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Monday 25 July 2011

7 Days of Baking: Day 4 - Wright's Chocolate Cake

OK, people, stand by to be stunned.

My confidence boosted by the positive outcome of the Wright's toffee cake, I set about planning something even more elaborate for the chocolate version. Conveniently, I'd been invited to lunch with a friend and former colleague and, having been informed that I would be providing dessert, I had all the additional motivation I needed to attempt something exceptional - and memorable - for the occasion.

The plan, in essence, was quite simple. I'd picked up a couple of tubs of Betty Crocker icing, and already had a couple of blocks of Willie's Cacao Venezuelan Black 100% Cacao chocolate lurking in my fridge, daring me to use them. I was a little nervous about icing another round cake, because the toffee cake ended up rather cock-eyed, but equally didn't want to give up on icing altogether. Thinking that the standard loaf would be easier to coat, I decided to break off some chunks of the chocolate to add to the cake mix, then cover the end result in the Betty Crocker chocolate fudge icing... Then, on a whim, and after the cake was baked, I cut the darned thing in half with my Lakeland cake leveller, and slathered on some of the vanilla icing to make it a sandwich... then, having completed the icing, I had another whim...  

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

  • Wright's Chocolate Cake Mix
  • Water
  • Cooking Oil
  • Willie's Cacao Venezuelan Black 100% Cacao Chocolate (about 1/4 block broken up)
  • Betty Crocker Buttercream Style Vanilla Icing
  • Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Chocolate Fudge Icing
Preparation Time: Just over an hour

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl (for the mixing)
  • Whisk (or electric mixer, if you're lazier than I am, also for the mixing)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size - paper liners optional)
  • Measuring Implements (jug for the water, tablespoons or similar for oil)
  • Cooling Rack
  • Table Knife (for breaking up the chocolate and spreading the icing)
  • Grater
  • Foil (upon which to rest the cake, for ease of storage)
The Process:
I shan't bore you all by reiterating the same old instructions which are, in any case, very clearly stated on Wright's packaging. Instead, I shall focus on the embellishments. Taking one brick of Willie's Cacao chocolate, I broke up about 1/4 of the brick in rough, random sizes, ranging from tiny shavings to generous nuggets, which were then tipped into the cake mix and thoroughly stirred in. Regular chunks may have been fairer, but I rather liked the idea that one slice might have small morsels of this most decadent chocolate, while others... might end up with rather more. Never underestimate the power of expectation in your chocolate cake.

Or anything else.

I took the cake out of the oven at the 50 minute mark, since my experience with previous cakes suggested this was the point at which the cake was basically done, and any extra time would just harden the crust - not what I was aiming for with this particular dessert. This proved to have been a very good move, as the Lakeland leveller cut through easily and smoothly - thankfully and miraculously missing all the chocolate chunks!

The halves were allowed to cool briefly (5-10 minutes) before the vanilla icing was spread on the bottom half, the cake stuck back together, placed on a sheet of foil, and the chocolate fudge icing plastered munificently all over the whole thing.

And, for a fraction of a second, I thought my work was done.

Then I looked at the remaining Willie's chocolate, and remembered that I had a grater stashed away in one of my cupboards.

Yes, gentle reader, I grated some more chocolate over the top of the iced cake. When it comes to chocolate, I know neither shame nor restraint.

I really wish I'd thought to take photos of that cake because, by God, it was a thing of opulent beauty.

The Results:
Because, let's face it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

When it was served up after a wonderful lamb lunch (with wine! How civilised!), straight from the fridge, it was cut into small slices but, frankly, with a chocolate cake that rich, even without the additional chocolate clumps, even without the smooth, delicious icing, large slices could have proved dangerously epicurean.

The cake was light, spongy, moist, and very thoroughly chocolaty in and of itself... Even in batter form, the scent of chocolate was very pleasantly strong. A single mouthful of this completed cake could contain smooth, rich icing in both Vanilla and Chocolate Fudge flavours, shavings of 100% cacao chocolate, and lavish quantities of solid chocolate. I had been worried that 100% cacao might be a bit much, and possibly detract from the overall experience, but I couldn't have been more wrong. On its own, the Willie's chocolate is too strong to consume in significant quantities, but buffered within the cake, and along with the icing, it was a perfect fit - it didn't overload the cake, and the cake didn't blanket the chocolate.

Despite the mix of different products - Wright's, Betty Crocker and Willie's - the sum of the parts was, if I do say so myself, mind-blowingly good. So much so, in fact, that I had to offer the remains to my host, the other guest and, upon my next visit home, to my parents (apparently I did no such thing... apologies, Mum & Dad. I'll do another one soon!), lest I try to live solely on its chocolaty, ambrosial goodness.

My host politely declined, pleading for her waistline (Hah! Sorry, Alex, but you are sooooo far from being fat), the other guest happily accepted with no such qualms, and my parents are always pleased to find a home for anything cake-like - the embellishments were, metaphorically speaking, the cherry on top.

Or, more literally, the icing on the cake. Ahem.

I would heartily recommend that you invent an occasion for which to bake this cake...  

...Just remember to share.

Iceland Ultimate Snacks Sausage & Egg Muffin

OK, I keep having to remind myself that this blog is not going to be about microwave foods but, when I saw this, I kid you not, I did a double-take, and wondered - out loud - "Iceland, are you reading my blog?"

Yes, Iceland have taken it upon themselves not only to create a microwave snack line of their very own, but to recreate the wonder of the snackMuffin in their own, prepackaged style, under this new banner. It's quite a clever little package, with the sausage and egg muffin, frozen, in a little plastic bag. Cooking is a two-stage process, where you lay out the muffin's contents on a plate and blast them in the microwave for a couple of minutes, then put the muffin back together for a further minute or so of irradiation.

It's a strange process, to be sure, and rather undermines the neatness of the product. Then again, the moisture released just by microwaving the muffin leaves the base rather soggy, which undermines the product as a whole.

On the plus side, what this product significantly lacks is the excessive, seeping greasiness of the McDonalds original or, I'm forced to admit, my own home-made alternative. The sausagemeat patty certainly tastes like that which you would find in a McMuffin, though the exterior ends up slightly dry, if not leathery. The egg component is effectively a small omelette, rather than the poached (or is it fried?), unblended egg of the original or my version, but the flavour is there, despite its frozen ready-meal origins.

I feel most vindicated in my efforts, seeing a product like this on the shelves (or chiller cabinets). If you're too lazy to make one yourself, and don't fancy drowning in dripping, oozing fat, the Iceland option is certainly worth picking up... if only for a laugh.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Birds Eye Chicken Chargrills - Mexican

When it comes to putting together an evening meal, I'd be the first to admit that, other than those times where I make something from scratch on the spur of the moment, I'm a little lacking in imagination. Most of the time, it'll be some kind of fish or chicken fillet, chips or potato waffles, and some representatives of the vegetable community.

On the upside, it's not as if there's any lack of variety when it comes to the 'fish or chicken fillet' component, with myriad coatings, seasonings and sauces available to spice things up a bit. And it was with this in mind that I decided to try out Birds Eye's Mexican chargrills...

It should be noted that where the packaging makes a big point of saying these things are "Made with 100% Chicken Breast", they are not chicken breast steaks. They are, basically, reclaimed meat... minced up and formed into the shape of a chicken breast, before being coated with a spicy sauce. It's important to point this out because I know there are those who object to this practice: yes, it's 'chicken breast meat', but it's what's left over when the real meat has been cut off and packaged. The good stuff is long gone.

Also, it means that the texture is... odd. It's very clearly shaped, minced meat, rather than complete muscles from a once-living thing, and some people will no doubt find that off-putting. When you cut into these things, they don't tear into stringy, fibrous meat, they just cut. It's light and fluffy, certainly, but do you want that property in your meat?

There again, there are those that might actually prefer their meat this way. I know I can be a bit fussy about meat if I find veins or weird fatty bits in it, and processing the meat removes all trace of anything recognisably arterial.

Ultimately, it may just come down to price, though. Birds Eye is a long-standing and trustworthy name, and it's rare that I've found their products to be anything but good value on balance.

So, how do they taste? Well, I've always found there's something different about processed chicken versus it's natural form. Possibly some kind of seasoning added to the mince, but it doesn't taste anything like the chicken one would cut from a roast bird. Not unpleasant, but also not the flavour I know as 'chicken'. The marinade is actually pretty fantastic - I'll often complain about so-called spicy sauces, marinades and glazes that just aren't. It's not so spicy you'll be reaching for a glass of water, but the flavour does go some way to distracting from the strange texture of the meat.

The packaging's serving suggestion - with a pile of tortilla chips and some salsa - is as good a suggestion as any, and I reckon this would work just as well in a bun as it would on a plate with appropriate accompaniments. Mixed veg was perhaps a little boring (I really need to expand my repertoire of plate-fillings), but it would certainly work with some kind of spicy rice - Mexican-style being the obvious suggestion - and, if you feel like completing the illusion of cheap, dirty Mexican food, a serving of refried beans.

Birds Eye themselves have serving suggestions featured on their Facebook page and, if the whole range is as quick and as easy to cook as this, it'd be worth giving them a try... as long as you have no objections to the way this meat is prepared.

Monday 4 July 2011

Young's Salmon Fillet Dinner

There's no denying that ready meals are convenient. They're there to be chucked into the oven (or Microwave, for very lazy people) after a hard day's work, ready to fill you up for the evening... but they also tend to be one-note products. Pasta bakes, lasagnes both meat and veg, fish pies and the like. All very well, and generally quite tasty... but they're not exactly 'full home cooked meals' in the traditional sense.

Young's have been doing complete 'Fish and Chips' packages for quite a while, but I'm pretty sure I've only seen these boxes very recently. The blurb promises "Wild Alaskan Salmon with sliced potatoes, carrots and peas in a creamy watercress sauce" and let's face it, gents, if a family member happened to call in the early evening, and enquired after your post-work dinner plans (as family members are wont to do), you know there's going to be a note of disappointment in their voice if you tell them you're going to heat up yer average ready meal... but tell them about wild Alaskan Salmon, all that lovely veg, and any kind of sauce, and it sounds like you're doing something really special. The box further points out that this meal includes one of your recommended five servings per day of veg, and that it constitutes a mere 332 calories, for those who are watching their waistlines.

The amazing thing about this package is that it's even microwaveable and, taking that high-tech route, it's ready in under ten minutes.

Not that I microwaved mine. Oh, no... I'm a conscientious objector to the idea of cooking salmon in the microwave. Defrost it, fine... but to cook, it has to be the oven. Or the grill. Or... well, I'm sure there are boil-in-the-bag options out there...

So, a not-inconsiderable 45 minutes later, I was tucking in to my salmon fillet dinner, and feeling much comforted by the fact that it neither looked nor tasted like yer average ready meal. I have to say that I was a little concerned by the directions - it does literally just say to slap it in the oven, film pierced, for 45 minutes... and yet it's a decent-sized salmon chunk, mixed veg and a sauce (frozen in a lump around the fish at first). How could it possibly work to just roast it all, en masse?

And yet, gentle reader, it does work... and it works fantastically well. This is probably one of the healthiest, most balanced ready-meals I've had in quite some time, and it almost felt that I was eating a meal prepared by my mother, rather than something I picked up at the local Iceland. Salmon, when frozen, has an awful habit of turning out soggy, but this fillet was perfect - soft, crumbly, full of flavour. The veg that I feared would be burnt to a crisp, or at least very dry, after three quarters of an hour in the oven were still moist, and the thinly sliced potato was done to perfection.

The only disappointment, for me personally, was the sauce. When it comes to salmon, I always prefer a good Dill sauce (which, as an aside, is very difficult to find locally). Watercress ain't the most flavourful thing on the planet, and the sauce, while creamy, didn't exactly excite the tastebuds. It also kind of melted everywhere in the container and, while I'm not exactly OCD about keeping my foodstuffs separate on the plate, I do prefer to choose what I mix with what... Nevertheless, as a 'complete meal for one', this is a roaring success, and one I'm very likely to pick up again in the near future!

7 Days of Baking: Day 3 - Wright's Mixed Grain Bread

I think I've done enough of the sweet stuff for now... Onto the savoury, and the first of the three Wright's bread mixes I picked up at the Real Food show all that time ago.

Technically, these are probably simpler than the cake mixes, because you need only add water, rather than water and oil, but breadmaking is a more involved process. It's not just a case of mix it up and slap it in the oven - one must put personal, physical effort into kneading and, if one so desires, shaping the bread prior to baking. Thankfully, as with all their products, full instructions are clearly printed on the side of the pack, so it's easy to follow the process step-by-step.

  • Wrights Mixed Grain Bread Mix
  • Water
  • Butter or Oil (for greasing the baking tin/tray)
  • Flour (only for the kneading part!)
Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (1 hour 15 if baking rolls rather than a loaf)

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl
  • Sturdy Mixing Impliment (a whisk is not appropriate for dough!)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size) or Baking Tray (enough to accommodate 10 rolls)
  • Jug
  • An Area of Clear, Flat Kitchen Surface (for the kneading)
  • Cling Film or Cloth
  • Cooling Rack
The Process:
Wright's really have made this as easy as possible. If you ever feel the need to impress someone with your kitchen skills, baking your own bread is a great start... and it doesn't even matter that it's a ready-made mixture, because the effort and timing involved in the preparation and baking is what really counts. To begin, pour the Wright's mixture into your bowl, and add 290ml of lukewarm water. I used water straight from my hot tap (before it got really hot, obviously!), but you may prefer to boil a kettle and let it cool. Mix together until you have a ball of dough. Wright's estimate 5 minutes, but mine seemed quite stubborn... though I'm willing to put that down to the fact that I was mixing with a large spoon. I might almost concede that a food mixer is worth having for these...

Dust your worksurface with flour (plain rather than self-raising would be preferable, just in case!), and leave the dough on that surface to rest for five minutes. Knead and stretch the dough for two minutes, then mold into a ball and leave it alone for another five minutes.

Here's where you can start to have fun: If you're feeling clever and have a good-sized baking tray (greased), you can shape the dough, you can knot it, or you can divide it into 10 pieced for rolls. If not, just dump it into a greased 2lb loaf tin. Either way, cover it all with either cling film or a damp cloth, and leave it in a warm place for 30 to 40 minutes. During this time, the dough should pretty much double in size! This is science in action, people!

Preheat your oven to 230C (210C if you're fan-assisted) and bake for 15-30 minutes, depending on what you're baking (lower end for rolls, higher end for loaves), or keep checking in on it and stop when it's looking golden brown. Wright's also note that the base should sound hollow when it's baked... but you're not going to know that until you take it out of the oven so, if in doubt, probably leave it an extra minute or two.

Remove from the oven, and allow to cool for a while... or not, because there's nothing quite like eating freshly-baked bread straight from the oven, even more so when it's your oven!

The Results:
In a word, "WOW".

You want more? Tsk.

OK, I'm not madly keen on brown bread - it tends to be a bit on the dry side, and its own flavour can sometimes interfere with whatever fillins I choose to add. Whether it was the fact that I baked this myself, or just that it's the first time I've eaten bread that was literally 'fresh from the oven', but this bread was good and moist. The interior was even steaming when I cut into it for the first time! It does take a while to settle down and become properly crusty (at which point it becomes far easier to cut), but then it lasts well for a good few days.

Not that it'll last a few days because, once it's baked, you'll just be looking for excuses to eat it.

This is a truly excellent product - easy to make, and the finished bread just seems so much better than the sort of preservative-infused loaf you tend to find in the shops. Sure, it's only a small loaf, but it's good stuff... baking your own bread gives a truly personal touch to your sandwiches.