Recipes From the Back of the Box

Whereas writer Calvin Trillin once famously stated to his wife, Alice, Let's Eat! (as the title of a dining-oriented book of essays), I challenged my girlfriend with the proclamation, "Corinne, let's cook!" The catch: we would be attempting to cook dishes straight from the side of supermarket food packaging.There, people without any inherent cooking ability or even a card file full of best-loved family recipes need can turn for suggestions for "quick," "easy," and/or "delicious" meals. Most of these supermarket finds are innocuous-enough sounding concoctions, usually featuring soup, rice, or both. The folks at Campbell's Soups, for instance, have apparently mastered the art of turning a bit of meat (usually chicken), a can of their soup, a handful of vegetables, and a base of rice into a seemingly unending cornucopia of recipes, including Chicken and Rice Bake, Chicken Stir-fry (with rice) and Shortcut Risotto.But some on-package recipe suggestions stand out as more than a little bizarre. For example, Miracle Whip currently uses its label to trumpet something called a "Sassy Ham, Apple, and Coleslaw Sandwich." Hmm -- that does sound sassy! Meanwhile, Hungry Jack instant mashed potatoes suggests dipping pieces of chicken in margarine and then rolling them in their desiccated little flakettes (also an oft-suggested use for corn flakes). Venerable Spam, after recently blanketing the airwaves with commercials extolling the greasy virtues of a "Spamburger Hamburger," has now set its sights a bit earlier -- its war-surplus-style tins are currently carrying recipes for "Easy Spambled Egg Muffins," which manage to make Egg McMuffins sound like Breakfast at Tiffany's. And what's a good meal -- even breakfast -- without a tempting dessert? How about Karo Corn Syrup's "Classic Pecan Pie?" The recipe? Merest simplicity itself! Basically, this taste treat requires not much more than tossing pecans in a pie crust, dousing them with half-a-bottle of the 120-calorie-per-ounce glop, then baking.Now, them's good eatin's, Jethro!This doesn't mean that all product-endorsed recipes are only space-fillers or potential palate-damagers. In the pantheon of on-package recipes, there are four winners that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest: Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, the name-brand raison d'etre of Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels; Lipton Onion Soup Dip (also known as California Dip), for which the dried-soup mix is probably purchased more often than it is for soup; and the Chex Cereal Party Mix and Rice Krispies Treats, duo, both so popular as back-of-the-cereal-box recipes that they are now manufactured separately as pre-packaged productsThose four success stories aside, the world of on-product recipes is chiefly populated with more unappetizing denizens than a Division Street bar at last call. Back in the test kitchens, we prepared to tackle three such shambling messes of cooking possibilities. And to help rate these kitchen-lab creations, we invented the E.A.T. Ratings, scoring on a scale of 0-10 each recipe's Ease of preparation, Accuracy of finished product to promised results, and overall Taste. So, a total composite rating of 0 would indicate a nearly unspeakable horrid awfulness (and probably the fact that I, rather than Corinne, had the greater hand in preparation). A lofty score in the high 20s or perhaps even a perfect 30 would be, well -- let's face it, not very likely.RITZ CRACKERS MOCK APPLE PIEPastry for two-crust 9-inch pie36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken2 cups water2 cups sugar2 teaspoons cream of tartar2 tablespoons lemon juiceGrated rind of one lemon2 tablespoons Blue Bonnet Vegetable Oil Spread1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon(NO APPLES NEEDED)Roll out half the pastry and line a 9-inch pie plate. Place crackers in prepared crust. In saucepan, over high heat, heat water, sugar, and cream of tartar to a boil; simmer for 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and rind; cool. Pour syrup over crackers. Dot with spread; sprinkle with cinnamon. Roll out remaining pastry; place over pie. Trim, seal, and flute edges. Slit top crust to allow steam to escape. Bake at 425 F for 30 to 35 minutes or until crust is crisp and golden. Cool completely."An Old Time Favorite," trumpets the back of the cracker box featuring this recipe. I had been aware of these instructions for years, and it had become a bit of a joke in my family, with my brothers and sisters and I each threatening to actually make a Mock Apple Pie and bring it to the next family gathering. "But what if we like it?" someone once pointed out. That unlikely -- yet still chilling -- possibility seemed to cool our hip, joking attitude about what we took to calling Cracker Pie.Yet, here were Corinne and I, about to spend a perfectly good Friday night making a Ritz Mock Apple Pie. After securing the ingredients, including, most annoyingly, a $4 container of Cream of Tartar just for two stinking teaspoons (Me: "I could've bought a real apple pie at Jewel for $4! What the hell is this stuff for?" Corinne: "I'm not sure, -- it either causes or prevents something."), we begin our mission improbable. We break crackers in pieces -- so they sort of look like apple slices -- and drop them into a pre-made pie crust. The boiled mixture of water, sugar, and cream of tartar looks like a thin corn syrup or the juice from canned fruit. Next came the lemon stuff. Then we pour the syrup over the crackers. We have to do this slowly, using about an eighth of the mixture at a time, waiting for the cracker bits to absorb the liquid. Even then, when the "pie filling" was saturated and full, we still have about a quarter of the liquid left over. After adding the spread and cinnamon, the resulting "pie" looks a bit like apples in a crust before topping and baking-admittedly, however, apples with serrated, cracker-like edges. Into the oven it went.At first, a little bit of liquid leaks out of the crust, but it generally looks okay. Thereafter, the pie starts leaking and oozing like some Z-grade special effect from an Ed Wood movie. It's a damn good thing we put a cookie sheet underneath the pie tin, or my oven would have been coated with the blackened, caramelized mock apple juice that oozed out. This stuff burns so thick onto the cookie sheet that we had to throw it away -- after considering calling NASA and offering a new alternative for tiling the space shuttle; nothing short of re-entry burn was gonna strip this crap off.When done, cooled, and cut, we take deep sniffs of the finished product.Me: "Hmm, it smells like, well, baked, salty, buttery crackers." Corinne: "It smells kind of like lemon bars to me." Then the first bites -- and the lemons have it! This thing tastes so tart that they should have called it "Mock Lemon Pie." Corinne: "It's like a not-smooth, too-strong lemon meringue pie. It might be better with whipped cream on it."We make a post-cooking call to the Nabisco Consumer Center, and speak to Miriam, who tells us that the recipe was invented in their own test kitchens, and introduced in 1934, when apples weren't as easy to come by. (Although, today, with Ritz Crackers going for about $3.25 per pound while apples are only around $1.30 per pound, it's a mystery why this remains a "popular" -- as Nabisco claims -- or even viable recipe.) We ask if anyone has called with complaints about the recipe, and Miriam assures us that the recipe has been well-tested and does indeed work. But when we specifically ask her the "lemon question," she launches immediately into an obviously scripted answer about lemons being a natural ingredient, so their strength can vary and affect the taste of the pie. She even allows that once when she made the pie, it tasted a bit too lemony, so we might want to cut back on the lemon ingredients the next time.The next time?!? I don't think so.Ease= 3.5Accuracy= 0Taste= 4Total Composite E.A.T. Rating= 7.5WHITE CASTLE TURKEY STUFFING10 White Castle hamburgers, with pickle removed1 1/2 cups celery, diced1 1/4 teaspoon ground thyme1 1/2 teaspoon ground sage3/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper1/4 cup chicken brothIn a large mixing bowl, tear the White Castle hamburgers into pieces and add diced celery and seasonings. Toss and add chicken broth. Toss well. Stuff cavity of turkey just before roasting. Note: Allow 1 White Castle hamburger for each pound of turkey, which will be equivalent to 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.Corinne: "I want to know what trailer-trash mind came up with this recipe." Me: "A trailer-trash marketer's mind, trying to sell more White Castles during the holidays." Indeed, this nearly unthinkable monstrosity is promoted yearly in a promotional brochure from the White Castle chain. These brochures also feature other annual "winning" entries sent in by excited Whiteys fans, including such better-left-unexplored possibilities as White Castle Won Ton (basically, deep-fried WCs) and White Castle Hamburger Quiche.Preparation isn't too difficult -- just thaw out the burgers (if using, as we were, the frozen, store-bought kind), tear 'em up, and jumble them together with the spices. The result: A bowlful of stuff that smells like the pepper and spices and looks like destroyed little hamburgers. Corinne: "I want to know why all of these recipes call for ten hamburgers, but the frozen boxes come in packages of six." Me: "It's kind of like the eternal number-of-hot-dogs vs. number-of-buns debate."A few hours of cooking later, out comes the turkey--and the stuffing at least looks good spilling picturesquely out of the turkey's cavity. It smells like -- just stuffing. And it tastes like -- just stuffing, only less. Corinne: "It's kind of bland -- like TV dinner or Old Country Buffet stuffing. It needs more spices -- it misses the kick you get from sausage in stuffing, instead of..." Me: "Instead of little steam-boiled hamburger patties." Corinne: "I keep trying to like it, but it seems to get blander with every bite. I wonder if you can make stuffing out of Whoppers?" Me: "Only if you like mayonnaise, tomatoes, and lettuce in your stuffing."Then, the bottom-rung of taste-testing -- a spoonful of the White Castle stuffing is offered to two of my girlfriend's dogs. They sniff and sniff, but don't take the taste-test plunge. Smart boys! At least the turkey tasted fine.Ease= 6.5Accuracy= 3.5Taste= 2Total Composite E.A.T. Rating= 12MARSHMALLOW FLUFF "NEVER FAIL FUDGE"2 1/2 cups of sugar1/4 cup (1/8 pound) butter or margarine1 small can (5 oz.) evaporated milk1 jar (7 1/2 oz.) Marshmallow Fluff3/4 teaspoon vanilla1 large (12 oz.) package semi-sweet chocolate pieces1. Combine first five ingredients. Stir over low heat until blended. 2. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, being careful not to mistake air bubbles for boiling. Then boil slowly, stirring constantly, for five minutes (to soft ball stage). 3. Remove from heat. Stir in chocolate and vanilla until chocolate is melted. Then turn into a buttered 9 X 9 inch pan and cool."Never Fail?" Oh yeah? I had a bone to pick with this recipe. Several years ago, I tried to make this version of fudge, hoping to bring it to a family gathering the next day. Instead of "Never Fail," I got "Never Congealed" -- even throwing the pan in the freezer overnight didn't help. Instead of fudge, I got a pan of very rich ice cream topping.After perusing the sugar-saturated recipe, Corinne opens the jar of Fluff for her first look at it, and says, "This stuff has exactly the appearance and consistency of Red Devil spackle." Me: "There goes our endorsement chances."The ponderous preparation time for this recipe is fairly evenly split between trying to get all of the sticky Fluff out of its not-exactly-wide-enough-mouthed jar and then actually getting the goo to boil. Finally, when the stiff mixture does begin to boil, the bubbling semi-liquid starts splattering us with blistering little gobs of scalding marshmallow shrapnel. Then there's the potential problem with the instructions. Corinne knows that the otherwise-unexplained "soft ball stage" in the recipe means to test the mixture by dropping a thread of it into cold water and looking to see if the droplet cools into a soft, flat ball. (I don't remember struggling with this step during my previous attempt. I probably just ignored it -- explaining my notable fudge failure.) Finally, it passes the "soft ball" test. In go the chocolate chips, and the mixture is looking good -- thick and smooth and particularly nascent -- fudge-like. As we pour the mixture into the pan, it is starting to set already. We seem to have -- at the very least -- defeated the problem I had with the recipe years ago. Even though the preparation was a bitch, could we have a back-end winner? We'll know in a few hours, after the fudge cools.Later, once the cooled fudge is cut up, we try a few pieces. And it's pretty darn good. My girlfriend doesn't eat much sweets, but even she likes it. saying, "It's good -- but it's so sweet, I can feel the sugar burning the back of my throat." To me, it's smooth, and not grainy at all, though not Fanny May.Yet once we start thinking about it, we concur that no marshmallow taste remains in the finished product. So why the need for an entire jar of Fluff? Ease of boiling, maybe? Sticky binding property, perhaps? I, for one, end up convinced that this is kind of like the fable of the stone soup: Once you add the vegetables and meat -- or, in this case, the chocolate, vanilla, etc. -- you have soup. Or fudge, anyway. Which reminds me -- did we mention the brownies made from cheddar cheese soup? Ah, but maybe that's best left for a second helping.Ease= 0Accuracy= 10Taste= 9Total Composite E.A.T. Rating= 19

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