“The Secret Ingredient Cookbook” Review
I stumbled across this cookbook through NetGalley and at first glance assumed it was all about hiding healthy secret ingredients in your child’s food which I’m not normally a fan of. Looking back, I’m so glad something made me click on this book as the description made me realize how wrong I truly was. This book by Kelly Senyei, The Secret Ingredient Cookbook: 125 Family-Friendly Recipes with Surprisingly Tasty Twists, uses an unexpected ingredient in each and every dish to elevate it to unexpected greatness. I am so glad I requested this book as almost every recipe I tried from it was an incredible success that I would love to make, and taste, again and again. I wanted to share this book with you, along with all of the recipes I tried, in case you feel the same and are looking for a new cookbook that offers a diverse array of dishes, desserts, and drinks.
You can find this book, The Secret Ingredient Cookbook: 125 Family-Friendly Recipes with Surprisingly Tasty Twists by Kelly Senyei, through the publisher’s website at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or you could check out her website, Just a Taste, which also looks amazing!
As I started to work my way through each recipe as it caught my eye I also started sharing what each secret ingredient was to Matt, my husband, once we’d all tasted the new dish. Ada quickly picked this up so whenever I made something new she’d ask me if it was a secret ingredient meal and if so then what the secret ingredient was. By the time I made the Sweet Heat Pepperoni Pizza I decided to turn the table and, after they had all tried it and loved it, asked what they thought the secret ingredient was. As we went around the table they guessed pepperoni, cheese, and other obvious guesses before Matt, who had seen me use the ingredient earlier, guessed correctly. From then on in guessing the secret ingredient became a game whenever I tried another one of these recipes. The girls started expecting the guessing game and became disappointed whenever I made anything that wasn’t from this book and hence didn’t have it’s own secret ingredient.
Actually, as an aside, the day after we first made the pizza I threw together a meal out of leftovers consisting of taco meat, boiled cabbage, and eggs to create an amazing breakfast taco-esque meal. While we were sitting around the table Ada asked me what the secret ingredient was and then seemed affronted when she found out that this wasn’t from that cookbook and then grew amazed that I had actually made it without a recipe. Considering I normally make calculated risks while throwing leftovers together I wasn’t sure if I should feel affronted or that it was just plain and totally hilarious.
I received this e-cookbook as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley and as such it had a time limit on it. While making these recipes I found it easiest to take screenshots of the ones I wanted to cook next so I could quickly refer back to one, through my photo app, quickly when making it. One day I returned to the book and realized I didn’t have access to it anymore. Because of this I wasn’t able to confirm what all the sections were named, their order, or which recipes belong in which section. As of such I’m creating the sections along with their names, recipes, and overall ordering. If you do purchase this cookbook I did attempt to keep each recipe title the same so you can use that to find anything specific in the cookbook. And now, without further ado, here are the recipes I tried:
Pumpkin Waffles with Maple Whipped Cream
These waffles were the very first recipe I tried from the entire cookbook. While browsing through the breakfast section so many of the recipes jumped out at me; however, I didn’t have all of the ingredients needed on hand for them. This was the first recipe that I did have all of the ingredients for so I decided to go for it. I got as far as measuring out all of the dry ingredients before I decided to instead double the entire thing. I went back and re-measured out a second serving of each dry ingredient before continuing on with the recipe while doubling each item. I’m so glad I doubled the recipe as the waffles turned out amazingly and I’ve since made them several times more.
The first time we made this I had to change the topping a bit as I only had canned whip cream so we ended up pouring maple syrup onto the waffles and then topped it off with whip cream rather than making the fresh whip cream the recipe went over. We also frequently make chicken waffles by topping a waffle with chicken nuggets and drizzling syrup over top. While I was making this recipe the first time I decided, last minute, to bake a batch of chicken nuggets so we could see if these waffles also worked for this variation and they totally did. Both versions were truly delicious!
Each time I make these I double the batch so there’s extra that I can freeze and easily pop into the toaster whenever the kids want last-minute waffles. I find it easiest to lay out the waffles in a single layer on a Silpat™ lined cookie sheet and then, once they’re frozen, move them into a freezer bag or Stasher bag. This way they’re much easier to break apart. Actually, just this morning, I toasted up a few of these waffles for the kids’ breakfast and topped them with chocolate peanut butter and sliced bananas. They loved that version too.
Crispy and Dipped Chicken Thighs
These chicken thighs turned out incredible! It was a bit more work than I normally do and I got spat with oil but overall the end result was worth it and oh so very good… and restaurant level delicious! I did; however, make a few changes which I figured I’d share here in case you’re interested in them. I ordered my groceries through Instacart and ended up with only five chicken thighs rather than the required eight. I also left one chicken, at the end, un-sauced for the kids to split, so essentially I used one batch of sauce for half the required chicken. We, of course, ended up with extra sauce so if you want the same ratios I recommend you double your sauce if you’re making the recipe’s required eight thighs. For the sauce itself, the recipe asked for a general hot sauce and I only had sriracha so I used that as my hot sauce. Additionally, the recipe calls for you to use a wire rack in the oven to bake these. I don’t own a wire rack so I ended up using my air fryer, through our Ninja Foodi, that perfectly fit the five chicken thighs (so maybe a good thing I had less), using the same temperature and time the recipe called for.
Overall the final chicken was amazing; although so spicy with the extra sauce. Both Matt and I loved it although the kids didn’t try their plain not-sauced or spiced piece. Each chicken was so incredibly crispy on the outside and oh so juicy on the inside. I could definitely see making these again whether it was with the same sauce or subbing in BBQ sauce, so the might kids try it, although I haven’t yet taken the time to do it.
Sticky Pineapple Chicken
This was the third recipe I tried from the cookbook and Matt absolutely adored it. I actually made it a second time to surprise Matt on his birthday as it was that good. The kids, of course, didn’t like it and I got complaints about each part of the meail. Overall it tasted good although maybe a bit too sugary for my tastes. Ada surprised me when I served the leftovers as she started going on and on about how much she actually loved it so I can see, easily, making this a third time for the family.
The first time around I realized, while looking over the recipe the morning I was going to make it, that I was missing the called for hoisin sauce. I looked online and found a list of different substitutes through Greatist and decided to go with the soy sauce and peanut butter option (#9). I made it right away, so it could sit in the fridge during the day, just to discover that it only made a quarter cup and I needed a third. I looked over the other substitutes and as many of them called for plums or plum jam I quickly diced up a plum and kept adding the small pieces until it came to a third of a cup. In addition I used chicken breasts over the thighs and paired the dish with basmati rice I made in the pressure cooker while putting the recipe together. In contrast with Matt’s birthday dinner, the second time I made it, I was sure to buy the proper chicken, a bottle of hoisin sauce, and we ate it over the required jasmine rice. Either way both times it turned out great.
Sweet Heat Pepperoni Pizza
Oh! My! Goodness! Each one of us thinks that this is our absolute favorite recipe in the entire cookbook. Up until now I’ve been using this quick recipe whenever we make pizza but somehow this combination of incredible toppings with the one hour rise crust is phenomenal. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve made it now and each time I top it with the exact same ingredients that the recipe calls for as there may be a rebellion on my hands if I ever change it up.
The first time I made this recipe I measured each and every ingredient as I carefully made sure I didn’t use too much or too little. The only change I made was using frozen pepperoni (we keep it in the freezer so it stays good for random homemade pizza nights) and leaving the pepperoncinis off of the girls’ side of the pizza. I was a bit leery of how this would taste but it blew us away from the very first bite. One pizza was enough for all four of us but it left us wanting more so since then we’ve been doubling the dough and making two of these pizzas each time. I’ve also stopped measuring the toppings and instead eyeball how much I should add. The last couple times I’ve still doubled the dough but then I steal a bit of it so I can make a small dessert pizza after the first two pizza rounds. It’s become the perfect splurge and is amazing.
Beef and Farro Soup
The first quick look through the cookbook brought my attention to the Beef and Farro Soup and I was immediately interested. I’d stumbled across farro a couple years ago at Trader Joe’s and was interested to see another way to use it. That in addition with the story of the secret ingredient and I was hooked. It took a bit of time to get that final ingredient so I didn’t make it right away but I’m so glad I ended up making it. That said the kids didn’t like it, of course, although Matt and I truly enjoyed it. I didn’t have any parsley to top it with and may have added a bit more farro and kale than it called for. I loved it with some breadIn5 dipped in my bowl while Matt added some cheese to his.
30-Minute Macaroni and Cheese
This was a recipe I chose to make for my girls as they both love pasta and Zoey loves the idea of this particular secret ingredient. It was a bit more troublesome than our normal go to pasta recipe as it used three pots and you needed to make a roux at one point but it came out so good. The first time I paired mine with some leftover cabbage I didn’t want to go bad while Matt and the kids had only this dish. We all loved it although it seemed a bit too saucy. The next time couple times we doubled the pasta, making way too much but happily having leftovers, and it turned out perfectly. The only adjustment I made, repeated each time, was using Fontina over the required Gruyere cheese. In the words of four year old Zoey it was “yummy. So much yummy that I was about to fall down.” while Ada, six, was more simplistic with a simple “scrumptious”.
Pasta, Bean, and Chard (?)
As a quick aside I can’t quite remember the name for this recipe so I made my best guess.
I was interested how this recipe would go and was easily able to get all the ingredients it needed. The only deviation I made was leaving the bacon grease in so I could cook with that instead of adding the required olive oil in the next step. Matt and I loved how this turned out; however, despite the amazing pasta and bacon the kids still complained because of the beans. Overall this was really good and I can see making it again when I want the kids to branch out a bit and still give them pasta.
Drew’s Ultimate Dinner Rolls
I had high hopes for these dinner rolls and couldn’t wait to wow the girls with them. The only adjustment I made was using active dry yeast instead of the required instant. As such I increased the amount of yeast by 25%, as according to this epicurious article a quarter of the yeast may be dead, and let it sit to activate for a few minutes before proceeding. I personally thought these buns ended up a bit dry and both Matt and I thought they were much too salty as I had followed the recipe where she salted the buns at the end. The kids, however, absolutely adored them though so I may surprise the kids by making them again, with less salt at the end, or maybe stick to my normal breadIn5 recipes. That said they looked amazing and I was pretty proud of the end result.
Sweet and Sour Cucumber Salad
This was our least favorite dish we tried from the cookbook. I followed the recipe but it seemed to make way too much of the sauce and not enough of the main. At one point I started wondering if my Persian cucumbers were too small so I used the whole bag and still felt like it had too much liquid. We attempted to eat the leftovers but ended up composting what was left. I’m glad we tried it and it makes me wonder how it was supposed to be as I feel like it didn’t end up how it should.
Shake ‘n’ Bacon Bites
These were so amazing and tasted akin to candy. The ingredients complemented each other so perfectly. It smelled so good that we didn’t even let it cool before digging in although we saved some so we could try it cold out of the fridge the next day. They tasted just as good cold stuck in congealed oil too.
The next time I made these I chose to double the recipe so there was a lot of leftovers and then ended up using those leftovers in a new way later. That day I had just boiled a mix of carrots and parsnips and had planned to add my normal dill and butter to them. Instead I saw the leftover Shake ‘n’ Bacon Bites so I tossed them into the pot, tossed the strained veggies in over top, and then stirred until they were heated through. It was fantastic!!! Definitely planning on making them again, both to eat and to use the leftovers in the same way, as it tasted amazing and the kids actually ate some of the vegetables this way.
Three-Cheese Queso for a Crowd
Recently, before this, Matt had bought a jar of queso and loved it. Because of that the second I saw this recipe I knew I needed to surprise Matt with it. I made sure to buy all the needed ingredients and then screwed it up a bit by not baking the yams long enough so in the end I ended up with chunky queso. That said, it still tasted amazing; although, it was a bit rich for how much we ate. The kids didn’t like it too much so Matt and I were basically the only two that ate this and the recipe is technically for eight to ten people. I ended up serving this with the Shake ‘n’ Bacon Bites, tortilla chips, and assorted raw vegetables to dip in the queso. When I asked Matt what he thought of it, for this review, he said “Can’t talk nom nom nom” and the kids burst out laughing and kept repeating it and giggling. It was hilarious and the queso was great. I can totally see making this whenever parties with large groups of friends resumes.
Of course, since it served 8-10, we had leftovers. I tossed them in the fridge and later dolloped it onto some oven roasted vegetables and tossed it back in the oven. This tasted great, although, I didn’t leave it in for long enough after adding the queso as it stayed a bit cold in the center. If I were to do this part again I would add the queso sooner so it had longer to heat up in the oven.
Coconut and Sweet Potato Mash
Oh my goodness! The flavors in this are so unique and incredible. I absolutely loved this… although I ate way too big of a serving so it got a bit tiring near the end. Matt also thought it was good but the kids, who aren’t yam fans, didn’t like it. I made these on Christmas eve so I was easily able to cook twice the amount of yams I needed, removed the ones I wanted to prepare differently for Christmas, and then proceeded with this recipe. I loved that I was able to make both day’s yams, making Christmas easier, and have them completely different so it didn’t feel like leftovers.
As an aside: In case you’re curious I normally mash my yams with butter, milk, and a combination of sprinkled pumpkin pie-related spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and/or allspice. On Christmas I microwaved it, spread it in a small casserole dish, topped half with marshmallows, and then broiled it.
Honey-Roasted Cauliflower and Broccoli
Matt and I absolutely loved this dish although, of course, it wasn’t my kids’ favorite. I could see using this recipe as a base and changing it up with different vegetables too. I also loved that I was able to prepare this in advance as I cut the broccoli and cauliflower the day before, when I did the grocery order, and tossed it in a large Stasher bag so it would stay fresh in the fridge. Since it was in the bag anyway I added all the other ingredients, while the oven preheated, to the bag and awkwardly shook the partially closed bag to distribute everything. I paired this with a casserole, baked at the same temperature, so once the casserole was halfway done I tossed the cookie sheet with the veggies to bake along with it.
I had homemade honey mustard sauce in my fridge that I wanted to use up so I may have used more than the recipe called for. After tossing the vegetables in the ingredients and laying it out on the cookie sheet I also drizzled the last remaining honey mustard sauce over top of the vegetables. If you want to make your own honey mustard sauce for this recipe I made mine by mixing together equal amounts of honey, mustard, and plain yogurt (a third cup of each) along with a tablespoon of white vinegar.
Chocolate Shell Ice Cream Topping
I don’t think I’ve ever bought the kids Magic Shell before so when I saw this in the cookbook I knew I needed to make it and blow my kids minds wide open. This was so simple to quickly make after supper and have right away as an incredible dessert. I put the remaining chocolate shell in an emptied jam jar in the pantry and loved it, later, drizzled over fruit. Everyone adored this and it’s definitely on the make more often list.
Caramel-Apple Cinnamon Rolls
I hadn’t planned to make these cinnamon rolls when I first went through the cookbook but over time the image of these rolls in the cookbook got to me and I knew we had to have them. Then I realized what the secret ingredient was, which Matt and I don’t normally like, so I put them off but that picture… it got to me. I went ahead, using a bit less of that ingredient in the filling, and it turned out really good. I did mess up a bit in the execution by mixing the filling together and then layering it on the dough rather than layering each of the three parts individually. The end result tasted incredible, cloud-like, and we ate way too many… while enjoying them thoroughly. Ada absolutely adored them and said “they taste really good (especially) with the cream cheese icing.” In contrast Zoey said she loved it, ate the cream cheese icing by dipping blueberries into it, ignored most of the bun itself, and told me that their dad, who had bought a dried out cinnamon bun from a bakery and nuked it the previous weekend, makes better cinnamon buns. I thought that was hilarious and made sure to jot it down to include in this review. This is definitely a make again, even with that secret ingredient, and I absolutely adored the addition of the apples in the filling.
Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookie
The second I saw this recipe I knew I had to make it for my husband’s birthday… and then couldn’t wait and made it several days before. I used my Dutch oven to make this and although I followed the instructions it wasn’t quite done after letting it rest so I tossed it back in for another 20 minutes. The recipe called for a skillet so I think the change in pan may have caused the cooking time issue. I also slightly altered the recipe by using more chocolate chips than it called for when I saw how few were truly left in the packaging. This turned out amazing, tasted rich, was easy to throw together, and felt truly restaurant-worthy which was perfect in these COVID days. The ice cream we topped our cookie with cut the richness perfectly. We then changed it up the next day when we microwaved our leftovers and poured whole milk over it. Either way you chose to have this cookie it remains truly sublime.
Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Matt absolutely adores oatmeal cookies so the second I saw this recipe listed in the book I knew that I had to try it at some point. I wasn’t able to find the secret ingredient so I settled for the cranberry version instead. They turned out stupendous and I’m definitely using this recipe again the next time we want to eat oatmeal cookies… in fact I’ve since bought the secret ingredient so I could try making them using the legit way.
I knew the second I saw this hot chocolate with the secret ingredient added that I had to make it. And my was the end result rich and incredible. Ada told me “Yummy. Quadruple yummy.” while Zoey added “Quadruple yummy. We looove.”. While I loved it I found it incredibly rich and the last sip was filled with all the remnants that sunk to the bottom. Overall great but I need to figure out a way to fix the sinking ingredient issue for the next time.
I made this according to the directions but once it came time to strain it I was a bit rushed as supper was already on the table. As such I attempted to search for this recipe, gave up, vaguely remembered you should use a cocktail shaker, and then instead poured it straight into a fancy glass and later added a bit of crushed ice. Whichever way you make this it tasted strong, as expected, but amazing. I later switched it up and mixed my own drink by adding it to some pulpy orange juice which was stupendous. Overall I could see this being a great go-to drink.
La Jolla Sunset
Lately I send Matt to grab any alcohol we may need and when he finally found the ingredients for this I quickly added the related grocery items to my list. I’m so glad we tried this as it was an incredible drink that blew me away.
I am so glad I came across this cookbook as we adored so many of these recipes. Cooking them and having the kids attempt to guess the secret ingredient brought me so much joy that I hadn’t expected. Our absolute favorite, currently, is the Sweet Heat Pepperoni Pizza and I’ve made it so many times to my kids and husband’s delight. I haven’t gone back to my old pizza since coming across it as I’m afraid my family would revolt…. or at least be severely disappointed. I’ve loved the recipes so much that when the cookbook was released yesterday I jumped on my phone to purchase a paper copy.
Have you tried anything by Kelly Senyei before? Have you cooked from her website Just a Taste? I must admit that this cookbook was my first introduction to her and it blew me away. I’ve since checked out her website and made the truly incredible Apple Pie Panini (posted from a friend’s cookbook) along with her version of the viral feta and tomato baked dish and her baked brie version (which led to my spinoff bruschetta on toast).
Feel free to share your favorite recipes by her, or from her website, in the comments below. I hope you’re doing amazing.
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