At 16, I baked for 500 people at the lakeside summer camp where I worked in rural Wisconsin. While the handmade dough for Danishes or bread rose, I dropped a thousand sugar cookies row-by-row onto industrial-sized cookie sheets or rolled out a 21” by 26” pie crust.
At 26, I spent the year tearing interesting-looking breakfast recipes from Bon Appetit or Southern Living magazines for the pre-tailgate brunches I hosted in the fall. The pinnacle of those years was banana-stuffed French toast with a cream topping.
Now at 40-something, my kitchen creations consist mainly of microwaved pancakes and pre-cooked sausage. But apparently I haven’t lost my touch, as my seven-year-old son proudly proclaimed a few days ago that I’m such a good cook I should work in a prison because the food there is so bad. (I often tell him about legal cases, and had just shared one where the prisoners were suing because there were bugs in the food.)
As life intervened, I’ve put cooking on the back burner. But I still yearn to create enjoyable dishes and delicious desserts. In the last seven years, I’ve only once resorted to presenting a dinner host with Bob Evans mashed potatoes reheated in one of my serving bowls as my contribution to the meal. Instead, I have learned to take some shortcuts that save time and clean-up, but do not alter the “wow” factor. Here are six of my go-to options.
Puff Pastry-Wrapped Brie
This simple hors d’oeuvres offers both a tasty and a tasteful selection. To make, merely defrost a frozen, store-bought puff pastry and neatly wrap it around your favorite brand of brie cheese. Cook as directed on the pastry box. When the shell appears toasted and lightly brown, remove and serve warm (the cheese will be nicely melted inside) with fancy crackers or a nice loaf of crusty bread.
To upgrade this simple appetizer, consider topping the brie with a smear of jam or sprinkles of sliced almonds before wrapping. (A quick Google will provide many other suggestions.) With the second puff-pastry shell, you can also add some decorative designs before baking—simple leaves for a fancy dinner or the interlocking letters of your alma mater for a casual tailgate.
Mandarin Orange Salad
For those who volunteer to bring a salad, this easy treat will delight even children. Begin with one or two bags of a fancy pre-cut salad mix, such as Dole’s Spring Mix or Field Greens. Top with sliced green onions (scallions), cucumbers, and a can of drained mandarin oranges.
Instead of peeling the cucumbers, consider running the tines of a fork lengthwise down the entire circumference while pressing firmly. Then slice thinly for a more decorative topping. Rather than a homemade dressing, select a store-bought option. Girard’s Raspberry Dressing pairs perfectly with this salad to turn it into sweet, but crunchy, treat.
If you prefer something with more tang, Girard’s Barista Balsamic dressing works well. One final hint: If you must travel a bit with this dish, store the sliced green onions, cucumbers, and drained mandarin oranges in separate containers and mix before serving lest the jostling en route leave the presentation lacking.
Holiday Potato Casserole
In 1995, Southern Living published a special “Home for the Holidays” edition, with recipes for a complete Christmas meal. I replicated that meal many times—the salad above is my twist on its version of a mandarin orange salad. Another family favorite is the Holiday Potato Casserole.
This side dish works well for either a make-ahead dish or to bring and pass. But peeling and cooking that many potatoes is no longer feasible for me. Luckily, I remembered the trick I learned in college when I worked in the dining hall kitchen: for special occasions, the dining hall served “real” potatoes, as opposed to the instant potato version, but that merely meant the cook began with frozen pre-peeled potatoes.
OreIda Steam n’ Mash offers the same convenience. Using those as a starter saves time, energy, and clean-up, without detracting from the homemade flavor and appeal. You can find a variety of potato casserole recipes on the web, but this one—which includes, among other things, cream cheese, parmesan cheese, and red pimentos—closely mirrors the delicious Southern Living standby.
For those who wish to offer multiple main dishes, pork makes an excellent alternative to the duck or sirloin roast entrees. Pork provides an easy prep that cooks quickly and, unless horribly overcooked, remains moist and tender.
To add flair to the simple yet delicious taste of a pork loin, start with a good rub, such as Daddy Hinkle’s, then top it off by spreading an orange, apricot, or pineapple marmalade on top of the roast when ten minutes of cooking time remains. This spread seals in the juices while creating a delicious coating.
World’s Best Carrot Cake
“The world should eat more carrot cake. Then maybe people would be nicer.” So said my friend in response to my request to share her family’s amazing carrot cake recipe. A farm girl from Kansas and one of 14 children, Theresa knows how to cook! And this carrot cake surpasses all. It is so good it has converted into believers the only two carrot-cake deniers I have ever met.
“But I don’t like coconut,” you say. Neither do I. “But this sounds like a spice cake.” It isn’t. It is just the most scrumptious carrot cake ever. While carrot cake—either this recipe or your family’s old standby—requires more work and clean-up than the other suggestions, it is definitely worth the effort because you cannot buy a mix or a store or restaurant version that tastes authentic.
The good news is that you can cheat on the hardest part of a carrot cake—grating the carrots. Stores now sell packaged grated carrots. Although they are larger than you would achieve with home grating, the flavor and texture are still perfect. One final trick: Make sure to put the butter and cream cheese out plenty early to soften. This greatly speeds up the process.
Black Forest Cake
If homemade carrot cake is too time-intensive, this final option takes advantage of all boxed and canned ingredients, but its presentation creates the appearance of an intensive hands-on labor of love. There are many versions of a Black Forest Cake. This one consists of three layers of cake, with whipped cream and cherry filling sandwiched in-between.
To make, bake your favorite devil’s food cake mix as directed. After the cake has cooled, the two layers must be cut in half horizontally to make four thinner layers. The easiest way to slice the cake is with a (clean) piece of unwaxed and unflavored dental floss. Wrap the floss around the center of the cake layer and then cross the two ends at the front of the cake and pull them slowly over each other. The floss will cleanly and precisely cut the layer in half.
To assemble the cake, place one layer on the bottom of a cake plate. Spread over it a thin layer of whipped cream followed by a thin layer of the cherry pie filling. (Don’t overstuff, or the layers will slide off each other.) Place a second layer on top of the filling and repeat the process.
Then place one of the top half layers on top, with the rounded side on the top of the cake. Break the fourth cake layer into small crumbs and put to the side. Then spread a thin layer of whipped cream around the side of the cake and press the cake crumbs into the whipped cream. Refrigerate.
Immediately before serving, dollop a nice portion of cherry pie filling on top at the center of the top of the cake and spread, leaving about a one-inch border around the top outside of the cake. To complete, pipe the whipped cream around the cherry pie filing to the edge of the cake. The cake will look exquisite, and its unique flavor will make up for the lack of measuring, sifting, and mixing.