Thursday, October 29, 2015

Old-School Cocoa Puff Bars

Once upon a time, I was a student at a very large Mennonite high school.  Later I was a teacher at this same school.  I ate in the cafeteria and those cooks did a pretty good job, better than other school cafeterias I've eaten in (but not as good as Mennonites at home).

They served a dessert called cocoa puff bars and I loved them. I can't actually now recall which lunch the bars went with, although I have never forgotten the green beans with the mac and cheese, the flabby pizza, and hot sauce with the Vietnam fried rice.

I remembered those bars a month or so ago and suddenly realized: I could make them!  And eat them again!  But alas, a Google search showed me that there are several versions of cocoa puff bars around (one, oddly, with a ganache topping; these are cocoa puffs, people, and they are not gourmet).

So I emailed the head cook of this Mennonite school, and she sent me the bulk recipe in pounds.  She said she had to hunt for it in an old file, which makes it sound like cocoa puff bars are no longer on the menu and I feel sorry for the current students.

They are super-simple to make and the cocoa puffs give a delicious crunch in the rich peanut-buttery goo.  If you can ignore the questionable nature of the puffs (what, exactly, are they?), these bars are wonderful.

I've made these bars twice now, and both times I finished the box by dumping the cocoa puffs into a finished batch of chocolate buckwheat granola with a fierce ironic glee. Health food: meet strange food!  Wheeee!

Cocoa Puff Bars, the old-school Mennonite version

Heat together (I do this in a large pot):
1/3 cup butter
1 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup honey

Stir to melt.  Turn off heat and add:
1 cup chocolate chips

Stir again.  Fold in:
7 cups cocoa puffs

Press and smooth mixture gently into lightly greased 9x13 pan. Cover. Cool to room temperature. Cut into bars.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Letters from Honeyhill

Letters from Honeyhill: A Woman's View of Homesteading 1914-1931 is an unusual treasure that Rebecca found at our library.  It is a collection of letters written by Cecilia Hennel Hendricks, who is an excellent writer with an eye for detail, humor, and human interest.  Her letters, selected and edited by her daughter, range in topic from housekeeping minutia and observations to her involvement in state politics to their family finances.

Cecilia writes about their first car (and car accidents), their first victrola, and redecorating.  She discusses canning and raising children with her sisters and mother, also going on at length about the petty squabbles of the various ladies' aid groups she is involved with.

Like most homesteaders, she and her family suffer tragedies, although Cecilia does not express self-pity, regrets, or despair in her letters.  I admire her fortitude even as I wonder how she kept it up (maybe she had times in her bedroom with the door closed that she feels are not something she cared to document for posterity!).  Occasionally, she refers to times when she was ill or “doing poorly” but she doesn’t elaborate.  When her parents and sisters send gifts and money, she is grateful and gracious - that takes such skill when difficulties slam up against pride!

I'll give you a short sample entry here below, so you can read for yourself Cecilia's style and insights. This book is well worth seeking out if you are interested in a women's biographies, housekeeping, or the homesteading/pioneering life.

Tuesday, June 5, 1923

“I am pleased to state that we now have a girl to stay with us all the time.  She came last night.  Her name is Norma Myers and she is a high school girl from Powell.  Mrs. Osborne told us about her last summer, and when we couldn’t get anybody else this time we got her.  I think she is about 18, and is a good big girl.  Mrs. Osborne says she has been cooking since she was 13 years old and can do anything about the house.  She is a neat looking girl and her mother is always as neat as a pin.  Their house looks nice, so I guess she knows how to do things.  It will certainly be nice to have our house looked after.  John does enjoy having a clean, neat house to sit down in after his work outside is finished, and when I had everything to do I couldn’t always keep the house looking the way I wanted it to.  The outside yard work in the bees will soon start and then of course I can put in my time to advantage helping John, and he will need help, for we have more bees this year than we have ever had."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Potato Breakfast Pizza with Shortcuts

I got the flavor profile from Good and Cheap, but the shortcuts are all mine.  I love a savory breakfast, and this one has satisfying carbs, no challenging flavors for the sensitive early-morning palate, and a bit of protein from the cheese.

The day before I want this pizza for breakfast, I get out the baking sheet I use for pizza.  I slice a large potato thinly and a large onion - toss them gently with a little oil or bacon grease (not too much because I want them to get dry and roasted), some salt and pepper.  I spread the potato and onion over the pan and since this is going to be the pizza pan, I can see the amount of topping I am making. I like a single layer of potatoes and onions.  Pop the pan of veggies into a hot oven to roast - maybe in tandem with another oven project? and mix up a half-batch of pizza dough.

When the potatoes and onions are tender and brown in spots, let it cool on the counter.  Cover it.  Now you are ready for the morning.

I do not refrigerate the potatoes and onions because I'm not worried about anything happening to them and I don't want to make another dish dirty (or make space in the fridge for the big pan).

In the morning, turn the oven to preheat to 500.  Slide the potatoes and onions off the baking sheet, sprinkle it with cornmeal, and stretch/pat the dough onto the sheet.  Shingle the potatoes and onions on the dough, slice some cheese (I used Swiss here, but I would also use an aged cheddar or fresh mozzarella) and put it on sparingly.  Bake the pizza at 500 for 12-15 minutes.

Perfect served with a side of applesauce and a deep cup of black coffee.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Two Thrifty Cookbooks Inspiring Me Right Now

I have been inspired by two new cookbooks from the library recently. It so happens that they are both thrifty, although in different ways.

The CSA Cookbook: No-Waste Recipes for Cooking Your Way Through a Community Supported Abriculture Box, Farmers' Market, or Backyard Bounty by Linda Ly is a new book (so I can't renew it and I just keep paying the fine because it's a rental fee, a donation to the library - right?).  Ly's parents were first-generation immigrants from Vietnam and they used every scrap of the food they bought.

I knew that rhubarb leaves were poisonous, so I guess I extrapolated that to mean that other leaves are not good eating either.  But: Tomato Leaf Pesto and Ginger-Spiced Chicken Soup with Wilted Pepper Leaves (and others!). I have already made her recipes for Chard Stalk Hummus and Kale Stem Pesto.  I didn't care for her specific recipes (she put lemon in the pesto and I like my hummus recipe better), but the concept is brilliant. I definitely will not be composting kale stems again!

Ly brings in a number of ethnic cuisine recipes, which makes sense because other cuisines are adept at using parts that we Americans ignore or discard. Chimichurri the Way an Argentine Makes It, for example, and Watermelon Rind Kimchi which has convinced me to seek out a Korean pepper paste at my Asian store.

My only pet peeve with this book (and it's not Ly's fault) is that it is a hardcover book which is difficult to wrangle in the kitchen where, ostensibly, a cook would want to have the book in order to use it.  Hey, cookbook publishers, make the cookbooks kitchen-user-friendly, like with a spiral binding or a three-ring binder.  I know the industry tips towards coffee-table book food porn, but I want a practical book.

The other cookbook I'm renting is paperback - a bit easier to manage as I cook.  It's Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day by Leanne Brown. It grew out of her master's project to make good recipes for people living on SNAP (formerly known as food stamps).

I am absolutely fascinated by this book because I deeply desire to get people, especially people with few resources, into the kitchen to cook and eat well.  Brown is attempting to reach a population that could really benefit from kitchen knowledge and cooking. I bump into people like this frequently at my kids' school, although I usually start up conversations with less-dangerous topics than cooking and eating.

Her tone is friendly and matter-of-fact and she has an impressive range of recipes and ideas for all kinds of cooks - I picked up several tricks along the way (corn cob broth, frozen melon cubes for a quick sorbet, savory breakfast oatmeal).  Her recipes focus on vegetables with just a bit of meat here and there; I am particularly charmed by the Half-Veggie Burgers, and the Chorizo and White Bean Ragu. I love her suggestions for hot dog toppings.  She divides her recipes into truly useful chapters:  Breakfast, Soup and Salad, Snacks, Sides, &Small Bites, Dinner, Big Batch, Pantry, Drinks & Desserts.  The final chapter of desserts is a tiny chapter and although Brown doesn't preach anywhere that sugar is bad, that tiny chapter is an unmissable statement.

Most of the time, Brown explains any fancy ingredients and techniques.  Sometimes, however, she forgets these cooks and accidentally shows her NYC roots.  Her dal recipe specifies black mustard seeds and cumin seeds in addition to other spices; these are not common spices, nor do they have wide application in a number of dishes. There are dhal recipes with more common spices (mine, for example), or she could list a variation with ground spices. A recipe calls for a "handful of Thai basil" - this is a rarity unless you have a garden or a fancy (probably urban) grocery store. She doesn't advise what to do with a partial can of coconut milk (I would freeze it in cubes for other recipes) and she generally specifies fresh hot peppers, which have unpredictable heat so you could accidentally make a dish too spicy to consume or burn your fingers and lungs in the process. For a stroganoff, she airily advises cooks to "ask your butcher" if you want to use a cut other than chuck. Most cooks don't have a butcher to ask, let alone a novice cook who is overwhelmed simply by the grocery-store display of meat.
Both these cookbooks have inspired new dishes in my kitchen, which is nice.  I cook for my family daily which occasionally bogs me down into a rut where I feel like I've cooked everything already. And now that I have told you about these books, I will return them to the library on the walk to school tomorrow.  Possible purchases in my future. . .

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Keeping the Diaper Pail Smelling Fine

Now that Phoebe is eating some solids, the diaper pail has developed a stench.  The "diaper pail" is just a lidded trash can.

I sprinkled baking soda in the smelly pail liberally, but it couldn't seem to quell the stench.  Back a generation, moms would keep the dirty diapers in a water/bleach soak.  But I wasn't willing to use bleach that often or risk little white bleach spots on clothes and floors and linens.

I found an idea online somewhere for using essential oils to help with the smell.  The only oil I have on hand is tea tree oil.  I knitted a little tag with a long string - it looks like a necklace.  I hang it down inside the diaper pail and sprinkle a few drops of essential oil on it.  It works so well!  All we smell now is tea tree oil, so I'm thinking I want to get a nicer smelling oil.

When it's time to wash the diapers, I take the tag off the pail and give the pail a hasty wash.  I usually let it dry outside overnight before I set it back up in the nursery again.  I sprinkle more oil on the knitted tag, and that's that.

Other easy methods for deodorizing a diaper pail?

Monday, October 12, 2015

My Four Lists

There are so many details to keep track of in our modern lives, especially for the person who is running a household.  Add multiple people in the household and the details increase exponentially.   I am helped by writing lists (my mother jokes that her mind is written down on post-it notes around the house).  Currently, my system has evolved into four lists on the side of my fridge (made on quarter-sheets of scrap paper).

Top left:  grocery list. (verbatim from the list: soy sauce, wax paper, red lentils. . . )  There's a general list of items that I could get at any grocery store; I shop at any local store that fits in with another errand.  On the side, I write items with their specific store, if there's a sale or something (for example, I buy my laundry detergent by refilling containers at a specific store). If there are coupons that go with any item, I clip those to this list.  My market list is a separate sheet of paper because I write a new one before each market trip and carry it with me (and sometimes lose it).  

Top right: this is my running list of non-grocery things that I'm keeping an eye out for, whether online or in physical stores. (verbatim from the list: blinds for green bedroom, black trash bags, construction paper. . . )  So, if my husband is running to the hardware store, I glance at that list to see if there's something he can pick up for me; or if I need to hit a minimum at a website to get free shipping, I try to combine purchases. This list is useful for me to decide if I really need something because it slows down my decision-making process and helps me decide how committed I am to that thing:  shopping for it, dragging it home, storing it, cleaning it, maintaining it. . . all that mental weight that I want to remember before I buy something. 

Bottom right: this is my very sketchy menu plan for the week. (verbatim from the list: honey mustard chicken, brown rice, kale)  See this post for lots and lots of detail about how I plan menus.  
And the final list, on the bottom left, if my to-do list for the week. (verbatim from the list: make samosas, start piano lessons, plan washing windows, schedule H&H)  It only includes the extra jobs that I am trying to accomplish in addition to the dailies. These could be cleaning tasks, social obligations, financial tasks, kid reminders, etc.  Sometimes a job reappears on the list for several weeks before I give up and drop it, or just make the time to do it. I am highly motivated to do my jobs because I get to put a checkmark next to an item if I worked on it and I get to cross it out if I completed it.  Seems silly, but that's motivating for me!

I'd love to hear what lists you keep to maintain your house and life, or maybe a different way that you run things.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ben's Thrifty Pajamas

Ben only had one pair of winter pajamas, so I sewed up another pair (using this pattern again).  I wanted to use what I had in my box of flannel, so I used grey flannel for the pants and a plaid for the shirt, and I had to actually sew together some pieces to make a big enough swath for the pattern pieces.  My big kids take a lot more fabric for their homemade clothes now!  The piecing turned out to be so subtle that I forgot to take a photo of it. And when I was done cutting out the pajamas, I had mere scraps left of each flannel.  I was so pleased with that thrift.

I gave him three choices for the buttons and he chose his favorite color, green.  I was expecting these pajamas to be big for him, to last another winter at least. Well.  They fit him pretty neatly.  Maybe I can extend their wear next year with truly contrasting cuffs at ankles and wrists.

The baby seems to be the required accessory for any photograph these days. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mary Anne's Tannies

My friend Mary Anne served these unassuming little bars to me last time I was at her house.  I sat up:  "I need this recipe - what are these called?"  She shrugged, and said her mom gave it to her over the phone.  I pushed her to name them, so I could more fully describe how delicious they were, and she wrote "Company Brownies" at the top of the page she wrote down the brief recipe.

I have renamed them.  They are not blondies, because there's peanut butter instead of butter.  I was actually surprised by that, because they don't scream peanut butter. They are not brownies - no chocolate.  No, due to the butterscotch chips and the peanut butter, they are tannies, I say.  My children made the short leap to "Mary Anne's panties," I'm sorry to say (and sorrier to report that I laughed, too; sorry, Mary Anne).

I also need to explain something: these are not health food and I'm totally fine with that.  I make random exceptions to my food preferences for local whole foods, and I think it's important for a literal thinker like myself to loosen up sometimes. I could not, you will see below, resist using whole wheat flour so I could justify eating more (they've got fiber!!).

Also, this is the first recipe where butterscotch chips totally make sense to me with the buttery, toasty, vanilla flavors.  In the future, I might try chocolate chips or toasted pecans.  I also bought commercial peanut butter because I thought its silky texture was needed here.  I might try homemade peanut butter in the future.  This recipe is a keeper, so I'll be playing around with it for a while.

My kids and I had a wonderful time throwing together these tannies one night after supper; the oven heat was cozy, the baby was happy. Genevieve heard Simon & Garfunkel sing "Silent Night/The 7 O'Clock News" for the first time and understood the irony and pathos of the mash-up. Mr. Thrift surfaced from his after-dinner nap just in time to ask for a hot tannie.

Mary Anne's Tannies

In a mixing bowl, cream by hand with a wooden spoon:
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 eggs
scant 1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. salt

Add and stir in just until mixed:
2/3 cup flour (I used whole wheat all-purpose flour, which is half soft and half hard wheat)
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup butterscotch chips (or toasted, cooled nuts or chocolate chips)

Press evenly in greased 8x8 baking pan.  Bake at 350 for 17-20 minutes, until center does not jiggle and your finger, pressed gently, does not leave an indent (this is tricky because if you wait for the bars to actually spring back against your finger, they will not have their perfect brownie fudgy texture).  Allow to cool before slicing unless you don't mind  raggedy edges like these in the photos.