The Brownie Bible

It’s once again time to document my attempts to perfect a particular staple food item.  This time around it is brownies.  The internet seems to love brownies and there is quite a wide variety of recipes to try that give all kinds of textures and flavor.  Brownies, more than most other baked goods, are really in the eye of the beholder so I will try to convey something of how to get the brownie you want rather than just my preferences.


1. Calibrate your oven temperature with a thermometer.

2. Weigh ingredients.

3.  Do not bake in a dark, glass or pyrex pan as this will make sure that your brownie edges are too hard before the inside cooks.  If you must, drop the temperature by 25 degrees and check the brownies earlier.

4. Beat your final batter vigorously for close to a minute if it contains a relatively small amount of flour as most modern brownie recipes do.  This may seem against conventional wisdom, but with such a low amount of flour undermixing is more of a danger than overmixing.

5. Like most cookies, letting your batter rest in the fridge overnight will improve flavor.

6. Line your pan with foil rather than greasing it for easy clean up.  Just lift them right out after they cool.  The only downside is that the lines of the brownie aren’t as clean, particularly at the edges, but oh well.

7. Unlike cookies, brownies do not taste best straight of the oven.  If anything I think they taste best about a day later, but after about three days they start to dry out.

8. Brownies freeze really well and you can eat them right out of the freezer.

9. Finally a note about size conversion.  Most recipes are for 8×8 square pans, but a few are for 9×13.  The latter is just an insane amount of brownies and even an 8×8 is usually too much to consume by myself before they go stale.  I have taken to making them in a loaf pan which is about a half recipe.

9×13 rectangle=2 9×9 squares = 2 8×8 circle = 4 8.5×4.5 loaf pans

10.  For keenly cut brownies use a serrated knife and chill the brownies first and clean the knife between cuts.

The ice bath method:

Employ an ice bath for more toothsome and fudgier brownies.  Adjust your baking temperature upwards about 50 degrees and pull them out earlier, a good sign is when the edges pull away from the side or you can poke in the middle and you want to see some wet crumbs.  When they are done, drop the pan in an ice bath or directly in your freezer or even both if you have room (I never do).

The high temperatures give you a crackly crust without cooking the inside and the ice bath serves to make sure the brownies don’t cook more once out of the oven.  I call it brownie searing as it looks like a proper meat sear with a browned skin and then perfect moist texture in the middle.  Alice Medrich claims that a good guideline for this technique is that the recipe should use at least a half cup of flour and no more than 5 oz of chocolate (that should be adjusted by the percentage chocolate you are using, i.e. 10 oz of 50%).  This follows because recipes not fulfilling this criteria are probably fudgy enough.

Chocolate:  Brownies are a chocolate dessert and so it is important you get a decent tasting chocolate.  I am not like some people advocating very expensive brands; I don’t think you can tell the difference between Callebeut and Ghiradelli in a brownie and even if you could the marginal difference is not worth the extraordinary price increase.

However, I made a few recipes with Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and I am fairly sure that it contributed to a rather underwhelming chocolate flavor, though it’s hard to really taste test unsweetened chocolate unless I made the same brownies twice with different chocolate.  So do find a chocolate that you like and can trust.  For your benefit I have compiled the higher ranks of Cook’s Illustrated taste tests of various chocolates.

Unsweetened Cocoa Powder

Winner: Hershey’s Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa

Unsweetened Chocolate

Winner: Hershey’s Unsweetened Baking Bar
Valrhona Cacao Pate Extra 100%
Scharffen-berger Unsweetened Dark

Baker’s was absolutely trashed by the testers.

Chocolate Chips

Winner: Ghiradelli 60%
Hershey’s Special Dark (50% though they have an Extra Dark version that is 60%)

Cooking Light liked Special Dark the best.  I don’t think more expensive brands were tested.

Who would have thought Hershey’s would do so well?  Not me and it’s pretty much the cheapest.  I have also heard great things about Trader Joe’s chocolate but I don’t think it was included in this taste test.  Their prices are also pretty good on chocolate so it may be worth trying.  Also I should mention that I used chocolate chips for essentially all my baking needs.  I guess they are supposedly slightly different than bars to make them hold together while baking (why would I want that anyway?), but it all seems the same after I melt them.  I do this because chips are like half as expensive as bars at my supermarket.

Recipes: I am going to list them in approximately my order of preference, but the top ones are really close and different enough to warrant having any of them.

1. Alice Medrich Cocoa Brownies – If you told me that cocoa brownies could be this good I would laugh at you before eating these.  These have the deepest chocolate flavor and because there is little cocoa butter and all regular butter it has the most tender and divine texture.

2. Baked Brownie – While I love the above brownie, this is far more like the platonic ideal of a brownie with it’s fudgy rather than tender texture and slightly sweeter chocolate flavor.  The addition of brown sugar is pretty much genius.  I really want to give these a whirl with the ice bath technique to see if we can’t make them even better.

3. Ad Hoc Brownie – Thomas Keller made a pretty great traditional chocolate chip cookie so I had to try his brownie.  But being Keller it’s going to be a bit fussy.  I was worried when I saw that he creams the eggs and sugar in a brownie recipe that I was getting a cake, but these turned out wonderfully.  The texture is most definitely not fudgy, but neither is it cakey, holding some ineffable middle ground.  The addition of chocolate chips is brilliant.  I thought they would just get lost in a chocolate brownie, but nope just a contrasting chocolate flavor to that of the brownie.

I should note that I used vanilla extract instead of paste with no real loss.  Also it calls for a rather awkward 9×9 pan which is about 5/4 bigger than an 8×8 so my egg proportions were a bit different.  Finally, be aware of the really long bake time and that these are very tall brownies.  Interestingly, I made these and the next week I went to Vegas and had the eponymous Bouchon at Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, essentially a cork shaped brownie, and I enjoyed the brownie far more.

4. Lebovitz’s Favorite Brownie – David Lebovitz is a well known pastry chef so when he declares this his favorite brownie I listen.  Very fudgy and a deep chocolate flavor, but not good enough to crack the top 3.

5. Supernatural Brownies – Like the Baked brownie, these are made with brown sugar.  These have gotten rave reviews, but as you can tell by the recipe, this has a fairly low amount of chocolate and I want my brownies intensely chocolatey.  I will save the lighter chocolate flavor for cakes where I pair it with something else.  I did the ice bath on these as well and the texture was again flawless.

6. Alice Medrich New Classic Brownies – This was my first attempt at an ice bath and it totally converted me giving the textural contrast between crispy crust and toothsome center.  However, I believe the flavor was sabotaged by using Baker’s unsweetened.  I might try a variation with lower percentage cacao or just another brand because Medrich really knows her brownies and it’s hard to believe these can’t be amazing.

7. Serious Eats Brownie – I love Serious Eats, but I have not made any of their baked goods.  These were as fudgy as advertised, but overall it was not exceptional.  It reminded me of a slightly better potluck brownie.  Note that I used the peanut variation which is a great idea.

8. French Chocolate Brownie – Dorie Greenspan is a not unfamous chef known for her sweets and French cooking and people said good things about this recipe.  However, I was relatively unimpressed, though I did enjoy the addition of raisins.  This is definitely on the cakier side and the chocolate flavor was unimpressive.  Furthermore, the brownies collapsed on me and this seems pretty common on the internet.  Brownies should not collapse.  That said, probably the best brownie for topping with things, the others on the list are just too fudgy and chocolatey to really go with ice cream.


Other brownies to try?

King Arthur Flour – Lots of good buzz, but using Dutch cocoa and then claiming it tastes better makes me dubious.  The differences in cocoa are miniscule and only in natural’s favor.

Ina Garten – As I said above, similar to Lebovitz’s brownies, but maybe the very small differences matter?  It certainly has a lot of people saying best ever.

CI Brownies – There are two, but neither seemed that interesting.  I mean one is meant to emulate a boxed mix…





Supermanager Compensation

I am currently reading Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty First Century which has already spawned much commentary around the econoblogsphere, most of it along ideological lines.  Liberals are a little too effusive with the praise, meanwhile conservatives trot out the same tired arguments they always use to deny inequality, most of which are thoroughly refuted in Piketty’s book.  Of course, facts have never kept a bad conservative idea down.

Now a longer post about the book will be forthcoming once I finish it, but mostly I want to talk about his theory of why income inequality in the Anglo-Saxon countries has risen so dramatically, in particular among the 1% and higher fractions.  Piketty claims this is from supermanagers, the high level executives at large corporations with a 20% contribution from the finance industry.  The ratio of the CEO’s pay to the average worker at his firm is reaching ever greater heights, hundreds now instead of something like 40 in the 1960s.

Now some, like Larry Summers, have criticized this theory, but offered no other suggestions to explain the increasing divergence of labor income at the top of the scale.  What other profession could possibly be raking in enough money to even enter the top .1%?  Tech entrepreneurs get most of their income from the huge return on capital of their initial investment and labor, i.e. it’s not counted as labor income.  So who are these people earning insane incomes via their labor?

But lets let the question of plausible alternatives lie and look at Summers arguments against the supermanager theory and why he think executive compensation is actually fairly close to marginal product (i.e. what economics tells us a workers wages should be equal to).

1. Private equity firms pay their executives just as much as public firms and they aren’t as vulnerable to executives having control over their own compensation (via stacking the corporate Board).

2.  Modern economy is winner-take-all where the best at something accrues far larger returns than they they did in the past.

The first is of course true, private firms aren’t nearly as vulnerable to corporate corruption by their executives.  However, they still have to compete with public firms for executive talent and so must offer equivalent wages.

Secondly, I am not sure that this is actually the main reason executive pay is outsized.  It seems more likely that the problem is that nobody knows how much a CEO is worth and for very large firms even a few million to attract someone you think is only marginally better can easily pay for itself.  Now I find it unlikely that these supermanagers are not interchangeable, I mean French firms do fine with much lower paid executives, but if you disagree with me you should put your money on it.  And they do.

This argument is bolstered by the fact that in good economic times executive pay rises very quickly, I am assuming to compensate them for their good work.  Yet, it’s relatively easy to make money in good economic times and the true test is whether someone else could have made you even more.  However, that does not seem to be the metric used and one can only conclude that nobody can value executives properly.  I mean you can’t really run an experiment and there are so many exogenous variables that you couldn’t interpret it anyway.

Summer’s second argument begs the question.  It is only relevant if you already assume that executive pay is equal to marginal product.  If that is true then the fact that certain firms are winners with a high percentage of the revenue in a market then yes executive pay should also rise meteorically.  However, if executive pay has nothing to do with marginal product then hyperprofitable firms do not in any way explain exorbitant executive pay.

And all of this discussion is kind of incidental since the theme of Piketty is how inevitable extreme wealth and income inequality is and the structure of that, labor or capital, is relatively unimportant.  After all, all that money they accrue from labor will turn into capital income when they retire or pass on an inheritance.


The No Recipes Fantasy

I often hear people express an opinion that being able to cook without recipes is the ultimate skill of a chef.  This seems like nonsense to me.  Do you think the best chefs really never look at recipes for inspiration or are not using something they have done many times and thus memorized (which is really no different than using a recipe)?  Thomas Keller is famously precise, I have seen recipes from him calling for 1/16 of a tsp of salt.  Yet it seems impossible to be precise unless you have a baseline standard, i.e. a recipe.  I mean at a restaurant multiple people have to be able to prepare the same dish in a fairly consistent manner which means a recipe.

The real skill is adaptation and of course creativity.  If you watch Top Chef they are constantly tasting the food and adjusting the dish or if they are not they usually go home for it.  This is a bit remarkable and certainly not something I can do yet, but I also have the luxury of not being on Top Chef with all its ridiculous challenges.  But these chefs don’t usually operate like that either.  Read a restaurant cookbook and you see that they spend many iterations to perfect a dish.  They wouldn’t do so only to abandon that template when service starts.

I think the aspiring home chef just needs to be smart.  Think of each recipe as teaching you something and not as something to slavishly imitate.  I am about to make Moroccan chicken stew and if you gave me the recipe for the particular spice mix I could probably fill in the rest of the blanks because stews always follow similar procedures (brown meat, cook aromatics, add spices, etc.) that are, after only a few months of cooking, pretty familiar.  Similarly, adjusting based off what you want and what you have and where you can cut corners or even improve the dish is a lot of the fun of cooking, IMO.

You really don’t want to be that commenter on essentially every baking recipe claiming that it is bunk because their brownies, for instance, were rock hard.  They probably don’t know their oven’s actual temperature and probably left them in the oven for the recommended time, which in baking is never the actual time.  Or something else criminally stupid and rectified with just a modicum of effort and thought.

The Lean Bulk

Ah the mythical lean bulk where you gain muscle without gaining fat.  It’s every gymbros’ fantasy.  Sadly, it just doesn’t happen.  If it does, either you’re new to training and overweight or hitting the juice.  For everyone else, you are probably just going to spin your wheels if you try any of the lean bulking schemes circulating on the internet.

Usually they recommend eating 20% more calories on workout days and 10% less on the rest of the days, but this buys into the (wrong) impression that muscle gain only occurs in a short window after a workout.  In fact everything points to hypertrophy NOT being a response to acute phenomena.  Neither bursts of testosterone or growth hormone or muscle protein synthesis seem to correlate that well with muscle growth.  That is, hypertrophy seems to be a complicated chronic response and trying to game the system with nutrition timing seems fairly hopeless.  If you want to try it you need to go to extreme lengths.  For instance Lyle Mcdonald’s Ultimate Diet strictly plans out an entire week of exercises and macronutrient ratios to try to optimize the partition ratio of fat and muscle gain.  I haven’t done it, but some people claim it actually works.  But be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.  He has you eat virtually nothing on some days and do a workout specifically designed to tire you out by depleting muscle glycogen.  It sounds terrible and I will probably never try it.

However, I have another idea that is not as exacting, but still follows what we do know about hypertrophy.  While hypertrophy is not a response to acute elevated muscle protein synthesis, it seems pretty clear that you will never build muscle unless MPS is greater than catabolism.  This is essentially an identity and we know that MPS is elevated for about 36 hours after a resistance training workout and actually peaks around 20-24 hours afterwards.  This is the so-called anabolic window.  Thus, we can see why the nutrient cycling scheme I talked about doesn’t work.  You are eating less the next day, but MPS is still elevated and is in fact peaking!  You are throwing away a large period where you could be growing.  This ignores other potential effects on hypertrophy from hormones that might be blunted by consistent dieting stimuli, which might be even more important than the anabolic window.

However, this does suggest a strategy which boils down to diet outside the anabolic window.  Unfortunately, this really limits your options since popular routines are 3x or 4x a week between Monday and Friday.  This usually leaves only the weekend as a two day rest between workouts and thus Sunday becomes the only possible diet day.  But we can work with that!  Do a so-called protein sparing modified fast where you eat almost nothing but protein for one day, at least a g/lb of lean mass, netting you somewhere around 800-1000 calories for that day.  For those just trying to lose weight, the alternate day version of this in that link is a great way to do so.  Dieting hard one day and then eating normally is psychologically much less grueling and it’s unlikely that even the “I was good yesterday so I can splurge today” mentality will blunt your losses.  It’s just really hard to eat so much that you compensate for such a harsh deficit of calories.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.  A man should bulk at a rate of at most 1 lb/week, a figure that goes down the more trained you are, and for most people that will probably be about half fat and half muscle.  For a woman you want to half the weight gain since there is much less propensity to put muscle on.  Anyways, that gives us at most a half pound of fat accumulation a week.  If one then engages in the dieting above on Sunday and assuming a 2500 calorie maintenance and about 3500 calories for a pound of weight they could lose about half a pound of weight.  Now because you are eating a lot of protein and you have been training hard and it is only one day so your hormone composition is still in bulking mode this should be a half pound of fat loss.  It’s outside the aforementioned anabolic window so it should not curtail your muscle gains and because it is one day a week it should not disrupt your hormone levels like a prolonged diet can.

Thus, in theory you can achieve a lean bulk where most of the week you are above maintenance calories and then in one day you try to drop all the fat that you accumulated.  I haven’t seen such a technique really pushed on the internet and I currently do not have any empirical results.  I will be testing it on my next bulk though.  As stated before, an already well-trained person should bulk at a slower rate and thus in effect could actually lose weight while gaining muscle, but again this is all theoretical at this point.

Finally, lets say you still gain a bit of fat because you gained weight too fast or have a bad nutrient partitioning ratio, at the end of the bulk you could try Lyle Mcdonald’s Rapid Fat Loss scheme where essentially you do the above diet for two weeks straight.  No more than that if you are pretty lean, otherwise you will mess yourself up.  You would be looking at like 5 pounds of mostly fat loss, which should more than cover any fat accumulation during your bulk.  Thus the final plan would look something like this:

Deload to 80% of working weights and increment back up over one or two weeks

Now push the weights up for something like 4-6 weeks

Deload again for one to two weeks

Do RFL for two weeks if needed, otherwise push max weights again

Take a one week break from training after an RFL or Deload to reset body’s response to training stimuli as I mentioned in a previous post

In this way we can minimize fat gain and maximize time we are gaining muscle.

Dark Souls 1 and 2: A Retrospective

I have just finished the second Dark Souls and I am currently working on a NG+ in the original so it seems like a good chance to compare them.

Lets start with the common failings.  Mechanically these games are a mess.  Look at all those symbols on every piece.  Most of them you can guess what they are and how they work.  But what is poise and agility?  And how does stat scaling work?  And there are more.  It’s really opaque and it took months for the internet to really pound out what does what and for Dark Souls 2 there is still work to be done.  Some of this adds depth, but most if it is just obscure for no good reason.

In the first game poise kept you from being stunned by hits.  In the second it seems to do absolutely nothing, thus the name Fashion Souls 2 because your armor doesn’t matter much.  The best armor is not that much more protective than the worst and dodging avoids all damage.  This contrasts with Dark Souls 1 which had a pretty tanky feeling of attack/block with a bit of dodging.  So in DS2 you dodge a lot, but not really to get out of the way.  Instead you become invincible for certain frames which increases with your agility stat.  It looks pretty ridiculous rolling through strikes and taking no damage. How agility is accumulated is a non-trivial combination of a bunch of stats and then how it interacts with rolling is hard to predict.

Speaking of the combat, DS2 has too many enemies that recover too fast from attacks/being hit, have wide weapon swings or track your character far too well with their attacks.  If a monster is doing a heavy vertical smash it shouldn’t be able to follow my character so well that a non invincible dodge doesn’t work, but it happens.  This makes a lot of enemies painstakingly slow to kill as you can get at most one hit in after very specific attacks since they recover so fast and you can’t hitstun them.  Yes in DS1 backstabbing was bit too easy, but I should be able to punish enemies for misses and a lot of times you really can’t.  The best example is the 2h mace Drakekeeper in the Dragon Shrine near the end of DS2.  He never stops attacking, his 2h overhand smash tracks, he doesn’t flinch and has exactly one move with enough time to get one attack in.  Stuff like this encouraged me to pull out my bow and shoot things with poison arrows, a tactic that was far too successful far too often.

DS2 also likes to throw many more monsters at you at once than DS1.  All the hardest fights in both games are with multiple monsters and that is because the combat isn’t exactly friendly in those situations.  Smough and Ornstein is legendary in DS1 because it was two people.  Similarly, the Rat and Gargoyle fights in DS2 are pretty much guaranteed to annoy especially the latter.  Take the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph and multiply it by 4 for the Gargoyle fight.  What a tedious boss…

In both games the bosses are kind of hit or miss.  DS1 had stuff like the Gaping Maw Dragon, which looked cool but ended up pretty boring.  Or the hydras which were just stupid.  DS2 on the other hand has far too many humanoid bosses that fight like each other and like the humanoid trash mobs.  Again you mostly chip away after baiting very specific attacks where you can actually land hits.  I found most of DS2 bosses hit very hard, too hard really, depleting all of your stamina or very nearly one-shotting you even with substantial points dumped into increasing health.  There are good boss fights in DS2, but so many being humanoid and similar really detracts from the status they had in DS1 where every fog gate was a potential source of dread.

I still don’t like spellcasting and DS2 added yet another type.  So many different ways to shoot stuff with different graphics and different stat scaling.  All the spells are kind of similar in my eyes and the multitude of stats needed makes it hard to diversify.  You are a sorcerer or a hexer or a strength melee and you kind of get stuck in that even though the game might be more fun if characters had more skills without extremely high levels.  Also you have to have a different casting implement for each school and it’s really just a mess.  At least DS2 lets you equip up to 6 things in quick slots.

Also stat scaling is a terrible mechanic.  Why don’t they just show you the final damage output?  It makes comparing upgrades nearly impossible since the letter grades don’t even mean the same thing for different weapons.  And trial and error is a no go as it’s not like crafting mats are plentiful for most of the game.  DS2 is better, making most of them purchasable at some point, but the games still punish you for upgrading things you might not be wearing later.

Levels in general feels kind of weak.  The combat is setup for very few hits to be lethal on either side so you need a large increase in defense or attack to actually increase the number of hits before you/they die.  Yes, it means all areas are always potentially dangerous, but it does reduce the enjoyment from the RPG half other than meeting requirement for spells and equipment.  Though, DS2 is pretty stingy with equipment for much of the game.  Eventually you find out it didn’t matter except that you don’t look cool for about half the game.

OK so I am kind of down on the games.  But the combat in both is still great, a completely different feel than the button mashers that currently abound.  Some people complain that it is too conservative and you can’t cancel most attacks, but there are enough games like that and really, once you commit to swinging a giant sword there isn’t much you can do to stop it.  It is also still the only game where having shield is awesome, cool and useful and DS2 actually makes attacking with them not as terrible, so go slam some faces.

The other key component is the environments.  I agree that DS2 has too many crumbly castles, but I guess I love crumbly castles.  I also much prefer the ability to teleport from the beginning of the game in DS2.  Yes, the myriad shortcuts connecting the world of DS1 were cool, but lets be honest, it didn’t make any sense, just as the DS2 world doesn’t make any sense.  DS2 is also like twice as large as the first game so it gets points for that, though each area seems a little smaller than those of the first.  I think they both have their high points.  Black Gulch was freaky Cthulhu style stuff I would put up against anything in the first game.

Where DS2 does a lot better is not having any low points.  Blighttown in the first was just awful, along with the Great Tree.  I disliked the Tomb of Giants and am glad they brightened up DS2 to avoid similar lighting induced challenges.  There aren’t any really cheap spots in DS2 either.  DS1 isn’t as cheap as its detractors make it out to be, but it has its moments.  The toxin guys in Blighttown?  The devs know they were cheap and that is why they stay dead after you kill them.  The snipers in Anor Londo?  Bonfire right after so you never have to do it again suggests that again they know they were bastards.  There is also a lot less of precarious ledges and jumping in the sequel, though still too much for the terrible jumping controls.

Lastly, are the minor quality of life improvement in DS2: better interface, the upgrade system isn’t as convoluted now with enhancements and elements being separate, healing is more prevalent but harder to pull of mid combat, you can snipe with spells.  Actually the latter makes spells even more broken than they already were, but having to lock on to cast properly was dumb in the first one.

In the end I would rather play DS2 again, but I really wish the combat was tuned differently and that I still had some of the awe I felt while playing the first.  It will be interesting to see if the success of the franchise rubs off on other games because I am hearing a lot of lip service but nothing concrete has yet emerged.