From the old blog, November 2007. Apparently I was thinking about trying to make a fruitcake. Still haven’t.
Y’know, I never did make that brandy-drenched fruitcake I blogged about a week or two ago.
But I am already indulging in another established holiday favourite:
The bourbon ball.
Way back when, during my days in Massachusetts, I worked with an older lady we’ll call Agnes — not her real name, but an acceptable enough simulation for this purpose.
Agnes was sixtyish, perfectly amiable, rather dotty, somewhat professionally past her prime.
And every holiday she brought in batches of homemade bourbon balls that would stun an ox.
I am a robustly built adult male who is no stranger to bourbon … and I could only eat one of her holiday pastries at work, or else my head would start spinning gently and my work would begin to seem incidental and unimportant.
This is still a running joke between my wife and I, years later.
(She made sure to skip Agnes’s bourbon balls the Christmas she was pregnant. We conservatively estimated each ball contained the equivalent of 4.1 shots of the hard stuff.)
I make my own bourbon balls now.
They’re not as strong as Agnes’s, but they sure are forthright … because once you get used to that, it’s hard to go back.
I made my first batch of the year the other night.
They were supposed to “age,” but I’ve already got my fingers into them, and I just know I’m gonna have to make more if I expect to have any for Xmas.
The way I make them, they come out like bourbon fudge, with crispy little bits of nutmeat to break up the smoothness.
Aw, man; I just know I’m gonna have another once the kids go to sleep.
Here’s the recipe, in case anyone else wants to ride the love train:
1 cup crushed vanilla wafers (you want powder)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup chopped nuts (again, I like ’em as small as I can possibly get ’em — not big chunks of nut)
2 tbsp cocoa
1 1/2 tbsp light corn syrup (you could use honey)
1/4 cup bourbon
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine corn syrup and bourbon separately. Then mix it into the dry ingredients.
Form into balls. Roll in more powdered sugar (I don’t always do that) and chill.
They will seem sticky when you make ’em, and maybe a little less firmly coherent than you want, but if you let them chill a while they hold together nicely enough.
Have five or six and then you’ll seem sticky and incoherent.
It’s the first week of the year. Roughly nine out of every 10 Americans are hating themselves for overindulging in rich or otherwise non-nutritive foods over the past month.
So I think I’ll write about … packaged food.
Earlier this week I stumbled on the Flickr account of Jason Liebig, who collects food labels, wrappers and packaging. He has kindly scanned in hundreds of items from his collection.
It has never occurred to me that someone might see fit to collect, say, empty potato-chip bags. Just never thought of things like that as something people might save.
But some people do. And it’s kinda cool to spend a few minutes paging through the scans — both to recognize products from my youth, and to compare and contrast the finer points of packaging design through the ages.
A few of my favorites from the Liebig collection, then:
Welch’s grape-jelly donuts: Can’t say I remember these from the freezer aisle. (Yes, they were sold frozen.) I love the colors and design, though.
Grapefruit Tang: I had no idea this existed either. I imagine combining it with $7.99-a-bottle gin for an evening of drinking that would buckle my knees, muddle my brain, but provide me roughly 1,550 percent of my daily quota of Vitamin C.
Hi-C Apple Cranberry Drink: In my newspapering days, I covered Lynn Swann for a couple hours during a local stop as part of his quixotic campaign for governor of Pennsylvania. I should have asked him if Hi-C still cut through his thirst. Alas, I hadn’t seen this label at the time.
(Since I went back to the newsroom after the event and wrote a story for the paper, that means I can claim to have successfully covered Lynn Swann. A lot of NFL cornerbacks and defensive backs would love to say as much.)
Pillsbury Milk Break milk bars: I remember once having the Chocolate Mint flavor of these. I liked them, though my palate as a 10-year-old was not especially refined. I suppose I have that half-cup of powdered milk to thank for my sturdy, erect bearing today.
Morton beef pot pies: I ate a whole bunch of frozen pot pies as a kid, though not necessarily Morton; they might also have been Swanson or store-brand. If I keel over out of the blue one of these years, that might be a contributing factor.
Andy Capp’s Pub Fries: The “Andy Capp” cartoon had roughly one-and-a-half jokes (layabout squabbles with wife, goes to pub). I was always astonished, not only by its longevity, but at the longevity of its apparently successful spinoff in America’s snack aisles. I think I had Andy Capp’s Pub Fries once; I remember them as being amazingly salty (even by my standards then) and perhaps also spicy as well.
Underwood Deviled Ham: Can’t remember ever having Underwood tinned meat as a kid. But I remember it stood out on the shelf because it was canned, and the cans were wrapped in white paper. Always seemed weird to me.
Uncle Ben’s Stuff n’ Such: A remarkably noncommittal product — the “anytime stuffing mix for the outside of things.” Peanut-butter sammiches? White Castle sliders? Beached whales? Bring ’em on.
French’s Chicken Fixns Sweet n’ Sour Sauce Mix: Only included here because it dates to the days when French’s corporate headquarters were in Rochester. When one set of my grandparents bought their house in the Rochester area circa 1986, I remember them finding a manila envelope or poster tube with some French’s materials that had belonged to the prior owner. (It wasn’t a recipe for the perfect dijon chicken or anything useful like that … just a couple of random documents the guy had brought home from work and lost down the back of a cabinet or something.)
Hi-C Florida Punch: No idea what this stuff tasted like. But if it had existed during my childhood, I’m sure I would have craved it, just because of the evocatively sun-drenched name and the surprisingly effective green and dark red of the packaging.
Irischer Fruhling: Early-’70s Irish Spring soap package for the German market. This is baader than Meinhof.
Quaker Peanut Butter Granola Dipps: Obligatory pop music content: Check out the box, which promises one of five free records about the history of rock n’ roll. (I assume no actual rock n’ roll was included, for cost/licensing reasons.) This particular box included a record about Live Aid; other subjects included “Rock’s Greatest Guitar Heroes” and “A Tribute to John Lennon.”
I am trying to imagine a young-ish kid sitting down in front of the family stereo and getting a potted (and, probably, at least partially incorrect) history of John Lennon from a record that came with his granola bars.
Dentyne Dynamints: 40-year-old Wonder Bread goes moldy. 40-year-old Twinkies go green. But 40-year-old breath mints look as shiny and effective as ever. Maybe the weirdest stuff in your cupboard isn’t what you thought it was.
2012 marks the 50th anniversary of a definitively American culinary invention. For your entertainment, I decided to whip up a batch of it myself — though I’m gonna run my mouth a while before I get to that, so bear with me.
I’m not sure exactly when the magic moment of this dish’s creation took place. The specific date of the anniversary is more than likely behind us.
No matter. A visionary deserves tribute at any time. And John Holahan was, in his own way, a visionary.
* * * * *
Holahan worked as a product developer for General Mills in the 1960s, according to lore so often repeated that it might be true.
In the fateful year of 1962 — or, as I prefer to think of it, MCMLXII — the breakfast giant challenged its product developers to find a new twist on its core brands, Wheaties and Cheerios.
Legend says Holahan was looking for something to sex up his Cheerios when a bag of marshmallow circus peanuts caught his eye.
(God only knows how American breakfasts would be different today if he’d turned his attention to dill pickle chips, or canned hominy, or leftover crab rangoon.)
Holahan sliced the marshmallows into his Cheerios, liked what he tasted, and brought the idea in to work.
The immediate result was Lucky Charms, the first-ever cereal with marshmallows, released either in 1963 or ’64 depending on who you ask, and still in production today.
By extension, we also have Holahan to thank for Count Chocula, Boo-Berry, Franken-Berry, Fruit Brute, Fruity Yummy Mummy and Marshmallow Mateys, as well as the store-brand marshmallow cereal available in a grocery near you.
He was the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the cereal aisle, in so many words — a genius whose brainstorm brought clouds of devastation trailing behind it.
“I am become Lucky the Leprechaun, the destroyer of worlds.”
* * * * *
That last is a cheap shot of titanic proportions, of course.
John Holahan — who died in 2000 — didn’t invent America’s trash-food culture.
He didn’t create supersize fries, wading pool-sized fountain drinks or deep-fried Twinkies. (Heck, he didn’t even create sugary cereal. Frosted Flakes were on the market a dozen years before Lucky Charms.)
He didn’t chase grocery stores out of center cities, making fast food the only affordable, accessible dining choice for those living there.
And yet, there is something about his invention that seems to define and encapsulate trash food like few other items do. (The Big Mac is another shining example. Macaroni and cheese in a box is a third.)
With its blithe interpolation of candy and breakfast, marshmallow cereal embodies the overly permissive and self-indulgent side of the American character.
Is one meal a day without sweets too much for you to take? Lucky the Leprechaun is there for you, bubsy. Sure, there’s oatmeal in the cupboard … but that’s so bland. G’wan. You deserve it. It’s cereal. There’s oats in it, fer crissake. Vitamins, too. It’s healthy enough.
There is little good to be said about marshmallow cereal — especially since they dumped Cheerios and began using frosted, unnaturally colored grain-bits to accompany the marshmallows.
But there it’s been, for almost 50 years now, offering us a treat we do not really deserve, and an escape that takes us nowhere.
Perhaps Lucky Charms has been so successful because it hit on the perfect mascot — a mythical creature who, in all these centuries, has yet to deliver genuine joy or treasure to any human.
* * * * *
As I thought about the long shadow of John Holahan, I decided the natural next step was to make a batch of marshmallow cereal, original gangsta-style, and try to recapture what he might have thought when he first came up with it.
After work I detoured to Giant and picked up the necessary ingredients:
The whole thing came together in no more than a minute — pour, cut, sprinkle, drizzle with milk and serve.
I thought about slicing the circus peanut into hearts, or shamrocks, or coronets. But I figured John Holahan probably hadn’t resorted to that kind of silliness the first time. So I didn’t either.
One bite soon followed another. And I had to come around to admit: Marshmallow cereal prepared in the original style is — gack — actually pretty good.
The sweet chewiness of the peanut shards nicely offsets the dry, austere crunch of the Cheerios.
And one marshmallow bit per spoonful — not the four or five you might get in, say, Franken-Berry — is just right for contrast.
The call of marshmallow cereal is a seductive one. And when you’ve got a good ratio of Cheerios to circus-peanut bits, it’s easy to try to convince yourself that you’re still on the right side of nutrition.
Perhaps John Holahan thought that way 50 years ago. Maybe his original batch had the same restrained appeal. Perhaps he had no premonition at all about today’s sugar-bloated marshmallow-industrial complex.
Sometimes the bitterest outcomes start with the simplest, sweetest visions.
Most of the cuisine of my senior year of college isn’t worth revisiting.
Mostly I remember lots and lots of steamed rice with soy sauce, and too much macaroni and cheese from a box, not to mention lots of take-out.
Another staple of my kitchen table brought together two food items sacred to any college senior — beer and pizza.
Someone in the newsroom of the Boston U. Daily Free Press had lucked into a fact-a-day calendar put out by Samuel Adams, the hometown brewer that, in those days, was at the forefront of the developing craft-brew movement.
All it took was white flour, wheat flour, baking powder and a bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager, along with whatever toppings were desired.
I didn’t often have Sam Lager in my fridge back then, due to its relative cost. But I always had beer — inoffensive pale golden beer, perfect for mixing into baked goods.
A little tomato sauce and cheese from the nearby Purity Supreme grocery store (dubbed “Poverty Supreme” for its general grunginess), and you had yourself a warm, filling, homemade dinner. Nay — a warm, filling, homemade pizza dinner with beer. What more could a 21-year-old wish for on a chill New England evening?
To this day, my wife and I still have that fact-a-day calendar entry somewhere in our recipe files. It pops up every couple of years.
And you know where I’m going with this: I got the urge into my head to make it again.
Even though I have come to strongly prefer crisp, thin-crust pizza. Even though I am no longer 21. And even though I should know better than to do stuff like this … I still wanted to do it anyway.
So, I provisioned myself today with the bare necessities, and set about cooking.
I should have opted for either Sam Lager (to be true to the recipe) or some trashy canned beer (to be historically accurate.)
Instead, faced with a dizzying variety of beer, I chose a decent-looking lager more or less at random — Frankenmuth Brewery Pilsener, from Frankenmuth, Michigan. I knew it wouldn’t be too hoppy, anyway, which is the biggest concern when you cook with beer.
Thirty minutes at 425 degrees produced a nicely done if rather dark-topped pizza. (I seem to remember they looked like that in 1995, too.)
I thought it was OK, maybe even better than I remembered.
The crust was fairly light and not too bitter — it tastes a little of beer, but not in a bad way. The whole wheat flour lent the recipe a little bit of heft without making it leaden. The tomato sauce and cheese, meanwhile, were tomato sauce and cheese.
My kids weren’t totally sold on it; at one point my younger son referred to it as “gross-crust pizza.” Most of the pizza in the pan — I’d say 85 percent of it — disappeared anyway.
I might actually make this again on some weekend night when I find myself short on inspiration and bereft of ingredients except cheese, sauce, flour and beer.
I couldn’t tell you anything I learned in my senior-year college classes, but I’m glad to offer you a quick and useful pizza recipe if you want it.
My parents must be speechless with disappointment.