America’s love affair with brownies is alive and well. Chewy or fudgy; from scratch, a mix or the bakery section of the supermarket - any way you like them, they’re out there.
That’s no surprise: America’s sweet tooth is well documented. What is surprising, though, is that the majority of the brownies eaten every day - almost two out of three, according to the best industry estimates - come out of home ovens.
But it’s not as cozy and old-fashioned as it may sound. More than half of those home-baked brownies come from such boxed mixes as Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines and Pillsbury.
As Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a consumer food-research firm, puts it: “We’re seeing a lot of interest in cooking and baking from young women - but they want it quick.”
Quick is what they get with mixes. An experienced mix-maker can have the brownies from box to oven in 5 minutes flat. Brownie mixes seem reassuring as well. After all, even if Grandma baked cakes from scratch, she probably made brownies from one of the mixes that first came on the market in the early 1950s.
What exactly are you getting when you buy a brownie mix? A look at the ingredients is actually rather reassuring.
Most of the basic mixes are little more than sugar, bleached flour, cocoa processed with alkali (that’s a standard Dutch-process cocoa), hydrogenated vegetable oil, salt, artificial flavor, baking soda and some form of starch. Then the “baker” adds water, an egg and oil (for which melted butter or margarine can be substituted).
Atlanta cooking teacher Shirley Corriher, a biochemist who’s writing a book tentatively titled “Why Things Happen in Food,” isn’t surprised that the boxes seem so benign.
“Consumers see additives and get turned off,” Corriher says. “Hydrogenated oils contain fatty acids, which are known to raise cholesterol levels, but butter is known to have the same effect.”
The cook in Corriher is quick to add: “Of course, nothing tastes better than butter, so I’d choose butter for the flavor.”
Adds Mark Schardt, associate nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “When people think of brownies, they’re thinking of something Grandma used to make, and they don’t want a lot of additives. They seem to be willing to accept more additives in low-fat or fat-free brownies, where they are trading additives for something.”
What home-mix-makers may really find in commercial mixes that they can’t find in cookbooks is a consistency that does not depend on skill. Mixes are so predictable that some home bakers use them as ingredients in other recipes.
Brownie mixes have appeared in several Pillsbury Bake-Off entries, including Chocolate Mousse Fantasy Torte (a $10,000 winner in 1990) and Caramel Graham Fudge Brownies (a $2,000 winner in 1992).
“The contestants think of it as chocolate flour,” says Marlene Johnson, director of product communications for Pillsbury.
Sharon Tyler Herbst, author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Chocolate and Vanilla,” has several ideas for doctoring brownie mixes:
“To deepen taste and color, I always have a jar of instant espresso and add 1 tablespoon; a tablespoon of cocoa makes them more chocolatey; soaked dried cherries are wonderful (especially soaked in liqueur); and to make magic with the chocolate, a couple teaspoons of pure vanilla extract.”
Even manufacturers of mixes have been fiddling around with them. Regular brownie mixes sit on supermarket shelves with premium mixes that boast chocolate chunks, chocolate chips, cheesecake swirls, dark chocolate, double fudge, low-fat, fat-free and organic.
Jim Dodge, vice-president of the New England Culinary Institute and a baking expert, won’t condemn brownie mixes outright.
“I understand the ease of the mixes,” he says. “If I were a parent with a couple of kids, I’d have a cupboard full of them. What concerns me more is if people never try to make things from a full recipe.”
If you do decide to give it a try - using one of the following recipes, perhaps - Dodge offers these tips:
Don’t overmix the batter, or the brownies will be tough.
Cool melted butter before adding it to flour. If you add flour to a hot mixture, it will gelatinize, and the brownies will be heavy and eraserlike.
Bake brownies in the middle of the oven for even heat, and be sure not to overbake.
This one-pot recipe for brownies from Maida Heatter’s “Book of Great Chocolate Desserts” (Knopf, 1981) is so simple that you may never go back to mixes. The directions appear long, but that’s because Heatter doesn’t leave anything to chance.
1/4 pound unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus additional for the pan
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 ounces (generous 1/2 cup) walnuts, broken into medium-size pieces
Move rack to bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
Prepare an 8-inch square cake pan as follows: Turn the pan upside down. Tear off a 12-inch square of aluminum foil, center it over the inverted pan, fold down the sides and the corners, and then remove the foil and turn the pan right-side up. Place the already formed foil in the pan.
Lightly butter the bottom and halfway up the sides, using soft or melted butter spread with a pastry brush or crumpled wax paper. Set aside.
Place the 1/4 pound of butter and the chocolate in a heavy 2- or 3-quart saucepan over the lowest heat. Stir occasionally with a rubber or wooden spatula until the mixture is melted and smooth. Set aside to cool for about 3 minutes.
Stir in the sugar and vanilla, and add the eggs, one at a time, stirring until smooth after each addition. Add the flour and salt and stir until smooth. Mix in the nuts.
Turn into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes until a toothpick gently inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean but not dry. Do not overbake. The cake should be soft and slightly moist.
Cool until the pan reaches room temperature. Then cover with a wire rack, invert, and remove the pan and the aluminum foil. The bottom of the cake should look slightly moist in the center. Cover with another rack and invert again, leaving the cake right-side up. (It will be about 3/4-inch thick.)
Transfer the cake to a cutting board. With a long, thin, sharp knife, cut into squares or oblongs. (I always chill it before cutting.) Wrap the brownies individually in cellophane or wax paper (not plastic wrap; it’s too hard to handle), or arrange them on a tray and cover with plastic wrap. Either way, do not let them dry out.
These brownies may be frozen and served either at room temperature or directly from the freezer (delicious!).
Yield: 16 squares, or 12 to 24 bars.
Nutrition information per square: 163 calories, 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrate, 10 grams fat (55 percent fat calories), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium.
These moist, slightly chewy brownies, an adaptation of a recipe in “Baking With Jim Dodge” (Simon & Schuster, 1991), are named for Dodge’s goddaughter, Rebecca Harlow, who rode her tricycle through the kitchen at least 20 times while he was working on them. They are very heavy on the nuts, but if that’s not to your taste, omit them. (Becca doesn’t like nuts, either.)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
3 large eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped into small chunks
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over low heat. Remove the pan from the heat. Cut the semisweet chocolate into chunks and add it to the butter. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon until smooth. (If you do not stir, the chocolate may overheat from contact with the pan.) Set aside.
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Mix in the flour, cocoa, sugar and baking soda. Stir in the melted chocolate, then the nuts and white chocolate.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake in the middle of the preheated oven until the sides start to pull away from the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes.
Cool completely on a wire rack. Cut the cooled brownie lengthwise into seven 1-1/4-inch-wide strips. Cut the strips crosswise into 2-3/4-inch lengths. Carefully remove the brownies from the pan with a spatula.
Wrap leftover brownies in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Yield: 35 brownies.
Nutrition information per brownie: 139 calories, 2 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrate, 9 grams fat (58 percent fat calories), 24 milligrams cholesterol, 16 milligrams sodium.
From Sharon Tyler Herbst’s upcoming book, “The Food Lover’s Guide to Chocolate and Vanilla” (Morrow, to be published in May), these are for lovers of cakelike brownies.
3/4 cup butter, softened, plus additional for the pan
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups coarsely chopped toasted pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, sugars, vanilla, coffee powder and salt until well combined. With the mixer running at medium-low speed, gradually add both melted chocolates, then eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir in nuts. Spoon into prepared pan, smoothing top.
Bake in the preheated oven about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Do not overbake. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cut into 24 (about 2-inch) squares, making 6 cuts crosswise and 4 cuts lengthwise.
Yield: 24 large brownies.
Nutrition information per brownie: 316 calories, 4 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrate, 18 grams fat (51 percent fat calories), 60 milligrams cholesterol, 67 milligrams sodium.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HAVE A GOOD BROWNIE RECIPE? Think you have the best brownie recipe around? Then the Baker’s Chocolate “National Best Brownie Contest” is for you. Judging is in three categories: The Serious Chocolate Brownie (the more chocolate the better), Year-Round Family Favorite (easy but delicious) and Kids’ Favorite (miniature marshmallows, maybe?) The winner in each category gets $1,000, with the grand prize winner receiving an additional $550. Entry deadline is June 1. For complete rules, call (212) 679-6600, ext. 212, or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Baker’s National Best Brownie Contest, c/o Hunter & Associates, 41 Madison Ave., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10010-2202. And by the way, no recipes using mixes are allowed.