Bring on the brownies. That was our mantra recently when we decided to taste a variety of the chocolate cakelike squares made from store-bought mixes. More and more, we have been overwhelmed by the number of choices taunting us from the grocery shelves.
Yes, we know, making brownies from scratch is not difficult. But, late at night, when your child remembers she's supposed to bring a snack to school the next day, these mixes come to the rescue. They are quick and convenient.
They're also great on dreary-weather days when you need a satisfying respite from the outside world. Or actually anytime you need bolstering.
No wonder these indulgences are considered an American classic. The first brownie recipe is said to have appeared in an 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog. But Nick Malgieri in "How to Bake" (HarperCollins, 1995) discovered a connection closer to home.
He traced a recipe for brownies, found at a yard sale in Cape Cod years ago, to Baltimore. Calling them "Maryland Brownies," he writes in his book, "I always think of these as the original brownies." (We've included the recipe in case you're curious.)
Regardless of brownies' beginnings, modern-day cooks now only have to dump the powdery contents of a box into a bowl; add eggs, oil and water. Plop the mix into a pan. Place it in the oven. And savor the wonderful aroma while the brownies are baking.
The most difficult step seems to be deciding which brand to use.
For our taste test, we rounded up box mixes from Pillsbury, Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, Washington, Ghirardelli and a generic one (Super G from Giant Food). To keep the blind sampling as fair as possible, we used the same type -- a fudge brownie.
Only the Ghirardelli brand, available at Price Club, had teeny chocolate chips in the mix. The addition didn't go unnoticed by our panel of nine volunteers from The Sun -- all avowed chocoholics. But because we wanted to try this product from the gourmet chocolate maker based in San Francisco, we decided to include it.
The amazingly decadent Ghirardelli brownies came in second in our judging, mostly because of their intense chocolate flavor. But their pudding-like texture drew cheers and jeers. Some tasters thought the brownies were great. Others thought they were too gooey.
Were they under-cooked? Perhaps. But after 45 minutes (the recommended cooking time), we mercilessly pulled the pan from the oven. We wanted to bake the brownies according to box directions, especially because manufacturers frequently warn in capital letters, DO NOT OVERBAKE.
According to "Pillsbury, the Complete Book of Baking" (Viking, 1993), fudgy brownies do not have a specific doneness test. In other words, a toothpick plunged in the middle of the brownies probably isn't going to be trustworthy. For a guideline, the minimum time given in recipes produces very moist brownies, the book says. The maximum time results in a moist brownie, but one that is not as "wet."
A definition of the perfect brownie seems to vary from one person to the next. Some love the kind that are cloyingly sweet; others prefer a bittersweet taste. Some go for a caky texture; others like the chewy, fudgy ones.
We judged the brownies -- all made in the same type of pan in the same home oven with a thermometer to check the temperature -- according to richness, moistness, chewiness, taste and appearance. Our unscientific poll was based on a 1- to 5-point rating system, with 5 being the highest score in each category.
But a good-looking brownie isn't necessarily a winner. The Washington brand, which came in fourth overall, looked appealing, but its taste dragged it down.
Testers were blunt. The majority thought the brownie had a strange taste.
The winner, hands down, was Betty Crocker, a familiar name in many kitchens over the years. The panel was wowed by this tasty, satisfying brownie.
1. Betty Crocker Fudge Brownies
2. Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix
3. Super G Fudge Brownie
4. Washington Old Fashioned Fudge Brownie Mix
5. Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge
6. Pillsbury Fudge Brownie
1. Betty Crocker
3. Super G
5. Duncan Hines
Makes 16 2-inch brownies
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup bleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (about 4 ounces) chopped walnuts or pecans
Butter an 8-inch square baking pan and line the bottom with parchment or wax paper. Set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
Bring a small pan of water to a boil and remove from the heat. Combine the chocolate and butter in a heat-proof bowl and place over the water, stirring occasionally until melted. Remove from the water and cool.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar by hand until just combined. With a rubber spatula, fold in the chocolate mixture, then the flour, and finally the nuts. Do not over-mix.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the brownies are slightly puffed and set, 25 to 30 minutes.
Let cool in the pan on a rack. When completely cool, unmold and cut into 2-inch squares.