Hazelnut Truffles / Reverse Engineering

I've been a bit crap at blogging recently - too many interests and not enough time.

I tend to go in phases, dedicating the little time I have mostly to one thing for several weeks/months, then move on. Recently I've switched attention to iPhone development - whilst I've a general dislike for Apple I find potential for an additional revenue stream through releasing apps quite appealing. I purchased a mac mini 2 weeks ago and am learning Objective-C, which is similar enough to other languages I 'speak' (I mainly code Java, Perl & PHP but have a working knowledge of Python, TCL, C, C++, C#, JavaScript and various others).

Programming and cooking are not too dissimilar. One of my interests is network protocol design and reverse engineering - figuring out how new applications talk over a network/the Internet so I can write my own code that captures, interfaces with or modifies traffic passing between them.

Reverse engineering ranges from trivially easy to insanely difficult. More often than not application programmers are not experts in networking, so use either an existing protocol their language has an API for (such as HTTP) or implement their own crude protocol in plain-text. Better programmers write their own protocols for efficiency, which makes the task a bit more complex. If encryption is used it's unlikely (though not impossible) that you'll get very far, though it may be that only the payload is encrypted and control data is still modifiable.

Recreating commercial food products is often easy too, following a similar process and pattern of logic. Start with facts (ingredients listing, literature about process etc) and informed guesses (has it been cooked?), write a plan (recipe) then move to testing. It's likely it was made using similar techniques to those you're already familiar with, modified only for preparation in bulk.

Product wrappers in the UK (and most places) list ingredients in order by weight. If a percentage is shown on an ingredient then you know that each ingredient preceding has a higher percentage and each afterwards has lower.

Knowledge of the chemical properties of ingredients helps, particularly how they interact with others. Figuring out why an ingredient was included allows you to guess at processes employed (such as an emulsifier), the stage in which it was added, perform substitutions (for a 'nicer' or more readily available ingredient) and omissions (we don't need preservatives or colouring agents). McGee on Food and Cooking is an excellent book and reference guide on the properties of ingredients. Wikipedia is good too.

Companies sometimes hide actual ingredients under another product or category, such as flavourings. It's not always easy to discover what the components of these are, beyond taste alone.

For sake of example (not gluttony of course) I'll introduce the concept with a nice (but chronically overpriced) vegan truffle that is widely available and doesn't need naming. They're easy to make and the ingredients cost a third of the finished item price.

The ingredients on the wrapper are: chocolate (55% cocoa), coconut oil, hazelnuts (18%), cocoa.

An observation test shows that the amount of cocoa (used for dusting) is negligible. Thus if we ignore it for now and know that 18% is hazelnuts then the rest must be coconut oil and chocolate, both in larger amounts than 18%. 18% coconut oil is a lot, so it's fair to guess that there's not a lot more than this in the product. Let's say that 20% is coconut oil and 62% is chocolate.

55% cocoa solid chocolate is cheaper and less bitter than higher concentrations. I'm choosing to use 70%, which I personally prefer and fairtrade bars of are readily available. It will make the end product slightly more bitter and less creamy, but given the amount of coconut oil in the product I really don't think it needs any more fat.

I'm going to use a 100g bar of chocolate, and guess that 20g of it used for coating. 100 / 62 = 1.61, so 1.61 * 18 = 29g hazelnuts and 1.61 * 20 = 33g coconut oil.

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature. As it needs to melt before adding the first step is to place the bottle in some boiling water, then set aside until later.

Grind the hazelnuts to a fine powder - I made mine slightly too course. If sugar was an ingredient I'd guess that they'd been made into praline, but the company in question tends to favour raw products and I'll leave this step out.

If water were included it'd be possible that a hazelnut cream had been made, but as it's not just chop and melt the 80g chocolate, then stir in the hazelnuts.

Stir in the melted coconut oil and pour into a foil tray approximately the size of 10 truffles. As the chocolate won't be visible after coating and dusting (nor will it want to crack when bitten into), we don't need to temper it first.

Place the mixture in the freezer, then melt the remaining 20g chocolate. Adding some extra chocolate to it will help with dipping (I added another 30g).

I have every confidence that you can find an alternative use for any wasted chocolate (ours got melted again with golden syrup and marg, then poured on icecream with pieces of mazipan and maple syrup).

When set, turn the block out onto a chopping board and trim the sides. Cut it into 10 portions.

You can see that I left a few larger pieces of hazelnut in the mixture, which sunk to the bottom.

Dip each truffle in chocolate in turn, placing on a plate that has been dusted with sieved cocoa. As the chocolate solidifies sieve cocoa onto the surface. Place in the fridge to set, then roll each in further cocoa.

Keep in the fridge, but remove and leave at room temperature for 15-20 minutes before consuming for optimum consistency.

Vegan Oxford Fail

With weather last Sunday as perfect as you could ask for it seemed like as good a day as any to check out what Oxford has to offer. We'd been aware of The Gardeners Arms for a while, so it made sense to go for a wander then have a meal there afterwards. Oxford is about a 50 minute drive, door to door.

Though I've been to Oxford several times on business and to visit people, I'd not really ever been to have a look at its shops. The only shop I had been in in the past decade is Central Furniture (opposite Oxford University Press, where I once had a meeting). This perhaps gave me a somewhat skewed belief that perhaps Oxford contained many independent shops worth visiting.

How wrong could I be? The Oxford we saw was almost exclusively chainstores - grotty ones at that. The few independent shops we found were mostly closed (I guess it was a Sunday).

Mid way through our shopping fail we found a branch of shakeaway, who make overpriced but reasonably pleasant soy milkshakes (they charge 99p per shake extra for soya). The first took 10 minutes to come, the second 5 minutes later. The music playing was overloud (I'm all for loud music, but not that loud), the staff had colds and upon finishing one of our 'vegan' milkshakes we found gelatine containing non-vegetarian marshmallows in the bottom.

I wrote to them afterwards and they seemed genuinely apologetic. I don't however feel inclined to ever go back.

I'd like to say I like The Gardeners Arms, but I'd be lying if I did. It's down a cute, narrow road near the town centre, in an area known as Jericho. The closest free parking on a Sunday is a few streets away (other roads are residents only). The building is character packed, but poorly furnished with very few decent tables and a leather sofa (an odd choice for what describes itself on its website as being Oxford's Premier Vegetarian Restaurant). The table we got was way too small to eat comfortably at.

The food is not restaurant standard. It's pub food, which being a pub is understandable. Why market it anything different? Most of their food can be prepared vegan, though they have no vegan puddings on their menu. The prices don't reflect the quality - for £9 a main-course you get a lot better in most other vegetarian restaurants.

They don't seem to sell starters, so we got a couple of side dishes whilst waiting. The chips were fries - almost certainly bought in frozen and pretty tasteless. The garlic flatbread was kind of tasty, but weird and oily (impossible to eat without getting melted 'butter' all over your fingers). We both chose the special, which turned out to be a standard mushroom pie but with roast potatoes instead of non-roast.

The pie's pastry was excellent. It was very yorkshire pudding-esque and the best thing about our experience there. The pie filling was OK - nothing special but edible. The roast potatoes were seriously some of the worst I've ever had the displeasure of eating. The red wine gravy tasted like standard bisto. All in all it was pretty disappointing - we felt robbed.

I never like to say bad things about a vegan friendly business, because i genuinely want the few that we do have to succeed. The Gardener's Arms however needs a good kick up the arse if to gain us as customers or recommend other people to visit. Either they need to improve the seating, quality and choice of food, or cut prices and market it as pub food not a 'premier restaurant' (I realise that as Oxford's only vegetarian restaurant they can do this). If I were out on the piss and found the pub I was in could make me vegan food I'd be delighted. I wouldn't however ever go back there only for the food, unless I was pretty desperate.

So, all in all, it didn't quite work out :). Oxford itself is a pretty place with lots of old buildings. I'd certainly give it another go, with guidance from someone who knows their way around.


I like winter - to an extent. I enjoy watching the seasons change and totally get the concept of it being a period to reflect, to create your own warmth and to look forward to the year ahead.

I know we're forever whinging about how crap our weather is in the UK, but the last couple of months have been consistently colder, greyer and snowier than any I remember. Romantic season watching aside I've been ready for summer for quite a while now.

My ideal climate would consist of 2 weeks winter, 2 weeks spring, 4 weeks autumn and 44 weeks summer. Enough time to enjoy the unique offerings that other seasons bring (beautifully coloured leaves, snow etc), with the option to spend evenings outside in sandals and a single layer of clothing the rest.

It's not that I find lack of sunshine depressing per se, rather that its presence really boosts my energy levels. I've used a light box for the past couple of years which helps to a degree, especially when having to get up and go to work whilst it's still dark outside. It's no substitute however for the real thing.

I know the obvious answer is move to a warmer climate, but I like the UK and for all it's failings it's a pretty great place to live.

So, rant aside; yesterday we had proper sun for the first time in ages.

Our coatless walk was on reflection a little cold, but it was so refreshing to be outside enjoying the light. For a few moments on Sunday afternoon whilst relaxing by the window bliss was achieved.

Alcohol isn't the answer to many things, but having a glass of something good in your hand when you've nowhere else you need to be often helps.

The following drink was concocted and worth remembering / recreating again:
Muddle / crush the strawberries in the bottom of a cocktail shaker and add the rest of the ingredients. Shake until your hands go numb from cold, then stain into 2 glasses. Float a 1-2 tsp of the strawberry puree on each.

Warning: this drink goes down very, very easily. It's probably worth making 2 batches (or a jug) in advance.

I'm really loving the cucumber gin I made a while ago at the moment. It's really quite impressively cucumbery and a little goes a long way (you could probably lower the shot to a half if you're less of a fan). I've been a big lover of Pimms since it's vegan status was confirmed a few years ago and strawberries are always good.