Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Brownies on Trial

I’d consider myself a cookie connoisseur, and I always favor cookies with a crisp, chewy exterior and a soft, melty interior. To me, every other type of cookie is wrong. Probably immoral.

In my quest for the perfect brownie, I was looking for something similar. It needed to have the chewy exterior, the shiny crinkle-top looking like lava rock on the pan of chocolate-y goodness. It needed to have a deep chocolate flavor, a fudgy interior, and a substantial bite to it.

Memories from Childhood

I was definitely raised on the box brownie mix, and my first experiences baking came from following those picture instructions on the back of the red box. In my early recollections, those box mixes defined brownies for me--making brownies from scratch seemed like it was too complicated unless you were, like, Graham Kerr** or something.

In reality, most scratch-brownie recipes are very simple. However, few I tried improved upon (or even replicated) my favorite elements of a good ol’ box mix brownie. (I did find one that was very similar, if you’re interested.)

At some point in my quest, I decided to get a little more methodical in my experimentation, so, I made a rubric based upon the elements I was most interested in. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I wanted to be more objective, and have a better record of what I actually liked and disliked about each recipe.

The Rubric

Each category was rated 1-10, with 10 being the highest.
Chocolate Flavor
I was looking for a deep chocolate flavor--not overly sweet. More dark than milk chocolate.

Looking for a substantial bite-- a brownie that meant business. None of that fluffy, airy, cake-like mess.

The interior needed to be moist and fudgy, maybe a little gooey.

With the gooey interior, though, I also was looking for a chewy outer crust. I’m a fan of the variations in texture one gets from the edge piece (more on this later), so the crust element is important to me.

I wanted that classic brownie look, with a shiny, crinkled top.

The Pan

I use The Baker's Edge pan for my brownies (lasagna too, but that’s another post!). They aren’t compensating me, but as a strong proponent of brownie edges, I think it’s a great investment. Each brownie has at least two edges, plus they’re a lot easier to cut into more uniform pieces for serving. (I say “more uniform” because I’m the worst at making things uniform.)

The Very Best

My favorite recipe was one that supposedly came from a bakery in NYC that Oprah had raved about (remember those days when Oprah told us she liked something and everyone started throwing money at whatever it was?). I have tried it on 2 separate groups: my church congregation and my coworkers at school. Both times, the entire batch was cleared out in a matter of minutes, and to rave reviews from my (unknowing) tasters. They have five eggs and a whole cup of butter, so they are obviously also very heart-healthy.

You will win the potluck with these. (Don’t tell me the potluck isn’t a competition. EVERY POTLUCK IS A COMPETITION.)

The Recipes

"Baked" Brownies--my favorite recipe!! 
Great chew, good density, dark chocolate flavor. Less fudgy than chewy, and recipe makes a very large quantity.(Taste testers enjoyed these very much.) 

Lunch Lady Brownies
Yummy, but closer to Texas sheet cake than brownies. 

Chewy, Fudgy Homemade Brownies (Sally's Baking Addiction)
Quite sweet (more "milk" than "dark" chocolate flavor). Texturally, very similar to a box-mix brownie, with the thin crackly top and chewy outer crust. 

NYT Supernatural Brownies
To my tastebuds, the chocolate flavor was not deep enough, despite the bittersweet chocolate (I suppose the large quantity of sugar canceled it out). Texture was a bit dry. 

Katharine Hepburn's Brownies
Very fudgy with deep chocolate flavor, but did not have the chewy crust I am looking for. 

San Francisco Fudge Foggies
Very creamy, fudgy texture (the fudgiest rated brownie)--more reminiscent of a truffle than a brownie, to me. Coffee enhances the deep chocolate flavor. If you love really rich chocolate, this is your brownie. 

Disgustingly Rich Brownies
Milder chocolate flavor, and a breadier brownie. 

(I also tried Ghirardelli triple fudge, Aldi brand, and Duncan Hines box mixes, which were all fine.)

Brownie Tips: 
*For fudgy brownies, you must NOT overbake. Underbaking is the way to go. In my oven (crappy electric oven in my apartment that may be as old as me), I also knock off about 25 degrees from the suggested baking temp, and cut the baking time down. For most of my recipes, I started with about 22 minutes baking time. 
*Pretty much always add a handful of chocolate chips to your brownies. Like, if you're worried about calories you shouldn't be eating brownies anyway. I guess you could do nuts or something, too, but do chocolate chips for sure. 
*The fudgiest of brownies benefit from being chilled in the fridge and eaten cold. These tend to be the ones with the higher butter-to-flour ratio, so without the chilling time, there isn't enough flour to give the brownie structure. 
*I adjusted all recipes to fit in my pan, which is the equivalent of a 9x13, just FYI. (i.e., I doubled recipes formulated for an 8x8 pan.) 

**Young Rachel watched a lot of Graham Kerr.