Saturday, 29 May 2010

Did the gentlemen prefer blonde 1 or blonde 2?

This post is in honour of two of the loveliest girls I know. The first is Roisin, who lent me THREE gorgeous dresses yesterday AND gave me the most amazing cloche hat which is too big for her. She is seriously one of the most generous and thoughtful people I know and I will make every effort not to get her dresses covered in Scootie hair to show how much I appreciate it.

The second is one of my work friends and colleagues, J. J is also one of those people you just simply can't help but love - she's nice and clever and funny and when I found out within a few weeks of meeting her that she has a project to bake a cake every week and give it away, our friendship was sealed. She mentioned last weekend that her cake of the week had been blondies from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook. I have that book but I haven't tried that recipe. However, I do have a copy of the America's Test Kitchen blondie version, and I said I'd give it to her so she could give it a try for comparison.

Of course this all got me thinking about blondies, and frankly what a weird sort of idea they are - I don't think I've ever met anyone who has eaten a brownie and thought that what it needed was the chocolate taking out. However, given my liking for a quantifiable challenge, I was taken with the idea of doing a side by side comparison of the two recipes.

Getting ready to start testing

Sources and methodology
Now I have to say straight up that I can't reproduce the ATK recipe here because they police people doing that. So this is a report on a scientifically not very robust experiment. What I can say is that the two recipes were pretty similar in terms of ingredient quantities (hard to say exactly because one was in weights and one in cups). The ATK recipe specified brown sugar but that was about the only difference. However, the methods were very different: the Hummingbird one involved melting butter and white chocolate before adding the other ingredients; the ATK was a more traditional creaming and adding sort of job. As you can see from the pictures I didn't do anything sensible like make one and then make the other; no, I tried to do both at the same time, and it's pretty remarkable that everything ended up in the right bowl.

Things are getting crowded already!

Method and get-out clauses
I should add here a few more provisos to my scientific rigour:
1. I didn't have as much butter as I'd thought so one batch's quota had to be topped up with marge. However, this was the batch that won on taste testing

2. One batch was baked in a silicone pan; the other in a baking parchment lined regular pan. The silicone pan batch was the winning one.

3. The mixtures had different baking times, but the faster one took a lot longer than it was supposed to. This meant that both batches had the oven door opened on them quite a few times. The fast-baking-but-didn't version was the winner.

4. The Hummingbird recipe called for nuts. I used chopped chocolate instead. According to the ATK recipe adding nuts would turn them into congo bars which are another thing I'd never heard of.

Out of the oven: ATK on the left, Hummingbird on the right.
So, batches baked, The Scientist stepped up to carry out the 'warm from the oven' test. I know, he has to put up with a lot. The next day I took both batches to the pub (yes, our local doesn't mind if you bring cake - is this the best pub in England??), and got our friends to try one each. Most people said they were too full from dinner, but then ate both anyway. The result was absolutely unanimous: ATK had it, both warm from the oven and cold in the pub.

This is not to say that the Hummingbird recipe was disliked - very far from it. That was the one everyone tried first, and I think they all thought it was going to be the favourite. One person even said he was drooling as he ate it. I prefer not to think about that too much but it can only be a positive comment. Someone else said that the Hummingbird one was more brownie-like, but he preferred the other.

ATK at the bottom, Hummingbird at the top. In the latter the white chocolate is melted with the butter in the first step

I think they speak for themselves really, don't they? I'd be interested to know (but not interested enough to go and research) whether the order in which you taste test makes a difference to your final judgement. If I were being really rigorous I would do it again with the pans switched over, but I think we've already established that I don't mind a little slapdashery (in my baking experiments, not my work, in case any of my colleagues/potential future publishers are reading this). I will be passing on the ATK recipe to J forthwith so she can spread her baking love a little further. As to what I thought: well, I'm a brownie sort of girl, I think. But I promise not to eat any while I'm wearing Roisin's dresses.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Getting creative: embroidered baby bibs

I've decided to diversify from baby quilts for a while, so I get to try some new projects. These bibs were inspired by my book of iron-on embroidery templates, and were made for our Vet Friends' new baby - aka New Grub. I used some fairly sturdy sort of linen stuff for the fronts, and backed them with fun cottons from my stash of fabrics. The foody one used the book templates completely; the dog one has freehand writing and a doggy template; and the poker one is a complete original (thanks to Dr Eco for drawing me a pattern, and to The Scientist for coming up with a suitable poker slogan).

I really enjoyed making these - hand sewing is my favourite thing, and I tried out a few different types of stitches on them. The templates wash off really easily, and for the freehand ones I used a magical water-soluble fabric pen which fades on its own really quickly (and disappears easily with a damp cloth, too). I added a press stud on the back to close them, and used little running stitches around the front to hold them in shape, and for a bit of extra decoration.

I thoroughly recommend this book even if you're a beginner to embroidery. Must find more stuff to embroider now - if it doesn't move, it's getting decorated (watch out cats!)

Waste-not-want-not leftover butter icing cookies

I think that the name of these biscuits may not catch on - not as snapping as 'choc chip' or 'ginger-nut', eh? They were an experiment to avoid having to throw away the leftover butter icing from the cricket tea limey cupcakes (yes, this was a while ago now!). It occurred to me that it's just basically butter and sugar, which are two of the main constituents of baked goods anyway - plus they were already flavoured with lime juice and a bit of vanilla. So I added a bit more of both to give them an oomph, and then added flour to the icing until it looked like cookie dough. I had no real idea if it was going to work, especially without adding egg (which I was avoiding as it conveniently comes in one or none) - but it did! You can see from the pictures that the cookies spread a lot, which I think has something to do with the proportion of butter, and they were quite buttery - in an acceptable cookie way. I was pleased because they still tasted of lime. I took them to my sewing group, and gave the rest to our administrator at work, who has booked a lot of meeting rooms for me this semester! Plus, if you've used non dairy marge, they're even vegan :)

Waste-not-want-not leftover butter icing cookies:
Get leftover butter icing, add flour until it's thick and looks like cookie dough. Rest in fridge, roll into balls, and bake 12-15 minus in a moderate oven (or longer if it needs it - I'm sure this will depend on the individual batch).

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Dan Lepard's Easy Bread

Let's talk bread today: easy, almost no-knead, 'I just produced this from almost thin air' bread. I've been trying out some new bread recipes recently, all in honour of a new work project. I've been working with a colleague from another university on a new research project we're planning, and we've evolved a very productive little tradition. She drives over to our house, which is about an hour and a bit from where she lives, but in return, I provide lunch, usually something bread and soup-related. Oh, and we get some work done, too. A few times I've used the breadmaker I bought for a princely £2.50 from the tip shop, but if I can fit it into my morning I like to make my own by hand. This was one I made a couple of weeks ago, inspired by its title of 'The easiest bread in the world'. It's another Dan Lepard recipe, and I do like his recipes (I have him to thanks for the winning entry in the Choc Chip Cookie Research Project after all).

The loaf is based on a starter, which doesn't sound too easy, but in fact it means that you get most of it out of the way in advance. I mixed up the starter the night before and left it in the fridge, and then just added the remaining ingredients in the morning. After that you just knead the mixture briefly three times over the course of half an hour, shape and bake. It sounds churlish to complain but I did find the kneading process a bit of a faff since I had to come back downstairs for the third knead. Perhaps Mr Lepard would point out that trying to combine work and breadmaking was outside the remit of what he had in mind when he named his loaf.

There are several variations offered to the basic white loaf, and I picked the multigrain and honey one which also just involved a bit of pre-soaking. My dough was extremely wet, so much so that I had to add quite a bit of extra flour, but I would put this down to the fact that I had to estimate the weights of the add-ins, on account of having accidentally dunked our weighing scales in the sink along with the chopping boards it was hidden between. It did not like it. It sulked terminally in fact, and I had not yet been able to buy a new one. Despite this, however, the bread turned out really well. I'm always a bit nervous serving a new bread recipe to a guest, but my collaborator (and I mean that in the best non-sinister sense) is very open to being pleased, and she put this one at the top of the breads I'd made for her. We had it smorgasbord-style, with cheese, salad, hummus and pickles.

So, if you want a bread you can whip up on a working morning, this is the one for you. In fact, I'd say this could easily become a go-to bread recipe for any occasion, and it would take all sorts of add-ins and flour variations. I'll definitely be making it again, but in the meantime I might be painting our new scale neon yellow to avoid further risky washing up mistakes!

Dan Lepard's Easiest Loaf in the World: from the Guardian Magazine

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Carrot, coriander and sun dried tomato sausages

I've been catching up with the lovely photos and recipes at Mangocheek's (don't you love the name?!) Allotment to Kitchen blog. She's an ace veggie gardener and also posts some great photos of her trips around the Glasgow area. A few recipes caught my eye when I was reading about her latest kitchen adventures recently, but there was one I just wanted to go and make immediately - some vegan roasted veggie sun dried tomato and olive sausages. We make burgers fairly often but not sausages and I was really taken with the idea.

I couldn't use this recipe exactly though - lovely though it sounded - as it contained several anti-Scientist ingredients. Namely, the olives and the oats which formed part of the filler and also the coating. I also wanted to use up the carrots from our vegbox, but I loved the idea of using lentils and sun dried tomato, and also of roasting the veggies. So I tinkered a bit and was really pleased with the results. The flavours shone through, and the sausages weren't too heavy, as potato-based things can sometimes be. Olives would have been a great addition, but hey, what can you do. The Scientist liked them too - he did say that they could have been less carroty (I pointed out helpfully that they were carrot sausages), and suggested adding some sweet potato another time. I think that would be really good too. I roughly halved mangocheeks' recipe and made five sausages which was just right for us. I served them with some baked potato wedges, dusted with paprika, and also some steamed spring greens, all from the veg box.

Guest photograph: The Scientist took this great impromptu shot of our matching pair of pooks just as the sun was starting to go down last night. I didn't even know he knew how to work my camera :)

Carrot, coriander and sun dried tomato sausages - adapted from Mangocheeks
4 carrots, washed and cut into chunks
2 garlic cloves, left whole
1/4 cup red lentils
150ml stock
handful of fresh coriander, chopped
2 sundried tomatoes, soaked in hot water
flaxseed meal and chickpea flour, for thickening and coating - I used about 1 Tbsp of flaxseed meal and about 1/4 cup of chickpea flour.

Roast the carrots and garlic at 200C for about half an hour - until soft

Cook lentils in the stock until soft

Put veggies and lentils in a food processor, with the coriander, chopped sun dried tomatoes. coriander and seasoning, to taste. Blend until well combined.

Add the flaxseed meal and enough chickpea flour that you can mould it - it will still be soft and quite damp.

Form into sausages and roll in some more chickpea flour.

Cook gently in a frying pan sprayed with some oil spray, turning every so often.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Jaffa drizzle cake

I've wanted to make this cake for ages - it was from a supplement to the Good Food magazine ages ago, but it's taken until now to find an opportunity. In the meantime Jacqueline at Tinned Tomatoes had blogged about how good it was, so its credentials had been raised even further. As usual, the opportunity was The Scientist going gaming, and it didn't take long to convince him it was a good bet (approximately as long as it took to say the word 'jaffa' and 'cake' in fact).

Frankly, this cake has everything going for it. It's about the easiest cake you could imagine - bung everything in a bowl, beat and bake. It's orangey. It has orange syrup on the top. AND it has dark chocolate on the top of the orange syrup. The recipe said it would keep for up to a week but I can't imagine any circumstances where it would need to. I asked The Scientist when he got back if it counted as a 'Gamers' Favourite' and he said a definite yes. Mind you, I haven't found a cake which hasn't been a Gamers' Favourite since I started that label. I love baking for these people!

I'm also featuring the other goodies I made for them: chocolate digestives. I loved the taste of the dough for these biscuits - they tasted exactly like the real thing. I baked them for slightly too long by mistake as I didn't hear the oven timer going off from upstairs, but covered in chocolate they were perfectly passable. And yes, they were Gamers' Favourites too :) BUT - I can't remember where I got the recipe from!! I'm rather upset about this as they were so nice, but if I turn it up again I will definitely blog it.

Jaffa drizzle lof (from BBC Good Food Magazine supplement): recipe here