I know you won’t believe me, but judging a brownie contest is a tough job.
Of course, somebody has to do it.
When Tippin’s, the homegrown company most famous for its handcrafted pies, decided to add a decadent gourmet brownie to its lineup, it turned to culinary students at Johnson County Community College. They would compete to develop the ultimate commercially produced brownie. The ultimate prize: $1,000.
Chocolate wizard Christopher Elbow, Hen House chef Jasper Mirabile and yours truly were asked to spend an evening in March judging 22 squares of chocolate-y bliss.
After the judging I visited the Tippin’s commercial bakery in Kansas City, Kan. Before I could enter I was asked to remove all jewelry, except wedding rings, then don a hair net (and beard net, if appropriate), a lab coat and booties. For good measure, they might wand you with a lint brush. Finally, there was a stop at the hand-washing station.
As I stepped onto the bakery floor, a giant tub of frozen bagels rolled by. “We’re known for our pies,” said Mark Boyer, president of Tippin’s, watching my eyebrows arch quizzically, “but people don’t know we make (kosher) bagels.”
Or croissants. Or decorated layer cakes.
I watched a swathed baker use a paddle to stir lemon filling in a vat as big as a bathtub. I felt the heat on my face as I peered into mammoth floor-to-ceiling ovens churning out miniature pies. Then we stepped into a room of cake decorators expertly squeezing squiggles and colored icing script onto frosted surfaces. Boyer predicted that by the first quarter of 2015, these highly skilled pastry artisans — he calls them his cake room angels — also will be frosting batches of brownies.
To get a good understanding of commercial baking procedures, JCCC students received a similar tour. Afterward they were given a Tippin’s brownie base mix and a 12-by-18-inch parchment-colored oven-safe baking box used in commercial production for shipping to local Hen House supermarkets and other retail accounts as far away as Texas and Illinois.
Throughout the tour, students were encouraged to ask questions and to consider the practical implications for the ultimate saleability of their creations.
For example, a seven-layer brownie would be too time-intensive to make, never mind a nightmare to ship if it doesn’t fit in the baking box. Caramel crystallizes when frozen, and many of Tippin’s products are transported in their frozen state for maximum freshness.
“Everything here is done with a lot of engineering,” Boyer said, although it’s surprising how much still is hands-on work.
Brownies are an all-American dessert of undetermined origin. Some sources credit the Sears Roebuck catalog or cookbook author Fannie Farmer, while others say a protege of hers might have adapted a recipe closer to what we call brownies. No matter who created the first recipe, American ingenuity is alive and well when it comes to embellishing the cake.
And the students didn’t disappoint, turning in layered versions of brownies of every description: fudge-y, cake-y, dusted with powdered sugar, thickly frosted, sprinkled with nuts, drizzled with caramel, layered with coconut, infused with raspberry jam and topped with whipped cream and cherries. There were riffs on s’mores, ice cream sundaes, candy bars and turtle cheesecake.
I had asked Boyer how he would know a winning entry.
“We want it to be so good that you hate yourself but can’t not eat it,” he answered. “We want something that consumers don’t care what it costs; they see it and they want to buy it. We want to get (the students) doing something that will be a signature for us.”
By contest time, the judges were surrounded by a checkerboard of chocolate. “Who knew there were so many varieties?” chef Mirabile said as he snapped a photo and tweeted it. His followers responded with drools of envy.
“Well, yes. There’s a lot of creativity here,” said Baltazar Fernandez, a 34-year veteran of the company and director of manufacturing, although I could tell he doubted we would be able to hold out until the last square.
Even with students looking on from the gallery seats of JCCC’s theater kitchen, I became totally engrossed in the work, judging each entry on a 25-point scale for taste, texture, presentation, creativity, consumer appeal and the ability to reproduce the snack squares in a commercial kitchen.
I was impressed with the flavor combinations, if not always the execution. It appeared to me that a lot of the brownie bases were overcooked and nearly impossible to cut with a plastic fork.
I sipped water between every entry, trying to completely wash away the taste of the previous one. Admittedly, I started with big bites that got smaller as time went on. But I dutifully offered constructive comments for every entry.
By the end, Elbow and I were giggling about how difficult it was to add up numbers when you’re on a sugar rush.
The unanimous winner was Cheesecake Amore, a mocha cheesecake brownie by Kim Kindred featuring Folgers instant coffee crystals for flavoring and a toasted almond and espresso-bean candy topping.
This brownie had an appealing layered look. The base mix was properly baked and had good color and texture contrast between the mocha frosting and the nut topping. We tasted it near the end of the competition. Our taste buds were hitting overload, yet the flavor was unusual and powerful enough to make a lasting impression.
“I just thought about the flavors I liked: coffee, chocolate and almonds,” Kindred said.
Both runners-up — a classic brownie with cherry filling, and a coconut-layered confection inspired by the Almond Joy candy bar — were created by Casey Godinez. She received $200 for each brownie entry.
Once the winners were announced, the brownies were packaged and taken back to the Tippin’s fortress. There they were frozen, to be retested three weeks later to see how the flavors held up when Tippin’s in-house tasters got their hands on the goods for yet another round of judging.
Kindred, of Olathe, is in her fourth semester of the chef’s apprentice program. She bet her “Dixie Pie, and It Don’t Lie” brownie with pie crust and pecan would beat out her “Cheesecake Amore.” But either way, the single mom of three says she was pleased to win. She is using part of the money to start Staff du Jour, her own temporary staffing service designed to support the hospitality industry with chefs, cooks, servers, hostesses and more.
“I’m just so honored I actually won,” Kindred says. “I loved the process. I loved going to the factory and talking to the workers, and I hope I will see this in stores one day.”
The Tippin’s Tasters
Three weeks after the competition, the brownies were retasted and judged by a panel of 10 in-house Tippin’s professionals to see which would work best for a commercial bakery. Here are their tasting notes after the brownie samples were frozen and thawed. On a scale of 25, these entries scored from 17 to 22 points. It’s interesting to note these finalists closely matched those of the earlier competition.
Despite the final grades, more research and development will be needed before the ultimate brownie will be on sale, probably in the first quarter of 2015, according to Mark Boyer, Tippin’s president.
Cheesecake Amore: WOW! Toasted almonds got soft. Needs a chocolate-covered espresso bean on every piece.
Crunch-Hazelnut Brownie: Minus the crumb topping, very nice contrasting look and textures. Great presentation but the peanut butter is either not needed or too much peanut butter; flavors sort of clashed.
THIRD PLACE (TIE)
Almond Joy Brownie: Top icing hard to cut through. Think this could be a big seller. Needs more almonds.
Salted Pralines and Rum Ganache Brownie: Interesting flavors that will not be for everybody. Excellent; love the rum-flavored ganache and overall presentation. The praline topping is smooth, airy and fantastic. Adults only; very strong rum flavor.
Double Edition Brownie With Mini Marshmallows: Too sweet. Great visual appeal and combination of textures. The toffee crunch and white chocolate chips blended good with the marshmallows. Too tall. Too many marshmallows.
Chocolate Brownie With Cherry Pie Filling: Bottom layer very hard. Needs more cherry filling. Very hard to cut. Taste like candy bar, sort of stale hard Cherry Mash.
“I thought that it was an excellent partnership. We were able to work with an award-winning culinary program and learn from their designs. I really enjoyed the combination of the salted praline and rum ganache brownie. It calls out gourmet.”
— Jose Velez, director of food safety and quality assurance
“Another thought is how in the heck did the judges make it through 20 entries? The fact the winner came out of one of the last ones tasted speaks to how strong it was. Having highly qualified judges was a big plus for us. Actually a very tough job.”
— Mark Boyer, president of Tippin’s
“Overall I like the brownies. I think they all needed a little work but a great starting point.”
— Curt Lafferty, vice president of sales