Sunday, 14 December 2014

Mince Pies - which should you buy?

It's ten days until Christmas and for those of us who live to feed others, but are too disorganised to have bulk bought in October, our thoughts now turn to what we should be stocking up with for the upcoming present-swapping and over-indulgence festival.

I will openly admit I'm not usually one for mince pies - I find the anaemic pastry and over-sweet filling an empty waste of calories. In contrast to this sentiment, after seeing some cute bite-sized ones in Booths, which turned out not to be so terrible, I decided I'd get all festive and conduct a taste test.*

Do you agree with my bold statements of taste? Comment below, let me know.

Please note, this isn't an exhaustive list of mince pies on the market, it's just a list of ones I came across on my travels and made my office taste/comment on (thanks guys).

Mr Kipling - £1.90 for six
I think Mr Kipling should stick to making cakes and leave pies to someone else. These mince pies were the everything I remembered with such distaste from childhood. Very sweet, almost undercooked, thick, soft pastry with a nondescript 2-D filling (of which there wasn't much). 
Good for - a party where no one is eating or has any tastebuds. 

Asda - £1 for six
Another pack of incredibly sweet pies that didn't even have as much taste as Mr Kipling's previously mentioned delights. At least the pastry was brown on these ones. Massively under-filled too (my cutting open has distorted that in this picture). 
Good for - serving to people you hate and whom you want them to know that you hate them.

Asda Iced - £1 for six
By adding icing to the top of their mince pies Asda manage to hide many of the sins of their standard one. I concede that adding icing is a) nontraditional and b) makes them even sweeter, but there are many positives that arise. Firstly there's a third less of that disgusting pastry, secondly the sweetness of the icing brings out the bitterness of the filling, making it slightly less 2-D and lastly by adding icing you don't notice how little filling there is. If you're stuck between Asda and Asda iced, pick the iced every time.
Good for - kids, those with an overly sweet tooth, those who don't like mince.

Tesco Traditional - £1 for six
Being a bog standard box of mince pies, I didn't hold out much for Tesco's offering, however I'll admit I was wrong. Whilst not the best pies I tasted (keep reading for that revelation), there was a good tart bite to the filling and the pastry, whilst a bit thick and clunky, was slightly browned with a crisp bite and biscuit-y taste. The star on top is a nice addition.
Good for - catering to a large crowd whom you want to please, but with limited budget.

Sainsbury's All Butter Taste the Difference - £2.50 for six
The tasters were split with these pies - 50% thought they were amazing and 50% thought they were barely better than Asda's. The pastry wasn't as lack lustre as Asda or Mr Kipling, however still pretty thick and bland-ish. The filling was rather on the wet side and slightly too sweet, however it was perked up considerably by how orangey it was.
Good for - orange-o-philes

Waitrose Heston Spiced Shortcrust - £3.50 for six
These were the most expensive pies we tasted and we expected (in addition to them being emblazoned with a celeb chef's name) that these would be the best. Heston's pies don't look like your traditional mince pie, they're more of a latticed tart with a very dark, heavily spiced pastry, which some of us found over-whelming as it left an almost medicinal after-taste on the palette. The pies are flatter than usual (almost like tarts) and because of this the over-spiced filling is quite thin. They're different, which is good, but just don't eat them thinking they're a mice pie, or you'll be bitterly disappointed.
Good for - showing off when you have your foodie friends over or for people who hate mince pies.

Marks and Spencer All Butter Classic - £2.99 for six
Good looking, well-balanced pies from the high street. The pastry is crisp, biscuit-y and thin with a luxurious taste from the butter. The filling is slightly sweet, but there's a tart edge with plenty of spice, so you don't notice it. The pies are well filled and the filling has plenty of fruit chunks for texture. The pie itself felt light when eating, meaning you could probably have at least two and still have room for some After Eights too. 
Good for - traditionalists with taste.

Gregg's - xx for six
Looking somewhat squashed, these weren't the prettiest pies we tasted, however Gregg's did come up
trumps in the taste test - proving you should never judge a book by it's cover. Wider and flatter than the usual pie, they were filled right to the top with a good tasting, thin, crumbly and crisp pastry. The mince tasted like that what mother used to make; a sour tang, plenty of fruit and a nice after taste of spice.  
Good for - passing off as your own (shock! Who would dare...?)

Booth's Mini Mince Tarts - £2.79 for 9
We tasted two sets of these mini tarts, mainly because the first pack seemed to have such terrible pastry we couldn't believe Booths would sell something like that. Luckily the second pack proved us right, the first pack had been undercooked. These mini-tarts don't have as tangy a filling as the Gregg's pies, but they make up for it with their sweetly spiced fudginess. The pastry (when it's cooked) is super thin (massive plus), super flaky and super buttery. Great little bite-sized morsels.
Good for - posh parties and those believing they can count calories at Christmas (and who then eat the whole pack of these). 

*I have been tasting mince pies since November. I never want to eat a mince pie again.

Please note, no Supermarket or PR company sent me these mince pies. All purchased by myself and tested in an office of ten people.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pecan, chocolate and Cranberry Gluten/Dairy/Egg Free Cookies - Recipe

In the past few months I've had to prepare for and adhere to a low-iodine diet as part of preparations for radio-iodine treatment (radiotherapy).

I'm not going to go into the ins and outs of what's prescribed, but it does put massive restrictions on your diet - an overview is no eggs, dairy, soya, fish, shellfish, sea veg, sea salt, certain e-numbers, limited meat and limited grains. If you get really into it (which you invariably do, being in charge of your own health makes you incredibly anxious) you start questioning everything you put in your mouth and finding iodine in everything.

I spent a lot of the three weeks struggling when it came to snacks. There are only so many unsalted nuts and slices of apple with cashew nut butter on that you can take.

Thanks to a greater understanding of intolerances, there are plenty of free-from recipes out there. As I'd been eating (water made) porridge every morning, I was pretty fed up of sweet oats, so I tinkered with a few different recipes until I amalgamated a few to create this one, which isn't too sweet. The cacao nibs (raw chocolate) add a savoury bite and using unsweetened cranberries (or sour cherries if you can't find them), cuts the sweetness. Feel free to used the normal sweetened ones if you prefer.

I made these salt free, so check there's no salt added to the tahini etc if you want to follow suit, but I've not ruled out salt in this recipe (however I made them without and they tasted fab).

Unlike a lot of free from recipes, this one doesn't include any weird or highly-processed ingredients and is really quick to make.

IMPORTANT NOTE: most oats aren't gluten free as they are 'contaminated' with flour from the milling process. I found gluten free ones in my local, large supermarket, so they're not hard to find.

Pecan, Chocolate and Cranberry Gluten/Dairy/Egg Free Cookies

Makes about 10 - prep time 10 mins - cook time 15 mins

 - 3 tblsp tahini (salt free if you're cutting out salt too)
 - 4 tblsp runny honey (or maple syrup for a more American taste, it's expensive though!)
 - 1/2 tsp cinnamon
 - pinch of salt (optional)
 - 65g gluten free porridge oats (additive free)
 - 30g pecans, chopped
 - 30g dried, unsweetened cranberries
 - 1 tblsp cacao nibs (can replace with free-from choc if easier; I wanted recipe to be additive free)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 170c fan and line two baking sheets with baking paper.
2. In a large bowl add the tahini, honey, cinnamon and optional salt, stir together.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until combined. The mixture is quite stiff, but you might need to add an extra tblsp of honey if it won't come together. Or add a tblsp vegetable oil instead.
4. Using a dessert spoon, scoop out the mixture and put dollops on the baking sheet. Press down the dollop a little. The mixture doesn't spread loads, so you'll roughly know the size of the cookie from the dollop you make, so you can adjust to suit.
5. Pop into the oven for between 10 and 15 mins, until they are golden all over and beginning to brown at the edges.
6. Leave to cool on the baking sheets as they're very delicate and only move to a rack when they are mostly cooled.
7. They'll keep in a tin for about four days before they start to dry out. Enjoy.

Ps don't be tempted to overdo the cacao nibs - they pack a bit of a punch!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Dukkah - recipe

Dukkah (or dukka or duqqa) is a North African condiment most usually attributed to Egypt and which comes in many different guises - the simplest being a few herbs, salt and pepper sold in paper cones for use in the home, the most complex being a mixture of herbs, spices, salt, pepper, seeds and nuts (traditionally hazelnuts, which I think work best).

It's one of those things I've been meaning to knock up in the kitchen for a while, but had sort of forgotten about it until a meal at Drunken Butcher's, in which he served it as part of the starter. So I sat down, read through a ream of recipes and tried a few out until I was happy with what I was eating.

This recipe started life as Yotam Ottolenghi's dukkah recipe, but I wasn't happy with the taste and I found using pre-skinned and ready toasted sesame seeds a lot easier, plus the poppy seeds add a depth of flavour you don't get in the original recipe; so this is my personal version.

Traditionally, all dukkahs are made to personal taste with each chef, cook, home and restaurant producing their own version. As there's no set recipe for what to include, use this as your starting block and then add anything you fancy. Have fun!

15 mins - makes a jam jar full.

50g hazelnuts (skin off)
2 tblsp sunflower seeds
2 tblsp pumpkin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tblsp cumin seeds
3 tblsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp nigella (kalonji/black onion) seeds
2 tblsp toasted sesame seeds (you can just toast your own at home if can't find toasted)
3 tblsp poppy seeds
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp sea salt (I used Maldon, but any good quality, flaky one will do)
Good few grinds of black pepper (I used about ten).

1. Preheat the oven to 160c and put the hazelnuts on a baking tray. Pop in the oven and keep an eye on them to avoid burning them. They'll need cooking for about ten minutes; you want them a deep golden brown, but not burnt.

2. After five minutes, add the sunflower and pumpkin seeds to the baking tray and return to the oven. If you're toasting your own sesame seeds, add them two minutes before the nuts/seeds need to come out.

3. Whilst the nuts and seeds are baking, dry fry the whole spices one at a time in a dry frying pan on a medium hot heat. Each of the spices is done when they become fragrant - this time differs from a few seconds to about half a minute for each one. Stand over the pan and when you smell them, pop them into a spice grinder or pestle and mortar.

4. When all the whole spices have been toasted, grind them. I like to keep mine quite chunky so you get a good bit of texture in your dukkah (it's easier to do this in a pestle and mortar), but it's up to you. Once you've ground them, pop them into a jam jar with the salt, pepper, paprika, poppy seeds and toasted sesame seeds (if you're not toasting your own).

5. Take the nuts and seeds out of the oven and tip onto a wooden chopping board. Give them a minute to cool and then roughly chop them. I chopped mine into coriander seed size, but again, it's up to you how fine you make them. I do feel a bit of chunk means you can taste them better.

6. Add the nuts and seeds to the jar and screw on the lid. Shake around till it's all combined and then stick your finger in (or a bread stick) to taste - add more salt, pepper, chilli, nuts, seeds etc as required for your taste.

7. This will keep in the jar for a week or two, but I bet you can't make it last past a few days - you'll end up putting it on everything!

How to use: Dukkah is traditionally used as a dip with bread or vegetables, but it makes a great addition to salads, on toast with butter, on top of avocado on toast, with eggs. I mostly eat it with:

Avocado mushed onto brown toast with lemon and olive oil or

Lentils stirred through with harissa and lemon, topped with roasted tomatoes and soft boiled eggs rolled in dukkah.

Dukkah goes with: eggs, avocado, bulgar wheat, cous cous, spices, yoghurt, bread, veg crudités, humus, tomatoes, lentils, chilli, squash, parsley, coriander. 

NB: Toasted sesame seeds can be hard or expensive to track down in the supermarket, I usually have better luck in the Chinese or Asian supermarkets.

Tip: If you cook with a lot of spices, eschew the over priced/tiny packaged dust you find in the supermarket spice isle and either find the Asian part of your supermarket (larger supermarkets in or around cities are better for this) or Asian stores (in areas such as Rusholme) and buy spices from them. They come in much bigger bags and are better quality. A jar of nigella seeds in my local large supermarket is £1.50 (20g), a bag of them from the Asian isle in the same supermarket is 99p (300g).

If you're struggling to find spices because you don't live near a big city, then try Spices of India, good value large packs or try Bart Spices or Spice Mountain if you just want small amount and very good quality.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Red's True Barbecue - Manchester

I'm jumping belatedly onto the meaty bandwagon with this post, just as we could say that Red's True Barbecue has jumped on the current Americana obsessed culinary zeitgeist. I know everyone's already blogged about. I know most people cream over it. Whatever.

Red's True Barbecue has apparently come to Manchester to rescue us from the bad British BBQ (what, who doesn't like burnt sausages in soggy white baps?). Located on Albert Square in what used to be Livebait, they've installed traditional American smokers and grills and decorated the whole place like a bad 90's barn dance.

St Louis Ribs
The menu consists of a range of meats, dry rubbed, smoked and finished with sauce. There's the traditional ribs, chickens and wings padded out with burgers, steaks and some salads (most of which contain meat from the smoker). The sides are pretty traditional Americana fare - mac n cheese, fries, slaws, hush puppies ad nauseam.

Taste wise, Red's food is perfectly ok; if you like salty, smoky, sweet meat doused in slightly cloying sauces. It's the cooking skill that's all wrong - one meat item being dry would be passable as a fluke mistake, however all three (starters and both mains) was unforgivable.

Half a chicken
Luckily the sides were bang on. Mac and cheese was nearly as good as my Mum's, thick cheesy sauce and a good crispy crust; the slaw added a nice tang to the dishes and the heavily salted fries hit the heavily-salted-potato-products spot we all have. But for somewhere that bangs on relentlessly about how bloody good their food is and the religion of the meat etc etc needs to step up to that rhetoric and deliver.

Apart from that we were served by a series of nonchalant and not very tuned in servers, who must have been hired for their looks because that was the only thing going for them. And I'm not even going to start on the enamelled dishes.

All in all the only thing I like about Red's is their clever marketing campaign, which says a lot about the place - all style, no substance.

Cost for one starter and two mains (sides come as part of the mains) - £30.40 plus drinks and service.

Ps No photos, it's way too dark in the venue to take any so I've nicked 'em off Red's website. Please note, our food didn't look anywhere near as good as these staged shots.

Food - 5/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Service - 6/10
Value for money - 7/10

Total - 25/40

Go again - No thanks, they're not doing anything special.

Reds True Barbecue, 22 Lloyd Street, Albert Square, Manchester M2 5WA - 0161 820 9140.

Red's True BBQ on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Sweetcorn pancakes - recipe

One of the many breakfast pancake incarnations
It's been a long time since I sat down to write for pleasure, if I look at my list of blogs posts I am reminded that it's been at least a month.

If you trawl the interweb, there are many bloggers who have started blogs posts in a similar vein and indeed there are many blog posts dedicated to the vagaries of life interfering with the need, drive, want and ability to write.

Without laborious descriptions of the trials and tribulations that would be both irksome to read and tiresome to write, it's with great pleasure that I'm going to skip the chaff and share this recipe for Sweetcorn Pancakes with you.

If you follow my Instagram or Twitter feeds, you'll see that pancakes, and their various toppings, make up a large proportion of my weekend breakfasts. A batch of batter makes double the amount of pancakes that even I can attempt in one sitting (I tried), so I've been fiddling around in the kitchen to find other uses for the batter, bar different breakfast toppings.

These pancakes are a great basis to a vegetarian or meaty meal (you can choose what you top them with) and are pretty healthy. If you skip the chili and make them a little smaller, kids love dipping them in ketchup and are a good way of getting them to eat some veg!

Sweetcorn pancakes - serves 2
(or one if you're splitting the batter for breakfast)
Prep 10 min - cook 5 min - vegetarian

Sweetcorn pancakes

Basic pancake recipe
125g self raising flour (you can use wholemeal for more taste).
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp of sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 egg
1 tsp rapeseed oil or melted butter
About 200ml of milk (depends on the flour)

Additions - if you're making this for one, half the following:
3/4 of a full tin of sweetcorn (not salted)
1 medium chili, chopped (leave the seeds in for spicy times)
Half a bunch of coriander, chopped
2 spring onions, sliced fine
Zest of a lime
Good grind of pepper

1. Pop all the dry basic pancake recipe ingredients in a large bowl and add the egg, oil/melted butter and half the milk.

2. Using a balloon or hand whisk, mix the ingredients together and add more milk until you get a thick double cream consistency.

3. If you're making this for one, split the batter now. The 'virgin' batter can be stored, covered, in the fridge for a couple of days. You might need to add a little more milk to get the right consistency when you use it - for inspiration for breakfast toppings, check out my recipe HERE.

4. Add all the additional ingredients and mix in until they're all coated with batter.

5. Get a large frying pan hot and add a tiny amount of oil. Use a piece of kitchen paper to wipe this over the whole pan (or using the back of spatula/fish slice works to). Don't put too much oil in or you'll have a smoky kitchen.

6. Turn the heat to medium high and using a big spoon or a ladle, scoop out portions of batter. Usually I'll make three sweetcorn pancakes from a one person portion of batter. Smooth the pancakes out so they're all the same thickness (about one piece of sweetcorn each).

7. Fry the pancakes and when the sides start to dry up and bubbles appear on the surface, then them over with a fish slice or large spatula. Be careful as they can come apart!

8. The pancakes are done when you can stick a corner of a fish slice/spatula in the middle and batter doesn't ooze out. Put another little bit of oil into the pan and cook the rest of the pancakes. The second batch will cook quicker (your pan will be hotter), so keep an eye on them!

It's up to you what you put on top of these pancakes. You can make a pretty substantial meal by topping with a smoky tomato/pepper sauce and a fried egg. Or you can go light and healthy with a tomato/avocado salad and a slice of fish. Get creative!

These pancakes go well with: mackerel, white fish, chicken, pork, rocket, spinach, egg, tomato, pepper, avocado, tzatziki, sweet chili, chipotle, pimento, ketchup.