Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creamed Beef

My Venture into Cafeteria Cuisine

I've been feeling nostalgic so I wanted to post a recipe inspired by foods served in school cafeterias. When I was researching ideas on what to post, I looked at the lunch menus at dozens of schools across the U.S. I was SHOCKED with what I saw. Today, many schools serve mostly prepared processed food such as corn dogs, chicken nuggets, and pre-made burritos. It's sad that many American kids get nothing but the equivalent of heavily processed fast food for both breakfast and lunch. In larger school districts, in fact, I'm not sure that they actually make ANYTHING from scratch. It seems like the only thing they do is heat up commercially made food items that are little more than TV dinners. Smaller school districts seemed to fare better. They often had, what appeared to be, a mixture of home-style and commercially made foods. One day very soon, I fear the good old days of lunchroom staples like homemade cinnamon rolls, freshly made meatloaf, Salisbury steaks, mashed potatoes, and fresh-from-the-oven baked cookies will be relics of the past. Sad. Wow. I'm beginning to sound like my grandmother!

Today's recipe is known by many names:
1) Sh*t on a Shingle
2) S.O.S.
3) Creamed Beef on Toast
4) Chipped Beef on Toast
5) Creamed Chipped Beef

It's an oldie but a goodie. Popularized by the U.S. military decades ago, this was also a popular item in school cafeterias when I was growing up. The dish is traditionally made with chipped beef but variations made with ground beef are also very popular today. The Navy also has their own version which uses onions, tomatoes, and nutmeg. Traditionally, the gravy is served on toast (the shingle) but may be served over mashed potatoes, biscuits, or waffles (a personal favorite). For some, waffles may sound like a weird accompaniment. I visited a restaurant many years ago that served creamed beef on waffles and, before I tried it, I thought to myself, "Nooooo. This is just wrong." So of course I had to try it. But after one bite, I was hooked! It's actually a great combination. Freaky but tasty.

Creamed Beef is hard to reinvent. It's comfort food at its finest. I started out by identifying things I DIDN'T like in Creamed Beef recipes that I had tried in the past. Chipped beef is very salty (and I'm a saltaholic!) so I don't like to use it for Creamed Beef. Some recipes seem to be VERY stingy with the meat. Sometimes, I feel like a crime scene investigator searching for evidence of meat in the gravy. Often times, the gravy was not cooked long enough for the flavors to meld and for the meat to soften. In addition, the gravy was frequently pasty and screaming for flavor. It would also be nice for the dish to have a little color. Without any color, it looks a little sad and uninteresting. Could I make a version that was worthy of being called Sh*t on a Shingle? The pressure was on.

After a lot of testing, I decided I liked adding the scallions for both flavor and color. Red chili flakes woke up the flavor and I like the little specs of red permeating the gravy. The gravy is simmered longer than many recipes – but not so long that the meat turns into baby food. In the end, the dish was tasty and comforting like good, ol' fashioned creamed beef is supposed to be.

When I was growing up, I loved my school's peanut butter bars. They were sweet and crunchy (from maybe Wheaties or Corn Flakes stirred in). That brings back great memories! What was your favorite lunchroom food when you were growing up? Leave a comment at the end of this page and let us know. I hope you enjoy today's recipe – and happy reminiscing!

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Creamed Beef (Sh*t on a Shingle)
(Printable Version)

4 TBSP butter
1 bunch scallions (white, light green, and most of the dark green parts), finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c flour
3 1/2 c milk (2% works great)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste), optional
1 1b lean ground beef
3/4 c heavy cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (or to taste), optional
Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauce pan, melt the butter. Add the scallions and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add the flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the milk, red pepper flakes, some salt and pepper then whisk to smooth. Bring to a light simmer (but do not boil).

While you are waiting for the sauce to begin simmering, heat a dutch oven over medium heat. Add the ground beef and some salt and pepper. Brown the ground beef – making sure to break it into small pieces as it cooks. You will not be draining the ground beef after it's browned so be sure to buy leaner cut.

When the meat has browned, pour the sauce into the pot with the ground beef and stir to combine. If the sauce had not started to simmer by the time the hamburger was brown, no problem. Throw it into the ground beef anyway. Bring the gravy to a simmer then lightly simmer for 20 minutes (uncovered) – turning down the heat as needed to keep it from boiling. Add the cream and the Worcestershire sauce (if using) then stir to combine. Return the mixture to a light simmer and heat 5 minutes longer. Too thick? Add a little more milk. Too thin? Let it simmer a few minutes longer. The gravy will thicken as it cools. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve on mashed potatoes, toast, biscuits, or waffles.

Recipe Notes:
1) If you want to lighten this recipe up, use lean ground beef or turkey. Skip the cream and just use a total of 4 1/4 cups of 2% milk. If I worked in a school cafeteria, this is how I would make it for the kids.
2) If you don't like Worcestershire sauce, feel free to leave it out. I like it so I always add extra.
3) If you are partial to chipped beef, feel free to use it instead of ground beef. However, I would not add any extra salt unless it is needed at the end.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fluffernutter Bread Pudding

My Venture into Bread Pudding

Have you ever heard of a fluffernutter sandwich? If you're from the northeastern part of the U.S., you probably have. It's a sandwich made with peanut butter and marshmallow crème. Very yummy. If you make it like a grilled cheese sandwich, it's exceptionally yummy. Those wonderful fluffernutter sandwiches were the inspiration for this bread pudding recipe.

When I was developing this recipe, I made it 4 billion times – tweaking things here and there until I got it the way I liked it. I can now say that I'm officially SICK of bread pudding and I never want to taste or smell peanut butter again. This leads me to a story.

Last week, I was driving through the campus where I work. I was singing along to Katy Perry's "California Gurls" when an approaching car unexpectedly turned in front of me going, like, .000001 mph. It came as no surprise that a blue-haired old lady was driving the car. I don't want to speculate about how old she was but I'm confident she learned to drive chariots when Ramses II was Pharaoh. I slammed on my brakes and it took every ounce of self-restraint I had to not give her a friendly, one-finger wave. However, it's hard to flip off mummified old ladies when you're been singing offkey to perky music. Upon closer observation, I realized she was attempting to turn onto a sidewalk instead of the entrance of a nearby parking lot. A long time ago, the University put up some short cement pillars at the entrance of the sidewalk so that confused drivers wouldn't turn onto it thinking it was the entrance of an interstate freeway or something. I fully expected the driver, after realizing the cement pillars were blocking her path down the sidewalk, to back up and get the hell out of my way. No. She sat there…HONKING HER HORN. Yes. Honking her horn. So I thought, "Well, maybe she's having a heart attack or something…". So, I got out of my car and asked if anything was wrong. She rolled down her window and exclaimed in an irritated voice, "Well, I keep honkin' my horn but nobody's openin' the gate!" I just stared back and blinked. I then explained that the cement barricade was not a gate and the "road" she was trying to turn onto was actually a sidewalk. "A SIDEWALK?!", she bellowed back. I then pointed out where she should turn to get into the parking lot. Meanwhile, cars were backing up in both directions because she was blocking both lanes in her huge grandma-mobile that was only slightly smaller than the Nile riverboats I'm sure she rode in as a child. She then started backing up and I walked back to my car. I got in my car and she was still backing up. I put my car in gear and adjusted the air conditioning and she was still backing up. After what seemed like 14 days, her back tires finally hit the opposite curb, she put her boat in drive, and she went on her merry way.

What does this have to do with Fluffernutter Bread Pudding? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I just could not bring myself to write about bread pudding or peanut butter. Did I mention that I was sick of bread pudding and peanut butter? So go put on some Lawrence Welk and make some of this fantastic bread pudding! Enjoy – and happy fluffernuttering!

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Fluffernutter Bread Pudding
(Printable Version)

15 - 16 oz french bread (or your favorite bread), crust removed, and cut into 1" cubes
6 eggs
1/2 c sugar
4 c half-and-half
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c butter, melted
1 1/2 c peanut butter
7 oz jar Marshmallow Fluff

Preheat the oven to 300F. Add the cubed bread to a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Do not allow the bread to brown. This dries out the bread so the custard readily absorbs into the bread. After you pull the cubed bread out of the oven, let them cool for about 5 minutes.

While the bread is drying out, combine the eggs and sugar and whisk aggressively for about a minute. Add the half-and-half, salt, and vanilla and whisk to combine. Set aside.

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the butter, peanut butter, and Marshmallow Fluff. Microwave the mixture for about 60 seconds then whisk until thoroughly combined. Heat the mixture for another 45 seconds or until the mixture is thin and free of any lumps after being whisked. Slowly whisk the hot mixture into with the bowl with the half-and-half. Whisk until smooth. The peanut butter will leach out a little bit but don't worry about it.

Transfer the dried bread cubes into the custard mixture and stir to combine. Increase the oven temperature to 325F. Gently stir the bread every minute or so for 5 minutes to ensure the custard is being absorbed evenly. Stir the mixture one final time then pour the bread mixture into a 4-quart casserole dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Allow the mixture to rest for 5 additional minutes without stirring. After 5 minutes, use the back of a spoon to push down the bread to give it one more dunk before baking. Bake for about 50 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out relatively clean. Let the pudding rest for at least 15 minutes (preferably 30 minutes) before serving. It should be served warm but not hot. If desired, drizzle with a some Peanut Butter Glaze (recipe follows).

Peanut Butter Glaze
2 TBSP peanut butter
1/4 c milk (plus additional as needed)
1 1/3 c powdered sugar

Place the peanut butter and milk in a medium bowl and microwave for about 30 seconds. Whisk until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and whisk thoroughly to combine. If the glaze is too thick, add more milk. If it is too thin, add more powdered sugar.

1) To make a Fluffernutter Nanner Bread Pudding, add some chopped bananas to the mixture before baking.
2) Some bread puddings are on the drier side – especially the part that's directly exposed to the heat in the oven. Some are on the moist side. This recipe makes a moist, old-style bread pudding.
3) During recipe development, I tried making this with as much as 2 cups of peanut butter. That was just too peanut-buttery for my taste – especially if you put the glaze on top. I also tried it with as little as one cup of peanut butter. With only 1 cup of peanut butter, you could barely tell any was in there. If you're a peanut-butter-aholic, try it with 2 cups of peanut butter sometime. That's not my thing but you might like it.
4) I have not tested this recipe with natural peanut butter.
5) If you like your desserts on the sweeter side, feel free to double the glaze recipe.
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