Halloween is not my thing—let’s just put that out there. I stopped celebrating it years ago, mainly because the world is scary enough without conjuring spirits from the dark beyond (I’m looking at you, 2020). But I do love a theme for parties, dinners and drinks, so I’m making an exception long enough to present a series of themed cocktails in advance of Halloween this weekend. The first drink of the series is a sweet one, and a payback to my grown-up self for something I was robbed of as a kid. Allow me to explain:
When I was younger, I did enjoy the fun side of Halloween with friends. My small, upstate New York town was perfect for trick-or-treating because everyone knew everyone else, so there was an innate sense of safety—for the kids and for the parents. We even had some neighbors who passed out treats such as homemade cookies and colorful candied popcorn balls, and this was deemed perfectly acceptable. My Halloween costumes were also always homemade (not always in a good way), and usually a last-minute effort. There was the year I went as a “gypsy,” which meant I was wearing a mismatched set of my mom’s clothes and jewelry, plus a wig. There was also the year that my dad made my costume, the one I was kind of embarrassed to wear next to my friend who was dressed like a beautifully detailed box of Kellogg’s corn flakes. I was supposed to be a tree.
Notwithstanding what I feared were lame costumes, we had a big time in those days, even in the years we had ankle deep snow on Halloween (thanks, “lake effect”), and we were willing to walk as far as it took to fill up our candy bags. For me, the big, fat downside to trick-or-treating was the “inspection” that my father insisted must be done on my bag of candy. I was no dummy, and it was no coincidence that my bag was noticeably lighter after the so-called safety check. Specifically, my “fun-sized” bars of Milky Way and Snickers would be wiped out. Yes, my dad stole my favorite candy bars. Why didn’t I catch on to this trick and hide my treats before handing over the bag? —all I can say is that I was a very compliant kid. My bad.
This year, Les and I have purchased the obligatory bags of candy to pass out to the neighbor kids who ring our bell every year—all three of them. Apparently, we don’t have strong participation in our subdivision, and most of the nearby kids don’t bother looking for porch lights over here. But we will stock up on Snickers, all the same, and we will be generous in handing them out. You know, it’ll be kind of nice to have someone come to the door, and we will take all necessary safety precautions (those long handled grilling tongs will surely come in handy).
If the kids do make a strong showing (who knows what 2020 will bring, right?), we’ll give away all the candy and we will still be able to enjoy the flavors of my favorite candy bar in this cocktail, which is equal parts salted caramel whiskey, peanut butter whiskey and dark chocolate liqueur. A little salted caramel on the rim, a fun-sized Snickers garnish. Yes, it’ll do. 😊
1 oz. salted caramel whiskey
1 oz. “Skrewball” peanut butter whiskey
1 oz. Godiva dark chocolate liqueur
Salted caramel and fine sea salt (for the rim), small Snickers candy (optional, for garnish)
To rim the cocktail glass, heat a small amount of salted caramel ice cream topping in a small bowl. Sprinkle a small amount of fine sea salt onto a clean paper towel. Use the back of a small spoon to swipe the caramel around the outer edge of the glass rim. Immediately roll the outside edge of the glass on the salted towel. Use a light touch for the perfect amount of saltiness; you don’t want to salt it like a margarita glass! 🙂 Do this a few minutes ahead to give the caramel time to cool and set.
In a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, combine the salted caramel whiskey, peanut butter whiskey and chocolate liqueur. Add ice and stir vigorously until shaker or glass is frosty. Add a large ice cube to your caramel-rimmed glass, and strain the cocktail into the glass. Garnish with a real Snickers bar, just for fun!
There’s dessert for the sake of a sweet tooth, and then there’s DESSERT, as is the case with this ultra-chocolate-y, cherry-infused brownie bowl, packed with “Cherry Garcia” vanilla ice cream, studded with sweet cherries and dark chocolate chunks. Oh, and I almost forgot, the cherry syrup. Over the top? Obviously! But this was a birthday dessert a few weeks ago for my husband, Les, who is himself a little “over the top” crazy about any and all chocolate and cherry combinations. And for such an occasion, during a year that has given us too much to worry about and not enough to celebrate, I went all in.
Well, almost. I did take one easy shortcut and I’m not ashamed to share my little secret with you—I never make brownies from scratch. I have a favorite box brownie mix that meets all my picky ingredient requirements, so why put forth the effort to make it “as good as” theirs, when they already have a product that is a winner every time? Ghirardelli dark chocolate is my go-to, and though the brownies are terrific as directed on the box, I sometimes can’t help but elevate them with my own “extras” to highlight certain aspects of the brownies’ personality. It’s easier than you might expect.
For these birthday brownie bowls, I’ve substituted cherry juice for the water called for on the package instructions, and I’ve added a tablespoon of dark cocoa powder plus a handful each of chocolate chunks and cut up dried cherries. That’s it. The simplest flavor swaps, resulting in the most decadent dessert my hubby could have ever asked for on his birthday (or any other occasion). Luckily, for our ever-expanding pandemic waistlines, it will be another year before we indulge to this degree. But it was kinda worth it. 🙂
These brownies are super-sized and shaped like a bowl, exactly right to hold a generous scoop of ice cream (which I did make from scratch, but don’t feel pressured to do so). The special shape is courtesy of a fancy-schmancy pan I bought from King Arthur Baking Company. At $30, it was a bit of a splurge, but in this most ridiculous year, I’ve been willing to invest a bit more in kitchen gadgets and ingredients to make our home meal experiences more memorable. Mark my word, it’ll pay for itself by the time the holidays get here, because I’m already dreaming up other ideas.
If you’re not feeling the love for a special pan to make bowl-shaped brownies, don’t stress about it. Make the brownies in a regular pan according to the mix instructions. You can still swap in the special flavor ingredients and have a spectacular dessert with minimal effort. Remember, stressed spelled backward = desserts, and I’m all about flipping things around! 🙂
Ingredients & Instructions
1 box of your favorite brownie mix (make according to package instructions, but adjust as noted below)
Substitute equal amount of cherry juice for the suggested amount of water
Add 1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder to the dry mix (Hershey’s special dark will do, and it’s easy to find)
Add 1/2 cup dried dark cherries, cut into smaller pieces (fold in after mixing)
Add 1/2 cup dark chocolate chunks or semi-sweet chocolate chips (fold in after mixing)
Bake as directed on the package, but if you use the King Arthur brownie bowl pan, you’ll want to cut the time in half. My brownies were perfect after 25 minutes.
Fill ‘em up!
Cherry Garcia ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s (or whatever other ice cream rocks your world)
Top ‘em off!
Hot fudge topping, whipped cream, or (if you’re feeling inspired) my quick homemade cherry sauce.
2 cup frozen dark sweet cherries
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla or almond extract (or 1 Tbsp. amaretto liqueur or chocolate liqueur)
1 Tbsp. dark chocolate balsamic vinegar* (optional)
2 Tbsp. corn starch, mixed with 2 Tbsp. ice cold water
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add frozen cherries and sprinkle sugar over the top. Stir and cook until cherries are softened and mixture is reduced and bubbly (about 15 minutes). Add extract or liqueur and stir. Blend corn starch and water until smooth, and slowly drizzle into the cherry sauce, stirring constantly. Allow mixture to come back up to full simmer, and continue to stir as it thickens further. Remove from heat. Use the sauce warm over dessert or keep in refrigerator up to two weeks.
*This time around, I strained the cherries from the sauce because they went into the ice cream. Half of the sauce was drizzled through the ice cream like a ribbon, and the rest was reserved for spooning over the brownie bowls. It was a delicious labor of love!
Not that there’s anything wrong with just plain s’mores. I love them, personally. The crispy graham cracker, melty gooey chocolate and perfectly toasted (or “accidentally” burnt) marshmallow, all pressed into one delicious little sugar sandwich bite—takes me straight back to 1977 and Allegheny State Park in the middle of summer family camp.
But that was a long time ago, and although I still love the idea of s’mores in my grown-up years, I’m less inclined to imagine making a campfire or even firing up the chimenea on our patio. I mean, it’s the middle of summer, you know? I’d rather crank the oven up to 450° F because inside, I have air conditioning. And why would I do something as simple as s’mores, when I can over-complicate them into something more visually decadent?
Consider instead these two tasty treats, bearing every last detail of s’mores, but without the campfire smell permeating your clothes, without the bugs and without smoke getting in your eyes. First of all…
Warm and gooey, stupidly sweet and completely kid-friendly. If I had kids, I would expect them to want this for sleepover parties, or maybe even in lieu of a birthday cake.
For the crust, I leaned on my pals at King Arthur Baking (did you notice, they changed their name!), and did a quick modification to their recipe for whole wheat pizza crust. Who knew that every kid’s favorite cracker is whole grain? Yes, whole wheat flour is also sometimes called “graham flour,” and it’s the basis for graham crackers, so it also will be the base for my s’mores dessert pizza. I took the King Arthur recipe, cut it in half, converted for sourdough, increased the sugar by four times and swapped in coconut oil.
This crust took a good while, because it’s a slow-ferment yeast bread, and the sourdough conversion and extra sugar slowed it down even more. I was OK with this delay because I’m a bread nerd. If you want something quicker, pick up some whole wheat dough at Trader Joe’s, or go with a basic chocolate chip cookie dough, but use whole wheat flour and save the chocolate chips for a topper. In fact, I want to make my next s’mores pizza that way to appease my husband, who has s’mores apathy. This is not his fault. First of all, he was not a Girl Scout. Secondly, he was raised in NYC, and they didn’t exactly have campfires on the fire escape of his apartment building. But if the s’mores are piled onto a giant cookie? That, I suspect, would be right up his alley. I might even go nuts next time and pile the s’mores toppings onto a brownie base. For crying out loud!
For the toppings here, I got things started with a thin slathering of Nutella. I know, hazelnut is not “traditional” for s’mores, but I haven’t found a spread that is only chocolate, so it’ll have to do. Besides, you barely taste the hazelnut underneath all the other stuff that is traditional for s’mores—the graham crumbs, chocolate bits and (of course) the pillow-y miniature marshmallows.
Want to try it? Check your pantry for these items, or mask up and head to the grocery store to get them.
Whole wheat pizza dough or cookie dough substitute
Nutella or similar chocolate spread
Graham crackers, some crushed, some pieces
Chocolate chips or chocolate chunks (I used semi-sweet for my experiment, but I think milk chocolate would melt better)
A big glass of cold milk (trust me, you’ll want this after a big sticky slice of s’mores pizza)
And then, into a 450° F oven, just long enough for the chocolate to melt and the marshmallows to get toasted. This didn’t take long, maybe 5 more minutes.
This pizza satisfied my once-in-an-adult-blue-moon craving for s’mores, but I will tell you honestly that the end result (by the time I finished taking pictures and slicing it) was a bit on the chewy side, which was oddly addictive for me, but my hubby did not love it and it was a total “no-go” as leftovers. The best thing about real s’mores is that they provide immediate gratification, a fleeting taste of pure and simple decadence. Once a marshmallow has been toasted then allowed to cool, it becomes overly sticky and loses the gooey deliciousness that makes a simple s’more so ridiculously good. So, if you intend to give this a go, may I suggest you have a few hungry friends nearby (safely distanced, of course) and ready to indulge? Everyone grab a slice and eat it, straight from the oven.
Or, if your properly distanced friends are all members of the over-21 crowd, lean into this adaptation instead:
The distinct flavors of your favorite summer camp treat, with vanilla and chocolate spirits, and neatly dispensed in a chilled 4 oz. glass, complete with graham crumb rim and floating a toasted mini marshmallow garnish.
1.5 oz. vanilla vodka (I used Absolut)
1.5 oz. crème de cacao (light or dark, but not creamy)
You will also need a petite cocktail glass and a kitchen torch or stick lighter. A cocktail mixing glass or shaker will be helpful, or improvise with a glass measuring cup.
Combine the vanilla vodka and crème de cacao in a cocktail mixing glass (or a bowl that is wide enough to dip your glass rim into). Carefully lower the rim of your chilled cocktail glass into the alcohol mixture, then roll the edges into the graham crumbs until coated all around. Put the glass in the fridge or freezer while you prep the marshmallows.
Arrange the mini marshmallows in a heated cast iron skillet, and use a kitchen torch or stick lighter to gently “toast” the edges of the marshmallow. Watch it closely to keep them from burning (unless you like the burned edges, as I do). The goal is to get a nice toasty color on them and help them stick together in a cluster. Use a small spatula to transfer the garnish to a plate or cutting board to cool.
Add ice to the cocktail mixing glass (or pour the alcohol from the bowl into a shaker with ice) and stir (or shake) about 20 seconds, until the outside of the mixing container is frosty. Strain into the cocktail glass. Top with marshmallow garnish.
I’d like to begin this post by declaring I don’t particularly care for chocolate things, unless they are really chocolate. Dark chocolate brownies are good because they are intensely chocolate, but chocolate milk, shakes, even most cakes—nope, not hitting my sweet spot. Milk chocolate? Forget it.
Then, a couple of years ago, at the Big Chill festival in Winston-Salem’s Bailey Park, a genius volunteer ice cream maker had the audacity to introduce a chocolate ice cream made with Guinness beer. “In ice cream?” I thought. Oh yes, in ice cream. It was dark, decadent and rich, without even a hint of beer flavor—only intense, chocolately lusciousness—and it stole my soul.
Then one afternoon when my husband, Les, and I had taken our dog, Nilla, to one of her favorite “dog bars” in our downtown, it hit me. Fiddlin’ Fish Brewing Company had collaborated with neighboring Black Mountain Chocolate to produce a stout beer that is smooth and roasty, with exactly enough underlying chocolate, and I knew in a moment that it needed to become part of this ice cream.
With a little fiddlin’, here it is—the richest, darkest, most luxurious chocolate ice cream I’ve ever tasted. The texture is beyond silky—almost like a cross between pudding and icing, and it’s so rich, you’ll want to add a little bit of alcohol in the final minute of mixing to keep it scoopable when it’s fully frozen. May I suggest Kahlua or Patron XO Café Dark?
My version of stout ice cream has a few special ingredients, but if you love chocolate and ice cream, it’s 100% worth the trouble. As I said, chocolate ice cream has never been my thing. But this one? It’s the be-all, end-all, winner of a chocolate ice cream that might just solve all the world’s problems. Or, at least, all of mine.
This recipe is part of a series for National Ice Cream Month. Usually in July, my community celebrates with a fundraiser called “The Big Chill,” an entry-by-donation event offering tastings of exquisitely creative homemade ice creams, live music by local artists and “cold-calling,” during which various community leaders quite literally freeze their buns by sitting on blocks of ice in quest of a fundraising goal. This year, because of our city’s commitment to safety during the coronavirus, the live event has been sidelined and all activities will be virtual instead. The funds raised at The Big Chill are directed to an amazing organization called The Shalom Project. If you find any of my ice cream recipes interesting, creative, pretty, unexpected or intriguing, please consider donating to this life-giving cause. Link (here) for more information or (here) to donate, and thank you!
*The link to donate leads to my Key Lime Pie recipe on the Big Chill page, but your donation will go to the same great cause!
1 cup Fiddlin’ Fish Black Mountain Chocolate Stout beer*
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup fine cane sugar
3 Tbsp. honey or dark corn syrup
3 Tbsp. Double Dutch dark cocoa*
2 tsp. espresso powder*
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
5.5 oz. good quality chocolate, broken into small chunks*
1 oz. vodka or one of the other suggested spirits* (optional)
The Black Mountain Chocolate stout beer is available for drinking in the tasting room at Fiddlin’ Fish, but you can also purchase a “crowler” can of it to take home for later. This is how I got it home, and thankfully, since it was 32 oz., I had plenty left over to enjoy while I waited for this ice cream! For my out-of-area followers, consider using a similar dark beer from one of your own local brewing companies!
Double Dutch dark cocoa is a blend of Dutch-processed cocoa and black cocoa, available online from King Arthur Flour (nope, they’re still not paying me to talk up their products—I just happen to love them!) I add some of this to every batch of brownies I make (even store-bought), and Les has used it in his cookies. Never have I ever tasted such intense chocolate flavor. If you can’t get your hands on some, try Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa as a replacement.
Espresso powder is a very finely ground powder of the dark roast coffee. It doesn’t add a coffee flavor to the ice cream, but further intensifies the chocolate. I bought mine in the specialty baking section at Walmart (of all places), but I believe you could also substitute a pouch of Starbucks Via instant French roast. Be sure it dissolves completely in the hot milk mixture so there is no “gritty” texture left behind.
You might be tempted to use an inexpensive bar of baker’s chocolate from the supermarket, but I don’t recommend it. Get thee to the candy aisle of your market. As with any recipe, you will have better end results when you choose the best ingredients you can find, and if it costs a bit extra, I promise you won’t regret it. At the time I developed this recipe, Black Mountain Chocolate was closed for pandemic safety, but I love their products and look forward to making this ice cream again with one of their superb hand-crafted dark chocolates, now that they have re-opened. Something in the 60-70% cacao range is perfect. And with no nuts or other add-ins, just chocolate.
The alcohol suggested for this recipe is optional but recommend for the best texture. Because this ice cream is so rich, it can be a little tricky to scoop straight from the freezer. Vodka or one of the other alcohols suggested above will improve this, so you don’t have to be tortured waiting for a taste.
I know you can’t get enough of these ice cream pictures, so have a look at the visual step instructions first, if you’d like.
In a small saucepan, bring stout beer to a light boil over medium heat, then reduce heat and simmer until it reduces to 1/2 cup, which should take about 10 minutes (measure to be sure).
Add the heavy cream, milk, sugar, honey or syrup, cocoa and espresso powder, and whisk until sugar fully dissolves.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and salt.
Ladle out about 1 cup of the hot mixture into a measuring cup with a pour spout.
Slowly stream the cream mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. This will “temper” the eggs, raising the temperature gradually to cook them without curdling.
Transfer the mixture back to the pot with remaining liquid and cook over medium-low heat until custard thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
Place the broken chocolate pieces in a large bowl with a mesh strainer over the top. Pour the hot custard mixture through the strainer over the chocolate pieces, and let it rest 2 minutes. Discard any solids that remain in the strainer.
Stir or whisk the custard until the chocolate is completely melted.
Place thick plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard, then cover the bowl with another piece of plastic wrap or a lid. Refrigerate overnight.
Next day, stir custard until smooth, then pour into ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. In the last minute of churning, add vodka or kahlua.
Transfer the ice cream to an insulated freezer container and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight.