Most people approach holiday meals with a recipe box full of gravy-stained family favorites. Not me.
Instead, thanks to Google, I've found holiday cooking can be a mad scientist's laboratory. Just tack the word best onto any Thanksgiving or Christmas staple, download the recipes with five-star reviews, and you're set.
They even tell you how much prep time, cook time and total time these little beauties will take, so you can count backwards from serving time and know exactly when to start.
With everyone in a hurry, I decided to perform a public service this year and actually test a couple -- not for taste (how bad could a five-star recipe be?), but for how long it would actually take, start to finish. Here is my scientific report.
We will start with the butternut squash soup, aka 10-Minute Prep Soup. I set out to see if it is humanly possible to halve a tough-skinned, 3-pound squash, scoop out all the seeds, chop a large shallot bulb and mince four garlic cloves in the promised 10 minutes flat.
As it turns out, unless you've twirled knives in a Japanese steakhouse or busted coconuts with a machete, the answer is "no."
First, there is the search for the steel-mesh cooking glove to wear on the squash-stabilizing hand after an imagined trip to the ER, hand wrapped in a towel. Then follows the reconnaissance mission to recover slimy seeds from the kitchen floor and -- still wearing the glove -- chopping and mincing.
This doesn't account for the time it takes to rub olive oil on the squash before plunking it face down on a roasting pan lined with a precision-cut sheet of parchment paper. Make that 25 minutes (assuming the glove worked).
This is followed by cook time, listed at 55 minutes, which presumably covers the time to bake the squash (allegedly 45 to 50 minutes) and saute the shallots (three or four minutes) and garlic (30 seconds), but not the hoped-for 10 minutes to let the squash cool.
Perhaps I picked the toughest granddaddy of all 3-pound squashes. It took an hour to bake and a good 20 minutes to cool off, followed by an additional 10 minutes to scoop out the flesh and attack it all with an immersion blender, after which the recipe called for it to be simmered another 15 to 20 minutes.
In the end, I doubled the posted total time of 65 minutes. Having taken twice as long as expected to make soup, I decided to test the online recipe for a time-saving dessert: Easy 10-Minute Key Lime Pie. It sounded too good to be true, and just like a bad securities deal, it was.
It took 10 minutes alone -- and a rolling pin -- to crush the graham crackers, melt some butter and smoosh them together in a pie pan to form the crust. But in that same 10 minutes, I also was supposed to zest and fresh-squeeze a bag of key limes, each of which is the size of a large pecan, and fish out the seeds. Then I was supposed to spend four or five minutes whipping together a gooey mixture of cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk and whipping cream -- and then whip the rest of the cream and jam it in a decorator bag.
In all, it took me 45 minutes to put together the Easy 10-Minute Key Lime Pie -- sans decorator bag, and not counting the five hours it was supposed to set up in the refrigerator before serving.
Like all good studies, this one will end with "further research is needed." In the meantime, though, I'm going to multiply any posted total times by four -- and perhaps include the phrase make-ahead in my future Google searches.
Balancing Act author Pat Snyder is a northwest Columbus resident and life-balance speaker and coach. Find her at PatSnyderOnline.com.