Branching out to baking.. Butter Tarts

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Baking is something I approach with a certain amount of caution (for good reason – read my ‘About’ page), and so it was with something of a daring streak that I decided to open “Paul Hollywood’s British Baking”. I wasn’t really sure exactly what I wanted to make, but after an unpronounceable title caught my eye (“Ecclefechan Butter Tarts”) I decided why not, braced myself, and turned to page 272.

It was one of the ‘Scottish recipes’ – clearly it was fate that we had been brought together. I ran my eyes down the list of ingredients, looking for a reason not to push my culinary talents – and found none. We had everything. It was like a sign from God: ‘Now is your time to shine… in the reflection of the Aga’.

The recipe was to make 12 tarts, but as usual, my creative (and, let’s be honest, hungry) side kicked in, and I rolled the homemade pastry out exceptionally smoothly, taking on the challenge, facing the impossible, and filling a grand total of seventeen cupcake spaces in my tray.

Adding the sherry vinegar started to put me off slightly – I’m not a big fan of currant-y Christmas cake or overly-alcoholic mince pies, but I brushed away my reservations and stuck to the recipe. When it came to putting the tarts into the oven, the adrenaline was pumping through my veins, the pure excitement rushing through me like a (safer) shot of heroine. 15 to 20 minutes according to my main man Paul and I would be able to taste my hard work.

Time passed quickly, and before long I was sprinting through the kitchen, terrified that my creations had gone up in flames as the strong smell of the currants and sherry floated through the house. Pulling open the door of the Aga (nearly resulting in third-degree burns on my hands in the process) I was met with a cloud of what I thought, in my panicked state, was smoke. Grabbing the gingerbread-man oven gloves, I yanked the trays out the oven.. and couldn’t have been more relieved. It’s not to say their appearance was in any way perfect, but at least they weren’t fire hazards.

I left them to cool for about five minutes before scooping each tart out, with the help of a knife, and arranging them on a large plate, ready to serve to the rest of my family – patiently waiting with a pot of tea in the next room.

In all honesty, I had massive concerns about how these tarts would taste. I cannot bake. I cannot cook. I can’t even fry an egg with any particular amount of skill. Cutting them in half, I did find that the outer pastry was slightly brittle, however on first taste, they were ten times better than I had pessimistically expected. I sat in silence, chewing the tart slowly in my mouth. I was shocked. They.. were decent. More than decent. They were nice. My family, always brutally honest in their opinions of my food, were surprisingly complimentary. They were enjoying them. My brother even had another one. And my sister and mum agreed that they were ‘really good’ and have another after dinner. I was still processing the taste inside my mouth: the sherry vinegar added a kick to the tarts, with the brown sugar creating a toffee-like flavour, and the different dried fruits each complimenting the tart in their own special way. The pastry was hard on the outside (maybe I had left them in the oven for too long) but it was softer and blended nicely with the tart on the inside, and the rougher, outer parts of the pastry added a nice crunch. The appearance of the tart could definitely be improved, and in the future, I will check up on them every five minutes once they’re placed in the oven, but I’m not going to deny it: I was pleasantly impressed. Maybe I am a domestic goddess after all..?

Dying for a DiMaggio’s??

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Recently, I have become a fan of the ‘starter and dessert’ restaurant option, instead of only ordering a main course and ending up stuck in that position where you want a dessert but cannot physically eat one for risk of genuinely exploding. I have reached that stage far too many times, and as a pro, I can tell you that it isn’t enjoyable or worth it. There is a perfect level to get to when dining out, where you have worked up an appetite that makes the food satisfying to eat, but also where you succeed to eat only as much as is comfortable. The latter part is a skill learned through experience and trial and error, but I’m getting there.

I have a bit of a weird taste in food, with a long list of favourites, ranging from paté to garlic bread to mushrooms (in any shape or form). So you can imagine when I saw that DiMaggio’s had a starter of ‘Stuffed Mushroom: crispy breaded mushrooms filled with paté with garlic mayo dip’ I was over goddamn Mars, never mind the Moon.

Waiting for food to come is a stressful time, especially when eating out with someone else. The friction is felt when you both try and make small talk, smiling politely through your teeth at one another as your stomach manages to produce an excellent imitation of a whale’s mating call, trying not to break out in sweat or snap anything too aggressive in the tense run-up to the serving of the first course. Today at DiMaggio’s, as previously mentioned, I had opted for the starter and dessert option, whereas my friend had gone for the main. This in itself was enough to make me nervous: what if I finished before her and had to sit around waiting? What if my dessert didn’t turn up straight after? How was I going to cope??

I’m not going to lie, I had my doubts about the mushrooms. I’ve never had nor seen stuffed mushrooms before and I was worried my fears about the minuscule size of the things were going to be fulfilled. I have never been more glad to say that I was wrong. Three mushrooms covered in breadcrumbs turned up, the same size as your large piece of pakora. The relief that washed over me was similar to Daniel’s when he knocked out Goliath, a sensation of biblical proportions: thank God.

Breaded like the way posh restaurant haddock is, the mushrooms tasted amazing. Cutting into them could have been easier, and the hardness of the top layer of breadcrumbs was a slight downside (although it probably shows how little oil was used, most likely a good thing health-wise..) but the mushrooms did not disappoint. The sweet pork paté complimented the subtle taste of the mushrooms in a commendable manner, with the garlic dip adding a slight kick to each forkful. By the time I had finished my course, I was slightly regretful that I had not ordered two starters (typical), but a mere five minutes later, I began to start feeling the effects of the food in my stomach, adequately filling me up; leaving that small but crucial space for dessert. At this point, I was thankful that I did have a short interval between my two courses: time to digest and prepare for what I had been craving all day: the ‘Caramel Shortcake Sundae’, described by DiMaggio’s as: ‘our delicious homemade caramel shortcake melted and topped with vanilla ice cream, fresh cream and chocolate sauce’. And just simply reading that beautiful description makes you start to salivate, am I right?

In a tall glass, layers of ice cream and shortbread were bundled on top of one another, wrapped together by the generous helpings of chocolate sauce, covered by an inviting spiral of whipped cream and topped off with the ‘DiMaggio’s’ wafer and a little green mint leaf (in a vain attempt to make some part of this glass of pure fat and sugar healthy – yeah, nice try). I was in heaven. I can honestly tell you that it tasted just as spectacular as it looked, and even more honestly confess that it felt ten times as heavy when sitting in the bottom of my stomach.

All in all, I had an extremely good meal at DiMaggio’s tonight. I go there all the time, but it is usually the pizza that I indulge in. Now, I’m trying to be more adventurous and creative and branch out a little bit. The staff in the West Nile Street franchise are some of the nicest staff I’ve met and always ready to help, and there’s not really much I can fault, but I like being picky so I’d rate it four and a half out of five stars. With my meal only coming to £10.20, the prices are great; an added bonus for students. Definitely drop by if you’re visiting – I manage to spend at least one night every second week in there.

Rating: 4.5

Pizza Hut and Pizza

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The last time I went to Pizza Hut, before yesterday, was several years ago. If I’m honest, I only really remember having been twice in my life, although I must have gone more often than that, surely. One of the memorable moments marked the first time I went ‘into town’ unaccompanied by an adult; the reason for going to Pizza Hut was that there was a deal on that enabled us to get something like a whole £5.00 off the total bill – who can’t resist a bargain? The only other time that I remember going to Pizza Hut was when my family and I were all in town with one of my cousins before my sister’s piano exam. We had been shopping, I think, and my cousin had suggested going to Pizza Hut for lunch, most likely remembering the good prices from his ‘crazy’ student days, living just above the poverty line.

I went yesterday, after my sister and I (a lot older than we were during our previous visit) had decided to brave the horizontal rain (nothing new for Scotland) and take the train into town to visit a vintage clothes sale. (I bought two amazingly comfy shirts and a t-shirt incidentally, total price: £10.00.) We had continued our shopping for a bit, as we walked up Buchanan Street, ducking into New Look and Urban Outfitters in order to take a breather from the attack of the rain (I could only come up against it for brief moments; my eyebrows were at a severe risk of washing off). Managing to spend over an hour in each, we then decided that enough was enough and we needed to eat. Previous suggestions of food places had been Zizzis in Princes Square, but at this point we were a block or two above that, and neither of us had the heart to walk back down the street again. Another suggestion was DiMaggios but it was also deemed too far away. The ‘bagel place’ in Glasgow Central station had appealed (and I am definitely going to visit one day) but again, we couldn’t face the strenuous walking it would involve to get from Urban Outfitters to Central Station (looking back, it is pretty embarrassing how little effort we were prepared to put into a walk that, let’s face it, lasts about five minutes) and so we came to the conclusion that Pizza Hut, an admirable 50 metres away, would have to do.

It’s not a particularly glamorous way of presenting this food place, the chain of stores most likely built up from the sweat and blood of an optimistic, hard-working Italian man, wanting to send the irresistible, mouth-watering smells and flavours of his beloved home-country around the world. And it’s not to say that I don’t like Pizza Hut, because I do. I like most places that serve food. The thing is, I wouldn’t really ever choose to go there, unless I was feeling a bit poor. The deals and prices are good, I’ll give it that.

The food is good as well, but again, it just doesn’t really stand out to me. The menu, a large, intricately-designed thing, with fold-outs appearing just as you think you’ve come to the end of the road, looks promising. It’s dark and is filled with pictures of beautifully-prepared pizzas and desserts. But I think that is part of the problem. There are lots of pictures, but when it comes down to it, not really that many words. The font is medium-sized, and swirly, which helps the aesthetics of the menu, but not much besides.

Pizza Hut does pizzas, obviously, but there’s not really a massive selection of anything else. Some may say that I’m asking too much – it’s a restaurant designed to make pizzas, why does it need to branch out more? Because the competition is fierce, unfortunately. Although the menu offers a selection of starters, sides, pizza and pasta, along with a desserts menu, every single section seems oddly deprived. I know they are supposed to specialise in pizzas, but there are places such as DiMaggios with a choice of pizzas maybe double the size of Pizza Hut’s. (The word pizza is beginning to hurt my eyes.)

We weren’t hugely hungry, so we ordered a pizza to share, with a side of garlic bread fingers. When the pizza came (hot and steaming, thin-based and topped with a layer of tender chicken, soft mushrooms and gorgeous melted cheese), we went off to fill our plates with salad while it cooled. Giving credit to Pizza Hut, this is definitely an attraction. A buffet of free salad with your main, from almost everything you would want in salad (not that I’m really an expert in the rabbit food area) from bread croutons to crunchy, sour green apples to crisp, watery lettuce to nachos (nachos?!) and about ten different sauces. Pizza Hut may not have the top choice of pizzas, but their salad bar could win awards.

The food tasted very good. It wasn’t ‘excellent beyond comparison’ or contrastingly dire, but it sat comfortably in the top end of the spectrum. It was satisfying and filling; really what more can you really ask from food? The garlic bread fingers felt light and not too garlic-y, which is nice. It’s always a pleasure to find garlic bread that doesn’t sting your throat when you swallow it down, yet still has a certain zingyness to it. It was that type of garlic bread that had the garlic all the way through it, almost like a saturated sponge, but it was still subtle, and if you didn’t think about it too much then you wouldn’t know. I loved it.

The bill came to £13.75, due to me ordering a couple of orange juices as well (very nice orange juice, thanks), but all in all, definitely not a hefty sum (admittedly, the food was shared.) The service was great; our amazingly smiley and enthusiastic waitress checked up on us every quarter of an hour it seemed, but had the knack of knowing when to ask us if we were enjoying our and food, and would we like anything else? This is a delicate, rare skill that comes from experience and perfect-timing, very unlike some restaurant-workers who manage to jump in and disrupt every conversation just as it’s getting interesting (if you are reading this and happen to work in a restaurant, please try not to do this. I know it’s hard to find that ideal moment but when you don’t, it’s so, so, so annoying.)

Well, Pizza Hut, what can I say about our time together? You weren’t my first choice, and perhaps that’s because of your somewhat unexciting restaurant layout and bland menu (although the cookie dough desserts did catch my eye). Despite the downsides, there were many positives about the experience we had dining out for lunch. You do provide lower-calorie food options for those of us that haven’t been wise enough to have a small breakfast before going out. Your service was amazingly fast and the wait-time that I had for my food was probably one of the shortest I’ve ever had in a restaurant: gold star. You have a fabulous selection of greens that should be taken advantage of by those eating out. Your prices are not through the roof, and you do have good deals (although I can’t remember if there were any on yesterday). You are a place of convenience, of comfort and of good food. This time you unfortunately don’t get five stars in my eyes, but you do sit at a comfortable three-star rating.

Pizza Hut: if you’re in a rush in town but need to top up on some kcals, it’s definitely worth a visit!

Rating: 3

 

Photo credit: http://www.bestdaily.co.uk