30 October 2007

A Party of Spooky Doom

There ought to be a rule that Halloween is not allowed to fall on a Wednesday. And if it must be Wednesday, Advising Day should be on November 1st. If you have to throw your Halloween bash on All Hallows Eve… erm, Eve, then you might as well wait for the weekend anyway. Maybe I'm just bitter because I have a late night class on Tuesday and I have no MWF classes so all of my Wednesdays are blissfully free.

I can't party on Halloween, or even the night before, but damned if I'm missing out on the party planning fun to be had. I don't know yet what my costume will be (Gender-confused Lumberjack? Random Hufflepuff #34? Zombie? Lumberjack Zombie?), I don't know what music I'll play, but I do know the food. Besides the requisite candy, there must be creepy punch, there must be cutesy cookies, and there must be pizza.

It is possible to go too far with the creepy factor in Halloween food. Peeled eyeball soup sounds perfectly appetizing on paper (if you know that the eyeballs are really tomatoes), but put it in front of a guest and you're likely to get looks of nausea. Nothing's worse than serving something absolutely gruesome only to have to eat it all yourself when your guests refuse it point blank.

Thursday (pre-party) I'll post on the food prep. Expect last minute changes, disasters, and tears, but that's always the way with a party. If I didn't try something adventurous and risky, I wouldn't have the will to try at all. Saturday (post-party) I'll post on how everything turned out, further disasters and recoveries, and full recipes for everything that was ultimately on the menu. For now I leave you with my provisional menu and wish you happy haunting on the morrow.

Menu of Spooky Doom:

Blood PunchProbably cranberry juice, grenadine, ginger ale, maybe pomegranate juice. Served in a giant jar inside a carved pumpkin.

Spider Cookies Chocolate sprinkle coated sugar cookies with pretzel legs and candy or icing eyes.

Witch Hat Rice Krispy Treats Rice crispy balls topped with frosting coated ice cream cones. Possibly Twizzlers for hair?

Finger Food Baby carrots with cheese fingernails. Black Olive Ranch dip?

Build-your-own PizzasDueling toaster ovens (we have two here in Calvert that fit a 9 inch pizza pan), possibly pizza bagel bases if I run out of $$, toppings in kitschy Halloween shapes: mushroom skulls, green pepper snakes, pepperoni Jack-o-lantern, onion bats, etc.

27 October 2007

Seasonal Cravings

In the past, I've made this sandwich with plenty of substitutions: rye for pumpernickel, provolone slices for brie, raspberry jam for cranberry sauce. With something so simple to assemble, it's fun to play around with components, especially when you want to use only what you can find at the dining hall. But they're really a different sandwich than the one I was craving. When the first tangible signs of Fall blow into town, I start craving something seasonal.

Apparently my inner calendar is fast-forwarded by at least a month and the holiday I anticipating is Thanksgiving, not Halloween. Perhaps that's because I personally eat at least three full Thanksgiving meals on Turkey Day, which either makes a person love the food or loathe it. Thankfully, I love it so much that I just can't wait another month to have it and when the dining hall didn't have absolutely everything I needed, I just had to follow my grumbling gut to the store.

I didn't use anything from the dining hall this time and I really wish I had. What should have been a ten minute jaunt to Acme to grab some sandwich fixings turned into a thirty minute slog through congested aisles and stagnant check-out lines. There are three times when no one who values their sanity should brave the grocery store: before a snow storm, after a long rain storm, or the weekend before a major food holiday (and aren't they all food holidays? Christmas dinners, Halloween trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving feasts, Valentines baked goods, Fourth of July barbeques…). Two out of three applied today – brilliant foresight, Olivia.

Back in the tranquility of my suite, I unwrapped the turkey from its filmy deli plastic , dolloped out the cranberry sauce, coated the bread with a creamy layer of brie, and clicked the timer on the toaster oven over to eight minutes. As it ticked, the buzz of the crowds in Acme faded away into the sizzle of roasting turkey and melting brie. There's just something about the first real days of Fall that send me craving the sleepy sweetness of turkey and cranberries. Since it's too early for Turkey Day itself, what I needed was this preview of a full belly, set against the backdrop of falling leaves and falling temperatures. If I closed my eyes it almost tasted like November. Craving satisfied.

Ante-Turkey Day Sandwich

Bought at the store:

¼ pound turkey deli slices

brie cheese (spreadable)

pumpernickel bread

whole berry cranberry sauce

  1. Spread brie thickly on the bread. Layer on turkey and cranberry sauce.
  2. Toast for 5-10 minutes.


25 October 2007

Food for a Rainy Day

A few days ago, reader Aubrey made a request in the comments section which I wanted to address with its own post. She wrote:

Over Fall Break Alexis and I went apple picking, and I was having so much fun climbing trees that I didn't realize how very many apples we had picked. We ended up picking just over half a bushel. Alexis flew them here in her carry on. And now, well, we have nearly half a bushel of apples that are starting to rot. What can we do with them with a toaster oven and microwave?

I immediately thought of "happle" bagel sandwiches. It's a recipe I've been making since I was little, out of my spiral-bound cookbook for kids with illustrations of tap-dancing tunafish cones and pirate map muffins. The book itself is currently resting on the shelves of the package room at Central Services. Tomorrow I'll have it in my hands again (and maybe have pictures), but today I made these from memory.

The artichoke salad failure still haunting me, I forged ahead yet again without a printed recipe, but this time I had sense memory to help me out. Sometimes I need food that is predictable, food that isn't a wolf in sheep's clothing, that won't bite me on the nose with vinegar-poisoned fangs when I least expect it. Sometimes I need food that I know will not char to a crisp or melt into a viscous soup. Sometimes, on days when I haven't seen the sun and the internet is spotty and I'm still sleep deprived from the scant two hours I got on Monday night… I just need food that tastes like home.

Next week I'd like to experiment and see if I can whip up a fun and funky apple dish. I already know that I like apples in things like Waldorf salads and sushi, and that they work really well with a plethora of chicken preparations. For now, for Aubrey and anyone else with an abundant autumnal harvest, I give you something reliable to warm you up inside on a chilly, rainy day.

"Happle" Bagel Sandwiches

Nicked from the dining hall:

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 gala (or hand-picked) apple

1 plain bagel

cinnamon and sugar

  1. Lay bagel halves on the baking tray and sprinkle cheese onto each bagel half, as if you were making sauce-less pizza bagels.
  2. Top with apple slices and dust with a generous amount of cinnamon and sugar.
  3. Toast until all the cheese has begun melting, about 6-8 minutes.


23 October 2007

Notes on an Eggplant

"Eggplant, basil, spinach, & chile salad" is on permanent earmark status in my copy of Quick & Easy Healthy Eating. The page is stained with past successes (and at least one abysmal failure). Smudged marginal notes hungrily circle the printed words. They advise not to mistake garlic "clove" for garlic "bulb" (a serious misreading, i.e. my abysmal failure, which led to sweating vampire repellent for an entire week), to use less chile powder (much, much, much less!), to remember to use a seriously big bowl for the mixing steps or risk flinging yogurt-soaked spinach into a lit gas burner.

The last time I made this, my last summer vacation ever was wilting away in 90 degree heat and sticky Baltimore humidity. My friends and I were ready to scatter once more, some more permanently than others, as college terms opened and far-away jobs beckoned. There was time enough yet for one more backyard barbeque.

I consider that barbeque a success. Nearly half of the prepared food ended up leftover and organization blew out the window along with the broiler's billowing smoke. The boys, who should have, in theory, eaten the most food, were busy manning the kebab grill or running on all liquid diets. But good food was shared by good people, and we all had fun making it. And making fun of each other while we made it. One of the dishes served was my version of Hugo Arnold's "Eggplant, basil, spinach, & chile salad."

Last week's farmer's market yielded two lovely eggplants and a batch of pleasant memories to spur me into the kitchen to test the feasibility of grilling eggplants without a grill. Previously, I've always done it on a broiler pan (which without fail resulted in the previously mentioned billowing smoke and required a helper to constantly fan the smoke alarm). The toaster oven actually works better. You end up trading pretty grill lines for a less hectic, less smoky kitchen – a win-win situation in my book. I'll definitely be adding this one to my swarm of marginal notes.

Eggplant Basil Salad

(adapted from a recipe by Hugo Arnold)

Foraged from the dining hall:

1 cup cherry tomatoes

½ cup sunflower seeds

4 lemon wedges

Bought from the store or otherwise:

2 medium eggplants

1 bag baby spinach (on sale for $1.00 – score!)

1 cup plain yogurt

salt and black pepper

cayenne pepper

3 cloves garlic

olive oil


  1. Cut eggplant ¼ inch segments, hotdog-ways. Baste generously with olive oil and broil 3 minutes per side at 450O F on Toast setting. Let cool and slice into bite-size pieces.
  2. Whisk yogurt, 3 Tablespoons olive oil, mashed garlic, juice from the lemon slices, and spices (about ¼ - ½ teaspoon each, to taste). Toss with eggplant, tomatoes, and spinach leaves.
  3. Serve chilled and top with sunflower seeds.

20 October 2007

Ramen Remix #3: “Asian” Ramen Salad

In the past year, the majority of my high school friends have crossed over to the dark side: vegetarianism. There were always one or two in our group, but college dining halls have an uncanny ability to foist dietary changes on students, whether from the quality of the food or the variety (and freedom) of choices. As an omnivore, entertaining for vegetarians is a daunting task (for vegans a voyage into the unfamiliar waters on the edge of a map labeled: here be monsters). Luckily, I happen to be a pretty peaceable omnivore and my vegetarian/vegan friends could not be more wonderfully accommodating.

I like to host parties. Unsurprisingly, my favorite center on food. Tea parties, barbeques, bacchanalian orgies… When I realized that at least seven of my oldest friends now abstain from animal products, I panicked. And when I panic, I buy a book. The book I found was The Salad Scoffer by Ronny, an import from the British Isles focusing on party food. I already had vegetarian recipes in my other cookbooks; this one drew me on its concept: "It's time to smash the stereotype!" That stereotype being the sad, iceberg lettuce/tomato/shredded carrot salad which is the typical response on the part of my (unimaginative to the nth degree) omnivorous counterparts to vegetarian/vegan dinner guests. A salad need not be boring.

The following recipe is not from The Salad Scoffer but I'd like to think that Ronny would approve. I didn't even attempt to make this vegan – even after a months of breathing space, I don't think I could eliminate every lurking element of animal extortion out of my cooking without being spoon fed instructions from a real life vegan. I did use chicken (gasp) but the salad tastes just as good with tofu, and has enough bite to it that you could even do without either, in a pinch. It also includes this week's theme ingredient (ramen, in case you hadn't guessed) remixed as a crispy chow mein noodle for the classic "Asian" salad topper, as well as a practically painless salad dressing that you can make to go with everything. Painless in relation to the crispy ramen, which resulted in a sickening, blackened mess on the first try.

But don't worry, I was frying in butter, and accidentally let it go for about three minutes. My final crispy ramen noodles came out perfectly, and I have included the method to achieve the edible second version in the final directions below.

"Asian" Ramen Salad

[Serves 4]

Foraged from the dining hall:

2 cups mandarin oranges

4 cups (or one take-out box-full) spring lettuce mix

2 cups cooked chicken or: 2 cups tofu (you're on your own for cooking this)

1 cup Craisins

Bought at the store:

1 package ramen noodles

3 stalks green onion

sesame seeds

1 cup sliced almonds

  1. Crunch up the ramen noodles into inch-long pieces, mix with almond slices and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Marinate with: 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and 3 Tablespoons peanut oil.
  2. Crisp on the burner for 1 minute only. Promptly remove from heat and set aside.
  3. For each serving: Toss spring lettuce mix with some of the ramen-sesame-almond mix and 1-2 Tablespoons dressing. Top with other ingredients (cooked chicken pieces, sliced green onion, Craisins, and mandarin oranges).
  4. Scatter on more ramen-sesame-almond mix and drizzle dressing over everything.

For the Dressing:

4 Tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

2 Tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons sesame oil

1 teaspoon grated ginger (you'll need a piece about the size of a quarter)

sesame seeds

  1. Add all ingredients together in an empty jam jar. Stir. Secure lid and shake (for consistency) before each use.


18 October 2007

Ramen Remix #2: Don’t Try This at Home

Ah, artichokes, they seemed like such a good idea at the time. They called out to me from the salad bar, canning oil glistening over a yellow-green mound. Despite this frankly unappetizing form, I knew that I loved cooked artichoke and artichoke dip, so I wanted to see what I could do in the toaster oven with what is essentially a perennial thistle. A little olive oil, garlic, and maybe some Caesar dressing, I thought, ought to do the trick. I should have done more research first.

On the Food Network's website, Cathy Lowe's Caesar dressing; calls for (among other things): 6 cloves of garlic, Dijon mustard, vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and anchovies.

Bleugh! Vinegar plus vinegar equals indigestion. I knew that Caesar dressing was salty and tangy, but I hadn't really thought about what was in it when I filled up my take-out cup. I didn't help matters by saturating the artichokes (already suspended in oil and vinegar) in an olive oil, dressing, and garlic marinade. Broiling the whole mess was the icing on the indigestible cake. Made the kitchen "spicy" as my suitemate put it, wiping the tears from her eyes.

The resultant salad-like concoction was equally "spicy," and is currently roiling about in my stomach. I'm including the recipe here with notes as to how I put the nails in my cuisine coffin, but don't try this at home!

Caesar Artichoke Ramen Salad

Things you can appropriate from the dining hall:

1 cup canned artichokes (mistake #1 – if something stays well stocked for any length of time at WCDS, that's a pretty good sign that it's not fit for consumption)

1 cup cherry tomatoes

½ cup baby corn

2 cooked chicken breasts

1 cup creamy Caesar dressing (mistake #2 – should not be used as a marinade or in conjunction with something as heavy as artichokes)

¼ cup Feta cheese

Things you will probably have to buy:

2 packages ramen

5 cloves garlic (mistake #3 – garlic overload)

½ cup olive oil

1. Whip up a marinade out of 3 cloves of garlic, the olive oil, and three tablespoons Caesar dressing. Saturate the artichokes in this mixture for 30 minutes.

Caesar dressing a marinade does not make. If the dressing already had both oil and (6 cloves of) garlic already, just how potent was this stuff? Garlic count: 9 cloves.

2. Meanwhile broil the tomatoes at 350O F for 15-20 minutes until the skins blister and pop.

This was step was actually rewarding. Kind of like popping popcorn, except with more juices (and therefore more mess later). On their own, my blistered, half-skinned tomatoes are mouth-wateringly good. Too bad I had to fiddle around with artichokes, too.

3. Fill two bowls each with a package of ramen and enough water to completely cover it. Cover and microwave on high for three minutes. Let stand (still covered) for an additional three minutes to get cooked ramen without boiling any water.

A reliable ramen cooking method. If you don't have a portable electric burner, don't let that limit you to no pasta! In a pinch, even a coffee maker can be used to heat the ramen water.

4. Broil the marinated artichokes for 20 minutes still at 350O F.

Wrong on so many levels.

5. Mix everthing together with two additional garlic cloves added into the dressing and drizzled on top of the lot.

A recipe for a long and sleepless night. Garlic count: 11 cloves. 11!

Enjoy at your own risk.

17 October 2007

This is the part of my blog called legal issues

I'd like to address the concern about incrimination that was raised in a critique session for Anything But Spaghetti. Since this blog is a project I have begun for a creative writing class, and so that there is no gray area surrounding my honorable intentions towards my college, I'd like to lay down a disclaimer: Don't steal from the dining hall.

Recently, I was asked by The Collegian to run my blog-entry recipes as articles. You may remember (among other posts) "Couscous on the Loose", a vitriol-filled diatribe against the dining hall which, upon further review, seems to promote stealing from the dining hall. For the integrity of my blog project, I'd like to leave all entries as they stand online. However, if you read The Collegian article you will notice that this:

"The great thing about this recipe is that most of these ingredients can be found (and stolen out of) your standard college salad bar. If your college doesn't have a salad bar, then I am very, very sorry for you. What do you do on nights when absolutely nothing is edible and you've already swiped your card? Which, being the nature of a college, once your card has been swiped there is NO TURNING BACK. No, the computers at a college are completely incapable of undoing a swipe or re-crediting a meal account. I hope that I am not the only one to whom this makes NO LOGICAL SENSE. Anyway.

It makes me feel very ninja to sneak things out of the dining hall once I've already eaten. My college has this other utterly moronic rule of not being allowed to take out any food once you've already begun with the intention of eating in. So say, for instance, the jock next to you suddenly starts puking up his Coke, pizza, fries, and hamburger, and you find this incredibly unappetizing and wish, on second thought, to take your meal with you while you try to get back something resembling an appetite… the dining hall would rather you put your whole tray of steaming, lovely food in the trash than take it home with you to eat later. Apparently this rule is enforced to keep people from eating a whole meal and then also taking out a whole meal. But under its tyranny, all suffer.

Moving back on topic. Which is that sneaking food out of the dining hall has become the game that everyone loves to play. I heard of a girl who once snuck out grapefruits in her pants. Others I know have carried out paper coffee cups of milk, in multiples of six. But the reason why you should be interested in everything I've just said is that with a little planning, and a little cunning, you can use your dining hall's salad bar like a grocery store. In fact, almost everything can be "bought" at this particular grocery store if you remember to bring you backpack (or your pants with super-large pockets)."

has magically morphed into this:

"The great thing about this recipe is that most of these ingredients can be found on your standard college salad bar. Sneaking food out of the dining hall has become the game that everyone loves to play. [Dining Hall folklore speaks] of a student who once snuck out grapefruits in her pants. Students have carried out paper coffee cups of milk in multiples of six. A student recently pilfered a whole tray full of display pineapples.

But being a dining hall ninja needn't mean sneaking a backpack into the dining hall to acquire the ingredients for this meal: with a little planning you can still use your dining hall's salad bar like a grocery store. Once you've swiped your card for a meal, even if a quick search of the offerings show nothing appealing, there is NO TURNING BACK. Meal accounts cannot be re-credited, so you may as well grab a take-out box."

I feel that the second is a clearer statement of what I do and do not advocate. If you get caught literally pilfering from the salad bar or illicitly shoving fried chicken legs into your pockets, don't say that I told you to do it. I am hereby banning all readers of Anything But Spaghetti from doing anything so despicable. (I've been warned that besides the consequence of horrible grease stains on your trousers, you could possibly be called in front of the honor board for such an offense. And so could I.)

Continue to find fault with lackluster WCDS offerings. Continue to experiment with dining hall food. Continue to view the salad bar as an alternative to the Acme or Superfresh produce aisles. Just do the right thing and get a take-out box from the register first.

16 October 2007

Ramen Remix #1: Spaghetti Soup

A quick Goggling provides that I am (no surprise) not the first to play with the adaptability of Noodlius Ramenus. There are at least two books featured on Amazon.com which solely focus on the ubiquitous packaged noodle. Although Toni Patrick may have scraped together 101 recipes, Eric Hites's Everybody Loves Ramen seems a far better resource for a college student, seeing as it was written by one. Reading a snippet with the Search Inside feature, however, made me feel less like a young adult and more like a toddler. Following each recipe is a worksheet in a cartoonish typeface. A college student does not need to be taught the skill of note-taking, Mr. Hites. He quantitatively investigates ramen. This week, I'm going to quantitatively investigate three of my own journeys in ramen cookery, without referencing Dr. Seuss.

Today I'm focusing on that easiest and most often associated adaptation of ramen: the soup. As a latch-key kid, I made the afternoon snacks for myself and my neighborhood friend, L. Our favorite choices, which we kept in constant rotation, were ramen and Spaghetti-O's. No mussing or improving – just straight up Top Ramen and Chef Boyardee.

Freshman and Sophmore-year Olivia's habits, sadly, did not much differ from this pattern. In the last two years, I've learned to take great pleasure in tossing those little foil flavor packs straight into the trashcan. Now that I've given them up, I could never go back. Dining hall cuisine provides ample salt for my diet; if I'm going to add more, it just has to have something… well, more to it than just salt. A few drops of soy sauce, sesame oil, and vinegar, a pinch of chicken bouillon or a splash of stock, and a hearty helping of fresh veggies (think: lettuce, green onions, sprouts, bell peppers, Bok Choy) and you've got a fine Asian-style soup that's rich enough to be a midnight snack of distinction. Either this, or I run with the leftover concept, my favorite of which has to be spaghetti sauce ramen.

Yeah, I said it. Spaghetti sauce. I'm not gonna tell you how to make good spaghetti for a couple of reasons, but the only one I really need to spell out is this: you already know how to make it. What I do offer you is a suggestion for what you can do with any leftover sauce that's missing its recently digested noodle counterpart. I think you know where I'm going with this, but I'm gonna say it anyway: pitch, lob, fling, dollop, or otherwise chuck it into your ramen.

What you'll end up with here is a seasoned tomato noodle soup. Rather than making more spaghetti noodles to go with your sauce – which can rapidly devolve into a cycle of having either too much sauce or too many noodles and always having to make more meals of spaghetti to compensate – ramen soup is an effective use of leftovers that reinvents (if only by a margin) both soup and sauce into something that hopefully doesn't taste too much like yesterday's dinner.

I have to give the credit for the original idea to my dad, the innovator of the "toss the leftovers in the ramen" technique. Sundays always began for me in the afternoons – MAD tv, Red Dwarf, and old school Dr. Who reruns kept me glued to my bedroom boob tube 'til the wee hours of Sunday morning – to the wafting aromas of spaghetti ramen soup. It was our tradition – I'd tramp downstairs bleary-eyed, Dad would say "good of you to join us" and serve up my soup and sandwich while we watched the Game in the family room. Wednesday's spaghetti (and Wednesday was sacred to me as my dad's spaghetti night) became Sunday's soup. You don't have to save this soup for Sunday's though, as it makes a rather excellent quick lunch or snack.

I'm going to put my lot in with Dad and say that Spaghetti Soup is best served with a B.L.T. or a Marshall Field's Turkey Sandwich. I've paired it here with a roast beef and provolone, simply because that was what hunting in the dining hall's deli section provided on this particular expedition. It's not terribly inspired, but it worked just fine.

Spaghetti Soup

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

½ cup tomato sandwich slices

½ cup lettuce slices

1-2 cups spaghetti sauce

Things you will probably have to buy:

1 package Top Ramen noodles

2-3 stalks green onions

spices (To taste. I use yellow curry spice, basil, oregano, garlic salt, and red chili powder in mine.)

  1. Chop the tomato slices, green onion, and lettuce into ¼-1 inch pieces.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil; add in spaghetti sauce, tomatoes, spices, and lettuce. Stir and bring back to a boil.
  3. Add ramen noodles and cook for three minutes, as per package instructions.
  4. Add green onion and boil for about thirty seconds more.
  5. Remove from heat and serve with your sandwich of choice.


15 October 2007

(Decidedly Not) Guilt-Free Parfait Cones

"You know what else everybody likes? Parfaits. Have you ever met a person, you say, 'Let's get some parfait,' they say, 'Hell no, I don't like no parfait'? Parfaits are delicious." – Donkey (in Shrek)

I have to agree with Donkey on this one. Parfaits are delicious. Of course, not everybody likes them, but you've got to give him some credit. He's a donkey for starters, how many people could he have possibly put this query to? Granted he is a remarkably loquacious donkey with absolutely no concept of personal space, but he's still a donkey, none the less. He's also not entirely wrong: lots of people like parfaits. As far as guilt-free desserts go (despite the high sugar content and, in proportion, low nutritional value) parfaits are pretty well liked across the board. And hey, if you can buy it at McDonald's, doesn't that pretty much make it a staple of the American diet?

Besides being generally well-liked (and not-so-surprisingly easy to make), parfait will always be tied to one particular experience of mine that never fails to put a smile on my face.

On the night of my senior prom, eleven of my friends and I met at one of our houses to have dinner. Our parents had gotten together, designed a menu, dressed up as waiters, and served us the food. I don't remember the main course, I think because I was too busy trying to keep my lipstick from smearing and laughing at the spectacle we made in our lobster bibs and fancy dress. You try keeping a straight face with eleven other teenagers all dressed to the nines – sequins, silk, taffeta, bowties, glass beadwork, and cummerbunds – having to put on a crinkly plastic bib with a giant red lobster on it. Yeah.

Anyway, dessert came out, and I completely forget how hideously the red of the lobsters clashed with my maroon dress. (No snide comments about the wisdom of maroon – it was school colors and I was seventeen.) Perhaps the first shock was my mother sweeping in with her totally 1900's coat-and-tails men's jacket looking every inch the fancy French waiter. But the second, and surpassingly more delicious, was the parfait she was ferrying in.

Arranged in stemmed glassware, the layers of pinky-red strawberry, deep red raspberry, calm blue-violet blueberry, and white cream looked delicate and rich. The smell was an amazing promise – pure sugary, syrupy heaven. The first spoonful floated around the mouth, light and airy yet focused in staccato bursts of tart blueberry. I've never been fond of over-large, sickeningly sweet berries. The littler, sharply sweet ones have always been my favorites. I've never had a parfait that compared. (Sorry McDonald's.)

Since I knew I'd never be able to make perfect parfait, or afford the stemware, I decided to go with an untraditional approach when creating my own. I figured that since Mickey D's has hit on a good thing with the granola, I'd throw dieting to the wind and put in something crunchy but decidedly not guilt-free: waffle cones. McDonald's has their bubble-topped cups, prom night its stemware, and I have my waffle cones. If you're going for dessert, you might as well indulge yourself, I always say.

As an added bonus, all ingredients come from our old buddy, Monsieur Dining Hall. (On a good day. Try this one time when they stock vanilla pudding instead of chocolate. Heck, just try it with the chocolate; it'll probably be even better.)

A note: Photos courtesy of Emma, who has a lovely camera and a lovely eye for detail. Plus, you know, my third arm hasn't grown in yet, so I did kind of need her for this. Thanks Emma!

(Decidedly Not) Guilt-Free Parfait Cones

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

1 cup vanilla pudding

1 teaspoon (or two packets) sugar

½ cup strawberries

½ cup mandarin oranges

6 sugar or waffle cones

½ cup blueberries (when available)

  1. Slice the strawberries into thin slivers, discarding the stem and inner white core.
  2. Mix everything – except the waffle cones, of course – together in a large bowl, reserving a few strawberries and oranges for decorating the top.
  3. Fill the cones with your parfait mixture and top with one or two of your reserved fruit slices.

    Tip: To fill the tip of the cone, use some of your mixture without any fruit in it. Otherwise, you'll have an empty last few bites of just cone, as the fruit slices won't be small enough to fit down there.


14 October 2007

Nobody Doesn’t Love Cheesecake

"Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all." – Harriet Van Horne

I would go further than Harriet here to say that food is love. Without love – love of food, love of people, love of self – food isn't food so much as barely digestible fuel to be shoveled straight down the gullet as quickly as possible, hopefully bypassing all taste buds in the process. Love is what guides our hands to the spice rack, to the tasting spoon, to the finger dipped hastily into the brownie batter while grandmom's back is turned. Love is getting your hands into the food and putting your mark on it, your own individual twist. Love is what is lacking from the college dining hall.

That isn't to say that there aren't a few lovely people working in my college's cafeteria; it's just that, in the mind of the corporation, they're used as cogs in a machine. Where's the wonderful stir-fry wiz who taught me (albeit indirectly) how to properly exploit every ounce of flavor out of garlic? Shuttled to the cashier's post in the student center's convenience store or not seen at all. Perhaps he is backstage, doing what he can to fix the overly bland food coming from the kitchens, but who knows. And where's the "omelet guy" who made weekend breakfasts – a scarce and unimaginative wasteland of breakfast sausage and syrupy pancake mush – worthwhile? Gone, in all probability, to make way for the new corporate regime. And there are others, shunted to shuttling burgers and French fries, restocking salad bars, and refilling milk bladders in the juice machines.

As an institution, WCDS squashes creativity and individuality. Recipes are corporately owned, ingredients come from Sysco in bulk, and food sits in cold trays from breakfast 'til dinner, leftover from a catered event for people more important than students. The stir-fry bar – such a hit with students that the line is often 30 minutes long – lies dormant at most dinners, and more and more frequently at lunches, too. The main dishes are almost all interchangeable: brown, starchy, and bland. Potatoes, chicken, spaghetti, rice, lentil cakes, French fries, burgers, pizza.

WCDS has to serve roughly 2000 people per meal, that's including staff, guests, and all enrolled students plus a bit of overestimating. WCDS's solution is to try to please everyone, with the philosophy that nobody doesn't like the most basic of basics. But what ends up happening is that they please almost no one. It's no wonder that when they actually serve a dish with some personality to it, like General Tso's Chicken (which was as bland as I've ever tasted that dish), the tray is decimated in less than one minute.

The next time that something remotely edible is served, watch the students. They line up, sometimes for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. When, finally, the (vastly underappreciated) dining hall worker fights her way to the top of the line, the saran wrap is barely pulled back before ravenous hordes descend on the "delicacy." Of the fifty or so die-hards hanging around in line for this one dish, only ten to fifteen people get a reasonable serving. Before Ms. Dining Hall Worker has made it back to the safety of the kitchens, her fresh steaming tray lies empty, scraped clean of everything remotely edible. Time it sometime. It's the most entertaining event the dining hall has to offer.

But where was I going with all of this? Well, my well-worn rant against WCDS culminates with dessert offerings. Nothing says I couldn't care less about you than pre-packaged desserts. "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee" indeed. There are quite a few WCDS desserts that this nobody doesn't like. And it's not that their desserts are awful, just that they have no love in them. I've worked in a bakery before – albeit as a lowly sales drudge who wasn't allowed anywhere near the actual ovens unless I had a mop in hand – and I feel that the quality of desserts at WCDS is going rapidly downhill. Although the bakery I worked for claimed to be gourmet, the great majority of their offerings came to them pre-mixed and pre-measured, only wanting to be popped into the oven to be called "cookie" and not "dough." I actually lost weight working in the bakery because the only things worth eating were the master baker's specialty cakes, and those came few and far between. Those specialty cakes though, man those were ACE. Rich, buttery rum cake with layers of bitter-sweet chocolate ganache dripping down the sides. Those cakes were loved, they were art. It was no wonder they sold faster than we could ring them up. Lucky for us, even lowly bakery drudges got samples before they went on sale.

But even on a home-based scale, I bet you could tell the difference between your grandmother's brownies and ACME's. There's no comparison. Even if granny relies on Betty Crocker to do most of the work for her, they'll still taste better than anybody else's grandmother's brownies. And that's because of love. Poured into every baking tin and absorbed from the atmosphere of family. Sugar, butter, eggs and baking chocolate never tasted better than when I was swinging my legs beneath my grandmother's laminate kitchen table, using my finger to clean the bottom of the mixing bowl. It was love, and it was delicious.

I'm not really sure what WCDS could do to put more love into their desserts. They are, as previously mentioned, preparing food for a largely anonymous, needy, unappreciative crowd. But when considering how ridiculously easy it is to hand-prepare even the simplest of cheesecakes, which would be child's play to convert to larger quantity without sacrificing quantity, it seems well, ridiculous that WCDS should serve pre-packaged, dry, and unloved cheesecake. And if that cheesecake they've served is not from Sara Lee, or Jell-O, or the venerable Ms. Crocker… then something is seriously wrong.

To combat the scourge of the loveless cheesecake, I propose this recipe. Nobody doesn't love cheesecakes. (Unless you're lactose intolerant. Or just plain weird.) They fit every qualification for my kitchen: fast, cheap, and easy. Fast: the actual preparation time is close to five minutes. Ten tops. This is because all the baking can be done while you studious students are otherwise occupied. Cheap: every ingredient in this cheesecake was filched from the dining hall on top of a regular meal. Finally I'm getting my money's worth. Easy: see Fast and Cheap. Also, once made, these babies can last up to a week (if you hold off your roommates and, most especially, yourself with saint-like abstinence and a pointy stick), providing no-fuss breakfasts and desserts. This is a good recipe to make ahead whenever you have a free half-hour at home. Once made, anytime is cheesecake time.

The only problem I ran into in this recipe was the filling of the crust. The crust that I came up with – crushed Life cereal baked in a mixture with 3 TBSP butter – tended to pull away from the dish in a failed attempt to run away from home with the filling. Not that I blame it, the filling is so delicious that I would certainly run away with it if I had the chance, and the cereal crust itself never quite got to the gooey quality of graham cracker. (Perhaps I should have used more butter ;-P)

However, this was only a problem because I wanted my finished result to look extra pretty for the camera. A loved food does not have to be a pretty food. It will still taste much, much better than pre-packaged even if you have a few grains of crust dusting the top of the filling.

But enough of that fiddle faddle, let's get started.

Nobody Doesn't Love Mini-Cheesecakes

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

2 cups cream cheese

3 Tablespoons butter

2 cups LIFE cereal

1/3 cup sugar

Sprinkle of cinnamon

Things you will probably have to buy:

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 ceramic ramekin or Pyrex baking dishes (Two for a dollar at Target, and found cheaply at every big box chain store around the country. Look for something 8 oz in size and oven safe.)

  1. Preheat toaster oven to 350O F.
  2. Double bag the life cereal. Now here's the fun part: crush the living day lights out of it. Crush it until everything is the same size as the gigantic sugar crystals that find their way to the bottom of the bag.
  3. Mix the crushed cereal with 3 Tablespoons melted butter. (20-30 seconds in the microwave should do the trick). Line the bottoms and sides of your 8 oz dish with the mixture.
  4. Bake crusts 14-16 minutes or until golden brown.
  5. Mix cream cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. This will take some time (and can be done while the crusts are baking) as well as some book-toting muscles if you either a) don't have a mixer or b) don't use soft cream cheese. Luckily, most dining hall cream cheese is soft and served in a tub. Try the blender if you must, but I found that hand mixing worked better and wasted less filling.
  6. Remove crusts from oven and let cool 10 minutes.
  7. Fill crusts with cream cheese filling.
  8. Chill in refrigerator at least 3 hours. Eat whenever.


Getting on Schedule

I'd like to apologize for the recent lack of updates. 'What happened to dessert week?' you might ask. Well, life happened. I'm a student, sometimes ten page papers, midterms, and general classwork get in the way of things like blogging.

But I'd like for it to not happen again. I'm rechristening today and Monday as the final two entries for dessert week, after which I'm (really really) going to stick to three entries per week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. See, I even put a widget in my sidebar that will hold me accountable. (-->)

So I'll see you (or, rather, you'll see me) on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. If there are to be changes to this schedule, I will update the sidebar and give you a heads up.

And now, without further ado or stalling... the second installment of dessert week: individual mini-cheesecakes!

03 October 2007

Delicious Failure

It was a painful lesson, but I think I've finally realized that there is such a thing as too much butter.

I never used to think that there was such a thing. I was the type of kid who put so much butter on my mashed potatoes that they were literally swimming in butter soup. Not unlike the recipe I bring to you tonight, actually. But it makes me wonder where my butter obsession came from.

Thinking back on high school, I have a friend who then used to make her special kind of cake with six sticks of butter. Yes, you read that right: six. So it was more like fudge than "cake" per se, but the point is that it was utterly delicious. In that "Ah, I can hear my arteries clogging already" kind of way.

But even before high school, my family always said that, unlike chocolate, you really can put butter on anything. It's the flavor-booster of choice in my house, and I have to say that I've never been able to eat biscuits and jam without butter. It makes salty things pop and sweet things melt on the tongue.

But now I know that too much of a good thing can truly be too much.

What I was going for this time was baked cinnamon apples, not unlike those which, to me, make the perfect complement to Baby Back ribs at Chile's restaurants. What I got was baked cinnamon apple soup, so totally unlike the Chile's version that it's not even the same species.

Still, I think I can guess where I went wrong. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was the three tablespoons of butter. After my failed attempt, I looked up some recipes online and found that I had tripled the recommended amount of churned cow cream. Oops. That would be why my apples are swimming in a glistening lake of oil.

I could have stopped at this point and thrown the soupy concoction away, but despite (or perhaps because of?) my over-zealous use of butter, the dish smelled absolutely divine. The apples were moist and sweet, and I decided to just go for it and layered some on top of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The piping hot apples and butter soup sauce made short work of the ice cream. However, while this looks like something to fill a slop bucket, the taste is out of this world. Truly. It is like a root beer float, if the root beer were replaced with apple-butter sauce. It eats like a soup, but tastes like dream.

I have modified the directions so that the soup phenomena may not occur so badly, although if you want cinnamon-apple-ice cream soup, please feel free to triple the amount of butter.

Look for more dessert ideas (and hopefully not disasters, although hopefully just as delicious) all this week.

Butter-Cinnamon Apples and Ice Cream

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

Vanilla Ice Cream

2 Gala Apples


Cinnamon Sugar

1 Tablespoon Butter

Things you will probably have to buy:

3 teaspoons Brown sugar

Oven-safe covered baking dish (Try your local second-hand store. I found mine for $2.00 at Goodwill.)

  1. Preheat toaster oven to 350O F on Bake setting.
  2. Peel, core, and slice apples into even sized pieces.
  3. Layer 1/3 of the apples in the bottom of your baking dish. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon Brown sugar. Layer in 1/3 Tablespoon butter. Drizzle honey. Cover layer with a thick coat of cinnamon sugar.

  4. Repeat until all ingredients are used. The goal is something like baked apple lasagna, with apples for the noodles and everything else for filling layers.
  5. Bake at 350O F for 30-45 minutes. The apples should be bubbling and filling the room with wafting cinnamon apple smells before removal.
  6. Carefully remove from toaster oven. Let cool 5-10 minutes. Layer over scoop of vanilla ice cream.