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Mixed Review: Crate & Barrel vs. Trader Joe's Cornbread

"The Trader Joe's cornbread was some of the best cornbread I've tasted, from a mix or otherwise."

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Ever wonder about a boxed mix you've seen in the store? Is it any good? Could it replace something you'd otherwise make from scratch? Welcome to Mixed Review, where the whole point is putting boxed mixes to the test! —The Mgmt.

Two years ago, I did a roundup of standard supermarket cornbread mixes for this column and was generally unimpressed with all of them. They were gummy, thin, and cloyingly sweet. I called Jiffy, my top choice, "solid, if not sensational" and recommended doctoring it up with add-ins like sun-dried tomatoes, poppy seeds, and pecans.

This year, I thought it was time to revisit the cornbread basket by comparing two readily available specialty mixes: Crate & Barrel's Buttermilk Cornbread Mix ($8.95) and Trader Joe's Cornbread Mix ($2.69).

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Before getting started, I considered my criteria for truly exceptional cornbread. First, it must be thick. There is nothing worse than thin, pancake-flat cornbread. Second, it should have golden-brown edges (cornbread edge pieces are the best!); a well-toasted bottom; and a slightly crunchy, toothsome bite. Third, it must strike a balance between sweet and savory. I want my cornbread to retain the flavors of sweet yellow corn, but I don't want it to taste like cake minus the frosting. Ideally, it should have hints of salt, toasted grains, and buttermilk.

Crate & Barrel

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With my standards set in place, I set about baking both batches of cornbread. First up was the Crate & Barrel mix. At close to $9, it was easily the most expensive cornbread mix I'd ever come across. I was eager to see if it would live up to its price tag. Following the directions on the package, I added two eggs, 1 1/4 cups of milk (I used 2%), and 1/2 cup (one stick) of melted unsalted butter. Then I spread the batter in a 9x9-inch pan and baked it for 40 minutes.

When the Crate & Barrel cornbread was done and cut into squares, the first aspect that impressed me was its height. The cornbread was definitely thick, fluffy, and crumbly. Unfortunately, however, it was quite pale in color. There were no crispy corners, and the bottom was only slightly more browned than the top. The consistency of the cornbread was good. It was moist without being dense, and had a sturdier, more "bready" mouthfeel than cake. The cornbread had a slightly tangy buttermilk flavor, but ultimately it was too sweet. I had a hard time picturing it as an accompaniment to a savory dish like chili or roast turkey.

Trader Joe's

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Like most of Trader Joe's products, at $2.69 I found the cornbread mix very reasonably priced. True, it wasn't as cheap as Jiffy, which cost less than $1, but I suspected it would yield much tastier results. When I emptied the mix into a bowl, I was surprised and pleased to see that it contained whole kernels of dried corn. I added one egg, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, and 3/4 cup 2% milk. Then I spooned the batter into an 8x8-inch pan and baked it for 35 minutes.

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The difference in results was significant. While the Trader Joe's cornbread mix didn't rise quite as high as the Crate & Barrel mix, the top was a deep bronze color and the edges were dark and crispy. It had a mealier, heartier consistency, and while sweet, wasn't the least bit desserty. I loved the perfectly caramelized crunchy edges, and the contrast in texture the whole kernels of corn provided in the middle. The Trader Joe's cornbread was some of the best cornbread I've tasted, from a mix or otherwise. I would highly recommend it for your Thanksgiving table.

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