HOMEBAKED WITH LOVE...AND CONVENIENCE
When I was a girl way back when (way back in the Dark Ages, as my sons love to remind me), homemade snacks, baked with care and attention, started their very short life in a box, can or plastic container. Cakes and brownies were fine powder smelling sweetly of chocolate or heady with vanilla, blended ever so lovingly with an egg * crack * whacked sharply against the edge of the mixing bowl, a splash of milk until a thick, luscious batter ribboned down into the largest baking pan we had. Pudding rich and creamy was born of the same exquisite dust, creating as if by magic the most velvety of desserts by the mere addition of milk. Cans popped open revealed swirls of sumptuous frosting and the scritch of a plastic lid being peeled back from a dense white tub exposed a flourish of luxurious, elegant whipped topping. Four basic ingredients, if you will, which, when combined, made for an abundance of wonderful, delicious desserts, treats prepared from the heart.
As we grew a bit older, still under the mysterious influence of the Powers That Be during that long ago age of the newfangled, Space Age era of gadget cooking, the fascination with all things packaged, we celebrated this new form of convenience cooking and dining by whipping up Tuna Noodle Casserole, a recipe learned in the Girl Scouts, with canned tuna and cream of mushroom soup and topped with crushed potato chips; lovely, shimmering jello molded into something so elegant, studded with jewels of canned fruit; after-school snacks made with melted marshmallows and our favorite cereals; fabulous, flavorful Surprise Burgers made delicious for our grade school selves with jarred spaghetti sauce and a slice of processed cheese in all of its day-glo glory! Ah, the food of the Sixties.
And the food of the Space Age Sixties morphed gently into the food of the dyn-o-mite, jumping Seventies. The variety of treats that could be whipped up in a matter of minutes or just a few more from the boxed and the bagged was beyond our wildest dreams and we loved it all. It was stuffed with chemicals and laden with high fructose corn syrup but what did we know or care? It was the height of a thoroughly modern food revolution, a time of convenience when our hours could be better spent playing outside, going to club meetings or doing homework. Our moms (or, well, my mom) loved the ease and my dad loved the rapidity and, quite simply, we loved the flavor. We had been tentatively stepping over the edge into from-scratch baking, trying out muffins, cookies and even candy that we had learned in Home Economics or youth group outings, but the boxed mixes turned out such perfect, tasty treats every time, why bother? And the grocery store shelves were groaning under a veritable cornucopia of fabulous, flavorful goodies that were just screaming to be bought, taken home and tasted. Our creativity and imagination knew no bounds with such an abundance of sweets and ready-to-eat-and-bake to choose from.
So maybe it is because I have grown up. My years of discovery and travel have turned on my curiosity in such a way that the pre-packaged have little charm for me anymore except as an occasional jaunt back into my childhood, a decadent little sinful eating in the privacy of my own bedroom. Or maybe my palate has evolved, becoming accustomed to French and Italian tastes so that foodstuffs like American candies, packaged cookies, flavored yogurts and even cake mixes taste cloyingly sweet with an odd chemical aftertaste. Or maybe having lived in Europe where for years there really was no pre-packaged, boxed or canned and all baking was either picked up at the corner bakery or homemade from scratch. But over the years as a gourmande, a wife, mother and friend who loves nothing better than offering a cake, cookies or a pie, sharing the love and spreading the smiles, I have discovered the joys and pleasure of homebaking with flour, butter, cream, eggs and bars of chocolate.
Yes, once in a while I’ll buy a box of chocolate chip cookies (LU of course!) or chocolate-covered marshmallows if I am feeling rather decadent or need the comforting blanket of childhood memories, but would I ever use one or the other as the basis of a home-baked treat for my family? Or even a boxed cake mix? What is the point when whipping up something from scratch is so easy? If I have the time and the energy, I will create something spectacular, a baked good both time consuming and demanding patience. But no time on my hands? Sons begging for a sweet snack or breakfast tout de suite? There are so many easy, one-bowl favorites that take the same amount of time as boxed. And if I want a fun family activity, a day spent baking with my children (when they were small, of course)? Why assume that they will only eat something made with overly sweet children’s cereal or candies from a plastic bag?
You see, I bring this all up because I am rather stunned and confused at the deluge of everything from Rice Krispie Treats made with every possible high sugar breakfast cereal on the market to my favorite dessert, the ambrosial, heavenly Italian Tiramisu made not with delicate ladyfingers but Twinkies, as just two examples, all over apparently highly-respected or at least much-talked-about, popular food blogs! Cakes made from boxed mixes and even canned frosting grace the posts of more than one Big Name food blog. Baked goods and after-school treats stuffed with Oreos and candy bars. Call me a food snob, if you will, but I don’t get it. Haven’t we moved on? Don’t we in the food blogging world have the desire and the goal to achieve something healthier, tastier, slightly more elevated than what my own parents made 40 years ago when all of this was new and exciting? We have knowledge and information at our fingertips, we have time and all the necessary cooking utensils so why not use it all towards something a tad more noble?
As fun as the Rice Krispie treats of our childhood are, can’t we have our children baking something healthier or at least something with real flour, sugar, eggs and milk? I remember bumping into a very good French friend of mine whose daughters I tutored in English at our local public library many years ago. I was browsing through the very large English language video collection, looking for more films to watch with my sons and she asked me to recommend one or two that she could play for her daughters to help with their English. I suggested a few of our favorites, all old black & white flicks, explaining to her that the old films had plainer, simpler language that was much easier to understand than recent cartoons – the kind her kids watched on tv – which were full of slang, confusing conversations and was much too speedy and fast paced for them to capture what was being said. She looked at me in horror exclaiming, “My girls won’t watch old black & white movies!!” As so many parents are when it comes to food. Are so many moms and dads stuck in a time warp, longing to offer their children what they enjoyed as kids or are they simply hanging onto old traditions and wives tales, believing that their children will only eat the over-processed, overly sweet foods of our own youth before we knew any better? My lovely friend Lael wrote an article about baking French macarons from scratch with her daughters. Lora the Cake Duchess recently showed her children happily making cookies while my own sons started with one-bowl chocolate cake, chocolate chip banana bread and Tiramisu. No brainers, really, wouldn’t you say?
So what the fascination with retro baking? Some may imagine that starting with a boxed cake mix is easier than starting from scratch. Or cheaper. Some may believe that children will only eat snack foods stuffed with candy corns and high fructose corn syrup or that Twinkies can replace ladyfingers for an exciting new taste sensation. Or maybe some think that baking from scratch is complicated, messy and time consuming. Or impossible. But this is simply not true, a series of myths that the food blogger must battle to break. I have several friends who had never baked a cake from scratch in their life yet made my one-bowl wonders with great success. Friends of my son began baking my brownies, quick breads and snack cakes while still in high school and all on their own and loved it all.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand the dilemma so many of us working folk and/or parents often find ourselves in when in need of a quick dessert or in front of demanding, hyperactive kids in need of an afternoon activity or a treat. I understand the attractiveness of “quick and easy”; of having no time yet the desire to offer my family something homemade and from the heart, the “short on dollars and time” argument. Yes, I do. I also understand the joy and the fun of getting the children involved in a family fun project and interested in cooking. And I even get the whole “let’s get the girlfriends over for movie night and a fun snack” bit. But, really? Rice Krispie treats? To be honest, there are so many fabulous, fast and easy recipes one can make to create a warm, wonderful homemade snack that is pure, delicious and sure to be loved by one and all.
And I have one for you! And in only four individual portions it is the perfect snack to whip up when you don’t want or need leftover cakes or cookies hanging around. Apples and salted butter caramel sauce make this a luscious autumn snack or dessert and it is both simple and fast. And so much better than a Rice Krispie treat. In my own humble opinion.
INDIVIDUAL APPLE UPSIDE DOWN CAKES
Served with Salted Butter Caramel Sauce
These cakes are dense, moist and fragrant, filled with a wonderful, warm touch of cinnamon and the fruitiness of the apples. The perfect autumn snack and wonderful to serve on girls’ night in front of a chick flick or as a family dessert or a snack with the kids. Easy and fast with all the satisfaction and goodness of homemade.
¼ cup (60 ml) water
2 – 3 Tbs granulated brown sugar
1 large apple, peeled, cored and diced
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup (70 g) granulated white sugar
1 large egg
¾ cup (105 g) self-rising flour
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ cup (60 ml) milk
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter 4 individual molds, each able to hold about 2/3 cups (150-160 ml).
Place the water and brown sugar in a skillet and heat until the sugar is melted and the mixture begins to bubble or steam. Added the chopped or diced apple and cook, stirring, for 10 - 12 minutes and the apple is tender and beginning to caramelize. Divide the cooked apple into the four molds.
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium-sized mixing bowl until blended and fluffy. Add the egg and continue beating until thick and pale. Blend in the milk and finally the self-rising flour and cinnamon. Beat until smooth. Divide the batter evenly between the four molds on top of the apples.
Place the molds on a baking sheet and bake for 20 – 25 minutes until the top is golden, the cake set and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven, carefully lift or slide the molds off the baking sheet onto a cooling rack and allow to cool.
Carefully slide a sharp knife around each cake to loosen from the mold and invert onto a dessert place. Drizzle each cake with as little or as much Salted Butter Caramel Sauce as desired. Serve immediately.