Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Cookies

I have to start this post off - like so many these days - with an apology for my blogging absence these past couple days. Life's not only been busy, but my omnipresent insomnia has taken it's toll on my energy during the day so it's tough to get enough of my brain together to write a post! Luckily, being in the kitchen for short stints isn't too difficult, so I've managed to save up a wealth of material to share with you in the coming weeks when I'm not able to bake and cook so freely!

Today I've actually got a bit of a double dose of goodness for you, featuring both an original recipe and a review of a mix from the relatively new (and Canadian) gourmet company Epicure Selections (and if you are all a-Twitter like I am, they are @homeofepicure). One of the four products they generously sent to me from their home base in Victoria B.C. was a mix for Cranberry - Chocolate - Orange Biscotti, and the best way I could think of to see how it rated was to stack it up against a home-made scratch version. They also sent me a mix for focaccia bread, which I performed a similar experiment with and will blog (with review) in the near future.

Epicure Selections is a "party system" based corporation, led by a woman named Sylvie Rochette. It is 100% Canadian owned and operated, originally developed to provide a varied line of seasoning blends and spices covering a range of ethnicities - Indian curries and tandoori, Spanish, Asian , and even Caribbean. Since it's debut in 1991, the company has since moved from 4 initial spice mixes to a wealth of culinary ingredients, cookware and recipe books. They also recently began a charity known as The Epicure Foundation™, which supports community initiatives and organizations working to improve food security in Canada. For those who purchase the products alone, there is a good selection of online recipes available (though not in an easily browsable format... you must search for an ingredient and recipe type), and the company seems open to suggestions both for recipe submissions and product ideas. For those looking for healthy ways to feed their families, the site also features a "healthy eating" section with portion size information and free downloads.

There are some snags of course, as with every company out there!

I worry about the "party" system of selling turning into the slightly-less-than-harassing tactics of companies like Tupperware or Pampered Chef, who hound buyers to host parties on their few weekends free. Hopefully this won't be ES' progression in the marketplace, as I would love to be able to access their other products without the hassle that their current system of ordering demands. Although there is an online order function on the website, when I investigated further I found that the only way to complete your transaction is by contacting one of their consultants (which they provide a search tool for). Customer service via e-mail is also lacking - even though a contact form is provided, I never recieved a response to my questions regarding the procurement of Nutritional Facts tables on their listed goods - which, along with the ingredients lists and product origins (vanilla and peppercorns from where?) are missing from the website. As a sufferer of multiple food allergies and a member of a family with both diabetics and dieters, I would be reluctant to purchase any food product that I couldn't easily look up information on. The other major downside of the Epicure Selections line is the high price they charge for the products they offer. For a 3-oz bottle of black peppercorns (mind you in a self-grinder), ES sets the price at $17 CDN, without shipping fees. Similar products and sizes on the market are in the range of $5-$7, and there is no postage to be paid. Particularly when products like vanilla extract ($15 for 4oz) are concerned, I'm especially leery when a "gourmet" angle is used to market and no mention is made of where it came from.

However, the ES baking mixes (currently for foccacia and biscotti) do provide an avenue for busy home cooks to make something special with a minimum of time and ingredients. Since I'm not a fan of making anything from a mix myself, I decided to see just how each of the boxes stacked up against some home-grown competition! The first test I ran was on the foccacia mix, which retails for $14.95 and makes about 24 average cookies - a price I found quite high, and when I asked my peers how much they would be willing to pay for such a product I didn't get a dollar value more than $9. The nutritional information on the box didn't list the total number of servings the package would yield, but some quick math with the package size indicates that one of their packets will make roughly 15, so we wound up with an excess yield - never a bad thing! Each cookie's worth of dry mix contains 160 calories, 0.5g fat (0.3g saturated), 90mg sodium and 37g carbohydrates. You do have to add 4 eggs, 1/3 cup of water and 1/3 cup of melted butter to the mixture as well. Ingredients-wise, the mixes are thankfully brief, the only additives in the biscotti being the soya lethicin in the chocolate chips themselves. This mix is vegan alone, and I haven't tested this with any egg replacers so I can't comment on it's versatility.

So, the mix looked pretty solid on paper, but how would they hold up in practice? Well unfortunately this mix came fatally flawed. For starters, the mix instructions ask for 1/3 cup of water to be added. The problem was, with the water, melted butter and eggs added, the dough was still extremely floury (2nd photo) to the point of me adding 1/4 cup extra water to compensate (3rd photo). In hindsight, I would have preferred to use orange juice for the extra 1/4 cup, since the orange flavour and aroma were very muted. That said, once the extra liquid was added the mix was a dream to shape into the logs and went through it's primary bake phase without a hitch. Slicing the cookies (from my experiences something best done when the logs are very warm) was also incredibly easy, and I didn't have any broken cookies at the end. The second bake (actually more of a toasting) took 10 minutes longer than the directions indicated - not surprising due to the extra liquid - but the result was crunchy yet not teeth-breaking cookies that would hold up to dunking or eating straight.

I chose a recipe for pecan and raisin biscotti from an old Christmas cookbook of mine to modify for the "scratch" cookie counterpart, which made 24 cookies. It calls for oil rather than butter, and only 3 eggs, with chocolate chips, dried cranberries, orange juice and zest, and was only $3.34 for the whole batch. My dough was stickier than the ES mix, but a light spray of canola oil on my palms led to easy shaping for it's first bake. Due to the lack of the extra fat and richness of the missing egg and butter, these cookies did crumble more easily and I had 2 of the 24 collapse on me. They baked prefectly in the amount of time specified in the recipe and were equally as crisp as the mix-made cookies without being hard.

The blind taste tests carried out with a group of my mom's former co-workers echoed my opinions of the mix vs. home made cookies: you just cannot substitute the same feel and taste of a recipe with a mix. Both versions of the biscotti were sweet and crunchy, but the batch baked from the recipe packed more of a flavour punch with each element than the packet content's did. They also liked the fact that the home-made cookies used just orange zest and juice for the flavourings instead of an artificial extract, and had larger "bits" of chocolate and cranberries.

Provided the price came down a tad, and the instructions for making the cookies were revised on the packaging, I would recommend this ES mix as a passable alternative if you just had to have home-made cookies without the extra measuring and ingredients. If you had the extra ingredients on hand, you can easily bump up the flavour to your tastes.

So, want my recipe for biscotti? Here you have it!

Cranberry - Orange Biscotti With Chocolate Chips
Makes About 24
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange rind
2 tablespoons light olive or canola oil
1/3 cup orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup miniature chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Whisk all the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  3. In another bowl, mix rind, oil, juice, vanilla, and eggs in a bowl.
  4. Add to flour mixture with the cranberries and chocolate, then mix well to make a soft dough.
  5. Shape into a long, fairly narrow log.
  6. Place on a baking sheet that's greased or lined with parchment paper.
  7. Bake 30 minutes, then cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.
  8. Slice log diagonally into 1/2-inch slices, placing them slices upright on baking sheet.
  9. Bake 20 minutes - until toasted but still a little soft (they continue to harden as they cool).
  10. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Amount Per Serving
Calories: 126.9
Total Fat: 3.0 g
Cholesterol: 25.5 mg
Sodium: 8.5 mg
Total Carbs: 23.8 g
Dietary Fiber: 1.2 g
Protein: 2.5 g

2 comments :

anna said...

Nice comparison! I've never made biscotti but I wouldn't resort to a mix just because I haven't tried it before. Yours look delicious!

DaviMack said...

They look like real, true, actual BISCOTTI! Yay! The last ones we had ... weren't. Bleh. Costa Coffee ... yeuch!