Cranberry, Pecan and Chia Seed Granola Bars

I haven’t jumped onto the healthy eating bandwagon, but that’s not to say I haven’t had a deep curiosity about the fuss associated with superfoods such as chia seeds, avocado and coconut oil. Perhaps it was when Nigella Lawson started using these ingredients in her TV show that I realised this is no longer a niche market, and has started to become much more mainstream.

So yes, last year I succumbed to temptation, and bought an enormous packet of chia seeds. Fast forward a few months later and it was still sitting in the cupboard unopened, and I was scratching my head in perplexity, wondering how on earth to use it up (I must add that the same situation occured several years ago with a giant bag of cocoa nibs, and I’m still working through them – obviously I don’t learn from my mistakes!).

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After a lot of googling, I couldn’t say I was hugely inspired by most of the online recipes out there for using up chia seeds. Eventually, I decided to heavily adapt an Ottolenghi recipe to incorporate ingredients I desperately wanted to use up.

It seemed to do the trick. These aren’t exactly what I’d call healthy, but they aren’t quite as bad for you as, say, flapjacks, and taste along the same sort of spectrum. Next time I’d probably leave out the flaxseeds which had a bit of an earthy aftertaste I wasn’t hugely enamoured of.

Cranberry, Pecan and Chia Seed Granola Bars

Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

  • 190g rolled oats
  • 30g ground almonds
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 40g chia seeds
  • 40g flaxseeds
  • 60g dried cranberries
  • 40g pecans
  • 80g coconut oil, solid at room temperature
  • 80g brown sugar
  • 80g maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 140˚C and toast the pecans for around 8 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 160˚C.

Soak the dried cranberries in hot water for 10 minutes then drain with a colander.

Toss all the ingredients minus the coconut oil, sugar and syrup together in a bowl.

In a saucepan, heat together the oil, sugar and syrup until bubbling then pour over the dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly together to combine, then pat down into a lined 20cm square tin. Bake for around 20 minutes, then leave to cool before slicing into squares.

 

Ottolenghi Chocolate Brownies

Brownies are like the ultimate hedonistic treat. Sugary, buttery, full of chocolate, and easy to whip up in less than an hour.

I’ve got a whole spectrum of brownie adoration. From these salted caramel brownies that are soft and truffle-like, to these cakier cocoa ones, to the full on wham-bam-so-much-chocolate ones of yore. With such a whirl of recipes out there, it’s impossible to choose a favourite, but still I keep testing out new recipes, curious if this will be the life-changing ultimate brownie

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These brownies are from Ottolenghi’s first book, and are based on his recipe for white chocolate and macadamia nuts. I didn’t have any macadamias handy, so simply omitted them from the recipe. It’s a chocolate-rich recipe, using up a whopping 300g in total. You also add some instant coffee to further enhance this full-on chocolate flavour.

The batter for these brownies was astonishingly thick, with an oily appearance, and needed some deft spoon manipulation to fit it into the tin. I entertained fears of it splitting on baking into brown slop and oil, but thankfully they didn’t turn out looking like that.

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These are really dense rich bricks of brownies. One slab might send you into a chocolate-induced coma for at least half a day before you pick yourself up to eat another one. They have a surprisingly high quantity of flour. and this probably contributes towards the dense, slightly crumbly texture.

At work, the brownies quickly disappeared mouthful by mouthful until only a smattering of sticky crumbs were left behind. A felt they were a little too cakey in his preference for gooey brownies. I’d say that these Ottolenghi brownies were good, but they weren’t the ultimate. They teetered very close to the too rich/sickly side of some brownie recipes, and didn’t quite live up the hype I expected from them.

I think I might bake a batch of my old favourite brownies again, just to compare the two. A is hankering after the salted caramel version. Or perhaps I should try out another new recipe altogether? Decisions, decisions. Which to choose? 🙂

Ottolenghi Carrot Cake

“Gilbert reached across the aisle, picked up the end of Anne’s long red braid, held it out at arm’s length, and said in a piercing whisper:“Carrots! Carrots!”

Then Anne looked at him with a vengeance!….Thwack! Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it – slate, not head, clear across”

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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I do love a good dollop of nostalgia. Passages from childhood favourites make me laugh again, and I once again become enveloped in a tiny world where all that matters is becoming Top Swot of the class, having a dress with the puffiest of puffed sleeves, and beating that Gilbert Blythe.

Whilst Anne Shirley might not have been a big fan of carrots, I most certainly am. Carrots in cake? Even better.

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I must own around ten or eleven different recipes for carrot cake, all so varied and manifestly separate – from the easy children’s cookbook recipe, to the fruity slabs from Geraldene Holt’s book, the trendy Ottolenghi version, the triple layered offering from the Hummingbird Bakery, then Peggy Porschen, and Dan Lepard’s Arabian Nights version to name but a few.

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With so many carrot cake recipes, seriously, how’s a girl going to choose? I fancied something airy rather than dense, yet still full of flavours, chopped nuts, and shreds of finely grated carrot.

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So Ottolenghi it was.  It looked straightforward, airy, and more importantly, everybody online raved about how good it was. Although many Ottolenghi cake recipes in that cookbook have been hit-and-miss for me, I knew that I had to give it a go.

Others online commented how easily it sank in the oven, but thankfully, this one didn’t! I piped on some dots all over the top at first, but it didn’t look quite right, so away with the palette knife, and sweeping swirls was the icing order of the day.

I was tempted to adapt the recipe, but stuck to my guns and followed it exactly as written. I’m extremely pleased at how it turned out – both light, fluffy, and satisfyingly substantial.

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I’m in a really spring-ish frame of mind, now that the snowdrops are everywhere, the daffodils are blooming, and I’m actually seeing a spot of daylight during the morning and evenings! Being my favourite season of the year, I’m going to relish it and make the most of it.

Just for fun, here are some other great spring-themed baking bits and bobs to get you into the mood:

This amazing bee-hive shaped lemon cake, complete with cute marzipan bees

Duck egg-blue, egg shaped measuring cups from Anthropologie

Creme egg brownies, perfect for Easter

Currant-dotted Easter biscuits perhaps using this rabbit-shaped cookie cutter?

Double Chocolate Loaf Cake

After any run, my iPod congratulates me on running another 500km. It’s enormously ego-boosting, but somewhat mistaken. I may no longer be in slothful hibernation, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of regaining the half-marathon fitness of yesteryear.

I had a really productive Saturday in terms of getting up early, and getting lots done before lunchtime. As well as slotting in the early morning run, I also had this baked, and really to be scoffed before half the house had even woken up. Oh how I love baking in an empty kitchen…

There was week-old pot of whipping cream in the fridge, two-thirds full. It still seemed okay, and I wanted to use it up. In the end I turned towards Ottolenghi.

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Ottolenghi: The Cookbook has a recipe for chocolate cupcakes. I wasn’t in a cupcakes mood, but I reckoned it might work as a loaf cake too. I made quite a lot of modifications. As well as sour cream being substituted with week-old-whipping cream, I also didn’t have any black treacle, or even vegetable oil handy. Luckily, the cake recipe was quite happy to accommodate my numerous changes!

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Remember to cover the top of the cake with foil 30 minutes into baking, or the top tends to get slightly scorched, oops! I hate it when that happens.

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The cake’s texture is surprisingly light, a crisp crust of an exterior hiding the temptingly dark, soft crumb inside. The extra chunks of milk chocolate add a burst of milky sweetness. I can see why this works well in cupcakes, because the cake is plain enough to be a great pairing with a really rich chocolate ganache. It’s also substantial enough that a slice of this really helps to fill out those midmorning munchies! 🙂

Next time I might try replacing the cream with yoghurt, and see how that turns out, and I would be curious to note how using treacle instead of golden syrup would alter the flavour.

Also I realise that it’s Easter weekend, and I suck at managing to bake anything seasonally themed at the right time of year. Some of my easter egg chocolate contributed towards the chocolate quota within this cake …. no, doesn’t count?

Double Chocolate Loaf Cake

Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

  • 2 eggs
  • 115ml whipping cream
  • 100g butter
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 30g golden syrup
  • 120g plain flour
  • 35g cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 40g ground almonds
  • 150g milk chocolate, chopped up into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Grease and line a 2 lb loaf tin.

Melt the butter in a pan, and set to one side to cool slightly. Beat together the eggs, cream, sugar and golden syrup, followed by the cooled melted butter.

Separately, mix together all the dry powdery ingredients, and then tip into the  bowl of liquid ingredients. Fold together to combine, then mix in the chocolate pieces.

Transfer the cake mixture into the loaf tin, smooth the top, then pop into the oven to bake for around 45 minutes until springy and cooked through. Cover the top with tinfoil at 30 minutes to stop the top from burning.

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The Perfect Dark Chocolate Cake

Chocolate cake, universally loved around the world. With so many recipes, which one honestly comes closest to perfection?

Firstly, I had to choose sides. Chocolate cakes fall into two distinct camps. The first – fluffy spongy cakes that are perfect for layering, icing and Birthday parties. Popular, pretty, actually pretty good – but not what I wanted to go for.

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I’m referring to the second category. The dense and the dark; the tortes and rich slivers of 70% cocoa, requiring minimal adornment. They’re given seductive names in restaurants, they never lose their place on dessert menus, and I simply wanted to try more.

The recipes all startlingly similar, relies on the heady combination of butter and melted chocolate , with whisked egg whites for airiness. Some add ground almonds, others just a touch of flour. I’ve made and loved Sophie Dahl’s recipe, but was curious to try out some others to find out just how different the results could be. I tested in total five popular recipes, to see how they differed and which one (would I be able to decide?) would be closest to perfection? Most of these recipes are designed to serve at least 8 people, so I halved the ingredients to bake the cakes in a 15cm tin. It worked very well, so if you are baking for smaller numbers I can happily recommend this.

  1. Sophie Dahl’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
  2. Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cake
  3. David Lebowitz’s Chocolate Cocoa Nib Cake
  4. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis

Sophie Dahl’s recipe is one that I have made a few times, and I have always been happy with the results. The cake is very, very rich, but delightfully satisfying. The method is very failsafe, and although a food processor or blender is needed, there’s no lengthy use of hundreds of mixing bowls. A deep crater forms in this cake, which forms a great receptacle for cream and fresh fruit, and there is a textural contrast between crisp exterior, and melting, almost mousse-like interior.

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David Lebowitz’s recipe was actually adapted from one he found scribbled inside the men’s toilets inside an upmarket Parisian restaurant. You can read the full story here.

This cake doesn’t sink as much as Sophie Dahl’s. The combination of less sugar, and a shorter baking time means you don’t get the development of that very crisp crust, but I quite like it this way, and the cocoa nibs provide textural contrast.

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Although this recipe requires 3 bowls, it was remarkably quick and simple. With an electric whisk, you can easily whip this up within an hour. I enjoyed it very much, but I think Sophie Dahl’s cake won this particular contest by a narrow margin.

Next up is this recipe from popular French blog Chocolate and Zucchini. The results are very, very good. It is adapted from another popular recipe by Trish Deseine, but Clotilde Dusoulier has reduced the sugar, and cut out one egg. The method was even easier – no electric appliances needed – and the whole thing could be made in 1 pan, which is always a bonus.

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The cake was utterly delicious – unctuously dark and rich, with Clotilde’s genius addition of a sprinkle of salt flakes on top. At first I was sceptical, but the way the salt dissolves against your tongue produces a magnificent burst of chocolatey flavour that I think would be impossible to replicate any other way.

The fourth and final recipe I tried was the most infamous chocolate cake of them all. River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis is notorious for its difficulty, and I approached it with considerable apprehension. I opted to use the recipe for the Easy Small Nemesis, which still seemed pretty complex  – making syrup, whisking eggs for what felt like hours, and boiling the kettle three times for the deep water-bath that the cake luxuriates in as it bakes. I had a bit of an issue with the water-bath, and my cake tin not being watertight, but all was well in the end. The finished result was full-blown chocolate intensity. It doesn’t get richer than this.

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There were a lot of other chocolate cake recipes I wanted to try, but for the sake of my wallet, waistline, and sanity, didn’t get round to baking. In particular I omitted flourless recipes incorporating ground almonds, such as Elizabeth David’s Chocolate Cake, but I have no doubt they are just as good.

So best cake out of them all? I would have to stay that Chocolate and Zucchini’s Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cake is a resounding winner. It’s a combination of two very good things – easy to make, and absolutely flipping delicious. The Chocolate Nemesis is impressive stuff, but oh so complicated. The others? Still delicious but ousted!

Hazelnut Macarons

Sometimes I fancy that I’ve read a lot that the literary world has to offer. Then I realise that the majority of what I read consistitues “fluffy fiction.” So when I spotted lists of “Books One Must Read” I had a striking curiosity to see how many of them I could tick off.

Disappointing results. On the Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone must read, I have read a grand total of….

52.

Oh well.

So books aside, I’ve been on a macaron kick again. This time it’s the turn of one of my favourites – hazelnut.

The shells are made from ground hazelnuts, and the filling is a glorious nutty ganache. Ground hazelnuts are quite difficult to source in the UK. I usually pick up a packet when I am in France – they are a staple of the baking aisle there. Otherwise, it’s fairly straightforward to make your own ground hazelnuts by processing them in a food processor and then working through a sieve to get rid of the coarse pieces.

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I keep meaning to pluck up the courage to try Pierre Hermé’s recipe for praline macarons (my absolute favourite) and finally get over my fear of Italian meringue. This year will be the year!
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Hazelnut Macarons

Adapted from The Ottolenghi Cookbook

For the macarons:

  • 110g icing sugar
  • 60g ground hazelnuts
  • 60g egg white
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 20g roasted chopped hazelnuts

For the filling:

  • 50g double cream
  • 50g white chocolate, chopped finely
  • 25g hazelnut paste

Line 2 baking trays with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 160˚C.

For the macarons, sift the icing sugar and ground hazelnuts together in a bowl and set to one side.

Beat the egg white with the caster sugar with a handheld whisk until it forms a thick meringue. Fold the meringue into the ground hazelnut/icing sugar mixture in 3 lots, making sure there aren’t any streaks of meringue left in the mixture.

Put the macaron mixture into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Dot macaron mixture into the corners of the baking paper to fix it into place on the trays, then pipe little circles on the baking paper, leaving enough space for the macarons to spread. Sprinkle the shells with

Macarons with White Chocolate and Raspberry Ganache

Surprisingly, macarons get most of their flavour from the fillings sandwiched between them. I’ve tried buttercream and jams, but was on the hunt for a more authetic fruity flavour.

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Enter this exciting ganache. It is the perfect balance of creamy, with just a hint of tang, and you don’t even need any artificial colours to get a striking shade of pink in there too.

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I’ve kept the shells in their natural colour, but you could easily add in a little powdered food colouring to add a burst of colour. Synthetic food colourings are needed for really bold shades  – more natural sources tend to fade on baking.

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With practice, macarons are surprisingly speedy to make – it’s possible to whip up a batch in an hour. I think that’s the time it’d take me to bake a batch of brownies! But macarons have the kudos of being far, far more sophisticated.

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I really don’t think I’m ever going to be sick of macarons….how can anybody possibly resist such cuteness?

The Perfect Carrot Cake

With autumn, it’s all about the spices, and the cakes made out of the allotment glut. While I have, as yet to bake anything with courgettes, pumpkins, or squashes, I am very fond of good old carrot cake.

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The recipes I tested were stupendously varied. And here they were:

  1. The Hummingbird Bakery carrot cake
  2. The Hummingbird Bakery carrot cake, adapted
  3. BBC Good Food yummy scrummy carrot cake
  4. Ottolenghi’s carrot cake
  5. Geraldene Holt’s Cakes

The first recipe I made was the Hummingbird Bakery one, which I enjoyed very much, although the quantities did make for the most enormous cake of truly American-sized proportions. This was a few years ago, when I first started baking, and although I loved the recipe, one niggle was the large volume of oil that was going into the cake. I read on the internet that others had managed to cut it down substantially, so I did that, replacing the lost volume with milk instead. It worked beautifully – I had a light risen sponge, with shreds of carrot running throughout, studded with walnuts.

BBC Good Food have a recipe that has hundreds and hundreds of positive reviews. Not all that different from the Hummingbird recipe, I was anticipating great things. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.   Like the Hummingbird Bakery recipe, it relies upon a very large volume of oil, and here, I could really taste it. Eau de vegetable oil was not appealling. Plus points – it was indeed moist and fluffy, and certainly had potential for improvement.

Ottolenghi obviously always gets thumbs up all over the internet, and his carrot cake has been cited as a favourite by loads of food bloggers out there. It was a nice sponge, but I just didn’t think it was as tasty as the Hummingbird recipe. I did make a very small sponge (what with testing so many recipes) so perhaps I shall try and make a full-size version in future and see what that is like. Additionally, I also feel many Ottolenghi recipes improve with keeping, so this may be a cake to make, and wait, before judging.

Geraldene Holt’s recipe looked promising. It doesn’t use oil, which is a change from the recipes above, instead relying upon melted butter. The cake is packed full of orange zest, dried fruit, and nuts, and at the end, is much denser than any of the recipes above. My testers liked it, but I felt that it didn’t seem like carrot cake anymore, and seemed closer to a Christmas fruit cake, or a hot cross bun. I did use the wrong sugar, and perhaps a lighter one would have produced a more desired taste, but this wasn’t what I was looking for from a carrot cake.

So final verdict? Well, it was overwhelmingly in favour of the Hummingbird Bakery recipe, in its adapted form, which got the most ticks in the box.  I really love, love love this recipe, and will be posting it up soon!

Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing

Over the years, I must have made cakes from hundreds of recipes. Yet it’s interesting that only a handful of them stay with me to get baked more than once. It’s mostly a balance between time required, the difficulty of the recipe, nutritional composition, and how well it goes down in a crowd.

Somtimes you make something, just catch a glimpse of it out of the oven, and you’re sold. Other times, it goes down well but you just can’t seem to like it. Most recently for me, this was this Ottolenghi cake.

Funny eh?

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Perhaps I expected too much of it, or was too careless in the method of preparation. After all, I did fling everything together without taking that much care, and it didn’t hit the spot the way I wanted it to. The sponge could have been moister, there were holes where apple pieces had shrunk within the cake. The taste didn’t hit the spot. Well….maybe it was lots of little elements combined.

True to Ottolenghi, it was a recipe that required all the mixing bowls a kitchen could yield, and a tremendous amount of washing up to follow.

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The maple icing was incredibly rich, and rather interesting to make. It was also lovely to work with, although I do prefer the taste of a classic cream cheese icing. The wave pattern I traced on as an afterthought. Simple, but decorative in that slightly quaint old-fashioned-tea-shop way.

I recall that Ottolenghi’s pear and amaretto cake was also not a favourite, and I did struggle with the hazelnut cupcakes (although they really did taste lovely). Perhaps I’m just not having a great time with the Ottolenghi cake recipes! Sometimes it’s the hype surrounding the recipe – I was hoping for something more showstopping. On the other hand, I was rather tired and grumpy when baking, and I feel like my mood affects the result too, so who knows? Might have to give the recipe another go in the future!

Comté and Caraway Straws

I’m a goal-orientated person with a short attention span. So once I’ve worked out how to bake something, I move on, and set myself a new challenge. Most recently, it was macarons driving me nuts, but I got there in the end.

Lately, it’s been bread, but I’d run out of yeast in the kitchen, and my fingers were craving something really really hard. 

That’s in the mental sense, not physically.

So what do I think of?

Puff pastry.

Gives home cooks palpitations. Even the professionals say they buy it in from the supermarket. Food bloggers? They say –  I make all my puff pastry from scratch all the time – what are you waiting for?

So today I took the leap, and made it.

Well….sort of made it. Rough puff pastry is a bit of a cheat, but I was assured that it was a doddle to make in comparison to the traditional, and I wasn’t quite that willing to devote tears and tantrums to a slab of dough.

I followed the recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, intending to halve the ingredients, until I realised I’d  dumped in too much butter and water. After a little bit of backtracking with a knife and some water, a bit of folding, and rolling, and resting, and the pastry was good to go.

After all the sweet baking of late, I had an insatiable craving for something savoury. So to the rescue came Ottolenghi again with his recipe for cheese straws, adapted mildly to incorporate the thing I’m currently having for Comté.

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I’d never had caraway seeds before, and they smelt very pungent in the spice jar, so I only put the merest sprinkling onto half the cheese straws before they went into the oven. I think they add a nice subtle kick as a foil to the cheese-fest. 

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I made two batches, and you can see that in my first batch, I rolled the dough out too thinly because it was difficult to roll up properly, and I made very long, spindly cheese straws as a result. The second batch turned out better.

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Needless to say, both were incredibly moreish, and the texture was meltingly good. Another favourite.

But back to the original challenge. Did I feel that it had been worth it? Would I make rough puff again?

Well, honestly, not really.

The straws were delicious, and well worth the smiles on faces, the stuffed tummies, and the glowing feeling of being a domestic goddess. However, I don’t really use puff pastry in my usual cooking at all. And thus, it makes more sense to me to buy it rather than dedicating a whole day to making it from scratch. The whole process is simple, but you have to be organised, alert, and the kitchen becomes very messy too!

Shop puff pastry? Satisfaction, and minimal distraction. Possibly a dangerous combination where buttery goodness is concerned! 🙂