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Swirled brownies make a simple dessert even better

From top left, plain fudgy brownies, cheesecake swirl, white chocolate-peppermint swirl and tahini swirl brownies. (Photos by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
Brownies With Cheesecake, Tahini or White Chocolate-Peppermint Swirl
Active time:20 to 30 mins (varies with swirls)
Total time:45 mins to 1 hour 5 mins (varies with swirls), plus cooling time
Servings:12 to 16
Active time:20 to 30 mins (varies with swirls)
Total time:45 mins to 1 hour 5 mins (varies with swirls), plus cooling time
Servings:12 to 16

Chewy (or cakey), fudgy, deeply chocolate-y, and preferably crinkly topped, brownies just do it better than any other sweet treat I can think of. As flawless as they are, there’s a little something you can do to make brownies even better. Enter the swirl.

With just a few ingredients and a few minutes, you can add flavor, color and pizazz to the humble (but always fabulous) brownie. Moreover, despite how terrific they look, swirls atop a brownie are super easy to achieve. Here, you’ll not only find swirl technique 101, but also flavor and color variations. Try these and then let them inspire you to come up with your own.

After years of brownie research, I have locked in my preferences: Chewy, crinkly topped brownies are the best brownies. Using both cocoa powder and melted chocolate gives deep flavor and fudginess. And I strongly believe that brownies should be easy to make (one bowl, no stand mixer required). But I do depart from my standard in one major way: Swirled brownies need leavening.

In general, I believe it is a sacrilege to add leavening to brownie batter (as it causes cakiness), but when swirling, I change my tune. The leavening gives the brownies a little lift, which helps them hold their swirl while baking.

Many ingredients can be swirled into brownies, but I’m partial to cream cheese, melted chocolate and nut (or seed) butters. The trick with swirls is to assemble something that is pourable, but not runny, so that when you drizzle or “plop” (it’s a technical, brownie swirling term) the swirl mixture atop your brownie, it stays put until you are ready to drag your skewer or the tip of your paring knife through to create gorgeous, loopy swirls. Creating cream cheese and nut butter swirls calls for the same technique, but melted chocolate swirls are created a little differently.

The recipe below, including these three swirling techniques, is suitable for an 8-inch square baking pan.

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Cream cheese swirls

Ingredients: A cream cheese swirl, and I’m partial to the Philadelphia brand, is made by combining a cup of room temperature cream cheese, an egg or egg yolk, some sugar and a little vanilla extract and salt. Cream cheese swirls can be tinted different colors and flavored with different extracts, as cream cheese is a wonderful blank canvas. I like to add almond extract to my swirl for a chocolate-almond brownie situation, and red food coloring, plus peppermint extract, for a pink peppermint brownie worthy of holiday entertaining. When mixing the ingredients together, whisk only until the mixture is smooth. You don’t want a lumpy swirl, but you also don’t want the cream cheese to lose structure and become runny.

Technique: When you transfer the batter to the prepared pan, reserve some of it to use when swirling. With a small 1 1/2 tablespoon portion scoop if you have it, or measuring spoons, plop about 9 scoops of cream cheese swirl (3 rows of 3) evenly over the brownie batter. Clean the scoop and portion out the extra brownie batter, plopping it in between the cream cheese. Now, drag a long wooden skewer (my preference) or the tip of a paring knife through each row of cream cheese and brownie plops horizontally (left to right, and then right to left), never lifting the tool from the batter, and then through each row vertically. If you drizzle or plop your swirl over all of the batter, rather than reserving some of it, your swirls will not be thoroughly incorporated into the brownie batter and will be less dramatic.

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Nut and seed butter swirls

Ingredients: A seed butter swirl, such as tahini, requires about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the chosen butter plus a little sugar, vanilla and salt. Use a fresh jar or reincorporate any oil that has separated in the jar by heating the butter and stirring until smooth. When making a nut butter swirl, you can use as much as 3/4 cup, because nut butters tend to be stiffer than tahini and hold their shape better when swirled. You can add sugar if you like and a little melted butter to thin the swirl, if necessary.

Technique: Use the same reserved batter and “plop” technique for swirling with cream cheese when swirling with seed and nut butters.

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Melted chocolate swirl

Ingredients: A melted chocolate swirl requires about 4 ounces of chocolate. Unlike a cream cheese or nut/seed butter swirl, a chocolate swirl really needs no other ingredients, but I like to add a little extract and color if working with white chocolate. And if making a milk or dark chocolate swirl, add flavored extract. For instance, 1/4 teaspoon of orange extract in a dark chocolate swirl would be pretty delicious. For the brightest hues, use McCormick or Wilton food coloring.

Technique When swirling with melted chocolate, you do not need to reserve any brownie batter. The melted chocolate swirls look the best when they are created directly on the surface of the uncooked brownie batter. With a 1-teaspoon measuring spoon dollop the melted chocolate over the batter, about 12 times, creating 4 rows of 3. Drag a wooden skewer or the tip of a paring knife through each row of melted chocolate horizontally (left to right, and then right to left), never lifting the tool from the batter, and then through each row vertically.

Swirling brownies like a pro is easier than you’d think (particularly when armed with my handy tips) In other words, we’re talking big swirl bang for the brownie buck.

Brownies With Cheesecake, Tahini or White Chocolate-Peppermint Swirl

If you’re making non-swirled brownies, feel free to add your favorite toasted nuts. Also, both the cheesecake swirl and white chocolate swirls are infinitely riffable: The cheesecake can be flavored with almond extract and the brownies sprinkled with toasted almonds for a Viennese brownie. The white chocolate can be flavored with espresso powder, or add a little raspberry jam for brownies with a fruity-chocolate vibe.

Storage: Refrigerate cheesecake or tahini swirl brownies in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Store white chocolate-peppermint swirl brownies at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With Cheesecake Swirl recipe here

Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With Tahini Swirl recipe here.

Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With White Chocolate-Peppermint Swirl here.


Ingredients

For the brownies

  • Nonstick cooking spray (optional)
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, diced, plus more optional for greasing the pan (optional)
  • 2/3 cup (53 grams) Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup (57 grams) semisweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 cup (94 grams) all-purpose flour

Step 1

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square cake pan with nonstick cooking spray or softened butter. Line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper long enough to have an overhang over two opposite sides of the pan.


Step 2

In a large, microwave-safe bowl, combine the butter, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, oil and salt and microwave on HIGH in 30-second bursts three to four times, whisking after each, until melted and smooth. (Alternatively, combine the ingredients in a heatproof bowl, nestled over a pot of barely simmering water — don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water — whisking occasionally, until melted and smooth.)


Step 3

Immediately whisk in the granulated and brown sugars and the vanilla until combined. The batter will be thick and will clump up a bit on the whisk. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the yolk, until incorporated, then whisk in the baking powder until combined. Using a flexible spatula, fold in the flour until the last streak of it disappears; do not overmix.


Step 4

If making the cheesecake or tahini swirl brownies (see VARIATIONS): Scrape about a half to two-thirds of the thick batter into the prepared pan and smooth it out with an offset spatula. Dollop the swirl mixture over the batter in 3 rows of 3, for total of 9 dollops. Then, place dollops of the remaining brownie batter in and around the swirled dollops, so that the swirl dollops still show. Drag a long wooden skewer, or the tip of a paring knife, through the dollops of swirl, first by dragging down vertically and then by dragging up vertically, never removing the skewer as you do so. Once you’ve dragged through each row vertically, do the same horizontally.

If making the white chocolate-peppermint brownies (see VARIATIONS): Scrape all of the batter into the prepared pan, dollop teaspoons of the white chocolate-peppermint evenly over the top and drag your skewer through them as described above.


Step 6

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes for a cheesecake swirl brownie; 25 to 30 minutes for plain, tahini swirl or white chocolate-peppermint swirl brownies; or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the pan into the brownie portion, not the swirl, comes out with a few moist crumbs, rotating the pan at the halfway point. Do not overbake.


Step 7

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely in the pan, about 2 hours. Using the parchment overhang, lift the brownie out of the pan (if you meet any resistance, gently run a butter knife around the edges.)


Variations

Here is how to make each of the suggested swirls.

Cheesecake Swirl

  • 8 ounces (226 grams) full-fat cream cheese, preferably the Philadelphia brand, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup (40 grams) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine salt

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, egg, vanilla and salt until combined. Set aside while you assemble the brownies.

Tahini Swirl

  • 1/3 cup (83 grams) tahini, stirred until smooth
  • 3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine salt

In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla and salt until combined. Set aside while you assemble the brownies.

Pro tip: This swirl works best with fresh tahini that is well-blended. If the oil has separated from the paste, decant the tahini to a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high in 30-second bursts, stirring after each, until emulsified and smooth. You can also do this over a pot of simmering water on the stovetop. To help keep the tahini emulsified after mixing, you can store it in the refrigerator.

White Chocolate-Peppermint Swirl

  • 4 ounces (113 grams) white chocolate, melted and cooled (see Pro tips)
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract, or more as needed (see Pro tips)
  • 10 drops green food coloring, or more as desired (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons crushed candy canes or another peppermint candy, such as Starlight Peppermints Mints brand (optional; see Pro tips)

In a small bowl, gently whisk together the chocolate, peppermint extract and food coloring, if using, until combined. Set aside while you assemble the brownies.

Pro tips: To melt the white chocolate, microwave on HIGH in 30-second bursts a few times, whisking after each, until melted and smooth. (Alternatively, combine the ingredients in a heatproof bowl, nestled over a pot of barely simmering water, but don’t let the bottom of the bowl touch the water. Whisk occasionally, until melted and smooth.) If the chocolate is difficult to whisk after you’ve added the extract and food coloring, microwave for an additional 5 to 10 seconds to soften it. It should be cool to the touch before adding it to the brownies.

If adding crushed peppermint candy to the brownies, 5 minutes before the baking time is up, sprinkle the candy over the top of the brownies.

To give the white chocolate-peppermint swirl brownies more peppermint flavor, use an additional 1 teaspoon of peppermint extract in place of 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract in the brownie batter and reduce the vanilla to 1/2 teaspoon. About 5 minutes before the baking time is up, sprinkle the crushed candy over the top of the brownies, if desired.


From food writer and recipe developer Jessie Sheehan.

Tested by Alexis Sargent (white chocolate-peppermint), Hattie Ulan (cheesecake) and Ann Maloney (tahini); email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With Cheesecake Swirl recipe here

Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With Tahini Swirl recipe here.

Scale, get nutritional information and a printer-friendly version of Brownies With White Chocolate-Peppermint Swirl here.

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