experiments in cooking

Posts tagged ‘dessert’

When Life Gives You Too Much Cocoa, Make Some Cocoa Rice Krispie Treats

When I was a kid, I loved Rice Krispie treats, but I would only eat the plain ones—no peanut butter Rice Krispie treats, no chocolate Rice Krispie treats, and definitely no Rice Krispie treats with anything smeared or sprinkled on the top. My husband likes something called “scotcheroos” that sounds way over the top to me. It sounds so rich and—well, decadent.

At times I can stand a little decadence, but when it comes to Rice Krispie treats, I generally proceed with caution. Baby steps, you know. Baby steps.

As I have gotten older, I have branched out a little. I developed a taste for the peanut butter-flavored Rice Krispie treats at some point in high school, although I wouldn’t want them every day. Then recently, surprising myself a little, I found myself thinking it might be nice to have some cocoa Rice Krispie treats.

I probably wouldn’t have been thinking about cocoa Rice Krispie treats at all if it weren’t for the amount of cocoa I’ve got in my kitchen. A few weeks ago I bought a can of cocoa at Russ’s Market, came home, opened the cabinet to put it away—and found two open cans of cocoa and two brand-new unopened cans already sitting in the cabinet above my stove.

I have a couple of theories about how I wound up with so much cocoa.

First, for a long, long time, I did very little baking from scratch. In my long brownies-and-cake-come-from-a-box phase, I never needed cocoa. So I would have forgotten I even had any.

Second, when I was pregnant with my second son, my “nesting” period consisted of stocking my kitchen with food like I was preparing to bring home a 17-year-old football player, not an eight-pound infant. Making it worse, I was only fuzzily aware of what I was bringing home, and how much. I mean, when I came home from the hospital with Neeley, I opened the fridge to find four dozen eggs … and I had no recollection of buying them. The way I see it, it’s possible I did the same thing with cocoa.

Whatever the reason for my private cocoa stash, I had a lot of cocoa to use up. So far, I’ve been working my way through the supply by making chocolate cake, chocolate cookies, and homemade icing. Then this past Sunday afternoon, I decided that cocoa Rice Krispie treats would be an easy treat to make for our lunches for the week.

There’s not much to explain about this recipe. It’s easy. My only additional advice would be to make sure you don’t add so much cereal that there isn’t enough marshmallow to coat it. So, add most of the cereal to the marshmallow mixture, stir it a little to see if there’s going to be enough marshmallow to coat it, and if it looks like you could add a little more cereal and coat that too, stir in the rest.

I ate these cocoa Rice Krispie treats for lunch all week, and I think they are delicious. My husband ate them happily enough, but he kept bringing up those doggone scotcheroos. Going on and on about a chocolate layer and a peanut butter-Rice Krispie layer or whatever.

Well, you know what I have to say to that? Scotcheroos, botcheroos.  If you’re like me and you don’t want your treats to be sickening sweet, you probably already love cocoa Rice Krispie treats, with their subtle sweetness and their full cocoa taste. I love that bittersweet cocoa taste.

But if you want scotcheroos, I’m sorry. This treat may not be for you. And maybe you ought to think about whether you really want to live on the edge like that.

Cocoa Rice Krispie Treats

¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter

¼ cup cocoa

5 cups mini marshmallows

4 ½ to 5 cups crispy rice cereal

½ tsp vanilla

Spray 9×13 pan with cooking spray.

Melt butter in large saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and marshmallows. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until marshmallows are melted and mixture is smooth and well blended. Stir in vanilla and continue cooking one minute, stirring constantly.

Remove from heat. Add cereal and stir until coated. Press mixture into prepared pan. Cool completely. Cut into bars.

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.

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.

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.

Cookie Scorecard: Wins 2, Losses 2

Over the past two weekends I’ve tried several kinds of cookies and had success with only two of them. I’m not happy with a 2-2 outcome, and one of those wins was a close call, so I’m determined to better my cookie winning record this month. Here’s how it went down:

Blondies – Win

I remember my mom making blondies when I was growing up. I found the idea fascinating—blonde brownies. What an idea!

Last weekend I made my first blondies using a Joy of Cooking recipe. I added chocolate chips because Chris always wants me to do that, and that’s just about the only way to get Jonah to eat a cookie. The recipe didn’t include chocolate chips but I stirred in ½ cup just before spreading the batter in the baking dish. These turned out really yummy, and required me to do something I hadn’t done before—brown butter before mixing it with sugar. Apparently that increases the carmelizing effect. Ah, I love anything carmelized.

Peanut Butter Cookies ­– Loss

I’m pretty much done with this recipe, which I failed at this summer too, although I may try it one more time without Splenda. It’s a very simple recipe—just one cup of peanut butter, one cup of flour, sugar, and an egg—that I tried because it’s one that’s easy for Jonah to help me bake.

When I made this in July, I overcooked them because they never, ever browned on top and I kept letting them go just a couple more minutes. They were hard as rocks. This  time I took them out when the recipe said to and didn’t’ worry about browning. They weren’t over-cooked, but they were terribly crumbly, and my husband and father-in-law could taste the Splenda. I think it utterly nauseated my father-in-law. But Jonah ate them. Probably because he made them.

Brown Sugar Cookies – Win

I wanted to replicate a brown sugar cookie my friend Lisa made for me when my first son was born four years ago, although I didn’t have her recipe to work with. These were a close call but ultimately came out tasting great even though I don’t think they looked or tasted just like Lisa’s.

I made them on a Friday night when I was tired from a long week. The recipe was a challenge to me, as it was my first try at a non-drop cookie. The recipe makes a cookie dough that can be rolled into a tube and refrigerated or frozen, then sliced into cookies. My plan was to prepare the dough Friday night and bake the cookies on Saturday. Well, after the dough was all done and put in the refrigerator, I noticed the baking soda sitting on the counter, and suddenly realized I had forgotten to add both baking soda and salt. I got pretty angry at this point. Finally, after some moments of complaining, yelling, and slamming dirty dishes around, I took Chris’s suggestion and pulled the dough out of the refrigerator, smushed it, and folded in the baking soda and salt, then reformed the rolls of dough. Then I sliced up one of the rolls into 24 cookies and baked a batch to make sure they tasted okay. Lo and behold, they did! I served them at a church children’s ministry meeting on Sunday, and they disappeared.

I made one creative experiment with this recipe that did NOT backfire. The recipe called for both brown sugar and white sugar. I used the amount of brown sugar called for, but for the white sugar I actually used half white sugar, half demerara sugar, a granulated raw/brown sugar. As a result, several of the cookies had pretty brown carmelized sugar streaks on the top.

Honey Molasses Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies – Loss

I made these before as monster cookies with M&Ms, and this time I wanted to make them with chocolate chips because Chris requested some chocolate chip cookies. They are made with whole grain white flour, and they’re not your typical oatmeal cookie.

And apparently they don’t taste that great when you leave out the chocolate chips.

That’s right. I made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips. I completely forgot them. I don’t know how I managed to do that, since it’s the most important ingredient of a Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Now, I like a good oatmeal cookie, but I think that the addition of chocolate is best for this particular cookie, which is a little dry and grainy baked at the recommended time without anything special added to the oatmeal and whole grain flour for taste and texture.

The cookies might have been a little better tasting if cooked for less time, but it wasn’t until they were already done that I realized what I’d left out. Now they make me think of stereotypical “health” cookies.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty depressing realizing late on Sunday night that the chocolate chip cookies you’ve just baked and have been promising yourself and everyone for lunch during the week are actually NOT chocolate chip cookies.

Next weekend, I’ve got to redeem myself.

Apple Day: Honeycrisp Apples, My New Apple Peeler, and a Molasses Apple Pandowdy

The Orchard – Run on the Honeycrisps

Beautiful Melrose Apples at Martin's Hillside Orchard.

Last week I got an email update from Martin’s Hillside Orchard that several varieties of apples had ripened, including early-season Fujis, Empires, Jonathans, and Honeycrisps. So I immediately planned a Saturday-morning family trip to the orchard, with the intention of using the freshly picked apples and my new rotary apple peeler/slicer/corer to make an apple dessert Saturday afternoon—a new dessert, of course. The one I had in mind was an old-fashioned apple pandowdy described in The Joy of Cooking. Chris loves apples and apple desserts, so he didn’t require much persuasion for the trip, even though he hates getting up on Saturday mornings.

Around 10:30 Saturday morning, all four of us were finally in the car on the way to the orchard, located about 15 minutes north of Lincoln, Neb. As we neared the driveway to the orchard, it became clear that the two cars behind us were also going to the orchard.

Chris was a little worried. “They’re going to take all the apples!” he said. So we had to rush from the car to the orchard, knowing there was a chance Jonah and Neeley would slow us down. So I made Jonah run along beside me and Chris tried to carry Neeley as fast as he could.

I found Alex Martin, the orchard owner, in the Apple Barn. I saw, happily, that we had beat the other two carloads of people into the building. So I got the first chance to ask Alex where to find the apple varieties we were interested in picking. As we turned to walk down the hill to the trees, the people behind us said to Alex, excitedly, “We’re looking for the Honeycrisps.”

As Alex began to describe where to find them, Chris and I exchanged glances. These Honeycrisps must be something good.

We made our way to the Honeycrisps first ourselves, curious. I’d never had one, myself. They were pretty apples, that’s for sure. I think we must have picked a couple dozen of them, exclaiming every time we got a “good one.” It wasn’t long before other people came running along the row. I had to haul Neeley out of the way as they rushed past. Chris heard one young man shout, “He said there’s more of them further down!” And the crowd ran by.

“Forget the other apples,” said Chris. “They’re all about the Honeycrisps.”

Sure enough, as we moved through the orchard to pick a few early Fujis (there weren’t many), some Empires (a new variety to us), and a fair number of Jonathans, we never crossed paths with another human. They were all in the Honeycrisp row.

“Those things must be really good,” I said.

In the end, we purchased $22.50 worth of apples. Back at the car, I noticed one of the Honeycrisps had been slightly damaged in the picking process. It was a huge apple—must have been about 10 ounces. I offered it to Jonah. “Do you want an apple?” I said.

Jonah’s eyes grew huge as he gazed at the apple. “Uh—yeah!” he said.

“It’s a big apple,” I said. “You’ll have to share it with your brother.”

“Okay,” he said.

In the car, secure in his booster seat, Jonah took a bite. “Mmmm!” he said. He took several more bites.

“Want apple!” said Neeley.

So I handed the giant apple from Jonah to Neeley.

“Mmmm!” said Neeley.

All the way back to Lincoln, Jonah and Neeley passed the apple back and forth. Juice dripped down onto Neeley’s jacket until it was soaked. And Jonah kept giggling and saying things like “I like this apple!” and “I’m eating a BIG apple!” and “Neeley likes the apple too!”

Finally I turned around and Jonah handed me the core.

“You ate it all!” I said, wonderingly. “It must have been really good.”

“Yeah!” he said, and added, “Can I have an apple with lunch?”

So we all had apples with lunch.

The Apple Peeler

After lunch, I put Neeley in his bed for a nap and went to the kitchen to try out my new apple peeler. Since Joy of Cooking suggested Empire apples for the pandowdy, I fit an Empire onto the apparatus and turned the handle. In less than 10 seconds, the apple was completely peeled, cored, and sliced. And I was in love with my new gadget.

Because I was squealing and yelling “Come look at this!” Jonah came running into the kitchen to see. He begged to take a turn. It was so easy, he personally peeled the rest of the apples I needed for the pandowdy.

I have never seen such a cool kitchen tool in my life. Why had I never seen one used before? Oh, if only my mom could have had one when I was a child. She would have loved it.

The Apple Pandowdy

I’ve wanted to try an apple pandowdy for several weeks now. An apple pandowdy is like a deep-dish pie—just fruit filling in a dish and a top crust—no bottom crust. According to The Joy of Cooking, it’s traditionally sweetened with molasses. For the one I made on Saturday, I used half molasses and half brown sugar, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, allspice, and a pre-made Great Value pie crust.

I used a 10-inch decorative pie pan for the baking dish. Per the Joy of Cooking instructions, I baked the pandowdy for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, then took it out of the oven, turned the oven down to 350, and cut the crust into two inch sections (like you would a brownie). Then I pressed the edges of the crust pieces down into the apple filling to allow the juices to come through, and I also spooned some of the molasses/apple jelly that was already bubbling up over the top of the crust and spread it over the surface of the crust. Next I returned the dish to the oven and baked it about 30 minutes more.

Early in the assembly process, I did make a mistake; the recipe called for ¼ tsp of cinnamon and ¼ tsp of nutmeg, but I added ½ tsp of both because I picked up the wrong measuring spoon. Fortunately, some people really like cinnamon and fall spices, so the pandowdy was a success even with the extra cinnamon and nutmeg. A friend who tried it Sunday at lunch said something about the fragrant spices—she’s a cinnamon lover.

Now, since pre-made pie crusts come in sets of two, I’ve got one more Great Value pie crust left to use. I will probably try an Apple Galette this week—which is essentially a rustic pie or apple pizza. And I cannot wait to use my new apple peeler again. I thank God for gadgets like this one—I really do.

Two Types of People: Those Who Love Sour Cream, and Those Who Don’t

When I was in college, there was one meal the university cafeteria served that I absolutely loved: poppy seed chicken over rice. Even after I moved off campus in the middle of my junior year, I always ate at the cafeteria the nights they served poppy seed chicken.

A few years later, I was a newlywed compiling recipes for my favorite childhood meals into a personal cookbook, and I thought about that poppy seed chicken. In a fit of nostalgia for the good old college days, I researched poppy seed chicken recipes online and added one of them to my cookbook, along with recipes from Mom and Aunt Marilyn and Grandma Tena and Granny Baker and my best friend’s mom, Linda Hensley.

Last week, I got to thinking that I’d never made several of the recipes in my personal cookbook. I sat down to read through the chicken section, and came across the recipe for “Poppy Seed Poultry Casserole.” Why not? I thought. I do miss that poppy seed chicken.

“Did you like that poppy seed chicken they served in the cafeteria back in college?” I asked my husband.

“Not particularly,” said Chris.

I wasn’t letting anything curb my enthusiasm. So I said, “Mind if I make some poppy seed chicken next Monday?”

Chris shrugged, and I think maybe he rolled his eyes. This means, Whatever floats your boat, Sarah. I guess he didn’t want to argue about poppy seed chicken.

Over the week I purchased a couple of ingredients for the dish that I didn’t have on hand—poppy seeds, dill, and one that concerned me: sour cream. I don’t like sour cream much. I’m not sure why I originally selected a recipe that included eight ounces of sour cream, but maybe back in the early 2000s there weren’t as many recipes online from which to choose. And I don’t mind sour cream when baked in coffee cakes or cookies, even though can’t stand it in a burrito or on top of nachos … I don’t know why I have these feelings about sour cream.

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to taste it in the final dish.

At any rate, I decided to forge ahead with the poppy seed chicken, and when Monday afternoon rolled around, I rushed home from my job and got to work.

While sautéing two boneless chicken breasts (cut into bite-size pieces), I mixed together one can of cream of chicken soup, eight ounces of sour cream, one tablespoon of poppy seeds, one teaspoon of dill, and 3 cups of cooked rice. I added the sautéed chicken, then pressed the mixture into a 9×13 baking dish. Then I mixed some Ritz cracker crumbs with a little butter and sprinkled the cracker crumbs over the top of the dish. Next I placed the dish in the oven to bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

At dinner, I took one bite and knew: I hated this dish. All I could taste was the sour cream, permeating everything. This was not the poppy seed chicken of my memories.

As I sat, trying to force down a few bites, trying to like it, Chris exclaimed, “Hey, I love this stuff!”

I looked up. I paused, then said, “I don’t think I like it.”

“What?” said Chris. “You better not be telling me I’m not going to get to have this again! Because that would be bad.”

“I don’t like the sour cream,” I said, mournfully. “I was afraid this would happen.”

“I can’t even taste the sour cream,” said Chris.

“Well, I don’t think I can finish this,” I said. “And I’m afraid there’s going to be a lot left over.”

“That’s okay,” said Chris. “I’m going to have seconds—and maybe thirds.”

I watched as Chris cleaned his plate, left the table, and then returned, the entire plate heaped with poppy seed poultry casserole (with sour cream). And told me several more times how delicious it was.

Well, I’m glad he liked it. Maybe a lot of people would like it. But now I have to find the dish I dreamed of—I have to find a poppy seed chicken dish that tastes like the one I had in the college cafeteria.

And when I do, will I love it and Chris hate it? No, I won’t believe that. Somewhere out there is a poppy seed chicken and rice dish that we both can love …

I am looking for you, chicken.

Grilled Barbecue Bison Burgers

On Tuesday nights, I have my in-laws and (if he’s not at work) my brother-in-law, Jeremiah, over for dinner. So every Tuesday I have to come up with a meal that will serve four to five adults and two picky children. Most other nights of the week I only have to fix enough food for two adults and the same picky children. These meals are good practice for when the boys grow up and begin to eat real food (they will some day, right?), at which point I’ll be cooking for at least four every night. I say at least four, because I understand that teenage boys can eat way more than enough for one person.

This Tuesday Chris grilled barbecue burgers for his family and ours. My main contribution was buying the meat and making the patties. I always hand-form my burger patties because we haven’t had great results with pre-made or frozen burger patties. Also, I prefer half-bison, half-beef burgers. So, I mixed together one pound of grass-fed ground beef from the Nebraska Food Coop and one pound of ground buffalo (I think I purchased it at Super Saver, from the “Local Foods” freezer). I made 8 full-size patties plus one small patty. That seems like a lot of patties for two pounds, but I think there was actually a little over a pound in each package.

While Chris grilled the burgers, liberally saucing them on the grill, I sliced a tomato that we picked up Saturday morning from the Lincoln Farmer’s Market and tore some red leaf lettuce for the burgers and for a lettuce salad. We also had pickles, dill as well as sweet gherkins, for those at the table who don’t eat salad–namely, Chris’s brother Jeremiah and our boys.

The burgers turned out great, thanks to Chris’s grilling skills. Also, I was happy that the Russ’s Market buns we ate them on cost only 79 cents. I really like to get the better-quality buns most of the time (like Sara Lee’s whole grain white buns), but sometimes I just can’t pass up a deal like 79 cents for a bag of burger buns.

At Long Last, Real Barbecue Ribs

For Labor Day, Chris and I decided to try barbecue spare ribs. We’ve tried to cook ribs before and never been quite successful. This time I’d done my research and was ready. Plus, we were working with locally grown spare ribs purchased through the Nebraska Food Cooperative, and you can pretty much count on Nebraska Food Coop meat being good.

First I sliced the spare ribs into two-rib sections. Then I placed them in a small stock pot and covered them with water. I brought the water to a boil, then turned it down to medium and simmered the ribs, covered, for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, I drained the ribs and sent them outside with Chris, who grilled them over a medium-hot grill, adding sauce however he wished, for 15 minutes until they were browned and slightly crispy. The result was delicious! We have finally succeeded. The best part: Mr. Picky himself, four-year-old Jonah, liked the ribs too.

We kept supper simple and paired the ribs with a lettuce salad for us and fruit for the boys, then a raspberry crunch with light whipped cream for dessert.

My First Pie – Peach Raspberry Pie

This past Saturday, I made the first pie I’ve ever made on my own in my entire life–a peach-raspberry pie made with fresh fruit from Martin’s Hillside Orchard just north of Lincoln.

I have to confess right up front that I used a storebought pie crust. I’ve been a little dough-shy since my last run-in with making a shortbread crust. I do know the mistake I made with that crust–adding sugar to sweeten it, which resulted in making it sticky and unmanageable. But even knowing what went wrong, I’m not yet ready to try another crust, so storebought it is, until I work up a little pluck. I am determined to try a crust again this fall. Just not yet.

I used a Joy of Cooking recipe for the pie; I use Joy of Cooking  recipes when they aren’t too complicated, because they do offer a lot of details around the fundamentals of cooking that I don’t find in recipes elsewhere.

The best tip I got on preparing the topping was to drop the peaches in boiling water for approximately one minute so that the skin would peel off easily. It worked like a dream. For the rest of my life, I will never peel peaches without boiling them first.

Last week, with baking pies on my mind, I did a fair bit of research online about the best temperature at which to bake a pie. Most recipes seem to call for baking the pie at 350 or 375 for at least an hour. Some recipes call for baking the pie at a higher temperature for 20-30 minutes and then lowering it to 350. This recipe was one of the latter, directing me to bake the pie at 425 for 30 minutes and then at 350 for 25-35 minutes more. In this case, I found that after lowering the temperature to 350, the pie was done in just 15 additional minutes, for a total baking time of 45 minutes.

In the process of making the pie, I discovered that I don’t own a 9-inch glass pie pan. I had to settle for a 10-inch pan, which did, as I had worried it would, result in juice from the filling bubbling up and over the crust which just wasn’t quite big enough for the pan. Fortunately, I had placed the pie on a baking sheet for the last half of the baking, and the baking sheet caught all the overflow. I faced quite a bit of work afterward getting peach-raspberry jelly off the baking sheet and pie pan, but better baked-on pie filling on those dishes than on the bottom of my stove.

I did make one mistake that I will not make again: adding too much lemon as a result of misreading the recipe. In fact, I tripled the amount of lemon juice. Which is probably why the finished pie was a little on the tart side–very tasty, but tart.

My next pie to try: apple pie. But first I want a fancy rotary apple peeler to avoid the nightmare of peeling apples by hand, something that I don’t think I’ve ever done. Currently I am waiting on a gift card for Bed, Bath & Beyond to arrive so I can get one.

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