"The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful." –e.e. cummings
One day, Alexis popped by our favourite local cookbook store, Good Egg, and came home with Ania Catalano's Baking with Agave Nectar: Over 100 Recipes Using Nature's Ultimate Sweetener. When we first started dating, he was way more into baking with whole grains, natural sweeteners, and vegan ingredients than I was. I admit that when he came home with it, I was a bit sceptical that I'd like the recipes. Not that they didn't sound delicious—who doesn't like the idea of Peanut Butter Mousse Cupcakes or Pear Frangipane tart?—but I was worried that moving away from the ingredients that I trusted to make baking taste wonderful—butter, white flour, granulated sugar—would lead to disappointing desserts. How wrong I was.
I've now baked so many things from Baking with Agave that I'm not sure I remember what I tried first. I think it was a chocolate cake for Alexis' birthday last April. So many cookbooks fail not in the concept, but in the execution: the recipes sound and look amazing, but they obviously haven't been tested enough in a home kitchen to reliably turn out well. This book is not one of those. In fact, the cake that I baked didn't even accurately follow the recipe; it was a mash-up between Catalano's chocolate cake and Nigella Lawson's Bounty cake from Feast. I'm a better cook than baker, but even with my inevitable bumbling, it was perfect. Same with those peanut butter mousse-filled cupcakes, the filling of which turned into an incredible ice cream. And the chocolate buttercream frosting, which made amazing truffles. And the chocolate chip cookies. Better yet, none of them contained white flour or refined sugar, and the cake even had a significant helping of vegetables in the form of shredded zucchini. Not only is agave easy to bake with, it's all natural and low on the glycemic index, which means that it doesn't make your blood sugar spike the way white sugar does. I was hooked.
I recently found out that my friend B is sick: homebound, on painkillers, and off work until May. A bunch of us girls from school are heading over to her place tonight to pig out on perogies and commiserate. It wouldn't be girls' night without chocolate, and as the designated baker of the group, I wanted to find something that would satisfy our sweet-tooths, but wouldn't compromise B's health with a ton of processed ingredients and white flour. Back to Baking with Agave I went, and settled on the black bean brownies.
I know, right? Black beans in brownies? You might be sceptical, but you'd be wrong. As the title of this post suggests, they really are mud-luscious—damp, dark, intensely chocolately, super fudgey, and slightly smoky from the inclusion of instant espresso powder. They're some of the best brownies I've ever tasted. And guess what? You would never guess, in a million years, that they contain beans instead of flour. Sonia, my roommate, doesn't usually go in for my "let's make something indulgent into something healthy!" impulse, but she adores these. You've got to give them a try, and they make a huge batch, so they're perfect for sharing.
Black Bean Brownies
Notes: As the salt of Heart and Salt might suggest, I always bake with salted butter. This is a no-no according to most pastry chefs, but I really like the way that the extra hit of salt enhances flavour and adds that addictive salty-sweet kick. If you're trying to reduce your sodium intake, or if you just don't like the flavour, either use unsalted butter or leave out the ¼ teaspoon of sea salt. To toast the walnuts, toss them in a dry pan over medium-high heat just until they become fragrant and golden, 5-7 minutes. You can also bake them in a single layer at 400˚ for 7-10 minutes, shaking once halfway through. Try to find a good quality cocoa powder, as it really kicks up the chocolate power here; I used Cocoa Camino. You can find agave nectar—Madhava and Wholesome Sweeteners are two brands I often buy—at most local health food stores or at Whole Foods. My 24-hour corner grocery store even has it now. If you have good quality brand of chocolate you prefer, use it, but I just used 4 1-oz squares of Baker's unsweetened chocolate.
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup salted butter, cut into small pieces
1 540 mL can black beans, well rinsed (or 2 cups soft-cooked)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 tablespoon good vanilla extract
¼ cup good quality cocoa powder
2 tbsp instant espresso powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups light agave nectar
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper and lightly oil with coconut or olive oil; alternatively, grease it with a bit of softened butter. You can also use an 11- by 18-inch pan, but your brownies will be flatter and your cooking time will be shorter. I indicate cooking times for both pan sizes at the end of the recipe.
Melt the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on high. Stir to melt the chocolate completely and fully blend the chocolate with the melted butter. Place ½ cup of the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Be careful not to over-process or you'll end up with walnut butter. Add the beans, the vanilla extract, and all of the melted chocolate mixture into the food processor. Blend about 3 minutes, or until smooth and thick. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the remaining 1/2 cup walnuts, the cocoa, the instant espresso, and the salt. Set aside.
In the bowl that you melted the chocolate in, beat the eggs with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the agave nectar and beat well, about 1 minute. Set aside.
Add the mixture from the food processor to the mixture in the large bowl and stir until well blended.
Add the egg mixture to the large bowl with the chocolate mixture and blend well with the electric mixer on low speed. The batter is the right consistency if the beaters leave visible trails in the batter, but it isn't stiff. If your batter is too thin, add a bit more cocoa; if it's too thick, thin with a bit of water. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 45-50 minutes (for the 9- by 13-inch pan) or for 30-40 minutes (for the 11- by 18-inch pan) on the middle rack, until the brownies are set and the top is springy to the touch. Chill the brownies completely before cutting and serving—this really enhances their fudgy texture and makes them easier to cut. It helps if you dip your knife into hot water before cutting, as they are quite soft.
Adapted from Baking With Agave Nectar: Over 100 Recipes Using Nature's Ultimate Sweetener by Ania Catalano (Ten Speed Press, 2008).