Baking and cooking have always seemed to be distinctly different in my mind. Composing an entire meal can be simple or complex depending on the person cooking it, and improvising with what you’ve got can often result in a tasty surprise. Baking, in sharp contrast, is not the kind of thing you can improvise – at least, this has been a fact that I have firmly maintained throughout my entire teenage and adult life. Long before I ever lived on my own and had to fend for myself, I took up baking with vigour, happy to follow the instructions explicitly. As an over-achieving student, I likened it to a science experiment – diverse ratios of the same ingredients in different variations would result in very specific outcomes, without fail.
For years, I separated the two activities. Baking was reliable and dummy-proof; as long as I was diligent about exact measurements, I would always produce something delicious. Cooking was a little more chaotic and unpredictable; with so many ingredients and possible outcomes, I was hesitant to dive in and embrace cooking the same way I did with baking. So for quite some time, I was content with my status as an amateur baker and anti-chef. Baking was an enjoyable pastime – formulaic instruction following with yummy results, not to mention love and praise from the people I shared my treats with.
Of course, time passes and things change, so I am no longer afraid to get messy in the kitchen or try something completely off the book – cookbook, that is. And, sadly, I have found that I have less time to dedicate to baking, which was always a great love of mine. Perhaps I haven’t done it as much in recent years because I have been so focused on making sure we have a good meal instead of sweet eats (fair logic I suppose, since one cannot survive on cookies). But as the old saying goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and lately I’ve felt the need to bake my man some treats as a thank you for all the wonderful things he did for me this year.
So in the spirit of adventure and love for my man, I decided to make December my official month to master the brownie.
The Goal: Find and perfect the best and easiest brownie recipe out there.
The Challenge: Use cocoa powder instead of baker’s chocolate, and experiment the same way I would while cooking.
The Outcome: Oh. My. Brownie.
The following two recipes were the source of my brownie adventures – this one from Allrecipes.com was the basis for my experiments, while this one from Inspired Taste got me excited about the possibility of finding a real recipe to replace the box brownies that you can buy at the grocery store. (You know what I’m talking about here – those boxes of powder with “just add water!” instructions that taste disgustingly good but make you sick when you read the unpronounceable ingredients on the side of the box.)
In looking over the two recipes, I noticed that the main difference between them was that one called for vegetable oil while the other called for melted butter. Curiosity got the better of me and I couldn’t help but wonder how the taste would vary using one or the other, or even a mix of the two. It was fate when I realized that I wouldn’t have enough vegetable oil to try the original recipe, so I decided to kick things off with a combination of oil and butter, with a few extra tricks of my own. What followed were three rounds of spectacularly chocolate science experiments, each with different but tasty results.
Round One: Vegetable Oil + Butter = Best Friends For Life
Round Two: Vegetable Oil For The Win
Round Three: Butter Tries To Be Better
1/2 cup of vegetable oil and/or melted butter*
1 cup of sugar
1 (generous) teaspoon of vanilla extract (you can never have too much vanilla, in my opinion)
1/2 cup of flour
1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
1/4 teaspoon of salt
*Note: I melted the butter in a microwave-safe bowl for 1-2 minutes, but you can also melt it in a small saucepan on the stovetop. Either way, it is very important to let the melted butter cool down for a few minutes before you start mixing everything together! If the butter is too hot, it might cook the eggs when you beat them in, which sort of kills the whole delicious brownie project. If you combine butter and oil, just make sure that the total comes out to 1/2 cup (for example, use 1/4 cup of butter and 1/4 cup of oil).
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a small pan. I used a 9″ x 7″ pan and it was perfect.
- In a large bowl, mix the oil/butter with the sugar, using a whisk to combine.
- Add the vanilla to the bowl, stirring to combine.
- Beat in the eggs with the whisk, one at a time. Set the bowl to the side.
- In another smaller bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.**
**Note: Combining the dry ingredients through a sieve ensures that everything mixes together really well, and helps to break down any clumps in the flour and cocoa powder. This is by no means critical to the recipe, but a great trick that I picked up when I was a bake-a-holic.
- Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. (Add a third and stir, add another third and stir, add the last third and stir.) By this time, the mixture will be quite thick and even difficult to stir. Fear not! I promise it tastes fantastic!
- Add the entire mixture to the greased pan and cook in the oven for 20 to 22 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes, so everything can set. (I won’t hold it against you if you can’t wait! Just remember that the longer they sit, the less they will fall apart when you cut them.)
Now, the question of the hour – which batch was best? Vegetable Oil? Butter? Oil and Butter in Perfect Harmony?
Here are the results of the best science experiment ever:
ROUND ONE – Vegetable Oil and Butter – Quite tasty but as this was my first batch, I over-cooked the brownies slightly so they were a little too crispy for my liking.
ROUND TWO – Vegetable Oil – This was the closest I came to matching the box brownies and I would recommend the oil only recipe to anyone. I assume that this might be *somewhat* less fattening than the butter batch too, which is also a good thing.
ROUND THREE – Butter – This was the strangest batch! The brownies tasted amazing, but they came out more like cake than brownies; they were very fluffy instead of dense as I was expecting. My man loved them because he’s big on cakes, but I think I might be a purest and stick with the vegetable oil only version next time. (Next time is tonight, by the way. We’re making a little feast to close out 2013!)
In conclusion, I do not think there is any wrong way to make brownies, because all three rounds were fantastic. I also learned that it can be fun to get creative with baking…even thrilling for someone who isn’t known for straying off the beaten path. My man was certainly happy. In summary, when one experiments with brownies, everyone wins.