Tag Archives: kitchen equipment

Baking on the Cheap

19 Sep

I’ve got a new project.  Now that I’ve thoroughly tested my perfect brownie recipe, I want to find out if holds up under distressed conditions: House-brand cocoa; house-brand, bleached all-purpose flour ; and seriously cheap, house-brand instant coffee.  All I have left to buy is the generic–and yes, imitation–vanilla.  I’ll be using ingredients that are thought to be maybe a half-step better than that stuff that comes in no. 10 cans with a plain white label, which I’d use for this test if I could find it.

Now, I’m certain several tests will be necessary.  House-brand, bleached all-purpose flour has a protein content than can vary not only by the store, but even from batch to batch in the same store.  It will take some work, I suspect, to develop a general rule for baking with it.

Flavors will likely be an issue as well.  Like the flour, house-brand cocoas,vanillas, and instant coffees can vary in flavor and quality, and all within the same store.  It really just depends where the store sources its products from contract to contract. I plan to keep my methods constant, but I’ll develop all new proportions and adjustments with this variance in mind.

See, one of my goals here is to make baking as accessible as possible.  Not just the directions and the science, but the cost, too,  And while I already insist on using ingredients that are easy to find, it’s time to figure out how to bake great things with the ingredients that’ll make your typical food jag laugh at you behind your back.  Let’s show ’em that real skill and confidence–and taste–has nothing to do with name and price.

I can’t wait.

Have You Heard Enough About the Brownies Yet?

12 Sep

No?  Good.  Because there’s more.

Well, not really.  I just made them yesterday, while the bread was rising.  I decided to use up the last of that organic, natural cocoa I was stuck with from my initial test.  Plus, I had a new Dominican-style vanilla to try, which I’ll discuss later.

But, I also made them without the jam, and failed to pour any fruity syrup of any kind over the top because, well, I forgot.  And I forgot to blend the sugar.   Yeah, I was tired.  I never seem to get to these things until, like, 8 ‘o clock at night.

Anyway, they’re still fabulous.  I do still prefer the flavor of dutch-processed cocoa, but seriously, I’ve got no complaints.  And neither does anyone else.

On Food Porn. I Mean, Food Photography

25 Aug

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have the time to learn how to shoot food in the way that food’s shot these days. You know, expensive camera aside, I don’t have time for retouching and selective focus and that perfectly perfect mess on the plate. Plus, I want to show that food can be made to look as good as it does in those retouched photos. So with me, you get the shots you get.

But according to this Wall Street Journal article, I’m either way ahead of my time, or so far behind it I’ll never have more than nine readers. As food stylist Alison Attenborough says in the article, “people are interested in small butchers, artisan producers, farmer’s markets—a more handmade look.”  See, I just don’t think that’s enough.  Think about it: You remember those shots from old issues of Gourmet? The Julia Child Menu Cookbook? Do you think Martha Stewart serves lopsided cake?  I mean, really.

I’ll give you an example of the problem.  I was in a local bakery recently to find pastries clearly made by someone who has the right touch for it. But the baker stopped short, and I don’t know why: She obviously handled the dough perfectly, but left it looking hamfisted, as though it was destined for a bake sale for the blind.  I understand that this is the trend, but why wouldn’t you want to do more?

So when you’re that close, people, don’t stop. Then you won’t have to touch up your food shots like a Playboy centerfold, and you can save all that Photoshop time for something more important: Making people happy with your bakery–and being the one who can do the very best.

Fruit Swirl Brownie Test No. 3: Process Changes

22 Aug

Note: This post will necessarily be long. Please read about the flavor changes for more information.

I’m afraid that I’ll be detailing the home version of the Fruit Swirl Brownie with yet another headache. I’ll do my best to keep it together for you, but I wouldn’t expect to win a Pulitzer with this post. I appreciate your patience, which is probably more than I have for myself at the moment.

As you recall, the recipe for the Honeypie Big Fruit Swirl Brownie piqued my interest because of its simplicity, coupled with a richness that as depicted in the photo compelled me to test the concept and the science of the recipe. Because if it actually worked, it would really be a bit of a breakthrough.

But, as you’ll also recall, I did find that although the concept was a great one, the flavor and texture was somewhat lacking in the richness that caught my eye in the first place. I used the same ingredients noted, and went broke buying them, but the brownie’s flavor was a somewhat thin-tasting and sugary slice that overnight became disturbingly spongy and greasy. Which is okay in a bakery, where the goods sell out quickly and are served with accompaniments, but this is not my project. My bakery needs to start perfect and stay perfect. Period.

Now, I do not want to disparage Honeypie’s recipe at all. I wanted to prove the concept to be a great one: That fat can carry cocoa flavor to the extent that a seriously chocolately brownie could be made with cocoa only, rather than with the added hassle and expense of melted baking chocolate. But even minute differences in techniques, air quality, and certainly equipment can create additional issues for a bakery recipe made in the home, so accomplishing this in the home kitchen simply needed a different approach. And I was determined to find it, because I hate being wrong.

In my second test of the recipe, I’d made significant headway in terms of the flavor. Only a couple of tweaks, and I knew the flavor would be sorted. So the texture was my first order of business.

Process Changes

I remembered reading about the types of fats used to give box brownies their chewy texture. (Thank you, Cook’s Illustrated.) I didn’t necessarily need to make a chewy brownie, per se, but I did want to maintain the high fat ratio necessary to create a superior chocolate flavor, but that wouldn’t become greasy overnight. Cooking oil, which is used to make chewy brownies, remains the same no matter the temperature so I could not only maintain the fat ratio, but also create a texture that wouldn’t degrade over time on the cake plate. Rather than use the three sticks of butter used in the original, I reduced the amount of butter a bit, then split the remaining quantity with oil

The seven eggs used in the original recipe also proved to be an issue, if you remember: The high quantity of eggs caused the original batch to bake unevenly because using seven (seven!) eggs properly requires a bain-marie, and that’s too much work for brownies. I also couldn’t really grasp the science that would call for seven eggs, when I really thought about it. I could be mistaken—absolutely possible, that—but rather than force the issue, I cut down the eggs to two whole, plus two yolks. The two whole eggs is a pretty standard quantity that would incorporate more easily and in a proportion that requires no special care in the oven. And if you’ve made chewy cookies, you know why the extra egg yolks will help your cause.

These fixes—the oil, the eggs, plus a higher proportion of dry ingredients—solved the greasiness problem. The sponginess still needed to be addressed, however, but this was solved easily by skipping the creaming step. I’d thought initially that it was necessary to incorporate air into the structure to keep these brownies from becoming too dense, but in the end it created a not-quite-cakey texture that was odds with the flavor and did not adequately support the fats.

Using melted, rather than creamed, butter (and the oil, too) gave me a way to create the intense flavor of melted chocolate, too. This is done by simply adding the sifted cocoa to the warmed butter, the heat from which also allows the flavor to bloom fully. (In a pinch, cocoa and oil can be mixed to create unsweetened chocolate for baking, and sugar can be added to create bitter- or semisweet chocolate right to your taste). Add the espresso paste and the water to this, and you in effect seize it, giving it the actual mass that intensifies the flavor for your final product.

If you’re concerned about what this lump of chocolate will do, don’t be; a tablespoon of oil can be added to decrease the density if you’re more comfortable with that. But that lump does mix in smoothly with the egg/vanilla mixture regardless.

The best part about these process changes? For a more refined look, I do still think it’s important to sift your dry ingredients and process the sugar to a superfine texture. But this isn’t completely necessary. So if you skip that, you needn’t pull out your mixer and all its attendant parts at all. The most complicated thing you need to do in my recipe is melt butter. You could even use the microwave for that if you want. Everything else is mixed quickly and easily by hand.

Please contact me here with questions. You can find the final recipe here.

Fruit Swirl Brownie Test No. 3: Flavor Changes

22 Aug

Note:  This is part one of the test results.  Please read about the process changes for more information.

Flavor Changes

In terms of better flavor, my second test was awfully close, but still not quite there.  So I increased the quantity of cocoa and salt, and reduced the amount of sugar by just a bit.  I put the sugar to use as more than just a sweetener instead.

Part process change, part flavor change, I used the sugar as an activator by allowing the sugar to dissolve and rest in the chocolate-egg mixture for a few minutes.  What happens is that the sugar dissolves fully over time in the available moisture—the egg whites, the water content of the butter—and once heated, the sugar carmelizes, in a way, bringing with it a fuller, richer flavor.  Not to mention some very refined edges when it migrates to the sides and surface.  I intend to incorporate this process, well, wherever possible.

As for your cocoa, I still recommend Dutch-processed cocoa.  (With the success of this test, I will now use Penzeys high-fat Dutch-processed cocoa exclusively. It’s just champion and extremely well-priced.)  I still think you can use a natural cocoa if that’s your preference, but you may have to make some allowances for it.  A bit more fat and espresso paste, a bit less vanilla and sugar… these come to mind.

Finally, I have settled on cherry jam for this, but you can use whatever you want to try.    This does present the last remaining flavor issue, though:  The jam’s flavor still doesn’t come through well enough.  It provides great support for the texture, which in turn supports the flavor; but the fruit flavor’s not terribly evident.  I still recommend using it—it’s certainly in the background–but I also now recommend that you heat some up on the stove, then either drizzle it or spread it over the top.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m confident in this as a solution.

Please contact me here with questions.  You can find the final recipe here.

Fruit Swirl Brownie Baking Test No. 3: Success!

21 Aug

UPDATE: Please read here and here for the theory and the thoughts behind these brownies.

It’s 1130p over here, but I’ll tell you quickly that my new recipe–my attempt to make the Honeypie Fruit Swirl Brownie in a home kitchen–is an incredible success.  No, really. I’ve succeeded, too, in fixing the flavor and greasiness issues that occur naturally in the original recipe.  A fully detailed report will follow tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s a quick breakdown of this phenomenal and still ridiculously easy home version.

1 3/4 c. flour, sifted
1 3/4 c. Dutch-processed cocoa, sifted
2 1/2 c. sugar, processed superfine
2 tsp salt
2 TBL instant espresso paste

1 stick butter, melted
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 TBL vanilla
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. water
8 or so TBL cherry jam at room temp

*Preheat oven to 350 F. Rack in middle position.  Grease and foil pan for easy removal.

1.  Melt butter.  Add sifted cocoa and oil and mix.  Add water and espresso paste (this will thicken it).  Allow to cool.

2.  In a separate bowl, mix vanilla, eggs, and egg yolks.

3.  Sift flour and salt together.  Set aside.

4.  Add chocolate mixture to egg mixture.  Use a whisk to mix thoroughly, but do not incorporate air.

5.  Add sugar.  Allow to sit for a few minutes.

6.  Add sifted flour all at once; mix with wooden or stiff spatula.  Do not overmix, and note that this will be a stiff batter.

7.  Spread into pan.  Add TBLs of jam to top and swirl into batter with a knife.  Smooth top if necessary.

8.  Bake for 30 minutes, rotating at the 15-minute mark.

9.  Allow to cool for two hours, then use foil to lift out pan (or flip, using cooling racks and a cutting board).

This isn’t a great photo, but check it out below.  I hear they’re the best I’ve ever made and while I don’t know that I’d say that, they are pretty damn amazing.  (I do have one last dilemma/solution to discuss and test before I’ll agree.)  So, please remember to check back tomorrow to find out exactly why I did what I did and when I did it.  Got that?  And if I don’t catch you tomorrow before your visit, be sure to check back Monday.  See you then.

Brownie Baking Test Post-Mortem

16 Aug

Just to start, you should know that I pulled out the AP Style Guide to figure out if “post-mortem” takes a hyphen. I guess it does, but I think it looks like shit. Why do I continue to follow AP style when I truly think it’s kind of crap? This is what happens while I wait for my similarly shitty brownie photos load up, I guess. Ah, yes, things are already going as well as can be expected for your Belligerent Baker. But here goes.

I’ve discovered now with test no. 2 that there are more complications to creating what appears to be the same, professionally made brownie seen here. As I mentioned in the last post, these are good brownies for such an easy recipe, but I think that making that brownie at home will require more complex preparations.  One of my goals has always been getting to what’s in the picture, no matter how stylized or retouched, and I’ve found that it can certainly be done with the extra work and research; but for reasons I’ll get into here in a minute, this recipe’s no different despite its very smart premise.

My tasters and I are also experiencing a bit of a disconnect between the texture and density of the brownie, and the actual chocolate flavor.  Now, I was able to mature the chocolate flavor quite a bit with some easy substitutions, but that doesn’t change the fact that generally speaking, chocolate baked goods made with solely with cocoa taste like cake, not like a brownie.  See, when you’re testing, you can finagle the flavor or the texture, depending where you are in the process.  But when you want to perfect a recipe, you’ve got to balance both.  I did not account for this in test no. 2 because I’d hoped the flavor adjustments would be enough.  You’ll be happy to know I’ve got a really simple fix for that.  But first?  The breakdown.


I’ll not bore you with a diatribe about the original recipe’s instructions to use organic, local crap.  Although I would dearly love to, because I’m broke from it and anything that cuts into my soda budget makes me mad.  Anyway, I’ll just reiterate here that I noticed absolutely no difference in performance and taste from either the $4 dozen of eggs or the $5 pound of butter.

The cocoas?  This is just a matter of taste and appearance; you may prefer the flavor and color of natural cocoa, and that’s fine.  I prefer Dutch-processed.  (You may also like Saco and Special Dark as well, both of which are a combination of natural and Dutched cocoas.)  Whichever one you choose, though, what is absolutely essential is the addition of the espresso paste.  Without it, the top note is truly just the three cups of sugar.  If you can’t find instant espresso, instant coffee will do in a pinch.  Just keep it small, so you don’t change your proportions.

2 TBL instant espresso, a splash of boiling water, and a wee whisk is all you need here.

A baker's best friends.

Obviously, all-purpose flour is called for here. What happened, though, is that the first batch, made to spec, produced a brownie that was dense, sure, but still had a rather unrefined crumb. The color of the natural cocoa didn’t help this, and the result looked a bit amateurish. Cocoa can also clump together, not necessarily in visible balls, but just several grains at a time; this will also affect the crumb. After setting, too, will such a high quantity of fat in the recipe, the brownie itself became a bit spongey. So for test no. 2, I sifted the cocoa and flour after measuring. This, along with the processed sugar, certainly helped refine the crumb a great deal, but the issue of sponginess after setting remained.

But that’s not the only issue the developed upon setting. As we all know, fat carries flavor, and the great quantity certainly works to that effect here.  I will say again that this is a great idea, although it may not work quite right in a noncommercial setting.  Here’s what I believe happened.

There’s not a great deal of dry ingredients vs. wet/fat in the proportions.  The purpose, of course, is to make a rich, fudgy brownie without the added work of melted chocolate.  But with such a low proportion of dry to wet/fat ingredients, the brownies in effect become greasy after setting.  Yes, you read that right: Greasy.  In a bakery, these things don’t sit around too long, so no great shakes, I guess.  And of course, you can skirt this issue by serving it with a fork and plate, but this doesn’t fit my definition of a brownie.  Or of perfect.

As it happened, the recipe developed an issue with the seven eggs as well.  And that brings us to the process.

Directions and Process

I should say first that for the most part, the directions here are spot-on.  The creaming of the butter and sugar is a brilliant idea, and gives the brownies a structure I’m certain they wouldn’t have otherwise. Without a way to bloom the cocoa, I do recommend adding the salt, and full two teaspoons at that, to the butter and sugar mixture as an activator.  I also recommend sifting and processing the dry ingredients, but it’s not criminal if you don’t.  But what is criminal is my failure, as well as the original’s failure, to take into account the seven eggs in the baking process.  Eggs are delicate ingredients, but adding one or two to an already big mix will require no special treatment.  But seven?  I’m an idiot.

If you’ve ever made a custard, a mousse, or a proper cheesecake, then you know you need bake these things in a bain-marie–a water bath–so the whole thing bakes evenly.  Failing that, the high quantity and delicacy of the eggs will allow for the outer edges to bake far faster, causing them to crust up and pull away from the pan.  Which is so amateur-hour, I can’t even say.  This happened in both tests, and I could smack myself for failing to make the adjustment the first time.  I guess I just wanted to believe that I could still manage this without adding excess trouble for you, and trust me, baking in a bain-marie is a bitch.  But check it out:

Wow, that's ugly.

The edges are soft, to be sure, but I’d like to know how–or if–the bakery managed to avoid this ugly problem. Or do they just cut the edges off before serving? (Not that this is bad; it’s important to be able to disguise your mistakes.) But it’s the omission of this enormous little detail that drove me to start this project in the first place. I mean, I know these are satisfactory, and a lot of people will love them just as they are, but give us the chance to do the best we can with it. Tell us what’s really going to happen.

Further Improvements

Of course, I’ll be doing these again to create a better home version.  I don’t want you to have to use a water bath for what are proper-looking but still just a stupid pan of brownies, and I don’t want you to mess around with melted chocolate if you don’t have to.  But this just still isn’t right for home use.  Just off the top of my head, here’s what I think needs to happen:

  • Different fats, fewer eggs: A lot of the gloss and chew evident in the original photo can come from splitting the butter with some oil; this will also settle far better over time.  Put the oil over a low heat, too, and you can bloom the cocoa in it for a richer flavor.  As for the eggs, I just don’t think seven is necessary for either structure or flavor.  And omitting several will eliminate the need for a bain-marie.
  • Slightly cakier texture: The oil will help encourage a somewhat lighter texture, but that sponge business aside a new texture is mostly for flavor improvement, to be honest.  That’s because the cocoa flavor is better suited to a slightly lighter texture, and the fruit jam–yeah, remember that–will pop more in a lighter brownie, too.  I don’t mean that these need to be airy, per se, but this recipe needs to lighten up a bit to make more sense.
  • Intensified bites: This one’s important.  If you choose to go with this recipe as is (including my necessary substitutions), this is the easy flavor fix I mentioned early on.  To create a flavor that will be in balance with the heavy texture, simply add a bag of chocolate chips, or a couple of chopped up candy bars or baking chocolate–whatever’s handy.  I might even say milk chocolate’s your best bet, assuming that you’ve added an espresso paste to your mix.  You may even want to throw in a bag of frozen berries just before baking, too.  Just be sure to fold them in gently.

Lastly, here’s a shot of the finished product.  Please let me know if you have any questions, and apologies for the bad grammar.

Do remember to check back, since I’ll keep thinking about this one.

Obviously shot on the good side.

Honeypie Brownie Baking Test No. 2: First Impressions

15 Aug

I have developed a really terrible neck- and headache, but I can give you these quick hits before my head explodes.  I’m sorry to fail you here.  Anyway, please see here for the original.

Ingredient Changes

  • Dutch-processed cocoa from Penzey’s
  • Molina vanilla
  • 1 1/2 tsp of salt
  • Sanely priced, robot-farm eggs and butter
  • 2 TBL espresso paste (instant + a little hot water)

Process Changes

  • Sifted flour and cocoa after measuring
  • Processed white sugar for finer granules


  • Deeper chocolate flavor
  • Lesser sugar note
  • More refined crumb

The flavor is a little more adult–more full-bodied–which I suspect you’d get if you actually went to Honeypie and had one of their professionally made brownies. (Off the top of my head, I do think it needs an additional 1/2 tsp of salt.) This will get you through working it out at home, though.  I hope I’ve done it justice.

Thorough breakdowns, plus photos, to come this week.

Change of Plans

15 Aug

I’ve decided to use today to bake what I think will be a version of the Honeypie brownie that’ll be a little more to my taste.  Or at least, a home version here that better approximates the real thing.  (Remember, nearly all recipes need some tweaking based just on your own differences in technique alone, let alone ingredient or equipment differences.)

In any case, it’ll be a while, and I do have to work tomorrow, not to mention a headache, so I don’t think I’ll be able to get into a full accounting of yesterday’s or today’s brownies today after all.  Sorry, guys–I didn’t mean to lead you on.  But I will post some quick first impressions of what happens with my own small changes once they’ve cooled.

And I want to emphasize that these truly are small changes: The proportions of the original recipe are very good–probably even something of a breakthrough. I’ll see you guys soon with more.

This is a blatant appeal to emotion.

14 Aug

Gotta post something while those brownies cool.