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Monday 29 November 2010

Baking Again - Betty Crocker Chocolate Fudge Brownies

Having successfully negotiated a recipe for cookies, and having picked up a box of this Betty Crocker ready-made mixture some months ago, I finally decided to give it a whirl. Hey, I've got the Delia Smith Christmas Cake package, so I need to work up to it somehow. You won't catch me going straight from cookies to large cakes! I'm not daft.

This package is incredibly convenient, because it's almost all the ingredients you need. All you have to do is add the fluids, stir, and bake in a suitable tin. Having done this, if I manage the Christmas Cake, I may revisit brownies in the New Year, and start from scratch, rather than with a pre-prepared recipe. Y'know, baby steps.

But this wouldn't be snacks & the single man if I didn't do something wacky to the recipe. I'd had a secret ingredient in mind for quite some time so, before starting, I popped down to my local Confectioner in search of Pop Rocks. They only had Cola flavour, so I had to detour to the local supermarkets, eventually getting something like what I needed in my nearest Sainsburys. Continuing the crackly candy theme, I decided to top the brownies with a whole Terry's Volcanic Popping Candy Chocolate Orange...

But was I ready for the results?

Onward, gentle reader, and you shall see...

  • 1 packet Betty Crocker Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix
  • 75ml Water
  • 30ml Vegetable Oil
  • 1 Medium-sized egg
  • 1 Terry's Volcanic Popping Candy Chocolate Orange
  • 2 packs Pop Rocks (or equivalent, I used something called Fizz Wiz)
Preparation Time: Allow about 20 minutes to blend the mixture thoroughly, then 20-25 minutes to bake, followed by 10-20 minutes cooling time.

Tools Required: 
  • Medium-sized Mixing Bowl
  • Spoon, Fork or other preferred mixing implement (or, y'know, a blender if you're lazier than I am)
  • Baking Tin

Gotta say, when I measured out the miniscule quantities of water and vegetable oil, I was just a little incredulous - how could so little fluid turn a whole pack of this chocolatey powdered melange into brownie dough? Of course, once the egg went in, my fears were quashed - that accounts for a fair amount of the required fluids and, apart from a few persistent lumps, it all mixed up nicely. I did it by hand, too, which gave me nasty RSI, but that's just because I'm a complete namby, and don't do this kind of stuff nearly as often as I should. I mean, come on, it's not exactly a hardship, is it? Weigh it up, people: Brownies vs Arm Ache.

Brownies win.

Anyway. Essentially, with a mixture like this, all the hard work is done for you. All you need to do is dump the mixture into a bowl, measure out and add the oil and water, then crack an egg into the bowl before mixing it all up. Once you have a nice, smooth dough, you are ready to proceed - I did find the clumps of powder were rather difficult to eliminate, and so I basically gave up after about 20 minutes of arm-ache. That, and I got bored.

Lightly grease a baking tin (I used the vegetable oil, but butter is just as good if you prefer) and spread the mixture evenly about the tin. Now, in the interests of honesty and full disclosure (and because I do so love to criticise myself extensively), I'm going to admit that I'd started pouring the dough into the baking tin before I rememberd to add the damned Pop Rocks. It was no great shakes, though - just meant I had to do a small amount of stirring once they were added into the bulk of the dough and final mixture decanted into the tin.

The first sign that my brilliant idea was destined to fail was audible immediately. The mixture was popping merrily away in the tin. I suspect that it had all dissolved into the mixture before the tin even got into the oven.

Once the dough was evened out as much as possible (again, short attention span got in the way of doing it properly properly), I broke open the Terry's Chocolate Orange and laid out its segments on the top. I figured they'd either sink in, or melt nicely over the top...

Finally, the tin was placed roughly in the middle of my oven, which had been preheated to 160degrees (being fan-assisted, 180degrees is suggested otherwise). 20 minutes later, I inserted a fork into the brownies to check their progress... it came back covered in dough and melted Chocolate Orange. I gave it another 5 minutes - the instructions reckoned 25 minutes would be the most it would require, after all.

At the 25 minute mark, however, the fork test was still suggesting that more time was required. I risked another 5 minutes, and the fork came back nice and clean. So far, so good.

The tin was removed from the oven and left to cool for a while before cutting. At this point, I cursed my stupidity for leaving the cooling rack in the bottom of the oven - not much good for cooling if it's baking hot! Since my experiment was to be tested on my colleagues at work, I wrapped the brownies in cling film and left them in the fridge overnight. Normally, I'd just scoff the lot there and then. In between getting them into the fridge and getting them out again to take them to work, I did drop a couple of pieces. I'd cut it into 25, though, and 23 was still more than enough for the few I intended to share with. And, hey, it meant I got to sample it early.

The Results:
Resoundingly positive, except in the case of the colleague I almost poisoned, as he despises orange flavoured chocolate. When I got some funny looks following my announcement of "a secret ingredient", I didn't immediately realise why. Once I figured out the possible implication, I joked that the secret ingredient was actually crack cocaine. Sadly, the Pop Rocks were basically indistinguishable, though a couple of folks reckoned they got a little pop out of their piece.

The brownies were nice and moist, very chocolately and, while the topping didn't melt evenly, it worked well enough. It's certainly an excellent recipe, and the instructions are probably simple enough for any baking novice to follow.

Saturday 27 November 2010

You Won't Believe It Is Sushi..! For Reals!

Because why else would I decide, upon a whim, to lark about with fish fingers? Come on, surely you remember that someone bought me an 'All You Need to Make Sushi at Home' kit? I only mentioned two posts ago.

Seriously, I shit you not. Get ready for one of the most fiddly and intricate Snacks this blog will ever behold!

Please note, though, that I love sushi, and I have the utmost respect for the chefs who train for years to prepare it for my delectation. My little foray could quite possibly be an insult to them all... but I prefer to think of it as an homage (and I'm such a reverse-snob, I had to grit my teeth to type 'an' before 'homage' there). And, let's face it, how cool is it to be able to put together sushi in your own home, even knowing that it's going to be a bit cock-eyed compared to the stuff you'd be presented with in a restaurant? After all, it's cock-eyed because that's how I made it.

The quantities alluded to vaguely herein should be more than enough for two people, possibly three.

  • Sushi Rice
  • Sushi Nori
  • Wasabi (can be purchased in several forms, I used Clearspring's Wasabi powder)
  • Rice Vinegar
  • Mayonnaise
  • Light Soy Sauce
For California Rolls:
  • Seafood Sticks
  • Avocado
  • Cucumber (optional)
For Vegetarian Rolls:
  • Cucumber (this time - peppers, carrot, celery, baby corn, all kinds of veg can be used if you can turn it into long, thin strips)
For Nigiri/Sashimi:
  • Small Salmon steak
  • Small Tuna steak
For Tamago:
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Sugar (I'm not kidding)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
  • Butter (approx 1/2 tablespoon worth)
For Maki:
  • Salmon Caviar
Preparation Time: Didn't keep track, but probably not as long as it felt... Maybe about an hour or so in total.

Tools Required:
  • Sushi Mat
  • Cling Film (optional)
  • Knife
  • Spoon or similar for spreading rice
  • Frying Pan
  • Saucepan
  • 2 Pots or bowls (one fairly large, one small)

Start with the rice, as that takes longest to prepare and needs washing before use. It's a particular kind of rice - short grained, and very glutenous and sticky - so make sure you get something that's specifically described as sushi rice. Pour 250g into a bowl and wash with cold water, repeating a few times before draining in a sieve. Put 330ml of water into a saucepan and add the rice. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes with the saucepan lid on. Take off the heat and leave to stand for about 20 minutes, leaving the lid in place. Add 2-3 tablespoons of rice vinegar and stir in, then leave for another 10 minutes. It might even be worth refrigerating, because it ideally needs to be cool when you start adding the fish.

While all this is in progress, make a start on the Tamago omelette. Break two eggs into a bowl and beat. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar (really, I'm not making this up) and half a teaspoon of light soy sauce. Put the frying pan on a medium heat (this is the general omelette lesson I needed to learn months ago!) and melt the butter all over the pan. Pour in the egg mix and fry until the egg becomes mostly opaque. Flip (or, y'know, turn it with a spatula if you're not one for living dangerously) and cook through. Once it's done, remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Again, this might be worth refrigerating. When it's cooled off a bit, cut into strips of about 2x10cm.

Next comes the Wasabi. If you've purchased it in some ready-made form, all well and good. If using a powder, it'll go something like this: Add one part warm water to two parts Wasabi powder in a small bowl or pot and stir into a paste. Leave to cool. Simple, huh?

Then we have the fish. Basically, all you do for either the Nigiri or the Sashimi is cut the small Salmon/Tuna steaks into small slices, say about half to three quarters of a centimetre thick, then cut down into chunks of about 2x5cm. The most important thing to note is that the fish really must be bought fresh, not pre-packaged, and certainly not frozen! I cannot put enough emphasis on this. Where's the damned flash tag when you need it?!

It might also be worth pre-preparing your Nori sheets. Some will be kept as complete sheets for the rolls, some will be cut into strips - fairly long and thin for the Nigiri and Tamago (say about 1cm wide), wider strips for the maki (about 3cm maybe?).

Finally, have a large-ish pot/bowl containing a mixture of warm water and Rice Vinegar. This acts both as a lubricant for spreading the rice around and a means of preventing the rice sticking to your hands as you manhandle it.

California & Vegetarian Rolls:
Cut the avocado into quarters, removing the skin and stone. Cut the quarters into thin (2-3mm) slices. Place a sheet of cling film over the sushi mat (not utterly necessary but, depending on your preferences, it may make things easier), and a sheet of Nori on top of that. Take a couple of tablespoons full of rice and spread evenly and thinly over one end (using the water/rice vinegar mixture to keep your chosen spreading implement lubricated), taking up about 2/3 of the sheet, with the empty third being furthest from you. Spread a thin line of mayonnaise about 1/3 along the rice. Add the fillings (seafood sticks, avocado - and, should you so wish, cucumber cut into long, thin sticks - for the California Rolls, or chopped veg for the vegetarian rolls) on top of the mayonnaise. Roll up the mat (taking care to pull back the cling film, if used), tucking in the near end to start the roll. Wet the bare end of the Nori and roll over to seal. Squeeze the roll firmly, then remove from the mat and cut into 6-8 pieces (depending on how large you like your sushi rolls). Lay out on a plate or tray and, if not eating them immediately, place in a refrigerator.

Fish & Tamago Nigiri:
Lay out a sheet of cling film on the sushi mat and wet with the mixture of water and rice vinegar. Take about 2 tablespoons of rice and lay out in a line. Roll up in the cling film and sushi mat to create a long, thin, densely packed strip of rice. Remove from the roll and cut into chunks of about 4cm. Add a dab of Wasabi paste then press one of the salmon/tuna chunks down on top, thus spreading out the rice underneath. Wrap with one of the longer, thinner strips of Nori, wetting the tail end to seal.

The process is essentially the same for the Tamago but, since the strip of omelette is about twice the length of the rice block, you just fold it over before wrapping with a thin strip of Nori. Add all to the plate or tray with the rolls, and refrigerate if necessary. You'll probably only end up using about half the omelette, but it's a tasty enough snack in its own right and you'll probably end up snaffling some of it as you prepare the Nigiri. Any excuse will do, but the old favourite "it's a curved bit" is good for starters.

The simplest of the lot. Prepare and cut another long, thin, densely packed strip of rice as for the Nigiri/Tamago. Round off the blocks, then take the wider strips of Nori and wrap them around the rice to create a kind of bowl. Spoon in a serving of Salmon Caviar, and add to the plate or tray with the rest.

Serve with picked ginger and a mixture to your taste of light Soy sauce and Wasabi.

The Results:
Well, I wasn't kidding when I said it'd be cock-eyed, so I can see why it takes years of training to perfect the art of making sushi. While the fish, even though bought less than an hour before preparation, wasn't as fresh, tasty or melt-in-the-mouth as the stuff you'd be served in any halfway decent restaurant, it certainly wasn't terrible. I'm not a big fan of seafood sticks - the melange of seafood just doesn't taste good on its own, as far as I'm concerned - and Salmon Caviar is certainly a taste I haven't quite acquired yet, but the overall mix of sushi was pretty darned cool for my first home-made effort.

It is an awful lot of effort, though, and I did find my concentration flagging many times during the preparation. The fiddliness of the rolls means a lot of practice would be required to get them bang on, and making a selection like this felt like a really long, drawn-out process.

I'm certainly intending to try it again sometime, but likely over a weekend, for lunch, having picked up the fish first thing in the morning.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Asda 'Meal for One' (times three)

Yes, I know, it's another write up of packaged ready meals but, let's face it, I can't do interesting stuff all the time.

And so, we begin this pre-packaged culinary tryptich with:

Tuna Pasta Bake
Described by its packaging as "Flakes of tuna with Italian pasta shells in a rich tomato sauce, topped with a creamy cheese sauce and Cheddar", this product actually manages to deliver on most of its promise. The traditional mistake with this kind of product is there's either too much pasta, too much tomato sauce, too little tuna, or any combination of the three. I must admit that, at first glance, Asda's Meal for One seemed to fall into the 'too little tuna' category but, upon serving, a whole layer of tuna at the bottom was revealed. Impressive though that may be, both the cheese sauce and the Cheddar were somewhat overpowered by the tomato sauce which also seemed a little thin.

Still, overall, it's a tasty, reasonably quick meal of a decent size... And it's just possible that it needed a few minutes longer, though I did follow the cooking instructions (25 minutes at 190degrees in a fan-assisted oven), and it certainly didn't seem underdone.

Tomato & Mozzarella Pasta Bake
What is it with me and pasta bakes anyway?

Here we have "Italian penne in a chunky tomato and basil sauce, topped with Mozzarella and mature Cheddar".

What is it with pasta bakes and tomato anyway?

Seriously, though, this is another pretty decent contender from Asda's range. Far simpler than the tuna bake, being essentially just the pasta and tomato components of the dish above. Obviously, though, while the previous entry features tomato sauce, this proffers chunky tomato and basil. The sauce certainly has more texture and flavour but the cheese still disappoints - both in terms of quantity and flavour, this Mozzarella and supposedly mature Cheddar is almost entirely overwhelmed, being a fairly sparse layer over the top of the product. It's not bad, however, and would probably be excellent as an accompaniment to either meat or additional vegetables.

Sausage & Mash
Finally, in this batch, Asda serves us "2 succulent seasoned pork sausages in a rich onion gravy, served with buttery Maris Piper mashed potato". Now, I'm a big fan of sausage and mash, and this isn't my first S&M rodeo...

...perhaps I should rephrase that...

In the main, I find one can't go too far wrong with any ready-made sausage and mash in just about any kind of gravy, but I do find that onion gravy - preferably with large chunks of onion - tends to be the best. Probably the worst I've had (from a supermarket I shall tactfully neglect to name here) had rather too high a gristle content in its sausages, but I'm pleased to report that Asda's Meal for One is good and meaty. I would, however, point out that the packaging is emblazoned with an 'Improved Recipe' lozenge, and yet I tasted nothing particularly special about the seasoned pork sausages (not even wholly convinced that they were seasoned, despite the claims of black pepper, ginger, coriander, sage and parsley in the ingredients), and the mash was nothing more than yer basic buttery mashed potato. Assuming, then, that the improvements were to the onion gravy, I would say there's something to be proud of. It's certainly rich, and there's plenty of the onion's natural flavour still present.

So, there you go... Three pretty darned good meals, though none really outstanding in any way. It's worth noting that not all of these Meals for One are freezer-friendly, so it's necessary to check the packaging, and store and use them appropriately. Those that can be frozen must be fully thawed before cooking, because the instructions are for cooking from chilled. One could guesstimate an adjusted cooking time, but it probably wouldn't be wise. Even the Microwave instructions, for those who can't wait the 20-30 minutes of oven cooking time, are from chilled. Possibly not the most convenient of convenience foods, but they'll certainly be returning to my personal menu.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

"I Can't Believe It's Not Sushi!"

or "Adding Insult to Culinary Ninjary"

So I've been doing all this experimentation with the Great British Favourite, the humble Fish Finger (and it's slightly less humble, alluringly pink Salmon cousin)... And then a friend bought me an 'All You Need To Make Your Own Sushi' kit.

What's a guy to do, except perform further silly experiments with his food?

I mean, come on, Raison d'Être, anyone? If I'm going to do this Blog, I might as well include the stupid stuff.

Now, let's face it, I don't need to list the ingredients in this one, or the tools, or even go into detail about the process. Out came the Fish Fingers - Cod, Pollock, Salmon - the dark Soy sauce and the Wasabi. Fish into oven, 12 minutes at the required temperature (210degrees in a fan-assisted oven). Soy sauce decanted into a small dish (or plate, since my crockery is somewhat lacking in this department at the moment), along with a small amount of Wasabi paste and mixed together. Once cooked, the fish fingers are dipped into the sauce and consumed.

The Results:
Um. Yeah. Certainly interesting. The Soy/Wasabi sauce brings back the flavour that is otherwise obscured by the crispy breadcrumb coating, but this is a really, truly, pathetically basic snack. While inevitably doomed to be repeated in times of desperation, drunkenness or outright whimsy, it just ain't satisfying. And it's not simply that the rice or the seaweed were absent... it's just... They're bloody fish fingers, aren't they?

But it had to be tried, gosh-darnit!

Sunday 21 November 2010

Variations onna Theme... Inna Bun: Filet o'Salmon Fingers

Yes, after searching far and wide and repeatedly coming up empty, I happened upon some Salmon fish fingers in a branch of Asda, on the way home from work during the week... And so, I can finally attempt this variation on the guilty pleasure that is Filet o'Fish Fingers.

  • A Bun
  • Salmon Fish Fingers (3-4, depending on the size of the bun)
  • Processed Cheese Slices (Dairylea this time round!)
  • Dill Sauce
Preparation Time: 12 minutes

Tools Required:
  • Knife (to cut the bun, as per usual)
  • Other Knife (to spread the Dill Sauce upon the inner surface of the bun)
  • Oven Gloves
  • Spatula
  • Baking Tray

Essentially the same as the original, and the Vegetable Finger remix: Lay out the Salmon fingers on the baking tray, slap them in the oven for 12 minutes, then start preparing the bun while you wait. Cut it open, put the processed cheese slice on the lower half, then spread a decent amount of Dill sauce on the upper half. Note that, as long as you use a halfway decent Dill sauce, the flavour is fairly strong, so you shouldn't need quite so much of that as you would the Tartare sauce from the original 'recipe'.

When the Salmon fingers are done, scoop them up with the spatula and lay them out on the cheese slice, then close up the bun. Consume at your leisure.

The Results:
By God, this was awesome. Truly, this is the Lord of all Snack Foods... Salmon fish fingers are actually quite bland in and of themselves... there's something about coatings something in breadcrumb that just erodes flavour, and so I find that some kind of sauce is a necessity with any fish finger. It's disappointing that the Salmon version is affected in this way, but a good Dill sauce brings that flavour right back. The Dairylea slice melted perfectly, becoming one with the bottom half of the bun and adding a subtle note of flavour, while the Dill sauce added just the right note of piquancy to the proceedings. Dairylea could well be the best choice for this kind of thing, so I'll have to revisit the original and see how it fares with either Cod or Pollock.

This, my friends, is what Snacks & the Single Man is all about: Quick, vaguely nutritious, and easy to cook as an alternative to the post-clubbing kebab.

Although I had this for dinner tonight... and I hadn't been clubbing.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Adventures in Omelette #2 - Mushroom & Pork Breakfast Sausage

OK, really stretching myself here... This is something I tried last weekend, but completely forgot to write it up.

Largely because it didn't go so well.

It's basically the same as Adventures in Omelette #1 only with slightly less mushroom, and bulked up with Sainsbury's sliced, packaged Pork Breakfast Sausage, cut into quarters because the slices are rather large. I also did away with the Olive Oil, since I honestly don't think it made much of a difference in the original. So...


  • Eggs (Duh. Sorry, three for a decent-sized omelette)
  • Closed Cup Chestnut Mushrooms (3, from a punnet still containing many)
  • Sainsbury's Pork Breakfast Sausage slices (4, quartered)
  • Butter (for to stir-fry)
Preparation Time: about 10 minutes in total

Tools Required:
  • Bowl or jug for mixing eggs
  • Fork or egg whisk, also for mixing eggs
  • Knife, for to cut the mushrooms and sausage slices
  • Hob
  • Frying pan
  • Spatula optional

Beat eggs, blah, slice mushrooms, blah... So far, so #1. Literally the only difference at this point is that, after slicing the mushrooms, you take 4 slices of the Pork Breakfast Sausage and cut them into quarters. Mushrooms and sausage bits were added to the pan at the same time and fried briefly before pouring the eggs on. Flipping didn't go quite so well this time, but only ended up with a slight fold-over rather than any eggy splashing or omelette breakage.

The Results:
Y'know, I think I have sussed the problem of cooking these things through evenly. Because I am dim, and still not used to simple processes like cooking omelettes, I've been blasting these on pretty much the highest setting on one of the larger burners on my hob. Slower cooking on a lower heat would surely produce a more thorough cooking, rather than singing the underside while the top remains a gooey liquid.

Which, in case you haven't guessed, means this one was all but unpalatable. I managed most of it, but the combination of singed egg, sausage and mushroom really didn't taste good.

Must Try Harder.

And, seriously, stop with the flipping. Showy, yes... useful, no.