Brownie Bake-Off

Another interlude from the layman.

I, perhaps somewhat rashly, promised everyone at work brownies if I got a good response rate to a questionnaire that I sent out. Which is why I spent a Sunday afternoon with the oven on, and the scent of chocolate slowly driving my partner crazy.

As I work for an environmental charity, we have a higher than normal proportion of vegetarians and vegans in the office, so some of the brownies were going to have to be vegan friendly. Emma had also passed me a rather gorgeous sounding brownie and cherry recipe to try out and the idea of the brownie bake-off tool hold. Then to make it more interesting: how do shop bought mixes compare to making brownies completely from scratch? Enter into the ring the brownie mix that I often keep in the cupboard for chocolate emergencies, and a supermarket own brand version and we have a four-way taste test.

The first thing that I noticed is that the supermarket mix and the brand name mix require you to add the same ingredients to the packet mix and in the same quantities, leading me to wonder if there is actually any difference between the two at all! A closer inspection of the ingredients lists for both showed that the brand name mix seemed to have fewer ingredients (and more pronounceable ingredients) than the supermarket equivalent.

The plus side of both the packet mixes was how quick they were to make: mix in water, oil and egg and shove in the oven. Easily done.

I had some problems with the cooking time of the brand packet mix, and it took me a lot longer to cook than instructed, hence why there aren’t as many on the plate…the rest was all stuck to the inside of the tin. But I suspect this is mostly due to me trying to cook the brownies in a loaf tin as they have previously always come out quite well. But hey, in a very small kitchen there will always be limitations.

The vegan brownies were also extremely easy to make. As they don’t use butter or eggs, and use oil instead, it was again quite an easy case of chucking everything in a bowl and giving it a really good stir.

The cherry brownies were always going to be the most complicated, but although definitely more time-consuming than the other three, they were still quite easy. And they’ve left me with a jug of cherry syrup to do something with. I think that might be a great accompaniment to some plain vanilla ice-cream, but I’m open to suggestions.

From the taste perspective, I think one of the most important things with brownies is not to eat them too quickly. No matter how tempting it may be, there’s no point in eating them straight out of the oven, as they won’t have developed that lovely gooeyness until they’ve cooled down and can taste quite spongy before then.

The most noticeable taste difference between all of the brownies is that the packet ones are much sweeter than the home-made ones. This initially gave the impression that they were more chocolatey, but are actually more sickly.

With the two home made ones, I was sensible enough to use baking parchment in the tins, rather than just greasing the tins as I did with the first two. This made it a lot easier to keep the shape of the brownie afterwards, and reduce the losses (although my partner did enjoy getting to eat the bits that got stuck to the tins).

At work, they all seemed to go down well, and I think I’ll be in my colleagues’ good books for a few days. Although I do now feel guilty about not catering for the wheat intolerant in the office. Next time I’ll do something special for them.

Updated to add: the vegan brownies improve with age! Can’t comment on the others, they’ve all gone!

The cherry brownies
recipe by Xanthe Clay, featured in Sainsbury’s Magazine

200g unsalted butter, diced
300g dark chocolate, broken up
275g soft brown sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp strong black coffee
250g self-raising flour
300g cherries, stoned

If you want to keep the brownies for more than a day, simmer the cherries first in a syrup (made by dissolving 250g of caster sugar in 250ml of boiling water) for 10 minutes. Drain before using. (Then keep the left over syrup for something yummy.)

  1. Preheat the oven to gas 4.
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan and then, off the heat, stir in the chocolate until melted. – I found that the heat from the prewarming oven was enough to help this along. (Also, start with your butter and chocolate at room temperature to get things going a bit quicker.)
  3. Beat in the sugar, eggs and coffee, then the flour, to make a smooth, glossy mixture. Stir in the cherries.
  4. Pour into the tin. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until set and with a crust but still a little gooey in the middle. Cool in the tin before cutting into squares. The baking parchment should easily lift out of the tin, but you may need two pairs of hands to prevent it falling everywhere.

The vegan brownies
250g plain flour
350g Demerara sugar
65g plain cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
250ml water
250ml vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to Gas mark 4.
  2. Stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Pour in water, vegetable oil and vanilla; mix until well blended. Spread evenly in a 23x33cm baking tin (ish – none of my baking tins are the exact sizes specified in recipes, and it’s not too big a problem as long as the mix doesn’t become to deep to cook through).
  3. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, until the top is no longer shiny. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting into squares

I think the vegan ones would have benefited from an extra level of gooeyness. Perhaps by adding a little syrup to the mix.


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