experiments in cooking

Archive for October, 2010

Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Slaw, and Chocolate Cake

Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake—sound good to you?

It ought to. But it’s not just good food—it’s visionary.

Don’t scoff. Every few months, I embark on a new project to improve my life, to move me toward the vision of the person I really want to be. And things like pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, and chocolate cake are part of that vision.

See, a lot of these projects have to do with my management of our home. Actively working to improve my cooking and baking skills is just the latest project. One year ago, I started making monthly menus, because I was tired of standing in my kitchen after work every night, staring blankly around a kitchen full of food and coming up with no ideas on what to make for supper. And two years ago, I started keeping a budget, tracking all my spending, paying down debt, and living more frugally.

Oh, and then there’s the hospitality project. I guess it’s not exactly a project, but “hospitality” is part of my vision. I want to be someone who entertains regularly. I want friends to come over looking forward to tasty, home-cooked meals. Which I will have made from good, affordable ingredients purchased within a budget, planned carefully as part of an organized menu that makes everyone happy and is easy to follow.

All these projects—these efforts to fulfill my vision—have become ongoing habits, and they naturally intersect. So when I read through the weekly grocery sale papers I get by email (frugality), I look for sale items I can build into my pre-planned menu (menu organization) that will challenge or strengthen my cooking skills (kitchen savvy) and enable me to entertain guests properly (hospitality).

Several weeks ago, I decided it was time to invite to dinner some friends we haven’t had over in more than a year. I contacted the wife and settled on a date. Then I started to plan a menu, even though the date was a few weeks ahead.

Here were some of my considerations:

  • Our friends have five people in their family. We have four. What could I make to serve nine people easily?
  • What was on sale that I could buy ahead in order to make an affordable meal?
  • What menu would both challenge and strengthen my cooking skills?

I made a list of a number of possible main dishes. Then I checked that week’s sale ad and found that SuperSaver had pork butt roasts on sale. I would have to buy two roasts to get the advertised special, but if it turned out to be too much food for our guests, cooked pork freezes and reheats easily. I settled on pulled pork sandwiches, and because I knew my friend makes most of her own bread, I asked if she could bring homemade sandwich rolls.

Next, flipping through my Joy of Cooking, I found a simple recipe for hot apple slaw. I had a surplus of apples in my basement, so I wouldn’t have to buy any apples—just cabbage, which is inexpensive. The recipe called for cider vinegar, and I had only rice vinegar on hand, but I did some research on substitutions for cider vinegar and decided I could use the rice vinegar and add a splash of apple juice.

Next, I made a short list of simple desserts for which I had ingredients on hand and asked Chris to pick from the list. He picked chocolate cake, so I planned to make a sour cream fudge cake with homemade chocolate icing.

Here was the final menu:

  • Pulled pork sandwiches served with BBQ sauce
  • Homemade sandwich rolls (brought by my friend)
  • Hot apple slaw
  • Scalloped potatoes (brought by my friend)
  • Sour cream fudge cake with chocolate icing (all made from scratch)

And here’s what I had to do for the meal:

Pulled Pork

I did not have experience slow cooking two large pork roasts, although I’ve done one before. I had to borrow my mother-in-law’s oblong roasting oven and stack the roasts side by side.

First, I had to finish defrosting the roasts and used my microwave’s Defrost setting to do so. Then I rubbed each roast with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and stood them in the roasting oven. I did not add any water. I cooked the roasts at 350 degrees for two hours, then turned the oven down to 250 and cooked them seven hours long. At 5:45 I moved the roast to a large serving bowl and shredded it with a fork. Dish done!

Hot Apple Slaw

This was a brand-new dish for me, and I have never cooked with cabbage—or used caraway seeds, which I had in my cabinet although I’d never used them. The recipe called for frying bacon in a skillet and then using the hot fat for the rest of the slaw. Instead, I melted bacon fat I keep on hand, but you could skip the bacon fat altogether and use oil. Anyway, I melted the bacon fat and then added three tablespoons of rice vinegar, a splash of apple juice, two tablespoons of water, one tablespoon of brown sugar, and one teaspoon of lightly crushed caraway seeds. (I put the seeds in a plastic bag and used a meat tenderizer mallet to beat them, a process that didn’t pulverize them but did release their aroma.)  When this mixture came to a boil, I added three cups of finely chopped red cabbage (turned out to be easy to chop) and one finely chopped peeled apple. I combined all ingredients and then cooked the mixture for two more minutes. Next I transferred the slaw to a serving dish and garnished it with real bacon pieces. Dish done!

Sour Cream Fudge Cake with Chocolate Icing (all made from scratch)

This cake was easy to make, but to make it really work I had to sift all the dry ingredients using the old sifter my mother-in-law gave me, and I had to save one fourth a cup of coffee from my breakfast that morning to add as a liquid ingredient. The cake took only 25 minutes to bake perfectly—good height, good texture, nice and moist. Dish done!

The biggest challenge I had with this cake was selecting an icing. I don’t much enjoy thick frostings. I wanted something chocolate. I didn’t want anything super sweet. I wanted something easy. I wanted an icing that would keep frozen so I could make a large batch and reuse it later for another dessert. And I wanted something that didn’t call for any ingredients or tools I didn’t have, which ruled out, among others, recipes requiring a double boiler or milk chocolate.

After evaluating all the frostings and icings in my Joy of Cooking, I selected a Chocolate Glaze that turned out to be a nice, dark chocolate icing: not too thick, not too thin, not too sweet, and easy to make. Plus, any unused glaze can be frozen for up to six months. I’m telling you, I am never going to buy store-bought frosting again.

So my family and our friends ate all this food, and we had multiple bags of pork left over.

But does it really matter? Am I crazy for putting so much thought into a single meal?

I used to think that spending a lot of time planning a meal was pointless. I mean, you eat it, and then it’s gone. And you still have the dirty dishes to do. But here’s the truth: I enjoyed every minute of the planning process, I enjoyed cooking, I enjoyed serving our friends, I enjoyed eating my own food, and right now I am enjoying thinking back on the whole thing.

I tested and improved my cooking and baking skills. I had food left over for later. I didn’t waste money on expensive convenience foods I could make myself. I served fresh food instead of processed junk. I gave people I love a good meal.

There was nothing pointless about it.

Pulled pork sandwiches, slaw and chocolate cake really are visionary. You think I’m crazy, you come over and we’ll talk about it over some cake.

Chocolate Butter Cookies

Jonah and I are making cookies pretty much every Sunday afternoon or evening lately. This week he asked if we could make chocolate cookies. I thought that sounded a little bland.

“Chocolate chip cookies?” I suggested.

“No, chocolate cookies.”

“How about no-bake chocolate cookies?”

“Just chocolate cookies,” he insisted.

So I decided to use the “Fourteen-cookies-in-one” recipe from my Joy of Cooking. It’s a basic cookie recipe which you can vary slightly in any number of ways. Joy of Cooking includes a variation for a basic chocolate cookie. Well, it’s a chocolate-cinnamon cookie; but, as I often do on Sunday nights when I’m tired, I forgot an important ingredient featured in the name of the cookie. This time I forgot the cinnamon, so we just made plain chocolate cookies.

To add some interest, and a bit of a challenge, I decided to roll out the dough and use cookie cutters. I haven’t used cookie cutters in years, and when I did it was mostly under my mom’s supervision, so I was looking forward to the chance to develop my own skills in rolling and cutting cookies—and teaching Jonah how to do it too.

I dug out my cookie cutters from the back of a kitchen drawer and from a tin in a cabinet above the stove. Most of the cookie cutters were Christmas-y, but I did find some round biscuit cutters, a teddy bear cutter, and a rabbit cutter.

After chilling the dough, I rolled it out, which turned out to be tricky. The dough kept getting stuck to the rolling pin. I don’t know if I needed to flour the surface more, or the rolling pin, or what. But eventually I did get it rolled out, and Jonah helped me cut the cookies. Finally, I used candy sprinkles to give the bunnies and teddy bears eyes.

When the cookies were done, Jonah and I thought they looked great, but Chris was a little taken aback by the eyes.

“Wasn’t that a cool idea?” I asked.

“Little creepy,” he said.

After supper, we all tried the cookies. Neeley took one bite, spit it out, and cried “Icky!” Lately he has no interest in my cookies. Jonah liked them; he ate the one I gave him as well as Neeley’s. I liked the cookies too—they weren’t bland at all, and they reminded of something I’d tasted once.

When Chris tried a cookie, I asked him if they reminded him of anything.

He thought for a moment.

“You know,” he said, “I think they taste like Annie’s Chocolate Bunny Grahams. Only softer and—well, better.”

That was exactly it! This cookie tastes like Annie’s Chocolate Bunny Grahams. Only better, which is probably because of the two sticks of butter in this recipe.

That’s why I’m calling them Chocolate Butter Cookies.

And the next time I make these, I’m going to use a cow cookie cutter I found when I was putting the other cutters away and call them Chocolate Butter Cows.

“Fourteen-in-one” basic ingredients

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ pound unsalted butter cut into 14 pieces, at room temperature (that’s 2 sticks)
1 cup superfine sugar (you can also pulse granulated sugar in a food processor for 1 minute)
½ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg yolk
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla

To make them into chocolate cookies:

1 ounce melted semisweet chocolate (I used cocoa and oil)

¼ cup cocoa

½ tsp cinnamon (optional—because they taste good even if you forget the cinnamon)

On medium speed, mix butter, sugar and salt until fluffy. Add egg yolk, whole egg, vanilla and melted chocolate (or wet chocolate mixture) and mix until well blended. Reduce speed to low and add flour and dry cocoa slowly until well combined. Divide dough in half, wrap and refrigerate until firm. (At least 1 hour and up to 2 days. Dough may also be frozen for up to a month.) Preheat oven to 375 degree F and prepare 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

On a well-floured surface, roll dough out to 1/8 inch thick. Cut cookies with cookie cutters. May re-roll scraps one time. Any scraps left over at this point should be rolled into balls, placed on a cookie sheet, and flattened. Place cookies on baking sheets and place sheets into oven (one on lower rack, one on upper). Bake for 6–10 minutes, rotating sheets half way through baking (watch closely for browning).

Pineapple Cheese Ball

Pineapple Cheese Ball

This recipe (passed down from my Grandma Tena) is extremely easy to make. Just be sure to chill the cheese and pineapple mixture before you try to roll it in a ball and roll it in the nuts. Otherwise you will have a shapeless lump that absolutely will not roll into a ball.

Also, if you don’t like sticky hands, be warned: your hands will get icky. I had to stifle the usual panic that rises whenever my hands get this icky. When it was all done, I had cream cheese packed under my fingernails—but it was worth it, because this cheese ball is delicious.

I make this cheese ball once or twice a year. This time I served the cheese ball at a football party at my friend Mandy’s house. My husband and some of our friends were watching the Nebraska Huskers play the Texas Longhorns. It was an embarrassing loss for the Huskers, and the mood of the party guests soured as the game went south. On the positive side, we had cheese ball—and lots of other yummy food.

This cheese ball freezes well. My husband wanted leftovers last night, but I had already frozen the cheese ball to save for the next event that just screams “Cheese ball!” to me. Chris wasn’t too happy to hear I’d frozen it, since I also froze the leftover pizza he wanted earlier in the day.

Here’s the recipe.

Pineapple Cheese Ball

1 large package of cream cheese (use fat free if you wish)

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1 small can crushed pineapple, drained (or equivalent amount from a larger can)

Mix all ingredients well. Cover in the mixing bowl and chill in the refrigerator. When the mixture is chilled, form it into a ball. You can make two smaller cheese balls by dividing it into two balls at this point. Roll the ball(s) in sliced almonds or crushed pecans or walnuts. Will keep well refrigerated for several days, or you can freeze it wrapped in plastic wrap. Thaw in the refrigerator.

Caramel Dipping Sauce – Whatever you do, FOLLOW THE RECIPE

Friday night I got the urge to make caramel dipping sauce for apples. I really wasn’t hungry myself, but I figured Chris would eat some apples and dip; plus, I needed some practice melting caramel because I hope to make caramel apples for a church bake sale next month.

It’s a good thing I practiced, because I learned that once the caramel is mostly melted, if you leave the caramel alone for even a few seconds, it will burn.

Below is a simple recipe for caramel sauce. It’s adapted, based on my experience, from the back of the caramel bits package I bought at Russ’s Market. If you follow it exactly, your caramel sauce should not be peppered liberally with burnt black flakes.

Of course, if you stray and it does burn, you can still serve it to your husband. But I wouldn’t use it to make caramel apples for your church’s bake sale.

Read the entire recipe now—it’s not long, and the instructions at the end are crucial and should be committed to memory today before you actually try the recipe.

Easy Caramel Sauce

1 bag caramel bits (so you don’t have to unwrap a bag of caramels one by one)

2 tablespoons of water

½ tsp vanilla

Pour the caramel bits into a small or medium saucepan. Add the water. Melt the caramel bits on low-medium heat, stirring constantly. When they are mostly melted, stir in the vanilla. When the caramel is completely melted, remove it from the heat. DO NOT WALK AWAY TO USE THE RESTROOM, WATCH A COMMERCIAL, OR EXTRICATE YOUR KID FROM HIS PAJAMA SHORTS OR TRASHCAN OR OR WHATEVER HE HAS GOTTEN STUCK IN.

Use warm or refrigerate.

Q: What goes with chili? A: Cinnamon rolls, of course.

When I first started writing The Bumbling Chef, my husband’s cousin Heather told me about one of her favorite food blogs, Our Best Bites. She wanted me to try the pizza rolls recommended on that blog, and after they turned out to be a hit with my husband (although not my children, who are suspicious of pizza that doesn’t look like pizza), I started following the blog myself. That’s where I found a recipe for Everyday Cinnamon Rolls.

I wish I could eat them every day. But that would be dangerous. These yeast cinnamon rolls are really, really yummy, and it was cinnamon rolls—well, and donuts—that contributed to my mid-twenties weight gain a while back—the weight gain that it took me seven years to kick.

So I will eat you, yummy cinnamon roll, but not every day. I’m sorry.

For weeks I have wanted to try my hand at baking cinnamon rolls, which are God’s gift to all people and, in particular, to me personally—a gift that, as I’ve said, we must save for special occasions.

I finally got the chance when my friend Mandy planned a Chili and Cinnamon Rolls football party.

Here in Lincoln, Nebraska, the traditional side for chili is cinnamon rolls. The rumor I heard is that this food pairing started as a regular on the public school’s lunch menu, and that generations have grown up and left the LPS system addicted to the combination. Of course, like the invention of donuts, the origin of this tradition probably has many different versions. Whatever the truth of the tradition’s origin, in Lincoln, where you find chili, you find cinnamon rolls.

My parents live in Missouri and have only been to Lincoln three times in their lives. When I told them over the phone how people in Lincoln eat their chili, they were taken aback.

“They eat what?”

“Chili and cinnamon rolls.”


“Yup, together.”

“That sounds … odd.” 

“Not here. Even some of the restaurants have signs that advertise ‘Chili and Cinnamon Rolls,” I offered.

“How exactly do they eat this?” they asked.

“I don’t know … I guess the way anybody eats chili or cinnamon rolls,” I answered.

“But together?”

Clearly my parents found something about the idea repulsive.

There was a slight pause.

“Do they pour the chili over the cinnamon roll?” Dad asked.

“Or dip the roll in the chili?” Mom asked.

Now I saw what really bothered them.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I think they eat them separate. The roll is a side dish.”

My parents were nauseated. And, I think, a little fascinated. We talk about this odd Lincoln food combo several times a year. And they’ve been telling their friends at church about it.

When I was on the phone with them Saturday morning and mentioned I was making cinnamon rolls for this party, they both laughed.

“Tell Chris to be sure to pour his chili all over his cinnamon roll,” said Dad.

“They don’t do that,” I reminded him.

But it doesn’t matter. It sounds funnier if you picture it the other way.

After the phone call with my parents, I planned for the baking process and got to work. I figured I could make the rolls about an hour and a half before we had to leave to watch the game with my friend Mandy and her family, and that turned out to be just enough time.

I followed the recipe and, for the most part, it went swimmingly. Other than the inevitable moment when I found my hands covered in gummy sticky dough and nearly ran screaming from the room. But not everyone has that reaction.

I did have a little trouble rolling the dough up with the topping inside, as the dough was sticky enough to tear here and there. I think if I had floured my pastry board again before rolling out the dough, I could have prevented the tearing when I rolled it up. Even so, I did get it all rolled and cut into pieces without the dough actually falling apart. And I was proud of myself, because in the old days a few weeks ago, I would have begun yelling “I can’t do this! I am a failure! Thanks for ruining my life, cinnamon rolls!”

But now I know that I can fix some things and that a torn roll isn’t the end of the world. The fact is, however messy that cinnamon roll was going into the pan, when it comes out of the pan, gooey and warm and smelling of cinnamon, it’s the perfect companion for a bowl of chili.

And you might try it the way my dad suggested.

Everyday Cinnamon Rolls

Taken from Our Best Bites. Adapted by Our Best Bites from Allrecipes and then adapted slightly by Sarah Nichols


1 cup milk

4 Tbsp butter, cut into chunks

3 ¼–3 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided

1 (.25 ounce) package instant yeast (about 2 ¼ tsp)

¼ cup white sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 egg


1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 ½ tablespoon ground cinnamon

½ cup butter, softened

Icing (I just used leftover quick white icing that I made to top a cake the week before)
1 ½ C powdered sugar
2 T melted butter
½ tsp vanilla
1–2 Tbs milk

Dough: Place milk and 4 Tbs butter in a microwave safe bowl. (I used Our Best Bite’s tip and heat just ¾ C of milk, then added the remaining ¼ cup after heating it to bring the temperature back down.) Heat on high for 1 minute 30 seconds. Butter should be at least partially melted. Stir and set aside. In a large mixing bowl whisk together 2 C flour, yeast, white sugar, and salt. When milk mixture has cooled to warm (not hot) add it to the flour mixture along with the egg while the beater (paddle attachment for those using a stand mixer) is running. Beat until well combined, about 1 minute. (With a hand mixer, do this on low speed, then beat 2–3 minutes on medium speed.) Switch to the dough hook now. Add remaining flour only until dough barely leaves the sides of the bowl. It should be very soft and slightly sticky. Continue to let the dough knead for 5 minutes. If you are not using a stand mixer, turn dough out onto floured surface and knead for 5 minutes by hand. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and let rest for about 10 minutes while you make the filling.

Filling: make sure butter is softened well. Mix with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Assembly: Roll dough into a rectangle about 12 x 14 inches. Spread brown sugar mixture (it will be slightly thick, you might have to “crumble” it) over the surface and use your fingers or the back of a spoon to gently spread around. Roll up from the longer side of the rectangle and pinch edges closed. Score the roll into 12 equal pieces and then cut into rolls. Use dental floss to score and cut the rolls. Place three across and four down in a 9 x 13 pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Cover pan with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes. I used the extra tip from Our Best Bites narrative about letting the rolls rise in the microwave. In the mean time, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When rolls have finished rising bake for 15-20 minutes or until light golden brown. If desired spread with icing while still warm. Makes 12 rolls.

Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats – Careful with the Coating, and Hold the Fake Almond Extract

Because I bought a giant tub of Skippy Peanut Butter a couple of weeks ago and hadn’t opened it yet, and because I had two unopened boxes of Rice Krispies sitting on top of my refrigerator—both of them a year past the “Best if used by” date—this Wednesday I decided it was time to make some Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats.

Yes, I did just say the Rice Krispies were a year past the “Best if used by” date. And that’s right, I wasn’t afraid to use them. Neither box had been opened. Also, that date doesn’t represent a food safety deadline; it’s mainly a taste guideline. After opening one of the boxes, I tasted the cereal and decided it would work just fine for Rice Krispie Treats, even if we are a bit past October 2009. And I would hate to throw those boxes away.

I expected making Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats to be a simple task, and for the most part it was. However, I was a little dismayed when I poured the Rice Krispies into my butter, marshmallow, and peanut butter mixture, intending to “stir mixture to coat well,” and discovered that the mixture immediately hardened to the point where I couldn’t stir it at all. I tried my best, but the mixture I pressed into the pan most definitely had areas with LOTS of marshmallow/peanut butter coating and other areas with very little coating.

Maybe next time I should add a little less cereal (and consequently, press the mixture into a smaller pan). I could, of course, add more marshmallows, but that would mean opening a second bag and not using all of it. I think using two full bags would really be overdoing it.

I added ½ tsp amounts of both vanilla and almond extract to the mixture. The almond extract was imitation almond extract, and I could really taste it in the finished treats. Chris said he couldn’t taste the almond extract at all, and he gobbled up his treats after dinner; but in my opinion there was just too much fake almond extract taste present for me to be completely happy. Next time I will add vanilla only.

But, if slightly uneven coating and a somewhat noticeable fake almond taste are the worst of my problems, I think I can call this one a general success. I’m sure some people have had Rice Krispie Treat crises that put my problems to shame. I think I had such a crisis once myself—seems like several years ago I managed to burn the butter and marshmallow. And I think that may have been the last time I tried making Rice Krispie Treats. Well, I’m back on the bandwagon now.

The recipe I used:

Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats

2 Tbsp butter

1 package of marshmallows

½ cup peanut butter

6 cups Rice Krispies

½–1 tsp of vanilla extract and/or almond extract (optional)

In a large saucepan, melt butter. Add marshmallows. Stir frequently. As marshmallows are melting, add and stir in vanilla and almond extract if using either. When marshmallows are melted, remove the pan from the heat and stir in peanut butter until it is completely melted and mixed in. Pour in Rice Krispies and coat well. Spread mixture into a greased 9×13 pan and let harden. Cut into squares and serve.

Creamed Chicken and Bow Tie Heaven

This morning I got an email from my husband with Bow Tie Heaven in the subject line. The email read, I just want to say that I was thinking about your pasta dish on the way to work…it was really good!

Now that’s what I like to hear. And the funny thing is, while frantically trying to fix dinner last night, I thought dinner was going to be a failure. I was making creamed chicken, a Joy of Cooking chicken recipe combining poached chicken with a simple gravy that is typically served over rice, toast, or pasta, or baked in chicken pot pie, or baked in a casserole with pasta or rice in dishes like chicken tetrazzini or some versions of chicken a la king. And I had never made it before.

I intended to serve the creamed chicken over bow tie pasta (also known as farfalle pasta), a pasta I’ve never worked with but which I bought a bag of recently when it was on sale for under a dollar.

At first I thought I had a really great idea. But as 6 o’clock loomed and I rushed around the kitchen managing the various parts of the meal, I doubted.

Yes, I know that this particular meal doesn’t sound complicated. But, according to many cooking experts, you’re not supposed to serve new dishes to guests, and once again I had decided to try out something new on my in-laws—something that involved adding nutmeg—nutmeg!—to a flour gravy and serving it with chicken over pasta, something I never would have thought of doing a couple of months ago. I just wasn’t sure all these things really went together.

One reason for my doubting is that I felt really rushed. When I planned out how much time I needed to make the meal, I’d forgotten that the chicken breasts I was poaching would need time to cool down so I could skin, debone, and shred them. So, while trying to stir the creamed chicken gravy (consisting of butter, flour, broth, milk, salt and pepper, and nutmeg), I was also stirring a pot of unfamiliar pasta and trying to quickly shred very hot chicken, with my three dachshunds between my feet, pushing and nosing, all hoping I’d drop something yummy.

As I began to finish up each dish, I felt that each looked good on its own, but would they work together? Wasn’t nutmeg a weird spice to use in a meal like this? I couldn’t help it. I doubted my early confidence in the idea that creamed chicken and bowtie pasta would be easy and delicious. It might, instead, be weird and even a little repulsive.

When everyone was seated at the table and I brought in the dishes, I was pretty nervous. I explained to everyone that the creamed chicken was meant to be served over the pasta. And then I waited for the bad news.

Everyone served themselves and began eating. There was general silence for a few minutes. And then it came.

“You know …” said my father-in-law.

Let’s have it, I thought. You asked for it, serving a new dish to guests. Now you have to take the consequences.

“I think this meal ranks up there with your chicken enchiladas.”

With my chicken enchiladas? My father-in-law loves my chicken enchiladas!

“This is really good,” added my mother-in-law.

“This is good, Sarah,” said my husband.

“Are you sure?” I said.

The chorus of yeses was pretty definite.

“It’s not weird?” I pressed.

“No, no way!” someone said. Someone else chimed in, “It’s good! Very good.”

I almost couldn’t believe it. And then I took several bites of the creamed chicken and bow tie pasta on my own plate. And you know what? They were right. It was good.

“I’m kind of surprised this is so good,” I said. “I mean, bow tie pasta topped with a mixture that’s basically chicken pot pie filling? Wasn’t sure it would work.”

“Well, I hope you make it again,” said my father-in-law.

I didn’t tell anyone about the nutmeg.

I think it may be the secret to reaching bow tie heaven.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies taste a whole lot better when you remember to add the chocolate chips. Last week I had every intention of making them but forgot the chocolate, but this past Sunday I redeemed myself by making them correctly.

I used a “reduced fat” recipe from my Joy of Cooking book. I think the full fat version uses all butter, no vegetable oil (and also no corn syrup). All butter would have been yummy, but I think I need to guard myself from becoming too comfortable using large amounts of butter too often. If I ever need to go on a diet again, I’m going to need the discipline to put down the stick of butter.

You want to know what’s odd? I’ve been baking a few times a week for a couple of months now, and I’ve actually been losing a little weight. I think this is partly because I’ve been eating more home-cooked food and less processed food, and also because I’ve been eating so many apples. Whatever the reason, I can afford to eat a few cookies, especially ones including oatmeal.

I think it’s obvious to everyone who’s talked to me lately that I’ve been obsessed with oatmeal and with apples this fall. How could I not be? They’re both healthy and delicious. Hey, if any of you share my feelings for apples or oatmeal, send a comment my way. Maybe not everyone wants to hear about how much you love oatmeal, or why you sometimes drool over a good apple, but I want to hear.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (Reduced Fat)
from The Joy of Cooking

Makes about 3 dozen cookies

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat cookie sheets with nonstick spray.

Whisk together thoroughly:

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Beat on medium speed until well blended:

¼ cup corn or canola oil

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 large egg

1 large egg white

1/3 cup light or dark corn syrup

1 tablespoon skim milk

2 ½ teaspoons vanilla

Stir into the batter:

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (use reduced-fat chips if desired)

Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes so the oats can absorb some moisture. Stir in the flour mixture; the dough will be slightly soft. Drop the dough by heaping measuring tablespoonfuls onto the sheets, spacing about 2 ½ inches apart.

Bake 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are tinged with brown all over and the centers are just barely firm when lightly pressed, 7 to 10 minutes; be careful not to overbake. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool. (I use wax paper instead of a rack.)

Apple Spice Cake with Homemade White Icing

I’ve always loved spice cake. When I was a little girl, I used to ask for spice cake for my birthday. I think one year I requested blue icing. I was a little proud of myself for picking a cake I considered an “adult” cake—no chocolate involved.

So this weekend, when I decided to make yet another apple dessert because I can’t be sure the apples piled in my basement are going to last a long time, I knew it was time to make the Apple Spice Cake recipe I’d seen in my Joy of Cooking.

I have only made one or two cakes from scratch in my life and thought it would be nice to move away from the easy “cake comes from a box” mentality I’ve fallen into. Also, my friend Abby, younger but years ahead of me in cooking and baking skills, had brought over an apple cake the week before, with a homemade glaze/icing, and I thought it would be fun to make my apple spice cake and see if I felt it stacked up to what Abby had served a week earlier.

Plus, I’ve never, ever made my own icing. Because my cake would be slightly different from Abby’s—mine was a spice cake and hers wasn’t—I decided to try an icing different from the brown sugar glaze she had made, but it needed to be straightforward as I had no experience. I settled on a Quick White Icing recommended by my Joy of Cooking as a good icing for the apple spice cake.

Four-year-old Jonah is becoming my regular baking assistant. First he helped me mix up the dry ingredients, smelling the spices as we added them—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Then we whisked them with a special gadget-y whisk I’ve had for several years but never found handy until now. In moments, we were done whisking, and the result looked like—well, exactly like spice cake mix from a box.

It took me aback a little. Me and millions of others have been buying cake mixes to save time, when it only took a couple of minutes to get this far making a cake from scratch? Obviously we have all been hoodwinked. ’Cause it ain’t that hard, really.

At this point Jonah and I added the wet ingredients, combined it all, and then stirred in a cup of chopped apples peeled, cored and sliced by Jonah, who is obsessed with my apple coring and slicing tool. I used a Fuji because it had been sitting out on the counter a couple of days and needed to be used but the recipe recommended using a tart green apple. I didn’t notice anything lacking in the taste of the final cake because I used a Fuji.

While the cake was baking, I mixed up the icing. To my surprise, the icing was incredibly easy to prepare. This particular recipe requires no cooking time and takes only moments to mix up. I did have to soften the butter, but I didn’t run into any problems there.

I did not turn the finished cake out onto a rack as the recipe recommended but instead left it in the pan and iced it in the pan once it cooled. There was plenty of icing left, so I covered the surface of the remaining icing with a sheet of plastic wrap and froze it to use later. The icing works as a glaze for cinnamon rolls too, so I’ll probably pull it out of the freeze for that purpose.

The best part of the whole thing? Well, probably taking the first bite of the cake after dinner. But second best may have been the post-cake discussion.

You know how men have to call each other after a big game to discuss minutiae of every play, compare their teams’ and players’ strategies, and talk endlessly of how the next game will go? Well, I got the urge to make that kind of call about this cake. So late Saturday night, after Chris and I had both had our cake and ice cream, I called Abby to compare recipes and icings.

Abby pulled out her cookbook and we compared ingredients, talking excitedly about the differences between the two cakes and my icing and her glaze and about the cake ideas we plan to try in the future.

Brown sugar in her icing, powdered sugar in mine.

White sugar in her cake, brown sugar in mine.

We compared vanilla.

We compared quantities of flour and yield per cake.

We compared baking dishes.

It was great conversation! It really was. I could have talked for a long time, but when two-year-old Neeley began skating around our tiny kitchen with his foot in a dog food bowl, I had to cut it short.

What a nice evening. Man, I love spice cake and talking baking with my friends.


Apple Spice Cake (from The Joy of Cooking)

This cake tastes spicier once it has cooled and rested for a couple of hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour one 8 x 8-inch pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together thoroughly in a large bowl, pinching out any lumps in the brown sugar:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, or a combination of all-purpose flour and whole-wheat flour

1 cup packed dark or light brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon freshly ground or grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

Add and stir together until smooth:

1 cup buttermilk (I added 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to milk)

½ cup vegetable oil

Optional: 2 tablespoons rum or brandy (I did not add this)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in:

1 cup chopped apples

½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (I didn’t add nuts because Chris hates walnuts and pecans)

Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Slide a thin knife around the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake and peel off the paper liner, if using. Let cool right side up on the rack. Serve warm or plain with vanilla ice cream, or let cool completely and frost with icing.

Quick White Icing (from The Joy of Cooking)

In a medium bowl, beat together on medium speed:

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted if lumpy

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened, or 3 tablespoons hot heavy cream

Add and beat until smooth:

3 to 4 tablespoons milk, dry sherry, rum, or coffee

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon salt

Correct the consistency if necessary, adding additional powdered sugar or liquid of choice.

To store, cover the surface of the icing with a sheet of plastic wrap. This keeps for up to 3 days at room temperature or up to 3 weeks refrigerated. Or freeze for up to 6 months. Soften and stir or beat until smooth before using.

Making Your Own Vanilla

I was pricing vanilla extract online yesterday and feeling discouraged about the cost. I’d also priced vanilla at three different grocery chains without finding an affordable option.

Here’s the situation: Pure vanilla extract runs at least two dollars an ounce for smaller bottles, like a miniature two-ounce bottle, and for larger bottles the price hovers around $1.50 per ounce. The best deal I found was a 32-ounce bottle of vanilla for $36 dollars—but I really don’t feel like shelling out that much for vanilla. And I don’t want to go back to using imitation vanilla.

At lunch, I complained about the Vanilla Problem to my co-worker and friend Karalyn, who, with a background in catering and a love of food, is always ready with cooking advice.

“Did you know you can make your own vanilla?” she asked.

I stared at her for a moment, wondering if she was playing a joke on me.

“No …” I said, cautiously.

“Well, let me tell you how to do it,” she said.

The process for making your own vanilla extract, according to Karalyn, is easy. All you need is a bottle of brandy or vodka and two vanilla beans. Slice the beans in half crosswise and slit them lengthwise, then drop them in the bottle of brandy. Let it sit for about six weeks, and you’ll have vanilla extract.

It really did sound easy! And I knew I had to try it—and soon, because six weeks would be just around the start of holiday baking season, and I wanted my homemade vanilla for that. The only difficulty would be getting the ingredients.

First, because I don’t drink alcohol and haven’t ever cooked with it, I have never purchased any. This raised a couple of challenges: I didn’t have the slightest idea what to look for, and I also didn’t want anyone to think I was buying it to drink. Sure, people do drink, but being a non-drinker is part of who I am; and as part of that identity, you just won’t find me browsing the liquor aisles at the local grocery. So I had to check my conscience: as a person who doesn’t drink, should I be buying alcohol for any reason?

If not, I suppose I shouldn’t have ever been buying vanilla extract in the first place. And that seemed a bit absurd. Ultimately, I decided that buying alcohol for the purpose of making vanilla extract was something I could do without compromising my teetotaler values. So buy it I did—feeling pretty out of place, of course. You can believe that was one of the quickest shopping trips I’ve ever made.

Second, where would I find fresh vanilla beans? Karalyn suggested one of her favorite health food markets, and since one of them, the Red Clover Market, is located near my work, I decided to give them a call to make sure they had some beans. They did: Madagascar vanilla beans at $1.14 per bean.

Just in case the closest discount chain grocery to my work had vanilla beans, I thought I’d give Super Saver a call too. They had to send someone to look, but eventually they found a jar with two beans in it on the spice aisle, for $8.00 a bottle. Yes, that’s eight dollars for two beans—three and a half times the cost of the fresh beans at Red Clover.

When I got home from my vanilla extract ingredient shopping run, I laid my Red Clover vanilla beans on a cutting board, sliced them in half crosswise, slit them lengthwise, and dropped them in the bottle of brandy. I made a mental note to change the label to a homemade “Vanilla” label. Then I stored the bottle in the cabinet over the stove to do whatever it is supposed to do.

If this works, in six weeks I will have 750 ml (24 oz) of vanilla extract for $11.50. That’s about 48 cents per ounce—approximately a fourth of the cost of buying vanilla in the store or online.

That’s a good deal.

Tag Cloud