Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The wonderful world of browned butter...

Tomorrow brings us to another Weekly Wednesday Treat Day - the treat I choose is pretty simple, but I added another step to these Browned Butter Oat 'N' Toffee Grahams that brings a new dimension to them.

The original recipe just called for melted butter, but I took that a little further and let the butter bubble away until its color slightly darkened from its natural golden blonde color, releasing a very nutty aroma. If you follow this step (highly recommended!), keep the butter over medium to medium-low and don't wander too far away from the pot - when it is ready, you'll see that some of the milk solids have fallen to the bottom and turned very golden. Don't forget to scrape those bits out of the pot as they are full of intense flavor.

Underneath these bars are simply sheets of honey graham crackers all lined up neatly on a big baking sheet. The next layer is very oatmeal cookie-like - when you drop the thick oatmeal batter on top of the graham crackers, be sure to spread it all the way to the edge of the baking sheet (there will be a small space between the edge of the baking pan and the graham crackers) as you don't want any crackers exposed. After being baked until the cookie layer is bubbling and lightly browned, a generous amount of chopped bittersweet chocolate is scattered over the top and placed back into the oven briefly to soften. This creates a slick of chocolate frosting to coat the rich cookie layer - to gild the lily, a smattering of toasted, sliced almonds is added while the chocolate is still warm as the finishing touch.

The texture between the crisp grahams, the firm cookie-like center and the chocolate/almond topping was exciting! Browning the butter just took these bars to a new level - while they are rich and fairly sweet, the flavor wasn't over the top and kept my taste buds dancing in anticipation of the next bite. If you are a fan of the salty and sweet combination, which we decidedly are, Jeff and I thought swapping the toasted almonds on top for crushed salty pretzels would be a fun twist to these bars. Or, if you wanted to satisfy all tastes, top a third with the almonds, another with pretzels and leave the last plain - then you could see which you like best (sigh - I wish I had thought to buy pretzels this past weekend so I could have tried!).

I guess they weren't kidding around when they talked about the cooler weather coming in - it was a nippy 38 degrees when I woke up this morning! The temperature did bounce back a little after the warming rays from the sun took away the chill... but it certainly wasn't balmy!

To warm us up this evening as it started to cool down again, I went the very hearty route with a Beef and Polenta Bake I made for dinner.

The bottom of this dish is a thin layer of creamy homemade polenta that we spiked with sharp Parmesan cheese. The polenta is prepared first so it has time to set up while you make the beef topping. The timing for cooking the polenta will be determined by how coarse or fine the texture of your cornmeal is - if it is pretty fine, it might be ready in 5 or 10 minutes. However, I like to use a coarser meal, so ours took almost 30 minutes to thicken - I prefer this because we just find it has a better chance to develop more flavor the longer it cooks.

Once that was out of the way, I browned up a pound of ground sirloin and added a chopped onion, a few cloves worth of minced garlic, finely chopped carrots, chopped celery, finely chopped mushrooms and then sprinkled the mess with an Italian blend of herbs. Yes, mushrooms were included and oops, I didn't mention that to Jeff... in fact he is probably finding that out while reading this post! You don't have to finely chop them, but I do what it takes... hee hee! They added a pleasant earthy background and "beefed" up the dish, for lack of a better word. Tomato paste is stirred in and allow to caramelize - once toasty, we stirred in a few splashes of red wine (which could be swapped out with a rich beef stock if you don't cook with alcohol) and a can of fire-roasted whole tomatoes. To break up those red, juicy whole tomatoes, we used a potato masher while the mixture was coming up to a boil.

After the liquid was given time to evaporate to tighten the mixture up, the sauce is livened up with fresh parsley and then spooned over the now-firm polenta in the baking dish. Scattered with provolone cheese, the dish is baked just long enough to heat the polenta layer and melt the shreds of cheese. Jeff was sitting at the island with a fork and threatening to dig in (though, he probably would not have if he had known about those mushrooms!), so we didn't wait for it to rest a bit as we usually would.

The topping was still a little loose, but neither of us cared in the end as we demolished our full plates! Using the tomato paste really added a punch of concentrated flavor whiled the veggies really stretched the meaty sauce - we got about 8 servings, which will be perfect to warm up for lunches! If you know you won't have time to make this the night you want, you could assemble it the day before up to the point right before you add the cheese - just cover and stash it in the refrigerator overnight. Uncover, top with the cheese and bake until thoroughly heated through the next night!


  1. Those oat toffee grahams sure look tasty and creative!

  2. Joe! Your polenta bake sounds so good! My dh has the same problem with mushrooms and I've been forbidden to even bring them into the house. I've been, for the past several years, using beef gravy as a substitution with good success.

    I've been wanting to give polenta a go, so I'm stealing this recipe!

  3. I am the mushroom hater and since I am the cook I get to leave them out! Will it hurt if I do - that's a lot of mushrooms.

  4. mmmmmmmmmm. Now, how far is it to your house from here?
    Thanks for bringing up brown butter! I haven't thought about it for years, except at asparagus time. Those bars sound and look delicious!

  5. The beef and polenta bake looks yummy! Except for the beef. I thought about it and happen to (always) have eggplant in the house. So I think I'll use that instead. Not bragging or anything, but this is borderline brilliant!


  6. O.M.G...toffee is my favorite. I'm not looking, I'm not looking...Ugh. Who am I kidding? I'm drooling over here...those bars look too good to resist.

    I've never worked with polenta, but I've been wanting to. Your dish might be the final "push" I needed!

    I thought we had "cooled" off with 75 degrees this morning! 38? Yikes!

  7. Katrina - Thanks!

    Debie - There are so many ways to enjoy polenta too! Have you looked at the polenta ricotta pie we made?

    Shortoldlady - You can leave them out if you want.

    Katrina - We've made lots of sweets with browned butter too!

    Quinn - I hope you let us know how the eggplant version comes out!

    Gigi - Polenta is not scary at all and is very tasty!

  8. I don't make polenta but looking at this I might change my mind. The treat looks really good as usual.

  9. Helene - Is there a reason you don't make it?

  10. joe: what can replace country graham with?
    i've been to 3 super markets, and they're ALL SOLD OUT! :(

  11. Elaine - No grocery stores have Graham Crackers in stock? Is there some sort of shortage I don't know about? I'm not sure what a good replacement would be - you could always try and bake a batch of homemade graham crackers and go from there!

  12. hello joe,
    i made these today (yes, i finally got hold of them graham crackers) and well, i love the texture of it.
    but only 1 qualm, it was wayyyyy too sweet. guess i should've cut down to half cup of sugar each.

  13. Hi, Joe! I love your blog! I made these myself and they are soooo delicious. My coworkers all loved them, too. (I posted about them today.) Thank you for the recipe and the inspiration!