Let's cut straight to the chase here: Battle Brownie is a battle we all lose.
There is nothing quite so frustrating as the fact that it's nearly impossible to get a good store-bought brownie. It's almost as disheartening as halfheartedly chewing your way through day-old, leftover brownies. The things are really only good straight out of the oven and for about 24 hours afterwards. Brownies aren't like wine; they don't age well.
But sometimes you're craving a brownie in the middle of the day, at work, where there are no ovens. Or sometimes you realize it was your turn to bring brownies to the PTA meeting at 6 p.m. and it's 5:20 p.m. Sometimes baking fresh brownies simply isn't an option. So what do you do?
You suck it up and bring some pre-made cupcakes instead, that's what. Otherwise you'll be pursuing the noble folly of attempting to find decent store-bought brownies somewhere in Houston, just as we did this week.
Several sources who I trust implicitly have raved about the Killer Brownie at Rice Epicurean, and I was excited for an excuse to visit a grocery store I don't set foot in as often as I'd like to (I'm a convenience shopper most of the time, and Disco Kroger is convenient), but enjoy quite a bit.
When I arrived at the bakery, I noticed several different iterations of the Killer Brownie, as well as signage everywhere attesting to its brownie superiority. The signs made me smile. The peanut butter version of the Killer Brownie called out to me, but I held firm and grabbed an "original" Killer Brownie, balking slightly at its price as I checked out: nearly $4 for a very standard-size brownie.
But the brownie wasn't standard on the inside. Looking more like thick fudge, two pieces of nut-riddled brownie sandwiched a layer of dulce de leche (side note: huh? why?) with a generous coating of powdered sugar on top. Or at least that's what I thought.
As my friend Kevin says, "Chef Ramsey taught me two lessons: 1) Always taste the food! 2) I am a donkey." Whoever was baking the killer brownies at Rice Epicurean didn't adhere to that first lesson, as what I thought was powdered sugar was actually a quarter-inch-thick dusting of flour. I nearly gagged on the first bite I took, the flour forming a gummy paste in my mouth. I took a big swig of water and poked at it again with my finger to be sure: Yep, flour.
Everyone makes mistakes, though. Right? So I scraped the flour off the brownie and proceeded to eat it naked. It honestly didn't taste any better. It was far too rich, far too busy. To quote Emperor Joseph in Amadeus, "Too many notes." Why does the brownie need a layer of caramel in the middle? Why does it taste more like fudge than brownie? My taste for brownies run strongly to the "simple" side of the spectrum, although I suppose I could see how others would prefer the sheer decadence provided here.
Sara Brook's brownie recipe is famous. The Dessert Gallery owner is well-known for her brownies, but I had never tried them prior to today, having always happily ordered sandwiches (I know it's not called Sandwich Gallery, but they're good!) and cookies there in the past.
The Dessert Gallery brownie looked the way a brownie should look: a straightforward brown square, packed full of chocolatey promise. Nothing fancy about it; just a good, honest, all-American dessert. But something was off.
Sometimes the taste of food is a lot like music. "Flat" is a common adjective used to describe a dish that tastes washed out and dull. Less commonly used is "sharp" in relation to a dish being overly saturated with one flavor. The common thread between both of these adjectives isn't just musical: it's salt. Savory (and sometimes sweet) dishes that are lacking in salt taste flat and dull. Sweet dishes that are lacking in salt can also come across as sharp, with a single bright and overwhelming note of sugar as all that you can taste.
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That's how I would describe the Dessert Gallery's brownie today. Sharp. Overly sweet. And in desperate need of some salt to balance it out. I am consistently surprised by how many desserts I taste that are horribly undersalted. As with Rice Epicurean, I'm not sure if this was an accident on the part of the baking crew that morning. All I know is that the brownie was deafeningly average and I couldn't eat more than a few bites.
At least it only set me back $1.50.
Did you know that for the cost of a brownie at Rice Epicurean, you could buy a box of Ghirardelli brownie mix? That's about all I have to say on the matter. Suggestions for a Battle Brownie rematch will happily be taken in the comments section below.