Hacks from my Happy Place – XV

I want to use this article to talk specifically about one item. That item is mashed potatoes.

I grew up with mashed potatoes being a staple as a side dish. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive at any time of the year and the fact that they are a product filled with starch means that they are very filling, always good for the budget-conscious.

The process I learned growing up about making them was pretty basic. Peel and dice the potatoes. Put in a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Continue boiling until potatoes are tender. Drain. Add butter (margarine) and some milk and begin to mash (by hand or with an electric mixer). Add milk as needed to acquire the desired consistency. Place in serving bowl. Serve.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that process, and it is continued on routinely.

However, one of the things about peeling potatoes is that all of the vitamins and minerals are in the peel of the potato, not in the meat of it. Once a potato has been peeled, it has pretty much lost any of its nutritional value. Perhaps that is why we see restaurants starting to use red or fingerling potatoes – any potato that has a very thin skin – and leaving some, or all, of the skin on the potato for boiling and serving.

Here’s my thing about that, and why I love it so much. You see, in addition to keeping some nutritional value, I’ve begun to abhor the task of peeling and dicing potatoes. It’s such a time-consuming and monotonous chore! I’ve been lucky enough to discover that my bestie’s husband likes this chore (probably because he likes to nibble on raw potato pieces while he’s doing it!), and this has allowed me the freedom of not feeling like I’m a slave to it!

My bestie is lactose-intolerant. (My bestie is also intolerant of having to cook, by the way!) Since we do Thanksgiving and Christmas together, it is my task to do the actual mashing of the potatoes without using milk. And this is not a problem! You see, one day when I was watching Rachel Raye, she talked about using the potato water instead of milk, suggesting that the potato water is full of the potato flavor. I tried it – and she was right! The actual flavor of the potato was much more prominent and added a vibrancy to the taste! I’ve been making them that way ever since!

Now, I admit, I’m still lazy about the peeling potatoes process, so I have succumbed to the instant potatoes method for myself. If I’m going to be covering the potatoes with something like gravy, or the sauerkraut from pork and sauerkraut, the potatoes assume that flavor, and it all works out. When I really DO want the flavor or real mashed potatoes, I simply use red potatoes and leave the skins on because, they are very thin skins and because, I’m keeping the nutritional value. Win-Win!

I know, from experience, that when you are going to go through the task of making real mashed potatoes, you make more than you anticipate needing to feed however many people you are feeding! Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is not about “waste not, want not” – it’s about “food aplenty” and “leftovers”! So, what can you do with leftover mashed potatoes?

Of course, they can be re-heated via the microwave or in a saucepan with a little extra butter (margarine) to re-moisten them. But how many days in a row do you want them again, especially when you’ve finished off the rest of the leftovers from the original meal? Now what?

The answer is two words: Potato Cakes. Potato cakes are basically leftover mashed potatoes, with a few extra ingredients, turned into a batter that you make like pancakes! The basic recipe is one cup of flour for two cups of potatoes (you can guesstimate this without measuring the potatoes) and one egg for each two cups of potatoes. From there, you can make different varieties. As a side dish to another entrĂ©e, add chopped onion (optional), salt, pepper and any other seasonings you feel are appropriate. For example, you can add Italian seasoning if you are serving them with something that it tomato-sauce based. You can actually turn them into breakfast by adding a little bit of vanilla to the batter, (omitting the salt, pepper and onions) and serve with syrup. Get creative and add some blueberries or chocolate chips or whatever else you might put in pancake batter! If you have a lot of leftover mashed potatoes, mix them thoroughly with the flour and egg and then divide – make a batch of savory AND a batch of sweet! The batter can be refrigerated for a couple of days, and you might just need to add a little bit of water to thin it back down before using!

Mashed potatoes do freeze. As with refrigerating, they may appear a little ‘watery’. Just stir them up until the liquid is absorbed back in and reheat. You can also freeze them in two-cup batches and thaw them out to make potato cakes. So go ahead!! Peel, dice and cook a whole slew of potatoes to make mashed potatoes while going through the effort, and you’ll have a variety of options for the leftovers without having the task of peeling, dicing and boiling again!

Happy Mashed Potatoes, my friends! Any way you make them, they are yum, yum good!

Good old creamy mashed potatoes!
Crunchy potato cakes! Yes, please!

Hacks from my Happy Place – XII

It’s been a while since I posted anything about my fun times in the kitchen. I haven’t really been doing a lot of creating and experimenting there recently, mostly because I’ve run out of freezer space! Much of what is stored there is to share with my brother to take home when he visits for Christmas, and then I can start cooking again! YAY!

I’ve also been adding posts of a ‘heavier’ emotional weight recently, and I’m sure my fellow readers and I could use a break from that. So… it’s time to put my apron on for a bit….

I no longer get into baking for Christmas. Having been diagnosed with diabetes and having no real space to speak of in my kitchen are the two major reasons. I can’t help but try a sample of each of the variety I make when it’s still warm from the oven, after all – and someone needs to dispose of the imperfect ones without letting them go to waste as well! But, in the days when I baked like the devil in a tailspin, my record was 146 dozen. Yes, that’s right, dozen – the equivalent of 1, 752 cookies! I gave tray upon tray upon tray of cookies away, and the trays also included 3 mini-loaves of assorted breads. Yea, that’s not going to happen again in this lifetime!

I do, however, follow a Christmas cookie baking site on a social media site, probably because I enjoy seeing the artistry with which some people decorate cookies. Visual creativity and the ability to draw are two of my weaknesses.

One that site, however, I found a couple of ‘hacks’ I thought I’d share for those of you who do bake! HACK #1: The cap on a bottle of vanilla equals one teaspoon. To those of you using measuring spoons for several ingredients, this means one less wash and dry between use for each one! HACK #2: If you need to soften butter quickly, but don’t want to melt it, boil water in a microwave safe glass to heat the glass, then dump the water out and flip it over your stick of butter. In a few minutes, it will be soft enough to use for your recipe.

Okay, that’s it for my hacks. Although I don’t make cookies, I still do some baking. I recently made one of my favorite desserts to make as a gift to someone who is a proclaimed chocoholic. I shared the recipe and photos on another social media site, and my friends from the Netherlands, who saw it and both follow my blog, suggested I post the recipe and photos here. So, Nurse and Belly (yes, more Mixer family folks!), this is for you!

Death by Chocolate – ingredients: One box of cake mix in dark chocolate/chocolate fudge flavor (any brand will do). One box of instant chocolate pudding (dark chocolate if you can find it). Two boxes of instant mousse mix (again, in dark chocolate if you can find it). One large tub of whipped topping (any brand will do). Your choice of add-ins, such as chocolate chips, broken candy bar pieces, etc. (You can use other items, such as peanut butter chips, nuts or espresso beans, but I think it’s better to stick with something chocolate.) Chocolate syrup is an optional additional ingredient.

Bake the cake according to directions, adding the dried instant pudding to the mix. (I use a Bundt pan because I want as much of the cake to be the moist inside as possible, but any pan will do.) Let cake cool according to directions.

After cake has cooled sufficiently, break it into small chunks and set aside in a large bowl. Mix the two boxes of instant mousse mix according to directions on the box. Now it’s time to assemble all of the ingredients together to begin building layers.

Cake chunks, mousse, whipped topping, dark chocolate chips and chocolate syrup.

This dessert is built in layers, so it’s best to use a large clear bowl if possible, so you can see the layers. In this demonstration, I used a smaller bowl because I was gifting some, but it does make a large bowlful!

The first layer in the bottom of the bowl is cake chunks. On top of the cake, spread a layer of chocolate mousse. On top of the mousse, spread a layer of whipped topping. Sprinkle on some of your add-ons (this layer doesn’t show so you can be sloppy) and swirl with chocolate syrup (optional).

Chunks of cake
Mousse over cake
Whipped topping, add-ons and chocolate syrup

From there, you just keep repeating the layers, always ending with the whipped topping on top. My BIGGEST suggestion is that you don’t fill the bowl to the brim so that you can cover it with plastic wrap. It does need to be stored in the fridge. In the end, it looks something like this:

View from the top
View from the side

Even though my sample is only two layers, you can see how spectacular it looks from the side, and that’s why a clear bowl is the way to go!

This is a dessert that any hostess would enjoy putting on her table if you bring it with you for a dinner invitation. This is a dessert that can be delved into a spoonful at a time whenever you crave just a bite of something sweet. And this is a dessert that takes a little bit of time to assemble but is easy to make! So try it! And enjoy!

Hacks from my Happy Place – VII

As kids start back to school and the evenings get just a little cooler, my yearn for nesting starts to take hold. I rely on my crockpot, slow cooker and toaster oven throughout much of the summer because I don’t have central air and my kitchen is in the back, getting no satisfaction from my living room and bedroom window units. I’ve been a little bit antsy to start using my oven. I’ve got a recipe for using flour tortillas to make homemade dipping chips, and while the recipe is for a savory version, I want to try the same idea and create a sweet version (I’m thinking cinnamon and sugar). I also have a recipe for making cookies from cake mix, and the box of sugar-free cake mix in my cupboard is awaiting me to turn on the oven and bake them (turning them into Snickerdoodles by adding cinnamon).

When I think about nesting, my mind goes immediately to soups and stews. I’ve tried several different packages for making the sauce for beef stew, but they aren’t the taste I’m looking for. Suddenly, I remembered my aunt making beef stew once and liking it. She’d told me back then, but I’d completely forgotten! She makes her regular pot roast with carrots, potatoes and onions. Once dinner is over, she takes out a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, purees it, and adds her leftovers to it, with a little extra beef broth, if needed. She explained that, by pureeing it, all the little pieces of meat, potato and veggie in the can get ground up, so they don’t look funny adding it to her larger pieces. Genius! It creates a very tasty “gravy”! Dinty Moore beef stew will definitely be added to my winter stock-up shopping excursion!

I did make a batch of chili recently; even though it’s usually a winter staple, I was hungry for it! In my opinion, my mom made the best chili! A long time ago, a now long-gone restaurant named Gingerbread Man had chili that tasted just like hers! Knowing that we didn’t like spicy foods, her seasonings included a tablespoon of sugar, salt and pepper to taste and…ground cinnamon! I know, I know, that sounds oddly out-of-place for a pot of chili, but it rocks! I remember the first time my brother had a bag of homemade chili from me, which was labeled “Mom’s Chili”. He agreed it was just as he remembered!

Now that I have people in my life who enjoy cabbage as much as I do, my cabbage soup is high on the list for the winter. It’s easy to make, the hardest part being cutting up cabbage into bite-sized pieces. A friend of mine, who suffers with arthritis in her hands, followed the recipe but added bagged coleslaw from the produce department. The taste was very much the same, but it lacked the texture and comfort of using regular cabbage.

I realized, as I was looking over this post, that cinnamon has been to the forefront three different times. I’ve always liked cinnamon, starting way back to the childhood days of toast with cinnamon and sugar. I’ve been known to add a little cinnamon with my sugar in a bowl of rather plain cereal (the few times I eat cereal). I add a preferred flavor of coffee creamer to my coffee at home (it’s NOT cinnamon!) but, when at a convenience store that doesn’t have a flavored coffee or creamer I prefer, I often add cinnamon with my coffee and standard creamer. I’d added it to hot tea before, but I was surprised at how much I also enjoyed it in hot coffee! Considering the multiple health benefits of cinnamon, I’m going to start looking for other ways to add it to food and drinks!

Of course, I suppose my favorite way to enjoy cinnamon is in a warm, gooey cinnamon roll/bun, but my diabetes precludes that from being a primary source of ingestion!

Meanwhile, it’s time to enjoy grilled meals for as long as possible before the weather changes too much. If you have a grill, use it as much as you can while you can! If you don’t have one, I can tell you that broiling a hot dog in a toaster oven gives you that same sense of a grilled hot dog if you let it cook for at least 15 minutes!

So, here’s to the last hot days of summer – and here’s to it getting cold enough that I can do more than just talk about nesting! And as always, please feel free to share any kitchen tips or hacks you have!