Friday, December 7, 2018

Science Experiment Brownies

It's time to science the sh*t out of this. I have a new cookbook! I finally caved and actually joined America's Test Kitchen because I love all of their recipes so much. Then I agreed to do a phone survey on my experience with the website in exchange for 50% off a cookbook. I opted for the "Science of Good Cooking" and I am beyond thrilled with it. I literally want to sit at home reading a cookbook for fun. It has recipes but also has pages and pages about why they actually work. It's so fascinating! So when tasked with making brownies for my choir's holiday party, I decided it was time to test a hypothesis and bake with some science.

I opted for the Chewy Brownies which were described as the closest approximation to boxed brownies that we could get. Everyone knows boxed brownies are good but it's more fun (and impressive) making things from scratch. So what's the secret of boxed brownie goodness? Apparently it's all in the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat. For boxed brownies, it's 28% to 72% and for traditional homemade brownie recipes, it's closer to 64% to 36%! Wow! This recipe uses a combination of butter and vegetable oil to get a ratio of 29% to 71%. Was that enough math for you? Too bad, there's more!

Since I was already geeking out over learning about the science of making brownies, I decided to go one step further and actually weigh my ingredients for the first time ever. America's Test Kitchen always supports weighing baking ingredients but I never have because hey, I've got those convenient measuring cups. But when I read a section in the cookbook about the variability in the amount of flour measured by the professional cooks at the test kitchen who were all using the same scoop-and-sweep method, I got curious. So I busted out my digital scale (because I'm fancy like that) and measured my 2.5 cups of sugar the way I normally would and put it into a bowl. When I weighed it, it turned out that I was nearly half a cup UNDER the amount of sugar I needed! Huge difference! I tried the same thing with the 1 3/4 cups of flour. It turned out that I was about a quarter cup OVER on the amount of flour! I would never have believed that my measurements could be so far off if I hadn't tested this. My life is forever changed.

Ok science nerdery aside, let's get to the actual baking. The first step was to whisk cocoa and boiling water until smooth. Oh yeah, here's another bit of science: the book recommends always "blooming" your cocoa in boiling water to bring out the cocoa flavor. The earth just shifted on its axis again. Anyway, next was whisking in unsweetened chocolate (I won't bore you with the explanation about the science behind using unsweetened chocolate) and I was actually clever for once and used my food processor to chop up the chocolate into tiny pieces so it melted easier.

While all of this was happening, I was melting half a stick of butter in the microwave. I could have done it on the stove but didn't want to dirty the pot. Mistake. I swear I was melting it in 7 second intervals. It was barely half melted when I put it in for another 7 seconds and then BOOM. It sounded like there was an actual explosion in my microwave. I opened it up and not only were the door and the entire top of the microwave covered in butter but not all of the butter was even melted! What the hell? So I got annoyed and cleaned it up and my perfect measuring and science was probably screwed up because of all of the lost, exploded butter but onwards and upwards. It didn't occur to me to ditch the butter and start over. I just went with it.

I added in the stupid butter and the vegetable oil and got whisking. Ever notice how brownie recipes never want you to use an electric mixer? I've never made brownies where I used something other than a large bowl and whisk. I guess it's unnecessary to use a mixer but...weird. Anyway, next was two eggs, two egg yolks, and vanilla and then the sugar, flour, and salt. Finally, I was instructed to fold in bittersweet chocolate pieces. I used bittersweet chocolate chips. This was likely also a mistake. The idea was supposed to be that the bittersweet chocolate would create "gooey pockets of melted chocolate" in the brownies and spoiler alert: that didn't happen. Because there something added to stabilize the shape of the chips, I didn't get quite the effect I was going for. I shouldn't have substituted the chips but who really wants to chop chocolate into 1/2 inch pieces?

Anyway, into the oven to bake. The temperature of my oven is still a great mystery but since I was instructed to bake on the lowest rack (an unusual instruction), the temperature was a bit more stable than normal. I remembered to foil sling and the baking time was quite accurate. Then all I had to do was wait for them to cool. Brownies take FOREVER to cool. I was supposed to let them cool in the pan for an hour and a half then remove them from the pan and let them cool for a whole extra hour! Fortunately I made these in the morning before the party. Then I sliced them nice and small and dusted them with some powdered sugar snow and tasted one. Wow. SO GOOD. They weren't quite as moist as I wanted but I think that's down to the exploded butter. They were a huge hit with people. Everyone who had one really loved them. Just one problem: I didn't take a picture! Noooooooo! All I had left was the one brownie I left home for my husband which didn't even have powdered sugar.

Sad. They looked so pretty. But they tasted great and I'd definitely make these again. And I learned so much science too! I am still aghast at how off my sugar and flour measurements were and fully intend to measure these from here on out. Only problem is that a lot of recipes don't specify the weights. So I guess it's time to memorize how much a cup of sugar and a cup of flour weigh! I feel like I've powered up and advanced to the next level of baking! [Insert triumphant Super Mario music here.]

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