We've all heard the saying, "life imitates art." But I think "life imitates cooking" is even more apropos.
It goes something like this: you have a recipe. A good recipe, one you've made over and over again. You know the ingredients, you know the steps, and you know if you follow the recipe, things will turn out just the way you hope. Just as you're expecting. Just like they always do.
Except we all know recipes don't always turn out the way we expect them to, even when we think we've done everything right. Sometimes we're forgetful and we leave out a key ingredient. We're distracted, we fail to pay attention, and we burn things. Sometimes, we're simply "off" and our cooking is off, as well. When it comes to cooking, things don't always go the way we expect them to.
These brownies are a good example. Over the years, I'd tried a few different recipes from trusted, respected sources. The results ranged from "pretty good" to, as my son put it, "kind of weird." But from the first time I made what is now my "go to" peanut butter and chocolate brownie recipe, it was a hit. The recipe just worked, and I could always count on it to turn out just the way I was expecting. The chocolate is forward and dark enough to satisfy any traditional brownie lover, but sufficiently restrained to allow the peanut butter to shine. The texture deftly walks the line between fudgey and cakey. These brownies even look great, with big swirls of peanut butter batter painted in curling rows across a cocoa canvas. So when I chose this recipe to bring to a friend's house a few weeks ago, I was confident it would turn out perfectly. Just like it always does.
But on that day, it didn't. Where did I go wrong? Maybe I under-baked them. Or perhaps it was the cocoa: usually I use regular old Hershey's, this time I used Scharffen Berger. Was it the peanut butter? Or the flour? I think I used the same brands I usually do, but I don't know for sure. I do know that on that day, my reliable recipe was Not. Quite. Right. The batters were too stiff. The crumb was wetter than usual. The swirls refused to swirl. And although the brownies still tasted downright delicious (thank goodness!), they weren't the visual beauties I was used to (and you know how I like pretty desserts). In the grand scheme of things, not a big deal, just not what I was expecting.
Life is like that. I think each of us has developed formulas, recipes of sorts, for the various courses of our life. Over the years, we've tweaked them, refined them, and found what works. And then some days, things suddenly don't work. We try our best to do everything right. But then we're forgetful and we leave out a key element of a project at work. Or we're distracted, we fail to pay attention to the people we love, and we hurt their feelings. Sometimes, we're simply "off" and our lives are off, as well. And we're left feeling battered and bewildered, wondering where we went wrong.
The good news is, in cooking and in life, we can always try the recipe again, tweaking and refining until we find what works. It's a labor that is at once frustrating, exhilarating, maddening, joyous. It's a labor of love.
As I mentioned, on this last batch the batters turned out much stiffer than they have in the past. Ideally, both batters should be about the consistency of polenta (only not so grainy). Thin enough to swirl, but not at all runny. Does that make sense? The next time, I may try adding a spoon or two of milk to thin out the batters.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened (plus extra for pan)
1 cup granulated white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup each all purpose and whole wheat flours
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Peanut Butter Batter:
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) margarine, softened
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 cup each all-purpose and whole wheat flours
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (I use organic, unsweetened)
Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan, then line the pan with waxed or parchment paper, allowing an inch or so to hang over the sides. Butter the bottom and sides of the paper (not the overhang), and set aside.
Make the batters: In separate bowls, one medium for the chocolate and one small for the peanut butter, stir together butter, sugar and vanilla. Add eggs; beat well with a spoon or whisk until smooth. For the peanut butter filling, stir peanut butter into the wet mixture. In a separate bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder and salt for the peanut butter batter. Gradually add to the peanut butter wet mixture. Use that same separate bowl to mix the dry ingredients for the chocolate batter - flours, baking powder, salt and cocoa - then gradually add to the "chocolate" wet mixture, stirring well to blend. (I like to make my batters side by side to save time. If you find this confusing, just make them one at a time.)
Pour half the chocolate batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula. Place nine dollops of peanut butter - about one heaping tablespoon each - equally spaced on top of the chocolate batter. A small scoop works great for this. With a bamboo or metal skewer, gently swirl filling into the batter, running skewer lengthwise and then crosswise through the batter. Pour remaining chocolate batter on top of the peanut butter layer, then add another nine dollops of peanut butter batter on top, using all the remaining batter. Repeat swirling.
Bake until a cake tester inserted into brownies comes out with a few crumbs but is not wet, 35 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then lift out brownies with the paper and let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.
Makes 16 brownies.