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Sunday 19 February 2012

Home Brewed Cream Soda (First Recipe)

Yes, you read that right: Home Brewed. Because there's yeast in them thar ingredients.

On one of my whims, I decided to ascertain if it would be possible for me to make my own cream soda. I like cream soda. It's one of those drinks that doesn't tend to last long when I buy a bottle... Whatever size of bottle I find, it's generally empty in a couple of days, and that's when I'm struggling to ration it. Cream soda is lovely. Cream soda is moreish.

So, obviously, drinking any significant amount would be a rather expensive proposition, particularly where the good stuff is concerned..

The internet, thankfully, has a large number of recipes for making this stuff at home. Most of them seems to employ soda water or soda syphons, and the recipe is actually for a syrup concentrate rather than a full bottle of drink. That sounds like the easy/cheaty way out and, for whatever reason, I didn't feel like taking the easy/cheaty way out on this one. A bit more research turned up some recipes that can be adapted for all kinds of fizz, from Ginger Beer to Root Beer (another favourite of mine - I got addicted to the stuff when I first went to the States!) with plenty of room to manoeuvre in between. The trick seems to be in the use of a small amount of yeast...

  • Sugar (I used Waitrose Light Brown Muscovado Raw Cane Sugar)
  • Vanilla extract (Ndali's - previously used on my Off-Key Lime Pie meringues)
  • Yeast (a pack of 8 sachets weighed in at 82p at Tesco, but you only need a tiny bit!)
  • Cream of Tartar (optional)
  • Water
Tools Required:
  • 750ml bottle (must have a good seal!)
  • Funnel
  • Teaspoon
  • Tablespoon
Preparation Time: Less than 5 minutes to mix... but then at least two days to ferment!

The Process:
Stick your funnel into the neck of your bottle and dump in six tablespoons of the sugar of your choice. Yes, that's a lot of sugar. What did you expect? Turned out that my choice of sugar wasn't ideal because it tended to just clump and block the funnel. My solution? A bigger funnel. Processed sugar would be less inclined to clump, and would result in a clearer drink as an end result but, whatever kind you use, it should be as fine as possible.

Next add a tablespoon of your vanilla extract, and a tiny fraction of a teaspoon of yeast. Because such a small amount is used, it might be better to buy a tub or tin of yeast. It tends to be incredibly cheap, so the little used by this recipe will go an awfully long way. Hey, maybe I'll make some bread from scratch. At this stage you could also add some cream of tartar - approximately double the quantity of yeast - which. Finally, fill up the bottle with water.

At this point, I should make a point about what type of water to use. Tapwater should be fine, but the varying levels of hardness, the chlorination and flouridation all add up to make a bizarre chemical concoction which isn't necessarily ideal for this kind of thing. You could boil your water beforehand, or you could just use bottled water, though that tends to be just as high - if not higher - in mineral content as tapwater. Any amount of research into Coca Cola will show that the flavour varies quite considerably depending on where in the world it was manufactured/bottled, so the importance of your choice of water should not come as a surprise. I used bottled water this time, just to see how it would turn out.

Put the cap back on the bottle and shake the mixture up to dissolve the sugar, etc. Leave the bottle in a warm environment, out of direct sunlight, for at least two days. You may want to decant the resultant drink into a new bottle, hopefully leaving the yeast behind as a sediment.

The Results:
Well, after producing so much win with my truffles and minty-truffly tart, the universe clearly required that I deliver some fail.

Y'know, just for a change.

I'm not sure how much alcohol is produced by this method, but this first batch definitely had a slightly yeasty mustiness to it and the odour is, to be perfectly honest, more than a little beery.

The flavour of cream soda is in there somewhere, but I can quite honestly call this version a failure. Either there was just not enough sugar and vanilla extract, or I somehow managed to put in too much yeast... But then, after about 48 hours of fermentation, the only bubbles I got were in the initial fizz when I first opened the bottle, and the - admittedly very satisfying - head of foam I saw when I decanted the drink into a new bottle. On the tongue, it's about as effervescent as slightly flat beer. Does that suggest too little yeast, or simply the need for a longer fermentation period?

Further experimentation is needed... And the results are in on batches 2 and 3...

Thursday 16 February 2012

Iceland Ultimate Snacks Fiery Chicken Melt Panini

I'm not sure whether it says more about me as a snacker or Iceland as a purveyor of snacks, but I'm beginning to find their line of 'Ultimate Snacks' a bit of a disappointment. I should probably have learnt from the meagre-yet-tasty Tuna Melt, but this £1 promise of "cooked Chicken Breast Pieces with a Chilli Seasoning and a slice of Cheddar Cheese with Chilli" just sounded too good to miss.

In terms of quantity of filling, it's very telling that my first two mouthfuls were bread with a hint of chilli sauce. After this, I opened the panini up and - going from memory, here - there probably weren't more than a dozen small chunks of cooked chicken in there. I'd also question the bit about the 'slice of cheddar cheese', because a slice wouldn't have melted quite so thoroughly after a couple of minutes in the microwave. I'm guessing either grated cheese or broken up crumbs of cheese were used - maybe a slice's worth, but that's hardly the same thing.

The sauce would have been more of a redeeming feature if it had been remotely 'fiery', but even the two-chilli 'Medium' flash on the box seemed like an overstatement. It's a fairly sweet chilli sauce which rather overpowers what little cheese is present, despite being so mild. A couple of mouthfuls were slightly spicy, but the rest was rendered mostly impotent by the huge amount of bread compared to its fillings.

What little chicken is there seems like good quality stuff, but the pieces are smaller and less plentiful than the image on the box would suggest.

If you're looking to stock up on frozen snack foods, this is one to avoid - there are others in the range with a lot more bang for your buck. Cheap as it is, it just doesn't live up to its description.

Last Course: Mint Chocolate Truffle Tart

Because, let's face it, once you've made truffles, the logical progression is "How would that work in a tart?"

I'd actually intended to write up a Waitrose chocolate tart (the seriously tautological 'Seriously Chocolatey Tarte au Chocolat'), but took so long to get my head together during one of my quiet, non-blogging patches that I'd basically forgotten what it was like. Consider this not just an alternative, but a home-made spin on the same theme.

This is much the same process as making truffles, but the quantities and proportions of ingredients were altered, basically by guesstimate. So, without further ado...

  • 300g Dark Chocolate (I used 2 bars of Green & Blacks Organic Dark Cooks' Chocolate this time round, for convenience - 72% cocoa, "made with finest Trinitario cocoa beans with extra cocoa butter for easier melting", each bar made up of 30 5g pieces)
  • 90g Unsalted Butter
  • 80ml Runny Honey (the same Sainsbury's 'Light & Mild' Acacia as last time)
  • 3 Large Egg Yolks
  • Peppermint Extract (2 teaspoons, I used Star Kay White's Pure Peppermint Extract)
  • Waitrose Sweet Pastry Case
  • Cocoa Powder & Icing Sugar (optional, as decoration)
Preparation Time: About 10 minutes mixing, then just chill in refrigerator till serving time

Tools Required:
  • Microwave
  • Microwave-Safe Bowl
  • Jar Scraper or similar (for stirring and smoothing out the mixture in the pastry case)
  • Measuring Implements (cups, scales, etc.)
  • 2 Small Cups/Glasses (for separating the eggs)
The Process:
Break up the chocolate bars into the bowl, then blast in the microwave, set to medium, for 30 seconds at a time, mixing with the jar scraper each time. This Green & Black's chocolate melted far more easily than Willie's, thanks to that 'extra cocoa butter'. On this occasion, I also gave the butter some time in the microwave, which made it even easier to stir into the chocolate. In fact, I was able to dump the whole 90g into the chocolate in one hit, and it really didn't take long for the few remaining lumps to melt in.

Slightly more honey was used for this version of the mixture but, considering the Green & Black's cooking chocolate is sweeter than Willies in its raw form, this isn't strictly necessary... In fact, it's entirely possible you could do without. Make sure to stir it in thoroughly if you are using it.

Add the mint extract next. Being alcohol-based, the Star Kay White stuff I used here took a lot of stirring to mix in properly - it seemed to want to just stay on the surface of the mixture. In fact, all things considered, the addition of this particular mint extract is the only reason the mixture took as long as it did to prepare!

Finally, as with the truffle mixture, separate and add in 3 (slightly beaten) egg yolks. The mixture should begin to thicken up noticeably. When it's all mixed together thoroughly, pour it directly into the pastry case. If you're lucky, the quantities listed above will leave you with enough mixture for about 10 minty truffles, so refrigerate any leftovers right along with the tart.

For an extra finishing touch, mix up some cocoa powder and icing sugar to sprinkle over the tart. The remains can be mopped up by whatever truffles you make.

The Results:
Confession time: this is another recipe where the quantities I've given above have been adjusted as a result of my efforts. I used more honey and only two egg yolks and the result was OK, but not quite right. Certainly, I used far too much honey (100ml, just for the record) and that, coupled with the mint, reduced the impact of the flavour of the chocolate. It still tasted like mint chocolate, and the mint was actually quite subtle... but excess honey coupled with the lower cocoa content in the chocolate didn't do the finished product any favours. 80ml is only a third again more than the quantity used for the truffles, so it should offer a more balaced sweetness. I also only used 2 eggs, and immediately realised my mistake when the mixture didn't gain the same initial texture as my truffle mix. Based on the approximate proportions, I determined that one egg yolk is needed for every 100g of chocolate melted, hence 3 yolks for 2 bars worth of chocolate. I toyed with the idea of breaking and separating another egg when I made this, but didn't want to risk it so late in the process.

I would also add that Waitrose ready-made Sweet Pastry Case is probably a bit too thick, dry and biscuity for this tart. Something a bit more buttery and soft would have worked better... and having less of it would have been a bonus, too, because the ready-made case is actually quite a thick crust.

All that said, this turned out to be quite a pleasant minty-chocolatey dessert. My parents were the first to sample it, and gave a generally favourable review, though it was a little tough to cut straight from the fridge (furthermore, my father would have preferred it without any kind of pastry case, but that would have made it one whopping great truffle, rather than a tart). Considering how ridiculously easy this is to make, and the vast range of ready-flavoured Green & Black's chocolate on the market (why didn't I just buy their mint chocolate?), there are many variations on this theme to be tried and, while I am certain to try some of them in future, they may not get such a thorough write-up.
This is actually a rather more extensive coverage with cocoa/icing sugar than I'd originally intended but, after a couple of accidents where great clumps of the stuff fell onto the tart, I decided I'd just spread the stuff around, rather than even try to make it look 'natural'. In retrospect, I probably didn't need to mix icing sugar into this batch, because the tart itself turned out sweeter than I'd expected.

And, of course, the leftovers went to make these:
And very nice they were, too.

Friday 10 February 2012

Iceland Ultimate Snacks Beef Yorkshire Pudding Wrap with Gravy

Iceland's Ultimate Snacks line of microwave foods is not only shaping up to be a serious rival for Rustlers and the like, they're fast becoming my first port of call for guilty pleasure food. Top of the list, in theory at least, is the idea of a beef wrap that uses a large Yorkshire pud rather than a soft tortilla (or naan... or dosa).

It sounds utterly insane but, as anyone familiar with Yorkshire pud can tell you, they end up resembling bowls most of the time, so flattening it out, stuffing it with shredded beef and gravy, then rolling it up isn't such an off-the-wall suggestion after all.

A quick web search suggests that a similar snack is available in certain pubs and football clubs (with or without the addition of horseradish sauce), so it's another example of Iceland making their own version of something, rather than managing to brainstorm a wholly original snack of their own, but this is my first experience of this particular idea.

It cooks inside a strange plastic wrap that seems to crinkle and expand in the microwave. The bag is opened both sides to allow steam out, and the instructions say to turn it over halfway through cooking to assure thorough irradiation.

Unsurprisingly, it's not exactly bursting with beef... but, to be honest, this is one of those products where overfilling would just end up with spillage and - heavens forfend - wastage. The shredded beef isn't exactly scarce, and the gravy serves the dual purpose of adding a subtle punch, and keeping the beef inside the wrap, where it belongs.

Yorkshire pud does tend to deflate, but it still makes for a more substantial wrap than yer average tortilla or dosa, if not a naan (are naans ever used for wraps? Might be worth investigating...) and yet, even with the minimal amount of beef here, it doesn't overpower the meat and gravy filling.

I do wonder if a touch of horseradish would improve this product - it's not exactly bland, but it's also not the world's most flavoursome snack. That, or perhaps some kind of vegetable or herb component, just to enhance it a little. Other than this, my only complaint would be that a couple of mouthfuls included what seemed to be a chunk of beef jelly and some kind of fatty membrane, neither of which were particularly pleasant, but that kind of thing is always luck-of-the-draw with this sort of cheap-and-cheerful product.

And, for a mere £1.50, this is a decent snack and, again, I'm not sure it would be possible to make something equivalent from scratch for the same unit cost. If I remember correctly, Iceland do sell bags of multiple, frozen, large-format Yorkshire puds, so an approximation could probably be made with mince... but to get the same effect would require something akin to Waitrose's beef brisket to be shredded by hand, and that would significantly increase the cost.

This definitely ranks as a guilty pleasure and, despite my suspicions about the random not-exactly-meat content in the one I tried, I shall no doubt be picking up more of these in future.

Friday 3 February 2012

S&M Rodeo #4: Waitrose Richly Flavoured Toulouse Sausages with Smoked Bacon, Red Wine and Garlic

I suspect that, every so often, my S&M Rodeo subheading will introduce me to a new sausage experience that is both unexpected and instantly enjoyable.

And that's always going to sound like a massive double entendre, so let's just run with it.

This entry from Waitrose is just one such experience. I've never before tried Toulouse sausages and - just for a change - Waitrose seems to have nailed the recipe, and kept to the simple origins - little has been added beyond that which is listed in the name, and most of that is the now-ubiquitous preservatives and antioxidants.

Straight from the pack, the smell is quite distinctive - the pork content is immediately obvious, but so is the bacon and the garlic. Cooking provides an interesting contrast, because the predominant flavours - other than the pork - are the bacon and the red wine. This was quite a pleasant surprise, as I had feared that the bacon would play second fiddle to the pork but, despite a much lower proportional content (11%, compared to 77% pork!) the rich, smokey flavour of the bacon holds its own. The strength of the wine flavour is rather surprising considering it seems to be without any additional flavouring or flavour enhancers. It's subtle, but it's definitely there - a distinct, warm, musty red wine undertone - which struck me particularly because I can't drink red wine without developing a migraine, so it's nice to know that it's safe enough as a food additive.

These proved slightly trickier to grill successfully - my usual timings had to be extended quite a bit - and I ended up playing it safe to avoid the possibility of burning them. Then, when I first cut into the sausage, I was initially shocked to see so much pink in the middle. It took me a few moments to realise that they were not, in fact, undercooked, I was looking at fairly large chunks of bacon which, coincidentally, appeared roughly central in that particular cross-section of sausage.

One point confuses me: the packaging claims at one point that these sausages are "made with 86% pork from prime cuts", while the ingredients - as previously mentioned - give a pork content of 77%. I can only guess that 86% of that 77% pork is 'from prime cuts' and the remaining 14% is not 'from prime cuts'. Seems like a strange way of detailing it, but what do I know? I just eat the things...

I'm also more than a little nonplussed by the pack's assertion that the pork used is "Prime British pork from pigs born outdoors and reared in airy, straw-bedded barns". I mean, I know folks these days like their 'ethical farming practices', and are keen to ensure that animal have comfortable, 'happy' lives before they are slaughtered for our consumption but, really, what's next? Biographies?
"Percy was born on a lovely, sunny July day with a fresh, sou'wester bringing the scents of daisies, heather and wild strawberries over the farm. He loved to run and frolic in his pen, muddying himself up and generally behaving like a porky rascal. Farmer Bloggs had to work extra hard to scrub the mud and swill from Percy's plump body before he was led away, killed with a bolt to the brain, and then carved up with care and precision."
See? It just doesn't work, does it?