Everyone loves a brownie. Well, maybe everyone except for my kids who would rather have a macaron from Maison du Chocolat. They are the exception who snubbed their noses at the forty dollars worth of free Godiva truffles I recently smuggled home in my purse from an event. I mean come on now, free chocolate is always good in my book. But getting back on track, recently I noticed a new crop of brownie mixes on the market. Now on a good day you can score some Duncan Hines family-sized brownie mix at Target for a mere 2 bucks. Add an egg of two and a little oil and call it $2.50 and you get a nice pan of brownies that taste like mom made and make your kitchen smell like you are god’s gift to husbands (or at least mine). So when I started seeing these new mixes breaking a 10 spot, I knew some serious taste-testing was in order. So this past week I gathered a group of experts, a mixed panel, some honest to goodness pastry chefs (like ICE Director of Pastry & Baking Arts Program Andrea Tuntunjian and Chef Instructors Jeff Yoskowitz and Chad Pagano) and some regular joes, everyone eager to participate in the Great Brownie (Mix) Bake Off 2011.
To start with, let’s meet the contestants. In the line-up, we had Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate ringing in at $3.59 a box followed by Duncan Hines Double Fudge with the extra rich syrup package at $3.89. In the middle price range we had Fat Witch Bakery’s Original Fat Witch Brownie Mix at $6.99. And at the top end was Williams Sonoma Brownie Mix (manufactured by Dancing Deer Baking Company) and Baked’s Deep Dark Chocolate Brownie Mix both at a whopping $16.00 a box.
As far as time and labor, the Ghirardelli and Duncan Hines were simple – add some eggs and oil, stir together and pour in the pan, prepped in under 5 minutes. Both Fat Witch and Baked required you to melt butter and chocolate and then stir in the ingredient packs and the Williams Sonoma mix had you ribbon eggs (highly unusual in the world of brownies) and melt butter. Now to start, if you have to melt butter and chocolate then the only step you seem to be saving with the mix is measuring out the dry ingredients. I would also like to note that I was quite underwhelmed with the quantity of chocolate that was provided in the mixes considering their price. Especially when I had to add four eggs and half a pound of butter to the Baked mix, easily driving up the cost to closer to twenty dollars.
And the results…..
Well sadly I must say, that Duncan Hines was the winner by a landslide, with comments like “fudgy”, “moist” and “chewy good”. Ghiradelli and Baked were pretty much tied for second, with some liking the rather dark color and melty chips of the Ghirardelli. While one panelist thought the Baked brownies tasted like “diet” brownies, others thought it had the best chocolate taste. Williams Sonoma followed next with nothing remarkable about it. It was only fair and it didn’t really seem to get any notice at all. Fat Witch managed to garner a great deal of attention – but not in a good way – with comments like “chemical-y,” “looks awful,” “odd after taste” and “too light in color”. From a behind the scene perspective I would have to say that I was first disheartened by the amount of actual chocolate in the mix, maybe a quarter of a cup of chips. As for the finished product, I didn’t care for the very light color and what I could only describe as an artificial banana-ish flavor.
So at the end of the day, the skinny is this: if you don’t have the time and patience to make your own, head out to the grocery store and get a box of Betty or Duncan and eat your heart out for a few bucks. If you want to go deluxe, then make it from scratch. It’s easy, quick and worth it. I’m giving you my secret recipe for the best brownies ever (okay I stole it, but it’s my favorite). And I’m adding in my variation to make the most delicious cheesecake brownies too — keep them frozen and eat them right out of the freezer, they’re best that way.
by Nick Malgieri
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
Makes one 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan
Combine butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl and melt over a water bath or in the microwave. Whisk in the eggs, salt, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla. Stir in the flour. Pour batter into a pan lined with parchment and spread evenly. Bake for about 55 to 60 minutes at 350˚F, until top has formed a shiny crust and batter is moderately firm. Cool in pan on a rack.
My Secret Cheesecake Brownies
1/4 pound butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup cake flour
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
Melted chocolate or chocolate syrup
Makes one 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan
Over a double boiler, melt the butter, chocolates and brown sugar. Off the heat, stir in 3/4 cup sugar, 3 eggs and the cake flour. Spread in pan lined with parchment paper. Freeze for several hours or for up to a week.
When ready to bake the brownies, cream together the cream cheese and ½ cup sugar. Add in 3 eggs. Spread on top of the frozen brownie mix. Drizzle some melted chocolate on top and swirl to make a decorative pattern. Bake at 350 degrees until the top is set and lightly golden brown.
Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Place in the freezer for 1 hour or overnight to chill.