Sunday, August 30, 2009

Creme Caramel Squares

Recipe #3:

Yeah, my attempt at this recipe doesn't quite look like the above photo (follow link). I'm pretty sure if you check out the photo of this recipe in the new What's Cooking issue too, you'll agree that they photoshopped the vanilla pudding layer colour. It's not that yellow in real life. But don't get me wrong, it's not all bad.

I tried looking up a dessert idea under the "Healthy Living" section of the Kraft Kitchens site: Yeah, right. After 360 dessert recipes, I think about 8 of them were marked with the sunshine symbol to be qualified for "Healthy Living". Is this why I don't often eat dessert? I give up. Fruit kabobs just aren't challenging enough for me. Give me the high fat, bad-for-you-but-super-yummy dessert recipes!

I will admit up front that I had help with this recipe. My friend Sean requested that I try making it, and in exchange, he offered to help. Normally I prefer to be alone in the kitchen because other people make me too worried about making mistakes. I also don't do everything the same way that others might which can cause stress. Since this recipe felt rather challenging, I thought it would be foolish to turn down the aid of someone more experienced in the baking department.

I did a couple of slight modifications to this recipe: I used skim milk because that's what I drink and I'm not buying "special recipe milk" for no reason; I made whipped cream from uh, whipping cream instead of using Cool Whip (I refuse to cook with a dessert item that bills itself as an "edible oil product"); I used Splenda instead of sugar; I added a little vanilla and extra Splenda to the whipped cream. I also cooled the dish in the freezer between layers, and cooled each pudding in the fridge a bit between layers. Take from that what you will.

Aside from forgetting that the cream cheese was supposed to be softened, and having to ask how to best measure the butter, the recipe wasn't too bad to make. I did encounter some problems with the puddings however. The box for each says 2 cups of milk, the recipe counters with 1 1/2 cups of milk, and, of course, I follow the recipe. Only problem was that the vanilla pudding was a bit runny and tricky to spread on the cream cheese layer. I started out with most of it near the middle of the dish; in hindsight, that wasn't the greatest idea because I wasn't able to spread it out to all of the sides without wrecking the layer below. Therefore, with the butterscotch pudding layer, which ended up being thicker for some reason, I started it out at the edges of the dish and attempted to drag it inward. Being heavier than the vanilla layer, the butterscotch tried very hard to resist my attempts at moving it and the vanilla layer got kind of smeary. I eventually gave up and covered it all in whipping cream. Take that!

Some thoughts after 3 recipes now:
1) It's not a good idea for me to be cooking on a very empty stomach, especially since my work always takes longer than predicted and planned. Hunger makes me angry, irrational, and unfriendly.
2) Make sure you've enough room in the fridge for the various ingredients required for the recipe, not to mention for the finished product itself, especially if you ate out most of the day before and brought home leftovers.
3) Take a break from cooking every now and then, particularly when your fridge is very full, the recipes make large quantities, and you're still trying to finish the first one you made last Wednesday...

I haven't yet tasted the product in final format but the spoons and beaters I licked while making it were tasty. It's supposed to sit in the fridge for 4 hours which will give it a finished time of 11:24pm tonight, long after I'll have gone to bed. Since I've made a 9x13" pan of the blasted things, I should have plenty of chances to sample them for the next week or so. Any takers?

Forget dinner, bring me dessert!

Well, for those who read my last entry about the fettuccine experiment, you'll know why I'm moving on to dessert for my next recipe. I didn't screw up the pasta completely but I wasn't totally happy with the results and need to do some damage repair today after my dessert gets made. You're probably thinking, "Geez! Was it really that bad?" No, it wasn't, no one died or went to Emerg, but my standards for myself are very high. More stress but it gets me what I want as I explained to someone the other day.

Speaking of dessert and baking, I gave a speech at my best friend's wedding a few weeks ago. Believe me, I'm not off in left field picking daisies. This thought is related to baking. Anyway, in preparing my speech, I spent a lot of time thinking about Sue and I having grown up together. We've been best friends for 27 years and we've had a LOT of great times together.

Sue's my complete opposite in a lot of ways. For example, not only is she organized, tidy, likes the gym, and is naturally athletic, she's also a great cook and baker. She's the kind of person who can go in the kitchen, sans recipe, and "whip something up" out of baking soda, ginger ale, and jell-o. Ok, maybe not those precise ingredients (although I wouldn't put it past her) but you catch my drift. Me? I'm the one who has a recipe and freaks out if it doesn't say whether to put the lid on the pot or not. Stir the contents of the bowl 6 times? Done. No more, no less because the recipe says 6. In fact, today I bought a brick of cream cheese instead of the plastic container (apparently there's no difference) because the recipe says brick. Sue's a 'pinch of this' and a 'dash of that', stick it in the oven and it's heaven on your plate. I still read the directions for Kraft Dinner and have been eating it for about 15 years or so...

One day when we were kids, Sue and I decided to make my mother's recipe for "Chocolate Chip Drop Cookies". We often got together and baked stuff which usually meant we'd start out working on the recipe together, then eventually I'd get bored or do it wrong so Sue would step in to save it and I would eat the results. It worked well for us. Neither of us had made this one before and we didn't know what the "Drop" part referred to so we just shrugged and made chocolate chip cookies. No big deal, right? Except for the fact that we flattened each cookie dough ball on the cookie sheet with a fork because we'd recently made peanut butter cookies and that's what we did then so that's how you make all cookies, right? Stick it in the oven, set the timer, I supervise from the kitchen table while Sue rights the disaster we've created on the counters and floor. Kitchen is clean again, timer goes off, take cookie sheet out of the oven and what the hell?! We made a giant friggin' cookie! Yep, we managed to make one solid cookie the precise dimensions of the baking sheet. Okayyyyy, now what? Ah! Cookie cutters! We had dinosaur, tree, bell, and all kinds of fun-shaped chocolate chip cookies. Then we asked my mother about the "Drop" part.

Oh, and then there's the time I got the bright idea to make chocolate chip cookies (not my destiny perhaps?) for Thanksgiving and bring them to the cottage. We have our family Thanksgiving dinner potluck-style with our cottage neighbours and it's a lot of fun. Anyway, I borrowed my friend's favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe and got to work. 3 cups of sugar seems like a lot but hey, that's what the recipe says. Hmmm, this is a lot of batter, good thing I always pick the biggest bowl by default. Get out the baking sheets, first two are in the oven and I'm staring at a bowl of batter that barely looks dented. Two more cookie sheets later and I'm starting to worry. In the end, the cookies were good and plentiful. Key word being plentiful because if you actually read the whole recipe carefully, it does mention that it makes 7 DOZEN cookies! I couldn't give them away...

Am I really ready to attempt another dessert today?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Smarter Fettuccine Alfredo

Recipe #2:

I'm done with the soup thing for a while. One can only eat pea soup so many times in a row before deciding not to make another soup recipe next. I realized earlier today that I've accidently left my pea soup lunch in the fridge at work. Another time, I would leave it for the weekend and eat it on Monday, but I'm trying to turn over a new foodie leaf to silence my food poisoning critics so I'll retrieve it by tomorrow.

You'll be happy to know that today's ingredients were mostly fresh with the exception of the frozen chicken breast I added on a whim at the end. "Fresh ingredients?!", you say. Yep. SO not me...

I also modified the recipe very slightly by using whole wheat fettuccine which, by the way, does not seem to be the most popular type of pasta in the aisle. There are plenty of choices of spaghetti, macaroni, linguine, and virtually all the other types of pasta but, like me, if you're looking for fettuccine, you might get two choices. No idea why this is but at least I got a free reusable bag with my groceries.

Back to the house, discover moronic troll woman who lives downstairs has once again failed to comprehend how to park properly on HER side of the driveway. Pull car 2/3 up driveway so that I can open my door to get out. I'd go tell her to move her damn car but I just don't care right now and she's a piece of work to deal with. Lug crap upstairs, try to recall where I stashed the recipe, unpack what I'll need and stare at dirty pot from pea soup that I want to use for this recipe. Pot doesn't march over to the sink and wash itself as hoped for. Manhandle pot into sink, mutter curses at inanimate objects, realize I'm missing the iPod effect, dig said electronic device out of bottom of purse, ahhhhh that's better. "March of the Toreadors" from Carmen does have a soothing quality to it, doesn't it?

I'm almost ashamed to admit it (don't laugh, k?), but my pasta pot is an old camping pot that I filched from the camping cupboard at my parents house years ago. It's big, lightweight, and I'll know if you stole it because it's distinct. Put the water on to boil, begin to make sauce.

I've had this dish before so I vaguely know what to expect. I have to credit Sandra for making me this once and I loved it so when I came across the recipe one day, I decided I too could do this dish. With hindsight, I should have had Sandra's half-Italian genes to make it better but I'm out of luck with that one.

Luckily for me, I remember that when I'm making creamy stuff that has dairy and flour in it, I'm not supposed to turn the burner on high and walk away. I have to say, it's SO hard not to do that with everything. Cooking would be so much easier if you could just dump it in a pot, turn it to HI, and come back in 15 minutes to find your dinner ready. None of this "gently stir", "add gradually", "slowly come to a boil" crap that requires the cook to babysit the stove. I'm going to have to bring my laptop into the kitchen with me next time or I'll go nuts from stirring while staring at something that does not yet look like the picture on the website.

I got the sauce to the part where it's supposed to be cooked for two minutes until it comes to a boil and thickens. Yeah well, mine EVENTUALLY came to a boil when I kept increasing the burner heat level but it never really thickened enough to where I wanted it to be. Doesn't mean I was doing it wrong, just that it didn't match what my brain wanted it to look like. I cooked it at a bit of a boil for a while, stirring constantly as instructed, then eventually gave up and dumped it on a cold burner and put the lid on. There! Thicken yourself, stupid sauce.

Pasta finally ready, drain and get free facial. Add sauce to pasta, hmmm maybe those extra 40 grams of pasta really do make a difference.... there's an awful lot of noodles in here compared to the amount of sauce. Crap. Oh well, too late now and I'm not about to "whip up" some extra sauce to make it more plentiful. Please! I can barely talk on the phone and stir stuff without something going AWOL. I'll just have to like it as is.

Check email, remember that the chicken is partially thawed in the microwave partly through reply to friend's email. Finish thawing chicken, cut carefully and add to pot to cook. Back to email, notice sizzling sounds partway through replying to cousin. Oi! Damn bird. Nothing burnt, just a little stuck to the bottom. All is well and a good soak in hot water will get that off the pot. Add measly amount of chicken to huge mound of barely-coated pasta, stare at lunch creation while briefly considering how much a medium pizza costs to have delivered.

In the end, I'm eating it and it's edible. It doesn't look as much like the picture as I wanted it to, but it's food and I made it myself so I'm stuck with it. Carmen took some of my pea soup last night (no response on it yet), maybe I can convince her she should eat this pasta too?

Notes for next time I make this:
1) When it says 300g of pasta and you're a novice, DON'T add the extra 40g because you were too lazy to buy the right package at the store. You'll end up with tons of noodles and not much sauce unless you're smarter than me and can figure out how to adjust your sauce measurements to yield more. Good luck.
2) Add more than 1 chicken breast if you're going to the bother of cooking it. One chicken breast will look pitiful and lost in the heaps of fettuccine.
3) Don't attempt to grind pepper into the 1/8 tsp measuring spoon. Just grind it into the pot directly and guess at how much you're putting in. Otherwise, you'll end up with pepper everywhere and not much in the measuring spoon.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Camouflage broccoli is not your friend

No new recipes attempted today. 3 hours spent doing errands and appointments after work, then home to eat and put out fires, figuratively speaking. Too exhausted to attempt culinary wonders. Settled for horrifically processed and preserved food which I won't define any more specifically due to fear of excessive criticism of my eating habits.

Thought instead of a recipe I could pass along some sage words about camouflage broccoli and my experiences with it to save you, the reader, from enduring same. Trust me when I say "You don't want to go there...".

What is camouflage broccoli exactly? Well, I'm glad you asked. It's a term I made up a few years ago, the first time I made this mistake.

CAMOUFLAGE BROCCOLI: broccoli that has lost some (or all) of the deep green colour it normally has, becoming yellowed and pale green ("camouflage pattern") in the process, probably also wiggles and bends a little more than it should. NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.

I grew up in the RRR (reduce, reuse, recycle) house long before those things were cool. We've also composted for years, both at the cottage and at home. We weren't the rich family on the block and my mom doesn't like to waste things. I inherited those habits too. So when I found some broccoli at the back of my fridge one day and noticed that it had some pale green areas, along with some yellow-ish areas, I didn't think too much of it.

Easy to look back and say now "Don't eat that!" but I'm a slow learner. Therefore, when I found the broccoli and was in dire straights for something to eat other than spaghetti for the 4th day in a row, I figured, "Yeah, it's not perfect but I'll cook it lots to kill any bad stuff". Famous last words, almost.

So I steamed the hell out of it, cut up into bite-sized pieces and everything. Don't know what else I ate with it, probably some grated cheese melted on top, it was a long time ago. A few hours later, I started getting stomach cramps, not the girl-time-of-the-month ones, but the bad-gas-inside-me-REALLY-wants-out-now! kind. Trust me, you'll know when you get these ones. My stomach hurt and the air around me was pretty aromatic. And it went on and on and on.... At one point, I started wondering if the paint on the walls and the carpet on the floor would survive the experience intact because I was wishing I'd brought home face masks from work while convinced I was going to die. Thank goodness I lived alone!

Anyway, I survived that night but it wasn't fun. Nothing to blame but the camouflage broccoli. Fast forward a few years to find me digging broccoli out of the fridge again, noting the colourful pattern on top of it. "That was years ago and it won't happen again. I just didn't cook it long enough", I said to myself. I'm such an idiot! Another night of agony, GI revolt, and flatulence from hell. Too embarrassed to admit I'd done myself in again, I suffered alone but not silently. Boy, did I get a lecture or 6 from my mother and other food-poisoning-savvy people when they discovered the reason I'd gone underground suddenly.

Moral of the story: if your broccoli is no longer uniformly dark green and bends/wiggles at ALL, chuck it in your green bin or compost if you've got one. Otherwise, to the garbage it goes. If you're tempted to pitch it out for some animal to eat, don't get upset if you see dead critters out there the next day. I was nearly one of them, twice.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Spring Pea Soup

Recipe #1:

I'm on a bit of a soup kick lately (lazy cook-a-titis, I suspect) so I decided to start my cooking adventure with a soup one. How hard can soup be? It's also freezeable for lunch/dinner-in-a-pinch if it works out ok.

Off to the grocery store (mostly avoiding my weakness: the chip aisle), home to unpack, where did I put the recipe, why did I buy so many potatoes? I already had sour cream?

Heeding my own advice (where it came from is still unknown, just a voice in my head), I decided to "cube" the potatoes and chop the onion first, knowing that it would take me a while. Took a little longer than I thought, thanks to a completly dull peeler (obviously rarely used), a residual mild fear of my cute yellow SHARP! paring knife, and trying to figure out how to "cube" a potato but eventually I got it all done.

I've discovered that playing my iPod in the kitchen really helps. There's just something about belting out "Same Mistake" by James Blunt or dancing around with a sharp knife like an idiot to your Cardio playlist that boosts the daunting cooking experience to a new level. I'm not yet saying it's fun but I could see it heading that way eventually. Just between you and me, I'm blogging this to "Kids" by MGMT while sitting cross-legged and bouncing on my stability ball. Another source of inspiration. I just hope I don't fall off...

Back to the recipe: Ok, the chicken stock (reduced sodium) is in a tetra pack in my cupboard and the spoiler date says July 2006. But we all know those dates are pretty much just suggestions, right? It's never been opened, it's not sagging or bulging violently, but since I'm inexperienced, I get on the batphone and check with a culinary-wise friend who tells me it should be fine to use. Good. I'm sick of looking at it.

Add ingredients to pot, avoid temptation to turn burner on HI and leave the room (my mom taught me that one), carefully read recipe and follow instructions. I have time to check my email while it comes to a boil. Doesn't look much like pea soup yet, more like frozen peas floating in salad dressing and chopped onion, but I must have faith in these Kraft people. They are more knowledgeable than I in this arena.

Email from my cousin Jenny says not to use expired ingredients and to smell them first if I do. My reputation preceeds me. Hmmm, little late for that, soup's already on. I figure if I cook it lots then I'll kill any potential bacteria. It's worked so far for expired eggs.

Finally soup has simmered long enough, time to blend. Normally I avoid the blender because I hate cleaning it, but for you, Soup O' Mine, I will do what the recipe says. "Blend in small batches" sounds kind of inefficient but I resist the urge to fill the blender. Good thing I did. Only a small burn on my hand holding down the lid when I hit "blend" and the scalding soup surges upward. Lick soup off my hand, get a better grip on the lid, hit it again. Don't feel the burn this time and soup is getting greener thankfully. Transfer batch to giant bowl, repeat but with oven mitt on holding hand. Ha! I outsmarted soup in a blender. I am S-M-R-T!

Blend, transfer, blend, transfer, find metal square in living room to retrieve other oven mitt where it has fallen down into the dusty nether region between the stove and fridge, blend, transfer, fish blender lid out of blender and soup, blend, transfer, yawn.

At last! "Stir in sour cream", find suspicious lumps of partially blended potato, make mental note to warn other eaters about it, soup looks good! Time check: more than the recipe said but that's expected at this stage. Final email check, get good luck wishes from aunt and cousin, might need them but things are looking ok at this point. Next up: taste test

Since I'm playing slopitch after dinner tonight, don't want to eat too much in case I have to run a lot or in case my GI tract rebels during the game. Spoon out bowl of soup, quickly put together small salad, glass of milk and we're good to go. Somewhat suprisingly, the soup is tasty! No bad paint taste, no funky smells, no odd colour unless you think pea green is strange. I didn't use the mint suggested because it grows wild at the cottage and I felt disloyal buying it at the store.

I'm 4.5 hours post-soup ingestion with no adverse effects as yet. Dare I count this one as a success? I'll get Carmen to weigh in her opinion if she takes me up on my offer of free soup tomorrow. Stay tuned...

The Kraft Kitchen Experiment

I just saw the movie "Julie and Julia" ( and liked it. Long have I wished I were able to cook well like some of my friends and family, to say nothing of cooking as well as Julia Child. Alas, this is not the case with me....yet.

I was inspired enough by the movie to start checking out easy recipes on the Kraft Kitchens site: They have some really good ones that are pretty simple to make, and best of all, they have a section called "Healthy Living" with recipes that are a little bit better for you perhaps, as well as some handy tools and diabetic information.

Unlike Julie Powell from the movie, I'm not enough of a dedicated writer or a passionate cook to blog my year of cooking all of the recipes in Julia Child's first book. In fact, I cringe at the idea, particularly knowing that some of those recipes involve seafood about which I am somewhat phobic. Instead, I thought I'd try my hand at a few recipes and blog about each attempt, primarily to amuse myself (and others?), but also to learn from my culinary mistakes.

I think the catalyst that finally made me pick a recipe, find the time, and shop for groceries was today. I ordered Chinese food for dinner on Saturday night. By last night, the only things left were 4 little containers of peanut sauce (any takers? please???), some dried out white rice that came with the order unasked for, and the chicken pad thai that wouldn't die. It's not that I didn't eat the food after Saturday, it's that I'm trying to cut back on my portion sizes a bit, and therefore the large quantity of pad thai has lasted for 5 days.

Yes, that's right. Today was Day 5 of chicken pad thai and dried out rice. Delicious, I know! That was lunch but before I could reach that pinnacle of culinary excellence, I had to cross the mid-morning snack. Normally on work days, it consists of yogurt (sometimes with pumpkin seeds in it-raw, unsalted, from the Bulk Barn) and an apple or other piece of fruit. At about 6 this morning, I went a little crazy from fatigue and decided to dig some honey Teddy Grahams out of the back of my cupboard to have with my yogurt and apple. Truth be told, the same thing every day (I am a creature of habit) can be boring and I was tired of staring at the half-eaten bag of Teddy Grahams.

Bad idea. I should so not make any major decisions before 10am, especially since I get up at 5:30am, 5 days a week. The Teddy Grahams smelled a little "funny" but I didn't think much of it until I tossed a few in my mouth at 9am and started chewing. Oh gawd! I've never tasted paint (that I can remember) but as close as I can assume, that is was those evil little blonde bear cookies tasted like. Gagging and choking, I spat most of them out but a few made it down the hatch. Even the yogurt chasers didn't completely expunge the horrid aftertaste. When will I ever learn??

Teddy Grahams from hell, Day 5 of pad thai, friends giving me suspicious looks when I happen to keep coming over at meal times....maybe I should start this cooking-for-myself thing a little more seriously, and fast.

Oh, the irony. I just got an email from irewards (Chapters loyalty program) asking me if I like cooking because I could win a gift card or something. Should I lie and say yes?