Apologies and Some Holiday Baking

So, sometimes I decide to teach full-time, apply to PhD programs, and train for a marathon, all at the same time. And, at those times, I forget to be a good blogger. Now, I’ve survived my first marathon, finished applying to graduate programs, and…well, I still teach. But that’s less of an excuse.

As my first foray back into writing, I thought I should reflect on one of the more interesting food-related experiences I had over the holidays. On one of my weekends on duty at the school before our winter break, my teacher friend and I hosted a group of students to bake and decorate sugar cookies. You need to understand a bit more about my student demographic to know how momentous this was. Many, if not most, of my students are Chinese, and baking, indeed, even owning an oven, is not nearly as common in China as it is in the United States. Many had never made cookies before (although I use the term “made cookies” loosely. We used the sugar cookie dough from a tube).

My students are a wonderful and powerful reminder of how our perceptions of food are colored by our cultural background. That weekend, it was not only close to Christmas, it was also one of our bakers’ birthday, so she had requested that we bake “the cake with the fun in it” for her. Funfetti cake, we assumed. After baking the cake and letting it cool on the counter, we gave the girls a simple buttercream frosting and some decorating icing. The girls proceeded to frost the top of the bottom layer and then place the other layer on top.

When they reached for the decorating icing, we asked, “Girls, don’t you want to frost the whole thing…? And then decorate it?”

“No!” they replied, shocked. “Then it would be too sweet,” replied the girls who had just consumed their weight in sugar cookies.

The end result was this:


A stranger looking cake I’ve never seen. But my students were thrilled with their baking success. My friend and I clearly had a specific set of rules for how cakes should be put together and decorated, developed over years of American, middle-class birthday parties. Our students, clearly, did not. A valuable reminder for me that, despite the fact that this cake looks a little like the head of a Peanuts character, there is no “right” and “wrong” in food.


Cooking for the Fearful: Corn Chowder

In my previous post, I mentioned wanting to try more soup recipes in keeping with the tips in “Five Packaged Foods You Never Need to Buy Again.” So I’ve decided to post the recipe for the corn chowder that I made last week, which I haven’t stopped thinking about since. This recipe definitely deserves status in the “Cooking for the Fearful” series (see the first post here), because, as with so many soups, all you have to be able to do is to cut things and then put them in a pot. And then eat them. The most complicated part is probably buying the sriracha sauce, if you don’t already have it or know what it is. Basically, it’s a Thai hot chili sauce and it looks like this:

Reasons why I love this corn chowder:

1. Growing up in Massachusetts, I have fond memories of the corn chowder at local restaurants, which was always creamy and filled with chunks of potato.

2. This recipe reminds me a lot of those corn chowders, but it also has bacon in it.

3. Not only does it have bacon in it, it also has sriracha, the rooster that makes everything taste better.

Essentially, this recipe combines three different recipes — the one made by my mom and local restaurants throughout my childhood, which exists nowhere on paper and solely in my head as a Platonic idea of Chowder, this one, a fairly traditional recipe, and this one, which gave me the idea of adding sriracha to yet another unexpected dish.


  • 2 strips of bacon
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 cups of corn (I used the frozen stuff)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sriracha


First, fry the bacon in a large saucepan until it’s properly brown and makes your kitchen smell wonderful. Take the bacon strips out and set them aside, and add the chopped onion to the hot saucepan with the bacon fat. Cook the onion until it begins to get translucent, and then add the diced potato.

Give the potatoes a minute to start softening, then add the corn, vegetable stock, milk, heavy cream, bay leaf, and sriracha.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes. In the last five minutes, take out the bay leaf and crumble the bacon strips into the saucepan (adding it at the beginning will give you very soft, squishy bacon in your soup). Season with salt and pepper to taste, and ladle into bowls to serve. A spoonful of sour cream goes really well on top.


1. If you wanted a thicker, but less chunky soup, you could use an immersion blender.

2. This recipe calls for 1/2 cup of sriracha instead of the 1/4 I used. Now, I love sriracha, but I still wanted my chowder to taste like corn and not like fire. However, if you have hardier tastebuds than mine, go for the full 1/2.

3. This soup is great for freezing — I doubled this recipe and froze some of it for later

Happy Holidays!

To celebrate the holidays and thank some of the special people in my life, I made my own candy for the first time. I’m not filing this under “Cooking for the Fearful” because, frankly, I was a little fearful going into this. Making candy has always struck me as too precise and precarious an enterprise for my less-than-exact ways in the kitchen. However, the bark recipe in particular is pretty foolproof, and mouse assembly is a breeze.

Orange Coconut Creams (from Taste of Home)


  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, cubed
  • 1 package (2 pounds) confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup flaked coconut
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons orange extract
  • 2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate
  • 8 ounces German sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • In a small saucepan, combine milk and butter. Cook and stir over low heat until the butter is melted. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Add milk mixture; beat until smooth. Add the coconut and orange extract; mix well. Roll into 1-in. balls; place on waxed paper-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
  • In a microwave, melt the chips, chocolate and shortening; stir until smooth. Dip balls into chocolate; allow excess to drip off. Place on waxed paper; let stand until set. Yield: 9 dozen.

Chocolate Cherry Mice (adapted from FamilyFun Magazine)


  • 24 maraschino cherries with stems
  • Waxed paper
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 24 milk chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, unwrapped
  • 48 almond slices


  • Drain the cherries and pat them dry with paper towels. Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper.
  • Place the chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and heat them until smooth, working in 15-second intervals, stirring between each.
  • Holding a cherry by its stem, dip it into the chocolate and swirl it around to completely cover the fruit. Set it on its side on the waxed paper and immediately press a Hershey’s Kiss onto the cherry for the head. For the ears, gently wedge two almond slices between the Kiss and the cherry. Repeat to make 24 mice.

This next one’s a recipe of my own creation…

White Chocolate Bark


  • 1 lb white chocolate
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried mango
  • ~1/2 tsp ground cardamom


  • Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  • Melt the white chocolate, either in the microwave or in a double boiler. Once the chocolate is melted, spread it over the aluminum foil until it’s about 1/4 inch thick.
  • Sprinkle chopped up mango and ground fresh cardamom all over the chocolate.
  • Let the chocolate cool, either at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Once cool, break the chocolate apart into big chunks.
  • Cooking for the Fearful

    I was blessed with parents who were supportive of all my cooking experiments. Particularly vivid in my mind is one recipe for “spice soup” that, I’m sure, is also quite memorable to them. If you ask very nicely, I could be persuaded to share this piece of culinary gold with all of you…

    Okay, here goes. Find a pot. Fill it with water. Add a generous handful of every spice you can reach from the spice cabinet with your little ten-year-old arm. Bring pot to a boil. Finally, serve to a pair of inexplicably supportive parents that are not upset that you’ve wasted expensive groceries on inedible spice-water.

    All of this is to say that I’ve had some spectacular cooking failures. However, I think these failures offer something valuable — the courage to realize that not everything works out, and that it’s not the end of the world. With that in mind, I’ve decided to start a series that I’ll return to every so often on the blog — Cooking for the Fearful. “Fearful” here covers a lot of things — fearful of not knowing what you’re doing, fearful of screwing up, fearful of what all those knobs do on your stove…I’m not saying I have all the answers — but I do enjoy talking about the questions!

    The series’ inaugural post is dedicated to cheating. To those items that we always keep in the house because they require little to no assembly, and yet are healthier than popcorn and Swedish Fish (hey, I’ve been there. Grad school’s rough.) A caveat before I begin: these are not official endorsements. None of these companies know me or are paying me (although they are welcome to do so).

    First, and the center of probably too many meals, is the Al Fresco chicken sausage.

    We keep a few different flavors on hand at all times. You can have them cooked whole or chopped into bits and mixed into pasta or other meals. They’re lower in sodium than other processed sausages, and contain no mystery ingredients. I like them because it’s an already portioned out bit of protein (I usually have one sausage) and they already have a whole lot of flavor. Here are some ways we’ve used them:

    – The spinach and feta kind chopped up in pasta with marinara sauce

    – The roasted garlic kind whole, on top of roasted vegetables

    – The chipotle chorizo variety chopped up and put in butternut squash soup

    – And most recently…the jalapeno kind whole, in a hot dog bun, topped with cooked onions and guacamole

    Next in the pantry was a find that came as the result of a taco night with some friends. I needed taco seasoning that was gluten free, my boyfriend needed low-sodium, and my friend needed a kind with no MSG. After a fairly long label-reading session…success. Frontera Taco Skillet Sauces. I’d always been a pretty staunch supporter of the packets of orange powder that made tacos taste magical (that’s read, “salty”), but now, there’s no turning back. Frontera is made with, once again, recognizable ingredients. Oh, and its delicious. There are a few different varieties (my favorite is this blue one, Chipotle Garlic), and they make tacos feel like a healthier, more satisfying meal than when the meat glowed orange. It works basically the same as the powder though — just thoroughly brown whatever meat you’re using, drain the fat, and add the sauce. Gloriously easy.

    Last on the list (for now), is another staple of our disproportionately Mexican diet. Premade guacamole. Also known as loveliness in a pouch. I’m a fairly recent guacamole convert, having finally rid myself of the vestiges of my childhood distaste for things green and mushy, so when I found some in the supermarket, I had to try some. Oh my. There are a few different varieties that I like, but whatever you do, make sure it’s actually guacamole and not “guacamole flavored dip,” which is basically dairy, mystery ingredients, and green coloring. Like the previous items, premade guacamole lets me make a fairly healthy dinner out of what was a not-promising venture into the kitchen. It often comes in two small pouches, so it doesn’t start to go brown until each one is opened, which means there are ready-to-eat veggies just waiting for you in the fridge! We have it in tacos, as a dip for nachos, and, as mentioned above, on top of jalapeno sausages. Avocados are super healthy for you, so even when we’re just scrounging with a nacho dinner, the guacamole is amazing and makes me feel better for having something green on the plate.

    Any other items like these that you keep on hand? Questions or comments on how to use them? Post a comment!