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3. Other Things Writing Life

The fun of making things

Today I played.

Okay, I also read things and took a nice long (FREEZING, BRRRR) walk with Spouseman, but mostly I played with my new Instant Pot.

I had some perishable foods I’d been neglecting because March totally got away from us, and we scrounged for meals several nights I planned on cooking. The list”

  • a full bag of yummy Yukon potatoes on the verge of going sprouty.
  • too many sweet potatoes because I kept forgetting I still had a couple and bought more every time I shopped.
  • Cream cheese & Greek yogurt tipping past their best-by dates. Ditto some eggs.
  • Some bell peppers I had to turn into something before they got soft spots.
  • various “‘I’m tired of this variety but there’s a couple left in the bag” apples going wrinkly and soft.

So there was that, and when I went to the desk to write Scooter looked at me from my chair with this LOOK that said, “Please no, Mom, I’m comfy here,” and I needed to take my brain mostly offline for a recharge today anyhow.

So. Playtime. I rummaged around the pantry & freezer, set up the Instant Pot, and Kitchen Magic happened. 

The pressure cooking function meant I could do a lot of slow-cooking dishes…fast. I didn’t use any recipes, exactly. The Instant Pot came with a little recipe book, plus I hunted around for ideas online. Various blogs helped me cobble together an estimate of  how much pressure-cook time each food needed , plus I learned how to use the steamer rack that came with the pot.

The peppers joined forces with chicken tenderloins from the freezer, canned tomatoes & tomato paste, plus some garlic to become italian-style chicken for tonight and tomorrow plus a batch for the freezer.

Butter plus the aging dairy products & potatoes transformed into a big ‘ol batch of cream-cheese-golden mashed potatoes. Again, some for now, the rest for later. Big win!

(Yes, I know it’s weird to eat chicken in tomato sauce with mashed potatoes, but I like mashed potatoes with everything, and Spouseman prefers it to pastas as a sauce base.)

Apples got fast-cooked to soften, and then slow-cooked with the lid off to become smooth, sweet, delicious applesauce. There’s always a use for that.  And the sweet potatoes got steamed and then peeled once they were cool. So now I’ll have sweet potato mash available for reheating at lunch time all week.

Also, while grabbing the chicken from the freezer, I found blueberries from last summer and some bananas. Well. Couldn’t ignore a hint like that, could I?  Of course not. I turned those into blueberry banana cake and baked it while one of the other things was working up a head of steam in the pot.

Because why NOT make cake too, right? Of course right.

Today was about letting the brain rest, for tomorrow, it’s back to the hard stuff. Revisions & additions.  It’s also the fun stuff, but still. W-O-R-K.

Until later.

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3. Other Things Writing Life

Writing hard, cookies easy

I’m not getting any creative writing done because reasons, so to quiet the brain buzzards I figure I will share a baking adventure. WITH PICTURES!

(What are brain buzzards? YOU know. They’re the lurking voices inside that squawk, “quit whining and do the work, lazy woman, Real Professionals produce, you could do more if you tried harder, blah, blah, blah…I mean, they’re right, but I prefer to drown them out than listen.)

ANYway. Cookies.  Swedish butter cookies were a holiday tradition when I was growing up in the Morris household, (the M in K.M. stands for Morris) I recently found my mom’s mother’s recipe card for “Grandma Watson’s Swedish Butter Cookies”  complete with instructions for a “slow oven” and mentioning butter from the ice box. I haven’t scanned the cards yet, so no pic, sorry.

These cookies were a one batch once-a-year treat because, while they were delicious, making them was a demanding process requiring tons of work, complicated prep, and expensive ingredients. And drama. I remember much trauma with stickiness, wax paper, and fretting about wasted dough &  much worry over burning. And they never came out quite right despite always tasting fab.

Then I made them for myself the first time on my own, away from the traditions and procedures of my youth. And I learned a secret I’ll share today: THESE ARE THE SIMPLEST COOKIES EVER.

Unless you are a perfectionist. Then they are a hell recipe. I am not a perfectionist. My kitchen mantra is, “More flavor, less effort.”

I can whip together a batch of these cookies faster than the oven preheats–which is saying something because a “slow oven” is only 325 degrees F.

So. Let’s make Swedish Butter cookies together.

Start the oven preheating, make sure the rack is in the middle for best baking, and gather these ingredients:

Yeah, that’s all.

1 stick butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup flour

1-2 tbsp of syrupy goodness.  (I like half honey+half almond extract. Maple syrup is popular with others. The big thing is, some sugary syrup. Things don’t cook right without it.)

Here’s the one paragraph summary.

Cream the butter & sugar, add in the syrup & mix until creamy,  mix in the flour until it forms a lumpy dough, form up into a ball by hand, divide into four lumps and roll into sticks, dust with colored sugar if you want, and bake 20-25 min at 325 until golden. Cut while still warm. Done. SO. SIMPLE.

The devil is in the details. Pics are worth a thousand words, so here we go:

Cream butter & sugar, scrape down the bowl & add syrup, it looks like this:

Mix in the syrup until it’s all creamy like this:

Then scrape down again (the red bit in the pics is my bowl scraper resting on the mixer stand) add the flour and mix until it comes together. Note that it isn’t all in a single ball, and it’s STICKY:

Don’t add extra flour or liquid or mix with the mixer until it’s a single lump, the cookies will get kinda tough (BUT NO BIGGIE IF YOU LOSE FAITH AND DO THOSE THINGS THE COOKIES WILL STILL BE DELICIOUS)

In any case, if the dough doesn’t come all the way together after a minute or two of blending, stop the mixer and push it together into a ball by hand with the scraper. Then divide the ball into 4 parts and shape into logs.

Did I mention it’s sticky? How gooey depends on too many factors to worry about. This is where I get mega-lazy. If the dough can’t be handled easily, I run water in the sink and wet my hands before dividing & shaping the dough, re-wetting whenever things get unwieldy. And don’t stress the logs being equal sizes or the same length or evenly rounded. Close enough is fine. Mine came out pretty well this time:

Sprinkling with colored sugar is totally optional. But yes, i flattened the tops to make it stick better

So, now all you have to do is bake them. 20-25 min at 325 degrees. When they’re going golden brown on top (or around the edges, if you sugared the tops) pull them and cut into slices. Cool and then try not to eat them all in one sitting.

So, there it is. A cookie post. Enjoy.

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3. Other Things Whimsy Writing Life

Comfort Food. My way.

DISCLAIMER: Not a picture of my shepherd’s pie. Why not? Explanation at the end. This is a delicious Pixabay stock image (credit: RitaE)

Who wants a food post? I hope you do, because you’re getting one. Yes, this fiction author  is blogging about food again. Why? Because making food always leads to stories.

This story is about comfort. I don’t like restaurants OR cooking (or baking, for that matter) but I crave the comfort of a good meal. I crave it most  when I least wish to work hard.  Like, oh for example, when I’ve just gotten home from a 3-day convention bookended by 6-hour solo road trips. Yeah. Like now.

I have found many ways to make work in the kitchen as painless, practical, and fast as possible.  I am big on pan bakes & bar cookies, casseroles, stews, & other pantry put-togethers — things that can be assembled in 10 minutes and then leave to cook on their own….while I go write or something. See? Writing tie-in.

(Plus easily-distracted people are not the best cooks to put in charge of stir-fry, easily-burned sauces, or anything requiring precision measurements or timing. Yeah. Me.)

ANYWAY. Today’s entry in comfort food stories: a meal I call shepherd’s pie even though the only ingredient it shares with the traditional dish is potato. Its main appeal is that it can be thrown together in no time, feeds me & Spouseman for two dinners, and we both love it.  The ingredients can be conveniently kept on-hand in cabinets & freezer.

Spouseman makes it for me most times, on Bad Days like when I’ve just gotten home from a road trip and am thoroughly stressed. On other occasions I enjoy the think-free accomplishment of assembling asimple meal.

So here you go. One of my favorites.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  1. We use a 2 1/2 qt Corning casserole dish. Quantities were based on the dish.
  2. Dump into the casserole dish:
  3. 1 16 oz bag frozen vegetarian “meat crumbles.” No, I don’t thaw them. LAZY ME.
  4. Add enough wine/ketchup/barbecue/soy /Worchestershire/whatever flavors you like in a savory sauce. (Or, in my case, whatever’s in the fridge)  Make it fairly soupy.
  5. Stir in garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper to taste.
  6. Once you have that base stirred together, layer in the following in order
    • 1 c frozen corn
    • 1 c frozen baby peas (or sub another niblet-sized frozen veggie if you are pea-averse)
    • most of an 8 oz bag shredded cheese. Mild cheddar is my fave.
  7. Make enough instant mashed potatoes to cover the top & load them in. How much? To taste. Depending on how thick you want.
  8. Shake the remaining cheese over the insta-tater layer.
  9. Bake for at least 45 min.

Ten steps.  I swear it takes longer to read these instructions than to make once you get the hang of it.

Notes:

  • when it comes to choose abrand of “Let’s go vegetarian because too lazy to fry up ground meat and then have to wash the fry pan) crumbles, we’re partial to Morningstar Farms chipotle black bean. Really, any ground meat substitute will do.
  • Making mashed taters takes me zero time because we have an on-demand hot water maker. (Best. Gadget. EVER.) Anyway, if you have to boil water, you might want to start it when you preheat the oven. To save time. Because that’s what this is about.
  • Like most casseroles, this is excellent/even better after a cool & a second bake. So it’s perfect for make-ahead meal too.

Why no picture? I don’t take good foodie photos. When I attempt casserole imagery  the photo ends up looking like something pre-eaten. I don’t find that appealing. VERY NOT.

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3. Other Things Writing Life

Toaster Scones.

That’s what I call them. They’re essentially drop biscuits with pretensions, but they do have the fat-rich tenderness of scones rather than flaky layers, and they keep well enough to reheat in a toaster for a full week. So, toaster scones.

There’s a story of how they came to be. Of course there is. Skip past it to the recipe if you’re goal-oriented.

Once upon a time I made blueberry muffins for every special occasion–where reasons like “Tuesday” or “I had a rough work shift” counted as definitions for “special.” When I got tired of chewing on muffin papers, I bought half-sized loaf pans and made “muffin loaves” instead. I can still whip up a batch of those in less time than it takes to pre-heat the oven.

During this same long-ago time biscuits were my go-to for ordinary occasions when I wanted a bread with supper but had none in the house. Not just any biscuits, tho. See, biscuits require cutting. Rolling. Counter cleaning. UGH. I am a lazy baker. SO LAZY. So of course I made drop biscuits instead. Stir, plop & drop. Tasty & easy.

One day I decided to make muffins and discovered I had no eggs in the house. Tragedy! All my muffin recipes required eggs. The disappointment was crushing, but I decided to make biscuits as a consolation treat. Any port in the storm, any bread in a pinch.

I know, muffins are NOT just biscuits made with eggs, just as scones are not merely biscuits made with cream. Still. They’re all baked goods that spring from the same roots of flour, baking powder, salt & fat, therefore they all live in the same compartment of my brain.

Anyway. In this episode I had no eggs and aimed for drop biscuits….and somewhere along the way the inspiration light bulb went off. I COULD HAVE MY BISCUITS AND BLUEBERRIES TOO! In practice it didn’t quite work. They were entirely edible but Not Quite Right. It took learning scone recipes and tweaking proportions here and there to come up with a reproducible, predictable result. Here it is:

Prologue:
375 degree oven or 400 if I’m in a hurry.
parchment paper on baking sheets

1. Mix together
2+ c. flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4+ c. sugar if I’m adding fruit

2. Work in 1/2 c fat (butter, cream cheese, plain yogurt or some combo of same, whatever I have in the fridge) I usually go with 4 tbsp butter and a scoop of plain yogurt) I work it in with my fingers, some people use forks or pastry cutters.

3. stir in at least 1 c. of fruit or shredded cheese

4. Add 1/2-3/4 c milk & mix until it forms into a dough.

Sometimes it’s more like thick batter. The more fat I use in step 2 (or if I’m making Cheesy Toaster Scones) the more solid the result at this point. If the dough is workable by hand, I form it into a long log 1/2″ high and cut into triangles like scones. If it’s gloppy (fruit ones are usually gloppy) I plop it on the baking sheet like drop biscuits.

5. Bake 20-25 min at 375, 15-18 min at 400 —
until just browning on top. Cheese ones cook faster than fruit ones, sometimes as much as 5 min faster.

Blueberries, pitted tart cherries, dried fruits, leftover applesauce, shredded cheddar cheese, feta cheese & assorted herbs, shredded smoked mozzarella & chopped basil…I’ve made a lot of different versions of these. They were all delicious. There’s variability on the rise, so sometimes I have to cut them in half to toast up later, sometimes not. Either way, they are extra-delicious when toasted to a crisp brown finish.

That’s it in a nutshell. The next adventure will be seeing how much almond flour I can sub in without screwing up either flavor or rise. Spouseman wants to cut back on carbs and I’m all for upping fiber & protein content where I can.

 

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3. Other Things Writing Life

Warm Winter Comforts

This post is all about the delicious excuses I use to keep my oven working hard when it’s super-cold outside. To be precise, it’s about oatcakes & “oven omelets.” First, the oats.

Over the years an uncounted number of people have asked for my oatcake recipe. (Uncounted not meaning it was a large number necessarily, just that I never counted them.) Despite all the requests, I never shared a recipe…because I didn’t have a recipe.

The first batch was a total experiment, plopping plain cooked oatmeal onto cookie sheets. It did not work well, but I added a bit of this & that until I came up with something like a cross between muffin & pancake batter that produced tasty but unpredictable results.

The ultimate goal was oatmeal goodness in a crunchy cracker form. The reality never came out the same way twice. Always tasty, never predictable. The sheer number of uncontrollable variables, from the temperature of the cooked oatmeal to the ambient humidity, all factored in. I don’t commit recipe unless I can reproduce the results. I couldn’t do that with oatcakes.

<cue dramatic music> Until now! Success is mine at last. Fringe benefit of the perfected oatcake recipe is that it skips the one real PITA step in the process. (making the oatmeal first.)  But before I get to that recipe, let me rhapsodize a bit about the second oven-worker I’ve recently come across: baked omelets.

They’re not true omelets because they aren’t folded, they don’t qualify as frittatas because there’s no stovetop step, and they lack crusts, so aren’t quiches. They are without doubt delicious, easy, and only improve with reheating like a casserole. And as I’m married to someone who is pre-diabetic and needs more high-protein/low carb foods on the menus, I am beyond pleased to have discovered them.

And how did that discovery happen? Well. Let me tell you. It started with the big ol’ batch of eggs I bought for Christmas baking. Two dozen, because I needed 14. A little finger counting  gets us to the 10 extra eggs I had on hand when I began seeking “oven-on” possibilities.

I immediately thought of quiche & frittatas, but they’re a lot of work (multiple steps, lots of prep bowls & pans to wash)  and I’m lazy when it comes to food. Oven omelets are the best of all lazy worlds. Below you’ll find the recipe I use.

Quantities are based on the baking dishes I use (two mini loaf bakers) but eggs are very forgiving. The original recipes I immediately changed to suit myself came from AllRecipes & Genius Kitchen. The differences between them illustrated how flexible you can be with ingredient quantities. You can successfully bump the amount up or down by several eggs as long as you approximately boost or trim down the other ingredients. So if you want to make a big batch, or a thicker result, use more. Want a batch sized for one? That’s doable too.

Oven Eggs:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  • anoint baking dish(es) with non-stick spray
  • In a bowl, whisk together until slightly frothy:
    6 eggs
    1/2 c milk
    salt & pepper
    other herbs & spices of choice
  • Stir in: 1/2 to 1c cheeses
  • Add 1/2-1c of whatever other additions you want.
  • Pour mixture into baking dish(es)
  • Bake for…well, it depends.
    45 min for an 8×8 pan
    35 min for my two small loaf pans
    20-30 min for muffin tin snack-sized servings
    –or “until a knife inserted at the center comes out clean”

Side note: I like my eggs cooked to death (on the dry side) so I cook them even longer, until the edges brown.

I’ve made these with ham & shredded cheddar, Mexican style (shredded colby-jack cheese, garlic & onion powder & salsa as additions) and Mediterranean (feta, basil, thyme, paprika & arrabbiata spaghetti sauce) and both versions came out great.

And now, back to the oatcakes. Important caveat: I make mine with old-fashioned steel-cut oats. The old-fashioned or quick rolled oats work fine too, but the texture will be different.

4-12 hours before starting, put 1c dry oats & 2 c milk in a container to soak. Those’ll keep in the fridge for up to a week as long as the milk is fresh. With traditional steel-cut oats, the mixture will remain very milky. That’s okay.

When it’s time to make the oatcakes:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
line baking sheets with parchment paper (or use non-stick sheets)

  • In a mixing bowl, sift together:
    1 c flour
    2 tsp baking powder
    1/2 tsp salt
  • add in
    the oats
    a splash of vegetable oil — up to 1/4 c.
  • Stir until very well mixed
  • Drop dollops of batter onto baking sheets. (Isn’t dollop a wonderful word?) ANYway. Leave 1/2″ or more between dollops. The batter is thin, which makes spooning it difficult. A 1/4 cup measure works well for me as a scoop.
  • Bake for ~45 minutes, or until tops are dry & edges are starting to brown.

So that’s it. A couple of batches of oatcakes & eggs will keep the oven busy for half a day.  If you start a batch of fruit bread rising or peel some apples while the other things are cooking, then you can add another hour of delicious-smelling heat to the house by baking apples or breakfast rolls.

The bestest of all best things about these foods is that making them is also writing-friendly. Unlike cookies with 10 minute bake times or stovetop foods that demand constant attention, these are all about quick preps, simple cleanup, and long baking times. All that means less distraction from putting words to page.

And that’s an important thing for me.

 


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