Stoneware baked shortbread

A few years ago I got bought a stoneware shortbread mould, basically identical to the one below:
Its a classic stone, patterned shortbread mould from Lakeland, that's supposed to create traditional shortbread.

As I have previously mentioned, I quite like shortbread, so over the years I have attempted to use the stoneware to create picture perfect shortbread (with a variety of normal and brown-butter recipes), all of which ended in disaster.

I tried a number of tricks: cooking it low and slow, making sure it cools completely (several hours) before removing, greasing the mould, but every time it came out in pieces and mostly stuck to the mould. Searching for advice, several people in the lower end of the product reviews experienced similar results (although several people gave 5-star reviews with claims of mould-glory) and one of the top results on google was an article about similar disastrous experiences using the same mould, I didn't have high hopes.


I am pleased to say though, that I have had a breakthrough.


There were lots of comments in the review section for the product saying it worked as-is, recommending shortening, or letting chill completely, which I can confirm absolutely did not work for me, however, one or two comments and some more careful searching lead me to the idea of seasoning it (much like when I got my pride-and-joy new cast iron skillet) - which suddenly made sense. Its a natural, porous material, which draws moisture our of the contents (which is one of the properties that makes stone an appropriate material for pizza stones - the other property being the heat retention, also much like cast iron) - seasoning, the act of heating oil or (non burning) fat above its "smoke point" creates a chemical reaction where by the oil bonds and forms a natural, breathable coating.

Much like a well aged, well used, cast iron pan can demonstrate incredible non-stick performance - due to long term use - the same applies to stoneware for baking wet foods - there is apparently a saying that goes

The worse it looks, the better it cooks
Thankfully, cast iron or stoneware, you don't need a lifetime of use before you start to see the best results - we can fast track the process by seasoning the pan. As it happens, seasoning pans is very satisfying.


Seasoning a pan is simple -

  1. Pre-heat your oven to as hot as it will go (it might smoke, so make sure you are ready to have windows/doors open)

  2. Apply oil (I used vegetable oil) to the pan, not a lot, just a light coat (trying to make sure there aren't bits of dust or paper debris from kitchen towels - as the stone can be fairly abrasive, and any debris is going to get sealed into the surface)

  3. Put the dish in the oven for around 30 minutes

  4. Take out, let it cool completely (this will take a while, remember what I mentioned about it stone retaining heat)

  5. Repeat the process two or three times (I find it quite addictive to repeat, as the results are such a delight)



The results should be clear - the colour will change fairly dramatically, and if you touch it (once its cooled down) it will be fairly smooth.

If you look at the colour in the starting photo, a kind of pale-greyish white, that is how my mould started out, and below is after three or so seasoning runs:


Isn't that a beautiful colour?


And here's the successful results:



(a success in as much that it came out, pattern in tact - however it was an iteration on my brown butter shortbread development, so still a work in progress)





Gluten-free Rosemary Millionaires shortbread

A few weeks ago I re-visited my rosemary millionaire shortbread to attempt to make a gluten free version (well, mostly - I used regular porridge oats in my version, which I think is not guaranteed to be 100% gluten free because of cross contamination or something, but gluten free porridge oats are available).



I also varied the way I made the rosemary-caramel, but it still wasn't very rosemary, so maybe I will up the rosemary next time.

Ingredients

Shortbread
  • 150 grams porridge oats
  • 75 grams cornmeal
  • 170 grams butter
  • 90 grams caster sugar

Caramel
  • 150ml double cream
  • 30 grams salted butter
  • a single finger pinch of sea salt
  • 100 grams light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

Chocolate 
  • 250 gram cadburys chocolate


Method

  1. Make the shortbread - Normally making the shortbread we have to cream the butter and sugar and then fold in the flour, but as we are gluten free we don't need to worry about being careful this time: just mix the oats, cornmeal, sugar and butter together.

  2. Press the mixture into a tin and cook in a fan oven at about 160 degrees for about 20 minutes - keep an eye on it so it doesn't go to brown, but we really want to cook it fairly slowly for a while so it has a chance to dry out, this will give it more of a brittle crunch to the base (in a hopefully good way)

  3. For the caramel, gently melt all ingredients except rosemary in a pan, once melted add the rosemary and stir through, heat for two to three minutes

  4. Leave the caramel to stand for another 10 minutes or so, whilst the shortbread cools

  5. Poor the caramel through a sieve to remove the rosemary pieces, pour caramel onto the cooled shortbread

  6. Place the caramel topped shortbread in the fridge to cool for another 20 minutes

  7. Melt the chocolate in the microwave on a low power settings (will take a couple of minutes), once it is smooth, pour on top of the caramel shortbread and put back in the fridge to set.

BBQ spare ribs

A rather productive weekend for cooking this weekend. Well, mostly just the Sunday really. After heading to a local pick-your-own farm with the kids on Saturday I picked up a full rack of pork ribs from their butchers, so Sunday I smoked those and whilst they were sitting on the grill I also found time to make some rosemary salt caramel brownies.



The ribs were fairly simple - Saturday night I trimmed and lightly salted the meat, Sunday morning I rubbed the meat and then cooked for about 5 1/2 hours Sunday afternoon for dinner.

The rub

  • 30 grams light brown sugar
  • 15 grams caster sugar
  • 5 grams smoked paprika
  • 5 grams garlic powder
  • 2 grams onion powder
  • 3 grams ground ginger
  • 2 grams black pepper




It was a full rack of spare ribs, and I threw together one of my standard, quick-n-easy BBQ sauces for the painting at the end.

Method

  1. Trim the ribs and remove the membrane

  2. Salt and apply rub

  3. Setup the BBQ (WSM) for smoking set at 110 degrees (225 farenheit)

  4. Once temperature is stabilised, add the ribs

  5. After 4 hours, check to see how they are looking, depending on the thickness of the meat they might take longer (mine took about 5 hours)

  6. Check the ribs by doing the bend/bounce test (pick up the ribs and bend them a little, if they crack a bit on the top then they are ready)

  7. If using sauce, paint the ribs with the sauce (I quickly painted the ribs with a water/maple-syrup solution prior to applying the sauce, this was just to keep the sauce loose and not to thick anywhere)

  8. Return to the grill for 15 minutes or so

  9. Before getting ready to serve, put them over the direct heat (for this I just remove the middle section of the WSM and stick the grill directly above the coals) meat side down, for a minute, just to crisp up the bark - don't do this for too long as it can easily burn

  10. Slice between the bones and serve up.



Rosemary Millionaire Shortbread

I also put together some rosemary-salt millionaires shortbread on the weekend.  I originally tried rosemary caramel in a hipster coffee shop in London, and, as you might guess, thought "I should do that".



So its pretty simple, I made shortbread as usual. I made caramel with some rosemary added. Then topped with normal melted chocolate (nothing fancier seemed necessary)

Ingredients

Shortbread
  • 225 grams plain flour
  • 170 grams butter
  • 90 grams caster sugar

Caramel
  • 150ml double cream
  • 30 grams salted butter
  • a single finger pinch of sea salt
  • 100 grams light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

Chocolate 
  • Two 110 gram bars of cadburys chocolate


Method

  1. Make the shortbread - cream the butter and sugar, mix in the flour, and then press into the bottom of a lined baking tray

  2. For the caramel, gently melt all ingredients except rosemary in a pan, once melted add the rosemary and stir through, heat for two to three minutes

  3. Leave the caramel to stand for another 10 minutes or so, whilst the shortbread cools

  4. Poor the caramel through a sieve to remove the rosemary pieces, pour caramel onto the cooled shortbread

  5. Place the caramel topped shortbread in the fridge to cool for another 20 minutes

  6. Melt the chocolate in the microwave on a low power settings (will take a couple of minutes), once it is smooth, pour on top of the caramel shortbread and put back in the fridge to set.

The Big Meat 2016

August bank holiday weekend, we went to the The Big Meat, BBQ and Beer festival, in Farnham. It was recommended to me by the winner of the Gower BBQ competition, and as it was just down the road from us, I figured it could be fun. Plus it was only £35 for a family camping ticket - which seems like really good value for a nights camping for the four of us and entry to the event both days (which included live music, cooking demos, a kids area and then on the Sunday, loads of free meat from the competitors in the BBQ comp).



Luckily the weather was pretty good too - the Saturday was pretty hot and sunny, there were a few showers on the Sunday, but not enough to really affect anything much.

It's a fairly fledgling event, only in its second year, so it wasn't as big as it could be (in terms of vendors, there was only BBQ food and one or two drinks vendors really) and as you might expect none of them were up and running for the 7am campers, but that wasn't really a big deal. In terms of the competition they managed to attract 20 teams and it seemed like a very impressive setup - they had a decent judging panel and all competitors seemed to be provided all they needed (space and electricity).



Honestly, all of the meat that I ate from the competition (and there was a lot of it) was really high quality - After the chef's special on the Saturday (which I missed because I didn't realise they were turning any food before Sunday) the main four rounds were chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork and brisket, and was some of the best BBQ food I have ever eaten (including compared to authentic American BBQ joints).

One of my reasons for going was to go and chat with the competitors, taste the food and check out their set up (and generally get as many tips as possible), so here is some of the stuff I learnt:

  • Chef's special are impressive. Once again, just expecting people to do some piece of meat for this round, a lot of people were really creative - one competitor did veal on gnocchi, another did a giant burger and another did smore-brownies with a white russian to wash it down (using fresh, raw milk from the dairy farm that the festival was being held on)

  • Chicken round: everyone does thighs. Severeal competitors I spoke to said this same thing. The judges know what to expect with thighs, and going off piste with this can result in your scores getting tanked if just one judge takes a dislike to whatever it is you try (which also makes sense given me gripes with low'n'slow cooking chicken)

  • Almost everyone has a temperature controlled BBQ system. BBQ Guru being the most popular choice I saw. Which makes sense, being as there were several rounds to cook for hand in with in two hours of each other, and most competitors putting on their brisket around 22:00 on the saturday night.

Oat-y shortbread bites

It's been a strange kind of weekend for cooking. For a change, my savoury food has all turned out fairly badly (a made an adhoc couscous sund-dried tomato and mozarella bake, yesterday which I quite enjoyed but didn't quite taste right, and then today I attempted to make an afghan inspired stew but: I mis-judged the spices and it ended up tasting like curried aubergine, my okras got mistakenly thrown away and I hadn't soaked my split peas), but as a pleasant change, my shortbread experiment turned out pretty well.

I have been trying to perfect my brown butter shortbread recipe I have previously posted. As mentioned, I am happy with the taste, but they are incredibly crumbly (to the point of being pretty messy to just pick up), but my repeated attempts to adjust the ratios have been met with continued failure. I am sure that the problem is due to lack of water in the mix, but not able to get the balance right.

Anyway, this weekend, on the Saturday, I was out with the boys and we had some oat-y type shortbread biscuits with dried strawberry in a cafe, which were pretty tasty. So needless to say, when we got up this morning, I decided we should try to work out the recipe.



The first iteration was pretty decent - a little sweeter than I had in mind (I prefer more butter-y flavour in my shortbread) so I think next time I will try with more butter, and more flour to keep the structural integrity) but overall pretty decent.

I also substituted raisins for the strawberries on this occasion, on account of us having millions of raisins and no dried strawberries in the house. Anyway, to the details..

Ingredients

  • 90 grams rolled oats
  • 125 grams plain flour
  • 100 grams caster
  • 15 grams light brown sugar
  • 180 grams unsalted butter
  • raisins
  • Pinch salt

Method

  1. In a freestand mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars until light

  2. add the salt, raisins and oats and mix until combined

  3. Add the flour and gently mix through - either on the lowest speed of the mixer or by hand

  4. wrap in cling film and roll into a tube shaped about 1 inch in diameter (I was going for small, slightly bigger than bitesize biscuits) and cool in the fridge for 30 minutes until set

  5. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees centigrade, slice the chilled batter into discs about 1/2 inch deep and place on baking tray line with baking paper, cook for about 15-20minutes untill golden brown



The Gower BBQ Competition 2016

And so, 06:30 Sunday morning, I found myself trekking out to Gower to sit in a gazebo, in the rain, watching my smoker slowly cook meat.

Despite the less than favourable conditions for the competition, and the lonely nature of the experience, it was good fun!  It was the first chance since buying the smoker that I had to really spend some time working with it, watching how it behaved to different circumstances and getting a feel for it. I'm also an introvert who likes to be alone, so sitting in a field with just some music and a BBQ was really quite peaceful.

As well as generally enjoying it, I also learnt a whole tonne of stuff. Both from the practical experience and just generally going through it and advice from fellow competitors (surprisingly, I went into both competitions expecting everyone to be highly secretive about technique and recipes - although I was planning on publishing my recipe and scorecard whatever happened - but found the opposite, everyone I spoke to offered tips and lots of competitors had their ingredients listed on their stalls).

The competition involved three rounds: 1) a rack of pork ribs 2) a half chicken 3) Chef's choice (I went short ribs again)

Given all my practice up until this weekend had been for the chili, and I had used my new smoker a total of three times up until this weekend I had reached the point where I figured there was not too much point going all bells-and-whistles for the competition, so I used supermarket meat rather than better quality meat from a butchers and re-used the same rub and sauce on both the pork and chicken.

The results

I came a more impressive sounding 3rd (so took home a prize!), but with the caveat that there were only three of us competing on the day, so depending on how you look at it, its taking home the bronze, or coming last. (I did however get some pretty positive feedback on the chicken and the beef ribs)



I didn't taste or see the second place entry, but I can say that the winning BBQ was wayyyy ahead of the level I was at! (They also were the most helpful in giving advice and talking through what they did).

I didn't take home the feedback notes, but generally the chicken and beef were well cooked (although in reality the beef was over-cooked, and had more shrinkage than I would have liked, but beef ribs need to be cooked well beyond well-done for the connective tissue to melt, so even though they were cooked to fast, the end result was positive). The pork ribs were overdone (I knew this at time of submission) and everything was a bit too smoked.

An aside: Reasons against chicken

I really don't like slow cooking chicken. Although the judges were very positive about it, I just don't think it makes sense as low'n'slow bbq food, and given the option I wouldn't include it on my menu.  My original plan for the competition was to take two BBQs: my smoker and my Barbeskew (basically a charcoal BBQ with a rotisserie), however, the day before due to travel I failed in my attempts to dismantle it so it would fit into my car. 

So for the competition, I had to suck it up and just cook the thing in the smoker. There are two main reasons I much prefer cooking the chicken on the rotisserie than the smoker:

  1. Chicken, especially the breast meat, is not well suited to slow cooking and gets dried out very easily. It has very little connective tissue in the breast meat as it is a fast twitch muscle (also not helped by the physical properties of a whole chicken, with the breasts the most exposed parts of the meat, and higher up - problems that can be helped by spatchcocking). Just like cooking a traditional roast chicken in an oven, I would cook hot and fast (220 degrees centigrade on a fan oven), to quickly cook without drying out - where as a smoker (especially one that is also cooking other meats) is better at cooking slowly at much lower temperatures.

  2. The lower temperature doesn't crisp up the skin as well as a direct, radiant heat source. The rotisserie lets us cook the chicken over a high radiant heat from the direct coals (whilst of course rotating, to avoid overcooking a single part of the chicken) which very effectively browns the skin.  Again, this problem can be alleviated a little by rolling the bird around on a direct heat above the coals for a short time, but still not as effective. Just look at the skin of the bird below compared to the one I submitted for the competition (the competition chicken also has my BBQ sauce on it, which is contributing to the brown colour, where as the bird below is just a dry rub before cooking and then just beautifully golden skin):



So, what did I learn?

Much like the previous day, I learnt a lot. Some basic things about the smoker, and some about general technique, so in no particular order:

  • The Weber Smokey Mountain is incredibly effective at holding its temperature - As mentioned, this was the first time I had a chance to just sit and watch it, and I did fiddle with the air vents an awful lot, but the take away was that it was pretty simple to get it sitting at a fixed temperature for several hours. With the vents fully open, and using about 1 1/2 chimney-starters worth of coal, the smoker will happily go to 125 degrees centigrade - if you need to ramp it up even higher (for example you want to really blast a chicken), then you need more oxygen. I noticed the previous day that when I opened the lid for more than 30 seconds or so, the coals got flooded with the additional oxygen and usually re-ignited - this is useful to help restore the temperature in the smoker once the lid is back on (as with the lid off for a minute or two you will easily see a drop to something like 70 degrees) - but also highlights the importance of air-supply. If you want to keep the temperature high for a short time, you can open the lid for a few minutes to get that initial flood of oxygen and then leave the coal door open to keep a steady supply of air coming in.  Whilst not that useful in smoking food normally, its interesting to experiment to really get a feel for the kit, and understand the controls.

  • I decided to cook without water in the water pan - having heard that several competitors don't use water, or instead replace it with sand or terracotta (to act much like a pizza stone, to retain heat). It might normally have been a gamble to just change up my setup on the day, but given the minimal experience I had, I figured it didn't matter too much.

    One side affect of not adding the water was it seemed to change the temperature dynamic in the smoker. Normal advice is that (on a hot day) the temperature shown at the top thermometer in the lid can be 10-15 degrees hotter than the bottom grid in the smoker (due to heat rising, and potential effects of sunlight direct on the lid).  However, after a few hours I measured the temperature lower down in the smoker (I inserted an instant read thermometer in the side just above the lower grid) and it was running around 30 degrees hotter than the thermometer at the top (also worth noting that it was a fairly grey and miserable day, so possibly that was cooling the top thermometer).

    I will try this approach again to check the same behaviour, but my theory is this: with the water in, the water pan blocks the direct heat from the coal, so the smoker operates like a normal convection oven, regulating the heat throughout, however, without water (or in theory, sand etc) the metal pan just absorbs and radiates the heat from the coal, so providing a more direct heat source - providing radiant heat from the pan from the bottom as well as the convective heat. If this is the case, then it possibly provides an interesting approach for two zone cooking - the bottom grill running higher with more direct heat, and the top grill operating more like the conventional smoker.

  • One of the pieces of feedback from the judges was that the meat was all too smoked. I knew I shouldn't add too much wood. I had read, start with less. Err on the side of caution. But despite all this, I kept doubting that the wood was smoking enough, so kept adjusting. Something that comes with experience and confidence is the self assurance to not second guess yourself, and not to second guess what you know is right.

  • As I mentioned, the ribs were overdone. Especially the pork ribs. When I went to take them off the BBQ, they were looking a gorgeous colour, and I had a decision to make - do I wrap them in foil and put them back on the BBQ (a la Texas Crutch) or do I foil them and put them in the cooler (a la faux cambro). I opted for back on the BBQ, but as I hadn't really planned this part, I didn't add any liquid to the foil - and disappointingly, when I unwrapped them from the foil, they didn't look as good as when I had wrapped them.  Changes I will make for next time: try out the Texas Crutch approach earlier on in cooking to finish off, or once done just put them in the cooler.  I will also be switching from baby back ribs to spare ribs.  I might also try the texas crutch approach for the beef ribs next time.



Now all I need to do is get in some more practice before next year..