Like any college girl, I get homesick sometimes. And when I get homesick, I tend to do one of two things: I go to the local diner and get a grilled cheese sandwich served to me by a waitress who calls me “sugar baby” (yes, they really do still exist), or I make a casserole. Yes, despite growing up in hippy-dippy Berkeley, California, I managed to eat casseroles throughout my childhood. And my absolute favourite, the créme de la créme, is tuna noodle casserole.

So, when I was feeling kind of down and missing my friends (and mourning the fact that there is no good Chinese food here), I whipped up a batch, and remembered to take pictures. So, here is my recipe for that old casserole classic, straight from my family to you, my homesick collegiates:

You will need:

1 package of pasta, about 8 oz. (I recommend “short” pasta like bowtie or macaroni, but you could use something like spaghetti or linguine– just be sure to break the pieces up to make it more manageable)
1 can of tuna (whatever kind you prefer. Tuna in water is cheaper, but I prefer the kind in oil)
1 can of condensed Cream of Mushroom soup
1 cup of milk
1 cup of crushed potato chips (one single-serving bag of potato chips is the perfect size for this)

Most of these ingredients are pantry staples in my world, save for the potato chips– I recommend stocking up on pasta and tuna, since they’re shelf-stable and pretty dang cheap, too.

Alright, now we cook. First off, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the directions on the package (I don’t really need to detail this, do I? I’ll do a “how to cook pasta” post later this week). While a watched pot does, in fact, boil, it will feel like eleventy million years if you just sit there and stare at it. Instead, you can take care of the rest of the prep for the casserole.

First, preheat your oven to 375 degrees Farenheit (190 degrees Celsius), and lightly grease a casserole dish– mine is 8″ x 12″. As for the greasing agent, I love cooking spray, but I totally won’t tell if you want to use butter.

After that’s done, combine the milk and the soup in a small bowl, and stir to combine:

(yes, I realize how disgusting this will look. I promise, it’s worth it)

and open and drain the can of tuna:

Once the pasta’s done cooking, drain the excess water out and pour it into your prepared dish, then top with a layer of tuna:

(you’ll probably want to break the tuna up with a fork before you put it onto the pasta. That way, you’ll avoid big chunks and get a more even tuna distribution pattern)

Then, pour the milk/soup mixture over everything, pressing a little on the pasta to make sure every noodle is covered:

(yeah, yeah, I know. It looks disgusting. Bear with me.)

Finish by topping it with a layer of crushed potato chips, then bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown and delicious!

I couldn’t resist have a big heaping portion of it before taking a picture of the finished product– it’s just that good. Also, this does fantastic in the freezer; portioned up and tightly wrapped, it’ll keep just fine for a month or two. The potato chips get a little funny if you reheat it in the microwave, but if you’re lucky enough to have a toaster oven it does beautifully.

Also, don’t tell anyone… but I can totally eat a whole pan of this in one day if no one’s looking. I love living by myself sometimes.


Pardon Our Dust…

Cooks With Class is moving! I’m just about done settling into my apartment, so watch this space for more cooking again soon!

Today is an Important Day

(hey guys, long time no see! School ate my brain, and well… this blog’s supposed to be about how not to subsist on Ramen, which is what I’ve been doing.)

Today is, indeed, an important day. Today is my darling mother’s birthday.

(I swear to whatever God you hold dear that she is normally more sane than this)

My darling mother celebrates an undisclosed number of years today, and I wish I could be there to celebrate with her (damn this whole “college” thing). Luckily, I’ll be seeing her tomorrow, so I’m not too sad.

My mom is the best kind of mommy– caring and attentive, unconditionally accepting of whatever I wanted to do (yes, even the “Dungeons & Dragons” thing), always has a bit of advice about everything, and a phenomenal cook.

Mom taught me pretty much everything I know about being in the kitchen (the rest I learned from Alton Brown). She taught me how to scramble eggs, what to do if the sweet potatoes catch fire (don’t ask– but if you need to know, baking soda will put out pretty much any kitchen fire), how to separate an egg without the use of a fancy gadget, how to buy avocados, and so much more.

My mom’s the reason this blog exists.

Happy birthday, Mom. Hope today is everything you want it to be. I’ll see you tomorrow!


The Sweet Life

When it comes to sweets, I’m not really your “typical” girl. I don’t tend to crave chocolate or candy or anything of the like, even during certain times of the month (you all know what I’m talking about). That being said, I do make an exception for a few types of desserts. We’re in the midst of midterms here at UC Santa Cruz, and when I’m under a lot of stress I tend to reach for warm, rich comfort foods like bread pudding. It’s warm and sweet and comforting, the kind of dessert that can be eaten for breakfast with little to no guilt, too. It also has the added bonus of being cheap to make, and only takes about an hour from start to finish.

I tend to make it with a loaf of Cinnamon Twist Challah, made by a local bakery (Semifreddi’s), but I highly recommend using any kind of dense, springy bread. It’ll soak up all the goodness of the custard mixture and make a super-decadent confection that’ll leave you coming back for more.

Read on for my recipe…

As always, gather up your ingredients.

You will need:

6 slices of day-old bread, or about half a loaf (try challah, brioche, or French bread)
2 tbsp. butter, melted
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk
3/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract (as always, use the best you can afford. It really makes a difference)

To start, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius), then thickly slice your bread if it’s not already.

(I will reiterate what Baker Nerd told me a long time ago: “A sharp knife is a safe knife”. Keeps your knives in good condition– it might just save your fingers!)

Don’t worry about making the slices pretty– they’re just going to get pulled apart. Tear the bread into small pieces (I aim for around the size of a postage stamp) and place inside an 8 x 8 baking dish, then pour the melted butter over them.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Beat with a fork until well mixed– the mixture should resemble a pancake batter, or thick scrambled eggs, when you’re done.

Pour the mixture over the bread, lightly pushing down on it to make sure that every piece is evenly covered.

Put into your preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes. The pudding is done when the top is golden brown and crispy, and it springs back if pushed on lightly. Let cool, serve, and enjoy your much-deserved break from Syntax and Phonology (okay, those last two are probably just me).

How to Feed an Army…

… of gamers, that is.

So, my D&D group meets on Thursdays, but occasionally we also get together for a nice evening of board games every now and then, hosted by Chien and I. There are six of us, so I’ve had to get somewhat creative about how to feed everyone without breaking the bank (because really, you can only eat so much pizza). Normally, I make a big bowl of pasta, but there’s a little snag: Chien is on a low-carbohydrate diet. Serving a big bowl of pasta would be incredibly insulting to a dear friend of mine. So, I thought to myself, what can I make easily and cheaply, and in large quantities?

Of course! Soup!

Once again, I run into the problem of cooking for vegetarians. Not that I consider that a problem, really; it just takes a little extra thought. I’m quite fond of the onion and mushroom soup over at Epicurious, but two of our veggie-lovers are not big fans of mushrooms. I’ve been wanting to try a vegetarian version of French onion soup for a while, so I settled on that. Plus, it would serve as proof to myself that I can cut onions without running screaming from the room, dammit!

Read on for the recipe, plus my modifications to make it suitable for vegetarians…

I’m a big fan of Alton Brown, host of Food Network’s “Good Eats”. It’s a great cooking show, full of lots of good recipes and interesting factoids. He really makes an effort to explain the science behind what’s happening in your saucepan. I used his recipe, which turned out super-delicious, and was exactly enough for six people. Alton’s recipe calls for beef consommé and chicken broth, so I used vegetable broth instead, with a hearty amount of soy sauce to provide that umami flavour you’d get from the meat.

As always, we’ll need to start by gathering up our ingredients

For this recipe (with my modifications), you will need:

5 sweet onions (like Vidalias) or a combination of sweet and red onions (about 4 pounds)
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
20 ounces vegetable broth
10 ounces apple cider (unfiltered is best, but use what you can afford)
Bouquet garni; thyme sprigs, bay leaf and parsley tied together with kitchen string
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
Soy sauce, to taste

First step is to prepare the onions. Take a nice, sturdy knife (a chef’s knife if you have one) and cut the sides off of each end.

This’ll make it really easy to peel the skin off. Just get a fingernail under one of the cut ends, and strip it off. It should come off in a few big pieces. After you’re done peeling, slice the onions in half against the “grain” (the vertical lines running along the circumference).

Leave the onions cut side down (this will reduce the water-works, and make it easier to cut) and slice them into half-moons.

With this recipe, the thinner you can slide the onions the better, but don’t sweat it too much. What’s most important is you try to get your slices even in thickness. The onions will cook more evenly if you do.

Speaking of cooking… we’re ready to get our groove on. Place a large soup pot over medium heat, and add the butter.

(yes, I know it looks like a lot. But remember, we have a lot of onions to took. Plus, it’s a French recipe.)

Once the butter has melted, add a layer of onions, then a layer of salt. Continue doing this until all the onions are in the pot.

Don’t try stirring them until they’ve had a chance to cook down for 15 or 20 minutes– doing so will just create a huge mess. Once they’ve started to cook down a little, stir occasionally until the onions have turned a nice dark brown colour and have reduced to about two cups. This should take about 45 minutes to an hour.

When AB says “don’t worry about burning”, he’s not lying. Seriously. Don’t worry about them burning. Let ’em. They’ll just add even more flavour to the soup. It’s like the zen of soup. Relax. Let it go. Let the onions burn. Ooooohm…

Anyway. Once the onions are done reducing, deglaze the pan with a generous splash of soy sauce (“deglaze” is just a fancy term for “add liquid and use a spoon to scrape up all the tasty bits on the bottom of the pan”), then add the vegetable broth, apple juice, and bouquet garni. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Lastly, season the soup with salt and pepper to taste (you may have to add more soy sauce to get a properly savoury soup, depending on whether or not you used low-sodium broth), and you’re ready to eat! Of course, for a more traditional serving, follow AB’s instructions for serving the soup in bowls topped with bread and melty cheese. Unless you have friends who are avoiding carbs, like me. Then just ladle it into bowls and offer your friends croutons and grated cheese so they can fix their own, and enjoy!

Board games and liquid nitrogen ice cream optional.

Tasty, Tasty Science

Guess what I did this weekend?

Hint: it involves separatory funnels, and Chien in a lab coat:

Yes, that’s right. We made ice cream using liquid nitrogen! Chien does this piece of culinary science at BayCon, a local science fiction convention here in California, and I usually play his lovely assistant. Well, he was asked to do it for work, and he had some left over, so we brought it over to the movie night we go to on Sundays. Why? Because science always goes over well with this crowd, and you can’t go wrong with ice cream!

(This part produces lots of cool fog-like stuff. Think dry ice, but colder.)

Our version of Dippin’ Dots. Every time Chien and I do this at BayCon, someone suggests that we call them “BayCon Bits”. Given my love for all things bacon, I’m totally in favor of this name. 😀

We still had a tiny bit left, so we’ll be playing with it a little more tomorrow night, at a games night I’m hosting. Also, I’ll be attempting a vegetarian version of French Onion soup, so tune in later this week for a post on the results of that, too!

The Family Meat

Like so many of us these days, I come from a somewhat dysfunctional family. In my case, I have a less-than-stellar relationship with my father, but there is thing involving him that I always remember fondly: meat.

See, my mother was the family cook; she made almost all of our meals, and taught me to cook at a young age. However, my darling mother is a vegetarian, and my father is not. Anything that came off of an animal was usually Dad’s domain to handle, and he passed on some of his knowledge to me.

Now, I live by myself, so I don’t always get the chance to cook meat dishes for me: it’s somewhat pricey and I can’t always eat everything I make before it goes bad. So, when I found myself with a hankering for my Dad’s ribs, I knew I was going to need some assistance. Enter my lovely dinner guest:

This is my dear friend Chien (nickname used at his request), who is one of my very favourite people, and someone I enjoy cooking for on a semi-regular basis. He was very eager to come over and help me eat the slab of porcine deliciousness I pulled out of my oven. He was also the one who suggested that I make brownies– good idea, man!

All in all, we both enjoyed the ribs very much, and the brownies were sublime, but I probably could have stood to have a little more patience and leave the ribs in the oven for another half hour or so. They were still quite delicious, but would have been even more tender and succulent with a little extra cooking time. Remember: patience is key when it comes to meaty deliciousness!!

Read on for the recipe…

Now really, ribs aren’t all that hard to make; as long as you have an oven, it can be done. My dad’s recipe has you season the ribs with a dry rub: a flavourful mixture of sugar, garlic, and other goodies. The ribs are then baked in a low-temperature oven for most of the afternoon until they are sticky and delicious, and almost fall-off-the-bone tender. No barbecue sauce needed!

The only real deterrent to you, my collegiate friends, might be price. Meat can be somewhat pricey, especially if you care about the quality and ethics that the animal was raised/killed with. My favourite place to find good deals on fresh meat products are carnicerias, or the butcher’s counter of your local Hispanic market. If you’re not lucky enough to have one nearby (I live in California; there’s one in every city), then check your local Megamart for good deals and stock up. Most cuts of meat will keep well in the freezer, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, for quite some time.

My dad’s recipe calls for two pounds of pork ribs– I like baby back, but use whatever you like/can afford. I already had everything else in my pantry (nearly all the spices in the dry rub are kitchen staples), so total for the meal was around $8-10 for the meat, and $2 for the acccompanying salad.

Now that we’ve sorted out our economic problems, we’re ready to start. First up: the prep. For what we’re cooking this time, this step is three-fold. To begin, preheat your oven to 225 degrees Farenheit (~107 degrees Celsius):

(note: Even the most sophisticated of ovens can lie. An inexpensive oven thermometer is your best friend!)

Next, cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil:

(This is to ensure a quick and easy clean-up. Also, a good courtesy if you have roommates who keep Kosher.)

And gather up the ingredients for your dry rub:

For this recipe, you will need:

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/8 cup salt (preferably kosher salt, but use what you can afford)
1/2 tsp black pepper (about ten twists, if using a pepper grinder)
1 tsp. garlic powder

Now that we’ve got everything together, we’re ready to begin. Dump all the rub ingredients into a bowl:

And mix well, using your fingers to break up any big clumps of brown sugar:

(note: make sure to wash your hands after this step! Otherwise, you may forget and rub your eyes with your chili-covered fingers, like I did. Ouch!)

Now that our dry rub is ready, we can bring out our main player: the ribs.

Lay the ribs out on your prepared baking sheet and remove whatever packaging they came in.

Mine were in a vacuum-sealed bag, so I was able to just slit the packaging down the side and lift them out. Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel, and sprinkle about half of the dry rub onto one side.

(I know it looks like a lot. Trust me, you’ll want to use that much)

Wash your hands well with soap and warm water, and work the rub into the meat (hence, why it’s called a “rub”)

(This is about when you should take off any jewelry you wear on your hands)

Then repeat on the other side.

Cover the finished ribs with more aluminum foil, creating a sort of “tent”.

This traps juices from the meat and keeps them from running off into your oven, and also helps keep the ribs super tender. Lastly, place into your preheated oven for 4-5 hours, and wait (im)patiently for them to be done.

(Note: this is a great time to do stuff like your neglected laundry, or study for that Phonology exam you have tomorrow)

When they’re done, the ribs will be moist and delicious, and fall-off-the-bone tender. Serve with a nice fresh green salad, and enjoy!