“Gourmet” Desserts Are Anything But

Circa Dessert Mixes

Circa Dessert Mixes

I Paid: $8.99 for a 9-ounce box (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 1 stars

Marketing: 5 stars

In their initial press release last November, Circa dessert mixes were billed as "the First Line of Easy-To-Make Gourmet Dessert Mixes." It's an appealing idea, and the boxes are lovely, sporting crisp, elegant food photography, classy fonts, and an awful lot of sexy white space. But as much as I hate to suggest that a press release might be insincere, this particular communication missed the mark.

A lot. Like, when the Titanic missed New York City, like about that much. Making a Circa dessert mix is like ordering a Mercedes-Benz and receiving a crate containing most of the individual parts and only some of the tools you'll need.

I'm not a bad baker—strike that, I'm a fine baker, cheerfully churning out bread or biscuits at the drop of a hat. On the more difficult end of things, I've made passable scratch croissants and also baguettes (both tasted great but lost points for appearance). But the cake that resulted from my following the directions on Circa's Flourless Chocolate Torte with Ganache was a straight-up "Wow, did a bomb hit that thing?" wreck. Apparently I undercooked it, resulting in a sunken, cratered, eventually-torn-up mess of a cake. The directions say to cook it for 30 to 35 minutes or until the surface looks dry; the surface looked "dry" to me after 30, but I clearly baked it 8 to 10 minutes too few.

Circa dessert mixes cost $9. What do you get for $9? In this case, some good bittersweet chocolate chips, sugar, and about 30 individual baking directions compressed into 8 compound steps. The result, even properly baked, is a cake that tastes like bittersweet chocolate and butter, topped with ganache that tastes like bittersweet chocolate and cream, and a giant stack of dirty dishes plus a poorly spent afternoon.

The torte's not the only offender, unfortunately. The box for Circa's Lemon Tart features what may be the most beautiful-looking dessert I have ever seen: Each tiny white cloud of meringue floats on a perfect disc of lemon, and each meringue is browned with a precision that evokes a Russian jeweler crafting a Fabergé egg.

By contrast, my lemon tart looked like a wobbly yellow Frisbee with white Silly String squirted all over it. This despite using a pastry bag with the correct star tip mounted on it—my meringue, rather than being a fluffy, puffy joy, was closer in weight and texture to tile caulk. Did I screw up? The instructions were to whip the enclosed meringue powder with one-third cup boiling water, slowly at first, then fast for four minutes to create stiff peaks. Done. Still: tile caulk. I wouldn't serve it to my neighbors, and while I might serve it to a dog, I'd make sure it was a dog that didn't hail from a prestigious breeding program.

And that's just appearance; the flavor was horrible. The thick, nasty, off, chemical-tasting, blindingly sweet lemon layer kills everything above and below it, leaving only the searing taste of despair clinging to the roof of your mouth.

In short, you're left wondering if the whole Circa line is a practical joke played by the 1 percent on the 99 percent: "Here, poor people, now you too can enjoy delicious desserts just like we do." If so: Bravo, rich people. Well played.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.