baking, home cooking, mysterious ingredients, recipes

Be Your Own Betty Crocker

05.02.11 | 5 Comments

Since being back in America, I have had to deal with exposure to things that seemed foreign to me after my years in China. For example, soap in the bathrooms, toilet paper in the bathrooms, dishwashers, clothes dryers, plain yogurt, and brown rice, to name a few. Readjustment hasn’t been all that hard in most respects except for one: mixes.

Since coming to Florida, I have had far more exposure to things made from mixes than I ever had previously (though I’m sure I unknowingly ate plenty of things made from mixes during my years eating in college dining halls). Brownies, cake, cornbread, all with that same one-dimensional texture and flavor (though the brownies had been doctored in such a way as to render them edible. The same can not be said for the other). Why are mixes so popular? Baked good made from mixes don’t have the texture or the flavor of those made from scratch, and mashed potato mixes will never have the comforting je ne sais quoi of butter and milk smashed into a whole tuber. Their popularity must be their perceived convenience, though to me, choosing a mix over a scratch is like choosing to go to the Luxor in Las Vegas instead of the Pyramids in Egypt.

It is not that I have a problem with convenience; rather, my mix petulance stems from sacrificed flavor and especially all the little extras food manufacturers throw in. I try in earnest to avoid foods with long ingredient lists, but it is impossible to find a loaf of bread with a short list of ingredients, all of which I recognize and can pronounce.

Most mix ingredient lists I’ve looked at contain, among numerous many-lettered ingredients, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or lard. I thought we’d all pretty much agreed that trans fat, found in hydrogenated oils, vegetable shortening, and margarine, are rather detrimental to one’s health.

This is where I get into it with mixes. Whipping up a batch of pancakes or cornbread or brownies really doesn’t take that long. Last weekend I made a spur-of-the-moment batch of pancakes to help John get an early start for an Easter gig.The lapsed time between my stepping out of bed and John lifting a fork to his mouth was no more than 30 minutes, and it was that long only because I re-used the pan to cook some eggs to put on top of the pancake stack.

I’m not saying this to try to prove I’m a kitchen wizard. Somehow, people have gotten it into their heads that cooking is difficult and time consuming. Sometimes, it is. If you’re making paella or a three layer cake with frosting, that requires a bit more commitment than a stir fry of a pan of cornbread.

If you are looking to put a batch of cornbread in the oven, it might be an issue of two minutes with a mix to ten minutes from scratch. Are you really that busy? An extra eight minutes of light measuring and stirring in exchange for a better taste and none of what has been proven to harm your heart and overall health seems, to me, a pretty fair trade. (Plus, the idea of croissants from a can, pancakes from a bottle, and mashed potatoes from a pouch kinda squicks me out.)

There’s still a lot of mystique surrounding things made from scratch. People ooh and aah over ‘scratch’ because it takes time, a willingness to follow directions and, not surprisingly, things made from scratch taste better. They have more depth of flavor, more than one texture, and because they show attention and intention, people appreciate ‘scratch’ far more.

So why don’t more people cook or bake from scratch? Laziness? Lack of cooking knowledge? Habit? Knowing what we do—and all that we don’t—about what goes into processed food, why do we refuse to change our habits?

I get that cooking is not for everyone, and not everyone has a lot of time on their hands to stand at the stove mashing potatoes for all of 5 minutes. But for a lot of people I know, getting closer to the cooking process brings more enjoyment of food and more appreciation for what’s on the fork.

People have grown to accept that things like a loaf of bread are smooshy shrink-wrapped pillows with dozens of indecipherable ingredients rather than a simple mixture of flour, water, and yeast that rises and bakes in the oven. We accept food that is not made from real food simply because it is easier to drive to the store and get it than to let some yeast rise in a bowl for a few hours while we do something else, because we’d rather dump a box into a bowl than measure a few ingredients and stir.

Cooking has become haphazard and lazy. All the books and blogs and TV spots now about eating real food are good propoganda, but isn’t it a little sad that I and others like and better than I are even writing about the fact that our food has a lot of non-food in it?

Again, I’m not against convenience. I get that life takes time. Here is my solution: make your own mixes. When you have an extra half an hour sometime, assemble a few plastic bags or glass jars. Mix together the right measurements of the dry ingredients for the things you eat most often: pancakes, brownies, whatever. Put one batch’s worth of ingredients in one Ziploc bag or jar, label it accordingly, and then grab it and dump that into a bowl when you’re ready. If you’re in a humid place like Florida, stick the Ziploc bag in the freezer for freshness. You are now effectively your own Betty Crocker, minus all the hydrogenated ridiculousness.

ellis’ really super simple pancakes

2 C all purpose flour
2 ½ t baking powder
3 T sugar
2 large eggs
1 ½ C milk
2 T melted butter (although I forgot my melted butter in the microwave last time and the pancakes were as delicious without it)

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir them with a whisk. Easier and as effective as sifting.

Whisk together the eggs and milk in another bowl. Stir until smooth, then blend in melted butter.

Put some butter on the bottom of a frying pan or griddle and pour in some batter, about ¼ cup for smallish pancakes. When the batter bubbles, flip the pancakes. Wait up a minute, depending on how hot your pan is, then take out the pancake and put in more batter. If you have a lot of pancakes to make and want it to go faster, get two skillets going at once.

Things from scratch that are worth your time:

Homemade Apple Sauce Not that time consuming and really, really worth it.

Bourbon Pumpkin Pie with Pecan Streusel

Killer Ginger Pear Upside Down Cake

My Mom’s Christmas Cinnamon Rolls

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