Tag Archives: cooking

Cheesy Shells

I think that chain supermarkets rank high on my figurative list of “places I don’t expect to be surprised.” They’re up there with “Apple stores” and “in a room with a hardcore Trekkie.” I know exactly what I’m going to get, whether it’s slightly wilty produce, a feeling of displacement, or a fleeting moment of common ground before losing the thread. And yet, occasionally the most slavering fanboy shows critical detachment, occasionally Geniuses (TM) live up to their name, and occasionally I’m struck with a rare moment of reflection in aisle six at the local edibles warehouse.

Earlier, I was at the local store for a smash-and-grab stop for salad dressing. This is always a longer buy than I want it to be, because, in my compulsive world, anything processed and in a bottle needs to be compared to three other processed-and-bottled things so that I’m getting the one that’s best—sorry, least bad—for me.

With my thoughts on something else entirely, I wove through aisles looking for the dressing and several times crossed paths with a family of four. And each time, the snippets of conversation I overheard were strikingly similar.

While near bread: “… Hamburger Helper…”

While pausing at a boxed meat display: “… with the Hamburger Helper…”

Grabbing fish fingers: “…Hamburger Helper tonight…”

At pop and chips: “…next it’s Hamburger Helper…”

These weren’t just fixated younguns, either. This was the entire family, and the kids were grade school seniors or in grade seven.

I found my aisle and ducked down. I grabbed a PC Blue Menu yogurt dressing, an Irresistables, and a fat-free generic one. A couple of minutes with the labels and a handful of comparisons (the yogurt one actually had significantly more carbs than the others, and the fat-free one more sodium) made the choice for me. I grabbed some pasta, too (as it was on firesale), and headed out.

On the way, I passed the family again. They were doing their own comparison.

“We’ll get these, then, and leave the cheesy shells for next time.”

The cheesy shells were abandoned and the family headed out.

Notice a difference?

Maybe it’s my compulsion. Maybe it’s because I have a wonderful mother who has for some time worked at Health Canada, and who drove home the importance of eating balanced meals early. Maybe it’s a combination of the two, resulting in mental math every time I prepare a meal to see how well I’m providing servings of the food groups. But irrespective of my compulsiveness, the fact that they spent as long selecting the night’s flavour of Hamburger Helper as I did comparing nutrition labels says something.

Taken by itself, that night’s helping of Helper isn’t significant. But when your cart is full of cheapo red meat, pop and chips, juices, processed chicken patties and fishsticks, a couple of tins of vegetables, bottled sauce and a half-dozen assorted types of Hamburger Helper and you start to develop a clear picture.

I try not to be someone who judges peoples’ health based on size. I creeped on their cart at the checkout because I didn’t want to make assumptions. This was a big family. Pale, too, and the kids walked with splayed feet, both of them. This isn’t a case of assuming these folks weren’t too healthy based on a smattering of conversation and their size. Their colouring, stride, grocery loadout (checked off a list), and size all contributed to a clear snapshot.

What I’m getting to is this. It’s unfortunate that the adults in this situation have poor nutritional sense. Neither of them were in great shape, obviously. But the fact is, once you have kids, your bad nutritional habits aren’t just your own. They become your kids’ bad habits too. And whatever good sense your parents have that set you up with a nutritional baseline you could fall from, you’re condemning your kids right from the start.

The parents were in bad shape, but they were models of athletic health compared to their children.

I wish Health wasn’t limited to a part-time course in high school, and that nutrition didn’t have to fight with sex and drugs for time at the podium. I wish Home Ec was compulsory and in every grade. I wish the importance of activity, any activity, was stressed more by teachers, that balance was paramount, that we valued health care instead of sick care, that prevention was more important than treatment. I wish that parents like that saw what they were doing to their childrens’ health and that the difference between poor and proper nutrition can be the difference between anxiety disorders and not, back issues and not, compromised cardiac and pulmonary function and not, arch issues and not, stroke and not. That’s not just weight-related stuff, that’s cholesterol, sodium, sugars, chemicals, and the rest. Things that can be controlled by being aware of what you’re putting into your body.

Learn about nutrition. Start with Canada’s Food Guide and the Percent Daily Value on nutrition labels. Know what exactly a portion size is (a 40g portion of those cheesy shells is barely half the size of a hockey puck). Then move on from there and tailor your nutrition and activity to yourself–Health Canada’s web tool will do it for you. Figure out how you should be eating and do it. Figure out what level of activity you should have and do it. Don’t think of it as health for health’s sake. Think of it as health for a better quality of life.

It’s its own reward.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.


Postscript: Taking another look around the Food Guide website has made me really appreciate the work that HC does. Mom, and all your coworkers, thanks for looking out for us, in spite of our best efforts to wreck ourselves and blame others. And on an only slightly related note, Mom, I love you. And thanks for helping me develop those helpful supermarket-aisle compulsions.


Universal Cookie Constant

There’s always a lot of baking that happens during the holiday season. Even I get into it a little bit, although my baking usually consists of churning out several hundred sausage rolls, made in massive volume in direct competition with my dad. It’s one of my favourite bits of the holiday. We start off working together Dad prepping pastry while I cook sausages, then slowly we both go into head-to-head production of a squillion and eight rolls.

It gets messy.

Less often do I see those kinds of astronomical volumes of cookies being produced. This year I’ve been privy to Natalie Joy’s Christmas baking, which has been at once conveniently delicious, awe-inspiring, and a little terrifying.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence, really. Remember the experiment with cookies and making ice cream sandwiches? There are always a ton of cookies around. Like, more cookies than one normally sees in any one place at any given point.

And it’s got me thinking.

Everything in the known universe comes from a finite amount of matter. Conservation of energy and mass means that unless something dramatic happens, the universe is only ever going to have so much stuff in it.

What if the laws of nature, of physics, what if the cosmic equation can only balance out properly if there’s only a finite number of cookies in the universe?

I worry about these things, not being a scientist who studies the concrete reality of things. Those of us who don’t plumb the truths of the universe suffer glitches in our understanding because of the limits of our perception. Like how salt and sugar look the same at arm’s length even though one’s a mineral and the other’s a carbohydrate.

What if Natalie Joy is baking cookies, producing a squillion-dozen for friends and family:

And elsewhere in the universe, beyond our perception, cookies are disappearing?

More than just the existence of a Universal Cookie Constant that can be exceeded, I wonder if the constant is high or low. If it’s high, that would be great, because there’s less chance of it being exceeded, and more people can enjoy cookies all the time. We wouldn’t have to eat them as quickly, we could savour and even warehouse them. I imagine that the conglomerates, the multi-trillion-dollar cookie internationals, would love this idea:

But this, to me, diminishes the joy of cookies.

Cookies are always best when baked for those loved, when gifted or purchased relatively fresh, when enjoyed within hours of coming out of the oven. Stockpiling a hundred squillion dry, preserved, generic cookies makes that impossible.

I like the more dangerous idea of a finite Universal Cookie Constant. Yes, you’re in greater danger of exceeding it, leading to spontaneous quantum cookie fluctuations all over the universe. But if you’re responsible about your cookie production and rate of consumption, you can work with the universe to ensure that cookies are produced, gifted, and eaten at similar rates.

This holiday season, folks, bake and eat responsibly. Make many cookies, eat as many or more to make room for others’ cookies elsewhere in the universe. It’s all about being a good neighbour.

Merry Christmas, everyone, Happy New Year, and, as always, paddle your own canoe.



For Science!

Occasionally, there arises a question so profound, so maddeningly incisive, that you can’t help but go to all possible lengths to answer it.

Tonight’s question: What cookie makes a better ice cream sandwich?

Before dinner, my favourite lady wondered aloud whether we could build a passable ice cream sandwich with Rocky Road, or whether we’d need to hunt some soft vanilla. It seemed to me that a chunky, lumpy ice cream might require a similarly crevassed cookie. Lumps shift into lumps and it all sort of locks together like a puzzle made of delicious and guilt-induced exercise.

Math. Chunk + (-chunk) = cookie and ice cream harmony.

A simple, flat cookie might result in air pockets, inappropriate chunk distribution, structural failure, and then sadness.

Flat cookie. As you can see, the physics don't work out.

So we set out to decide which would be the best way to go. Fortunately, Natalie’s method of making cookies is such that she makes at least four dozen at a time. On her more liberal days, she makes so many cookies that the universal cookie constant is exceeded, and cookies actually vanish somewhere else in the world to accommodate her production. So there were, fortunately, two types of cookie dough  in the freezer, already sectioned into batches and ready to go.

With two types of cookie ready to rock, there was no doubt. There would be no vanilla. Challenge accepted.

It was time for SCIENCE.

Two batches of cookies. One ice cream. And a head-to-head better than any UFC matchup you could hope for.

The Perennial Champ

Batch #432032 of infinity.

Chunky chocolate chip cookies are a universal fave (and also a strikingly large percentage of the universal cookie constant). The chocolate here was milk chocolate buttons and bittersweet chocolate chips. Very chunky cookies. These would be our lumpy candidates. Packed with chocolate, a bit of crunch with a soft centre, and built like a puzzle.

The Newcomer

See that? That's the face of FLAVOUR.

Banana. Peanut butter. Chocolate chip. Flat, full of strong flavour, and chewy. That’s it. Done description. Commence salivating.

The Experiment

TONS of ice cream sandwiches.

For the head-to-head comparative study, we built two of each sandwich in order to compare and contrast their various qualities. Check it out.

First Category: The Chunkster

You know, it occurred to me as I was putting together these sandwiches that it really made absolutely no difference which cookie we used, since both were flat on the bottom after baking.

So... flat and chunky are all kind of flat. So... yeah.

See? And the Rocky Road wasn’t actually as chunky as we’d initially thought. Seemed like all the stuff was somewhere in the middle of the tub… and we’d already eaten it.


So how did it stack up?


  • Incredibly chocolatey. Like, almost oppressively so. But really tasty.
  • Crunchiness is pretty awesome. Made for lots of texture variation.
  • Ice cream flavour was very apparent–the vanilla of the cookie balanced the Rocky Road nicely.
  • Holy crap, those cookies were really large. I had difficulty fitting the sandwich in my mouth, and I have a large mouth.
  • Cookies went tall, not wide, meaning less ice cream could be placed on the sandwich.
Second Category: The Cacophany

Other posible names: The Upstart, The Naughty Metaphor, The Reese+

I was seriously looking forward to this one. Banana? Peanut butter? Chocolate? AND ice cream? How could it possibly lose? It was like the Reese cup found a long-lost lover who then invited a really open-minded friend along.
  • Flat, wide, great for keeping hold of the ice cream.
  • Chewy texture was fantastic.
  • The big, bold flavour actually detracted from the experience. The banana flavour of the warm cookie was so strong compared to the other flavours that the cold ice cream was totally lost.
The Takeaway
So the BAM of the banana–or, BAMnana, if you will–meant that what was the clear winner in my head about five minutes before I stuffed the sandwiches in my face slipped to second place. But still:

So.. much.. cookie... just barely too much for us.

It was all totally freaking delicous. And super filling. But amazing.
The takeaway? Science is delicious.
Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.