Our combined November/December Bibliobites meeting on December 2nd covered numerous topics, in addition to discussing this month’s titles. Something about the subject of cookies, and taste-testing brownies (more on that in a moment!) seemed to bring out lots of opinions about baking, cookbooks, and more. It was a lively and enjoyable discussion!
Our first order of business was a “Brownie Smackdown.” Although this is a group that loves to cook, occasionally even we may resort to a mix of one sort or another. Brownie mixes are ubiquitous and come in so many varieties– are there any that can come close to homemade? We tried four brands: Betty Crocker, Duncan Heinz, Ghirardelli and Pillsbury Purely Simple. All were a basic dark chocolate variety (no frosting, or extra fudge) baked according to package directions, and no one tasting them knew which was which. Group members ranked them from one to four, with one being the best. So the lower the overall score, the better. Our final tally:
- Betty Crocker: 15 points
- Pillsbury Purely Simple: 18 points
- Ghirardelli: 20 points
- Duncan Heinz: 27 points
Both the Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury were less familiar to the group overall (that is, fewer people had tried them); and, as is the case with most food items, people had strong preferences which influenced their ratings. There’s always the fudgy vs. cakey camp, for one; also soft vs. chewy and bold chocolate flavor vs. more subtle. Duncan Heinz had the least chocolate flavor, with more than one person commenting that they had no chocolate flavor at all! They were also deemed too soft and wet. So, sorry Duncan Heinz– you’re at the bottom of the pack. The other three were definitely tastier and more chocolatey, and each had its advocate. Would we buy these instead of making homemade? Most insisted that brownies are so easy to make from scratch that there’s no reason to ever buy a mix, especially when homemade tastes better. A mix can be handy on a day when you’re pressed for time and don’t want to think about pulling out ingredients, but this group wasn’t totally convinced that it was worth it.
As a side note, after the tasting we wondered if the order in which the products were tasted influenced how they were rated. Interestingly, the Betty Crocker was the first one most tried– and that came out on top. Later a few of us tried some of the brownies in different order, and it always seemed like the first one had the best chocolate flavor (except for Duncan Heinz– sorry DH!). So OK, we’re not pros at the taste-testing game (maybe next time we should spit and rinse, like a wine tasting?), but we learned a little and got to eat some brownies, too. Readers, have you used a mix that you think is as good as a from-scratch product? Let us know and we’ll publish a list.
Some people commented that brownies were one of the first things they learned to bake, and that sparked a discussion of cookbooks used when we were growing up. Many had fond memories of Betty Crocker’s Cook Book For Boys and Girls, initially published in 1957. From there we wondered what was everyone’s “go-to” cookbook– what do you consult when you want information and/or a foolproof recipe? Unsurprisingly, the internet received plenty of votes; but one’s own family recipe box was also mentioned by several people. Other Betty Crocker titles, books published by Good Housekeeping, and America’s Test Kitchen Best Recipe were praised as well. As with so much else related to cooking, it’s a highly personal choice!
Moving on to our cookie discussion, it seemed there was a lot of recipe reading that went on, but not so much baking. We enjoyed perusing both books and at least marking recipes we wanted to try— later! I did ultimately bake the vegan ginger cookies and the date-fig nut bites from Crazy About Cookies— and both were excellent. The ginger cookies were soft and chewy with plenty of spice, and the date-fig cookies were cakey and fruity; kind a high-class Fig Newton. From Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, one person made the ultra-thin chocolate chip cookies, which were crispy yet sturdy, with classic chocolate-chip cookie flavor. Another praised the French macarons recipe, which had lots of specific information that ensured success. Author Alice Medrich, well-known for her multiple chocolate-themed cookbooks, includes many helpful general tips, such as always resting your cookie dough in the fridge before baking. She also provides ideas for you to go beyond her basic recipe and make it your own.
On the savory side of things, we also perused Martha Stewart’s Appetizers. As with the cookie books, there was more reading than doing! We really liked the layout of this book; each page had a recipe and several variations, with photos. It was clear and easy to read, and the book stayed open when laid on the counter. Complaints included a poor index, and too many recipes that required deep-frying. One person tried the pistachio-stuffed dates, which were delicious and led to a short discussion of all the yummy ways you could stuff a date! Another person enjoyed the kale and fontina stuffed mushrooms despite the sauce being a bit too thin for their liking. There was an “epic failure” with the roasted spiced chickpeas which just refused to become crisp. Other members had tried similar recipes with success, so we weren’t sure exactly what the problem was– possibly too much oil in the pan? In general, everyone had a favorable impression of this book; most of the recipes seemed appealingly easy and sounded, well, appetizing! It’s a user-friendly successor to Martha Stewart’s Hors D’oeuvres, which many remembered well from the 1980s.
Our cookie discussion at one point brought up hermits, an old-fashioned cookie that is certainly still enjoyed today. As always, there were definite opinions on what this cookie should contain (most include nuts, others don’t), and how it should be made (in a long bar that is cut into cookies after baking). Decades ago I clipped this recipe from the fondly-remembered Confidential Chat column in the Boston Globe. It was submitted by a contributor known as The Cantabridgian. They are delicious!
3/4 to 1 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 beaten eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped raisins
3/4 to 1 cup chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each: ground cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg
Cream the shortening and sugar in a large bowl. Add molasses and eggs, then add flour slowly with all other dry ingredients. Add raisins and nuts and mix until combined. The batter will be stiff; if it seems dry add a little water.
Spread about 3 cups of batter on parchment or a greased cookie sheet. The batter should be a long, thin oblong about 1/2″ thick. (If you have a wide cookie sheet you can fit 2 oblongs on one sheet). Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes, or until cookie tops almost spring back when pressed with a fingertip. Let cookies cool on sheet for 5-7 minutes, then cut across on the diagonal about 2 inches wide. Cool on rack; repeat process with remaining batter. Makes 4-5 dozen. Enjoy!
Whichever December holidays you celebrate, may they be filled with generous helpings of family, friends, and of course– fabulous food! We will meet again on Friday, January 27 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. To counteract all those holiday treats, we will be cooking lots of vegetables from Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook. Copies are available at the front desk. Bon appetit!