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Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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A few weeks ago, a reader asked if I could find a better way of replicating one of Campbell's Supper Bakes. Having never heard of it, I figured I should give it a go. But I was confused about what a "supper bake" in a box would contain. I'm used to equating Campbell's with the word "casserole" and wondered if it was similar. So I headed down the aisle and found the Cheesy Chicken Bake and began to scan the ingredients listing and directions to see if I could determine what is in it without opening the box.

Thankfully, the ingredients listing had everything neatly organized in a way for me to understand that the box contained what appeared to be cheddar cheese soup, 8 ounces of spiral pasta, a flavoring packet, and seasoned bread crumbs. As I stood there, I found it hard to justify the $4 price tag, so I decided to locate the individual ingredients on my own to determine what they would cost me.

Here is what I found. One can of cheddar cheese soup, $1.67; 1/3 of a 17-ounce package of whole wheat spiral pasta, $.67; 2 teaspoons of onion powder, $.25, and 1/4 cup of bread crumbs with seasonings, $.20. This brought my grand total for much larger portions of each included ingredient to $2.79, a $1 savings off the pre-boxed items. So I don't save a lot of money, I have to make sure I have more ingredients on hand, I have to go down more aisles to get those ingredients, and I spend more upfront because I'm buying a jar of onion powder, not a tablespoon. However, aside from the soup, I have everything else I need to make at least two more portions of this.

Which means I can spend about $21 and get enough of the ingredients to make this dish six times. Which brings my per meal cost to about $3 per meal (which serves four people), not including chicken. And if I were to purchase fresh garlic and onions instead of dried, I'd lower my cost by another $5 or so.

But despite the cost versus convenience issue, the question that was most important to me was: Could I actually replicate the flavor of the boxed meal? I mean, if it tastes better than what I could make on my own, then maybe it was worth it after all. And what better person to determine which tastes better than a 3-year-old? If you can please the palate of a toddler, then you're doing a good job. So I invited over friends who have a toddler, prepared both dishes, served up a portion of each and waited for a response.

She claimed to only like the noodles, but as I was clearing her plate from the table, I noticed that she ate slightly more of my version of the chicken than she did the boxed version. But the fact that she ate a fair amount of each, along with all of the noodles, made me pretty pleased. I think it means that my cooking is just as popular with the preschool crowd as Campbell's, and that is quite a compliment.

I also asked her parents which they preferred. She said she preferred my "earthy, healthier" version; he said that the boxed version reminded him of school lunches (in a comforting way) but the chicken in my version was tastier. I thought the boxed version was a bit bland, a bit too salty, and the egg noodles that came with it turned to mush too quickly. But while my version was certainly healthier since it lacked all the preservatives and contained no MSG, the boxed version wasn't as awful as I expected it to be. I would make my version again. I'd probably throw in some raw broccoli or even some spinach with the noodles to add some more nutritional value to the dish, but I would make it.

Here is a quick summary of the steps for making the Campbell's version of the Supper Bake, complete with the times it took me.

Mix seasoning, hot water, butter and pasta in the bottom of the baking dish. Place the raw chicken on top and pour the can of baking sauce across the top. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes at 400° F. Peel off the foil, stir the pasta on the edges of the dish, sprinkle the topping over the chicken and bake uncovered for another 10 minutes. Stir the pasta before serving.

It took all of about 5 minutes to get the ingredients combined, get the dish covered, and get it into the oven. While it cooked, I had enough time to whip up the Cinnamon Flop toward the end of this column and to make a simple green salad. So in about 40 minutes, I had a dish to pull out of the oven, a salad for five, and dessert ready to go into the oven. Now that is a weeknight prep time that any family could justify.

Cinnamon's "Not Quite From Scratch" version of the Supper Bake
2 cups of hot water (or chicken broth)
1/2 teaspoon of corn starch
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
2 teaspoons of onion powder
1 chicken bouillon cube (omit if you're using cream of chicken soup)
1/2 teaspoon of oregano
1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of hungarian paprika
1/4 teaspoon of turmeric
several grinds of freshly cracked pepper
6 ounces of whole wheat spiral pasta
1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 can of cheddar cheese soup, or 1 can of cream of chicken soup (also use 1/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese or 6 slices of American cheese that are torn into pieces if using cream of chicken soup)
1/4 cup of seasoned bread crumbs (or 1/4 cup of crackers)
2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400° F. In a 13"x9" baking dish, combine the water and the corn starch. Whisk quickly until all lumps are dissolved. Add the butter and the dried herbs and spices. Stir to combine. Pour in the pasta and stir to distribute evenly across the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken breast on top of the noodles and pour the can of soup over the breasts to coat them evenly. If you're using cream of chicken soup, sprinkle the cheese on top of the soup. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and place it in the center of the oven. Let it cook for 20 minutes before removing the foil, stirring the pasta near the edges of the pan. Mix the bread crumbs and the parmesan cheese and sprinkle it on top of the chicken. Return the pan to the oven and let it cook for 10 more minutes. Let it cool for 2-3 minutes and then dish and serve.


About six months ago, GB parenting columnist Lori Upchurch gave me the following recipe. She sent it to me in the middle of summer when I really didn't want to turn on my oven, so I set it aside for later. Apparently her mother made it as a special weekend treat and she convinced me that it was easy enough for me to make, but since I don't bake I was skeptical. After seeing it in my email box every day for months, I finally decided to face my demons and give it a try. It has just a few ingredients, doesn't require any special tips, and is just free-wheeling enough that I was able to make it work.

Lori's Cinnamon Flop
1 egg
1 cup of sugar
3 cups of flour
3 teaspoons of baking powder
dash of salt (1/4 teaspoon or less)
1 1/2 cups of milk
3/4 cup to 1 cup of brown sugar
1 tablespoon (or more) of ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of melted butter

Preheat your oven to 400° F and grease a 13"x9" baking pan. Measure the egg, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and milk into a bowl and stir until it's smooth. Pour it into the pan and shake to settle evenly. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the top and sprinkle on a light coating of cinnamon. Drizzle the melted butter across the top and bake for 20 minutes. The top should be golden brown and crispy and a toothpick inserted into the center shouldn't have any gooey, cakey bits stuck to it. Let it cool for 5 minutes and then cut and serve. To make this seem a bit more healthy, you could serve some sliced fruit on top, or even a dollop of frozen ice cream yogurt. This dish takes about 30 minutes total for prep and cooking time, which makes it something I'm likely to use for upcoming brunches, family-style desserts and the occasional Sunday morning sofa-sitting pleasure cruise.


So whether you call it a supper bake or a casserole, it's easy, low-fuss, and can be downright tasty and best of all, affordable. You don't have to rely on come company to tell you what to eat while you stand in a fluorescent-lit aisle feeling lulled into complacency. You can break out, buy real ingredients that are made up of real food and make real dishes that are truly satisfying and satiating instead of just quick and easy.

If you have more convenience foods you'd like me to deconstruct leave them in the comments. I'm enjoying sticking out my tongue and wiggling my fingers at food conglomerates.

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Katy / March 19, 2007 7:45 AM

Thanks Cinnamon! I'm so glad to see this written down, and now I can make my own cheesy chicken & pasta without the Supper Bake kit.

anne / March 19, 2007 4:27 PM

Thanks for a no MSG option for comfort food! Can't wait to try this!


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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