be sure to add a bit more sugar - 2 + tablespoons - and your favorite G-F brownie recipe. Of course, you could always Sandra Lee this, too and used a G-F boxed brownie. Note: I would NOT use the King Arthur Gluten Free brownie mix. Much to my surprise, it was not very good. Dry and very fake tasting. However, after some research, Betty Crocker sells a mean G-F brownie mix. Just, FYI.


In the kitchen: Date + Pistachio Olive Oil Cookies

 As a wedding gift we were given an amazing cookbook, The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage (Phaidon). My husband is of Lebanese descent and although my Mother-in-law sets the bar very, very high for delicious, authentic Lebanese food, I am eager to try my hand at it. I confess I'm intimidated by the venture, though, so the only thing I've made so far is hummus. (I know, I know - one of the easiest things to make. Ever.) However, I have spent quite a bit of time perusing the book - soaking up the ingredient lists, the gorgeous photography by Toby Glanville, and new-to-me methods of preparation.
This morning I woke up rather early, so I brewed some coffee and sat down with the book, slowly waking up and stretching the muscles of my brain while looking for inspiration among the pages. My comfort zone with cookbooks is in the bread/pastry chapters, so it's no surprise that after 30 minutes of reading about dates, pistachios, rosewater, orange zest, and honey I was itching to get up out of my chair to see what, if any, of those ingredients I had on hand.
As luck would have it, I had a handfull of dates and some pistachios and without having any idea where I was heading with it, I started chopping them up. 

After a good, rough chop, I put the chopped fruit + nuts in my mini-food processor, then added a tablespoon of light brown sugar, some orange zest, and a teaspoon of bourbon and wound up with the most delicious and aromatic mixture! Sweet, nutty, a hint of citrus. Mmmm. So... what was next?
During my morning reading I had come across a recipe for something called ma'moul - a beautiful, decorative mounded Lebanese cookie filled with a mixture of dates or nuts. Not having a ma'moul mold nor the patience to roll out/cut dough, I decided to make a version of a thumbprint cookie, using the pistachio + date filling in place of jam. 

I find dates have a particular sweetness to them, so I usually pair them with something less sweet - even on the savory - side. And any of you who have had my cookies know that I don't make overly      sweet things. I can't stand it when lovely and inventive flavor combinations get drowned out by heaps of sugar - it ruins a Good Thing and gives me a tooth ache. That, in turn, makes me grumpy, and no one should ever be grumpy as a result of eating a cookie. No one.
So I made these thumbprint cookies with an olive oil cookie base. Well, truth be told, I made the first round with a version of my shortbread recipe, but about half-way in to baking them I decided I wanted to try an olive oil version as well. Both were good!

The shortbread cookie base begets a dense, melt-in-your-mouth sort of cookie, while the olive oil version produces a lighter, more cakey version with a bit of a crunch - reminiscent of Haamantaschen. If pressed, I think I prefer the olive oil version (recipe below), but that could just be the mood I'm in today. Historically, I do have quite an affinity for shortbread.
Over both a brushed a very simple orange juice + sugar glaze. It not only gives the cookie a slight sheen, but helps to mesh the cookie base with the fruit + nut paste by enhancing the citrus flavor.

Date + Pistachio Olive Oil Cookies 
Recipe by Alison Walla
 For the fruit + nut filling:
125g dried, pitted dates, chopped (about 14 dates)
50g shelled pistachio nuts (about 1/3 cup) 
1-2 tsp freshly grated orange zest
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsp bourbon (optional) ** You could use water, if you prefer
For the olive oil cookie dough: 
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
For the orange glaze: 
1-2 tbsp freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tbsp sugar

To make: 
Preheat the oven to 350°. 
Zest the orange and set aside. Then juice the orange and set aside.
Roughly chop the dates + pistachios and place in the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini-food prep). Add the light brown sugar and orange zest. Pulse until fully incorporated and a thick paste forms. Add the bourbon (or water) and process until the mixture smooths out a bit. Set aside. 
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.
In another bowl, add the sugar to the olive oil and beat until light, 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs and continue to beat until creamy and fluffy, a few more minutes. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the bowl until well combined and smooth. You should have a thick + shiny cookie dough consistency.  Place the bowl with the dough into the fridge for about 10 minutes, or as long as it takes you to put away ingredients and clean up your work space. 
Using two teaspoons or a small cookie scoop, drop mounds of the cookie dough onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, an inch or two apart. Dab a little bit of olive oil onto the back of one of the spoons, and gently make a little well in the center of the cookie. Fill the well with a bit of the date + pistachio mixture (roughly 1/4 tsp each). Sprinkle with coarse sugar and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the tops and sides of the cookies are lightly golden and the bottoms easily lift up off the parchment. Transfer to a cooking rack and let cool for a few minutes. 
In a small bowl, combine the orange juice and tbsp of sugar, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Once the cookies have cooled slightly, brush the top and sides of each cookie with the juice/sugar mixture. Serve warm or let cool completely and store in an air-tight container for up to a week.