15 Feb

A call for home-baked desserts for our school’s father-daughter dance went out about a week before the event, which was fantastic. I called dibs on a pan of blondies, bought the ingredients, and planned to bake them the morning they were to be dropped off. I’ve learned over the years to schedule that sort of thing in my calendar, or I’ll accidently book up the time with story interviews or writing and such, and the day filled up quickly around the baking date I’d set for myself.

The day before, a reminder email came out. Along with a plea to ‘pink up’ our baked goods–make them girly and Valentine-y and beautiful. Fun! But…didn’t fit into my baking time, and there was little time for shopping for new ingredients.


I had to run to the store Friday morning for something else, and my eye fell across a bag of pink and red Valentine’s M&Ms.


Perfect. The candies went into my cart, the blondies were baked as planned, and life was grand again. I just substituted the Valentine’s chocolates for regular chocolate chips, which gave my blondies a nice pink and red top that the girls loved–my daughter reported that she visited the dessert table at the exact moment the last one was claimed by another girl.

Improvising is a great skill to have in the kitchen, and it’ll save you a lot of time and worry as you perfect it. Think of recipes as loose guidelines rather than be-all, end-all formulas. Pay attention to ingredients–if this tastes and has a similar mouth feel as that, you can likely substitute one for the other with little ill effect.

I’ve told you before that I frequently make dishes meant for beef, using chicken instead. Chicken has little taste on its own and a firm texture that stands up to all sorts of cooking methods, so it’s a great substitute in just about any recipe that calls for cow. It has a similar mouth feel and soaks up the flavor of whatever you cook it with. Versatile.

Thinking of a chicken dish but have no fowl in the freezer? Try a white fish instead. Rockfish, cod, or halibut will often cook up just fine in a chicken dish (think chicken parmesan, lemon chicken…a dish that calls for pan-cooking or oven baking.). And sometimes you can reverse the above and use beef for chicken, if the sauce or marinate is strong enough.

There are great ways to make other substitutions in recipes, too, if you forgot to pick something up at the store. Red and white wine are pretty interchangeable in dishes–the only downside is that red wine can sometimes turn a white-wine dish purple (which my kids think is the bomb, so play it up!). You can also use apple juice or chicken broth in a dish that calls for wine. A mixture of onion and garlic is a great substitute for shallots. Butter can stand in for shortening and vice-versa (tho I usually use less butter than I would shortening, or things can get greasy). White sugar stirred together with some molasses can substitute for brown sugar, and a tablespoon of vinegar mixed into regular milk makes a fantastic faux-buttermilk if you’re baking.

Thinking outside the box can save you that extra trip to the store, which is key on our busy weekdays. I’d love to hear about your improvisations!

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