Blissful Peanut Butter Vegan Brownies with Maple Pecans
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
When a tough situation makes it feel like my warm light of happiness is snuffed for good, I know one activity can always bring a genuine smile back to my face.
I know I must turn up my favorite music, fire up the oven, and start gathering ingredients to make a fudgy chocolatey treat with an irresistible aroma—brownies.
COVID-19 certainly has presented one of these tough situations that’s making me reach for my mixing spoon.
A Tangible Way to Take on Stress
I feel like I’ve needed the tangible elements of making brownies—like the pungent smell of bitter baking cocoa and the weight of the thick dough against my wooden mixing spoon—more than ever.
It’s surreal to see people walking down the streets now covering their faces with everything from scarfs to surgical and N95 masks.
The CDC is now recommending wearing simple cloth face masks in public to slow the disease’s spread, which is mainly through respiratory droplets from an infected person sneezing, coughing, or even talking.
Even in Buffalo, where you can almost always count on a friendly hello and smile from a stranger you pass in the street, now sometimes people pass quickly, look the other way, and even rush to the opposite sidewalk. Of course, I understand this because the CDC still recommends staying 6 feet from others.
However, this is in such stark contrast to the warmth and neighborly vibe that gives Buffalo its “city of good neighbors” nickname that I’ve become accustomed to, and it makes me feel a bit cold inside—but I also understand the motivation is to keep others safe.
Lighting up the oven and becoming enthralled in a recipe that I plan to share with those I care about always gives me a boost. Brownies are one of my favorite treats to share because they are almost always well-received.
Psychologists say there are immense mental benefits to baking for other people (Huffington Post). Baking can allow us to communicate complex feelings, which are plentiful during this challenging time dealing with a global pandemic. It’s a type of communication that transgresses cultures and countries, and it can be a wonderful way to show others they are truly appreciated and loved.
In addition, cooking, in general, is a form of creative expression that can be a powerful tool to help us cope with conditions such as anxiety and depression by helping us tune into our senses (Smithsonian Magazine). This can be our escape from the black hole of negative thoughts that we can fall into if we’re not careful—especially during a pandemic.
There are many environmental benefits of vegan—or mostly vegan—cooking, but first I’d just like to say I think it’s pretty practical for a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been urging people to stay home to prevent the virus’s spread. This is of course primarily through contact with other people or even just being near someone else. This type of contact is something that’s hard to avoid at supermarkets, where a majority of people go to gather self-sustaining food.
So it’s best to avoid grocery shopping if possible. Vegan baking often requires fewer staple ingredients that you need to pick up from a grocery store often—most significantly eggs—so I’ve found it can be an effective way to avoid going through vital groceries.
Avoiding the grocery store can also help you put grocery store workers less at risk. In fact, right now supermarket employees have a very high risk of COVID-19 because they can come into contact with so many people (WorldEconomicForum).
In addition, many supermarkets (including Wegmans and Tops stores in Western New York near my apartment) are limiting the amount of some essential items like eggs that individual consumers can buy due to an uptick in demand (WGRZ).
I should mention I am not vegan. We do go through quite a few eggs since they are the main source of protein for my husband and me. I am a pescetarian and he eats as little meat as possible, and hardly ever red meat, which we’ve replaced with brands like Wegman’s “Don’t Have a Cow” (which is nearly impossible to tell apart from ground beef and is very versatile!) This means eggs are a precious commodity in our apartment and we need to make our supply last.
Another environmental benefit of baking snacks at home is that it can allow you to cut down on the trash of individual packaging—and you can control (and likely pronounce) all the ingredients that go in your treats! (Grist).
In terms of the environmental benefits of eating vegan, there may be more than you think. For example, if you are for water conservation, consider eating fewer cows or products from them (Global Citizen).
The US Geological Survey (USGS) collects data about how much water livestock use throughout the country. There are many water-heavy aspects of the industry, including not just providing water for the animals, but also sanitizing and washing down facilities, cooling facilities, and systems that dispose of animal waste.
The growing livestock sector around the world and the associated manure waste has had serious consequences for water quality too (FAO). Waste from livestock facilities can cause some pretty nasty substances to enter water sources, including antibiotics, vaccines, and growth promoters (FAO).
Grazing cattle that are the source of beef and dairy products also play a major role in fueling climate change by producing a lot of methane, a potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
Beyond harming our planet’s health that contributes to our overall wellness, moving toward a vegan diet can help prevent many health issues such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Notice how I said, “moving toward.” While going vegan is, of course, a wonderful step to make to limit our impact on the natural environment, even “shifting” towards this kind of diet can make a difference in our own health and the planet’s.
Yes, You Can (Safely) Share!
Although we are discouraged from getting together with friends during this time, dropping off one of these treats (after wiping down the containers) could be a way to show you are thinking of someone—and luckily experts say there is very little evidence the virus can spread through food (so go ahead and order that takeout to support local restaurants too!) (UCDAVIS Health).
And I feel like sharing food is one of the ultimate forms of spreading comfort, which is certainly something that’s needed right now.
This seemed especially true as I started writing this over the weekend and the wind was howling outside my apartment, whistling through the cracks in the sliding glass doors and windows as it ushered in a cold front.
I’ve also heard from experts that the COVID-19 storm is still swirling around us—as of Tuesday, there were 579,005 cases across the country (CDC) and around 800 deaths in New York per day (CNBC). However, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has said this number is starting to level off, in addition to the number of hospitalizations for the infection, and there’s been talk about reopening non-essential businesses throughout the state and neighboring states (PBS).
Despite this glimmer of hope, I know there are still so many discomforting unknowns.
However, as Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday during his daily press conference, “Our actions determine our destiny.” He added that people’s efforts to practice social distancing and businesses closing has shown the virus’s spread can be controlled.
This is also the case of climate change—just as the number of people who practice social distancing will determine the outcome of the COVID-19 crisis, the decisions people make today to travel, eat, and consume energy will play a role in the climate and natural habitats of tomorrow.
Maple Pecan Vegan Peanut Butter Brownies
Creamy peanut butter, crunchy pecans, sweet maple syrup—there’s a lot going on with these brownies, and I promise you all these elements come together to make an incredibly tasty treat.
Basically I followed this recipe available from one of my favorite recipe sites, All Recipes.
I’ll give you a quick overview, including some of my adjustments.
First up, the ingredients you need include:
• 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
• 2 cups white sugar
• ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup water
• 1 cup vegetable oil*
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 6 tablespoons peanut butter
• At least ½ cup pecans
• About 3 tablespoons of maple syrup
• 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (or about enough for sprinkling on pecans)
Now onto the steps:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (or energy conservation tip: try to plan around a time you are preheating your oven to cook something else—we had just made pizza when I first made these!).
Find a large bowl and then mix together the dry ingredients—the cocoa, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
Pour in the wet ingredients: the water, vegetable oil, vanilla, and peanut butter. Then mix well.
Spread the entire mixture into a *greased* 9x13 inch baking pan.
Bake for around 25 to 35 minutes, or until the oil/shine at the top of the brownies has baked off (they will look a little bumpy).
While brownies are baking, make the maple pecan topping: chop the pecans and coat in a few tablespoons of maple syrup and sprinkle them with cinnamon.
Bake the pecans at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Then coat in the remaining maple syrup.
Sprinkle the pecan topping on the brownies (preferably while still warm). Let cool and enjoy!
* Note: You can make this recipe a bit healthier by substituting the oil with the same amount of unsweetened applesauce, or half applesauce and half coconut oil (LiveStrong).
You will see the original recipe doesn’t call for adding peanut butter, but I worried these might be a little dry without some sort of egg substitute, so I turned to Google.
I found that nut butters are among many egg substitutes that are pretty easy to dig up (Healthline). About 3 tablespoons of any nut butter, such as peanut, can work.
A note about peanut butter according to Healthline—it’s a good idea to avoid peanut butter brands that use palm oil if possible since it can increase your risk of heart disease and it is a major cause of rainforest deforestation, which you can learn more about in this past post.
Some notes on the finished product: the consistency is quite different than most brownies—a little more crumbly like cake than gooey like other brownies (but this could have just been my fault for overcooking it, which is something I tend to do by accident!).
Oh yeah, and the taste of the finished product is AMAZING. I almost didn’t add the maple cinnamon pecans, but I think something about that flavor with the slight bitterness of the chocolate and that sweet note of vanilla is incredible. Also, I’ve found adding a bit of cinnamon to any extra sweet recipe can give it a bit more complex flavor, in addition to some major health benefits because cinnamon is rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties (Healthline).