I started baking long before I started cooking, and it is still my preferred activity in the kitchen. To those who know me this may come as a surprise, since baking requires one to be exact, to measure out ingredients and (usually at least) to follow a recipe step by step – in short, baking is almost like science, and science and math were always my worst subjects in school. I was an English major in college for a reason, after all, and I do enjoy the relative freedom that comes from cooking, adding a little of this and a little of that, deviating from recipes to make them my own. It’s harder to do that when baking without ruining the finished product.
But baking is more than just chemistry (if it was just chemistry I would hate it, like I hated AP Chemistry in high school). Baking is love. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true – what says “I love you” more than a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies? Or a pan of warm, gooey brownies? Very few things are as satisfying as presenting someone you care about with something delicious you made yourself. So, I bake, and then I foist my baked goods on those around me (after I have my way with the treats, of course - it's a baker's duty, after all, to make sure their product tastes good before giving it away).
I’ll bake things that are indulgent from time to time, for special occasions mostly, but for everyday baking I like something a bit on the healthier side, or at least something with more nutrition than the average cupcake. Exploring healthy alternatives in baking (whole wheat flour, for instance) can be a great way to experiment with new ingredients and techniques, but it can also be risky; you can end up with leaden muffins or cookie dough so wet the cookies never bake up properly (I speak from experience). I’m all for experimentation in the kitchen, but sometimes its nice to know from the get-go whether or not a recipe will work before I waste my time and (possibly pricey) ingredients. Also, I've found that if you promise someone homemade treats, you should probably deliver them, and they should probably taste good no matter what strange ingredients you used to make them.
Enter food blogging. The beauty of using recipes written up on other blogs is that you know that the blogger has tried out the recipe, noting what worked and what didn’t and offering suggestions and tips. It’s like getting a recipe card scribbled on by a friend or relative, except of course blogs reach a much wider audience, and you don’t actually have to know the person at all to take advantage of their experience in the kitchen.
101 Cookbooks is one of the heavy hitters in the world of food blogging; I’ve mentioned Heidi Swanson’s blog about cooking with natural, whole foods at least once before. The fact that her recipes are usually pretty good for you is besides the point: they simply look and sound delicious (she also has a couple of cookbooks out of her own, so she knows what she’s talking about). Her praises, therefore, were all I needed to try out these Amazing Black Bean Brownies. (That's right. That scrumptious-looking brownie up there? It's got beans in it.)
I’d heard of using black beans in brownie recipes to good affect, but I’d never tried it myself, always figuring that, at best, it would taste like a lowfat brownie substitute (never a good thing) and at worst, that it would taste like chocolate-flavored beans. Heidi’s description of these brownies, however, taken from a book by Ania Catalano called Baking with Agave Nectar, was tasty-sounding enough to make me want to give it a go (“deliciously dense” and “melt-in-your-mouth” were some of the phrases used, just to give you an idea).
While not entirely health food (the recipe calls for two sticks of butter, after all), these brownies do get a good shot of protein and fiber from the beans in the batter, and they’re completely flourless, so they should be gluten-free (don’t quote me on that, though). They also gave me a chance to try out an ingredient I’ve never used before – agave nectar/syrup. One of the least-refined sweeteners on the market, it supposedly has a much lower glycemic index than refined white sugar, making it a better choice for hypoglycemics and diabetics (my grandpa could actually eat a couple of these when he came over for dinner this weekend, which is awesome – usually he can only have a bite or two of anything I bake). Agave syrup also has a unique taste of its own, raising it above the level of a mere “health food” (aka, it’s not just for hippies or health nuts).
That being said, you probably can’t get agave nectar everywhere, though it’s becoming more popular lately and most natural foods stores, like Whole Foods for example, should have it (I actually got mine at Trader Joe’s, which is probably better price-wise). Heidi notes that agave nectar can be substituted 1:1 with honey should you have trouble locating some. And whether you use honey or spring for the agave, you should definitely wrangle up some beans and try these brownies. They are as amazing as promised: so dense, fudgy and rich you don't want more than a bite or two, packing a huge chocolate wallop without a hint of beany flavor. Seriously, if you have any doubts, now you have two different food bloggers extolling their virtues: make these brownies, and give them to someone you love. They'll love you all the more for it.
Amazing Black Bean Brownies
Adapted from Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks, original recipe from Ania Catalano’s book Baking with Agave Nectar: Over 100 Recipes Using Nature’s Ultimate Sweetener
I made two major changes to this recipe. The original called for 1 cup of chopped walnuts, half of which are blended with the black bean mixture in the food processor, and half mixed directly in to the chocolate batter as an add-in. Since I’m not a fan of nuts in baked goods, I eliminated that second half cup, and since I didn’t have any walnuts, I blended chopped hazelnuts in the processor with the beans instead (I still got some bits of nut in the finished brownies, so next time I’ll chop them up more finely before adding them to the processor). If you like nuts, add half a cup to the chocolate/butter/coffee mix as per the original recipe – any kind should work – and you might want to toast them to really bring out their flavor.
Also, the original recipe called for you to reserve half a cup of the egg/agave nectar mix when you blend everything together; this mixture is then given an additional beating and drizzled over the chocolate batter in the pan to make a swirl. I didn’t really see the point in doing this, as the egg mixture wasn’t flavored with anything other than agave syrup and so didn't seem to add anything to the finished brownies, so I just mixed all of the egg mixture into the batter at once, eliminating the swirl.
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter
2 cups soft-cooked black beans, drained well [I used canned]
½ cup walnuts, chopped [I used hazelnuts; increase to 1 cup, toasted, if you want nutty brownies]
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ cup granulated natural coffee substitute [or instant coffee; I used instant espresso powder]
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups light agave nectar/syrup [or substitute 1:1 with honey; I ran out of agave syrup and ended up using about ½ cup honey]
Preheat oven to 325F. Line an 11- by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet or jellyroll pan with parchment paper and lightly oil with canola spray [I used aluminum foil, which makes it easy to lift the brownies out of the pan to cut them].
Melt chocolate and butter in glass bowl in microwave for 1 ½ to 2 minutes on high, stirring to melt chocolate completely. Place beans, ½ cup nuts, vanilla extract, and a few spoonfuls of melted chocolate mixture in bowl of food processor. Blend about 2 minutes or until smooth; batter should be thick and the beans smooth. Set aside
In large bowl, mix together remaining melted chocolate mixture, coffee substitute, and salt [plus additional ½ cup nuts, if desired]. Mix well and set aside.
In separate bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add agave nectar and beat well. Set aside.
Add bean mixture to bowl with coffee/chocolate mixture and stir until well-blended. Add egg mixture and mix well. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until brownies are set [be careful here, because the mixture is very thin and can easily overcook, especially on the edges – mine were done after 25 minutes, so check them early]. Let cool in pan completely before cutting (they will be soft until refrigerated). An important note: “soft” is an understatement here – the brownies were not cut-able at room temperature even after cooling completely, they were just too gooey. This made them delicious of course, but difficult to work with until after they had been in the fridge for a few hours. Definitely store them in the fridge after cutting too, especially if, like me, you are dealing with 90 degree temperatures and 85% humidity. Ah, summer in New York!
The fact that these brownies are so thin and fudgy makes them the perfect base for vanilla ice cream and either a raspberry sauce or, if that’s too much trouble, a few fresh berries. That’s what we did with some of the batch this weekend, as you can see from the photo up there, and I can highly recommend it.