Last post, I described my general impressions of America’s Test Kitchen’s DIY Cookbook. But this is a cookbook, right? So we can do better than general impressions. We can talk about recipes and techniques. Below, my gallery of awards for the recipes I made in 2013.
Most Frequent: Almond Butter, sometimes as Peanut Butter. Made a record nine times over the year. It has a stated shelf-life of two months, which means I should have only done six times. But our family goes through the stuff, especially because the neighbourhood school doesn’t prohibit nuts from packed lunches. It worked well, though I call their recipe a “qualified success,” as they don’t find the need for added oil. I buzzed and buzzed. We even got a new and mightier food processor as an early Christmas present when my parents visited after the baby was born. It improved things, but I could not create smooth, spreadable butter with nowt but the nuts. However, it worked, and the kids even loved helping shell the peanuts.
Greatest Success: Ketchup. I can’t tell you how gratifying this simple condiment was. It made me love ketchup again. I had gone off it as an adult, though as a kid it was all I wanted on my hamburger. Our kids, as kids will wont, liked ketchup and I would wrinkle my nose in foodie distaste as I squirted it on their plates. Since it was something of a staple here, I decided to give the recipe a try, and here’s the thing: it worked because it turned out just like ketchup. Only it was my ketchup. I made it, I knew there was nothing funny in it. Improbably, it tasted better because I had made it. That’s not right: it didn’t taste better than Heinz, or the President’s Choice. It tasted good because I made it. I started eating it with my fish and chips. My wife squirts it on her (homemade) mac and cheese. The sheer fact of it is kind of ridiculous, and the recipe is easy to prepare over an evening.
Fail: Crème Fraîche. Not something we typically use in the house, but I tried making it before a tortilla night and it did not set, smelled funny, all the markers of dairy failure. In the cookbook’s defence, we used “reduced for quick sale” cream, and I think the incubation of this recipe requires fresher (the clue is in the name…) not-on-the-cusp cream. So, a qualified fail, but I’m sure if we bothered to try again, we could make it into a success.
Most Economical: Membrillo, though the editors use the Portuguese name Marmelada. Also called Quince Paste for Nigel Farage and others suspicious of foreign words , it is a thick, highly reduced jam that tastes excellent with cheese. It’s that funny deep orangey-red-to-purple jiggly block on the cheese board that some people were slicing into cubes and popping on a cracker with blue cheese or manchego that you didn’t recognise and so left, you fool. We discovered this when walking through Spain eight years ago, and it is lovely. It has a soft texture with a slight grain to it, and it is sweet but not overly so. It is a luxury item at your local cheesemonger, and I understand now why they charge so much for it: it is labour intensive. I made membrillo thrice this year, and each devoured a full Saturday. Not constant work, but continual monitoring and work at stages throughout the process means you have to plan your day around it. But seriously, for the price of three quinces and a bag of sugar, I had blocks of the stuff. I gave it away as presents, and we would just snack on it at night when the kids had gone to bed. If you were actually buying this stuff, such habits would not be practical. Or the revolutionaries would have you pegged as among the first against the wall. Not so when you do it yourself, comrades. So, for sheer monetary comparisons, membrillo wins hands-down.
An excellent fig cake, but not a recipe from the DIY Cookbook
(Runner-up: Fig Balsamic Jam. This only became economical for us because I found a flat of fresh figs about to go soft and mouldy at the wholesale greengrocers down the street. Two quid for a flat of figs, some of which we used in an excellent cake, six of which became a fun dessert whilst Granny and Grandpa were visiting from Canada, and the remainder of which made this really awesome jam. But in general, fruit jams are not economical unless you grow the fruit yourself. Fun, yes, and eminently worthwhile. But not cost-saving.)
Least Economical: Vanilla Extract. They tried to tell me the opposite: “cheaper, better, it lasts forever… You’re crazy if you don’t start making your own vanilla extract today,” writes Rebecca Morris. Maybe, if you’re comparing it against the luxury brand stuff at the posh boutique. But your bog-standard vanilla extract remains cheaper at the store. Vodka is not negligible, even if you’re using discount brands, and then there’s the matter of vanilla beans. Two quid a pop at the store down the road, and they wanted eight (8)?!? I’m sure the flavour would be justifiably intense and lovely and flowery and whatever. I’m not at such a peg in the plutocracy that my vanilla extract can demand this investment of me. We ordered beans online at what worked out to be a pound apiece (before shipping…) and I still cheated and used just two. And it tasted fine. That we have gone through our 250ml of the stuff in half a year suggests to me it is not yet worth the investment to up the foodie factor by experimenting with more or different beans.
The Buffalo: Candied Ginger. Award so named from our friends among the nations of Canada’s Prairies, who, so the story goes, used every part of the buffalo: the meat, the hide, the bones, let nothing go to waste. From Candied Ginger, I got the eponymous candied ginger as well as ginger-flavoured sugar (good in your tea) and the syrup it boiled in, which went down a treat with some fizzy water. Seriously, we did not actually get through all the candied ginger the recipe made before it went bad (two week shelf-life), but I would make it again and again for the syrup. Perhaps this should really be called the Blessed Byproduct Award.
(Runner-up: Ketchup. Not quite as impressive, but the solids that remain after you press the ketchup through a sieve make a nice base for a sauce. Tomato and onion and loads of condensed flavour.)
Fake Nutella, baby!
Brag About It Online: Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread. I put my Fake Nutella photos on Facebook to considerable acclaim. Also gave as gifts to neighbourhood friends who also follow the unusually continental ritual of putting chocolate on toast. Though Ketchup wins my success award, this stuff won my heart.
(Runner-up: Bacon Jam. Because when you type “____ _____ made bacon jam” into the internet, people get excited.)
Good Weird: Bacon Jam. The award’s name comes from a frozen concentrated juice my flatmate Ben and I used to get as undergraduates: orange strawberry banana. It sounded, looked, and tasted good and weird, so we called it Good Weird Juice. Bacon jam is this. This was the recipe, in fact, that made my wife think this was the right Christmas present for me. It has coffee in it, maple syrup, chili powder, and lots more. Plus, it is bacon and it turns into jam. But yes! Stir it in your pasta, spread it on toast, add it to a sandwich. Excellent stuff. I thought we were ahead of the curve on this one, but I spotted a jar of it on the shelf at Waitrose this past year, making me think I am only inside the curve. Apparently North America is already reasonably well-acquainted with the stuff. And so it should be. NB: also would be a good runner-up for “least economical,” at least in my books, as it demands 1/3 c. of maple syrup. Here in Scotland, that is a costly investment. The stuff doesn’t just grow on trees, you know!
Most Innovative: Worcestershire Sauce. They get points for taking something that is commercially produced through fermentation and doing it with spices instead. I’m not opposed to fermentation—neither are they. They have a whole section on pickles. But they wanted this cupboard staple to be a little more accessible, and with a funky blend of ingredients, they got it spot on.
Kids’ Favourite: Chocolate Sandwich Cookies. I was surprised by the unanimous vote of my 7- and 5-year-olds. Oreos are not such a huge part of our lives that Fake Oreos should be such a revelation. They just liked them a lot. This also win the Deserves Its Own Blog Post Award – watch this space for details.
Wife’s Favourite: Membrillo. Although she went “ooh” when I read out Raspberry-Peach Spreadable Fruit from the list of accomplishments at year’s end. But she’d forgotten that one, so maybe it wins Good but Forgettable. As, perhaps, so many of these things ought to be, just becoming absorbed into your daily life. But the membrillo stands out for her.
And in the next post, awards for some of the recipes I didn’t make.