Friday, June 09, 2017

Popcorn Factory Popcorn

Update Review - June 2017

My past experiences of The Popcorn Factory have all be of their giant tins of popcorn that show up around the holidays.  I adored the cheese popcorn last time I had it, and liked the caramel corn quite a bit, as you can go read about in that original review.

It turns out, The Popcorn Factory also makes popcorn that is distributed as part of gift boxes.  And just like those tins, folks tend to bring these to the office to get rid of the items they aren't excited about.  I'm not sure why no one is excited about popcorn like me, but, their loss, my gain!

I was thrilled to see a flavor I hadn't yet tried: kettle corn! (Side note: if you ever go to New Hampshire during the summer, and want the best kettle corn ever, let me know, and I'll tell you all about the best little kettle corn stand that pops up at farmer's markets.  It is the best ever, seriously, and I always bring home suitcases full, which I then store in the freezer, and enjoy year round.  Soooo good).  Sadly, The Popcorn Factory kettle corn was not for me.

I'd still love to try more of their flavors though, as the base product is good, and they have some awesome sounding options, like savory buffalo ranch or bacon cheddar.   Or sweet peanut brittle or pumpkin caramel praline crunch.  Or the crazy decadent drizzled birthday confetti or dark chocolate cherry cordial.  So many choices.
Kettle Corn.
"Our premium, all-natural Kettle corn is the best of both worlds-it's a little bit salty and a whole lot of crunchy sweetness. (It's so tasty, we use it as a base for many of our signature flavors, too!) Each bite reminds you of why you love popcorn as much as we do. "

This "kettle corn" made me angry.  Kettle corn is supposed to be lighter than caramel corn.  It is not supposed to be nearly as sweet.  It should be a magical hybrid of buttery popcorn that is a touch sweet and definitely salty.

But this ... this was caramel corn.  I did not detect any salt.  And the kernels were absolutely coated in sugar/corn syrup, making it just as sweet, and just as glazed, as any caramel corn.  If I didn't know better, I'd honestly think they accidentally packaged up the wrong popcorn and put it in the box.  

I actually looked this up, and found that an ounce of the caramel corn has 14 grams of sugar, and an ounce of this kettle corn has 16 grams.   Yes, it is more sugary than the caramel corn.  That is not right!

To be fair, the popcorn was good, the kernels well coated, but, grumble, not kettle corn.  A friend tried one bite and he too also exclaimed, "This isn't really kettle corn!"

Original Review, May 216

ZOMG, popcorn.  Yes, I have a problem with popcorn.  I'm obsessed, and I freely admit it.  It is my favorite of all snack foods.  But ... I don't actually really like standard microwave butter popcorn.  Or even movie theater popcorn.  

No, this doesn't mean that I like high brow popcorn, just, that I like it savory or sweet, with interesting flavors.  (And, strangely, I usually like it frozen.  Seriously.  Try it sometime, particularly caramel corn.  It gets even crispier!  And it lasts forever!)
Peek-A-Boo Snowman Popcorn Tin, 3.5 Gallon, 3-Flavor.  $39.
So, you know that time of year, when people get those popcorn tins from clients?  The ones they groan about, and bring to the office, and hope someone else will eat it?

That happens to be my favorite time of year.  (And not just for the popcorn tins!)

Every year, without fail, a few of these wind up around our office.  This year, one tin was from Popcorn Factory, as it has been in past years, but I never bothered write up a review before.

This time, I finally snapped a pic.  Behold: the tin!

Popcorn Factory is an online retailer of popcorn tins, gift baskets, and the like.  Generally used for corporate gifting, last minute Father's day gifts, etc.  They offer all your classic savory popcorns (butter, cheese, white cheddar, etc) and sweet (caramel, kettle, etc), but also like 30 other flavors including the fascinating sounding fruit flavors like sour green apple (also, um, its bright green!), crazy combos like butter toffee almond with pretzels, and a birthday flavor with sugar drizzle and rainbow sprinkles that I really really want to try.

Of course, no one sends the fun flavors, they stick with the classics, so that is what I was able to try.

Cheese Popcorn / Caramel Popcorn / Butter Popcorn.
Inside the tin was 3 varieties, all divided by a cardboard insert: cheese, caramel, and butter.  All you folks who actually like butter popcorn can have that one, while the savory cheese one and the sweet caramel corn can be mine, all mine!

The tin is also available in a 4 flavor version, with the addition of white cheddar popcorn.

My reviews, in order of preference (least to best):

Butter Popcorn: "The popcorn classic with freshly popped kernels and buttery deliciousness."
I tried it, just for trying it sake, but, well, yes, it was just butter popcorn.  Not fresh, not hot, why on earth would I ever want this?  I left it all for the rest of you, who seemed to devour it.  No one else touched the ones I kept returning for.

Caramel Popcorn: "Super crunchy and super delicious, one of our most popular popcorn recipes."
I fully expected the caramel popcorn to be my favorite.  And I did like it, I easily polished off the rest of the tin.  Each and every kernel was very well coated in caramel.  It was crispy.  Nice buttery caramel flavor, not the burnt caramel flavor you sometimes get.  Good, sweet, satisfying.  But the best was yet to come.

Cheese Popcorn: "A must for any popcorn fan. When you think of cheese popcorn, this is it!"
Huzzah!  Now this, this was amazing.  Like the others, the kernels were perfectly coated, no kernel left behind untouched.  It was so cheesy, in that fake cheese that you-know-you-love way.  It coated my fingers and left them orange.  You can bet I licked them clean.  I loved this.  It mixed nicely with the caramel corn for a sweet and savory combo, but really, it was just fantastic on its own.  I wasn't even tempted to freeze this one!
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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Dynamo Donuts

By now, you may have realized that I really like donuts.  I have them at least once a week (usually Fridays).  I can appreciate a classic, simple donut (like a simple glazed from Super Duper) just as much as a super trendy donut (like those from Psycho Donuts that turned out to be amazing) or a stuffed and torched to order Gastro Tank from Fill 'R Up.  Am I a bit of a traitor to New England if I admit I don't really love Dunkin' Donuts though?  Anyway, I eat a lot of donuts.  I have opinions about donuts.

If you ask San Franciscans about donuts, there is no doubt that Dynamo will be one of the first places mentioned.    They are been so popular that they opened a second shop in the Marina (in addition to the original Mission location) and they distribute to coffee shops all over town.  They make 30+ varieties of donuts, in fairly unique flavors, that rotate on a daily basis.  The most famous is the Maple Glazed Bacon Apple (OMG! Bacon on a donut!  Hype hype hype!).

It somehow took me a few years before finally trying them, when last year our admin ordered them for an event in my office.  I was super excited, particularly because she had plenty of the famed bacon topped donuts.  But ... sadly, I didn't really like any of them.  A few months later, I tried one at Red Door Cafe.  I still wasn't impressed.  And then this summer, someone brought them to a brunch I attended.  At this point, I've tried enough of the donuts to say that I just don't like their regular donuts.  The chocolate based donuts have some redeeming qualities, and the gluten-free weren't awful, but, overall, these just aren't the donuts for me.

I'll add a caveat though - there are a few varieties I'd still gladly try, as they sound pretty amazing, like the Monte Cristo: "Ham and Gruyere cheese base filled with our seasonal homemade plum-ginger jam."  That does sound kinda awesome, right?

Visit #1: August 2015

My first encounter was at my office, where our admin brought in 2 dozen assorted donuts, plus a box of just the maple bacon and a box of gluten-free.

Each box had 11 flavors in it.  There was a flavor card, but since they were just checked off on a list, they, didn't correspond to positions in the box.  Thus, it was a guess as to what each was.  I later looked them up online where they had pictures.
Dozen Donuts (several missing).
I wasn't the first one to reach the donuts, so, a couple had been taken when I arrived.
Another Dozen Donuts (several missing)
The same was true of the second box.  If you combine these two photos though, you can fill in all the blanks, except the bottom left.  It must have been a crowd pleaser.

By rows, starting on top row:
  • Spiced Chocolate: "Chocolate base tossed in cinnamon-chipotle sugar". $2.75 each. 
  • Passionfruit Milk Chocolate: "Vanilla bean base glazed with tangy passion fruit and milk chocolate". $2.75 
  • Caramel de sel: "Vanilla bean base glazed with our homemade sticky caramel and sprinkled with Fleur de Sel."  $2.25
  • Candied Orange Blossom: "Candied orange zest base glazed with orange blossom water and drizzled with bittersweet chocolate". $2.75
I started with several that were topped with glazes.  I had no idea what kinds I was having at the time. One turned out to be Candied Orange Blossom.  The donut itself was a raised donut but was really greasy, oily, and I don't really like orange flavors, so this was a fail for me.  I wouldn't have picked it had I known what kind it was.

Middle Row:
  • Hazelnut Lavender: "Hazelnut base topped with a chocolate lavender glaze and rolled in candied hazelnuts". $2.50
  • Coconut: "Coconut base glazed with sweet coconut milk and topped with toasted coconut". $2.75
  • Chocolate Rose: "Chocolate base topped with a sweet rose water and lemon zest glaze." $2.75 
  • Chocolate Star Anise: "Chocolate base glazed with chocolate-star anise and sprinkled with cocoa nibs." $2.75
I also tried the hazelnut lavender, trying to identify it for Ojan who was seeking it out.  It too was a heavy, greasy donut.  I didn't really taste hazelnut, but the lavender was strong.   Lavender can work really well in sweets, but it is also tricky to balance, and the balance wasn't right for me here.  Too floral, and I didn't care for it.  Crunchy bits of hazelnut were nice though.

Bottom Row:
  • { No donut in either box in this position, and the card had only 11 choices, so, perhaps we got only 11 in each? No idea.}
  • Strawberry Earl Grey: "Fresh California strawberries in a semolina base topped with double bergamot Earl Grey glaze."
  • Vanilla Bean: "Vanilla and orange zest base with a vanilla bean glaze". $2.25
  • Maple Glazed Bacon Apple (see below)
Maple Glazed Bacon Apple. $3.99.
"Diced Fatted Calf Heritage Bacon and sautéed apple base, glazed with real organic maple and topped with crispy bacon."

Well, hello.  This is their most famous donut, and, in addition to the two boxes of mixed donuts, we also had a dozen of these.

I was very excited to try one.  But, like the candied orange blossom and the hazelnut lavender, I really didn't like the base.  So greasy.  Maybe these are good when fresh?  Although, its not like these were more than an hour or so old.  I don't know.  I don't mind fried food, I don't mind oil, but these just really were not appealing.

Side note: I didn't actually find any apples in mine either, but the maple glaze on top was sweet and tasty, and bits of bacon appreciated, but still, the base just ruined it for me entirely.
Lemon Buttermilk.  $3.75.
"A wheat free buttermilk-lemon base tossed in confectioners sugar. In lieu of wheat flour, these donuts are made with coconut, rice, brown rice and tapioca flours. They contain no potato starch. However, they are fried in the same oil as wheat-based donuts."

And last but not least, she also brought in some gluten-free donuts.  I don't care for lemon flavors, but the donut base was more appealing than the others, dense, not greasy.  It was slightly crispy, and I loved the powdered sugar.  So, besides the essence of lemon, this was pretty good, and really great for a gluten-free item.

Visit #2: November 2015

A few months later, I was at Red Door Cafe, and wanted a treat.  I knew the donuts were Dynamo, so I didn't want a donut.  But I saw a sticky bun, and I couldn't resist.  I mean, I even like the cinnamon rolls from 7-Eleven!
Sticky Bun.
"Donut holes combined, rolled, and baked in a sweet, sticky glaze."

I didn't actually realize this was one of the Dynamo offerings, as I didn't know they made items other than donuts.  I also had no idea what kind of sticky bun it was, the cashier just said “its ... like a sticky bun?”

After a few bites, I thought it was a pumpkin sticky bun, as I definitely found some subtle pumpkin spices between the layers, and, well it was November.  But then I also randomly found a cranberry or two.  And … then one chocolate chip?  I was pretty confused.  How did these all go together?  And why in such strange distribution?

The dough also wasn’t normal sticky bun dough, but I couldn’t quite place it.  It was only after, when I went online to find out who made it, and what it was, that I discovered it was made from donut holes and leftover donut dough, presumably random ones, hence the different flavors, and the unexpected type of dough.

I think that the majority of my roll was made from Dynamo's Pumpkin Chocolate Chip donut,  “bittersweet chocolate in a pumpkin base", as it was the donut of the day when I got the sticky bun, and matches the pumpkin and chocolate I found.

As you can see, it was very burnt on top.  Also fairly dried out.  Someone definitely left this in the oven too long.
Sticky Bun: Side Profile.
The sticky bottom was honey-like, quite tasty, but certainly not a traditional caramel based sticky bun coating.

Overall, this was pretty mediocre, due to being dried out and burnt.  I also think there is a lot left to chance here, based on which donut dough is used to make a particular bun, so no sticky bun will be the same.  Mine was pretty plain.  Meh.

Visit #3: August 2016

A year later, I attended a brunch, and someone showed up with a box of donuts (yay!)  I remembered not like the regular donuts before, so this time, I tried the chocolate ones.  They were more successful.
Assorted Donuts (August 2016)
Back Row:  Passionfruit Milk Chocolate / Caramel Apple / Maple Glazed Bacon Apple / Vanilla Bean
Front Row: Spiced Chocolate / Chocolate Rose / Lemon Pistachio / Cornmeal Rosemary Cherry

Caramel Apple: "Crisp apples fried in a vanilla base dipped in caramel and coated in toasted spiced peanuts."

Ojan selected this donut, and I stole a bite, as the caramel glaze looked gooey and awesome, and I like peanuts.  It was ... ok.  Like all the donuts I had on the first day, I didn't really care for the greasy base.  The caramel was sweet, tasty, and plentiful, but the peanuts didn't really make sense to me.  The peanut flavor was somehow really strong, and took over the whole thing.  Just like the Maple Glazed Bacon Apple, I didn't taste the apples.

Spiced Chocolate: "Chocolate base tossed in cinnamon-chipotle sugar."

Since I knew I didn't like the plain base, I went for a chocolate one.

The spiced chocolate ended up being my favorite the first time I tried Dynamo Donuts, and my second favorite this time.  It had a dense, cakey chocolate base, with plentiful cinnamon sugar coating.  Not the type of donut I normally go for, but it was the only donut base that I enjoyed, as it wasn't as greasy as the regular bases.

Chocolate Rose: "Chocolate base topped with a sweet rose water and lemon zest glaze."

Still not satisfied, Ojan and I decided to split a third.  This was my pick, since I knew I didn't like the plain bases.  This was even better than the spiced chocolate.

The base was again super dense, with a crispy exterior.  The glaze was sweet and went well with the chocolately base.  I didn't pick out the rose or lemon exactly, but, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I'd gladly have another.

Visit #4: March 2017

Another day, another event where someone brought Dynamo Donuts.

I didn't snap a photo, but our host had a full box of assorted Dynamo Donuts.  From my past experiences , I knew that I never really like Dynamo's regular donuts and only really like the chocolate base (which is crazy, given that I don't normally like chocolate based donuts).  I had my eye on the prize, and snatched up the sole chocolate donut, before anyone else.  I also got a chance to try another kind, which confirmed my thoughts on the matter.  Yup, I like their chocolate donuts, and dislike the others.
Caramel de Sel.  $2.50.
"Vanilla bean base glazed with our homemade sticky caramel and sprinkled with Fleur de Sel."

A friend went for the caramel de sel, and, when I realized I hadn't actually tried it before, I asked to snag a bite ... just to make sure.

And ... yup, I just don't like the raised base Dynamo uses.  It tastes greasy and oily to me, in not a good way.  It is strangely moist.  I just don't like it.

The caramel on top was sweet and sticky, good caramel, but actually a bit of a mess to eat.  The salt was too subtle and didn't deliver the extra pop I was looking for.

I wouldn't try this again, but my friend loved it, and always picks this one.
Chocolate Rose. $3.00.
"Chocolate base topped with a sweet rose water and lemon zest glaze."

Since I really liked the chocolate base donuts before, my selection was easy: the one sole chocolate donut in the box.

And ... I loved it.

A dense chocolate cake donut, moist inside, but awesomely crispy on the outside, particularly the bottom.  I loved the crunch and texture.

On top was sweet glaze, generously coated, super sweet, perfect compliment to the chocolate.

I did taste the rose water and thought it added a nice dimension to the donut.

A fabulous donut, and I'd gladly get it again.

Visit #5: June 2017 - National Donut Day

National Donut Day.  Yes, it is a "real" holiday.  And yes, we celebrated it at my office.  And yes, I was in charge.

I needed somewhere that would deliver me a large quantity of donuts ... more than 100.  In the past, I went for Donut Savant for these needs (but, alas, they no longer deliver to SF) or my absolute favorite, Johnny Doughnuts (but, alas, too pricey for this quantity).  When I saw that Dynamo delivered, for a reasonable $15 delivery fee, it was an easy pick.
Boxes of Donuts ... Delivered!
I ordered ... all the donuts.   They were delivered via Kudos, and a message was sent to me as the donuts were loaded on the truck, and once they were delivered.  They came nicely tied together.  A wonderful ordering experience, really.

For National Donut Day, Dynamo offered 15 different varieties, 3 of which were gluten-free.  We got them all.
Baker's Choice Dozen. $33 ($2.75 each)
First up were boxes of assorted "Baker's Choice", which included one each of the 12 not gluten-free options.

The lineup pictured here was (left to right):
Top Row: Chocolate Star Anise, Coconut, Ginger Orange, Maple Glazed Bacon Apple
Middle Row: Chocolate Rose,  Caramel de Sel, Vanilla Bean, Cornmeal Blueberry
Bottom Row: Passionfruit Milk Chocolate, Candied Orange Blossom, Spiced Chocolate, Apricot Cardamom

I didn't try them *all*, but, many people wanted to try multiples, so quickly started cutting them up.  This allowed me to try bites of all that I was interested in.  I tried 5 of the regular donuts: all 3 of the chocolate based ones, since the chocolate bases had been my favorites before, plus the two most interesting sounding regular bases.  More details below!
iNag Baker's Choice Dozen. $45. ($3.75 each)
I also ordered the baker's choice of the I'm Not a Gluten offerings of the day, 3 varieties:
  • Lemon Buttermilk
  • Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze
  • Carrot Cake 
My gluten-free folks were thrilled to have choices!  I had liked the gluten-free ones I had tried in the past, so I tried all three.  (Yes, if you are counting, that is 3 chocolate, 3 gluten-free, and 2 regular.  I didn't have them all at once, and they weren't all full donuts!  I'm not *that* crazy).
Piles of Donuts.
We had ... a lot of donuts.  This is just the table full of regular donuts.

They vanished.  Very, very quickly.

Regular Base

I've never been a fan of Dynamo's regular base.  It has always seemed too oily, heavy, and spongy before.  We had 9 different varieties that fell into this category, but I only tried two, given my past experiences.

They actually were much better than I remembered, and one turned out to my favorite of the day.
Coconut.
"Coconut base glazed with sweet coconut milk and topped with toasted coconut."

While I've never liked the plain Dynamo base before, I figured if I'd ever like one, it would be the coconut.

And it was better than most others I've tried.  The dough was still kinda spongy yet light yet oily in a strange way, which I didn't care for, but it was lighter and loftier than I remembered from past tries, and it wasn't too bad.

The coconut milk glaze was pretty tasty, great coconut flavor.  The donut was topped with large shreds of toasted coconut.

Overall, it was better than most others I've tried with the regular bases, and great coconut flavor, but not something I'd go running back for.  Middle of the batch for me in that I didn't dislike it, nor love it.
Cornmeal Blueberry.
"Lemon cornmeal base with fresh blueberries topped with a sweet lavender glaze."

This was, hands down, the best regular Dynamo donut I've had.

The base was light and moist and had a cornmeal grit to it, and it was loaded with big, juicy blueberries.  The blueberries were bursting with flavor.  They really made this donut incredible.  The glaze on top didn't taste too much like lavender, which was my concern, and just added a great sweetness.

This was sorta like a hybrid of my favorite two muffins (corn and blueberry) merged with a donut.  I really liked it, and would love another.  I wish I had kept an extra one for myself, although I did smartly take a full one of these.  My new favorite.

Chocolate Base 

I don't normally like chocolate based donuts, but with Dynamo, I had always preferred their chocolate base.  We had 3 varieties, and I tried all three, only one of which I liked.
Chocolate Star Anise.
"Chocolate base glazed with chocolate-star anise and sprinkled with cocoa nibs." 

This was the biggest disappointment of the day.  Given the success of past chocolate bases, and my love of cocoa nibs, I was most eagerly awaiting trying this one.

And ... the cake was dry and crumbly, not dense and delicious as in the past.

I didn't taste star anise, and although the glaze looked great, it didn't offer anything, and the amount of nibs was too few to actually taste or enjoy the crunch from.

Sadness.  Second to last pick.
Spiced Chocolate.
"Chocolate base tossed in cinnamon-chipotle sugar."

Further sadness came from the spiced chocolate, one I had also enjoyed before.  Just like the chocolate star anise, the cake donut was just dry and not particularly good.

This has been in my top 5 before, but here I was glad I only tried a small chunk.  I didn't want more.  Least favorite.
Chocolate Rose.
"Chocolate base topped with a sweet rose water and lemon zest glaze."

The chocolate base donuts redeemed themselves with the Chocolate Rose though, which has always been my top pick.  It was exactly as I remembered.  Moist, dense base, crispy exterior, and awesome sweet glaze.  I still couldn't taste the rosewater nor lemon zest, but I didn't care.

The best of the chocolate donuts, my third pick overall of the day.

I Am Not a Gluten Donut

And finally, the gluten-free options, which had surprised me in the past.  We had 3, I tried them all.
Carrot Cake.
"Fresh carrots & currants in a wheat-free base, tossed in cinnamon-brown sugar." 

I love carrot cake, so these sounded great, but, alas, were not winners.

The cake was dry, very dry.  Yes it had carrots and currants in it, but it was just dry and tasted a bit strange.  The cinnamon-sugar coating added to the dryness.

3rd to last pick.
Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze.
"Wheat-free chocolate donut with a raspberry balsamic and black pepper glaze."

This one I also did not like.

The donut was rather dry and just a boring chocolate base.  The frosting was sweet and tangy, and did taste like raspberry, but I didn't taste balsamic nor black pepper.  

I wouldn't get this again, and was glad I only cut off a tiny chunk.  4th to least favorite, with the flavorful glaze being the only interesting aspect.
Lemon Buttermilk.
"A wheat free buttermilk-lemon base tossed in confectioners sugar."

When I had this donut the first time, it was the first Dynamo donut I really liked, and I was surprised, given the gluten-free nature of it and the fact that it is lemon based, and I don't care for lemon generally.

I again liked it.  Just a cake donut, lightly lemon flavored, and coated in confectioner's sugar.  Really simple, but, well done.  And it continues to amaze me, because there is nothing about this that really screams out as something I'd like.

My second favorite.
Dynamo Donuts & Coffee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Waffling Leftovers: Mac and Cheese

Update Review, June 2017

Mac and cheese was one of the earlier dishes that I learned to waffle.  I've written about it before, always to quasi-mixed success.  You can read about my previous adventures first, if you wish.  It always seemed mac and cheese should waffle wonderfully, but, alas, so often I had problems with structural integrity, and found I needed to experiment with different crusting methods.
Mac and Cheese Transformation!
This time however, I had amazing success.  Waffle perfection.  One of my best wafflings to date!
The Original: Mushroom Mac and Cheese.
The original dish was fancy mac and cheese, made with little pasta shells, a slew of different cheeses (cheddar, pepper jack, parmesan), plenty of cream (manufacturing cream no less), and mushrooms.

It was insanely good mac and cheese, perfectly creamy and gooey inside, really fantastic flavor from the fancy cheeses, and perfectly crispy top.  I loved it, and saved plenty.
The Leftovers: Solid Chunk, Mushrooms Removed.
The next day, I ate some cold for lunch.  I was lazy.  I wasn't into the mushrooms, so I removed them.

The day after that, I pulled out what was left, and it had degraded a bit.  Kinda dried out, a solid mass.  I didn't want it cold.

I was feeling really lazy again, so I picked the waffle iron as my reheating method because it would be easier than traditional re-heating, which can be tricky with mac and cheese as it separates if you don't go low and slow, and add a bit more liquid.
Sizzling Away.
It had been a while since I tried waffling leftover mac and cheese, and, I seemingly forgot everything I had taught myself.  I'll be honest, I was feeling *really* lazy, so I didn't read my own notes, that say pretty clearly, "I definitely recommend crusting".

So I just threw in my unappealing lump of mac and cheese into the 350° waffle iron, and let it go.

I soon could hear sizzling sounds, so I peeked in, and was amazed that the lid lifted easily, and the mac looked like ... well, a waffle!  Woah, this was working!
Result: Waffled Mac & Cheese Perfection.
I let it go just a bit longer to crisp up, and extracted it with no problem.

The waffle mac held together perfectly, without any crusting.  I'm not sure why I always needed it before.

The outside was super crispy, and I loved the cheesy bits on the edges.  Inside was moist and creamy.

This was delicious, and I shared a bite with Ojan, who is sick of me waffling everything at this point, and he agreed it was better than his portion, which he reheated traditionally.  I wonder if there was something different about the ratio of cheese, cream, and pasta that made this more successful than other attempts?

Original Review, March 2016

Hopefully by now you know the deal.  I love to take leftovers and re-heat them in a non-traditional way: my waffle iron.  Hence, my "Waffling Leftovers" series was born, where each week I ask the question, "Will it waffle?", when referring to some kind of basic leftover.

After last week's quasi-success with the chorizo wrapped pesto pasta and my earlier success with leftover lasagna, it was time to take on another pasta dish, this one, a classic: mac and cheese.

Will it waffle?  Yes, but, like the pesto pasta, it takes a little finesse, requiring some kind of crusting, the right size chunk, and, the right temperature to start.  I don't have the photo evidence of my first few attempts, but, I assure you, they had no structural integrity and were quite the mess.  Here we have my subsequent attempts, and eventual, success.
Corn Flakes + Mac and Cheese.
Ingredients:
  1. Leftover mac and cheese (thick slab, cold, and solid)
  2. Cornflakes (crushed)
You need to start with a thick, cold brick of leftover mac and cheese.  Too thin of a slice, and it falls apart.  Start with it warm, or even room temperature, and it falls apart.

So, do not do as pictured above!  Instead, take a huge slab of the most unappealing solid mass of mac and cheese, and go from there.  Believe me.  I tried many other ways, and, they all fail.
Crusted "patty".
Process:
  1. Crush cornflakes.
  2. Coat mac and cheese in crusted cornflakes.
  3. WAFFLE (aka, insert into waffle iron).
I tried a number of techniques, but I definitely recommend crusting.  I used crushed cornflakes, but I'm sure breadcrumbs would also work.  Without the crust, it didn't get quite as crispy on the outside, and broke apart easily.
Waffled Jumble.
This version started with the mac and cheese pictured above (you know, where I tell you not to do that?  This is why).  It wasn't thick enough, or chilled enough.

It got beautifully crispy on the outside, but had no structural integrity, and totally fell apart.  Tasty, but it was basically just like regular mac and cheese, with a few more crunchy bits than normal.
 Success! Leftover Mac and Cheese with Cornflake Crust Waffle.
This version used a thick solid mass.  It held together perfectly.  It stayed creamy and moist on the inside, crispy on the outside.  Totally delicious, and a complete success.

Both Ojan and I agreed that this is better than just reheating mac and cheese in any other way (toaster oven, microwave, stovetop, mixing in fresh milk or cheese, etc).

Next time, I think I'd also do a cheese sauce to drizzle over it, like a fondue-syrup!
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Monday, June 05, 2017

Lightlife Meatless Foods

Lightlife is a plant based meatless (vegetarian and vegan) food producer.  They have been in business since 1979, long before meatless eating was such a big thing.

Lightlife has a large product line at this point, with frozen foods, refrigerated items, and shelf stable meatless jerky.  The frozen food line is fairly new, and includes pastas (stuffed raviolis), bowls (so trendy, of course they include quinoa, kale, tempeh, and more), and veggie fritter snacks, none of which I have tried.  The majority of the products are refrigerated meat alternatives: tempeh (meh, I never like tempeh so I didn't try this), hot dogs, sausages, burgers (not available near me), veggie ground beef, chicken (er, chick'n), breakfast items, and deli meats.

I tried all that I could find, and, was honestly surprised by some of them.  I'm not a vegetarian, but I have no problem replacing some of my meat choices with their offerings.

Breakfast

"Start your day off with a heaping helping of vegetables – in the form of our bacon and sausage – and feel good for the rest of the day."

The breakfast lineup includes bacon, sausage patties, and ground sausage for slicing or crumbling as you please.  I was able to find these items at most locations carrying Lightlife products.

Smart Bacon

"Whether served up with scrambled eggs or topping off a burger, Smart Bacon® brings that hearty bacon taste to your meal. But unlike traditional bacon, Smart Bacon® is vegan and free of saturated fat and cholesterol."

Nutrition wise, the bacon sounded pretty good; each slice is only 20 calories, with 2 grams of protein and only 1 gram of fat.  No cholesterol.

The ingredients aren't particularly wholesome though, made from soy protein, isolate, vital wheat gluten, soybean oil, soy protein concentrate, textured wheat gluten, fermented rice flour, autolyzed yeast extract, carrageenan, potassium chloride, and then the only non-scary ingredients: salt, sugar, natural flavor, natural smoke flavor, spices, and paprika.
Packaging.
The bacon comes vacuum sealed in plastic, about 14 slices to a package, sold in the refrigerated section.  It had a reasonable shelf life, with an (unopened) expiration of almost 3 months after I purchased.  Once opened, you need to cook or freeze within 3 days.

It was a bit annoying to separate the slices though, they kinda stuck together, and I needed to use a knife to slide between them, else they broke apart.

The packaging provides several cooking methods, and I tried them all, plus, uh, my own.
Batch #1: Into the skillet!
The recommended cooking instructions are in a skillet over medium heat with oil.

So, I went with their recommendation.  I can't say it looked particular appealing in its raw form.
Batch #1: 2 Minutes In!
After about 2 minutes of cooking though, things were looking better.  The total cook time is supposed to be about 3.5 minutes, flipped once, so I flipped them at this point.

They were starting to kinda look like bacon, and, did actually sorta smell like bacon too.
Batch #1: 2 More Minutes!
After another 2 minutes, it really did look like bacon!

I like my regular bacon crispy, so, I went a little longer than recommended, since I thought I'd want this crispy too.
Batch #1: Overcooked.
But ... I definitely over cooked it.

It was hard as a rock, and not that enjoyable.  My bad.
Batch #2: 1 Minute In.
The next batch, I flipped right at the 1 minute mark.
Batch #2: 3.5 Minutes.
And I cooked it only the recommended 3.5 minutes.

This came out much better, but, it was still very crispy.  Like I said, I like crispy bacon, but, it just had no flexibility to it.  Ojan however liked it this way.

The consistency was also obviously not bacon-y, as it just snapped in pieces, rather than having a chew to it.

It did have a decent smoky flavor, and, I'll be honest, the taste wasn't bad, it certainly didn't taste like random soy compounds.
Batch #3: Waffling!
The next batch, I went against all instructions.  You know how obsessed I am with waffling everything, so, I couldn't resist waffling the bacon.

I put it in at 450 degrees, as that was the temperature Lightlife recommended for oven cooking.

It took longer in the waffle iron, and, since it was so thin, it didn't have a whole lot of contact with the grills on top, so it didn't get much of a signature waffle look.

Still, this was a very easy way to cook it.
Batch #3: Waffled Bacon!
This batch was clearly the winner for me, in an interesting way.  Because all of the surface wasn't in contact with the waffle iron plates, it stayed a bit flabby where it didn't touch.  And ... that just gave it a lot more texture, making it a bit chewy, a bit more like real bacon.

I'd certainly make it like this in the future.  Ojan however liked this the least and asked specifically to have it crispier next time.
Batch #4: Baking Tray.
The final cooking method listed on the packaging is to bake it in an oven or toaster oven, coated with oil, on a tray.
Batch #4: Baking.
As with the skillet preparation, you need to flip the bacon as it cooks.  Total recommended cook time is 5 minutes, but, Ojan wanted crispier bacon, so I let it go a bit longer.

The result was fairly similar to the skillet preparation, just a tiny bit flabbier, a tiny bit chewier.  My second favorite cooking method.
BLT'ed.
After sampling each variety on its own, I made it into a BLT, with some delicious perfectly ripe in-season heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, and of course, plenty of mayo, on homemade bread.

The result?  Really quite delicious.  I'm not sure I'd want to eat the bacon just on its own for breakfast with some eggs, but, put into a BLT it totally worked, and delivered everything I wanted.  I think it would likely work great in a breakfast bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich too.

So, overall, success, and, I'd actually do this again.

Gimme Lean Sausage

Breakfast sausage is available in pre-formed patties, or in a tube.  I opted for the tube, since I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it when I bought it (crumble it in something? Make patties?)
Gimme Lean Ground Sausage.
"Whether sliced into patties or added to omelets and casseroles, Gimme Lean® Sausage makes it easy to enjoy traditional sausage flavors in your meatless meal. But this cholesterol-free meat alternative is a heart-healthy swap, making it a delicious win-win."

I forgot to take a photo of the ground sausage in its packaging, but it was a tube of ground meatless sausage, ready to be manipulated as you please.  They also sell formed sausage patties.

I simply sliced it into disks and mushed it down into patties a bit.  My tube yielded 9 fairly thick patties, you certainly could have made more.  It was easy to work with, very pliable.

The instructions were to pan fry for a few minutes on each side in oil, which is what I did.  They browned up really nicely.
Sausage Patties!
I served the sausage patties at Christmas brunch, without telling anyone that they were veggie sausage.  I brushed it off as my sister saw me preparing it and said something about having raw meat on the cutting board.

And then I asked what everyone thought of the sausage.

"Its fine," said my sister.  "Tastes like sausage," said my mom.  Everyone just acted like it was normal sausage, no mentions of it being a strange flavor, texture, etc.  When I told them it was veggie sausage, they were all very surprised, and said they really had no idea.

I agreed, and actually quite liked it.  The sausage did get a great crust on the outside, and was well seasoned inside.  The texture was sorta mushy and like bits and pieces, but, well, that is what sausage is.  I didn't taste anything particularly strange.  I particularly liked it with maple syrup on top, as I usually do with breakfast sausage.

Overall, a hit, and I'd get it again.

Smart Deli

"What’s your favorite sandwich? A wrap, a club, a hoagie? Or perhaps a turkey melt, a pepperoni panini or a croque-monsieur? Whether you keep it simple or kick it up a notch, our Smart Deli® vegan deli meats perk up the packed lunch or picnic with plant powered nutrition."

The Smart Deli line is the one I was most excited to try, but, sadly, is not carried anywhere in San Francisco.  The sliced deli meats lineup has versions of ham, turkey,  "bologna", and pepperoni.

I was sad not to get to try these items, but then I found them in my parent's hometown, where even the basic grocery stores seem to carry a slew of Lightlife products (and very few alternative brands), unlike the Bay Area, where each grocery store only carried a few Lightlife products, but at least 5 other meat alternative brands.  Clearly, the Bay Area is more opinionated, and consumers don't stick with one brand for all, they want the best brand per product?

Anyway, I was delighted to find the deli products, and I really was curious about the bologna, but that was the one item I couldn't find.  So I went with my second choice ... pepperoni!

Smart Pepperoni

"Pepperoni is a perennial favorite on pizzas, in calzones or as a snack. But you don’t have to harm a pig to get the bold flavor in your meals. Skip the saturated fat and cholesterol with our vegan pepperoni, and sneak a delicious snack while you make an easy Italian feast tonight."
Veggie Pepperoni Slices.
The pepperoni comes in a bag much like other packaged sliced meat-based pepperoni.  At first glance, it really didn't look much different from the "real" thing.
Raw Pepperoni.
Once you looked closer, it didn't look quite the same as regular pepperoni though.

I tried a slice right out of the bag.  It kinda tasted like pepperoni, but the texture was very off.  The spicing was right, but I also tasted just a bit too much soy protein isolate or vital wheat gluten perhaps.  A little too fake, in its raw form.

But really, what do you do with pepperoni?  You put it on pizza.  I read some online reviews and found many recommendations to put it under the cheese, as it gets dried out on top as it doesn't have the oils of regular pepperoni.

My mom made a pizza with regular pepperoni on one half and we snuck the veggie pepperoni on the other.  We didn't tell anyone about the two pepperonis, but served everyone a slice of each.  All 5 people who consumed the pizza didn't notice.  After dinner, I asked if anyone noticed anything different about the pepperoni.  No one did.  When we told them half of it was veggie pepperoni, they were surprised.  Clearly, this one is an easy one to slip in unnoticed (if you want to do that for some reason).

Chick'n

"Cutlets, wings, tenders and strips – however you like your chicken, we have a tasty veggie alternative for you."

The Chick'n line is not sold in the Bay Area either, where Quorn chicken products dominate.  Lightlife makes cutlets, tenders, and buffalo wings, only three items, compared to the Quorn empire.  And although I don't like chicken, and I don't really like "fake meat", I have to admit, I used to seriously love the Quorn gruyere chicken cutlets.  But Quorn products are all soy-free and made from mycoprotein, whereas Lightlife products are made from soy protein, so I knew they'd be nothing alike.  Still, I couldn't resist trying.
Smart Wings Buffalo.
"Perfect for snacking during the big game or for a fun take on a dinner entree, these veggie buffalo wings will spice up any plate. The saucy flavor always satisfies."

I went for the buffalo "wings".  The wings came packaged in a vacuumed sealed bag with the sauce already mixed in.
Cooking the wings ...
Cooking instructions were provided, and the recommended preparation is to skillet fry for a few minutes on each side.  I dumped the package into a skillet.
Slight Browning.
The wings did brown up slightly on each side after a few minutes.  The sauce smelt great as they cooked, but, I scraped out every little bit of sauce, and this is all there was.  More sauce on the side, or I guess in the bag, would really have helped.
Plated Up!
I plated up my wings with ranch dipping sauce (we had no blue cheese), and served them to my mom, Ojan, and myself of course, as an appetizer.

The buffalo sauce was actually pretty good.  Not super spicy, but flavorful, and I really wished more was included.

The wings ... were interesting.  The inside was very mushy.  Unlike the pepperoni, I didn't think they looked or tasted like real chicken at all.  But, the flavor of the sauce was great and the product wasn't bad overall.

My mom was more enthusiastic, "I still don't get how they get that chicken texture!", she said, clearly thinking they had nailed the whole chicken thing.  "They aren't bad", she said.  "They are okay", was Ojan's evaluation.

So, overall, a success, although I wouldn't personally get them again.

Burgers N' Dogs

"Red, White, and Green. A healthy twist on all American favorites.  Grab the ketchup and mustard—It's time for a BBQ you can feel good about with our plant-based burgers and hot dogs."

Lightlife makes 3 types of burgers (tempeh, black bean, and quinoa), and 3 types of hotdogs (tofu pups, "smart dogs", and jumbo smart dogs).  I opted to try the Smart Dogs because I really like regular hot dogs (yup, my secret gross thing I love!).
Jumbo Smart Dogs.
"This slightly larger hot dog is full of traditional hot dog flavor for the larger appetite. Try one Chicago style – topped with yellow mustard, fresh onions and tomato, sweet pickle relish, pickled sport peppers, a dill pickle spear and a dash of celery salt on a poppy seed bun – and treat your taste buds to something spectacular."

I picked the Jumbo dogs over the regular dogs for no reason other than ... why not?  Jumbo dogs are double the size of the regular dogs.

The Smart Dogs come packaged in the same way as traditional hotdogs, 5 to a pack, refrigerated.  I always found regular hotdog packages annoying to open, and these were no different.
Grilling Smart Dogs.
The hot dogs looked considerably more rubbery than traditional hot dogs.

The package gave instructions on to cook on the stove top in boiling water (again, just like normal hot dogs), or on a grill (again, just like normal hot dogs), or in a microwave (in a dish covered with water ... which is never how I made regular hot dogs in the microwave).

I was planning to try several methods so I could best evaluate, but, laziness got the better of me, and I decided to just grill them all on my trusty George Foreman Grill (dug out from the depths of my kitchen cabinets).  You can bet I was tempted to waffle them.

The instructions told me to coat the grill with oil, and I'm glad I did, as they got very easily stuck, even on the nonstick surface.  I rotated them several times throughout the cooking time, and each time, they were a bit stuck.  They did get decent grill marks, resulting in something that did sorta look like a hot dog.  They even looked juicy and plump.
Smart Dog: Inside.
I had hope for these, given my love of actual hot dogs and the looks.  The texture was pretty similar to a regular hot dog, although it had no casing, and thus no snap to it.  Overall, the mouth feel wasn't bad.

The flavor though wasn't great.  It tasted like ... soy.  We all took one bite and said, "yup, that's a veggie dog".  No matter how many fun toppings I put on, there was certainly no way to hide the strange flavor.  Soy protein isolate, pea protein isolate, tapioca starch, xanthan gum, rice flour, guar gum, etc, etc just aren't very tasty.

I would not get these again, but my vegetarian guest thought they were pretty normal.
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