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Some salt adds a little spark


Most people assume all women crave chocolate. Confess that you don't and that you don't even much care for it and reactions vary from "Cool, that leaves more for me" to "What kind of strange monster are you?"

It's the story, or one of the stories, of my life.

Every now and then I enjoy a well-made bittersweet bonbon — Gandolf's, based in Forestville, are my current favorites — but I don't find chocolate irresistible. I can take it or leave it and I usually leave it. I pass up chocolate cake, am not tempted by brownies and wouldn't walk across the street for chocolate fondue. Serve me ice cream with chocolate sauce and you'll find the sauce in the bowl after the ice cream is gone. If you want to get my attention, a strawberry dipped in chocolate is not the way.

However, there's been a change.

A friend brought me a platter of brownies for my birthday a few months ago. I accepted it with gratitude, as I would accept any gift, and felt obligated at least to taste her handiwork before passing the brownies on to my grandson, Lucas.

I took a nibble shortly after she left. The world was transformed. The chocolate was no longer dull and cloying, as I've always found it. Instead, it blossomed with new dimensions, tastes that were ignited by little crystals of salt on top of the brownies and salt that had been folded into the batter. As TV personality Tim Gunn might say, it was a "wow" moment.

I find a lot of today's culinary inventions and gymnastics silly and sometimes annoying, but adding salt to sweets, especially to chocolate, is not one of them. Lately, salt has been showing up in caramel, too, and it's another fabulous idea. Indeed, Trader Joe's sells a bittersweet chocolate bar filled with salted caramel that I probably shouldn't tell you about.

If you want to add a little spark to Valentine's Day, consider salt. The folklore about the way to catch a bird is by putting salt on its tail may be a myth, but put a little salt on my tongue and I just might follow you anywhere. And I'm certain I'm not the only one who reacts this way.

If you have a favorite recipe for brownies, you can use it to make Salt Brownies. Just add 2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt to the batter and sprinkle a course salt flake on top. You can do the same with butterscotch brownies and get equally delicious results.

Salt Brownies

Makes about 2 dozen

1 tablespoon + 6 ounces (1? sticks) butter, preferably local and organic

2 ounces best-quality unsweetened chocolate, grated or chopped

2 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 large eggs from backyard or pastured hens, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

6 tablespoons best-quality unsweetened cocoa

2 teaspoons Maldon salt flakes teaspoon sea salt

— Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use the tablespoon of butter to coat the inside of a 9-inch square baking dish. Set aside.

Fill the bottom part of a double boiler with a couple of inches of water and set over high heat. When the water begins to simmer, reduce the heat to very low. Put the 6 ounces of butter and the grated chocolate into the top part of the double boiler and set it over the simmering water. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Put the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat them (with a whisk or electric mixer) until they are pale yellow and quite foamy. Slowly add the sugar and kosher salt; beat until creamy.

Use a rubber spatula to quickly fold in the cooled chocolate and butter mixture and the vanilla; do not overmix at this point.

Combine the flour and cocoa and fold into the chocolate mixture; again, do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the buttered baking dish and agitate the dish slightly so that the batter settles evenly. Sprinkle the salt flakes over the batter, set on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes.

To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center and remove it; if done, it will come out almost but not quite clean. If there is a lot of raw batter on the toothpick, cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.

Remove the brownies from the oven and let cool.

Cut into squares and enjoy.

For those of us who find many sweet foods cloying, these cookies, with their layers of spice, salt and heat, are just the thing. Want to capture someone's attention on Valentine's Day? These will do it, for better or worse.

Adult Sugar Cookies

Makes about 7 dozen cookies

1? cups (6 ounces) butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2 whole large eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

3? cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon finely ground white black pepper

1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

2 teaspoons hot mustard flour (such as Colman's)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

? teaspoon chipotle powder or ground cayenne

— Red Hot Sugar (see Note below)

1 egg white

Using a heavy-duty whisk or an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar until very light and creamy. Add the eggs, vanilla and fresh ginger and mix thoroughly. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, peppers, mustard, ground ginger and chipotle or cayenne. Add the flour mixture, one-half at a time, to the butter mixture and mix thoroughly. Press the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours.

To make the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator 30 minutes before rolling it out.

While the dough chills, make the Red Hot Sugar and set it aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the dough into 3 equal pieces. Using the palms of your hands, roll the dough on a lightly floured surface until it forms a rope about 1?-inches in diameter. Using a very sharp knife, slice the dough into 3/8-inch thick rounds and set on an ungreased baking sheet.

Put the egg white into a small bowl, add 2 tablespoons water, mix and use a pastry brush to coat the surface of each cookie. Sprinkle Red Hot Sugar on top, set on the middle rack of the oven and bake until the cookies just begin to color, about 7 to 9 minutes.

Remove from the oven, transfer the cookies to a rack to cool and then enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container.

Note: To make 1 cup Red Hot Sugar, combine 1 cup granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt and ? teaspoon (or more to taste) chipotle powder or ground cayenne and put in a container with a lid. Add several drops of red food coloring, close the container and shake it until the sugar is evenly colored. Repeat with more food coloring until the sugar is intensely colored. Colored sugar will keep indefinitely in a tightly sealed container.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com