The inspiration for my most recent "Culinary Adventure" started when I was a child but was rekindled earlier this year when I caught a rerun of a chocolate episode of "Food Tech" on the Biography Channel.
The show brought back wonderful memories. As a child, I remember my mom heating a saucepan of milk on the stove and grating hockey puck-like discs of Mexican chocolate into the warm milk to make the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. My mom had purchased the specialty chocolate during a family trip to Texas, as she had never seen anything like it in the Chicago area.
The TV show included a bit of history, along with how chocolate is grown, harvested and produced. A segment demonstrated how a product similar to my treasured chocolate discs is made and how vanilla, cinnamon and often ground chiles are added to create a special blend.
Coincidentally (or do you believe in fate) I was asked to bring dessert to a Mexican-themed dinner. I knew what I had to do. I wanted to recapture that taste memory and update it with a chile pop. I headed into the kitchen and Cinnamon Chile Brownies were born.
Thankfully, we no longer have to travel far to purchase delicious Mexican chocolate, as it can be found on most grocery store shelves under the Abuelita name. It is the perfect balance of cocoa, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon and a combination that always reminds me of those special mugs of hot chocolate my mom made for my sisters and I long ago. I've used the chocolate for more than a mug of hot cocoa: I have grated it into coffee and cookie dough, on top of oatmeal and warm cookie bars, and I look forward to the little piece of chocolate left after grating, so I can eat it all by itself.
I quickly searched the Internet for inspiration and found a recipe by chef Aaron Sanchez (you've probably seen him as a judge on "Chopped") that looked like it would meet all of my chocolate needs.
I made the brownie batter as directed in the recipe, but when I tried it there wasn't enough chile heat for me, so bit by bit I added more until the batter was perfectly "warmed" by cayenne pepper. I also added a cup of chocolate chips, an old habit that has never failed to help produce fudgy and very chocolaty brownies. After baking the brownies as directed I sampled a corner and found them to not be as fudgy as I hoped, so I decided to top the brownies with some ganache to add a bit of moisture and even more chocolate flavor. The ganache also added a beautiful sheen to the plain-looking brownies and made them more party ready.
The brownies are rich, so I cut them into small pieces and placed each piece in a standard size cupcake wrapper, which proved to be the perfect packaging for easy transportation to the party, as well as from the buffet table to dessert plate. They looked good too!
Family and friends gave the brownies rave reviews, with some asking, "What am I tasting in these brownies?" The flavors confused people, as you could smell and taste a hint of cinnamon, and while not spicy, each bite left a bit of warmth in your mouth. Most were surprised when I shared the secret ingredients.
I hope I have tempted you to try to "spice things up a bit" and perhaps even add a little chile flavor the next time you have a taste for brownies or hot chocolate. If you don't have time to make the brownies from scratch, use your favorite box mix and add a little cinnamon and cayenne pepper, the results will be unique and delicious with very little extra effort.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four, lives in South Barrington. She won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.