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Tuesday 31 January 2012

Great Scott! Did I Just Make Truffles?!

Some years ago, I worked in a certain trendy part of west London (you know the one - it was the title of a movie starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts). Down one road right near the office was a shop specialising in high-quality and hand-made foods. One of their specialities was the little boxes of the most awesome chocolate truffles I've ever tried. If ever there was a special occasion in the office, I'd head down and pick up some truffles to share out (or several small boxes to hand out to my team before Christmas).

This little experiment (because I surely cannot claim I expected it to go well) came about because I was pretty sure that cream was not an ingredient of truffles, but the recipe I had to hand - not to mention many, many more I found online - all listed varying proportions of double cream or whipping cream as the major component. Now, conceivably, this is because proper chocolate - of the kind I've used below - is both very rich and very bitter. Cream will smooth that out, but if you go looking for traditional truffle recipes, cream is among the many things you will not find.

  • 180g Dark Chocolate (I used Willie's Supreme Cacao Venezuelan Black, Caranero Superior - 100% Pure Cacao!)
  • 80g Unsalted Butter (cubed, and at room temperature, not straight from the fridge!)
  • 60ml Runny Honey (I used 'Light & Mild' Acacia honey from Sainsbury's)
  • 2 Large Egg Yolks
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Icing Sugar (optional, but recommended with this dark chocolate!)
Preparation Time: About 10 minutes mixing, 1-2hrs refrigeration, then about 10-20 minutes to make the individual truffles.

Tools Required:
  • Large Kitchen Knife (to break up the chocolate)
  • Microwave
  • Microwave-Safe Bowl
  • Jar Scraper or similar (for stirring)
  • Measuring Implements (cups, scales, etc.)
  • 2 Small Cups/Glasses (for separating the eggs)
  • Small Bowl (for coating truffles in cocoa)
  • Cling Film
  • Small Ice-Cream Scoop or Tablespoon
The Process:
There are two ways to melt chocolate - putting it in a bowl over a pan of boiling water... or putting it in a bowl and blasting it in the microwave. Either way, it has to be broken up and, when working with bricks of Willie's chocolate, the best way seems to be to just get all Norman Bates on it. Stick the brick into a bowl, and channel your inner Mr. Stabby with a large kitchen knife. Ideally, the chunks should be of a reasonably consistent size but, until Willie's get their act together and start making their chocolate into bars that are easily breakable into more-or-less identical chunks, like everybody else, you'll just have to live with random fragments and little splinters.

Heating the chocolate is a very delicate matter. Set the microwave to medium power, and heat the fragmented chocolate for 30 seconds at a time, stirring with a jar scraper each time, because it won't be immediately obvious how well it's melting. Once the whole lot is in a liquid state (should take about 5 minutes, overall), add in the butter a few cubes at a time, and stir till it's completely incorporated. Depending on how soft the butter is, you may need to put the mixture back in the microwave for another 30 seconds to ensure its warm enough to mix in the whole lot. Alternatively, warm the butter separately in the microwave beforehand.

Once the butter is all in, add the honey and stir thoroughly. Finally, add the egg yolks and - you guessed it - stir thoroughly. At this final stage, the mixture will thicken dramatically, almost becoming like dough. When it seems consistent (though, I found, rather grainy-looking), set it aside to cool for a while, then cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for an hour or two.

An interesting aside at this point is that some recipes you'll find online will refer to this mixture as a 'ganache'. This is inaccurate. A ganache is the result of pouring hot cream over chocolate, then stirring till smooth. You will notice the absence of cream in the above recipe. Also not to be confused with Ganesh, who is a Hindu deity.

Once the mixture has cooled, grab it out of the fridge. Pour some of the cocoa powder into a small bowl, then mix in some icing sugar to sweeten it up. Scoop out some of the truffle mixture and mold into as regular a ball as you can be bothered with, then drop it into the bowl and shake around to get an even coating.

Finished truffles should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container, and should last about a week.

The Results:
When I saw what happened to the mixture when the egg went in, I thought I had a disaster on my hands. I'd done a fair bit of research on truffle recipes (the trick, unless you're going for the cream-based, ganache type, is to search for 'traditional truffle recipe', or just go the whole hog and add 'egg yolk' into the search terms) and most of them refer to the mixture being smooth... but only up to the point where the egg goes in... then the descriptions are conspicuous by their absence.

I did find that the mixture was tougher around the edges of the bowl when it came out of the fridge (big surprise - mixture hardens when cold... edges are coldest. Duh.) and I couldn't keep the size of each scoop consistent to save my life but, hey, "cock-eyed" is just another way of saying "lovingly hand-made" in my books.

Or something.

In retrospect, I think I should have added more honey to the mix. The finished truffles were rather bitter. That said, I actually forgot to mix the icing sugar in with my cocoa, so the coating was pure cocoa until I decided - as a last resort patch-job - to sprinkle some icing sugar over the top of the finished truffles. Alternatively, it's quite common to add some kind of additional flavouring - anything from liqueurs to chilli.

Texture-wise, they turned out far smoother than I'd expected from the dough-like final mixture, but I will concede that cream would make them smoother still, and reduce the bitterness of 100% cocoa chocolate. The quantities listed should give you at least 30 good-sized truffles, so this would be a great thing to try over a weekend, so that any leftovers ("enjoy responsibly" as the ad goes) can be taken to work on Monday and shared around.

Go on, you know you want to.
Also, 'lovingly hand-made' truffles make the perfect Valentine's gift, gentlemen. You're welcome.

Monday 30 January 2012

Waitrose Slow Cooked Pork Loin Rack of Ribs with Red Eye BBQ Rub & Drizzle

There are two things I probably need to make clear about my experience of ribs:
  1. In the UK, they tend to have very little meat on them, most of which seems to be firmly bonded to the bone.
  2. What we call 'a rack' in the UK is called 'a half rack' in the US. I'm not kidding.
I'm actually quite surprised that I bothered to pick this up, considering I've never really liked ribs - or much of any 'meat on the bone'-type of thing - but that is based largely on my experience of UK ribs, or 'spare ribs' from the various dodgy Chinese restaurants and takeaways I've patronised in my chequered past. This, on the other hand, was the winner of The Grocer's 2011 Gold Award in the 'Own Label - Chilled - Beef, Lamb & Pork' category (for being "innovative, premium, succulent and tender") so surely it had to be worth a look?

Supplied in the same style of cardboard envelope as the Texas style brisket, the package contains the rack of ribs in one plastic bag and the 'drizzle' (sauce to you and I) in another. I have to say that the ribs at this stage don't look very appetising. There's clearly something coating the meat, but it's difficult to say what it is, even once it comes out of the plastic.

The cooking instructions say to place the rack on a baking tray but, since the sauce has to be added about ten minutes before it comes out of the oven, it's wise to add some foil to cover the tray and thus reduce the impact when it comes time to clear up. No foil means you have to spend ages scrubbing your baking tray. Foil means you can just scrunch everything up and chuck it away.

You know it makes sense.

They only take 25-30 minutes to cook (except possibly on an actual barbecue...) and, when it comes out of the oven and onto your plate, two things are immediately obvious: it smells amazing, and it's so tender, it's almost collapsing off the bone straight away. It's actually damn near impossible to cut the meat between the ribs as, at the first sign of pressure, even from a sharp knife, the meat separates from the bone. This forms a stark contrast to the picture on the packaging, which reminded me of every takeaway rib I've ever tried.

That's not a bad thing, though... The last thing anyone wants is to be gnawing away at a bone, trying to get those last scraps of meat.

As far as the taste goes, I must confess that I'm disappointed, both in the meat - which had very little flavour, and certainly did not suggest it had been on the receiving end of the 'Red Eye Rub' - and the sauce. The 'Red Eye Drizzle' looks so good, bubbling away in the oven and when the ribs come out and land on the plate... but there's barely any flavour to it. I was expecting something at least as strong as, say, HP sauce, or whatever junk food restaurants are calling 'barbecue sauce' these days, but it's mostly there to give you the 'sticky fingers' experience of eating ribs, rather than to supplement the taste sensation that isn't going on in your mouth with each and every bite.

Thing is, while writing this, I've done a little research into 'Red Eye Sauce', and it seems that Waitrose interpretation of that is about as accurate as their interpretation of Key Lime Pie. The ingredients listed on the box are sugar, water, honey, tomato paste, spirit vinegar, rapeseed oil, vodka, English mustard, molasses, cornflour (as a thickener), garlic purée, salt, smoke flavouring (listed as 'hickory smoke, alcohol'), paprika extract (as colouring), something described as 'malted extract' and black pepper. This is absolutely nothing like any recipe for Red Eye Sauce I've found on the interwebs during the course of my research. Some even involve coffee, but certain core ingredients - like bacon (for the 'smoke flavouring', perhaps?) - remain consistent. Really, Waitrose, you might be able to described it as 'Red Eye Flavour Drizzle', but it really ain't a Red Eye drizzle.

After the awesome flavour of the Texas-style beef brisket (which I'm now afraid to research, as that'll probably turn out to be hopelessly inaccurate too!), this was a huge let-down. There's a decent quantity of meat, and it's certainly very succulent and tender, but it's basically rather bland, and the sauce does nothing to perk it up. This might be worth trying on a barbecue, to improve the smokiness of it all, but as an oven-roast, this is a massive disappointment.

Friday 27 January 2012

Nothing May Come Of It, But...

There is now a snacks & the single man channel on YouTube.

Obviously there's nothing on it yet, so it's not 'visible' but, should I ever decide to go the route of filming my kitchen efforts, I have somewhere to put them.

You have been duly warned.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Waitrose Piemonte Inspired Pizza with Truffled White Sauce & Italian Porcini Mushrooms

If there's one thing guaranteed to get my attention in a supermarket, it's a product with a poncy name. OK, they're designed to let the customer know that it's something new, something special, something the manufacturer is especially pleased with - deserving of its own line, and the requisite highlighting.

Most of the time, there's actually very little difference between any one poncily-named product and a comparable product in a standard own-brand line, or something by one of the big names. In short, a lot of the time, the new label is little more than an obvious target on which folks like me are delighted to pour scorn.

And, sadly, this particular 'Inspired' pizza is one such product.

That's not to say it isn't good... Just that it isn't really deserving of any special attention.

Here's what the box says:
"Inspired by the rich, intense flavours of Italy's Piemonte region, with truffled white sauce, succulent porcini mushrooms and mozzarella, on a thin, crisp base, hand-stretched from the centre for a light, puffy edge and charred in a hot oven for extra flavour."

Now, I don't know about anyone else, but when I read a phrase light 'intense flavours', I tend to expect rather more than I got out of this pizza. In fact, my abiding impression of this product was that, even following the cooking instructions to the letter (and using the low end of their recommended cooking times), the base no longer had a 'light, puffy' edge, but a tough, crunchy one. And perhaps it's just my unrefined palette, but I tasted no discernible difference between the 'truffled white sauce' and any white sauce I've ever had on a pizza. It was light, it was creamy... and that's really all I can say about it. The mushrooms, meanwhile, were certainly succulent, but their flavour was entirely overwhelmed by the white sauce and the scant addition of mozzarella.

There was also one large part of the pizza which was almost entirely devoid of toppings, because a large bubble had formed in the dough, making everything fall/run off it. What toppings there were had been baked to a crisp. This is a common thing with pizzas, though, and it seems to be hard to avoid.

The dough is a rather confusing component. Much of it tasted rather bland, but the crisp edges had a rather sharp, bitter element. The ingredients list 'sourdough powder', suggestive of something sprinkled on the dough, rather than being an active part of it, but there's no further detail about the dough - while everything else has its own little ingredients list.

But, as I said, this is a good pizza... and the toppings may well have been inspired by the Piemonte region (truffles and porcini mushrooms being their speciality) but, somewhere along the lines, the combination of ingredients did each other a great disservice, and resulted in a pizza whose very creamy white sauce dulls whatever flavour the mushrooms may have when fresh, and in which only the most discriminating of palettes might possibly detect the merest hint of truffle.

As mushroom pizzas go, it has a good flavour, but nothing about it struck me as 'intense'. There are several other pizzas in Waitrose 'Inspired' line, and I may well give them a go but, at £5 a throw, I shall be looking elsewhere for mushroom pizzas.

Monday 23 January 2012

Gentlemen, Is This A Familiar Sight?

(Yes, I'm a fan of Winnie the Pooh. Get over it.)

OK, with all this cooking, there's inevitably a lot of washing up to do. When I first moved into my flat and had the kitchen redone, I thought very briefly about having a dishwasher installed. Since I'm living on my own, and rarely have guests (and, on those occasions, frequently end up eating out anyway), I figured there'd never be sufficient dirty dishes to warrant the use of something like a dishwasher.

I must have been assuming that I'd do the washing up after every meal, or something.

Of course, what actually happened was that plates and bowls and cutlery and baking trays and mugs and glasses began to pile up on that handy, stowable work surface (which is almost never stowed because it generally has washing up stacked upon it). Since I have six of everything (other than dessert spoons... still trying to figure that out), I'd often get to the end of the week and only do the washing up because I'd otherwise have nothing left to eat off, or with. That photo up there ain't the worst it's ever been. Far from it.

This is not good.

So here's the thing: I know I don't get an awful lot of feedback on this 'ere blog, but I'm going to put this question out there anyway...

Those of you without dishwashers (you foolish, foolish people!), what do you do to motivate yourself to do the dishes more frequently?

I mean... I have a lovely view out of my kitchen window, and the quantities don't exactly present a great hardship for me... But, all too often, I'll end up just making a deal with myself, like "No TV till I've done the dishes" or, in extreme circumstances, "No internet till I've done the dishes"... and yet, even then, I'll merely make a half-arsed pass at the cutlery, drinking glasses, and/or whatever pots and pans need doing.

I'm open to suggestions, here...

Thursday 12 January 2012

Salmon with Chilli, Ginger & Lime Sauce

The problem with some food advertising is that it gives me ideas...

Ideas that, were I to stop and think, would lead me to suspect I'm turning into something akin to those dangerous scientists from Sci-Fi stories. You know the type - too wrapped up in the discovery that something can be done to wonder whether it should be done.

Yes... Once in a while, the urge to try something wacky overcomes my basic need to prepare something quick and - above all - definitely edible, and I end up doing something completely stupid for dinner.

But I digress.

Recently, the Saucy Fish Company have been advertising quite a bit on television and, I have to say, their wares look very tempting. Not only do they sell sauces, they sell fish along with an 'ideal accompanying' sauce, including a range of 'cook in the bag' options, along the lines of Bird's Eye's 'Bake to Perfection' line. One of the options they describe in the advert is salmon with chilli, lime and ginger. I had one of those 'lightbulb moments', realising that I had some salmon in my freezer, some chilli peppers drying on my kitchen windowsill, a bottle of Waitrose lime juice in my fridge, and several sachets of 'Very Lazy' ginger paste in a cupboard. What could go wrong?

Well, based on that previous attempt at a ginger glaze that didn't glaze, quite a lot. But did I let that deter me?

Ingredients (quantities are approximate, and for roughly 1 serving):
  • Dried Chilli Pepper (about 1/4 of the pepper)
  • Very Lazy Ginger Paste (2 sachets)
  • Maple Syrup (2 tablespoons)
  • Lime Juice (3 teaspoons)
  • Salmon Fillet
Preparation Time: Approx 10mins to prepare the sauce, 15 minutes to bake

Tools Required:
  • Sharp Kitchen Knife
  • Small Dish or Cup
  • Stirring Implement
  • Kitchen Foil
  • Baking Tray
The Process:
Preheat oven to approx 200-210C (for fan assisted... about 230C if not). Cut approximately 1/4 of a dried chilli pepper into small pieces and mix in with 2 sachets worth of ginger paste. Add 2 tablespoons of Maple syrup and 3 teaspoons of lime juice. Stir thoroughly, till the resulting paste is smooth.

Lay the salmon fillet on enough kitchen foil to wrap around the fillet and cover it completely. Pour (or spoon) the sauce over the top, then close up the foil, place it on a baking tray, and stick it into the oven for about 10-15 minutes.

The Results:
Actually, this wasn't half bad. I did sneak a taste of the sauce before adding it to the salmon, just to see how it was coming along, and adjusted the quantities according to whatever I felt was lacking. It didn't glaze (even after sticking it under the grill for another couple of minutes, just as an experiment), but I suspect I should have used some kind of honey rather than Maple syrup. Alternatively, grilling for longer might have worked... certainly, the run-off had not only glazed, but started burning... which is vaguely promising.

This home-made sauce isn't as smooth or as clear as what I've seen of the Saucy Fish Co's version, and I - perhaps foolishly - didn't include any of the seeds in the sauce, so the chilli didn't have as much of a kick as it might have done, but this is certainly something I shall revisit and attempt to refine in future.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Shredded Beef Teriyaki Stir-Fry

Two of the big advantages to the Waitrose beef thing I tried a few days ago are that the slow-cooking means it's ridiculously easy to shred, and that it's not so heavily seasoned that you can't use the leftovers in something completely different... Such as this quick-and-easy stir-fry.

  • Leftover Waitrose Beef Brisket
  • Uncle Ben's Express Egg Fried Rice
  • Teriyaki Sauce
Preparation Time: 30minutes-1hr to marinade, about 4-5minutes to stir-fry

Tools Required:
  • Fork (to shred the beef)
  • Bowl (to marinade the beef)
  • Frying Pan
  • Saucepan Lid (large enough to cover the frying pan)
  • Spatula
The Process:
Shred the leftover beef (about a third of the whole cut) into a small bowl, and add 2-3 tablespoons of teriyaki sauce, stirring around so that it gets soaked up by as much beef as possible. Leave for half an hour to an hour to marinate.

Fire up the hob to a medium heat, allowing the frying pan to warm up before adding the beef, and any remaining teriyaki sauce in the bowl, using the spatula to keep it all moving for a minute or so. Add the rice (breaking it up as necessary), and another tablespoon or so of teriyaki sauce. Shuffle it around the frying pan for a minute or so, then collect it in the middle and cover over with the frying pan. Turn the heat down a touch, and allow to simmer for a further three minutes.

The Results:
I must confess that I wasn't expecting much from this... Despite the mild nature of the beef's original seasoning, I felt sure it would clash with the teriyaki.

Thankfully, it didn't.

Just enough of the sauce had been absorbed by the beef to give it that distinctive teriyaki flavour, without completely overpowering the meat itself, and the remaining sauce was taken up by the rice, giving a good balance to the whole thing. As quick-and-simple stir-fries go, this ranks as one of my successes... and would probably have been even better along with the veg I put into the last stir-fry I tried.

If only it didn't require the use of leftovers from a whole other meal...

Friday 6 January 2012

Waitrose Slow Cooked Smoked Texas-Style Beef Brisket

As part of my continuing exploration of beef, I am now casting a semi-regular eye over the meat counters at supermarkets, just to see what's on offer. At the very least, I find interesting-sounding cuts that I'd never before heard of (feather steaks? Seriously?) but there are also some packaged, pre-prepared delicacies that are worth a look.

It's been my experience of slow-cooked meats - particularly beef and pork (Thank you, Bodean's!) - that they are far more tender than even the most tenderised rare steak. One would not normally expect meat to offer a 'melt in your mouth' experience, but that's precisely what this does. That's one of the reasons I was rather disappointed by my one foray (so far) into Iceland's 'Tendercooked...' line.

The packaging explains that this is "tender beef, rubbed with salt and pepper, smoked over hickory wood then slow cooked for ten hours", and that it can be heated either on a barbecue (if the weather is right!) or in the oven (far more realistic, if you live in England). Cooking instructions are simple and thoroughly explained, and so I was able to cook both the beef and some roast potatoes (and, yes, blast some veg in the microwave) to create a rounded dinner out of it.

Flavour-wise, this is pretty much what I was hoping for with my half-hearted steak marinade. More fool me, I guess. While this has the overall flavour I would expect from beef, it has none of the mustiness. While it's not as moist as a rare/medium steak, it is by no means dry. The salt component of the rub isn't very noticeable, but the pepper turns up as fairly large chunks of peppercorn which add nicely to both the flavour and the texture. It's also surprisingly lean (though perhaps this is more to do with my unfamiliarity with this cut of beef), so I didn't have to spend any time haphazardly cutting off slabs of fat.

It's easy to slice, but it could just as easily be pulled apart so there is no shortage of options for serving. I did a quick and simple roast potato and veg accompaniment only because it was quick and simple... for next time, I may look up some alternative options, but the one that sprung most readily to mind was shredding it and wrapping it an a tortilla with some sliced veg... some kind of sauce... and maybe grated cheese...

At £14.99 per kilogram, this half kilogram seemed comparatively over-the-odds but, having served up a few thick slices, I'm reasonable confident that it'll be sandwich fillings for another few days, so it presents better value for money than most of the steaks I've tried so far. The simple fact that I'll definitely be able to eat the whole thing, where a steak always seems to generate some wastage, means I'll happily fork out for this again in future... In fact, while they aren't recommended for freezing, the Best Before date suggests they're good for almost 2 weeks in the fridge, so I might even stock up.

Thursday 5 January 2012

S&M Rodeo #3: Tesco Finest British Pork & Caramelised Red Onion Sausages

I must confess that it's taken me not quite this long to figure out how best to cook most sausages under my grill. Packaging tends to suggest that mythical 'medium grill heat', and anywhere between 12 and 20 minutes cooking time. The only constant, which should come as no surprise, is that one should "turn occasionally".

For my purposes, the grill is set to somewhere in the region of 175-180C, and I turn every five minutes (1/2 turn, 1/4 turn, 1/2 turn) for a total of 20 minutes cooking. Depending on the sausage, this can result in a dinner that is either cooked to perfection, or burnt to a crisp on the outside, but still succulent within. Particularly if I don't start my 5-minute countdown, then go off and do something for a while before realising I haven't heard the alarm yet.

And so it came to pass that, on this night, I decided to cook myself three of these interesting-sounding Tesco Finest sausages. As a general rule, I find plain sausages quite bland, and some of the embellished recipes can be little better... or outright vile. What could I expect from a simple pork and red onion sausage?

Well, the first sign that I was on to a winner was the scent of the raw sausages when I first opened the packet. That red onion aroma was very strong and sweet - far more so than I would have expected from a meat-and-onion mixture contained within what the packaging describes as "natural pork casings". If a sausage smells that good raw, chances are it'll taste amazing...

...And, dear reader, amazing it most certainly was.

To accompany these sausages, I mixed up some rather bland instant mash (Mr. Mash, supposedly "99% real potato", but I'd guess that the missing 1% is flavour - certainly not an instant mash that I can recommend!) livened up by a dash of basil, and served with some frozen mixed veg (as always, blasted in the microwave). This system has served me well in the past, and I'd say that the blandness of the mash was easily countered by the flavour bursting from the sausages. If these sausages are anything to go by, caramelised red onion must be one of the best accompaniments to pork, its sweetness counterpointing the savoury pork in every bite.

The ingredients list for the caramelised onion lists sugar, cider vinegar, cinnamon and clove alongside the onion, suggesting that it begins its life as something akin to a red onion jam, and is mixed in with the minced pork. Looking at a cross-section of a sausage doesn't bear this out, however, so I guess the onions are fried in a kind of sweet marinade.

The sausages do also contain other seasoning - sea salt, white pepper, marjoram, nutmeg and parsley - but it's the red onion that takes centre stage, in what is surely going to become one of my favourite sausages for a quick S&M fix.