CAUGHT YA! FEELING guilty for making those sugar cookies from a mix instead of from scratch? Don't, say home economists.
"It's almost always cheaper to buy a mix -- especially if you don't bake very much and have to stock up on staples," says Jeanne-Marie Holly, home economist for the cooperative extension service of the University of Maryland. She says busy bakers should also consider the time involved in shopping for separate ingredients and putting them together.
"People don't have time to make things from scratch and there is no reason to feel guilty," she says.
Holiday baking season is in full swing but there are a number of ways to save money and save time, home economists say.
Holly recommends reading labels and comparing prices. A cake mix containing pudding, for example, will probably be more expensive than a plain mix.
Cindy Young, a homes economist for Duncan Hines, says mixes are designed to use staples that most bakers have on hand, for example eggs or shortening.
Specialty ingredients, such as nuts, chocolate chips or coconut, can dramatically increase the total cost of a recipe. She recommends that bakers stick with basic mixes or recipes that rely on pantry shelf staples. Generally speaking, the fewer ingredients the cheaper the recipe.
Holiday foods can still be special and economical. Young suggests sprinkling a few chocolate chips or nuts on top of basic brownies instead of folding them in. "The brownies will look great and taste good but you don't use as many nuts or chocolate
chips," she said.
A glaze is another way to get maximum impact with minimucost. Bake the brownies and let them cool. Make a glaze by combining one-half-cup chocolate chips and two teaspoons shortening in a zip-lock type plastic bag. Place the securely fastened bag in a bowl of very hot, but not boiling water, and let melt. Knead the bag for a few seconds until mixture is thoroughly blended and soft. Snip one corner off and pipe out a little glaze in a zig-zag pattern on top of the brownies.
Young also likes to fold in one-half to one-cup coarsely chopped pretzels. This gives a satisfying crunch and is much cheaper than nuts. This recipe is particularly popular with children, she says.
Here are some additional thrifty tips:
* Decide on what you are going to make and take inventory of your pantry shelves. Buy any special ingredients such as condensed milk or nuts over several trips so you're not hit with a big bill all at once.
* Nuts are expensive. If the recipe calls for one-half cup nuts or less they can be omitted. Alternatively, if the recipe calls for one cup you can cut back by one-half.
* Mixes can actually save you money, agree Young and Holly. This is especially true if you don't bake very much and would have to stock up on staples. "You don't save money if you throw away unused ingredients," says Holly.
* Use the bulk food aisle wisely. Only buy what you can store and use. For example, flour must be stored in air-tight containers. Nuts can be frozen in plastic bags.
* Margarine can almost always be substituted for butter, a real cost savings. "Most people will not be able to tell any difference," says Young. "Chocolate in particular will hide butter's delicate flavor so you might as well use margarine," says Young. The only exception is when butter's delicate flavor needs to stand on its own, for example butter cookies.
* Don't ever use any diet, reduced calorie, or light margarine in a recipe unless the recipe specifically calls for it. These specialty margarines have too much added water and not enough fat to work.
* Generic brands are OK, imitations, such as artificially-flavored chocolate morsels, are usually not.
One of Young's favorite Christmas gifts is a small pound cake with a container of hot fudge sauce. Most mixes will make two small loaves. The pound cake can be frozen and the sauce will
keep for weeks in the refrigerator.
1 can 12-ounces evaporated milk
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 squares, 1 ounce each, unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine milk and sugar in a medium saucepan, stirring constantly over medium heat to a rolling boil. Boil and stir for one minute. Add chocolate and stir until smooth and melted over heat. Remove from heat and stir in salt and vanilla extract, stirring until smooth. Makes enough for two gifts.
This basic brownie recipe is a favorite. The brownies can be stored two to three days at room temperature and up to one month in the freezer.
1/2 cup margarine
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
In two to three quart pan, melt butter and chocolate over medium low heat, stirring until well blended. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and vanilla. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour; then mix in walnuts