While the world has debated whether 2020 is the dawn of the apocalypse (I’m thinking yes?), I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with condensed soup, crescent rolls, hot cereal, instant pudding, onion soup mix, gelatin and crackers. This isn’t because I’m unfeeling. I feel deep sadness and anger and more anxiety than my brain can hold, but while I’m feeling those things, I’ve also managed to feel hungry.
If left to my own devices, I would exist on cold cereal and microwavable chicken tikka masala. Ha ha, not really. I’d eat rum raisin ice cream for every meal. It’s dairy and fruit — so healthy! Fortunately, my natural inclinations are thwarted because I live with two other people who are theoretically capable of feeding themselves but rely on me for actual cooked meals representing all the food groups. (That’s coffee, noodles, cheese and smoothies, in case you didn’t know.)
The daily endeavor to make (or eat) something tasty unites us all. Every human loves delicious food. Every human is consoled by a good meal. The kitchen in these dark months has been our refuge and our solace, the last place that makes any sense.
I’m not an expert cook, but I became an expert experimenter. I tried things just to see what would happen. I puzzled out how to use leftovers or simply use up what I had to avoid making an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. My kitchen became a science lab and a playground, where the only rule was to have fun. (See the accompanying photo of my actual kitchen to get an idea of what “fun” looks like.) My goal was enjoyment rather than success. Perfection, shmerfection. Scrape off the burnt bits and eat what’s underneath or share it with the raccoons.
This being the second to last day of this awful, awful year, I thought it would be a good time to look back and see which experiments resulted in real yumminess worthy of repetition and which recipes were fun to try once but maybe not twice.
These are the recipes that our family most enjoyed:
Lemon Poke Cake
Heat oven to 350 degrees, then pour one package of white or yellow cake mix into a bowl along with a 3.4-ounce package of instant lemon pudding. Add 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup vegetable oil and 4 eggs. Spread into a greased 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. While the cake is still hot, use a fork or toothpick to poke holes all over the top of the cake. Mix 1/3 cup lemon juice with 2 cups powdered sugar and a teaspoon of lemon zest. Pour over the warm cake.
Lemon Berry Cheesecake Bars
Heat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange an entire tube of crescent roll dough over the bottom of the dish, pinching the perforations together. Mix two 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, 2/3 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 2 eggs, 1/4 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt. Spread the cheesecake mixture evenly over the bottom layer of dough, then top with 1 cup fresh berries. Unroll the second container of crescent rolls and lay it on top. Bake 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely, then dust with powdered sugar and cut into bars.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Mix one can tomato soup, 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon ginger and 1 large clove minced garlic. Put four or five bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs in a baking dish, along with sliced carrots, bell peppers and onions. Add pineapple chunks if desired. Pour the sauce over everything. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until internal temperature is 165 degrees.
Cut four large russet potatoes in half and bake, cut side down, in a little olive oil, for about 45 minutes or until soft. Scoop the insides out, leaving a 1/4 inch (or so) layer of potato and skin. Mix the scooped potatoes with a can of cream of mushroom soup. Spoon the mixture into the potato skins, sprinkle with grated cheese, and bake again until the cheese is melty. Top with crumbled bacon and chives.
Don’t try this at home
Here are few recipes I tried that weren’t so great:
I did combine instant chocolate pudding with raspberry Jell-O to make a successful gelatin mold in the chemical sense, but perhaps not in the flavor sense. Pass.
The tomato soup cake was OK, but it was still tomato soup in a cake. If you’re going to eat cake, eat chocolate cake.
The lemon cherry muffins with cream of rice cereal were prettier to look at than to eat. Just have a cupcake.
If you made the carrot cookies, I’m very sorry, because I forgot to include the egg in the recipe we printed.
The apple tansy was entirely too flammable.
The pickletini was never going to taste good.
Last but not least, I will never again use my toaster to make cheese sandwiches. That’s an idea we can leave in 2020.