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Friday, 30 December 2011

New, Improved Recipe!

Two tracks for this train of thought on improvements: an example of the way some companies feel the need to 'improve' their recipes, and the way food companies package their wares these days.

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By the time I finished my 7 Months of Baking challenge, I'd picked up my next round of Wright's flours for baking, including their Madeira cake, which wasn't available at the food show earlier in the year. The selection on offer wasn't great, but I did bag another couple each of the chocolate and carrot cakes. The first one I baked was a second chocolate cake, according to my own embellished 'recipe', specifically so I could take some round to my folks because I'd neglected to do so the first time round.

The other day, I decided - on a whim - to bake myself a carrot cake. After all, I have plenty of Betty Crocker icing left over, and even those shop bought carrot cakes that refrain from pollution by walnut will invariably be iced to one degree or another. The perfect match, surely?

I noticed something was different the moment I started tipping the mix into my bowl: the carrot pieces were larger. Back when I baked the first carrot cake, I noted that the carrot pieces were basically crumb-sized. Now, they have officially graduated to 'flakes'. Still not the full-on gratings that some ready-made cakes contain, but a noteworthy change nonetheless, particularly since it seems to have happened without any fanfare. Then again, other than that, the mixture is unchanged, so maybe larger fragments of root vegetable don't deserve announcement.

The cake was fine as it was, but the larger carrot pieces do add to its texture and, with a carrot cake that tastes as good as this one (let's face it, nothing tastes better than freshly baked cake!), the last thing we need is for the delicate balance of spices to be upset.

There have been times when a 'New, Improved Recipe' has basically ruined a product so, while I'm fully aware that the thing that sets the best companies apart is their response to customer feedback and their constant striving to improve the quality of their products, I believe that some things should always stay as they are.

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Anyone who spends any amount of time shopping in supermarkets will no doubt know the frustration of packing cardboard food boxes into their fridge or freezer. Nine times out of ten, the boxes are oversize for their contents, so it's always appreciated when packaging is minimised. Where the food is contained in a plastic tub or foil tray, extra packaging is often limited to a printed band around the container - less wasteful of cardboard, more easily compacted, and just as recyclable as a full-size box.

When restocking my freezer in Iceland today, I found that some of their foodstuffs that used to be packaged in oversized boxes (and the product contained in a plastic bag within) are now packaged only in their standard heavy-gauge printed plastic bags. These take up far less space in the freezer drawers and become even more convenient as their contents are removed (cardboard boxes can be folded, sure, but tend to unravel, flap about and generally become a pain in the backside).

I should point out that there's no indication on the bag as to whether or not the plastic is biodegradable, recyclable (are either mandatory now?), or even what type of plastic it is. Then again, there's no council-provided recycling collection from my home, so whatever I don't transfer to my parents' place for recycling will end up in the bins. Also, and perhaps more worryingly, while investigating one bag I discovered that the particular chicken product I was looking at was prepared and packaged in Thailand... and, no, it wasn't Thai Chicken.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Last Course: Off-Key Lime Pie

As previously mentioned, there is a vast gulf of difference between 'Key Lime Pie' and the things that are sold as 'Key Lime Pie' in supermarkets across the United Kingdom. Quite how cream ever became involved, I may never know (other than because we like our cream over here... Mmmmm, that full fat goodness!)... so why some insist on turning it into a cheesecake is, frankly, beyond baffling and into the realms of the frighteningly abstract. If Salvador Dali had been a chef, he'd have had nightmares about Key Lime Cheesecake.

What I aimed to do with this was recreate something akin to the traditional, Florida Keys recipe. Naturally, proper Key Limes were out of the question - they're hard enough to come by at the best of times but, right now, it's the middle of winter! Since I like my puns almost as much as I like my snacks, I figured calling it 'Off-Key Lime Pie' was a fun way to admit that it wasn't going to be quite right.

I decided to cut some serious corners with this first iteration, the idea being that I'd see how it turns out using bottled lime juice this time, and then revisit the recipe at a later date, and make it fresh. Also, Waitrose's ready-made Sweet Pastry Case was an absolute Godsend, because it meant no faffing about with rolling out pastry and finding a suitable tin to bake it in. The base actually has to be partly cooked ('Blind Baked' is the term) before the fillings go in anyway, so lots of time and effort were saved there.

Just to make this more fun, I made this while visiting my folks. There was no way I'd be able to eat the whole thing myself (no, really... 'Two-Puds' I may be... this is six, easily), and I figured it'd be easier to transport the ingredients than a finished pie... so I was working in a kitchen I'm not as used to as my own, and with both parents to-ing and fro-ing all the while.

Ingredients:
  • Waitrose Sweet Pastry Case
  • Condensed Milk (approx 325g to be used, so try to get a container of about that size. Carnation make one of 450g, which is what I used... but shop around!)
  • 4 Eggs - to be separated!
  • Essential Waitrose Lime Juice (1x 125ml bottle)
  • 1 Fresh Lime (for the zest)
  • Cream of Tartar
  • Vanilla Extract (I used Ndali's 'Intense')
  • Icing Sugar
Preparation Time: Approx 1hr 20minutes (before chilling in fridge), or 40minutes if using an electric whisk

Tools Required:
  • 2 Medium Bowls - one for the pie filling, one for the meringue
  • Whisk (this is one of those times when an electric whisk is helpful - it makes the meringue far easier!)
  • Grater (for the lime zest)
  • Measuring Implements - Condensed Milk is a liquid that is measured by weight, not volume, so scales are handy... US-style 'cups' can be quite helpful for some things: a half cup is the perfect size for the amount of lime juice and icing sugar used by this recipe.
  • Baking Tray or Cookie Tray
The Process:
Preheat the oven to 160C (140C for fan assisted). Carefully separate the eggs so you have the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. A little white in with the yolks won't be too important, but yolk in with the whites will be troublesome!

Add 325g of condensed milk into the bowl with the yolks and lightly whisk. The simplest method for gauging how much to put in is to weigh the container full, then pour some condensed milk into the bowl and weigh the container again. Once the container is approximately 325g lighter, you're done. Grate in some of the lime zest and add the lime juice (gradually, so as to avoid separation), stirring in well. Leave this for about 10 minutes, as the interaction between these ingredients will 'cook' the mixture to some extent, and it should thicken up. Pour the thickened mixture into the pastry case.

Next up comes the meringue, which is basically a case of whisking the egg whites. A lot. Once it really starts frothing up, add about a quarter of a teaspoon of cream of tartar, which should help things along. Once you have a soft, light foam, add about 6-8 tablespoons of icing sugar, one spoon at a time, while you continue to mix. The rule of thumb seems to be that the meringue ready if pulling the whisk out results in a fairly firm 'peak'. As the foam begins to firm up, add one teaspoon of vanilla extract.

The meringue takes absolutely ages to make and requires a lot of elbow grease. I would like to mention (read: boast) that I did mine entirely by hand (OK, I let my father do some whisking when my arms started to ache, but I did lots at the beginning and lots at the end). While whisking vigorously, I noticed that making meringue could be turned into an almost-full-body exercise, as I found my legs were moving slightly some of the time... If you're not using an electric whisk, one useful trick is to roll the whisk handle between your palms, back and forth (anyone who's ever been in Cubs or Scouts will recognise this as the traditional technique for making fire, using two sticks of wood), as this gives you something close to the effect of an electric whisk.

Scoop the meringue onto the lime mixture in the pie case, then scatter over the remaining lime zest. Put the pie onto a baking tray or cookie tray and bake for about 10 minutes. Note that, if you're not using a fan-assisted oven, you may need to turn the pie round halfway through to ensure an even cook. Cool slightly before chilling in the fridge, then serve chilled.

The Results:
As is traditional with this blog, I shall discuss the things I got wrong on this first attempt:
While I have noted temperatures of 160C/140C above, when I went researching Key Lime Pie, temperatures of 200C were recommended, and so that's more or less what I used. The end result was that the pie filling wasn't as well-set as it should have been and the meringue was rather more than 'golden brown'. Also, since the oven I used this time is not fan-assisted, there was a visible graduation in browning from the back (very brown) to the front (basically still white) of the oven, because I did not turn the pie halfway through.

Also, the quantities listed, while good, are perhaps a little excessive for the Waitrose Sweet Pastry Case I used. The lime filling was damn near overflowing before the meringue went on! There was also rather too much meringue but this 'problem' was solved by dolloping the excess onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, and baking some small meringues. I suspect that 3 eggs with a correspondingly reduced amount of condensed milk (and lime juice?) would have been preferable.

But, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating...

And I have to say, despite setting the oven too high and having too much of everything, this turned out to be an amazing home-made dessert. One 125ml bottle of lime juice seemed to be the perfect quantity - the filling was smooth, but with a subtle citrus sharpness and a good lime flavour, and the meringue softened it nicely. I will say that Waitrose bottled juice (from concentrate) probably didn't work as well as freshly squeezed lime juice would, so I'm very keen to revisit this and do it 'properly' sometime soon. The lime zest in the pie adds a nice bit of texture and extra little hits of lime flavour, but the overall experience was smooth.

I don't think vanilla extract was traditionally an ingredient in the meringues my family used to make, but it really does boost the flavour, so I shall certainly remember it for my future efforts. It gives it almost a toffee-like hint - a single teaspoon really goes a long way. Also, I believe that electric whisks, while convenient, never quite manage the light, fluffy consistency you get from putting in the time and effort with a hand whisk.

Some other, similar recipes (such as Lemon Meringue Pie) tend to suggest baking the pie briefly before adding the meringue, then reducing the temperature for a final round of baking. I think I'll give that a shot next time: 10 minutes at 160C (140C fan-assisted), then cool and chill, then add the meringue and cook for another 10 minutes at 140C (120C fan-assisted).

For a first attempt at something quite daring (for me!), this really was quite amazing. I was very worried about separating the eggs - never having done it before - but it turned out to be reasonably easy, even with my mother watching over my shoulder for the first couple of eggs. In retrospect, I think I'd like to have taken advantage of the electric whisk, but making this entirely by hand was a very rewarding experience, even if it did leave my arms aching!

And, since I am so proud of this... Have some photos!
Note that the pie filling is yellow, not green... then compare and contrast with any alleged 'Key Lime Pie' you find in the shops. Home made pie wins.

Addendum 9/1/2012:
Remade this using only 3 eggs, 245g of condensed milk, the juice (and pulp!) from 3 fresh limes and the grated zest from 2. The end result was better, not least because I actually used the settings detailed above, rather than those I initially found in my research. The filling was rather more solid... or jelly-like, rather. The meringue was perhaps a little underdone, but was soft and light. Flavour-wise, it wasn't much different from the original... perhaps a touch less acid. I'm not sure the addition of actual lime pulp made much of a difference to the pie but, overall, I have to recommend the fresh version over the one made with 'lime juice from concentrate'.

No surprises there, I guess...

Pictures, you ask? Why, certainly...
It's obvious that the filling has worked better this time round, but whether this is due to the lower cooking temperature or the use of fresh juice, I don't know... Probably a mixture of both.

Volume-wise, it's nowhere near overflowing the case, like the first one. I'm honestly not sure that's an improvement. Also, even with only three eggs, there was still far too much meringue. I tried using the remainder to make some separate meringues but, again the times and temperatures I found online were utterly wrong, and the results were still soft and sticky.

I still ate them all, though...

Come on, what kind of fool do you take me for?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

7 Days Months of Baking: Day 7 - Wright's Ginger Cake

OK, so this wasn't 7 Days of Baking in the sense of spending a week baking one cake a day, but I kind of predicted that. And, hey, let's face it, I set myself this challenge on a Friday 13th, so it was never going to go smoothly. Now, finally, so very nearly seven months to the day after this bake-a-thon began, we have the final entry - my embellished Wright's Ginger Cake.

Considering how well all of these have gone so far, one could be forgiven for thinking that, when it comes to baking Wright's mixes, I can do no wrong but, please, delay your flattery... This one didn't go so well.

In fact, I'd have to admit that, despite managing to recover from an error early in the baking stage (I think I set the temperature too low), I had made another, even more crucial error in my choice of embellishment.

Ingredients:

  • Wright's Ginger Cake Mix
  • Water
  • Cooking Oil
  • Chocolate Coated Crytallised Ginger (I used a bag from Julian Graves, Dark chocolate)
Preparation Time: About an hour

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl (for the mixing)
  • Whisk (or electric mixer, if you're lazier than I am, also for the mixing)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size - paper liners optional)
  • Measuring Implements (jug for the water, tablespoons or similar for oil)
  • Cooling Rack
The Process:
I'm actually going to include the full instructions here, since I did such a fine job of reading them wrong this time. Consider it a mark of my shame.

Preheat the oven to 140-160degrees C (160-180 if not using a fan-assisted oven). Measure out 200ml of water and 60ml of cooking oil into the bowl, then add the Wright's cake mix, stirring as you go. The instructions do reckon only a couple of minutes mixing with a hand whisk, but I tend to whisk for at least 5 minutes, just to be sure of as many lumps and clumps are smoothed out.

To make the baking tin ready, either add a paper liner or grease the inside thoroughly with butter. I'm using paper liners all the time now, as they do save a great deal of effort in washing up afterward - but the cakes come out easily enough, and with very little cake left in the tin just with buttering.

Pour the batter into the tin - it's thin enough that it settles evenly - and place into the oven for 50 minutes (generally good enough but, as mentioned, I think I went for the low end of 140-160C this time, when previously I've gone for closer to 160C). I have a timer that gives me 10- and 5-minute countdown warnings, so I set it for an hour and checked at the sound of each alarm.

When it looks ready, remove the tin from the oven and allow to stand for 10 to 15 minutes to cool, then tip out the loaf onto a cooling rack for a few minutes.

The Results:
I really thought this would work, and that it would be great... I mean, what could be better than a ginger cake with large pieces of actual ginger mixed in? Only a ginger cake with large pieces of chocolate coated actual ginger, surely?

In fact, it turned out terrible. First things first, I set the temperature too low so, when I pulled it out of the oven at the 50 minute mark, as I have learned to do with these cakes in my oven, it wasn't fully cooked... but I only realised this when I tried to tip it out of the tin, and the still-liquid innards started to ooze out of the split in the top. So, the oven got switched back on, and the cake went back in for another ten minutes.

Thankfully, this did not result in a thick, tough crust... But what I hadn't considered was the effect of baking on the crystallised ginger...

Truly, I am embarrassed to confess, that which tastes so good on its own, was the utter ruin of this cake. The ginger pieces seemed tougher, stringier and far more bitter than they are in their normal state. Yes, sure, crystallised ginger is invariably coated in sugar because it's not exactly sweet, but the act of baking it inside a cake seemed to emphasise the its bitterness. The chocolate coating wasn't too helpful either - it did nothing to dull the flavour in the way it would normally. Worse still, the combination of dark chocolate and unusually acrid ginger actually overloaded the flavour of the cake, leaving it tasting rather bland... Which it really isn't in its unadulterated state. Maybe milk chocolate would have worked better, but I doubt it.

Perhaps there are other things I could have added into this cake, or perhaps Wright's Ginger Cake deserves to be baked as it comes, without any embellishments.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Uncle Ben's Chilli Con Carne Sauce

OK, I'm playing it safe again.

In many ways, this is going to be a rinse-and-repeat of the Spaghetti Bolognese writeup, because it's essentially frying some minced beef, then adding a ready-made sauce. Hum.

To make it a bit more interesting, therefore, I'm going to link to a proper Chilli recipe (once it's available) used by a friend who's a real American-style Chilli connoisseur, for the sake of comparison.

Ingredients:
  • Uncle Ben's Chilli Con Carne Sauce (1 jar is enough for anywhere between 2-4 people)
  • Minced Beef (approx 300g is recommended by the instructions on the jar. Fresh is always preferable, but I've tended to use frozen, from Iceland)
  • Grated Cheese (optional)
Preparation Time: About 10 minutes!

Tools Required:
  • Medium-sized Saucepan (or Frying Pan)
  • Stirring Implement
  • 1 Burner on your Hob
The Process:
Set your chosen pan on the hob on a high setting. Add the beef, and keep it moving as it browns. There's rarely any need for extra oil, because the beef will probably contain more than enough fat. It should only take about five minutes to brown 300g, even from frozen.

Once all the beef is evenly cooked, tip in the jar of sauce, which already contains the beans, peppers and onions so, unless you're really desperate for something that's not included (mushrooms, perhaps?), there's no need to add anything else. Just keep it moving, and wait for it to start bubbling.

While this is going on, make ready with whatever extras you'll be serving along with your chilli. Tortillas and dips are always fun (and tend to be nicer when it's all served up fresh together - few things are worse than the way far too many restaurants serve chilli'n'tortillas, which ends up as a soggy, congealed lump before you're halfway through), but Uncle Ben's also have a Spicy Mexican style rice in their Express range of microwave-cooked rices. Serve up in a bowl, and top with grated cheese if required.

The Results:
I have to say, as someone who has only recently started eating chilli, I really rather liked this. The spiciness is spot on for my tastebuds, and the proportions of beans, peppers and onions in the sauce are most agreeable. Even my chilli connoisseur friend was surprised when, after a mere 10 minutes in the kitchen, I presented her with a bowl of chilli this good.

Serving it with tortillas and dips is probably the best route (though I wasn't able to find any sour cream at short notice, so we had to make do with guacamole), and I did find that the Uncle Ben's Spicy Mexican rice was perhaps a little too spicy to work as a good accompaniment to this dish - one effectively cancelled out the other. Topping with grated cheese does add to the experience, but Cheddar is probably not the right choice - it doesn't melt quickly enough, even when added to the chilli bowl immediately after serving. Something like Monterey Jack might be a better fit, as it melts more easily and its flavour isn't as intrusive on the chilli.

Last Course: Waitrose Key Lime Pie

Some years ago, I took a holiday in Florida, so it should come as no surprise that I've sampled Key Lime Pie that was actually made in the Keys.

With that in mind, it should also come as no surprise that most things I've found in the shops labelled 'Key Lime Pie' are but pale imitations of the true dessert.

Many of them are topped with rather too much cream. Many of them use a very obviously artificial colour to emphasise that it's Key Lime Pie ("it's all green and stuff, innit? Limes!"). There are those that are too sweet, there are those that are too bland. There are very few that follow the Conch tradition of adding a meringue topping.

Because that would be too much like Lemon Meringue Pie, wouldn't it?

Flavour-wise, Waitrose version is a fairly decent stab at a Key Lime Pie. It has a good, crunchy, biscuit crumb base (described as 'gingercrumb', though I cannot comprehend why - it doesn't taste gingery, and nothing obviously gingeresque is listed in the ingredients), and the lime mousse is subtly flavoured, yet has bite and doesn't have the unpleasant aftertaste one often finds in products claiming to be 'Key Lime Pie'.

But, other than the flavour, it really isn't Key Lime Pie by any stretch of the imagination. Alongside the condensed milk required by the traditional recipe, this thing contains double cream, crème fraîche and full fat soft cheese... So it's basically a lime cheesecake. A true Key Lime Pie should be made with nothing more than lime juice, egg yolks and condensed milk and, in the oldest recipes, this pie wasn't even oven-baked - the chemical reaction between the lime juice and the condensed milk was enough to 'cook' it.

The other thing to note is that yer actual Key Limes are often not dissimilar to lemons in appearance, albeit smaller, so the green colouring is hopelessly misleading. If any additional colour is needed for a Key Lime Pie, it should be yellow, not green. This one is very pale, but still green... and the little pieces of lime zest on the top are definitely green.

Waitrose attempt, therefore, is another one for the "It's Not Really Key Lime Pie" column. Nice as the 'gingercrumb' base is, it should have been proper pie crust. Sharp and limey as the flavour is, the mousse is all wrong. As a lime cheesecake, this is absolutely wonderful... But that's not what they're calling it.

All of which makes me think that, considering how simple the traditional recipe is, I should really attempt to make a Key Lime Pie myself. Of course, it's highly unlikely that I'll be able to buy any Key limes in any of my local shops, or even the larger supermarkets further afield, so I'll just have to make do with the normal kind.

Then again, considering how simple the traditional recipe is, I wonder why so few people actually follow it...

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Miso Spaghetti Soup

You know how it is: It gets to be late in the evening, so you don't want to cook anything that takes ages, don't have much of an appetite anyway, but do feel the need to eat something... And all you have in your cupboards is basically leftovers.

So, what do you do? Dash down to the kebab shop, or go wild and throw something together at random?

OK, probably me too... but if all I ever ate was takeaways, I wouldn't have anything to write about, would I? So let's just assume for a moment that your first instinct is to consider which leftovers can go together, and start planning a quick, scrappy meal with what you have to hand.

Ingredients:
  • Spaghetti (or any other dry pasta leftovers you have that aren't quite a full portion)
  • 1 Sachet of Miso Soup Paste
Preparation Time: About 15 minutes!

Tools Required:
  • Medium-sized Saucepan
  • Stirring Implement des choix
The Process:
Very, very simple stuff. This is basically a combination of making miso soup (empty sachet into pan of boiling water, stir) and making spaghetti (add dry spaghetti to pan of boiling water, stir), with the intention of allowing the flavour of the soup to permeate somewhat into the spaghetti, thus removing the need to add salt to the water.

So... Half-fill the saucepan with water, bring it to the boil and add the miso soup paste. Stir it in thoroughly for a few minutes, then simply add the spaghetti, and treat it as if you're making it up for a bolognese, or whatever. Obviously, though, once the spaghetti is ready (10-12 minutes on the boil), you decant the entire contents of the pan into a bowl and serve, rather than straining the spaghetti and tipping the water away.

Neat, huh?

The Results:
There's a problem with this idea which I only now see in retrospect: the starch in the spaghetti. Even as I was eating it and noting that the soup was unusually bland, yet bitter, it didn't occur to me that I'd made a small oversight/error in judgement in my combination of ingredients: Allowing the soup to flavour the pasta is all well and good... but starch from the pasta will inevitably flavour the soup

It wasn't bad, really, but there was a noticable change to the taste of the soup, and I can only think it was the starch that did it. This could probably be remedied by using fresh pasta, as opposed to dry... or noodles rather than spaghetti.

Still, as quick, hot, soupy snacks go, this is one to keep in mind.

7 Days Months of Baking: Day 6 - Wright's Cheese & Onion Bread

And so, we draw near the end of my much-vaunted '7 Days of Baking' project. As I write, in fact, the final installment - the second Ginger cake - has already been baked... so expect to see the write up of that in early 2012.

Here, though, we have the last of the Wright's Bread mixes, Cheese & Onion.

Ingredients:
  • Wrights Cheese & Onion Bread Mix
  • Water
  • Butter or Oil (for greasing the baking tin/tray, or just use a tin liner)
  • Flour (only for the kneading part!)
Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (1 hour 15 if baking rolls rather than a loaf)

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl
  • Sturdy Mixing Impliment (a whisk is not appropriate for dough!)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size) or Baking Tray (enough to accommodate 10 rolls)
  • Jug
  • An Area of Clear, Flat Kitchen Surface (for the kneading)
  • Cling Film or Cloth
  • Cooling Rack
The Process:
Again, this is detailed quite clearly on the packaging, and I've written it up to some degree already with the Mixed Grain and Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato varieties, so all I'm going to say here is that I was a bit more imaginative this time, and tried to make myself a baguette. There is some small variation in the amount of water to be added to the different mixes, but nothing worthy of any additional detail.

Of course, since you're required to leave the dough to rise for 30-40 minutes, something that starts out shaped like a baguette ends up looking somewhat more like a bâtard... And, since I ended up leaving the dough for a little over an hour this time, it had become so large, I couldn't have turned the risen dough into a single baguette that would fit in my oven.

Also, since my only option for something this size was to place it on a baking tray, I laid down a sheet of foil before shaping the dough in the first place. Not as easy to remove as the tin liners I've used before, but far less effort than greasing the tray. Finally, in a fit of pique, I decided to remove this bread from the oven after only 25 minutes, since my experience with the cakes and the other breads suggests that Wright's estimated cooking time doesn't suit my oven.

The Results:
Well, if the Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato bread was unexpectedly light on cheesiness, this one more than made up for it, leaving Wright's mixtures in generally very good standing. When I munch on a Cheese and Onion loaf, I expect to taste both cheese and onion. Naturally, the minute crumbs of cheese in the mixture (2% this time, but still Parmesan) are absorbed fully into the bread during its time in the oven, but the onion pieces - while small - remain a tangible component both to the eye and to the palate.

The slightly reduced cooking time did indeed result in a softer crust, but no discernible difference to the interior of the loaf... it was soft, light and nicely moist. I was a little disappointed that my knife-scoring on the top of the dough didn't open out more, but that's just me getting (briefly) hung up on a small, aesthetic point. I'm guessing that I just didn't score deeply enough, or made some other mistake than can be rectified for future loaves by research and/or with practice.

I don't normally add photos of the stuff I cook for this blog (but often wonder if perhaps I should... Feedback, anyone?), but I was so happy with the results of this particular round of baking that I just had to take a few snaps...



Iceland Ultimate Snacks Tuna Melt Panini

You know, I'm just going to have to accept that Iceland's 'Ultimate Snacks' line is going to be a permanent and regular exception to my 'Keeping Away From The Microwave' ideal. Here, we have a freezer-friendly, ready-made tuna melt, made with red onion, which is ready to eat - from frozen - in a mere two minutes. I believe it would be doing a disservice to any blog named 'snacks & the single man' to exclude the range entirely because, cooking method aside, it fits the concept admirably.

Or does it?

On the whole, I'm going to be quite positive here. For just £1, you get a decent-sized panini which is, indeed, ready in two minutes. Whereas with the sausage and egg muffin, you have to cook it in two stages - contents first, then the whole - this one only requires that you turn it over halfway through. I'd guess this is mainly to ensure good ventilation, since its plastic bag is perforated.

While the texture of the panini's crust is never going to be the same from frozen as it is when fresh (it actually turns out soft and rather rubbery), it's really not too bad, and certainly doesn't come out soggy, which can so easily happen with dealing with bread products in a microwave. The flavour of the bread is good, and the filling actually tastes amazing - the tuna and cheese blend nicely, the red onion component is a distinct enough flavour without becoming overpowering and, hell, you can even tell there's black pepper in the mix without having to examine the ingredients list. In short, it tastes like a really good tuna melt.

But is that enough? When you look at the photo on the packaging, what you see is a panini that's full to overflowing with tuna, cheese and onion - like you'd make yourself, or the sort of thing you could buy in a high street sandwich shop or café. Sadly, the packaging is very misleading. The product contained therein has nothing like that quantity of filling - comparatively speaking, it's an almost insultingly thin smear of filling within the panini. I'd estimate that the only way they could get a photo like the one on the packaging, using the same amount of filling, would be to have piled it up around the two visible edges of the panini.

It's one of those things you must deliberate and weigh in your own hearts, stomachs and wallets. If you were to buy the components, and make one from scratch, I honestly doubt you could make a better tuna melt at a unit cost of £1... It's quick to cook, tastes amazing, and is incredibly cheap... but does that make up for the meagre quantity of filling?

Personally, I'd say it does... There are always caveats with ready-made products, but purely in terms of flavour, this is one of the winners in the 'Ultimate Snacks' line.

...But I'm adding 'tuna melt' to my list of 'Things to Try to Make From Scratch', just in case.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Dolmio Days

(AKA: Spag Bol - It Had To Happen Eventually!)

It has been my impression for many years that Spaghetti Bolognese is basically the staple food of single men. Many a time, at work, I'd overhear guys discussing their plans for dinner (at home) after work and, when it wasn't takeaway (Chinese/Indian predominately), it always seemed to be 'Spag Bol'.

It's also something I grew up enjoying fairly regularly (up until the previously mentioned BSE scare) and so, when beef returned to my personal menu, it seemed inevitable that I'd have to try my hand at Spag Bol myself... But I figured that baby steps were in order, and elected to try some of the ready-made sauces available these days.

Of course, the funniest thing about Spag Bol - and particularly Dolmio's 'Italian Muppets' advertising, asking "when's-a your Dolmio Day?" - is that Spaghetti Bolognese as we know it in the UK is about as far from traditional Italian food as you can get while still using ingredients often found in traditional Italian food. Outside Italy, 'Bolognese sauce' tends to be tomato-based, and usually served with minced beef. Proper Bolognese sauce is meat-based... and more often served with tagliatelle, or in a lasagne, while Spaghetti tends to be served with meatballs rather than mince.

So... Where to begin this pseudo-Italiana?

Ingredients:
  • Spaghetti (approx 75g per person seems to be the norm, but amazing, high-tech measuring devices are available, just Google 'spaghetti measure', or go here)
  • Dolmio Spaghetti Sauce (1 jar is enough for anywhere between 2-4 people, and they have a range of options)
  • Minced Beef (approx 300g is recommended by the instructions on the Dolmio jars. Fresh is always preferable, but I've tended to use frozen, from Iceland)
  • Salt (just a pinch, for the water in which the spaghetti is boiled).
Preparation Time: About 15 minutes!

Tools Required:
  • 2 Medium-sized Saucepans (or 1 Saucepan for the spaghetti, 1 Frying Pan for the Bolognese)
  • 2 Stirring Implements (because you really don't want to use one for both pans!)
  • Sieve
  • 2 Burners on your Hob!
The Process:
OK, confession time: The first time I attempted to make spaghetti bolognese like this, I got the timing all wrong. I thought the spaghetti would be really quick and the bolognese quite slow, so I started out with the meat, added the sauce, and only then made a start on the spaghetti. The end result was the the sauce was all but boiled away by the time the spaghetti was ready. So... here's how you should do it:

Half fill your saucepan with water, add a little salt and bring to the boil on the hob. Dump the spaghetti into the saucepan and keep it moving. Eventually it'll be flexible enough that the whole of it can be submerged. Meanwhile, brown your beef in the frying pan/2nd saucepan and on a high heat. No extra oil should be necessary, as there tends to be quite enough fat in minced beef. This should only take about five minutes, even from frozen. Once the meat is thoroughly browned, turn down the hob to a medium heat, tip in the contents of the sauce jar, stir it in, and keep it moving. It should be bubbling away nicely within about five minutes.

By this time, the spaghetti should be almost done, so make ready with the seive. Turn off the hob (both burners!), drain the spaghetti through the sieve and serve. Serve out the sauce over the top and lo, your Spag Bol is ready!

The Results:
As previously mentioned, the first attempt turned out rather drier than anticipated, but still quite good, all things considered. The 'Original' sauce is a very rich, tomato-based affair and, in it's standard form, I found it rather too sweet for my palette. It's worth noting at this point that sugar is listed as an ingredient, further proving how far this is from traditional Italian cooking.

For my second attempt, I chose Dolmio's 'Extra Onion & Garlic' version (others include 'Extra Mushroom', 'Extra Spicy', 'Low Fat', etc.), which seemed to me to offer a better, more rounded flavour.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that Dolmio's sauces all include a range of herbs which are not present in a traditional Bolognese sauce, and that most Italians would balk at the mere suggestion of garlic in a Bolognese sauce, let alone 'extra'.

Still, to my uneducated, insensitive English palette, both sauces were quite nice (other than the excessive sweetness of the 'Original' flavour), and the convenience of having a plate of Spag Bol in about 15 minutes cannot be overstated. Making one's own sauce is always going to be preferable but, if this blog has a message, it's all about not overlooking the quick-and-dirty option.

Adding to the convenience is that, once cooked, these 'bolognese sauces' (deliberate use of a lower-case 'B', there) store very well. They can easily survive in the fridge for a few days, and be served with minimal reheating, or be frozen for more long-term storage. Quite handy if you tend to be cooking for one.

Also, by the by, since I'm terrible at doing my washing up, I found that the remnants of the 'Extra Onion & Garlic' sauce grew a fine collection of salt crystals while sitting in my 'to do' pile. The website reckons 1.2g of salt per 125g serving (which the makers equate to a 'single' serving). Other sauces go up to 1.4g, and each jar contains 500g of sauce (enough to serve 4 by their reckoning).

I'm honestly not sure if this says anything about the quantities of salt hidden in everyday foodstuffs, or if it's just a damning indictment of my lazy-arse attitude to washing up after a meal.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Happy Egg Co. Smoked Salmon & Fresh Spinach Quiche

The Happy Egg Company seemed to pop up quite suddenly. I don't even remember seeing them around last year, and yet now even my small, badly stocked 'local' supermarket branches care carrying their eggs and other products. I do feel that a lot of these companies - particularly those specialising in pies and quiches - are jumping on the bandwagon that started rolling along when Higgidy turned up on the high streets, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Variety is always good and, as long as the competition is all about quality and range, rather than market saturation, we're in for lots of very imaginative fillings.

Which brings me to this salmon and spinache quiche. Neat, huh?

The folks at The Happy Egg Company make a big thing of the fact that their 'British eggs' are 'always free range', and also that the eggs in their boxes are not consistently sized. I suppose this is intended to assure us that the chickens are truly 'free range' and that their egg laying is completely natural rather than coming as the result of battery farm homogeny. Since I can't tell the difference between any other supplier's 'medium eggs' and 'large eggs', all it meant to me was that I saw eggs that were clearly of different shapes and sizes, though their volume appears to be fairly consistent.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to how they work in this particular quiche. Much like any ready made quiche, this can be served hot or cold and, somewhat unusually for me, I decided to try it hot. Possibly due to the smoked salmon...

Now, the first thing that tends to strike me about any quiche that lists spinach as an ingredient is that spinach ends up being the main component. I'm not against spinach in and of itself, but when so much is used it overloads every other flavour in the product, you can tell it's been used as a cheap filler.

Not so with this quiche. There's a decent amount of spinach in there, but not enough to overpower the eggy flavour of the quiche filling, let alone the salmon.

And the salmon? Wow.

Really, just wow.

I know the packaging quite clearly states that it's smoked salmon (though it does have the word 'smoked' in a substantially smaller size than the word 'salmon'), but I honestly didn't expect the smoked flavour to survive either being put in a quiche, or being reheated in said quiche... and yet it does, very well. The saltier, piquant flavour shines through, and is a great addition to almost every mouthful. By comparison, think of how bacon ends up tasting in a quiche - yes, you can taste that it's bacon, but it doesn't compare to the flavour of freshly grilled/fried strips of bacon. This smoked salmon is almost as flavourful as smoked salmon served on its own. The creamy egg filling smoothes out the flavour without in any way reducing it.

On the downside, there's absolutely nothing special about the crust... but then, that just reminds me how spoilt we are by Higgidy's seeded shortcrust pastry. Most quiches tend to have very plain bases so as not to detract from the content, and I'd venture the opinion that a quiche like this one could support a more elaborate pastry, but I'm not surprised the risk wasn't taken.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Last Course: Burtree Puddings

Ready-prepared cake and bread mixes weren't the only things I picked up at the Real Food Festival early this year; I also picked up some ready-made puddings. Three, to be precise, all from the amazing Burtree Puddings. Being gastronaut of the strictly amateur variety, I had never heard of Burtree, but their puddings are Guild of Fine Foods award winners.

This is where I admit I'd never heard of the Guild of Fine Foods either. Ahem.

Then again, when it comes to desserts, awards rarely figure into my thinking. All I really want is something tasty, sweet and filling. Three cheers, then, for Burtree.

Of course, I've taken so darned long to write up these puddings, I've decided to group them together, rather than giving them their own separate entries, as they truly deserve, but I hope to adequately convey how great these things are.

Chocolate Pudding:
Since there's a grand tradition of fail in this blog, I shall start by mentioning that my first portion of this saucy-cakey delight was somewhat overdone in the microwave. The instructions say "heat for 1-2 minutes (individual portions 20-40 seconds) until the sauce bubbles". Muggins here didn't notice the parentheses, and blasted an individual portion (about a third - have I mentioned I like my puddings?) for the full two minutes.

It's testament to the quality of this dessert, then, that the net result of this excessive irradiation was that the sauce pretty much boiled away, but the sponge pudding itself was utterly unaffected. It remained moist, smooth and incredibly chocolaty.

My second helping (NOT the same day, honest) went better, and so I was then surprised by how generous the topping of sauce turned out to be. In its semi-solid form, it seems like a fairly slim portion but, once heated and fully liquid, the topping goes a long way - not a single spoonful of sponge entered my eager gob without an ample coating of the rich tasty sauce.

Worth noting also is that the sauce is a simple-but-effective mixture of double cream, sugar, butter and Belgian chocolate with a 60.4% cocoa solids content... Truly extravagant, but much appreciated by this particular chocophile.

Ginger Pudding:
Confession time: I really like ginger cakes. I have many fond memories from my youth of gobbling up slice after slice (after slice, etc, etc) of ginger cake, savouring its spiciness and, for whatever reason, particularly enjoying the stickiness of its 'crust'. Burtree's Ginger Pudding is just like that, but with a sweet ginger sauce containing pieces of crystallised ginger. The label mentions 'ginger pieces', but I wasn't expecting them to be crystallised, so they provide an interesting, crunchy counterpoint to the soft sponge and the smooth, hot sauce.

The ginger flavour is probably a little stronger than the average ginger cake - comparable more to the Wrights version - but the sponge is more moist, even without the addition of the sauce.

Like the chocolate version, the layer of sauce doesn't look like much but, once molten, a little goes a very long way, and it adds immeasurably to the overall experiece of chomping through a portion of the pudding.

I'd actually bought a third pudding from the Burtree stand - the Sticky Toffee Pudding - but I ended up taking that over to my folks, and not staying for dinner that day or, indeed, anytime soon enough to have sampled it myself before it was guzzled.

Both of these, as mentioned at the start, are Guild of Fine Foods award winners - the latter received the gold award in 2006, the former achieving a '1 Star Gold' in 2009. I believe the Sticky Toffee won something as well, but no longer have the packaging to confirm this.

On the subject of the packagaing, it's very much functional - none of the extravagance you'd find in supermarket products. Each one comes in a foil tray with a foiled cardboard lid, and are wrapped in cellophane. The labelling is of the stick-on variety, with the basic label being a 2-colour print, and the details added by laser printer. Heating instructions cover both microwave and traditional ovens, and the ingredients list helpfully highlights potential allergens, such as Wheat Gluten. Peculiarly, the Chocolate pudding also notes that it 'may contain date stones', though a closer inspection of the ingredients reveals that dates are present in the sponge.

As a final couple of notes, when I bought these puddings, the guy on the stall told me they keep for quite a while - the Best Before date suggests about a month - but the chances of any of these surviving long enough to meet their BB date are very, very slim. I think the longest either of these lasted (once opened) was about a week. Since they start out in plastic-wrapped foil containers, as long as they're kept according to the storage instructions, I'd guess that a month is a conservative estimate on their lifespan - literally just 'at its best before this date', but still perfectly edible long after

Burtree's products aren't available in the supermarkets, but their website does carry a list of stockists (several in London, thankfully!) and, while they don't (currently) have an online shop, they will accept orders by email, and then phone to take payment (ie. credit card) details. Their website suggests that their products are available at the Virtual Farmers Market, but I couldn't find them today... They are, however, available from Love Your Larder's market.

Friday, 11 November 2011

7 Days Months of Baking: Day 5 - Wright's Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato Bread

When I set out of my 7 Days of Baking challenge, a little voice in the back of my head was telling me "It's going to turn into 7 Months of Baking, you know... you won't keep at it, you're too lazy." And so, here we are, almost six months to the day after starting the challenge, just over two months after my last posting here, and with three Wright's mixes still to bake.

I'd like to say I've been positively rushed off my feet with other stuff and, while I can certainly say I have other things on the go right now, none of it has been consuming a particularly large portion of my time. I've just been very, very lazy.

But I mentioned that I'm lazy, right?

There's plenty of other stuff to be written up, but for the moment, let's get another stage of my baking challenge out of the way.

Ingredients:
  • Wrights Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato Bread Mix
  • Water
  • Butter or Oil (for greasing the baking tin/tray, or just use a tin liner)
  • Flour (only for the kneading part!)
Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (1 hour 15 if baking rolls rather than a loaf)

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl
  • Sturdy Mixing Impliment (a whisk is not appropriate for dough!)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size) or Baking Tray (enough to accommodate 10 rolls)
  • Jug
  • An Area of Clear, Flat Kitchen Surface (for the kneading)
  • Cling Film or Cloth
  • Cooling Rack
The Process:
As usual, Wright's on-package instructions are pretty much all you need. It's a very simple process, and almost impossible to screw up as long as the supplied instructions are followed. I must admit that this, my second Wright's bread mix, left me pining for a food mixer, because mixing 500g of this ready-prepared wonder with 315ml of lukewarm water by hand rapidly turns into an exercise in frustration. Once the water was basically mixed in, there was still a fair amount of the dry mixture lurking in the bowl, so I had to work it in by hand. What with that and the kneading, I must have washed my hands about half a dozen times (probably an exaggeration).

After the kneading stage comes the 'cover it with cling film/damp cloth and leave it somewhere warm for about half an hour' stage, to allow the dough to rise and ideally, according to the instructions, 'double in size'.

When I first started this challenge, I imagined that I'd do impressive things with the bread mixes... While plaiting is probably well beyond my level of skill (and patience), there was the possibility of turning the dough into something other than a basic loaf (Baguette? Pretzel? A single, large, round bun?) but, I confess, I just didn't feel up to doing anything particularly whizzy with the Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato version. Still, there's always the Cheese & Onion mix...

Once the dough has done its time and is ready to go, an oven preheated to 210C (230C if not fan-assisted) is its next port of call. A mere 30 minutes baking time is recommended by the instructions.

The Results:
As I've come to expect from Wrights, the bread produced by this mix is fantastic. I did a couple of things different, compared to baking the Mixed Grain variety. Firstly, while the instructions suggest 30-40 minutes dough rising time, I ended up leaving it for 50 minutes, just to see how much further it might rise. The answer is "quite a lot". It easily doubled in size, and I only put it in the oven when I did because I was afraid the rising dough might actually spill out of the loaf tin. And I hadn't even left it somewhere especially warm.

The 30 minute cooking time, much like the hour recommended for Wright's cakes, might actually be a bit excessive for my oven. The crust was very thick and tough (not that I dislike crusty bread and, frankly, I'm only comparing it to yer-average Supermarket loaf, most of which can barely be said to have a crust), and just a touch bitter. The bread within, though, is light, moist, and bursting with chunks of sun dried tomato.

Given that one of the components of the mix is Parmesan (1.4% according to the ingredients list), I'm surprised by how little it flavours the finished loaf. While, obviously, the pieces of tomato are rather larger (and less inclined to melt during the baking process), I would have expected a stronger note of cheese. Strangely, though, most of the flavour in the bread comes from the tomato, so perhaps this would have been a good opportunity to add some savoury embellishments. That said, I have no Parmesan in my cupboards or fridge because I'm not that big a fan of cheese.

Had I been hoping for a better balance between the tomato and the parmesan, or just a more flavourful bread, I'd probably have been disappointed by this loaf but, as a savoury bread that is not overloaded by its strong, Italian cheese component, I'm quite happy with the results. I do wonder what proportion of Parmesan would be required to increase its presence in the flavour of the bread...

For future Wright's breads, I suspect I'll be leaving it longer to rise, but cutting the baking time, just to see how that affects the crust and the interior of the loaf.

Iceland Ready To Cook Mediterranean Stuffed Peppers

Let this be a cautionary tale. There are some things that can only ever be made fresh, and certain types of vegetable should never, under any circumstances, be frozen.

Although, technically, they're fruit... because they contain seeds within a soft, juicy outer body.

But let's not get sidetracked by semantics... Leave that for another blog.

I have to say that, when I first set eyes on these, my first thought was "why bother? Something like that would be so easy to throw together from scratch." Basically, what this package contains is half a red pepper and half a yellow pepper, each containing slices or chunks of tomato, potato, onion, green pepper, garlic, carrot and pineapple, along with 'Mediterranean seasoning' and rice (of the white and 'glutinous' varieties). There some kind of 'sauce' thing going on, because the end result is fairly moist and sticky - moreso than one would expect from just mixing all of those veg together with a simple seasoning. Maybe I'm wrong... perhaps I'll have to try it...

In theory, I knew what to expect - the stuffed peppers should have been fairly sweet, on balance, but with a sharp, savoury edge to keep things interesting.

What I actually got, after 25 minutes in the oven, was one of the worst snacking experiences I've thusfar had. Imagine, if you will, a flavour that is equal parts vegetable melange and washing up liquid. Bitter doesn't begin to describe it.

I'm going to blame this entirely on freezing... Freezing, except when done incredibly quickly, increases the amount of water in a product and, when you're talking about peppers, than can only be a bad thing. Freezing will also damage 'meat' of a pepper, making the end result softer and more fragile than it would have been made fresh. Green pepper in particular is a difficult flavour to freeze. The bitterest of the family already, that bitterness is generally the only thing to survive the freezing process, and is often amplified along the way.

Then there's the rice... Very rarely does that come out well from frozen. Personally, I almost never use anything but those handy microwave sachets of rice, because they're so convenient. I've tried rice from frozen, and it ends up either too dry or too glutinous. The rice in this product falls into the latter category.

My only other complaint would be the size of the portions: what the packaging describes as 'pepper halves' seemed far more like thirds. They were shallow and saggy, far moreso than one would expect from a true half, though I realise some of this could be another side-effect of the freezing process.

Overall, I can't recommend trying these... but they did make me want to try making something similar from scratch.

Now if only I could figure out what makes a 'Mediterranean seasoning'...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Surprise! ...It's Beef

I have previously intimated that beef does not agree with me.

The full story is that, wayback when the BSE scare first hit the UK, my family pretty much stopped eating beef for a while. When the fuss died down, and we started eating beef again, I found I just didn't like the taste, so it wasn't served up to me. More recently, I had the tiniest morsel of beef from a friend's plate at a restaurant, and was vomiting shortly thereafter.

However...

It transpired around the beginning of this year that I had a slight irregularity with my stomach (which, bizarrely, caused a cough that just wouldn't go away, and made me sound like I had asthma) and, following a seemingly successful treatment for that condition, I had begun to get curious about my beef intolerance.

And, being a pig-headed fuckwit, rather than start small, I decided today - on a whim - to cook myself a steak.

So, off I trotted, down the road to my local Sainsbury's, and picked up a good-sized portion of Rump at a decent enough price. The packaging was woefully ambiguous in its cooking instructions, describing a 'medium heat' without any reference to proper temperature scales, be they Centigrade or Fahrenheit. A brief Google session led me to believe that the phrase 'medium heat' equates to anything between 170C and 200C - which, to this particular layman, seems like a 'high heat', especially when one considers that my electric grill is only numbered as high as 200, though a closer examination of the dial just now suggests 'MAX' must be approximately 300C. Timings were similarly vague, because steak can be 'rare' (show it the grill, slap it on the plate), 'medium' (actually put it under the grill for about 5 minutes a side, depending on how thick it is) or, if you are a philistine, lunatic or merely crass, 'well done' (thoroughly grilled).

Now, I must confess that, in my youth, I was always of the mind that meat should be cooked, and so I fell - happy in my naïvete - into the latter category. What can I say in my defence? Seeing meat bleed as I cut into it did not increase my appetite.

Getting daring in my old age, I opted to aim for 'medium' and see how palatable the results were. Further Googling suggested a very simple recipe and, God only knows why, but I have a jar of Horseradish sauce in my fridge, so perhaps the time was right to give beef another chance.

Yes, I know it's out of character for me to give anything a second chance. Just shut up and read on, OK?

Ingredients:
  • Beef Steak (duh)
  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
Preparation Time: About 40-45 minutes

Tools Required:
  • Sealable Bowl or Tub large enough to comfortably accommodate the steak
  • Tongs
  • Grill Pan & Wire Rack
  • Foil (to line the grill pan)
The Process:
Pour some Worcestershire Sauce into the tub - enough to cover the bottom. Shake/grind in a little salt and pepper (to taste), then slap in the steak, pour some more of that lovely, piquant fluid over the top, and add a little more salt and pepper on top. This is, essentially, a very simple marinade. Seal the tub, and stick it into the fridge for half an hour.

About halfway through this time, switch on the grill to the mythical 'medium heat'. I went for 180C, but see later on for some further details. The goal is not only to let the grill get to the required temperature, but to have it at that temperature for a good 10 minutes before the steak gets anywhere near it.

Grab enough foil to line your grill pan, and set its wire rack in place. Once the half hour has elapsed, whip the steak out of the fridge, out of the tub (allowing the excess marinade to drip off), then transfer it to the grill pan's wire rack by dexterous application of the tongs. Stick the steak under the grill for about 5 minutes per side, flipping it over with the tongs.

Obviously, while all this action is taking place, you should somehow be preparing whatever will be accompanying your steak for dinner. I failed utterly at this and, at the last minute, threw together some instant mash and blasted some frozen mixed veg in the microwave. (Achievement Unlocked: Look, Ma... I Can Improvise!)

The Results:
OK, you already know that my first attempt at beef is going to be doomed to failure. Surely you've read other pages on this blog?

No? Really?

Well... I have to say the results far exceeded my expectations. It wasn't perfect... it wasn't even great... but it was edible. The still-pink interior of the meat didn't put me off (that is to say, I didn't allow it to put me off... Willpower FTW) and, while I cannot honestly say that I'm a convert to the epicurean delights of bovine flesh, it certainly wasn't as vile and musty as I remember from the beef of my distant youth.

I suspect that upping the temperature to 200C would have been a good idea... or possibly just cooking it for slightly longer than 5 minutes per side. It has further been suggested that frying might have yielded better results. One of the problems, though, was in the quality of the meat. Not being a connoisseur of red meat, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but seams of tough, rubbery stuff would not have been high on the list. Sure, I know there's going to be fat in there... and maybe gristle, a bit of sinew, possibly even bone fragments... but some mouthfuls I simply could not swallow because of this strange substance and its resistance to a thorough mastication. Not even a generous slathering of Horseradish helped.

Considering this was my first full steak in well over a decade (possibly two!), I think I did well to polish off about 2/3 to 3/4 of the meat. Now that I know my stomach can tolerate beef (hurrah for Proton-Pump Inhibitors!), I shall endeavour to reintroduce it into my diet, and try as many methods of cooking (and different cuts of meat) as I possibly can... Any maybe come up with a more complicated recipe next time...

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Quick & Easy Homemade Pizza

Pizza, despite being among my favourite foods, seems like way too much effort to make from scratch. Even though it is (or was, at least) possible to buy a pizza base mix (also used for making doughballs), that's more effort than I'd tend to want to put in. Some time ago, however, I happened to be defrosting some bread and realised that, in it's warm, moist, fresh-from-the-microwave state, a couple of slices could be relieved of their crusts and squashed together to form a quick and dirty (and square) pizza base. I didn't get round to attempting that experiment, and it was a type of bread I don't always buy, so I started considering alternatives. The first one that sprung to mind was Pitta bread... it's almost the right shape anyway, more or less the right consistency, and it's certainly flat enough to support the other makings of a pizza.

So, how does one turn Pitta bread into pizza? Here's the breakdown for a 'Margarita' equivalent - add your own toppings as you please...

Ingredients:
  • Pitta Bread
  • Tomato Purée
  • Basil
  • Black Pepper
  • Garlic (either fresh - crushed or sliced - or granules)
  • Mozzarella (can be bought ready-grated or in chunks)
Preparation Time: about 15-20 minutes

Tools Required:
  • Table Knife or Spoon (for spreading the purée)
  • Um... That's it, I think...
  • Unless you're chopping or crushing the garlic, or grating your own Mozzarella, in which case a Kitchen Knife, Garlic Press and/or Grater will be needed

The Process:
Preheat the oven to about 170C (slightly higher for non-fan-assisted models). For each Pitta Pizza, spread a generous helping of tomato purée over one side of the Pitta. Sprinkle on some basil, black pepper, garlic and finally the mozzarella. Add whatever toppings you prefer.

Place the pittas directly onto the middle shelf of the oven, and leave to cook for about 15 minutes, keeping an eye on their progress so they can be pulled out early if necessary.

Wow... How easy was that?

The Results:
I went for wholemeal Pittas, got a bit clumsy with the granulated garlic, and topped my pizzas with large pepperoni slices. In 15 minutes, they were done to perfection, and tasted great (let's face it, you'll never know yourself if you used too much garlic... but someone else might point it out to you). The tomato purée was sweeter than the tomato sauce used on the average shop-bought pizza, or the kind of thing you'd tend to be served in a restaurant, so the addition of basil, black pepper and garlic toned it down somewhat, and gave it a more full-bodied flavour. Because of the size of pepperoni slices I used, each pitta could only usefully accommodate 3 slices, but other toppings could certainly be added more liberally.

The downside to using Pittas is their tendency to open up, making a 2-layer base. That said, if you were that way inclined, you could add more Mozzarella to the interior, creating your very own stuffed crust. The Pittas I used crusted up quite nicely, but this did lead to a rather crumbly base.

Addendum: Having now tried this under the grill, I can confirm that this is the preferable option - in the oven, while the Mozzarella melted perfectly, the toppings remained essentially untouched (well, the pepperoni started leaking its oils, but that's about it). Grilling will not only melt the cheese, but start to cook the toppings too, giving a much more authentically 'cooked pizza' quality to the end result.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Birds Eye "Bake to Perfection" Chicken with Tomato & Basil Sauce

On the strength of Birds Eye's first "Bake to Perfection" product, back in February, I vowed to try every other entry in this impressive new range and, finally, here's another.

At first glance, it didn't look like something I'd be particularly keen on - I'm a late convert to the charms of the humble tomato, thanks to a terrible incident from my school days (don't ask... it was horrific... just imagine your own least favourite school dinner memory, and empathise), and still tend to avoid them where I can, or just pretend they're not there when I can't.

But this is Birds Eye, long-standing purveyors of fine foodstuffs, so I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And, let's face it, it's good to try something once in a while that you're reasonably sure you aren't going to like because, y'know, life can surprise you sometimes.

But enough cod-philosophy (see what I did there? Cod? Food-related pun? No? Oh well...), and on to the main event.

BtP Succulent Chicken Fillets with a Tomato & Basil Sauce. They come in packs of two, and they take 30 minutes to cook in the oven. It's basically a chicken fillet with a tomato and basil 'butter' squeezed on top, and the idea is that the 'butter' melts and cooks through the meat "to infuse flavour". I observed with the salmon product that it doesn't necessarily soak in quite the way it's supposed to, but that the end result is nevertheless excellent, and the same is true here... only more so.

The 'butter' essentially kept its exact shape from frozen to cooked, though some oils, etc were released into the foil bag. When serving, if you want the finished product to look anything like the photo on the packaging, you're going to have to spend some time spreading the sauce around.

Once you cut into the meat, it becomes very obvious that none of the butter/sauce has penetrated into the meat (despite these being skinless fillets), and I'd have to say that, were I to attempt something like this from scratch, I'd tend to score the meat several times to help the process along.

That said, the oils that were released from the 'butter' were soaked up readily enough once the meat was cut, and they certainly added to the flavour... but it's the sauce proper that really makes this product. Whichever kind of tomato they've used - the ingredients only specify "Tomato Powder" and "Tomato Paste" - it's been prepared exactly right for my tastebuds. It's a full, rich, sharp flavour balanced with a healthy dose of basil. I'm not entirely sure there's quite enough of the sauce, but that's just my preference. "Slather it all over, then add a bit more" is my philosophy.

In so many situations.

But I digress.

The chicken certainly lives up to its description as 'succulent' - moist without being waterlogged - and, despite this being a frozen product, the plain meat actually tasted pretty good, even without much assistance from the sauce.

As a break from the standard, predictable and, let's face it, dull 'potato and veg' accompaniment, I decided to serve this up with some Uncle Ben's Express rice, in the Savoury Chicken flavour. There was method in this madness, in that I knew the rice could be mixed in with whatever remained of the sauce, soaking it up and absorbing its flavour, and I'm pleased to report that the rice complemented the chicken perfectly.

And, as with the Salmon product, this has inspired me to perhaps try something along these lines from scratch... The ingredients list butter, basil, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper in the sauce, so I figure it wouldn't be too difficult to come up with something with tomato purée and garlic butter as a base...

Watch this space...

Monday, 25 July 2011

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

OK, people, stand by to be stunned.

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

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

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

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

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

Or anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...Just remember to share.

Iceland Ultimate Snacks Sausage & Egg Muffin

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Birds Eye Chicken Chargrills - Mexican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 July 2011

Young's Salmon Fillet Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Results:
In a word, "WOW".

You want more? Tsk.

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

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

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