This week’s Sunday sweets blogging was partly pantry-clearing and partly nostalgia-tripping.
For our anniversary last year, His Lordship and I took a greatly-postponed honeymoon trip to Argentina. The idea was to show him where I came from, visit my pasta-producing grandmother, and consume unseemly quantities of amazing — and amazingly cheap — local food products, particularly artisanal ice cream in my case and grass-fed beef in His Lordship’s case.
Regular breaks for beverages and a nibble at cafes during our outings were a daily feature of our life during the trip, because it’s a daily feature of life in Buenos Aires for everyone. There are at least two on every block, and in the busier areas it’s probably closer to half a dozen, all serving a million variations on coffee and a comprehensive assortment of light meals, pastries and snacks.
They’re open from morning, when you can start your day off right with cafe con leche and the standard tres medialunas, until the ungodly hours of the night, when you can stumble in for empanadas or sandwiches at the end of or as a break from your club-hopping rounds. No one will bat an eyelash at any time in between if you order one cup of coffee and then sit for two additional hours reading your paper or engaging in heated philosophical debate with your friends. Indeed, it’s quite likely the waiter will never return to see if you need something more anyway, since it’s expected that you’re there to sloth away a good chunk of time.
In short, Buenos Aires’s cafe culture makes Seattle’s vaunted caffeine scene look like a parvenu bastard second cousin. It’s fantastic, and I’ve been longing for that level of urbanity ever since. Which is why, when I was thinking of what to bake for Monday morning and staring at a gift-sized jar of dulce de leche left over from that trip and three blocks of cream cheese inherited from the aforementioned departing friend, I thought about brownies.
Brownies seem to have landed with a vengeance in Buenos Aires, since we ran into them in practically every cafe we visited. It was an unexpected amusement to scroll down a menu and see “brownie”, with no translation at all, sandwiched between traditional offerings like flan and pastafrola, a lattice-topped quince tart I will get around to making if I ever find fresh quinces again. In striving not to be the ugly American, I never ordered a food I could easily get back home, but we did get a few dainty brownie bits once as part of the cafes’ universal and impeccably civilized custom of offering a complimentary cookie, chocolate or other treat with your coffee (are you listening, Starbucks?). They were completely respectable brownie bits and went quite nicely with cafe dobles and leisurely conversation.
Although I never actually saw such a thing while we were there, it would be perfectly in keeping with Argentine sensibilities to add dulce de leche to brownies, since there’s pretty much nothing sweet that won’t at some point be embellished with the national condiment. My favorite heladeria already does this in reverse, adding brownie bits to dulce de leche ice cream. True to my ancestry, I’ve been known to warm a few spoonfuls from my normally jealously-guarded supply until liquid and dribble it Pollock-fashion over finished brownies with a sprinkling of toasted pecans or walnuts.
But that wasn’t going to be enough to finish off the jar this time, and I do have to use up all that cream cheese, so I decided to swirl the two together into an espresso-embellished brownie base. While rummaging through my strategic chocolate reserves (what, doesn’t everyone have one?), I discovered that we also still had Argentine semisweet chocolate left, the kind used to make the drink whimsically known as a submarino by dunking a whole segment into steamed milk and stirring once it’s started to melt. For the sake of authenticity, I decided to throw that in too.
I’m now almost out of espresso powder, have whittled down my strategic chocolate reserve, and that jar of dulce de leche is done. I might up the dulce de leche amount to a third of a cup next time for even more of a trademark hit, but otherwise I was quite pleased with their rococo appearance and coffee-and-caramel-kissed taste. It’s not the same as kicking back at Cafe Tortoni, but it’ll hold me for a little while.
By the way, thanks to my bicontinental mother, I still have an additional unopened 1-kilo can of dulce de leche, so be on notice that we’re in for many more applications in the coming weeks.
Buenos Aires Cafe Brownies
(Very loosely adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe)
Makes 1 13×9 panful, approximately 18 brownies
3 5/8 ounces (2/3 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa solids or higher), chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, in quarters
7 ounces (1 cup) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon espresso powder
2 teaspoons Kahlua
3 large eggs
Dulce de leche cheesecake base:
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup dulce de leche
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
1 egg yolk
Set oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 325 F. Line a 13 x 9 baking pan with two perpendicular sheets of nonstick aluminum foil or parchment paper, leaving overhang as handles for removing the cooled brownies later.
Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl.
In a large glass measuring cup, combine the chocolate and butter and microwave at 50% until chocolate has completely melted, stirring frequently. Stir in the sugar, espresso powder and Kahlua, and allow to cool slightly. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, until completely smooth. Add the dry ingredients, stirring until just combined.
In a small bowl, whisk together the cream cheese and dulce de leche until uniform. Stir in yolk and vanilla.
Spread half the chocolate mixture in the bottom of the pan. Drop half of the cheesecake base on top in evenly-distributed large spoonfuls. Repeat with remaining half of mixtures. Using a chopstick or wooden spoon handle, gently swirl the batters together to create a marbled effect. Over-mixing will blur and muddy the swirls.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center emerges with a few moist crumbs attached. Cool completely on a wire rack and cut into squares just before serving.
The basic recipe for the brownies was baked in an 8×8 pan. Since I knew these would be significantly sweeter and richer, I decided to stretch the batter into a bigger pan, and got thinner, chewier brownies closer to what His Lordship looks for. If you want thicker and fudgier, bake this in the smaller pan for around 40-50 minutes, although you’ll still probably have to cut them into smaller-than-average squares.
Pictured is my favorite brand of dulce de leche, determined during the aforementioned trip via purchase and side-by-side tasting of half the dulce de leche aisle at the nearby supermarket. La Salamandra is one of the most readily available in the U.S., albeit at highly inflated prices.
My brother remains faithful to San Ignacio, the brand we grew up with courtesy of our then-jetsetting grandmother. San Ignacio was the close runner-up in my taste test, edged out by the slightly more prominent fresh-milk top note of La Salamandra.