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Mixing it up

When my agent found a publisher for my first book, it was tentatively titled Thyme for Dessert. Not a bad title, we thought, since it got across the point (herbs in desserts). My editor kindly but powerfully disagreed.

"Too down-market," she sniffed, and as a food writer living in Chapel Hill, the last thing I wanted was to be tagged with that by her New York publishing crowd.

That fear hovers at the edges of my thoughts routinely now, as I plan what book to write when my children get a few years under their onesies. It came to the fore when I went online recently, in an innocent search for a pancake mix.

Last year, I made packets of waffle mix and homemade lemon-vanilla syrup for Christmas gifts for my son's teachers and several friends, and I wanted to see what similar recipes were out there.

Whew. I stumbled across page upon page of some truly scary mix ideas. Many were the classics: mixes for oatmeal cookies, hot drinks, and spice blends. But there's just something about a "turkey noodle soup mix" or "Mexican meat mix" that starts to sound frighteningly close to those packets of "astronaut food" you can buy for your favorite (?) nephew at the Smithsonian.

Still, I have to admit to being seduced by some of these down-market recipes. Not the Mexican meat one, but spice mixes, a ranch dressing mix, taco seasoning, and a homemade shake-and-bake coating grabbed me. Briefly.

As I looked over all the recipes I'd gathered, I began to have second thoughts. Still, some seemed worth a shot, so off I went to the bulk spice section, scooping for 10 minutes enough dehydrated onions to make a cow cry.

I should have heeded those misgivings. Not that the mixes were entirely bad. The seasoned salt, for example, made a perfectly reasonable seasoned salt, I guess; problem is, I've never cooked with anything like that before, and I just couldn't start now. If I even remembered to use the stuff, I found that it left me with so little control over the final flavor that I simply couldn't bring my fingers to dip in for a pinch. (My husband has recently discovered the joys of selling our stuff on eBay--to the point that I sometimes check to make sure the children are still in their beds--so I'm considering giving him the Tupperware bowl of this salt, just to see what profit might follow.)

The ranch dressing was, to put it mildly, horrid stuff. Given that I'm usually not fond of dried herbs except in a few long-simmered recipes, I can't imagine why I thought mixing a passel of them with mayo and buttermilk would improve their flavors.

The shake-and-bake coating, on the other hand, showed some promise. We used the boxed stuff on pork chops when I was young, and I always liked it. (I've rarely met a pork chop I didn't like, although that's less true now than in my childhood, before supposedly well-meaning scientists bred out all the fat and flavor.) Being able to pronounce all the ingredients of my homemade mix, as opposed to the boxed, seemed a real plus, and for a quick dinner, it's a relatively good concept. It mainly needed more spicing and less salt. The taco seasoning, while nothing thrilling, also met my desire to know my ingredients.

Along the way, I also went looking for a spice mix to duplicate the flavors of ramen soups. In a fit of nostalgia a few months ago, I bought a few packets of Top Ramen, instantly transporting myself to my junior year at Carolina, when I had a single room in Carmichael and could thus privately indulge (cheaply!) in a mug of ramen topped with grated cheddar cheese. I knew how awful the stuff was for me--high in fat, low in nutrition, high in MSG--but honestly, how many people do you know who wouldn't sigh gratefully if offered a steaming bowl? (Campbell's, I think, sold low-fat, baked ramens for a while; ordinarily, the noodles are fried. While they were available, I actually felt fairly virtuous eating ramen.)

I've rarely had the soup since college, but my first bites late last year reminded me just how tasty it is, MSG and all. In my search for a healthier alternative, I found some "Japanese curly noodles" at Harris Teeter that came close to ramen noodles, only without that slight grease slick floating on top of the broth. I trolled online for hours trying to find a mix recipe for the ramen seasoning, to no avail. So I turned to the million recipes for onion soup mix, and mixed that in with the noodles, chicken broth, and a touch of soy sauce and sesame oil. It wasn't my worst soup ever, but you won't find me scooping more dried onions anytime soon.

After all that searching, and after getting my hopes up from the promise of the mixes that saved many mothers, I can't say I found more than about three mixes worth making again; of those, I've since bothered with just two. The drink ideas tend toward an alarmingly high use of Tang; cookie mixes almost invariably contain shortening (I used to make an oatmeal cookie mix from a cousin's recipe that produced mighty fine cookies, but stopped after I discovered the horrors of trans fats); and the concept of making a "cream of" soup mix sent me off Yahoo for the rest of the night.

Here, then, are the two I keep in my kitchen. Just don't tell my editor.

Cook's notes: The waffle mix calls for buttermilk powder. Look for this in the baking aisle, next to powdered milks. It also calls for all-purpose flour. Use unbleached if possible, and consider substituting some (about a third max) whole-wheat flour (I especially like King Arthur Flour's white whole-wheat flour, which tastes lighter but loses nothing nutritionally over traditional whole-wheat flour). The original recipe calls for making the batter with vegetable oil. When I do this, I use canola oil, but melted butter, while less healthful, certainly adds flavor. I also routinely add a touch of vanilla extract (about 3/4 teaspoon) to pancake and waffle batter. For crisper waffles, you could also separate the eggs, mixing in the yolks with the water and oil, then beating the whites until stiff and gently folding them into the batter. For the shake-and-bake coating, try substituting smoked sweet paprika (my latest obsession) for regular. EndBlock

Waffle and Pancake Mix
Makes about 10 1/2 cups
2 cups dry buttermilk powder
8 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
8 teaspoons baking powder
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon coarse (kosher) salt

In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk together all ingredients. Transfer to a sealed container or zipper-top plastic bags and refrigerate up to 6 months.

To make waffles: Whisk 3 large eggs until lightly beaten, then gently whisk in 2 1/2 cups waffle mix, 2 cups water, and 1/4 cup vegetable oil (don't overwhisk; batter should remain slightly lumpy). Cook according to your waffle iron's instructions. Makes about 8 to 10 6-inch waffles.

To make pancakes: Whisk 1 large egg until lightly beaten, then gently whisk in 1 1/2 cups waffle mix, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 1 cup water. Set a lightly greased griddle over medium heat; when a few drops of water "dance" across the griddle and evaporate, pour about 1/3 cup of batter per pancake onto griddle. Cook until bubbles form on top and edges are dry; flip pancakes and cook about 1 minute more, until golden. Makes about 10 pancakes.

Shake-and-Bake Mix
Makes about 8 cups
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups finely crushed crackers (Ritz-type)
3 tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons sweet paprika
1/4 cup vegetable oil

In a large bowl, whisk together all but the vegetable oil. Drizzle oil over the mixture and mix thoroughly until no big clumps remain. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.

To use, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place 1 cup mix in a shallow bowl. Rinse chicken pieces, fish fillets or pork chops. Dip them into either a beaten egg, buttermilk, or milk to coat, then roll in mix to coat.

Place on a baking sheet (or a rack set over a baking sheet, for a crisper coating) and bake for 30 minutes for boneless chicken pieces, fish, or pork; 45 minutes to 1 hour for bone-in chicken pieces.

More by Sharon Kebschull Barrett


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