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This past weekend I did something I have never done before: I cooked and baked using a lot of pre-packaged, processed ingredients and tried to come up with shortcuts to make the recipes easier and faster. What?!? Am I off my rocker? (I’ve been waiting to use that phrase for a LONG time!!!) Nope, Alicia is still the same-old cook and bake from scratch girl, but last week I stumbled upon Real Simple and Instructable’s “Fake it Don’t Make it” contest. The rules called for your own original recipes of 6 ingredients or less, at least 2 shortcuts, and at least 1 packaged, boxed, frozen, somewhat prepared item from the grocery store (i.e., cake mix, jarred salsa, refrigerated biscuits, etc.)

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As I read through the rules and recipes already submitted, it occurred to me that this is the exact OPPOSITE way that I cook and bake. I rarely buy somewhat prepared foods, except for canned beans, boxed pasta, etc., but I always put the garlic through the garlic press, shred the lettuce instead of using bagged, bake cookies totally from scratch, and avoid all shortcuts if I can. I occasionally make dishes with 6 ingredients or less, but they are usually dips and appetizers that are still from scratch. Don’t get me wrong, I am a sucker for frozen shrimp rings, pizza rolls, and eating raw cake batter, but I enjoy the process of cooking and baking too much to take liberties with the individual steps. I like kneading dough. I like making meringue. I like hand-mashing beans. I like squeezing lemons to make lemonade. It’s not arrogance about there being only one way to cook, the time-consuming and often difficult way, but more of an intense love of watching every step of ingredients becoming transformed into a meal with time and care. I want to be sweating in a hot kitchen because I have a huge pot of homemade chili on the stove. I want my arm muscles to ache the following day from kneading dough for rolls 3 different times. On top of that, from-scratch dishes almost always taste better. My pallette is so used to them, that it’s difficult to go back to so much processed, pre-packaged food.

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So, I became invigorated by the challenge of this contest because I literally had NO ideas at first and NO recipes like they were calling for in my apron pockets. I know next to nothing about the various packaged foods and boxed kits out there, and I wouldn’t know the shortcut version of the long way of doing something. I realized that I was pretty much the worse candidate for winning such a contest, but for these reasons, I was determined to devote a big chunk of my weekend to creating recipes that would fit the bill. I read through my recipes and cookbooks and started to gather ideas, making the cooking part of my brain work in a way it never has: do they sell gingerbread mixes? how do you replicate the flavors of garlic and onion in one single packaged ingredient? where in a grocery store are pre-made pie shells? With some ideas in mind and a list of possible items to buy, I ventured off to the big supermarket in Park Slope.

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I love supermarkets because of the possibilities. I can easily spend an hour in one and that still isn’t enough time to absorb all the choices. I am a kid in the candy store, wide-eyed and overwhelmed. I went up and down each aisle, looking at each product, and for the first time ever, I breezed right on by the produce section, except to pass over lemons and pick up a container of lemon juice. I browsed the cookie and cake mixes for a while, surprised at how many there are. There are even pre-made brownies in the refrigerated section that you just unwrap and throw in the oven! What?!? Did you know how many cheeses you can buy, pre-shredded and in bags?

I ended up making 4 recipes: a holiday cheese ball, gingerbread cake bars with lemon glaze, gnocchi with sage butter and romano cheese, and my personal favorite, mint oreo chocolate pudding pie. (Click on the above for my actual Instructable submissions, which include the recipes). I highly recommend the pudding pie!