dark chocolate tarts

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While I had been sort of hoping to veganize my standard dark chocolate mini tart recipe, I sort of ran out of time and made the regular ones. I changed the recipe just slightly from the old one I’ve shared before.

I mailed some of these to an office where most of the employees are distributed, so a lot of employees miss out on the final results. One employee misread the label on these as “farts” rather than “tarts”, giving him a small chuckle – that was as sweet as my shared baking ended up being for him.

Dark chocolate tarts
Tart shells
1 ½ cups chocolate cookie crumbs (or 1 cup cookie crumbs and ½ cup ground hazelnuts).
1/3 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon sugar

The change I implemented here was simply throwing whole Oreo cookies into my food processor and making them into crumbs. I didn’t fool around looking for some other chocolate cookies or removing the middle filling of the Oreo. This might have made the final shells more structurally sound.

Preheat oven to 190C. Lightly spray muffin tins (regular size or mini ones, as I usually use) with nonstick spray (I usually do not use the spray because the mixture uses a lot of butter; I did use some non-stick spray this time because I was not sure that keeping the filling from the Oreos in the mix would not stick to the pan).

Mix the cookie crumbs (and ground hazelnuts, if you are using them – I did this time) with the melted butter and sugar. Press the mixture into the muffin tins. Bake approx. 5 minutes in preheated oven.

While baking, prepare the filling. Remove from oven and lower oven temperature to 160C.

Filling
10 to 10 ½ ounces of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) – 280 to 300 grams
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
3 tablespoons honey (flavored honey can be nice here)
1 egg, beaten slightly

The difference this time is that I used only heavy cream and no milk in the exact same proportion (so 1 1/4c cream – minus all milk).

Over a double boiler (or glass bowl over a pan of boiling water) mix chocolate with milk and cream. Stir until chocolate is melted and fully mixed together with cream and milk (smooth consistency). Stir in honey.

Slightly beat the egg in a medium-sized bowl. Gradually stir a small stream of the melted chocolate mixture into the egg, whisking the egg and chocolate together the whole time (to temper to make sure the egg does not become like scrambled eggs). Do this with just some of the chocolate until enough chocolate has been mixed with egg to ensure that the egg will not cook. Then add the egg-chocolate mixture to the bowl of melted chocolate.

Spoon the chocolate mixture into the chocolate tart shells. Bake 25 minutes, cool for at least 30 minutes before removing from tin.

vegan chocolate cupcakes and frosting

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One would imagine that the whole point of baking vegan would be in the interest of making something healthier. But no, for me, it’s just to ensure that the plant-based eaters among us can also access my baking. It’s also a challenging experiment for me, not unlike the attempts at gluten-free baking I sometimes undertake. Both work well enough, but I don’t eat any of it to be able to say for sure how successful these attempts are.

However, this time I took the vegan goods to a vegan acquaintance who was willing to give me an honest and detailed appraisal. I’d adapted my standard ANZAC biscuit, which looks deceptively healthy but isn’t, to be vegan, but this was simple. It was simply a matter of swapping regular butter for coconut oil, and this apparently worked beautifully. So much so that the vegan ANZAC biscuits were gone quickly with non-vegans praising them, and the vegan acquaintance only getting to enjoy one.

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Not too different from a regular ANZAC biscuit

As for the chocolate cupcakes, it was reported that the cake itself was not unlike any standard vegan cupcake. Maybe a little dry, maybe not inspiring, but passable. This is mostly what I expected, but I also think that these cupcakes probably need to be eaten very soon after being baked (they can’t sit out for days, particularly uncovered, as was happening where I left them). Here is the vegan cupcake recipe I used, minus the pretzel flourishes…

It was however reported, quite against my expectation, that the frosting was superb. And I guessed – and this was confirmed – that vegan frosting is not always an easy thing to achieve. With taste and consistency being a bit fussy without butter or eggs, I gave it a lot of thought because many commercial vegan margarine substitutes just separate and don’t whip up well. And vegetable oils aren’t successful. You could just do a dark chocolate ganache topping, but that was not what I was after.

Finally I remembered the old days and the good old solutions my grandma favored. Her frosting recipe had nothing to do with veganism or healthy choices but had a lot more to do with what she had on hand and what ingredients she was used to working with. And that’s when I realized, ah yes, you can make frosting from solid vegetable shortening (i.e., something like Crisco). No it is not the healthiest solution, and vegetable shortening isn’t the easiest thing to find in Sweden. But find it I did, after doing a bit of reading online about how people use vegetable shortening to make light, fluffy frosting. It’s also a boon if you’re trying to have perfectly white frosting, which is impossible using butter. In my reading I realized that professional bakers often use Crisco to make frosting not only because it is so white but also because it is so stable and less fussy than butter icing.

As it happens, I was going for a chocolate frosting, so I whipped the vegetable shortening vigorously, added a lot of powdered sugar and a whole lot of vanilla extract and then alternated between unsweetened cocoa powder and hot coffee.

vegan cupcake

Yeah, I hear you… the sprinkle job/decoration leaves much to be desired.

Vegan chocolate frosting with vegetable shortening recipe
2/3 cup all-vegetable shortening (e.g., Crisco)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (at least 1 teaspoon; I think I used much more)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups powdered sugar (approximate – work with it to get the balance you prefer)
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 to 6 tablespoons milk (or hot coffee – I wanted a deeper, richer chocolate flavor, so I opted for coffee)

Beat shortening for several minutes; add vanilla and salt. Continue to beat on high speed until very fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, and begin to beat on low speed until incorporated. Add cocoa powder alternately with the milk or coffee, until you get everything mixed together well. Give it a taste to see if you need to adjust the ingredients for taste (more cocoa? more vanilla?)

Once you’ve got your flavor right, beat on high speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes (maybe more!). And frost!

best chocolate cake ever – supposedly

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My go-to chocolate cake recipe has always been a bit more than ‘basic’. When I first published it here in this blog way back in 2009, I referred to it as “basic”, but later, when I started baking on a grander scale, I realized that, no, in fact, it has too many separate steps to be called basic. When you can make one-cup microwave chocolate cake to satisfy those driving choco-cravings or something a few steps simpler, this one is not the easiest you can get. But every chocolate-loving friend with whom I have shared this particular cake will tell you that the extra steps are well worth it.

Many years ago when I started making this cake, one friend told me it was the second-best cake of her life (after her wedding cake). Another friend uses this recipe every time she needs a killer cake that will not fail. The other day for a work dinner, I produced this cake, and one of the dinner party guests exclaimed that it was possibly the best cake she has ever eaten. High praise indeed. Similar accolades flow every time.

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best chocolate cake ever

The only difference this time between my original recipe and what I did now is that I used two different kinds of frosting. I made a standard buttercream (cocoa, powdered sugar, butter and sprinkle of coffee), which I used as a rather thick crumb coat. On top of this, on each layer, I slathered on generous heaps of chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream, which always comes out tasting a bit like chocolate mousse. Again, worth the extra work.

Chocolate tears and suck pipes

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A native speaker of a language, unless s/he is interested in such things, rarely thinks about the construction of words in his/her own language.

When I recently started reading Swedish-language books, I was delighted to see that the word for “straw” (that you would put into a drink) is sugrör. Despite never knowing or seeing this word before (I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to ask for or was offered a straw), I knew immediately from context and from its component parts that it means “straw”. But what do its component parts mean? Suck pipe.

I mentioned this to a few Swedes, and they were amused because they had “never thought about it”. But leave it to me to recognize a suck pipe when I see it.

I also come across these kinds of interpretations and misinterpretations when I see subtitles or closed captioning. I saw a video of the online news-opinion program, Young Turks, when Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency. They were trying to explain that Macron’s wife’s family is wealthy because of chocolate. Not, as they opined, from ‘dirty money’ but rather by being oh-so-innocuous chocolatiers. The subtitles, though, read “chocolate tears”.

Yes, I suppose if the Young Turks had been interested in presenting the true history of cocoa plantations, we might have some chocolate tears to talk about. But they made it sound like the money comes from fairy dust and Disneyland-like joy because of course chocolate is sweet. Sounds foolish, naive and not at all worldly to act like chocolate is somehow so clean. Cocoa plantations: wouldn’t this wealth be soaked in ill-gotten gains, labor of an exploited colonial workforce and child labor, as well as the whole dark side of land-resource management. It’s not as pretty and sweet as it all sounds (or tastes).

Eyes toward the sky: Don’t be ‘ground clutter’

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The air traffic control radar beacon system (ATCRBS) is a system used in air traffic control (ATC) to enhance surveillance radar monitoring and separation of air traffic. ATCRBS assists ATC surveillance radars by acquiring information about the aircraft being monitored, and providing this information to the radar controllers. The controllers can use the information to identify radar returns from aircraft (known as targets) and to distinguish those returns from ground clutter.

I returned to this piece because I wanted a reminder – an unidentified blip on my radar screen popped up recently that kind of irked me (no one wants to deal with a UFO, you see), even if it was inconsequential. Or maybe it’s truer to say it confused me.

In my annual seasonal funk, delivered right on time each year between February 1 and 8, I dipped into rather egregious self-pity and felt hurt by the mismatch of someone’s words and actions. I came to terms with all my wallowing stupidity, wrote about and got it out of my system. That’s all tired, repetitive news by now, no? By March, which now seems like an eternity ago, I was a flashing blip on radar screens of an entirely different sector of the world’s airspace.

The aforementioned blog post addresses that sense of feeling independence and freedom slip away, and the involuntary oppression of the fierceness of care that comes from witnessing someone else in trouble. But it also delivers me back to that place of centered individuality: “carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what…”. Perhaps because I already feel like I’ve flown off to new and foreign lands, literal and figurative, in the mere two months (but what does time mean? As I picked up in Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: “When his great Italian friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote a moving letter to Michele’s sister: ‘Michele has left this strange world a little before me. This means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion’.”) since that brief winter ‘episode’, I don’t feel any real, or strong, connection to that former time or place or the people populating it. Only interesting, intelligent characters and moments that, even if they do exist in the “persistent, stubborn” ‘non-time’ we live in, are not a part of my life now.

Life just goes on, sometimes at high speed and at cruising altitude. Though I will always care, it’s in a different and almost entirely impersonal, if friendly, way. Because ultimately I’m driven to move forward at all costs, I do not do well with fumbling through inertia or being at a standstill for very long. This has led me, in these weeks, to read, to study, to write, to work, to inhale music, to see films, to walk and hike and run and twist myself into new (to me) yogic positions, to unclog drains, change lightbulbs  and change the oil and tires, to let someone nearly break my back but then let the same person nearly fix it, to meet my near twin only in male form, to obsess over soup and stew, to summon apparitions from the past, to host lovely guests, to travel to new countries and cities, to spend time with my nearest and dearest of amazing friends, and even still to come back home and mail multiple rather innocuous and generic, if chocolaty, packages all over the place.

This last bit has apparently been the ‘last straw’ for one recipient/household, which is a shame, actually, because I had no idea it would cause the “dischord” (take note: the correct spelling is “discord”) they cited. I honestly thought there was only one person living in that household. I am not enough of an asshole that I would ever have sent anything had I known otherwise. Frivolously, perhaps, I thought I was supplying an appropriate “bookend” to close out the (brevity of that) acquaintance; you know, Norwegian Kvikk Lunsj, which is a bridge builder, fence mender, ski-trip snack essential, winning rival to the inferior KitKat and a neutral way to say adieu, even if it won’t keep tooth decay away.

Oh well, dear, undoubtedly lovely, disembodied soul, roger that. I meant no disrespect and no ill-will. It will never happen again.

Photo (c) 2016 NATS Press Office used under Creative Commons license.

Africa 101: Togolese radio, stereotypes and Africa in small doses

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“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

-Countee Cullen – “Heritage

Like many “westerners” (or whatever you want to call us – which is a group of mixed, all-over-the-place folks), I never used to give much thought to the specifics of the African continent. It was some “other place” I had not seen, dreamt of or had feelings about one way or the other. It was not really included in any appreciable way in my education, and I did not know anyone from Africa or who had been to Africa. Thus, it was a nebulous concept – just “Africa” without subtlety and nuance. It was not unlike the application of this blanket term “westerners”. What does it even mean?

Of course when I got older, it dawned on me that Africa is a vast place and the diversity was something I could not even begin to fathom. If each state of the American union, sharing a common language and currency, can each be as different as they tend to be, then the countries and regions of Africa would have to dwarf American diversity in some ways (although of course America is a land of immigration, making it a strange concoction as well. In fact most western countries, through years and years of immigration activity, have become their own strange concoctions).

Still, despite the few little tidbits of specific information I gathered haphazardly – nothing systematic about it – Africa was still just a jumble of faces in magazines or on tv, stereotypes, unusual names, places with ever-changing borders, names and leaders but nothing cohesive.

I could swear I had written about this “incremental introduction to Africa” in a previous blog entry before but cannot find any evidence of it now. All I can find is someplace that I wrote: “It seems that it does not matter how much one protests that Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is not just one monolithic entity. Most will continue to treat this massive and diverse continent as though one remedy, one answer, one strategy works for the entire place.” Not that I was ever that different before really giving it some thought and consideration and a lot of time learning.

Where did all the questioning start? I cannot pinpoint an exact moment. In elementary school, when I was a child, I had absolutely no exposure to Africa or anything of direct African origin, other than some carved wooden turtle knick-knacks my grandmother gave me. They were “made in Kenya”, which she informed me was a country in Africa. It sounded so far off and exotic – very hard to comprehend. Later, in elementary school, our social studies textbook mentioned “Mba, Aubame and Bongo” – the only thing I learned about Africa in my entire public school education. The fact that I remembered only their names and a picture but nothing about where they came from shows only how disconnected this piece of information was from anything else. It was as though the textbook creators wanted to mention Africa but did not really have anything to say about it. (Later, of course, with these disconnected names floating around in my head, I checked into it to discover that these men were figures in la politique gabonaise.)

Later, as late as university, I felt a real elevation in my consciousness about this idea of “Africa” as a monolithic entity. A musician from Ghana, Obo Addy (RIP, 2012), came to my university and lectured about this topic – and it was, even though obvious, as though a light came on. The light of ignorance versus stupidity. Haha. No, I wasn’t stupid – I just didn’t know and, like most people, had no reason to think about these things. How did Ghana differ, I started thinking, from Nigeria, or from Gabon? How, even, did North Africa differ from sub-Saharan Africa? As ridiculously surface-level and limited as this sounds now, for 17-year-old me, it was all new. Meanwhile many of my classmates had spent parts of their lives in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire (I want an Ivorian passport – it has an elephant on the front!) and thus had this air of experience and of being cosmopolitan. They had such a different worldview – or seemed like it – and I had no reason or circumstance to know more than I had before this point in time. I suppose this is partly what filled me with an awkwardness and feeling of inadequacy – that my life then was so sheltered and limited in scope. Even my aspirations, reflecting on it, were so puny and plodding. In a comparative light, my experience, despite being mine, just felt like nothingness. My closest encounters with Abidjan were little French-language profiles in my high school French-language text when we were optimistically introduced to all kinds of characters in le monde francophone. (Naturally I also enjoyed our little vignettes of the Swiss, Canadian, Tahitian and Martinique francophones!) To this day, it is hard to imagine spending part of childhood in some part of Africa (again, high school viewing of the Claire Denis film Chocolat should fill that gap in some one-dimensional, take-a-quick bite kind of way).

But then, all my knowledge about “African things” comes from “take-a-quick bite”, almost accidental approaches. From the strange trend in my life of meeting a string of strange men from Gambia (either in the Turkish fruit-and-veg store I frequented in Oslo to being seated next to a Gambian on an Icelandair flight) to the unusual way that Congo (formerly Zaire) keeps popping up in my life (watching When We Were Kings, reading a book about Congo that I found in Trondheim, Norway, seeing a film about Patrice Lumumba and thinking that maybe – just maybe – there was a mention of Lumumba in a schoolbook in my childhood, but that might just be wishful thinking. It’s hard to resist a story with names like Lumumba, Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu Sese Seko), it is as though I am meant to absorb Africa in small doses.

There was the strange flood of postal letters in both English and French that I received from misguided but hopeful suitors from Togo that put Togo on the map (quite literally) for me. Years ago when I was very active in the postal pen pal community, I used to exchange “friendship books” – small, decorated little booklets one might make for herself or a friend that included some info on interests and the postal address. You would send this to a pen pal, who would include his/her information and forward it to another of their pen pals and so on, until theoretically, this little booklet would be full of decorated pages and addresses of new potential friends. Occasionally these booklets would make their way, somehow, to African destinations. Normally this resulted only in a few unwanted letters (many people actually made a point of specifying on their friendship book pages: “No Africans!” – it still strikes me as kind of a horrible generalization but I imagine people had their reasons). In many cases – and very likely for a good many others – it resulted in a few weeks of receiving 50+ letters, daily, from men in Togo who were, according to their letters, “very excited for our marital relations to begin”.

I had no idea who these men were – where were they getting my address? Eventually one of the letters explained that they had heard an ad on the radio – someone was selling the addresses of women in the once-again-undefinable “west” seeking African husbands. All these guys had paid some undetermined amount of money to get their hands on addresses of women who had no interest whatsoever in an African husband. I imagine some enterprising, entrepreneurial type got his hands on one of these friendship books and used it to make a bit of cash. (Advertising on the radio seems a bit weird, but then I don’t have a clue if the radio in Togo is a normal means of advertising.) After seeing probably 400 or more letters come to my postbox, I really could not take it anymore. I just started throwing them away without opening them. Receiving the letters suddenly felt at once creepy and sad.

But I had my little slice of Togo and took in information I would not otherwise have had.

I met a French guy who had African parents (from Ghana and Benin); I knew quite a bit about Ghana by that time, but Benin was a bit mysterious. I managed to learn that Benin is the only country in the world (or at least at that time) which counts voodoo among its state religions. Voodoo, widely associated with Haiti, is only so associated because of the slave trade. It actually came from places like Benin.

I worked with a guy who was part Tanzanian, part Norwegian, who remarked on the “personal space bubble” of northern Europe. If you were to get on a bus, for example, in Tanzania and sit alone, the next person who got on the bus would sit down next to you – somehow being alone or perceived as lonely or wanting personal space is not perceived as “normal”. Life is much more about being a part of a community.

Eventually getting into development studies, Africa is often at the core of this discipline. My studies have taken me (virtually) to Mali (warfare and the films of Malian-Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako – such as Bamako, which was a film I watched several times for its multilayered commentary). My obsession with news and tendency to watch AlJazeera English (which focuses a lot of attention on Asia, Latin America and Africa – all under-reported on American news channels) has given me insight into Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali – among a million other things, including France’s continued influence in the African sphere, as evidenced by its eagerness to jump into military conflicts and/or peacekeeping (most recently in Mali and CAR).

But it is still a slow and incremental learning process, especially because I am only doing it on screen or paper. I still have not travelled to Africa. But because Africa, African geography, African issues are all so distant and perceived as so esoteric, if you happen to know one or two facts about a given African country, people – sometimes even people from that country – imagine you are an expert. Comparatively speaking, maybe I have become a pseudo-expert – but I am still a novice with so little expertise or experience. After having eaten Ethiopian food perhaps once and knowing that the spongy bread is called injera and is made from teff flour, an Ethiopian guy decided I must know everything about Ethiopia (he was just impressed perhaps that I was not one among the multitudes of insensitive assholes who always reply to comments about Ethiopian food with, “I didn’t know Ethiopians had food.”)

Most recently, I watched a film, Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust), which was about a man from Niger who travels to Burkina Faso to try his luck as a gold miner in horrific and dangerous conditions. Cinematographically beautiful, all these films, I am still a geography dunce. I find – still – I always have to look at a map.

Chocolate truffles: Perfect simplicity

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As I set up the vast spread of baked stuff on Monday, I was quite shocked to see that all the chocolate truffles I brought were gone in about 15 minutes. I am sure I have brought them before, and no one ever seemed interested in them. As I discussed with someone last night, though, sometimes when confronted with too much choice, the most basic things stand out most. Or the most chocolatey things. Sometimes, like in retail and merchandising, placement is key. I don’t know how to explain the rapid disappearance of the chocolate truffles. But I can explain how ridiculously bloody easy they are to make.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES
18 ounces chocolate chips (511 grams of chocolate of your choice; I used milk chocolate)
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk (generally one standard-sized can)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Stuff to roll truffles in (I used plain, unsweetened cocoa powder, but you could use powdered sugar or sprinkles or whatever you prefer)

On the stovetop in a saucepan (or in a double boiler), with burner on low, melt chocolate with the sweetened condensed milk. (I do this in a glass bowl over boiling water so that I can just transfer the bowl to the fridge for the chilling part.)

Remove from heat, stir in vanilla. Chill 2 hours, shape into small balls and roll in topping. Place on a platter or in small paper cups (like cupcake cups) for candy. Chill again until just before ready to serve.

See? Really, really simple.

A too-rich baked bite: Snickers candy brownie bites

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I saw a recipe somewhere for brownie bites filled with mini Snickers bars. Mini Snickers (the perfect little squares), as sold in the US, are not available here, so I just cut the mini bars into pieces, without thinking that the melting would cause the final product to stick to the bottom of the mini cupcake pans. I got around this by sticking the pans in the freezer after I could not pry the brownie bites out of the pan intact.

I don’t think I will try this again.

Brownies

4 ounces (about 115 grams) unsweetened chocolate bars; coarsely chopped
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
Square miniature Snickers; frozen for at least 1 hour

If desired, you can also use a caramel topping (I didn’t):
15 individually wrapped caramel candies
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup salted peanuts

Preheat oven to 350F/175C degrees. Lightly spray mini muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. You could also grease and flour the wells much as you would for a traditional cake.

Microwave chocolate and butter in a large, microwave-safe bowl at medium (50% power) for 3-4 minutes or until butter is melted. (You could also do this over a double boiler.) Stir until chocolate is melted.

Whisk in sugar, eggs, vanilla and salt. Gradually add in flour; stir until just combined.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons of brownie batter into each well in the muffin tin. Place a mini Snickers into the center of each and press gently into the batter. Bake brownies in preheated oven for 9-10 minutes, the edges will look set and the middle will not look completely baked. Do not over bake.

Remove to cooling rack to cool completely.

Remove the brownie bites from the pan (this was challenging without putting the whole pan into the freezer) and prepare the caramel sauce.

Caramel sauce: To make the caramel sauce, place the caramels and heavy cream in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on 50% power in 30-second increments until the caramels begin to melt; stir frequently. Continue warming and stirring the caramels until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Place a few peanuts into the center of each brownie bite and drizzle the caramel sauce over the peanuts.