Monday, February 27, 2012

A Lenten Classic - Tuna Noodle Casserole Deluxe

With the arrival of Ash Wednesday, another season of Lent begins. During these weeks, time is spent reflecting and accounting. Some people choose to give something up for Lent, but I have to admit that I always had a hard time deciding what I to go without that would amount to any real sacrifice. Instead, I found more meaning in doing more good things – donating more to causes I care about, being more patient, praying more, spending time with those who are lonely, volunteering more, and trying to take better care of those I love. How I’ll do with respect to any of these goals is hard to say, but each year I keep trying.

Lent also means, in our Catholic tradition, that we don’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday or on Fridays. I could skip meat every Friday of the year, as they used to practice in the old days, but during Lent it inspires me to think about meatless dishes that are comforting and warm. One classic dish that my mom made frequently was tuna-noodle casserole. I remember how good it tasted! It was made with cream of mushroom soup and lots of love. And while I cook with canned soup from time to time, I wanted to make a version of this casserole that incorporated some of the classic ingredients mom used, but also included some of my own thoughts.

So here is a version that has an extra richness, because instead of the soup I made my own sauce – a bechamel that was seasoned with vegetable bouillon, mushrooms and celery. I added some cheese and French fried onions, and then stuck with old fashioned egg noodles and canned albacore tuna. The end result smells (almost) as good as I remember my mom’s casserole, and each bite warms the heart, body and soul. I’m hoping making this dish puts me a step closer to my Lenten resolve of taking better care of those I love.

Tuna Noodle Casserole Deluxe
1 12-16oz package of wide egg noodles
6 TBSP unsalted butter
6 TBSP flour
3 cups milk (warmed to room temperature)
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
1 12oz can mushrooms (drained)
1 cup finely sliced fresh celery (cooked) -OR- ½ cup celery flakes covered in boiling water and steeped for a half hour
Salt and pepper to taste
3 4oz cans tuna (whatever kind you like best)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup French fried onions

Preheat oven to 350. Cook noodles according to package direction – but cook a couple minutes short of the directed time, as the noodles will cook when the casserole bakes. Set cooked noodles aside.

In a sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat. Once melted, add flour and stir constantly until flour is absorbed and it is smooth. Cook for a minute or two and then add your milk. Continuously stir – mixture will begin to thicken as it approaches the boiling point. Once thick, reduce heat and add bouillon cubes, mushrooms and celery. If you are using celery flakes instead of fresh celery, go ahead and add a couple of tablespoons of the water that the flakes steeped in – it has a great flavor. Remove sauce from heat.

Drain tuna and flake apart. In a large bowl, put cooked noodles (if they have stuck together, quickly rinse them under hot running water), sauce, tuna, one cup of cheese and French fried onions. Gently stir to combine – make sure sauce is distributed over all the noodles. Pour into a greased casserole dish or 9x13 baking dish. Top with remaining one cup of cheese and a handful of fried onions. Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes. Remove and uncover. Let stand for about five minutes and serve. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

New Life For An Old Recipe - Making Prune Cake

A couple of weeks ago there was a package waiting for me when I finally arrived home after a long day. Once glance at the return address and my heart raced with excitement and curiosity. It was from my friend Hans in North Carolina. I didn’t know what the box contained, but I knew it would be something I would appreciate, because Hans and I like the same kind of stuff.
Hans is a friend that I have yet to meet. We know each other virtually, as is so much the custom now with all our technology. We are both members of an online community known as It’s a home for folks who are interested in vintage appliances – mostly automatic washing machines (as the name implies) and dryers, but there are a few of us who have a strong passion for vintage ranges and refrigerators. It’s a wonderful forum to share stories and photos of the things we lug home, find at garage sales and estate sales or inherit from family and friends.

Digging through the newspaper that was stuffed in the box, I came across some old cookbooks, one of them by Mrs. Mary Martensen (she was a home economist who wrote a column in the Chicago Evening American, among others) and the other written in 1964 by Betty Feezor, who hosted a widely watched television show in the 1950’s through the 1970’s in North Carolina and Virginia. Hans has posted a number of Betty’s recipes online, and many of us gave them a try – all with positive results. Her recipes tend to be straightforward, easy to prepare and big on flavor. I see why she had such a following for so many years. Here in Detroit, I never knew the name Betty Feezor, but I am grateful to Hans for introducing her to me (her spaghetti sauce recipe is a personal favorite!).

And buried under the cookbooks and crumpled newspaper was a beautiful 1954 Westinghouse hand mixer! White with a grey handle and big red on/off button, the chrome beaters still sparkled like new. Within less than a minute I had those beaters in the sockets and the mixer plugged in and it played beautiful music as it whirred away.  Hans knows how much I love my Westinghouse stoves (I have a few!) and he wanted me to have a mixer to go with them – it was the perfect gift!

In tribute to Hans’ generosity, I wanted to come up with a way to celebrate these wonderful gifts, so as I was engrossed in the pages of the Betty Feezor cookbook, I came across a recipe for prune cake. Now this I had to make! I love prunes and anything made with prunes – and while prunes are often made fun of, they deliver a flavor and texture that is often underrated. Making a prune cake would also give me the opportunity to put that beautiful Westinghouse mixer into proper service, so this cake was a done deal.

Yes, the cake was easy to prepare and it was moist! I modified the amount of spices a bit to suit my own preferences and I didn’t include any nuts (because I forgot to buy some), so I increased the amount of prunes. The Westinghouse mixer did a superb job bringing it all together, and the Westinghouse range baked it beautifully. As good as this cake is, the thing that took it over the top is the icing, which is really a caramel glaze that partially soaks into the top of the cake – incredible!

So, thanks Hans, for the thoughtful gifts. You supplied the recipe, the mixer and the inspiration to bring one of Betty’s best cakes into 2012!

Betty Feezor’s Prune Cake

1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground allspice
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups chopped prunes
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts – I left these out)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, blend sugar and oil together. Add eggs and beat well. Add dry ingredients (flour, soda, spices) alternately with buttermilk (start and end with dry ingredients). Stir in vanilla, prunes and nuts. Pour batter into a greased and floured tube pan and bake for 45 minutes.

When cake is finished baking, allow to cool in pan for 15 – 20 minutes on rack. Carefully remove cake from pan and return to rack. Put a layer of waxed paper or foil under cooling rack to catch icing. Prepare icing.

In a saucepan, combine:
1 cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk
½ tsp baking soda
1 TBSP light corn syrup
¼ cup butter
½ tsp vanilla

Bring contents to a boil over medium high heat until it reaches soft ball stage (use a candy thermometer for this), which is 238-240 degrees. It will be a dark amber color and thick. Pour this over cake (which should still be warm). It will drip down the sides of the cake, but most will hold to the top of cake. You’ll want to eat the icing that pools on the waxed paper under the rack – it’s like the best caramel you’ve ever had!  Allow cake and icing to cool completely before serving. It will keep for days if kept well covered.