Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Doctoring Duncan

Salted caramel pretzel brownies
I approach baking the way many folks approach cooking: with impatience, reluctance, and a bit of insecurity. Experimenting with baking seems to require hours to chill the dough or mix batter in just the right order and vats of special, cupboard-busting ingredients. And in matters of the pastry, my gut seems to be useless (at least in the kitchen--my gut does just fine at the table). Dough that tastes beautiful in the bowl bakes up bland, and cookies go from uncrisp to cremated before my eyes.

For example: On Thursday, I decided to whip up some easy cookies for Shabbat dessert. But since I can never leave well enough alone, I subbed mashed bananas for some of the oil (lots of commenters said they had good results with applesauce, but it wasn’t on my shelf). I also tossed in the apricots and almonds from the chicken I was making, plus a few handfuls of chocolate chunks and raisins.

Probably because of the banana, possibly because of all the mix-ins, the results were more Cliff bar than cookie—dense, vague lumps instead of chewy, tangy morsels.

Duncan was there for me when I needed him most. Like the perfect man, he becomes whatever you want him to be: Low-fat, high-altitude, chewy, cake-like, and/or filled with whatever mix-ins you please. He makes friends easily: I served the gooey brownies with the oatmeal cookies, now toasted into crunchy discs, and the combination was actually tasty. And he's a head-turner: The table went silent when I brought out dessert.  

Later this weekend I visited The City Bakery, where every dreary, sludgy day of February they serve a different flavor of delicious, sludgy hot chocolate. My friend M. and I split a cup and one of their signature pretzel croissants. 

A golden afternoon at The City Bakery

Since then I haven’t been able to get the combination out of my head. So I whipped up another batch of Duncan, this one with a salted caramel and pretzel crust. This weekend I’m dreaming of something that pulls together rich milk chocolate with pillowy, salty pretzel. Maybe a grilled chocolate sandwich on a pretzel roll? Don’t worry: Duncan doesn’t get jealous when you fantasize about someone else, because he knows you’ll always come back.

Salted Caramel Sauce
Salted caramel sauce. Whether you make it cream-filled or
vegan, just make it
Like the patient brownie he is, Duncan lets me dress him in all sorts of yuppie clothes. Salted caramel is one of my favorites—it's quick (under 15 minutes), uses common ingredients, and always impresses. I’ve provided measurements to give you a sense of scale, but this is one of those recipes where you can approximate and experiment, especially if you’re going to pour it over something before serving instead of passing it around in a bowl since the texture matters less.

1/2 cup white sugar
~1/6 cup water (i.e., a little bit--this slows down the caramelization and reduces your chance of burn)
1-2 tbsp solid fat (butter, margarine, coconut oil)
3-4 tbsp liquid (heavy cream  or full-fat coconut milk for a creamy sauce, or dairy, soy, or reduced-fat coconut milk for a drizzle)
1 tsp salt, or to taste

  • Put sugar and water in a saucepan. Heat over medium-high until sugar dissolves (1-2 minutes)
  • As the water boils, start stirring with a spoon or by swirling the saucepan
  • The sugar will start to turn yellow around 5-7 minutes. Keep swirling until it turns brown, a shade or two lighter than the final caramel-y color you want
  • Turn off the heat. Stir in the solid fat
  • Once fat has melted into the caramel, remove from heat. Stand back to avoid splattering as you pour in the liquid. Stir thoroughly until mixed fully
  • If you use a thinner liquid like milk, you may need to cook this down further over medium-low heat to reduce
  • Allow caramel to cool and thicken

Notes for the Naked:
  • The trick to this recipe is watching the sugar carefully. It quickly goes from boiling to burnt. That's why you remove it from the heat before it hits the color you want--it will keep caramelizing until the liquid cools it down
  • If you’re passing this around as a topping, after three minutes of cooling in the saucepan, pour into a jar or bowl and let it thicken further. Refrigerate, and let it sit out for 20 minutes before serving
  • For my brownies, I crushed an individual bag of pretzels and poured them on top of the brownie batter before baking. Right when I pulled them out of the oven, I sprinkled chocolate chunks on top, and after they had cooled I drizzled on caramel and kosher salt


  1. This looks so yummy! But, the lazy cook in me has to ask: is it a pain to clean the caramel off the pan afterwards?

    And, please at some point post other variations of duncan hines brownies that you do... I'm excited to learn about all the possibilities!

  2. Not at all! I soak the pan in hot water and soap and the caramel dissolves easily.

    I'll post 'em as I make 'em. One of my favorites is toasted nuts with caramel drizzle. I also love chocolate mint--TJ's had great mint chocolate chips called UFOs, but they've since been discontinued, so you can use after-eight mints, peppermint patties, even smashed candy canes. I also had a blast melting chile pepper into chocolate to top "Mexican" chocolate brownies. But the sky's the limit: Pumpkin? Cream cheese frosting? Rice crispies? I was very tempted to toss these with panko--maybe next time.

  3. Thanks! Do you always put each of these things on top of the brownies and then bake them for a bit? Or add them to the raw mix?

  4. Depends on what you're going for. With the pretzels, I wanted more of a crust, so I put them on top of the raw brownies and baked it all together. For the chocolate mint, I think it's nice to stir them in. I had put the apricots, almonds, raisins, and chocolate chunks on top of the brownies, but I think they would have been better mixed in to make them even more like Cadbury Fruit and Nut.