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Cooking day with nieces

August 7, 2012


It’s not so much a question — more of an assumption, really, that the time I devote to writing about food, talking about food, and seeking out food must reflect a lot of active time in the kitchen. And while I may have accidentally turned out a tolerable dish or two, here is the full disclosure: I am not a chef.  If you peek in my basket at the grocery store, you might imagine it is the makings of a five-star dinner, but it could just as easily be the ingredients for culinary disaster. The truth is that I really enjoy cooking, but I make no claims regarding proficiency. I do try, however, and on most days off I block out some time to play with my food.

Recently, on one of those proverbial off days, I recruited a couple of sous chefs (short of stature but full of energy) to help me do a little recipe development. Younger Brother’s offspring were over from North Carolina to spend a couple of weeks with Doc and Gran, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to cupcakes. I had recently been fiddling with a cupcake recipe, and asked if they would be interested in making them sometime during their stay. Given the rolling of eyes I often get from my own daughter when I suggest cooking something outside of her five-dish menu, their enthusiastic response was heartening. 

The following week I invited them over for a day of cooking. On the menu was homemade ketchup (America’s favorite vegetable), baked cheesy breadsticks, and banana bread cupcakes with peanut butter frosting. The chosen recipe for the ketchup involved a Crock Pot and many hours, so we began there. The first directions were to crush tomatoes between our fingers. I thought this sounded like fun, and I was mostly right. I squeezed the first one over the Crock-Pot as a demonstration; most of it went in the pot. The rest shot through my fingers and dotted each of us with a bit of tomato sauce. After a timeout for cleanup, the nieces donned aprons and began to squeeze — this time a little deeper in the pot. Once the tomatoes were crushed, the onion and garlic chopped (by the adult), and the spices measured, Niece One and Niece Two took turns adding everything to the pot and we let the Crock Pot do its thing. 

Next on the menu were the cupcakes. Around the Fourth of July this year, I took a Pillsbury banana bread mix and transformed it into a cupcake concoction that even impressed the wife. I wish I could say that it was really complicated and took hours of skilled handiwork. It wasn’t; it didn’t. I started with the cupcake conversion recipe on the side of the box, and followed the recipe with only a few special touches. With the nieces, we started with their mashing of a banana. For this job I provided a fork; the thrill of squishing food with their fingers had been exhausted with the tomatoes. The recipe did not call for a banana, but I felt guilty making a banana-flavored confection without any bona fide banana mixed in. After that, it was pretty much just a matter of pouring and stirring the remaining ingredients, the nieces sweetly taking turns to complete the 75 strokes. (Yes, sweetly. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)  We then distributed the batter into foil baking cups printed with a montage of monkeys and bananas, because after all, presentation is everything.

While the cupcakes baked we worked on our cheese sticks. Or bread sticks with cheese. Or stuffed pizza crust without the rest of the pizza. I didn’t have a name for these, just an idea. The idea was to roll string cheese in pizza dough, spray with olive oil, cover in panko crumbs, spray again, then bake. Simple, and much less oil than frying. Very healthy. I told the nieces the idea and gave them the task of coming up with a name for our creation. They conferred and settled on “Cheese Stick-Ors”. They could not give me an explanation, and we didn’t even try to determine the proper spelling. I rolled and cut the dough, they rolled the cheese inside; I rolled in panko and sprayed, they carefully arranged placement on the baking sheet. More full disclosure: this idea looked much better in my imagination than in my oven. Cheesy goodness escaped from every pore of the Stick-Ors, some bubbling out balloon-style, some oozing out from all the places we’d worked so hard to seal. We still ate them for lunch, but next time the deep fryer will be involved. 

Just before lunch it was time to blend the ketchup. Given that hot tomato sauce whirling at a rapid rate could be dangerous for children, I did the blending while the Nieces observed. From that point it was just a matter of stirring it every half hour for the rest of the afternoon until it reached ketchup consistency. As for the cupcakes, once cooled, we began to frost. In lieu of the maple cream cheese frosting recipe on the side of the box, I substituted peanut butter for about one-third of the cream cheese and swapped honey for the maple syrup. The nieces piped it on the cupcakes in a variety of styles (they’d done that part before, likely using a real piping bag instead of the snipped Ziplock I provided), and we sprinkled on shards of old fashioned peanut butter logs that they had beaten to smithereens earlier in the day. 

At dinner we invited Doc and Gran to come and test the ketchup. Niece One liked it on her French fries but not on her chicken nuggets. Niece Two? Well, she had fun making it but made a face when I asked her how it was on her fries. Daughter tried it and said it was sweet but good. I’ll take that.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at

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