Circus Life: Outside the recipe box

“Wow, will you get me the recipe for that?”

How I dread that question!  Not because I’m a really mean person and my mother never taught me to share, but because I rarely have a recipe!  Really!  And truth be told, frugal, healthy, cooking and baking is all about getting outside the recipe box anyway.  You have to know how ingredients function and taste in a finished product (does it provide lift? moisture? make it more or less dense?).  You also have to know possible substitutions that provide the same or similar taste or functions, whether that’s to make the finished product more healthy, or more economical, or simply because that’s what you have one hand. (And if you’re like me, you can’t run into the store for “just one thing.”  So you can use what you have, keep yourself out of that store, and your budget stays happy!)

I think one of the easiest ways to start getting out of the recipe box is, ironically, with a great base recipe.  With a little creativity, you can begin to alter your base recipe turning a fantastic banana bread recipe, into an apple cinnamon bread, or even a cinnamon coffee cake with a crumb topping (Yum!  This morning’s breakfast…).  You’ll start to see what the core players are (what are the sweeteners, what makes it rise (does it need to rise?) what adds the protein, where is the acid to interact with the leavening agent, what’s the bready foundation (you know, the flour, the oats, whatever….no, I don’t know the technical term.  Enlighten me if you do.)  A little experimenting, and before you know it, you’ll be whipping up pumpkin muffins (because you bought that entire case of canned pumpkin when it was on sale in October and all but 3 cans are still sitting in our pantry) without a “recipe” in no time.

To get you started, here’s a base for a simple quick bread.  Make this super easy for yourself by dumping all the ingredients into your bread machine and setting it on the dough setting (because that is the setting that starts stirring immediately).  Once its mixed (you may need to help it out with a rubber spatula if you’re worried about over mixing), pull out the paddle, close the machine and set it on “bake only” for about 45-55min.  (Note: My bread machine won’t let me turn it back on once the timer turns off because it senses the unit is too hot.  Out smart the machine by setting on a later time (maybe 60 min) and then setting another timer to remind yourself to check it at 45 minutes, that way you can easily keep it in for a few more minutes).

Quick bread:

2 cups of flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons oil

2 eggs

something fruity/moist- a cup’s worth or so


Oh my word!  3/4 cup of sugar!  How can you feed your children that for breakfast?!  I thought you were a super healthy food, oats and berries, organic, kale at every meal, crunchy granola kinda mommy?

Yes, I know.  Ah, how stereo-types turn around and bite us in the rear…  But since we’re being all honest here, how much sugar is in that breakfast cereal that was on the table this morning?  And lets not forget, this is a BASE recipe.  Don’t like the sugar?  Leave it out!  You’re the cook, its up to you!

Personally, I’ve never added that much sugar, and its plenty sweet for us.  If I’m using apple sauce in the recipe, I’m probably going to use very little, if any sugar (and I’d probably omit the oil , too!).  And I’m probably not going to use 2 cups of all purpose flour, either.  I’m probably going to use about 3/4 of all purpose, a half cup of rolled oats and about 1/4 whole wheat flour.  (Yes, I know this does not add up to 2 cups, but I also know that the oats and the whole wheat tend to make my finished products too dense and dry, so I use a little less of them.)  I might use some yogurt for some extra moisture if it looks dry, or some milk if I don’t have yogurt.  I’m probably going to add in about 1/4 cup of flax, because, well, flax just tastes good.  Plus, it has a whole bunch of healthy omega 3 fats (you know the ones they tell you to eat fish to get) and fiber. Yes, I said fiber.  ::Hangs head::  I am getting old.

I might use two of the bananas that are getting mushy on the counter, or I might use those frozen blueberries from last summer.  Whatever I use, you can bet I’m not going out to the store to get something special for it (again, I’m frugal.  Its also 10pm and I’m in my pajamas.)

Yes, its 10pm and I’m tired.  The only thing I’m even taking the time to measure are the flour type ingredients.  I’m only using the 1 cup scoop and estimating about where the ingredients should fall in the scoop.  A quick flick of the wrist with the open baking powder container, should be close enough. (Oh how my middle school Home Ec. teacher would cringe!)  Because at the end of the day, does it really matter if I get a teaspoon of baking powder or a teaspoon and  quarter?  I need to get it done, so I can get to the 20 something other things I have to do, so I can get a few hours of sleep before the clowns and monkeys wake up.

To quote one of my husband’s favorite movies:

“Look, Robin, you don’t have to do this.  I mean, this ain’t exaclty the Mississippi.  I’m on one side, I’m on the other side.  I’m on the east bank, I’m on the west bank. It’s not that critical.” -Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, 1993.

And its not.  Critical, I mean.  Its always edible, and its more healthy than those cocoa balls and marshmallow horse shoes for sure. And worse comes to worst, you throw some sprinkles on top.  The kids will eat it up just fine…

Happy ingredient experimenting!

(Oh, and pureed kale actually does go well in an apple bread….just sayin’.)


The Circus Food Philosophy: Introduction

I think we’re pretty healthy eaters.  And I think we portray that image to others.  But, in talking to friends and family who bring up their low fat food choice or artificial sugar replacement, and proudly proclaim they “really don’t eat beef”, it has become clear that there are drastically varying views of what “healthy” means.

To us, “healthy” means “natural.”  No artificial ingredients, hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides.  Typically this means buying organic in the store, because there is no other way to ensure things at a store are pesticide free (although the non-GMO labels help).  However, we buy as much as we can locally, from farmers with whom we have come to know.  Its wonderful to really know where your food comes from and shake the hands of the men and women who have grown and raised it.  They are small town farmers, raising food for their family and other families.  Its  not a mass production outfit. Its personal.  I can trust these folks when they say they don’t spray pesticides, because its important to them and their family as well.

This circus hopped on a natural food journey roughly 4 years ago.  We started small, a few things here and there.  Now we’re about 95% natural/organic in terms of what I buy.  We did not stop eating fat (in fact, we eat more of it!).  We drink whole milk (non homogenized, slowly pasteurized in an older method that preserves more of the milk’s natural enzymes), eat real butter, we eat beef an average of 4 nights a week, and we do love our bacon.  We also have a large vegetable garden and are members of a fruit and veggie CSA (Community Shared Agriculture) so we eat a lot of those, too.   We do not eat the alternative butters and sugars many turn to in order to lose weight or be healthier.  I am 25lbs lighter than I was before I got pregnant with my first child almost 6 years ago now.  My blood pressure was borderline high at that point.  Now, it is on the lower side of normal.  My husband’s cholesterol was edging high, now it is right where it ought to be.  We did not take prescriptions for these changes to occur, only our diet changed.

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of folks say that they wish they could make some changes in their diets, but they have a whole host of reasons they cannot, or problems they are having as they try to make changes.  Its my plan to share a bit of how my family gets through some of these challenges in upcoming posts.  I’d like to tell you how we use our CSA shares and garden produce, how we manage the cost of “natural” foods, how with a house gone circus we get meals on the table without fast food and prepackaged convenience items loaded up with preservatives and artificial flavorings.

I hope that you will put up with these posts, and maybe find them a bit useful or thought provoking.  Additionally, I hope you’ll comment and share your thoughts, ideas, and strategies.  Our views about what “healthy” is will all be different, but strategies and recipes can be modified accordingly, and dialogue never hurts.  We all just might learn something new.