“We’d better take the photos quick before the ice cream melts!”

I had barely opened the door before junior Natalie Tanner whisked into The Record office carrying a peanut butter and chocolate ice cream confection in one hand and a bowl containing neatly arranged rows of miscellaneous ingredients in the other.

I hastily began snapping photos to adjust the camera settings while she swooped in with a paper towel to wipe away a peanut butter smudge and stray clusters of granola. After several alterations, the photo was complete. She exhaled.

The ice cream was free to melt as I looked up at the creative mind behind the recipes I would photograph every week as The Record’s “Saga Hacks” photographer.

“So what’s the recipe?” I asked.

“Butterscotch granola ice cream!” Her eyes lit up. “It’s so good, want a taste?”

My taste buds were in for a surprisingly decadent treat.  The warm melted chocolate and peanut butter gave the classic cold dessert a new dimension, while the granola provided a satisfying crunch. This was no ordinary soft-serve, but a gourmet sundae — and one that anyone could make using only ingredients from Saga!

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Photo credit Sarah Holcomb.

That’s the beauty of the Saga Hack — it’s the now-weekly column consisting of nothing but everyday Saga ingredients and Tanner’s incredible creative prowess. While that day in October was my first time photographing The Record’s “Saga Hacks” column, Tanner had been creating recipes since the beginning of the semester as The Record’s recipe columnist. The column didn’t start out as a weekly feature — it was more of a last-minute addition to the first issue. A friend of Tanner’s working at The Record was well acquainted with her cafeteria-cooking prowess and asked her to whip up a recipe to include in the next day’s paper.

Tanner took up the challenge. With only a few hours to create and photograph the recipe, she hurried to Saga, where she prepared a grilled cheese with sautéed onions and mushrooms with the help of a couple friends. Upon returning to The Record office, she learned that she also needed to write the accompanying article.

“I remember when I was sitting at the computer the deadline seemed only seconds away and I had no idea what it needed to look like or what it should sound like because it had never been done before,” she recalled. “I was kind of blazing my own trail, which was awesome because I could do my own thing, which I loved.”

“I can now say my first ever published piece is an article about a grilled cheese sandwich!” Tanner said with a laugh. The sandwich, which she shared with the staff, was an instant hit. “They loved it and were like, ‘Could you do this again next week?’”

That issue, Saga Hacks made its front page debut.“Then the next week they were like, ‘Do you think you could do this every week?’ So the idea kind of morphed into what it is now,” she explained. Within the first few issues, Saga Hacks had established a reputation for “short, simple and fun” recipes that anyone could make.

Long before the column’s advent her sophomore year, Tanner had been experimenting in Saga as a freshman, putting fresh twists on Saga’s weekly fare. As a health-conscious eater, she wanted nutritious meals without the predictability.

“I’ve always liked food and cooking,” she recalled, “but I don’t think I personally invested in food until I no longer had my mom’s cooking every day.”

While Tanner’s first creations arose from her interest in nutrition, preparing food in the cafeteria became an art form. “I started doing creative things with sandwiches or putting things in waffles, and it kind of morphed into something bigger the second semester of my freshman year,” she explained. From homemade chicken marinades to Dijon balsamic hummus, Tanner has since innovated a remarkable range of recipes.

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Tomato spinach bruschetta.

This week’s issue marks Tanner’s 24th Saga Hack, which begs the question: How does she continually invent new recipes like peanut butter balls and homemade sweet potato casserole? For Tanner, finding Saga Hacks isn’t just about writing articles for The Record; it’s an overflow of her lifestyle of innovation.

“I usually approach a Saga Hack from one of two directions. I like taking a single, ordinary ingredient that seems overused or boring and try to do something different with it,” Tanner said. “One week I chose peanut butter. I wanted to do something unique with it, so I ended up making a salad dressing with it.”

Other times, she’ll create a spin-off of a classic dish, like the homemade pimento cheese dip, or the mouth-watering chocolate lava cake waffle.

Tanner was quick to emphasize the importance of collaboration in her recipe creation. Sometimes friends assist her in making recipes, like sophomore Olivia Cassel, who helped make the butterscotch granola ice-cream I tasted my first time photographing Saga Hacks.

“A lot of ideas come from stuff people say or from things I oversee in Saga or from conversations I have with friends,” Tanner said. “I love talking to people in the panini press line.” These conversations often spark the next Saga Hack.

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Peanut butter balls.

While she presents her recipes in a straightforward way, that doesn’t mean the work Tanner dedicates to the column each week is easy. Working with only cafeteria utensils and dishes, one of the most difficult aspects is writing the recipe in a way that allows the reader to easily recreate the dish.

Logistics can be complicated. Each week, she experiments and tests the recipe, often several times to perfect the dish. Then, she schedules a time with me for the photoshoot, which is in constant flux, since some ingredients are only available certain hours or days of the week. Tanner must then prepare the dish with perfect timing to achieve the ideal temperature and plating for the photos. She said, “Timing is a challenge, but it’s always so worth it.”

But the most rewarding part of writing Saga Hacks? “Seeing people actually enjoy them.” Sometimes when experimenting with a recipe, Tanner will make a large batch and bring it to a group of friends to try. The reaction from her apple pie recipe was so positive that she had to repeatedly go back to make more for her test group! Even Tanner’s professors read Saga Hacks — one told her that he made a Saga Hack during a dine-with-a-mind — and give her an occasional in-class plug.

Tanner lit up as she described experiences of overhearing others talk about the articles or making the recipes. “I’m doing these for you guys, so I love hearing that people are trying and enjoying them,” she said enthusiastically.

Although Tanner clearly has a gift for creating delectable cafeteria cuisine, she insisted that anyone can cook at Saga. Her tips for beginners include utilizing the at-your-service station for ingredients like sunflower seed butter, almond milk and plain, cooked chicken breasts, or the panini presses to spice up almost any dish. Another strategy for smart dining: “Try to limit yourself to one or two things to center each meal on. You’ll feel like Saga has more to offer if you’re not eating a little bit of everything each day. Moderation is key.”

Which Saga Hacks to try first? Some of Tanner’s personal favorites are the German Apple Pancake waffle, the Italian Panini and the fall salad with sweet potato, apple, pumpkin seeds and home-made mustard vinaigrette.  One of Tanner’s most popular creations is her “lazy apple pie,” which requires only applesauce and granola warmed in the microwave, topped with ice cream and crushed cinnamon-toast crunch.

For me, Tanner’s peanut butter balls top the list. Not only are they incredibly easy to make with only four ingredients —  granola, rice krispies, peanut butter and chocolate chips — they’re both a crave-worthy and satisfying snack — the perfect pick-me-up any time of day.

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To access any of these recipes and see even more of Tanner’s talent, readers can visit her website at sagahacks.com.