Grilled Cheese

Our household is currently in the grip of a nasty gastro bug; Thing 1’s illness started promptly at 6:00am on Friday morning, and Thing 2 woke up at 4:30am Monday morning to begin her turn. I’ll spare you all the nasty details, but nobody in our house is really thinking about cooking or thrifting or crafting at the moment. Right now we’re all just trying to take care of each other and/or minimize the effects of the bug. So here’s a picture of a meal we made up last week:

That’s a grilled cheese (lactose-free for me) and avocado sandwich, served with a salad of romaine lettuce and baby spinach and a choice of dressings. The bread is a Farmhouse Loaf that Thing 1 made in the bread machine; the recipe is on page 72 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)).

Hopefully we’ll be able to return to your regularly scheduled programming quickly.

Personal Pizza

I’ve been craving pizza lately, which is pretty much a no-no because of the issues that my digestive tract has with dairy. However, to my everlasting joy, I’ve discovered that I can eat lactose-free cheese so long as I don’t go overboard, since cheese is also quite greasy, especially when melted. Since none of the pizzerias around here carry lactose-free cheese as an option, I thought that a “make your own pizza” evening was in order.

It didn’t look spectacular because I put the toppings under the cheese, but it tasted great! I started with the dough from the Two-Cheese Pizza recipe on page 170 of Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook (1999). This made enough for one 12″ pizza or four 4″ or so thin-crust-ish pizzas. (Next time I do this, I’m doubling the recipe.) You can’t actually cook pizzas in the bread machine, so I rolled out the dough into individual crusts and everyone topped their own. I used Healthy Veggie Tomato Sauce that I had in the freezer as the sauce, although I did simmer it a little to reduce it a little bit. I topped my pizza with ground beef and crumbled bacon, along with a few cremini mushroom slices. The rest of the family had theirs with more traditional mozzarella, but since cheddar was the only kind I could get lactose-free, I went with that.

I’ve tried Jamie Oliver’s Quick Family Pizza in the past, and although the kids liked it, one of the things I discovered about myself is that I’m not a big fan of the taste of self-rising flour. I think it’s just a little too salty for me. At any rate, I like the yeast dough a great deal more, and it’s just as easy as the quick bread version if I use the bread machine. So I think I’ll stick with this kind of dough for future pizza iterations.

Christmas Breakfast

Christmas breakfast was a big thing at my house when I was a kid. Mom and Dad pulled out all of the stops and bought all kinds of awesome food that we pretty much never had any other time of the year. I associated these foods so strongly with the holidays that it came as a great revelation to me when I moved out that I could buy Havarti cheese with dill or caraway seeds, or Babybel miniature cheeses, or Stoned Wheat Thins all year long.

We’ve been hosting Christmas breakfast at our house since the year that Thing 1 was born. Given that she would have needed to be fed and then probably put down for a nap sometime during the festivities, it just made sense for us to stay home and have the rest of my family come to us. Breakfast is generally served buffet-style, so that everyone can have a little bit of everything and then head over to the Christmas tree to open gifts, often while still munching.

This year I served (working roughly from left to right):

Nan’s pan rolls* with butter
– red grapes
– rosemary bread from the bread machine**
– homemade dill pickles
– Chevrai Original Goat Cheese
– Garlic & Fine Herbs Boursin cheese
Chicken Bones
– Daiya Plain Cream Cheeze Style Spread
– Crème Oka cheese
– Laughing Cow cheese
– my husband’s homemade cornmeal muffins
– homemade pickled beets
– coffee & tea with sugar & milk
– chocolate toffees
– meat platter with Hungarian salami, Montreal smoked meat, roast beef, and Black Forest ham
– shrimp ring with cocktail sauce
– Christmas Cookie Monster’s Shape Cookies (made, for the most part, by Thing 1 and Thing 2)
– cold hard-boiled eggs
– Babybel miniature cheeses
– cracker plate with Stoned Wheat Thins, Ritz, Vegetable Thins, and Rosemary & Olive Oil Triscuits
– pepperettes (all-beef by my hubby’s preference and European style for mine)
– Oka and Havarti cheeses
Fudgy Pumpkin Brownies (this time with no coffee)
– bananas
– strawberries
– clementines
– blueberries

In case you’re worried, no, the seven of us did not eat this all in one sitting. This much could have easily fed twice that amount of people, with food to spare! The point of this kind of meal (which only happens once a year) is that everyone can have as much as they like, and then it all gets packed away to become lunches and dinners for the next week or so. There were still a few leftovers as of New Year’s Day, but that was of the kind of thing that takes forever to go bad, like crackers. Some of it will probably even make its way into the kids’ lunches in the new year.

*I discovered that these rolls can be left to do their second rise overnight in the refrigerator, and then just popped into the oven to serve fresh-baked for breakfast. If you’re going to do so, make sure that the pan you use is metal and not glass, as it takes the glass longer to heat up and can make the bottom of the rolls take a little too long to cook. Also, if the top is browning but the bottom isn’t quite done yet, cover the top of the rolls with aluminum foil to prevent them going from “browned” to “burnt”.

**Classic White Bread, found on page 24 of Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook (1999) — but with half the sugar, olive oil instead of margarine, and about 1/4 cup fresh chopped rosemary added.

Low-Prep Suppers

I kind of have my kitchen back again… Okay, not the whole thing, but the counters and table are clear again, so I can cook properly. I made shepherd’s pie for dinner (but without the cheese topping, to reduce the amount of dairy and make it better for my gut). However, the meal was running late and we dug into it much too fast for me to take pictures. Instead, I have photos of the bread that was cooking while we were eating dinner:

That’s Beer Bacon Bread found on page 44 of Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook (Betty Crocker, 1999). I used a flat Guinness beer, a package of crumbled circular bacon, and chives from my window garden instead of green onion because that’s what I had on hand. It’s only the second time that I tried out any recipes for this book, and so far so good! There’s a Cottage Dill Loaf on page 152 and Brandied Pumpkin Bread on page 104 that I can’t wait to try.

Earlier in the week I had to make a few easy and quick meals that required little in the way of prep space, so I whipped up a loaf of Sally Lunn bread (page 25, also from Betty Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook), which I think called for an unreasonable amount of butter in the dough (6 Tbsp!), but I have to admit tasted quite nice. I used it to make grilled cheese sandwiches for the girls, with sides of sliced apples.

Of course I have issues with dairy (and at any rate I’d run out of cheddar), so I fried up a couple of eggs each for my hubby and I, and served it with the Sally Lunn, sliced apples, and mandarin oranges.

Earlier this week I went with a less bread-based meal and baked up some trout with in teriyaki sauce, which I served over rice with a side of asparagus.

I’m really looking forward to having this mini-reno complete so that I can try some new recipes! This hasn’t been nearly as time-consuming an affair as a full gutting of the kitchen (much as I’d love to be able to afford a 100% fresh new kitchen), but it’s still rather disruptive. At least it’s cheap!

First Bake of the Christmas Season

I wanted to spend today working on my last-minute costume, but the weather has started to change for the colder, and that meant that I had to make some changes to my house. The Weather Network is calling for rain, freezing rain, and snow over the weekend, so I had to be prepared. First, I had to put up the Christmas lights, since climbing on a ladder in the ice and snow is not a good idea.

Second, I had to clean the garage. I know it may not look like much, but it took me the rest of the day to get my garage this tidy. I really prefer to park under a roof in the winter; the car starts easier, it takes less time to get out the door because I don’t have brush/scrape off snow/ice, and it’s just generally better for the longevity of the vehicle. In warmer weather, however, my garage becomes my workshop-slash-storage-space, and it becomes cluttered and messy, and there’s no way you can get a car in there for about six months. So every fall I have to give it a good clean, and this year I’d let it get bad enough that it took me most of the day.

We still had to eat, of course, so I kept in the same mind-set as yesterday’s Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day — this having nothing to do with the fact that I still hadn’t gone to the grocery store, of course. I made grilled cheese for the family using yesterday’s Light Rye and Caraway Bread (page 75, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter (2002)) and leftover cheese from the cheese-and-crackers tray from the Halloween party, which I think was mostly cheddar and Havarti, possibly Gouda. Sadly, there was just toast for me, since I have yet to find a non-dairy cheese that I actually like. Alongside the sandwiches I served cream of carrot soup that I had made up around Easter and frozen.

This weekend there is an annual fundraiser to send the area Pathfinders on an excursion, for which the younger girls (Sparks, Brownies and Guides) help out. The fundraiser is a holiday tea held at a local church. Parents supply beverages and baked goods, the Pathfinders organize and run the kitchen, the Guides serve the hot drinks, the Brownies serve cold drinks and treats, and the little Sparks just serve treats. The younger girls only work in one-hour shifts and are always given the chance to sit down and have tea and treats afterwards, so they love participating in this fundraiser. Plus, it makes them feel really grown up.

Thing 1 helped me choose and bake the treats we’ll be providing, which after a perusal of my cookbooks Thing 1 proclaimed had to be brownies-without-the-capital-B. She picked the recipe from Cookies: Recipes for Gifting & Sharing (Publications International Ltd., 2016), the classic brownies on page 35. Other than taking longer to bake than the directions specified, they went off without a hitch! Of course, I had to try one of the brownies before I packaged them to drop off tonight, and they’re rich and chocolatey soft, firm on the outside with a soft, moist (but not under-cooked) center. I am definitely pleased with this recipe, and not only because it’s so easy! My only qualm is that it has a bit of dairy inside, so maybe in the future I’ll be able to come up with a non-dairy version.

Mom’s Homemade Macaroni & Cheese Recipe

One of my daughters was having a friend over for dinner tonight, so I made up my mom’s famous homemade macaroni and cheese. This dish is pretty much a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with the under-10 set, who are often more difficult to please and are less willing to try something new. It’s exponentially better than instant pasta and powdered cheese. In my opinion, my mother makes the best macaroni and cheese in the world; it was such a favorite of mine that I requested it for my birthday dinner for at least twenty years in a row. It made me very sad when I realized that my dairy intolerance means that I’d have to give up eating mom’s mac & cheese.

Mom’s recipe originally came from the back of a box of dried macaroni noodles, but over the years she tweaked and perfected it until it bears little resemblance to the original. This recipe makes a lovely creamy cheese sauce for the pasta and creates a crispy crunch on the top of the casserole. The crispy top is generally everyone’s favorite part and is fought over in my house.

Mom’s Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4

According to the directions on the package, cook:
2 cups uncooked dried macaroni
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a medium-sized saucepan or in the microwave in an oven- and microwave-safe casserole dish, melt:
3 Tbsp butter
Whisk into the butter:
3 Tbsp all-purpose white flour
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
Stir in:
3 cups 2% milk
Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly (with a whisk works best) until thickened to the consistency of a white sauce. Alternately, cook in the microwave, stirring every 3 minutes to remove lumps, until the desired consistency is achieved.
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp table mustard
2 cups coarsely grated old cheddar cheese
Optionally, you may add:
(1 medium onion, finely chopped)
Stir mixture until cheese is fully melted and ingredients are evenly mixed. Add the previously-cooked macaroni and stir well. Fill a 2.5-quart (2.3L) oven-safe casserole dish with this mixture. If sauce was prepared in the microwave, simply add the noodles to the mixture already in the casserole dish.
With a rolling pin, crush:
8 salted soda crackers* (about 25g (0.9oz))
Mix crushed crackers with:
1/4 cup grated old cheddar cheese
Sprinkle this mixture evenly on top of the contents of the casserole dish.
Bake uncovered for 20-30 minutes.
Generously serves four adults.

*I prefer Premium Plus or Premium Plus Whole Wheat crackers, but there’s no reason that other kinds of crackers can’t be used. I have made this recipe so many times — and relied on whatever I had in my pantry at the time — that I have probably used everything going. The crushed crackers used in the photos were actually Original Baked Naan Crisps by Sarah’s Fine Foods.

This recipe is very flexible. Here are some variations that I have tried:

– This dish freezes very well. When preparing portions for the freezer, skip the baking step when preparing. Instead re-heat the entire casserole in the oven at 350°F (175°C), which will re-melt the cheese and crisp up the topping. Bake until cheese starts to bubble and the center of the casserole is warm, which generally takes between 30min and 1 hour, depending on how large the portions are that you have frozen. You can reheat frozen portions in the microwave, but the topping won’t get crispy.

– This dish also travels and reheats well, so it’s perfect to bring to potluck meals.

– Use a different kind of pasta. Most smaller pastas, such as penne, rotini, rigatoni, shells, or wagon wheels, work just as well as macaroni. Penne rigate is a favorite of mine and is probably used more often than macaroni in our household. Whatever you choose, you’ll need about two cups of dried pasta.

This dish, to me, is the only truly proper one for making Mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese (although in reality any appropriately-sized casserole dish works equally well). It’s just that this is what my mom used for the entirety of my childhood: a Pyrex casserole dish from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s with flowers on the side.

– Use fresh pasta instead of dried. The yield for fresh pasta is different than dried, but in the end you’ll need about five cups of cooked pasta.

– For a healthier dish, use whole-wheat pasta.

– If you’re cooking without a stove, prepare the sauce in a microwave and bake the final casserole in a toaster oven. You can even “bake” the casserole in the microwave, but the top won’t get crispy (as I learned the hard way when my oven broke when cooking dinner for my in-laws for the first time).

– Change up the cheese; use a blend of cheddar and mozzarella/Gouda/etc., or switch up the cheese entirely. Sharp cheeses work best.

– To make baby food for an older baby, use whole-wheat noodles that are made without eggs and whole-fat milk. Skip the onions and the crispy top. Run the macaroni and cheese through a blender/food mill/food processor to make it smooth, adding whole milk gradually until the desired consistency is reached. This works best while the mixture is still warm, as it does congeal when it cools. My daughters loved their macaroni and cheese baby food — and now they’re huge fans of the regular kind.

Vegan Cheese

My friends know that I’ve been looking for dairy alternatives lately because, as I have mentioned before, I love dairy, but it doesn’t love me back. One of my friends send me a link to the Vegan Cheese recipe and tutorial video by The Buddhist Chef. The video makes it look really simple, so I thought hey, why not give it a shot?

Vegan cheese molded in a bowl instead of a ramekin, hence the dome shape.

My first hurdle was sourcing the ingredients (although I had many of the basics at home). My local Bulk Barn carries roasted, unsalted cashews, and nutritional yeast. The agar agar powder, on the other hand, was difficult to find. Bulk barn didn’t carry it, and most of the health stores I tried normally carried it, but were experiencing supply issues. I finally found the powder at Kardish, at about $12 for 57g (smallest package size available), so about $21.05 per 100g. For comparison, 28g of Knox unflavoured gelatin (the animal product that agar powder is supposed to replace) is $3.29 for 28g, or $11.75 per 100g. Since I’m not a vegan, I may try this recipe with gelatin instead of agar agar powder if I make it again, just to save some money.

The recipe did come together as promised by the recipe; it was actually fairly easy to make, once I had the ingredients. Flavour-wise, I unfortunately can’t say that this dish tastes much like cheese. However, it is a tasty spread in its own right. I would put it on a bagel or a pita bread, or serve it with crackers at a party. But it can’t really be mistaken for dairy cheese. Darn it.

Also, when made in a bowl instead of a flat-bottomed ramekin, this vegan cheese visually reminds me of “chicken cutlet” silicone breast enhancers that are inserted into a bra. Possibly not the best choice on my part, aesthetic-wise, but it did make me laugh.