Sunday, July 3, 2011

Miracle Blondies

The story behind these blondies is not about making the blondies themselves, but what led up to their creation.

On Wednesday night, I received an e-mail from a friend asking if I and a couple other friends could put together a Sabbath meal for Saturday lunch. I quickly volunteered my apartment and said I would make a dessert and the main course. The only restriction was "no chocolate" as one of my guests couldn't eat it. That's a restriction that cancelled out a lot of my go-to desserts, but I had a plan.

I recently bought a copy of David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert, which has a great collection of recipes. One of them is a Fresh Ginger Cake which has the benefit of being completely butter-free. I've made a ginger cake using only fresh ginger before from Joy of Cooking, but this is on a completely different level. How? Well...this one uses molasses! That's classy, right?

Anyway, I had all of the ingredients on hand except for the ginger. Friday morning, I went out to the Trader Joe's and picked some up to use later. Unfortunately, in my early morning barely-conscious haze, I neglected to check the quality of the ginger. And so it was, at 5:00 pm on Friday as I joyfully began to prepare making my ginger cake, I discovered that the ginger was moldy.


In retrospect, the best thing to have done at this point would have been to walk down to the Safeway (about 2 minutes away), pick up some more ginger, then come back. Instead, I panicked. It's one of my great failings that I don't deal well when my plans go awry. For the next 20 minutes I rummaged through every dessert cookbook available to find a recipe I could make. Eventually, I settled on making a pie with the blackberries and blueberries I purchased in the morning. The problem here was 1) making a pie dough quickly, and 2) making it dairy-free. The obvious answer was to use shortening, but I only had a limited amount.

I turned to my favorite emergency baking resource, Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. In his book, he provides a ratio for pie dough - 3 parts flour:2 parts fat:1 part water (all by weight). Simple enough, right? I threw some shortening into the freezer to chill, then went over the recipe to see if there was anything I was missing. Suddenly, I realized that I would need to blind bake the crust, which meant I needed dried beans. I racked my brain for a moment, trying to think if there were any dried beans in the apartment, then recalled I had a bag of lentils. Somewhere. I checked the pantry. No lentils. I checked the random shopping bags in my kitchen. Still no lentils. I spent the next 15 minutes tearing up the apartment before I found the my bedroom closet. Yeah, I don't know either.

Having recovered the lentils, I removed the shortening from the freezer and hacked at it with a paring knife. Whirling in place, I grabbed a bowl near the sink, put it on the scale and haphazardly poured out some flour. I added the shortening, then put on a pair of latex gloves and started rubbing the fat into the flour.

Next, I needed to add some ice water until the dough came together. Lacking ice cubes (yeah, don't ask) I resorted to the Brita pitcher in the fridge. I gradually poured in an ounce of water and mixed it together with my hands. It came together, but I had some doubts. By weight, I should have needed more water, but the dough in front of me didn't seem to need any. Stupidly, I added more water anyway, resulting in a dough that was way too wet. I tossed in a bit more flour and shortening, and tried to rescue it.

Then, I realized I forgot to put in the salt. Rather than do the intelligent thing of measuring it out, I opened up the container and kind of shook it at the bowl. The result was a stream of salt going into the bowl, far more than the pinch or two I needed. Resigned to the fact that the dough was no longer salvageable, I tossed it in the garbage. The time was now 5:45 pm.

At this point, I was about to say "screw it," and make brownies, a very straightforward recipe that could be assembled in a brief period of time. In fact, if you follow me on Twitter (@TalkingTV), you'd know that I even said "Screw it, I'm making brownies." But I couldn't do it. Remember, I had a guest that couldn't eat chocolate. As someone who has a very long list of food sensitivities, I couldn't knowingly make something that one person couldn't eat. Especially when that person has done a lot to cater to my problems in the past. So brownies went out the window.

Finally, I came across a recipe for blondies in a copy of Baking Illustrated that I checked out from the library last week. The only chocolate involved was chocolate chips, which I figured I'd just leave out in part of the batter. Since the original recipe called for a 9x13 pan, I decided to use two 8x8 pans. One pan would contain no chocolate chips, the other would have some stirred in. It was 6:00 pm.

I was up against the clock. I quickly shoved everything around the counter to clear some space, and grabbed some margarine from the fridge. I portioned out what I needed, threw it in a small saucepan, and set it on medium heat. It melted quickly, but started to bubble, so I lowered the heat slightly. Using the paring knife, I tried to cut the margarine into smaller pieces as it melted, with only some degree of success.

Once melted, I poured the margarine into a large bowl, then glided across the kitchen to get the brown sugar from the pantry. Yes, you read that right. I glided. Flour and sugar had accumulated on the floor during my frantic tossing and mixing, so my traction was significantly reduced. I was supposed to pack the brown sugar into measuring cups, but I was so caught up in the frenzy that I ended up just grabbing handfuls of the sugar, squeezing it tightly, then dropping it into the bowl. Thank goodness there was a weight measurement too, or it would have been the fourth disaster of the day. Quickly, I whisked the sugar and margarine together, and perched the bowl on top of some other kitchen detritus.

Next, I whisked the dry ingredients in a small bowl, taking my time to measure out the salt. I found some space on a small table in the kitchen and put the bowl down. Turning back to the sugar/margarine mixture, I tossed in two eggs and vanilla and whisked them in. Finally, I gradually added the dry ingredients to the batter and folded until just combined.

I was incredibly nervous at this point because the amount of batter was so...low. I couldn't fathom how it could normally fill a 13x9 pan, let alone my 8x8 pans. But it was too late. I finally had a dessert that was going reasonably well and I couldn't give up. I scooped half the batter into a lightly greased pan and tried to smooth it out with the spatula. (Incidentally, the recipe says to make a foil sling for the pan. I was too tired at this point to deal with it.) Then, I measured out a reasonable amount of chocolate chips for the remaining batter. OK, fine, I grabbed the nearest bag of chocolate chips and just started pouring directly into the bowl until it kind of looked right. That dough went into the second pan, and both went into the oven at 6:15.

I carefully monitored both pans, concerned that the change in volume would affect the baking time. The recipe says to remove the bars when the tops are "shiny and cracked and feels firm to the touch." After 25 minutes of baking, it didn't look like the first two conditions would be met anytime soon, so I poked the cakes a bit before deciding to remove them. I dropped them onto the cooling rack and gave them the once over.

They didn't look too bad, actually. But my confidence was so shattered after all the prior failures that I gave them a 60% chance of being edible and a subsequent 30% chance of being tasty. But I frankly didn't care anymore. They were done, they were decent, and I could move on with other things I needed to do.

By the way, I did realize later why the volume of dough seemed less than expected. I had left out the cup of chocolate chips and cup of pecans which would have significantly increased the total volume. But I don't like pecans in my desserts (except for pie) and the chocolate chips were added later in the process. It was a relief to figure out that I wasn't crazy. Or, at least, not that crazy.

The moment of truth came the next day at the meal when I served the blondies to three friends and two guests that came at the last minute. I cut out pieces from both pans and handed them to my guests. I anxiously studied their faces as they bit into the blondies, chewed, and swallowed. I held my breath as I waited for someone to render the first judgment. Finally, it came.


What?!?! I had managed to pull it off?!?! I grabbed a piece of the blondies for myself and tried them. They were, in fact, very good. A little denser than I usually like, but considering everything that led up to them, I wasn't complaining. My friends stuck around for a few more hours and together we kept taking more of the blondies. By the end of the day, both pans were almost completely empty.

Because the end result came out so well despite so many setbacks, I've decided to call these blondies "Miracle Blondies." It may not be a miracle of biblical proportions to have a piece of cake come out well, but when my friends didn't spit it out and instead reached for seconds, I certainly whispered thanks to God for having my back.

Maybe He likes blondies too.
"Miracle Blondies" (Adapted from Baking Illustrated)

  • 1 1/2 cups (7.5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter (or margarine), melted and cooled
  • 1 1/2 cups (10.5 oz) light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips (I don't like white chocolate, so I just used more semisweet chocolate chips)
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped coarse (optional)

1) Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13x9 inch pan with nonstick cooking spray. Make a foil sling by placing two sheets of foil or parchment paper in the pan perpendicular to each other and greasing both sheets. (I find the sling optional, but that's up to you.)

2) Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

3) Whisk melted butter/margarine and brown sugar together in a medium bowl until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.

4) Using a rubber spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined. Do not overmix.

5) Fold in the chocolate chips and nuts and turn the batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula.

6) Bake until the top is shiny and cracked and firm to the touch (the latter is the most important one), 22 to 25 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack, then (if using a foil sling), remove the bars from the pan and transfer to a cutting board.

7) Cut into 1 1/2 x 2 inch bars and serve.