On Food, Cooking, and Spicy Brownies

Baked: New Frontiers in Baking.>

It was 10:20 AM. I struggled to find a comfortable position in my awkward plastic chair-desk. Quirky Dr. Fossett rolled a TV/VCR into our classroom and set-up what would be my very first viewing of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.”

It’s now 8 years later and although I can’t for the life of me remember how Alton’s “Chili’s Angels” episode applied to that day’s high school Chemistry IRS (“Independent Research/Study”) lesson, I vividly recall Alton uncovering the science behind spicy-hot chili peppers on the fuzzy TV screen. I remember the capsaicin and the Scovilles and the intense excitement I felt when I ran home at the end of the day to share my newfound knowledge with my father, whose love and enjoyment of extremely spicy foods used to strike me as sadistic. “Dad! Guess what?! You’re not actually killing your taste buds with all of those peppers after all! Your tongue will be okay!”

I can thank Alton and Dr. Fossett for introducing me to the science of food, a subject that I have become insatiably interested in and passionate about — and then I can thank Harold McGee for continuing to feed that curiosity. Every chef and mentor of mine has recommended McGee’s On Food and Cooking as the foremost introductory reference text for the inquisitive cook. The book has become my food bible.

All cooking is science, McGee makes clear. To be a better cook/baker is to better understand the reactions that occur in the kitchen so that a batch of flat pancakes or cakey brownies is intelligible rather than perplexing. In knowing that pancakes need air and structure to rise and hold its height, you’ll think of answers when you ask, how can I incorporate more air? And how can I strengthen the batter? In knowing that dense, cakey brownies have more air and less moisture, you might try to competently achieve a fudgy brownie by eliminating any leavening agents like air (whisk less!) and chemicals (nix the baking powder and baking soda!) and by increasing the ratio of fat to flour (we like ‘em fat!).

Everyone has their own taste preferences — especially when it comes to brownies. As the simplest, most beloved baked good that I know, the brownie helped me realize the basics of baking: the chemicals, the ratios, and the reactions. Although I long ago perfected my brownie recipe — a sinfully rich, nearly flourless, buttery, fudgy bar — I had to try Baked’s Spicy Brownie recipe, a riff on their best-selling classic brownie. The mild hint of heat provided by ancho chilies brought me back to my first ever food science lesson: what makes a chili hot? I could picture Alton squirting sugar water into his mouth as Scoville did in measuring the heat intensity of various chilies. These spicy brownies are mild at best — ancho chilies provide more flavor than spice — but, according to my food science expertise, would nonetheless benefit from a big, cold glass of milk to chug between bites.