Friday, September 16, 2011

Perky Produce People

If I were alone in the world and needed a friend, the first place I'd go is the produce department of my local grocery store. I mean, have you ever noticed how the people who work in the produce department always—and I mean always—say hi and ask if they can help you?

Of all the places in the grocery store where I need help, it usually isn't produce. I can tell a Fuji from a Granny Smith. I can divine whether a watermelon is ripe (mostly). I can even choose a darn fine head of iceberg lettuce.

And yet the one place in the entire store where you can't avoid human contact is produce. Not dairy, where I would like to know why the price of butter has skyrocketed to roughly the value of gold. Not canned goods, where I can never locate those light red beans I need for chili. And certainly not the jam and jelly aisle, where I can't find a three-berry jam to save my life.

If you try to avoid eye contact because you just want some alone time with your radishes and corn, they'll persist. You can't escape them. "Are you finding everything?" "Oh yes, although I did have a bit of trouble with the snap peas. They seemed to be hiding behind the butter beans, but I scoped them out! Thanks, though."

One of these days I'm going to ask the produce guy (or, rarely, the produce gal) exactly what they teach you in produce school. It has to be something like, "Every person who enters the produce department is either a complete idiot who has never seen anything green, red, or purple, or they're desperately lonely and in need of a friendly smile. Now get out there and make the world a happier, more produce-filled place!"

When I do, I'll let you know what he/she says.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Coach’s Oats No-bake Cookies

This isn't a cooking blog. Really, it's not. I just seem to keep cooking things and baking things that beg to be blogged. Hence a post about a no-bake cookie using Coach's Oats.

Never heard of Coach's? Me neither, till I found them at Costco a few months ago. I like old-fashioned oatmeal (I used to eat it uncooked when I was little because back then, I could pretend I was a horse). I like steel cut oats. But I never knew how good oatmeal could be till I tried Coach's Oats. A special process makes it better, somehow.

Anyway, back to the story. I friended Coach's Oats on Facebook because I wanted to know more, and I was charmed by the down-home, warm approach they took to their Facebook presence. And their blog had some pretty interesting stuff too—information about their products, sure, but also great recipes.

Then I noticed a comment that surprised me: they were still searching for a great no-bake cookie recipe using Coach's Oats. Well, they came to the right place (me). I have a great no-bake cookie recipe, so I took up the challenge of remaking it with Coach's Oats.

I had already asked the blogger/Facebook person about substituting Coach's Oats for regular old-fashioned oats in recipes. She recommended a ratio of 1/1, so that's what I used in the no-bake cookies: half old-fashioned, half Coach's.

I also cut the recipe in half, because who wants to use up all those ingredients when it may turn out yucky? Not me.

The result, shown above, was chewier than regular no-bake cookies, with a nutty texture. But that's what Coach's Oats is famous for, and I like these cookies that way. A lot. They remind me of granola bars. I also cut back on the sugar a bit and switched from shortening to a more healthful extra-virgin organic coconut oil. I definitely will use Coach's Oats in this recipe every time I make it. Yum!

Coach's Oats No-bake Cookies
Adapted from a recipe by Debbi DeSisto
Can be doubled.
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil (or shortening)
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup Coach's Oats
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Put milk, sugar, and coconut oil in a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil, whisking vigorously to blend. Remove from heat. Add remaining ingredients (I blend the dry ingredients by hand while waiting for the boiling to begin) and mix well. Don't forget the vanilla! Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. I use a cookie scoop. Let cool until they can be picked up without falling apart. Makes about 14.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Modern Woman vs. the 179-year-old Cup Cake Recipe

Modern conveniences and I are fast friends. I could not have lived in 1832; I would have figured out a way to have myself preserved until the twenty-first century, perhaps in a pickle jar—like the ones touted in The American Frugal Housewife.

I discovered this 1830s-era version of Hints from Heloise via Amazon. It was free for Kindle, and what modern woman doesn't love free? Besides, I adore Heloise and her hints & tips (or anyone else's).

About the time I started devouring Frugal Housewife, I noticed the America's Test Kitchen “Dish It Your Way” Blogger Challenge, which in its final week featured cupcakes. What had I just read in that 1832 book for housewives? Author Lydia Maria Francis Child's quaint and simple, but impossibly outdated, recipe for "Cup Cake"!

"Cup," I discovered, didn't mean those cute little paper wrappers in 1832. It meant "a cup of this, two cups of that, three cups of something else." The result promised to be "about as good as pound cake, and...cheaper."

The entire recipe read like this:
"One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beat together, and baked in pans or cups. Bake twenty minutes, and no more."
Missing: pan size & (gasp!) oven temp. Back then those frugal gals baked in wood stoves with no temperature controls or gauges. So I was stuck with giving it my best guess. Also missing: any type of leavening agent, like baking soda or baking powder, and any liquid, like milk. Staying true to the time period, I could experiment a bit and toss in a couple teaspoons of baking powder (invented in the early 1800s) and half a cup of milk (around much longer than 179 years).

Not staying true, but saving myself some time and trouble, I mixed it all up in my modern miracle (AKA the stand mixer). I used unbleached regular flour, not cake flour. The batter was thick and delicious, even without the addition of vanilla, an ingredient I couldn't find referenced anywhere in Frugal Housewife. Oh, so yum. (Yes, I eat batter and dough containing raw eggs once in a while.)

Using an ice-cream scoop, I divvied up about half the batter into cupcake wrappers. The other half I reserved for another experiment: chocolate. I added 1/4 cup of cocoa powder, turning the batter a rich, milk-chocolate color. That would have been the norm, 179 years ago, before our current fascination with dark chocolate.

Guessing at a moderate oven temperature, I put the regular, non-chocolate cupcakes in at 350°. As directed, I checked them at 20 minutes. They hadn't risen much, just cresting at the tops of the muffin cups, but they were a light golden brown. Time to come out. I couldn't resist tasting: Wow! Light, delicate, not airy or spongy, but delicious.

And crumbly: only six of the 12 came out of the pan clean. I reserved the prettiest six for frosting.

Next up: the chocolate cupcakes. I like chocolate as much as the next woman (in other words, heaps and loads), so these would be a rich treat. I'd been limiting myself for weight-loss purposes, but "challenge" recipes don't count. They must be tested, tasted, consumed, and devoured.

Oh, the loveliness of chocolate cupcakes coming out of the oven. The aroma, the anticipation... Oh, the bitter disappointment of what happened shortly thereafter.

I set the pan aside, cleaned up the kitchen, and returned to them after about ten minutes. Cooling time. And sinking time, too—not a single chocolate cupcake had risen to the occasion.

The little 8"x8" chocolate cake I had baked at the same time, with the extra batter, came out just fine. The six chocolate cupcakes were a sunken, dreary mess. Nothing to salvage there. Believe me, I tried, but the batter just wasn't cooked through. Bummer. I guess I didn't leave them in long enough. If I tried this recipe again, I'd bake the chocolate cupcakes for 25 minutes.

Here is the final result, the crowning achievement of the "Cup Cake" experiment: one perfect cupcake, crowned with vanilla whipped-cream frosting. I like the boxed kind sold by Wilton (so easy—you only add ice water). OK, I cheated on the frosting. I was in a hurry.

At the end of my evening of experimentation, I came away with a couple of thoughts: first, I'm more inclined now to bake a cake from scratch. Before, every cake in my kitchen came from a box. But with a few simple, wholesome (please don't argue with me) ingredients, I discovered I could have a delicious treat.

Second, the proportions of ingredients may make a difference, and a little more baking powder or a touch of salt may have helped the cupcakes to rise more, but the fun of this recipe was in the imagining: seeing myself in 1832, slaving away in a hot kitchen in Arizona's summertime without air conditioning, and then realizing that I live in 2011 with the benefits of a cool kitchen, a lovely stand mixer, and an oven with an accurate temperature gauge. I am more privileged than the wealthiest woman of Frugal Housewife's time. And I'm very, very glad.