The Sugarloaf Cafe is fiction, but the recipes here aren't. They have been created for us by our son Tom Schilb and proven in his kitchen. They have all been rigorously taste-tested by the whole family and approved by J A Jance, Ali Reynolds, Joanna Brady, Diana Ladd, Brandon Walker, and J P Beaumont. We all hope you enjoy them.
This is not the sort of thing that I would usually cook for myself - simply because it comes from a different place, time and circumstance than the one I’m living in. That said - it’s a noble thing - and something that I’m proud to be a part of making a bit more of a reality.
It’s a fictional recipe which, thanks to my mother, I had a reason and opportunity to try and create. My mother is an author - a rather famous author - with soon to be 45 books to her credit, landing multiple times on the New York Times best sellers list. Neat. One of her book series takes place in Sedona, Arizona and one of the things the lead character refers to is her mother’s tuna casserole. It’s her idea of comfort food. Her fans ask about these things - different recipes - whether they’re real or not - and of course they are; real fiction. They don’t exist, but thankfully, I get a chance, occasionally, to shepherd them into the realm of something that people could recreate in their own kitchen.
I love doing this - more than almost anything - because it touches every nerve and every little aspect of life in me. Lately, I just ponder the idea of creating a whole new genre of cookbook; fictional cookbooks. Imagine if Shakespeare had written one. Or Beethoven, or Mozart, or Richard Feynman. And would anybody want to eat Hitler’s favorite (vegetarian - UGH!) recipes?
It all started with an email exchange, one from a fan to my mother, forwarded to me. I replied, “sign me up!”. She emailed me back the short parameters of what she had in mind while writing about it; her mother’s tuna casserole recipe, followed with the basic ingredients it had to have. Tuna fish (canned) of course, rice, cream of mushroom soup, peas (her mother used canned, though those ‘wouldn’t do - so use frozen!’). No idea of the proportions. And Parmesan cheese on top.
I like this - LOVE this - because I want to know Edie. I want to know who she is - what clothes she wears, what she drives. I want to know what makes Edie tick - but also - I want to know what makes her casserole so good that the lead character loves it so much. If it’s something bland and boring, you can easily incite some sense of disappointment - that someone so complex and compelling in every other aspect - the centerpiece of a series of books - likes what? That’s her favorite food?
Edie is, for the most part, based on Evelyn - my grandmother. After the odd grilling about Edie, it all clicked. I could see her now - I’d met her and knew her - what a pill she was. She never cooked for me, but it painted the picture I needed. Evelyn was a joy to know - frightening in some respects because something about her was simply a force of nature you never wanted to meet on a bad day, or heaven forbid, cross her and make her day a bad one. She had a shock of bright white hair, and fair skin with rosy cheeks and eyelids. She reminded me a little bit of an easter egg for reasons I don’t know why. She loved to, along with Norman, her husband and my Grandfather, play practical jokes and tease endlessly about anything, even themselves. A diamond clip given on an anniversary was actually a ‘dime and clip’; a ring box with a dime sandwiched in a paper clip. She loved to give me a hug, simultaneously putting her hearing aid up against my cheek, letting it suddenly buzz in a strange way - it made her chuckle. Me too. Later she had a mummified bit of pinky toe she had removed in another ring box, which she happily introduced at another family party. She was silly and lovely, yet dour and unabashedly opinionated all at the same moment.
I started with the basics; the ingredients outlined in the initial email - it was a test run. I’d done a bit of (fruitless) research. Funny; Larousse Gastronomique doesn’t say anything about casseroles. Nor does the Culinary Institute of America text. Nor does even the Betty Crocker cookbook I have. Not the sort of thing I really want or need to know, anyway - such as what the ideal proportion of rice to liquid to condensed soup might be - the backbone of the whole thing. No one says. So I start out guessing and making a sacrificial lamb out of it.
I start with this - sort of just mapping it all out - imagining the proportions I’m going to use - and since I don’t know - one of the things I did was use the soup can for a measuring cup - It’s actually an idea I really liked, and one I imagined somebody like Edie might use - simply because it simplified things - you didn’t have to get out measuring cups you didn’t need when you had the can right there. It also makes it easy to scale up. I’m basing it mostly off of what I know about rice and moisture, but I still don’t really know what the moisture content is in a can of condensed soup...
This is iteration number one, and though it’s not bad - it’s certainly not the sort of thing that the lead character in a book - let alone a New York Times bestseller - would ever be referring to as a favorite. I also am missing the Parmesan for the topping - I had potato chips in the pantry, which I crushed - and while they were a nice touch, they weren’t quite ‘official’.Tweaks and things I know after the initial tasting. The rice alone is gummy. It just doesn’t cook the same as on the stove. Also, flavorings - spices - simple touches to bring out the flavor - just aren’t there. I love this part as well, because now I’m dissecting it in a different way - making notes about baking time and temperature, covered and uncovered. Getting into thinking about things that need to be there for texture, flavor.
One of the interesting things about Mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese (and tomatoes and a few other ingredients) is that they contain an amino acid (Glutamic Acid) that contributes to, and enhances flavor - sort of a precursor to MSG. Two ingredients ready and willing to amplify flavors that aren’t quite there...
I knew I need something to ‘expand’ the whole thing - because it’s just too dense on rice alone, so I think adding macaroni along with the rice. I think of making risotto - making pasta that way - what it does to the flavor and texture of them browning first in butter and coating the exterior, setting and gelating some of the starches, and I think it’s not something that wouldn’t be unrealistic for Edie (or Evelyn). After all they cooked - and made nice dinners for their families - even if it wasn’t risotto. I liked the idea of browning things in some butter to get things going - the flavor - playing it up as some element in the final flavor parade, because I’m a savory sort of person, and I like the way you can make something so hearty out of such a simple step... I changed some of the quantities to the liquids, including adding a couple of eggs to the whole mix to further enhance the final texture..
I map it all out again - based on notes and corrections from the first version - along with additions - and I pretty much had it - exactly what I wanted it to be - a casserole of the sort that someone might relish as the ultimate comfort food, and still be something that came from things you might simply have in the pantry.
And maybe that’s what I love about this most of - the eternal lessons and blessings of the lovely women like Edie and Evelyn - about making things that matter out of simple and humble things. Turning them into something wonderful and meaningful, things that people cling to and think of as being a part of their ‘home’. It’s what I love about cooking, making food, making recipes. It’s the best reminder that sometimes, everything you need to make life feel perfect is built on the stuff right under your fingertips, in your pantry. You just have to be creative and caring enough to do something with it.
2 cans Cream of Mushroom Soup (condensed), 10 3/4 oz
2 3/4 cups Milk
1/2 tsp. Black pepper
1/2 tsp. Celery Seed
1/2 tsp. Onion Powder
2 tablespoons Butter
1/2 can Medium grain Rice, approximately 3/4 cup
1 can Elbow Macaroni, approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 can Tuna (water packed) , 12 oz., drained
1 can Peas (frozen), approximately 1 1/2 cups
1/2 can Water, approximately 3/4 cup
1/4 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
1/4 cup Crushed Potato Chips
- Mixing bowl
- Sauce pan
- can opener
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, beat two Eggs. Whisk in 2 cans of Cream of Mushroom Soup, and using the cans as a measuring cup, 2 cans of Milk.
Whisk in the Black Pepper, Celery Seed and Onion Powder. Set aside.
In a large, high walled Saucier or Sauce Pot, melt two tbsp of butter over medium heat.
Using the soup can as a measuring cup, add 1/2 can of Rice, 1 can of Elbow Macaroni.
Stir occasionally, until macaroni is slightly browned and rice is translucent, approximately 5 to 8 minutes.
Using the soup can as a measuring cup, pour 1/2 can of Water over the Macaroni and Rice. Stir.
After 1 minute, stir in Soup/Milk mixture. Fold in the Tuna. Using the can as a measuring cup, add 1 can of Frozen Peas. Reduce heat to Medium Low, and stir frequently while bringing to a gentle simmer.
Transfer mixture to a lightly greased casserole dish. Note: this can splash if you pour it in, using a large ladle is recommended. Cover and bake for 1 hour.
Increase temperature to 400 degrees, remove cover, and sprinkle top with the Parmesan Cheese and Crushed Potato Chips. Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.
Makes 8 large rolls
4 ¾ cups All Purpose Flour; plus 2/3 cup All Purpose Flour (held separate)
1 cup warm water
1 packet Instant Yeast
1 large egg + 1 yolk (reserve remaining egg white)
½ cup Sugar
1 tsp Kosher Salt
Pinch of fresh grated Nutmeg
½ cup Sour Cream (whole)
1 ½ cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 tbsp corn syrup
3 tbsp softened (unsalted) butter
6 oz. chopped Pecans
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg
8 oz softened cream cheese
½ cup Sugar
1/3 cup Heavy Cream
Optional: Orange Zest
In a large mixing bowl, sift together 4 ¾ cups flour with the nutmeg, then add in the sugar, salt, and yeast. Mix in the egg, egg yolk and water, and knead for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until dough just turns into a smooth, elastic ball. Work in sour cream and additional 2/3 cups flour, and knead until dough takes up the additional ingredients. Dough should be slightly wet and a little sticky. Place in a lightly buttered bowl, cover and set in a warm spot until dough has doubled in bulk.
While dough is rising, prepare the filling by mixing together the Dark Brown Sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, corn syrup and softened butter until uniform, then add in the chopped pecans.
When dough has doubled in bulk, punch down, and roll out on a lightly floured surface to a rectangle approximately 17”wide x 14”high x 1/8” thick, and evenly distribute the filling, leaving approximately 1” at the top without filling; brush this edge with remaining egg white. Roll up into a 17” long log and allow to rest on seam for a few minutes to ensure a good seal. Using a large, sharp knife, gently trim the ends of the log and discard, then cut into 8 equal sections of approximately 2”. Prepare two 8”x8”x2”cake pans, by coating the interior lightly with softened butter, and dusting with flour. Place rolls upright (4 rolls per pan), allowing equal space between rolls and the sidewall of the pan. Preheat oven to 325; Cover lightly with either parchment paper or loose plastic wrap and allow to rise until they begin to touch, almost doubling in width*. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until just golden on top.
While rolls are baking, prepare the icing by creaming together (room temperature) cream cheese and sugar. Add in 1/3 cup heavy cream and mix on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Spread on tops of rolls immediately after removing from oven.
*After covering, you can also place these in the refrigerator and allow to sit overnight, allowing them to come up to room temperature before baking them in the morning.
*©Thomas Schilb, November 25th, 2006
You won’t find my mother's recipe for Green Chili Casserole on Food TV because, as far as I know, it's never been written down.
1 can diced green chilies,
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cup diced green onions.
1 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese
1dozen corn tortillas.
2 cups oil.
Heat oil and cook tortillas until done then allow to cool on paper towels.
Stir together soup, green onions and green chilies in a sauce pan and bring to a boil over low heat, stirring to avoid scorching.
Spoon a layer of the soup mixture into a lightly greased casserole dish, add layer of tortillas topped with cheese. Continue until used up. Top layer should have cheese on top.
Bake at 425 degrees for approximately twenty minutes.
Serve with refried beans and salad.
Tom's experiments in food science are always fun. He is keeping us on our gustatory toes. His holiday treats are really special.
We are all looking forward to the next recipes to be added here.