Praline-Swirled Brownies

Whether or not this is actually true, I tend to fancy myself a Kitchen MacGyver. (All the television executives reading this blog, you can have that title for free. You're welcome.) As much as I like to follow recipes to the letter, sometimes I get all Wild! And! Crazy! and just fling open the cupboards, with nary a clue of what I want to put together, and wait for inspiration to smack me in the face. Do I know how to live on the edge or WHAT.

Anyway, on this particular day, the item that called to me from the depths of my pantry was a never-opened jar of Le Pain Quotidien's glorious Brunette praline spread--sweet, nutty and caramelly, almost like Nutella without the chocolate, if you can imagine such a thing. Have you ever been to a LPQ? If not, think Euro Lady Lunch perfection--moderate portions of open faced-sandwiches on country bread, fresh cheeses, wee lettuces, paper-thin radishes on everything. Lovely bakery items. It is a delight. On every table there is a selection of amazing jams and spreads, including the sinful Brunette. LPQ is the sort of lady-lunching place that makes you feign restraint when all you really want to do is buy a loaf of their chewy, crusty bread and a jar of their praline spread, and then proceed to rip off sizeable chunks, drag them through the jar and put it all in your face, every last bit.

Well, on my last trip to LPQ, I did indeed feign restraint while dining, but bought a jar of Brunette on my way out of the restaurant, fully intending to binge on it in the privacy of my own home. I don't know how I forgot about such grand plans, but I did, and that little jar of heaven got pushed back on the shelves, behind the noodles and canned tomatoes and sacks of Goldfish crackers. How could I let this happen? The only thing to do that could right such a wrong was to swirl it into a brownie batter. Naturally.

Like sunset and cocktails, coffee and cookies, Sunday afternoons and Food Network marathons, this would be a case of the awesome getting awesomer, guys. The brownie recipe here is the famed formula from Baked bakery, so there's that. And then it's cut through with swirls of sweet praline spread, which I salted just a touch for balance. This is a match that's so meant to be, I barely had to tap into my mad Kitchen Macgyver skills to make the magic happen.

Praline-Swirled Brownies
Brownie recipe adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

If you don't have access to Le Pain Quotidien's amazing products (though I highly recommend looking up their locations and getting a friend nearby one of them to send you some, as they don't have an online store), you can try a similar praline spread like this one. Peanut butter will work just fine here, too, and though I prefer the commercial kind of peanut butter in baking, I bet the creamy natural variety would work as well. These brownies get even better the second or third day after baking.

Makes 16

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dark unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
5 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup praline spread (like Le Pain Quotidien's Brunette) or peanut butter (see note)

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of an 8x8 inch baking pan (glass or light-colored metal).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and cocoa powder.

In a heatproof medium bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt together the chocolate, butter and espresso powder, stirring until completely melted and smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the sugars. Let cool to room temperature.

Whisk the eggs into the chocolate and butter mixture until smooth, then whisk in the vanilla. Switch to a spatula and gently fold in the dry ingredients until just a few streaks of flour remain--do not overmix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top evenly.

Place the praline spread or peanut butter in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high just to soften it a bit, about 15 seconds. If using praline spread, add a pinch of salt to taste and stir well. Dollop the praline spread or peanut butter in five equal blobs over the batter and swirl it into the brownie batter with a knife.

Bake until a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs, about 35 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting and serving.

Chocolate, BarsShauna Sever