I love to cook but I also like shortcuts. I am not averse to using the occasional cake mix, envelope of Knorr sauce, cube of bouillon, or box of frozen white corn. These convenience foods deserve a place in every pantry and freezer.
A lot of convenience foods have recipes on their packages, some of which have become classics: Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies, Chex Mix, Argo Corn Starch lemon meringue pie, and Ritz Cracker’s mock apple pie. The Quaker Oats canister has the best oatmeal cookie recipe I have ever tried, although I do swap out the raisins for dried cherries or cranberries. Ghirardelli’s can of cocoa used to have a killer brownie recipe on its label. You can also play around with these recipes, making them lighter, healthier, and more savory.
Crack Pie has addictive qualities.
At a time when a lot of talented chefs are making dishes look like science projects (enough with the spittle and foam!), David Chang, the genius chef behind Momofuku, Ssam, Ko, and Noodle Bar, has been finding ways to utilize dried milk, cornflakes, oatmeal, and Twizzlers in thoroughly modern ways.
Convenience foods, or “tertiary processed foods,” as they are sometimes called, have evolved to such an extent that we are offered some kind of shortcut in every aspect of cooking today. Some should be avoided at all costs, such as TV dinners and instant mashed potatoes. Others, such as canned beans, tuna, frozen puff pastry, rice pilafs, and pancake mixes, are perfectly acceptable.
Couscous takes a mere five minutes to make. Try adding some diced and roasted carrots, onions, and fennel with a pinch of curry and you have a lovely side dish incorporating starch and some vegetables. You can improve stuffing mixes by sautéing onions and celery and tossing in some fresh thyme and parsley. Add a banana or blueberries and a half cup of granola to your Sunday morning Bisquick pancake mix.
Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix was introduced in 1869. The next historically significant convenience food was Libby’s canned meat, in 1890. Canned peas came in 1925, and Birdseye “frosted foods” came in 1930. Clarence Birdseye, an American living in Labrador, Canada, between 1912 and 1916, discovered the effect of rapid freezing on vegetables and developed the first “quick freezer” for fruits and vegetables.
Industrialization and the need to feed the post-World War II population led to a burst of new products in the 1940s like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, Minute Maid orange juice, Ragu pasta sauces, and Tupperware to keep all those nifty leftovers fresh. The iconic Swanson TV dinner made its debut in 1953 with many more frozen products to follow. Creativity has petered out over the last few decades with the only new noteworthy products being tuna kits and Heinz’s green and purple ketchups.
In 1965, close to 30 percent of American households were using convenience foods. By the 1990s, that number had doubled. Nowadays, almost every household consumes convenience (or fast) foods on a daily basis.
While this trend is alarming due to the lack of quality of some products and consumer education, you can find that some of these products have a rightful place in our kitchens. Frozen gyoza? Shelled edamame? Yes! Bottled salad dressings? Crushed garlic in a jar? No!
There is a show on TV called “Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade.” The philosophy from “the internationally acclaimed home and style expert” is to use 70 percent ready-made foods combined with 30 percent fresh ingredients. The show promises the viewers their dishes will taste as if they’ve been made from scratch.
Well, I am a “culinary expert” and I took a look at her episodes on money-saving recipes, and I was aghast at how fattening and ultimately not money saving they were. Scones, nachos, shortcakes, risottos, barbecue bean chili dogs, cinnamon roll French toast, spaghetti and meatball calzones, and canned peach pie. Surely there was at least one healthy sounding recipe? Pasta with edamame sounded promising. Alas, it was pimped up with bacon and sour cream.
I have to say that my cooking philosophy is far more Jamie Oliver — keep it fresh and simple — than Sandra Lee’s, who extols the virtues of Glazed Doughnut Crisps, (ingredients: sugar cookie mix, canned frosting, and artificial brandy extract, topped with drippy sugar icing and food coloring). Heavens!
Somewhere between fresh, made-from-scratch cooking and convenience foods there is a happy medium. Read the labels, use your own judgment, and feel free to whip up the occasional cake mix, Knorr hollandaise sauce, or Campbell’s soup tuna noodle casserole.
Here is David Chang’s Milk Bar restaurant recipe for Crack Pie, adapted from Bon Appetit magazine.
Oat cookie crust:
9 Tbsp. butter, room temp, divided
51/2 Tbsp. brown sugar, divided
2 Tbsp. sugar
Heaping 3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup flour
1/8 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp salt (generous)
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 Tbsp. nonfat dry milk powder (optional)
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, melted, slightly cooled
61/2 Tbsp. heavy cream
4 large egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan with parchment paper. Spray with nonstick spray. Combine six tablespoons butter, four tablespoons brown sugar and two tablespoons sugar in bowl of mixer. Beat until fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Add egg, beat until fluffy. Add dry ingredients and mix until combined. Spread into pan. Bake until light golden on top, about 18 minutes. Cool completely.
Using hands, crumble oat cookie into large bowl, add three tablespoons butter and 11/2 tablespoon brown sugar. Rub in with fingertips until mixture is moist enough to stick together. Transfer to nine-inch glass pie dish. Press evenly into dish and place on baking sheet.
Position rack in middle of oven, preheat to 350 degrees. Whisk both sugars, milk powder, and salt to blend. Add melted butter and whisk. Add cream, egg yolks, and vanilla and whisk until thoroughly blended. Pour into piecrust. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Filling may begin to bubble up. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking until filling is brown in spots and set around edges but a bit wobbly in the center, about 15 to 20 minutes more. Cool at least two hours, then chill. Dust powdered sugar over pie before serving.
(Be warned, I have made this pie a few times and it is difficult to get out of pan. Be careful, be patient!)
Aunt Tink’s Lemon Cake
Back by popular demand, here is my Aunt Tink’s Lemon Cake!
1 package yellow cake mix
1 package lemon Jello
3/4 cup apricot nectar
3/4 cup canola oil
Juice and rind of two lemons
11/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Combine juice, rind, and sugar and beat until thick glaze consistency.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a springform or bundt pan. Beat cake ingredients for four minutes on medium speed. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. When cake is cool enough to handle, invert onto platter and top with glaze.
Knorr Hollandaise Made Better
1 envelope Knorr hollandaise sauce mix
1 cup whole or low fat milk
1/4 cup butter
1-3 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne or smoked paprika
Whisk sauce mix and one cup of milk in small saucepan. Add 1/4 cup butter and bring to boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened, about one minute. At this point, taste the sauce and add as much lemon juice as you like. Add a pinch of cayenne or smoked paprika if you like it a bit more piquant.