When I volunteered to organize a benefit bake sale for Cookies for Kids' Cancer, I started out thinking of my greatest hits from parties past. Then I went grocery shopping and sobered right up. (Cream cheese is $3.29 a bar now?) Suddenly a friend's advice to another contributor, to make Rice Krispies bars because they're cheap (and sell well), didn't sound so churlish. I want to be generous, but I don't want to be broke, so I bought two pounds of butter (there is no substitute) and headed home to take another look in my baking cabinet. Next morning I had a devil's food cake, coconut-oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and apricot-walnut bars to sell. Scrounging turns out to be very inspiring. At least in an absurdly overstocked kitchen.
I decided on the cake after digging out my mom's 1956 Betty Crocker cookbook, a relic of an era when flourless chocolate cake would have been as alien as raw tuna. I'm a huge fan of cocoa over chocolate, and not just for price reasons, and I remembered lots of cakes made with it. "Real red devil's food" had a little penciled X of approval beside it from when I made it the first time as a 10-year-old, and it still merits one. (I do use Dutch-process cocoa, though, which is much smoother than Hershey's bitterness.)
I couldn't find the only chocolate chip cookie recipe I ever knew as a kid, the one my mom taught me that extended a bag of chips for a family of nine by bulking up the dough with oatmeal. But "cowboy cookies" are all over the series of tubes, so I picked one to adapt and then found I was short on extender. I did have coconut, so I threw that in and produced a big batch of cookies much better than I remember from childhood. Of course, that may be because I did not have to rely on nasty margarine and shortening.
The apricot bars were just a way of using up one of the countless jars of jam gathering dust in a cabinet over the refrigerator. For some reason people are constantly bestowing preserves on two people who would be more likely to eat ketchup on toast. So my old high-yield recipe for "linzer bars," with chopped almonds in a shortbread dough and a filling of raspberry jam, got adapted to what I had: apricot and walnuts.
As for the butter, these days it seems to pay to buy the very best. High-fat, incredible-flavor brands like Plugra and Cabot 83 are actually quite a bit cheaper in some Manhattan markets than the supermarket kind, I guess because they are sold in one-pound blocks, not individually wrapped sticks. I got three desserts from a pound and a half.
Unfortunately, I have to admit what sold out first: the Rice Krispies bars.
Regina Schrambling is best known for her acerbic Web site, gastropoda.com, and blog, gastriques.blogspot.com, but proudest of being a two-time refugee from The New York Times. She left the national desk in 1983 to enroll in the New York Restaurant School and was lured back as deputy editor of the Dining section, from which she resigned in 2002 to become a contract writer for the Los Angeles Times food section. She writes for magazines including Metropolitan Home, New York, Real Food, and Edible Brooklyn, as well as Slate and Salon.
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