I have a confession to make. I hope we can still be friends once you know the truth…I’m not jazzed about Christmas cookies. Don’t get me wrong. I love regular cookies, Say, an oatmeal cranberry cookie, or a chewy molasses ginger cookie. Cookies that are home-y and sturdy. Cookies that you can count on. Cookies with integrity. But Christmas cookies?
Oftentimes, Christmas cookies are not what they seem. They steal the show with their fancy cut-out shapes, icing and baubles, but sometimes they don’t taste of much, well, except sugar. And then there’s shortbread – the Scottish idea of indulgence. Flour and butter and sugar. I guess if the other eleven months of the year I was eating oatmeal and mutton, then shortbread would look pretty good come December. According to the Old World Kitchen Cookbook, when the Scots went fishing on the North Atlantic they’d make themselves breakfast by scooping up some sea water, mixing it with oatmeal and eating it cold. And folks, those are my stalwart forefathers. Let me tell you, they would have cast a dim eye on sugar cookies all tarted up with royal icing.
But I digress. Let’s get back to Christmas cookies. When I picture an irresistible cookie plate, I see tangy lemon bars, boozy mincemeat tarts, Christmas cake laced with rum and chewy molasses ginger cookies.
And candy cane brownies. I wanted to make candy cane brownies this year. I’ve seen these all over the internet, usually with chunks of candy canes sprinkled onto a brownie base. What I had in mind though, was a not-too-rich fudge brownie, topped with fluffy peppermint frosting and gussied up with sparkly crushed candy canes.
My “normal” brownie recipe (and I’m using that term with reservations) is the one made famous by those geniuses at Baked. The recipe calls for eleven ounces of dark chocolate, five eggs, a cup of butter and two cups of sugar. (I just listed those ingredients from memory. Some people quote Shakespeare off the cuff. I rattle off brownie formulas.) Now that level of indulgence might be uncalled-for extravagance in a brownie destined to be topped by frosting and candy canes. Or, is it? It is Christmas after all. No, it is too much. Let’s keep this simple.
True brownie lovers regard plain old cocoa brownies with scepticism. And I know why. My first attempt at these was, sadly, ho-hum. (Not that they weren’t eaten of course.) But I thought they were too sweet and not chocolate-y enough. I checked with the experts at Cooks Illustrated for their opinion on cocoa. They advised Hershey’s as the best supermarket cocoa and Callebaut as the best overall cocoa.
So, for my second attempt I replaced the white sugar with a smaller amount of dark brown sugar; I switched to Hershey’s natural cocoa, instead of Rodale Dutch process; I reduced the butter and I replaced the white flour with whole grain spelt. I’m pretty sure barley flour would work well too because it’s so silky. If you don’t have either of those, all purpose would be fine. If you decide to try whole wheat, you may want to refrigerate the brownies for 24 hours before eating them. That recommendation comes from the good people at King Arthur Flour, who know a thing or two about brownies.
These brownies are exactly what I wanted. Dark, not too sweet. Topped with the peppermint frosting they remind me of a grown-up Junior Mint. And they’re easy and quick. You’ll be done mixing them before the oven finishes heating. Once they’re cool, spread the fluffy peppermint goodness on them and crush up some candy canes. These are brownies with character and integrity. And sparkles. They taste as good as they look.
- ½ cup (113 g) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- ¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (65 g) cocoa*
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ tsp vanilla
- 2 large cold eggs
- ½ cup (65 g) spelt, barley or all purpose flour**
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Line an 8" by 8" pan with two strips of parchment, criss-crossing the pan so you have handles to lift out the brownies.
- Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa and salt in a heatproof bowl set over barely simmering water. (I put a metal mixing bowl over a Dutch oven with a couple of inches of water in it.)
- Stir the mixture as it melts and remove it from the heat and the hot water while there is a still a little butter left to melt. It will look grainy, but not to worry.
- Once the mixture has cooled to barely warm, add the eggs one at a time and beat by hand each time until they are combined.
- When it looks pretty smooth, add the flour and then give it about 10 strokes. Use those muscles!
- Smooth it into the pan and bake it in the middle of the oven.
- Bake until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out with some moist crumbs, 20 to 25 minutes. (Mine took 22.)
- Use the parchment handles to remove the brownies from the pan and cool completely. I put mine in the fridge.
- I cut 25 small brownies.
- TIP: For perfectly neat slices, chill the brownies and clean your knife completely between each slice.
**Whole grain spelt flour worked well. I think barley flour would also be good because it's silky in baked goods. All purpose will be fine. If you decide to try whole wheat flour, King Arthur recommends refrigerating whole wheat brownies for 24 hours after baking to let the bran soften and become less noticeable. Otherwise your brownies may taste "healthy".
- ½ cup unsalted, softened butter
- 1 icing sugar
- 1 - 2 teaspoon peppermint flavouring
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon cream, half and half or milk
- Green food colouring.
- Beat the butter until it's fluffy.
- Beat in one teaspoon of peppermint flavouring and the cream.
- Sift in a small amour of icing sugar, about half a cup.
- Continue to add small amounts of icing sugar, beating well each time.
- Give it a taste test and add more peppermint of you like.
- Then carefully food colouring, drop by drop, beating well each time, until you have the colour you like.
The cocoa brownie recipe originates with Alice Medrich. I replaced white flour with spelt, white sugar with brown and reduced the sugar and butter.