Triple Layer S'mores Brownies | Tara O'Brady + Seven Spoons

I have no intention of relying on phone photography here, but I am a bit in love with this shot. It wasn't my plan on sharing this recipe either, as snapping the pic was a spontaneous thing, and the recipe was a bit thrown together, in the aim to perfect a birthday wish. But we'll get to that. First, to explain.

My freezer storage is divided into three distinct, but unequal zones. The largest is ingredient storage. It's where I keep nuts and grains, plus seeds and cacao nibs, and things like wheat germ and bran. Flours and shredded coconut. There's fruit from the summer stacked in flat packs, and bananas black-ripe and ready for bread. Ginger root I grate while still rock hard, chiles, and lime leaves. I am rarely without frozen spinach and sweet peas.

The smallest category is full of odds and ends; ice cubes, egg whites, and parmesan rinds. A package of homemade puff pastry, unbaked streusel from when I made too much, discs of pie dough, and bones for stock.

Between the two are the prepared leftovers. There is enough tomato sauce for one pizza, cooked rice, some savoury hand pies, Julia's turkey meatballs, and cakes. A lot of cake. It's not just that the pace of our consumption rarely keeps up with the celebrations around here. It's also one of those rarely-discussed byproducts of recipe testing. The spoils are regularly parcelled for giving away, but a small stash is always kept behind. Right now, my inventory includes the thinnest slice of walnut cake from Divali, a quarter of a vanilla bean cheesecake, bagged muffins, a coffeecake that's a work in progress, and s'mores brownies.

Those brownies though, they're celebratory through and through. Benjamin turned 11 in January. He's all knees and elbows now, and has strong opinions. He's had a thing for s'mores for years, and this birthday wasn't any different. He asked for a repeat of last year, brownies with chocolate ganache and a seven-minute frosting to billow on top. When I've made s'mores cupcakes in the past, the inclusion of graham crackers added essential contrast against all the dense-chocolate-marshmallowyness going on. I like them as rebar in the ganache rather than rubble in the brownie itself. Somehow they make more of an impact that way. Toasting the grahams in the oven crisps them up, the process and effect amped up with a sugar syrup glaze. 

I use my own brownie recipe, but as it was included as a preorder inclusive for my book, I made the squares this week with another favourite, from King Arthur Flour. As advertised, their brownies exist ideally between squidge and cake. You can use my recipe, if you have it, or theirs, or your preferred. One thing I'll say though, is resist the urge to use an intensely fudgey one. When combined with the ganache and the meringue frosting, it is a combination that can careen into headache-inducing real quick.

The brownies are over the top. They bring out the childlike and exuberant, and are the antithesis of refined. They are unbridled and unrestrained, and remind me of the happiest days. Don't let the fact that there were leftovers steer you into thinking they went unloved. Sometimes, you want to make the good things last. And, as brownies never fully freeze, a skinny slice on a Monday midmorning with coffee, falls into that category. 

For the record, that was exactly what I was planning when I took the photo.

Have a great week, pals. xo

 

TRIPLE LAYER S'MORES BROWNIES

The brownie recipe is this recipe from King Arthur Flour, halved.  The marshmallow frosting owes it loft and stability to Stella Park's revolutionary Easy Swiss Meringue

Makes an 8-inch pan

FOR THE BROWNIE BASE

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 55 g dutch process cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon medium grain kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 2  teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup | 115 g unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 225 g sugar
  • 3/4 cup | 95 g all-purpose flour

FOR THE GRAHAM CRUNCH AND GANACHE

  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 8 graham crackers
  • 8 ounces | 225 g bittersweet chocolate, 70% cocoa solids
  • 1/4 teaspoon espresso powder, optional
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup | 160 ml heavy cream

FOR THE MARSHMALLOW FROSTING

  • 4 egg whites
  • 3/4 cup | 150 g granulated sugar, preferably toasted
  • Generous 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

METHOD

Make the brownies. Preheat an oven to 325°F | 165°C.

Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking tin, then line with a piece of parchment paper with a 1-inch overhang. Press the paper into the pan and then remove. Line the pan with another piece of parchment paper, then place the first piece, buttered side up, across. Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a bowl. Sift in the cocoa, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. Add the vanilla. Beat for four minutes on medium speed (you can do this while melting the butter in the next step).

Place the remaining butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the sugar. Heat over medium low, stirring, until the butter is melted. Continue to cook until the mixture is hot but not bubbling, maybe 1 minute more. It should go shinier as it heats. 

Stir the hot butter and sugar mixture into the beaten eggs until smooth. Sift the flour over top and mix it in. 

Spread the batter into the baking dish, nudging it to the edges as needed. Bake until the top begins to crack, 32 to 35 minutes or so. Cool on a wire rack.

While that bakes, make the graham crunch and ganache. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, dissolve the sugar into the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat then simmer for 5 minutes. Brush both sides of the graham crackers with the syrup then arrange on the prepared baking sheet (there will be syrup left over. Save it as a sweetener for coffee, oatmeal, or fruit). Bake the crackers until toasted, 8 to 10 minutes, flipping once. Set aside to cool then snap into pieces, some small, some large bite-sized.

Tumble the chopped chocolate, espresso powder, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Once steaming, pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand 5 minutes, undisturbed. After the time is up, stir until smooth, starting at the centre of the bowl and working outwards. Fold in the graham crunch. Pour the rubbled ganache over the brownies and spread to an even layer. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until set.

Finally, make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure that the bowl has some clearance. Heat, stirring attentively and scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically with a silicone spatula, until the mixture reaches 175°F | 80°C on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes. Transfer the whites to the stand mixer with the wire whisk attached. Beat, starting slow and increasing the speed steadily, until the mixer is on full. Whip until the stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the vanilla.

Retrieve the brownies from the fridge. Spoon the frosting onto the ganache layer. Use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to swoop and swirl it to your liking. Toast the frosting with a culinary torch or under a hot broiler—watching it all the while. Let cool and set, then use the cross of parchment to lift the brownies from the pan, then slice and serve. Extras can be refrigerated in their pan, loosely covered with cling film, for 2 days. Or, frozen until firm and then transferred to an airtight container for freezer storage up to a month. 

NOTE: 

Shown here surrounded by toys at a family picnic, Martha Stewart's One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes and Beatty's Chocolate Cake from Ina Garten were combined in a multi-layer cake. Photos courtesy Deep Media.

As anyone familiar with the recipes and columns featured on this site might assume, I am pretty much my family's unofficial baker. One could also rightly assume, seeing my penchant for chocolate, that this fondness might run in the family.

And so, with birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, family reunions and all other manner of festive events, I bake a lot. Not that I am complaining; far be it in fact.

Sometimes there is nothing I would rather do than to pull out my beloved mixer and spend the afternoon measuring, beating and baking. Nowadays I am most often aided by the efforts of my rather endearing assistant, who particularly enjoys sifting dry ingredients and feels it his birthright to lick the bowl whenever possible.

But I digress. Back to the chocolate. Since this love for all things to do with the cacao bean seems to be part of our familial DNA, chocolate cakes are often the request for our celebratory events. Every time I am asked, these words activate my June Cleaver gene; I become consumed with the desire to make the most delicious, most gorgeous, most towering creation of irresistible, indulgent cake and decadent frosting imaginable.

A few years ago I started making the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook to satisfy this task. They were met with resounding accolades as everyone proclaimed them to be the "best ever." I made these for picnics, frosted with chocolate buttercream and decorated with accents of Martha Stewart's signature jadeite green. Truly a one-bowl wonder, I made them in a layer cake variation for a joint birthday party and was later told tales of attendees fighting over the last slice.

Then along came Beatty. I never met her, but was introduced to her legacy by Ina Garten on the show The Barefoot Contessa. It seems that this wonderful woman, the grandmother of Ina's friend Michael the florist, made a fantastic chocolate cake. Like Martha's, hers came together with a single bowl and beater and was advertised as delicious. Who was I to argue with Ina? So the next family event rolled around, and out rolled Beatty's cake. Now this recipe was deemed supreme, and all others were said to pale in comparison.

"What about Martha's?" I asked my family.

"This is better." They replied.

The problem was, I know better than to trust my family and friends. See, I know them. They are a fickle, fickle bunch. Easily swayed by the power of chocolate, give them a slice of homemade cake and they will pretty much say whatever you ask them to. They know cake that is in front of you will always be far superior than the cake that has long been eaten.

I had to find out for myself.

It just so happened that recently I was contemplating the task of a cake for an annual family picnic. It was to celebrate a six-year-old's birthday, and when I asked for particulars I was told "chocolate, no nuts." Armed with this instruction, I decided that purity was the way to go; chocolate upon chocolate. And layers. Lots of layers. What child (or adult for that matter) doesn't catch their breath just a little at the sight of a towering slice of birthday cake?

I was perusing recipes when I realized the opportunity at hand. I could finally settle my chocolate cake conundrum - whose cake was better, Ina's or Martha's? I did the math - one single layer 9"x13" cake (or double layer 9") serves about 16 people. If I took two recipes for cakes that size, I could easily serve my 30.

Then I ran into a problem. If I did one layer of each cake, they may bake up to different textures or colours. That would not work. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a stickler for consistent results in baking.

But I did not want to pass up this chance to finally try these cakes side-by-side. I considered my options and came up with an unorthodox plan.

Make each recipe to the letter, or at least to the letter of the notes I have made over the years. Take one 1 1/4" ice cream scoop of each batter and bake until done in a miniature muffin pan. Take the rest of the two batters, combine them, weigh them, then divide them evenly between three 9"x13" pans for baking. I would have two pure testers to compare, and three identical layers for the picnic.

It was just crazy enough to work. And, well, require a heck of a lot of dirty bowls and two nights of staying up well past my bedtime. And yes, I am fully aware of my obsessiveness.

But it was so worth it. Battle chocolate cake has a winner - Martha*.

I wish I had taken a photograph of the miniature cupcakes, but it was later than I would like to admit and there was no way I was pulling the camera out at that hour.

Take my word for it, Martha's baked up with a beautiful, glossy-smooth crown and sprang back jauntily to the touch. Ina's was slightly more reticent to recover and flatter on top - a trait helpful in layer cakes, but for a cupcake it looked a little depressed. However, the dark, peat-like colour of each was strikingly similar when compared, as was the crumb. Both cakes boasted a texture that was well-formed, open and moist. If I was pressed to note a difference, Ina's was ever so slightly more moist and delicately-elastic to the tongue.

And now the taste. While Ina's did have a prominent cocoa flavour balanced by a subtle coffee undertone, Martha's was somehow more intense, without being overbearing. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something that gave the latter more character. I am sorry and mean no offense Beatty, but something about your cake (while exceedingly tasty) was a smidge reminiscent of a boxed cake when put up against Martha's. Truly, Ms. Stewart's was that good. It was richer, deeper, chocolateyer. I found it was every -er I could hope for.

I knew it was not a good idea to listen to family members on a chocolate high. Sometimes due diligence, along with a bunch of eggs and a box of cocoa, is the only way.

* Some commenters are surprised at Martha's win. To be frank, I was too; I love Ina's cake. Upon reflection, I wonder if Ina's was a victim to its texture; its light sponginess melts in the mouth, while Martha's edge in structure allows it to linger. In short, you simply have more of an opprtunity to taste the latter. It should be noted though, that I did alter Martha's original recipe (see below), so the victory is subject to a condition.

Epilogue:

For those wondering what the layer cake was like after I combined the two recipes, it was sinfully yummy. The layers baked up exceptionally even, but their size and tenderness did make them a somewhat delicate to handle.

I am fairly sure that the number that ended up at the event was somewhere closer to 50, and the cake served the crowd handily. Everyone came back with glowing reviews. I would almost hazard to say the cake was better than Martha's cupcake, but I am scared to start down that slippery slope. Goodness knows, I can't make a behemoth like this one for every event, now can I? With results like this though, I won't say I'm not tempted.

You will note I have not included the recipe for the frosting, because that research is still ongoing. In this instance, I used a loose adaptation of a few recipes for chocolate buttercream between the layers, covered with an improvised ganache smoothed over top.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

As the recipe is subject to copyright, I have only included my notes here. However, a quick search does find it published online (not through the official site, not the one that begins with 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder).

Notes:

  • In lieu of milk alone, I use 1/2 cup sour cream plus 3/4 cup milk. Alternatively, I have had success swapping in some buttermilk.
  • As many may remember, I am an addict when it comes to espresso and chocolate in combination; so I use about 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder dissolved in the warm water. If espresso powder is unavailable, I recommend at least 1/2 cup of prepared coffee substituted for the same amount of water (combined with enough warm water to meet the recipe's specification).
  • If using kosher salt for baking, I sometimes will stir it into the liquid ingredients instead of sifting it into the dry. This way you ensure that it is fully dissolved.