Aug 18

I am not a great cook. Cooking is quite a chore for me (yes, I’m a lazy mom), but I enjoy baking. One of my favorite foods to make are muffins! I love how versatile muffins are, and I love that you can throw just about anything in them and they’ll taste good. Growing up, my mom’s muffins ranked as my favorite thing she made for us (even above cookies!).

I have made tons of muffins in my life, and I usually improvise heavily. However, I have learned a few important tricks for making sure your muffins turn out yummy every time.

My Secret Muffin Tricks:

  1. Use enough sugar/sweetener. If you want people to love your muffins, don’t skimp on the sweetener. This is an important point if you’re making muffins to share with others (at work, or as a housewarming gift). If you’re eating them at home when they’re hot, you will still love your muffins even if they only use 1/4 cup sugar. The best muffins are always sweeter, though! And people are used to “muffins” at Starbucks or a bakery, and those things are basically cake.
  2. Always add sugar sprinkles on top. Use either turbinado sugar (“Sugar in the Raw”) or clear sprinkles from the cake decorating aisle. These up your muffin game exponentially.
  3. Make sure there’s a WOW ingredient. Don’t just make muffins with no additions. Plain flour muffins are completely missing the whole point of the muffin. Muffins with shredded veggies will be moist and delicious, and people won’t know why. You can use ugly fruit up and make it delicious in a muffin. You can use up leftovers, even weird ones. If you make juice with a juicer, don’t overlook the leftover pulp as a great addition to muffins. It adds fiber and flavor.
  4. But don’t add too many WOW ingredients. For an improvisational cook, it’s tempting to throw craisins, coconut, AND chocolate chips in a muffin (they’re alliterative!), but trust me when I say you really don’t want to add them all. Choose one, or maybe two. Save your other great ingredients for your next batch.
  5. Use cupcake liners, but grease them with nonstick cooking spray. Pop them into the muffin tins, spray them down, add muffin batter. Nobody wants to lose half their muffin on an unforgiving paper liner.
  6. Don’t overmix. They get tough if you stir them too much.
  7. If you want them to keep a few days longer: add more sugar, more oil. These help to keep them moist longer. Or, pop them in the freezer and they’ll keep for quite awhile.

My favorite base recipe is the Tightwad Gazette Universal Muffin Recipe. I use it as a rough guideline and generally use the following ingredients in a batch of muffins:

A note about sour milk: I like to use multiple leavening tricks because muffins can be notoriously heavy. Therefore, I always use sour milk (milk + vinegar) and baking soda, and it doesn’t hurt to add an extra egg. Blending the egg in the blender also helps!

Mix in a large bowl (dry ingredients):

  • 2.5 cups of flour (white, whole wheat, or any other kind of flour)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (only if you use vinegar or buttermilk, otherwise, omit – the soda & the vinegar make a reaction that adds lightness)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sweetening ingredient (sugar, honey, etc.)
  • Spices, possibly, as desired

Mix in blender (wet ingredients):

  • 1 cup milk plus 1 tablespoon vinegar (sour milk makes tender, delicious muffins! Or, omit the vinegar and don’t forget to skip the baking soda too.)
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1-3 eggs (3 eggs make a really nice fluffy muffin; 1 egg is more economical)
  • Flavor extract (I like vanilla and/or almond)

Stir dry ingredients together. Blend wet ingredients. Combine in bowl until just mixed. Spoon into paper liners (sprayed with nonstick spray) in muffin tins. Bake at 400 F for 17-20 minutes.

Additions:

Additions can be pretty much anything, from raw or cooked veggies (carrots and zucchini are favorites) to leftover popcorn (yes, you can use it in muffins – it’s pretty good, too!), berries or other fruit, chocolate chips, nuts, healthy stuff (wheat germ, bran), and so on. If you have a leftover that you need to get rid of, you might do well to use it up in a muffin.

You’ll have to decide whether these additions go with the wet ingredients in the blender, or the dry ingredients, or whether you’ll fold them in after the principle ingredients are combined.

To blend or not to blend:

  1. Figure out if you want the addition to be a prominent flavor (if you don’t, then blend it)
  2. Figure out if the item is wet or dry (duh, right?)
  3. Figure out if the item will be mashed beyond recognition unless you fold it in at the very end (I’m looking at you, blueberries!)

If you blend it:

  • The item will be turned into pulp, with nearly no discernible pieces in the muffin. It will also reduce the strength of the flavor of the item. For example: you can blend a ripe banana in the blender and the banana flavor will be harder to detect (it won’t taste like banana bread at all). If you blend blueberries, the delicious berryness will be undetectable. Don’t blend your star ingredient.
  • Instead of chopping them, just blend raw veggies like carrots or zucchini to shred them. Just put them in the blender first with about 2 Tablespoons of liquid. Blend until they’re cut up into small pieces.
  • If you want to add color, shred a bit of the colorful ingredient with the wet ingredients (half a cup of berries will give your muffin a fun tint).
  • If you use a lot of pureed cooked veggies or fruit, your muffins will have a tough outer crust, but added inner moisture. For lower fat muffins, you can omit oil if you use pureed fruit.

If you don’t blend it:

  • You might want to mash it (as in bananas)
  • You might want to fold it in gently after all the ingredients are combined (again, berries)

This info is all by Heather Mann. Please do not reprint in any form without permission!

Apr 5

What do you do when you don’t feel like baking cookies? Make no-bake cookies! They’re a cookie that you make in a saucepan on the stove, and were a staple of my childhood in the 80s. I haven’t seen anyone else in blogland post about them, so I don’t know if they are just WAY out of fashion, or if nobody knows about them, but I am sharing the top-secret recipe with you today.

One of the great things about these cookies is that you can use all kinds of mix-ins to make them unique (and also to use up leftover bits in your pantry). I added coconut, Cheerios, and raw oatmeal to mine, but you can use any kind of cereal, pretzels, nuts, or whatever you have on hand.

My mom makes a family recipe book every 10 years or so (which is highly-sought after and prized, by the way!), and this recipe comes straight outta the 1980s version of the cookbook.

Peanut Butter Drops (No Bake)

  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine
  • 3/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 to 2-1/2 cups puffed wheat
  • 2/3 cup peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts
  • 1/2 cup coconut
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

In a saucepan, combine sugar, butter, flour, and milk. Bring to a full boil. Boil for 3 minutes (be sure it’s a full three minutes – 30 seconds more might be better), stirring constantly. Remove from heat; add remaining ingredients. Drop by teaspoonful onto waxed paper. Cool. Makes 60.

Notes about making this recipe:

  • Prepare the mix-ins in a separate bowl while the butter is melting in the pan. It should be completely ready to dump in the saucepan at the moment the candy-coating is done boiling.
  • Put out the waxed paper/aluminum foil to drop the cookies onto before you mix everything together, too.
  • Be sure to boil for the full 3 minutes (or a tad longer – about 3-1/2 minutes). You’re basically making candy, so you want to be sure it reaches the right temperature to set properly. If you don’t boil it long enough, the cookies will never harden. If you boil it too long, they’ll be a little dry.

To substitute dry ingredients: you’re basically adding 3 to 3-1/2 cups of dry ingredients (puffed wheat, nuts, coconut as listed in the recipe), so just make sure your dry ingredients add up to about 3 cups or so, and you should be fine. Any cereal-like ingredient will work, as will dried fruit, nuts, etc.

Sorry, my photo isn’t appetizing. I tried to make them pink with food coloring, then I added sprinkles to further the insult! :) Craftfail, maybe, but they tasted good!

Feb 23

creamofveggie01

Last year I gave you my Lazy Mom’s secrets to being the family cook, and I alluded to one of my go-to dishes: Cream of Whatever soup. I like making this simple soup because it’s versatile, filling, and healthy (while giving the illusion of being a rich cream soup). I usually use this recipe to use up veggies in the fridge that are on their last leg (do veggies have legs?), or it works well with frozen veggies. You can use this basic principle to make cream of chicken or clam chowder, or other meaty soups, too, although our family usually sticks to  vegetarian fare, so I haven’t tried this technique with meat soups.

You can eat it as is (sooo much better than Campbell’s condensed stuff), or use it as gravy, or as a binder in a casserole. It’s nice and versatile! It takes me about an hour to make the batch, from chopping to cooking, to pureeing.

Cream of Whatever Soup

Ingredients (Part 1):

  • Veggies (such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, celery, mushrooms, etc.)
  • Water, stock or broth
  • Seasonings as desired

Heat veggies, liquid and seasonings over medium heat until boiling. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, or until all veggies are tender.

Note on ingredients:

  • Use any veggies you need to use up. Mixing and matching is fine (see photo above: there are potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower). Any amount is fine, but I usually fill a 2 quart pan about 3/4 full of veggies.
  • Enough water or broth/stock to allow veggies to cook. About 2-4 cups. I usually add water & a couple spoonfuls of vegetarian soup starter (the kind that comes in a jar and is refrigerated).

Meanwhile, make Part 2 of the soup: a white sauce. You can use my recipe here or substitute your own favorite recipe.

Ingredients (Part 2):

  • 2 Tbsp. butter or oil
  • 3-4 Tbsp. flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • Seasonings as desired (I usually use onion & garlic powder)

Heat butter on medium until melted. Stir until it stops bubbling. Gradually mix in the flour. Gradually mix in the milk and seasonings. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer or remove from heat.

Putting it together (Part 3):

When veggies are fully cooked, puree them. You can use a stick (immersion) blender if you have one, or use your countertop blender. If you do that, only fill the jar half full so it doesn’t explode when you blend it! You might have to do two or three rounds of blending to get all your soup blended. This is the most annoying part of the process, but it’s worth it.

After everything is blended, return soup to pot and add cream sauce. Mix up until thoroughly incorporated and enjoy! You can serve it with sandwiches, bread, or whatever your favorite accompaniment is.

creamofwhatever

Feb 11

daphnerecycledfoodAfter reading some terrific instructions on Like Merchant Ships on how to simplify when cooking for your family, I pretty much posted a blog in the comments.

As much as I wish I did, I don’t love cooking. Being the house cook is tough!

In our family, I have to accommodate a vegetarian (who doesn’t love all veggies equally), a pre-schooler who eats a HUGE breakfast and tiny other meals, and a toddler who has 3-1/2 teeth and must eat a good meal at regular times.

I’m of the oh-crud-it’s-4:50-and-dinner’s-in-10-minutes school of cooking. You could call me a Lazy Mom. I would be a perfect candidate for a meal plan, but I’m more of a grey-area person so schedules only work so well for me. I try to make meal plans, but I haven’t found a system that works for me!

I HAVE to have leftovers to use, or we’d all starve.

Here are some of my biggest kitchen secrets:

  • I make cream-of-whatever soup by the gallon on the weekend. I just chop up whatever veggies need to be used up for the soup (I use the recipe in my 70s BHG cookbook–we tend to mix potato, onion, broccoli, etc), and store it in a washed-out milk container so we always have soup on hand. You can eat it as is (sooo much better than Campbell’s condensed stuff), or use it as gravy, or as a binder in a casserole. It’s nice and versatile! It takes me about an hour to make the batch, from chopping to cooking, to pureeing.
  • I usually have cooked carbs on hand in the form of whole wheat spaghetti noodles (make pasta marinara, or use them for asian-inspired stir fry), and cooked rice. I am currently loving Calrose (white sushi rice). You can eat it hot or cold! I am going to switch to brown rice, though, because the Calrose isn’t as nutritious (darn!) I also like to make a big batch of oven-baked potato cubes (guess they’re home fries?) that can be reheated for breakfasty meals (or breakfast for dinner), or incorporated into breakfast burritos.
  • We eat a lot of mexicanish meals with canned refried beans as a main component. With a can of fat-free refried beans, you can make burritos (they take 5 mins to make), taco salad, or tostadas. I also personally love to heat the beans up, top ‘em with cheese, salsa, and low-fat sour cream, and just eat ‘em as dip with chips for a meal. That doesn’t fly well in our household, usually though! I used to cook a big batch of beans up, puree them and freeze them so I didn’t have to buy canned (more expensive) but there were some complaints about the taste and consistency of the homemade refried beans. I am still thinking about doing that again, and then mixing the homemade with the canned to cut the cost down of the canned beans. (We do get the cans in bulk at Costco – they cost about 87 cents each… still pretty cheap for a meal).
  • We buy eggs by the 5-1/2 dozen and eat breakfast-for-dinner regularly. It’s super quick to make eggs, toast, and reheated veggie sausage. You can also make quick egg sandwiches for a meal-on-the-go.
  • I keep breads in the freezer. We always have loaves of sourdough (for the adults), and whole wheat sandwich bread (for the kiddies’ PB&Js), and we keep whole wheat flour tortillas in the freezer in bulk as well. Bread defrosts super quickly once you take it out of the freezer, and it doesn’t get moldy and wasted if it’s kept in the freezer.
  • I keep frozen veggies and berries in the freezer. Veggies are important, and frozen ones are healthy (they freeze ‘em the same day they pick them, there aren’t any added ingredients). They’re quick to heat up, and versatile. You can use them as they are with a bit of seasoning for your veggie side dish, or add them to other dishes (like the aforementioned asian-inspired stir fry) or soups. Want to turn your cream-of-whatever into a chunky chowder? Heat up some frozen veggies and add ‘em! Quick!

My most important tool:

  • My toaster oven. It’s a mini oven. I rarely use the big oven anymore! The toaster oven cooks small batches of things (cookie dough for instance), and reheats things to crispy perfection. Leftover pizza tastes as good as it did the first time when reheated in a toaster oven. It’s as indispensible to me now as a microwave is. I can’t believe I lived this long without one.

Those are my cooking secrets! The main secret is, I’m really lazy and not apt to plan ahead. By using staple leftovers, I can make a “new” meal every day.

*Image by Daphne for CROQ Zine

Oct 1

I know this blog is teetering dangerously close to becoming a mommy blog, but the truth is that almost all the crafty things I do these days involve the kiddos, such is the all-consuming nature of being the parent of a toddler and baby. It’s a blessing (never-ending recipients of crafts and inspirations for craft!) and a curse (no time to do anything for yourself!), but mostly a blessing.

We make pizzas from scratch every other week or so, and this week we stole a bit of the dough to make a wee pizza for the 2 year-old. I diced up some mushrooms (he loves ‘em! really!) and gave him some olives and cheese with which to decorate his pizza.

This would be a really great party activity for toddlers, grade-schoolers and beyond, or even adults. Everyone loves to decorate a pizza!

Don’t be intimidated by making pizza from scratch! It’s one of the simplest breads to make, and it’s sooo much cheaper and better than takeout pizza (and light years better than frozen pizza!). Buy your yeast in bulk at a warehouse store or cash-n-carry. You can get a pound of yeast for around $4 in the US. It will last for years in your fridge, and is such a better deal than the stuff in packets. It also works a LOT better! If you shop at these kinds of stores, don’t forget to pick up pre-shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce to maximize your bargain. Double the recipe, make the pizza, and freeze it cut into quarters for nights when you don’t feel like cooking. If you have a toaster oven, it reheats the pizza like new! Okay, now you have our full process for pizza-making! Ha!

In case you don’t have your own pizza dough recipe, here’s ours. Yields 4 small pizzas or 2 large ones.

5 ½ cups flour
2 ½ cups warm water
2 tsp dry active yeast
1 tbsp salt
pinch of sugar
Pam® or oil

1)  Whisk warm water, yeast and sugar together in a large bowl.  Let sit for 15 minutes for the yeast to activate.  Foam will form on top.  tip:  If the water is too hot it will kill the yeast.  It should be comfortable to the touch.

2)  Gradually whisk the first 2 cups of flour into the water/yeast mixture until it is smooth.  Pour in 3 cups of flour and add the salt.  Use hands to mix together and form dough.  tip:  Use the last ½ cup of flour if you need it.  You want a soft, barely sticky dough.

3)  Knead dough for 8-10 minutes, form into ball.  Lightly coat inside of bowl and dough with oil.  Cover with plastic wrap or damp cloth.  Allow to rise for 3 hours.  tip:  Since this is pizza dough, not bread, the rise time isn’t essential—let it rise as long as you can.

4)  Punch down the dough and cut into quarters (or in half for 2 large pizzas).  Knead into four (or two) balls of dough.  Set the oven to bake at 500° F.  Lightly oil 12″ pizza pan (or 16″ for large) and work first ball into pizza crust on pan.  tip:  If you let the dough balls sit for 10 minutes or so they will begin to rise again and will be easier to flatten onto pan.

5)  Add sauce, cheese, toppings.  Bake for ten minutes.  Let cool before cutting.  Repeat.  tip:  If you want the make the outer crust a little bit special, melt some butter with garlic (powdered, diced, minced, whole, whatever you like) and brush it onto the edges of the crust before adding sauce and toppings.

Aug 20

It’s grey and rainy outside today. A perfect backdrop for some comfort food!

We went berry picking last week and came back with a bucket of boysenberries. I also have some bread rolls that have been sitting on my counter in a bag for a week or so. Too long to use them for their original purpose, but perfect to use in a bread pudding!

I didn’t measure my amounts, but used approximately:

4-6 cups of cubed bread
3 eggs
1-1/2 cups milk
3/4 cups sugar
2 cups assorted berries and their juices
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Put the butter in the pan you intend to use (I used a 9″ round cake pan) and let it melt and brown while the oven heats (just remember to remove it before it gets too brown!).

Cube or tear day-old or stale bread. I used King’s Hawaiian rolls. Mix in large mixing bowl with berries.

Whip eggs, combine with milk, sugar, and vanilla.

Pour egg mixture over bread. Gently mix to soak bread. You want to maintain the shape of the bread cubes as well as the individual berries as much as possible. Optional: allow to sit for awhile to allow bread to further soak in egg mixture.

Pour egg-bread mixture into prepared (browned butter!) pan. Finish with raw sugar, if desired.

Bake 30-50 minutes. (I used my toaster oven, so it took longer). Insert a toothpick or skewer to the center to gauge how done it is!

Jul 17

Sometimes you just need some fast food, like pizza. Yeah, pizza sounds good. But I don’t have any dough made. And I’m hungry now. I guess I’ll have a grilled cheese. Aww, grilled cheese again?

Wait, I have an idea! What if we combined the pizza and the grilled cheese sandwich to make a whole new kind of fun fast food? We’ll call it the “Pizza Sandwich!”

The pizza sandwich is one of those deceptively simple meals that twists grilled sandwiches just enough to inject some fun into your meal. I imagine this would be fun for kids older than Lewis who are excited by the idea of pizza. Lewis doesn’t know he should get excited by pizza yet, so just cooking it is fun enough for him! Just eating tomato sauce is fun enough, apparently!

This recipe is great for my two year old, who can help mix spices in tomato sauce, spread the sauce on the bread, and sprinkle cheese and olives.

Start the recipe with two slices of bread per sandwich (if that isn’t obvious), and butter one side of each piece lightly.

Get your huge can of tomato sauce. Put some italian seasonings in some tomato sauce (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, garlic, onion, etc.) or use some ready-made spaghetti sauce in your favorite variety. (As you can see, I get tomato sauce in the BIG can. It’s sooo much cheaper that way, and you can just freeze it in 2 cup storage containers for use in other recipes when you need it.) Spread the sauce on the non-buttery sides of the bread.

One great thing about this sandwich is that the tomato sauce helps moisten the bread, as does the butter. If you have bread that is heading toward getting stale, this is a good use for it.

Sprinkle shredded mozzarella on the bread. Feel free to improvise with your favorite kind of cheese. Your toddler will have fun decorating the bread with the cheese. When he’s done, fill in the sparse areas to help fill the sandwich out! I pressed the cheese into the tomato sauce to help adhere it so it wouldn’t fall out of the sandwich when I put the sandwich tops on.

Collect your favorite pizza toppings for the next portion of the recipe, such as olives, pepperoni, mushrooms, etc. Non-traditional toppings also work here. You can use leftover ground hamburger or lunch meat, for example.

For our sandwiches, we just added sliced olives (also purchased in the big can, and then divided in two large containers, one of which was frozen for storage. They thaw well!), which makes for a surprisingly satisfying vegetarian pizza sandwich.

Don’t forget to put the olives on your finger and then eat a few!

Once your bread is sufficiently decorated, top the sandwiches with the other pieces of bread, and (parent) cook like a standard grilled sandwich, until cheese is melted and sandwich is warmed through, bread is browned a little.

Ways to cook: in an ungreased skillet over medium heat, in a sandwich press (panini maker, George Foreman grill, etc.), or in a toaster oven (that’s what we did).

Jun 28

Toddlers are pretty handy when it comes to simple recipes! Lewis loves to use the blender to mix up liquid ingredients. This particular recipe doesn’t have much in the way of liquid, but I let him mix the dry ingredients to make sure the lumps are all broken up.

I modified this Better Homes & Garden pancake recipe to make a dry “buttermilk” pancake mix. I was toying with the idea of making up a bunch of the mix so I could quickly make pancakes, but honestly, regular pancakes are pretty quick to make anyway. I didn’t have any eggs, so I used soy flour instead of eggs, which is really what makes it feasible for a dry pancake mix, as well as the dry milk powder.

If you are a camper, this mix would be great to take along with you for an easy outdoor breakfast. You can omit the baking soda & vinegar for an even easier mixing experience (if you do omit them, add an additional 1 teaspoon baking powder to the mix). You could probably even add the oil to the dry mix if you were going to use it within a couple days, and then all you’d have to do is add water (1-1/2 cups is equal to a soda can full of water, so you wouldn’t even have to bring a measuring cup!). Just put it in a zip-top bag and pour the water in when it comes time to mix it. Dispense the batter from the zip-top bag. Easy!

Dry “Buttermilk” Pancake Mix:

1-1/4 cups flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 heaping Tbsp soy flour

1/3 cup dry milk powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

When you’re ready to use, add to dry mix:
1-1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 tablespoon oil

Mix until lumps are mostly gone. You don’t want a soy flour chunk in your pancake. Trust me.

Cook in a skillet over medium heat. You will know it is time to turn the pancakes over when they get a little bit dry-looking on the edges (just a little bit!), and you can see a few bubbles rising in the middle of the pancakes.

Makes about eight 4-inch pancakes.

The vinegar is what helps make the “buttermilk” and the vinegar and baking soda reaction helps the pancakes rise more. The soy flour has a little bit of a “green” flavor, so these are better served with a stronger syrup (maple is good).

I like to make “brown sugar” syrup with 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 1/2 cup water. I just put them in a pourable mixing cup and microwave for a minute, stir, then another 30 seconds in the microwave.

I would make at least a double batch of these because the pancakes are great for kid snacks later in the day. Just give ‘em a pancake and let ‘em munch. They also make awesome “bread” for breakfast sandwiches the next day. The secret is to give them a swipe of syrup and butter. The syrup makes the sandwich, really! I know it sounds weird but it’s good! Remember to warm the pancakes, too and then top with a sausage patty (we use Morningstar meatless), and a cooked egg

Jun 18

I don’t have that many, but there are two kitchen tricks I use a lot that always fill me with glee every time I use them because they are just so darn useful!

pastry blenderUse a pastry blender to make guacamole. Alton Brown doesn’t allow one-use tools in his kitchen and neither should you! My husband doesn’t like chunky guacamole (although I do), and I could never pulverize the avocado to his liking with just a fork. Enter the pastry blender! It easily mashes avocado and makes guacamole-making sooo easy!

whisk“Sift” flower with a wire whisk. I admit, I have a flour sifter (NOT the type recommended by Alton Brown – ha ha!), but I never use it (and it takes up a lot of space!). Instead, I put all my dry ingredients in a bowl and then stir them with a wire whisk. So awesome. It breaks up all lumps and incorporates all the dry ingredients beautifully.

I will never be the author of an amazing cookblog, but I do have these two tips to share with you!