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Dean's Scottish Preserve Shortbread

Monday 16 May 2005

Scotland, a land of breathtaking natural beauty and tartan. One of the main strongholds of tartan has always been the packaging for shortbread, be it tin or cardboard box. This week's selection of shortbread biscuits from Dean's of Huntly are no exception, plumping for a fairly subdued dark green tartan with accents of teal and cornflower blue. The tartan is the Black Watch which was worn by the Gordon Highlanders prior to 1778. Huntly is the ancestral seat of the Clan Gordon and the home of the Gordon Highlanders. This provides the Scottish interest on a velum effect background. No gaudy wall to wall red tartan here, and a signal of something a bit different perhaps.

Now I know there are out there shortbread connoisseurs who'll declare one shortbread above another with texture seemingly playing a very large part in that judgement. Given that proper full spec shortbread is simply mixture of butter, sugar, plain flour and sometimes semolina, you would have thought that one lot is basically the same as another. I'm prepared to accept that some may be a bit more buttery and and some more sugary and conversely, from time to time, some more floury. So that said texture would be an important point in discerning one shortbread from another. However I have to say this does pass me by a bit and even that age old shortbread tactic of forming itself into various shapes, finger, petticoat tail, round things, often fails to grab my attention. So this batch from Dean's of Huntly has had to go that extra mile to register on the NCOTAASD review radar, and they've done it by enlisting some help from our old friend jam.

Now if I was in charge of the jam and shortbread engineering I would have probably just have made a bit of a hole and popped a dollop of jam in it. The shortbread visionaries at Dean's have taken the whole process one step further and mixed the jam in with the shortbread dough. To stablise the whole lot they've also enlisted some help from that other stalwart of Scottish cuisine (no not the deep fat fryer..) the oat. This has resulted in four shortbreads, Raspberry and Oatmeal, Lemon Curd and Oatflake, Orange Marmalade and Oatflake an Apple Crumble. I know: the last one isn't really a jam or preserve and it doesn't make overt oat claims but we'll cut them some slack after all its not easy pushing the envelope of shortbread endeavour, and there are some oats in there.

Dean's have been making shortbread commercially in the little town of Huntly Aberdeanshire since 1975. Helen's Dean batch of shortbread, made to help raise funds for her husband Bill's pipe band, attracted so much praise that she decided to set up a small bakery. Business grew steadily and in 1992 the business moved to a new purpose built bakery on the outskirts of town. Dean's take pride in the fact that production methods are really just the same as those first employed by Mrs Dean 30 years ago but scaled up somewhat. You can find out more about all of this on Dean's excellent website, as well as the various stockists and outlets for their products.

I first visited Scotland the following year in 1976 on holiday and if the swarms of horseflies and midges on Rannoch Moor had of had their way my blood drained husk would still be there today. Luckily we fled for our lives after two days and I survived Scotland's wildlife to this day to review its biscuits. So lets get down to it then.

The biscuits ten per pack are seated in a clear wrapped plastic tray. Puncture the plastic film and you immediately meet the aroma of your chosen flavour. Not only this but each biscuit flavour has its own subtle shading reflect its flavour. Actually in the case of the Raspberry this isn't that subtle, with the biscuits having a positively pink tinge to them. As this had so clearly violated my laws of shortbread anonymity I decided to start there first. Yes, absolutely no doubt that raspberries are to be found within, but not with out putting up a fight as the ingredients include some cornflower, not found in the other three.

So next to the Lemon Curd ones as I've always got a great deal of time for Lemon Curd. Straight away I couldn't help but notice that in the little picture of Mrs Dean making shortbread in her kitchen her hair has grown somewhat and she is now waring it in a ponytail. Perhaps the indicates that by now Mrs Dean was also making her own Lemon Curd, a family favourite according to extra bit of blurb on the box. The zesty smell of lemons announces the opening of this pack, and that extra bit of richness on the palette is balanced by some crunch from the oatflakes in that oh so important texture. Like wise the pony tailed Mrs Dean is in evidence on the Orange Marmalade shortbread as are the pieces of orange zest scattered trough out the biscuits.

Dean's tell me that the pony tailed Mrs Dean will be phased out so as we close out with the Apple Crumble shortbread Mrs Dean has reverted to her pre-Lemon Curd making hair style. The biscuits have more than a passing resemblance to a crunchy topped apple crumble, and I did find they left me with slight but noticeable custard craving. All in all some very useful offerings from a company that's not afraid to try something new but still keep it rooted in traditional recipes and baking.


Animal Biscuits Multireview

Tuesday 3 May 2005

Right from their first few months of joining the NCOTAASD team the younger members of staff were very good at telling one animal from another. I found it interesting that very stylised representations of dogs, cats or rabbits made instant sense to them. It's a innate human skill to recognise the animals that we share our world with and maybe that's a reason why animal shaped biscuits are such a favourite. A couple of years back we took a look at some South African iced animal biscuits. Due to some technical icing issues we can only guess at, most of the animals appeared to be white slugs. In this review we are going to take a look at the classic animal biscuits from America, Germany and the UK, and we'll be paying special attention to how much they look like animals, and applying our hurriedly dreamt up lion, elephant, and monkey benchmark.

Once again it's Nabisco providing the the US's contribution in the form of Barnum's Animals Crackers (actually it's biscuit hunter Jennifer Courtney once again). Setting aside our modern sensibilities about the caging and treatment of animals, it has to be said that the box looks charming with its pictures of animals in circus cages and a built in carrying strap. Presumably the strap is there for children to bring the whole pack with them to school or something. Inside is a waxed paper sachet containing the biscuits. I'm told that the addition of some cocktail sticks and few cardboard wheels turn the pack into a very useful circus trailer. I wanted to like these biscuits but I find myself struggling with name which seems to have a surfeit of plurals. Then to make matters worse, is referring to a sweet biscuit as a cracker.

The biscuits tasted predictably American, containing high fructose corn syrup and a big bunch of vitamin and mineral supplements to the flour. All very well meaning but probably a better plan would be to find some way of replacing the partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The pack also maintains that it has two servings of 8 biscuits within. I certainly wouldn't be hurrying to try these again, but as far visuals go they performed well. The elephant looked like a proper one, with tusks, the monkey was very convincing, however the lion caused problems. I'm not even sure if this actually is a lion, but I couldn't find one with a mane so I assumed this must be it.

Now to Germany and Bahlsen's simply entitled 'Zoo', in an equally simple bag. We picked up ours in Waitrose. The biscuits are a development of that elder statesman the Leibniz butter biscuit, and should be familiar to Bahslen fans. I'm quite amazed at how much I like these seemingly plain little biscuits. As a child this was exactly the sort of biscuit I didn't like so what is going on? Either my tastes have changed or Bahlsen have actually gone that little bit further to come up with a simple biscuit that has a pleasantly morish taste. Given the 12% butter, complete absence of hydrogenated fat and the whole milk powder this seems like something much more wholesome than the Nabisco offering and I certainly wouldn't have too many qualms about the younger members of staff carrying out a ruthless cull of their numbers, and indeed they have.

An excellent result on the lion, elephant and monkey test establishes that a classic approach has been taken to the biscuit shapes. The animals chosen also lean towards children's petting zoo rather than big game safari, which makes for quite a gentle atmosphere. Throw in such things as a cheerful duck, happy tortoise and hilarious penguin and its difficult not to really really like these.

Now to our final biscuits the simply titled Cadbury's Animals. A great deal of Cadbury's biscuits are made under licence by Burton's and indeed a couple of weeks back we took a look at one of their new ones, which we liked a great deal. It's a shame I can't say the same about these. Cadbury's Animal biscuits used to be one of the finest little chocolate biscuits on the market, and would have easily taken on all comers in both taste and animal shapedness. A distinctive deep wavy texture in the chocolate on the back also differentiated the pale shortcake biscuits from lesser non Cadbury biscuits. However they seemed to be operating in quite a rarified atmosphere only really turning up at parties in my experience. Perhaps it was due to the entire box needing to be opened or their relatively high price, that the biscuits received a make over. Today's animal biscuits are mostly sold in large sacks containing individual bags of mini biscuits. The chocolate is still there of course but much less flamboyantly. The picture on the pack still imagines that the chocolate inside is wavy, but in fact it has a thin grid like pattern. The biscuits have shed troublesome and easily broken limbs with designs that keep the biscuit as little round splodges, but at what price. The monkey for one has acquired scary empty skeleton eyes, making it look more 'walking dead' than 'jolly chum'. The biscuit itself has become oddly darker almost suggesting that there is some cocoa in there although there evidently isn't. Despite my reservations the rest of the NCOTAASD team tucked into them with relish.

When it came to the Lion, Elephant and Monkey test I would simply say that it would have been actually the Rhino, Elephant, Lion and Monkey test, only I couldn't find a Rhino for the Cadbury's biscuits.

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Marks and Spencer Dunking Cookies

Thursday 21 Apr 2005

Some of you may have heard of this week's biscuit as it has called a mild flutter of attention to itself, by claiming to be the world's first cookie designed for dunking. Such are the lofty heights to which NCOTAASD down has risen that the people behind this obviously provocative claim sent a couple of tubs over to us to see what we thought. We naturally obliged, put the kettle on tucked in and let them know, and now we'll let you know too.

Yes merely putting those two words together 'dunking' and 'cookie' brings two largely opposing world views crashing together in the same biscuit. Add to this that the undersides are dipped in milk chocolate and the whole thing packaged in a tub. Short of walking over and spilling ones pint this biscuit is trying to grab our attention through a mixture of iconoclasm and big green and orange letters.

As we've said before and no doubt we'll say again, something that calls it self a cookie is really communicating a couple of points to us. First, appearance wise we would expect a well risen and very informal look to the biscuit, with deep fissures and lumps of something or other embedded into the dough. The biscuit should be quite voluminous as a result. Well the M&S offering certainly passes on all of these counts. Both the choc chip and double choc chip most obviously are laden with choc chips, white chocolate in the double choc. However, now we come to the points that begin to add serious weight to their claims of 'worlds first dunking cookie'.

First the texture and general demeanor of this biscuit is not that of your typical cookie. The biscuit engineers behind this have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that not only can this cookie dunk as well as classic biscuit stalwarts of the art but in many cases exceed their dunking times, even in really hot tea. They have even produced comparative statistics to back up their claims, which we won't go into here. This does mean that any body eating the biscuit dry will find it has quite a snap to it, and indeed they even managed to hold the younger members of staff at bay for some considerable time. Having said that the flavour was very nice indeed, using 15% butter and not a whiff of hydrogenated vegetable fat in sight. Perhaps the secret weapon in the ingredients is some free range egg, not something that is typical in biscuit recipes and certainly offered up from time to time as one of those rules for differentiating biscuits from cakes.

The finger shape is obviously ideal for dunking, and again a huge departure from what one would normally expect from a cookie. The chocolate on the back is another broadside assault against the non-dunking of chocolate biscuits, and every bit as provocative in my book as combination of dunking and cookies.

So what actually happens when you dunk one of these? Well, the biscuit holds up terrifically well and the chocolate depending on your tea temperature, goes from liquid goo to a glossy film. Again the chocolate is devoid of any nasty stuff so has quite a rich taste. The biscuit meanwhile transforms into its soft state, and is now entirely defenseless. Eating like this will require all your will power to stop you quickly demolishing the tub. If anything does come to your aid then it is simply the fact that they are very rich, that and they retail at quite a price, but that is to be expected given their quality ingredients and the brand.

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