Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pantone Cookies

Last week, I surprised my friend Holly with a big batch of these little guys for her birthday:

They were a huge hit, especially with all the graphic designers at Holly’s and my office (come on, who can say no to treats as colorful as these?!) Rather than just showing you the photos of these darling cookies, I’ve included a tutorial so you can make your very own batch of edible Pantones for the designer or color nut in your life. Also, check out this post from Kim Creative Star, where I originally got the idea for the cookies. She has some great suggestions on presentation.

These are a great weekend project. Not just because they take a lot of time to put together, but because lots of steps require you to walk away for a little while, then come back and do something else. Whenever I have a recipe like that, I use the down time to get odds and ends done around the house or run out and take care of a quick errand. My mother helped me out with these during a visit a few weeks ago. It took us most of a Saturday to get them finished (partially because we made over a hundred of them…), but we had an absolute blast making them!

We made the cookies about three weeks before they were to be served and stored the frosted cookies in air-tight freezer containers. Two days before, I got the cookies out to thaw them and write the name and numbers on. They took very well to the freezing and thawing – I wasn’t able to detect a difference in taste or texture.

To start, you’ll need a batch of sugar cookie dough you can roll out and cut. You can use my decorator sugar cookie recipe (which made about 10 dozen of this rectangular-shaped cookie) or any sugar cookie recipe of your own. Store bought dough that is meant to be rolled out (not break and bake or slice and bake style) will work as well.

The icing we used on these cookies is royal icing. We selected it because of the control you have over where it goes on the cookie and the seamless, matte finish it has when it dries. You can mix up any color you’d like for the cookies. We did about three cookies per each color we mixed up. For us, it was easiest to start with a very light hue, then add in more color to make it darker and darker as we colored more cookies. Any royal icing recipe should work pretty well. We used the royal icing recipe from Joy of Baking

(Nearly) Everything you'll need to make the cookies (large bowl not pictured)

What you’ll need:
Rolling pin
Pasta roller, pizza wheel or rectangular cookie cutter
Baking sheets and cooling racks
Large bowl with tight fitting lid or plastic cling wrap to cover
Small bathroom cups
Food coloring
Black food marker

To make the cookies:
  1. Roll out the dough into a large sheet 1/8” thick.
  2. Using a pasta roller or pizza wheel, cut the dough into rectangles 1 ¾” wide and 2 ½” tall (note: our cookies were a bit crammed for writing space. If you’d like more space or bigger cookies, increase the size to 2 ¼” inches wide and 3” tall). We used a yardstick to measure and cut the strips. Provided it is the right size, a rectangular cookie cutter may also work.
  3. Carefully transfer the cut dough onto cookie sheets and bake according to recipe instructions. Once the cookies are baked, allow them to cool on a rack for at least an hour.
To make the frosting:
  1.  Mix up the icing according to your recipe in a large bowl. Transfer a third of it into a smaller dish and tightly cover the large bowl. Royal icing dries out quickly so it’s important to cover any you’re not using.
  2. Leaving the icing its original white color, apply a rectangle to the bottom third of the cookie. Try to keep the borders as straight and a close to the edge of the cookie as possible). Repeat until all cookies have the partial frosting. Allow the icing to harden completely (at least 1 hour). Add any leftover icing back into the original container.
  3. Place 1-2 tablespoons of royal icing into a small cup. Add in food coloring until desired hue is attained. Spread the icing on the remaining two thirds of the cookie, again keeping the borders as straight and close to the edge as possible. Allow to dry for at least one hour, or until hardened completely.
  4. Once cookies have hardened completely, use an edible marker to write “PANTONE” across the bottom.  For a genuine Pantone look, you can use a color-matching guide to look up the numbers and write them on the cookie as well.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!  Even better – share your photos here or on the Spoonful of Something Facebook page (don’t forget to “like” the page as well!) if you are so inclined to make a batch of your own. More pictures of the full batch of cookies available on the Facebook page as well.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

30 Days Later

The month of my challenge has come and gone. I am at the finish line, less enthused about the end than I predicted I would be and feeling painfully aware of what hunger can do to a person’s body and soul.

I have gone from adoring food and cooking to dreading the thought of making dinner.  My kitchen went from a sanctuary of creativity to a site for irritation and insufficiency. My soul went from craving culinary education and inspiration to just wanting to understand one iota of America’s food system.

I could see the effects of my changed diet very quickly. I didn’t have as much energy. Because of that, my exercise routine took a hit. I became careless about what I was putting in my body; I just cared that I was managing to feed myself. I think I ingested more yellow 5, blue 1 and red 30 dyes in the past month than I did during all of elementary school combined. When I didn’t have the energy to plan meals, I let it slip; food went to waste and I made careless choices. I usually chose comfort foods so I could take solace in at least some part of my meal. Social functions were almost out of the question entirely. It felt incredibly isolating to feel like I couldn’t go out and be amongst friends at a meal. I felt shame when I could no longer bring people over to enjoy a dinner. Not only was there hardly enough to share, I didn’t want people to see me cooking and eating the way I was.

Several people have expressed their relief at the conclusion of the challenge. Many said they had felt bad over the past month eating or cooking certain things in front of me they knew I couldn’t afford. Others wanted me to be back to a more active social life, which included the ability to have a meal or drinks out. Some were concerned for my health and were happy that I’d be able to take better care of myself again. These are many of the same people who have been extraordinarily supportive of me over the past month. Don’t get me wrong, I’m appreciative of their honesty but on some level it makes the conclusion of the challenge seem incredibly unfair. I get to flip a switch and go back to life as I knew it 30 days ago. That change is at such odds with reality, it hurts.

What am I taking away from the Hunger Challenge? Three important lessons:

No judgment.
Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs of human life. How you choose to feed, clothe and shelter yourselves and your family are personal choices. If I want to fill up a shopping cart full of ramen noodles and Cheetos and call it dinner for the night, I can. If I want to make a dinner out of Cap’n Crunch and Ben and Jerry’s, I can (And, for the record, totally have). My mother always told me “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Have I ever looked into someone else’s shopping cart and thought, “I’d never buy that!” Of course I have. But the next time I find my eyes wandering to someone else’s cart, food stamp recipient or not, I’ll think twice before I start examining their purchases. I hope you’ll do the same. If you won’t, then have the decency to keep your thoughts to yourself. No one deserves to be publically chastised for what they choose to eat. Ever.
(Amateur Gourmet recently had an excellent, brief article on a similar topic. I highly recommend it:

There’s no simple answer to the question “Can you afford to eat healthy on food stamps?”
After researching the actual prices of certain fruits and vegetables (and filling in from my experience over the last month), buying fresh produce or produce at all certainly is possible on a highly restrictive budget. But what about that can of chicken noodle soup? How far up the price chain do you have to go before it’s void of a laundry list of additives? In half the stores I visited, otherwise identical loaves of white and wheat bread were being sold at significantly different prices. When pennies, nickels and dimes matter, would you choose to buy milk, or pay a small fraction of the price for soda? Is your motivation to buy fresh vegetable strong enough when canned varieties are (or even just appear to be) cheaper and require a much shorter prep time? Everyone is free to make their own choices on exactly what they eat, but the almighty dollar sure does have a way of shaping those choices, especially when dollars are scarce.

If you are fortunate enough to have enough, share what you can.
The operations of so many food banks and soup kitchens run on the generosity of both companies and individuals. If the economy over the last five years has proven only one point, it is that anyone, no matter their class status, race, religion or age, can go from having everything to nothing in the blink of an eye. Chances are you won’t wake up tomorrow in need of a food bank’s services. But someone will. Tomorrow I go back to a regular grocery budget just as swiftly as I began to restrict it. There’s no switch to flip that turns off hunger. How can you help? You can donate food. You can give your time. You can provide funds. You can understand how the food banks in your area provide assistance. You can start a conversation. In whatever way you desire or are able to help, it can make a difference.

For me, helping will mean more frequent donations to my local food banks, especially in the seasons when I can donate excess from my own vegetable garden. It will mean keeping accessibility in mind when I decide what foods I feature and recipes I post on this blog. It will mean when I teach beginning cooking classes, to better educate my students on the true cost of certain foods and how to shop and choose ingredients intelligently. It will mean giving some of my own time with efforts to mitigate hunger in my community.

I hope you have gained something by going on this journey with me. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take on a Hunger Challenge of your own. If you are able, I urge you to support your local food banks. Most importantly, if you are reading this, I thank you for having the curiosity, interest and support to see this challenge through. Regardless of your opinion on food, the challenge or hunger itself I hope these posts have helped you to see this issue from a new perspective. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll charge one of you to help make a difference.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Is Eating Fresh Really More Expensive?

I'm headed into the final five days of the hunger challenge. I'd been giving a lot of thought to how I'd handled the challenge: the types of food I'd been eating, the changes I'd made to my diet and lifestyle and I started to feel disappointed I didn't work harder to keep more of my own cooking and fresh foods at the forefront. I felt as if I'd tried harder I could have made my results more meaningful for other people. I could have written more recipes or talked about more resources or ways to budget and plan.

Then I realized that's the point of the challenge. Anyone in this situation day in and day out is surely faced with the same (and probably more) frustrations and fewer resources than I have been in the past month. It gets so easy to reach for the pre-packaged option that's cheap and quick. The first two weeks I showed you exactly what I was purchasing and planning on cooking. Last week my shopping happened at a time that I was unable to photograph the purchase. This week I decided to make a menu using almost exclusively what was already in my kitchen so I could spend almost half my budget (just $14.00) on food to bring to a friend's get-together. Did I make a poor decision with the money I had to spend? Some may say so. I say I was tired of turning down invitations from friends because I did not have the money to spend buying meals out or felt like I couldn't provide a contribution for a meal at their house. To be perfectly honest, my shopping has involved less and less fresh food as the month has gone on.

As the challenge winds down, I am continuing to gather information and research so I can provide others with some insight into the strategy of shopping on a budget. One area that has still felt fairly gray to me this entire month is the price of fruits and vegetables. When I started the challenge, I was asked several times if I thought I could afford fresh produce on this budget. My naive response was "Well, I know I can at least afford bananas!" knowing them to be one of the cheapest sources of fresh fruit.

In my research, I came across a study from the USDA on the prices of fruits and vegetables. I wish I'd found it sooner. It doesn't give you all the answers, but it does help spell out how much a particular fruit or veggie costs in various forms (fresh, frozen, canned or dried) and how much you'll end up paying per cup of actual food. For example, an ear of corn may cost .50, a can .67 and a frozen bag for $1.85, but which one is cheapest? Cans and bags are relatively easy to compare, but with most fresh produce there is at least some refuse (the inedible part that gets thrown away, i.e. banana peels and apple cores).

The USDA study looks at food prices in households across the US for 2008. Foods were purchased at various times of the year and from various retailers. They examined foods in fresh, canned, dried, frozen and juiced forms. They present their data in two ways: the first representing the actual price per pound and the second representing the cost per usable cup.

What did they find? You can see for yourself by looking at the full report here or the summarized findings here. Here's my Reader's Digest version and run down of the winner's circle.

First, not all produce is created equal. Some items see very little price difference from fresh to canned to frozen, others see major differences in price. Bottom line? Pound for pound it's cheaper to feed yourself Ramen noodles and canned soups. There's plenty of research and reasoning to point out the flaws in that diet plan, but integrating produce has to be a conscious choice. And it is possible to keep good nutrition in mind, even on a limited budget.

Cheapest Sources of Fresh Fruit (per usable cup of fruit)

  1. Watermelon (17 cents)
  2. Bananas (21 cents)
  3. Apples (28 cents)
  4. Navel oranges (34 cents)
  5. Pears (42 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Fresh Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Potatoes (19 cents)
  2. Carrots (25 cents)
  3. Lettuce (26 cents)
  4. Cabbage (27 cents)
  5. Onions (28 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Canned Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Sauerkraut/cabbage (30 cents)
  2. Carrots (34 cents)
  3. Green beans (34 cents)
  4. Corn (37 cents)
  5. Turnip greens (40 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Frozen Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Green beans (37 cents)
  2. Carrots (39 cents)
  3. French fries/potatoes (41 cents)
  4. Kale (48 cents)
  5. Green peas (51 cents)

Keep in mind, these are based on average prices over a year. Want a way to beat the average every time? Focus on what's in season. Grapefruit in September cost a heck of a lot more than they will in January. Use this Seasonal Ingredient Map from Epicurious or check out the selection at your local farmers market to find out what's in season near you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Whose Groceries are Cheapest?

One thing that I’ve had a bit of trouble with during this challenge has been believing I am getting the best value for what I’m buying. Am I shopping at the cheapest store? Is the sale I’m taking advantage of providing a big enough savings to make a difference?  When you’re on a limited budget, a 10-cent difference in price on a handful of items starts to add up very quickly. I decided to settle the issue by surveying four different grocery stores for their prices on just over 40 pantry “staple” items.

I started at Target. I sort of assumed Target would be most expensive given that they don’t focus on grocery and don’t have a bottom-dollar brand. I love Target’s store brand for lots of household items, but I hadn’t had much experience with the quality or value of their “Market Fresh” store brand for food items. While I was browsing shelves for price tags I overheard a group of college students referring to the store as “the poor man’s Wal-Mart.” I couldn’t help but agree with the stereotype, believing when I got to Wal-Mart later on that afternoon I would find prices significantly cheaper than what I was finding on the shelves at Target.

After Target, I headed to Marsh. Those who live outside of Indiana may not be familiar with this particular grocery store. It used to be an Indiana-owned chain, but now has ownership and locations outside of the state. However, they still brand themselves “Indiana’s Hometown Grocer.” At Marsh, I scoured the shelves looking especially for items bearing their house brand’s name, “Food Club,” or their value brand’s label, “Value Time.” I was able to find versions of most items under the store brand umbrella, but not quite all.

Next, I drove across town to research food prices at Wal-Mart. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never gone to the Wal-Mart here for groceries. Part of the reason is that it’s out of the way from where I live. The other, and larger, consideration is a personal preference to support other retailers before Wal-Mart. The first thing I noticed was that the selection was massive and the store had a crowd to match. At Wal-Mart more than any other store, the value was substantially greater when you purchased a larger size. Most know the same company owns both Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, but I wasn’t aware that the idea of savings through bulk sizes was integrated so thoroughly into Wal-Mart’s inventory as well. I also noticed the prices of their Great Value brand seemed to consistently be at least ten cents lower than prices I had recorded from Marsh or Target. I was quickly becoming convinced that everything I’d heard about Wal-Mart was true: Love or hate them, their price point is compelling, especially when your budget is restrictive.

My last stop after two hours of playing Nancy Drew in aisles of bread and peanut butter was at Kroger. Kroger is the mainstream grocery store I did most of my pre-challenge shopping at, though my shopping is typically split between a few different places (a luxury I have given up the last few weeks to save as much money as possible).  Like Marsh, Kroger has both a standard generic house brand (Kroger brand), and a more economical option on some items – their Value brand. Many staple items I was shopping for were available in a Value brand version.

Once I’d finished my rounds at all four stores, I went back to the list to compare prices across the board. I went in with a list of 42 items, but in the final list I’ll be comparing there are only 29 items. This is to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison across all stores.

And the winners are…

Wal-Mart came in as the cheapest with its cart totaling $53.17. Kroger, however, came in right on their heels with a total of $53.22, only a nickel more than the cost of the Wal-Mart cart. Most surprising to me was third place being awarded to Target with a total cart price of $61.83: notably more expensive than the first two retailers, but surprisingly cheaper than another “grocery” store option. Marsh came in fourth with a cart totaling $65.71, a difference of more than twelve dollars above both Wal-Mart and Kroger. Additionally, the extra $12 spent represents more than a third of my weekly allowance on a food stamp budget.

Take a look at the chart below if you’re interested in the specifics or to see how retailers compare on particular items.

Regardless of where you’re shopping, here are some general tips on making sure your dollar is stretching as far as possible:
  • For staple items, choose a retailer you know to be generally less expensive. Sale prices can be alluring and provide great deals on the right items, but if you have enough general pantry-stocking to do, be sure you’re not being swayed into paying more for the basics by brightly colored sale tags.
  •  Take a look at the various sizes of a particular item on your list and determine the optimum balance of your budget, what you’ll reasonably use and the difference is price per ounce. Sometimes larger sizes garner great savings, other times not so much. If you know you only drink a couple glasses of milk a week, any savings you get by buying a whole gallon may be nullified if the milk sours before you’re able to use it. On the other hand, if you’ll use a whole pound of cheese within a couple of weeks, it may be worth the extra dollars now (if you can spare them) rather than paying more in the long run for two smaller package.
  • Consider whether or not an item will freeze well. If you can freeze it, you don’t have to worry about some going bad before it can be used up. Meat, fish and bread all freeze very well. Some vegetables like corn or green beans also do well, but others, especially those with high water content aren’t as ideal for freezing (think celery or tomatoes). In general, dairy products are better left refrigerated rather than frozen.
  • Make a plan, write it down and consider plan B. I touted the virtues of “the plan” the first week of the challenge and I do believe it’s a great strategy to shop with. When you’re deciding at home what to pick up at the store (use the contents of your cabinet, fridge and weekly ads as resources) think about potential substitutes in case a particular item you’ve placed on your list ends up being unavailable or too expensive.
  • Glance over the weekly ads before heading to the store. The longer I do this challenge, the less I build my grocery lists living and dying by sale prices, but they are worth consideration. Think about a few things to determine whether or not it’s worth it. How much are you saving over regular prices? Do you have to go further or to multiple places to get these savings? Are there acceptable substitutes that are cheaper?

What are your experiences finding the best prices when you shop? Do you think you have a rock-solid strategy or do you feel like you’re on shaky ground every time you have to make a plan? I’d love to hear  your thoughts and experiences!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why I don't like to cook (for the time being...)


I have eaten more cereal and peanut butter sandwiches in the last week than I did my entire first semester of college. 


Because they are cheap. And they are oh so quickly prepared. And they're cheap. Also, they're sort of a comfort food. 

I am a little disappointed in myself that I've gotten to a point where I do not care to cook. But I'll be honest, while the nutritional value may suck (especially if I'm eating generic Froot Loops) it's so cheap and easy it's hard to say no. It's the food stamp alternative to take out. Long day at work? Starving when you get home? Just don't want to think about getting the food to the table? Slap some peanut butter on a slice of bread and call it dinner. 

I finally worked up the motivation to cook a real meal tonight. It's a breakfast casserole that I'll throw in the oven in the morning and eat through the rest of the week. That's the first time I've cooked since Saturday. I go several days without cooking occasionally, but in the meantime I'm usually eating off of home cooked leftovers rather than convenient store-bought items.

Here's another thing to consider. How much does it cost to eat a bowl of cereal or peanut butter sandwich?

Right now I buy my cereal for 99 cents for a 7 or 12 cup box (depending on if I want the sugary or non-sugary cereal) and my milk for around 2.75 a gallon. Let's say I use 2 cups of more expensive (sugary) cereal with a cup and a half of milk. The cereal would cost about 28 cents and the milk 25, bringing the total for the meal to 53 cents a serving. 

A peanut butter sandwich is costing me around a dime for the two slices of bread and 23 cents for 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, bringing the grand total to less than 35 cents a sandwich. You could have three peanut butter sandwiches for less than one dollar.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the daily breakdown of my budget. Yes, I get 4.46 a day or 31.22 cents per week. But what does that really mean? Specifically, once I figure out how much a recipe cost per serving, how do I know if that was "cheap"? I know I was able to buy all the ingredients I needed on a budget, but how do I know I didn't waste my money by spending too much on the recipe?

I'm still working on breaking this down, but there are a couple different ways you could look at it. Assuming you eat three times a day, you can break it down by meal size or do an even split into thirds. Separating by meal size would give me about 75 cents on breakfast, 1.50 on lunch and just under 2.25 for dinner. If I split them all evenly, I'd have about 1.50 per meal. 

This may help explain some of my hesitance to cook all of my meals. If I make a dinner that's $2.25 a serving, that means I have to eat a smaller portion for lunch if I'm to keep the rest of the day's cost balanced. Most of my meals have been, but I'm not sure they've been down to the $1.50 range. Furthermore, what about snacks? I know I don't fare well if I go without a mid-morning or late afternoon snack. With those accounted for, your daily average pre meal ends up closer to $1.25 per day. 

Instead of thinking of the food stamp challenge as X dollars per week, try to think of it as $1.50 per meal. Changing how I crunch the numbers has given me a much better starting point for creating recipes that are cheap enough to be made with food stamps. I'm excited to share them with you in the coming weeks!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Shopping the Ads and a Trip to Kroger

Today kicks off week three of the hunger challenge. At this point, the new budget is feeling more routine. Unlike the first week, I felt like I was able to stray from the plan without fearing I'd run out of food. Part of this was due to leftovers from week one, but I think it was mostly because I was a bit more savvy with things I bought that would last for more meals with less cooking. Namely, peanut butter, honey and a loaf of bread.

Rather than talk you through what my grocery haul for the week shall be, I decided to film my shopping trip to give you a different view of how it all goes down. This week's strategy was focused on maximizing the savings from the weekly store ad.

A few things to note when you're going about your grocery shopping this way:
  1. Know the rules. Do you have to buy 5 to get the 5 for $6 price? Or can you buy one and still take advantage of the savings?
  2. Have a B plan. You never know when something will be sold out or the sale will have changed, so make sure you can be flexible. If a third of your meals for the week depend on one item being available, think about alternatives before you go to the store.
  3. Make a plan that's under budget. If you find yourself having to make an unexpected substitution mid-trip the alternative may slightly increase your grocery bill. Leave a little bit of wiggle room so it won't break the bank if you have to change your plan.
  4. Don't loose sight of non-sale items. Often times a generic brand is still cheaper than a name brand on sale. Browse the products around the sale item you're after to ensure you really are getting the best deal. 
Do any of you have other tips on saving money and shopping smart when you're using the weekly store ads as part of your strategy? Share them if you've got them!

Here's how my trip to the store went this week. I think I had violations of rules 1, 2, 3 and 4. And I overstated my budget by a penny.
I suppose Pro Tip #5 should be don't do your grocery shopping in the middle of the night...