Easy As Tater Tot Pie

Easy As Tater Tot Pie
An easy recipe for busy back-to-school families

The heat index may be spiking at 101, but the school bells are ringing everywhere beckoning  students back to the classroom. In my town, classes begin in one week, and as busy parents are scrambling through aisles in big department stores for those essentials their children need, its east to forget how important a decent meal can be in a hectic lifestyle.

Maybe not everyone loves potatoes as much as I do, (my heritage is part Irish), but the simple spuds are staples in the American diet and versatile for many dishes.

The American Tater Tot is probably thought of as a food fit for toddlers and small children, but with a little imagination, these quick finger foods can transform into a hearty dish filled with vegetables in as little as an hour. This casserole is so simple to make and will be perfect for evenings when you are in hurry and leftovers are a cinch. Add a pre-mixed salad and you have your meal ready for everyone.

Many recipes for tater tots in casseroles exist, perhaps due to their simplicity. I have adapted my own version into something similar to a Shepherd’s Pie. of course, you can add in your own favorites to suit your family’s needs and likes, however, this is so simple and easy to make, you might even save yourself some work by asking your kids to help out. The only real hard work consists of browning ground beef, or for a healthier alternative, use ground turkey instead.

Here is a list of what you will need:

1 lb. ground beef or turkey

1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup

1/2 cup of milk

1 can of mixed vegetables

1 small bag of tater tots

1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese

a dash of salt and pepper

Directions for Easy As Tater Tot Pie

Brown ground beef or turkey in a saucepan. Drain the meat once browned and no longer pink.

Add the meat to a casserole dish and cover with the mixed vegetables. combine the milk and cream of mushroom soup. Pour over the vegetable layer.

Arrange tater tots over the soups layer and sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese.

Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to set for five minutes.

You can always adapt this recipe for your family. If they prefer other vegetables, of course, try those. Your kids can help in layering vegetables, tater tots, soup, and cheese. This helps you out and gives them a responsibility in helping out at meal time without the dangers of knives and heating elements. If you would like to supervise them  browning meat, just make sure you are close by and never allow small children to take out the casserole, or place it in a hot oven!





Butter…Beautiful and Bad

butter woman

If the history of butter were told as a novel, its story would be as epic and gripping as any tale written by Shakespeare. A beloved hero/heroine begins a journey of most celebrated status. Butter once offered to gods of many varying religions, gifted as a prized possession for newlywed couples as a symbol of fertility and longevity, used in rituals, and considered the most sacred dish in the ancient world, became chastised, rebuked and nearly destroyed by gossip, misinformation, and greed in the 20th century, only to find itself being rediscovered and saved from death by a new generation seeking purity and simplicity as well as the truth in a new millennium.
Butter began its journey from the ancient world some 10,000 years ago, cultured from the earliest domesticated animals. Sheep, yaks, and goats provided sustenance for many a shepherd and wayfaring tribes across Asia to the North African continents long before cows were a domesticated species. And though the exact story of how milk became butter is little known, it is believed that as tribes wandered the land in search of food, shelter and safety, hind skins from animals were tied and filled with milk before straddling a horse or donkey in the journey. As the animal bustled along, it is thought the constant jostling made the curdled milk that became butter.

The Holy Bible contains many references to butter, or, “chemah,” as it is known in Hebrew. Genesis 18:1-8 tells the story of Abraham being visited by three strangers, thought by many bible scholars to be God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and is told he will be the father of nations and Sarah in her old age will give birth, it is a meal of bread and curds offered to the three visitors.
In India and Tibet, Hindus often use ghee, clarified butter, in religious ceremonies such as weddings as a blessing for the couple. The Hindu god, Krishna, is often depicted as eating from a vessel flowing with butter. Hindus today still give butter as an offering to Krishna.
However, the Romans considered butter a dish of barbarous peoples and they would not partake of the dish. They did value butter as a cosmetic and healing balm noting that it held such properties and rubbed it into their skin and over their lips, in doing so I’m sure they licked it from lips and thus enjoyed the silky creaminess of butter despite their protests as a meal not fit for their own people.
So, if butter was so celebrated, how did it fall from grace? Enter the 20th century, mechanization and two world wars. Food rationing made everyone look for alternatives to the daily staples they had come to depend upon and were a part of daily life. Scientists found they could produce a vegetable oil substitute in the forms of margarine and shortening and it would be less expensive than butter. It didn’t take long for advertising and campaigns about the benefits of these newer, cheaper products to sweep across North America and as families struggled to make their dollar stretch further, margarine and shortening must have appeared as a godsend. Producers of vegetable oil were getting richer and dairy farmers were getting poorer. Soon, margarine was touted as the “healthy” choice in place of butter. And by the eighties, the health and fitness craze made butter a dirty word. Butter was on the verge of extinction.
Thank goodness butter is making a comeback! Science has taught us the margarines and shortenings we were told was so good for us, contains more of those pesky trans fats we are supposed to be avoiding. Butter is filled with huge amounts of vitamin A, in addition to vitamins D, E, and K. Along with the minerals chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, and zinc, butter is filled with the necessary nutrients our bodies need to maintain health. The picture below gives an idea of the added chemicals and only a scant 10% vitamin A added to margarine as opossed to butter with a vitamin A content of 97%. Though it is important to note here, that doesn’t mean everyone should begin consuming butter in mass quantity. Butter is still a product of animal fats and though it is healthier than margarine or shortening, it is always best to consume them in moderation. Certainly, if you are advised by your doctor to limit your intake of fatty foods, check with your doctor before adding butter to your diet.
As an amateur baker, I find myself using butter more regularly. My family history is filled with heart related issues and I know it is best to pay careful attention to my diet even though I love those sweet treats I bake up. I even prefer to make my own butter using heavy whipping cream, though fresh cream is best. I am still looking for a local source. I think when we look at butter more closely and see the evidence of people around the world thriving on butter, we need to examine our ‘western” ideas of what once held a reputation of highest esteem, could become so tarnished by expediency and greed, is now making a comeback. Our hero/heroine has survived! I wonder if Hollywood is interested? Probably not, after all, it’s the story of butter…not hemp.

A Flour by Any Other Name…

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Like most, I always believed there were only two kinds of flour; all-purpose and self-rising. As it turns out, ignorance is NOT bliss. Flour is a complicated substance and if you want your bakes to be the best, a little knowledge goes a long way.

My mother always used flour by Red Band; a staple in the American South. She used it because her mother used it and the results were always the same…perfect bakes every time. I always used what I thought were better flours because they cost more and were produced by big corporations who surely employed people who tested every recipe in some secret kitchen, on site, and guaranteed perfection. Like I stated before, ignorance is not bliss.

My cakes always came out of the oven perfect, but only if you needed something suitable for playing Frisbee in the backyard. My biscuits were sure to fill in for standard hockey pucks at any pro game. Obviously, the recipes were the problem. I just knew the author of the recipe got something wrong. They forgot to list a certain ingredient, or they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place.

My oven was next on my list of reasons for my failures. Obviously the temperature was incorrect. I bought an oven thermometer and was ready to aim my wrath at the appliance after my next bake. The temp was right.  Maybe it was the tools I used. The cake tins must not be exactly 9 inch tins. The manufacturer was behind my ruined cakes. They didn’t measure them right. They were playing with the numbers and didn’t think anyone would notice. I took out a tape measure and placed it inside the tin. (Honestly. I did this.) A perfect 9 inches! I came to the conclusion I had wanted to avoid…it was me. I just couldn’t bake. I was a disgrace to Southern women everywhere. My grandmother who was a master at biscuits she could make in her sleep, was turning over in her grave! I was glad she wasn’t here to see how far her talents had fell away from the family tree.

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My mother stepped in and tried to calm my frayed nerves. She hadn’t baked in a long time due to her hand tremors and arthritic knees, but she recommended I go back to the basics and try good ‘ole Red Band, as it what she and her mother used and they never had any problems when they used it.  I decided it was worth another try and on my next trip to the grocery store, I would pick up a bag of Red Band. Though, I couldn’t remember seeing it as much as I used to.

After perusing the aisles of many local grocery stores, I found various brands of flour, though the familiar white bag with the stand out red banner was nowhere in sight. I had been using Gold Medal with no luck, so I tried Pillsbury. The results were okay, but not much better. King Arthur? About the same, and far more expensive. I began scanning the internet to see if perhaps there might be one bag of Red Band flour somewhere out there, unopened and perfectly preserved. Nothing. It was then my eye caught a link to an article originally published in The Charlotte Observer, about the fate of the dissapearing flour mills once so prevalent in the South.

Where once one could drive through any southern town and spot the tall towers of a mill grinding wheat into the white fluff that is the basic neccesity of every baker, now they were a ghost of times past. Big corporations had bought out the once familiar staple of the American South and their thriving economy, were now in the hands of executives in skyscrapers and business suits.

I learned my mother and grandmother’s choice for making the lightest cakes and flakiest biscuits had been bought out by J.M. Smucker’s Corporation, and in an attempt to “economize.” they discontinued Red Band in 2009, choosing to focus on another regional flour; White Lily.

I know little about White Lily. The brand is one I have only seen recently upon shelves in local grocery stores. I researched reviews of the flour and found a mix of positive and negative. Some like it. Some don’t. But one thing was a certainty; everyone loved Red Band best. And to futher complicate our choices, not all flour is the same. All-Purpose is not for every purpose in baking. Different flours produce different results and one recipe will differ depending on the brand used. A hodgepodge of wheat thrown together in a mill and ground down into a single bag will not suffice, especially when it comes to something as technical and precise as baking. Summer wheat is fine for breads, but the delicacy of biscuits, cakes and pastry require the soft, red winter wheat grown in the South. Finding the right flour that can handle the job is tough business and with so many mills handled by corporate America, and grocers attempting to eradicate Southern staples for a more “diverse” consumer, (more on that later), it seems bakers are being forgotten.

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Through my research, I discovered a few scant independently owned mills still survived the greed of corporations in the 20th and 21st century. According to the article in The Charlotte Observer, only 6 are still in operation in North Carolina and can be found in truly Southern grocery stores. I bought a bag of Daily Bread, a brand manufactured in Henderson, NC  by Sanford Milling Inc., and put their recipe for sweet milk biscuits to the test. Their self-rising flour produced a light biscuit as good, if not better, than any biscuit from those fast-food chains we so often frequent in our hurried mornings any day of the week. I found their brand, Snow Flake, in a Piggly Wiggly in Kenly, NC and immediately scooped up a bag. After reading so many positives of the brand online, I am ready to attempt another cake!

So, where do we go from here? For me, I am fighting against the grain, so to speak, and searching the smaller markets for the quality I remember and my heritage are known for. I will support my local mills with pride and not allow myself to be homogenized by corporations and dollar signs. It will not be easy. Grocers see little merit in stocking their shelves with what they consider old fashioned and unappealing to “upscale” shoppers. If this means I have to spend a little more, drive a little further away, I am resolved to do so. I am proud of my “Southerness,” right down to my buttered, lard filled biscuits made with good ‘ole, unsophisticated, non-upscale, down-to-earth, locally owned and operated, by those who know…flour.

Read the article about the loss of Southern mills at the link below:






The Wonderful Coconut Cake

As my father’s 80th birthday approached, I was in a bind as to what kind of cake to bake for this special occasion. Not just any old cake would do, since an 80th birthday is quite a special milestone, a special cake was called for.

I perused every cookbook I had. Surely there would be just the right kind of cake for my father’s birthday. I thought about his likes and dislikes, though I have never known him to turn down any kind of cake, I needed something that wasn’t oversweet as he has diabetes and too much sugar would make for something unsuitable. His health is quite remakable given his age, and despite a bad fall last summer that sent him to the ER for stitches across his forehead, he continues to walk every day and keep involved in social functions at the senior community where he lives.

Looking through pages and pages of cakes left me dizzy with information. None of the cakes seemed to be “just right.” I thought of a Hummingbird Cake, but given it’s denseness and heaviness, I decided against it. Then it came to me…coconut cake.

Coconut would be ideal as it is light and has a low glycemic index. With my father’s birthday occurring just before Memorial Day, coconut sounded perfect for the time of year and just exotic enough for a special occasion. Finding the right recipe though, was more challenging than baking the cake itself.

It appears many of the recipes for coconut cake have succumed to what is easy and quick in place of true and thoughtful. Yes, there are those who feel shortcuts are better and if the same result is an edible cake, then what’s the difference?

The difference is in the taste. Cake mixes and pre-sweetened ingredients will produce a cake that is edible, but will leave a manufactured taste in your mouth long after the last bite is eaten. I have found many markets selling organic and unsweetened coconut from a bag and I can say they are fine as a substitution when in a pinch. I found myself resorting to organic from a bag for this cake as two coconuts I bought from different stores where sour!

Years ago, my mother had a cookbook called, Country Cakes by Bevelyn Blair through Blair of Columbus, Inc. My mother made a Red Velvet Cake for my birthday that we still speak of today. It was huge! And tasted wonderful. Unfortunately, after several moves and many yard sales, the cookbook was lost. I was sure I could find it on the internet and began looking. Isn’t the World Wide Web a wonderful invention… when it works?!

From Amazon, I located the cookbook and ordered it right away. I knew if anyone would have a recipe for a classic Coconut cake, this one was sure to have it. I waited anxiously for the book to arrive. And I was pleased, and more than a little releived to find tucked within the pages, not just one, but several versions of a good ‘ole classic Coconut cake! The recipe is as follows:

Coconut Cake

3/4 cups of butter                                                             2 cups of sugar

3 cups sifted cake flour                                                   3 teaspoons baking powder

6 egg yolks                                                                          Dash of salt

3 egg whites                                                                        1 cup of milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift together the flour and baking powder; add alternately with milk. Beat egg whites until stiff along with the salt; fold into batter. Add the vanilla flavoring and bake at 350*F. for 30 minutes or until done. Frost with Coconut Frosting of your choice.

I used the coconut frosting recipe that followed and added about one cup of shredded coconut to the mix. I also used lemon curd to spread between the cooled layers of cake as I didn’t want the cake too sweet.

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Coconut Frosting

2 cups sugar                                                                         1 cup water (or coconut water)

1/4 cup white syrup                                                            1 teaspoon vanilla

2 coconuts grated                                                                3 egg whites

(or large package fresh-frozen grated coconut)            Dash of salt

P.S. The coconut water substitution is my own and not from the original recipe.

Boil sugar, water and syrup until it spins a thread. Beat egg whites and salt until stiff. Gradually add hot syrup, beating all the time. Add vanillaflavoring and cool until stiff enough to spread. Frost between and on top of layers with frosting and layers of coconut. Or add the coconut to frosting and spread evenly over cake.


This cake was well received. Everyone liked it and my father told everyone how good it was. A successful cake for a most special occasion.



The Absolute Best Gin and Tonic Cupcakes for New Year’s Eve

Nothing is as much a classic cocktail as a gin and tonic, however, if your sweet tooth is needs a pick-me-up, then this recipe for Gin and Tonic Cupcakes from Good Housekeeping U.K., is definitely worth the effort.

Don’t allow the unusual measurements and “caster sugar” dissuade you from making these cupcakes. A scale is useful in any kitchen and one can be found at any big-box store for a few dollars. Caster sugar is simply a more finer grain of sugar than the granulated sugar we American’s are used to using. I use Domino’s Superfine Sugar. It can be found at Wal-Mart. It comes in a tall plastic bottle in the baking aisle along with other sugars. And ounces are found on the side of measuring cups opposite the cup measures listed along the side.

These are my cupcakes following the recipe. I think you will enjoy them for your next party or get-together. (This recipe will make 12 cupcakes; I needed to test one first)!

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Here is a list of what you will need:


200grams (7oz.) unsalted butter

200grams (7oz.) caster sugar (I used Domino’s Superfine Sugar in the yellow plastic bottle)

4 medium eggs

200grams (7oz.) self-rising flour

Grated zest of 1 lime

75ml (3 oz. gin) (I used Gordon’s London Dry Gin)

And for the syrup:

50grams (4oz. caster sugar)

50ml (4 oz.) tonic water

2 tbsp. gin

For the buttercream frosting:

200 grams (7oz.) unsalted butter, softened

450 grams icing (confectioner’s sugar)

2-3 tbsps. of gin

Grated zest of 1 lime

Decorate with two limes cut into slices lengthwise, and cut through up to the rind, then twist and place on top of each cupcake.

Add a straw cut in half for the added effect of a gin and tonic.


Preheat oven to 180*C or 350 degrees F*.

Fill a 12 cup muffin pan with cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, mix together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add in the eggs one at a time and mixing well after each addition.

With a large spoon, fold in the flour and lime zest, followed by the gin. Spoon into cupcake liners and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into middle of cupcake, come out clean.

While cupcakes are baking, make the gin syrup.

Gently heat caster sugar and tonic water in a small pan, stirring often until sugar has dissolved. Turn up heat and boil for 1 minute. Stir in the gin.

Once the cakes have come out of the oven, poke holes into each cupcake with a toothpick and begin to brush the syrup over cupcakes. Leave the cupcakes to cool for 15 minutes then place cupcakes on a wire rack.

Make the buttercream by beating the butter until very soft then beat in the icing sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the gin to taste and the lime zest. Pipe buttercream onto cupcakes and add lime twist to each. Add a straw.

Yummy! Enjoy these delicious cupcakes.

Recipe can be found at http://www.goodhousekeeping.co.uk/food/recipes/gin-tonic-cupcakes

A Perfect Gin and Tonic

The history of the world’s most beloved cocktail is one steeped in mystery and medicine. Maybe that is why it is considered one of the more frequent drinks served in Southern homes for parties and gatherings. The South is embedded with its own particular mystery and romance and the gin and tonic is a perfect fit.

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Though many stories abound over its origins, gin is traced back to 16th century Europe and a Dutch physician, Sylvus de Bouve, who distilled juniper berries into a drink as a treatment for patients with circulatory ailments. It didn’t take long for the spirit to make its way to Great Britain where by 1750, it is estimated over 11 million gallons were being consumed. Others have stated that European monks were the first to use a similar concoction as a cure for the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. Their drink was also made from distilling juniper berries and mixed with herbs.

Quinine, an extract from the bark of the Quinquina tree, found growing on the hills of the Andes Mountains, was known as a cure for chills and fevers. To the local tribes it was known as “fever tree.” Another mystery unfolds as many stories surround the origins of this magic cure.

One such story is attributed to the Countess of Cinchona, who fell ill while visiting South America. Given the substance of the Quinquina tree, the countess survived and those among her travelling companions re-named the tree, Cinchona tree, in her honor.


Another tale recounts those of Jesuit missionaries in South America who brought the treatment back with them to Europe. Known as “Jesuit powder,” the medicine is said to have been given to Charles II as a cure for fever.

Whatever the beginnings, the gin and tonic as we know it today, was once the medicine of choice for those suffering from malaria during the 19th century as Great Britain took over the governance of India. With so many British people flocking to the Indian subcontinent, they were not prepared for the humid climate and the dreaded effects of scurvy and malaria.

However, quinine is bitter, and many balked at drinking up the substance. It was only when British soldiers began mixing the quinine with water, sugar and of course, gin, that many could tolerate the cure. Adding a wedge of lime also helped diminish scurvy. By the end of the 19th century, gin and tonic was known as “the gentleman’s drink.”

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Gin made its way to America in the 1700’s by way of the early colonists, and by 1830, it is said that more than 7 million gallons of pure alcohol was being consumed in saloons across the country. Temperance unions sprang up and not long after the turn-of-the-century took place, Prohibition was in full swing.

From 1920-1933, speakeasies, gangsters, outlaws and ordinary citizens, took to making their own gin spirits in what became known as “bathtub gin.” The mixtures were cheap and easy to make. Quality was not a concern and many of these gins caused severe health problems, some fatal.


As romantic, or, tragic, as the period of Prohibition was for America, this time in history gave us the cocktails we know today. Our ancestors mixed various flavorings and syrups with gin as to make it more appealing, and after Prohibition, gin was the most popular of spirits.

This now famous cocktail is simple to make and is favored on warm evenings and for summer parties. Four ingredients make up the gin and tonic, not far removed from the drink that saved the British Army over a century ago.

Here I have two recipes for gin and tonic; one a true classic, another for the spirit of 1920’s America.

The Classic Gin and Tonic

What you will need:

A highball glass (well chilled)

Dry gin (your choice of brand)

Tonic water (the best you can buy)


A wedge of lime

Fill the chilled highball glass with 50ml of your favorite gin over very cold ice (right from the freezer, don’t allow it to begin melting).

Add tonic water to taste.

Finish off with a wedge of lime.

Now for the Prohibition special, The Bee’s Knees

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What you will need:

A cocktail glass

Dry gin (your choice)

Fresh lemon



Mix 2 ounces of dry gin with 3/4 ounces of honey syrup (made by mixing together 1 tablespoon of honey with 1/2 tablespoon of warm water).

Add 1/2 ounce of fresh lemon juice.

Pour the mixture into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake well.

Strain the mixture into a chilled glass.

Finish with a lemon twist as a garnish.



Resources: The Sipsmith Blog, sipsmith.com/gin-and-tonic-a-short-history-of, August 14, 2013









Hulling Out Strawberries…Easily!

It is not uncommon today while perusing the shelves of many supermarkets and big box stores, to happen upon any number of gadgets made for one specific purpose. Some can be costly in more ways than one as these items usually end up shoved to the back of a kitchen drawer only to be seen again when we commit ourselves to spring cleaning.

This time of year, the South is abundant with strawberries and the fun of “pick-your-own” strawberry farms. Once you have these bright, red beauties home, then comes the task of digging into the middle in an attempt to remove that hard center.

However, a sturdy, plastic straw will suffice in place of stainless steel strawberry corers that can costs upwards of 10 dollars! Below, is a video to demonstrate how easy, useful and cheap, a simple plastic straw can be.