PEANUT BUTTER SWIRL BROWNIES

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This past week was pretty eventful due to the fact that Alex and I took care of my mom’s two dogs while she was away on vacation. Lily and Oliver are like my babies and are the cutest pups in the world, but they require a lot of attention. Not having any pets of our own at the moment, mostly because we live in an apartment, we realized just how much work and responsibility goes into taking care of dogs, and by the end of the week, we joked that the dogs were our children because they were all we talked and thought about every day. Even though I barely slept (the dogs are used to sleeping on beds and will give you hell if you don’t oblige), I’m honestly so sad that they’re gone and back at my mom’s. The apartment is so quiet and lonely and I’m counting down the days until we can get a cat (no dogs until we own a house with a yard!).

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I don’t know how today’s recipe - peanut butter swirl brownies - is my first one featuring peanut butter, considering I eat the stuff every single day. I got my love for peanut butter from my mom at a young age when I’d see her walking around the house with a spoonful of it as a snack (ahem, dinner). Of course back then, it was all about commercial brand peanut butters like Jif or Skippy, but I’ve grown up since then by upgrading to the natural varieties from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Although these kinds are much healthier for you, using the commercial brands that have the added sugars and whatnot are usually the norm to use when it comes to making peanut butter desserts, and therefore the type of PB I want you to buy for this recipe. This is so we don’t have to worry about the natural oils or lack of sodium/sugar that is found in the natural types of PB.

The only other brownie recipe on my site, my forever go-to chewy and fudgy brownies, is quite different from the jazzed up brownies in today’s post. These peanut butter swirl brownies are anything-but-basic, muuuch thicker, and filled with crunchy peanuts. I am normally not a fan of nuts in my brownies, but I really think the peanuts work well in these because you get double the peanut flavor and a nice added texture. To put it plainly: today’s PB brownies are very decadent, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stop you from having more than one piece at a time.

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Looking at the recipe itself, I’m sure you’ll notice how I am also giving metric measurements (grams, milliliters) for the ingredients. When working with something messy like peanut butter, it’s so much easier weighing it out in a bowl set over a scale than with measuring cups which can be a pain to clean. Furthermore, I’ve made the recipe both ways, and although the consistency of the batters were a bit different, I could barely notice a difference after they came out of the oven. So if you can weigh your ingredients, certainly do it, and if not, don’t worry about it.

I hope everyone has a great Memorial Day Weekend! Alex and I are going to our first Cinespia screening of the year at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (aka my favorite summer activity to do) and I cannot wait! The movie we’re seeing is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window so it should be a pretty mixed crowd. I’m very excited to be sipping on a cocktail and snacking on these brownies, while surrounded by other cinephiles come Sunday.

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Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies

Recipe slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

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For the peanut butter batter:

  • 3/4 cup (190 grams) smooth peanut butter

  • 2/3 cup (135 grams) granulated sugar

  • 1 large egg

  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

  • A good pinch of coarse sea salt

For the brownie batter:

  • 1/2 cup (115 grams) unsalted butter

  • 3 oz. (85 grams) unsweetened chocolate (like this one), roughly chopped

  • 1 1/4 cup (250 grams) granulated sugar

  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 tsp. (5 ml) vanilla extract

  • 1/4 tsp. espresso powder (optional but recommended - it helps intensify the chocolate flavor)

  • 1/4 tsp. coarse sea salt

  • 2/3 cup (85 grams) all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 cup (60 grams) chopped toasted peanuts

  • 1/4 cup (40 grams) chocolate chips, semisweet or bitter

  • Flaky sea salt or confectioners’ sugar, to finish

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 8in. square baking pan with parchment paper and then grease the pan (bottom and sides) with cooking spray or butter. Set aside.

  2. Make the peanut butter batter: In a medium bowl, whisk all ingredients together until well combined and smooth.

  3. Make the brownie batter: In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter and unsweetened chocolate together. Do this in 30 second intervals, stirring well after each time, being careful not to burn the mixture. Once melted, transfer the mixture into a large bowl. To this, add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Then add the vanilla extract, espresso powder (if using) and salt. Whisk until combined. Using a spatula, fold in the all-purpose flour until no dry ingredients remain. Stir in the chopped peanuts.

  4. Pour a thin layer (about a 1/3 of the batter) of the brownie batter into the baking dish and spread evenly. Take the peanut butter batter and drop big spoonfuls of it in a random fashion over the thin layer of brownie batter. Use the rest of the brownie batter and fill in the spaces between the peanut butter batter so that it looks like image #2 above. Using a butterknife or wooden skewer, start to swirl the brownie and peanut butter batters together. Don’t worry if you don’t get perfect swirls, the flavor will still be there. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top.

  5. Pop the baking dish in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out fairly clean (a few crumbs are okay). Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and/or confectioners’ sugar. Allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting - this makes it much easier and gives you cleaner pieces.

LEMON BARS

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In past blog posts I have spoken about my mom's side of the family, the Czech side, and shared with you the history of my Czech grandparents (including a recipe of theirs). Today, I am speaking about my paternal grandmother, or who my sister and I refer to as 'Grammy'. (Side note: Grammy is one of my biggest supporters of The Vivid Kitchen and always emails me her thoughts on my posts and pictures. So, hi Grammy!) 

Anyway! Grammy, who lives in Los Angeles, has been cooking and baking pretty much all her life, and is honestly amazing at both. She's actually taken cooking classes over the years, with her favorite class being "Cooking Cordon Bleu" that she took when she was living in Ottawa, Canada years ago. Despite the knowledge she gained from these classes, I know Grammy would qualify herself as a "home-cook": she loves cooking simple, yet delicious recipes that aren't fussy and always deliver on taste and flavor. 

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Growing up, I would see Grammy just about every weekend, which meant I was fed very well and looked forward to whatever she was serving us. Besides the delicious dinners she would prepare for me and my sister (don't even get me started on how perfect her Thanksgiving dinner is every year), it's really all about her baked goods. To say that Grammy has a sweet tooth is a severe understatement - the lady loves her candy, chocolates, pies, cookies, etc. etc. etc. When we're together, we love talking about baking and certain recipes we've come across - in a sense, baking has brought us closer together. 

One of Grammy's desserts that I grew up eating constantly was her lemon bars. Lemon bars are a traditional American baked good that were invented in the early 1960s, and eventually made their way into every kitchen across the country when the cookbook Betty Crocker's Cooky Book published the recipe. The recipe starts off with making a shortbread crust that is pressed into a 9x13 baking dish, which is baked in the oven until firm and golden; then it is topped with a lemon custard-like filling that is once again baked in the oven until set. Super easy and straightforward. If you're eating a lemon bar, 99.99% of the time, it'll be dusted with confectioners' sugar (powdered sugar) because that's tradition, and I'll be damned if I didn't include this.

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The recipe I am giving you today comes directly from Grammy: every ingredient and step follows exactly what she sent me earlier this week, except for the addition of lemon zest that I included (I wanted to get the most use out of my lemons!). And I gotta say that I'm so happy that I barely changed a thing because they taste perfect: buttery, crispy, VERY sweet... with a refreshing lemon taste. These bars remind me of my weekends spent with her growing up and it brings me so much joy. 

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Lemon Bars

Ingredients

For the crust:

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  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar (powdered sugar)

For the filling:

  • 4 large eggs, room temperature

  • 2 cups granulated sugar

  • Zest of 1 lemon

  • 1/3 cup lemon juice

  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder

  • Confectioners' sugar, to finish

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a bowl, mix together melted butter, flour and sugar until well incorporated. The dough will be a bit crumbly. Transfer the dough to an ungreased 9x13 baking dish (alternatively, you can line the dish with a piece of parchment paper if you wish to pull the entire baked good out). Using your hands or the back of a spatula, press down the dough evenly into the dish.

  2. Bake the shortbread crust for about 15-17 minutes, or until the dough has firmed up and is golden.

  3. While the crust is baking, work on the filling. In a blender, mix the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and juice for about 30 seconds. Add the sifted flour and baking powder and blend for another 15 seconds.

  4. When the crust is done, pull it out of the oven and immediately pour the lemon filling over the top of the hot crust and place back into the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the filling is set.

  5. Cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours before cutting into the lemon squares. They can either be stored at room temperature or in the fridge.

 

 

THE ULTIMATE CHEWY + FUDGY BROWNIES

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Today we are getting into one of my all-time favorite indulgent desserts: brownies. I have tried countless homemade brownie recipes over the years, and it's safe to say that this one is an absolute winner. 

Growing up, I pretty much subsisted on boxed desserts, with brownies at the forefront (I have a huge soft spot for the Ghirardelli version). My mom probably baked my sister and I boxed brownies a few times a month, and we probably could have eaten it more. When I started baking recipes from scratch after college, I still believed that boxed brownies were untouchable - they were just so easy and SO GOOD and the taste gave me a sense of nostalgia. But like all other desserts, the moment I baked a homemade batch, there was no going back to the box. (For the record, my mom, who has the BIGGEST sweet tooth and loves everything I bake, still makes boxed brownies and eats it for breakfast (and lunch... and dinner.) 

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When it comes to brownies, everyone has their own opinion on what's "best" and that's totally fine! For me, the ultimate brownie has no nuts, a fudgy center, and a verrrrrrry chewy top (I am definitely a person who loves the edge pieces). As for finishing the brownies with a dusting of sugar, I'm 50/50 on it. I think it makes brownies look prettier, but I actually like treating my super sweet brownies like I treat my chocolate chip cookies: sprinkling them with flaky sea salt. Try it! 

With that said, read through my ingredients list and feel free to make changes to adapt to your own liking. For example, if you want to add nuts, I would suggest adding a cup of toasted chopped pecans or walnuts. Also more importantly, you'll notice that there are three different forms of chocolate in this recipe: 1) cocoa powder 2) chocolate chips and 3) a 4 oz. chocolate bar, like Ghirardelli or Lindt. All three are necessary to creating the ultimate brownie recipe! But I actually make it more complex by using a blend of cocoa powders (regular and dark) and a mix of chocolate chips (semi-sweet and dark). This is totally an option for you and not necessary - I'm sure you don't want to spend extra $$$ on two different kinds of cocoa powder and chocolate chips. If that's the case, don't do a cocoa blend and use one kind of chocolate chip (semi-sweet is what the original recipe calls for). I just so happen to love dark chocolate and I think the intensity from it just adds to the overall flavor of the brownie. Also, the dark cocoa powder makes the brownies almost black in color which is pretty cool. We can call them 'Goth Brownies'. Or not. Anyway, you do you! 

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Chewy + Fudgy Brownies

Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

Ingredients

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  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter

  • one 4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate bar, chopped and divided

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 3 large eggs, room temp.

  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy (I used a blend of half regular, half dark)

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 tsp. espresso powder (optional but recommended - it helps intensify the chocolate flavor!)

  • 1 tsp. salt

  • 1 1/4 cup chocolate chips (I used about 3/4 cup semi-sweet, and 1/2 cup dark)

  • powdered sugar or flaky sea salt to finish

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9"x13" baking dish (another option is to butter the dish and then line it with parchment paper - this allows you to easily remove the brownies out of the dish).

  2. In a microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter and 2 oz. of the semi-sweet chocolate bar together. Do this in 30 second intervals, stirring well after each time, being careful not to burn the mixture. Once melted, transfer the mixture into a large bowl.

  3. To the butter and melted chocolate mixture, whisk in the sugar until well incorporated. Add the eggs and vanilla extract and whisk again until mixed.

  4. Add the cocoa powder(s), flour, espresso powder, salt, the other 2 oz. of chopped chocolate, and chocolate chips to the bowl. Use a spatula to mix together. It will be very dry at first, but with some arm strength, it will form a very thick and fudgy batter.

  5. Spread the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with a few crumbs - you don't want to see any raw batter on the toothpick. Dust brownies with powdered sugar or flaky sea salt.

  6. Allow the brownies to cool before cutting, or if you cannot wait, just try not to burn your tongue.