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Sunday 1 December 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Culinary Shenanigans

I've been toying with the idea of backdating this post so it appears on the 23rd November rather than today, but realised there's so sense in trying to rewrite the timeline of this blog. It would have been nice to have posted this over the Doctor Who Anniversary Weekend but the content this post deals with was actually made over the course of the 23rd and 24th anyway, while the plan was to make up some cupcakes and some truffles, then scoff them all while watching the 50th Anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor.

So... Just over a week late, here's what happened...

My girlfriend had previously brought round a whole stock of Lakeland's exclusive Doctor Who silicon cake pans and ice cube molds, as well as the Dalek cupcake wraps and toppers (colourful ones, based on the New Dalek Paradigm). All we needed was some food colouring (red, orange and blue) and a piping bag, and we'd be well on our way to making a selection of Dalektable* cupcakes to gobble up whilst glued to the screen. I also suggested using the ice cube tray to make some Doctor Who truffles, since it's been a while since I last larked about with chocolate.

It didn't all go smoothly... The first problem was that the Morrisons where I now do my usual weekly shop didn't seem to stock any red food colouring. I'd have expected blue to be hard to find because it's quite a weird colour for food, while red is surely pretty common these days. In the end, I had to make a brief second trip out, to my local Sainsbury's, to get the red colouring.

Next up, while the cakes themselves worked out very well - we just made twelve using two standard cake pans rather than the silicon molds (they're not as well-suited to having icing piled on, since the character designs on top would be covered over) - the icing was where it started to go wrong. Perhaps I should have known better than to expect a £2 piping bag to hold together, but the darned thing started to split before we'd even done three of the cakes, and was completely unusable by the time I finished the first six. We ended up only producing plain vanilla icing because of this, when the plan had been to (hopefully) make three of each colour.

Now, granted, I used ready-made Betty Crocker icing... but it had been out of the fridge for most of the day, and was easily soft enough to be piped right from the start. The piping bag I bought had a very thin heat-sealed seam, and split gradually further as I worked, even though the icing only got softer while the bag was in my hands. I'd have taken it back were it not for the fact that I already had a piping bag I wasn't aware of, and this new one came with seven nice, metal nozzles, which are a massive improvement on the three crappy plastic ones that had been packaged with the other bag. A quick switch-around, and I'll be ready to pipe icing again next time...

Thinking about it in retrospect, making three extra colours of icing would have required an awful lot more time than we allowed for the project, since the piping bag would have needed washing out after each group of three had been iced. As it was, we finished these just in time to start making our dinner, which was then ready just in time for the Doctor Who special.

Still, they turned out OK... and the two plates of cupcakes were further decorated with Jelly Babies, in a nod to a certain former Doctor who made an unexpected appearance in the show.

The truffles were also not quite right. Where my previous attempts used bricks of Willie's Cacao chocolate, shattered by hand, we tried an easier option this time: bars of Fairtrade 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.

That it was far easier to melt should have clued me in to its vastly different makeup - far more cocoa butter, for one thing - and the final mixture of chocolate, butter, honey and egg yolk was much runnier than any previous truffle mixture I've made. This did make it easier to pour into the mold - which is always good - and it still set perfectly well - which is also good - but the truffles ended up much, much sweeter than I'd have hoped. It's not that the honey was the most potent flavour, but it certainly came close and, without the coating of cocoa powder, these could have been almost unbearably syrupy. As it was, I could only eat a couple at a time... which was, I suppose, true of the last batch of truffles I made, just for a very different reason.

The molds were Daleks (naturally), the TARDIS (just as naturally) and K-9. All were reasonably detailed molds, and the truffles came out with minimal breakage (the Daleks' dome lights broke off quite easily, as did the lantern on the roof of the TARDIS, but the bulk of the detail came out well. Dumping them all in cocoa filled in a lot of these details - most annoyingly the 'K-9' lettering on the side of the robot dog and many of the TARDIS window panes - but the end result turned out well... And the truffle mixture left over from the nine molded characters went on to make at least a dozen 'balls' of truffle.

* Excellent food/Doctor Who pun courtesy of my girlfriend

Saturday 30 November 2013

Fishcake Roundup

I have a funny relationship with fishcakes.

And when I say "funny", I mean either they're completely underwhelming or they make me unwell.

But, what's important here is that I don't let that put me off fishcakes. I keep trying them. And so, here's a post about a pair options from The Saucy Fish Co's new range of 'Saucy Centres' fishcakes!

Salmon and Hollandaise
Described as 'Succulent salmon and cod with a creamy Hollandaise sauce bound up with real mash in a crumbly golden coating', these weren't so much underwhelming as a clear disappointment. First off, the ratio of salmon to cod is very much in favour of the cod, almost to the point where it's pretty misleading to call them 'Salmon and Hollandaise Fishcakes'. Even the image on the box shows very little salmon in comparison to the rest of the filling. Worse than that, though, the cod plays second fiddle to the mash. Granted, that's par for the course with fishcakes these days - what was once included for binding purposes has become almost the main ingredient, simply because it makes them cheaper to produce.

The worst aspect of this fishcake is the Hollandaise sauce. I have to confess that I bought the two different kinds of fishcake listed here at the same time, and wasn't really paying attention when I decided to cook these ones first. I knew one had a cheesy sauce and, to be honest, when I was eating these, I assumed I was experiencing one of the most disappointing cheese sauces I've ever encountered. It was only later, when I looked at the packaging again, that I found I had experienced the most flavourless Hollandaise sauce I've ever encountered.

These are a great idea, but the lack of the alleged prime ingredient pretty much ruins the execution.

Smoked Haddock and Davidstow Cheddar
The moment I opened the package, I knew I was dealing with smoked haddock - the aroma is unmistakeable... and reminded me how much I enjoy smoked haddock. Just like the salmon version above, the packaging doesn't show off a mass of haddock pieces and, sadly, the photograph is accurate. Once cooked, the smell of haddock is dramatically reduced, and the flavour is all but overwhelmed by the mash.

When I wrote about The Saucy Fish Co's basic packaged smoked haddock fillet with Davistow cheddar sauce, I noted that the sauce was disappointingly light on apparent cheese flavour. There was some improvement in these fish cakes - the sauce does add to the experience, but it's still nothing special.

Again, it feels like these were made to fit a very strict budget, with mashed potato being the main constituent. It is great mash, but it should only be there to bind the fishcake together, not as a cheap filler.

My area doesn't offer a great range of Saucy Fish Co. products and, while none of the options I've tried have been outright terrible, some of them have been quite disappointing. I like the idea of a piece of fish coming packaged with its ideal accompanying sauce, but when that sauce is underwhelming, the whole product suffers. Their fish fillets can be a little on the small size, but the fish content of these fishcakes is shamefully low, and neither sauce really added a great deal to the experience.

There seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment of putting sauce inside a product (did it start with the likes of Gü puddings, or were similar things available before they sprang up? Could it perhaps be said that these fishcakes were inspired by jam doughnuts?) and, while I like the idea - because it generally means less mess when cooking, unless the product splits open - the end result never quite meets the expectation.

On the upside, neither of these fishcakes ended up making me ill, so they have restored a small measure of my faith in fishcakes...

Home-Made Pizza... From Scratch (ish)

As a long-time pizza lover, I've always wondered what it would be like to make it from scratch. I've tried lots of 'almost' options, such as putting tomato purée and cheese atop pittas, but they're never quite the authentic pizza experience. Ready-made pizza bases are available in some supermarkets, but that's still only 'almost from scratch'. What I really wanted was to make up some raw dough, pile on the toppings, and then watch as it rises and cooks in my oven.

On one of my whims one weekend, I suggested to my girlfriend that we make pizzas using some Ciabatta flour I had in my cupboards (somewhat past its use-by date but, hey...) and the last few dribbles in a tube of tomato purée. All we needed was some Mozarella and then whatever our hearts desired to scatter upon the top. For me, that's an easy choice - Pepperoni, or some variation on the spiced meat theme. My girlfriend tends to be a bit more adventurous...

The most interesting thing to note in this is that different flour mixes - that is to say, the same type of bread, but mixes from different sources - have different preparation/kneading/rising requirements and working with them tends to be a very different experience. The Waitrose stuff, despite being past its prime, worked out well, so we followed up with a second round of home-made pizza, this time using Wright's Ciabatta mix for comparison, and in an attempt to rectify the one obvious problem we had the first time round.

  • 500g bag Ciabatta flour (Waitrose the first time, used Wright's the second)
  • Plain Flour (to coat a work-surface for kneading)
  • Tomato Purée
  • Grated Mozzarella
  • Toppings!
Preparation Time: approx 15 minutes (plus rising time) to prepare the dough, then about 12 minutes to cook

Tools Required:
  • Large Mixing Bowl
  • Baking Tray or Biscuit Tray
  • Rolling Pin (if you wish)
The Process:
As mentioned, the two versions of Ciabatta bread mix had rather different preparation instructions. The best bet, always, is to simply follow the instructions on the pack. If it has a subsection of instructions for making rolls, that's probably the set to follow, since you'll very likely want to divide the dough.

The Waitrose version needed to be mixed, kneaded, set aside to rise (I believe about 50 minutes was recommended, the idea being that the dough should virtually double in size), then kneaded some more before getting it ready to bake. The Wright's version only instructed one round of kneading - prior to rising - and ended up slightly stickier and more difficult to work with, even after being left to rise. Both wanted to be smeared with olive oil for that authentic crust. It's not absolutely necessary for a pizza, but it's certainly worth trying.

The first time, we cut the dough in half and each half became a pizza base. The second time, we cut the dough in half, then divided one of those halves again to make smaller, thinner bases, and used the remaining half to bake a Ciabatta loaf. On both occasions, tomato purée was squeezed onto the dough, spread out, then coated generously (much more generously that a ready-made supermarket pizza, I should add) with Mozzarella.

My topping, in both cases, was sliced German peppered salami - whole slices the first time, then chopped up pieces the second. My girlfriend first went with peach segments, even more Mozzarella (pretty much the remainder of the bag, since we bought ready-grated) and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, then chose tomato and basil the second time.

The Results:
It's just possible that the second round of kneading for the Waitrose flour mix - since it required a floured work surface - is what helped dry the dough out and make it less sticky to work with. The Wrights mix recommends doing all the kneading in one hit, so it's taking on less extra flour. It's also possible that we added just a bit too much water, because the quantity listed in the instructions didn't seem to be enough at the initial mixing stage...

Either way, the first attempt worked out well, but the central part of both the pizzas hadn't cooked especially well, despite the edges of mine being slightly burnt (largely because mine was on the middle shelf, and so one edge was right up against the fan, and I didn't think to turn it!). Where it rose, it rose very well, and the result was a nice, light and very tasty base... but it was basically deep pan, and even the cheese overload on the Peach & Balsamic Drizzle pizza wasn't quite enough to support a deep pan pizza... Hence the reduced quantity of dough the second time around.

While I don't have photos of the second attempt, I can honestly say they weren't as elegant. The stickier dough was tricky to work with - my one attempt to use a rolling pin very nearly destroyed my pizza base entirely - and neither could be called 'round'. Weirdly, the thinner base didn't have a great effect on how well cooked it was at the end, but I'd certainly say it was more thoroughly cooked.

The interesting thing to note is that dough can be frozen, so one could mix up an entire bag of flour, divide it into two, three or four pieces, then store some of it away to make home-made pizza some other time, without all the waiting around and kneading.

Making this almost from scratch was certainly a rewarding experience, and it's one I'm keen to repeat in future... If only because the toppings are limited only by my imagination and, if I put my mind to it, I can imagine pizza with something other than pepperoni/salami.

...Though it probably won't stop me visiting my favourite pizza restaurant from time to time...

Whole slices of German peppered salami
Peach in a great sea of Mozzarella, with a balsamic drizzle

Sunday 3 November 2013

Feta & Griddled Peach Salad (BBC GoodFood '101 Veggie Dishes' Recipe)

This one may sound a bit weird, but bear with me. It was actually one of the first recipes my girlfriend and I tried from BBC GoodFood's '101 Veggie Dishes' book, but I completely forgot to write it up and left it aside for months on end. Oddly, I cannot find this exact recipe on the GoodFood website (the two recipes that are up there both include chicken in one form or another), so hopefully I can get away with listing the ingredients and details of how it's made. We didn't follow the recipe precisely as specified anyway (it was written to serve four!) and it's not as if I'd be reproducing it word-for-word...

  • 1 Lime
  • 2 Peaches
  • 1 Red Onion
  • 1 Bag Mixed Salad
  • Approx 250g Penne Pasta
  • Approx 150g Feta
  • Fresh Mint (enough for approximately 1 tbsp once chopped)
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
Preparation Time: about 15 minutes

Tools Required:
  • Griddle Pan
  • Medium Mixing Bowl
  • Kitchen Knife
The Process:
Start the pasta off as per your preference. This should take about 10-12 minutes, so you can safely leave that going while getting on with other bits.

Cut the peaches into wedges and squeeze the lime juice over the pieces. Since I don't have a griddle pan, we had to make do with basically toasting our peach wedges under the grill. The peaches we picked up weren't especially ripe (typical supermarket stuff), so they didn't work out very well. They're meant to go on a high heat for only two or three minutes a side, which should leave them "nicely charred". This is probably easier to accomplished with a griddle pan and with ripe peaches.

Slice the onion thinly, cut the feta into manageable pieces and chop the mint. Mix them all together with the salad leaves, pasta and olive oil in your bowl. Serve up, topping with a little pepper if you wish.

The Results:
Mixing fruit with any kind of traditionally savoury dish always sounds wrong, but gammon has been served with pineapple for years, and my local pizza place offers both pineapple and peach as toppings, so maybe I need to open my mind to fruit in my main course.

This certainly turned out more pleasant than I was expecting. The mint softened the bite of the feta and rocket, either of which can be overpowering under some conditions. The pasta component was not a part of the original recipe, and was included here to bulk up the dish, as it just seemed a bit too light and salad-y... Though perhaps that's because we cut the quantities of the ingredients. We didn't mix everything up quite as well as we could, essentially ending up with a very layered salad topped with pasta and peach, but it's certainly a good dish to try during the warmer months of the year

Saturday 26 October 2013

Mojito Lime Quorn

This was a bit more experimental than some stuff I've done, but still on the simple side, because it used a ready-mixed Mojito Lime marinade, a ready-prepared salad, and ready-to-bake seasoned potato slices.

The marinade mix came from the Schwartz 'Grill Mates' line, but I chose not to follow the instructions completely (a) because this was Quorn, not meat, (b) because we didn't have all of the ingredients as listed and (c) because I'm like that, so there.

Note that these details are for the preparation of the Quorn fillets only, any accompaniment would be dealt with separately, according the the instructions on its own packaging.

  • 1 sachet Schwartz Grill Mates Mojito Lime Marinade Mix
  • 50ml Oil (I used olive oil rather than plain cooking oil)
  • 50ml White Rum 
  • 2 tbs Balsamic Vinegar (original recipe specifies white wine vinegar)
  • 2 Quorn Fillets
Preparation Time: about 30 minutes, including 15 minutes marinating time

Tools Required:
  • Wide, shallow bowl
  • Frying Pan
  • Spoon (for mixing and basting)
The Process:
Pour the oil, rum and vinegar into your shallow bowl, then add the contents of the marinade mix sachet and stir thoroughly. Add Quorn fillets to the bowl, ensuring all surfaces are covered, spooning the mixture over the fillets where necessary, then leave for at least 15 minutes to marinate. I started with frozen fillets (all I could get my hands on at the time), and the marinating time allowed them to thaw slightly before being cooked, thus reducing their cooking time slightly.

Set the hob to a medium heat, then transfer the fillets into a frying pan. Fry for about 5 minutes a side, generously spooning over more of the remaining marinade after turning. The oil in the marinade is sufficient, so no more need be added to the pan.

The seasoned potato slices I mentioned at the start were baked according to the instructions on the packaging, and were put into the oven at the beginning of the process... the salad, obviously, didn't need cooking.

The Results:
The instructions for the marinade suggest discarding all but two tablespoons of the marinade, which is used for basting halfway through the cooking time. This strikes me as rather wasteful... then again, frying the Quorn fillets made it far easier to pour on additional marinade during the cooking process, so I was probably a bit trigger-happy with it. What can I say, I like a good, thick coating on meat, so I figured it'd be especially important on Quorn, which has very little discernible flavour of its own.

The results would be very different on any kind of meat or seafood, with much of the eventual flavour coming from the meat, regardless of how long it's marinated. With Quorn you get a sweet, sharp coating that isn't quite 'mojito' because the rum doesn't come through very well - either it doesn't mix in well or it was just burnt off in the frying pan. It's possible that balsamic vinegar has too strong a flavour in its own right for this recipe, but it certainly did the finished product no harm.

It turned out very well for such a simple process, and I'm very likely to try this again using Quorn nuggets, or possibly using the alternative recipe, for 'Honey Lime Marinade', which switches the vinegar for lime juice and the rum for honey. At the very least, the next time I try this mix, I'll try leaving the Quorn to marinate overnight, so it absorbs more of the flavour. Quorn, being rather more porous than most meat, will most likely end up completely saturated... which shouldn't be a bad thing...

Quick Pie Roundup

A selection of boxed pies under special offer turned up at my local Morrisons a couple of weeks back (yes, it's taken me that long to write about them - they were eaten very quickly). The range is called 'Pie in the Sky' and, while the packaging is all bright colours and fun cartoons, it doesn't list a website or even a Facebook page... pretty strange for a new product which is otherwise unique and stylish. In fact, the packaging doesn't even go into any great detail about the makers, Kerry Foods Ltd. Still, that's just a weird choice about advertising rather than anything important about the product, and it just means I can't add a link to them for convenience.

I picked up three different pies from a selection of four or five on the shelves and tried them out over the course of a week, either on their own as a quick snack lunch, or with a selection of veg for dinner.

Cluck & Sizzle
Contained within a box sporting a cute cartoon of a pig and a chicken, this is - no surprises - a chicken and bacon pie. It claims smoked bacon on the packaging, and the meat is in a white wine sauce. The pastry is nice and light, not overly stodgy or dry, but the filling is a bit of a mixed bag. It quickly becomes clear that the white wine sauce is probably the largest component in the pie, and the filling is very liquid. There are a fair few chicken pieces of a reasonable size, but the bacon comes in tiny shavings, none larger than a grain of rice, and it's not exactly plentiful. What little is there tastes good but is pretty much overwhelmed by the white wine sauce, so I honestly couldn't tell whether it tasted like smoked bacon or not. The chicken comes out better - it has good flavour in and of itself (unusual enough for chicken, let alone in a sauce, in a pie) and the sauce complements it well. The sauce has a good, rich flavour to it, but it's far too runny for this kind of pie, especially when there's so little meat in there.

Overall, it's very much a case of 'could do better', particularly where the shameful dearth of bacon is concerned. I'd expected good, hearty chunks of bacon (most likely with large amounts of fat, but beggars can't be choosers) rather than the crumbs floating in a sea of white wine sauce. More meat overall would have been a better complement to the quality of the sauce.

Moo Achoo
Long-term readers of this humble blog will no doubt be aware of my scepticism toward anything claiming to be spicy, and that seems to extend to 'peppered steak'. More often than not, any seasoning would get overwhelmed by the sauce but, thankfully, not so here. The contents of this pie are described as 'tender braised beef with cracked black pepper and onion in a rich sauce', and it hits the mark perfectly. The chunks of beef are nice and large (with no discernible fatty bits in the pie I tried), but pepper is very nearly the dominant flavour (albeit far from sneeze-inducing). The onion is softened to the point where it's almost undetectable, other than in the subtle bite it ads to the flavour of each mouthful. The sauce is definitely rich - not to mention much thicker than the white wine sauce in 'Cluck & Sizzle' - but it's essentially just a garden variety gravy. Also, perhaps because the makers didn't think there was enough pepper in the sauce, there's a sprinkling on the pie crust as well.

This was my favourite of the three pies, largely because the plentiful chunks of beef were so well complemented by the thick oniony, superbly peppery sauce. It's very warming and very filling.

Hot Cow
This pie - billed as 'hot chilli seasoned minced beef with kidney beans in a spicy tomato sauce' - I'm in two minds about. One the one hand, it seemed to be literally filled to the brim, and that is quite rare for packaged pies these days. The filling appears to be proportionally more minced beef than anything else, and it's very well seasoned, so as to be hot without being eyewatering. On the other hand, it's not very successful as 'chilli' because the bean content is extremely low, and the tomato sauce would be pretty bland were it not for the seasoned meat.

It's certainly filling, and as a component of a larger dinner it's excellent. It's just the right level of spiciness to go well with whatever you'd normally serve with a beef pie, but will go equally well with more heavily seasoned accompaniments.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

More-ish Mushroom & Rice (BBC GoodFood 'One Pot' Recipe)

One of the things my girlfriend and I are trying to do as much as possible at the weekends is properly cooking our meals rather than relying on takeaways, restaurants and ready meals. The trick is that I'm a carnivore and she's vegetarian, so it has to be something that can have meat thrown in at the end, or something with enough flavour that I can live without meat. To make things easier, we both have a selection of recipe books - some veggie, some not - so there are plenty of existing recipes we can try before getting all experimental.

This recipe comes from BBC/GoodFood's '101 More One-Pot Dishes', which is why I'm linking to that rather than doing my usual list of ingredients, then all the details of how it was made. Instead, I'll just deal with a few brief bits, then end on a nice, large photo.

Making this from scratch was probably the first time I've had any significant exposure to the concept of using fresh herbs rather than dried and, while I could certainly taste the difference, the fact that fresh herbs start wilting within a couple of days of purchase means I'm unlikely to start buying them regularly. I did have a small herb basket hanging outside my kitchen window, but haven't replanted since the first crop died, unharvested, and it's now overgrown with weeds. It's also worth noting that I'm not a fan of tinned tomatoes of any kind, so it was pretty strange - I won't glorify my neuroses by using a word like 'daring' - for me to try this recipe.

The end result is very sticky rice which has absorbed plenty of flavour from the veg while leaving the peppers, onion and mushrooms with enough texture that you don't feel like you're eating a very thick rice-based soup. I'm not sure that the specified amount of rosemary is quite enough unless you get creative with other spices, but it certainly adds something to the few mouthfuls it turns up in, and the parsley garnish brings a welcome crispness. It's also surprisingly sweet - or possibly not surprising considering it contains fried onions, peppers and tomato - so that should be kept in mind if adding anything to the mix, particularly with meat.

It's a ridiculously simple recipe - the most complicated part is seeding and slicing the peppers - takes less than an hour (particularly when made by two pairs of hands), and creates about four portions worth, so any spare can be refrigerated for another time. It's also very adaptable - you can start with multi-coloured peppers, add other herbs and spices, some meat or, as we tried for lunch the next day, stir-fry it with some egg for a bit of extra protein.

Monday 14 October 2013

Last Course: Chocolate Macaroon Kit by Sainsbury's

Macaroons have become quite popular in recent years. Rarely have I attended a fan convention without finding dozens of stands inexplicably selling cupcakes, macaroons and other assorted fancies. Thusfar, while I've attempted various kinds of cake, I haven't made any smaller, lighter sugar-packed treats... Which is just weird, for me...

Since I tend to be fairly lazy in the kitchen, I'm a big fan of ready-mixes like Wright's flours and things like this kit by Sainsbury's (though I should mention at this point that a Delia Smith Christmas cake kit from 2011 2010 was 'unearthed' from the Stygian depths of my cupboards this last weekend, so make of that what you will!) as they remove the necessity for lots of careful measuring and a good portion of the mixing. The instructions tend to be minimalistic and optimistic, but they're certainly sufficient, and any mistakes made the first time round can easily be fixed on future attempts.

This kit was picked up by my girlfriend before she went home for the summer, but we only got round to making our macaroons this last weekend.

  • 1 Sachet Macaroon Mix
  • 1 Sachet Icing Mix
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 50g Butter
  • 1tbsp Milk
Preparation Time: about 45-50 minutes... Longer if whisking by hand

Tools Required:
  • Piping Bag (included in kit, but it's only a basic, paper one... use your own if you prefer)
  • 2 Small/Medium Mixing Bowls
  • Whisk (one of the electric variety may be preferable - there be meringue-making involved in this recipe!)
  • Spoon
  • Baking Tray
  • Greaseproof Paper
The Process:
As with the Salted Caramel Cupcake Kit, the instructions are pretty good - on one side of the box, there's a simplified version with diagrams, on the other is a set of concise, step-by-step text instructions... But what the hell, why not write them out in my own way..? And with my own experiences of the process added to spice things up!

To begin with, line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Bear in mind that the instructions reckon on producing twenty four macaroons (12 sandwiches, that is), starting with a 3cm diameter blob of mix, so it needs to be a fairly large baking tray. My oven isn't exactly massive, but I'd have thought it was about average... and yet I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to fit 24 blobs of the macaroon mix onto one of my baking trays... I probably should have used more than one, just to make it easier.

Separate the whites from the two eggs into one of the bowls (disposing of the yolks - they're not needed), then beat with a hand- or electric whisk. We tried using a hand blender for this, and I can confidently report that, unless you have a more whisk-like attachment to replace the usual blade, a hand blender is a terrible idea for making meringue - I ended up with a surface layer of light froth and a rather vile, bubbly white liquid underneath... and used a whole box of eggs in determining that whisking by hand was the only viable option until I get myself a proper electric whisk. Doing it by hand is incredibly tiring (as previously mentioned), and it took the two of us a good 15-20 minutes to do the 3 minutes of whisking listed in the simplified instructions. The end result should be stiff, and able to form good, stable peaks.

The instruction for adding the macaroon mix isn't the clearest: 'with a spoon, slowly fold the mix into the egg white'. For clarity, I'd recommend adding the mix a little at a time, folding it in thoroughly before adding more. It has to be done slowly to avoid ruining the meringue... It is just bubbly egg white, after all - burst all the bubbles and your mixture will be useless.

Once all the macaroon mixture is folded in, decant all of it into a piping bag and chop off the end. The one provided is basically made of thick, coated paper and isn't exactly easy to use unless you're an expert in origami - the paper won't always fold the way you'd want it to once the mixture is in there, and you're trying to squeeze it out the end. Squeeze out the mixture onto the lined baking tray, aiming to get something like 24 evenly-sized, well-spaced blobs. It was around this point I started wondering if the meringue was quite ready when I started folding in the mix, or if perhaps I'd gone too quickly. The completed mix was still very bubbly, but it was also extremely fluid, spreading out on the tray so that a 3cm blob (as recommended in the instructions) rapidly became 5cm.

Note that it's not necessary to preheat the oven for this recipe - you only turn the oven on once you're ready to use it because, initially at least, it needs to be cold, warming up slowly. With the baking tray in the oven, set the heat to 50C, and leave it for about 20 minutes, then increase the temperature to about 150C for 15 minutes more.

Once baked, take the macaroons out and allow them to cool fully before removing them from the grease proof paper. Here, again, we found our macaroons were possibly not quite right. Not only had they basically merged into one giant conjoined macaroon, they'd stuck fast to the tray lining all around the edges and were still rather gummy in the centres. We managed to create something like 19 blobs, and a good few of them didn't really want to separate from the grease proof paper. Whether they could have done with a little longer in the oven, or whether it was another sign that my mixing wasn't quite up to scratch, I'm not sure...

The icing is a simple case of mixing 50g of butter (which should come out of the fridge early enough that it's nice and soft for mixing) with a tablespoon of milk and the entire contents of the icing mix sachet. The butter should be mixed around a bit before anything else is added, to ensure it's smooth and easy to stir. The end result should be a nice, smooth paste, which is then spooned onto one macaroon and sandwiched with another.

Lastly, collect the macaroons onto a tray or plate and refrigerate until you're ready to eat them. Which will probably be immediately so try to restrain yourself for... I dunno, maybe half an hour or so?

The Results:
This humble blog has a long history of producing things that are gloriously cock-eyed or, as I prefer to put it, "lovingly hand-made", and these macaroons are no exception. Attempting to separate them from the grease proof paper led to much breakage and crumbling, but we managed to make nine whole macaroons... Some may have been reconstructed with pieces, using the icing as a convenient 'glue', some may have been seasoned with small strips of grease proof paper, but all were edible.

I really do think that either more whisking or the use of an electric whisk would improve the look of them... and/or possibly a touch more caution when folding in the macaroon mix... but, while broad and flat, the macaroons were quite light, if rather sticky. The icing tasted strangely buttery, but not unpleasantly so. It's entirely possible that leaving the box in my cupboard for a couple of months left the icing mix in less than optimum condition but, let's be honest, it's just sugar and cocoa powder. Perhaps, next time I make some of these, I'll use some extra to give it a more bitter and punchy chocolate flavour.
Neither small, nor perfectly formed... and three fewer than Sainsbury's reckoned

Grilled Halloumi & Mushroom Burgers

One of the most interesting things about having a vegetarian girlfriend is the clever and creative spin that gets applied to food whenever we cook together. It's tempting to think that vegetarians 'must be missing out' on certain kinds of foods but, even without the likes of Quorn and Tofu, there are many ways to get the feel of common dishes with all manner of wholesome substitutes. Some I'm familiar with, having gone through an almost vegetarian phase myself but, coming from a family of unabashed carnivores, most meals were very meat-oriented.

I'm familiar with several different kinds of 'veggie burgers', too, but I'd never considered the humble mushroom as the main player in a quick, simple and very tasty variation on the cheeseburger.

  • 2 Crusty Bread Rolls
  • 2 Large Flat Mushrooms (ideally Portobello)
  • Small pack of Halloumi
  • Small pack of Spinach
  • Olive Oil
  • Herbs/Spices/Seasonings, as preferred
Preparation Time: About half an hour

Tools Required:
  • A Sharp Knife (to cut both the bread rolls and the Halloumi, and to lop off the mushroom stalks if they're too long)
  • That's about it
The Process:
This one's fairly simple, relying mostly on looking in on the grill regularly to check the progress of the mushrooms and halloumi. Mushrooms, it should be noted, will release an awful lot of moisture while grilling, and may need to be drained/squeezed (by pressing down on them with a fish slice or tongs, for example) to ensure the burger buns don't end up as soggy lumps.

To begin, preheat your grill to about 200C. Wash the mushrooms, chop off the stalks, then lightly score the domes of the mushrooms. Drizzle olive oil over the mushrooms and rub it in. Cut the Halloumi into slices about 1cm thick, ensuring there's enough to cover each burger.

The Halloumi will need about 5 to 10 minutes under the grill, while the mushrooms tend to need 15 to 20 minutes and will need to start dome-upwards. Both will need to be turned about halfway through their grilling time. Once flipped, sprinkle over whatever herbs, spices and seasoning you feel like adding to the Halloumi, noting that salt shouldn't be required as it's a fairly salty cheese as standard.

While the grilling is in progress, cut the rolls and prepare them with your desired salad, condiments and whatever else you like to add to a burger. One suggestion was to add spice mixes made by a certain chain of chicken restaurants into mayonnaise, or even use the spice mixes on the mushrooms/Halloumi themselves.

Once the grilling is complete, pile the mushrooms and cheese slices into the buns and devour mercilessly.

The Results:
There's no doubt in my mind that large mushrooms such as the Portobello are meaty enough to serve as a burger. These were made with only the barest additional seasoning, so the flavours of the mushroom, cheese and spinach were clean and prominent in every mouthful. Crusty rolls are preferable simply because, however well you drain your mushrooms during and after grilling, a certain amount of fluid will remain, and it will begin to soak into the buns. Standard burger buns would end up saturated and dripping far too quickly.

It's not often I'll cook something entirely vegetarian when I'm eating on my own, but this is quick and simple enough - as well as tasty and filling enough - to experiment with when I'm otherwise stuck for ideas for a straightforward and satisfying lunch.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Greggs Iceland Exclusive Bakes

The collaboration between Greggs and Iceland is leading to quite a range of products, both savoury and sweet. With between two to four pieces per box, and almost all products costing a mere £1.50 (Cornish Pasties cost £2 for two), they present excellent value for money as either part of a large dinner or small lunchtime snacks. Most of them are fairly standard fare - ham and cheese, chicken or beef in a puff pastry casing - but these two in particular caught my eye... and the reasons couldn't be more different...

Spicy Chicken & Pepperoni Bakes
I'm sure I've mentioned how dubious I am when foodstuffs - particularly of the frozen variety - claim to be 'spicy' or 'fiery'. Almost without fail, they are disappointing in that they lack basic flavour and any spiciness is mild at best. I mean, pepperoni is supposed to be spicy, but it very rarely is. I picked these up fully expecting to be completely disappointed, but I was surprised to find it was actually pretty spicy. Not just 'pepperoni spicy', either... it was more like chorizo.

The pastry is more or less the usual frozen Greggs stuff, coming out light, fluffy and crumbly. The filling isn't exactly overflowing, but nor is it as meagre as some of the others in the range. The chicken pieces are of a reasonable size, and the pepperoni pieces are certainly identifiable, but neither are as plentiful as the photo on the packaging suggests - it's the usual trick of pushing all the filling to one side to make it look full.

A suggestion on the box is that these can be served with potato wedges (and some kind of salsa, if the photo is anything to go by) to turn it into a 'proper meal'. I might be tempted to add something else, were I to go that route... Some sort of veg, perhaps, so it's not quite such a stodge-fest..?

Sausage & Bean Melts
Iceland has a very dubious product in its 'own brand' line called 'Cheesy Beans & Sausage', and this is essentially the Greggs version. There's no potato filler, it just gets wrapped up in puff pastry. What you have is a jumble of sausage pieces, probably about a dozen baked beans and a few shavings of cheese, all mixed up in the usual kind of tomato sauce you'd get from the average tin of beans. Of all the Greggs bakes I've tried, this filling was probably the most miserly and, again, the photo clearly involves some kind of artistic license with the quantity of filling.

The filling tastes pretty much as you'd expect - if you dislike any of the components (it's the beans, right?), you're likely to find them revolting, but I'm no stranger to these kinds of things - and it goes fairly well with the pastry. Thing is, it's only an egg and two slices of bacon away from an All-Day Breakfast Melt, so it's puzzling that the serving suggestion is to slap it on a plate with some mashed potato. The photo is rather ambiguous, too - it could be showing mash or scrambled egg with the generous dollop of ketchup.

My usual strategy for these things is to have an entire 2-pack for lunch (unless I'm not especially hungry) so as to avoid the large cardboard boxes occupying all that space in my freezer for too long, and to avoid the necessity to figure out some kind of accompaniment. Since my expectation for these bakes was that they'd be quite bland, all they needed to do was fill the lunchtime hole in my stomach. The Chicken & Pepperoni ones were a pleasant surprise, but the Sausage & Bean bakes met my expectations precisely which, in this case, isn't necessarily a good thing. Neither is a product I'd rush out to buy again - at least, I haven't bought any more since - but the former is one to remember for those times when I have virtually nothing in my freezer that isn't made of potato, while the latter probably counts as a form of comfort food.

Friday 20 September 2013

True Snacks: Buzzing on a Sugar Trip ...It's Pop-Tarts!

So there I was, innocently shopping for household necessities (ahem... and a cake to take to my parents' house for dinner) in my local branch of mini-Tesco, when I found my eyes unaccountably drawn to something colourful in the breakfast aisle.

Lo, and Behold: Pop-Tarts... and not just any Pop-Tarts - that branch of Tesco has frequently stocked them in the mundane chocolate and strawberry flavours for absolutely yonks. These were strangely re-labelled boxes, bearing either a white or a blue sticker on the front, and the entire side covered over with a large white sticker bearing laser-printed details. What sorcery was this?

A closer inspection, both of the genuine packaging and the printed label addition, revealed that they are American products, arriving at Tesco via a Slough-based importer. Also, most amusingly, those oblong labels on the front - whether by accident or design, I know not, but can certainly guess - cover up Kellogg US's claim that Pop-Tarts are a "Good source of 7 Vitamins & Minerals", which suggest that UK food standards deny such manipulations of the truth.

Here's a comparison of the laser-printed label versus the original packaging:
Absolutely no mention of such things as
vitamins and minerals, though they are
listedin the ingredients
Large, colourful pronouncements about
alleged healthy eating benefits. FOUR whole
B Vitamins? That must be good!
But, hey, this blog is called snacks & the single man, and I can't pass up an opportunity like this... Normally you'd have to go to a specialist shop to pick up sugary treats like these.

So, ignoring the laughable 'benefits' of this product, they turn out to be exactly as I expected: cloyingly sweet, sticky fillings in a crumbly substance that probably shouldn't be called 'pastry'. Neither had a clearly defined flavour because they were just so damned sweet, but they both tasted OK.

I'm not sure they could be recommended  for breakfast unless neither diabetes nor the idea of bouncing off the walls and twitching like a maniac for a few hours until the sugar buzz wears off hold any fear for you.

Also probably a good idea to keep a bottle of water handy, or you may find your teeth sticking together and your throat clogging up.
Mmm... Sugary goodness... I'm sure you can feel your heart
lurch, just looking at these things. I know mine did!

Quick Joint Roundup

And after cupcakes, nothing says "Sorry for continuing to neglect you like the very bad person I am" like... er... great slabs of meat?

Following my thoroughly delicious experience with a Waitrose beef brisket and a thrilling exercise in using up the leftovers, I have revisited Waitrose every so often, picking up both more of the same and experimenting with other options in their range of slow cooked packaged meats. Some have been better than others (the beef brisket is hard to beat, to be honest) but there's one nagging concern with all of them: they're pretty expensive, averaging about £7 - £9 based on weight.

Now that I know I like that kind of thing - and, more importantly, can actually eat a whole one over the course of a couple of days if not in one sitting - there are other shops selling similar things, equally worthy of a sampling... And so, here we have a roundup of the joints I've tried, and which joints I found 'em in:

Sainsbury's 'Just Cook' Spiced Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate Blossom Honey Glaze
Straight off the bat, I need to point out that I failed to notice the large bone visible in the packaging photo and entirely failed to consider that a 'lamb shoulder' might actually involve bone. I am not a fan of meat on the bone because bone - all too often - means gristle and other such unpalatable rubbish. On the upside, that was certainly not the case with this product.

To be honest, I probably only picked this up because 'Pomegranate Blossom Honey Glaze' just sounds ridiculously pretentious and specific. Does honey even get that specific? (Perhaps I should learn to Google before asking such silly questions because obviously, it does) Thing is, whenever a really impressive sounding glaze is added to meat, it generally doesn't have a particularly great effect... I mean, it's a glaze. It sits on top. If you're lucky.

I'm also not a great fan of Lamb, finding the taste bordering on unpleasant at the best of times, though a joint is a very different thing to the sort of mince they put in a shepherd's pie. It has been so long since I had, for example, slices of roast lamb (positively drenched in mint sauce to disguise the flavour) for a Sunday dinner, so I figured it would be worth giving this product a try, just to be sure.

Like several other joints I've picked up recently, this comes bagged in a helping of its juices, supposedly to help with cooking, and a separate sachet of glaze to be added towards the end of the cooking time. The instructions are simple enough - cut open the main bag and decant the joint and juices into a roasting tin or casserole dish, cook for 40 minutes, add the glaze, then cook for the remaining ten minutes. There is a small but key difference between this and the instructions given on the products below: this one doesn't mention tipping away the juices before adding the glaze - all the others do. The net result of this was that I ended up with a very thin layer of glaze over parts of the joint, while the bulk of the glaze ran uselessly into the dish, there to mingle with the juices.

On the upside, the meat was tender and succulent and, where the glaze remained, it made a fairly tasty addition to meat that tasted almost exactly as I remember it. The whole thing almost literally fell off the bone, with remarkably little wastage due to fatty bits and absolutely no gristle. Filter all of the negative comments here through the fact that I admit to disliking lamb and, if you like lamb, you'll almost certainly like this.
530g @ £6

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Sticky BBQ Beef Brisket
I find it immediately intriguing that beef gets a 'sticky' BBQ sauce and pork (below) gets a 'sweet' BBQ sauce. Are the two now mutually exclusive, or must one choose only the most prominent quality to include in the name and/or description?

Well, I'll get to something approaching the reasoning for these subgroupings of BBQ a little later... For now, I'd just like to give Asda credit where credit's due, because they say quite plainly on their packaging "Prime brisket with added water for extra succulence". Here's the thing: these days, I think we all know that supermarkets add water to their meats (or milk in the case of chicken), not so much to bring out the best in them, but to give the punters what they expect - decent, succulent meat - at prices that won't make them feel hard done by. On the flipside, I'm not sure anyone expects the supermarkets to openly admit it any further than they already do (which is to say, not very far and not very often), so for Asda to open their description with that phrase, placed right under the name of the product, is both brave and smart... especially in the wake of the 'horsemeat scandal'.

Now, I've ranted on before about the concept of 'barbecue' or 'BBQ' and the way it invariably just means slathering it with some variant on HP Sauce rather than anything tasting truly 'barbecued'. Any aficionado of the open barbecue scene will tell you that, without some kind of seasoning or glaze, cooking meat on a barbecue doesn't actually affect the flavour that dramatically, and the kinds of sauce folks insist on piling on will invariably be mustard or ketchup, so the idea of 'barbecue sauce' is all kinds of bizarre anyway.

However, there are ways of doing it right, and I'm pleased to report that this is one such example.

The packaging for this has a photographic example of the brisket within, neatly sliced and drizzed with the sauce, but I just went with the easy option in serving this up - I shredded it with a pair of forks. Since careful planning of a main course just ain't my thing, the meat was served up with my usual accompaniment - mixed veg (microwaved from frozen) and potato waffles. From the first mouthful, I was more than pleasantly surprised - the glaze has a rich, fruity, powerfully spicy flavour. So spicy, in fact, that I ended up getting the kind of head sweat that's normally associated with a good curry. Even after the temperature of the meat began to cool, the glaze kept up its own warming sensation all the way.

While the sauce wasn't especially sticky - perhaps it could have done with a little longer in the oven? - the flavour was very impressive. I many never fully understand this concept of 'barbecue sauce', but I can certainly appreciate a good one! What's more, whenever I buy a joint of meat, I expect a certain amount of wastage due to great chunks of fat. This joint was surprisingly lean considering its price.
400g @ £3 (2 for £6 offer)

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Sweet BBQ Pulled Pork
In many ways, there's not a great deal to add here, after the beef version above. Obviously, the meat is different, and so the flavour and texture aren't going to be identical... but the main difference is in the sauce.

The difference seems to be that the emphasis in the 'sticky' glaze is on spiciness, while the emphasis in the 'sweet' glaze is far more subtle and tending more toward fruity. I guess the rationale is that pork is often served with a fruity accompaniment (apple sauce, for example) whereas beef tends to come with something spicier (mustard or, more traditionally, horseradish).

As far as quality of meat goes, pork joints do tend to be less lean than beef - almost making a virtue of their vast tracts of fat and, granted, for some pork roasts, that can be a good thing (my father will always sing the praises of "a nice bit of cracklin'."... then again, he'll also wax lyrical about beef drippin' at any opportunity). It's less desirable in this sort of thing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find far less fatty stuff to dispose of than I'd expected.

Amusingly, the photo on the packaging depicts the product shredded and served in sub rolls with leafy, salady stuff... though I ended up sticking this with my usual mixed veg and couple of hash browns. It later occurred to me that it would have been suited to things like corn on the cob (preferably roasted and generously buttered). I used just over half the pork for dinner and refrigerated the remainder, reheating it the next day to pile into a sandwich for lunch.

Like the beef above, I suspect it could have done with a bit longer in the oven, to ensure the glaze properly glazed... or at least that it might have done better if it had been spread out in a larger container. As it was, though, it turned out pretty good... though my personal preference is for the beef version.
380g @ £3 ('Roll Back' from £4, allegedly)

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Bourbon Beef Brisket
I left this one for last because I'm a horrible tease. While I've been very impressed with all three of the Asda options I've tried thusfar, this one is undoubtedly and unequivocally the best. Obviously, the meat is basically the same as with the Sticky BBQ Beef Brisket above (even down to having its 'added water for extra succulence' declared on the packaging), so it's really only the sauce that makes the difference. When I said the Sticky BBQ sauce was [whatever], I really meant it... But the sauce that comes with this one is in a completely different league.

As with both of the previous Asda options, I ended up shredding the meat after draining the juices - slicing it does seem like an awful faff when you're working with a tiny casserole dish. The first thing that hit me, the moment I opened the sauce sachet, was how potent the bourbon sauce was. The smell of it quite literally slapped me about the face. I had to check the ingredients list to confirm that, yes, they've used real bourbon whiskey (making up a positively scandalous 6%, according to the listing) because if an artificial bourbon flavouring had this kind of effect, it'd be the abso-fucking-lutely most impressive bourbon flavouring I've ever encountered.

But what effect am I blathering about? OK, if you've ever drunk whiskey, you'll know what I'm about to describe here... if you haven't... well, seriously, try some. You may not like it, but you'll certainly never forget it!

When you pour yourself a good dram (because any self-respecting whiskey drinker would never settle for anything less than a good dram, and it's a scientifically precise measure, obviously), and you bring the glass close to your lips, and you catch that first breath of whiskey vapour, there's a pleasant burning sensation. The moment you open your mouth, edging the glass ever closer, that sensation is amplified as the vapour hits your tongue and the roof of your mouth. For some, it's an almost erotic warmth... for others, it'll just set them off coughing. That, gentle reader, is the effect I'm blathering about, and that is the effect I got from this small sachet of sauce.

For reals, people.

I managed just enough self-restraint to pour the entire sachet over the drained meat, mix it in - all the while breathing that damn-near aphrodisiac vapour - and slam it back into the oven for the last five minutes. When it came out, the smell was still there, virtually unaffected by the high temperature of the oven.

Now... I'm embarrassed to admit that I was unprepared for this level of culinary delight, and my idea had been to just dump a load of the shredded, glazed meat into a couple of buns I had lying around in my breadbin. I paused, considering the injustice I was about to heap upon this sticky, boozy, beefy delight, even as I heaped it into the buns...

But I had nothing else prepared...

I've since picked up another of these (the last one on the shelves at my last visit) and will endeavour to serve it up with something a bit more impressive next time... I'm thinking something a bit on the leafy side and some corn on the cob, smothered with butter.

Do yourself a favour, splash out three pounds on one of these boxes. Each one would serve two if shredded (three or four assuming smaller appetites or lots of accompanying veg), and possibly more if sliced efficiently. That first Waitrose brisket I tried was good... but compared to this - significantly cheaper - option from Asda, it's actually pretty dull. This Bourbon Beef Brisket is easily one of the finest things I have ever purchased in a supermarket.
400g @ £3

So, there's the roundup. Four products, and one clear winner. Not only that, it's changed my opinion on (a) Supermarket food generally and (b) Asda specifically. My nearest Asda of a decent size is a 2-zone train ride away, but that's a journey I'll willingly and happily make if it means I can do a cheap weekly shop including products like these. While I have endeavoured to scoff an entire portion in one sitting, the Sweet BBQ Pork was both the meat component of a normal dinner and a sandwich filling the next day. At £3 each, they present excellent value for a dinner... but when they can be stretched out for a couple of days, their value for money is increased.

Or, since I seem to be in an alliterative frame of mind right now, 'many meaty morsels, but the bourbon beef brisket is the best of the bunch'.

Monday 1 July 2013

Salted Caramel Cupcake Kit by Sainsbury's

Nothing says "Sorry for neglecting you for so long" like cupcakes so, after my previous reasonable success, I've been looking at various easy cupcake-making options over the last few months. I'm not sure whether cupcake-making kits predate the likes of Wright's Flours or whether they're a response to them in the same way that most supermarkets now have their own brand of 'just add water' bread mixes, but they are becoming quite prominent on the baking aisles. Then again, cupcakes seem to be big business these days... Every time I go to something like the London Expo (sorry, the MCM London Comic Con), there seems to be a greater number of stands selling little more than glittering, brightly coloured sugar mountains...

Wanting to try something a bit different from the average sweetness explosion, I picked up this kit, which purports to make six cupcakes with the aid of nothing more than a single (medium) egg, 120g of butter and a grand total of 50ml of water.

  • 1 Sachet Cupcake Mix
  • 1 Sachet Icing Mix
  • 1 Sachet Drizzle Mix
  • 1 Sachet Fudge Pieces
  • 1 Medium Egg
  • 120g Unsalted Butter (approximately half an average brick)
Preparation Time: approximately 30-45 minutes

Tools Required:
  • At Least One Mixing Implement (eg. Whisk - Electric or otherwise, though I used a jar scraper for the icing)
  • 2 Small/Medium Mixing Bowls (one for the cake mix, one for the icing)
  • Teacup-sized Bowl (or a teacup, for the drizzle)
  • Muffin Tray
  • Piping Bag or Palette Knife (for applying the icing, though I just used a normal table knife)
The Process:
I have to say the instructions on the box are pretty clear... but they're also fairly minimal and very much 'best case scenario'. Since my kitchen rarely bares witness to a best case scenario, here's a fuller explanation...

To begin with, preheat the oven to 180C (160C for fan-assisted), then place the provided cupcake cases into the muffin tray. Set these aside for the time being, and pour the contents of the Cupcake Mix sachet into one of your bowls. As it comes out, it may be slightly clumpy, so it's worth giving it a quick whisk to break it up a little. Add the egg and 45ml of water (about three tablespoons - doesn't seem like much, but the egg adds a fair bit of fluid). Whisk the mixture till smooth. An electric whisk might do a better job than my manual whisk did, as the mixture remained pretty lumpy for me.

Spoon the contents into the cases, trying to ensure even distribution, as this will ensure your cupcakes will all be of approximately the same size. Stick the muffin tray into the oven, on the middle shelf, for about 15 minutes (hopefully you'll know your oven well enough to judge timings but, if you're unsure, there's the old trick of sticking a fork or toothpick into the cake where, if it comes out clean, the cake is ready... I was in the process of washing all the forks while this was going on, so my girlfriend used an Alien chestburster chopstick instead). When the cakes are done, let them cool in the muffin tray for about five minutes before moving them to a wire rack. And, seriously, don't eat any along the way.

Next comes the icing and, bizarrely, all you need in your medium-sized bowl is the sachet of Icing Mix and 120g of unsalted butter. No fluids necessary. It's as well to have left the butter out of the fridge for a couple of hours (or less, during summer!) to ensure it's nice and soft, and easy to mix. The box recommends using an electric whisk for everything but, considering how much of the icing mix went flying the moment I started stirring manually (albeit with a jar scraper which is, perhaps, not ideal), I would recommend avoiding electric whisks for this stage, if not altogether. Despite the softness of the butter I used, mixing this stuff was very tiring (you'd think my wrists would be stronger...) and it took quite a while for the bowl of powder and chunks of powder-coated butter to become anything resembling icing, during which time I snorted quite a bit of airborne icing. Cue jokes about rolling up £20 notes and 'doing lines' of icing.

Wow, I'm so Middle Class.

This kind of icing, despite the description on the box, never quite becomes 'light and fluffy', so stop stirring/whisking when you have a fairly consistent paste. If you've done this manually, the cakes will almost certainly be fully cooled by now, so grab your icing-application implement of choice and get spreading. There will be enough icing for a very generous topping, but you may wish to give each cake a small amount of icing to begin with and build each one up in stages, to ensure an even spread.

The final stage is the Dressing of the Cupcake, for which you will need the last two sachets. The first is the Drizzle Sauce, which needs - somewhat incredibly - a single teaspoon (5ml!) of boiling water. Quite how they expect you to accomplish that, I'm not sure. Carefully, of course. My girlfriend very deftly poured the water straight from the kettle into a teaspoon.

Once this miniscule amount of water is fully stirred in, you have a surprisingly thin sauce to pour gracefully and artistically over your six lovingly iced cupcakes. Once you're happy with that, open the final sachet - the fudge pieces - and carefully arrange them in complex geometric patterns over the top. Or just sprinkle them randomly. Each to their own.

One step that's not mentioned on the box - and actually isn't completely necessary - is sticking the finished cupcakes in the fridge to allow the icing to set a little before you eat them. This is my preference, because otherwise the icing just oozes everywhere every time you take a bite. If you have poor impulse control, you may wish to start scoffing immediately...

I'm a bit nonplussed by these cupcakes... I'd always though that, as well as featuring opulent towers of icing, they were supposed to be tasty cakes but, in all honesty, I couldn't tell you what the cakes taste like. They're not entirely without flavour, but it's nothing outstanding. It really is the icing, the drizzle and the fudge pieces that make these cupcakes... So don't be surprised if, after your first taste, you end up just licking all the icing off and discarding the cake.

Sunday 30 June 2013

City Kitchen Quiches Roundup

My local shops are always a bit strange about their stock - it seems that there's a constant run of test products coming through, so very few new products seem to stick around for more than a few months. A couple of years ago, Higgidy had shelf space in a Sainsbury's Local only minutes from my home, while now I have to go to one of the larger branches, even to find their smaller quiches. The Happy Egg Company, meanwhile, are present only in the form of six-packs of eggs - no more quiches at all (not sure I've seen them even in the larger shops, but should probably investigate more closely).

Since I'm a huge fan of quiche, it should come as no surprise that, when a new brand turned up in my local Tesco (and exclusively there, according to the packaging), a selection were snapped up and sampled.

Now, when I say "a selection", it turns out I mean the whole range - they currently only do four different kinds, and it struck me as interesting that only one of them is vegetarian, as the usual thing with such a small range would be to have a couple of each.

The packaging is a curious mix of Higgidy's hand-scrawled look with photographic elements but, while Higgidy use full cardboard boxes with plastic windows, The City Kitchen are using plastic clamshell cases with cardboard bands. The upshot of this is that, bar the ingredients list, the most pertinent information is on the inside of the band, rather than on display.

But obviously the packaging is a secondary concern - what's more important is how tasty the contents are.

Hot Smoked Salmon, Pea & Wasabi
Since I'm a fan of salmon, this should be the easy winner... and there's certainly a fairly decent portion of fish atop each one. However, flavour-wise, this is a tad bland. The smoked flavour of the salmon is barely noticeable in comparison to the Happy Egg Company version, the peas add very little by way of flavour and the wasabi, while present to some degree in every mouthful, doesn't have the impact I would expect - or at least hope for... it's a mild seasoning rather than a full hit of wasabi. Eaten hot or cold, this was a disappointment... but perhaps my expectations were too high. It's certainly not a bad quiche, but it lacks the kick implied by the ingredients. Hot is definitely the preference, though.

Bombay Potato & Sweet Mango
This one claims 'coconut flavoured pastry' on the packaging but, were it not for that statement, I'd never have known. Likewise the coriander topping. This quiche is where I first experienced The City Kitchen's 'trick': the mango chutney is nothing more than a layer (possibly more accurately described as a smear) on the bottom of the pastry case, below the main bulk of the quiche filling. Considering any kind of chutney wouldn't mix into a quiche very well, this is probably a good idea, and it does ensure that hints of mango can be detected in almost every mouthful. I'm no connoisseur when it comes to Indian food, but I live in an area which is abundant with Indian restaurants so, when a product boasts that it's inspired by Indian food, I have certain expectations, and this quiche didn't live up to them. Whether the mango chutney somehow managed to overpower the "aromatic spices turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg and coriander", I'm not entirely sure... but they weren't exactly prominent... and the pastry was indistinguishable from the others, for the most part. This one also works best when hot, as the mango chutney oozes out provocatively when the quiche is cut.

Hickory BBQ & Monterey Jack Cheese
If you've ever tried one of those pizzas where the tomato purée is replaced by barbecue sauce, it's safe to say you'll have a good idea what to expect from this quiche. Like the Bombay Potato & Sweet Mango variety above, the BBQ element is a layer of sauce at the bottom. Not being a cheese expert, I couldn't tell Monterey Jack if it jumped out of my fridge and attacked me (and, given how much cheese ends up going to waste due to mould in my kitchen, I'm pretty sure that will eventually happen) , but I'd have to say there wasn't anything especially cheesy about this quiche. Its saving grace was the maple bacon which, while in short supply (compared to the salmon in the first quiche, above) certainly added to the flavour. Of the four, this is the only one that tastes as good cold as it does hot.

Chorizo, Red Pepper & Onion
I was a little wary of trying this one, since my usual experience of chorizo ends up leaving my stomach feeling very acid. Buoyed (strangely enough) by the comparative dearth of bacon in the quiche above, I gave it a whirl... and I'd have to say the chorizo contained therein was of decent quality - spicy, but not excessively so... or, at least, moderated by the other ingredients, in particular the eggs. Oddly, I found the red pepper more noticeable and flavoursome than the onion, so there's something wrong either in the preparation or the balance of ingredients.

Overall, they're not bad... of the range, I'll most frequently buy the first two... but if it comes to a choice between these and something by Higgidy, there's still no contest.

Monday 10 June 2013

A Couple of Shout-outs

Apologies for the lack of updates recently (again)... My most recent job has now wrapped up, so there's a slim chance I might do a bit more 'proper' cooking in the next couple of weeks, depending on levels of motivation (currently a little low, but it is Monday...)

In the meantime, a couple of shout-outs to foodie places I discovered last weekend (1st June) at the Brent Cross Food Market.
  • Wildes Cheese - had a selection of their awesome cheeses. Now, I'm not massively into cheese, but I like their style, and rather enjoyed their creamy Number 3 (with herbs) and absolutely loved their brie-beating Number 4 (aka the Londonshire). I still have a chunk of Number 6 (aka Ally Pally) sitting in my fridge. Amazing stuff.
  • Franchini & Figli (fb/tw) - my lunch that day was one of their 'Ultimate Beef Sandwiches' and, frankly, I lack the superlatives to do it proper justice. The meat was literally melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the smoky flavour was subtle, but surprisingly distinct. You know how 'barbecue' and 'smoky flavour' things invariably just taste like HP Sauce? Well, forget that... this is how smoked meat should taste. Nick, manning the stall that weekend, took a photo of my ecstatic face as I munched on the sandwich, saying it was for Twitter... hasn't gone up yet, so I may have to pop back another weekend for another sandwich... or two. Or just some sliced, smoked beef. Or both. They also sell on Hubbub which, sadly, does not yet deliver to my area.
There were plenty of other cool stalls despite the relatively small area the market occupies and, when the weather is fine, it's worth going to Brent Cross just for the market.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Red Onion, Feta and Olive Tart

Don't expect this to become a habit, but this is a home-made dish that I didn't even cook myself. Yep, I really can be that lazy sometimes!

Seriously, though, this was a fairly quick and light dinner for a warm spring day, which my girlfriend put together for me as a thank-you. The recipe originates in the BBC Good Food book 101 Veggie Dishes, but some minor changes were made to suit what was available in my fridge and at the local shops.

Ingredients (versus the original recipe):

  • 4 Small Onions (rather than 2 large)
  • Dark Muscovado Sugar (instead of the light kind)
  • 130g olives (rather than 175g (correction: 130g minus one - she just had to check they were alright before putting them on the tart...))
  • Approximately 150g Feta (compared to 100g)
  • The puff pastry was actually the ready-rolled, reduced fat kind

Preparation Time: The original recipe in the book states 45 minutes (or 30 on the website!) but, versus the breakdown, this was quicker to prepare at some stages and longer at others... so probably still about  30-45 minutes work, in total.

Tools Required:
  • Sharp Kitchen Knife, for to cut things
  • Chopping Board
  • Small Saucepan
  • Large Baking Tray (about 26cm x 38cm)
The Process:
Without duplicating the text of the BBC version, there's sadly very little to write about here. The onions were chopped, seasoned, fried, mixed with sugar and balsamic vinegar, then cooked till an appropriately syrupy consistency was achieved. This was done during the course of an afternoon, so the resulting caramelised topping for the tart had adequate time to cool before the next stage of preparation.

With the pastry being the ready-rolled variety, it was a case of fitting it to one of my baking trays, then assembling the toppings, doing the final baking stage (five minutes longer than the original recipe, since the pastry was not the kind it called for and thus reacted differently), and finally scattering on the shredded basil leaves prior to serving.

The Results:
One of the great miracles of home cooking, I find, is that traditionally savoury ingredients can often become very sweet when cooked in a particular way. Now, granted, caramelising the onions involves some sugar, and that's always going to affect the end result, making the onions artificially sweet. In this tart, we have the perfectly-pitched sweetness of caramelised red onions with counterpoints in both the bitterness of the olives and the saltiness of the Feta. Served warm, not long out of the oven, and accompanied by a light salad (most definitely not the sharp, bitter sort recommended by the recipe in the book! Why is rocket so popular?) it made for a pleasant, delicate meal for a warm spring evening (which gives you an idea of how long this post has been waiting!). The flavours complemented each other well, and the Feta's bite was nicely mellowed both by the baking and by being mixed in with the onion.

More than that, though, the remaining half became part of my lunch for the next two days, without any need for reheating. Some of the Feta's piquancy returned when eaten cool, but it never overpowered the caramelised onion, and the bitterness of the olives remained undiminished.

It has been suggested that, perhaps, a little more onion would have improved things. Comparing this tart to the photos in the book and on the BBC website, the depth of the main topping does appear to be a little lacking, but at least part of the reason is that my baking trays are far larger than those recommended by the recipe. I'd say the content was very well-balanced, especially since it tasted just as good cold as it had when warm.
Classy! (the 'wine' is actually Fentiman's Rose Lemonade (honest!))

Monday 6 May 2013

Menu from Waitrose Ham Hock & Camembert Crepes

For anyone beginning to doubt my carnivorous credentials, I should point out that I'm not suddenly turning into a vegetarian just because I'm going out with one. If we eat out, I'll still have something meaty and it's just for the sake of convenience that we eat vegetarian at other times.

I mean, hell, if I can barely be bothered to cook one proper meal for myself, you can't expect me to cook two different meals now, surely?

And so, without even a "don't call me Shirley!" joke (oh, damn!), we have one of my most recent spur-of-the-moment purchases. It kinda helps that 'ham hock' seems to be the in thing, and thereby ubiquitous, in just about all the supermarkets at the moment (not sure it's quite penetrated Iceland, but I think we're all aware of my feelings toward certain kinds of Iceland meat products). Mostly, you'll just see packs of plain ham hock, ready to add into some elaborate main course, or ham hock in some kind of fancy sauce, so it was rather a surprise to see a full, light dish featuring ham hock in my local Waitrose's 'cheap introductory samplers' endcap. I'm a big fan of crepes (or 'pancakes' to those of us who aren't into pretentiously Euroticising our foodstuffs), though normally only the sweet ones... perhaps it was about time I gave savoury a chance.

My only worry, before I had them, was the Camembert angle. I'm not big on cheese, and have been known to give things a wide berth if they contain any cheese I'm not familiar with (which would be... erm... Cheddar, Mozzarella, Edam, Brie, Feta... that processed stuff you get in burgers... and not much else. Maybe Gouda at a push. Oh, and Halloumi) so the prospect of Camembert was at once enticingly exotic and alarmingly for'n. The fact that one side of the packaging described its contents as 'creamy ham hock & camembert crepes' gave me that little bit more confidence and so, in a fit of pique, I decided to try them out.

The first thing to note is that crepes are notoriously difficult to cook in an oven, be it traditional or microwave. Something about them just loves to bond unbreakably to the surface upon which it is cooked, so it's no surprise that the instructions mention - perhaps a little casually - that "Placing foil onto a baking tray prevents crepes from sticking to the base". Of course, no mention is made of the precautions one should take to prevent crepes from sticking to the foil, but perhaps that's beside the point.

The second thing to note is that the sprinkling of smoked Cheddar and herbs on the top will naturally have a tendency to migrate away from the crepes, and I found it rather difficult to separate it from the packaging so I could sprinkle it back where it was meant to be. That which I could scrape away from the plastic seemed to melt all-too-readily in the heat from my fingers, and so became rather unwilling to be 'sprinkled' anywhere. Seems like a shame, but that's the way it goes, I guess.

So, after a mere fifteen minutes in the oven, these parcels of creamy, cheesy ham had a very sparse, very crisp layer of cheddar on top, and had basically glued themselves to the foil. There's no way to separate them keeping the crepe intact, so don't even try... Though I did wonder, dimly, in retrospect, if a little oil might have helped.

Still, they're going to be opened up sooner or later, so the fact that they were served up already spilling their luscious contents all over my plate was hardly a problem.

Now, perhaps my expectations were hopelessly off target, but I'd rather expected the ham in something like this to be salty. Not full-on bacon salty, maybe not even gammon steak salty... but the shredded ham in these was exceptionally mild. It added more texture than flavour to the rich, creamy créme fraîche sauce and, since I'm no expert on cheese, I probably wouldn't recognise Camembert if it declared my fridge an Independent Republic of Free Cheeses. Suffice it to say, the sauce pretty much overloaded everything for the first few bites. Even the spinach barely registered though, having been cooked inside the crepes, it was well and truly softened and so had lost much of its texture and bite. When it came to the very last portion, I did find the saltiness I had expected from ham, and it actually made a pleasant counterpoint to the almost excessive creaminess of the sauce.

On balance, I can recommend this... but wonder if cooking longer, at a lower temperature might be better for the crepe (or would that dry it out more?). I'm also sorely tempted to get a pack of plain ham hock and attempt to make something like this myself, not least so I can use freshly-made pancakes that don't go crispy, as I'm sure that would be the correct way of serving a dish like this. I'd probably dial down on the créme fraîche, too.