Salt of the Earth...

I'd like to say I've moved beyond stress eating in my life, and to an extent, that is true, but only because the nature of the stress in my life has changed. In college, I used to eat an entire bag of Cheetos or Doritos in the span of writing an important essay only hours before it was due. I tried simply not buying those particular vices, but when the going got tough, I would simply eat my roommates' snacks instead, sheepishly offer an apology, and buy them a replacement. Now that I do all the grocery shopping, I can keep those kinds of temptations out of the house all together, but I also don't tend to get myself into the kind of overwhelming situations that prompted that behavior any more.

Still, now that I find myself facing the constant, low-grade stress of being unemployed, I find that certain cravings have returned. Just yesterday, I was sitting at my computer, searching for jobs, when an unrelated thought popped into my head: chocolate cake. I wanted chocolate cake so bad I could practically taste it.

Once the craving was there, it simply wouldn't go away. I tried checking my Pinterest dessert board for chocolate cake inspiration, but there wasn't anything there that wasn't overly elaborate, or large enough to serve a crowd of people. Brownies would have to suffice; not only did I have plenty of brownie recipes just waiting to be made, they could be made in a more reasonable portion.

Though I have long since returned it to the library, I selected a recipe from Baked Explorations that I had seen on a blog and squirreled away ages ago. The original Baked bakery in Brooklyn is famous for its brownies, so much so that they now sell brownie mix at gourmet and specialty shops, though they have also given out the recipe in their cookbooks for those who to prefer to cook from scratch. I had never tried the original, but naturally, I was drawn to a variation included in their second book that called for adding salted caramel to the mix. I have yet to find a dessert that wasn't improved by added salted caramel, so I figured these brownies were bound to be a hit.

Making the salted caramel sauce to pour between the layers of brownie batter definitely increased the time-to-completion on this dessert, but I ultimately didn't mind the extra step because I didn't end up using all the caramel sauce for the brownies. (The recipe is written that way, because it is difficult to make smaller amounts of caramel without burning it.) As a result, I now have extra salted caramel sauce hanging out in my fridge that I can use as a topping for ice cream or something, so it's kind of like making two desserts in one. In fact, if I were feeling extra-decadent, I could make a brownie sundae with one of the salted caramel brownies, vanilla ice cream, and leftover caramel sauce. How indulgent does that sound?

I'm not sure that the brownies themselves would be the best ever without the caramel sauce. They were plenty chocolatey (as they should have been, given the almost three-quarters of a pound of chocolate they contained), but I think it was the salted caramel sauce that really took them to the next level. Instead of creating a distinct layer between the brownies, it was largely absorbed into the batter, creating an exceptionally fudgey, moist texture. I've always been team fudgey in the battle between fudgey and cakey brownie fans, so this was a major selling point for me. 

Every now and then, eating the brownies, I would come across a pocket where the caramel hadn't been fully absorbed, and therefore was the most prominent flavor in that bite. These were the best parts, in my caramel-loving opinion. In fact, the key to these brownies is the salty/sweet contrast. Mine were perhaps a bit too far toward the sweet side of the spectrum, because I skimped a little bit when sprinkling them with fleur de sel at the end. I second-guessed the recipe and thought it sounded like too much, so I used a lighter hand when applying it, and I shouldn't have.

Irregardless, these brownies were excellent. They definitely satisfied my chocolate baked goods craving, with the added bonus of leaving me with a second dessert waiting in the wings. To date, I've never found a brownie recipe that I wanted to make more than once, but these will definitely be in contention the next time I have a brownie craving...

Sweet and Salty Brownies
adapted from Baked Explorations

1 c. sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
1/4 c. sour cream

1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
11 oz. bittersweet (or semisweet) chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 c. unsalted butter, cut into smaller pieces
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 teaspoons fleur de sel
1 teaspoon coarse sugar

To make the caramel: Add the sugar, corn syrup and water to a medium saucepan and stir gently to combine. Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook until the mixture registers 350 on a candy thermometer (if you don't have a thermometer cook until the mixture is amber in color). Turn off the heat under the pan and slowly add the cream (the caramel will bubble up quite a bit so be mindful) then the fleur de sel. Stir in the sour cream until the mixture is smooth. Let cool while you work on the brownies.

To make the brownies: Preheat oven to 350. Spray a 9x13-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray, then line the pan with parchment, leaving an overhang on opposite sides so you can lift the brownies out afterward.

Whisk the flour, salt and cocoa powder together in a medium bowl. Add the chocolate and butter to a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until both are melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan and bowl from the heat, but leave the bowl sitting on top of the pan. Add both sugars to the bowl and whisk until well combined. Remove the bowl from the pan. Crack three eggs into the batter, whisking to incorporate just until combined. Add the remaining 2 eggs, again whisking only until just combined. Stir in the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and use a rubber spatula to fold them in until just a few streaks of flour remain.

Pour half of the brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread in an even layer. Add 3/4 cup of the caramel (don't use it all) on top of the brownie batter and spread evenly - try to keep it away from the sides of the pan or it might burn as it cooks. Drop heaping spoonfuls of the brownie batter over the caramel and spread as best you can to cover the caramel. It won't be perfect, don't worry too much about it.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and sprinkle the tops with the fleur de sel and coarse sugar. Let the brownies cool completely before lifting them out and cutting them into squares.

Store the brownies tightly wrapped at room temperature. They also freeze well.

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