I didn't plan on baking brownies last week. In fact, for the past month, I've been committed to a regimen of daily hot yoga classes, complimented by nutty red quinoa salads, roasted vegetables and a healthy sprinkling of sesame seeds. It's been my attempt to slowly wean sugar and wheat and all that other bad stuff out of my diet, which for the most part has been really great, and much easier than I anticipated.
And yet, these brownies exist (or existed...they disappeared rather fast). I should tell you upfront they are not made with healthy flours or coconut oil or a pricey cup of cacao nibs. No, these brownies are the real deal --cocoa powder, butter, and that ever frowned upon all-purpose flour (aka white flour...eek!) -- which, of course, is the reason they taste just like the boxed brownie mix your mom used to bake up for you when you were a kid. The only exception to your mom's version is the generous cup of fruit folded into the batter just before you slide the pan into the oven. Which, it should be noted, is the reason I was able to rationalize them as an acceptable part of my clean eating routine.
My decision to make these brownies arrived with a phone call. A friend of ours, who owns several successful bars and restaurants downtown, dropped us a line last weekend to ask if we'd be willing to meet him for a few day beers to discuss a business opportunity he thought might interest us.
It turned out our friend is opening a new bar early this summer and is looking for someone to run his food program. The bar is in a great location, with an amazing commercial kitchen already in place, and a rooftop that will open to the drinking public once the weather warms up. On our end, we wouldn't have to deal with any of the build-out or the permits or any other start-up headaches since, technically, the bar would belong to someone else. All we'd need to do is walk in, drop down our stuff, cook our food, and collect a profit.
After our meeting, Jay and I went out for a casual dinner to discuss all the pros and cons of such a venture. The pro, of course, is that we'd be able to do very little and turn a quick profit. Easy. Peasy. The con, however, is that it would take our attention away from our own brand, right at a time when we are about to open a second location and embark on a hectic summer pop-up season.
There are many factors that go into making a small food business a success. First, you need to sell a good product (sounds obvious, though you'd be surprised!). You need to have a strong brand identity and a relatively cool aesthetic (at least in New York you do). You need to have the backbone to be the boss when it is time to be the boss, though you also need to have the compassion to treat your employees like actual people and not like "the help." And for us, one of the most important traits of a successful business is this: you've got to run your business based on your passion, and not based on the trail of dollar signs you see as your potential end game.
After dinner, we went home, where we spent the better part of the next two days further hashing out pros and cons, which is how these brownies came into play. I needed something sweet and indulgent to help settle me while my brain spun with ideas. But more, I needed something I could whip up fast, using the most basic of ingredients I already had on hand. (I mean, Jay and I were in mid-conversation while all this baking was happening; it would have been in poor taste for me to dash out the door to run to the store.)
If you read this blog regularly, than you know I bake for two reasons: to help me celebrate and to help me think. These Cranberry Brownies are a combination of both those things. First off, they were a big help in the thinking department. Over the course of two days, and many conversations about whether or not we were ready to add something else to our (business) plate, these brownies were my source of both comfort and calm. They were the centerpiece for the conversations we had in which we realized we'd never made any of our business decisions based exclusively on money. If we had, we would have run ourselves into the ground by this point, if I'm being honest.
Ultimately, we walked away from the offer, rationalizing it was best to trust our guts instead of our wallets.
In that way, I think these brownies turned out to be of the celebratory type too: a celebration of our willingness to stand by our brand's vision and to make our decisions based on our sense of passion for our business, as opposed to a series of dancing dollar signs.
The brownie base is adapted from Deb Perelman's "Best Cocoa Brownies" recipe, which I first discovered a few months back when I needed a super easy recipe to churn out as a "welcome home" gift for a friend who gave birth to her first child. The brownies, which are made with cocoa, that old pantry standby, as opposed to expensive chocolate bars, come out that ideal brownie consistency of both super dense and yet satisfyingly moist, and boast a gorgeous, crackly top that makes them entirely addicting. The other part of this recipe -- the cranberries -- are inspired by Luisa Weiss's recent post about "Boston Brownies." The warm cranberries sort of melt into the brownie batter and prove to be an amazingly tart compliment to the chocolate.
I hope you'll enjoy them.
adapted from Smitten Kitchen & The Wednesday Chef
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 cup fresh cranberries
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottoms and sides of an 8x8 baking pan with parchment and set aside.
Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa and salt in a medium heatproof bowl. Set the bowl on top of a small pot of near boiling water to create a double boiler. Stir the ingredients until the butter melts (the ingredients will look a bit grainy). Remove the bowl from the heat and allow to slightly cool, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon between each addition. Add the flour and beat vigorously, until all the flour is incorporated and the mixture becomes smooth. Gently fold the cranberries into the batter, being sure to reserve some to sprinkle on top. Evenly spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, but no more than 35 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out nearly clean (you don't want it to come out completely clean, or it means your brownies are overcooked). It is likely that the brownies will not look "done." Remove the pan from the oven anyway and allow it to cool to nearly room temperature. Remove the brownies, keeping them on the parchment, and set on a cooling rack. The brownies will firm up as they continue to cool.