Let me begin by saying my mother is an excellent cook. And her mother was an excellent baker. But one key lesson I learned from them and from my own experience is that sometimes, a mix is better than scratch. We already know that using prepared foods can save lots of time. I do think that in cooking, for the most part, making it yourself is almost always better -- though I have no problem with "homemade" being essentially an assemblage of store-bought ingredients.
But when some guilt-inducing commercial comes on and waxes rhapsodic about something (usually cookies or pie or cake) that tastes just like "mom used to make," I have to laugh. My mother, for all her gourmet meals, always stocked cake mixes, brownie mixes and cans of frosting. And she came by that habit rightly.
One afternoon, about 25 years ago, my cousin and I set aside several hours to spend time with my grandmother to learn how she made such delicious matzo balls. We were just learning how to cook and we were very excited about the tradition we'd be carrying on once we learned what went into this time-honored recipe. We put on our aprons, washed our hands and looked at her expectantly as we stood in her warm kitchen.
"Okay," Nana said, "first, you pour the box of Manishewitz mix into the bowl." My cousin and I burst out laughing. Really? This was it? No big secret? How disappointing, and yet so liberating. The Great Matzo Ball Lesson took all of ten minutes. And the product was delicious. And I think of Nana every time I dump the matzo ball mix into the bowl.
Shortly after my husband and I got married, and I was still looking for a job (read: had lots of extra time), I decided to make brownies. From scratch. Because of course, they'd be more authentic and better than brownies from a mix. The recipe was reasonably labor-intensive and involved a double boiler and a considerable amount of standing and stirring. I thought they were quite good, but the deflating comment from the Husband was "these are okay, but I like the ones from a mix better."
There you have it. Sometimes, not only does a mix save time and probably money, but the result is actually better. I say this for certain items only (see my pantry staples above). I mean, who would ever make fruit flavored gelatin dessert from scratch? Maybe someone, but not here. My 11-year-old son is quite the expert Jello maker.
I do have a very good, very easy one dish chili recipe that involves using a corn bread mix on top. It is based on an old recipe I found in Real Simple Magazine several years ago. I include it here and recommend serving it with a side salad for dinner. Delicous and helped by a mix!
One Dish Chili with Corn Bread on Top
2 packages sausages (I use natural or organic spicy chicken)
1/2 cup chili powder
1/2 cup salsa
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
2 cans beans (any kind, I generally use kidney or black), undrained and unrinsed
1 box corn bread mix
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook sausages according to package directions and cut into small pieces.
3. Mix cut up sausages and all other ingredients in a large baking dish.
4. In a separate bowl, prepare corn bread mix according to package directions.
5. Spread corn bread mix over top of prepared chili.
6. Bake for one hour until done.