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Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Great Root Beer Tastathon (Part I)

Ever since my first visit to the USA (Florida, specifically, about 16 years ago) I have been a massive fan of Root Beer. For the uninitiated, it's a dark brown fizzy drink, but most definitely not a Cola. Its flavour is not for everyone - many feel it's too sugary, some describe it as medicinal (in fact, even I think some kinds of Root Beer tastes exactly the way Germoline - an antiseptic cream - smells) - but I appreciate that it has a flavour, rather than being just a sugary, syrupy carbonated beverage.

But while Root Beer is (almost) as ubiquitous as Coke in the States, it's not quite so common in the UK. Some of the larger supermarkets will carry the bigger brands (A&W turns up all over the place), and my local Tesco carried imported Boylan's for a while (still available at the larger branches, just not the Express branches). What really prompted this post was something of a quest for my new Holy Grail of Root Beers: Small Town Brewery's "Not Your Father's Root Beer", the draught variety of which I tasted - in all its 10.7% ABV glory - at Woodie's Flat in Chicago, the evening my girlfriend and I went to see some live improv at Second City. So impressed was I that I had to ask the waitress if it was available to buy anywhere... she had to ask the manager (who had ID'd both my girlfriend and I at the door! I took it as a compliment!), who revealed that there is a bottled kind (5.9% ABV) which is widely available, but the stronger version was, at the time, only available on draught, and only in Illinois. According to their website, Small Town have since started producing "limited runs" of the 10.7% version but, as a UK resident, I'm not sure how I'd get my hands on either version...

Coincidentally, slightly less than 16 years ago, a couple of friends and I would occasionally visit the O2 Centre at Finchley Road and spend the evening drinking in a cocktail bar that has since been replaced. I don't remember the bar's name, but I do remember it had a piano. Their extensive menu included a drink named 'California Root Beer', made with Kahlua, Galliano and Coke. I have tried to mix the cocktail at home many times, but never quite get the mix right... And the point of this digression is that, while 'California Root Beer' tasted almost nothing like yer average Root Beer, I was reminded of that cocktail by my very first mouthful of the rich, almost chocolaty "Not Your Father's".

In common with the difference between Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola (not to mention the myriad supermarket own brands and the Colas produced by smaller beverage companies), each brand of Root Beer is very different and so, urged on by my girlfriend, I'm going to do a comparison of those we've been able to find...

A&W
This is basically your bog standard Root Beer. I believe this is the make that's available on tap at the likes of McDonald's in the States, but the canned variety is (naturally) stronger of flavour. It's very sugary, and the 'Germoline' flavour is very strong in this one. Not bad, but certainly not the best soft Root Beer I've tried.

Boylan
Imported from the States by Empire Bespoke Foods Ltd in Northolt (quite near my neck of the woods) and sold by Tesco, this is an "All Natural" Root Beer, made with cane sugar, several natural ingredients and some 'colors' and 'natural flavourings' that are troublingly unspecific on the labelling (neither the importers' labels nor the original US label deign to elaborate). The flavour is far more subtle than A&W, cleaner and less sugary making it more refreshing to drink, but it lacks the kick and is also substantially less aggressively carbonated. Of the flavours involved, none are more prominent than the others, making it seem a little wishy-washy in comparison.

Bundaberg
In recent years, Australia seems to have had the attitude that if it can take over Hollywood, it can do anything. Australian bars would pop up in the most unlikely places, and this Aussie-brewed beverage has even appeared in the chiller cabinet in a slightly poncy café near where I work. Like Boylan's version, it's a more natural approach to the drink, properly brewed and not excessively fizzy. I'd have to say the sarsaparilla is the most prominent note on the flavour - almost fruity - followed by a very subtle touch of licorice, but without a hint of the ginger mentioned in the ingredients list... It's not necessarily a better flavour than Boylan's, but it's certainly very different. It comes in weird, squat bottles that look for all the world like medicine bottles, but definitely doesn't taste medicinal.

Hansen's Natural Cane Soda
Not simply 'Root Beer' but 'Creamy Root Beer', the taste of Germoline is strong with this one - stronger, perhaps, even than A&W's. It's also just as fizzy, but not as shockingly sweet - I actually drank a couple of cans of this which hadn't even been refrigerated (other than having been delivered on a slightly chilly day), and the sweetness didn't overpower the flavour. Curiously, it wasn't exceptionally creamy... at least, compared to the diet variety. Possibly the big selling point of this brand, stated boldly around the bottom of the can, is that it has no caffeine, no preservatives, no sodium and all natural flavour... The big question is whether that particular flavour is what you want out of your Root Beer.

Diet Hansen's Sugar Free
Not simply 'Diet Root Beer' but, following the established Hansen's pattern, 'Diet Creamy Root Beer'. This one is substantially less Germoline-flavoured and substantially more like Cream Soda with a hint of Root Beer. The former is the first flavour that hits and the majority of the aftertaste (with the addition of that slightly nasty tang left by artificial sweeteners - specifically Splenda, in this case), but the typical Root Beer flavour surfaces briefly in between. Were it not for the aftertaste, I think I'd prefer this to the regular kind... but that may be because I also really like Cream Soda...

Hartridges Celebrated
Whereas most of the Root Beers sampled herein are made of a mixture of flavours, Hartridges pins all its hopes on the sarsaparilla, making it taste almost unique. It's somewhat similar to Bundaberg, in that the sarsaparilla is accompanied by hints of licorice (very brief for me, lasting longer for my girlfriend). It is, however, fizzier than Bundaberg... which won't necessarily be to everyone's taste.



There will be more to come in this - as soon as possible in the New Year, basically - because there are quite a few root beers that are only available in 24s or 32s, so we decided to hold off ordering them for a while. I'm aiming to get to 'em all, though... Maybe not in the next round (which may end up being only one or two additional Root Beers), but it is definitely my intention to be as complete as possible in my assessment of fizzy beverages sold as 'Root Beer'. Already on the list are Dad's (possibly the source of the name of Small Town's alcoholic version?), Old Dominion (which I've tried in some restaurants) and Dr. Brown's, amongst others.

And if anyone knows how I can get my mitts on imported "Not Your Father's", please drop me a line!

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Morrisons Kitchen Made to Share Selection

Well, who'd have thought it? Another Thursday, another post about guilty pleasure foodstuffs. Generous readers might be tempted to credit me with foresight, or think I actually planned this.

Truth be told, when I picked out a selection of (reasonably) quick and easy things from the Made to Share range at my local Morrisons, my girlfriend did suggest I could write it up for this 'ere blog but, since the last choice in my "3 for £5" selection was their Smoky BBQ Mini Ribs, there seemed a strong chance I was in for a very disappointing meal and I'd basically decided there would be no write-up. After all, long-term readers if this humble blog will know that my experience with ribs in the UK has been decidedly mixed.

The full Made to Share snack dinner I cooked just for myself this evening, aside from the ribs, featured the amusingly alliterative BBQ Pulled Pork Pockets and the old favourite Loaded Potato Skins. Setting them all up to cook should have been very easy, but my attention lapsed on the final stage and, having timed everything carefully up to that point (25 minutes for the ribs on their own, adding the potato skins for two minutes, then finally adding the pockets for the remaining 13 minutes of the 40 minute total) I neglected to activate the kitchen timer and had to guess when the final 13 minutes had elapsed. If anything, it all stayed in the oven a little too long, though. On the upside, I did notice that the instructions for the ribs state that they should be allowed to stand for a minute before serving. I doubt that's where I've gone wrong in the past, but it's something I'll look out for in future.

As far as the Loaded Potato Skins go, there's really not much to say... They never work especially well when home-cooked, often sticking to the baking tray and splitting apart when removed. They're ultimately just slightly hollowed out thick slices of potato filled with cheese and bacon and, in the case of this package, supplied with a soured cream and garlic dip. This kind of this is good and filling, but never really outstanding in any way.

The BBQ Pulled Pork Pockets were something reasonably new... kind of like miniature Cornish pasties, but filled only with pulled pork. I can't say the BBQ aspect was particularly impressive, but the pockets were at least properly full... if rather small. Probably the most outstanding feature of the pack was that it contained nine pockets - I guess they're acknowledging that a pack of these might actually be bought as part of a selection to be shared between three people, rather than the more usual two or four...

And so we come to the ribs... which were actually pretty good. Each rib had a decent quantity of meat attached and I didn't find any large blobs of gristle or fat (though there were one or two bone fragments). The meat looked good - with none of the rubberiness, toughness or over-dryness that can occur with supermarket ribs - and, while it didn't actually melt off the bone, it tasted more or less as I'd expect pork ribs to taste. The sauce was even fairly impressive for a supermarket own-brand product - not the strong barbecue taste that I prefer, but certainly not the disappointing non-flavour that is so often applied to this kind of thing. It was possibly a little oversweet, given the lack of full-on smoky flavour, but it wasn't sickly. Had I actually set them out in a more sensible ovenproof container than the small, circular Pyrex bowl I pulled out of the cupboard, so that they were all laid out flat rather than jumbled up, and given equal access to the sauce, they might even have turned out the way they look on the packaging photograph. As it was, the sauce didn't have much of a chance to crisp up anywhere. It did actually adhere to the ribs fairly well, though, and I didn't have to scoop the sauce out of the bowl to drizzle it over any of the ribs.

So while I was expecting something bland and disappointing, what I got actually went some way towards restoring my faith in supermarket ribs... and, having tried Iceland's Jim Beam chicken tenders, I'm far more inclined to give the boozy-sauce-enhanced ribs a try than I was before this evening.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Iceland Let's Eat American Loaded Burger with Pulled Pork & BBQ Sauce

One of the guilty pleasures of the occasional evening when my girlfriend goes out is the option to eat something quick and dirty. More often than not, I've tended to pop to one of the local takeaways, or the local KFC but, since the latter recently gave me a case of food poisoning that lasted through at least half my recent holiday to Chicago, I'm starting to think better of all that.

Yet, still, the urge to have something quick and dirty is strong, almost undeniable... and so, while trawling my local Iceland for something vaguely sensible (their Pizza Pala range, while currently small, is worth a look), my wandering eye alighted upon a selection called Let's Eat American. Having only recently been in that very country, you can imagine my curiosity was piqued. There's quite a variety of products in this line, but there's nothing quicker or dirtier than a burger that you cook in the microwave.

Nothing, that is, other than a burger with pulled pork slapped on top that you cook in a microwave.

The product comes in a (frankly, oversized) cardboard box containing two separate bags - one with the burger and pork in a plastic tray, the other with the ready-cut sesame seed bun - which must be irradiated separately, the former taking four minutes, the latter a mere thirty seconds. After that, it's just a case of opening the bags, removing their contents, and throwing them together.

The result is, naturally, nothing like the picture on the box. For starters, the edges of the burger/pork crisp up and stick to the sides of the tray, so it doesn't look as moist or appetising as the promotional image. There's also some weird, gelatinous stuff in there which I generously presumed to be some sort of cheese component. The packaging does describe the contents as "A cooked quarter pounder beefburger, topped with a BBQ flavour sauce, pulled pork, fried onions and grated red Cheddar cheese", but it's clearly a miserly quantity of cheese that ends up as a mildly disturbing goop that's not even plentiful enough to ooze convincingly... it just sort of lurks, looking unappetising. And, if there are fried onions in there, I can't say I encountered any... but then, in all honesty, I can't say I encountered anything "BBQ flavour" either.

The pork itself is not bad, but it certainly lacks flavour - and not just the BBQ flavour of the questionable sauce. The texture is good and, for something that's been microwaved from frozen, it was nice to see it didn't turn out too soggy or too dry - microwaving frequently goes one way or the other, and it's very difficult to fine-tune the timings for a better result. The burger, meanwhile, was decidedly average for this type of product... which is to say of limited flavour, dubious texture, and with a quantity of gristle/bone flecks sufficient to make the likes of me wary of the next bite.

That said, for a mere £1.50, it's not offensively bad - the burger is certainly a decent size (slightly larger than the bun, in fact) and the quantity of pulled pork is reasonable - but given the underwhelming flavour and the typically rubbery nature of the microwaved bun, this isn't a product I'll be picking up again in a hurry.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

S&tSM is Five

Well, it's nothing to do with food, as such, but I figured I'd better mark the occasion of this blog's fifth anniversary.

I'm still not doing any cooking, tending to rely on my girlfriend to get something ready while I'm on my way home from work, but I've suggested taking on cooking responsibilities over the weekends, just so I can keep in practice and hopefully start to improve my kitchen skills again.

After my no-longer-recent experiences with Gousto and Hello Fresh, I'm thinking I might carry on ordering the occasional box from them for weekend meals (though they'll have to be either vegetarian or fish-based). That may not actually happen anytime soon due to the cost - this year is proving to be a bit on the expensive side, and I'm going to have to cut down on 'luxuries' for the next few months.

One of these years, I'll mark the anniversary with a really cool, proper Birthday post... But not this year.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Experiments with HelloFresh #2: Double Peanut Satay Stir Fry with Thai Holy Basil & Bok Choy

Wow. Honestly, I though it would only be a couple of weeks - at most - before I got round to this, but it's actually been two months.

Go, me!

While the original plan was to write up these three recipes on or near the day I tried them out, this one left me so frustrated and angry that I barely spoke to my girlfriend all evening. At the time, it felt like an unmitigated disaster (unmitigated, that is, except inasmuch as it was actually edible, and not unpleasant) because so many things went wrong during the process, and I felt the instructions weren't as clear as they could be. This was my first serious run-in with the... creative... measurement system employed by HelloFresh, where they use non-standard 'cup' sizes and, I suspect, non-standard tablespoon sizes (or, at least, they consider one tablespoon to be one 'man-sized', heaped tablespoon. This led to a situation where I discovered all too late in the process that I hadn't prepared enough sauce, so I had to hastily throw together another batch, which I could no longer easily do because some things were no longer available to me.

Step by step, it seemed to go remarkably well. In fact, the very first step was a complete eye-opener for me for the simple reason that it recommended keeping the cooked noodles in cold water to prevent them cooking further and - though it doesn't actually state this - also from sticking together in a terrible, gelatinous, noodley lump.

The second step - the preparation of the sauce - is where it started to go wrong, because it asks for two tablespoons of peanut butter. Now, I took one look at the two enormous sachets of peanut butter provided and thought "well, I'm only going to need one of these", and I was very, very wrong.

It also said to add a tablespoon or two of the boiling water cooking the noodles to bring the sauce to "the consistency of runny honey". I don't know what kind of runny honey they were thinking of, because my mixture achieved what I would have considered to be the 'correct' consistency without any added water. My mistake, again. It wasn't so much about the consistency as the volume of sauce though, I concede, had I used both sachets of peanut butter, I may well have needed the water.

As with some of the other recipes, I'd been clever and pre-chopped all the veg and the ginger, neatly slicing the bok choy with our mandolin, so the actual stir-fry steps should have proceeded smoothly, and I guess I have only my own clumsiness to blame for the amount of veg that ended up flying all over the kitchen.

But when it came time to add in the satay sauce, it became quickly apparent that there just wasn't enough. Within moments of adding it and starting to stir it in, it seemed to vanish. My attempt at mixing up a new batch was doomed to fail because (a) the only ingredients I had left over were the second sachet of peanut butter and some soy sauce from my own cupboards, (b) I had to do it incredibly quickly because (c) the stir fry was in the process of frying. Already somewhat flustered, I didn't immediately think to turn the heat down (or, y'know, off) while I mixed up more 'sauce', and the realisation slowly dawned that I should have increased the volume of sauce by adding boiling water as the recipe had suggested.

Nevertheless, the second batch of peanut-soy-sauce got dumped in and stirred about for a few minutes before I decided to stop for fear of utterly ruining the meal by burning it. I served it up and slammed a bowl down in front of my girlfriend before curling up into a semi-defensive posture around my own bowl, seething over every mouthful. Far from being a 'Double Peanut Satay Stir Fry', it was basically 'Peanut Butter Veg with Noodles'. Because of all this, I didn't take any photos... Just trust me when I say it looked nothing like the photo on the recipe card.

Of course, time being the great healer - not to mention the third and final recipe actually going quite well - I look back on this experience with a much better humour, and rather want to try it again. None of the ingredients are exactly hard to come by, even if I were to shop locally rather than at a supermarket (in fact, given the abundance of greengrocers near me, shopping locally might be the better option), so it'd just be a matter of assembling the ingredients and cracking on.

I'm still rather put out by the - frankly, arrogant - redefining of standard measures that HelloFresh have undertaken, especially considering how casual they've been about it. That said, given a bit more time and more experience of their quirks, I could certainly do a better job of it than I did this first time. I'm not sure I'll be whispering any little prayers to the gods of Thai cooking, but I may well be muttering oaths under my breath.

So, overall, I'd have to consider this a kind of success, because it was edible, actually tasted quite good even if it didn't taste 'right', and it didn't put me off cooking entirely. Significant caveats there may be, but the recipe itself is pretty good, and one terrible experience out of three doesn't change the fact that, as a service, HelloFresh has lots of potential.

If you think you might fancy giving HelloFresh a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code MPMDQT for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Experiments with HelloFresh #3: Fennel & Olive Fettuccine with Fresh Parsley

No, I haven't forgotten how to count, this should really have been the final post, but I'm temporarily skipping the second for reasons I'll get into when I finally post it. I'll also do the summing-up with that post rather than this one, as it'll make more sense that way.

As much as anything on this blog makes sense, that is.

After doing things in my usual haphazard fashion on the first recipe, my girlfriend mentioned that, when she's cooking, she'll often do snippets of preparatory chopping throughout the day, by way of a five minute break from her studies. While I wasn't quite that organised, I did make a start on this earlier in the evening than with any of my previous efforts, and did most of the chopping in advance of any of the actual cooking. I also followed another bit of her advice: she'd seen and heard my frustration with all the 'finely chop ingredient x' malarky in the first post and, when it came to the garlic, she suggested I simply use our garlic press. The end result is basically the same, if not better, and saves on an awful lot of effort. It was also nice to have a genuine reason to use my mortar and pestle for a change, grinding the fennel seeds - I knew I'd bought it for a reason...

I was particularly tickled, too, when the instructions helpfully suggested a mandolin for thinly slicing the fennel. My girlfriend picked one up a while back and, while it's not quite fine enough to generate the 'almost translucently thin' slices the instructions specified, it certainly made short work of slicing the awkwardly-shaped fennel bulb.

Once the chopping was out of the way, I read through the instructions several times over. Unlike the first two recipes, there weren't any massive glitches in the ingredient quantities (although specifying '2 cups' of sliced fennel bulb seemed redundant considering only one bulb was provided, and I kinda had to use the whole thing one way or another), so I really just wanted to be sure of what I needed to do next at every step, and to get a vague idea of the timings before starting things off. The second step in the recipe is cooking the red pepper strips, for which it recommends "15 mins or until lightly charred on the outside". The next step is cooking the rest of the veg in a pan, eventually turning it into a sauce for the pasta. The timings seemed to match up pretty well, so I started each process almost simultaneously, just to see if I could keep things on track.

The sauce comes together in several short stages that I found reasonably easy to follow since I had everything ready-prepared around me. The only hitch I'd had was that this recipe calls for black olives, and I definitely didn't get any black olives in the box. Thankfully, my girlfriend really likes olives, so we tend to have some in stock. The only real difficulty then was that, again, it specified the olive content as '2 tablespoons', which I still say is an utterly ridiculous measure for bisected fruit. Still, the definition gleaned from the first recipe helped me choose the appropriate number of olives for this dish. When the tinned tomatoes are added to the pan, the recipe suggests adding sugar but I've never found that necessary - tomatoes are sweet enough and, coupled with the rest of the veg, there's enough sugar in there naturally for my tastebuds. And that's saying something.

Once everything is in the pan, the recipe instructs that the heat should be turned down low so the sauce can boil down and thicken up, and it's at this point that the pasta needs to be cooked. Personally, I found it amusing that the card includes a definition of 'al dente' under the heading 'Tip', but your mileage may vary.

Just to prove that I'm not consistently terrible at cooking, the pasta was done only moments before the oven's alarm went off to tell me that the red pepper strips were ready, so both elements were added to the sauce in the pan in good time. The final stage was chucking in the parsley and the cheese (which strikes me as odd, and one of the Gousto recipes did the same, where my girlfriend and I would normally tend to add the cheese on top, once the meal had been served... not least because it means you don't end up having to scrape congealed cheese off your pan when you do the washing up). With a final garnish of - oh, for fuck's sake - 'finely chopped' fennel fronds, dinner was served...

Based on the two recipes I bothered photographing myself, I have to conclude that there's something wrong with HelloFresh's photography or their Photoshop work, as both this and the 'Easter' Ragu were depicted as rather brown in the stock photos, while they tended more toward red when I'd finished cooking... and I'm pretty sure I didn't get anything that significantly wrong on either of these.

As we were eating, my girlfriend commented that the fennel was identifiable in the sauce, but not overpowering, as fennel can sometimes be - being almost licorice in flavour. I certainly enjoyed the dish, but have to say I found it rather bland overall... it's possible I gave it too few "good grinds of black pepper", or that the chilli was just cooked for too long - it didn't have the spicy kick I was expecting, given that the first instruction says to "finely chop as much of the chilli as you dare". Perhaps I'll have to try this one again, and deliberately try to spice it up as much as possible...

This was definitely the easiest of the three HelloFresh recipes for me to follow, though how much of that was down to me doing more preparatory work in advance, and how much was because the recipe is actually easier, I cannot say. What I will say is that the card reckons this should be done in about 25 minutes, and I took the best part of an hour over it. Admittedly, most of that was due to taking my time over the preparatory work and my neurotic re-reading of the instructions, but that's a hell of a discrepancy. Not to say I particularly rate myself as any kind of kitchen ninja, but the folks at HelloFresh do seem to presume a level of competence far higher than mine.
Probably the neatest presentation I've ever managed when cooking
for myself and my girlfriend...

If you think you might fancy giving HelloFresh a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code MPMDQT for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Experiments with HelloFresh #1: Greek Easter Ragu with Almond, Aubergine & Basil Couscous

Around the time I was making a start on my trio of Gousto posts, I was planning my first foray into HelloFresh. On the surface, both offer much the same sort of service, with a different range of recipes and a very different style of presentation. From the moment of delivery (quite late in the day, on their 0900-1700 delivery 'slot'), HelloFresh appears to be more of a brand, with a personalised box containing not only ingredients and recipes but a welcome booklet introducing the HelloFresh team and their suppliers, as well as offering hints and tips for getting the most out of the service. There was also a copy of their monthly newsletter, The Fresh Times, and a whole slew of advertising flyers offering discount codes for clothing, beers and a 'smoothie starter pack' courtesy of partner companies... some of whom also seem to share the design agency used by HelloFresh, as the style of their flyers is more than a little similar.

But, while I may work in publishing and occasionally spend my days creating such flyers, I'm not here to critique that aspect of the product. Hell, I'd need a whole new blog if I wanted to get into that...

The original Grand Plan for trying out HelloFresh was that I'd put the order in so that my first delivery would arrive while I was taking time off work, and then cook every weeknight during my holiday - not only to give my girlfriend a rest, but to keep up my culinary confidence and give myself a little more to write about on this little foodie blog of mine. Naturally, this being real life, things didn't quite work out that way and, rather than ordering five nights of meals I ordered only three. On the upside, this probably makes for a more balanced comparison with Gousto. Also, since I chose the vegetarian option, all three recipies were for dishes both my girlfriend and I could enjoy equally, without having to find substitute ingredients for anything.

Since Easter was only a few days ago, the first recipe I tried was the one featuring the word 'Easter' in the name... not that I have any idea why...

I made my first mistake before even starting to cook, in that the recipe cards arrived in a cardboard wallet and, clearly having a bad day, I failed to notice on which side the wallet was open, and so I tore it open via the glued flap. You could say that sets the tone for the entire experiment but, as I write, I've only tried two of the three recipes, and I'm hoping the last will go better.

Each recipe card is digitally printed on an oddly-sized sheet of light card, with a nice, large photo of the finished dish - as it's intended to look - along with a pictorial list of required ingredients and an estimated preparation time. The back of the card features the ingredients list - including notes on potential allergens - a nutritional breakdown and, of course, the instructions. There are also photos, but only four running down the lefthand side of the card, so not every step in the process is accompanied by a photo. That's not necessarily a problem, as some steps hardly require illustrating. I know I said I wasn't going to critique the design but, if I can complain about holes being punched through timing instructions on one of the Gousto cards, I feel it is within my rights to complain about a terrible and avoidable text orphan on one of these - the last word in one of the steps sits, on its own, at the top of the second column, looking a bit silly.

This 'Easter Ragu' was supposed to take only 35 minutes but, as usual, it took me a hell of a lot longer because I'm terrible at chopping and didn't organise myself very well. I'm not sure how much longer it took, but I'd guess the total time can't have been much short of an hour.

Part of that would be the difficulty I had in locating some of the ingredients. At first, I thought at least two - the tomato purée and feta cheese, specifically - were missing, but my girlfriend found one and I later found the other myself. Some of the ingredients - particularly those coming in plastic sachets - are branded products, and therefore very easy to identify... others are plain bagged and labelled with little stickers... still others are just plain bagged. The feta was the only content of a cool bag which I'd assumed was included to keep some of the loose veg cool and fresh, while the tomato puree just looked remarkably like one of the ingredients for another recipe, as both were reddish substances in plain sachets.

The first instruction is to pre-heat the oven, but the oven only comes into play - for 20 minutes - at the end of the third step. My oven tends to heat up quickly enough that I rarely, if ever pre-heat... though that's more because I know I'm going to be slower than the recipe expects on the intermediate steps.

I also groan inwardly whenever the instruction 'chop finely' or 'finely dice' appears in a recipe because my knife-wielding skills are pretty dire. 'Fine' is something I have yet to achieve... 'haphazard' is more my style. This recipe calls for just about all the veg to be 'finely diced', from the garlic to the aubergine, while the basil was to be 'finely chopped'.

Let's just say I chopped them all... OK?

The aubergine was a particular trial as my kitchen knives - seriously in need of sharpening at this point - had great difficulty penetrating the aubergine's skin, and yet came perilously close to penetrating mine, with alarming ease, on a couple of occasions.

My problems with the aubergine didn't end there, though, as the 20 minutes of baking was probably a little too long in my oven, any the coating I gave them of olive oil was inadequate to prevent large amounts of it sticking to the foil on my baking tray.

The remainder of the recipe went smoothly enough, even though I had to substitute a tablespoon of tomato purée from my own stock, as the sachet supplied didn't become visible to me until the next day. I did wrestle with the quantities specified, as they tend to use 'cups' as a measure, but their website states that they use a 300ml coffee mug as their 'cup', which is larger than the 'standard' US cup size (not that I'm especially familiar with them) and so somewhat confusing. Bizarrely, the recipe specifies '2 cups' of chopped aubergine, but only one aubergine was supplied, and I'd say that amounted to substantially less than 2 cups, by their measures. It also specifies '1 cup' of tomato passata, but two 200g cartons were supplied and I didn't feel like trying to be precise about measuring out part of a carton, potentially letting the remainder go to waste.

Also, in my humble opinion, any recipe that measures green olives by tablespoons (when 2 sachets were provided) is just insane.

Nevertheless, the process was fairly simple, if a little messy at times, and I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to find that the couscous had behaved exactly as it should have - soaking up the stock - in the time it had taken me to breeze through the complicated parts of the recipe.

As I was getting ready to serve it all up, I forewarned my girlfriend that it would be coming without the feta as it appeared not to have been supplied. Thankfully, she fished it out of its hiding place within about five seconds, because she was a bit more thorough in her investigation of the packaging than I had been. Swiftly and inexpertly crumbling the soft cheese over our portions, adding a few more bits of basil ripped from the remaining sprigs, our first HelloFresh vegetarian dinner may not have been pretty, but the end result of a fairly confused period of flailing in the kitchen was completely delicious.

Aside from the couscous, which I found quite bland... and I wonder if I should have used the entire stock pot, rather than the half specified. Then again, couscous tends to be intentionally bland, and one wouldn't want it to overpower the ragu. I'll definitely try this recipe again, probably doing certain things a little differently, to see if I can improve upon my first attempt.
Definitely not the same colour as the photo on the card,
and certainly not as tidily-presented, but very tasty.
I am utterly flummoxed by the name of this dish, and how it relates to 'Easter'... but also the structure and punctuation of the name seem misleading to me - the almond and aubergine are part of the ragu, not the couscous, so surely it should be "Greek Easter Ragu with Almond & Aubergine, served with Basil Couscous"?

If you think you might fancy giving HelloFresh a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code MPMDQT for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Experiments with Gousto #3: Honey-Soy Glazed Salmon & Summing Up

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have come to the conclusion that I'm pretty fond of salmon (always assuming I haven't already outright stated that I am). I've also tried to do a glazed salmon on two previous occasions already, and it's never quite gone according to plan. For whatever reason - whether something I'm doing wrong, or perhaps some quirk of my fan-assisted oven - a glaze never actually glazes, it always remains a liquid of approximately the same viscosity as when it first went into the oven. I was hoping that, by following this recipe, I'd break my run of bad luck but, sadly, it was not to be. The Gousto honey-soy glaze, if anything, became less viscous while in the oven... though, on the upside, it worked very well as a marinade - the salmon soaked up more than I would have expected. It is clear from this recipe that something has always been lacking in my previous preparations of a glaze, but I'll have to keep trying and experimenting with other recipes, cooking methods and timings.

On that subject, it was also nice to have a timing for the oven which actually gave the correct result - salmon which was neither undercooked and still slightly raw inside, nor overcooked and dry. I'd have to say that this was the best bit of salmon I've ever cooked - utterly melt-in-the-mouth succulent, and with a subtle kick from the honey-soy sauce and its little chunks of ginger. I even broke my tradition of scraping off the skin and leaving it on the plate, largely due to having been pleasantly surprised, not too long ago, by crispy salmon skin nori at Yo! Sushi.

This is also the first time - in my life - that I've ever made mashed potatoes from scratch. It's actually a point of some amusement (not to say outright ridicule) among both my family and my girlfriend's that I generally rely on instant mash, despite the simplicity of making it fresh. I think I did reasonably well with all the vegetable peeling required by all of these recipes, but I was especially pleased by the way the mash turned out, despite not giving it my fullest attention all the way through.

I think the mash could probably have used some more of the wasabi paste - the half-pot I used certainly added some zing, but it wasn't consistent throughout the mash. To be honest, though, by that point I was a little rushed, and I found that some of the mash had started sticking to the saucepan. Further delays to mix in more of the wasabi would probably have ended up burning some of the mash and, seriously, what kind of muppet burns mashed potato?

Courgette seemed like quite a strange addition to this allegedly Japanese cuisine (that's what it claims on the front of the card), but it's certainly no stranger than a dollop of mashed potato, with or without added wasabi paste. The instructions for chopping it up seemed counterintuitive: quarter lengthways, then cut into 3cm pieces? The card suggests there's a tutorial on Gousto's YouTube account, but the only courgette video I found was how to make it into ribbons... Perhaps the chopping video will come along later.

I did forget to sprinkle on the toasted sesame seeds at the end but, let's face it, I've made at least one cock-up on both of the other recipes, so I'm just glad it was such a minor omission on this one! It also feels like a rather stupid mistake, considering the fun I had toasting them, and watching several sesame seeds make a bid for freedom from the frying pan. I'll probably be finding the damned things all over my kitchen for the next few weeks.

The last few steps of the recipe required some overlap, and splitting my attention between the frying courgette chunks, the boiling potato chunks (and, later, the mashing of said chunks), all while keeping an eye on the time for the salmon in the oven. While I've had to split my attention between several cooking tasks in the past, I'm neither comfortable nor confident in doing so... but, on this occasion, it didn't go too wrong.

In choosing this recipe, I'd made something that was wholly for me - my girlfriend had to fend for herself on Sunday evening, so this was also a test of how well we'd work together in the kitchen while engaged on entirely separate tasks... and I think we did rather well. It did take me rather longer than it should have - I think a little over an hour rather than the estimated 40 minutes - but I suspect my speed on certain tasks would improve with practice.
Third time lucky on photos? Although my presentation is perhaps a little lacking...



So, summing up, I'd say my experience with Gousto was very positive. The step-by-step guide to each recipe was clear and easy to follow, even if some of the steps seemed to me to be out of their proper sequence. The results of each recipe are unquestionably excellent, and I'm very keen to try my hand at another set of recipes... though that'll probably have to wait until I have some time off work, because I've not once managed to keep to the estimated timing for the recipes, meaning I was eating later than usual on each occasion. Their setup - and the whole delivery angle - doesn't quite suit my current schedule/lifestyle, but I can see it being exceptionally useful to some folks, not least because it makes it so easy to break out of the rut of ready meals or excessive weekly repetition.

There were only two real problems with the three recipes I picked out for this experiment: on the very first recipe, a redundant ingredient was listed and supplied, and on that same recipe, a hole was punched in the card right in the middle of a block of text. As long as those sorts of problem are isolated incidents, Gousto is a service which is easy to recommend. Every other problem I had with the recipes was of my own making - the frequency with which I forgot to add things was a little ridiculous, and I wasn't quite prepared for some of the work required, in terms of both kitchen equipment and culinary experience.

As as aside, I may not have had a 'Fishy Friday' last week, but I had a very fishy weekend - trout for lunch and sushi (not home made) for dinner on Saturday, then salmon for dinner on Sunday. I possibly could have organised things for a bit more variety but the fishy recipes were the highlight of last week's batch from my point of view.

If you think you might fancy giving Gousto a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code GORDO45552 for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Experiments with Gousto #2: Smoked Trout & Root Slaw

This second of three recipes from Gousto required no cooking whatsoever, only chopping of veg, larking about with dill and mixing a couple of things - perfect for a quick lunch, right?

Of course, being a household which is half vegetarian (and not pescatarian), only half of this dish was suitable for both of us so, while I was busily preparing the slaw and the honey mustard and dill sauce, my girlfriend cooked herself a couple of Quorn 'Turkey' burgers to accompany her share of the slaw.

The front of the card reckons only 20 minutes to prepare this, but I suspect that was timed against someone who is (a) very good with a kitchen knife and (b) generally pretty darned quick in the kitchen. Me? I took about 40 minutes... If Gousto can create a faff-free cookbook, I can damn well put the faff back in.

I'd actually started out with a good idea: the recipe calls for the carrot and beetroot to be grated, and for the apple to be cored and diced. While I'm lacking a corer, I was able to remove the core from the apple reasonably quickly using a kitchen knife. After that, I decided to get some more experience with our mandolin and Julienne the lot, rather than faff about with a grater for some ingredients and do my usual terrible job of dicing with a knife for the rest. Either one is likely to leave me with shredded fingers, and I'd already given myself a long, shallow cut on one finger cleaning the food chopper I'd used on the mushrooms in the first recipe.

That said, I somehow managed to very nearly do myself an injury or two with the mandolin, and that takes some doing!

The instructions are clear and simple, with nothing obliterated by punched holes this time. Even so, I managed to cock up, and left the olive oil out of the honey mustard and dill sauce, despite having it standing at the ready while I was preparing everything.

Getting the dill ready can hardly be called 'faff-free'; I probably spent at least twice the time any sensible person would have taken to strip the leaves from the stalks, and my chopping of said herb would probably cause great upset to any trained chef.

Nevertheless, and yet again, this recipe survived all my culinary shortcomings and turned out rather nicely. I got a double-helping of trout into the bargain and, while mine was left in fillet form, rather than artfully flaked as per the Gousto photography, its appearance was never going to affect the flavour.

This is definitely something I want to try again, not least to get the damned honey mustard sauce right - how anyone can neglect to add one of only four ingredients in a sauce is truly beyond me, and yet that's precisely what I managed to do. That said, I'm not certain that olive oil is necessarily as common in the average kitchen as Gousto clearly believe, because that ingredient was not one of those included in the package. I reckon they would do well to reconsider that, though I suspect it would bump up the price of a box...

I'm constantly surprised by how flavoursome a salad can be, and the root slaw turned out lovely - I'm not sure I've ever eaten raw beetroot that wasn't at least pickled, so it was good to find that I enjoyed it just as much in its raw form. I didn't even add any salt or pepper as seasoning though if (when?) I do try this again, I'll certainly give that a try to see what difference it makes.

My only other thought is that there was perhaps too much dill, even if I'd made the sauce correctly and it was distributed more evenly across two separate servings of trout, in the slaw and as a garnish on two proper portions of this dish... But if the only significant complaint here is "too much dill", I think we can safely say this is a winner.

Also, it's good to know how to make a good, simple honey mustard and dill sauce (and this one is certainly both good and simple!) since that can be applied to other dishes. Likewise, the slaw can be used as part of a cold plate during summer months, and would go well with a number of other sources of protein (including, I gather, Quorn).
This time, I only managed one shot before the camera's battery died...
but I think it's a good photo this time!

If you think you might fancy giving Gousto a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code GORDO45552 for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Experiments with Gousto #1: Introduction & Mushroom Bolognese

A few weeks ago, I started seeing ads on the Tube for a couple websites which offered a service potentially very useful to those of a culinary persuasion. The idea is that you sign up and receive boxes of produce and recipes explaining what to do with said produce. Now, obviously, there's no shortage of recipe books available already, and myriad websites out there with a grand selection of recipes... but they don't supply the required ingredients in the precise quantities the recipe needs. These options basically take out all the legwork and let one concentrate on the cooking.

Because it's been absolutely ages since I did any significant cooking at home, and this blog has been languishing in deplorable neglect while I do other stuff, I figured these websites offer me the ideal opportunity to get back into cooking slowly and so, with my girlfriend out of town for a few days this last week, I thought I'd try doing myself some fully home-cooked meals.

Gousto was my first port of call - a site where one must select three meals, indicate whether they are meals for two or four, and then select a delivery date from those available (typically Wednesdays or Fridays). Of course, the very fact of the need to have ingredients delivered almost scuppered everything: I wouldn't be around to received them, so delivery had to be scheduled for a date after my girlfriend's return anyway... Consequently, we agreed that, this weekend, I'd be doing most of the cooking. For a change.

Of course, things are never that simple. While Gousto have an excellent selection of recipes, each meal is tailored either to vegetarians or omnivores. My girlfriend is vegetarian, but I'm not... and, frankly, some of their meat/fish dishes were far too tempting to pass up. I selected only one fully vegetarian dish for this experiment, then one of the others looked as though it could be adapted for a veggie (Gasp! Deviating from a recipe? Creativity?!), while the other was something I - selfishly - just had to try, so she'll have to figure something out for herself.

Ahem.

Gousto's produce comes very well packaged and insulated, with each component separately bagged or in small plastic tubs, all labelled as appropriate and a with detailed inventory offering 'Enjoy By' dates for each dish. This makes for very easy storage, as ingredients for each recipe can be collated and stored together, should you so desire, and organised so each recipe can be used while the produce is good and fresh. My first box came complete with a set of the three relevant recipe cards and a binder in which to store them, along with a 'Welcome' booket, a flyer showing next week's recipes (available before midnight tomorrow!) and a couple of offers from other companies.

The first recipe I tried, shortly after getting home from work yesterday, was the Mushroom Bolognese. I shan't reproduce the recipe here, just launch into how it all went...

Firstly, since it had been so long since I last did anything 'big' in the kitchen, I was feeling pretty cautious about everything. I tried to read through the whole instruction set before even starting, but misunderstood a couple of points and made a couple of mistakes - largely because I'm not at my best of a Friday evening. One side of each recipe card has a large photo of the finished dish and a full, photographic list of the ingredients required from the inventory supplied. Details on the front also include an estimated preparation time (40 minutes in this case), the origin of the recipe (Italian), its calorific, fat and protein content (completely over my head) and a rough guide to how far it fulfills one's 'Five-A-Day' (2/5, apparently).

On the reverse is a step-by-step guide to preparation, each step accompanied by a photograph of the relevant ingredients at some point in the procedure. It's written as if you complete one step before moving on to the next, though whether that's actually the intention seems doubtful considering some of the directions given. For example, preparing the linguine is a single isolated step but, in the time between completing that step and reaching the next step in which the linguine featured, it had quite successfully gummed itself together and into the colander I'd used to drain it. In practice, it may be more efficient to deal with any and all chopping before making a start on the cooking steps.

Some of the photos also left me feeling a little inadequate (quelle surprise!) due to their neat arrangements of neatly sliced and chopped and diced veg and fungi. My fingers are well trained for the use of a mouse and a keyboard... my skills with a kitchen knife are dubious at best.

One step pretty much required at least half a dozen hands as the contents of the pan had to be stirred constantly while also crumbling in a stock cube, adding tomato paste from a plastic tub, adding soy sauce from two plastic sachets, then adding a teaspoon of sugar and black pepper 'to taste'. Those last two ingredients are not supplied as, I guess, they're common enough kitchen staples... but having to grab them from their storage space while also dealing with the contents of the pan was a little tricky for me... Then again, perhaps all that means is that I need to invest a bit of time beforehand in clearing more of my worktop so everything can be placed closer to hand...

The final instruction is also a little unclear, in that it says to "stir the drained linguine through the mushroom sauce, adding the basil and cheese", while I suspect the cheese should probably only be added separately, to each portion, once served (even though the photo on the front depicts the cheese sitting on top of a large amount of the finished bolognese in what looks like a large ceramic dish). Adding it in while stirring the linguine into the bolognese meant that the cheese melted into the mixture and, inevitably, some glued itself to the pan.

One other significant problem with the instructions was the step detailed on the upper righthand side, as the hole punched through for the binder obliterates the time stated for stirring in the mushroom and garlic. I guessed five minutes (assuming a single-digit number going by the space) and that certainly had no detrimental effect on the end result.

...Which was absolutely delicious. I was glad to see the linguine loosening up as I stirred it into the sauce, and it warmed up nicely in the few final minutes of preparation. The mixture of 'grated' (thank you, Pampered Chef food chopper, though I ain't looking forward to cleaning it!) and chunkily-sliced mushroom worked nicely, the carrot and onion still had some bite to them, the basil added its subtle flavour and the cheese increased the overall richness of the dish. My girlfriend went so far as to say it was "better" than the bolognese she'd put together for a Quorn-based spaghetti thing we had last week, though that was of the more usual tomato and red wine variety, so I said there was no real comparison.

The dish takes about 40 minutes according to the recipe card but, what with one thing or another, I think it took at least an extra five minutes, despite trying to get through some of the later grating/chopping while the pasta was on the go. I still managed to serve it up piping hot, though, and it's a nice, easy recipe to start me off. Definitely something we'll try again at a later date, so these Experiments with Gousto are off to a good start.

I am, however, a little confused by the fact that the supplied balsamic vinegar is referenced on the front of the recipe card, but isn't mentioned anywhere in the instruction set, though I'm not sure where or why balsamic vinegar might be used anyway.
Sadly only one rather blurry photo of this, as I rather wanted to eat it
while it was still hot.
If you think you might fancy giving Gousto a try (and are within the UK mainland), please feel free to use my referral code GORDO45552 for an introductory discount. Yes, that also gets me a discount on my next order, but further deliveries are currently on hold while I complete this first set of recipes and consider how this system fits in with my current... erm... 'lifestyle'.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Delicious Failure: Makin' Cookies...

It has been absolutely ages since I did any significant cooking, but I fancied doing something special to take over to my parents' place for Christmas and, when I posed the question of what they might like, the first suggestion was a simple enough proposition that I didn't immediately regret making the offer: cookies.

A friend of mine has a recipe for something she calls 'cardiac cookies' (so named because they are potential heart attacks on a plate), in which small chunks of Snickers bars are wrapped in cookie dough and then baked. The list of ingredients is broadly similar to an average cookie recipe except for the addition of a half cup of golden syrup. I showed this recipe to my girlfriend and watched as panic, then horror worked their way around her face.

"Isn't there a bit too much sugar?" she enquired, nervously. "But, surely, that's the whole point!" retorted I in a jovial tone. Nevertheless, she remained uneasy...

A quick web search turned up several different options, the most likely of which was Millie's Cookies recipe, courtesy of the BBC Good Food website. It's a very simple recipe and cooks - according to their instructions - in about 10 minutes. That sounded just about perfect, but the recipe was a basic chocolate chip cookie, and I wanted something a bit more Christmassy.

The obvious option was white chocolate and cranberry (because why not shoehorn in "one of your five-a-day" into such a wholesome snack? There was a better than average chance my niece was going to have at least one, and she already has heart troubles), with a little extra something sprinkled on top. This 'something extra' was to be decided upon while browsing the Baking section of the local Morrisons (scene of many of my more whimsical purchases) and ended up being little white chocolate stars.

I also made one tiny addition to the ingredients, in the form of about a half teaspoon of cinnamon for this first batch of cookies, so I'll list all the ingredients just for convenience.

Cookies Attempt 1: The Christmas Sugar Rush

Ingredients:
  • 225g Self-Raising Flour
  • 125g Softened Butter (either leave it out of the fridge for a few hours or just microwave it - coincidentally, I did that in a dream recently, and seemed to think it went rather well...)
  • 125g Caster Sugar
  • 100g Dark Brown Soft Sugar (the original recipe actually calls for light brown, but I had some Tate & Lyle Fairtrade stuff in my cupboard)
  • 100g White Chocolate Chips
  • 100g Dried Cranberries
  • 1 Egg
  • 1tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2tsp Salt
  • 1/2tsp Cinnamon (not required, but certainly adds to the flavour!)
  • White Chocolate Stars (sufficient to scatter artistically atop the cooling cookies)
Preparation Time: about 10-30 minutes to mix it all up (depending largely on the state of the butter and the strength of your wrists!), then about 10 minutes to cook, allegedly...

Tools Required:
  • 1 Large Bowl, for mixing everything
  • 1 Small Bowl, for combining the flour, salt and - if you're using it - cinnamon
  • 1 Teacup, in which to beat the egg
  • 1 Sieve
  • 1 Baking Tray or Biscuit Tray
  • Greaseproof Paper (to line the tray)
  • Mixing Implement of Choice
The Process:
As is often the case, it's wise to pre-heat the oven - about 180ºC for a fan assisted oven should be perfect - though you may want to leave it till the dough is ready to be separated into chunks as mixing it can take longer than the average oven these days takes to warm up.

Dump the two lots of sugar and the softened butter into your bowl and mix them up till you have a thick paste. I gather this is called 'creaming'. The first time we made cookies, my girlfriend did the lion's share as my wrists - weakened as they are by a deskbound day job - just could not cope. For the second set of cookies, I set to work while my girlfriend was out, and had to do it in several stages. Once 'creamed', lightly beat the egg and add it into the bowl along with the vanilla extract, mixing in thoroughly.

In another bowl, add the salt and cinnamon to the flour, then sift this melange into the main bowl via the sieve, mixing it all into what will become delicious cookie dough. Try not to eat it at this stage.

No, really, do try. Have patience: the cookies really are worth the wait.

Once the dough is sorted, add in the chocolate chips and dried cranberries, mixing them in as thoroughly as possible, considering the dough is pretty darned tough. Divide the dough up into about twelve parts and lay them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. The original recipe claims that 7 minutes will be enough for the 'soft, doughy cookie' experience, while 10 minutes will just start to make them crisp around the edges. In the real world, it just comes down to how long you can bear to postpone the inevitable guzzling of your home-baked wonder-cookies.

Remove the baking tray from the oven then scatter the white chocolate stars over the top while the cookies are hot enough to soften the chocolate sufficiently that they adhere, but not so hot they just turn into vaguely star-shaped puddles of white chocolate, then leave to cool on the tray for a minute or so. Finally, transfer to a wire rack to cool fully. Or just eat them warm. It's your call.

The Results:
Sadly I didn't think to photograph this set of cookies, but they turned out rather well. Considering how large the chunks of dough ended up (far larger than 'walnut size', I can tell you!) they didn't merge into one ginormous, tray-sized Mega-Cookie, even though they flattened out nicely. Weirdly, I think they ended up in the oven for a little over ten minutes, but they remained soft and moist.

The addition of cinnamon gave them a slightly more Christmassy feel, and the white chocolate and cranberries complemented each other well. I think I delayed rather too long in adding the white chocolate stars over the top, as they tended to fall off rather easily, but the cookies went down well with my family. In fact, I left them over there, as my sister wanted to take some home with her.

Cookies Attempt 2: I Can See Rainbows...

This second set is a bit more recent - just yesterday, in fact. I'd been wanting to take another swing at making cookies ever since Christmas and, this time, wanted to do it all myself rather than wimping out and letting my girlfriend deal with most of it. Rather than just repeat exactly the same process, though, I wanted to try something else as the 'added ingredient'...

Ingredients:
The same as above, except:
  • Forgot to add the cinnamon, damnit!
  • Used Skittles instead of white chocolate chips and cranberries
  • No white chocolate stars
Preparation Time: Far too long because I'm so out of practice in mixing things, even though the butter had been out for about 5 hours or so by the time I remembered I wanted to make cookies. 10 minutes in the oven.

Tools Required:
As above!

The Process:
Creaming the sugars actually got quite painful because it's been so long since I did anything like this... and, honestly, the last time I made meringue, I used an electric whisk. Since I spend most of my days with my hands poised over a keyboard and/or mouse, I'm afraid my wrists are wasting away.

Nevertheless, doing a little creaming punctuated by short breaks where I stifled cries of agony, I eventually managed to get to the stage of adding the egg and vanilla, and then the sifting-in of the flour and salt. As mentioned above, I forgot about the cinnamon until the dough was complete, which was pretty annoying. Ho hum.

My original thought had been to add little chunks of caramel or something similar but, while in Morrisons, my eyes alighted upon the bags of sweets in their confectionary aisle and, while I couldn't find caramel, I was intrigued by the possibility of adding Skittles to cookies. It may sound strange - and certainly my girlfriend cautioned against it - but if one can add Smarties/M&Ms to cookies, one can certainly add Skittles... and I had to increase the sugar content somehow, right? I didn't want my cookies, made entirely with my own hands, to be bland, did I?

So I dumped in about half a (174g) bag and mixed them in, then divided the dough into twelve more-or-less equal chunks, and placed them on the greaseproof paper-lined baking tray, as before. I set the kitchen timer for ten minutes and slammed the tray into the oven, planning to check in on the cookies at the seven minute mark.

Annoyingly, before even that point, they had spread and merged together, but still seemed far too soft to bring out of the oven. By the time the timer's alarm went off, the cookies were all golden around the edges, and one was even starting to look a little burnt in one corner.

The Results:
What I probably should have done was give the tray a half-turn, then put it back in for another 7 minutes or so, because the cookies I made all by myself were a little bit too moist and doughy at the end. They also adhered to the greaseproof paper rather too well, so they basically all broke as they were pulled off.

The lack in cinnamon didn't have too detrimental an effect on the flavour of the cookies - in fact, the fruity flavour of the Skittles managed to fool my girlfriend into thinking the cinnamon was in there. It didn't work quite as well for me, but they were certainly very tasty... if a little bland compared to the Christmas cookies.

I did manage to get photos of these, but only after my girlfriend and I had sampled some:

The day after I made these, they'd more or less reached the stage of behaving like proper cookies, though they still only reluctantly parted from the greaseproof paper.

And, yes, Skittles cookies are the Breakfast of Champions.
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