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I’m still on my Laura Ingalls Wilder kick; Melissa Gilbert, who’s now old enough to portray Ma, will be in Raleigh this week for the musical version of “Little House,” and do I wish I could go. We’ve been having such fun making cheese lately (I really do want chickens and a cow for my birthday … and really know I am getting neither), and I think often of what a privilege it is to make these things for the fun of it, rather than, like Ma, because I must if we want to eat.

It’s more than just fun, of course: I make this food and do my summer canning because it gives me control over what goes in our bodies. We’re in such a weird, tug-of-war food time in this country; I routinely read articles about the latest nonsense from industrial food companies targeting children for their newest junk alongside articles about the campaigns to fight childhood obesity and teach our kids the deliciousness of home-cooked foods.

It’s obvious which side I’m on, but I often want to retreat from the fight and just head for the kitchen to bake something soothing. Today’s snack suggestion gets me there, going back to the basics of bread and butter. A slice of oatmeal bread with a thin slick of butter fulfills many of my snack requirements: It’s pretty good for you; it requires chewing, so eating it takes longer and feels more satisfying; and it’s versatile. This bread is moist enough that you can skip all toppings, or use jam or nut butter instead, or toast it for a little more crunch that the butter can melt into. The basic loaf takes to all sorts of additions, from chocolate chips to dried fruit to nuts and spices. Terrific with a glass of milk, it’s also great with a cup of tea, a grown-up treat my children love.

And it doesn’t get much easier than this, a batter bread that requires no kneading. I’m planning a bread series, but you don’t need the tips and techniques it will have for this recipe. Just mix, plunk into a pan and bake. Just like Ma.

Recipe: Oatmeal Batter Bread

Oatmeal Batter Bread

Wednesday, March 17, [email protected] 12:20 PM

Makes 1 loaf

I love recipes that lend themselves to variations, and this one certainly does. It’s based on my recipe for Orange-Thyme Oatmeal Batter Bread in Morning Glories, my book on breakfast food with herbs. This bread takes well to cinnamon, raisins, dried cranberries, chocolate chips and all sorts of nuts. Use 1 to 1/2 cups of any add-ins; if you want to add cinnamon, try 2 teaspoons mixed in with the dry ingredients. You could also use dark brown sugar instead of light brown for a deeper flavor.

2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast, or 1 envelope very fresh active dry yeast

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or coarse salt

1/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup rolled oats

1 1/4 cups very warm tap water (about 120 degrees), or 3/4 cup warm water and 1/2 cup warmed milk or orange juice

Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, flour, salt and brown sugar. Add butter, oats and water.  Beat on low speed to combine, then raise speed to high and beat for 2 minutes.

Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top, and cover with a piece of greased plastic wrap (I stretch the wrap out from the box, spray with cooking-oil spray, and then tear it off). Set near (but not on) the oven or in another warm spot and let it rise for 20 minutes (I have two ovens, so I set the bread in the cold oven with a small pan of boiling water). Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Remove plastic and bake the bread for 30 minutes, until the loaf is golden sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack.

Related column: Snack Attack: Oatmeal Batter Bread

PB&J Cookies

Friday, March 12, [email protected] 12:05 PM

Makes about 5 dozen

These cookies (yes, they really are flourless) are also great as classic PB cookies if you just criss-cross the tops with a fork before baking. And feel free to play with them, adding a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, or about a cup of chocolate chips or mini M&Ms. Drizzle the tops with melted chocolate, or press a mini Hershey’s kiss into the tops as soon as they come out of the oven.

1 cup creamy or crunchy peanut butter

1 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg

1 teaspoon baking soda

Jam or jelly, about 3/4 cup to 1 cup, whisked

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl with an electric mixer, beat together peanut butter and sugar until well mixed. Beat in egg, then baking soda, until well mixed.

Roll (or scoop) teaspoons of dough into balls and place about 1 inch apart on greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, until pale golden and barely set, about 12  minutes.

As soon as these cookies come out of the oven, make a small indentation in each with the handle of a wooden spoon, or some other small round object. (These are thumbprint cookies, but your thumb will get burned.) Let cookies cool, then fill tops with about 1 teaspoon jam. (If you’re not eating the cookies in a day or two, store them without the jam, then fill as needed.) Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Related column: Snack Attack: PB&J Cookies

Oh, a peanut sat

On a railroad track,

His heart was all a-flutter,

When round the bend

Came the number ten.

Toot! Toot! Peanut butter!

Does anyone sing this anymore? Far better than the annoying and endless “first you take the peanuts and you crunch ’em, you crunch ’em” ditty.

Kicking off the weekly snack posts, here’s a quick, versatile cookie with peanut butter flavor that’ll roar at you like the No. 10. I’ve heard tell of kids who don’t like peanut butter, but I’ve never met one; in my house, we have peanut butter fanatics. These cookies will soothe any PB craving, and without  much guilt for the baker. I’ve tried cutting back a bit on the sugar, but it doesn’t really work, given the lack of other supporting ingredients. Avoid reduced-fat peanut butter, which is already pumped up with sugar. These cookies also freeze really well — perfect to pull out for a lunchbox.

If you make these, tell me how they came out! And do get your kids involved — these are as easy as they come.

Recipe: PB&J Cookies

Question: When recipes call for small amounts of buttermilk in baking, what can I use if I don’t have any on hand?

Answer: It’s easy to make a substitution for buttermilk, so don’t let that hold you back. Just stir together 1/2 cup whole milk with either 1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar or lemon juice, or 1 tablespoon cream of tartar. If you use low-fat milk, vinegar or lemon juice are the best choices. Let stand at room temperature 10 to 15 minutes, until it thickens and curdles. Whisk before using.

The other choice is to buy powdered buttermilk (usually stocked in the baking aisle, with powdered and evaporated milks). According to the directions on the can, mix the powder with the dry ingredients in the recipe, then add water where the recipe says to add buttermilk.

Ordinarily, I see a few movies per decade; I’d much rather read a book than have a story told to me on screen. I’ve smashed all my movie-going records in recent months, though, with the revival of a downtown movie theater that shows classics for $3 a ticket. I’ve seen Judy Garland marvel at Oz, had a “Gone with the Wind” date night (complete with supper at intermission), and, on Sunday, met friends for a toe-tapping “Mary Poppins.”

Unfortunately, my toes keep tapping, because I can’t get “Sister Suffragette” out of my head. Which came in handy this morning, when I read yet another reference to New York City’s bizarre decision last week to ban banana bread at school bake sales — but hey, sell all the Pop-Tarts you like.

“Though we adore men individually/We agree that as a group, they’re rather stooo-pid…”

Now, the Panel for Educational Policy does have a few women on it, but when they joined this group, apparently the stupidity infiltrated their brains, too. No homemade goods at bake sales, just processed trash?

Maybe they need to hear the next line of the song: “Cast off the shackles of yesterday…”

What, pray tell, could these people be thinking? Processed food is so yesterday. We don’t need studies to prove that homemade sweets are most assuredly not the cause of childhood obesity in this country. Apparently the poor educators (who need some serious educating themselves) fear they can’t control the portion sizes of homemade goods — but hey, they know the calorie count for a pack of Doritos.

Right. So, selling the more-expensive, worse-for-you junk, in the process demolishing any chance of kids baking in the kitchen with their parents, now counts as good policy in a city that is brimming with people desperate to learn how to butcher their own bunnies, render their own lard and can their own pickles.

While we wait for New York’s panel to smarten up, this has me back to thinking about snacks. I just peeked at the apple butter that simmered away all night, ready to garnish a slice of bread for today’s snack.

This, my first shot at making apple butter in a slow cooker, proves to be another cooking experiment perfect for children. It couldn’t be any easier: fill the pot with peeled apples, stir in some sugar and spices, and let it simmer for a long, long time. The apples break down and the whole mixture turns deep brown, thick, and so scented it’s almost satisfying enough just to stand over the pot inhaling deeply, never mind tasting it. You can even make it educational, explaining the science of pectin to your children, if you can’t stand to let an educational opportunity pass.

Better yet, this is a snack that satisfies, in so many ways that a pack of chips never will. After so much response to last week’s snack column, I think we’ll make this a weekly installment: Satisfying snacks, fresh from your kitchen. Let me know if you have suggestions!

Recipe: Slow-Cooker Apple Butter

Related Column: Making Sweet Snack Memories

Makes 5 1/2 cups

Nothing complicated here, just peeling a bag of apples. I used a 1/2-peck bag of Stayman Winesaps from the farmer’s market, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with apple varieties. I’m loving the apple peeler I got for Christmas because I can my own applesauce. It also cores and slices the apples and definitely saves time, though it’s a bit quirky to use.

About 5 pounds apples, peeled, cored and sliced

3 cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, allspice or nutmeg

Pile the apples into a slow-cooker, sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and cloves, and stir to mix. Cover and heat on high for 2 or 3 hours, then on low for 10-15 hours, stirring occasionally. When the apple butter is dark brown, and the apples thoroughly break down and thicken as you stir them, they’re done. Puree with a stick (hand) blender, or let them cool and puree in a regular blender or food processor. Refrigerate.

(If you have experience canning, you may can this by ladling into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process half-pint jars in boiling-water bath for 10 minutes, or 15 minutes for pint jars. More information on canning will be coming soon.)

Related column: No More Stupid Snacks

Whenever we hit a figurative bump in the road on the many trips of my childhood, my mother would ask, “How did the pioneers do it?” It was her way of reminding us how hard our life was not, and it became a family catchphrase. Being a pioneer mom definitely wasn’t something I aspired to, comfort and ease being high on my list of necessities.

So how, this morning, did I reach the point where my son noted his pioneer-mom lunchbox? We were both tickled to realize today’s lunch was completely homemade: cookies, applesauce I canned last fall, and a sandwich of the bread I baked, the strawberry jam I froze last spring, and the cream cheese my son and I concocted yesterday.

Once in a while, I give my children a cream cheese-and-jam sandwich for lunch, a reminder of a favorite treat of my childhood. It was the obvious choice today, a celebration of our cream-cheese success. The cheese kick started earlier this year, when my son did his science fair project on which milk makes the best mozzarella cheese (a local dairy’s whole milk won, and he went all the way to the regional competition). Meanwhile, I’d been making ricotta cheese, and between the two of us, we had enough whey left to make huge batches of bread.

Then I checked out The Home Creamery, by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley, a basic primer on making soft cheeses, and I just had to make cream cheese. I know how to make many of the other recipes in the book, such as yogurt, creme fraiche, butter and buttermilk, but it had never occurred to me to make cream cheese. Good thing, because right now I”m hearing the siren song of almost 2 pounds of rich cream cheese in the fridge — along with some very pretty whey.

For most of us (including me), finding time to home-cook everything we eat sounds overwhelming. But all the pieces of today’s lunch got made in little snatches of time (except for the applesauce: Canning is easy, but hard to rush). Freezer jam comes together fast. Bread, kneaded in the mixer, requires I stay home for several hours, but there’s little hands-on work. Our cream cheese finished within 2 hours, most of which involved the cheese sitting, covered, in a pot (it did have to drain overnight in the fridge). And though I love making elaborate cookies, the lunchbox recipes get pulled from my fast-and-furious files.

You don’t have to go for the full-bore pioneer-mom lunchbox, but why not try for one or two elements of it? It’ll be a while, I think, before I’ll be able to boast such a lunch again (it’s been 10 years, and I’m quite sure that was my first), and of course, my pioneer credentials are deeply dented by my extravagant use of mixers and food processors. Given the kids’ reaction this morning, though, I think I can live on this glory for a good bit to come.

Recipe: Pecan Shortbread Circles

Makes about 5 dozen small cookies

I used to roll these cookies out between sheets of waxed or parchment paper, then cut them with a cute 1-inch cutter, whose tall cylinder with a handle on top always reminded me of a wishing well. I often give the well up, though, for simple slice-and-bake cookies — but if you have time, roll these cookies out, half a batch at a time, to 1/4-inch thick and cut with a small round cutter. They definitely look better (it’s hard to get a truly round cookie with the slice-and-bake method), and they’re still pretty quick. If you like, dip these cookies halfway in melted chocolate to glaze them.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably bleached

1/2 cup finely chopped pecans

In a mixing bowl, cream butter until soft. Add brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Slowly add flour on low speed, mixing well, and mix in pecans. Divide dough in half and form and roll each half into a 1-inch tall log. Wrap in plastic; chill 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Slice logs into 1/4-inch discs and place on parchment paper-lined baking sheets (fairly close together is OK; these won’t spread). Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until cookies are lightly browned, and cool on wire racks.

Question: When a recipe tells you to cream butter (or cream butter and sugar together), what do I do?

Answer: Creaming means to beat the dickens out of it. The butter should be at room temperature; if you haven’t planned ahead, heat the butter in the microwave until it just gives a bit when you press it with a finger. In my microwave, that means 20 seconds at 40 percent power for a whole stick of butter. Then, with a mixer or a wooden spoon and strong arm, beat the butter (and sugar, if called for) until it’s creamy, smooth, light and fluffy; it will turn a paler shade of yellow.