Thursday, June 30, 2011

Crock Pot Italian Chicken

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

This recipe is from my little brother. It's a strange thing to get a recipe from the brother who is 11 years younger than you. Yet, eventually there comes a time in life when such a thing happens. When this happens, you can rest assured that you, the oldest sister, are very old. But don't worry, because as the oldest child you were most likely born old. So you might as well take advantage of your brother's recipe because it's super yummy. (Your mother--for whom he made it--even said so. By the way, when your littlest brother is not only making food that does not consist of peanut butter and jelly, but also sharing that food with others, you can bet that you are, in fact, even older than you thought. You can bet that young people who see you don't see the hip cool thirty-something you suppose yourself to be. You can bet that they see some lady with several kids who has forehead wrinkles and frequent bad hair days.)

Besides being super yummy, your brother's recipe comes of age in a crock pot. Which, as the outside temperature creeps up into the 90's, is a very good thing. And in addition to not requiring you to sweat over a skillet or an oven, this recipe is super easy. It's perfect for a Sunday dinner after church. It's perfect for a potluck. It's perfect for a short visit from your sister. It's perfect for any old Tuesday night. It's perfect for nights after/before soccer, baseball, cub scouts, piano. It's perfect if you work. It's just really good. Kip said so several times last night. Several.

Of course, as an oldest child I did fuss it up a little bit. It's my job after all. Because I am old. And because I did not have cream of anything soup on hand. Below I will post the super easiest version--truly one for a morning when you need to be out the door in 3 minutes. And I'll post mine which involves the making of a white sauce. This only adds 5 minutes to the meal. And I thought it was really good. (P.S. For another 5 minutes, you can make your own Italian dressing mix as well.) And while we're talking about time, if you forget to get your crock pot going in the morning, I'm betting this would be really great prepared in an oven at 375 or so for about 45-60 minutes.

Crock Pot Italian Chicken
Serves 6
Prep time: 3-10 minutes
Cook time: 6 hours in crock pot
Cost: $4.85
(chicken: 4.00, cream cheese: I got mine for .50, but a more normal yet still cheap price is a little over a dollar, white sauce: .30, Italian dressing packet: homemade: .05; I don't know how much it is to buy it.)

4 chicken breasts--about 2 lb.
8 oz. package cream cheese
1 can cream of chicken soup (or 2 Tbsp butter, 2 Tbsp flour, 1 C milk, 1 tsp bouillon granules)
1 packet Italian dressing mix (or 2 Tbsp homemade Italian dressing mix)

Put chicken in crock pot. Add cream cheese in chunks. Add cream of chicken soup and sprinkle with Italian dressing mix. Cook on high for 6 hours (my chicken was frozen; if yours is thawed, this will take less time) or whenever dinner is. Shred chicken and mix chicken with cream cheese, sauce, and seasoning. Serve over rice or starch of your choice. We had a salad on the side the first day and broccoli the next day. I also thought it would be really good with a few lovely seasonal tomatoes sliced up on the side.

If making a white sauce instead of using cream of chicken soup:

Melt butter in a pot. Whisk in flour and bouillon. Let bubble for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Whisk in milk. Stir until boiling. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened (should take 1-3 minutes).


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Raspberry Peach Freezer Jam

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

My sister came to Evansville for a couple of days in the course of her oh-so-fun cross country move. Hopefully our house was a bit of a relaxing oasis for her and it was super fun for me and the cousins. We had lots of great food. And I'm pleased to say it didn't consume the entire visit. It was my goal not to spend the entire 2 days cooking for everyone (this is sometimes a weakness of mine when people come to visit--I want them to eat well while they're here, so I spend too much time cooking and stressing in the kitchen). I think that I was fairly successful. We did spend yesterday morning in the kitchen while I cut and froze a whole lot of strawberries and peaches, but it was more like productive visiting time than oh-my-gosh-I've-got-to-get-a-booty-load-of-food-made-by-dinnertime stressful. And we did make a quick peach raspberry jam with some of that fruit. And some cookies of course. But otherwise, it was cereal and sandwiches with an excellent crock pot dinner last night.

Today you get the peach raspberry jam. Both of these fruits are on right now. And if you're afraid of making jam, please meet your new BFF: freezer jam. It's so so easy. And so so fast. And if you're using seasonal fruit, it is 100% just as economical (if not a little better depending on the fruit you use) as store bought jam for way way better value. Of course you can make any old freezer jam with any old fruit you've got on hand. In each package of pectin (I use Sure Gel) there are specific instructions. However, I admit that with this recipe, I sort of made it up because I wanted to strain the seeds out of my raspberries (a tinge fussier than normal freezer jam, but in my opinion worth it). And I have to say it turned into the most beautiful jam I have ever made.

A few notes on freezer jam:
1. It tends to be a little looser than store bought or cooked jams, so if it seems a little runnier than normal, don't worry. Store bought jams remind me of boogers anyway, so I certainly don't mind a looser freezer jam.
2. You must use the exact amount of crushed fruits and sugar specified or it will really keep your jam from setting. So if you've got a little leftover fruit, freeze it or eat it with a spoon or make it into a smoothie, but don't just throw it into the jam mixture.
3. You can sometimes find pectin in larger containers. This is a cheaper option if you're committed to becoming a freezer jammer. If not, give it a try with a packet at first and then decide. Also, I often have trouble finding the bigger containers at the store, but they tend to have good sales at this time of year so keep your eyes peeled.
4.  It helps if you have Tupperware or glass containers that are all the same size so you can stack them up nicely in your fridge. I never do and all is well. For the record, I recommend plastic/rubber. Maybe your freezer is neatly stacked and perfectly organized, but, um, there are occasions when things fall out of my sloppy creative freezer. You've got a better chance of not breaking your fallen plastic/rubberware.
5. I always buy the lower sugar pectin. You don't have to, but I find that seasonal fruit tends to be nice and sweet anyway and the jams come out plenty sweet.

Raspberry Peach Freezer Jam
Makes about 32 oz.
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Cook time: 5-10 minutes
Cost: $4.00 for me, more if you're buying raspberries, which admittedly, can hurt the pocketbook
(peaches: $1.30, rapsberries: mine were free from my friend; I'm guessing they'd be 4.00 or so unless you pick your own, pectin: 2.50)

2 C crushed peaches/ I used 5 ripe medium sized peaches (I believe this is about 1 1/2-2 lb, but I did forget to weigh)
2 C raspberry pulp/ I used 3 C black raspberries
1 C water
3 C sugar
1 package Sure Gel Low Sugar pectin (1.75 oz.)

Combine raspberries and water. Bring to a boil. Boil for a few minutes. Mash the raspberries with a potato masher. It will only take a minute or two to get them mashed. Strain the raspberry pulp out through a find mesh strainer. Press it on through to get all the good stuff you can. Set your raspberry pulp aside. (Note: You can then discard the seeds. Or you can put them back in the pot with another cup of water, re-boil, and re-strain and then use that juice in smoothies or to pinken up a lemonade.)

Cut out the pits from your peaches (be sure to get any shards that occasionally get stuck to the inside of the peach) and crush the peaches in a food processor, blender, or by using a potato masher. I don't even remove the skins and no one ever even notices. Seriously, save yourself the trouble because you can't taste them at all. Measure out 2 C of the crushed peaches. Freeze any remainder or make a smoothie or add it to your oatmeal or feed it to your baby.

In a pot, combine the sugar and the pectin. Whisk them together. Add the raspberry pulp and mix it in. Bring this to a boil and boil for 1 minute.

Take off the heat and mix in the peaches. You don't have to be, like, super speedy here or anything, but do not take this time to, say, use the restroom or put on your make up or empty the dishwasher because a little speed is in order as this is going to start setting up somewhat quickly. Pour the finished jam into very clean containers. Let them sit for 30 minutes without lids. Then put the lids on and leave them on the counter to set for 24 hours. After that, freeze them or refrigerate and use them within 3 weeks. (It is my opinion that they last longer than this, but I'm giving you the by-the-book amount of time they last. Of course, mine don't usually last 3 weeks anyway, but I put them in smallish containers.)


Monday, June 27, 2011

100% Whole Wheat Muffins

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

I don't know what my problem is with breakfast foods. Honestly I just love them. Way back when I was young and single, breakfast was by far and away my biggest, most favorite meal. It was also my idea of the perfect date. And on days that I was very very hungry I'd walk home craving--not a steak, not a big plate of pasta, not even a milkshake--but oatmeal with a layer of melted brown sugar on top. So I hope you forgive the fact that this site is a wee bit breakfast heavy. And cookie heavy. And chocolate things heavy. Please. Forgive.

When you think of whole wheat muffins, you think of muffins at their most virtuous. And their driest. And blandest. And most dreadful in every way. This recipe came to me by accident. My friend photocopied a recipe I'd asked for from one of those homemade recipe books that friends and church groups sometimes create. At the bottom of the page was this recipe with the promise: "Almost like cake!" Well, I thought that was a recipe worth trying. It was not, for the record, just like cake, so don't get any overly lofty ideas in your head. But it was very sweet and moist with a lovely lovely crumb that did, indeed, resemble cake. The only problem was that it contained 1 full cup of sugar for about 12 muffins. I was worried that reducing the sugar would be the muffin's undoing, but these reduced sugar muffins turned out very nicely as well, although I must give this warning: they were slightly slightly drier. This didn't bother us, however. The only thing that irked my kids was that they did not contain chocolate chips. Because as we all know, breakfast foods that don't come in a box should contain chocolate chips. If you, like me, have ruined your children, throw in a handful of chocolate or cinnamon flavored chips. If you, like better mothers, have not ruined your children, you could always throw in a handful of blueberries or raspberries instead.

100% Whole Wheat Muffins
makes 12 muffins
donated to a homemade book by a person named Angie Farnsworth (thanks Angie)
Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 10-15 minutes
Cost: $70
(butter: .30, sugar: .15, egg: .10, milk: .15)

1/2 C butter, softened
1/2 C brown sugar
1 egg
2 C whole what flour
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 C milk
handful chips or fruit, optional

Cream together butter and brown sugar. Add egg. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl and then add them to the butter mixture. Remember that with muffins you want the dry ingredients just barely incorporated. If you mix the shadingdang out of the batter, your muffins will come out dry and tough instead of light and cake-like. If using, the bad mothers can gently fold in their chips and the good mothers can gently fold in their fruit. Put batter into 12 muffin tins. Bake at 425 for 10-15 minutes. Note: With this reduced sugar recipe, you want to be sure not to overcook these babies or they really will come out dry.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Fruit is On

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

If you care at all about getting your foods locally. Or getting your foods at the freshest. Or getting your foods for nice and cheap, well, your time for fruit has come.

Peaches are cropping up in CSA's and in grocery stores for nice and cheap. These are from our CSA (Joe Engelbrecht's Fourth Generation Orchard if you're interested for next year) and I know that a few stores in town have them for less than $1/pound. If you can afford it, it's a great time to buy a lot, use what you like, and then jam, can, or freeze what you don't. Today we jammed a bunch. Freezer jam, in case it seems intimidating to you, takes all of 25 minutes to make: process fruit in food processor, boil sugar and pectin for 1 minutes, add pectin/sugar to fruit--the best recipes usually come in the packages of pectin. I don't even peel my fruit, just chop up the skins with the fruit. Nobody in my family complains, and they are not the type of family to, you know, not complain in the name of politeness. And for the record, even with the cost of pectin, this perfect-in-every-way jam is cheaper or at least comparable to the grape jam at Walmart.

Also, be sure to use as many differently sized containers so you're sure to have trouble stacking them neatly in the freezer. This is the tried and true method I always use.

If you'd rather just freeze them, slice them up, lay them on a cookie sheet to flash freeze them (or freeze them enough so that when you throw them in a Ziploc bag, they won't glue freeze together in a huge gallon mass of peaches), and then throw them in a Ziploc bag.

Blueberries are in season too.

This morning we went to a blueberry farm (Decker's--1 lb for $2.50) and picked a whole stinking lot. I froze 10 large bags of them. I hope to have a bag for the next 10 months for blueberry soup purposes. You don't need to wash them before you freeze them. Just give them a rinse when you take them out to use them.

Strawberries have come and gone in our neck of the woods, but up north (which if I'm not mistaken is better strawberry country anyway), I believe that they're coming on strong. Which results in sales and sweet strawberries. I forgot to take a picture of my 10 lb of strawberries, but we ate about 4 lb and then I froze about 3 and jammed about 3.

So go forth, buy fruit, and prosper. Seriously, buy as much as you can afford, freeze it in bags and use it throughout the winter. If you get it on sale the prices will beat any bagged/frozen varieties you can find in the off season months and the taste is so far superior, you might cry.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Breakfast Pizza

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

As a cheapskate, pizza is your friend. As a cheapskate with a big family, pizza might just be your best friend. It consists of a good part bread, which is cheap. The meat, if used at all, can be skimped on as it's being used more as a flavoring than the big kahuna (unless you're a meat-lovers kind of family in which case, um, shop the sales). You can sneak certain veggies in and on it; and even if those veggies are absolutely not a hit, people can pick them off and still eat the bulk of the meal you've prepared (though you might still get a bit of whining--try to silence this by offering to give that kid's piece of pizza to another kid or to Dad--that usually shuts 'em up), Sure, the cheese is going to cost you a bit, but the cheese for a pizza can be bought on sale and frozen since the cheese for pizza usually ends up crumbly anyway.  

Also, pizza tastes good. In most families (even in my family--Motto: "We don't all eat what our mother serves:), it's a hit. In fact, I like to give pizza instead of the more standard casserole to friends when they've just had a baby. It's just as easy to take and store and I believe it's generally well received by pickier older children. 

Pizza can be made, left uncooked, and frozen. And then it is perfect for those nights when you've been working all day in the yard and you'd otherwise be inclined to, well, pick up a pizza. 

The only problem with pizza is that we tend to get in pizza funks. Tomato sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella. Which can get a little boring. Okay, never to my kids, but to me. On one such bored-of-pizza pizza night, I was looking for some inspiration and noticed a breakfast pizza on We had bacon; we had eggs. We had dinner. (Oh, you thought this was breakfast pizza, did you? Well, it certainly could be, especially if you let your dough rise in the refrigerator overnight. But we had it for dinner.) We even had fun with dinner. (Although if you are grown ups and making this for something grown up like a brunch, you don't have to.)

(or maybe that's just scary)

On smitten kitchen, there was no sauce used, which made me so nervous that I had some marinara for dipping in case I got a revolt. People did dip because my kids and husband are dipping kinds of people, but I was surprised at how very much I liked pizza without the sauce. It felt so grown up, so not Chuck-E-Cheese. 

And as one final note, I must comment on the eggs. They came out a bit runny-ish. I know that this is how most people like their eggs and I think that this is possibly even how they were intended to come out. However, I wished for them to be more solid--not dry pasty yolk solid, but at least soft-boiled yolk solid. When we make this again, I will lower the temperature of the oven by about 25 degrees and increase the cooking time a bit to allow them longer to set up. I think using small eggs would also help. I will also, most likely break the yolks and spread them out just a bit (sorry Mister Clown face). 

Breakfast Pizza
makes two 12-inch thicker crusted pizzas
adapted from smittenkitchen
Prep time: 15 minutes (plus a 30-40 minute rise for the dough)
Cook time: 15 minutes
Cost: $3.00
(flour: .55, yeast: .05, Parm cheese: .50, mozzarella cheese: 1.25, eggs: .25, bacon: .40)

1 tsp active dry yeast
4 1/4 C flour (I used half all-purpose, half whole wheat)
1/2-1 Tbsp sugar (depending on whether you like a little sweet in your crust or not)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C warm water

1/2 C grated Parmesan
2 C grated mozzarella
2-3 eggs per pizza 
4-6 strips bacon
salt and pepper to taste
several leaves of spinach

Note: If you're minions will not object, you can also use several tablespoons chopped parsley, chives, shallot, and/or green onion.

For dough:

Combine yeast and water. Add sugar. Add 2 C flour and mix well. Add rest of flour until it becomes to hard to mix. Turn it out and knead it for several minutes (5-8). Or use your Kitchenaid and go leaf through a magazine for 4 minutes or so. Put in a warm area and let rise until doubled (about 30-40 minutes). You can use this time to prepare your other ingredients, as described below.

When it's risen, divide it in 2 and use your fingers to press it into 2 round pizzas. Alternately, you can make 1 large rectangular pizza in a jelly roll sheet. Lightly grease whatever sheet you put it on (or use a baking stone).

For toppings and to prepare pizzas: 

Fry bacon in a skillet over medium heat until crisp. Drain on a paper towel. Break into pieces if you wish or leave large and make a smiley face and funky eyebrows.

Sprinkle almost all cheese over dough. Add spinach and sprinkle remaining cheese over that too. Add bacon pieces. Crack eggs over pizza (small ones are best; break the yolks if you want more cookage to go on). Season eggs with salt and pepper. Add other herbs, onions if using.

Bake at 375 for 10-15 minutes or until yolks are done (with rack set to medium position in oven). Note: Pizzas are generally cooked at much higher temperatures--especially, I believe, pizzas with a thin crust. The original recipe called for crusts half as thin and for the oven to be at 500 with the pizza baked on the lowest rack. This might work with a thin crusted pizza and it might take care of the runny egg problem, but Kip likes thick crusts, so I originally baked mine at 425 on the middle oven rack and ended up with runny yolks and slightly too-brown cheese. Perhaps I should have had more faith in the 500 degree lowest rack, though I still don't quite believe that it would have gotten my thicker crust cooked. Thus, if you have a thin crust, go with 500 on the lowest rack for 8-10 minutes. If you have a thick one, you can still do that, or you can try what I intend to try--lowering the oven temp and giving a longer cook time. If it doesn't work, leave an angry post telling me I should have tried this before giving out random advice, as I surely should have. I promise to on my next pizza.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half by Annette and Steve Economides

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as my family of 6 eats on $6/day (or at least shoots for that range).

In their book, Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half , Annette and Steve Economides (yeah, that's their real name; I know; I was surprised too) share ways that their family of 7 eats on the very cheap.

These people are pretty amazing. They eat on $350/month and with that feed five children who are, gasp, teenagers. This is impressive, even to me. Teenagers are one of those things that frighten me. I believe all husbands should be handed to you with a label stamped: "Warning: Teenagers may ensue." Of course no one would pay attention. It's just one of those things that seems so far away when the nurse hands you a tight little wad of pink baby. Anyway, that is not what this book is about. It is about eating on the cheap, even when teenagers (yikes) are involved.

So, how do they do it? I was really excited to find out. I knew I wouldn't cut my grocery bill in half, but I hoped to shave off an extra $20 or so.

The book gave good solid advice:
Learn to cook.
Plan your meals.
Shop less frequently.
Shop only a few stores.
Buy stuff on sale and store it.
Use coupons when you can, but don't worry about going crazy if it's sucking all your time.
Plant a garden if you can.

They also had recipes in the back--some I wanted to try and some I didn't. Which seemed really real family/real food to me and I liked that.

Additionally, they gave advice about what appliances might be the most useful to a cheapskate, ideas about when to go new or used with things like kitchen appliances, and how to make the most of your food money in that way.

Some of this was valuable, if just for reminder's sake. However, the problem with good solid advice is that it tends not to be the freshest thing you've ever heard. Generally speaking it was stuff I'm already doing. Generally speaking it's not stuff I feel people need a book to know. Generally speaking, people already know, for example, that to save money they need to plan their meals. They just don't.

When you got into the nitty gritty, you got some tips that were a little fresher, but they were also significantly more difficult and in my case at least, significantly less appealing. Which isn't to say they were bad suggestions. I thought they were good suggestions. They just passed a threshhold and went into the zone of things I was usually unable or unwilling to do.

Here were a few of the more intense money-saving ideas:
-Grind your own meat. I concede that I'm just so uninterested in doing this, that I just won't. I don't doubt that it will save you money and I bet it tastes fantastic. I just won't do it, but I imagine some will.
-Shop once a month with a mid-month pit-stop for more produce. This is not a bad suggestion and I do do this on a small scale (1 or 2 big shopping trips, with small weekly ones thrown in for milk or produce), but one advantage of teenagers (hurray, there is one) versus small children is that it's just not reasonable for me to give up 4 hours (and that's after the planning and coupon clipping) to do a major major shopping trip each month. I could hire a babysitter or choose an afternoon Kip would be home, but I do not want to. If you're a young (okay, young-ish) at-home mother, you will understand that you don't want your "me" time to be spent in a Walmart. It's just more reasonable to take my kids with me on shorter, but more frequent trips. They learn (sure they do--they learn to beg for disgusting otter pops, that's what they learn); I survive; and the faster I get out of the store, the better it is for all. In this way, they do keep my spending checked. If allowed to wander alone through the aisle of the store, who knows what might happen. I'd probably come home with an elephant to butcher and then grind up in our new meat grinder or something.
-Take one day a month to prepare a significant amount of your food and then freeze it. They prepare about 15-20 or their meals ahead of time and freeze them. Wow. It takes a whole day to do and a chest freezer to store it, but then it's done. Again, this isn't a bad suggestion, but with small children it's tougher to do. Also (and again), I don't want to. It struck me as a suggestion that would be awesome for people who don't really like to cook, or who don't like to cook on a daily basis. I actually really enjoy cooking and--usually--I enjoy the ritual of doing it every evening. That said, I did decide to give it a try with a few meals or with portions of meals. It'd be really nice to have a pizza or two frozen. And maybe even some casseroles. Not for every night, but maybe 3-5 for some of those crazy nights. Or for times when you needed something to give to someone else, but don't have extra time to prepare something. And that would be much easier to do than preparing nearly a month's worth of meals in a day. Instead, you'd just make an extra casserole or pizza on casserole or pizza night, then you wrap it up tight and freeze it in its pre-cooked state. Also, I think it's a great idea to cook, say, double the spaghetti sauce or double the ground beef and freeze the unused portions so that on a night when you're trying to throw something together, you've made it really easy to do so.

My other issue with the book was that they were still shopping the same old factory-farmed meat, cheese, and milk. Yes, it's cheaper, but sometimes better or more right just trumps cheap. Sometimes. Additionally, although they were careful to prepare fairly nutritious meals, I felt their were less fruits and vegetables and more meat on their plates than is my personal style.

In conclusion, if you're already pretty tight with your money, I doubt this book has too much to offer. But if you're just embarking on your road to cheapskatery or organization (in order to live cheaper) the book probably has more to offer you (including several recipes and charts that might be useful if you were wanting a system of your own).

And in case you couldn't tell, I haven't been paid or reimbursed in any way to read this book.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Four Cheese Chicken

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 tries to eat on $6/day (or at least make it into the $6 range).

I bet you're ready for an entree, aren't you? Fortunately, Kip's got your back. For Father's Day we did not only eat chocolate chip cookies (not that there's anything wrong with that). We also had meat (and, heck, some other stuff too).

Four cheese chicken is a family recipe. Kip says that my mom made the first time he ate at her house. Apparently, she wanted to get me married off. Kip still requests it often for his birthday or other special occasions.

And despite the fancy instructions, it's pretty easy to put together too.

Four Cheese Chicken
Serves 4-6
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30-40 minutes
Cost: $8.55
(chicken--5.00, although you can half it and just have lots of stuffing, which is what we did, cottage cheese: 1.00, mozz. cheese: .45, cheddar cheese: 1.00, Parm cheese: .20, spinach: .75, milk: .08, butter: .07)

4 chicken breasts, cut in half length-wise (so they're flatter)
8 oz. cottage cheese
4 oz. grated mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp olive oil (or another vegetable oil)
1 Tbsp butter (use only if you don't have many drippings from chicken)
1/2 Tbsp flour
1/2 C milk
4 oz. grated cheddar cheese
1/2-1 lb spinach (I use frozen that is thawed and drained, although fresh would work too if you wilt it first)
salt and pepper to taste

First cut your breasts in half length-wise. This means you're cutting them so they're just as long, but they're thinner. You can pound them even flatter if you wish, but I never do.

In bowl, combine cottage cheese, mozzarella, and Parmesan.

Lay breasts out flat and plop a generous plop of cheese mixture on each one, then spread it out just a bit. Add a generous plop of spinach on each and spread it out just a bit. Roll these up and close them by sealing them shut with a toothpick. They'll be a little chubby and oozy--that's okay.

Heat olive oil in a skillet and cook each rolled up chicken breast until brown on both sides (4-6 minutes per side).

They'll look kind of like this, only hopefully in more flattering light (I used half the number of breasts because that's all we had):

Take them out of the skillet and put them in a 9x13 inch pan. Heat oven to 400. (You can throw the breasts in to let them get a head start in the oven and to keep them warm--I usually do this, but you don't have to.)

If you've got drippings from the chicken, use those. Otherwise, add 1 Tbsp butter to skillet. Add flour and whisk it in (you'll likely have some chunky chicken-y stuff coming up from the bottom of the pan--that's great).  Add milk and whisk in. Let mixture thicken for a minute or two. Add cheddar cheese and melt into white sauce.

Pour cheddar sauce over chicken breasts and put in oven.

Note: I always have some extra filling stuff. I just throw it into a corner of my pan and pour some sauce over it too. It's always super good.

Cook for 15-20 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink.

We serve ours over rice, but potatoes or pasta would probably do nicely too.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Healthy Kiss Cookies

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats on $6/day.

We started off last week with on an ice cream topping jag. This week I start off with a cookie jag. Forgive me, I don't know what my problem is. Oh, wait, yes I do: there are men in my life. Men, in case you haven't noticed either a) have no problems with their weight or b) don't care if they have problems with their weight. Furthermore, most of them are perfectly comfortable with the idea of dying at, say, age 50, which to them is eons away. Even if they're in their late 30's. In a way, it's kind of refreshing, these men with their carpe diem live-for-the-moment sorts of ways. Refreshing and alarming both because, yes, I'd like to keep mine around for a little longer than age 50.

So, even though we splurge on cookies like the ones I made this weekend for Kip. And even though I have absolutely NO problem with splurges like this--truth be told, I find them rather good for the soul. Even so, for our day to day cookie needs, I like to keep it a little healthier (well, you know, most of the time). So, while I don't believe you can rightly call anything with a big Hershey's Kiss on the top a breakfast cookie, it does have half the sugar, half the fat, and whole wheat flour. A very solid lunch box cookie if I do say so myself. Or day camp cookie, which is how this recipe came to be. You can thank the littler man in my life for today's recipe. He had day camp for cub scouts last week. It's the first day camp any of my kids has ever attended. I wanted to send the message that I love him without any embarrassing napkin notes. He being male and all, Hershey's Kisses seemed the obvious choice. One day he'll look back and he'll know. For now, he'll just be the envy of all his friends.

Healthy Kiss Cookies
adapted from Hershey Butter Blossoms
Makes 36-48 (They said 48, but I got considerably less)
Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Bake time: 10 minutes
Cost: $2.31
(kisses: 1.00, PB: .65, butter: .25, sugars: .06, eggs: .10, whole wheat flour: .25)

Note: Try to find kisses on sale after holidays and then freeze them in a deep dark spot in your freezer where no one will see them or even think about them until you see a recipe like this and remember that you, conveniently, have some inexpensive ones on hand.

30-35 Kisses, unwrapped (about 1/2 bag)
3/4 C creamy peanut butter
1/4 C butter
2 Tbsp brown sugar
3 Tbsp white sugar
1 egg
2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 C whole wheat flour
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt

Cream peanut butter, butter, and sugars. Add egg. Add milk and vanilla.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix until combined.

Roll into 1-inch balls. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes.

While they're baking, remove the kisses from their foil. As soon as you pull the cookies out of the oven, press one kiss into each cookie. The edges will crack just slightly and it was all be lovely.

Let cool and serve or send.


Monday, June 20, 2011

New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookies: Foodies versus Evansville

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 tries to eat on $6/day.

I know I'm a little late to the party here, but for Father's Day I finally determined it was time to try the famed New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie. I'd never tried it before because I am perfectly happy with the chocolate chip cookie inspired by my very own sister Katie and made frequently and wonderfully by my very own husband. However. I thought Father's Day called for something special. And there's nothing Kip loves more than a good chocolate chip cookie (except maybe a good brownie, depending on his mood). And every blog I've ever read rave rave raves about the New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie--some referring to it as the holy grail of chocolate chip cookie recipes.

Which is why I was surprised when I actually read through the recipe and the NY Times article that accompanied it.

Let's talk about what bugged me, shall we? I need to get it off my chest.

1. This recipe does not use chocolate "chips." It recommends using chocolate discs called feves, which can be found in several pricey stores not to be found in Evansville, IN (though I hear rumors of a Fresh Market). Rightly, the cookie should be called "Chocolate Disc Cookies." It's not that I am opposed to chocolate discs, people. It's just that traditional chocolate chip cookies are not made with them and I am going for the perfect traditional chocolate chip cookie. There are plenty of non-traditional chocolate chip cookie recipes out there that are purely amazing (like the America's Test Kitchen one with browned butter), if a little bit fussy. I was going for traditional, but perfect. For them to start off by using a "chip" that is not even a "chip"--a "chip" that in some parts of the country must be ordered online--to me this was already a big step away from a traditional, accessible, albeit transcendent American treat. I believe cookies can be transcendent without being snobby. I believe that most perfect recipes do not call for elite ingredients. Additionally, I'm pretty sure the original Tollhouse cookies were made with chips. Otherwise I expect Tollhouse would have become famous for its discs rather than its chips. To further annoy the chocolate chip cookie traditionalist in me, the chocolate discs were to be comprised of dark chocolate. Again, I am not opposed to dark chocolate. It is, in fact, one of my primary loves in this world. I especially love it in chocolate chip cookies. But it, too, is not purely traditional. For my cookies I compromised (and used what Evansville could offer me) and I used 1/2 part Nestle Chocolate Chunks (semi-sweet) and 1/2 part Ghiradelli dark (60%) chocolate chips (which are larger than normal chocolate chips).
2a. It calls for nearly double the chocolate (a full 20 oz. of chocolate versus the 11 or 12 oz. that comprises a bag of chocolate chips) that most chocolate chip recipes do.
2b. It instructs that the cookies be huge--1/3 of a C of dough--or a 5 inch cookie. This, it says is necessary for a nice soft middle and a nice crispy edge.
2c. It informs us that these are best warm and should be served warm.
Okay, you're probably wondering what my problem is. I mean, who wouldn't want a chocolate chip cookie with double the chips/discs, that are 5 inches in diameter and served warm. Exactly. And I bet if you took your stand-by chocolate chip cookie recipe (or even something from a boxed mix), doubled the chocolate chips, made them 5 inches wide and served them warm, that you'd have a pretty amazing cookie too. I bet any co-workers or guests you served them too would stare at you with wanton, albeit sugar-crazed eyes and ask you for the recipe. To me doubling the chocolate and the size and telling me to serve them warm is not delivering the perfect cookie. I want a cookie that can stand by itself even if I use less chocolate. I want a cookie that will not send my family into size overload--a cookie that even when small can sport a gooey middle and crispy edge. I want a cookie that is great warm, but that can be amazing the next day too. That, my friends, is a cookie. So far, I wasn't feeling that this is the one I was going to be delivered. Give an ugly girl a boob job and plenty of guys will stare.
3. The NY Times recipe called for bread flour and cake flour to be used in equal weights (8.5 oz. of each). In case you don't know bread flour is bread with a higher gluten content. Cake flour is a flour with lower gluten content. And all purpose flour is flour with a middle of the road gluten content. By combining 2 flours at the 2 ends of the gluten spectrum, I expected us to come up with something that was a whole lot like regular old all-purpose flour. This seemed crazy to me. (And more expensive.) But I am a woman of faith. I understand that sometimes even when things don't seem completely logical, the results can surprise you. I do not normally carry bread or cake flour, so I went to the nearest store to purchase some. They had cake flour (at $3.38 for a mere 2 pounds), but no bread flour whatsoever. It was at this point that New York (motto--"Sea Salt: Sprinkle It on Everything") and Evansville (motto--"Bread Flour: Fact or Fiction) began to feud. I asked the woman who worked there if there was bread flour. She conscientiously looked over all the flour, finally pointing out some of the breadmaker mixes (which have the words 'bread' and 'flour' in their names) and asked if that was it. No, no it was not. "I didn't realize there was something called 'bread flour,'" she said politely, although--in my opinion--a little suspiciously. I gave up on the flour and turned around to find some chocolate chunks. Nothing. Nada. No chocolate chunks. And no Ghiradelli--dark and big or otherwise. I hope Kip knows I love him because I took my baby out into the pouring rain and went to another store. Fortunately for my sanity and the rest of me, they had both bread and cake flours as well as Ghiradelli dark chips and Nestle chocolate chunks. Not only that but the cake flour was cheaper than it'd been at the first store, albeit still pricey for a cheapskate. And the bread flour was downright reasonable at $1.69 for a 5 lb bag. And so, a mere 5 minutes and $12 later (this is a gift, so I've got a little leeway, remember), I left the store. Here again, $12 for a basic cookie--it seemed a little looney. No, I wouldn't use all the flour, but the over $6 of chips would be used. And I hadn't even purchased butter, which I mercifully had at home.

The New York Times recipe gave a couple other odd and fussy instructions.

1. The use of chunky salt--both within and sprinkled on top as a compliment to the chocolate. Heaven knows I love chocolate and chunky salt in combination--again, not traditional, but easy enough not to demand my ridicule (even Aldi sells a chunky salt). However, I pretty much knew Kip wouldn't like it--at least the on top stuff. And I'm willing to bet there are others who would taste it and deem it just too salty or different.
2. If you let the dough rest for at least 24 hours, it will be better and more complex than if made that day. Okay, I pretty much know this makes for a better and slightly more complex and buttery-tasting dough because Kip and I often leave part of our dough in the fridge overnight because we don't want to make 36 cookies at once and then have them just go stale (I hear they're even better after 2 days in the fridge and think that this is true as well), but a) I find the difference in taste only slight. It's not like you're going to have the aged dough and be like, "Oh my gosh, this is the best cookie ever" just because the dough is aged. And b) I feel that chocolate chip cookies are one of those hey-wouldn't-it-be-fun/yummy-to-make-some-chocolate-chip-cookies-right-now-because-I'm-totally-craving-them foods. If you're making them for work or a party, that's another thing. But usually we're making them for ourselves and we want them NOW. (But, yeah, maybe we're the only ones.) Thus, I feel that a really great recipe needs to be really great on the first day too.

What I made (because I clearly have an obsessive compulsive disorder):

1. The New York Times Cookie
2. The New York Times Cookie with all-purpose flour instead of a bread/cake flour mix
3. Kip's Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe (in the link you'll see a cookie made with part M&M's--for this I used only semi-sweet chocolate chips with a few leftover Ghiradelli darks thrown in). This was actually an afterthought. After making the doughs for the NY Times variations, I figured I better make Kip's too. I knew we could only decide if the NY Times trumped Kip's by eating them side by side.

How I made them (do you need more proof that I have a disorder):

1.In 1/3 C increments without resting the dough (i.e. baked right after I made the dough).
2. In normal cookie increments without resting the dough.
3. In 1/3 C increments after resting the dough for at least 24 hours.
4. In normal cookie increments after resting the dough for 24 hours.
5. We also tested all the dough--unaged and aged.
6. And we tested the cookies the day after we'd made them--i.e. day old cookies.

The Results:

1. The NY Times were always the flattest.
2. Kip's was always the thickest.
3. The NY Times had a beautiful golden edge.
4. Kip's had the best center.
5. The NY Times made with all-purpose flour was always in last place in every tasting.
6. The doughs were the hardest to tell apart, except that the sea salt ones were saltier tasting.
7. The sea salt was good in my opinion and gross in Kip's opinion. I think if you take cookies sprinkled with sea salt to a non-foody crowd, you're likely to get a mixed or possibly even bad reaction.
8. The sea salt (the kind in the dough, not the kind sprinkled on top) was much more noticeable on the cookies made on day 1 (the un-aged dough) than those made with the aged dough.
9. The aged dough did make for a better cookie, but not so much better that you couldn't make cookies on the first day and plan on them being great.
10. All three cookies were truly pretty awesome.
11. The monster sized cookies were not in any way better than the normal sized cookies. If anything, they were a little peskier as the middles were sometimes a tinge raw when the edges were just right and visa versa.
12. Ready for the biggest and most illogical surprise. Well, have a look at this picture. Go ahead, click on it and look closer. Then tell me which one (left, center, or right) was made with nearly half the chocolate.
How about in this picture?
Kip's cookie came out consistently as the chocolate-y-est tasting and looking. Every. Time. Big cookie, small cookie. Every. Cookie. I used 10 oz. of chocolate in the other recipes and only about 6-7 oz of chocolate in Kip's recipe. With Kip's I was using normal sized chips while with the others I was using a combo of large and chunk chips. I believe that the smaller chips actually end up leaving you with more chocolate in every bite because the little ones can cover more ground. With the larger chips you might end up with a big chunk of chocolate (and it's true that sometimes I'd take a bite and taste nothing but chocolate in the NY Times variations). However, the normal sized chips could be more evenly dispersed (they could also stack, especially in Kip's thicker cookies), leaving you with a sense of more chocolate-y goodness. Without the added expense. Or calories (because this is a health food, right). Or trips to different stores (because your hillbilly store doesn't carry chunks). Ha, take that you snooty 20 oz. of chocolate feves.

Kip's Take:
Kip's favorite every single time with perfect consistency was his own recipe. And Kip's was a blind tasting where I mixed up the order of the cookies he was tasting.

My Take:
The New York Times. Did that catch you off guard? Yeah, me too. Because I have been dissing on them pretty much this entire post. I didn't really want it to be my favorite. It still was. Not by a landslide (I had to keep tasting the different types of cookies--it was brutal work, but I made it through.) But they were my favorite in almost every tasting. They had a lovely crunchy caramelized-tasting buttery edge. I love that in a cookie. Really. I have been known to eat off the buttery caramel-y crispy edges of cookies--leaving a haggard bunch of misshapen looking centers behind. I think I have the cake flour to thank for the superior edge. The finer, less gluten-y (and therefore potential for crispier) flour was probably what did it. Although. And this is a big although. Although, I didn't find them so supremely more amazing that I felt they were worth fussiness or a trip to the store. In fact, even after selecting them as my favorite, I still couldn't help feeling that the NY Times recipes was just a normal old recipe dressed up with a lot of fussiness. And that bugs me. In people and cookies both. There was just nothing so absolutely drop dead perfect-in-every-way about it. Sure, it had a great edge, but it had its flaws too. For example, on the day after test, Kip's cookies were clearly better--by a long shot better. Crispy edges can't make it through storage--they soften up. Thus, on the next day, the softest, thickest cookie was the winner. So maybe the NY Times cookie is just the best party cookie--time to think ahead and age the dough; and then they all get eaten on the same day.

In conclusion:

1. If you're a crispy edges person, the NY Times cookie is probably the one for you. If you plan to eat it on the first day. Also, if you don't have cake and bread flours on hand, it's not worth a trip to the store or the extra expense to buy them. Rather, reduce the flour in your normal cookie recipe by a couple of tablespoons. Sometimes Kip does this with his cookies to get a richer butter-y-er taste. You also get a flatter cookie, but if you're an edges person, the trade off will be worth it.
2. If you're a soft chewy center person, make Kip's cookies. They are truly so amazing. Also, if you plan to have them around for a couple days, these are the superior cookie to make. (As an added note: If you're going to be storing cookies for a few days, undercook them by one minute. Doughier (no, I don't mean raw--just less golden) cookies stay yummy longer, although they're not my favorite on the first day.
3. ***Save yourself some money, calories, and effort and just use a reasonable amount of regular old chocolate chips (generally about 1 bag for a normal sized chocolate chip cookie recipe).
4. Don't worry about sprinkling your cookies with sea salt. Unless you're a foodie and that's your thing. In which case, go for it.
5. Spare yourself the monster 5 inch cookie. Unless, of course, you like monster cookies. In which case, there is no way I'm getting in your way.
6. If you've got a cookie recipe you love, do not spend an entire day and a small fortune making three different half recipes of cookies that will come out tasting quite nearly the same and all really good. Unless you have a mental illness that you embrace. In which case, I'll be right over to help.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Few Ideas for Father's Day Desserts

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

Kip's Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting

Brownies with Browned Butter Frosting

Yes, they each contain prodigious amounts of chocolate. Which says something about my man.

For the father not in your house, try Kip's Brownie Mix

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sea of Sunflowers: A Tip

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

I have a thing for yellow flowers. I especially like sunflowers. Did you know their heads actually follow the sun as it moves across the sky during the course of the day. As if that's not exciting enough, they attract birds (and sometimes squirrels) and if you are a person of dedication, or a child, you can sit there for an hour popping the seeds open once they're ripe and it makes for a lovely morning. Admittedly, I prefer watching my kids and the birds go at them than doing this myself. I guess I've gotten too grown-up and efficient, or at least efficient-wanna-be.

Sunflowers can make a quick summer border. And if you've got space for a little sunflower patch, they're really really beautiful. They're also super easy to grow--just loosen up the dirt, throw the seeds on it, and smooth and pat them in. However, if you're planting a lot of them, it can get expensive. The little seed packets usually cost at least $1. Instead, head on over to a store like Rural King that sells bulk seeds--seeds which you use to fill your bird feeders. A handful of these cost only a few pennies (if that). You can now afford to share a few with the snails.

And speaking of snails: If they really are a problem--eating your sunflower seedlings or your strawberries or your zinnia, I crush eggshells and make an eggshell border around my plants. It works very well for me--the snails don't like sliming their way over the sharp shells. And by the end of summer the remaining shells are as good as compost.

So go buy yourself a handful of seeds and throw them into that abandoned spot in your garden. Or that ugly place that's always bare next to your AC unit. Or the corner of your yard that depresses you. Or, heck, if you've been too busy to get a garden in at all yet this year, have a little fun and just spread it with sunflower seed. It'll give you and the birds something to smile about.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Peach Milk

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

Apparently when not eating ice cream with perfect toppings in the summer I like cold frothy ice cream-like drinks. Also, I've set a modest, yet difficult-for-us goal of making sure my kids get at least 1 fruit or vegetable at each meal. There's no set quantity even. If it's a few raisins or a couple slices of apple that counts. Right now I'm trying to focus on just developing the habit of eating fruits or vegetables with each meal. It sounds like so little, and indeed it is. But if you had a look at March or May in Jean's Food Journal, you may have noticed how really awful we are in the kid fruit/veggie area--especially my oldest 2 children. Bad habits are hard to break, so I'm chipping away at them bit by bit. Frothy cold drinks with fruit inside are helpful.

I was first introduced to "milks" with fruit when I was in Taiwan teaching English for a few months. The street vendors would sell them and they were so so so (did I say 'so') good. My favorite was papaya milk. At least I think it was papaya. It's, uh, been a few years and I remember that it was a fruit I was not used to eating, but also a fruit I recognized. I also had watermelon milk and a few other types of milks that were really great as well. Drinking a 'milk' with fruit sounds weird to Americans, doesn't it? So let me say this. It wasn't made with skim milk (if you know what I mean) and it wasn't without a generous bit of sugar thrown it. In short, it was a lot more like what we'd call a milkshake. There, that makes it better now, doesn't it. Milkshakes with unusual fruit, but milkshakes nevertheless.

I'm not afraid to use whole milk with mine, though they work great with 2% milk too. And while I'm going to say that they generally need a little sugar (um, you know, to be authentic and all), I have tried to keep it reasonable (which I don't think the street vendors worried too much about). Also, I bet if your fruit is very sweet you could go without.

When I came back to the states, I started making a milk with peaches. I froze them which gave my drink a really milkshake-y texture. Good fresh ones are best, but this works great with canned ones that you've frozen overnight as well. I used to have a glass of peach milk and a slice of breadmaker-made bread every morning. It still sounds divine.

Peach Milk
Makes 3 C
Cost: $.85
(milk: .20, peaches: .65)

Note: As stated above I use whole or 2% milk. If you want to live dangerously and try it with skim, you can. My guess is that you'll compensate for the lost fat by adding more sugar, but feel free to prove me wrong.

1 1/2 C milk
1 1/2 C frozen peaches (or other fruit)
1/2-1 Tbsp sugar

Blend it all together. Add a couple tablespoons more milk if it's too stiff. Add a couple table spoons cream if you're feeling wicked.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Raspberry Sauce

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

Yesterday I did a little dissing on vampires. They're just not my thing. They have long teeth. They're pale and cold. They consume bodily fluids.

I don't read anything by Anne Rice, the ads for True Blood make me a little queasy (I honestly have to avert my eyes). And, although I may take my eternal salvation in my hands through the awesome blasphemy I am about to reveal, I haven't read the Twilight series. And, I know, those are, like, nice vampires and all.

Yet. Yet I have created the perfect food for a vampire/True Blood/Eclipse party. It was an accident I assure you. But a happy one. Whether you have a thing for vampires or not.

Remember my friend who brought me the raspberries. Well, she brought me some more. These are the people in your life you should keep around. We ate some and I froze a few and I had some vanilla ice cream sitting in the freezer so I made some raspberry sauce. And it was good. It was, if I don't mind saying so, very very good.

This is a fruit sauce that can be used on ice cream, on/in plain yogurt or over pancakes/waffles. And you needn't use fresh raspberries--any berry will do as will peaches or cherries. Fresh or frozen are both fine. Usually I leave the fruits kind of in tact, but in this case I thought the seeds were just too seedy, so I mashed the fruits and then strained them out (which really wasn't very hard at all). And--oh my. The remaining sauce was utterly gorgeous and super full of raspberry punch with just the right amount of sweet (i.e. not overly sweet).

The only problem was that when I drizzled it over my white, creamy, virginal ice cream, all I could see were the words "Twilight Party." If that's your thing, go for it. As for the rest of us, we'll swirl the spooky cryptic messages into our ice cream and eat it anyway. Oh yes we will.

Berry Sauce
makes about 2 C
Cook time: 5 minutes
Cost: $4.00
(sugar: .08, raspberries--free if you've got great friends; otherwise they'll cost you $3-5)

1/2 C water
1/2 C sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
3 C raspberries, fresh or frozen (or blueberries or a mix of whatever berries; peaches or cherries work deliciously too)

Whisk sugar and corn starch together. Add water. Bring to boil. Add berries and simmer for a few minutes until soft. (It might seem to thick at first, but give it a few minutes and the fruits will release their juices and all will be right with the world.)

If you don't have seedy raspberries, you're done. You can mash a few of the berries and leave the rest in tact.

With the raspberries, I took a potato masher and mashed them into a sauce right in the pan. Then I strained the sauce through a fine-meshed strainer. I pressed it a bit to get as much syrup as I could.

You could stop here--you've got your lovely sauce. Set it aside; you're not going to mess with it anymore. Still, I thought the seeds still had a bit of raspberriness left on them, so I put the remaining seeds back in the pan, added another cup of water and boiled for a few more minutes. The water turned fairly dark. I strained this again into a different bowl. What I had was a somewhat thick raspberry juice. It would have made beautiful beautiful popsicles. As it was, I just let it cool and gave it to my kids to drink. Yes, there was surely a bit of residual sugar in it, but I still thought it was a pretty healthy drink for them on a hot summer day.

This will keep in the refrigerator for a good couple of weeks. I'm guessing it also freezes very well, although we always use ours up before that point.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fail-Proof Caramel Sauce (with pictures)

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch as our family of 6 eats, or tries to, on $6/day.

Caramel is scary. Maybe not as scary as vampires (oh, wait, those are supposed to be sexy--they still seem really scary to me, but, um, I digress). Anyway, caramel can be a little scary. But unlike (or just like, depending on who you talk to) vampires, it can also be one of the sexiest, fanciest things out there. Perfect for romantic desserts, perfect for dinner parties in which you're trying to impress. Perfect for summer ice cream (now that is my kind of summer sexy--bikinis and vampires need not apply). But not if it's burned to oblivion or crusted in crystals to its pan. And not if it's crazy painful to make. Or brings you to tears from your failed attempts and wasted (sob) cream. And certainly not if it comes from a Smuckers jar of flavored corn syrup that you obtained from a superstore of some variety. With all due respect to Smuckers (not really), their ice cream toppings are crap. And they are expensive crap.

Real caramel is full of top-notch stuff that people consider expensive ingredients--butter and cream to be precise. Many of us avoid buying those things for just that reason. And yet we'll get a craving for caramel and go drop $2.50 on a few ounces of corn syrup and, er, "natural flavoring." You can make it for cheaper my friends. Not just a little cheaper. You can make it for $.86. And it doesn't even need to be frightening.

A couple Christmases ago, I wanted to make caramel sauce as part of a Christmas present for my sister. I had to make it three times. I was sweating over my stove. I was teary and nearly cursing. I was hollering at my kids to get out of the kitchen. I was about to stick my head in the boiling, burning sugar. The Christmas spirit was being felt by all. And then I pulled out my New Best Recipe Cookbook and there sat a method for caramel that did not fail me then and has not failed me since. Bless you New Best Recipe Cookbook. Bless you.

Today the recipe I share with you is from, I believe, Simply Recipes. Three purely good ingredients: sugar, butter, cream (oh, and water too). The method is from New Best Recipe. It is perhaps even more important than cream. If you know me, you know that's saying a lot.

Fail-Proof Caramel Sauce
adapted from Simply Recipes and New Best Recipe Cookbook
makes a good 1 1/2 C
Cook time: 20-30 minutes
Cost: $.86
(sugar: .16, cream: .50, butter: .20)

1/2 C water
1 C sugar
6 Tbsp butter, cut into chunks
1/2 C cream
1/8-1/4 tsp chunky sea salt (optional, for salted caramel, yum)

1. Put water in a pan. Please do not use the cheapest, flimsiest-bottomed pan you have.

2. Pour sugar in a mound in the middle of the water in the pan.

Don't worry, the water will soak into the sugar. Putting it in a mound in the middle means crystals of sugar are less likely to get on the side of the pan, causing the final mixture to crystallize.

3. Put the lid on the pan and turn the heat to medium or just shy of medium.

4. Let it boil. Do not stir it or mess with it in any way.

La di da. This is going to take 10 minutes or so. You don't need to watch your pot too much at first. Do the dishes, make the kids lunch. Whatever. (Do NOT leave the kitchen and then forget you were boiling sugar.) This method of caramel making does take a little longer than just letting your sugar melt and adding butter and cream. However, at this point of the process, you don't have to be super duper attentive. Give it a glance here and there to see if it's starting to change color. Also, take a few minutes to get your other ingredients ready... (see step #5). [Note: You can remove the lid when it starts to boil as long as the sugar is entirely dissolved. If it's not, leave the lid on.]

5. Get your other ingredients ready.

At a certain point in caramel making, a little speed is required. It helps to have your cream measured and your butter cut. You can warm the cream if you wish (I used the microwave to get it warm--took me 25 seconds or so). It might make your life a little bit easier, but it's not essential with this method. (Cold cream--and sometimes even warm cream--can cause the boiled sugar to seize--or get kind of hard for a few seconds--worry not, even if it seizes, you just keep mixing and it will, um, un-seize--which is a totally technical term, I assure you.)

Here I'm going to update this post and add a tip from my sister-in-law that made this easier and less stressful and more perfect. Put your butter and cream together in the microwave and microwave (and mix) at 20 second intervals until the butter is melted and the mixture is warm. Then just pour this into your amber caramel. I believe this helps in a couple of ways. It doesn't foam as furiously. It doesn't seize. It mixes in faster, making it less likely for your perfectly amber sugar to burn while it waits to get mixed up. It's just easier.

6. When the boiling sugar turns the color of straw, remove the lid and REDUCE THE HEAT to medium low.

7. It's still going to boil for a few minutes, but watch it now. If you're stove is even the teensiest bit un-level, rotate your pan. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES STIR THIS MIXTURE. Let it boil until it becomes an amber color. If your stove really is uneven or the sugar is cooking in an obviously uneven way (this is how my stove is), give it the gentlest of swirls every few moments (if it's really really uneven, take it off the heat and swirl it so so absolutely gently with a spoon--I will not even call it stirring; it is like moving the mixture with a spoon). You don't want the melted sugar to swish up on the sides of the pan AT ALL.

This is a bracelet made of actual amber. This is the color you want.

But take care not to go darker or you will probably burn your caramel. If you are nervous as I often am, or if you are making this for guests or a gift, err on the side of light amber. It may not be as rich as complex as the amber caramel, but it will be un-burned and perfectly delicious.

8. When it is an amber color, it's time to move quickly. Don't get nervous, just be ready. When it's amber, take the pan off the stove and whisk in the butter (I use a flat whisk, but any whisk will do--don't use a spoon--too slow). If it seizes and seems to separate and get funky, just keep stirring. If it bubbles up (as it almost surely will), don't freak out, just keep stirring. All will be well. [Note: Again, as an update: Here you'll pour in the mixed/melted butter and cream mixture.]

9. As soon as your butter is incorporated, whisk in the cream--you're still moving quickly here, but you're almost done.

10. My friends, it is finished. And it is delicious. Stir it for another minute and pour it into a bowl that can handle some heat because it is really really hot. Put some on a spoon, blow it a lot, and taste it. Good, huh?

11. Allow it to cool in a bowl and then cover it for storage. It'll last quite a while just on the counter. It can also be refrigerated for really long-term storage (i.e. if you have a will of iron).

And now, at the end of this very long post, I have a confession. I burned my first batch. Oh, it wasn't the method's fault. I was trying to take pictures you see. And pictures are distracting and they take time to take, especially for me. First of all, I forgot to reduce the heat after I took the lid off. And then, I was trying to nail that right on perfect amber color and, um, my stove is not level and things just got away from me. By the time I'd clicked a few times, the sugar was burned. Just barely--just 30 seconds too long, but yes, it definitely tasted burned. It does give me the chance, however, to blab on a little longer discuss the color of your caramel.

The spoon on the right is burned, the one on the left is good (they'll both look darker in a bowl or pot--the one in the bowl above is the good caramel). You'll notice that there's a little place in between these two shades. The name of that shade is 'risk.' Hit it right on and you'll have the best most heavenly caramel to ever cross your lips. It will be deep nutty sweet, complex, and perfect, but miss it and you've burned your sugar and there's no going back. If you wish to try to hit that mark, I have a bit of advice. Go there slowly. Turn your heat to low (as opposed to medium low) after the lid is removed and rotate the pan a bit as it cooks. Remember that your pan is hot, so even when you take it off the stove, it's going to keep cooking for a few moments (which is sometimes all the time it takes to burn sugar), so keep your heat at low which will give you a lot more control and a little more time after the pan is removed from the burner. If your heat/pan is too hot, you're going to go from perfect to burned too fast to get the butter and cream in there.

Now, go forth and conquer thy caramel sauce.



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