Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The "Blind" Brownie Mix Tasting

"Blind" tasting of nine commercial brownie mixes and four homemade brownie recipes to rate and rank said brownies.
Hypothesis: At least one of the homemade recipes will wipe the floor with the box mixes.
Seven men, eight women, one boy, one girl, and one stuffed monkey on weekend leave from kindergarten.
Brownie tasting grid

All brownies with one exception were baked in buttered and floured 8"x8"disposable foil pans on the same day. To insure even baking the foil pans were doubled and all pans were baked sitting on a cookie sheet. The exception was baked in the aluminum disposable pan included with the mix. Nuts or chocolate chips were added to the brownie batters when suggested in the mix or recipe instructions. Three and one half pounds of butter & thirty eggs were used in the baking of these study subjects. Each pan of brownies was cut into thirty-six pieces. Mixes and homemade recipes were labeled from "A" to  "M," and their identities were kept secret until the taster had submitted their completed scoring and ranking sheet.
Brownies were rated from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) on these qualities:
1) Taste   2) Texture   3) Chocolate flavor  
Points were totaled and brownies were ranked from 1 to 13 based mostly on point scores. Comments were also occasionally noted.
Brownies were tasted in two "flights" - of six and seven brownies respectively.
Brownie tasting table "before."
Tasters quaffed their beverage of choice from this selection: milk, water, tea, coffee or these spirits selected by the house sommelier for their compatibility with chocolate:
Brownie "wines"

Vina Eguia Tempranillo, Reserva 2007 (Rioja)
Domaine La Tour Vieille Banyuls, Rimage 2011- a sweet dessert wine
Malvasia Old Reserve Barbeito Madeira (labeled "10 years old")
Smith Woodhouse "Lodge Reserve" Porto (n.d.)
The port was the clear favorite among the alcoholic beverages.
Surprising and disappointing to homemade advocates!  The hypothesis was handily proven incorrect. Only the house sommelier cum lab assistant selected homemade recipes as his two top choices. Amazingly, some mixes were as much or more work to make than a homemade recipe.
With a comparable  batch of homemade America's Test Kitchen recipe brownies using best quality chocolate and one cup of walnuts prices out at $4.00, it seems that mixes are best suited to brownie bakers who ...
Are still up at midnight and just starting the treats for school or sports practice the next day
Don't normally stock flour, baking powder, butter, etc. in their pantry and prefer to reach for one box off the grocery shelf  (although all recipes require at least one egg and butter or oil)
Don't feel like washing more than one bowl and one baking pan
Prefer spending 10 minutes making a box brownie to 30 minutes (tops!) melting chocolate, measuring flour, chopping nuts, etc.
Aren't confident about their baking skills
The rating worksheet
Enough said. Here are the winners and losers in rank order: 
1) "F" – Stonewall Kitchen Triple Fudge Brownie Mix  ($12.95)
    Comment: Good quality relative to effort- requires melted butter and eggs. Baker also has to melt the enclosed packet of chocolate chips on the stove or by microwave. Our ten year old buddy Frank's favorite. He swept up all the residuals from his other family members' sample trays. Did it make a difference that they were labeled "F" as in Frank? His dad was hoping for a more affordable price point, but no such luck!
2) "A" – Ghirardelli Double Chocolate  Brownie Mix ($4.75)
    Comment: "I've had these before- They taste like a soccer mom snack."      
 3) "B" – Betty Crocker Fudge Brownies  ($4.99) 
     Comments: Study investigators believe that mix "B" skewed the results due to the fact that when multiple tasters were children this was their mothers' brownie of choice.
4) "G" – America’s Test Kitchen Classic Brownies recipe
     Comments: A recipe worth knowing (and baking) despite its tendency to anal retentiveness. Our  modifications are the use of unbleached flour and inclusion of our chopped nuts of choice in the brownies rather than on top. (See complete recipe below.)
5) "K" – Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownie Mix  ($11.95)
    Comments: Highest rating from Consumer Reports in 2011. Have a strong coffee undertone to the flavor.
6) "I"  – Trader Joe’s Brownie Truffle Baking Mix  ($2.99)
     Comments: The other Consumer Reports top rated mix. Tastes too fake-y to me.
7) "H" – Duncan Hines Double Fudge Decadent Brownie Mix  ($3.99)
     Comments: Tasters generally ranked this one 
8) "L" – America’s Test Kitchen Cream Cheese Brownies recipe (recipe written below)
    Comments: Termed "revolting" by two participants; enjoyed by lovers of Black Bottom Cupcakes which they strongly resembled. The investigator's personal favorite- a tender, rich chocolate crumb; its sweetness balanced by the tangy cream cheese. **Marley the stuffed monkey's favorite too!
9) "J" – Vosges Caramel Toffee Chocolate Chunk Brownie Mix  ($16.95)
    Comments: Not only the most expensive mix of the bunch; these were actually more work to make than a batch of homemade brownies, requiring you to stir constantly 3/4 cup melted butter (your own) together with a "sugar bag" over medium heat for 5 minute, and then let that mixture cool before adding your 3 eggs, 2 tsp of vanilla, and two "brownie mix bags" to make your batter. After baking 20 minutes   one is required to pull the brownies out of the oven, scatter the contents of the "toffee bag" on top and bake another 25 minutes.
      Comment: Some possible baker error during production. These had been successfully made the previous weekend and had scored a "5" for taste with the in-house reviewer.
11) "E" – Rick Bayless Frontera Chocoholic Chile Brownie recipe (click to view)
       Comments: "Spicy" This recipe called for 2 TB of ancho chile powder. Contained four types of chocolate, and a larger quantity than any other recipe. (The baker made the mistake of adding 1 tsp. of cinnamon, which was judged unacceptable in brownies.)
12) "D" – King’s Cupboard Organics Double Chocolate Brownie Mix  ($6.99)
      Comments: The organic whole wheat flour is a deal breaker from the get go. Beating softened butter into dry brownie mix is no picnic. Rated "NSG" (not so good).
13) "M" – Manischewitz Fudgey Gooey Brownie Mix ($3.99)
     Comments: How good can anything be that uses matzo meal flour and tells you to beat it for 4 minutes? Shades of my kvetchy grandmother! Neither fudgey or gooey.
The remains
Published Brownie Mix Ratings
Both Consumer Reports (August 2011) & Cook's Illustrated (aka America's Test Kitchen, March 2004) have rated brownie mixes. Consumer Reports states that they baked more than 100 batches for their testing! And, here are the results from these two august bodies:
Consumer Reports ranks Trader Joe's Brownie Truffle Mix and Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownie Mix as "excellent." Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge, Betty Crocker Fudge, and Market Pantry (Target) are rated "very good" and designated as "best buys."
Cook's Illustrated was definitely in picky eater mode when they did their evaluation! They deemed the
Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix "passable in a pinch," but specifically "did not recommend" Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, or Duncan Hines mixes.

Substituting Chocolates
It's inevitable at the Picky Eater's house that the pantry never seems to provide the type of chocolate specified in the recipe we want to make. Usually what happens here is that bittersweet chocolate stands in for unsweetened, which probably means that the results are a tad sweeter than the recipe anticipates, but there have never been any complaints! Just in case any readers get stuck in a similar situation, here are some "official chocolate substitution guidelines":
Substitute for unsweetened chocolate:
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or margarine or shortening or vegetable oil for each ounce of unsweetened chocolate.
Substitute for bittersweet chocolate:
2/3 ounce of unsweetened chocolate + 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar OR
1 ounce semisweet chocolate + 1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder for every ounce of bittersweet chocolate.
Substitute for semi-sweet chocolate:
3 tablespoons chocolate chips OR
1-ounce bittersweet baking chocolate OR
1-ounce unsweetened baking chocolate and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar OR
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon butter, margarine or shortening for every ounce of semi-sweet baking chocolate.
Substitute for semi-sweet chocolate chips:
1 ounce semi-sweet baking chocolate (can be chopped & used like chips) OR
1-ounce unsweetened chocolate plus 1 tablespoons sugar (used when chips are to be melted) for every 1-ounce of chocolate chips

Recipes (homemade only!)
Baking Chocolates
Brownies are only as good as the chocolate that you use to make them. While the price point of quality chocolate is usually about 50% more than the pedestrian stuff, why waste your time and effort for a disappointing product? One unforgettable example for me was the time when an acquaintance made my best chocolate cookie with Trader Joe's generic chocolate, and it didn't even taste like the same cookie! We have several preferred brands that are readily available at the supermarket as well as at Target or Cost Plus, where you can sometimes get a bargain. Our favorites are-
Lindt Bittersweet
We find Valrhona & Scharffen Berger a little too dear for baking, but splurge if you want!

If you want easy internet access to the world of exotic chocolates, click on over to Chocosphere, a mail order operation in Oregon that offers it all! They even carry our favorite obscure chocolate- Ocumare from Chocovic in Spain. Years ago it won Dr. Hal's blind chocolate and red wine tasting. Trader Joe's got us addicted to it, and then, as is their wont, discontinued to stock it.

America's Test Kitchen Brownies (adapted from The New Best Recipe)
The Picky Eater's cousin Anthony's favorite- always part of his Chanukah/Xmas goody haul. He likes them without nuts.

1 1/4 c.  flour (they recommend cake flour, but unbleached all purpose works for me)
3/4 t. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
12 Tb butter
2 1⁄4 c. sugar
1 Tb vanilla
4 large eggs

1 c. pecans or walnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325°.

Butter a 9” x 13” pan. Cut two pieces of parchment paper or foil large enough to fit in the pan, one lengthwise and one crosswise, with a 2” overhang on each edge. Fit them in the pan and butter them. (if these seems like way too much trouble and you don't mind a little unsightly flour on the brownies along the edge, just heavily butter and flour your pan.)
If using the nuts, toast them in the oven for 5-8 minutes, until fragrant.
Stir the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a medium bowl.
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth.
Beat the eggs and sugar together until mixed. Stir in the melted chocolate mixture and the vanilla. Add the flour in 3 additions, stir just until mixed. Add the optional nuts.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, using a spatula to spread it into the corners and smooth the top.
Bake 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
Place on a wire rack for about 2 hours, until they cool to room temperature; then remove the brownies from the pan by lifting them out using the foil/paper overhang. Cut into 2” squares and serve.
Makes 24
Marley the monkey liked the cream cheese brownies the best.
America's Test Kitchen Cream Cheese Brownies (also adapted from The New Best Recipe)
To be honest, in a recipe like this I am totally comfortable using all bittersweet chocolate rather than worrying about mixing semi-sweet, unsweetened, etc.)

Brownie part
2/3 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, broken up into chunks
4 oz. bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, broken up into chunks
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, quartered
1 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs

Cream cheese filling
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk

Preheat the oven to 325°.
Butter a 8” square baking pan. Cut two pieces of parchment paper or foil large enough to fit in the pan, one lengthwise and one crosswise, with a 2” overhang on each edge. Fit them in the pan and butter them. (if these seems like way too much trouble and you don't mind a little unsightly flour on the brownies along the edge, just heavily butter and flour your pan.)

Stir the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a medium bowl.
Melt the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl set over almost simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove the mixture from the heat, whisk in the sugar and vanilla, and  and allow the batter to cool a minute or two.
Whisk in the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next, and stir until smooth. Add the flour mixture and stir until the dry ingredients are just incorporated.
Make the cream cheese filling:
In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese with the sugar, vanilla, and egg until evenly blended.
Pour half the brownie mixture into the prepared pan and use a rubber spatula to distribute it evenly in the pan. Spoon glops of about 1/2 the cream cheese filling onto the brownie layer, then add a layer of  the remaining brownie mixture followed by the rest of the cream cheese filling. Use a table knife to swirl the layers a tiny bit, so the top of the batter looks marbled. (Don't overswirl!)
Bake about 50-60 minutes, until the sides have moved away from the pan, the brownies feel almost firm in the center when lightly touched, and a toothpick combs out holding a few errant crumbs when inserted into the center.
Cool completely in the pan on a rack. Do not cut until just before serving. They will keep for about 5 days if they aren't eaten first.
Makes 16-24 brownies, depending on the size that you cut.

Forgot to mention- Dr. Hal asked me when was the last time that I made brownies with a mix. Thinking back, I could not recall ever having used a mix- not even as a child! And, having tasted the results, probably never again!

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