The 52-Week Recipe Challenge

HOME COOK: Bill Pesch is pictured in his kitchen, which he says sometimes "resembles a disaster area." Photo courtesy of Bill Pesch

If you are like me, since early this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you've found yourself in your kitchen much more frequently than in the past. After all, when we're stuck in the house for weeks on end, our options for entertainment are limited. For many, cooking and baking have helped reduce the stress resulting for home quarantine.

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, with no options of going out to restaurants, or enjoying meals at the homes of family and friends, I prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for my family. At first, it was fun. However, as time went on, preparing meals began to feel less satisfying. I was getting frustrated, but couldn't figure out why. Then one day, as I was web surfing, I came across an old article from 2009 about the cooking habits of most households. According to the article, the average home cook relies on just nine basic recipes to feed his or her family. As I gave this some thought, I realized that my recipe list was rather limited. I had about a dozen favorite recipes I recycled on a regular basis.

Because I was cooking and baking much more frequently, I was repeating the same recipes over and over again. Then it struck me: This was the source of my frustration! I wasn't experimenting enough with new recipes. I had become bored with my cooking, and so had my family. A voice in my head screamed out, "Help, I've fallen into a culinary rut and I can't get out!"

"Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "I'm the master of my own culinary destiny. If I don't like the direction my cooking is going, I can change course any time I put my mind to it." So, I decided to expand my recipes. I started looking through cookbooks, googling various cooking sites and asking friends to share their favorite recipes. Then every week I'd introduce a new main dish, side dish or dessert to my family. After the meal, I'd ask each family member to rate the new recipe on a sliding scale from 1 (yuck) to 10 (fantastic).

This rating game was an important part of expanding my recipe list. A leading reason most home cooks hesitate to introduce new recipes is because family members don't want to experiment with something new. I think this is the reason why, although we have many ethnic groups on Guam, we tend to shy away from reaching across the culinary cultural divide and introduce our families to a new taste treat. Instead, we tend to get stuck within our own ethnic food selections.

Interestingly, now that I've made a game out of presenting new recipes, my family members actually get excited about sampling something new. Don't get me wrong – not all my culinary experiments have been successful. But, over the past four months or so, my family and friends have embraced at least a half-dozen new recipes. As a result, I'm enjoying cooking and baking more than ever.

Take on the challenge

For those of you who also like to cook or bake something new, here is my idea and challenge:

Every week, for the next 52 weeks, I will introduce a new recipe for you to try. At first, most will come from my current recipe list. But, over the course of the year, I invite you to send me some of your favorite recipes so that I can try them with my family. Those that get high ratings will be included as one of my weekly recipes. Over the course of the year, let's all pledge to incorporate at least 10 new items on our recipe lists. On average, this will double our recipe selections.

As will soon become clear, I am not a gourmet cook. I rely on published recipes from various sources and have nothing against incorporating pre-packaged food items into a recipe. The only thing I care about is that the food is tasty and pleases my family and friends. In the weekly recipes I'll tell you where I got the recipe and let you know where to find some of the ingredients.

Also, when I cook, my kitchen resembles a disaster area. My family has often joked that if I ever got my own cooking show, it would be called "Making a Mess with Pesch." Well, get your family ready, and over the next year let's have some fun making a mess together!

Week 1: Chocolate Eclair Cake

I thought that a great first recipe for this column should be a recipe that doesn't require either baking or cooking! So I decided to start with one of my family's favorite desserts – Chocolate Eclair Cake. They gladly put up with my mess when they know this dessert awaits them.

Gerhard and June Aflleje Timpe introduced me to this recipe about a decade ago during one of their extravagant gourmet dinners. Gerhard found the recipe during a Google search.

Ingredients

For the cake

Softened butter or margarine for greasing the pan

1 box of graham crackers

2 small boxes (3.4 ounces) or 1 large box (5.9 ounces) of instant vanilla pudding

3 cups of milk, if using 2 small boxes of pudding mix. (Use 2 1/2 cups of milk if using 1 large box of pudding mix.)

1 16-ounce tub of frozen whipped cream, lightly thawed. (You can use an 8-ounce tub if you prefer).

For the topping

1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup of butter

2 tbsp of Karo syrup

2 tsp of vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar

Milk

Steps

For the cake

Grease a 9" x 13" pan with softened butter or margarine.

Layer the bottom of the pan with graham crackers arranged in a tight pattern. (Have a cutting board and sharp knife handy to trim the graham crackers so they fit together.)

Pour the milk into the pudding mix and whisk for 2 to 3 minutes until it begins to thicken.

Fold the slightly thawed whipped cream into the pudding mix just until blended. Don't overdo it!

Pour half of the pudding mix over the graham crackers and level the mix.

Add a second layer of graham crackers.

Pour the remaining pudding mix over the graham crackers and level the mix.

Add a final layer of graham crackers.

For the topping

Melt the 1/4 cup of butter and pour it into a small bowl.

Add the cocoa, Karo syrup and vanilla, and whisk ingredients together.

Slowly whisk in the powdered sugar. Add milk a few drops at a time to get the right flowing consistency.

Pour the topping over the top layer of graham crackers and smooth evenly.

Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. It's even better if you refrigerate for a day.

A side note to readers

The day before this column was originally set to begin last month, I had a doctor's appointment at Seventh-day Adventist Clinic to go over my lab tests.

I hadn't stepped on a scale in four months and was upset to learn that I had gained weight. My doctor told me that I wasn't alone – many people were putting on pandemic pounds! Also, my sugar and cholesterol levels had risen. This put me into a panic.

I truly believe that we are what we eat. I felt like I must be doing something wrong with my diet. Worse yet, I was just about to launch a food column where I would be encouraging readers to try to prepare recipes that might be jeopardizing their health. Immediately upon leaving my doctor's office, I contacted Mindy Aguon, editor-in-chief of The Guam Daily Post, and asked her to put the brakes on my column. She graciously agreed to do so to give me time to think the situation over.

Upon giving the matter considerable thought, I told Mindy that I wanted to move forward with the column. After all, the purpose of the 52-Week Recipe Challenge is to help all of us expand our recipe choices.

I am hopeful that as readers share their favorite recipes, many will include healthier options that we can all adopt. Also, as my doctor reminded me, we don't have to completely abandon our favorite "Guam foods." Rather, we need to cut back significantly on the quantity of our less healthy food choices while significantly increasing our intake of healthier options, such as fruits and vegetables.

In light of this, let's all try to be mindful of what we eat, and how much we eat. Let's continue to enjoy our favorite recipes while trying to include new, healthier choices.

Bon appetit!

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