Sunday, March 8, 2015

Brownies: Then and Now

Brownie Battle

Max challenged me to a double-shot this weekend -- homemade-from-scratch pancakes and brownies. From scratch -- not really a stretch here but when you get into a food habit, it's sometimes hard to break. The boxes get thrown in the cart as a matter of routine. But that's how it happened -- neither box was in the cart at checkout. When I came home from shopping empty handed Max said, "Why don't you just MAKE it, you know, from stuff at home?" Challenge accepted!

Making things from scratch also serves an environmental purpose -- no packaging waste. Each purchased pancake and brownie mix has not only a cardboard box but a plastic liner as well. That cardboard may break down eventually but that plastic never will. With growing awareness for reducing plastics, this was an even greater motivator to return to the basics. Plus, excellent recipes for brownies are pretty much everywhere!

I knew there was a basic brownie recipe in the Notebook somewhere because I'd flipped past it dozen of times or so. Being that practically everyone now makes brownies from the ubiquitous box (my brand of choice being Ghirardelli) AND Pinterest I didn't give the possibilities of Mid-Century-Modern brownies much thought.

Modern brownies were on my mind, though, since I'd just read an extensive article on the perfect blondies (brownies sans chocolate) in the March 2015 issue of Cooking Light and had also just pinned a David Lebovitz brownie recipe to my Pinterest. I was feeling brownie-competent…which was good because as with many Notebook recipes, there were no instructions listed for this recipe…

Note the recipe written with fountain pen!

The Recipes

Alice's Brownies is the official title of Grandma's recipe. Though I am not sure who Alice might be, I don't think she was a regular or even lived nearby -- her name doesn't make it on the luncheon or bridge club rosters in the back pages of the Notebook. The entry is early, near the front, so it would be the late 40s, early 50s.

Helene's Brownies are, surprisingly, French. Lebovitz remarks in his September 25, 2014 blog post brownies are the one thing French bakers indeed do NOT do well. He notes French brownies are usually fairly dry…that is, until Helene came along...

7 ounces (200g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (60ml) water
4 ounces (115g) butter, salted or unsalted, cubed
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
2 tablespoons flour
4 medium or large eggs
2 tablespoons unsweetened dessicated coconut flakes (see Note)
1/3 cup (65g) chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC.)
2. Butter a 9-inch (23cm) springform pan then dust the bottom with cocoa powder (or a bit of flour), then tap out the excess.
3. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the chocolate, water, and butter together, stirring constantly, until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and flour, then the eggs, one by one.
4. Mix in the coconut and chocolate chips. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the center feels just about set; err on the side of underbaked a little if you want a creamy center.
5. Let cool, then slice into wedges.

Brownie Basics

So most brownie recipes, including the two recipes above, proceed with similar ingredients and similar fashion --  first, the butter and chocolate are melted together, usually in a double boiler or saucepan. Then the sugar and eggs are added plus any liquid, then the dry ingredients and, finally, any additional flavorings or nuts. No mixer required as long as you have a sturdy wooden spoon. Scrape into a baking pan, bake at 350 and there you have it!

Brownie Batter…mmmmm…...

Chocolate, Please

Before there were artisanal, organic, and other fine chocolates there were just a few basics -- Baker's brand and Hershey. That was about it. Squares, cocoa powder, and chips, semi-sweet and unsweetened. Grandma's notation said "2 sq. chocolate" and I knew what she meant -- baking chocolate. Baker's brand chocolate was always the one we had on hand growing up but hardly ever used. Wrapped in silver (or was it gold?) foil and tucked away in its little orange/brown cardboard box it was the chocolate we DIDN'T eat. I don't recall it's use in any particular recipe either. I didn't have any Baker's on hand for these brownies but I knew one square equaled one ounce so it was an easy switch to semi-sweet morsels which I did have in the pantry. But a paltry two ounces of chocolate in an entire pan of brownies?

Helene knocked the chocolate out of the park in her recipe -- a full seven ounces plus the extra 1/3 cup of chips Lebovitz threw in the batter. How would the two stack up?

Cakey vs Fudgy?

Alice called for a quarter-cup of milk in her brownies. After a quick Google search I discovered the milk creates a cake-like brownie whereas the extra eggs in Helene's provide more fudginess to the recipe. So not only were we battling recipes we would be battling concepts….Cake-like verses Fudgy.

Alice's Brownies
Helene's Brownies


Though the base recipe in both was conceptually the same, Alice added vanilla and optional nuts while Helene added dried, unsweetened coconut (I miraculously had this on hand, purchased from the bulk foods shop!) I pulverized in the mini chopper. Time to bake!

Brownie Pan vs Springform Pan

Round metal cake pan for Alice
In the Cooking Light test kitchens the staff discovered blondies baked in metal pans baked more evenly and with less browning than those in Pyrex, glass, or dark-coated pans. I'd just last week tested this theory on a box (!) of Ghirardelli brownies and even though they were brownies and not blondies, the staff was spot-on. My boxed mix turned out tender, moist brownies with no extra dark or "crunchy edges". I converted to metal brownie pans right then and there. Into the oven!

Springform pan for Helene

The Result

Alice's brownies were good -- tender, cake-like, moist. The milk added a pale caramel color to the finished product -- almost a blondie! The amount of chocolate by today's standards was minuscule resulting in a German chocolate-style brownie or even Texas sheet cake without the prerequisite frosting. A topping was what Alice needed here -- frosting or glaze may very well have been implied and something Grandma or Alice would have added without a second thought. Max preferred Alice's brownies over Helene's, even without toppings.

Move over boxed mix -- Helene's brownies were a slab of chocolatey goodness was like a molten lava cake or flour less chocolate cake in texture and taste. It's what I personally have been looking for in a brownie for quite some time. I didn't find it in the Notebook but the journey led me to super dark chocolate bliss…..mmmmm…..brownies…..

The blogging world has changed in my absence, especially food blogs…it's time to relaunch and revitalize the Mid-Century Modern Woman and her Notebook! More coming soon on that front...

Monday, July 22, 2013

Holy Huacamole Salad!

Ahhh......summer.....time for a Mexican-inspired meal of make-your-own taco bar, chips and guac, right? In 2013 that plays just fine....sixty years ago, however, there was a different interpretation of what made a quick summer supper. I seem to recall the infatuation with Polynesian-inspired dishes, SPAM being one of them, so imagine my surprise to find a recipe for Huacamole Salad in the Notebook! On a page near the way-back, Grandma clipped a handful of first-prize recipes from some Indianapolis recipe contest. I noticed she only clipped the FIRST PRIZE winners, there are no second or third places to be seen. Not only is Huacamole freaking out my spell checker right now BUT the prize-winning recipe also had some freaky ingredients AND a forwarding address which I am totally going to Google in a moment. But first, see below:

Huacamole Salad -- Mrs. G. S. Wickler, 2634 W. 21st St, Indianapolis

First Prize

2 large avacados
1 small green onion grated
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 teaspoon pepper sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise

Mash avocados with solver fork. Add all other ingredients.

According to Google Earth, Mrs. Wickler lived close to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and her home was built in 1949. It's a modest 832 square-foot, two-bedroom home (still standing and in decent shape) but did Mrs. Wickler know her avocados? Winning first prize may very well have been the highlight of a decade for her!

I wondered the popularity of avocados in this post-war era, when were they introduced and how were they prepared. According to Wikipedia, avocados were officially marketed to the American public in the 1940s by the California Avocado Advisory Board with their campaign, “Say Huakamole”. However, recipes for the fruit appear as early as 1886 when it was known as "Alligator Pear" ( As far as preparation goes, the recipes I found smushed the avocado with everything from grapes (1934, L.A. Times) to Parmesan Cheese (1952, Trader Vic's). Was Mrs. Wickler's recipe going to be a spoiler or a success? 

I hauled out a silver fork from the silver service Grandma gave us as a wedding gift fifteen years ago and started mashing. I was not sure about the silver fork but I assumed it had something to do with the avocado's tendency to turn brown when cut. Next, I attempted to GRATE a single green onion. That lasted about five seconds before I ran my chef's knife through it instead. Celery, really? I stayed true to Mrs. Wickler and pulverized a cup of celery and threw it in. Red pepper sauce? I though of Tabasco Brand but we didn't have any so a 1/2 teaspoon of the Trader Joe's version went in. Mayo? Huh? I suppose it is the equivalent to the sour cream I see in current guac recipes but it seems so, well, old. 

I mushed, smushed and tumbled the green mass into a period candlewick bowl, popped in a spoon and grabbed the tortilla chips. Mmmmm.....guacamole.....good. I mean, REALLY good. Yes, really! Despite the celery and the mayo the guac had a cool, creamy well-seasoned taste and texture. It was indeed spot-on with the garlic and hot sauce. I had to show restraint and not eat the entire bowl. Besides, I still had to see if the silver fork had anything to do with preventing oxidation. I pressed plastic wrap onto the top of the remaining guac and chilled it in the fridge overnight. 

At lunch the next day I was pleasantly surprised to see the guac only browned a bit at the very top but the underside was still bright green -- even without saving the pit. After a second day in the fridge the guac really was dicey in terms of color but the flavor was still good. Not sure I'll grab for the silver each time I cook with avocados but it's at least an option. Ole!

Soup Can Score -- FIVE out of FIVE Soup Cans!!

Note: When grabbing for the silver in the silver chest, a pink, embossed note tumbled from behind the silver was a letter from Grandma! I'd completely forgotten about the note and I was so glad I'd kept it with the silver service....the note was from fifteen years ago concerning the contents of the silver chest and the pattern, Joan of Arc. The meat fork is the one I used for mashing the avocados. Love it!


There are 8 sterling place settings: knife, fork, salad fork, spoon and soup or dessert.
Also the sugar shell, buffet butter spreader, gravy are sterling.
The two large buffet serving spoons have sterling handles but stainless bowls.
The small plain sterling spoon was given to me by my step-mother when she was born in May, 1893.
The meat fork is silver plate and made in 1904 (Wildrose).
Hope you enjoy "Joan of Arc",

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ham and Noodle Casserole

Straight from the Ladies' Pages....

Less time in the kitchen means more time in the garden or on the golf course or beach. Housewives who are racking their brains for time-saving dishes will welcome this casserole that may be prepared for baking early in the day.

To make it, cook one-half pound of noodles in two quarts of boiling water to which two teaspoons of salt has been added. When the noodles are tender, drain them well.

Melt two tablespoons of fat in a saucepan, stir in one tablespoon of flows to make a smooth paste. Make stock by dissolving two bouillon cubes in two cups of boiling water, add and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture in thickened. Season with one-half teaspoon of salt and one-half teaspoon of pepper.

Dice one-half pound of cooked ham and mix with the noodles. Add the thickened stock and pout the mixture into a greased casserole. Crush three-fourths cup crisp rice cereal and spread over the top. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of melted butter and a dash of paprika. Place the dish in a moderately hot oven (375 degrees Fahrenheit) and bake for 20 minutes. 

So the fact that I could spend time doing something else besides cooking dinner is what drew me to this recipe. I loved the three alternatives given -- garden, golf course, or beach. Grandma most definitely would have chosen the garden -- not the golf course or beach. For me? Garden, beach or tennis court!

On a busy Monday I began this quick dinner at 4:30 p.m. with planned side dishes of split peas, marinated veggie salad and fruit. Rule #1 of modern cooking -- always put the water on to boil first before starting any prep. It was about 80 degrees that day and definitely toasty in the kitchen. Before too long I had the water boiling, the split peas simmering, and the fat (I chose butter) and flour cooked into a smooth paste. It's not every day I have three burners simultaneously firing on the stove if it's not a national holiday.

Bouillon cubes are NOT a part of my well-stocked kitchen and never will be. I had some vegetable stock ready in the fridge and figured two cups of that would equal the two cubes minus the sodium load. The resulting slurry reminded me of gravy-making and it came together rather quickly. I added the ham and dumped the lot into a round soufflé dish greased with cooking spray ( I know....). I added the "Crisp Rice", dotted it with butter and dashed on smoked Hungarian paprika for glamour. Into the oven!

My split peas simmered away, salad marinated and the twenty minutes went quickly and soon we were at the table by 6:00.
 Wait. 6:00? An hour and a half? I can bang out a dinner in 30 minutes on a normal night. If this is a time-saver....well, anyway, it had better be good. And good? Yes it was. The casserole was flavorful and rich in a comfort-food sort of way. MCL Cafeteria came to mind for me and Max declared the dish a "thumbs up". He also added that we should have this dish at every holiday meal...with hot dogs (?). However, when Max asked what was all the "crunchy stuff" on top we all decided the Crisp Rice cereal was a bit strange. Croutons or seasoned breadcrumbs would have sufficed.

The concepts of this dish were sound and fairly easy and I saw myself using leftover Thanksgiving turkey and varying the "gravy" as it were. Mmmm.....nooodles....goood.....

Soup Can Score -- Four and a Half out of Five

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pecan Squares

Time for a summer take-a-long for your picnics and parties and, of course, I mean dessert. Grandma had a self-proclaimed sweet tooth and it's evident in the notebook. Today's recipe shares real estate with  Fruit Rocks, Orange Cookies, Chocolate Drop Cookies, and Royal Butterscotch Cake. Written in fountain pen in Grandma's neat hand, the recipe for Pecan Squares is not a clipping from the usual "ladies' pages" but from a presumed friend or relative, Alice Johnson in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The recipe for Pecan Squares had immediate appeal as I prepared for the Fourth of July -- the simple ingredients were on hand, the finished dish would be portable and interesting (hopefully) to the parade-goers at the annual LaPorte, Indiana Parade.

Pecan Squares -- Alice Johnson, St. Paul, Minnesota

2 eggs
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup flour
1 cup chopped pecans (Kate used 1/2 cup nuts & 1/2 cup oatmeal)

Spread 1/2 in thick
Bake at 350 about 25 minutes. 8x8 pan. 325

I am not sure who Kate is but I followed her amendment to the recipe -- half old-fashioned rolled oats and half chopped pecans. I was tempted to throw in a handful of chocolate chips as well but I figured I'd stay true to the written recipe for now.

The batter came together easily, no mixer required, but I did make sure to thoroughly beat the eggs with a wire whisk to be sure everything would successfully incorporate. After all, there is no liquid in the recipe except the two eggs. I smushed the resulting dough into an 8x8 foil pan greased with cooking spray and baked it at 325 (to be safe) for 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes the dough was not quite done in the middle so I cranked the heat back up to the original 350 for ten more minutes. The squares were then done -- edges pulling away from the sides of the pan, the middle passed the toothpick test. I bammed the pan with powdered sugar (why not?), cut into 16 small squares and packed them for the next day's events.

At the parade I presented the Pecan Squares and with the mere mention of the recipe's name I received immediate feedback -- friend Kristin's mom declared Pecan Squares to be delicious and she knew the exact recipe. Interesting! Perhaps this was a hidden gem in the notebook -- a proven tried and true that has transcended generations?

One bite and I knew the answer....chewy, caramelized flavor...the crunch of the pecans plus the substance of the oats....I knew I had a winner. A quick pass around the group and the pan was quickly downsized to murmurs of praise. The bars also were not too sweet -- a developed trend I've seen in the notebook -- but just right. This is easily in the permanent file and next time I'll add chocolate chips.

Soup Can Score -- FIVE cans out of five!

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Dear Reader,

It's is NOT quite spring yet, despite the date on the calendar. The telltale signs are all there -- fat robins, buds on trees, blooming daffodils (Grandma's favorite) but the thermometer says otherwise.

As far as seasonal cooking goes, there's not much local flavor to be had. At times like these home cooks have to rely on the pantry or freezer for inspiration and that is what I am doing today with raisins. sums up the history of the raisin like this:

"Raisins are simply dried sweet grapes, of course. Until medieval times, raisins were the second in choice as a sweetener, honey being the top choice. At one time in ancient Rome, raisins were considered so valuable that two jars could buy a slave. In the 13th century, Damascus had quite a reputation for their sweet raisins.

The majority of the world's supply of raisins comes from California, dried from Thompson seedless (95 percent), muscadine, or Black Corinth (Zante) grapes. In 1873, California suffered a devastating drought which literally dried the grapes on the vine. Looking to recoup some of the grape crop, an enterprising marketer in San Francisco sold the dried and shriveled grapes as "Peruvian Delicacies," and the California raisin industry was off and running.

Most raisins are dried naturally by the sun right in the vineyards, although some are mechanically dehydrated. Once sun-dried, a process taking two to four weeks, they are then graded, cleaned, and packed. Some raisins are kept golden in color by the use of sulfur dioxide (sulfites)."

A Google search for this cake brought up not only the English version one, similar to this recipe here, but a German and Russian cake as well. A few sites referenced the cake's popularity during WW II as pantry staples were scarce and raisins helped pull a basic cake into a more special place at tea time.

English Raisin Cake -- submitted by Alice Laub

1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, creamed
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon soda
2 cups flour
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups seedless raisins
1 teaspoon lemon extract

This cake can be baked in a loaf; tube pan, or cup cakes in a moderate oven. Loaf about 30 minutes, tube pan 45 minutes, cup cakes 20 minutes.

Better Batter

The cake batter came together you know, the instructions are cryptic like many of the other recipes I've tried....tacit understanding again comes into play. I whipped the butter first, added the sugar and eggs and stopped. I then sifted together all of the dry ingredients and added them into the batter in an alternating fashion -- beginning and ending with the dairy (I opted to use yogurt instead of sour cream). I then added the raisins and extract plus the zest of one lemon for good measure. I greased a loaf pan (one of Grandma's Pyrex cast-offs) with the butter wrapper and then slipped it into a 350 degree oven.


Ms. Laub should have mentioned that the recipe makes TWO loaves, not one because the very-full pan was threatening to overflow the pan within five minutes of baking time. I hurried and pulled it out of the oven and spooned a good portion of the batter into two mini-loaf pans. Whew! I ended up adding an extra 15 minutes to the baking time until the toothpick came out clean. The mini-loaves were perfectly done and the large loaf a bit overdone (due to the Pyrex material).

Taste Test

Excellent! Mrs. Laub knew how to economize but yet achieve great taste. Reminiscent of soda bread yet a bit like pound cake, this one would be great to take to a picnic, gathering, or to serve at breakfast. Not too sweet, not too savory -- this is a cake that will be a permanent fixture in my files. Yum!

Soup Can Score -- Five cans out of Five

Saturday, April 20, 2013

One-Dish Dinner -- Parts I and II

Dear Reader,

Today's entry is straight from the ladies' pages and the Favorite Recipes column -- an anonymous submission by a mid-century modern lady simply know as "Friend". Perhaps Friend was a frugal woman or maybe just a busy cook but this casserole is the quintessential whatever-is-in-the-house preparation. Read on:

One Dish Dinner

Butter Casserole, put in 3/4 cup washed uncooked rice, next add a layer of raw sliced potatoes, then 3/4 pound ground beef, a layer of raw onions and lastly a small can of tomatoes. Season each layer with salt and pepper as you put it in the casserole. Dot top with butter. Cover and bake in oven 1 1/2 hours.

I chose this one for several reasons -- April 10 would have been Grandma's 97th birthday and we were also expecting a visit from John's mother, Marilyn, who I knew would enjoy a blog recipe. Plus, I did indeed had all the ingredients in the house except for the meat.

Meat -- to Cook or Not to Cook?

Speaking of meat, at the store I had several lean ground beef options. In the 1950s there was probably only one choice but for health I chose a 90% lean ground round. I couldn't imagine a casserole swimming in grease. But another question arose -- does the meat really go in the dish raw? Or, should I brown it first? The recipe gave no indication. After asking around, the consensus was to leave the meat raw. After all, the 1 1/2 hour cooking time should be suffice in cooking the meat to appropriate doneness.

Assembly Required

I chuckled to myself as I prepped the ingredients for layering -- I had Jasmine rice, Yukon Gold potatoes and Vidalia onions. A marvel of marketing or science? I buttered a french white Corning Ware dish and assembled the ingredients (yep, and the raw meat) in the order listed. I covered the whole thing with foil and placed it in a 375 degree oven since no temp was listed.

Mid-Century Meal

While the casserole was baking I cooked split peas, tore apart some Hawaiian rolls, and carved up a fresh pineapple. I could only imagine a similar meal taking place fifty-some years ago. I even grabbed a stick of real butter for the table. No tub butter here!

Moment of Truth

After laboring in the oven for 1 1/2 hours the casserole was done. VERY done. The rice was still semi-crunchy and stuck to the bottom like glue and whole thing was pretty dried out. Everyone was a good sport about it and overall taste wasn't a total loss. It was lacking seasoning and moisture but we decided it was good enough to try again -- with some minor alterations. After all, the convenience of such a meal was very appealing and after over-examining the whole recipe (Grandma used to do that as well, as I recall) I decided to have another go at it -- for the sake of all that was modern.

Casserole II

Exactly one week later I commenced with round two. This time, however, I felt smarter. I still had the Jasmine rice, Yukon Gold potatoes, and Vidalia onions but this week I had Worcestershire sauce and a can of fire-roasted tomatoes for flavor. I also swapped the ground beef for ground turkey to tie it all together. I knew I had to look for liquid opportunities so I also added a half-can of water to the whole dish after I poured the tomatoes on top. Extra butter all around and in it went.

Bake, Baby, Bake

I set the oven at 350 this time and vowed to check the dish at the one-hour mark to check for doneness. At one hour the potatoes still had some crunch but the moisture level was WAY up. This was a good sign. At 1 1/2 hours I removed the casserole and we dished up.

Moment of Truth II

Not bad. Paired with frozen broccoli and canned peaches we were back in the 1950s but the casserole still lacked something. The rice STILL stuck to the bottom but this time it had more liquid to absorb which was a good thing. The meat was fine but not terribly flavorful or interesting (could have used more Worcestershire) and the whole thing could have used a second can of tomatoes, perhaps with roasted green chilies.

The Future

Could the framework of this casserole take me to a speedy, frugal weeknight meal? I could imagine taking the whole thing down south with a Mexican feel -- rice, canned black beans, ground meat cooked beforehand with taco seasoning, and two cans of mexican-style tomatoes perhaps. The rice on the bottom needs a bit of additional liquid to start -- maybe that would correct the sticking problem -- or a big shot of cooking spray. Regardless, the search for a tasty, speedy weeknight meal is always a worthwhile pursuit no matter the century. I am sure Grandma would agree. Happy Birthday!

Strawberry Pie

Dear Reader,

Since the months of March and April flew by without so much as a single post, I have prepared a flurry of new posts and projects for your enjoyment! Though cooking the spring away normally would be a favorite activity of mine the trifecta of time, money, and calories prohibited such an undertaking. Plus, my new love of Thai food is certainly not in the notebook.

However, with spring attempting to spring in the Chicagoland area, I am again focusing on what is interesting and available in my local store.

Fresh Strawberry Pie -- from the Daily News Cooking School by Mary Starr

Plump gay strawberries bring a note of spring to the table to relieve the monotony of winter menus. Although the fruit is an out-of-season luxury, you will be amply rewarded for the slight extra expense when you cut this luscious pie and disclose the juicy whole berries that are concealed in the filling. 

To make the filling, wash one quart of fresh strawberries, hull them and drain well. Blend one three-ounce package of cream cheese with one Tablespoon of cream. Spread the mixture over the bottom of a baked pie shell that has been cooled. 

Selecting the choicest berries, pick over the washed fruit and place half in the pie shell on top of the cream cheese. Mash the remaining berries through a sieve.

Combine three Tablespoons of cornstarch with one cup of sugar and stir into the mixture of juice and pulp. Cook, stirring constantly, until the filling is smooth and well thickened. Then cook over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Cool the mixture and pour over the uncooked berries in the pie shell Place pie in refrigerator until thoroughly chilled. Top with slightly sweetened whipped cream before serving. 

Strawberry Season 

Ok, so strawberries are NOT local or in season, just like Mary Starr indicates, unless you are located in Plant City, Florida where my $.99 berries were grown. Yes, I  know they are one of the "dirty dozen" grown with tons of pesticides (sorry, Dr. Andrew Weil) but I forged ahead. I dutifully washed my fruit in my standard vinegar-and-water solution, hulled them, and set them on a towel to dry.

Crust Selection

I do not like making pie crust. Probably never will. Neither did Grandma -- she always used the refrigerated kind. However, I had neither on hand. What I did have was a Ready-Made Keebler Shortbread Cookie Crust in the pantry. I took the liberty of using that so as to be frugal, like a mid-century modern woman might do. It turned out to be a fantastic choice.

Smashing It Up

I set about to smash up the cream cheese with the milk (no cream on hand either) and it looked like lumpy cottage cheese. Then I remembered -- that's exactly what happens when you mix cream cheese by hand. But I wasn't pulling out a mixer for three ounces of dairy so I ignored the lumps and spread the mixture on the bottom of the prepared crust.

Berry Troublesome

Next, I chose the "choicest" berries and placed them top down on the dairy mixture. Very nice! The rest of the berries were to be smashed and place through a sieve. I pulled out a soup ladle for leverage and attempted to force a single berry through a fine-mesh wire sieve. Well, let me tell you, supermarket berries are WAY too firm. Berries from your backyard patch may travel through fine mesh but these did not yield even one seed. Plan B.

Plan B: I cut the berries into chunks and tossed the lot into a saucepan on the stove and added the cornstarch and sugar and fired it up. Fairly soon the mixture was more appropriately jam-like in texture but there was the problem of smoothness. Plan C: Immersion blenders rock. I plugged in and let it rip right through the hot liquid (disclaimer: I've done this sort of thing before, but a warning that it is a very HOT scalding activity should you lose control of your immersion blender). Ahh....much better.

Double boiler? Really? My jam mixture looked pretty good, gelatinous, and ruby-red. Couldn't i just stop there? Then it hit me -- I was actually in the middle of making the "gel" that today comes in the plastic bag sold in the produce department next to the berries and sponge cakes. Sigh. After an hour into this pie, it had better be worth it.

My double boiler is a dutch oven with boiling water and a stainless-steel salad bowl. Thanks Mary Starr. 15 minutes later the mixture looked exactly the same. I set it aside to cool.

Not Much Assembly Required

I poured the cooled mixture over the berries and placed it in the fridge to chill until dinner time. I did , however, swipe my finger through the jam mixture......fantastic flavor, texture and color. Mmmmm...

Serving Time

After slicing into wedges and topping with Cool Whip (sorry...i was exhausted) we dug in for a first bite. Simply amazing. The shortbread cookie crust was perfectly balanced with the deep berry flavor and the cream cheese mixture prevented what would have otherwise been a soggy crust. It even added the right amount of creaminess in each bite without being too rich. We couldn't stop eating. Originally the remainder of the pie was going to be unloaded on coworkers the next day but we opted to hoard it for ourselves and enjoy it several nights that week. Even after several days the crust remained light and the strawberry mixture fresh and firm in the fridge. A fantastic score -- even with supermarket berries.

Soup Can Score -- Five out of Five Soup Cans