Making it from scratch

Making it from scratch

There are some foodstuffs that are so easy to make from scratch that I wonder why anyone buys pre-mixed packaged versions. I suppose one reason might be that these people don’t know how easy the “from scratch” version is. Or maybe they just lack confidence in themselves.

Pancake mix is one example. I know people who buy a box of dry ingredients and then add in milk and an egg and mix it up and cook it. Apparently they don’t realize that they just paid twice as much as it would to make it from scratch and they still do more than 50 percent of the work. The only thing in the dry mix is flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, plus all those good chemical stabilizers and preservatives to keep it on the shelf. Really, the version in “Joy of Cooking” is very simple and takes very little more time than the box stuff.

Hot chocolate is another example. Folks rave about the various hot chocolate mixes out there, from Swiss Miss to Ghirardelli. (The Serious Eats foodblog does a review of hot chocolate mixes.) It’s just not that difficult to start from scratch. I used to Hershey’s powdered chocolate, but now I use Dutch-processed chocolate I get from a mail-order spice house. It’s a much richer flavor than any mix and it’s so easy to use: Combine milk, chocolate, sugar, dash of salt, a little vanilla and heat it up.

I use this Back to Basics CM300BR Cocoa-Latte Hot Drink Maker I got for Christmas a few years ago for the recipe. It’s nothing special: It mixes the ingredients; heats them up to a predetermined temperature; and then dispenses them through a spigot. But it’s a lot easier than riding herd on a saucepan to make sure the milk doesn’t scorch.

We’ve become a “ready-to-use” prepackaged society, but I think the tide’s starting to shift toward a resurgence of the old, do-it-yourself, make-it-from-scratch ways of the past and I think that can only be a good thing. It means less preservatives and chemicals on the one hand and a lot better taste on the other.

  • I’m with you on the pancakes and cocoa. The last time I had pancake mix was when a boss once bought me a big ‘breakfast fixin’s’ basket, and there was a canister of pancake mix in the basket. I don’t think I’ve EVER bought instant cocoa mix. The real thing tastes so much better and just is not hard to make.

    I’ll add chocolate pudding to your list—so not difficult to make AT ALL. Maybe 5 more minutes worth of effort than doing the boxed cook-n-serve stuff. But so, so, SO much tastier.

    Tonight, I’m making gingerbread (the cakey kind, not the cookie kind). It takes a little more effort than the boxed mix, but man, is it good.

  • Ditto brownies!  The old “Joy of Cooking” brownie mix with maximum chocolate is terrific and only takes about fifteen minutes to throw together if you melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave.

    I will concede that cakes can be harder from scratch than from mixes—but the taste is worth it!  You do need to be prepared for less “rise” with most recipes; I threw out my first homemade cake because I thought it hadn’t risen properly.

    WRT pancakes, Dom, you should try the King Arthur flour buttermilk recipe.  My one concession is that I use powdered buttermilk, because the real thing isn’t handy.  And with only three kids at home now, I cut the recipe in half and still have leftovers.

  • And old-fashioned yeast-raised waffles are at least as easy, and cheaper and far far tastier than waffle mixes.

    (make 6 waffles in a Waring Pro Belgian waffle iron, roughly 360 calories each)

    The night before:
    1/2 cup warm water (90-110F; too hot will kill the yeast)
    1 package active dry yeast
    2 cups warm milk
    1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon sugar
    2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour (dip-and-sweep method, not spoon method)

    The morning of cooking:
    2 large eggs, beaten [you can also add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract if you like]
    1/4 teaspoon baking soda (not baking powder)

    Put the water in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve and let stand to proof for about 5 minutes.

    Meanwhile, warm up the milk (I use the microwave) and melt the butter (ditto). Then, add the milk, butter, salt, sugar and flour to the yeasty water. Mix/beat until smooth and fully blended.

    Cover the bowl (I use the self-sealing plastic wrap) and let stand overnight at room temperature. (I put the light on in the oven and stick it in there, to avoid drafts and to keep a bit warm – the light gives off a bit of warmth in that contained environment.)

    The next morning, add the beaten eggs and baking soda and stir until it is thoroughly mixed.

    Preheat the oven to 200F, and warm the dining plates. Waffles may also be kept warm in the oven, but don’t stack them. They can also be frozen individually and reheated in a toaster oven.

    Use per the directions for the waffle iron. For the Waring Pro, each measure of waffle batter is 5 fluid oz. Using the darkest setting will provide the right texture for these crisp-tender waffles (lower settings leave them flimsy like pancakes). The batter will keep refrigerated for a few days.

    Recommended toppings: warm maple or fruit syrup or jams (warm them in the microwave; consider adding maple syrup, Olivio (easier to spread lighly than butter), and cinnamon sugar. Small berries, too.

  • Microwaving the milk—(need to experiment a bit to find the right time for your oven to prevent spillover)—works great for hot chocolate too!