Have Mailbox, Will Bake

Our baker tries mail-order baking kits

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Have Mailbox, Will Bake

Baking has been getting the Blue Apron treatment. Desserts have hopped on the recipe kit bandwagon, and, as a result, you can now order pre-packaged, ready-to-make, delivered-to-your-doorstep cooking experiences for cookies, cakes and other sweet treats. I took three mail-order baking kits — Foodstirs, The Invisible Chef, and Scratch & Grain — out for a test drive around the kitchen to see how they perform, and, more importantly, how they taste.

My first surprise came right out of the box. I figured both the wet and dry ingredients would be part of the deal. So if I needed a couple of eggs, I figured two beautiful eggs from chickens with liberal arts degrees from Harvard would be included in a refrigerated package. Nope. I had to track down Ivy League-educated eggs on my own. Unlike the recipe kits, the baking versions don’t come with the wet ingredients — namely eggs, oil, and in some cases butter and sour cream. If you don’t have the items at home, add a shopping trip to your to do list.

Like the meal counterparts, the baking kits lean toward pricy and involve a fair amount of packaging — to say nothing of the carbon footprint involved in getting them to your mailbox. All three of the kits I tried share a common “Mompreneurs” origin story. These moms saw an opportunity to create products that make baking more approachable, easier, and a little bit healthier by using more natural ingredients than the ones found in some of the more conventional mixes out there. The marketing skews heavily toward moms with young kids.

Once the kits arrived, I enlisted the help of my sister-in-law Lisa, my 9-year-old daughter, my 12-year-old niece, and my 8-year-old nephew to help with the stirring and to give me their opinions on the process and the final product. Here’s what we found.

Foodstirs

Foodstirs is a subscription service where you received a different kit each month. The cost is $58.50 for three months, $114 for six months, and $222 for nine months. Kits may also be purchased individually online for about $20 each plus shipping. Box ingredients are preservative-free, non-GMO, and void of artificial dyes and flavors.

Foodstirs stands out as my favorite of the three because it does the best job distinguishing itself from other mixes on the market. The California-based company’s products all have a crafty side to them. Think cupcakes in ice cream cones and a pretty pink ombre pancake stack adorned with a soft pink paper flower. The kits seem to be targeted toward people with young kids and my guess is that’s who would be most drawn to them.

My daughter and I made the Blooming Brownie Kit, brownies cooked in green cupcake holders topped with lollipop flowers. These were easily crafted from the supplied organic lollipops and white cupcake liners. We needed to add eggs, water, and vegetable oil. We only had to use one bowl, so three cheers for fewer dirty dishes than most of our other baking endeavors.

The batter was on the dense side, making it a bit hard to neatly fill the liners halfway as the directions stated. We only had enough batter for 11 cupcakes rather than the 12 that the recipe was supposed to yield. It’s possible my daughter filled them past the halfway mark but even so, I felt the recipe should have made more batter. A fill-to line on the inside of the green cupcake liners would be a helpful touch.

I was surprised that the recipe called for a 325-degree oven. It seemed low for the heaviness of the recipe. The brownies did indeed need to cook longer than called for, leaving them almost overdone on the outside by the time the inside had caught up. I’m sure our overfilling didn’t help. I wonder if you’d get a more even brownie cupcake at 350-degree oven?

My niece and nephew joined us to unwrap the candy and cut slits in the liners to give them the look of petals. The directions were clear and included photos of the various steps. It was an easy tear-free project. Our brownie blooms did not look as Pinterest-worthy as the ones on the recipe card, but they were cute and the kids had fun.

The brownies themselves tasted okay. They were not bad, but there was no wow factor here. The outside was leaning toward overcooked in our batch since the inside took longer to cook. All the kids liked them but were most drawn to the lollipops. The sell here, in my opinion, is the cuteness factor and the craft project.

Scratch & Grain Baking Co.

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Scratch & Grain is sold online for $7.99 for individual cookie kits and $30.99 for four-packs, plus shipping. The kits can also be purchased at brick-and-mortar shops across the country, including Target and Wegmans in certain parts of the country.

The kits use all-natural and GMO-free ingredients. And, many of the ingredients are organic, according to the company’s website. Some gluten-free options are available. A nice touch: five percent of the profits are donated to charities.

Cookies are the star of the Scratch & Grain show. While the Portland-based company created by two neighbors offers a brownie and a cupcake options, they primarily sell cookie mixes.

The cookie kits come with all the dry ingredients pre-measured and in separate numbered plastic packets. When you get to the baking powder step, you are told which number to add next. This makes it hard to mess up but, of course, creates more trash.

I appreciated the ease of the numbered packets. My sister-in-law did point out that one of the benefits of baking with kids is teaching them to use measuring cups and spoons. When you only have to empty a package into a bowl you do lose the opportunity for an impromptu math lesson under the guise of chocolate chips — the best kind of math as far as I am concerned.

The cookie mixes also include healthy extras like flax seed that you typically might not find in off-the-shelf mixes. I’d probably not think to adjust my regular chocolate chip cookie recipe to include something like flax although the idea is interesting. As a way to promote portion control, the kits intentionally yield about a dozen cookies rather than the typical three-dozen that most cookie recipes create. Again the target audience here seems to be moms with little kids.

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We made the oatmeal raisin cookies and the chocolate chip cookies. For both we needed to add melted butter (one more dish to wash) and eggs. The instructions were simple to follow. I enjoyed the tips that ran alongside the directions, which included substitution suggestions and a short but appreciated warning on not over stirring lest you wind up with tough cookies.

The cookies were mixed up and ready to go in by the time the oven had pre-heated. But the moment of truth always rests with the first bite. We quickly concluded that the cookies were pretty good, not great. Both the chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin were crispy, not chewy, and they had a good consistency to them. The taste, however, was a bit bland. Salt seemed to be the lacking ingredient. My suspicion is that a little more salt in this kit would go a long way to boost the flavor. I liked the oatmeal cookies better than the chocolate chip, but for the most part that is how I roll.

The Invisible Chef

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You can order The Invisible Chef online, but mixes are also sold in independent shops and chain stores including Macy’s, Cost Plus World Market, Wegmans, T.J. Maxx, and Marshalls. Most of the mixes retail for between $7 and $10. The company uses all natural ingredients like unbleached flour.

Started ten years ago, The Invisible Chef offers the widest variety of products of the three companies. Scones, breads, pizza dough, waffles, muffins, and even ice cream starters are among the many choices on the site. Invisible Chef as a whole seems to be marketed to all consumers, not just families with young kids.

We made the French Breakfast Puffs and the Cinnamon & Ancho Chile Coffee and Tea Cake Mix. The breakfast puffs mix called for the addition of melted butter, oil, milk, and eggs. Combing the ingredients with the packaged mix was relatively straightforward. The short, clear directions on the side of the box were easy to follow. The puffs smelled delicious as they baked — exactly the way a house should smell when you bake.

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Once the puffs cooled we needed to dip them in more melted butter and then roll them in the included cinnamon sugar mixture. (A bunch of dirty bowls for this mix.) The puffs came out light and airy. Once again the true test would be in the taste. And, once again they were close but not quite there. Something seemed to be missing. (We again guessed salt.)

It finally was time for the Cinnamon & Ancho Chile cake. Melted butter, eggs, and 1½ cups of sour cream needed to be added to the dry mix. Although it’s essentially a brownie, the recipe calls for a loaf pan. The cake needs to be in the oven for 70 minutes and it came out perfectly cooked. It was beautifully crispy on the outside and a great texture on the inside — I am guessing this is in part due to cooking what is pretty much a brownie in a loaf pan.

After more than an hour in the oven and cooling time, it was time to taste the cake. At first we didn’t taste the ancho chile and then we really did. The kick takes a minute to catch up with you but once it does it’s strong — perhaps too strong. The cinnamon was barely detectable. I can’t imagine most people eating a whole slice. We thought some chocolate chunks or maybe even dried tart cherries could help this mix out. The instructions suggest serving it with ice cream, which might help cut the spice and cool the lingering chile taste. While I appreciated the out-of-the-box flavor for an in-the-box mix, this one didn’t completely work for me either.

While these mixes may need a few additional touches to be superb, I appreciate their value to the busy at-home cook who wants to throw together something homemade as a project. As a busy mom, I’m looking forward to seeing how they improve (more salt please!) and what they bring us next.

Beth Kanter is a DC-based food and travel writer and the author of several books including the popular Washington, DC Chef’s Table. Beth Kanter is considering celebrating the release of the new season of OITNB by recreating Chang’s Frito fritters. (Check her Instagram for photographic evidence when it happens.)

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