Spring in my step & recipes in the file

Oops! Forgot to post this blog after I wrote it — more than a week ago. But perhaps that was good, because there was an omission in one of the recipes. It is now fixed…

Do I dare say it? Or will such a comment draw Mother Nature’s interest and put a jinx on the nicer weather we’ve been having?
I’m going to be bold and chance it:
Spring has finally sprung!
The birds are singing, the grass is taking on greenish tinge, and there are smiles on the faces of people on the street. I’ve noticed that my own spirits have been brighter, and there’s definitely “spring” in my step.
That swing in my temperament can also be attributed to a recent influx of new recipes ­— making the writing of this blog a much easier task. First up is a bar recipe sent in by Sandy Dixon of Worthington.
“I brought these bars to the Lenten services at St. Matthews, and several requested the recipe and said to put it in the Globe so they could all have the recipe,” writes Sandy.

Peanut Butter Fingers

Cream together 1 cup butter, 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup brown sugar. Add 2 eggs and 2/3 cup peanut butter. Beat until smooth.
Add 1 teaspoon soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 cups flour and 2 cups oatmeal. Mix until evenly blended.
Grease a 9- by 13-inch pan and press mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle 12 ounces chocolate chips over top. Allow chips to melt, then spread evenly.
For topping, combine ½ cup powdered sugar, ¼ cup peanut butter and 2 to 4 tablespoons milk, beating until smooth and of spreading consistency. Spread over top of chocolate. Cool, cut and serve.

When Maxine Gaul of Iona dropped me an email regarding the upcoming dinner on Sunday at St. Columba Church in Iona, she graciously included a couple of recipes.
“The following recipe was floating around the Internet recently, and I couldn’t resist the chocolate factor,” she explained. “It is very fudgy and delicious. I plan to make one for the St. Columba Spring Dinner. There are always such great pies and desserts at the dinner.”

Cocoa Cream Pie

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine ½ cup cocoa, ¼ cup cornstarch, 3 beaten egg yolks, 1½ cups sugar and ¼ teaspoon salt. While stirring over medium-high heat, gradually add 2 cups milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool until thick, beating it smooth. (Cream pies take some time to thicken, so stir and stir for 10 to 15 minutes. Just keep it up until it thickens, advises Maxine.)
Once thickened, pour mixture into a pre-baked pie shell. Put in the refrigerator to chill. Add whipped topping if desired or use the leftover egg whites to make a meringue.

Maxine also included one of her favorite cookie recipes.
“I have tried many recipes for peanut butter cookies over the years, but this recipe is the best,” she endorsed.
Best Peanut Butter Cookies
Combine ½ cup softened butter, ½ cup packed brown sugar, ¼ cup white sugar. ½ teaspoon vanilla and 1 large egg, beating until light and fluffy. Add 1 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky), ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon soda; mix well. Add 1¼ cups flour and slowly beat until all combined.
Form dough into balls and roll in sugar. Place on baking sheet and use a fork to press hash marks into the top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-18 minutes.

Let the pranking commence

Consider yourself duly warned.

If you fall victim to any pranks, jokes or other tomfoolery on Tuesday, you have only yourself to blame, as I have given you ample notice that April Fools’ Day is coming up.

As I have mentioned before, my late mother, Dorthy, was a master of April Fool pranking. Somehow she always managed to come up with a premise that was just plausible enough that she could hook her kids with an April 1 tale. She was also known to run an uncooked egg under hot water to pass for a hardboiled egg for April 1 breakfast (although she never served hardboiled eggs for breakfast any other time of year); and substitute salt for sugar or vice versa. But her true talent came in those April 1 fibs. I’m sure she spent days mulling over possible scenarios, coming up with just the right amount of embellishment to pull one over on us.

I did not inherit that talent, nor did either of my siblings, although I believe that sister Margaret might be the best candidate for filling DotMom’s pranking shoes. She has yet to try to pull one over on me on April 1, but I think she has a good enough imagination to do it. (Do not consider this a challenge, Margaret.) When I have tried to pull off such a prank, I always give it away with a laugh or a smirk.

I’m more apt to attempt the egg trick on Hubby Bryan, or maybe some other food-related fun? In researching April Fool foods online, I found the majority of the suggestions were for food imposters — something sweet that looks like something savory and vice versa. Here are two such recipes that would be fun to concoct with kids on April Fools’ Day.

Pizza Cake

Prepare 1 package yellow cake mix according to package directions. Pour the batter into 2 greased and floured 9-inch round baking pans. Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool completely.

Place each cake on a plate or serving platter. Combine 1 cup white frosting with red liquid or paste food coloring until mixture resembles tomato sauce. Spread over the top of each cake to within ½ inch of edges.

Grate 3 ounces white baking chocolate; sprinkle over top of frosting to resemble cheese.

Unroll 2 strawberry fruit roll-ups (or other red fruit leather product). Use a 1½-inch round cutter to cut circles to resemble pepperoni. Arrange circles on top of cake. You can also add candied red and green fruits to resemble red and green peppers.

Meat Loaf Cupcakes

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 18 regular-sized or 9 jumbo muffin cups with cooking spray.

In large bowl, thorougly combine 2 pounds ground beef, 2 eggs, beaten, 1 small onion, finely diced, 1 clove garlic, finely minced; 2/3 cup ketchup, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Divide mixture evenly among muffin cups, pressing firmly.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Cool slightly in cups.

While the meat muffins are baking, cook 6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed, in salted water until tender. Drain; return to saucepan. Add 8 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks; 3 tablespoons butter and a little bit of milk. Mash until creamy and smooth, adding more milk if necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place potato mixture into decorating bag; pipe potato onto top of each “cupcake.”


Recipe reminiscences

Lately I — along with more than 4,000 other people with ties to Worthington — have become engrossed in a Facebook social networking site, “Growing Up in Worthington, Minnesota, What Do You Remember?”
The site quickly gathered a large following of both current and former Worthington residents, who largely use it as an opportunity to reminisce about their hometown.
I’ve been busy writing a story about the Facebook site for the Daily Globe’s big annual report section, slated to come out on March 22 with a theme of “A Sense of Community.” I would urge you to check out the March 22 paper if you’re interested in the Worthington community or its history.
As a local native, I have easily gotten sidetracked by remembrances of people and places that I remember from my youth: The State Theater, Fred’s Café, Michael’s Steakhouse, Taco Towne, the old junior high building that was connected to Memorial Auditorium, the former courthouse building, Log Cabin Grocery, the popcorn wagon …
And among those reflections of the past have come up many recollections of foods, particularly items served in the school cafeterias. A few such recipes have come across my desk — or I inherited them from DotMom —so I have also shared them on the site. When someone gave me a big bag of Daily Globe clippings recently, I also found an article I had written in 2000 that con-tained a couple other beloved District 518 dishes.
So for those who have a hankering for the dishes of their school days, here are a few of those cafeteria recipes. The chili recipe is also in the “Mixing & Musing Cookbook.” The pizza burger recipe, which has been printed here before, was provided by Amy Moritz, who suggested using shredded cheese instead of running it through the meat grinder.

District 518 Chili

1 pound ground beef
½ cup water
One 15-ounce can Hormel chili without beans
One 16-ounce can tomato sauce
One 15½-ounce can Finest red beans (not kidney beans) and sauce
6 ounce can tomato paste
16-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 teaspoon chili powder
Place beef in large pan with the ½ cup water. Cook over very low heat; do not allow to brown, just steam.
Add remaining ingredients. Before adding the whole tomatoes, place them in a blender or force through a sieve to mash large pulp pieces. Simmer about 1 hour, adding water if it seems too thick. Note this recipe contains no onions.

School Pizza Burgers
Brown 1 pound ground beef; drain. Grind ½ pound bologna in a meat grinder.
Combine meats with ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon sage, 1 teaspoon oregano, one 14-ounce can pizza sauce and ½ pound diced or shredded Velveeta; mix well. Split hamburger buns and spread mixture on each bun half.
Bake at 450 degrees for 12 minutes.

Lunchroom Chocolate Cake

1½ cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
½ tablespoon vinegar
1½ cups water
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon oil
½ tablespoon vanilla ex-tract
Mix together sugar and cocoa powder.
Separately mix flour, baking soda and salt. Combine all dry ingredients.
With mixer on low speed, add to the dry ingredients the vinegar, water, oil and vanilla, scraping bowl often. Do not overmix.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Do not overbake.
Makes 20 portions.

A ‘to-die-for” favorite

I think just about every family has one — that go-to dessert that is used to celebrate special occasions.

In my post-holiday email correspondence with Barb Atchison about the recipes she submitted to my mom’s “Mixing & Musing” column many years back, Barb sent an “addendum” about her family’s love of the Best Ever Éclair Cake recipe from DotMom’s cookbook.

“This recipe has been such a family favorite that when our son Joel, a 1999 graduate of WHS, graduated from high school, he asked for this cake instead of a decorated cake for his high school graduation party,” writes Barb, noting that she made 10 of them for that event. “This Christmas was the first time my grandkids (5, 4 and 2 years old) had it, and it was a resounding success. There is no more favorite dessert at the Atchison house than Éclair Cake … It is ‘to die for’ good.”

I guess that endorsement calls for a reprint of the recipe. Perhaps it will become a family favorite for some other households.

Best-Ever Éclair Cake

Butter the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch pan. Line with whole graham crackers.

Mix two 3¾-ounce packages instant French vanilla pudding with 3½ cups milk; beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Blend in one 8-ounce container Cool Whip. Spread half this mixture over crackers.

Arrange another layer of graham crackers, then another layer of the pudding mixture, and finally a third layer of crackers. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Combine 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted, with 2 tablespoons white corn syrup, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 3 tablespoons soft butter, 1½ cup confectioner’s sugar and 3 tablespoons milk. Spread frosting over top layer of crackers. Refrigerate at least 24 hours. Improves with age.

Barb also sent along another favorite recipe for a chocolate cake, noting that she uses powdered buttermilk from a can in it.

“I blend 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder with the dry ingredients, then use 1 cup water when adding the liquids in place of the liquid buttermilk the recipe calls for.

“The recipe makes a very moist cake that just gets moister the longer it sets. However it is so good that it doesn’t usually last that long!”

Barb’s Easy Very Moist Chocolate Cake

Blend 2 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, ½ cup cocoa, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon soda.

Add 1 cup buttermilk, 1 cup oil, 2 eggs (reserve 1 white for frosting) and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix well, then add 1 cup hot coffee. Beat until well-blended. Batter will be very runny.

Grease and flour a 9- by 13-inch pan. Pour batter in pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean.

Cool and frost with the following: Blend 3 tablespoons softened butter, 1 egg white, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 2½ cups powdered sugar. Add a few drops of milk, if necessary, to get spreading consistency.

The final recipe of the day is by special request from Maree Rose of Worthington. In last week’s “Looking Back” column on the reminiscing page, Maree spotted a mention of a recipe that was printed in DotMom’s column 10 years ago, and called to see if I could find it. I had some doubts about being able to locate it, but a quick search through the Daily Globe archives did turn it up. It was originally credited to Gloria Hibma of rural Worthington.

Microwave Meat Loaves

 In a bowl combine 1 beaten egg, 1/3 cup milk, 2 tablespoons barbecue sauce, ½ cup crushed packaged stuffing, and 1 tablespoon onion soup mix. Over this mixture crumble 1¼ pounds lean ground beef and mix well.

Shape into five loaves; arrange loaves around edge of a microwave safe dish. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 6 to 7 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 160 degrees. Cover and let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Cover top of loaves with ¼ cup barbecue sauce.

Still timely recipes

Today I’m going to take you on a trip back in time. Our first stop isn’t that far back, just to the beginning of the year, about seven weeks ago, when I received an email from Barb Atchison:

Today is New Year’s Day 2014, and I am doing, of all things, cleaning!  Decided to start the new year by cleaning my home office because my husband Rich is off ice fishing up north and I have nothing to do.  I found a long lost memory — some correspondence I had years ago with your mom, Dorthy.

Attached to the email was a scanned copy of Mom’s Mixing & Musing column. This is where we travel back a bit further, to Oct. 24, 1988. Barb had submitted some recipes that she thought might be “too easy” to print — kid-friendly fare.

The newspaper column was stuck in a box that I sorted through. This is probably the first set of recipes I ever sent to Dorthy, and the references are to all her columns about her grandkids (Gretchen and Ingrid) hating those “green things” aka, things like zucchini, that Dorthy loved to add to many recipes!

Yes, DotMom did take some perverse delight in sneaking zucchini and other things considered “icky” by both her children and grandchildren into some of her concoctions. Niece Gretchen (to this day still the pickiest eater in the family, her dad Marty being a close second) often recalls the care package she received from Grandma Dot as a young adult living in Texas and the telltale specks of green she found in the enclosed brownies.

Barb’s recipe submissions in 1988 didn’t contain any surreptitious zucchini, but DotMom definitely found such “kid-pleasin’ stuff” worth printing, and I think they are worth a repeat. Not only are these recipes ones that should appeal to even the pickiest of eaters, they also offer an opportunity to get kids cooking in the kitchen. They can help by crushing up Rice Krispies, stirring the Jell-O, buttering the garlic bread and many other culinary tasks.

What I found interesting is that I haven’t made the Better Than Mc’s Nuggets and Red Hot Jell-O for years … probably since my kids grew up and left home.  The next time my grandkids, Paul, Blake and Adam, are here (ages 5, 4 and 2), this is going to be our menu!  We’ll see if their dad, my son Alan, remembers it!

Better Than Mc’s Nuggets

Cut 2 pounds boneless chicken breasts into bite-size pieces. Melt 1 stick margarine. Pour over cut-up chicken.

Place 4 cups Rice Krispies in a plastic bag; crush with rolling pin. Add Lawry’s seasoning salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste. Add chicken/margarine mixture. Shake until well-coated.

Line baking sheet with aluminum foil. Arrange chicken pieces on foil. Bake at 375 degrees 45 minutes. Serve with warm honey, barbecue sauce or sweet and sour sauce.

Red Hot Jell-O

Mix 6 ounces raspberry Jell-O and 2/3 cup cinnamon candies (red-hots) with 2 cups boiling water until dissolved. Add 2 cups unsweetened applesauce.

Pour into mold or 9- by 13-inch pan. Chill until firm.

Garlic Toast

Use day-old bread, burger or hotdog buns. Lay bread slices on foil-lined cookie sheet or split the buns and place on sheet. Spread with margarine. Sprinkle with Lawry’s Garlic Sprinkle or garlic powder and Parmesan cheese. Bake at 250 degrees until lightly browned, or done to your liking.

Super Chewy Rice Krispie Bars

In saucepan combine 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 cup white corn syrup, 1 cup peanut butter and 1 stick margarine. Cook and blend until hot and bubbly. Add 6 to 7 cups Rice Krispies. Spread in buttered 9- by 13-inch pan. Cool and cut into squares. “I like this recipe because the bars do not get hard nor dry. Also, peanut butter is nutritious.”


The recipe file runneth over

Those of us who regularly write to fill this space know that a blog doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes our brains are totally devoid of cute anecdotes, personal tales — or in my case, recipes — to fill this column.

This week, however, that’s not the case for me. In recent weeks, I have been the recipient of a bounty of recipe sharings, thanks to a few of you readers out there. So, instead of having to write yet another holiday appropriate blog about Valentine-themed birthday parties from my childhood, I can share with you some recipes that you might actually use.

(Yes, I fully realize that some of you folks seem to get a kick out of such kitschy memories, but wouldn’t you rather have a new dish to try for supper this next week? I can only write about dressing up as the Queen of Hearts so many times without it getting repetitive.)

So without further ado, it’s on to the recipes. When Wanda Ebeling called me about another matter, she mentioned this chili recipe and offered to email it. Wanda credits it to son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Rachel Ebeling, who live in Fargo, N.D. “With the weather we have had this winter, we have made a lot of soup — it seems to hit the spot,” writes Wanda. “This White Chili is one of our favorites. Just remember, it is on the spicy side!”

White Chicken Chili

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups cooked, boneless chicken breast, chopped

Three 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth

Two 4-ounce cans canned green chili peppers, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper

Five 14.5-ounce cans Great Northern beans, undrained

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 10 minutes or until onions are tender. Add the chicken, chicken broth, green chili peppers, cumin, oregano and cayenne pepper and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low and add the beans. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until heated thoroughly. Pour into individual bowls and top with the cheese.

When Alice Boyenga of Luverne wrote to request a copy of the Red Velvet Cookie Recipe that was printed back in December (which, by the way, would be just as appropriate for Valentine’s Day as it was for Christmas), she included not one, but THREE! recipes, credited to a daughter who lives in the Twin Cities.

Rice Hotdish

½ cup raw rice (converted Uncle Ben’s)

1 pound ground beef

½ cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped carrots

1 can cream of chicken soup

1½ cans water

Brown ground beef with onion. Add rest of ingredients and pour into a greased roaster pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1½ hours —cover for first hour, stir and leave uncovered for last ½ hour.

Pork Chops & Stuffing

4 thick pork chops

1 small box stuffing mix

1 can cream soup

½ cup water

Brown pork chops. Make stuffing according to package directions. Add soup and water to stuffing and stir.

Place pork chops in a baking pan; pour stuffing mixture over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Kelly’s Cake

1 box lemon cake mix (with pudding in mix)

4 eggs

½ cup vegetable oil

1 small can mandarin oranges

1 box instant lemon pudding mix

One 15-ounce can crushed pineapple with juice

8 ounces Cool Whip

Mix cake mix, eggs, oil and oranges with juice for 3 minutes in an electric mixer. Pour batter into a greased 9- by 13-inch cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Let cool completely.

For frosting, combine pudding with one 15-ounce can crushed pineapple with juice. Fold in 8 ounces Cool Whip.

Store in refrigerator, covered. Tastes better the next day.

Send your recipes to brickers@dglobe.com; or via regular mail, Beth Rickers, Daily Globe, Box 639, Worthington 56187.

Slow cooker sympathy

I recently had to say goodbye to a longtime kitchen friend.
My faithful slow cooker gave up the ghost last weekend. We had planned to use the handy appliance to heat up and rehydrate a turkey breast left over from holiday festivities. But when we plugged it into the outlet, it failed to heat up.
So it was on to Plan B: turkey breast tented in the oven with a bit of broth poured over the top. It worked OK, but was not as convenient as the slow cooker.
This particular slow cooker — I have one that is much larger, too, as well as one of the much smaller “dipper” models — was one that I had before Hubby Bryan and I got married. That dates it as pre-1992, and I would guess, by the looks of it, a number of years before that date.
While the others have their uses, this was the model that got used most in our kitchen. The medium size was just right for our two-person household. It could fit a small roast or a batch of soup without taking up too much valuable counter real estate. And we used it a lot, particularly on Sundays when our kitchen is reserved for beer brewing activities.
After 20-plus years of use, however, I have to admit that this particular slow cooker looked worse for wear. It had indelible stains streaking its metal sides as well as the inside of the cooking chamber. And the Harvest Gold color certainly put a date on its origins.
I have yet to search out a replacement, but not because I’m still in mourning for the old model (although I do feel some sorrow at the loss). I just haven’t had time to go looking and figure out which size best corresponds to my longtime fave.
I do hope to find one that has a latch on it, as on more than one occasion the old model tipped in transit. It’s not easy getting broccoli-cheese dip out of a vehicle’s carpet.
Speaking of dips: We are just days away from Super Bowl Sunday, which means that many cans of Rotel tomatoes and loaves of Velveeta are flying off the supermarket shelves.
Here’s a variation of that popular football fare, perfect for keeping warm in a slow cooker — if yours is in working order.

Southwestern Chip Dip

1 pound ground beef
One 12-ounce roll spicy (hot) sausage
½ onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
One 8-ounce can tomato sauce
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 small can green chiles
1 pound Velveeta cheese, cubed
Brown beef and sausage with onion and garlic. Add remaining ingredients. Heat together until cheese melts. Keep warm in slow cooker on low heat. Serve with tortilla chips.

Because so many party appetizers are rich and full of cheese, I often substitute lower fat or light products for the regular base ingredients. In particular, I like to use Neufchatel in place of cream cheese; and light sour cream, plain yogurt or Greek yogurt in place of the sour cream.
I have yet to have bad results from such substitutions, especially when it comes to dips and spreads. Most people won’t know the difference.
I recently came across this recipe that has already made such substitutions in spinach dip — another popular Superbowl Sunday option. One-fourth cup of this dip has 42 calories and 2 grams of fat. If you serve it with veggie sticks instead of chips or bread, it’s almost guilt-free.

Super Spinach Dip

One 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach
¼ package (2 tablespoons) dry vegetable soup mix
1¾ cups fat-free plain yogurt
One 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained and chopped
¼ cup light mayonnaise
3 tablespoons chopped green onion
¼ teaspoon ground mustard
Thaw spinach, drain and squeeze until dry. Stir dry soup mix before measuring to mix evenly.
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Chill and serve with raw vegetables or quartered slices of whole-grain bread.
This can also be served in a hollowed-out loaf of whole-grain bread. Cube the bread that you remove and use it for serving instead of slices.

Men in the kitchen

Over the years that I’ve worked for the Daily Globe and written about food and cooking, I’ve received very little input from the males of the species.

Oh, once in a while I’ll run into some guy who comments on a recipe or asks when I’m going to have him over for supper to try out one of the recipes, but there have been very few recipe submissions or cooking tips from anyone of the male gender. And I would guess that if I were to page back through all the “Mixing & Musing” columns that DotMom wrote over the years, 99.5 percent of all the recipes she printed came from women, too.

But the kitchen is no longer primarily a woman’s domain. At our house, for instance, Hubby Bryan and I split the kitchen duties, and there are often weeks when he does the bulk of the cooking. I know such is the case in many households.

So I’m glad to have recently received both cooking tips and recipes from some local gentleman.

The first such instance occurred before Christmas, when Verlin Ostrem popped into the office. Now retired, Verlin formerly worked on appliances at the local Rickbeil’s store and had some advice about baking —particularly the importance of properly preheating the oven. He credits the late Walt Fisher, a salesman with Monarch Stove Co., with teaching him the importance of that preparation.

“When you are preheating the oven, you should put it 50 degrees higher than you are going to bake,” explained Verlin. “When you open the door to put your goodies in, you will lose 50 degrees right away. … So, put your food in the oven, shut the oven door and then turn your temperature control to your specified temp. This allows your food to get heated up evenly before your bake unit comes on. Therefore, your food will not burn or get too dark on the bottom. You should preheat no matter if you are baking cookies, cake, hot dishes, meatloaf, baked chicken, turkey or whatever.”

That professional baking advice would also apply to this pie recipe provided by Herman Hinders, who told me about it when we crossed paths in the grocery store one day. Herman followed through by leaving the recipe on my desk last week. He swears that even though there are none of the expensive nuts in his version, it tastes just like pecan pie.

Imitation Pecan Pie

Beat 2 eggs with ¾ cup sugar. Add ¾ cup dark corn syrup, ¾ cup angelflake coconut, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla and ½ cup milk. Mix well.

Fold in ¾ cup uncooked oatmeal and pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes.

On a recent visit to our house, Tom Ahlberg —a great kitchen experimenter — was extolling the deliciousness of this ragout —a French stew —that he had tried for the first time. So, of course, I had to secure the recipe, which he was able to forward to me via his smartphone. Take note that this is a two-day preparation, not something that will be thrown together quickly for tonight’s supper.

Cranberry Beef Ragout

Cut 4 pounds beef top round into 1-inch cubes. In a large Dutch oven, brown half the meat in 1/8 cup vegetable oil until well browned; remove meat and repeat with remaining meat and another 1/8 cup oil. Pour off any excess oil.

Return all meat to pan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1½ cups dry red wine, one 14½- ounce can beef broth, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons tomato paste and 4 cups thinly sliced onions. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until meat is tender, about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Refrigerate, uncovered, until cool; cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Combine one 12-ounce package fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped, ¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar and ½ cup flour; refrigerate, covered.

To serve: Reheat ragout to boiling, stirring often. Stir in cranberry mixture. Simmer until ragout is thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cook two 16-ounce packages bow-tie shaped pasta according to package directions for al dente pasta. Drain and toss with ¼ cup margarine or butter and 1 tablespoon poppy seeds. Serve with ragout, topped with snipped fresh parsley. Makes 12 servings.

​Fast-forwarding into the new year

What exactly constitutes 500 calories?
That was the question I asked myself about six months ago, when I first heard about intermittent fasting. I was watching a talk show, and the doctor who came up with the concept of the 5/2 Fast Diet, Dr. Michael Mosley, was touting its benefits. The idea is this: For five days a week, you eat what you normally would; on the other two days of the week, you consume only about a quarter of your normal caloric intake. For a woman, that’s 500 calories.
Fasting has long been a practice of many cultures —so it’s really nothing new. Proponents of this sort of fasting claim that it has many long-term health benefits, including reducing the risk of illnesses such as diabetes and cancer and even improved mental function. And, you should also lose weight —perhaps about 1 pound a week or so.
I decided to give it a try — for one day — just to see if I could get by on only 500 calories without feeling like my stomach was raw. The first day was pretty tough, I have to admit, but not unbearable. You can actually consume quite a bit of lettuce and other vegetables for 500 calories. The next day, I went back to my regular eating habits, but I wasn’t ravenous, so a couple of days later, I decided to try it again. This time, my stomach wasn’t bothered at all by the lesser amount of food it received. In fact, I felt pretty good.
So I kept it up, fasting usually on Mondays and Thursdays, with short hiatuses from the plan for vacations and other times when it wasn’t convenient. A few months later, I had dropped 15 pounds and had gotten into a fasting routine.
What I like about the plan is its flexibility —and that I don’t  have to sacrifice all my favorite foods all the time. You just have to take it one day at a time: If I abstain today, I can eat what I like —within reason, of course —tomorrow. (The idea is not to gorge oneself five days a week, but to eat moderately on those days!)
Of course, fasting is not for everyone, and it’s always advisable to consult a doctor and/or dietitian before undertaking any such eating plan. I’m just sharing my personal experience with it.
And my personal experience includes being derailed a bit during the holiday season. With the new year —and those dratted resolutions —I, of course, am resolving to stick to it a bit closer in the weeks to come.
Which brings me back to the original question: What can I eat for 500 calories?
Most days —fasting or not — I start off with low-fat yogurt and an apple. For lunch, I have a glass of V8, a bit of lean protein or a hardboiled egg (a calorie bargain at 50 calories) and some raw vegetables. Supper is usually a large salad, piled with vegetables and again some lean protein. When I feel the need for a snack, I usually down a glass of ice water or chew on a carrot or celery stick. Soup is also a good option for a meal, with many varieties having about 100 calories in a cup.
Even when it’s not a fasting day, the program has improved my dietary habits for the better, I’ve noticed, as I’m more aware of the number of calories I consume.
There are many books and cookbooks now available related to the intermittent fasting trend, and one I’ve consulted is “The 5:2 Diet Cookbook” edited by Laura Herring. She suggests this yogurt parfait, with 164 calories per serving, as a good way to start off the day.

Fruit and Yogurt Parfait

In a pan, combine 1 tablespoon rolled oats, 1 teaspoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice and 1 teaspoon slivered almonds; heat for a couple of minutes until the almonds have turned golden, the sugar has dissolved and starts to stick all the ingredients together.
Using 3½ ounces low-fat plain yogurt and an equal amount of in-season fruits, spoon half the fruit into a glass and top with half the yogurt and then half the oat mixture. Repeat to make another layer, then serve.

The Christmas Hibiscus

It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas at our house.

The operative word there is “little” —as in very few decorations have found their way out of the storage area and are scattered around the abode.

Hubby Bryan and I recently spent a week in Florida, visiting my sister Margaret and her husband, Don, who is currently serving as interim pastor at a Lutheran church in Gainesville, Fla. By pleasant happenstance, their daughter, Alexis, also currently resides in Gainesville while completing graduate studies at the University of Florida (Go Gators!), so we also got the chance to catch up with her.

Another pleasant happenstance for us was that our trip timing couldn’t have been better, at least weather-wise: While you folks were suffering several days of sub-zero readings, we had to deal with 70- and 80-degree weather. We felt really bad about it (add in the sarcastic tone).

Before we boarded the plane and headed south, I was too busy with pre-trip preparations to set up the Christmas tree. And after unpacking and returning to the reality of cold and snow, I just couldn’t justify going to all the work of decorating the tree for just a couple weeks of enjoyment. Bryan certainly wasn’t going to argue with my logic, as the tree impedes his view out the front window. He’s not much of a decorator, either.

But it didn’t seem right to go completely without a tree this year, so I came up with an alternative plan.

We’re calling it the Christmas hibiscus.

I have a potted hibiscus plant that spends summers on our deck and winters in the living room. After I bring it inside, it generally goes through a molting period where it isn’t very attractive, dropping dead leaves all over the carpet. It seems to have passed that point, with some new growth sprouting at the end of the branches.

So I strung some white lights through its branches, added a string of silver icicles, dug out some select ornaments and moved the plant to the spot in the front window where the tree usually resides.

Ta-da! I give you the Christmas hibiscus.

It certainly isn’t as glorious as the Christmas tree (I go for the more-is-more look when it comes to decking the branches), but it glitters and glows when the lights are turned off in the living room, and there is room beneath the plant stand for any packages that might make an appearance before Dec. 25.

I do have to give credit for the Christmas hibiscus inspiration to sister Margaret. In their temporary Florida living quarters, she and Don have to improvise on some of the amenities of home, including a Christmas tree. Margaret strung lights and big glass balls on the tropical plant that was part of the rental furnishings. It’s a bit bigger than my hibiscus —nearly scraping the ceiling —but is undoubtedly where I go the idea.

The only problem with decorating a hibiscus instead of a tree comes when I break into song: “O Christmas Hibiscus?” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Hibiscus?” They just don’t work.

Here’s one more cookie recipe from the November holiday baking extravaganza with my high school friends. Shannon Honerman Hafner made enough of these so we each went home with a couple dozen. They were yummy, the red color is appropriately festive, and the recipe is simple enough to still whip up a batch before the Christmas rush sets in.

Red Velvet Gooey Butter Cookies

1 package red velvet cake mix

 8 ounces cream cheese, softened

½ cup butter, softened

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup white chocolate chips

½ cup powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, combine butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Add egg and vanilla; mix until completely incorporated, then add cake mix and continue mixing until a thick dough forms. Fold in white chips.

Place powdered sugar in a small bowl.

Using a cookie scoop or hands, form 1-inch dough balls and roll in powdered sugar to coat.

Place cookies 2 inches apart on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes, until centers are set.

Cool on wire rack. When completely cooled, dust with additional powdered sugar.

The Christmas Hibiscus