As a cook, I like to follow a recipe the first time I make a dish so I can see what it's "supposed" to taste like. If I decide to make it again, I might make adjustments for my taste.

When I make a recipe over and over, I become careless, rarely measuring anything because I know "about" what a half-cup or a teaspoon is.

As an isolated person who has groceries delivered once a week, in addition to guessing at amounts, now I'm fudging on ingredients and doing things differently in general.

Food and cooking are dominating topics when I talk to friends. Yep, some of us call one another to check in and break up the monotony. We are learning from one another.

For example, my mother-in-law, who makes the best meatloaf. In fact, I didn't like meatloaf until I tried hers. Instead of using ketchup or tomato sauce, she tops it off with barbecue sauce and it makes all the difference.

The other day, she told me she made up a pound of ground beef, but instead of putting it in a loaf pan, she pattied it out like burgers. It's perfect for a single person: You can cook one and freeze the others until you have a hankering for meatloaf again.

The most common approach is using substitutions. Sometimes it yields an exciting new discovery. Sometimes not.

When making a breakfast casserole that called for sausage, I substituted bacon. You can't go wrong using bacon.

My baked mac and cheese was just fine when I used cottage, Colby and sharp cheddar instead of all Colby.

Of course, these kinds of recipes are easy to fudge on. It's the baked goods recipes that should be taken a little more seriously.

But years ago, one of my friends, whose side job is catering, whispered to me, "You can take more liberties than you think" with cakes and pies.

That stuck with me.

Over the years, I have become freer with the vanilla extract and I've added other flavorings to cakes and cookies. I've subbed applesauce for oil. It's OK. I even use self-rising flour for everything, adding a little more than called for to make up for the lack of baking soda or salt.

I took a big leap, though, when I cut corners on a sweet potato pie.

It was a Sunday and I was looking for things to do so I could avoid housework. I realized I had two cans of yams and I recalled a pie crust in the freezer, so I gathered my ingredients and set out to work. I haven't made many sweet potato pies, so I studied a couple of recipes. I didn't have the right ingredients to make either, so I cobbled together my own recipe.

When the crust thawed, it became evident it was in no shape to be eaten. I tossed it.

I make quiche with no crust; why not pie?

No crust was no problem, but the filling, well, the filling was an example of what happens when you don't have the right ingredients or enough ingredients. The filling never set up, becoming a little more like yam soup than sweet potato pie. The cinnamon clumped together, likely another sign of runny pie filling.

My biggest takeaway: Yam soup isn't that bad.

lward@dailyindependent.com

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