Last night a very wonderful, sweet, and generous certain someone treated me to a tremendous celebratory meal at Ikko, one of my favorite restaurants in Orange County. Not only is Ikko one of best sushi restaurants I’ve ever been to in my life, it’s one of my favorite restaurants period. Interestingly, some of the best sushi I’ve ever had has been here in Orange County, better than anything I’ve eaten in the Bay Area, New York, L.A., or DC. Granted, I’ve never been to Nobu, but the quality of the fish I’ve eaten in the past four years and the creativity and presentation have been phenomenal.
For instance, it was here in O.C. that I discovered my love for uni, or sea urchin. A lot of people, even dedicated sushi eaters, are not fans of uni, with its vaguely gelatinous, blobby yellow appearance, perched precariously atop its wee bed of rice. But when I finally tried a piece of uni – and I mean fresh and high quality uni – it was a transcendent experience. It was as if someone had taken the ocean and turned it into the creamiest, sweet-saltiest custard. I placed sushi in my mouth and the uni literally melted away, the sea seeming to explode over my taste buds. The rice was more than a platform: Each individual grain also became coated in rich flavor as the urchin dissolved on my tongue, creating a progressively more textured uni experience. I was hooked.
At Ikko last night we had uni in a different presentation: laid on beds of thinly sliced, tender scallops, topped with black truffle and salt. It was captivating. Among our other appetizers were sea cucumber in a briny, faintly juniper nectar; a roasted onion topped with freshly-herbed cream cheese and large salmon roe; a ricotta-tofu mixture drizzled with oil and toasted soba seeds. We found ourselves entranced by raw wild salmon topped with thin slices of ginger, wild baby Amberjack, and wild small baby Yellowtail. Every time we looked up, a new dish was dazzling us.
And guess who forgot her camera.
So to make it up to you, I baked brownies.
No, they’re not IBS-friendly. No, they’re not gluten-free. No, they’re not in anyway as gorgeous and mind-blowing and creative as the dishes we had last night. But they are made using my favorite brownie recipe of all time. They are the richest of the rich, the fudgiest, crackliest, most decadent brownies I know of. They will make your friends and family fall silent in awe when you present them at parties, dinners, and as gifts this holiday season. And they are from the 1980 version of Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, which I stole from my mom (thanks mom!). I mean, I am trying to make it up to you the best I can here.
I love me some Maida Heatter. She’s part of the reason I bake, I think. Two of her cookbooks have been in my consciousness for most of my life, so I’ve always connected baking desserts with Maida Heatter. And really, what better person to guide you as you learn to bake? Her books feature recipes both indulgent and useful (sometimes both at the same time); her writing, while not as exacting as some authors, is simultaneously informative, helpful, conversational, and comforting; and she’s a baking legend. I don’t even know what her updated cookbooks are like. I’ve been reading the ones my mom has (or, um, had) for as long as I can remember, and they’ve never failed. Which is why I’m eying Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, the other book still on my mom’s shelf. Did I just say that in my out loud voice?
But you want to know more about these brownies. And who can blame you. How’s about I let Maida tell you herself?
These are the biggest, thickest, gooiest, chewiest, darkest, sweetest, mostest-of-the most chocolate bars with an almost wet middle and a crisp-crunchy top. It is best to bake them a day before–they can not be cut into bars when they are too fresh.
Does the woman exaggerate? No, sirree, she does NOT. I am telling you straight, these brownies will knock you silly. We are talking serious chocolate here, my lovelies. Chocolate for days. Even real chocoholics will have to take a break midway through a brownie and revel in the presence of a true chocola-teer. If there is someone you need to hear positivity from, cram one of these babies in his or her mouth, and you won’t hear a negative peep for at least 10 minutes. They’ll be gobsmacked.
This is a recipe that has vanilla and almond and espresso, meaning those of us who like to tinker don’t have to do a darn thing. I recommend cutting these into smaller brownies, because they are so, so rich. Oh, and see how she says you can’t cut them when they are too fresh? She repeats that warning again in the recipe. Please do as she says and not as I did. Remember: She is the expert. I am the impatient blogger. It is much easier to cut them the next day, after they’ve had a night to rest in the fridge.
Of course, that assumes you can wait that long, what with your house smelling like Willy Wonka’s factory. Do what you can and listen to the nice lady. Maybe go out for some sushi?
Palm Beach Brownies
From Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (1980)
16 huge or 24 more extra-large brownies
8 ounces (8 squares) unsweetened chocolate [Leah says: I have used both Baker's and Ghirardelli, with excellent results]
8 ounces (2 sticks) sweet butter
5 eggs (graded large or extra-large) [Leah says: I use large]
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons dry instant espresso or other powdered (not granular) instant coffee
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 2/3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
8 ounces (2 generous cups) walnuts halves or large pieces [Leah says: Optional. I don't usually like nuts in brownies, so I have never added these. Although I bet they would be good here, because these are so damn rich]
1. Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13 x 2-inch pan as follows: Invert the pan, cover it with a long piece of aluminum foil, and with your hands press down on the foil around the sides and the corners to shape it like the pan. Remove the foil. Turn the pan right side up, and place the foil in the pan. Very carefully (without tearing it) press the foil into place in the pan. Now butter the foil with soft or melted butter. The easiest way is to place a piece of butter in the pan, place the pan in the oven while it is warming up, and when the butter is melted use a pastry brush to spread it all over the sides and bottom of the foil. Set the prepared pan aside.
2. Place the chocolate and the butter in the top of a large double boiler over hot water on moderate heat, or in a 4 to 6 cup heavy saucepan over very low heat. Stir occasionally until the chocolate and the butter are melted. Stir to mix. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the vanilla, almond extract, salt, dry instant coffee, and sugar at high speed for 10 minutes. On low speed add the chocolate mixture and beat only until mixed. Then add the flour and again beat only until mixed. Remove from the mixer and stir in the nuts.
4. Turn into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 35 minutes, reversing the pan front to back as necessary during baking to insure even baking. Cover loosely with foil for about the last half of the baking time to prevent over browning. At the end of 35 minutes the cake will have a thick, crisp crust on the top, but if you insert a toothpick into the middle it will come out wet and covered with chocolate. Nevertheless, it is done. Do not bake it anymore.
5. Remove the cake from the oven and let stand at room temperature until cool. Then cover with a rack or a cookie sheet and invert. Remove the pan and the foil lining. Cover with a cookie sheet and invert again, leaving the cake right side up.
6. It is best to refrigerate the cake overnight before cutting (at room temperature it is too sticky to cut). Use a serrated French bread knife. It will be necessary to wash and dry the blade several times while cutting. First cut the cake in half, cutting through the long sides. If the cake was baked correctly, the edges will be too dark and dry; trim about 1/4 inch or so as necessary from the edges.
7. The cake will be 1 1/4 inches thick. Cut into 24 huge Brownies, or 32 large ones. (See Note.)
8. Either wrap the Brownies individually in clear cellophane, aluminum foil, or wax paper, or package them in an airtight container. Refrigerate and serve cold.
NOTE: I cut the Brownies into 24 bars, and then often, just before serving, I cut each bar in half the long way.
[See? How can you not love her? She capitalizes Brownie.]