Everyone loves the smell of fresh-baked brownies coming from the oven. But some of the best can pop out of your mailbox too, if you know where to look.
The tasters at America's Test Kitchen just tested brownies from 8 leading mail-order gourmet bakers. They ordered brownie assortments and rated the basic brownie from each company. In addition, tasters sampled the more unusual flavors in each assortment. Some of the brownies were a revelation, others merely good. Here are the results, in order of preference (prices do not include shipping, which will add $7 to $20):
Price: $38.00 for 8 individually wrapped brownies
Tasters rated this Brooklyn bakery's Original Deep Dark the top basic brownie. Unique varieties, such as Spicy (with chiles and cinnamon) and Sweet and Salty (with caramel and fleur de sel), were also a hit. Brown matte box with white ribbon is simple but hip. Expensive, but these brownies rock.
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New York Brownies
Price: $36.00 for 12 individually wrapped brownies
The Original brownie from this Long Islandcompany finished a strong second. Tasters thought other varieties (such as Toffee and Peanut Butter) were good, if a bit pedestrian. Brownies come in an elegant white box with a sleek silver ribbon. Good value, with a dozen oversized brownies.
Price: $50.00 for 10 individually wrapped brownies
The assortment from this well-known gourmet store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, didn't feature a plain brownie (the Magic brownies have walnuts), but tasters didn't seem to mind. Buenos Aires brownies (with dulce de leche) were a big hit, as were brownies flavored with orange and almond. Huge cardboard box with whimsical print was filled with just 10 medium-sized brownies-a bit of a letdown given the size of the box and high price tag.
Mary Louise Butter's Brownies
Price: $44.00 for 12 individually wrapped brownies, plus 2 packages of brownie butts (crusty brownie edges)
This baker based in Austin, Texas, wins points for originality. Unusual flavorings (including rose oil, port, and stout) and playful names - such as Aztec God (with chipotle chiles) and Seriously Stout (with beer) - were more intriguing than the brownies themselves. However, the mint-flavored Mental Julep brownies did live up to billing. Retro art deco packaging complete with sheer red organza bag makes this an elegant gift.
Dancing Deer Baking Co.
Price: $34.50 for 4 bags each containing 4 brownies
Sturdy, reusable wooden box from this well-known Boston baked goods company is filled with four retail-style packages that look like something you might pick up at the grocery store. Pretty standard flavors and brownies were slightly dry and crumbly. Decent brownies at a decent price but hard to get excited about this assortment.
Price: $59.95 for 12 individually wrapped brownies, plus 2 dessert sauces
This Phoenix-based company describes itself as the "nation's largest mail-order gourmet brownie company." Faux suede box with leather trim and stylish purple satin bow make this an especially attractive gift option. "Original" brownie fared just so-so in tasting, but our panel was more excited by the decadentRaspberry Swirl brownies.
Price: $30.00 for 2 sleeves each containing 6 brownies
High-end brown and pink box with embossed logo looks like it might contain truffles. Instead, each box (one order contains two boxes) protects a single sleeve with six brownies. This small confectioner calls their basic brownies, Marquis Bars, and they were more like a cross between a flourless chocolate cake and a truffle. Too rich for most tasters who didn't think they were true brownies.
Price: $40.00 for 16 individually wrapped brownies
Cute name and logo, but the metallic cardboard box the brownies arrived in seemed rather cheap and flimsy. We ordered the brownies a la carte and had eight interesting varieties to choose from. We liked that each one was individually wrapped and had creative names (such as Red Witch made with dried cherries), but ultimately these brownies were just average.
Interested in making your own brownies? Check out the following recipes from Giada De Laurentiis, Nigella Lawson and Ellen Carroll that are sure to satisty your sweet tooth:Recipe: Bourbon Fudge Brownies (on this page)
Recipe: Snow-Flecked Brownies (on this page) Recipe: Espresso Brownies (on this page)