The most time-consuming dessert I made for Thanksgiving this year, easily the most decadent, and certainly the one that got the most attention (several of them vanished before the meal was served!) This is a layer of fudgy brownie with cocoa nibs, covered in a layer of peanut butter fudge, then a layer of salted caramel, then a layer of dark chocolate ganache. The recipe(s) is (are) entirely my own, either things I’m working on (like the brownie; trying to work out a good ratio-a-la-Ruhlman) or things that have been in my go-to stable for a while (the caramel and ganache).
Photo-wise, this was shot in the morning light on Thanksgiving, on my front porch. I thought the close-up framing and the square crop complemented the shape and arrangement of the brownie, and emphasize the decadence a bit (not that it needs that much help).
For the brownie layer
6 oz. unsalted butter
3 oz. vegetable oil
7 oz. brown sugar
8 oz. granulated sugar
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I used Hershey's “Special Dark”)
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
8 oz. all-purpose flour
1 oz. dutch-process cocoa powder (I usually use Hershey's “Special Dark” cocoa powder, which is a blend of natural and dutch-process)
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tbl. cocoa nibs
For the peanut butter fudge layer
14 oz. (2 c.) granulated sugar
1/3 c. smooth peanut butter
2/3 c. whole milk
1.5 oz (3 tbl.) butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
heavy pinch salt
For the caramel layer
11 oz. (about 1 1/2 c.) granulated sugar
1/4 c. light corn syrup
3/4 c. water
1 c. heavy cream
2 oz. butter
1 tbl. coarse sea salt
For the chocolate ganache layer
12 oz. bag chocolate chips or 12 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Hershey's “Special Dark” chips)
1 c. heavy cream
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Spray a deep 13"x9" baking pan with cooking spray and line it with parchment, such that the parchment comes up the sides of the pan. I use a technique for this that I’m sure I first saw described by Jacques Pépin, and which is essentially described on this website.
Combine the flour, cocoa powder, and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, oil, sugars, and chocolate. Heat over medium-low heat until the butter and chocolate have melted, the sugar is well-incorporated, and the mixture is glossy. Whisk in the eggs and vanilla, then pour over the dry ingredients and stir to combine well. Once combined, stir aggressively until smooth and glossy, about one minute. Pour into the prepared pan, level out and smooth with a spatula, and sprinkle the cocoa nibs on top.
Bake 20-25 minutes until a skewer inserted near the middle emerges clean or with only a few moist crumbs. Usually I under-bake my brownies a bit, but it's OK to let these go a hair longer than that to be sturdy enough to deal with the fudge layer, which may require some pressing. Allow to cool completely in the pan.
The next step is to make the peanut butter fudge layer. Combine the sugar, peanut butter, and milk together in a large saucepan and whisk smooth. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with a heatproof implement, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (238°F on your candy thermometer). Remove from the heat, stir in the butter and vanilla, then allow to sit undisturbed until it cools to a temperature of 110°F.
Once the fudge mixture has cooled, beat the mixture with a wooden spoon until it becomes stiffer and loses its gloss. Immediately pour over the brownie layer, spreading/pressing into an even layer.
You can make the caramel layer while the fudge layer finishes setting up. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water, and place over medium-high heat. Cover and bring to a boil, then remove the lid and continue cooking, without disturbing the pan, until you see the beginnings of caramel color in the bottom of the pan. Begin swirling the mixture gently, and continue cooking until it becomes a deep amber color.
At this point, remove the caramel from the heat, and immediately add the butter and cream. Be careful! This will splatter, and it can burn you badly. Return to medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof implement, until it reaches the soft ball stage (238°F on your candy thermometer). Immediately pour over the fudge layer, and tilt the pan to cover the entire surface with a smooth layer. Sprinkle on the sea salt, and allow to cool.
Finally, it’s time for the ganache layer. Heat the cream just until it starts to bubble along the edges (do not let it boil), then pour over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is glossy. Immediately pour over the caramel layer, and allow to cool and set.
Keep them in the pan until an hour or so before serving them. To make them a bit easier to cut (the caramel and ganache can be sticky), refrigerate them for about 30 minutes, and cut them with a thin, sharp knife dipped in hot water and cleaned between cuts. I cut these into 2"x2" portions, but they’re pretty intense, so slightly smaller portions (say 1.5"x1.5") might work a bit better. (Well, maybe. People seemed to cut the bigger portions in half; then had more than one of the half-sized portions. Go figure.)