Baking is not something I claim to do well, or hardly even at all. But there’s something about February 14th that compels me to make an attempt. Maybe it’s because the holiday is the vanguard of the chocolate and floral industries (everyone knows Easter is for the food-coloring lobby), but for me Valentine’s Day desserts mean chocolate. And baking with chocolate when you are lacking in dessert skills means brownies.
Brownies, in all their gooey, unpretentious glory, are uniquely American. They made their first appearance in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog. Not quite cake, nor torte or anything fancy like that. It’s all about the texture, and that texture should be chewy and dense, never cakey.
Should you or shouldn’t you nut? I leave that up to you. More than when I was a kid, I appreciate a good nut today. But in these moist, damningly rich choco-bombs, I say don’t let anything get in the way of the juju.
My first attempt at making them from scratch was back in college. It was a smash, and got dubbed by my ex-girlfriend “orgasm brownies.” The recipe was right off the Scharffen-Berger box, costing way more than any mix, was like a different species entirely (like Jacques Torres hot chocolate vs. Swiss Miss). In other words, worth it.
For my recipe below I wanted to change it up a bit. Cheesecake brownies are something I’ve grown to like, but I’m not really much of a cheesecake guy. In brownie form, however, they provide a slightly tart respite from the deadly seriousness of the chocolate, especially when using a more heavily roasted high-end chocolate.
But to change it up I decided to switch cream cheese for ricotta, hoping for a bit of the Veniero’s ricotta cheesecake magic. Then, because I’m crazy like that, I bumped it up with orange juice and zest. The results weren’t as pretty as I’d like, and still need some work in the execution (the texture was more airy than I’d like, and not enough chocolate), but the adjusted recipe below should serve you well. If you’re aiming to please your Valentine’s lust-object with something fairly foolproof yet damn good, give it a try.
(adapted from Mark Bittman)
Makes 16 1-inch squares
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped (I’d probably use an ounce or so more next time)
5 tbs unsalted butter, softened, plus some for greasing the pan
4 ounces fresh ricotta cheese (I used skim, which ended up slightly too runny)
1 cup sugar
1 cup plus 1 tbs all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 inch square baking pan.
2. Combine the chocolate and 3 tbs of the butter in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally until melted.
3. Use a fork or electric mixer to cream the remaining butter with the ricotta and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Beat in one of the eggs. Stir in the tablespoon of flour, orange juice, orange zest, and 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the remaining eggs until thick; gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until quite thick (when you remove the mixer from the eggs, a ribbon of egg will fall from the beaters).
5. In a separate bowl, mix together the baking powder, salt, and remaining flour. Gently stir into the beaten egg mixture. Add the chocolate mixture, nuts if using, almond extract, and remaining vanilla. Spread half the chocolate mixture in the bottom of the baking pan; top with cream cheese mixture, then the remaining chocolate mixture. Swirl through all with a rubber spatula to create a marbled effect. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until just barely set in the middle. Cool on a rack before cutting. Store, covered and refrigerated, for no more than a day.