A couple months ago, someone requested that I try my hand at caramel brownies. Amazingly, this person was not my husband, but he endorsed this idea so wholeheartedly that I suspect he might have paid this person off. Then again, in most people’s minds, who doesn’t want to make caramel brownies? What kind of strange person considers what would happen when sea salt-flecked deeply copper-colored homemade caramel meets a chewy, rich homemade brownie and then shrugs it off, “Eh, I’ll pass.” Guys, it’s me. It’s not that I didn’t think that a salted caramel brownie could be delicious, it’s just that I imagine it’s well-trodden territory, which to me translates as “people who want to make this already know how to” and then I figure my time would be better spent making other things, like weird egg salads and silky hummus.
But then, as I did a quick search or two, I discovered things that caused me to make that crooked face that I made when I’m thinking really hard, because sometimes after a day of explaining to a preschooler why we have to wear pants when we leave the apartment when I fully understand the desire to simply not wear pants sometimes, thinking is really hard. The first is that a whole lot recipes started with store-bought caramels or caramel sauce, which made me sad, because the homemade stuff requires three ingredients that you probably have, is really easy to make and the flavor comparison (especially if you add a fourth ingredient, salt) … well, there is none. They barely deserve to share the same name. The next thing that gave me pause was that they all looked achingly sweet, as if little consideration was given to the fact that dousing an already-sweet brownie with caramel sauce might cause teeth to hurt/dentists to buy new vacation homes.
By now, I already accepted that any further resistance would be futile. I mean, if you were to distill any given Smitten Kitchen blog entry into the simplest formula, most of the time it would roughly = 2 causes of furrowed brow/piqued curiosity + 1 polite request + 1 borderline-begging request + a notable absence of willpower. But as I got into the kitchen, I found a third source of drama, which was in how the caramel-brownie merger should be approached. Spreading half the batter in the pan, covering it with caramel, and then adding the second half of the brownie batter was kind of difficult, and the caramel filling all but disappeared into the brownie. A marbled attempt not only led to vanished caramel, but it left trenches in the brownie tops where the caramel had once been, like some sort of sad memorial. And the thing I realized was, if I’m going to eat something called a caramel brownie, what I’m really hoping for are parts instantly recognizable as either; I want the caramel to tangle around the brownie and vice-versa, not just dissolve into a caramel-flavored brownie.
The only idea I had left was the craziest one, wherein you kind of fake-make caramel candies that are cold and big enough that they take longer to disappear into the the batter than the batter takes to bake. The results, however, are madness, and I urge you not to make them. Why? Why take you this far only to send you home? Because no good can come of them. They’re ludicrously rich but not icky sweet, so it’s easy to forget that you should never, ever eat more than one. They’re so loud with dark chocolate and salted caramel flavors, they might even be better than either part. Worse, they’re structurally unsound. Those squares of caramel melt into puddles that trickle out when you slice them, leaving a weak, almost gooey, chocolate foundation behind. I mean, trickling salted caramel? Gooey chocolate? Yuck. It’s okay guys; I’m happy to audition these terrible things so that you do not have to. What a relief, right?
One year ago: Lasagna Bolognese
Two years ago: Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
Three years ago: Ginger Fried Rice
Four years ago: Whole Lemon Tart and Alex’s Mom’s Stuffed Cabbage
Five years ago: Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares
Six years ago: Sour Cream Bran Muffins
Salted Caramel Brownies
I used my standard approach to salted caramel, but I dialed back the heavy cream so that it would be less soft, and therefore better able to hold up in the batter. The brownie is my one-bowl favorite, with less salt and sugar to compensate for the sweetness and extra salt in the caramel. The result is a soft, messy brownie that it much, much, much easier to cut neatly if placed in the freezer until semi-firm.
Makes 1 8×8 pan of brownies which you can cut into 16 2-inch squares, 25 smaller squares, 32 2×1-inch bites or a mess of hearts from a cookie cutter.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (or salted, but then ease up on the sea salt)
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt (or 1/8 teaspoon table salt, more to taste)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 ounces (85 grams) unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
1 stick (4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt or 1/8 teaspoon table salt
2/3 cup (85 grams) all-purpose flour
Make caramel: Set a square of parchment paper over a medium-sized plate. Lightly butter or coat the parchment with a spray oil, just as an added security measure.
In a medium, dry saucepan over medium-high heat, melt your sugar; this will take about 5 minutes, stirring if necessary to break up large chunks. By the time it is all melted, if should be a nice copper color; if not, cook until it is. Remove from heat and stir in butter. It may not incorporate entirely but do your best. Stir in cream and salt and return saucepan to the stove over medium-high heat, bringing it back to a simmer and melted again any sugar that solidified. Cook bubbling caramel for a few minutes more, until it is a shade darker.
Pour out onto parchment-covered plate and transfer plate to your freezer. Freeze until solidified, which can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes in a decent freezer to 40 minutes in my terrible one.
Meanwhile, or when your caramel is almost firm, make your brownies: Heat oven to 350°F. Line an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment, extending it up two sides. Butter the parchment or spray it with a nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium heatproof bowl over gently simmering water, melt chocolate and butter together until only a couple unmelted bits remain. Off the heat, stir until smooth and fully melted. You can also do this in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring between each. Whisk in sugar, then eggs, one at a time, then vanilla and salt. Stir in flour with a spoon or flexible spatula.
Assemble brownies: When caramel is firm, remove it from the freezer and chop it into rough 1-inch squares. Gently fold all but a small amount of caramel bits into batter. Scrape batter into prepared pan, spreading until mostly even. Scatter remaining caramel bits on top. Bake in heated oven for 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cool thoroughly — a process that can be hastened in the freezer, which will also produce cleaner cuts — and cut into squares or other desired shapes.