Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The 'Master Chef Challenge' - 10 hours, 5 teams, 10 dishes and 1 experiment

        It's been a hectic two weeks since I last blogged. Ryan built me a new computer since then which we had to work through and tweak out all the little glitches. Then I had to reinstall all my programs and transfer all my files over from my back up hard drive which took a while too. Yes, my boyfriend can cook and build computers too - arn't I a lucky girl? ;) We're also travelling overseas for 4 weeks in August so I'm too super excited to do much other than google places to go, things to eat etc (especially in Paris - THE food capital of the world). I had to decide on what to blog about next and thought that this is way overdue on my list of things to blog about.
        Over the Easter break some friends of ours were getting together for a 'Master Chef' challenge of sorts of their own and Ryan and I were invited along. We were all split into pairs and the 'rules' were as follows:
  • Couples were split - it was deemed that all the couples knew how to cook so would have unfair advantage as not everyone knew how to cook
  • Names drawn out ‘randomly’
  • Each team was assigned a ‘secret ingredient’randomly: Eggplant, Spinach, Carrot, Pumpkin, Tomato
  • 2 hours to cook two dishes, your own recipe
  • The hosts decided last minute that they wanted dessert too so each team had to cook one savoury and one sweet dish (secret ingredient only had to be used in 1 dish)
  • All ingredients were bought beforehand and BYO kitchen utensils/serving apparatus if the
    host could not accommodate
  • All prep and cooking had to be done in the 2 hours allocated
  • Only one team cooking in the kitchen at a time (limited space)
  • Dishes to be tasted at the end of each session
  • Each team had to wash up after they finished cooking
        Ryan and I were absolutely excited about the challenge. We cook well as a team but have never really had a challenge like this where we were going to compete head to head. And being assigned a theme ingredient got us thinking more creatively as to what we wanted to dish up. We discussed our ideas for weeks, and had a bit of friendly rivalry going on between us.
        But rules are made to be broken right? Well we never ended up judging the food. And there was a particular team who had made their cheesecake the day before (because it needed chilling) and bought a pre-prepared roast. Some of us also went overtime and some of us required a little help from other teams. There was only a small handful who had cooking experience - some more than others, and some who wouldn't know the difference between a spatula and a wooden spoon. Some teams did a dish each, and some teams collaborated and worked together on both dishes.
        I was very impressed with everyone's efforts. We started at about 10:00am and the last dishes were served up about 8 hours later. It was an epic day full of food which had us constantly grazing every 2 hours with snacks in between. And to top it all off, we had a late night Maccas run for Chicken Nuggets too - crazy I know.

Team 1 - Eggplant

How many guys does it take to watch a pot?

        Poaching pears in a cinnamon syrup, a first time for the person responsible for this dish.

        There was a fair bit of liquid in the pot and I was asked how to thicken it. I just told them to keep it simmering until it reduces. Came out beautifully.

        Cinnamon poached pears served with (Blue Ribbon) Caramel Swirl ice cream. I was impressed.

        Hint on how to get uniform looking eggs in the pan, break them into a small bowl first then pour into the saucepan. That way you can control the way the egg falls better.

Grilled eggplant and proscuitto with egg sunny side up and toast soldiers.

Team 2 - Spinach

        These two never cook, but I am very proud for what they dished up. Even if I was in the kitchen for the entire 2 hours guiding them along.

Some apple and crumble from the night before.

        She says she wasn't following a recipe as such, that she just read a few recipes and then memorised all the good bits and put them all together to make her dish. Kind of sounds like me sometimes =).

        She looks so proud of her creations. Even though the oven switched itself off for about 15 minutes before we realised it, they still came out okay.

Spinach and Ricotta pastries.

        This guy sends me a text the day before asking me if I knew where he could buy Marshmallow Creme/Fluff from. I knew straight away that it was an American product which I'd never ever heard of before and wouldn't exist in Australia. I ask him for the recipe to see what and how it is used. He found the recipe by googling something along the lines of 'easy no cook recipe'. Here's the recipe he found.

        My only advice was to try and melt some marshmallows to get the same effect. But not really knowing how the recipe would turn out by doing this. It was as simple as blending together the ingredients once we managed to melt down the marshmallows. And soften the cream cheese after we started processing it. They also don't sell strawberry flavoured cream cheese here but we figured the strawberry flavoured marshmallows was enough.

        Marshmallow Fluff Fruit Dip with fresh fruit. It was definately an interesting tasting dish this one. Suprisingly the little bit that I tried with a piece of pineapple was quite tasty. And Ryan agrees that it went well with the pineapple too.

Team 3 - Carrot

        This was my team! I wanted to think outside the square a bit and challenge myself here. I also wanted to do a dessert with carrot. Even though we only had to use the ingredient in one dish I was ambitious and wanted the challenge of cooking two dishes, sweet and savoury which both included carrot. I thought I'd leave it up to my partner to think of a savoury dish but I think her creativity was a bit limited when it came to food *Edited: When she pointed out previous statement I realised how bad it sounded. Her idea of creativity was stir fry or korean potato noodles which included carrot in it already (not that that's a bad thing). My idea of creativity was to take something well known and take it in a new direction, or to think outside the square a bit so I adapted a recipe I found on the taste website so that it featured our secret ingredient. I wanted to win! This was before I found out that we wern't even being judged for our dishes. If I had known this was the case, I wouldn't have worried too much about what we cooked.
        I knew my audience, so I wanted to make a dessert that was special and unique to them. And I also wanted to show some creativity using the secret ingredient. What I came up with was a carrot cake souffle, a souffle that featured all the elements of a carrot cake. It was pretty much a basic souffle recipe but I added some processed carrot and the same spices that were in a regular carrot cake.

        I served my souffle with some cream cheese frosting on the side and some walnut brittle - to keep with the elements of a carrot cake but with a bit of a twist.

        I was very happy with what I plated up, even though I knew we wern't being judged anymore. It certainly got the reaction I had hoped for. Though upon tasting, my souffle could have done with an extra 5 minutes or so in the oven. We were already pushing overtime with our 2 dishes. Ryan had to step in and help us with the cooking. My cooking partner was struggling a bit and  I was busy getting my souffle on the go.

        Our savoury dish was Carrot Samosas with a Cucumber and Mint Raita. We cheated and used store bought puff pastry. They are traditionally made using potato as the main ingredient but I added carrot to the mix and had more carrot than potato. I made a basic dipping sauce of yogurt, finely chopped cucumber and mint. These were a huge hit. My cooking partner insisted that we make them that little bit spicier which was a great match with the refreshing sauce.

Team 4 - Pumpkin
        Ryan's team! As soon as Ryan found out who his cooking partner was he knew he was a bit disadvantaged. Let me rephrase - HIGHLY disadvantage. I mean, this guy replied to an email revealing our ingredients with 'boiled pumpkin'. He had absolutely no cooking knowledge/skill at all. He did make a very good sous chef/kitchen hand though. *** Edit: Due to a comment made below on this blog post I would like to add that I was in no way putting down our friend, the 'annoymous' commenter has taken my comments/thoughts way out of context. Ryan's team mate acknowledges that he is lacking in cooking skills but learnt alot from cooking with Ryan on the day.

Ryan's sous chef getting the potato mash nice and fine.

Mmmm chorizo.

        As Ryan has been on a bit of a gnocchi making frenzy and is getting very good at it he wanted to try and make a pumpkin gnocchi again. The first time we made it, we ended up with a stodgy dumpling but he insisted that he had a method to get the most perfect pumpkin dumplings. The trick was to actually mix the pumpkin with some potato. After boiling them he finished them off in a saucepan to seal them off.

Pumpkin gnocchi with chorizo, sauteed pumpkin and sage.

        Ryan originally wanted to make a pumpkin and sage pannacotta but I told him 2 hours would not be enough time to make and chill it. (If we knew we could bend the rules I think it would have been awesome). He decided to do what he is good at - a creme brulee. And it was a pumpkin creme brulee to incorporate the theme ingredient. We didn't try it straight after the 2 hours though as we needed to try and cool it down substantially before it could be eaten.
        Unfortunately I still didn't have any gas in my blow torch so tried to put one under the grill but the sugar was too thick and the direct heat melted the custard. Ryan wanted to be a bit creative and made a layer of toffee to place on top of the creme brulee. It didn't quite work as he had imagined it to. It was just too thick to break through. They did vote between Ryan's dessert and mine and Ryan got crowd favourite. I thought it was okay at the time but when I tasted the leftovers the next day - OMG it was absolutely DEVINE. I'll have to get Ryan to recreate it again some day.

Team 5 - Tomato

        Now this is a bit of a biased pairing I reckon ;) Both ladies have at least basic - medium cooking skill but yet we have a cheese cake that was pre done the night before, a pre-prepared store bought roast and a simple pasta dish. If we were being judged I think they should have been penalised highly for that =p.

        Some pretty good cheesecake. Everyone kept asking what the PJ stands for - it's the first letter of the name of each team member.

Some cream and strawberries for a finishing touch.

Master Chef Kitchen Rules?

        Even for a store bought roast this was pretty tasty. We all thought it was beef though when it came out of the oven a little pink. Then we realised it was pork so into the oven again it went.

The secret ingredient was almost left out, then added on in the last minute.

        Pasta with sausage and tomato, was a bit of a heavy ending to a day of feasting but after constant small meals and nibbling all day I think we wanted some real food.

The Experiment

        We had a few extra people show up to eat the food we cooked but wern't in any of the teams and didn't contribute to any of the cooking. Except this so called experiment. Deep fried McDonald's Cheeseburger and Oreos. Not all of us were fond of this idea of  'cooking'.

Battering the cheeseburger.

Crispy shards on the bottom of the burger.

Would you eat this?

I've read about deep fried Oreos but was not game to try it.

Looks a bit like Mickey Mouse?

Guinea Pig # 1.

Guinea Pig # 2 - mastermind of the fried Oreo.

Guinea Pig #3 - master of the batter.

        Ryan had a bit of the fried cheeseburger. There were a few disgruntled moans but apparantly it didn't taste too bad. 'It just tastes like a regular cheeseburger' I heard someone say.

        We ended the night just veging out in front of the TV, followed by a couple of drinking games (though Ryan and I didn't drink) it was fun just watching them make fools of themselves. Even though I wasn't under the influence I had a sudden urge for something friend - hence the late night almost midnight run to the local Maccas for Nuggets. There were 40 nuggets, 2 large fries and a double cheeseburger between the 7 of us who were left by the end of the night. I think we had eaten enough food for a week in just one day. But it was a great day of food and fellowship.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Giant Sticky Chocolate Brownies - Edible Gifts

        What's better than an edible gift made with love? Especially when it's a box of deliciously soft and gooey brownies. Last month some good friends of ours got married. The bride was a great fan of my Sticky Chocolate Brownies and I had been meaning to make up a batch for her but just never got around to it. I also didn't want to be the cause of her not fitting into her wedding dress before the big day either. It's quite customary to give monetary gifts at Vietnamese weddings but as a last minute decision I decided I wanted to bake some brownies for them (her) as a little extra gift on the side. I also had another friend with a birthday the week after so thought that I would make some extra to give to her too.

        Cookbooks also make awesome presents. I received this chocolate cookbook for my 25th birthday a couple of years ago which is where this Sticky Chocolate Brownie recipe comes from. It is an awesome brownie recipe and not like your regular chocolate brownies. If cooked properly it should be soft and sticky and gooey (hence it's namesake). I did miss the mark a bit this time around, overcooked them slightly so they wern't as soft and gooey but still had a slight sticky chewiness to them. They're not as dense as regular brownies either and can get quite addictive.

Sticky Chocolate Brownies
(Adapted from Love Food - Chocolate Box, book pictured above)
• 85g butter
• 140g sugar
• 100g brown butter
• 125g plain chocolate, broken into pieces
• 1 tbsp golden syrup
• 2 eggs
• 1 tsp chocolate or vanilla essence
• 100g plain flour
• 2 tbsp cocoa powder
• 1/2 tsp baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius. Lightly grease and line a shallow 20cm square cake tin.
2. Place the butter, sugars, chocolate, golden syrup in a saucepan and heat on medium low, stirring continuously until well blended and smooth. Remove from heat and leave to cool.
3. Beat the eggs and essence then whisk in the cooled chocolate mixture. Sift together the dry ingredients and fold into the chocolate and egg mixture.
4. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 25 minutes until the top is crisp and the sides start to shrink away from the tin. The inside should still be stodgy and soft to the touch.
5. Leave to cool, then dust with cocoa powder and cut into squares then serve.

        I doubled the batch and used a roasting pan to bake the brownies. I also decreased the heat to 170 degrees and baked it for a bit longer just to make sure the middle cooks properly without overcooking the edges. Perhaps I cooked it for a little too much longer. I left it overnight and cut it up the next day, it wasn't as gooey as the other times I had made it.

        Instead of cutting them into smaller squares (or rectangles) I decided to cut them into slabs to resemble cakes and to fit into some pretty gift boxes which I had bought. Also had to cut off the edges because they wern't pretty enough. I mixed some icing sugar with the cocoa just to lighten it up a little. Brown is not a very pretty colour, though when associated with chocolate I think it's delicious.

        I then proceeded to melt some chocolate to do some writing on the brownie slabs however the chocolate didn't want to stay on to the cocoa icing sugar surface when I started dragging along my piping bag to write so I decided to stick some sugar decorations I had in the pantry on instead (used the melted chocolate as glue).

        I lined a gift box with some cellophane and baking paper and then placed the brownie slab into it. Looked so pretty I just wanted to keep it for myself. This reminds me of the giant cookies and cookie cards you can buy from Mrs Fields cookie shops. I think giant brownies are just much more awesome than giant cookies though ;).

        As it was last minute I didn't have enough time to shop around but managed to pick up these two pretty boxes from The Reject Shop. I just wanted to keep them too.

        Leftover brownies and edge pieces because they were too ugly to include in the slab. They really are the best bits though ;).