Brownies aren't merely my preferred dessert; they're one of my all-time favorite foods. Over the years I've learned to bake some pretty amazing varieties, from Susan Spungen's Saucepans to Nigella Lawson's Triple Chocolates. Just stir together some butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and chocolate, and what emerges from the oven is confectionery heaven, decadent and familiar. Nothing could be simpler.
Nothing, that is, except baking them from a box.
In keeping with the brownie's split personality as an everyday indulgence, I decided to test two mixes. The first was Ghirardelli's Chocolate Syrup Brownies, which can be found in most supermarkets, and which costs $3.39. The second was Jacques Torres' Pure Bliss Fudge Brownie Mix, which can be purchased at the Jacques Torres shops in New York or online, and which costs $12.95.
Making the Brownies
First up was Ghirardelli. The box consisted of a bag of mix (first three ingredients: sugar, enriched bleached flour, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil—trans fats, trans fats!), and a pouch of chocolate syrup with the consistency of Elmer's glue. They only necessary additions were 1/4 cup of water, 1/3 cup of oil, and an egg. I whisked everything together in one bowl and within an hour I had a pan of dense, gorgeous, glossy-topped brownies cooling on my window sill.
On to the next. The Jacques Torres box contained two bags, one filled with a combination of mix and chocolate disks, and one filled just with the disks. (First three ingredients: Belgian bittersweet chocolate, sugar, and Belgian unsweetened chocolate.) I dumped the mix into a bowl, and that's when things got complicated.
The Jacques Torres mix involved a stick of melted butter, two eggs, electric mixers, heavy cream, and (optional) vanilla extract or espresso powder. In addition, after the final step of glazing the brownies with chocolate ganache, the instructions suggested letting the brownies rest for several hours or overnight before cutting them out of the pan. My brownies weren't going to be ready until the next day, and my sink was loaded with dirty dishes—I thought mixes meant to be easy!
Tasting the Brownies
But let's get to the heart of the matter. Which brownies tasted better? The Ghirardellis were cakey and moist, with a crunchy crust on top and chewy edges. The chocolate flavor was rich and intense, but it lacked a particular depth and definitely tasted—though only a tiny bit—artificial. (I have a hunch this was due in large part to the chocolate syrup; I would be curious to try other Ghirardelli versions, such as Walnut or Turtle, that don't contain it.)
The Jacques Torres brownies were dark and dense, almost to the point of being leaden, more like bittersweet fudge that had been baked and frosted. The taste of the chocolate was exceptionally buttery and full—definitely the real deal. But they were so thick there was something almost deflated about them, and while they tasted more like homemade, they also tasted less like a brownie, in the traditional sense of the word.
In the end the proof was on the plates: the Ghirardelli brownies disappeared first. And at a fraction of the cost and effort, they're definitely the box I would bake from again.
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