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Thursday 25 December 2014

Christmas Dinner... Pizza-style

In a recent post, I explored the possibility of turning the humble pizza - whose leftovers can so often form a 'breakfast of champions' the morning after - into an actual all-day breakfast, with surprisingly good results. Coincidentally I had a similar sort of thing on my recent trip to LA, eating a 'Sunny Side Up Bacon and Potato' pizza - a seasonally inspired special at California Pizza Kitchen. Pizza is, after all, one of the most universally adaptable forms of food.

So, when my girlfriend and I started discussing how we would deal with Christmas dinner - since one of us would certainly not be partaking of the traditional turkey - one of the earliest suggestions, directly inspired by the All Day Breakfast idea, was 'Christmas Dinner Pizza'.

The most obvious necessity for my pizza was Gilbert's Turkey Roll Pastrami (bought at Morrisons) which, with its black pepper-coating, has made for some rather tasty sandwiches for my lunches during the working week. After that, it was a case of determining what other Christmas Dinner staples should be included. Potato would have involved rather too much wastage, sprouts and most other veg were easy passes. What I really wanted to include, somehow, was stuffing and cranberry sauce. We'd picked up some dried cranberries for some cookies that we've baked to take over to my folks tomorrow, but just adding dried fruit to the pizza seemed weird. Thankfully, I noticed, nestled in our fridge, a pack of Yorkshire Wensleydale with cranberries (also from Morrisons), and so chopped off a few small pieces to scatter around.

I'm a huge fan of 'pigs in blankets' - small pork sausages wrapped in streaky bacon - which tend to be served as part of Christmas dinner at my folks', so I also bought a pack of them - eight were arranged on the pizza, the last two in the pack were left separate. Upon reflection, I think I probably should have picked up the 12-pack rather than the 10-pack, since that would have given me four overs, which could have been kept aside for our evening meal.

The final ingredient was an idea borrowed from my girlfriend - she'd added pickled red cabbage to her vegetarian version of a Christmas pizza (featuring pieces of a Quorn 'Turkey' Burger), which made it all nice and colourful, so I figured I'd add some to mine as well.
Before. Note that the pigs in blankets had already had about 10 minutes in
the oven prior to being added to the pizza for this shot. The stuffing had
been cooked separately, according to its own instructions
So, after about 10-12 minutes in my oven, the pigs in blankets were done to perfection, the Wensleydale and cranberry had melted into the mozzarella, the stuffing was nicely crisped, and the end result looked like this:
After... But before I scoffed it all down. Obviously.
I must confess to some surprise that this turned out as well as it did - particularly with the addition of the Wensleydale with cranberry (that, being such an unusual and late addition to the range of flavours, was the wild card, but the overall effect worked very well). I mean, OK, it's unlikely that I'd ever complain about something involving pigs in blankets, I already knew the turkey pastrami was nice (rather more moist than the average roast turkey!), and stuffing is little more than additional herbs... but there was plenty of room for it to be terrible simply because it's a bit of a jumble.

The only thing that did go slightly wrong was the pickled cabbage, which could have done with a bit more draining before it was chucked onto the pizza, as it ended up soaking right through and causing a damp patch in the middle of the base.

I had been a little concerned about the stuffing, as my girlfriend started preparing the whole packet, where I'd intended only to make a small amount, rolling into balls to distribute around the pizza. However, even once cooked in an oven-proof dish, the stuffing below the crisp surface remains moist and malleable, and easily stands up to further time in the oven. I ended up not shaping it as it was still rather hot when we started making the pizzas, but I think that just adds to the 'hand-made charm' of my pizza.

A decidedly tasty and tidy Christmas dinner, with very little washing up required afterward... and so another success for pizza as a method of preparation.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Chicken Tenders with Jim Beam

Say what you will about Iceland in general, they do manage to get some quite interesting exclusive products. I haven't visited my local store in ages but, in the run-up to Christmas, with their ramped-up advertising (always hindered by the obligatory b-list 'celeb' - currently Peter Andre - intended, no doubt, to add some form of glamour to the proceedings) my girlfriend and I decided to pop over for some freezable Christmas foodstuffs, so we wouldn't have to worry so much about shopping for fresh stuff - or doing proper cooking - this weekend and over the Christmas period. What with visiting both sides of the family while I'm away from work, I think we've got things planned out pretty well - including an original (yet wholly predictable) take on our Chrimbletide dinner.

While perusing the selection at Iceland, I noticed almost an entire freezer cabinet devoted to boxes featuring the Jim Beam logo and, while I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of bourbon - if I'm going to drink whiskey, I tend to prefer the Scottish kind - my previous encounter with a bourbon sauce was exceedingly pleasant. I didn't immediately pick up a box of these tenders because they didn't really fit with my Christmas plans and my freezer space is very limited. Picking them up was more of a "what the hell, why not?" moment, since I occasionally need a meaty accompaniment to one of the vegetarian dishes my girlfriend cooks.

I'd have to say that the breaded chicken is nothing to write home about - this ain't no KFC-style herb and spice fest - and the 380g box contains only seven or eight of them. They're a decent size, but the packaging's claim that it serves two is either very optimistic, or assuming use as a starter or as part of a larger main course.

Or maybe I'm still recovering from American portions, following my recent holiday in Los Angeles..?

The Jim Beam sauce is the only thing that raises this package anywhere above 'decidedly plain', and it raises it a hell of a way. The moment the sauce sachet is opened, you'll get a whiff of the boozy barbecue sauce and, if that's the sort of thing you like, this is sure to be a winner. It brings that familiar warming sensation from the first scent, yet retains the classic spicy, smoky fruitiness of a good barbecue sauce. In that sense, it's probably a good thing that the chicken is so plain, since strongly seasoned meat/breadcrumb would get in the way of the sauce.

I poured the sauce all over my chicken tenders but, upon reflection, suspect I may have been better off decanting the sauce into a pot - as illustrated by the packaging - and simply dipping the tenders. Thinking back to my holiday, one of the meals which defeated me was a plate stacked high with chicken tenders, which was served with (if I remember correctly) mashed potato and corn succotash... that sort of thing would go very well with this product, so I may be tempted to pick up another box once the freezer has cleared out a bit after Christmas.

There are a few other items in the range which look appealing - the ribs in particular, though if I do end up trying them, I fully expect it to be due to a triumph of optimism over experience. Watch this space.

On the other hand, since Jim Beam produce barbecue sauces separately, maybe I'll just get some of that...

Friday 12 September 2014

Fourth Anniversary Drinking

OK, I admit, I'm backdating this post because, despite setting an alarm for myself on my phone, I forgot to make this post on the day...

...But today marks the fourth year of this blog, and it's just typical of me that the day is marked (retrospectively) without a proper new posting. What I will do, however, is mention something booze-related as a kind of quasi-celebration.

Most weekends, these days, my girlfriend and I venture to our nearest branch of Morrisons for a weekly grocery shop. Morrisons have an absolutely massive section for booze (which we normally ignore), in which is nestled a tiny section of shelf devoted to frozen cocktails, including Smirnoff's distinctly underwhelming sorbets and the rather marvellous Parrot Bay 'Freeze & Squeeze' cocktails, which are essentially the same sort of thing but with rum rather than vodka.

The full range comprises five drinks - Berry Daiquiri, Citrus Daiquiri, Mojito, Passionfruit Caipirinha and Pina Colada - but my local Morrisons tends only to stock the Berry Daiquiri and the Mojito options (though we did once find a single Passionfruit Caipirinha and have yet to try it out). It's a simple concept - each plastic bag contains a ready-mixed cocktail which you stick in your freezer. Once it's ready, you squeeze the bag to crush up the ice (it's often helpful, as the directions suggest, to run the bag under warm water for a few minutes) before cutting it open and squeezing the contents into a glass for the perfect frozen cocktail.

It's a neat idea, and a pretty successful one... Just be prepared for possible brain-freeze.

On a non-alcoholic note, at least one of my properly local shops has started stocking Coke Life, a variation on the usual caffeine fix that claims to be nice and natural, as well as lower-calorie than the original. Having tried it and liked it, I thought it worthy of mention here... but I also feel the need to link to an article about it on Marketing Week because it follows a train of thought I hadn't considered. I'm not entirely sure I agree with the prophesy of doom, but I'd certainly agree with the assessment that Coke Life ain't half as 'natural' as it claims to be. The other amusing thing is that it mentions Pepsi Raw which, going by the ingredients listed, was basically a rip-off of the rather awesome Whole Earth Cola, but with cane sugar rather than agave syrup (and I'm not sure that was an ingredient when it first came out...)

Sunday 10 August 2014

All-Day Breakfast Pizza

Yes, you read that right... All-Day Breakfast, but on a Pizza.

Oh, come on, it can't possibly be the most revolting pizza topping you've heard of unless you missed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the first time round, when they were cool (allegedly - I beg to differ), back in the 80s (or was it the 90s?). I'm pretty sure I remember one TMNT-branded pizza that involved ice cream, for crying out loud.

And surely I need not mention Iceland's doner kebab pizza?

So here's the thing: my girlfriend and I have been home-making pizzas once in a while - sometimes baking the bases (made from a Wright's flour mix or Supermarket equivalent, though we will eventually make our own from scratch), other times purchasing a ready-made base. Once the base is sorted, pizza is the easiest thing in the world to prepare: slather on the tomato purée, chuck on some cheese, apply toppings with impunity, bake for 10-15 minutes, then consume while still nice, hot and melty.

I hadn't originally planned to make an all-day breakfast pizza. Originally, I was just going to be topped with halves of the pork and bacon cocktail sausages I'd picked up in Morrisons... But when my girlfriend decided to experiment by cracking an egg over her artichoke, olive and goat's cheese pizza, the thought occurred to me that adding an egg to something that already contained tomato, sausage and bacon (of a sort) basically turned it into an all-day breakfast.

The egg element turned out to be rather more complicated than expected... but that's where being second in line for the oven came in handy. Typically, when making a pizza with a ready-baked base, one cooks the pizza just long enough to get the beginnings of browning on the cheese - generally about ten minutes. The egg, we thought, should only take about five additional minutes at pizza-baking temperatures, making a total cooking time of fifteen minutes.

Whether it was the combination of ingredients already on the pizza, or the fact that she checked its progress by opening the oven, the egg on my girlfriend's pizza needed an additional ten minutes... and even then, the white was still quite runny, while the yolk was effectively soft-boiled.

So, for mine, I cooked the basic tomato/cheese/sausage pizza for only five minutes, then cracked the egg into the centre and slapped it back in the oven for ten minutes. Still the same fifteen minute stay in the oven, but without interruption. The end result for me was a much firmer white, but pretty much the same 'soft-boiled' yolk. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair:

It turned out pretty good... While I'm still rather dubious of the idea of egg on a pizza - and, frankly, the whole concept of an all-day breakfast pizza - I'm going to call this a success... While we normally stick to Mozzarella as our formaggio preferito, I had noticed bags of "Four Cheese Mix" on Morrisons' shelves - a melange of grated Mozzarella, Edam, mature cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses which was just begging to be used as pizza topping. It melted nicely and evenly and had that little bit more bite, in and of itself, than Mozzarella on its own.

The flavour of both the sausages and the egg held up remarkably well against the tag-team of cheeses... the only caveat being that, in retrospect, it's rather an underachieving all-day breakfast. At the very least, it could have done with some seasoning - a little pepper, if nothing else.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if it wouldn't have been better with plain pork cocktail sausages and separate bacon (strips or chunks)... maybe some mushrooms... chunks of potato... and possibly a base that's less tomato purée and more sliced tomato.

Though even I would probably have to draw the line before adding baked beans into the mix.

Why I've Not Been Food Blogging Recently

I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that, in spite of the title of this blog, I'm not actually single now... A couple of years ago, I randomly encountered someone and exchanged emails with her for most of a year before she moved to London to attend university. We met up initially as friends, fully expecting it to be a once-in-a-blue-moon sort of meeting but, within a couple of months, decided to try dating.

Since my past relationships have tended to be (disappointingly? mercifully?) brief, and to follow a trajectory somewhere between bizarre and horrific, I decided against mentioning it to anyone for several months after that, leaving my family and oldest friend out of the loop until quite recently, because the relationship which 'felt right' to begin with has only become better with time. I even spent last Christmas with my girlfriend's family, having previously spent a couple of weekends with them...

While she was at university, we'd discussed the idea of her living with me for her final year and, when she decided to quit her course for the sake of her health, we kept to the original schedule. My girlfriend moved in with me back in June (something of a late birthday present) and, while it's taken a lot of getting used to (for both of us), the experience thusfar has been great. I didn't think I was really the co-habiting type, in many ways... but, as with many other aspects of our relationship, it has been unexpectedly easy and stress-free.

Additionally, not too long before she moved in, I accepted a permanent position with a company I did some Temping with at the beginning of the year. With an hour's journey to and from work each day, the time at home I'd previously had for culinary experimentation has been dramatically curtailed.

The upshot of these changes in my circumstances is that my girlfriend has taken it upon herself to prepare the evening meals so that they're more-or-less ready to serve when I arrive home from work, even tackling the lion's share of the cooking over the weekends. This being the case, it hasn't felt right to post write-ups of someone else's home cooking...

...However, rest assured, there will be times that I get off my backside and do some cooking of my own. Some of it will end up being quite simple, but I'm still intending to avoid ready meals and properly develop my kitchen skills.

This isn't exactly a haitus, just an acknowledgement that I don't have as much time for cooking as I had while unemployed/Temping. This blog was never going to be updated daily, but I know I can do more, and I'm hoping to do more once I get used to my new situation.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Chocolate Chip Not-Cross Buns

Yes, it's been an absolute age since I last posted here, and I'm very sorry for that. For one reason or another, I've lacked time and motivation to do write-ups of lots of things cooked over the last few months, and it needed something very special to get me back in the mood. Also, due to going back into full-time employment, I've been making use of a lot of ready-meals in the evenings... most of which didn't really warrant a review.

And, hey, let's face it, it's unusual enough for me to make event-specific foodstuffs and actually write about them on the day, rather than a good week or two later.

So, without further ado... a somewhat secular and chocolate-oriented take on the Hot Cross Bun. The recipe upon which this is based came from the Cadbury Kitchen but, as is de rigueur in my kitchen, I didn't follow it precisely for several reasons, ranging from forgetting to buy some ingredients (such as 'mixed spice') to personal preference (my girlfriend is vegetarian, and so we decided against adding the gelatin-based glaze). Also, since the crosses aren't the most interesting part of the recipe (and adding them involves the use of a piping bag, so I couldn't be bothered with the fuss), they were made without.

Considering this is the first proper baking project I've undertaken in a while, and it involved mixing things up from scratch rather than using a pre-prepared bread/cake mix, it all went fairly smoothly, too...

I've left the formatting in the US-style 'cup' measures because it's easy enough to find such cups these days - my nearest Morrisons has them in its Kitchenware section, and I believe they're available at the likes of Waitrose and Lakeland. The ingredients listed below are sufficient for 12 decent-sized (ie. larger than the sort of thing you can buy in a supermarket) buns.

  • 4 cups Plain Flour (plus a dusting for a worktop during the kneading stage)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Cinnamon
  • 14g Dried Yeast (ie. 2 sachets @ 7g each)
  • 1/4 cup Caster Sugar
  • 300ml Milk (room temperature)
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 cup Sultanas
  • 3/4 cup Chocolate Chips (I used a single 100g bag of Morrisons Dark Chocolate Chips)
  • Butter (for greasing a baking tray)
Preparation Time: about 20 minutes (plus rising time) to prepare the dough, then about 20 minutes to cook

Tools Required:
  • Large Mixing Bowl (for the dough mix)
  • Small Mixing Bowl (in which to beat the eggs)
  • Measuring Cups (obviously)
  • Measuring Jug (for the milk
  • Spatula/Flat-Bladed Knife (to mix the dough - I used a Pampered Chef jar scraper... it was the closest thing I had!)
  • Whisk or Mixing Implement of Choice (for the eggs)
  • Sharp Knife (for dividing the dough)
  • Cling Film
  • Baking Tray (Foil optional)
The Process:
First off, I measured out the flour, cinnamon and sugar. These were dumped into a large mixing bowl with the yeast and stirred with an Alien chopstick, because it was handy. The eggs were cracked into a small bowl and lightly beaten with a cute little semi-automatic whisk thing I picked up in a nearby branch of Tiger (interesting aside - sometime before Christmas, there was a market in Harrow at which one of the stalls was selling a similar product, perhaps slightly more refined, at almost four times the price, but 'specially reduced' to only about twice the price for the market event), then poured it into the flour mixture. As my girlfriend started stirring it all together, I added the milk gradually, in small stages. The original recipe calls for 350ml of milk, but we found that rather excessive - the dough was coming together very nicely by about the 300ml mark, so the excess was returned to the bottle. At the point where the mixture started to become a cohesive 'dough', I added in the sultanas, then the chocolate chips (conveniently, a 100g bag from Morrisons is pretty much bang-on 3/4 of a cup), then took over for the final stage of stirring, where it started to become both sticky and a little stiff.

Once all the flour mixture had been fully absorbed into the dough, it was turned out onto a section of worktop that had been dusted with flour. I kneaded the dough for somewhere between five and ten minutes, by which time it had become somewhat less sticky (though I wondered if, perhaps, I should not have washed my hands directly before kneading, because so much of the dough remained stuck to my fingers). Then it was dumped back into the mixing bowl, covered over with Cling Film and left to rise for about an hour.

After that time, the dough had more-or-less doubled in size. The original instructions stated that it should be beaten back to its original size, but I'm not sure how well I accomplished that. I kneaded it again briefly, then rolled and stretched it to make it easier to cut into twelve reasonably-similar-sized pieces. While I was doing this, my girlfriend laid out a piece of foil on a baking tray (largely because it's looking a bit manky with age and use, and it's often easier to dispose of a layer of foil than it is to adequately clean the tray) and smeared it with butter to prevent the buns sticking. Once the twelve pieces were laid out, the tray was covered with cling film and left for a second round of rising, for about 30 minutes. The ideal result is that the buns double in size, squishing together on the tray for that authentic 'group of freshly-baked buns' look. At around the 20 minute mark, the oven was switched on and set to 190C.

At the half-hour mark, and since we weren't decorating the buns in any way, they went straight into the oven for 20 minutes. While they looked, if anything, a little burnt (particularly at either side of the tray) they were briefly tested - by sticking a chopstick into one of the middle buns - to ensure they were thoroughly cooked.

The Results:
We had one bun each after leaving them to cool only briefly, because there are few things nicer than a hot bun (and, after all, they're called 'hot cross buns' because they're meant to be eaten hot). We're both of a mind that they could have done with a bit more cinnamon (perhaps the 'mixed spice' would have offered a more substantial flavour) but, otherwise, the buns tasted good - not too dry, though the chocolate (which, naturally, melted slightly) and the sultanas went some way to keeping them moist.

Those that appeared burnt actually seem to be OK, which got me wondering if the glaze is actually a fairly important component for this kind of bun... After all, hot cross buns are noted for being well browned,  with a glossy finish that moistens the crust.

I'm pretty pleased with the results and may well try this recipe with alternative additions... though I'll likely steer well clear of candied peel - a staple in 'normal' hot cross buns - because I'm not especially keen on that stuff. A mix of sultanas and raisins, or ginger, or something wacky like popping candy might be worth a try. Certainly, the next batch will have two teaspoons of cinnamon, if I use any at all.