My friend Annie isn’t a huge dessert enthusiastic, which is an oddity in my group of friends. In fact, sweets aren’t her thing at all, though she absolutely loves food. Salty and savory, tends to be what she swoons over, as she can consume massive amounts of burritos, burgers and pho at any given time. We once pledged that together, over the course of a year, we would sample burgers around San Francisco to determine which one we thought was the best out of the entire city. An impossible task if you ask me, and one best left to those people who have a faster metabolism (I think we ate a three different place before calling it quits). So when she and her boyfriend Kenton invited AJ and I over for dinner I was in a quandary as to what to make for dessert. Then I figured out the perfect salty sweet savory treat for the evening, Spicy Caramel Popcorn Mexican Chocolate Brownies.
Annie and Kenton had met while working at a high profile tech company that treats their employees exceedingly well. Free breakfast, lunch and dinner plus endless snacks, laundry and dry cleaning service, gym and yoga classes, and shuttle bus rides to and from the city down the Penisula, where the company is located are all perks included in the job. Annie had actually landed the job years ago when the company was big, but not the mega huge company that it is now. After working there for numerous years, both her and Kenton left to pursue MBAs in New Hampshire. After a few years away, they came back, and settled in a gorgeous loft like apartment in the dogpatch area of San Francisco, a hip up-and-coming neighborhood, perfect for the hip couple that they are.
Whether it was because she was got free meals at her company, or because she originally lived in an area full of cheap eats, Annie rarely cooked. In fact, the only produce I knew her to purchase and have in her refrigerator was broccoli. I know this because twice a year, AJ and I would borrow her refrigerator and freezer for our holiday events and summer parties. She lived a block away from us back then, and that meant her kitchen was, in effect, our kitchen annex for prep work. So it was with a bit of surprise that we arrived at their loft and saw homemade pasta drying on the countertop.
Apparently for the past two years, while in graduate school, Annie had lived right near the King Arthur Flour headquarters and had taken a class on pasta making. “It’s the one gourmet thing I can make.” She proclaimed proudly when I tried to hide my surprise. Their apartment smelled rich with tomato sauce and meatballs simmering on the stovetop, and she fiddled with the pasta machine, trying to switch it to the right setting to cut the pasta into linguine. Disaster struck, when the pasta machine arm got stuck in slot the wrong way, rendering the machine useless. Annie, like any quick-witted MBA graduate, problem solved by resorting to hand cutting the noodles.
I jiggled and yanked at the handle, while Annie cut the noodles, and eventually got the handle to come undone, which meant Annie could use the pasta machine and I could go back to drinking wine. AJ and I kicked back and watched Annie and Kenton expertly cook the fresh pasta, sauce the noodles, and then plate the avocado tomato fresh mozzarella salad to go with it. Dinner was superb, as was the company and the conversation.
In the end the Spicy Caramel Popcorn Mexican Chocolate Brownies were the perfect ending to the meal. Sassy, with a crunchy texture and deep sweet savory spicy flavor, Annie appreciated the fact that the dessert wasn’t a straightforward sugary treat. Kenton went back for seconds. And we all relaxed and discussed the usual things that friends discuss on Friday evening dinner parties: time travel, nice but boring people, mobile poker and teleportation. I’m glad that Annie and Kenton are back in town and I can’t wait to hang out with them more. Especially if it means I have an excuse to make desserts like this more often.
By Irvin Lin
Both the caramel and the popcorn have a kick, so be sure to warn your friends about that. Or just put them out and see their reactions when they take a bite. If you want to tame the heat down, just cut the cayenne pepper to 1/4 teaspoon in the caramel popcorn and brownies respectively or omit it completely if you want. Also keep in mind that the brownies use a number of specialty flours, to give a deeper flavor. If you don’t have these flours, just substitute 175 g (1 1/4 cup) of all purpose flour for all the flours and omit the milk powder. The brownies won’t be quite as rich or as complex, but your friend’s won’t notice the difference. They’ll just be dazzled by the combination of popcorn AND brownie.
Mexican Chocolate Brownie batter
105 g (3/4 cup) all purpose flour
35 g (1/4 cup) barley flour
30 (3 tablespoons) mesquite flour (sometimes called mesquite meal)
50 g (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) dry whole milk powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
170 g (6 oz) unsweetened chocolate (do not use bittersweet), chopped
170 g (12 tablespoons or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
300 g (1 1/2 cup) white granulated sugar
165 g (3/4 cup) dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup popcorn
200 g (1 cup) white granulated sugar
2 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
57 g (4 tablespoons or 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Lightly spray a 13 x 9 inch metal baking pan with cooking oil and then fit a piece of parchment paper into the pan, with 2 inches of the paper overhanging pan.
2. Place the flours, dry milk, baking powder, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and sea salt in a medium bowl. Using a balloon whisk, vigorously stir the dry ingredients together until they are unifom in color and well blended.
3. Place the chopped chocolate and butter in a large microwave safe bowl and microwave for 45 seconds. Stir, and microwave for an additional 30 seconds. Stir until all the chocolate and butter are melted. If you still have chunks, continue to microwave and stir in 15 second intervals until completely smooth.
4. Add the sugars to the melted chocolate and beat with a balloon whisk for 30 seconds by hand. Add 1 egg and beat to incorporate. Repeat with the other eggs, adding one at time. Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate.
5. Add the dry ingredients to chocolate batter and using a large spatula, fold the ingredients in, until just incorporated, and there are no more dry pockets. Scrape the batter into the lined baking pan and spread out evenly. Place in oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with some crumbs in it. You don’t want the toothpick wet (underdone) or completely dry (overcooked) but just right. Let cool completely on a wire rack before adding the caramel popcorn.
6. Once the brownie has cooled completely, make the popcorn by placing the oil in a large dutch over or pot with salt. Add three kernels to the pot, cover with lid slightly ajar, to let steam release, and turn the heat to high. Shake the pan occasionally until the kernels have popped. Remove the pot from the heat and add the rest of the popcorn kernels. Shake the pot to coat with oil and salt and wait 30 seconds. Return to heat, reducing to medium high. Shake the pot occasionally and pop the kernels with the lid slightly ajar until the there is a two second interval between popping. Remove from heat and pour popcorn in a large heatproof bowl.
7. Make the caramel by placing the sugar and cornsyrup in a medium saucepan (preferably with silver bottom and not black nonstick coated). Turn the heat to medium high and cook the sugar, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Once the sugar has reached a deep brown color (think the color of an old penny) remove from heat and carefully add the heavy cream, butter and vanilla extract. The caramel will steam up so do this carefully. Place back on heat at medium high and cook the caramel, stirring to dissolve any hardened bits, until you reach 245˚F – the firm ball stage.
8. Add the salt and cayenne pepper, stir to mix, and then using an offset spatula or butter knife quickly spread a thin layer of caramel over the brownie, making sure the caramel reaches the edges of the brownie.
9. Then pour the rest of the caramel over the popcorn, tossing the popcorn to coat with caramel. Pour the still warm caramel popcorn onto the brownies, and pat the popcorn down with a heatproof spatula or with a piece of parchment paper/wax paper to create a layer of popcorn over the brownie. Let cool to harden.
10. Once the popcorn has cooled and hardened, remove the entire popcorn brownie from the pan by grabbing the overhanging parchment paper and lifting straight up. Move to a large cutting board and using a sharp knife, cut into 1 3/4 inch squares. You can cut them into large pieces if you want but the since these are so spicy, I find a little bit goes a long way.
Makes 35 brownies