Mexican Chocolate Skillet Brownies

Before we talk about these amazing chocolate-and-spice brownies, let’s clear this up: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. This has long been the belief of many Americans who assume that all the revelry and celebration associated with the 5th of May must be hugely significant to Mexico’s overall history, but it is not correct—Independence Day in Mexico happens in September. Cinco de Mayo is observed in commemoration of what happened half a century later, in 1862, in one Mexican state.

But the story of Cinco de Mayo is a great tale of triumph by a people whose love for their land outweighed the military might of a wealthy bully, and my brownies pay tribute to their passion. It is a tale so inspiring, it cannot be properly told without an incredible, dramatic anthem, like this one by Ennio Morricone (take a listen as you read). Yes, he is Italian, but Morricone’s composition is perfect for this story of a proud and dedicated people. You may also recognize this stunning piece from the ads for Modelo Mexican beer.

Mexico’s newly elected president, Benito Juárez—who was also the first indigenous political leader of the country—had inherited some economic troubles and overdue loans by European governments, and they were demanding payment. Juárez was able to cut a deal with the leaders of the U.K. and Spain, but the French president at that time wanted to call their loans by foreclosing on the region of Puebla, which was along the main road between the capital of Mexico City and the port city of Veracruz. This obviously did not sit well with Juárez. He rallied the loyal locals to stand with the Mexican Army in holding their ground (figuratively and literally) in Puebla, and when the French troops arrived the morning of May 5, outnumbering the Mexican troops and patriots by nearly 3-1, they were in for a surprise. What the Mexicans lacked in numbers, they more than tripled in might and spirit, and the French troops were forced to retreat by the end of the same day.

It was only one battle in a lengthier saga that later ended with the French taking the land for a short few years, but the story rings patriotic for anyone with a heart for civil rights, which was also playing out in the U.S. during those years. Cinco de Mayo is considered a minor holiday in most of Mexico, but here in the States, someone else’s one-day battle victory has become reason enough to throw a party. This one, not surprisingly, works out especially well for the distributors of Mexican beer. Come to think of it, the Cinco de Mayo story itself should be in one of those Modelo commercials. That would make a lot of sense.

My idea of a party, naturally, always comes back to the food. For Cinco de Mayo, I’ve skipped the obvious margaritas in favor of a sweet treat that honors the Mexican tradition of chocolate, which was so revered by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs that they used it as currency. Today, chocolate continues to play a significant role in the traditional moles of the Puebla region. Chile peppers complement chocolate exceptionally well, so I’ve added a hint of chipotle powder to these brownies, which are also kissed with extra dark cocoa, a good dose of cinnamon and real vanilla. And all the Mexican grandmothers shouted, “amén!”

Crazy as it sounds, the crunch of the sea salt is what sends it over the top.

If these brownies sound a bit too gourmet for your kitchen skills, relax, because this decadent dessert begins with a box of Ghirardelli. I’m all in favor of a shortcut that makes sense, and they are, in my opinion, the best box brownies, but use the one you like. The oh-so-easy ganache is optional, but allow me to tempt you further by mentioning that I spiked it with a splash of Patron XO Café Dark, a coffee- and cocoa-infused Mexican tequila. To keep it humble, I’ve baked it up in a cast-iron skillet, but don’t be fooled—this is a rich and decadent dessert for the ages, and it is worth fighting for. Call it “the ecstasy of chocolate,” if you wish.

Can you believe how fudgy and delicious this is?

Ingredients

1 box brownie mix* (I love Ghirardelli dark chocolate, but use your favorite), plus listed ingredients to make them

1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder (Mine is from King Arthur Baking, but Hershey Special Dark would be OK)

1 tsp. espresso powder*, optional (deepens the chocolate, but does not add coffee flavor)

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. pure ground chipotle* (see notes)

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1/3 cup Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips

A few pinches of coarse sea salt or kosher salt

Butter, for greasing the skillet or brownie pan*

Ganache

1/2 cup heavy cream

4 oz. Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips*

1 Tbsp. Kahlua or Patron XO Café Dark liqueur, optional

*Notes

The brownie mix I use produces a chewy, fudge-style brownie. In addition to the mix, be sure you also have the ingredients listed on the box for making them.

Espresso powder is a specialty ingredient that I found in the baking aisle of a gourmet supermarket. You could also substitute a good quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand, or simply omit it.

I am crazy about the combination of chocolate and chiles! Chipotle, which is smoked jalapeno, is especially nice here. You could also use up to the same amount of pure cayenne powder, which is spicier, or pure ancho powder, which is milder and more fruity. Please do not use what is generically labeled as “chili powder,” as these random blends usually also include salt, garlic, oregano and other spices you wouldn’t want in brownies. Check your labels, always.

My decision to use the cast-iron skillet presented a few other adjustments, because a 10.25” skillet means a slightly different distribution of brownie batter. Also, the cast iron is heavy and retains heat differently than my usual 8 x 8 glass dish. I have adjusted the baking time accordingly in my instructions, but please consider your mix recommendations as well as your baking vessel.

According to my digital kitchen scale, 1/2 cup of chocolate chips was only three ounces, which falls short of “equal parts” with the cream. If you don’t have a scale, measure out 1/2 cup, then pile on as many more chips as you can without them spilling, and you’ll be in good shape.

Instructions


As if the brownies are not decadent enough, believe that the next step makes them even better. If you have ever thought of ganache as “fancy,” you can lay that idea to rest. It is nothing more than equal parts hot cream and rich chocolate. I’ve spiked it with a Mexican liqueur, and it sends these brownies into purely heroic territory.

Make the ganache:


I have no words for this image.


Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Brownies

Pardon me for a moment, as I ponder the best part of Super Bowl LV—I don’t mean the game, though I’m sure that Tampa Bay fans everywhere are still celebrating and bragging on social media about the blowout win. I’m not talking about the fun party, because as much as I love chilling at home with my husband (and making great food together), we were definitely feeling the void and missing our usual houseful of friends and neighbors. Nope, I am calling out the best part. For me, it was these brownies.

With a winning combination of all the right flavors, these brownies deserve their own trophy.

I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s diet or anything; just hear me out for a sec on these brownies. Soft and fudgy, peanut butter swirly, crunchy pretzel salty, holy moly, yum. They smelled fantastic while baking, and I don’t feel one bit ashamed for taking a major shortcut—a box brownie mix.

There, I said it. Though I love my time in the kitchen, especially creating fun, new twists on foods everybody loves (pizza, for instance), I don’t make desserts very often because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. That’s probably what attracted me to these brownies in the first place—they are not only sweet, but also nutty and salty and crunchy. I’ve adapted these from a scratch recipe by Valerie Bertinelli, the actress who now has her own cooking show on Food Network. I considered (for about a second) making them from scratch myself for our quiet, at-home Super Bowl festivities, but the reality is that Ghirardelli does it way better than I do. It was the peanut butter swirl and salty pretzel topping that won me over, anyway.

I gleaned a few bits of wisdom from the reviews for Valerie’s scratch-made recipe, such as using a smaller pan and a lesser amount of the peanut butter swirl mixture, and then I settled in to enjoy a shortcut version of what so many fellow bakers had to say—”best brownies ever!”


Ingredients

1 box Ghirardelli brand “dark chocolate” brownies, + ingredients to make them, which included an egg, 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup water.

1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder

1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/2 cup smooth and creamy peanut butter (not the “natural” variety)

1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove lumps

3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

A handful of salted mini pretzels, broken by hand

An extra sprinkle of coarse sea salt, if you like a bit more of this contrasting flavor


Instructions

The photos tell the story, but if you keep scrolling, you’ll find a downloadable PDF you can save and print for your recipe files. Enjoy!


  1. Preheat oven to 325° F, with rack in center of oven. Butter a glass 8 x 8” baking dish.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar and melted butter. I used my handheld mixer for this step, but Valerie mixed it up just fine with a spoon, so do what you like there. Set this mixture aside while you prepare the brownie base.
  3. Add dark cocoa to the brownie mix. Add the egg, oil and water, blending together until all dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in the extra chocolate pieces. Spread batter evenly into baking dish.
  4. Spoon dollops of the peanut butter mixture randomly over the top of the brownie base. You may find that you have a little bit of the peanut butter mixture left over, as I did. But if that’s the case, just follow my lead and eat it straight off the spatula, the beaters, the bowl, and that little bit that spattered on the counter. No problem (it’s delicious).
  5. Use a butter knife blade to drag the peanut butter dollops through the brownies, marbling as much or as little as you like.
  6. Use your hands to break the mini pretzels into pieces, scattering them all over the brownies. Sprinkle on a few pinches of coarse sea salt (optional).
  7. Bake brownies 45 to 50 minutes, according to package instructions. Cool completely before cutting, and try not to eat the whole batch in one evening.

The center of the brownie is soft and fudgy, the corners and edges are perfectly chewy, and that whole peanut butter swirly pretzel thing? Totally elevating my happy!

Want to make these brownies?


Leftover Snickers Brownies with Sea Salt

OK, who else got stuck with a bunch of candy after disappointing trick-or-treater turnout? The whole neighborhood was abuzz last week about whether (or how) to participate in Halloween this year—do we go ahead and buy candy? Will there be any kids? Is it even safe to do it this year? Without a pandemic playbook, we were all just guessing, but the consensus was “let’s give it a go.”

So Les and I scrubbed our hands, dumped our bags of candy into a wide bowl with our long-handled BBQ tongs, placed our face masks on standby and flicked on the porch light to signal our intentions. Mr. Bones did his best to draw them in with his spooky presence and vacant gaze. But when the clock showed 9:30, we gave up, having given out exactly seven pieces of candy—all to one adorable little witch princess.

See you next year, Mr. Bones!

It’s not that much of a surprise, and in some ways I’m relieved because it proves that our community has done a good job of recognizing the safety issues of COVID. Despite our preparation and “no contact” method of distributing the candy, we ended up with nearly as much as we started. In previous years, Les has taken our leftover candy to share with his co-workers, but that standard fallback doesn’t work this year, either.

I guess I had it coming, this big pile of leftover Snickers—just last week, I was re-living the childhood trauma of my father’s annual raids on my Halloween candy, under the guise of a “safety check.” Is this the universe’s clever way of paying me back after all these years?

Though it is true that Snickers has always been my favorite candy bar, there’s a limit to how many of them I can eat before I get bored. I fired up the idea machine in my brain, and these easy-to-make brownies were born. They are the best of both worlds. Rich, dark, soft chocolate-y brownies and sweet, salty, peanut-y candies. What could possibly go wrong?

Ooey gooey, chocolate chewy!

Ingredients

Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix (or your favorite, plus ingredients listed on the box instructions)

10 fun-sized Snickers candy bars (not the “minis”)

Coarse sea salt


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven as instructed on brownie mix. Prepare baking pan as directed.
  2. Cut up candy bars into small bite-sized pieces.
  3. Make brownie mix as directed by box instructions.
  4. Fold in candy bar pieces, then spread batter into the prepared baking pan.
  5. Give the batter a light sprinkle of the coarse sea salt.
  6. Bake as directed on brownie mix and cool completely before cutting.

I need a big glass of milk! 😀

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Triple Chocolate Cherry Brownie Bowls

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. 🙂

Chocolate, cherries, more chocolate, brownie, cherry sauce. What could possibly go wrong?

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.

The pan has a no-fail nonstick coating. The brownie bowl holds a perfect scoop of ice cream.

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)

I made my own version of “cherry Garcia,” but we usually purchase the Ben & Jerry’s brand, which is great!

Top ‘em off!

Hot fudge topping, whipped cream, or (if you’re feeling inspired) my quick homemade cherry sauce.

Cherry on top of cherries! This sauce is easy to make and also happens to be excellent on crepes or any kind of ice cream.

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!

This one’s for you, my birthday boy! ❤

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