Skeletons in my pantry


Every so often, I come across a recipe that I cannot make. Not for reasons of skill or understanding, but lack of ingredients. I don’t have them in the house, would need to head out to the local grocery store, and either time constraints or lacking motivation lead me to not grabbing the car keys.

Cardamom. Who the heck has cardamom on their usual shopping list? Chances are good if you don’t have it on hand, there won’t be a need to have it on hand. At least, not until that one recipe comes marching along. And it is hardly alone as something where you absolutely know the name, but rarely find it in your cupboard.

I remember making cookies with my mom on many occasions. (During recent Christmas visits we made several different batches, having a ball digging out recipes and memories that haven’t been touched for decades.) One of our favorites as kids was snickerdoodles. For those that might not recognize such a cookie, a snickerdoodle is essentially a sugar cookie. But that is explaining it in an unfair way and really missing out on the cookie’s greatness. It’s a sugar cookie the same way a hot wiener is a hot dog. Still, for all the fun involved in making and eating snickerdoodles, the biggest difference between classic snickerdoodles and classic sugar cookies is essentially one ingredient.

Cream of tartar.

Here’s a good challenge: Name five recipes that use cream of tartar. (Heck, let’s really ramp things up… other than snickerdoodles, name one recipe that uses cream of tartar.)

For regulars in the kitchen, it’s not an amazingly difficult challenge. As an ingredient, cream of tartar tends to make appearances mostly in desserts. The easiest place to go for answers is meringues. Chances are good that those familiar with pavlovas know of cream of tartar, and anyone that often whips egg whites for desserts is likely to have it within reach.

The trick to any kitchen questions usually comes down to experience. Not professional-level experience, but knowing your way around a kitchen experience. If you don’t recognize that there are different types of flours—self-rising, bread and all purpose being a simple list of three examples—and that for decent results they are not equally interchangeable, my guess is that you don’t have cream of tartar in your kitchen.

And yet… even with experience…

There’s that fun joy of frequency.

If you’re not making snickerdoodles or lemon meringue pies that often, we again arrive in a place where chances are good you might not have cream of tartar in your kitchen. That means when a craving comes calling, you find the recipe, see ingredients you don’t have, decide you don’t want to go to the store and instead make chocolate chip cookies, an apple pie, or any of a number of other possibilities where you do have everything you need on hand. Then that unused cream of tartar recipe is put away to be forgotten about for months (until the “you know what we haven’t had in a while” urge comes around again, which is roughly after enough time has passed that you’d forgotten why you haven’t had such a delight in a while).

Terry and I were cleaning out the cupboards recently. Started because of clam cakes and chowder.

Basically, the motivation was sparked by clam juice. There aren’t a ton of recipes that involve clam juice, and most people do not head out to the store seeking a can of it. But if you’re making a great clam chowder, you’re going to need it. Several recipes for clam cakes will also look for clam juice, though that often is based on what types of clams you are using and reserving what they were packed in.

When we moved a few years ago, the kitchen was packed into boxes and came along with us. Because we didn’t have a ton of gatherings right away, we didn’t need the clam cake and fritter mixes or cans of clam juice that normally got pulled out once or twice a summer for homemade deliciousness. But darned if those big bags and large cans weren’t there. And, as we checked them out, we saw the expiration dates were long, long, long beyond come and gone. This led to that led to another thing…

And there we were, moving around virtually everything in our pantry. We also had a pad of paper on the counter, where we would find ourselves jotting down things that needed to be replaced. If this essay has properly led us along, then you understand that Terry and I actually did have some items to debate. When you can’t recall ever using an ingredient… and the label on the can is from a store you know you haven’t been in for at least five years… there’s a pretty decent chance it doesn’t need to go onto a list of “we should get these pretty soon” items.

Some things never change though, and when you want a snickerdoodle… warm and wonderful and fresh out of the over… you’ll need the ingredients. Here’s hoping you don’t need to run to the store before baking.



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