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processed food

Is this the end of Twinkiehenge?


Hostess has declared bankruptcy. It sounds like the company has been struggling with debt, but that in the short term this is not likely to result in any interruption to operations. So you’ll still be able to buy Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other highly processed foodstuffs, assuming you care for that sort of thing. The NYT article strongly hints that labor and pension costs are a big issue, but if you’re getting into debt to the tune of $860 million there’s a lot more wrong with your planning than just paying your workers too well, I think.

A lot of the coverage has been suggesting, possibly tongue in cheek, that consumers may want to stock up on Twinkies just in case the company ends up folding. I can’t get behind that, but use your own judgment. They don’t actually last forever — though I held onto the ones left over from my Twinkiehenge for over a year before finally discarding them and they didn’t look appreciably changed. But I didn’t taste them to find out.

The Kellogg’s Cookbook: Cheez-It Souffle

Cheez-It souffle

SouffleBaked2Yes, you read that right. Tonight’s cookbooks is The Kellogg’s Cookbook, and that means recipes with things like Cheez-Its, Rice Krispies and Special K. When I wrote this up for Recipes of the Damned, I made fun of a recipe that involved sauteed shrimp and Corn Pops. To be fair, the recipe sounded very good without the Corn Pops.

CheezItSouffleIngreds2This is what makes this cookbook worth perusing: Many of the recipes seem quite reasonable. This is because many Kellogg’s products are pretty simple: Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, All Bran. I’ve made cornflake-crusted oven-baked chicken before, and probably everybody who’s not a vegan or a don’t-ask-don’t-tell vegetarian has eaten Rice Krispie treats. But some of the recipes CheezItsPreCrush2are rather silly, either because they try too hard (for example, specifying Kellogg’s Stuffing Mix when any croutons would serve) or because the product they require is inherently silly. Like Cheez-Its.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Cheez-Its. They have a good strong mainstream cheddar flavor, and they’re an excellent CheezItsCrushed3salt delivery system, which is very important to me in a processed snack food. But in a souffle? I had my doubts, so I decided to find out.

The recipe is fairly simple, though might be daunting to an inexperienced cook. (Of course, if you’ve gotten past the word “souffle” you’ll probably be just fine.) I began by preheating the SeparatedEggsoven and measuring out a cup of Cheez-Its and then crushing then in a plastic bag, using a rolling pin. I poured the crumbs back into the measuring cup; they now reached about 2/3 of the way to the top. I’d expected them to lose a lot more volume. I set them aside and separated six eggs, then beat together the yolks slightly. I also grated about a teaspoon’s worth of a fresh onion.

MilkSauceThickenedNow it was time to move to the stovetop. In a heavy saucepan, I heated one and a half cups of milk and half a stick of butter for about two minutes, stirring constantly, until the butter was melted. Then I added the grated onion and about half the Cheez-It crumbs and kept stirring, cooking for about five more minutes, until the mixture had begun to thicken and was close to boiling. Here the TemperingYolksCheez-Its are functioning much like the flour in a roux; although the ingredients come together in a different order, this is essentially a bechamel sauce. With cheddar cheese flavor and quite a bit of salt.

Now I spooned out a bit of the hot bechamel and added it to the egg yolks, mixing them together to warm up the yolks; this is SauceWithYolks2called tempering, and it keeps the yolks from curdling when they’re added to the pan. Yolks tempered, I added them to the saucepan. They did not curdle. I kept stirring, letting the mixture cook for about three more minutes, then removed it from the heat.

It was the egg whites’ turn now. Using an electric mixer, I beat the BeatingEggWhiteswhites until they were stiff but not dry, which took less than two minutes by my estimate. (I wasn’t really looking at the clock; I was looking at the egg whites.) I then carefully folded the egg whites into the Cheez-It sauce. This is the tricky part, because you don’t want to overmix them, but you want to make sure you don’t have big pockets of unblended egg white or sauce. I AddingWhitesToSaucefolded in the rest of the Cheez-It crumbs, poured it all into an unbuttered baking dish, and put it in the oven for an hour and 15 minutes.

While it cooked I finished up some kitchen tasks: I made salsa with fresh tomatoes and poblanos from the Greenmarket, and I washed a bunch of dishes. I found myself working gingerly. It FoldingInMoreCheezItsoccurred to me that a sufficiently loud noise or heavy vibration might knock the whole thing down. And boy, did my kitchen seem loud. The fridge cycling down with a thump; the poorly set drawers lurching into their grooves; a tomato rolling off the cutting board and into the sink. Outside noises sounded amplified as well: kids playing, motorcycles driving past, neighbors slamming SouffleToBakegarage doors. I half expected someone to pull into the alley in a bass-thumping boom box masquerading as a car.

But my worries were groundless. The baked souffle had risen, and stayed puffed, though it began to sink gradually once it came out of the oven. And when I dug into it with a spoon it quickly deflated. I spooned up some of the mixture SouffleDish4and we carried it away with salad. I’m not sure if I got the consistency exactly right; it was somewhat soft and I didn’t know if it should be firmer and keep its puff more solidly. But it was a pleasing texture, and it tasted good. It tasted exactly like Cheez-Its. This is not a bad taste, though it’s a little weird in a souffle texture.

SouffleSunkVerdict: Success. But this is another silly recipe. I want to make a real souffle at some point, but I think I’ll wait until the weather has cooled a bit more. The elegant puff seems like it might be a lovely way to present a fine chocolate or a really great cheese. But if I want Cheez-Its, the crunchy cracker is good enough for me.

The Cake Mix Doctor: Baking Outside the Box

birthday cake cones

CupcakeCones2If you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably noticed that I’m kind of a snob about scratch cooking. I don’t think that every kind of processed food out there is an abomination, but I think a lot of them are, and their chief failing is that they provide a lower-quality, less tasty result, often in cases when it just isn’t that hard to make the dish for yourself.

CakeIngreds3Ann Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor, thinks that cake mixes can produce subpar cakes, but they also offer two great advantages: They save a significant amount of prep time, and they are engineered to be nearly impossible to ruin. Even the most maladept baker can successfully produce a cake from a boxed mix. And rather than turn up her nose, Byrn embraces the mixes and MixingCake2offers recipes that improve on their lackluster flavors with the addition of spices, extra eggs or oil, or other secret ingredients. I’ve long been a fan of her melted ice-cream cake, which enhances a white cake mix with a pint of your choice of premium ice cream (New York Super Fudge Chunk is fun).

For the party I decided to make birthday cake cones. I started CupcakeConesInPan3with a package of store-brand devil’s food cake mix, and beat in water, oil (a bit more than called for on the box), eggs, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. So far, so basic. Now came the fun part: I spooned batter into wafer-style ice cream cones, the ones with the flat bottoms, whose bases I’d wrapped with aluminum foil to prevent leaking. The recipe says to fill the cones only halfway, but FillingConesI think I could have added a wee bit more. (I had some leftover batter, which I poured into standard cupcake liners.) Once I’d filled all the cones, I carefully maneuvered the pan into a 350-degree oven and let the cupcakes bake for 25 minutes. (I was expecting all the cones to fall over as I moved the pan, but they were stable. Whew!)

BakedCones6Now it was time to make the frosting. Byrn has an extensive chapter of frosting recipes; as she says, cake mixes are one thing, but frosting mixes and canned frosting are pretty bad across the board, and homemade frosting can be extremely easy to make. I sifted 3 cups of powdered sugar. This is probably the most finicky part of making frosting, if you use a sifter, as I did, but you could FrostingIngreds2also get satisfactory results by pouring powdered sugar into a bowl and giving it a whirl with the mixer blades, then measuring it out; the important thing is to break up any clumps so you have a fine, consistent powder and you’re not overpacking the measuring cup. I set the sugar aside and put one stick of butter (softened) into a mixing bowl with 2/3 cup of cocoa, and stirred ButterAndCocoa2them together on the lowest mixer setting until they were evenly blended. Then I added the sugar, 1/3 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and mixed them on the lowest speed until they were just blended, then turned the mixer up to high and beat the frosting another 2 minutes or so, until it was fluffy and light. Total prep time, including sifting the powdered sugar: about 7 minutes.

FrostingMixed2We frosted the cupcakes and decorated them with candy sprinkles, which is always loads of fun; I find I can usually make this my last piece of party prep and enlist the help of the earliest-arriving guest, or even make decorating a main party activity. People do love to slather on the frosting and get creative with the colored sugars and decorating pieces.

CupcakeCones4The cupcakes were really delicious, too. The added cinnamon wasn’t really easy to pick out as cinnamon, but it gave the chocolate a richer undertone. The frosting was rich and chocolatey as well, though I had a moment of puzzlement when I first tasted it — then I realized that I’ve gotten into such a rut of making cream-cheese-based frosting that I was assuming any homemade frosting should have that subtle tang. It was just dandy without it, though.

Verdict: Success. I’ll want to make these again, playing with flavors and frostings.

A Man, a Can, a Plan: A Laugh

chunky kernel spread

MixingDip4I picked up A Man, a Can, a Plan from the discount tables at the Strand Bookstore a couple of years ago. It has so much to make fun of: thick cardboard pages of the kind usually found in babies’ picture books; “recipes” that involve mixing together the contents of cans and passing the results off as cuisine; and a deeply silly self-justifying introduction that would be DipIngreds2offensively sexist if it could possibly have been meant as anything other than a joke:

“Men don’t cook.” People tell me this all the time. That’s a load of bull. … we have better things to do. Why slave over a hot stove when we could be cooking up plans for a golf outing ? Or warming up at the gym? Or making things CreamCheeseNRanchsizzle in the bedroom? … When your girl insists that you cook something for a change, you’ve got it in the can.

The book is published by Men’s Health, which clearly has very little faith in its readers’ ability to find their way around a kitchen without pictorial guidance. Or in their palates, for that matter; we DicingRedPepper2find canned ham and pop-tube crescent rolls, tuna and jarred spaghetti sauce, Spaghetti-Os and — well, anything, really — and a truly disheartening array of canned soups. It looks like sponsorship must be involved too, because some brand-name products are featured in vivid color photos, while no-name ingredients get a textual “also” but no pictures.

MixingDipIt didn’t take long to flip through the 50 recipes, but to actually settle on something I would make and ask other humans to eat took a while. I ruled out Spaghetti-Os, canned meat, and anything that would need to cook for more than 30 minutes on a 90-degree day. I also ruled out pineapple, canned fish, and beer as an ingredient. (I guessed that anything I was willing to drink would have too MixingDip3strong a flavor for the dish.) I was left with a few options, and settled on chunky kernel spread, which I keep wanting to call chunky kernel dip, because really it is a dip.

This is one of the easier recipes of an elementary lot. I allowed two packets of reduced-fat cream cheese to soften (the recipe called for fat-free, but you can’t really DipWithFritos2find fat-free anything in our local stores), then mixed in a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix. The recipe directed me to then add an 11-ounce can of corn (drained), a 5-ounce can of sliced black olives (drained), a 4-ounce jar of chopped mild green chiles (also drained), and a small red bell pepper (diced). I could only find 12-ounce cans of corn, and chose not to worry about the PartySpreaddifference. I could also only find cans of whole black olives, so bought a can and sliced up enough to equal the canned amount. And I found only cans of chiles, not jars. I thought I had pulled a can of chopped chiles but discovered when I opened it that I had once again fallen prey to grocery shelf dyslexia and purchased whole chiles, so I chopped those up as well. I stirred everything together, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and stuck it in the fridge for a little over an hour.

Closer to party time, I pulled out the dip and put it into a bowl, which I set in a serving dish and surrounded with Fritos (as per the recipe). I found the dip underwhelming when I sampled some off the spoon, but it turns out that Fritos were required for a reason: the high level of salt and the strong corn flavor tie together the flavors in the dip, and make it a pretty satisfying snack.

Verdict: Success. I can’t see myself making this again any time soon; it seems like it would go best with a sports-watching party, and I don’t really watch sports. Puppy Bowl, maybe? If I do make it again I’ll use hotter chiles and kalamata olives, and buy more Fritos.

The Twinkies Cookbook: Twinkiehenge


TwinkieHengeTwinkies are the epitome of processed food: spongy, resilient, wrapped in plastic, with only slightly more flavor than the wrapping, they are globally recognizable and endlessly the same. They couldn’t not be Recipes of the Damned. So when I saw The Twinkies Cookbook in the discount section at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, I had to buy it. What could one possibly cook with Twinkies?

PuddingIngreds2So many things, though “cook” is not always the operative word. An astounding 49 recipes, ranging from Twinkie Kebabs to Twinkie Ice Cream to Twinkie Tunnel Bundt Cake (yes, cake with a tunnel of Twinkies) to Pigs in a Twinkie. (In the upsettingly named chapter “Twinkies and Meat,” which only contains three recipes, thank heavens.) You can blend Twinkies into a milkshake. You can deep-fry them and serve them with chocolate sauce. (We tried that at Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; meh, unable to hold a candle to the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg.)

Oreos2But of course for the party I had to try Twinkiehenge.

It’s very simple. You start by mixing up some instant chocolate pudding, according to the package instructions. The recipe called for a 5.9-ounce package, but all I could find was two 3.9-ounce packages. This didn’t bother me; have you ever noticed that you never hear the phrase “too much pudding”? I mixed up the pudding and put it into a serving bowl, and topped it with crushed Oreos, about 16 cookies’ worth.

CrushingOreosNow it was time to add the Twinkies. The recipe says to cut Twinkies in half crosswise and stand them up on end, with the rounded edges up and the cut ends pushed into the pudding. But this seemed to me to be only halfway there. Stonehenge isn’t just standing vertical stones; it’s the crossbars that make it truly distinctive. Without them I’d have Twinkie Rapa Nui. So I halved a few Twinkies lengthwise as well and laid them atop the posts, and voila: Twinkiehenge.

CrushedOreosSome of you may have found the combination of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos familiar. When I was in my teens, back in the last century, our Y-Teens gatherings often featured a dessert known by a number of names: Better than Sex, Better than Robert Redford, God in a Pan. (Yes, we were in our mid-teens and Robert Redford was in his late 40s at that point. What can I say? The man can still bring it.) BTS was made of chocolate pudding, crushed Oreos (often still a bit chunky), and whipped cream or Cool Whip. We did not bother with Twinkies, or henges.

PuddingAndOreosOf course on Saturday it took us a while to get around to eating Twinkiehenge. It’s one of those dishes that looks too pretty, or at least too goofy, to eat. But we cast aside our fears of little Twinkie Druids casting little Twinkie curses on us, and dug in. Unsurprisingly, the combination of pudding and Oreos was tasty. The Twinkies didn’t really add anything to that. They didn’t detract; they were just kind of there.

TwinkieHenge3Verdict: Success, albeit silly. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Twinkie part again, but we’re working on transforming too much pudding into no more pudding.

The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars: If This Is “Best,” What Didn’t Make the Cut?

tangy chicken

ChickenPlated3It’s time for another Recipes of the Damned offering, this one a cookbook extolling the virtues of processed food. More specifically, this book is a compilation of recipes found on product labels. The premises of the book seem to be that a) People use a lot of processed foods, b) People who use a lot of processed foods actually read the recipes on the packages and want to make them AnAuspiciousStart3again but don’t think to write them down, and c) These recipes are actually worth cooking and eating.

Perhaps I am being too snarky. After all, my chocolate chip cookie recipe is memorized from the one printed on the chip bags. The companies do invest in product research and recipe development, and the results can’t all be bad. Heinz57InCupHowever, a perusal of Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars suggests that a good 80 percent of them are dubious at best. This book is a horror show.¬† Hiram Walker’s Supreme Brandy Burgers. Hot Mexican Beef Salad, featuring Kraft Catalina Dressing. Innumerable gelatin salads and desserts. And the salty, cardboardy funk of powdered Heinz57PlusWateronion soup mix permeating everything.

It took some digging for me to find a recipe to try. I wanted a dish that would be quick enough to make on a weeknight. I wanted something we’d be willing to eat. And I wanted to be confident I could find the specific commercial products listed, without having to scramble because something is no BrowningChickenlonger made or is only marketed in certain regions. I finally settled on Tangy Chicken, about which the book is absolutely giddy: “The Heinz Company has been printing this extra-easy chicken recipe on their 57 Sauce bottles for years. It’s such a favorite customers probably wouldn’t let them take it off.”

They are right about it being BrowningChicken2extra-easy. The recipe calls for browning chicken pieces in butter, adding a mixture of half Heinz 57 and half water, covering the pan and simmering for 30 minutes, then removing the lid and cooking 10 minutes longer. At this point the chicken is removed and the excess fat skimmed from the sauce, and dinner is served.

Heinz 57 sauce is kind of scary ChickenWithSaucestuff. The second ingredient listed is high fructose corn syrup, and it includes both raisin concentrate and apple concentrate. (Aren’t raisins already kind of concentrated?) It’s basically ketchup with fruit and vinegar added. The tangy flavor is pleasing, but I couldn’t really shake the knowledge of the high fructose corn syrup.

ChickenWithSauce2So, I browned the chicken pieces. I mixed Heinz 57 with water and added it to the pan, where it combined with the melted butter to coat and stew the chicken. I removed the lid to let the excess moisture cook away. I skimmed as much fat as I could from the sauce, then spooned some over the chicken. I served it with steamed broccoli and a warmed loaf of Italian bread.

ChickenCooked2The chicken tasted pretty good; the meat was tender, and the sauce was in fact tangy. But I suspected I could make an even better version from scratch pretty easily with tomato puree, honey or molasses, and cider vinegar, and no HFC. In fact, I decided the main thing I’d learned from this one was a basic cooking technique: brown the chicken (in half the fat next time, perhaps ChickenCooked3using part olive oil), add the sauce, cover, cook, uncover, cook some more. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t involve this cookbook.

Verdict: Good enough. I don’t expect to make this again, though I do have to decide what to do with the remaining half-bottle of Heinz 57.

Come & Eat! Or, Food Inc., the Home Game

Biscuit-Topped Fiesta Supper

The last two books from which I cooked for this blog offered the cook ways to sneak ingredients that are good for you into dishes that resemble comfort food or processed food. This booklet is the opposite: It gives you recipes that sneak mediocre processed foods into dishes that look like they might be good for you.

Come & Eat is a booklet that Pillsbury publishes for distribution in supermarkets, or at least used to, with the appearance of a food magazine or mini-cookbook with quick recipes for “busy families” (which is marketing-speak for moms). Though actually, it’s a multi-page advertisement for processed food products from Pillsbury. An ad that you pay for. Only a couple of dollars, but still.

I got this, what, nearly 10 years ago? Yet most of the products being touted are still familiar. Green Giant canned vegetables. Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits and rolls (the kind you pop out of a pressurized tube). Progresso soup. That sort of thing. The basic conceit is that you can use these processed foods to speed up your meal prep and make food that’s just as good as if you made it from scratch. This happens not to be true, but it’s an illusion that the big companies spend a lot of money to promote.

This kind of thing is a linchpin of the Recipes of the Damned. I have repeatedly railed about recipes that have you use tube biscuits instead of making your own (not difficult and immeasurably better), browning ground beef in salad dressing or using things like Velveeta. (Shudder.) But I have always assumed that the food would taste good — not great, but tasty in that comforting, guilty-pleasure sort of way.

The booklet I have was published for the 1999 holiday season, so since it’s September I decided to rule out the more obviously Christmas-themed cookies and snacks. Well, I was sorely tempted by the Red-Nosed Reindeer Cake. But I decided to pick something that would make for a quick weeknight supper, and settled on Biscuit-Topped Fiesta Supper because it called for the most brand-named ingredients.

The recipe itself is fairly easy. I browned ground beef (once again I used bison) and onions in a skillet, and drained off the excess fat; then I added bottled salsa, Green Giant Mexicorn (canned corn with peppers), tomato sauce, sugar, garlic powder, chili powder and pepper. Yes, I said sugar. I didn’t approve, but I had vowed to follow the recipe as closely as I could. I decided that substituting Tostitos brand salsa for Old El Paso was acceptable, as merely a lateral move; omitting the sugar on moral grounds, while rational and defensible, would not be in the spirit of the project.

Anyway, I let that simmer for a bit for the liquid to cook off, and in the meantime I preheated the oven and prepared the biscuit topping: I popped open a tube of Hungry Jack biscuits and sliced each of the 10 in half crosswise. And let me tell you, that’s not easy. Oh, it can be done, provided you have a serrated knife, and the ability to let go of the idea that biscuits ought to be round. I also blended together some cornmeal, garlic powder and paprika, and melted some margarine. When enough liquid had cooked out of the meat mixture, I arranged the biscuits in a ring around the edge of the pan, overlapping slightly, then brushed them with the margarine and sprinkled on the cornmeal mixture, then topped the meat mixture in the center with shredded cheddar. I slid the skillet into the oven and let it bake for about 20 minutes. I’ll say this for casseroles: They give you time to clean up in the kitchen. Of course, so do lots of baked and roasted items that don’t call for refrigerator biscuits, but I don’t mean to be spiteful.

When I pulled the skillet out of the oven, the biscuits had puffed up and browned, and the cheese had melted over the meat mixture. It smelled very…processed. I dished up some meat and biscuits for each of us. The meat casserole was OK; the salsa and tomato sauce gave it a bit of a tang, but there wasn’t enough spice to give it a really distinctive flavor, and the sugar underscored the generic taste. The biscuits were OK; the cornmeal mixture gave them a better flavor than they would have had otherwise, but the texture was kind of spongy. (Admittedly, I had just made homemade biscuits on Sunday morning, and the tube kind should never be trotted out within a week of eating those; it just isn’t fair. They can’t compete.)

“This is a lot like Hamburger Helper,” my husband said. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. He wasn’t trying to be mean, either; we both felt that the dish wasn’t exactly bad, it just wasn’t actually good.

Verdict: Not worth the effort. If I were to try to make an improved version of this I would do several things. I’d add more vegetables, for one thing: actual diced peppers, maybe diced zucchini or yellow squash, plus minced garlic instead of garlic powder. I’d bump up the spices. I’d use a homemade salsa and more of it, and replace the 8-ounce can of tomato sauce with a tablespoon of tomato paste to give a rich underlying flavor without overwhelming the other flavors. I’d use homemade biscuits, or perhaps polenta rounds.

Or I’d just make tacos.