Monday, June 21, 2010

The Baking Contest Circuit

Every summer we gear up for great times. Lazy days filled with hikes, swims, ball games and great fun together. For many Americans, summer is also the time to indulge in the exciting experience of the county fair or local festival. It is at the fair, where we can enjoy foods and treats not enjoyed on a regular basis, play games, experience the rides, and wander through the exhibits and contests showcasing all the talent that the community has to offer.
Then, just last week, a flyer for the local Strawberry Festival came home from school with Grayson. He pointed out to me, “Mom, they’re having a cookie baking contest. Can we enter?”

I had never entered my cooking or baking into a contest, so I’m surprised that I was quick to answer, “Yes.” Then, when the idea began to sink in, a bit of worry arrived. What was I to make? Would I have the time? Would it turn out successfully?
I turned to the one woman who has been entering local baking contests for decades—my Mom-- to get me through this period of uncertainty.
She has been entering local baking contests for decades. I remember as a young child, waiting in the car while she dropped off her entries at the Fourth of July festival contest in Lakewood, Ohio. Only a year or so into her foray in the competitive baking arena, Mom won the grand Prize for her Lady Locks. Since then, she has baked up a storm for the Cuyahoga County Fair competition, entering her coffee cake with cherries and nuts, apple pie, pecan rolls with orange coconut filing, brownies with malted milk balls, and a host of other delights. Each year, her entries are awarded blue ribbons, and one year, her blue-ribbon Danish Pastries included a handwritten note explaining that she was very close to receiving Best in Show. It read, “This was the hardest decision we have had to make.”
I too, had a hard decision to make. What was I to bake? I knew Mom would certainly be able to provide me with a little guidance. So, I asked for a recipe that would be distinctive, yet not too hard to make. She offered up Meltaways. Ahh, that recipe she gave me years ago, but I just have never made. Well, she seemed assured that the recipe would fit the bill, so I took it and ran to the kitchen, but not before I had a heart to heart with her. I couldn’t move forward on this adventure without asking her for a bit of advice, which I share with you:

* Pick a recipe that will be different from what everyone else may enter. Make the chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, or brownies just a bit different from a traditional recipe.

* Choose a recipe in which every ingredient is relatively common.

* Choose a recipe that has good texture and mouthfeel.

* The recipe should be able to sit out for some time, so don’t choose a recipe with cream fillings or meringue, as they’ll not weather well during the judging process.

* Use quality ingredients, for instance a quality butter, or special high-quality chocolate, especially if chocolate is the main flavor in the recipe.

* Bake it as close to entry time as possible. It depends on the entry time, but if it is in late morning, I can make the cookies early that morning. And, if my entry includes a yeast dough, I get up early to make it to ensure the entry will be at its freshest. Some cookies and cakes can be made a day ahead.

* Make it at least once before the competition so that you can adjust baking temperature or time is need, or you decide to alter the recipe slightly to get desired results.

* Finally, and the most important: Take your time.

Happy Baking – I’ll let you know if I’m awarded a ribbon.

3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour
1/4 to 1/3 cup chopped pecans

In a large mixer bowl, beat butter until softened. Add brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolk and vanilla and beat well. Add flour and beat until well mixed. Cover and chill at least two hours or until easy to handle.
Shape into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar.
Bake in a 350 oven for 7 to 9 minutes or til done. Remove and cool.

Frost with Browned Butter Frosting and, if desired, sprinkle with chopped pecans, gently pressing nuts into frosting. Makes about 42

Browned Butter Frosting: In a saucepan, heat 1/4 cup butter over low heat until lightly browned. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 1/4 cups sifted confectioner's sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla and enough milk (2 to 3 T) to make frosting spreadable.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Am I a Kitchen Fanatic?

The other day, Grayson said to me, “Mom, you’re always in the kitchen.” This comment came during a conversation about the two of us playing together, and his statement was a way to tell me that I don’t play with him enough, instead I’m always cooking.

My heart sunk, as I wondered if this is the way my kids view me -- taking more time for food than for them. Am I a cook-aholic, a kitchen fanatic, a Mom obsessed with making sure great tasting, healthy foods are on the table for my kids – that don’t come out of a box found in the pantry or from a fast food outlet down the street? As these questions swirled around in my head, I had a moment of clarity. I put myself in his place, and I could see what he meant. From his perspective, when he wakes up, I’m in the kitchen getting breakfast ready and his lunch for school packed. When he returns home, around 4 p.m., I get him a quick snack, then start making dinner. So, he is correct in saying that I’m always in the kitchen.

Actually, I don’t know how much time I spend in the kitchen each day, but I do know that some days I do feel that I’m in the kitchen all day – especially on the days I bake bread. But, I have a family of six to feed, and that takes a bit of time. Even though Grayson felt (at the time) that I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, I know that he has benefited from my doing so.

There is no doubt that children pattern their behaviors after their parents. And, if highly processed, fast foods or convenience foods are what they are served on an almost daily basis, they quickly become accustomed to that lifestyle. A 2003 study by the Gepetto Group, a New York advertising and marketing agency, found that kids who say they don’t know which foods are healthy and good for them are more likely to want to eat in a fast food restaurant (41%).

Societal changes have played an integral part in changing how (and where) America eats. Fragmenting mealtimes, erosion of basic cooking skills and a desire for use of free time for other activities continue to fuel the desire for time-saving easy meal solutions.

With that in mind, I set out on a search to find the amount of time Americans spend in the kitchen cooking each day. Unfortunately, I dug up no specific number because cooking was always lumped together with other activities, such as house cleaning, laundry or bill paying—in essence, it was considered a chore.

However, I did find some interesting statistics. In the past several years, consumption of food prepared away from home has increased. Sales at full service restaurants were projected to reach $187.4 billion in 2008, an increase of 4.3 percent over 2007, according the National Restaurant Association. The NRA also noted that American adults buy a meal or a snack from a restaurant 5.8 times per week on average, spending 48% of their food budget on food away from home. Additionally, 70 percent of adults said their favorite restaurant foods provide flavor and taste sensations, which cannot easily be duplicated in their home kitchens,Link meaning they have grown accustomed to – and prefer - foods prepared at a restaurant.

Further, independent market analyst Datamonitor reported that many consumers see basic cooking tasks as difficult, making cooking a low priority when allocating free time. Culinary skills are not being passed down by generation and consumers now perceive basic cooking skills as difficult, and this lack of confidence in cooking may undermine the healthy eating message.

At the same time, those who do cook at home are interested in cooking exciting, flavorful and interesting meals themselves. The home remains the central location for mealtimes, with consumers seeking more authentic foods and flavors. Home cooked meals are the key source of comfort, and offer economy.

But there is another side of the coin to spending time in the kitchen – it’s the time spent eating together around the table. It has been shown that families who eat together have better nutrition, and in turn, have a lower risk of many diseases, including being overweight or obese. A study conducted by Harvard researchers and published in the Archives of Family Medicine, found families who reported eating together ‘almost every day’ took in more healthy nutrients including calcium fiber, iron, and vitamins. Another study also indicated that children who ate meals together with the family ate more fruits and veggies than those who did not. Other benefits of getting around the family table, is that kids do better in school and are less likely to take drugs.

The family meal is a great time to check in with family members, engaging family members in discussion. Children develop language skills, when adult is at table talk is richer. Establishing routine to create family togetherness is essential, and research suggests that cooking and eating at home will have a positive effect on the health of the body and the health of the family.

Go ahead, call me a cook-aholic. I’ll embrace my kitchen fanaticism. If we must call it a chore, it is probably one of the most rewarding chores I will ever perform.

A few interesting statistics that I dug up from the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 Restaurant Industry Forecast.
* $2,698: Average household expenditure for food away from home in 2008.
* 40 percent of adults agree that purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out and delivery places makes them more productive in their day-to-day life.
* 78 percent of adults agree that going out to a restaurant with family or friends gives them an opportunity to socialize and is a better way to make use of their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

New Research: Your Weight is a Reflection of Where You Shop

Recently, a friend passed along a news article to me that I thought was pretty interesting, “Pricey grocery stores attract skinniest shoppers.” As the article explained, “The percentage of food shoppers who are obese is almost 10 times higher at low-cost grocery stores compared with upscale markets.” Albeit a small study, the findings underscore poverty as a key factor in our obesity epidemic.
The article continued with a note from the study’s lead author, Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who studies obesity and social class, “That’s likely because people willing to pay $6 for a pound of radicchio are more able to afford healthy diets than people stocking up on $1.88 packs of pizza rolls to feed their kids.”
I agree that income is certainly a driving factor behind our food choices. And, when you’re stretching every dollar, you look for ways to cut costs at the store.
For years, the food industry has led us down the path to believing that prepared, packaged foods are more economical than buying fresh fruits and vegetables or even whole grains. Add to this, the marketing dollars spent in promoting a wide variety of convenient, fast, and low-cost options from pizza rolls and cinnamon rolls, to mega-sized burgers and pseudo-Mexican fare all at rock bottom prices, and why wouldn’t we ascribe to the notion that we’re getting a great deal on our food.

To me, it seems as if price is the main driving factor our food choices, especially when less-than-healthy food is offered at extremely reasonable price. With that thought in mind, I wonder what would happen if consumers were offered low prices for less of that same food – for instance, $1.88 for one pizza roll? I’ll bet that there would be a rebellion, simply because Americans have been programmed to expect lots of food for very little money – regardless of how healthy it is for them.
But, low cost and massive amounts of food are only two pieces of the pie. Knowledge and the value one places on food make up the other portions of the pie. Yet, knowing that certain food choices are better than others doesn’t mean that Americans are ready to make the change. What is required is a paradigm shift in the way we have been eating for so long. To break this low-price mindset takes more than raising our incomes, it takes raising awareness of our what we consume and how much of it we consume.

As I try to digest the findings from this study, I am drawn to the words Michael Pollan wrote in one of his books – and I will paraphrase – “eat better, whole foods, and eat less of them.” I agree with him. It is not an elitist attitude, instead it is an attitude grounded in what I feel is best for myself and my family. I ascribe to this philosophy because I believe that our choices for food affect us today, as well as in the future.

Generally, my food choices are based on health, quality, taste, and of course, price. Convenience is an occasional factor, but certainly not an overriding one. The reason I choose the food that I do is because I have the knowledge about food, the knowledge about how to make healthier choices, and a lifestyle that embraces the connection between food and the health of our bodies, our minds, and our families. That isn’t to say we shun all unhealthy choices, it just means we make food choices based upon our lifestyle, our set of values and our knowledge about food.

This study highlights income as a driving force behind our food choices. It reinforces the notion that unhealthy food is cheap and healthy food is expensive. As reported, all of the stores in his study stocked a wide range of nutritious food, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. So, why are the shoppers choosing foods like pizza rolls? The study contends that the reason is because healthy, low-calorie foods cost more money and take more effort to prepare than processed, high-calorie foods.
In fact, in a separate study two years ago, Drewnowski, estimated that a calorie-dense diet cost $3.52 a day compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet. Now, I’m not so sure about that price difference, because if I fed my family of 6 for $36.32 each a day, I’d be spending more than $1,500 a week on food! That is an alarming message that we need to stop sending to consumers. I don’t spend that much for food in a month!

The current study found that (in the Seattle region), the average market basket at the three high-priced grocery stores (which included Whole Foods) cost between $370 and $420. By contrast, at the area’s three lowest-priced stores, including Albertsons, the same basket of food cost between $225 and $280.
Too often Whole Foods is referred to as Whole Paycheck. But as I have found in my recent grocery shopping experiment (as reported in a recent Family Eats blog), I actually spent more money shopping at Safeway than I did at Whole Foods. (And a friend recently confirmed she found the same to be true).
Today, I mix my shopping between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and I spend between $170 and $210 a week for a family of six—less than the average market basket at the three lowest-priced grocery stores in the study. (I did a cost of living analysis between San Francisco and Seattle, and it revealed that San Francisco is indeed a more costly place to live – so if you factor in the 31% higher prices where I live, then I really did a better job at shopping).
To some extent, price may factor into our food choices, (for instance, I opt to hold off from buying certain fruits and vegetables if I feel the price is just too high), but I think for the most part, we’ve been brainwashed to believe that eating a healthy diet is too expensive for us.

Instead of highlighting the relationship between eating healthy and the amount of money we have—or don’t have--in our wallets, perhaps we should highlight how easy and relatively convenient it is to prepare great tasting and healthful meals from scratch using whole foods. To do this, we don’t need a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, instead, we need a reminder of how delicious, nutritious and easy to enjoy whole foods are. After all, how hard is it to pick up an apple and bite into it?