That euphoric moment when you attempt something you’ve never done before and the results turn out beyond your expectation – this brownie was all of that. It all started last January. My tryst with organic, whole-grain baking that is. I got a phone call from someone who asked if I could bake some 100% whole grain goodies for her. Also all organic. Also vegan. And hey, no white sugar, or commercial non-dairy milk/cream or honey, thank you! Whoa! Now that was a whole lot of things.
So, to begin with, maida was out (even if it was unbleached and organic. I was already working with half-whole wheat then, so that was okay. But a loaf 100% whole wheat bread was still something I hadn’t even attempted then. And butter was out too. And no easy off-the-shelf soy milk. I had to find alternatives to almost everything that any baked product typically uses – butter, milk, cream, sugar!
And so started the experimentation. Serious ones at that. Eventually butter gave way to oil, cream to cashew paste, sugar to jaggery, palm sugar and palm jaggery, and milk to coconut milk or cashew milk. The milk was all made at home, of course—the coconut milk from coconuts that I got (and still get) from my parents’ backyard in our native place or from the many independent houses in my locality that have coconut trees in their compound.
The texture or taste of these new bakes weren’t close to what I’d been baking till then. But slowly and surely I started liking those goodies and eventually we moved to exclusively baking with whole-grain, vegan and refined-free ingredients. I still thank God for that day when my phone rang and I spoke to Preethi on the other end. (People, you must check out Krya, if you already haven’t. Started by Preethi and her husband Srinivas, Krya makes natural cleaning products for home and bodycare needs that use all organic ingredients and are vegan). Organic ingredients aren’t always easy to find. The one thing that still eludes me is locally-available good organic cocoa powder.
I’ve managed to find one chocolate manufacturer (Cocoacraft) who makes couverture chocolate with organically-grown cocoa, but the sugar they use is not organic. So I buy the 70% and 84% chocolates from them. The percentage mentioned in any chocolate is the quantity of cocoa mass – the actual ground cocoa bean portion plus additional cocoa butter, if any, for good mouth feel. There is one other bean-to-bar manufacturer (Mason&Co) who also make wonderful organic chocolate that uses organic cane sugar too apart from organic cocoa beans. But right now now we find it way too expensive to use for orders at Lotsa Lavender.
Although this doesn’t particularly go with the topic here, I’ll quickly mention the difference between chocolate and compound. To be called “chocolate”, the bar must have cocoa butter as the only binding agent – no oil or vegetable fat. Any chocolate bar that has either oil or vegetable fat is technically not chocolate and cannot be sold or labelled as chocolate even in India. So if you see any “chocolate” that is much cheaper than others, it probably is compound. Look at the ingredient list on the wrapper – if it says compound, it isn’t chocolate!
Coming back to organic cocoa powder, I found an imported brand at an organic store here, but the supply isn’t regular, plus I was looking for a local solution. Then someone mentioned an organic store in Bangalore called Buffalo Back that stocks organic cocoa beans. I looked up their page and called up the number listed on the page. In the meantime, I’d figured out that the lady behind the organic movement was called Vishala. I quick phone call later Vishala assured me she’d send a pack of cocoa beans with her hubby who was travelling to Chennai the following week on work.
Could I get any luckier? I was so excited on D-day that I could hardly concentrate on anything else! I had someone pick up the package from Vishala’s husband and deliver it to me at home. Vishala had also sent me some packs of their wheat grains as well as whole wheat flour that I’d asked for. The sweet lady hasn’t yet told me how much I owe her! Can you imagine sending a bag full of stuff to someone without taking payment and forgetting all about it too? Anyway, I continue trying to reach her!
Anyway, I started working with the cocoa beans. At first I imagined I could simply roast and grind up the beans at home or get it ground from the local coffee mill. It was only after reading up a bit that I realised that the cocoa bean has fat deposits that we call cocoa butter. Commercial production of cocoa powder involves removing a certain percentage of the cocoa butter from the bean and then processing the rest into cocoa powder.
At home, I went ahead and roasted the cocoa beans and once they cooled down, removed the thickish papery skins. Then I ground it up in the mixer-grinder. At first all I got was a coarse powder, but on grinding it for a much longer time, the powder started to clump together, almost like nut butters do. When I could go no further, I emptied the contents into a small glass jar, hoping to try some cookies later that day. And what did I see an hour later? A perfectly solid mass of pure chocolate! I did try eating it on its own, but it was too darn bitter. “So this is how unsweetened chocolate is made”, I thought to myself. It was an exciting discovery for me.
I made a couple of batches of cookies with it, but the chocolate flavour wasn’t strong enough. I need to try with a recipe that calls for melted unsweetened chocolate. A few days later, I made a small batch of brownies. And then, I struck Gold!
I searched for a brownie recipe that used unsweetened chocolate and zeroed in on the one from Joy of Baking. Although I’d stopped using butter in my baked goods, I gave in for this one because my stash of cocoa bean was small and precious and I couldn’t take too many risks with it. Second, I hadn’t still gotten round to a very good chocolate brownie that was vegan as well as whole grain. And I didn’t want to add a third uncertain element to it.
The brownie turned out beautiful. It was very fudgy and had a nice thin papery crust. I like my brownies fudgy, but not too much. Others who ate it liked it though, so I’ll give this one passing marks. Also, I used whole wheat in place of all purpose/maida flour and granulated unrefined organic brown sugar and palm sugar powder in place of white sugar in the recipe. I didn’t unmould it properly, so I got pretty odd-shaped pieces. In fact the one in the picture was the only reasonably square one! Since making this recipe, I’ve tried a few more vegan brownie recipes, and kind of settled on one that works very well for me. I’m still to get a hang of using the cocoa bean paste in that one though. So this one will do for now.
Anyway, I hope my long lecture hasn’t put you off to sleep before you even get to the recipe! Bake on! If you need any help in using/sourcing organic ingredients or using jaggery/palm sugar in place of white sugar or in replacing plain flour/maida in any of your recipes with whole grain flours, do write in and I can share whatever I’ve learnt.
PS: This is day 4 of the month-long blogging marathon with only baked goodies the whole month through. I hope to do mostly breads, sneaking in non-yeasted bakes a couple of times. I thought I’d break the monotony of plain whole grain loaves for the last three days with these brownies. Hope it interests you all!
PPS: I halved the recipe and baked it in an 8 inch by 4 inch loaf pan. Do you know baking involves a lot of math? Did you know that you can halve MOST cake recipes and make it in a pan 2 inches smaller than the prescribed one? But since I did not have a 6 inch square pan at that time, I baked it in my loaf pan.
PPPS: I’ve given gram measures for some of the ingredients because it was easier to convert the ounce measures in the recipe to grams rather than into cup and spoon measures. If you need any help with the measures, do write in and I’ll get back to you.
Cocoa Bean Brownies
Dark chocolate chips – 70 gm (I used 70% couverture chocolate)
Unsweetened chocolate* – 30 gm
Whole wheat flour^ – ½ cup less 1 tbsp (about 50 gm)
Almond powder – 1 tbsp
Unsalted butter – 50 gm (about ¼ cup of softened butter)
Unsweetened cocoa powder – 2 tbsp
Curd – scant ¼ cup
Light brown sugar # – heaping ½ cup
Vanilla extract – 1 tsp
Baking soda scant ¼ tsp
Nuts – a handful, roasted and coarse chopped (I used walnuts and pistachios)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8 inch by 4 inch loaf pan with oil. Line with parchment paper and grease the parchment paper also
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together. Keep aside
Place both chocolates and butter in a small, heat-proof bowl. Place bowl over a small pot of simmering water (creating a double boiler), or microwave the mixture at 50% for 30 seconds at a time, stirring until glossy and completely melted. Stir in cocoa powder.
In a medium bowl, whisk together curd and sugars until thoroughly combined. Add vanilla extract and chocolate mixture and stir to combine
Add the flour mix and some of the nuts. Stir until combined and spoon into prepared pan. Top with the remaining nuts
Bake for around 30 minutes until the nuts are golden brown, and the top is no longer glossy
Remove pan from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Remove the brownies from the pan once cool and cut into squares
* I used ground cocoa bean paste. You can use dark chocolate if you can’t find unsweetened chocolate, but reduce sugar accordingly
^When I use whole wheat in place of plain flour, I normally add a bit of almond powder to give it some richness. I also think the almond powder in the flour cuts down the gluten activity that makes the cake texture hard if batter is beaten more than required. I normally put 1-2 tbsp of almond powder in a 1-cup measure and top it with whole wheat flour
#I used a mix of granulated unrefined organic brown sugar and palm sugar powder