Cooking with Maggie: Pixar Movie Food Day – Ratatouille!

My awesome daughter Maggie (with the superpower of autism!) is once again researching and creating menus based on Pixar Movies. Most recently, she developed four (YES! FOUR!) full days of meals based on the movie Ratatouille, a mere ONE MOVIE! If you read my previous blog on this topic, you know that she was able to get FOUR Toy Story movies into ONE day of food. But then – Toy Story was not actually based on food and Ratatouille is, so there’s that. If you have not seen the movie, just know that it involves an upscale French restaurant and rat who cooks gourmet food. Appetizing . . .

So Maggie and I have a system: She decides on the movie focus, finds sources online for menu and recipe ideas from Pixar movies (and she’s certainly not the only one who likes movie-based food!), creates her own idea list, and sends me links. We go over the menus together. My mission is to take her list, simplify it if needed, and – especially in the case of Ratatouille – make any gourmet dishes actually affordable. Together, we cook enough for the whole family, Maggie photographs the food before sitting down (all the photos seen here are hers), and we dig in. Maggie and I are experimental eaters and will pretty much try anything. Other members of our beloved family are not quite so adventurous, although we do our best to make everything palatable! Here are the recipes for our ONE day of Ratatouille completed thus far. I am pretty sure she has a dream of doing the other three days down the road, but Wall-E is up next and it will be remarkably easy so I am ignoring the cooking rodent movie for the immediate future.

NOTE: Many of Maggie’s suggestions come from http://disneymeals.me. We frequently do not follow their recipes since we often find purchased or homemade alternatives that work better for us, but it’s a cool resource.

Breakfast
Cheese cubes
Strawberries
Lightening-y Mushrooms

Whew! Breakfast was not difficult. The cheese cubes had to be cheddar and the strawberries, fresh. Lightening-y Mushrooms (so named because two characters in the movie were actually struck by lightening while making them) are basically baby portobellos stuffed with goat cheese and baked. The recipe is located at the site mentioned above and, for once, we pretty much followed it.

Lunch
Caesar Salad with Salmon (but without the Salmon)
Cheese Souffle

We purchased bagged Caesar Salad at Sam’s Club because we already like it. I decided to take a short cut and use canned salmon, but hadn’t purchased it in years so failed to recall that some of it comes with all the bones and skin still intact in the can. You will note in the photo that our Caesar salad is unadorned by salmon. And that’s all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump reference? Yes).

On a more positive note, we were ecstatic to find a lovely recipe for Easy Cheese Souffles by Chef John at allrecipes.com! The recipe did sound simple, but I have heard culinary horror stories about souffles falling dramatically – especially if you mess with the recipe. However, the recipe called for two 5.5 ounce ramekins and we had six 8 ounce, so without hesitation or trepidation (maybe a little trepidation) we promptly multiplied the recipe by four. Good times. Ha. And I have to tell you that CHEF JOHN TOTALLY KNOWS HIS STUFF!! We increased the cooking time to accommodate the larger size, but those souffles popped right up like little Queen Elizabeth hats and DID NOT FALL! The x4 recipe came together easily, exactly filled our six ramekins, and tasted delicious!

Dinner
Seared Beef
Wild Rice
Vegetables
Mille Feuille

Steak can be expensive – so Sam’s Club to the rescue once again! We found affordable cuts and used an electric skillet to sear and cook the steaks in our usual way. Would a cast iron skillet have been a bit more gourmet? Mmmm – possibly! But you go with what you’ve got. And the wild rice? Helllooo, Uncle Ben! Great stuff, easy prep. The veggie selection suggested on disneymeals looked perfect so we lightly grilled zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, and a bit less onion than recommended (since some in the fam think onions were invented solely to be sliced in rings, coated with batter, and fried).

Of course we websearched how to pronounce Mille Feuille, so everybody speak up and say: “mil foy”. There you go – say it often and spell it never. We were happy to find ready-to-bake puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm) but realized we would need to make the pastry cream so again turned to ever-reliable allrecipes.com. Success! If you need a delicious, simple, and affordable 5-star pastry cream recipe, look for the effectively titled Pastry Cream by Christinibeanie. Maggie was marvelously efficient at the constant stirring to prevent scorching and the cream cooked up with an addicting taste and very nice consistency!

While the cream chilled, we placed each raw pastry sheet on a parchment-covered baking sheet, neatly sliced it into three equal rectangular strips, covered those with a layer each of parchment and foil, set another baking sheet on top to keep the pastry flat while cooking, then gently smashed the sheets further with a spatula while still warm. We created a light icing of milk and powdered sugar with just a touch of lemon. After the pastry cooled, Maggie spread the chilled cream thickly on two strips of pastry and iced the top layer before stacking, then we carefully cut the rectangular stacks into square portions. Maggie decorated them with Ghirardelli Premium Sauce Chocolate syrup (in the red bottle). And I gotta say – the Mille Feuille tasted incredible! We actually had enough cream and pastry leftover to make a fresh batch for dessert the next night, as well, so I think my calorie load has been met for the next couple of months.

If you are not sure about doing an entire Ratatouille day and decide to just try one or two things, I highly recommend the Souffle and the Mille Feuille. Enjoy!

Sitting on Go: Preparedness on a Modest Income

Our family recently endured the snowpocalyptic polar vortex that hit Texas. We lost power for 28 hours in addition to random shutdowns and our home was without running water from sometime after midnight Monday the 15th until Tuesday the 23rd because our water line froze at the meter and subsequently had 9 breaks (all eventually fixed by my handy husband!). We fared much better than many who were longer without services as well as others whose homes and lives were damaged and we do request your ongoing prayers for our area.

Our income supports five adults – including three with immune or developmental issues – on a single modest paycheck. So when I say that it is possible to prepare for a crisis while living week to week financially, know that I am speaking from experience, not theory. It is impossible to be prepared for everything, but having general emergency preparedness is both confidence-building and comforting.

REMEMBER! The idea is to do this gradually, as your budget permits.

1.I will begin with this: Trust God, pray often, be aware of His nudges and the opportunities He presents to provide early for a possible crisis. Life is nothing if not unexpected and things rarely go the way we plan in this fallen and difficult world. God is so much more than just a backup plan.

2. Be a good neighbor! The best way to have kind, friendly neighbors is to be one yourself. You don’t need to be besties, but neighborly connections are important for amiable living and are also nice to have if an emergency arises for either of you. My husband is great at wandering the neighborhood making friends. I am often better online, so I know that joining your neighborhood or community social media group (on Nextdoor, Facebook, or similar) can be a great way to get to know people. We woke in the wee hours the first day of Snowpocalypse (Monday, February 15) with our water frozen at the meter and our neighbors kindly filled our water jugs for the day until we got our snow melting going (for flushing) and their water went out. My husband shoveled the nextdoor neighbor’s walk first thing in the morning and, after everyone’s power went out, we offered use of our gas stove. Neighborhood as well as social media connections made us aware of needs in the neighborhood both during and after the event and my husband (a capable driver on snow and ice) was able to assist.

3. Build your pantry as you can afford. Stock up gradually by purchasing an extra non-perishable item or two for the pantry whenever you are able. Online preppers tend to push for stocking up on dried food, rice, and beans, but we can’t afford to stock up on stuff we don’t eat regularly and neither do we have the space to store it. Buy things your family normally consumes because you will need to rotate through the items to avoid expiration dates. For instance, my family loves turkey chili so I try to always have several cans on the shelf, using the oldest cans first. I do the same with canned chicken, canned tuna, pasta, soup, refried beans, flour, sugar, condiments and other items that we use regularly. We also have an extra refrigerator in the garage (look for a cheap or free older frig or freezer online) and I buy similarly for frozen food. My family likes fresh, perishable foods, but we use enough canned and frozen goods to make the system work. If you have critters, don’t skip the pet food. This is a gradual process and food and water are the most important but, as you can, add in backups for such items as bandages, soap, and cleaning supplies.

4. Shop ahead if possible. Keep an eye on the weather and current events and shop accordingly. Last-minute panic buying occurs just before a weather or other high impact event. Early in the week before Snowpocalypse when the forecast was for about four days of rough weather, I decided to plan for seven to ten days – just in case! – and went to a normally stocked and uncrowded store to purchase just a bit over my usual list. I didn’t have to overstretch my budget because I knew my pantry and freezer were in good shape. I forgot to get cheese, though, and when my husband stopped by the store for it after work on February 12th, he snapped the photo you see here. Be aware. Shop. Early.

5. Water! We were pretty sure we would lose power, but were not expecting the extended loss of water. However, we like to take spontaneous mini roadtrips so we usually have a case or two of water bottles standing by because taking food and beverages with us instead of eating out is a significant savings! I also occasionally buy the random gallon jug to have a few on hand. Before a weather event I purchase extra since a flooding rainstorm can result in a notice to boil drinking water. We were careful with drinking/washing water during the polar vortex and we had enough to get through.

6. Heat. During the snow event, I was so thankful that we live in a small, one-story house with a fireplace! We all enjoy a warm and cozy fire on winter nights, so throughout the year we stock up by saving wood from our own tree trimming and sometimes pick up what neighbors leave on the curb for City chipping. My husband recently found a used Buddy heater and I highly recommend saving up and shopping for a used one, if you can – especially if you are without a fireplace. Gotta say, that is one area we did not plan ahead and had only four canisters for the Buddy, so mostly heated with firewood. I lit the gas burners on the stove to take the early morning chill off the kitchen. And definitely supply your home with extra blankets! We have purchased lovely, warm, like-new comforters and quilts very affordably at thrift stores and yard sales. Our kids are sensory and love snuggly things, so we actually have way too many blankets for our normal Texas climate – but it worked out well for us this time!

7. Let there be light! We live in an older neighborhood where the power goes out pretty regularly during electrical storms. Over the years I have supplied everyone with flashlights as stocking stuffers at Christmas and we also own heavier duty lights for emergencies, repairs, and general use. We purchase batteries on sale to stay stocked. But our best source of light during outages? Candles! A few tapers provide adequate light and can be acquired cheaply (along with inexpensive holders) almost anywhere, including most dollar stores. Candles that melt down into a glass container are primarily decorative and do not give as much light as tapers. Camping lanterns also work, of course, but we only have one of those so mostly stick with candles. And do NOT use candles for night lights! All candles (and the fireplace) should never be unattended and need to be extinguished when you go to bed.

8. Paper goods – not necessary, but incredibly helpful! I have a confession to make: we indulge in the luxury of paper plates. I know there are those who are critics of this but I gotta say – it saved our bacon when we went nine days without water! I occasionally buy paper bowls and plastic utensils for special events so we still had those and I definitely plan to keep them in my emergency stash. We do not use paper napkins, choosing cloth napkins for regular use because they are effective, versatile, and easy to wash, but do use paper towels for certain types of cleaning and were thankfully stocked up. If you have a fireplace, random paper products around your house (paper plates, food boxes, paper towels, scrap paper, junk mail) make great kindling.

9. Cooking with limited ability to wash: Our gas stove can be lit manually so I was able to use the stove top without power. Certain foods stick to my preferred stainless steel cookware, so I also have a large nonstick saucepan and large nonstick skillet (with lids). I was so very thankful for these! Just for fun, we made fudge by candlelight during the power outage and the nonstick saucepan cleaned up easily with a paper towel and minimal water. Keep an extra roll of foil around, as well; we poured the warm fudge into a foil-lined pan, and during the days with no water I cooked in the oven by lining crockery and baking sheets with foil for minimal cleanup.

10. Stay charged! We all have portable charge units (AKA battery bricks or portable/solar chargers) so we can keep our phones and other small electronics working when traveling or away from an outlet for any reason. Obtain these as you can afford, plug them in regularly and keep them powered. A good portable charge unit with solar recharge ability also makes a great gift for anyone in the family frequently frustrated by dead electronics! During power outages here when we are without wifi or a consistent cell signal, we are still able to use the random signals to periodically send through texts and calls since we keep our phones and tablets powered.

Bonus Thought: Entertainment – games, books, etc. – Yup! You need this stuff! If you or your children’s primary form of entertainment involves electronics, then be sure you have games, books, and/or puzzles to while away the hours. Even if you have charge units or a generator, you may need to conserve the power in those so have a few old-school forms of entertainment ready.

Whether your overall income is modest or you are on a tight budget trying to get out of debt, save for house, or support a large family, building your supply base is crucial – and not only for a possible national crisis or weather event. Like many, our income and expenses do not always match comfortably, so stocking up bit by bit when we are able has really saved us when the money doesn’t make it to the end of the month. It is decidedly reassuring to look into the supply closet and pantry and know a good meal will grace the table no matter the circumstances.

Sufficiently Decaffeinated

Life has been crazy busy lately so a few months back I started dosing my morning java with a triple shot every day.

What’s that? You want the recipe for a quick and easy homemade triple? Okay – since one cup of instant coffee is a rounded teaspoon, you make a triple by dumping a heaping tablespoon of instant coffee into your cup before adding your usual amount of brewed very hot coffee (I use the largest cup setting on the Keurig) and follow up with any additives. I add almond milk and a dollop or two of sweetener. Ice if desired. Voila! Better than Starbucks! Well, at least cheaper and just as effective 😁.

Anyway – today I decided might be getting mildly(?) addicted to all the caffeine so should maybe cut back, and actually used a decaf pod to make my coffee! Aren’t you proud?

Of course, I still added the full caffeine triple shot. I’m not an idiot.

My (Lamp) Lit Pixar Diet

My daughter Maggie is fascinated by Pixar movies. One day each month we have Pixar Movie Food Day (PMFD), a concept she created and convinced us all to participate in. Maggie creates a day of menus based on a Pixar film and we all indulge, throwing dietary restrictions out the window for the day. To achieve the ultimate event of movie-based munching, Maggie reviews her movie choice of the month, researches possible food options, emails me recipe links and a grocery list, shops with me, and takes the lead on food prep. Unless it gets crazy, I am merely her sous chef. So, if you are interested in creating a fun day like this for your family – here you go! You’re welcome!

In August, we soared to infinity and beyond with gastronomical delights inspired by the world of Toy Story! How, you ask, did we accomplish this feat? Well! With photos ripped directly from my daughter’s Instagram page, here are the details –

BREAKFAST: Apparently, an acknowledgment of Poultry Palace from the Toy Story short film Small Fry was the best choice for breakfast. The photo says it all – chicken patties in biscuits, fries, coleslaw, chocolate milk, and pineapple juice drink (the only thing not Toy Story-ish).

LUNCH: Pizza Planet, from TS1 (Toy Story 1) is the only choice, of course! Is that two small pizzas with a hamburger patty between? Yes. Yes, it is. Along with bread sticks and alien slime (lemon-lime soda with lime gelatin powder). Dessert is a yummy LGM (Little Green Men) parfait – a layer of pound cake pieces and a layer of blueberries topped with yogurt (vanilla yogurt, green food dye), decorated with black icing and edible candy eyes.

NOTE TO ALL AREA 51 RAIDERS: NO ACTUAL ALIENS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS LUNCH!

AFTERNOON SNACK: Cheetos (TS2), cotton candy (TS4), and popcorn (TS3).

DINNER: Celebrating Mr. Potato Head – of course! – we had a Chili Baked Potato. This was an easy item to choose since it is a long-time favorite at our house. The potato is baked, sliced open while hot, covered in chili, topped with cheese (bacon bits, optional), and reheated to warm the chili and melt the cheese. That cute little 6″ cake with pink frosting was decorated by Maggie and inspired by Molly’s 2nd birthday in Toy Story 3. Under that frosting, the cake is gluten-free chocolate – not that anyone cared at this point since the GF goals were blown for the day, but GF flour is all we have in the house.

Aaaand – SEPTEMBER: I must admit that when Maggie said we would be eating A Bug’s Life meals in September, my response was, “Bugs? Uh – wait – maybe not – y’know . . .” so I was very relieved to see that NO ACTUAL BUGS were included in her menu choices. Whew! Bullet dodged!

BREAKFAST: Ants on a Log, each log made from two canned cinnamon rolls (regular size), unrolled, twisted together, baked, iced, and sprinkled with cocoa crispy rice cereal. And our own lovely, healthy version of The Ants Offering to the Grasshoppers, made from oat granola, assorted nuts, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, and fresh blackberries (boysenberries were used in the movie, but we adapt with what we have!).

LUNCH: Inspired by P.T. Flea’s Circus – good times! Spinach salad, banana bug, popcorn, not-boysenberry pie (we cheated and used Marie Callender’s Razzleberry Pie – my favorite!), and candy corn. No carbs at all, as you see . . .

DINNER: Pu-Pu Platter, an assortment of Chinese and Korean appetizers (a bit different from how the movie defined pu-pu platter and we are so NOT going there!). Orange chicken, pork dumplings, two kinds of egg rolls, mini broccoli-beef skewers, and chicken fried rice. I would really like to tell you that we made all this from scratch! Really! That is what I would LIKE to tell you! Truth is these are all yummy prepared foods from the grocery freezer (mostly PF Chang’s), but Maggie and I DID totally rock keeping the little bags of sauces sorted to the right hors d’oeuvre!

For dessert, we made raindrop cake with caramel sauce. The sauce was great because – Smuckers. The raindrop – not so much. We tried it the traditional way with agar agar, but next time we’re going modern and just using gelatin. Pretty sure we overcooked it. Blech (and I mean that sincerely). We had the rest of the Razzleberry pie for dessert. Maggie is determined to try raindrop cake again. I’ll keep you posted.

Root beer was the only choice for beverage, specifically Mug Root Beer. Not sure why. Maggie just left to hang with her sister so I can’t ask. Speaking of my ignorance . . .

I am frequently unclear on the why and wherefore for several menu items, which means I definitely need to give Maggie credit as co-author on this and future PMFD articles. In spite of the fact that I have seen these movies, I do not have the retention level of my amazing autistic daughter. As I typed up the rough draft for this blog earlier, our conversation ran something like this:

Me: Maggie, why did we eat Cheetos?
Maggie: Toy Story 2
Me: What about the cotton candy?
Maggie: Toy Story 4.
Me: Huh. And the popcorn was just for fun?
Maggie: Toy Story 3.
Me: Okaaay . . . So Poultry Palace was from Toy Story 1, then?
Maggie: Poultry Palace was from the Toy Story short called Small Fry.
Me: Of course it was.

If you decide to try a movie food day of your own, just let your kids run with the creativity – so fun! Next month is spooky October, so guess what movie? Yup, you called it! Monsters, Inc. Stay tuned.

GF Chocolate Cake from Aldi Mix

My son requested chocolate cake for his birthday so I trotted to one of my two favorite markets for the awesomely delicious gluten-free store brand cake mix we usually use (because one member of our family can’t have gluten, and three others probably shouldn’t) only to discover – gasp! – that it had apparently been discontinued. (So disappointed in you, HEB!)

I could have made it from scratch but – oops! – out of cocoa, so decided that I was officially in the mood to experiment. Yay! (Sarcasm.) I grabbed a box of Aldi’s Live G Free Chocolate baking mix (from my other favorite grocery store) which inconveniently had NO recipe for chocolate cake using the mix on either the box or the website. Seriously, Aldi?

Soooooo – I went to Aldi’s Facebook page where several ladies had posted recipes that sounded great but were still not quite what I was seeking. So I whipped out the baking corner of my brain and forced it into creative submission with the promise of chocolate. Because, like most estrogen-based life forms, I can force my brain into almost any (mostly) non-violent behavior with the promise of chocolate.

I threw together a variety of mystery ingredients and confidently slid my first attempt into the oven and sat down to type out the recipe so I would have it for the future. But as the Good Book does say, pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Speaking of falls . . .

Time for Intermission

Let’s a take a minute to ponder famous falls. The dictionary defines “fall” as “moving from a higher to a lower level, typically rapidly and without control” – such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Niagara Falls, Custer’s Fall, The Fall of the Third Reich, and some of the more dramatic falls of Evil Knievel. Anything, really, that could be considered an Ultimate Fall. Getting my drift here? Have you pondered enough? I certainly have.

Intermission Ends

The fallen cake tasted delicious, though, so I am freezing the remains for a future chocolate trifle (another family favorite) since fluffy oomph is not really a requirement for trifle – just cut up cake bits.

I tried again with the following combination of ingredients and titled the result:

Karen’s Chocolate Cake To Remedy Aldi’s and HEB’s Fails
(Am I calling out Aldi and HEB? Yes. Yes, I am.)

1 Aldi’s Live G Free Chocolate Baking Mix
3/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1 Gluten Free Flour (or any 1-to-1 GF flour)
1/2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt

3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 to 2 tsp almond extract (Optional, but adds a light fruity flavor.)
½ cup softened butter (Or, in my case, melted butter – because I hadn’t softened any ahead of time.)

3/4 mini semi-sweet chocolate chips (Because, hello? Have you met me? More chocolate is a GOOD thing!)

Preheat oven to 350. Using electric mixer on medium speed:

  1. Mix liquid ingredients until just slightly foamy.
  2. Add in dry ingredients.
  3. Add chips.
  4. Mix until everything is combined and batter tastes yummy.
  5. Pour into two 8″ round cake pans to make a low-profile layer cake, and bake for give-or-take 30 minutes (you could probably also make a 9×13).
  6. Against the advice of every nutritionist on the planet, give bowl and beaters to children to enjoy. Keep the spatula for yourself because you certainly don’t want to miss out on the batter.

I frosted the cake with gluten-free frosting and added a nice, thick coating of berry preserves on top of the frosting in between the layers, then decorated it as you see in the photo. The cake was low profile but quite good, if slightly dense (as some of us just are, so don’t judge . . .).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that the first cake, presently known as The Ultimate Fall, actually tasted richer, moister, and more chocolate-y. When I figure out how to make it taste that way and remain among the unfallen, I’ll post the recipe here 🙂