Since the last time: The fourth best chilli in the UK

Can't believe the last post was a whole year ago. It's not that I haven't been cooking, probably just lack of time I expect. I'm not really sure.

There has been lots of cooking since then - the last post was about the Gower Chilli Cook-Off 2017 - which resulted in a bronze and a place in the UK finals, and this time three weeks ago I was just preparing to compete in the Gower chilli cook off 2018.

Unfortunately, in the middle of the longest heatwave I can remember in recent years, there was one weekend of rain and gale force winds - which resulted in the competition being cancelled. Which was a shame, and rather unfortunately the news of the cancellation didn't come in until after I had purchased around 4 kilos of meat. None the less, the meat got cooked, and it fed 7 adults for two nights, if not entirely impressively.

So to the finals, last September I competed in the UK finals of the Chilli cook off, just missing out on a spot on the podium (and a prize!) taking 4th spot, probably out of about 12 teams. Unbelievably, I was just cleaning out a drawer in the house yesterday, and I found all score cards from last year, and being so sure I had taken photos already I binned them all, only to discover now I don't have them! The scores were more consistent in the final, a similar total to the Gower round, but all 4 came in around 38/39 or so (rather than the two outliers of 31 & 49 from Gower) .

Once again, we did manage to learn some things to take forward though - this time I didn't pre-chop the meat ahead of the competition, which resulted in me being slightly slap dash in trimming the meat under competition deadlines, which meant there were some strap pieces of fat left in there (one judge noted it was a bit chewy in parts, so can only assume they found a stray piece of fat).

Following the cancellation of this year's cook-off, the UKCCA held a draw to select three teams to go through by default, and we were one of the teams pulled from the hat, so as long as its a convenient location and time to attend, we will hopefully still ride again this year.  Although I have decided, based on a theory rather than practice, that my entry will be a "cheeky" chilli - using beef and pork cheek for the meat. Who knows how that will turn out!

Here are some of the highlight reel for the last year..

There's been home made chorizo (failed)

.. cake (mixed results)

.. Spanish sausage (ace)

of course, lots of BBQ (shoulder of lamb, pulled pork, ribs, etc)

and cookies!

The Gower Chili Cook-Off - 2017 - A Retrospective

A few weeks it was the annual Gower Chilli Festival, which of course meant it was the annual Gower Chilli Cook-Off!

Having entered last year for the first time, and come a not-too-shabby 9th out of 12 (not too bad, considering I went in with very little clue as to what I was doing, or what the standard was, so was expecting, but not hoping for, last place), I was looking for an improvement on last years placing - in my head aiming for a move up the rankings to around 5th place.

Lessons learnt (or not) from last year

In my retrospect last year, I noted that a more regular competitor (and professional chef) told me that "mince always wins", so I was going in with the plan to switch to mince, but a last minute (well, the week before) change of heart saw me going once again for my favourite part of the cow - ribs!  As it happens, I think the top three or four competitors were actually not using mince this year, so maybe the old mince bias is not a thing, or maybe it just wasn't mince's year.  I don't think we found anyone else using short-ribs, brisket seemed a popular choice and I think another competitor was using shin, another using goat and another using pork belly.

Despite not switching to mince, as I had said I would in the retrospective last year, I did focus on really making the flavour work over the four hours. And boy was that stressful! When all the ingredients hit the pan at about the one hour mark, so with three hours to reduce, it was pretty runny, so I spent a large part of the next 2 1/2 hours stirring, pacing and fretting about whether it was actually going to reduce like it was supposed to. But it did, it just left it until the final 30 minutes to really thicken up!

Unfortunately, whilst we planned to take heed of the lesson learnt that food prep could start before the official kick off, we failed. Actually worse than last time - last time around we were there and tent setup for the starting gun, but without most of the ingredients, this time we didn't even arrive on site until starting time and whilst the other competitors were starting to cook we were trying to setup table, cooker and gazebo!

Things to improve

I was happy with the consistency and the savoury element of the chilli, and the judges seemed to like that balance - but as my dad pointed out, it lacked a salt and sweetness - it was very meaty, just didn't have the all round brightness.  I did forget to add the sugar at the end, and also forgot to add the lime - which might have brightened it a little and made it a little better balanced.  One idea that I have had since is to add tomato ketchup: being packed with both sugar and salt and has quite a sharp taste, if I can work out a subtle enough quantity it might add the missing something.

I also used bacon bits this year, which overall I was happy with, but bacon doesn't really seem right for slow cooking - admittedly, they work fine in a slow braise, and kind of melt away, but I'm going to try switching to pig cheek for the next experiment. As well as being cheaper, it should also provide a closer texture and appearance to the beef.

I will also try to experiment with a different blend of chillies, to see how I can work the flavour a little more.

The results

I came 3rd!

So, a better improvement than I hoped for and meant I took home the bronze cash prize which just about covered the cost of the food! A further nice side-effect of the placing was because the Silver medal winner had already qualified for the UK finals (he is a chilli cook-off circuit pro and had already qualified in another regional cook-off) I took his place, which means 23rd September, I will be competing in the UK finals, which should be fun!

It was a genuine surprise, there were only 9 competitors, and all looked very serious, so on arrival I started revising my targeted place to maybe 6th out of the 9. Whilst tasting the other competitors chillis, we started to be optimistic that "we wouldn't be last place" (a genuine phrase that was said out loud several times in our tent during the final stage - which shows the level of expectation on the team!).  Our confidence was somewhat boosted by the People's Choice voting (during tasting, people can taste and vote for their favourite before winners announced) as we seemed to be getting at least a reasonable number of votes (last year I had one vote, which was by us), but was still in genuine shock when the results were announced!

As per last year, here are the feedback cards (one of the official UK Chilli Cook-off Association judges explained that two of the judges on the panel judged all events, whilst the other two were locals - which I assume was his attempt to explain the two extreme outliers in the scoring)

Birthday Cakes

It's that time of year again when I get a chance to make fun birthday cakes. I don't bake that much, and rarely cakes other than birthdays, and kids cakes are the most fun and least fun at the same time (I haven't really got the knack for rolling icing, so that is always testing).

Anyway, here are the end results:

A Gruffalo cake and a lego superman cake, if you couldn't tell.

BBQ Beef - a retrospect

Well, it's that time of year again, we have had a run of dry weather so time to get a BBQing!

A little earlier than last two years this time, as my first official BBQ of the year was 9th April, and its been good to get back on it.

It's actually been a busy old time cooking, as usual, but not much new to update here, so this is really just a recap of what I have been up to.

The BBQs have both mainly been beef short ribs, as they are really my favourite bbq, both times combined with baby back ribs. The baby back ribs have been cooked well both times, but the rub on the second outing wasn't quite as good so I didn't enjoy them as much. The first beef ribs were individuals and came out really well, but the second attempt of doing a full rack of ribs didn't come out as well, and were a little over cooked - second outing I upped the temperature to 275F, as I had read several people cooking at a higher temperature with no real difference in the results, but in the end, the outer section of the ribs were a bit tougher and over cooked, which is a shame.

Pork belly burnt ends:

The first BBQ of the year:

I have also been busy baking sweet things, including home made bourbon creams, easter inspired brownies and passion fruit sponge cake..

Recipe: Nutella filled cookies

As well as making raspberry & white chocolate cookies on the weekend, I also decided, on a whim, to try and experiment with nutella filled cookies.

I used my normal base cookie recipe, but with milk choc chunks instead of the white chocolate and raspberry (although I did experiment with one nutella filled raspberry-and-white-choc cookie, which was fine, but didn't work as well as the normal choc chunk cookies).


We will be following the same instructions as described here, but before we start, we will line a baking tray, and using a teaspoon put small blobs of nutella on it, and put it in the freezer to harden - this is mostly to make it easier to handle when we try to get it into our cookie later:

Once you have the cookie dough cooled and ready to cook, rather than shaping it into a ball, flatten each piece slightly and then put a piece of the frozen nutella in the center, shaping the dough back into a ball around the nutella competely.

Cook as described and eat!

Recipe: My favourite cookies

As I have mentioned before, one of my favourite sweet combinations is raspberry and chocolate - whether it be milk, dark or white chocolate, it just seems to work so well for me, so unsurprisingly, if not controversially, my favourite cookies are white chocolate and raspberry.

I made them last week, as a sort of practice run for an upcoming birthday party for my youngest, but I am pretty tempted to just keep making them regularly. Although, I am the only one in the house who prefers them to normal chocolate chip cookies, but that probably works in my favour too, as it means more for me (or more likely they don't all get eaten whilst I am out at work).

They are pretty simple, and are actually my go to cookie recipe, but you can replace the raspberries and white choc with plain choc chunks or whatever your mood fancies.


  • 170 grams unsalted butter
  • 250 grams plain flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 100 grams granulated sugar
  • 160 grams light brown sugar
  • 200 grams white choc chunks
  • 10 grams freeze dried raspberries


Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Makes about 15-25 cookies, depending on the size you go for
  1. Mix the flour, oats, salt and bicarbonate of soda together in a bowl

  2. Add the sugars and butter in a bowl (ideally of a freestanding mixer, but whatever) and mix well - for a few minutes with the paddle attachment if you have one, but again, whatever. Just mix it well so it is smooth and well beaten

  3. Add the egg and beat/mix again for a minute or so until well combined. Add the vanilla if using it.

  4. Add the flour mixture and beat until combined and formed a cohesive dough. If you are using a free standing mixer, then increase the power slowly, as if you go straight in fast then you will get covered in flour. This has happened more than once to me.

  5. Chuck in the choc chunks and raspberries and mix for another 30sec-1min

  6. Wrap the the dough in clingfilm and stick it in the fridge to cool - probably an hour or so

  7. Once cooled, chunk the dough into small fist size balls and place them equally spaced on a baking tray and cook for about 15minutes, or until  they have melted into cookie shapes and lightly browned.

  8. Take them from the oven, let them cool for a bit

Stoneware baked shortbread

A few years ago I got bought a stoneware shortbread mould, basically identical to the one below:
Its a classic stone, patterned shortbread mould from Lakeland, that's supposed to create traditional shortbread.

As I have previously mentioned, I quite like shortbread, so over the years I have attempted to use the stoneware to create picture perfect shortbread (with a variety of normal and brown-butter recipes), all of which ended in disaster.

I tried a number of tricks: cooking it low and slow, making sure it cools completely (several hours) before removing, greasing the mould, but every time it came out in pieces and mostly stuck to the mould. Searching for advice, several people in the lower end of the product reviews experienced similar results (although several people gave 5-star reviews with claims of mould-glory) and one of the top results on google was an article about similar disastrous experiences using the same mould, I didn't have high hopes.

I am pleased to say though, that I have had a breakthrough.

There were lots of comments in the review section for the product saying it worked as-is, recommending shortening, or letting chill completely, which I can confirm absolutely did not work for me, however, one or two comments and some more careful searching lead me to the idea of seasoning it (much like when I got my pride-and-joy new cast iron skillet) - which suddenly made sense. Its a natural, porous material, which draws moisture our of the contents (which is one of the properties that makes stone an appropriate material for pizza stones - the other property being the heat retention, also much like cast iron) - seasoning, the act of heating oil or (non burning) fat above its "smoke point" creates a chemical reaction where by the oil bonds and forms a natural, breathable coating.

Much like a well aged, well used, cast iron pan can demonstrate incredible non-stick performance - due to long term use - the same applies to stoneware for baking wet foods - there is apparently a saying that goes

The worse it looks, the better it cooks
Thankfully, cast iron or stoneware, you don't need a lifetime of use before you start to see the best results - we can fast track the process by seasoning the pan. As it happens, seasoning pans is very satisfying.

Seasoning a pan is simple -

  1. Pre-heat your oven to as hot as it will go (it might smoke, so make sure you are ready to have windows/doors open)

  2. Apply oil (I used vegetable oil) to the pan, not a lot, just a light coat (trying to make sure there aren't bits of dust or paper debris from kitchen towels - as the stone can be fairly abrasive, and any debris is going to get sealed into the surface)

  3. Put the dish in the oven for around 30 minutes

  4. Take out, let it cool completely (this will take a while, remember what I mentioned about it stone retaining heat)

  5. Repeat the process two or three times (I find it quite addictive to repeat, as the results are such a delight)

The results should be clear - the colour will change fairly dramatically, and if you touch it (once its cooled down) it will be fairly smooth.

If you look at the colour in the starting photo, a kind of pale-greyish white, that is how my mould started out, and below is after three or so seasoning runs:

Isn't that a beautiful colour?

And here's the successful results:

(a success in as much that it came out, pattern in tact - however it was an iteration on my brown butter shortbread development, so still a work in progress)