Think we’re good cooks? Think again. Here’s a few of our favourite -and most embarassing kitchen cock-ups in pursuit of Heston Blumenthal’s recipes.
Some of you guys -our generous readers- have occasionally commented, tweeted and emailed us to tell us how delicious and attractive our food looks. A few of you have even been kind enough to tag our photos on Pinterest.
The Pinterest thing is particularly flattering, given the general standard on there. Seriously, this kindness and exuberance you all show towards our weirdly obsessive endeavours is genuinely appreciated.
The thing is, I don’t want you all getting the wrong idea, looking at what we make and imagining that I am some kind of halfway decent cook. I’m trying here, and trying is good, but the truth is that I’m a cackhanded imbecile who’s haphazard fumblings in the kitchen occasionally produce tolerable food.
If any of what you see on this blog looks good that’s down to the fact that I take an average of 300 shots per recipe. These get whittled down to an acceptable handful, which are then tarted up using some rudimentary image-processing knowledge and an eleven-year-old copy of Photoshop (Version 7.0, fact fans).
So let’s set the record straight by showing you some of our “favourite” (i.e. most humilating) kitchen disasters from the last year or so. A selection of frustrating screw-ups that all caused me, to paraphrase Neal Stephenson, to utter the kind of language which would send a Cossack running for his mother.
And these are just the ones I was brave enough to take pictures of.
Heston’s Five Spice Duck Breast Recipe
One day I will bore you all to tears with the long version of this story, but basically one of the most enjoyable things I did when first learning how to cook properly was to get my mates together and follow those 1 hour, 3-course Gordon Ramsay: Cookalong Live shows. (Perhaps if we all petition Waitrose they’ll persuade Otto Romer to do a Hestalong Live, though I reckon it’d end up requiring 72 hours and a rotary evaporator).
One of Ramsay’s shows taught you how to pan-fry duck breast, and after a couple of goes I was confident I could cook it to a reasonable standard (this was in my pre-sous vide days). Then along came Heston At Home, with it’s brining and regular flipping techniques. In Heston’s recipe book the five spiced duck breast looks like this:
Now I can only guess that Heston’s idea of a hot pan and mine are a bit different. Or maybe he doesn’t use the rather scrawny duck breasts you get from the chilled meat aisle of Leigh Asda (I’m probably right, since Leigh is an inconvenient distance from Bray). Ours seemed to overcook quite easily. Here’s my stunning recreation of the dish:
I hope you can all see my token gesture towards on-plate presentation, as if by getting those Edamame beans at just the right angle I could make this look somehow photogenic. I think that crown of curled spring onion slivers is particularly futile.
Heston’s Carrots Recipe
Heston’s In Search of Perfection Roast Chicken recipe is a start-to-finish catastrophe that made a mockery of both us and some good quality ingredients earlier this year. About the only things worth repeating are Heston’s Roast Potatoes recipe and the method for cooking carrots.
The latter you make by putting a single layer of very specifically sliced carrots, in a single layer, in a covered pan along with a mixture of water and butter for about 40 to 50 minutes.
If you are going to repeat them at least try to remember what temperature you set the hob to, otherwise they might end up looking like this:
Heston’s Chocolate Truffles with Ras el Hanout
Generally we don’t agree with trying to create a restaurant-style experience in the home – pretentious and far too much hassle.
At Christmas, however, you’re allowed to push the boat out. And the one part of all our fancy restaurant meals we thought we’d have a go at recreating was making some chocolate truffles to serve as petit fours after dinner.
In Heston Blumenthal at Home there’s a recipe for chocolate truffles flavoured with the Moroccan spice Ras el Hanout, which we thought might add a sort of Three Wise Men / Mysterious East aspect (geography was not my best subject).
The recipe itself is easy enough to make, just mix some of the spice into your warmed cream, strain it and combine with your melted chocolate before shaping into truffles.
This final point in the process is about the worst time to start wondering what’s actually in your Ras el Hanout spice blend.
As anyone who’s seen a few cookery shows will know, Ras el Hanout simply translates as “head of the shop”. There’s no definitive mixture, it’s just the house blend of whichever Moroccan market stall you buy it from. Cardamom, clove, cinnamon and coriander are all common flavours.
Our Christmas budget isn’t huge, so instead of going all the way to a Moroccan market we got our Ras el Hanout from the local Tesco. And what a mistake that was.
You see, just like Moroccan market stalls, supermarket suppliers are free to create their own delicate blends of spice. In the case of the Al Fez-brand we picked up that blend is about 50% salty, savoury vegetable bouillon powder. If you find some then check the ingredients label.
Bart brand is a better bet, but to be honest if you’ve got a well-stocked spice cupboard you can just make your own.
In fact, we reckon any combination you like would be tastier than the revolting stock cube flavour chocolate truffles we ended up with.
Heston’s Cheese Fondue Recipe
Ah, the best laid plans. Remember when we made Heston’s Braised Chicken with Sherry and Cream recipe? We had to go out and buy a whole block of Gruyere from the supermarket just for the sake of the recipe’s 10g. I had a great idea for using up the rest of to make Heston’s Cheese Fondue recipe.
It would’ve been a great post: a massive humblebrag about my trip to the HR Giger Bar and Museum in the actual Swiss town of Gruyeres (where I ate fondue for every meal in several overpriced tourist traps) along with some whimsical images of me stretching out the super-stringy fondue next to a measuring tape.
I’d even rigged up a makeshift fondue set using a cheap ceramic pot and a metal trivet I found in the back of the cupboards.
It was all going swimmingly until we had one of our area’s famous power cuts. Usually this results in nothing more troublesome than playing Buckaroo instead of Metal Gear Solid, or having to host our Country Supper at the local Toby Carvery. Mid-cooking a total loss of electricity supply becomes more of a problem.
Thing is, this fondue needs to be kept at quite a high temperature to keep the cheese semi-melted, loose and stringy (smug voice: “In Switzerland they always use dedicated, heat-retaining, cast iron pots – as you’d know if you’d been to the actual town of Gruyères like I have”. Ka-pow!).
You can see I tried to persevere, assembling all the other tea lights I could find to help light the shot. But by the time I took the first photo the stuff was starting to set like a brick. If you want to see Heston’s Cheese Fondue done properly I recommend you check out Monitor Muncher’s thoroughly excellent report.
I managed to get the remainder into a parchment-lined tray. With this we planned to make cheese slices and thus Heston’s Ultimate Cheese Toastie recipe.
Heston’s Ultimate Cheese Toastie Recipe
They say a shoddy workman (or workperson) always blames their tools. Well, as you can see by now I am a shoddy workman so I’m definitely blaming my tools. Specifically the £4.97 sandwich toaster I bought from Asda.
Obviously I bought the cheapest model I could get my hands on. These things are always famously under-used (old jokes about them living in the back of cupboards, etc.) and we’re just not partial to toasties in the way that, say, Catherine Anand is partial to diamonds. No point in shelling out loads for something we’d hardly use.
After carefully clingfilming our cut sponges to help preserve the crisp shape, precooking the bread to avoid over-heating the filling and piling our ingredients in we were ready to begin.
It;s entirely possible that I overloaded these toasties, or forgot to properly oil the cooking plates. However, I’ll stick to my story that crap equipment was to blame for the bread not sealing, then sticking like glue to the supposedly teflon surfaces. I had to scrape the thing off with a fork.
Although some people have charitably suggested we many have invented “Crispy Ham and Bread Hash” instead, we’d like you to see our finished Heston Blumenthal Ultimate Cheese Toastie:
At least we’ve found a better place for the toastie machine than the back of the cupboards.
“Vampire” Panna Cotta Recipe
Because we’re massive horror movie fans (and gluttons!) we wanted to come up with a Halloween-themed dessert for our annual movie night. We had this idea to make a strawberry coulis and set it inside a Chamomile Panna Cotta. We figured the pale skin and gushing red would sort-of evoke images of Nosferatu and Dracula.
There’s a great story in the Big Fat Duck cookbook where, in his twenties, Heston stays up late making the perfect crème brulee, before rushing upstairs to show it to his wife who informs him that she’s very pleased, but that it’s three in the morning.
I’ve never done this myself (mainly because Heston has some fancy alarm system on his house and I’ve never been able to make it past his front door, let alone up to the bedroom). But I did sneak down to the kitchen like some sort of Secret Lemonade Drinker over a couple of nights to do a trial run for this recipe. A lot went wrong.
First up, I thought I’d make a strawberry sauce rather than a coulis. Both involve fruit and fructose, but the sauce requires a more protracted bain-marie simmering, before being reduced and thickened over a high heat.
That reduction removes a lot of water. You know, the stuff that will actually freeze. Our prototype used silicone chocolate moulds which ended up being filled with something that would set no further than a rough strawberry slush.
This wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d been able to set the panna cotta cream around it. My second mistake was just to bung our filled ramekins in the fridge, where the slush melted long before the panna cotta had set.
If you ever had time to read our Halloween post you might remember we stressed several times how this can go wrong. We wanted to be honourable! By helping you avoid our mistakes. So here’s what we were aiming for:
And here’s what our trial run Vampire Panna Cotta actually looked like:
Black Forest Gateau, Aerated Chcolate Layer
The Black Forest Gateau recipe, developed by Heston Blumenthal for his In Search of Perfection series, has also been on the menu at the Fat Duck for a while.
Since the basic endgame for this blog is to cook all 16 of the Perfection dishes this meant we’d have to produce, at home, a dessert comparable to the stuff they serve in (what was once) one of the best restaurants in the world. Auldo did a fantastic job of it, but you can imagine what sort of fiasco we’d make of it.
It’s an affair of several layers. One of the trickiest, and most expensive to make, is the aerated chocolate. You will need:
- A cream whipping siphon and nitrous oxide cannisters
- A piece of sturdy Tupperware with a hole drilled into the lid
- A Space Bag branded vacuum storage bag
- A powerful vacuum cleaner with hose, nozzle removed
- Groundnut oil (cannot be any other type of oil)
- 300g of Amedi Toscano milk chocolate (€30 + postage), melted in a bain marie
We’d had several failed attempts at this over the years, to the point where if we didn’t get it right this time then the aerated chocolate would’ve been replaced with a second layer of sponge (the recipe allows this) and the siphon would’ve been replaced with a PayPal payment via eBay.
A good part of our failures involves managing to waste about twenty quid on two different sets of off-brand vacuum storage bags, both of which had the unique talent of letting in just enough air to make the bubbles collapse. I swore I wouldn’t throw away more good money on a third set.
Since entering the sous vide age we’ve bought ourselves a JML food saver. This glamorous device will not only pull all the air out of a bag, but completely seal it too by melting the sides together. (It’s actually been modified to be twice as powerful by our talented sciencey mate Alex).
Our biggest bit of Tupperware was too large to fit into the standard sized bags we own (larger bags wouldn’t fit in either the SV rig or freezer) so we decided to make three separate aerated chocolate slabs using three appropriately sized containers.
Hole-drilling was out of the question, since doing that would just mean wrecking yet another bit of tupperware. Instead we just stretched Clingfilm across the lids. Combined with the vacuum sealer and bag this actually does work. Provided, that is, that your Tupperware has decent, rigid sides.
The plastic sandwich tubs we used were flimsy and cheap, and our overclocked sealer almost folded the thinnest tub in half. Some panicked fumbling later and we’d rescued the tub, but one third of our aerated chocolate had re-pressurised and flattened. Let’s have a look how it turned out:
Fortunately the other two tubs went a little better (the chocolate ended up thin because we spread it out over too much surface area in the three tubs). So, sorry guys, you won’t be finding any bargain price whipping siphons on eBay just yet.
Black Forest Gateau, Chocolate Flocking
Speaking of throwing away good money after bad, here’s the second paint sprayer gun we’ve bought in the past 4 years.
It’s never been used for paint, just chocolate. But even so you have to rigorously oil the piston after every use to prevent it from seizing.
I’d neglected to do this last time, and it took 40 minutes with a plastic syringe and a bottle of Crisp n’ Dry to get the thing working again. At which point it seized up a second time. All the while the canister of melted chocolate was setting and cooling.
Now, guys, a word of advice when using a paint sprayer. The gun part contains the motor and other gubbins which makes them kinda top heavy. The canister, which you screw on underneath, weighs little more than whatever liquid you’ve got inside it. In our case about 520g of that cooling chocolate.
If you have to step away (for bathroom breaks or just to go into the hallway and scream in frustration) then please, please make sure you fully reattach the canister to the spray gun. If it’s loose, and the sprayer is poorly balanced, you might walk back in to a scene similar to this one:
If you’re stubborn enough then it’s possible to scrape around 400g of this back into the canister. The other 120g (approx. measurement) will dribble down your drawer-fronts and on to the floor. We have bevelled cupboards. To this day there are still chocolate stains in the grooves.
The chocolate flocking itself is a messy business, best done outside. If you’re up to more late night antics and happen to be doing this at 2 in the morning (not my fault, the damn gun wouldn’t work) then instead try using the biggest cardboard box you can find to protect the kitchen from collateral splatter.
Even so it was messier than a smashed snow globe in a Whitstable dressing room. Chocolate on the cooker dials:
Chocolate on the bread bin:
Chocolate on the utensils:
And so on.
You might also end up with anyone else in the house awake and furious with you, because paint spray guns are damn noisy power tools that ought not to be used in the middle of the night when decent people are sleeping.
Right, I think that’s enough embarrassment for now. But don’t worry. We’ve plenty more perfection recipes to work our way through, and Heston is going to release plenty more recipes in the year to come, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty more mistakes for you to look forward to. And thanks to all of you for reading and supporting us.