Gluten-free Sea Salted Caramel Brownies

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Sea Salted Honey Caramels

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

Winnie-the-Pooh is a gentle, wise character. His love for honey reflects his value of the simple and the (figurative – transcendent as well as the literal – material) delicious. That oh-so-scrumptious moment he struggles to define before he eats the honey, that anticipation of what he’s about to experience, is almost as luscious as that oh-so-sweet moment of satisfaction he feels once his craving for the honey has been satiated. And satisfaction is what people (like Pooh bears) are supposed to feel when they’ve just eaten something delicious. Any other feeling is surely unnatural; even a “bear of little brain” is aware of that fact! Sadly, though, people often feel guilt, rather than pleasure, after having eaten something exquisitely, delightfully ambrosial: the result of decades of “experts” warning us of all the evil consequences we’ll suffer for eating foods that contain sugar and fat (i. e. the stuff that makes food worth eating).

Some of what these experts say may safely be taken with that proverbial grain of salt; however, (to use another cliché) even a broken clock tells time correctly twice a day. The nutritional advice that makes the most sense to me is that concerning the source of the ingredients one chooses for her cooking and baking, as well as the advice to eat as little processed food as possible (well, some people manage to avoid processed foods altogether, but for people with busy lives, that choice isn’t always realistic).The fewer processed foods we eat, however, the more control we have over the ingredients we use and the quality of the food which ends up in our bodies. The more we control what goes into our foods, and as a result what goes into our bodies, the better we care for our bodies.

The reason I begin my post about sea salted caramel brownies with this point about ingredients is that I had a specific request from a loved one to bake salted caramel brownies for a multi-generational Mother’s Day celebration our family was having at coast. I had never made salted caramel brownies before. Furthermore, I had never made caramels from scratch before. I could have purchased some gluten-free caramels to use for the brownies, but I didn’t want to bake my home-made gluten-free brownies, which I make with carefully chosen ingredients, just to add store-bought caramels that contain corn syrup. Some people will object that salted caramel brownies in themselves are a less than healthy food, but if one is going to eat a less than healthy food, she can at least make sure the ingredients in that food are as healthy and quality as possible!

Most recipes for caramels I found in my search for a caramel recipe require corn syrup, but I did find some recipes that require agave nectar or honey instead of corn syrup.  I always read the comments that follow recipes, even recipes I don’t necessarily plan to use. What surprised me about the comments following the recipes that called for corn syrup at which I looked is the number of people who either made the recipe substituting agave nectar for the corn syrup,  or asked if the substitution would work. People obviously have heightened awareness that corn syrup isn’t the most healthy sweetener available. And here is the reason for this digression in a post that is really, truly about gluten-free salted caramel brownies. So much nutritional information is readily available to us these days, and so much of it conflicting, that I wonder – and have a mixed opinion – about the widely popular notion that agave nectar is an acceptable replacement for corn syrup. Agave nectar, after all, has a developed a questionable reputation as a natural sweetener.

According to nutrition experts such as Mary Fallon Morrell and Dr. Mercola, agave nectar is as processed a substance as high fructose corn syrup and thus should be avoided. However, nutrition articles in journals such as Organic Gardening (V 60.2 : 2013), Better Nutrition (V 74.11 : 2011), and Environmental Nutrition (V 33.4 : 2010) cite agave nectar as a processed substance, but still an acceptable natural, organic sweetener. The writers of these articles point out that agave is not processed as much as corn syrup (though it is processed more than honey); it has a lower glycemic index than sugar; and it is sweeter than sugar so less is required to achieve the same sweetness as sugar. Moreover, some of these writers suggest brands of agave syrup that are better than others, since they are processed at a lower temperature and have trustworthy ingredients (they are truly agave nectar and not adulterated with corn syrup, as some agave nectar that’s sold in the U.S.).

Despite the reassurances in some of the information, enough information casting doubt upon the benefit of agave nectar as a natural sweetener makes honey seem preferable to agave nectar as a substitute for white, processed sugar. But then we have articles such as “Ten Common Food Goofs” in Nutrition Action Health Letter (V 38.3: 2011) in which the author (Dennis Lim) states that most common sweeteners: honey and agave nectar, as well as white sugar and corn syrup, are composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. His point is that none of these sweeteners is any worse than the other: they’re all bad for people.  So honey seems suspect as a healthier sweetener as well.

The one thing every article about agave nectar and honey has in common is that somewhere within each article, the writer states that  people in the United States eat too much sugar, and we need to cut down on the amount of sugar we eat in any form. Since I honestly love my sugar addiction and see no time in the future when I will attempt to kick this sugar habit, I’ve decided that honey is a better bet than agave nectar as a healthier sweetener / substitute for white refined sugar and corn syrup. Raw, unfiltered honey has health properties agave nectar lacks. It’s less processed, and its composition more trustworthy than that of agave nectar. . . . perhaps. Just when one thinks she’s found something she can believe in, such as the purity and simple goodness of honey, NPR tells a different story about honey! Oh, my. The choices and decisions one must make in this online environment of information over-load!

IMG_0842The NPR story notwithstanding, the most logical choice of sweetener, for me anyway, is raw, unfiltered, and locally sourced honey  (such as Stroope Honey Farms or Good Flow Honey). In addition to its benefits as a natural sweetener, it adds a delightful depth and complexity of flavor to the dishes in which it’s used. The honey I used to make the caramels for these brownies gives the flavor of the caramels such character that I think I shall never be able to eat store bought caramels ever again.

Making the caramel is the most daunting aspect of this recipe, but it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems! Until I searched for a caramel recipe that appealed to me, I never knew the various ways caramels can be made. Some require a candy thermometer; others require the cold water / hard-ball stage method. Some require the sugar and honey (or corn syrup, etc) to be cooked separately for a bit before the butter is added; others require that all the ingredients be added at once and then cooked to the correct temperature or hard-ball stage. I finally decided to use the caramel recipe I found on the blog Back to Her Roots. This blogger explains caramel-making in such easy terms that I found hers to be the most helpful and least complicated among the recipes I considered using.

I adapted the recipe in that I substituted coconut sugar (still a healthier alternative to refined sugar – until I have time to research it more deeply, I’m sure!) and added a tablespoon of Mexican vanilla to balance and mellow the coconut sugar – honey flavors in the final candy. Since I used coconut sugar, which is darker in color than refined white sugar, I had to go by time(the five minutes suggested in the recipe I adapted) rather than by appearance to determine when the caramel has reach its first stage of cooking. The caramel turned out perfectly, but it sure is dangerous. One cannot stop eating it. I had left-over caramels after I baked the brownies, so I took them to the beach for the weekend. I confess I needed an intervention to keep from eating the rest of the batch all by myself (fear of gluttony rather than fear of sugar my prime motivator).

I took pictures of the caramels left-over from the brownies; I did not get pictures of the brownies. I did not cut them until I got them to Port Aransas, and at that point my sweet distractions B and H captured all my attention.
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Once the brownies were gone and we realized no one had taken pictures of them, my family members decided as a group that I shall just have to make another batch just so that we can get some pictures of the brownies to add to this blog post. My family members sure are team players!

A note about Mexican Vanilla: Mexican vanilla is more floral and flavorful than Tahitian or Madagascar vanilla. Purchasing Mexican vanilla can be a dicey act, though. Some Mexican vanilla is cheaply made with unwanted additives. Two excellent sources of Mexican vanilla are Arizona Vanilla Company and Blue Cattle Truck Trading Co. These companies provide pure vanilla extract without any unwanted additives. Unfortunately, Blue Cattle Truck adds corn syrup to its vanilla extract (it’s last on the ingredients list), though the amount is so small that some people may not mind that addition. I prefer to use Arizona Vanilla Co Mexican vanilla; this company adds no sugar or corn syrup to its extract.

Sea Salted Honey Caramels

Wax or parchment paper
Gluten-free cooking Spray
1 ½ cup coconut sugar
½ cup local, unfiltered raw honey
4 oz (8 tbls) Kerrygold butter
1 tbls pure Mexican vanilla
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp course sea salt

Line an 8 x 8 baking dish with wax or parchment paper, leaving some edges hanging over the sides of the baking dish. Spray the paper with cooking spray and set aside.

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In a large saucepan, stir together the sugar and honey. Heat together over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth and melted. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer about five minutes (some recipes say to simmer until the mixture is a deep caramel color, but the coconut sugar in this recipe makes the color darker to begin with, so go by time more than by appearance). Stir occasionally while it simmers and watch it closely; sugar burns quickly.

Reduce the heat to low and stir in the butter, about a tablespoon at a time, until all the butter is mixed smoothly into the sugar mixture. As the butter is added, the hot mixture will bubble up. Use caution as you mix in the butter.

Once the butter is melted and mixed into the hot mixture, add the cup of cream.

Increase the heat to medium and bring the caramel mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Heat it until it reaches 254 degrees on a candy thermometer (hard ball stage – when some of the mixture is dropped into a bowl of cold water, it forms a firm ball that you can handle with your hands).

Remove from heat and pour into the prepared pan. Cool the caramels in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle the teaspoon of salt evenly over the surface of the caramel.

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Let the caramels cool and set, then using the over-hanging parchment paper, lift the caramel out of the pan. Cut the caramels in 1 inch squares. Cover and store in the refrigerator.

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To Die For Gluten-Free Salted Caramel Brownies

Brownie Batter

8 oz (16 tbls) Kerrygold butter
8 oz 60% cacao chocolate, chopped
125 g (1 1/3 cup) almond flour
56 g (½ cup) tapioca flour
4 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 cups coconut sugar
1 tbls pure Mexican vanilla
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp guar gum
1 ½ cups chopped honey caramel (see recipe above)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.
In a microwave, melt together the butter and the chocolate until melted, stirring every 20 seconds, until the mixture is nearly melted (about 40 seconds total, but microwave ovens vary in temperature so watch the mixture carefully). Remove from the microwave and continue to stir until all the lumps of chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth. Set the chocolate – butter mixture aside.

In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, baking powder, guar gum, almond flour, and tapioca flour.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the egg yolk until smooth. Whisk the vanilla into the egg mixture. Mix the sugar into to the egg mixture. Stir the chocolate – butter mixture into the egg – sugar mixture. Whisk until smooth.

Fold in the rest of the dry ingredients; mix until smooth.

Remove the caramel from the refrigerator. Cut the 1 inch caramel pieces into small pieces (about the size of a chocolate chip). Mix one cup of the caramel pieces into the brownie batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared 13 x 9 inch baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup caramel pieces evenly across the top of the brownie batter.

Bake until a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool completely. Frost with chocolate ganache (see recipe below).

Chocolate Ganache

½ cup heavy cream
8 oz 60% cacao chocolate, chopped
2 tsp pure Mexican vanilla

In a small pot, heat the cream until it begins to bubble. Do not allow it to boil. Remove the cream from the heat. Add the chocolate and the vanilla to the hot cream. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Pour the mixture evenly over the brownies. Cool completely before serving.

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