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An Ode to Boxed Mix Brownies

Claire Lower Aug 29, 2018. 22 comments

Just as there are ‘process’ killers and ‘product’ killers, I like to think that there are process bakers and product bakers. Process people take comfort and joy in the execution of their favorite hobby, where product people are in it for the result. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, I’m a product person, but our goals are very different. Dahmer wanted a comatose sex slave; I just want some brownies.

Before college—before years in a lab, measuring powders—I was a process baker. I was fairly new to cooking in general, and I found the exactness of the recipes to be soothing. But as I grew older, more confident in the kitchen, and much more tired, I enjoyed being told what to do less and less. All of this could be why I enjoy the almost-instant gratification of a boxed mix brownie, or it could be that because—in most cases—the Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate brownie mix simply tastes better than most homemade brownies, especially when you consider the effort-to-payoff ratio.

When I expressed this opinion a few weeks back , both my Editor-in-Chief and Deputy Editor reacted with abject horror. “Which homemade brownies have you tried?,” Alice wanted to know. I could not remember, because none of them had been memorable. “Have you tried the Katharine Hepburn brownies?,” she wanted to know. I had not, but I promised her I would, and then I did. I also made A.A. Newton’s One-Bowl Brownies for Bad Days .

Obviously, none of these brownies are bad, because they are all pastry squares made of chocolate, sugar, and fat, but neither of the homemade recipes convinced me to give up my box of Ghirardelli mix for five very specific reasons:

  1. Time: From start to finish, the boxed mix brownies took three minutes to get into the oven, and that was with me moving quite slow, whereas the homemade recipes took about 10. I am usually in crisis mode when I need a whole pan of brownies, and every minute counts.
  2. Dishes generated: The mix required one bowl, one liquid measuring cup, and one rubber spatula. The other two recipes also only required one bowl, but there were dry measuring cups and measuring spoons involved, which means more dishes to wash. If you know anything about me, it’s that I hate doing the darn dishes.
  3. Ingredient count: You need a lot more things to make brownies from scratch. I actually already had those most of those things at home, but not everybody does, and I shouldn’t let my privilege/wealth of ingredients blind me to the fact that buying flour, sugar (two types in some cases), cocoa and/or baking chocolate, and vanilla can add up. You know what I always have on hand? At least one egg and a bit of vegetable oil. (Plus, a box of mix costs two bucks.)
  4. Texture: Here is where the chickens really come home to roost. Neither homemade recipe really nailed the texture I love so dearly. The Ghirardelli boxed mix makes a brownie that is fudgy in the center and slightly crisp and very chewy on the edges, with a gossamer-thin, shiny crust. Hepburn’s brownies were quite fudgy, super soft, and had a lovely crust, but were lacking in that chew. The one-bowl brownies were also nice and moist, but were more cake-like than what I desire. (It’s worth noting, however, that Ofclaire liked the one-bowl brownies the best, if his opinion matters to you.)
  5. Flavor: The flavor of the one-bowl brownies was actually quite nice and, if it weren’t for the matter of texture, they would have won me over. The Hepburn brownies were a little mild. When compared to the intensely dark chocolate flavor of the Ghirardelli brownies, they tasted a little flat and a little sweet, much like when you compare dark chocolate to milk. (As I am typing this, I am quietly archiving important documents, in case Alice fires me, but I have to speak my truth.) Boxed mix brownies also have a slight sharp, almost salty quality that I think balances the sweetness, but this could be a case of enjoying and longing for the flavors of my childhood, which lean towards the processed.

Again, none of these brownies are bad. They are all brownies, after all. But in the wee hours of the morning, when I stumbled into the kitchen half-asleep for something to grief-eat over the sink, what pan did I reach for in the dark? Which chocolate treat was I able to identify by touch, so familiar with the chewy corners and shiny crust was I? That’s right reader, the boxed mix brownie.

Dahmer never achieved his dreams of making a zombie sex slave that would never leave him, but my dreams are much more simple. All I want is a chewy, gooey, aggressively chocolate brownie that requires less than five minutes of my active time. Is there a recipe out there that makes a better brownie? Yeah, probably. But why keep searching for something “better” when guaranteed happiness can be purchased for two dollars?

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