caramel pretzel brownies

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i have a brownie confession.  i really, really, really prefer the kind from a box. 

i know, right?   the texture is just so much better.  chewier and gooey-er.  they get that amazing edge. 

from scratch brownies just always seem more like cake to me.  and my cake confession?  chocolate isn't my favorite type of cake.  chocolate frosting: yes.  chocolate cake: eh.

and then . . . america's test kitchen, the people who brought you cooks illustrated, sent me an email promising chewy, like from a box, brownies made from scratch.

these people know what they're talking about.  they're thorough.  scientific.  if you ever need advice about the best ingredients, the best techniques, the best cookware, they are going to have the answer.

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i assembled my ingredients . . . iphone, callebaut, you know, the basics.  plus, cocoa powder. 

do you know the difference between dutch process cocoa and regular old cocoa?  dutched cocoa goes through extra processing, which apparently strips out some of the harsher flavors and let's more of the pure chocolaty flavor shine through, according to our cooks illustrated friends. 

i'd always heard that the dutch process also takes out all the acid from cocoa powder, so that it won't activate baking soda – and since baking soda needs to be activated by an acid in a batter, using dutched cocoa in a baking soda only recipe will keep your baked goods from rising.  following me?  baking powder is different from baking soda in that it includes the acidifying agent it needs to be activated as a leavener, so the thinking went that you can only use dutch process cocoa in recipes with baking powder.

whew.  that's a lot of science for a tuesday.

especially since cooks illustrated said it's basically a bunch of hooey.  and you can trust them because they baked at least eight cakes testing different leavener and cocoa combinations.  so much cake in the name of accuracy.  it must be rough maintaining one's figure over there.

i bet you're even more excited about this diversion considering that most brownie recipes don't even include baking soda or baking powder.  leavening is diametrically opposed to the whole POINT of brownies – dense, fudgey, chewy goodness.

also, i ended up using plain old hershey's – a natural, non-dutched cocoa – even though i know it isn't as deeply darkly chocolaty.  but that's what they sell at the local drug store, and you know how lazy lazy lazy i am.

the verdict on the brownies? 

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still not chewy enough.  still not gooey enough. 

i mean, it's hard to critique a brownie . . . chocolate, butter, sugar . . . you really can't go too wrong.  i just don't know if it was a good use of my fancy pants callebaut chocolate.  i think i'd much rather put it in these if i'm making something from scratch.

luckily, i don't know when to leave good enough alone and topped this bad boy with lots of sea salt, crushed up pretzels and caramel bits.

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i used the regular cubed caramels you can buy in your baking aisle.  they were soft and gooey when the brownies were warm out of the oven, but firmed up overnight – just as the pretzels softened up from their extended exposure to the moist brownie.

the result?  not bad, but not perfect.  the caramel led to some awkward moments at the office as people tried to find the least embarrassing way to pry it from their teeth.

don't you wish you worked with me?!

so, i'm going to tell you how i made the brownies, and how i'd do it next time.  either way, your coworkers are unlikely to turn them down.

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Caramel Pretzel Brownies

  • Brownie batter: The from scratch recipe is here.  Otherwise, buy a box of Ghirardelli and spend the extra 10-15 minutes you saved yourself playing with your cat. 
  • About 20 caramels, like these
  • 1  cup crushed pretzels, I'd recommend NOT using the honey wheat kind I had on hand, but try something with a harder shell and more salt
  • Sea salt
  • Optional: 3 tbsp milk

Preheat your oven according to brownie instructions.

Assemble your brownie batter – pour into a 13×9 pan prepared according to your brownie instructions.

Chewy Caramel Version: Chop each caramel into 4 pieces.  Seriously, you don't want them any smaller.  Clean your knife frequently cause it's gonna get sticky.  Sprinkle caramel pieces over brownie batter.

Soft Caramel Version: Melt caramels with the milk in a double boiler (or sauce pan – just watch the heat), stirring.  Drizzle on your brownie batter, and maybe run through it with a Pam-greased knife to give it a little swirl pattern.

Sprinkle with sea salt to taste.  Top with crushed pretzels.

Bake according to brownie recipe.

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