I-Scream Month

July 23rd, 2022

I couldn’t let National Ice Cream Month go by without a blog post. I’m sharing with you a treat I made earlier in the month (for July 4, but it’s still welcome!), ice-cream bars.

In 1922, Christian Kent Nelson, a teacher and confectioner in Iowa, invented the first ice cream bar. According to legend (and the Smithsonian Institution), one of Nelson’s young customers couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to buy ice cream or a chocolate bar. “I want ‘em both, but I only got a nickel,” the youth is quoted as saying.

The answer, Nelson decided, was to combine the two. He went into partnership with chocolatier Russell Stover, and the ice-cream bar was born.

Nelson called his creation an I-Scream Bar, but he and Stover soon changed its name to Eskimo Pie. (It was recently renamed “Edy’s Pie” in response to criticism that “Eskimo” is considered a derogatory term for people who live in the Arctic.)

My I-Scream bar is simpler than the one made by Christian Kent Nelson. It doesn’t have chocolate all around each bar, just on top.

The reason for this decision was twofold. First, the cookie base gives the bars plenty of chocolate flavor; spreading chocolate all around would be overkill.

Second, it was much, much easier to spread the chocolate only on the top. Nelson is supposed to have spent weeks perfecting his bar. I didn’t have that much time at my disposal.

The recipe was inspired by one that appeared recently in the “Washington Post.” The bars in the “Post” were made with vanilla ice cream and a pretzel base, and they were given extra crunch with salted peanuts.

I prefer coffee ice cream and a chocolate sandwich-cookie base. I think my combination is, to coin a phrase, a more perfect union (remember, I created it for the Fourth of July), but you may use any flavor of ice cream and base you like. I have to admit that the pretzel base sounds delightfully salty.

Whatever flavors you use, you’ll have a make-ahead bar to please the young and young at heart for this month of warm temperatures and cold treats.

Chocolate I-Scream Bars

Ingredients:

for the crust and filling:

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
24 chocolate sandwich cookies, ground in a food processor or crushed in a zip-top bag with a rolling pin; this is a bit over 2 cups
3 cups coffee ice cream

for the chocolate coating:

2/3 cup semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Instructions:

Begin by making the crust. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with aluminum foil. (I used nonstick foil.) In a bowl, combine the melted butter and the cookie crumbs as well as you can.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and press it into the bottom of the pan, creating a solid, flat layer. Freeze for 30 minutes.

Next, make the chocolate coating. In a medium heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water), combine the chocolate, the cream, and the corn syrup.

Warm them until about three-quarters of the chocolate melts (this will take about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Remove the bowl from the heat and stir until the chocolate finishes melting. Let the coating cool to room temperature.

About 20 minutes before you’re ready to assemble your bars, take the ice cream out of the freezer to soften. Using an offset spatula or a large spoon, evenly spread the softened ice cream over the frozen crust. Transfer to the freezer until the ice cream is firm again, about 30 minutes.

Pour the cooled coating over the ice cream and evenly spread it with an offset spatula or the back of a large spoon. Do this as quickly as you can. Return the pan to the freezer until the coating is firm, at least 3 hours and preferably overnight.

Remove the foil-bottomed treats from the pan, and place them on a cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut the bars into 16 squares (or as many as you like). Run the knife under hot water and dry it after each slice. Carefully lift the bars off the foil, and serve them. Serves 8 or more.

Christian Kent Nelson

Strawberry-Rhubarb Non-Pie

June 9th, 2022

I tend to celebrate National Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, which falls each year on June 9, because I love food holidays.

I also celebrate this day because I adore dishes that pair sweet and tart. Strawberries in full season generally need no sugar. I can’t say the same of rhubarb. The two ingredients thus complement each other to some extent.

As food writer Judith Fertig has written, “Bitter rhubarb [makes] sunny-day strawberry face the realities of life—and taste all the better for it.”
The strawberry-rhubarb combination also works because it is truly multicultural and international.

Actually a vegetable rather than a fruit, rhubarb comes from a variety of countries but is perhaps best known as a Chinese import. It was originally used for medicinal purposes but eventually evolved into a food, helped out in large part by the widespread availability of sugar beginning in the 19th century.

Ornamental strawberry plants have been found worldwide for millennia. According to the University of Vermont Agricultural Extension Service, the varieties of this berry that we consume came from the Americas, where indigenous peoples ate and cooked with strawberries long before Europeans arrived in the New World.

Eventually, both the North American Virginia strawberry and the Chilean strawberry were brought to Europe. There the French and English bred them together to resemble what we think of as a strawberry today.

Combining strawberries and rhubarb, then, is a truly global enterprise … not unlike the United States.

Despite these positive traits, I don’t find Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day a perfect holiday.

For one thing, it was obviously invented by someone in New Jersey or Connecticut, where strawberries come early in June.

We are close to strawberry season here in western Massachusetts. Nevertheless, even in this very warm spring we haven’t quite reached that season. At any rate, we haven’t reached it in my hilly hometown of Hawley, where most seasons arrive late.

I am also a little suspicious of this holiday because in my opinion the combination of strawberries and rhubarb is overblown.

All too frequently, when I tell people that I adore rhubarb, they respond by telling me that they love strawberry-rhubarb pie but don’t eat rhubarb in any other form.

This is a tragic response. Rhubarb is a complex food. It is adaptable to many uses, both sweet and savory. To see it only as a complement to strawberries—much as I love strawberries—doesn’t do it justice.

This year for Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie Day, I’m actually preparing a relative of a pie rather than an actual pie: a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. According to culinary librarian Lynne Oliver, who created the helpful source “The Food Timeline,” cobblers were an American invention.

“According to food historians, cobbler … originated in the American West during the second half of the 19th century,” she writes. “Necessity required westward-bound pioneer cooks to adapt traditional oven-baked pie recipes to quick biscuit treats that could be cooked in Dutch ovens.”

I love the flexibility of a cobbler. It’s easy to make (no rolling required!), and it doesn’t have to look perfect. Indeed, the rough look of the dish is part of its charm. The named “cobbler” is purported to have come from this dessert’s resemblance to cobbled streets.

A cobbler also takes less time in the oven than a pie, a welcome characteristic on a warm day.

Perhaps we can re-name June 9 Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler Day. Or perhaps this cobbler should be rewarded with a day of its own a little later in June. It’s quite delicious.

Before I leave you, I wanted to give you the details about the concert I mention on the video. Here’s a nice listing about it.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

Ingredients:

for the rhubarb base:
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups chopped strawberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter, diced

for the cobbler crust:
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla

for the topping:
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Instructions:

Combine the sugar and the cornstarch for the base in a medium nonreactive (non-aluminum) pot. Stir in the rhubarb, the strawberries, and the lemon juice. Cover this mixture and let it sit for an hour or two to help the fruit juice up.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish.
Uncover the rhubarb mixture and bring it to a full boil, stirring frequently. Boil, stirring gently, for 1 minute. Remove the fruit from the heat.

(If you want to make the fruit mixture ahead of time, you may; just let it cool to room temperature and then refrigerate it until you are ready to preheat your oven and make your cobbler.)

Spread the strawberry-rhubarb mixture in the prepared pan. Dot the top with butter.

To make the crust, whisk together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Cut in the butter, but don’t overdo it. You should still see tiny pieces of butter in the mixture.

Whisk together the milk, the egg, and the vanilla. Add them to the dry ingredients, and mix just until moist. Drop this mixture onto the strawberry-rhubarb combination, and spread it around to cover the fruit. Sprinkle clumps of brown sugar over all.

Bake until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve by itself or with whipped cream or ice cream. (Leftovers are great for breakfast.) Serves 6 to 8.

Watch me make it!

Memories of Migas

May 4th, 2022

For Cinco de Mayo this week, I’m making one of my favorite (and one of the easiest ever) Tex-Mex dishes, Migas.

I first tasted Migas when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. I won’t say how long ago this happened; readers might begin to doubt my official age of 39. I will just say that it has been a number of years since I graduated.

I gather that Austin at present is not a cheap place in which to live. The New York Times ran a piece last November titled “How Austin Became One of the Least Affordable Cities in America.” I was saddened to learn that my former city now suffers from a housing crisis.

When I lived there, Austin was a paradise for impoverished students. I made a few hundred dollars a month. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay tuition; I usually had some form of scholarship. My income came either from fellowship money or teaching assistantships.

With this income, I managed to pay for basic groceries, textbooks when I absolutely had to purchase them (I found that a lot of the books I had to read were available in the local library), occasional gas and repairs for the Tinkymobile, and rent at the Casa del Rio.

The Casa was a small apartment complex from which I could walk to the University of Texas campus. A number of my friends lived there as well so communal meals out on the patio surrounding the pool were frequent.

Each small apartment had a sliding-glass door that led to the patio. If you were available to visit with friends, you left the curtain behind the door open. If you had to work that day or night, you closed the curtain.

It was an ideal living situation. One could have company whenever one wanted to, but nobody was offended when one was unavailable. I loved having my own stretch of patio where I did container gardening, raising flowers, herbs, and the occasional vegetable. Nurturing living things is the perfect antidote to the dissertation blues.

I recently looked for the Casa del Rio on the internet and was heartened to learn that it still exists. I was saddened to discover that it boasts of upgrades that include state-of-the-art appliances. I adored my vintage turquoise-blue kitchen appliances. True, the refrigerator needed to be defrosted frequently, but one must suffer for beauty.

Even after paying my rent, my cheap student health insurance, and my other expenses, I usually had leftover funds for dining out at least once a week. (I wish I could say the same of my budget today!)

Food, like rent, was inexpensive in Austin. I never warmed up to Texas barbecue; I much preferred the sweeter, more pork-centric barbecue in Tennessee.

On special occasions my friends and I dined at Threadgill’s, a restaurant that started as an art-deco service station and morphed into an Austin institution mingling country-style cooking and music. It was at Threadgill’s that I first tasted chicken-friend steak. I was an instant convert to this Texas favorite.

Threadgill’s managed to survive for decades only to be closed down during the recent pandemic. Its demise sparked headlines across the nation.

On non-special occasions, my group eschewed Threadgill’s and ate at any one of a number of Tex-Mex establishments. It was at one of these that I learned to love Migas.

The word Migas means “bread crumbs” in Spanish. This classic poor people’s dish originated in Spain as a way to use up stale bread by combining it with eggs and other handy foods.

In Austin, Migas were made not from leftover bread but from leftover tortillas, cut into strips and fried to give them new life. The dish is even easier if you do as my friend Jennifer does and use leftover tortilla chips.

I asked Jennifer for her recipe, and she gave it to me—although it’s one of those recipes that isn’t really a recipe. She just gave me a list of ingredients she might or might not put in her migas.

These included three types of cheese, jalapeño and bell pepper, onion, and cilantro or parsley.

I couldn’t find all three types of cheese at my general store so I used what I always call “store cheese,” a chunk of aged sharp cheddar cut off of a big wheel.

My migas were thus a New England variety. They didn’t taste quite like the ones we ate back in Texas. They were still absolutely delicious.

Feel free to play with the recipe. Jennifer always eats her migas with warmed corn tortillas to which she applies butter. You may also stuff the eggs inside warmed corn or flour tortillas to make an egg taco. If you love meat, fry up at little chorizo, and add it to the almost cooked eggs.

The garnishes may also be augmented. Migas are lovely with chopped red onion, refried beans, and/or black olives.

New England Migas

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons butter
1/2 small onion, diced
1/2 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, cut into small pieces
1/2 jalapeño pepper, diced (optional, depending on how spicy your salsa is)
2 large local eggs
1/4 teaspoon Mexican oregano (optional: Jennifer says that Mediterranean oregano will not do. If you don’t have Mexican, just skip it)
1/4 teaspoon cumin seed (whole or ground, also optional)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 splash water, milk, or cream
1/2 cup grated store cheese (more if you like)
1/2 cup coarsely crumbled corn tortilla chips (more if you like)

Garnishes:

lots of salsa
a little more cheese because life is better with cheese
a little ripped fresh cilantro (or parsley if you don’t have cilantro)
sliced avocado (optional but good)

Instructions:

Melt the butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Add the onion and the peppers and sauté over medium-low heat until the onion begins to turn golden.

Whisk together the eggs, spices (if you’re using them), salt, and liquid. Add them to the pan and fry, gently stirring. When the eggs just begin to set on the bottom, stir in the grated cheese and then the tortilla chips.

Serve with the garnishes of your choice. Serves 1 to 2, depending on appetite and on how much cheese, etc., you add to the eggs.

And now, the video I made for Mass Appeal:

A Passover Treat

April 20th, 2022

My Jewish grandmother didn’t serve, or eat, a lot of sweets. Nevertheless, in her home (as in many Jewish-American homes) a can of coconut macaroons always appeared during Passover to grace the table.

Macaroons fit into kosher dietary restrictions at Passover because they are leavened only with eggs and contain no flour. These restrictions help Jewish people evoke the story of Exodus.

When the Jews were finally allowed to leave Egypt, according to that story, they were in such a hurry that their bread didn’t have time to rise. Avoiding risen bread and flour during this season thus becomes a ritual of remembrance.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make my own macaroons for Passover. I did a little research on the internet to explore the history of these cookies.

According to Slate, the origins of macaroons date back to the ninth century, when Arab troops from what is now Tunisia arrived in Sicily to establish an emirate. They brought with them a number of technologies as well as foods that were new to Europe. The latter included lemons, rice, and nut-and-fruit-based confections. These innovations quickly spread north from Sicily to Italy.

The Italians adapted the Arab sweets to create a nut-based candy or cookie that obtained additional consistency from beaten egg whites. Jews in Italy soon realized that they could enjoy these treats at Passover as there was no gluten involved in making them.

Putting coconut in macaroons was apparently an American innovation. In 1894, a miller in Philadelphia named Franklin Baker unexpectedly received a large shipment of coconuts in exchange for flour he had shipped to Cuba.

He couldn’t find a buyer for his boatload of coconuts, and he didn’t want the fruit to go bad. He invented a process for shredding and drying the coconut meat and began to market it.

I had always assumed that the brand name Baker’s Coconut signaled that the coconut was to be used for baking—but it was in fact named after its founder.

According Mira Fox in the Forward, the practice of eating coconut macaroons caught on among American Jews. They liked the idea of enjoying what they perceived as an “exotic” flavor at Passover.

Manishewitz, a company known for manufacturing kosher foods, was an innovator in introducing canned macaroons to the nation. Fox calls Manishewitz “one of the titans of the canned coconut macaroon scene.”

“When you think of American food, you often think of processed foods—Wonder Bread and McDonald’s and Fruit Loops,” she writes. “So it makes sense that the American Pesach table is dominated by a cookie that was popularized because it could be processed and sold in bulk.” Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover.

Manishewitz sells many, many varieties of macaroons. These include such flavors as red velvet cake, chocolate mint, honey nut, pistachio orange, carrot cake, and cold-brew Earl Grey tea.

The company even manufactures a special package of coconut macaroons in a hot 1960s pink tin named after Mrs. Maisel, the heroine of the popular Amazon Prime television series about a Jewish housewife who morphs into a stand-up comic.

Courtesy of Manischewitz

This is a limited-edition product so I was unable to purchase it. (Believe me, I tried. I’m a sucker for TV tie-ins, and for anything hot pink.)

My own macaroons are adapted from several different recipes, including one in The Fannie Farmer Cookbook that uses a little flour. I eschewed the flour.

The chocolate coating on the bottom of the macaroons is optional, but I like it … because my father liked it. Like many holiday foods, these cookies are as important for the memories they evoke as for the flavors they contain.

I shared my first batch with friends and neighbors. It was such a hit that I made an additional half recipe. The second time I used white chocolate on the bottoms instead of semi-sweet chocolate. As long as the white chocolate isn’t applied too lavishly, I found, it’s even better than semi-sweet. That batch is already gone … well before the end of Passover this Saturday evening.

Coconut Macaroons

Ingredients:

1 bag (14 ounces) sweetened shredded coconut
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 pinch salt
optional: 1-1/3 cups chopped semi-sweet chocolate (you may use chips) or white chocolate

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silicone.

In a nonstick skillet, toast the coconut over medium heat, stirring constantly, until quite a bit (but not all) of it turns brown. This will take around 5 minutes; the exact time will depend on your stove. Remove the coconut from the pan, and let it cool.

In a bowl, thoroughly combine the cooled coconut, the condensed milk, and the vanilla.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and the salt until they form soft peaks that hold their shape.

Gently fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture. Use a cookie scoop, a spoon, and/or your hands to form the dough into rough balls that are about 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Place them on the cookie sheets at least 1 inch apart.

Bake the macaroons until they turn a light golden brown (about 18 to 20 minutes). Let them cool for a couple of minutes on the cookie sheet; then remove them to a rack to finish cooling.

If you wish to add the chocolate, melt it over hot water using a double boiler. With clean hands, dip the bottoms of the cooled macaroons in the chocolate. (You may use a spoon to help.) Place the chocolate-bottomed macaroons on wax paper to cool.

Store the macaroons in an air-tight container. Makes 24 macaroons, more or less, depending on how big you make them.

Watch me make the macaroons in this video.

An Oscar-Inspired Dessert

March 23rd, 2022

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, one of the highlights of each spring here in Hawley, Massachusetts, was my annual Academy-Award soiree. I would invite a crowd to join me here in Hawleywood to watch Tinseltown’s big night and try to guess the winners.

The winner, the runner-up, and the last-place guesser at the party all received prizes: a book about the movies, perhaps, or a film poster donated by our local video-rental store. (Yes, a video-rental store. I repeat: it was a long time ago.)

I had studied film in graduate school, and I prided myself on my cinematic expertise. Sadly, although I tried to view as many nominated films as I could, I was never very good at guessing whom the Academy would end up honoring.

Ironically, the most frequent winner at my parties was the late Charlotte Thwing of East Hawley. Charlotte had seldom viewed many—or indeed any—of the year’s nominated pictures.

She was, however, a faithful reader of People magazine. Apparently, its writers had knowledge that I lacked despite my Ph.D.

In advance of the party, I tried to dream up dishes that honored one or more of the nominated films. I won’t have a huge crowd for this year’s ceremonies; my television is less mobile than it was in the old days, and I can fit only a few people into the room in which we will watch.

Still, I will be joined by a few friends. And I plan to make something appropriate to at least one of the best-picture nominees.

As always, it took me a little while to figure out what to make. Did I want to make something with fish in honor of the family in Coda, who have a family fishing business? Did I want to create the meal at the end of Don’t Look Up? It looked delicious—but dessert was the demise of Planet Earth, which rendered the feast less appetizing. And so forth.

I finally settled on inspiration and a doable recipe when I watched West Side Story.

I’m a sucker for a musical. Stephen Spielberg’s camerawork, Tony Kushner’s script, and Leonard Bernstein’s score lured me into the Romeo-and-Juliet story of Tony and Maria. I was particularly touched by the casting of Rita Moreno as Valentina.

The role was written specifically for the veteran actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film of this musical and who served as an executive producer for the new film at the age of 89.

20th-Century Studios/ Courtesy Everett

The young people in West Side Story don’t spend a lot of time eating or drinking. Perhaps the story would have a less tragic ending if the Jets and the Sharks could break bread together.

Valentina doesn’t eat on camera. She does drink, however. In a sad moment, as she ponders the troubles of her young friend Tony and her neighborhood, she pours herself a tumbler of rum. And she sings one of the film’s most moving numbers.

In honor of Valentina and West Side Story, then, I am making a Bacardi Rum Cake. The original recipe for this cake was published by Bacardi in the 1970s so it’s a vintage recipe. The rum makes the cake delectably moist so if it isn’t entirely consumed at my party, leftovers can be kept for days.

I’m following Bacardi’s recipe here (more or less; there are pecans instead of coconut in the original). Warning: it uses two processed ingredients, cake mix and pudding mix. I could make up a cake mix, but I’m not sure how to fake pudding mix. And I’m busy getting ready for the soiree. I gave in to the lure of packaged food. Happy viewing!

Bacardi Rum Cake

 Ingredients:

 for the cake:

1/4 cup dark rum
1 box (about 15 ounces) yellow cake mix
1 box (about 3.4 ounces) vanilla pudding mix
4 eggs at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup water
1 cup coconut flakes

 for the glaze:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark rum

 for assembly:
5 rings of pineapple, fresh or canned

 Instructions:

 Begin by baking the cake. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan. Mix all the cake ingredients except the coconut together until you have a smooth batter. Stir in the coconut; then pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake passes the toothpick test. Let the cake cool for 20 minutes in its pan. Invert it onto a serving plate, and prick lots of holes in the top and sides with a fork or a toothpick.

To make the glaze, melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the water and the sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the rum. Bring the mixture to a boil once more, and remove it from the heat again.

Spoon the glaze evenly over the top and sides of the cake. Getting the cake to absorb the glaze can be a little tricky. If you try to pour on the glaze too quickly, it will spill off the sides. Be patient, and spoon it on in stages.

When you have used about three quarters of the glaze, place the pineapple slices around the top if the cake, and brush them and the cake with the remaining glaze. Serves 12.