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Gluten-Free Almond Brownies

I've allowed myself to be afraid of gluten-free baking for too long now. The thought of making a baked good without those all-important strands of protein just seemed a little wrong, and so many gluten-free products have that mealy, rice flour texture that isn't necessarily off-putting, but it's...well, just not quite right.

But I like to think of myself as the baking equivalent of Rosie the Riveter--we can do it! There's no point in allowing yourself to be intimidated by choux paste, cowering behind your apron at the thought of pastry cream, or having a fainting spell over pie dough. If we fail, we fail, and then we eventually get it right. It's the old get-back-on-the-horse mentality, except making brownies is a lot less dangerous than falling off a horse.

Brownies are the perfect place to start for the gluten-free novice. Many brownie recipes don't have much flour to begin with, and if you're a fan of fudgy brownies, so much the better. You won't even feel the need to dispel the heaviness that overtakes many gluten-free goods. Brownies get much of their structure from eggs--lots of eggs. The protein in the eggs makes up for some of the protein found in flour, and--very important--the eggs help your brownies (and most other baked goods) "set." Just like a thick custard or mayonnaise relies on eggs as a thickener, cakes, cookies, and brownies need eggs (or an egg equivalent) to bind the ingredients together. Eggs are miraculous that way.

But you do need a little something to differentiate your brownies from flourless chocolate cake. Not that flourless chocolate cake is a bad thing, but we're making brownies today. This is where we substitute something for all-purpose flour. There are lots of options out there, but many of them are expensive and hard to find for those of us who don't live in a big city with lots of natural foods stores. The good news is that almond meal is fairly easy to find, and if you can't find it (or find it to be too expensive), you can make your own. Trader Joe's sells 1-pound bags of almond meal for a reasonable price, and Bob's Red Mill makes an honorable almond meal, but you're better off ordering that online--for some reason grocery stores like to charge way too much for it.

To make almond meal, you can use blanched whole almonds or raw almonds. I like almonds with the skins still on--they don't impart a bitter flavor like hazelnut skins do. Give the almonds a few whizzes in the food processor. Remember: you don't want almond butter. Just pulse until some of the almonds have been ground into a powder. Sift the ground almonds into a bowl, and return the still-chunky almonds to the food processor. Continue this process until all of the almonds have been finely ground. If your food processor starts to heat up, give it a rest. Heat will cause the almonds to form a paste rather than a powder.

For this particular brownie, I decided to add a somewhat unusual ingredient: almond paste. I love the flavor of nuts in brownies, but I prefer an even-textured brownie to a chunky one. Using almond meal, almond paste, and a little almond extract gives you lots of nutty flavor without the chunk, providing a highly flavorful, velvety brownie. These brownies are also extremely moist. In fact, I highly recommend that you let them cool completely in the pan before cutting. As much as I love a warm brownie with a glass of milk, the flavor actually improves as the brownie reaches room temperature, and they'll be a lot easier to get out of the pan.

After making these brownies, I had a very pleasing revelation. When I bake something, especially a 9x13-inch pan of rich brownies, the only people around to eat it are John and myself. We have a couple neighbors, but we're always giving food to them, and after a while I start to feel like a pusher. So, on a whim, I cut the brownies into squares, wrapped the squares in wax paper, threw them in a freezer bag, and froze them. When I took one out to test it, the brownie was very moist and downright refreshing. In fact, I think I like them better frozen than at room temperature.

Gluten-Free Almond Brownies
24 brownies

If you like, add some chopped, toasted almonds to the batter. It's overkill, but these are brownies, which are completely superfluous anyway. I could also see a couple teaspoons of espresso powder being a nice addition.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9 x 13-inch glass baking dish.
In a small bowl, whisk together:
     1 1/2 cups almond meal
     3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
     1 teaspoon salt
Place in a double boiler (or a bowl suspended over a pot of boiling water) and let sit undisturbed until the chocolate appears shiny:
     11 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli chips), chopped
     1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and softened
Turn off the heat, but leave the double boiler over the hot water. Stir the chocolate until it is completely melted. Stir in:
     1/2 cup granulated sugar
     1/2 cup packed brown sugar
     1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a medium bowl, break apart with your fingers or a fork:
     1 8-ounce can almond paste (not marzipan)
Add and beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until thoroughly combined and smooth:
     5 eggs
Alternating with the egg mixture, fold the almond meal mixture into the melted chocolate until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, turning the pan halfway through baking. A toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies should come out with moist crumbs attached.
Let the brownies cool completely in the pan.

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Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Clean and stem:
           24 large-ish cremini (button) mushrooms
Melt in a medium sauté pan over medium heat: