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Why we love back-of-the-box cuisine

(ran NP edition)

A few months back, something spurred me to make the Quaker Oats Famous Oatmeal Cookies I'd baked frequently when I was a girl. I picked up the Quaker Oats tube only to discover that _ horrors! _ the reliable recipe on the back of the box had disappeared, replaced with a recipe inside the lid teasingly called Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies.

The good news was, the Famous Oatmeal Cookies recipe wasn't truly gone. It was in countless recipe files across the country (including mine, now), in compilation cookbooks such as Ceil Dyer's Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars (Galahad Books, $14.95) and on any number of Web sites.

Famous Oatmeal Cookies, like Nestle's Tollhouse Cookies and Campbell's Green Bean Bake, started as a promotional recipe on a product package and turned into an American icon.

It happens regularly. Back-of-the-box recipes have a colossal impact on America's kitchen culture, with the most successful recipes bridging geographic and socioeconomic divides. Who in America didn't dip a hand into a bowl of Chex party mix in the past few weeks?

It's not clear when the first promotional recipe on a food package appeared, but the concept goes back at least to 1891, when the first recipe on a cereal container, something called Quaker Bread, made its debut on the Quaker Oats package.

And, though back-of-the-box recipes have a lengthy history, the idea is far from stale. Wander the aisles of a grocery store: There are scores of recipes on packages from Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry to Heinz Red Wine Vinegar.

A Web site devoted to back-of-the-box recipes, www.backofthebox.com, features more than 1,500 of them. They range from the mundane (Ritz Cracker Stuffing, Corn Casserole) to the almost-sophisticated (Rosemary Lamb Chops, Tuscany Bread Focaccia), and new recipes are added every day.

Dyer's Best Recipes cookbook features more than 2,000 recipes that first appeared on various bottles, cans, jars and boxes.

And Campbell's Soup Co., which has created more than 10,000 recipes using canned soup since 1916, recently cooked up a new idea: recipes on the inside of the label. In addition to the recipe on the back of the can, the company now features four recipes that are revealed when you cut off the label.

"We try to maximize that real estate," says John Faulkner, the company's director of brand communications.

The idea behind all these package recipes is, of course, to increase demand for the product. And it works.

Think Campbell's cream of mushroom. Faulkner says a whopping 95 percent of the company's mushroom soup is used in recipes, including the 20-million green bean casseroles served in American homes each Thanksgiving.

"It's a substitute for a bechamel sauce," Faulkner says.

Pillsbury printed a fruitcake recipe that used the company's date bread mix, and sales of the date bread mix now soar every December, says International MultiFoods spokesman Jim Seitz.

Think of the branding: "Will you cut me a slice of that Pillsbury holiday fruitcake?"

That's why back-of-the-box recipes come with lots of capital letters. The Southwest Cornbread Stuffing recipe on backofthebox.com calls for not just pecans but "Planters pecans." Some recipes are two-fers: The Web site's Clever Corn Bake calls for Miracle Whip light dressing and Kraft 2 percent milk reduced-fat shredded cheese.

Back-of-the-box recipes also tend to be homey, simple affairs, such as meatloaf topped with a can of tomato soup. None of the professional cooks contacted would fess up to "ever" fixing a back-of-the-box recipe for family consumption.

Home cooks rely on these product recipes, though.

Several times a month, Pam Weiner of Arlington, Texas, a home economics grad, serves her family a frankfurter-and-beans casserole called All-American Bean Bake that she got from a jar of B&M baked beans.

"It smells good, and it looks good, too," Weiner says.

And she's far from alone. On New Year's Day, all across America, cooks were combining sour cream and Lipton's onion soup, topping canned chili with grated cheese and Frito corn chips, dousing cocktail franks in mixtures of currant jelly and ketchup.

Corn chips and jelly would be eaten even without the special recipe inducements, but some products seem to demand back-of-the-box instruction. It's hard to imagine Pepperidge Farm selling any of its frozen puff pastry products without suggestions from the company on how to use them.

"Especially with a product like Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, which is designed as an ingredient in dishes consumers prepare themselves, providing people with easy-to-access recipes is a key factor in our success," says Nan Redmond, director of corporate and brand communications for Pepperidge Farm.

Nabisco's Famous Chocolate Wafers are so strongly associated with the Famous Chocolate Refrigerator Roll that it's hard to imagine many people purchasing the product without making "zebra dessert," as it's popularly called.

Today's Famous Chocolate Wafers package suggests a shortcut for this already easy recipe _ using frozen whipped topping in place of whipping your own cream _ typical of the trend toward ever-easier recipes on packages.

Campbell's Faulkner says his company's recipes are getting simpler, too. "The trend is the two-step type of dish with two, three or four, at most, ingredients."

Pillsbury, which conducts polls to determine which recipes are most popular, says the favorites tend to be quick fixes requiring just two or three ingredients, such as Crescent Dogs (crescent rolls, cheese and wieners) or Peanut Blossoms (refrigerated peanut butter cookie dough and chocolate Kisses).

"People are busier and busier," says spokesman Seitz. "People are looking for simple recipes and ones that they have the ingredients on hand for."

But occasionally Pillsbury boxes offer something a little more sophisticated for the cook who wants to create something for a special occasion. The Chocolate Praline Layer Cake featured on the back of the Pillsbury Moist Supreme devil's food cake mix was the grand prize winner in the company's 1988 bakeoff contest. This recipe requires 13 ingredients _ a lot for a back-of-the-box recipe _ but the picture of the cake looks great, which could inspire some bakers to buy the cake mix and try it.

Just what the companies are hoping for.

Famous Chocolate Refrigerator Roll

(or Zebra Dessert)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups heavy cream, whipped, or 1 (8-ounce) container frozen whipped topping, thawed

9-ounce package Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers

Chocolate curls, for garnish

Stir vanilla into whipped cream or topping. Spread { tablespoon whipped cream or topping on each wafer. Begin stacking wafers together and stand on edge on serving platter to make a 14-inch log. Frost with remaining whipped cream or topping. Chill for 4 to 6 hours.

To serve, garnish with chocolate curls; slice roll at 45-degree angle. Serves 12.

History: The recipe for this simple but impressive-looking dessert has appeared on the Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers box for more than 50 years.

Nutritional information per serving: 230 calories, 18 grams fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 138 milligrams sodium, 68 percent of calories from fat.

Souper Chicken Tetrazzini

10 }-ounce can Campbell's cream of mushroom soup or 98 percent fat-free cream of mushroom soup

{ cup milk

1 small onion, finely chopped

\ cup grated Parmesan cheese

\ cup sour cream

1{ cups cubed cooked chicken or turkey

1 small zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

1{ cups hot, cooked, very thin spaghetti

Mix soup, milk, onion, cheese and sour cream. Add chicken, zucchini and spaghetti. Toss to coat. Spoon into 1{-quart casserole.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Serves 4.

History: This recipe appears on the back of the Campbell's cream of mushroom soup can.

Nutritional information per serving: 329 calories, 14 grams fat, 27 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 777 milligrams sodium, 38 percent of calories from fat.

Campbell's Glazed Pork Chops

2 tablespoons cornstarch

{ cup water

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

6 pork chops, }-inch thick

1 can Campbell's french onion soup

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

Mix cornstarch and water and set aside. Melt butter in skillet. Add chops and cook until browned.

Add soup and sugar. Heat to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes or until done.

Remove chops and keep warm.

Add cornstarch mixture. Cook and stir until mixture boils and thickens.

Serve over chops. Serves 6.

History: Cutting off the label of a can of Campbell's french onion soup reveals this recipe.

Nutritional information per serving: 337 calories, 24 grams fat, 9 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 50 milligrams cholesterol, 510 milligrams sodium, 65 percent of calories from fat.

Famous Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

} cup vegetable shortening

{ cup granulated sugar

\ cup water

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups Quaker Oats, uncooked

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

{ teaspoon baking soda

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat brown sugar, shortening and granulated sugar until creamy. Add water, egg and vanilla; beat well. Combine oats, flour, salt and baking soda and add to sugar mixture; mix well. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 11 to 13 minutes until edges are golden brown. Remove to wire rack; cool completely.

Store tightly covered. Yields five dozen cookies.

History: This recipe first appeared on the Quaker Oats box in 1955.

Nutritional information per cookie: 63 calories, 3 grams fat, 8 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 48 milligrams sodium, 41 percent of calories from fat.

Chocolate Praline Layer Cake

Cake:

{ cup butter or margarine

\ cup whipping cream

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

} cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 package Pillsbury Moist Supreme devil's food cake mix

1\ cups water

{ cup oil

3 eggs

Topping:

1} cups whipping cream

\ cup powdered sugar

\ teaspoon vanilla

16 whole pecans

16 chocolate curls

For the cake: Heat oven to 325 degrees. In small, heavy saucepan, combine butter, \ cup whipping cream and brown sugar. Cook over low heat just until butter is melted, stirring occasionally. Pour into two 9- or 8-inch cake pans; sprinkle evenly with chopped pecans.

In large bowl, combine cake mix, water, oil and eggs; beat at low speed until moistened. Beat 2 minutes at medium speed. Carefully spoon batter over pecan mixture.

Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes or until cake springs back when touched lightly in center. Cool 5 minutes; remove from pans. Cool 1 hour or until completely cooled.

For the topping: In small bowl, beat 1} cups whipping cream until soft peaks form. Add powdered sugar and vanilla; beat until stiff peaks form.

To assemble: Place 1 layer on serving plate, praline side up. Spread with half of whipped cream. Top with second layer, praline side up; spread top with remaining whipped cream. Garnish with whole pecans and chocolate curls. Store in refrigerator. Serves 16.

History: Julie Bengtson of Bemidji, Minn., won the 33rd Pillsbury Bake-Off with this recipe.

Nutritional information per serving: 477 calories, 37 grams fat, 37 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 91 milligrams cholesterol, 351 milligrams sodium, 66 percent of calories from fat.

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