Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dark Days Challenge: Valentine Sweets

This year, the Dark Days Challenge is throwing in some extra challenges for fun. Some might think it too difficult on top of already coming up w/ a Dark Days meal, but personally, I love it. This week's extra challenge was to make a Valentine's Day sweet according to the Dark Days guidelines we all set for ourselves at the beginning of the challenge.

The first step was figuring out what to make. I have tons of frozen berries and canned fruit, so I could have made a fruit or berry pie or muffins or pastry easily, but I didn't want this to be too easy, so I decided I would scratch anything with fruit or berries. Chocolate and cocoa are tricky ingredients for Dark Days since there is lots of uncertainty surrounding human rights issues and how these items are produced. So anything with chocolate or cocoa was out, too. This seriously limited my options, but that is part of the challenge.

I settled on blondies. Flour? check. Butter? Check. Organic unrefined sugar? Check.

I also happened to have bought some black walnuts from the Monroe Farm Market last month. Not because I had plans to make anything with them, but just because I love black walnuts. Or, I should say, I love to eat stuff with black walnuts in them. I quickly realized I don't love all aspects of black walnuts. When I bought them, the Hubs laughed and said I had been taken on that purchase. He couldn't believe I actually paid money for UNSHELLED black walnuts. He said last year was a banner year for them, and he could have collected the amount I bought (a half gallon) in under an hour when they were freshly fallen late last fall.

Sunday, I planned to make my blondies, so I went out to the garage, found some gloves (recommended by the Hubs), put down some newspaper on the floor, found a hammer and went to crackin'. Two hours later, I was halfway through the half gallon bag. And I had about a cup and a half of nut pieces. W.T.F. would be appropriate here...

So, there's still a half a bag of black walnuts in my garage waiting to be shelled, and I ran out of time to make them on Sunday evening.

It was hard to find a recipe for blondies that didn't call for some type of chips, either chocolate, white chocolate or butterscotch. I was afraid to use a recipe calling for them and just omit them since the recipes I found called for A LOT of them, like a cup and a half. I was afraid omitting that much of an ingredient would affect the baking and the finished product would be too dry. I found this recipe at Smitten Kitchen. The title alone, "Blondies, infinitely adaptable" put me at ease. And especially when I scrolled down and saw that a suggested adaptation would be adding bourbon. Sold!

Let me just say that when I mixed this up, I couldn't help sneak a taste of the batter. And. It. Was. Scary. Like AMAZING. I swear, I never thought of combining black walnuts and bourbon, but it was genius. Smokey, oakey, deep and complex goodness. I was so excited to try the finished product.

But I think all the bourbon cooked out. You didn't get much of the bourbon taste at all, much to my dissappointment. I am not giving up on this combination, and I need to figure out how to keep more of that flavor in these blondies. They were still pretty good though. Good enough for me to eat three of them last night when they came out of the oven.

Here is the recipe, adapted from Smitten Kitchen. I dubbed them "hillbilly" blondies because of the bourbon and black walnuts. I always imagine black walnuts are the "country cousin" of the more refined English walnuts...

"Hillbilly" Blondies

8 Tb (1 stick) butter, melted
1 cup packed brown sugar (I used turbinado)
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup black walnuts
1/4 cup bourbon

Butter an 8 x 8 pan. Prehead oven to 350. Mix melted butter with brown sugar and beat until smooth. Beat in the egg and then vanilla and bourbon. Add salt and baking powder and stir in flour. Pour into buttered pan and bake 25 minutes, or until set in the middle.

The butter was Organic Valley Pasture Butter. The sugar was Mate Factor Organic Mascavo sugar. The egg was from Cozy Hollow Farm and the black walnuts were from Indian Creek Farm, both via the Monroe Farm Market. The vanilla was the real deal, not the stuff you can get at the grocery store for 99 cents. (BTW, I highly recommend investing the money and buying the real deal. Don't waste your time or money on the artificial stuff). The bourbon was Jim Beam. The distillery is 219 miles from my house, happily, so it's within my Dark Days rules.

If you ever happen to be passing through northern Kentucky, I highly recommend stopping at one of the bourbon distilleries. Travelling along the Bluegrass Parkway is a lovely trip in itself, but stopping at a distillery is the cherry on top. Two summers ago, I attened a national conference in Louisville for work, and let me tell ya, Kentucky is PROUD of their bourbon. There was a bourbon tasting one evening, and at ever other social event scheduled in conjunction with the conference bourbon was the featured drink. I enjoyed myself so much (and developed a new appreciation for bourbon) that I took my mom back last summer. We toured Woodford Reserve Distillery, and I'll never forget the smell of the bourbon aging in their barrelhouses. If I could bottle that smell, I'd wear it as perfume.

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