Hipsters on Food Stamps Part III: Damned If You Do—ritos and Damned If You Don’t*

And what's a facebook reference without some irresponsible comparisons? This group has more facebook fans than 7/9 of the most popular pages for Ghandi, 2/3 of the pages for DFW, at least 5 of the pages for MLK Jr., at least one of the pages for "The Moon," and both "WAFFLES!!!!" (4 !) and "WAFFLES!!!!!" (5 !)

To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.
It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

Oscar Wilde 

Patronizing the Poor but Fetishizing Peasant Foods

One common response to the anger elicited by last month’s Salon article about hipsters on food stamps is: *yawn* nothing new, seen it before, everyone loves to hate people on welfare, tell me something I don’t know. And that may be partially justified—I gestured to some of the historical precedents in the first entry, both in the title, which was a reference to the myth of the welfare queen famously promoted by Ronald Reagan, and in my discussion about the home economics movement. Progressive Era social reformers were really concerned about what new immigrants to America were eating and made (completely unfounded, obviously) connections between foods associated with immigrants, like pickles, and all the other stereotypes they had about them—their stunted growth, laziness, excessive attachments to their mothers, lack of self-control over their unruly sexual urges.

sometimes I think I can't love The Onion any more, and then I find shit like this (from 1999): http://www.theonion.com/articles/corporatewelfare-recipients-are-they-eating-steak,672/Those kinds of myths—the idea that pickles make you horny or that poor, black women have kids out of  wedlock in order to game the system—gain traction in part because they appeal to existing prejudices about the poor and in part because they enable dominant social groups to project the things they are most afraid of being onto the poor, so they can distance themselves from them. It’s reassuring to a lot of people if laziness and sexual excess look like a black single mother on welfare instead of a white-collar worker who comes home and watches hours of television every night and might be unfaithful to his or her spouse (or desire to be). It’s much more convenient if “gaming the system” looks like a Black woman or Latina who lives in subsidized housing and uses 50 different social security numbers to collect thousands of dollars a month in welfare and drives a Cadillac, instead of like a corporate lobbyist who pushes for roll-backs of labor and environmental protections or like an executive who does all he can to cut workers’ salaries and benefits in order to maximize profits and shareholder dividends…and drives a Cadillac.  

The history of stigmatizing the food of the poor is probably as old as social classes themselves, or least as old as capitalism and the emergence of the middle class(es) in the 18th C. The expansion of the middle class in that period is one reason a lot of scholars give for the proliferation of silly “grammar”** rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions at about that time. The middle classes have always had a lot to gain by making very clear distinctions between their way of speaking, dressing, and eating—which is always the  "right” way—and the culture of the poor—which is not just different, but “wrong.”

However, there’s also a long history of romanticizing the poor and glorifying how frugal, resourceful, or admirably un-fettered by material needs they are. This seems especially true in terms of food—as suspicious and critical as many home economists were of immigrant foodways, they also  looked to them for inspiration in developing cost-efficient and palatable meals and idealized their thrift. Bertha Wood, in the same book that criticized the “overstimulation” caused by Eastern Europeans’ taste for pickles, had far kinder things to say about Mexican food:

When not too highly seasoned, Mexican dishes are very tasty…. Only lack of variety and the use of hot flavors keep their food from being superior to that of most Americans.

In the 1980s, romanticization of the poor took the form of a widespread fetishization of “peasant” foods, especially in the growing world of California-inspired haute cuisine. The peasant food craze seems to have roots in the 1960s/1970s countercuisine and the hippie rebellion against the food industry. But the food of the international proletariat didn’t appeal to the Patrick Batemans of the world because they were a way to eat in solidarity with the oppressed classes in the global south. Instead, for the yuppies who adopted them, I think they were a way to mitigate the stain of elitism or food snobbery. “Peasant” foods are authentic, not pretentious. Their presence on the menu implies that that the gourmet aesthetic is based on some sort of objective standards of deliciousness, not subjective and arbitrary ideas about sophistication.

Peasant foods helped create the illusion of a culinary meritocracy—any kind of food can be “gourmet” if it tastes good enough. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy. The foods associated with the American poor, like Velveeta and Doritos, are totally ineligible, even though both would be probably be considered works of culinary genius if they were created by Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz. But the appearance of culinary democracy belies the arbitrariness of food aesthetics and the cultural hierarchies they reflect and reinforce.

To get back to the probably-apocryphal trend of “hipsters” living large on food stamps, I think that the differences in the way stigmas and stereotypes about the poor manifest in different historical periods matter as much or more than the commonalities. What strikes me most about the responses to the Salon article is not so much the occasional virulence—although that is often startling—but rather the division between the first two of the four camps I described in the second entry:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

I think these warring camps represent two of the most pressing middle-class anxieties about food right now: the obvious one is the fear of fatness and all the guilt and shame attached to eating or desiring anything seen as “fattening,” like “junk” food, but the less obvious one that the first camp seems to reveal is an anxiety about food snobbery or perhaps overconsumption more broadly. In other words, perhaps part of the reason so many commenters were so quick to try to dictate thrift and asceticism to the poor is because they feel guilty about their own “splurges” and aren’t sure that spending more money on organic or gourmet food is wholly justifiable. That may even be one of the reasons many readers bought Salon’s paper-thin story, assumed it was a real phenomenon, and even made their own unfounded assumptions about what kinds of things foodies on food stamps might buy. Just like the specter of obese poor people buying frozen pizzas and soda with their food stamps is a useful whipping boy for fat shame, the “hipsters” on food stamps with their heaping bowls of curried squash drew attention because they’re the ideal target for foodie shame.

Outraged Sheeple

My issue comes with shopping at Whole Foods which is much more expensive then Safeway or buying wild salmon which is $26.00/pound. Sardines have just as many health benefits as salmon at a fraction of the cost. Fresh herbs are $1.99 – $2.99 a pack but can be grown in a kitchen garden for next to nothing. Mint chutney is expensive, especially at ethnic stores.If a single person qualifies and can shop in this fashion every day then 1) he or she is receiving too much money or 2) they run out of money mid-month and are getting money from somewhere else (mommy and daddy) and should not qualify to begin with.—pjamma

First, a brief reminder that the “hipsters” in the story merely sauntered in proximity to chutney—none of them bought any of it, as far as we know. But even if they had—sure, it’s more expensive per oz than ketchup or salad dressing but it’s comparable to flavored cream cheese and probably used more sparingly and moreover, who is anyone else to dictate what condiments food stamp recipients buy? It is beyond ridiculous to presume that every single purchase someone makes on food stamps should be optimally cost-efficient. Sardines are, indeed, cheap and by most measures, healthy. They’re probably even sustainable. But does that mean people on food stamps should have to eat them to the exclusion of the occasional piece of wild salmon (again, not that there’s any evidence of a mass trend of salmon-buying on food stamps in the first place)?

Yes, according to many of the people who commented on the article:

This makes me sick. I have no problem with people who need help, but spending tax payers money on food like wild caught salmon is ridicules.—michele32

I can not justify buying organic/high end food with food stamps!I love sushi, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if it was bought with food stamps. If you feel the need to do so, buy it on your own dime. And while you’re at it, instead of asking the government to assist your educated palate, maybe you should be asking Mom & Dad. Obviously they gave you the taste of the good life to begin with, which you feel you are entitled to. So this is where my husband’s tax dollars are going, so you can enjoy organic vegetables??? I find this appalling.—KathyI

We live on ramen noodles, and spagetti, and things that are inexpensive. It makes me sick that hipsters would brag about buying gormet foods while living on assistance. If we cut off people who abuse the programs or cheat the programs, or spend their assistance on things not related to living expenses then maybe they honest people who really need the help can get it.—samjean

It must be nice for the government to feed these people steak,or chicken and rice. When I make less than 20,000 a year and turned down for food stamp’s more that 5 times in the last 3 year’s "I make too much to get food stamp’s" ,but these people are living high on the hog so to speak on food stamp’s this makes me mad—splweapons 

Food stamps are supposed to help needy families provide basic nutrition for their families. Why should our hard earn tax dollars be paying for someone to live high on the hog? How often do we walk into a grocery store, it’s snowing and 30 degrees, and see a woman walking around in nice clothes, big jacket with a cart full of stuff, very little food, and children wearing inappropriate clothes, or shoes? I see it more often than I’d like to. Then we get to the check out and they’re standing at the register paying for the food items with food stamps and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy their “stuff”. Kids are crying, "Mommy, I want this, I want that!" And she tells them, "Shut up, we don’t have the money." Then out in the parking lot, I see her put her children into an Escalade.–crebrew

The Cadillac reappears! But the best example was the one I quoted in the first article:

ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Sorry to be repetitive with the quotes, but I’m afraid I sort of let this speak for itself. In light of at least one of the comments I got on the first post, I realized that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the fact that there are already pretty strict guidelines about who can receive foodstamps, what kinds of foods they can purchase, and how much assistance they receive. The amount is based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. No one gets more benefits in order to purchase wild salmon or the rabbit that one of the article’s subjects remembers fondly—which was probably a “splurge” meal that stands out from all the meatless vegetable, bean and rice concoctions they usually get by on. Food stamps don’t pay for “largess” or “living high on the hog.”

I suspect that these people, so eager to add further restrictions to how food-stamp-qualified people allocate their relatively-meager benefits, are basically projecting anxieties about their own excesses.

Better Than Doritos

On the other side, there are plenty of people willing to endorse even wild salmon, as long as it means this group of poverty-stricken people might not get fat.

With rising obesity epidemics and other diet-related health issues so prevalent in our culture, why would we want these folks to spend their meager allotment on highly processed foods laden with fats and high fructose corn syrup instead of organic carrots, salmon, and other healthy items?—terribletink

I have absolutely no problem with this. Its about time that food stamps were used for real food. Its about time that people really learn how to cook how to cook food as opposed to buying canned food and chips. Its the best way to stretch a buck. It also take’s away from the profits of the like’s of Nabisco, Nestle and all of those other corporations who don’t care and produce corn and other products. I’m totally fine with this.—tweeders1

Oh no! Not corn! I think we have Michael Pollan to thank for that. But wait, there’s more:

I am, as a 58 year-old public school teacher (living on teacher retirement–boo!), more offended to see people, especially parents of young children, use their "food stamps" to buy high-carb, high fat, cheaper foods for the kids and spending their cash on cartons of cigarettes and six-packs of beer. Cheers to someone who can make a good diet from the money for which the government says they are "qualified"!—gkcook

They are buying in the store rather than McDonalds and they are getting something healthy and cooking it well. So exactly why are they being potrayed here as a source of anger? Should people suffer and eat junk food that makes them diebetic (which those working for would have to pay for) instead of buying something healthy at the store and cooking it?—aburkett

One commenter even suggested that the “hipsters” be allowed to continue their extravagant ways, but only as long as they teach other “traditional food stamp recipients” how to cook:

Perhaps a solution that could make more people happy would be requiring them to take more traditional recipients shopping, and to teach them to use ingredients with which they may not be familiar to cook simple, flavorful, nutritious meals. They might even see teh benefit of public service. –SalliganeG

What a convenient solution–reform both of them at once! Make the abominable hipsters useful by forcing them to teach real poor people how to eat, and at the same time, rescue the poor from the dreaded Velveeta cocoon*** by teaching them about how accessible and virtuous rice and beans are. SalliganeG conveniently encapsulates everything I find objectionable about both camps—they’re equally patronizing to people who buy "real” food on food stamps and people who buy Velveeta and seek to prescribe one “correct” way of eating for everyone.

Even if the commenters follow their own prescriptions (which I doubt), who are they to tell anyone else how to eat? And no, “taxpayers” doesn’t cut it. The taxpayers’ representatives have already codified restrictions that correspond with contemporary cultural norms—as noted, the benefit cap is based on a food plan that couldn’t possibly include many or frequent excesses, and there’s a firm ban on things like alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods. You could probably add caviar and fois gras to the list of banned foods without affecting 99.9% of food stamp recipients, but if the remaining .1% wants to eat cabbage soup for most of the month to save up for one luxurious meal, does anyone really benefit from stopping them?

The Slate Big Money article that was critical of the Salon article also lays out the narrow middle ground that food stamp recipients are expected to walk:

Whether they are unemployed single mothers or young singles with pink Chuck Taylors and experimental facial hair, the best thing food-stamp recipients can do to both avoid criticism and live more healthfully is to avoid both the gourmet mint chutney and the Funyuns. And it helps to wait until you’re back on your feet before you shop at Whole Foods. You can get plenty of inexpensive, healthful foods at your Safeway (SWY) or Kroger (KR).

This also neatly encapsulates both the guilt about “junk” foods people know they “ought” to avoid and the conflicted relationship to costly premium foods that people tell themselves are nutritionally or culinarily superior to justify the expense, but probably purchase largely because of the aesthetic and ethical hierarchy that has way more to do with social class than nutrition or taste. Mint chutney and wild salmon are today’s un-split infinitives. Funyuns are the terminal prepositions. And the warring camps reflect the central contradiction of cultural capital: style and taste only work to reinforce class distinctions if the markers of the middle-class are confined to the middle class; however, the hierarchy must be ideologically justified. It’s a problem for class distinction if poor people can afford salmon; it’s a problem for the taste ideology if they don’t want it.

And perhaps what’s even more distressing is that all the concern about how the poor eat, or should eat, or who should determine how or if they get to eat ultimately distracts from the issues that cause people to apply for food stamps in the first place. And no, I don’t mean majoring in the humanities. As can only be expected in a nearly-500 comment thread, someone else has already said it better:

The real problem is that even people who have jobs often make so little money that they qualify for supplemental nutritional assistance. Working at places like Walmart does not pay enough to rent a place and pay utilities. Many of the Walmart employees are on foodstamps as a result. You are paying into the welfare system to help walmart continue to pay and treat employees badly. Instead Walmart should be required to pay a living wage. Instead of complaining about people on foodstamps….ask why you are being required to rescue and subsidize greedy corporations.—Francisco369

Amen, Francisco369. That concludes my ranting on the Salon article, meaning maybe I can get back to ranting about Food, Inc. sometime next week.

*I know, it’s terrible. I was compelled by forces greater than my shame.

**Not what linguists would call “grammar.” However, that’s what the people who codified some of the new prescriptive usage rules in the 18th C. called it—e.g., Robert Lowth’s 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar. That lives on in the way teachers refer to usage and style lessons and how many people think about prevailing usage conventions. Some of my facebook friends have recently joined a group called “THEY’RE going THERE with THEIR friends. It’s called grammar, use it.” And I’m just waiting for someone else to start a group called something like “Its not a grammatical mistake; its a usage error. Learn the difference, you hypocrite.” [Okay, just because if anyone points out the “error,” I may actually cry, yes, I know that it should be “it’s” in both instances instead of “its"…that’s the joke, folks.]

***Gael Greene’s phrase, not mine

Morel Time in Michigan: Foraging in the Front Yard

35 of them this year! 5.5. oz! Plus a few so small that I left them in hopes that they'll get bigger, but I'll still get to them before someone or something else.

Her lawn looks like a meadow
          And if she mows the place
She leaves the clover standing
          And the Queen Anne’s Lace!
                                                                                       —Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Portrait By a Neighbor”

Recipe(s) later. This is just a quick PSA to let you know that morel season has started in Michigan, and if you have a yard, you may have some growing right outside your door.

They only grow in the part of of our yard that’s as much patchy dirt and moss as grass, so apparently free wild mushrooms are another of the many perks of completely neglecting your lawn and letting it revert to something closer to its natural state. No guarantees, of course. There are lots of other arguments for giving up the peculiar tradition of pouring gallons of water into the ground and spending hours manicuring a bunch of grass that doesn’t even produce anything edible (some of which are mentioned by the 2008 NYTimes article on moss lawns). But I think the movement for no-maintenance lawns and landscaping with native species should start talking up the possibility of Free Morels. Maybe the possibility of free, annual harvests of delicious mushrooms that cost $30/lb+ would outweigh the potential social opprobrium incurred by dead grass and dandelions.

like a bone with the marrow sucked out with a hollow brain on top. there's a Sarah Palin joke in here somewhere, but I can't quite find itAbout a half dozen of them appeared last year. I’d never picked wild mushrooms before and was leery at first, but the descriptions in the guide books seemed pretty straightforward. They’re even in the “recommended for beginners” part of one of my guides. Edible morels are hollow all the way through, both stems and caps. Also, although there’s a little lip where the cap attaches to the stem, there’s no real overhang—they’re like lollipops, not umbrellas.

False morels are not completely hollow—one kind, the Gyromitra species, is fleshy all the way through. It has  small air pockets and chambers, but nothing you could mistake for hollowness. The other, the Verpa species, has wispy, cotton candy-like fibers inside the stem. And both feature an overhang—in the Gyromitra it’s sometimes slight, but they have other giveaways—they tend to have a different color and look wavy or lobed, not pitted and ridged like edible morels. The Verpa species has a distinct overhang. They somtimes look like empty walnut shells balanced atop thick, white fingers or like a wig on a wig stand. 

Gyromitra--another diffrence is the reddish-brown color and lack of differentiation between the color of the ridges and pits from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/Giftlorchel.jpg  inside, note that although there are pockets, it's definitely not hollow http://www.morelmushroomhunting.com/morel_finds_archives_june_9th.htm

Verpa. There's a sidekick in the Bill & Ted sequel who says, "I made the wigs" in a hilarious accent which has become a catchphrase in our house and that's what the little ripped one reminds me of. I made the weegs! http://www.morelmushroomhunting.com/morel_finds_archives_june_9th.htm unmistakable overhang and cottony insides http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Verpa-bohemica-Xsection.jpg 

Not morels. Consumption not advised.

Also, except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, false morels aren’t deadly. Some people actually consider them edible if prepared correctly. Drying and boiling leaches out most of the toxin in the Gyromitra species. Most guides still recommend not eating them for multiple meals or on consecutive days, but if you do accidentally eat one, the worst that happens is you’ll suffer some gastrointestinal distress. The Verpa species can also cause vomiting and diarrhea, but are still eaten by many people. According to 100 Edible Mushrooms, which is by a guy who’s written an entire book about Morels, Verpa mushrooms are even counted as “morels” in some morel-hunting competitions. 

The ones that grown in our yard are hollow and have no overhang. I’m pretty sure they’re yellow morels, but it’s hard to get more specific than that because although there are seven genetically distinct species of yellow morels, they aren’t morphologically distinct. However, they’re all delicious, so unless you’re a mycologist, who really cares? Last year, I cooked them in a cream sauce and tossed them with linguine, which we ate with the particular satisfaction of having gotten something very decadent for free and suffered no unfortunate side effects.

the coloring in black morels almost seems inverted--dark raised edges and lighter pits

Apple-Berry Crumble with Pouring Custard: Baking with neglected, non-baking apples

for reasons that may suggest themselves to you, in the U.S. pouring custard is more commonly known by the French name "Creme Anglaise" even though that just means "English cream," which, as you'd expect, the English have a perfectly good English name for

I’m apparently sort of an expert at letting fruit go bad—not meaning rotten, just completely unappetizing when raw. With pears, that’s easy to do because they’re usually harvested when they’re mature but still green and you have to babysit their ripening. Not all fruits are like that—citrus fruits and most melons and berries are as sweet as they’re ever going to be when they’re harvested. But pears are climacteric ripeners, which means they store some of their sugars as starch and even after you pick them and they can’t suck any more sugar out of the tree, they will get sweeter as their enzymes will break some of those starches into sugars. However, they also contain enzymes that weaken their cell walls, so you have to catch them at just the perfect moment when they’re optimally sweet but haven’t yet turned to mush. Depending on when they were picked and how fast the different enzymes are working, there might not even be a perfect moment—they might dissolve structurally before getting very sweet.

You can sort of control the ripening of climacteric fruits a little by storing them in paper bags with something that emits ethylene gas, like a banana. That’s basically a DIY version of the synthetic industrial process used to ripen almost all tomatoes destined for grocery stores and lots of bananas and pears too. And according to the wikipedia article on ethylene, the ancient Chinese used to ripen pears by storing them in closed rooms and burning incense, presumably containing ethylene or something like it. But this is what I’m talking about with the babysitting—they demand attention and inspire elaborate ritual.

I’m working on ways to turn this into a superhero costume for next Halloween.Apples are significantly less fussy even though they’re also technically climacteric ripeners. They’re usually sweet enough to eat when they’re harvested and best when crisp and they’ll stay that way for weeks in cold storage. It takes a special dedication to fruit neglect to let perfectly lovely apples get so mealy and bruised and wrinkled that they can’t be enjoyed raw. Given how many great uses there are for cooked apples, that wouldn’t seem like much of a problem, but the kinds of apples I like to eat are not the kind of apples I’d normally choose to cook with. So over the last few months, I had gradually relegated nearly 3 lbs of Galas, Honeycrisps, and Red Delicious apples to what I began to think of as the Forgotten Apple Drawer, all of them totally unsuited to either eating or baking.

I could have made a sort of lackluster applesauce and just hidden it in some muffins or a quick bread, but I got to thinking that the main difference between tart baking apples and sweeter eating apples is acid. Perhaps, I thought, I could make something tasty and apple-centric even with suboptimal apples just by adding a little extra lemon juice. And perhaps some tart berries. And then, in the spirit of the kind of laziness and inattention that leads to having a refrigerator drawer full of 3 lbs of neglected apples, I decided to make the simplest of apple desserts: a crumble. Crumbles are in the same baked-fruit-with-topping genus as cobblers and crisps, but is its own species…I guess meaning it can’t reproduce with any of the others.

I know the terms vary by region and tradition, but as I understand them, a cobbler is topped with a layer of biscuit dough dropped on by spoonfuls that bake into something that might resemble a cobblestone road, a crisp is topped with a thin layer of a rich streusel or butter crumb topping, and a crumble is has a thicker crumb topping that usually includes oatmeal. Put a rolled pastry crust on top either in pieces or with some holes poked in it so the juices can seep through and it’s a pandowdy; use buttered bread crumbs and brown sugar and it’s a brown betty. I’m sure there are others, too. The beautiful thing about all of them is that you don’t really need a recipe—you just fill a baking dish most of the way with fruit, top it with whatever combination of sugar and fat you can throw together—starch optional—and bake it until the fruit is done and the topping is brown. 

April 2010 Part I 008I actually had too many neglected apples for the large souffle dish I decided to use, so I threw about 1 lb of the cut pieces in a saucepan pot with a cinnamon stick, 1 T. brown sugar, and some water and simmered them until they were tender, adding more water now and then to prevent them from burning. I’ll probably use them sometime soon as a filling for buckwheat crepes, possibly with some homemade ricotta, as I’ve been meaning to try that.

For the crumble, since it’s not quite berry season, I used a dried berry mix I had picked up at Trader Joe’s with the intent of using it for polenta porridge. Normally when I bake with dried berries, I soak them in some juice or liquor first, but this time I didn’t bother. I just threw them in the dish with the peeled and diced apples, sprinkled them with a few tablespoons of sugar and the juice and zest of a lemon. And then I looked up a few recipes for crisps and crumbles and used those as general guidelines for the topping.

While it was in the oven, smelling lovely, I decided it what would truly compensate for any deficiencies on the part of the apples was something like ice cream. You can make ice cream without an ice cream maker if you break up the ice crystals by hand periodically, but that is kind of a pain. Given that what I wanted was a sweet, creamy substance to pool all around the hot apple crumble the way ice cream does as it melts, the freezing seemed like an unnecessary intermediary stop. If what you want is melted ice cream, why freeze it in the first place, right? So I made a simple pouring custard, which is the sort of thing you can turn into ice cream if you want to, but is a great dessert sauce on its own.

And it worked. Utterly redeemed. Tart and applicious with the occasional pop of berry and the rich perfume of the vanilla bean custard. You’d never know it started off as a drawer full of wrinkled, bruised Galas and Honeycrisps.

any ideas for turning my fruit neglecting powers into a superpower costume for next Halloween?

Recipe: Apple-Berry Crumblethey call it the "golden berry blend" as it also contains golden raisins (adapted from Joy of Baking)


  • 4-7 apples or enough to fill a large baking dish (I used ~1 1/2 lbs, peeled and cored)
  • 1/2 cup dried tart berries (cherries, cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, or a combination)
  • 3 T. sugar
  • zest and juice of one medium lemon


  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
  • pinch of salt
  • 7 T. butter, cut into 1/4” pieces
  • 1/3 cup rolled oats

1. Butter the baking dish and preheat the oven to 375F.

2. Peel and core the apples and cut into 1/2”-1” pieces. Toss in baking dish with sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest.

3. Throw all the topping ingredients in a food processor and give it a few pulses to just combine. Or, whisk everything but the butter together and then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two crisscrossing knives until the it’s crumbly and the largest pieces of butter are the size of small peas.

 topping mixture a few pulses later

4. Sprinkle topping over fruit evenly.

5. Bake for 30 minutes to an hour, or until you can see the juices bubbling under the topping and the top is golden brown.

ready to go in the oven just out of the oven--juices bubbling at the edges, topping golden brown

Recipe: Pouring Custard (adapted from Food & Wine and Joy of Baking)

  • 4 or 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cups milk, half and half, or whipping cream
  • 1 vanilla bean or 2 t. vanilla extract

1. Place a mesh strainer in metal bowl set inside another bowl filled with ice water. When the custard is ready, you will want to stop the cooking process immediately and strain out any clumps, so it’s good to have this ready before you even start.

the second bowl doesn't need to be metal. doesn't even need to be a bowl--a stock pot or 9x13 baking pan would work just as well for the icewater Curdling Stops Here!

2. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until they begin to aerate—they should become a pale, lemony color (I know some sad battery hen eggs start that way but even those should lighten a little) and will increase slightly in volume.

I separate the whites directly into freezer-safe storage, always forget how many whites there are, and eventually have a vaguely nerve-wreaking meringue or angel-food cake experiment where I don't really know if I'm following the recipe. a smarter person would label the tupperware to tell her future self how many egg whites there are. paler an increased in volume

3. Put the milk in a saucepan, scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the milk, and heat just until steaming and there are little bubbles around the edges of the pan (about 5 min over medium heat). Turn off the burner—you don’t have to immediately remove it from the heat, you just don’t want it to get any hotter for the moment.

4. Temper the yolks by adding about half of the hot milk to them in a thin stream while whisking constantly. Another pair of hands or a stand mixer might be useful for this part. I managed by whisking with one hand while using the other to slowly adding milk with a soup ladle and focusing very, very intently on being ambidextrous. Basically what you’re doing in this step is warming the eggs gently so they cook without scrambling, so the key is to keep them moving as they come into contact with the hot milk.For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of this process in action. 

here's the set up after I've added about half of the milk

4. Pour the tempered egg mixture into the pot with the remaining milk, whisking constantly.

5. Turn the heat back on low or medium and cook for 5-7 minutes, whisking constantly, until the mixture just begins to thicken. You want it to be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon—but that’s not very thick, it will not be like a starch-thickened pudding or baked custard. As soon as it begins to thicken, pull it off the heat, still whisking constantly and immediately strain into the cold bowl to stop it from cooking any more. If using vanilla extract (or another extract or liqueur), add it now.

If it starts to look curdled you still have a minute to save it. Pull it from the heat immediately, whisking vigorously and immediately strain it into the cold bowl.

 no matter how vigorous your whisking, there will always be a few clumps it will thicken a little more as it cools, but will definitely still be a sauce, not something like a starch-thickened pudding

Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket

the hopeful-looking sky is dawning behind the u.s. capitol building? really?

I procrastinated mightily about seeing Food, Inc., the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary by Robert Kenner. I expected it to be, at best, a rehash of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and The Future of Food and King Corn and Food Fight. And I’m like a part-time, self-hating member of the choir that all those books and films are preaching to: I am part of the flock of the food reform faithful, but instead of inspiring me to sing Hallelujah, most of the preaching about it just makes me sort of itchy. Still, I felt like I should see the film, especially after it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and a couple of weeks ago, a golden opportunity presented itself in the form of a free showing at the UM School of Social Work followed by a panel discussion and (vegetarian) dinner.

First, two caveats: 1) it’s probably impossible to tackle the industrial food production and distribution systems in with 100% accuracy or examine the all the relevant causes and consequences of both those systems and the many proposals for reform in a 90-min documentary and 2) lots of people are praising Food, Inc. for raising awareness or calling attention to the problems in the food industry, and to whatever extent that it has done that, I applaud it.

But that doesn’t excuse the un-attributed voice-overs, the slew of un-cited and un-interrogated “facts,” the manipulative soundtrack choices, or the excess of dopey graphics. The list of suggestions at the end of the film for viewers who have been convinced that Something Needs To Be Done drives me so Bats it’s going to have to be a separate entry (I know I keep starting series I can never finish…there’s always too much to say, too little time to say it). But of course, it’s not at all surprising that I’d take issue with the “solution” when I disagree so profoundly with the way they’ve framed and portrayed the “problem.”

The Claim: In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore

Well, for one, that’s demonstrably false.

 the wings, whole chickens and turkeys, ribs, many of the lamb and pork chops, and some cuts of beef also contain bones. the ascendance of the skinless, boneless chicken breast has everything to do with fat-phobia and convenience, not moral qualms inspired by bones. image from http://www.kosherclub.com/item.asp?itemid=87&catid=9 many grocery stores actually sell bones without meat, often packaged as "soup bones" which are usually super cheap; the smoked neck bones are excellent in chili

Moreover, the principle the documentary seems to be getting at—that Americans only eat the way they do because they are systematically and deliberately distanced from the reality of food production, and particularly the treatment of the animals they eat—is highly questionable. Pollan makes the same claim in Omnivore’s:

Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.

It may actually be Pollan’s voice that tells you there are no bones in supermarkets. Throughout the film, and particularly at critical framing moments (i.e., the opening sequence, the introduction and conclusion of each segment), Food, Inc., uses the voices of select interviewees as voiceovers without making it clear who’s speaking. That effectively turns them into omniscient narrators and denies the audience the opportunity to consider their credentials and biases and evaluate their pronouncements accordingly.

Pollan runs with this idea of “the glass abattoir,” turning a vague speculation about the importance of looking into one of the central battle cries of the “food revolution.” But the assumption that looking would necessarily change the system is based on the same error many religious evangelists make—the assumption that if someone disagrees with you, it’s not because your belief is silly or lacks firm grounding in observable facts, but because they simply haven’t been enlightened. Pollan et al posit that if people really had to reckon with the fact that their food came from creatures who experience pain and misery as a result of industrial-scale agriculture, they would stop eating meat or at least seriously re-consider whether their personal enjoyment of meat outweighs the moral costs. Factor in the social and environmental and nutritional costs, and no ethical person would ever eat industrially-produced bacon again, right?

Of course that, too, is demonstrably false. There are plenty of farmers and slaughterhouse workers, people who’ve read Fast Food Nation and seen videos of downer cattle and the killing floor, and lots of other people who have reckoned or may be engaged in a long, personal process of reckoning with the complicated ethics of animal agriculture who continue to eat industrially-produced meat. And unless you’re willing to declare them all ethically bankrupt or eternally damned food sinners, you have to accept the possibility that they may have valid reasons for doing so—even if you disagree with those reasons.

Some people see CAFOs and corn subsidies as the means of producing highly desirable animal protein with minimal labor and space and perhaps some unfortunate side effects that we can try to deal with without dismantling the whole system. Others see even Polyface Farms, which both Omnivore’s and Food, Inc. portray as a sort of livestock paradise, as another Treblinka.

Looking, or simply becoming aware of how food is produced doesn’t guarantee any particular response, and it’s extraordinarily patronizing to assume that people who disagree with you are simply ignorant. 

Okay, in an attempt to keep these entries shorter and more digestible, I’ll end there. Still to come in this series—an examination of the documentary’s claims that “the food has become much more dangerous,” that $1.29 broccoli is too expensive, and that fast food is cheaper than cooking. Also, a glorious example of the unintended consequences of corn-phobia, or The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, courtesy of Emeritus Professor of Social Work Brett Seabury, who was one of the speaker/moderators in the conversation after the film showing. And of course, why the suggestions at the end of the film make me crazy.

Who Says Robots Can’t Taste?: On Cooking Robots and Electronic Noses

The color of the stuff in the bowl for some reason made me realize, for the first time, the coincidental similarity of Freud's "unheimlich" and the Heimlich maneuver. Image from: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/bender/links/2942473 

Kantos Kan led me to one of these gorgeous eating places where we were served entirely by mechanical apparatus. No hand touched the food from the time it entered the building in its raw state until it emerged hot and delicious upon the tables before the guests, in response to the touching of tiny buttons to indicate their desires.—Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars” (1912)

Chef Motoman griddling up okonomiyaki from http://www.rutgersprep.org/kendall/7thgrade/cycleD_2008_09/mk/burgerflippingrobot.jpgBy now, robots who can cook are nothing new. Most of them are basically one trick ponies (at least culinarily): a Swiss robot that was taught to make omelets to demonstrate its abilities, Japanese robots that can grill okonomayaki or make octopus balls from scratch.There’s even a restaurant called Famen in Nagoya staffed by two robots who act out a comic routine and spar with knives in between preparing bowls of ramen. However, the cooking robot recently introduced by two Chinese unversities that’s making the rounds online this month comes closer to the fantasy in the Burroughs story of something that can produce a huge variety of foods on demand, almost like replicators on Star Trek. This new cooking robot can make 300 different dishes based on the offerings of four top chefs in Jiangsu Province and may soon be able to produce up to 600.

is this really nightmare-inducingly realistic? from http://www.nextnature.net/2009/06/robot-hand-meets-sushi/What strikes me about the media coverage of cooking robots is the paradox that, on the one hand, the fact that they can do something so essentially human is a substantial part of the delight they inspire. Their food-related activities are often designed to soften peoples’ resistance to robots—for example, researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed the Snackbot that they introduced to a reporter for the New York Times last month to “gather information on how robots interact with people (and how to improve homo-robo relations).” But on the other hand, the essential humanness of cooking can also make the robots especially unnerving. In fact, the more human, the more they seem to bother people. The Engadget article on the sushi-grabbing hand, “Chef Robot makes its video debut, nightmares forthcoming,” seems mostly disturbed by how “realistic” the hand looks:

In case you missed it, the robot itself is actually just a standard issue FANUC M-430iA robot arm with a way too realistic hand attached to it, which apparently not only helps it prepare sushi, but some tasty desserts as well. Head on past the break for the must-see video, you’ve nothing to lose but your ability to unsee it.

Though usually slightly less dramatic, most other articles I’ve seen about cooking robots end with some sort of joke or disclaimer, which usually reflect anxieties about the threat that cooking robots pose to the boundary between human and machine.

If this thing ever gets imported to the U.S., it would need to make fortune cookies too. But what would a robot fortune say?—CNet (on the 300-dish Chinese cook)

More than 200 diners have enjoyed the machine’s cuisine thus far, and reportedly taste testers have found the food to be on par with a traditional restaurant kitchen, flavor-wise. (No mention has been made of the robot’s plating abilities.)—CNet (on a prototype developed by a retired professor using an induction burner and robotic arm)

While it lacks the personal touch and the ability to hold some small banter with regular guests, at least you can be sure the fingers have not gone around digging noses or scratching butts.”—Ubergizmo (on the sushi hand)

“No matter how skilled Motoman is, I doubt real chefs like Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali would be caught dead cooking next to him.” Robot Living (referring to Chef Motoman, who was designed to work alongside humans in a restaurant environment)

A seemingly irrepressible impulse to name something robots can’t infringe on, like speculating about the future or making the kind of aesthetic and creative decisions that go into plating, or find some other way to distinguish them from human chefs—the ability to banter or pick their nose or smoke and hate on vegans or compete in elaborate cooking competitions. Even the NYTimes article, which focuses mostly on how food “humanizes” robots, ends by erecting a wall based on the ability to taste:

The real obstacle to a world full of mechanized sous-chefs and simulated rage-filled robo-Gordon Ramsays may be something much harder to fake: none of these robots can taste.

Keizo Shimamoto, who writes a blog on ramen noodles and has eaten at Famen, the two-robot Japanese restaurant, said that the establishment was “kind of dead” when he ate there last year. Though the owner said that people do taste the food, according to Mr. Shimamoto, “It was a little disappointing.” It’s one thing to get people to stop by to see the robots. “But to keep the customers coming back,” he said, “you need better soup.”

And while it’s true that none of the robots mentioned in the article can taste, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other robots that can.

What If Chef Motoman Had a Nose?

Researchers have developed mass spectrometers that can determine the ripeness of tomatoes and melons and describe the nuances in different samples of espresso—which ones are more or less floral, citrusy, which have hints of buttery toffee or a woody undertone, etc. Some electronic noses, as the e-sensing systems are often called, are so sensitive they can pinpoint not only the grape varietal and region where a wine was produced, but what barrel it was fermented in. As I’ve discussed before, tastes are largely produced by how substances react with our ~40 taste receptors and ~400 olfactory receptors. Every unique flavor/odor combination is like a “fingerprint,” and e-sensing systems are far, far better at identifying and classifying those fingerprints than humans.

In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink mentions a 2004 study performed at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab where 32 participants were invited to taste what they were told was strawberry yogurt in the dark. They were actually given chocolate yogurt, but nineteen of them still rated it as having “good strawberry flavor.” The yogurt-tasters weren’t food critics or trained chefs, but even “experts” are dramatically influenced by contextual cues. Frederic Brochet has run multiple experiments with wine experts in the Bordeaux region of France, where many of the world’s most expensive wines are produced. In one experiment, he had 54 experts taste white wines that had been dyed red with a flavorless additive and in another he served 57 experts the same red wine in two different bottles alternately identifying it as a high-prestige wine and lowly table wine. In the first experiment, none of the experts detected the white wine flavor, and many of them praised it for qualities typically associated with red wines like “jamminess” or “red fruit.” In the second, 40 of the experts rated the wine good when they thought it was an expensive Grand Cru and only 12 did when they thought it was a cheap blend (read more: “The Subjectivity of Wine” by Jonah Lehrer).

It’s true that robots can’t make independent subjective judgments about tastes and odors. The ramen robots might be able to customize your ramen based on variables like the proportion of noodles to broth and different kinds of toppings, but they can’t simply make a “better” soup. However, if outfitted with an electronic nose and programmed to recognize and replicate the fingerprint of a really fantastic tonkotsu broth, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be able to make the best ramen you’ve ever tasted—and likely with greater consistency than a human chef (assuming they had access to the necessary ingredients). There are other factors, too, like rolling and cooking the noodles just so to give them a toothsome bite, but again, noodle recipes and some way of evaluating their texture could be programmed into a robot chef’s computer brain. In other words, the only reason robots can’t taste is because we haven’t designed them to yet.

they just need a better spectrometer!

Even though robots can’t innovate criteria, they can be trained to make subjective judgments—Science just reported yesterday that researchers in Israel have trained an electronic nose to predict whether novel smells are good or bad. They exposed it to 76 odors that were rated by human volunteers (both Israeli and Ethiopian to account for cultural differences, which unsurprisingly turn out to be pretty minor) on a scale from “the best odor you have ever smelled” to “the worst odor you have ever smelled.” Then, they exposed the nose to 22 new odors and compared them to the ratings of a new group of volunteers. The electronic nose agreed with the humans on the relative pleasantness of the odor 80% of the time. In another trial using only extreme odors—ones that had been rated most pleasant or unpleasant—it agreed with the humans 90% of the time. (Here’s the original study)

So, theoretically, it might be possible not only to program a robot to make foods that match a “fingerprint” that’s widely rated “delicious” but also to predict what kinds of foods are likely to taste good or bad. And perhaps the next step would be to ask it to innovate combinations that are likely to taste especially delicious.

However, given that the way we taste often has more to do with expectations and presentation than the chemical properties of the food, the discomfort inspired by cooking robots may be more of a barrier than the technology itself. If sushi merely been transferred from tray to plate by a robot hand is nightmare-inducing, we’re probably a long way—culturally, if not technologically—from Robot Cuisine.

Tofu Clafoutis with Spiced Plums

or should I say "tofutis"? 

I discovered clafoutis a few years ago while looking for dessert ideas for Iron Chef IV: Battle Chickpea. The floofy name is a little misleading—it’s nothing fancy or elaborate, just a sweetened batter of egg, milk, and flour poured over a few handfuls of fruit and baked. I suspect only the reason that the French name has survived (although sometimes Anglophone menus and recipes drop the silent “s”) is that it doesn’t really have an exact analog in English. It’s somewhere between a custard and a cake, but usually has more flour than the former and more egg than the latter. The closest thing I’ve had is the puffy “Dutch oven pancake” or pannekoek sometimes filled with spiced apples. I’ve also seen it described as a “crustless pie” or “batter pudding.”

and given that it's substantially tofu and fruit and chick peas, you can totally justify eating it for breakfastClafoutis differs from pannekoek in that fruit isn’t just an optional addition, it’s the raison d’etre, the star of the show. The traditional version that hails from the Limousin region of France calls for un-pitted cherries, which supposedly impart a distinctive almond-like flavor, probably due to the same chemical found in peach and apricot pits, the source of “natural” almond flavor. They also all contain trace amounts of cyanide, which is Eric Schlosser’s primary example of why “natural” flavors are not necessarily superior—especially in terms of health—to “artificial ones.” According to wikipedia, the name “clafoutis” actually derives from the Occitan verb “clafir, meaning to fill’ (implied: ‘the batter with cherries’).” Apparently in France, when fruits other than cherries are used, it’s called a “flaugnarde” (which comes from an Old French word that means “soft”). But I’m sticking with “clafoutis” 1) because it’s more common in English regardless of the fruit involved, 2) because the etymology isn’t specific to cherries anyhow so as long as you’re filling it with something it’s no less clafir-ed and, 3) because if anything sounds more egregiously French than clafoutis, it’s flaugnarde.

Savvy readers may be wondering what any of this has to do with chick peas, perhaps imagining some sort of horrible pancake studded with whole chickpeas. The reigning Iron Chef I was competing against did actually make a dessert that basically consisted of a chocolate custard studded with whole chickpeas, so maybe that’s not so crazy. But I doubt he’s done that again since the competition. Also, he lost.

I'm not going to write all three variations every time, but of course chick peas also go by the name "garbanzo beans" and the flour is often sold as "gram flour" What I made—and liked enough to make again—was a clafoutis recipe that substitutes silken tofu and some chickpea flour for the eggs. I got the idea from the now-sadly-defunct blog Hezbollah Tofu, which was devoted to veganizing recipes by Anthony Bourdain to spite him for various incendiary slurs he’s made about vegans and vegetarians (the title is a reference to the quote from Kitchen Confidential: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”). Sadly, I didn’t save that recipe and none of the other, similar versions I found used chickpea flour, which was the genius of the Hezbollah Tofu version, and not just because it was the secret ingredient I had to use. Chickpea flour is awesome—it’s the basis of the gorgeous crepes called socca or farinata and an addictive crispy-creamy pan-fried polenta-type stuff called panelle. In this recipe, it adds color, flavor and protein to help make up for the absent eggs.

But using the basic proportions in the other recipes and substituting chickpea flour for the regular flour and then throwing in 1/4 cup regular flour when I remembered that there was something preventing the original from being gluten-free, I managed to reconstruct something similar. I’ve never made or tasted an egg-based clafoutis, so I can’t vouch for its verisimilitude. I suspect that the batter is grainier and the final product less fluffy. It does have a faint soya-like nuttiness/bitterness. However, it’s still pretty delicious.  The fruit and flavor extracts mask the tofu flavor pretty well and the texture seems pretty much exactly like the descriptions of traditional clafoutis—thick and custardy, but with more structural integrity than most custards. A bit like French toast or bread pudding or a crust-less quiche.

they were pretty. i was taken in.You can use any kind of tree fruit or berry, although if the fruit is very firm or under-ripe you might want to cook it a little first. For the Iron Chef battle, I used Bosc pears, peeled, halved, and poached in white wine until just fork-tender. If you want to make the traditional version but don’t relish the idea of spitting cherry pits out of your dessert or pitting a bunch of cherries, you could use thawed frozen cherries and a little almond extract (either synthetic or cyanide-laced). For this version, my inspiration for was a bunch of little plums I had purchased, which turned out to be sort of unpleasant to eat raw. They were sort of bland and sour and instead of getting sweeter over time, they just started to develop mold spots and become grainy. I figured cooking them would be one way to add some sweetness and coax a little more flavor out of them.

I found a recipe for spiced plums roasted in orange juice and adapted that basic technique using white wine and a few different spices. The result was gorgeous—richly perfumed with the wine and a vanilla bean and just a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. After spooning the plums out of the wine, I reduced the remaining liquid to syrup, which was way more plummy than the plums themselves and I’ve been drizzling that over the clafoutis before serving it. I know every recipe for every tofu-based dessert ever makes this claim, and it’s only sometimes true, but for real: you will not believe this dessert is made substantially from tofu.

they turned more golden as they roasted, and the sauce turned pink, like it leached that pigment out  "rustic" I think is the word 

Recipe: Tofu Clafoutis (adapted from Vegan Visitor and Nom! Nom! Nom! Blog

Fills one 10” pie pan and three 4-oz baking dishes; can be halved for a thinner clafoutis tofu and sugar in the food processor

  • one package silken tofu
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups milk (soy, nut, dairy, whatever)
  • 1 cup garbanzo bean flour (chickpea flour or gram flour) (I may reduce this to 3/4 cup next time since I remembered belatedly that there was also regular flour and it was a little firmer than it needed to be)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour + more for coating baking dish
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 t. vanilla or almond extract
  • 1 1/2-2 cups fruit (whole berries or cut up apples or pears)
  • cooking spray, shortening, lard, or butter for greasing baking dish
  • powdered sugar for dusting

1. Preheat oven to 415F. Grease and flour the baking dish(es).

2. Place the fruit in the prepared baking dish. 

3. In a blender or food processor, blend the tofu and sugar until smooth.

4. Add 1 cup of milk and the remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Then add the remaining cup of milk and blend.

fruit in the pie panbatter clafir-ed with plums!

5. Pour the batter over the fruit and place in the oven.

6. Bake for 15 minutes at 415 and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 and bake another 20-30 minutes or until the top is beginning to brown and the center only wiggles slightly when you shake the pan.

7. Let cool for 10-15 minutes, dust with powdered sugar, and serve. Garnish with a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraiche if desired.


Recipe: Spiced Plums enameled cast iron works well for this because you can transfer it directly to the stovetop, but any oven-safe dish will do(adapted from AllRecipes)

  • a dozen or so small plums, or half-dozen larger ones 
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 3/4-1 cup white wine
  • one vanilla bean (or 1 t. vanilla extract)
  • zest of one small lemon or orange
  • dash of ground nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and/or cayenne

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Halve and pit the plums and place them cut-side up in an oven-safe pot or baking dish.

2. Sprinkle the sugar over them evenly and add the wine.

I use the back of a knife to scrape the seeds outand put the bean in a jar full of sugar to make vanilla sugar, which is great for homemade hot cocoa

3. Cut the vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds into the pot (save bean for another use). Grate the citrus zest, nutmeg and cinnamon directly into the pot or add pre-ground spices.

  microplanes are so awesome. I don't even remember how I zested lemons before I had one.this nutmeg was whole when I started, so that's about how much I used.

4. Bake for 20-40 minutes or until the plums are the desired texture—less time if you want them to retain their structure, more if you want to turn them into something like a compote or sauce. If desired, you can remove the plums and boil the liquid to reduce it further.

these would be great on their own with ice cream or creme anglaise or in a cobbler, too  I reduced it until it was thick enough that a path remained for a few seconds when I dragged a spoon through it

Alain’s Winter Squash Soup with Homemade Croutons

both garnishes totally optional; croutons obviously also good for other applications, and yeah, i know: clean those plates!  

How I discovered squash soup…twice

The first time I had butternut squash soup—at a restaurant outside of DC c. 2001—it was a minor revelation. Up until that point, I’d only had winter squash in sweet things, mostly custardy pies and spiced quick breads or snack cakes. Even after eating the whole bowl, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I liked it, but I definitely liked the idea of it.

penguin dude back there still needs a name. I'm thinking "Geoffrey"I found a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that involves roasting the whole butternut squash, halved and with the seeds scooped out, along with a whole head of garlic and a couple of onions wrapped in foil, until all the vegetables are tender and slightly caramelized and then pureeing them with just enough broth to make the mixture smooth. That still sounds incredible to me—roasted garlic! caramelized onion! no squash peeling required! But honestly, I never really liked the soup it produced. It was okay, I guess, but I never really wanted to eat very much of it. I’d usually make a fresh loaf of bread to go along with it and that also sounded like the perfect combination, but once I’d consumed as much of the soup as the bread could absorb, I never really wanted to finish the bowl.

So Alain’s soup was another revelation. It was the starter course at an annual Thanksgiving-season dinner party/potluck where the hosts make so much amazing food that everything the guests bring is basically unnecessary and redundant, but it’s all so damn good that the only reasonable course of action is to eat yourself into a Coma of Delicious Regret. And I knew this—I had just watched John pan-fry these giant mashed potato dumplings filled with pulled pork until they were golden and crisp on the outside and Niki had just brought a big pot full of slow-braised red cabbage down from her apartment on the 2nd floor and they had also made all the classic holiday fare—a glistening turkey and fresh cranberry relish perfumed with orange zest and this gravy that involves simmering a whole lemon in the turkey’s juices, which gets served in a teapot because gravy boats aren’t big enough (and which actually had to be refilled before people came back for seconds because everyone just wanted to pour it over everything on their plates). And then there was everything the dozen or so guests had brought on top of that. But I couldn’t help myself—I had a second helping of the soup. 

just after stirring the milk inIt is somehow both velvety rich and ethereally light. Even though I’ve been making it all winter and Brian knows exactly what’s in it, the recent rutabaga incident has made him sort of suspicious, so last night after he tasted a spoonful, he immediately asked how much butter I’d put in it. When I said “None,” he looked more suspicious and said, “Okay, how much oil?”

None. The only fat in the soup is what’s in the milk and the stock—so you could, using a fat-free broth or bouillon and fat-free milk, make it without any fat at all. Alain says that the best milk to use is soy milk, both because the slight nuttiness is a welcome complement to the squash and it makes the soup creamy but even more ethereal. I usually use regular milk because that’s what I have on hand and it’s also delicious. If you wanted something more substantial or decadent-tasting, you could substitute cream or half and half. The only other ingredients are squash, salt and pepper.

And it’s really easy. You do have to peel the squash, but as it turns out, that’s not any more difficult than scooping the flesh out of the peel once it’s cooked—at least for butternut, peeling acorn squash is kind of a pain. To make the peeling easier, you can cut the squash in half and steam it in the microwave it for a couple of minutes with a little bit of water and then let it cool until you can just pull the tough rind away.

garlic, parmesan, and berb croutons

A Swan Song for Stale Bread

I learned to make croutons when I worked at a Baker’s Square during one of my summer breaks in college. Serving house-made croutons wasn’t restaurant policy or anything; we did stock packaged croutons provided by the company and used those some of the time. But we’d also save all the ends of the bread we used for sandwiches and whenever we had a little extra time, we’d make them into croutons. It’s still my go-to recipe for stale bread when I have it, and the croutons it makes are so much better than store-bought croutons that I occasionally pick up a discounted day-old loaf from the store just for the purpose of crouton-making. 

This hardly merits the name “recipe”—it’s more a list of general guidelines: cube the bread, add some fat and flavor, bake until crisp and lightly browned. I always use at least one kind of dried and powdered allium (garlic, onion, and/or shallot), something umami-rich (parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, and/or msg), and some herbs (usually parsley, thyme, rosemary and/or dill). Paprika or pimentón and buttermilk powder also make nice additions. If you want “Ranch” flavored croutons, use buttermilk powder, garlic powder, minced green onion, dill, and msg. Bake in a hot oven (400-450F) for 12-20 minutes, stirring midway through and rotating the pans to promote even browning.

Recipe: Alain’s Winter Squash Soup peeled

  • 1 1/2-2 lbs winter squash (butternut, acorn, sugar pumpkin, carnival, etc.)
  • 4 cups water or broth (I usually eyeball this by filling the pot to just below the steamer)
  • 1 cup milk (soy recommended, but anything goes)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a pinch of ground sage, nutmeg, or cinnamon (optional)
  • diced green onion to garnish (optional)

1. Heat the water or broth in a large pot while you peel and cube the squash. I put a steamer tray in the pot—that’s not necessary, but I think it makes it easier to get it out to puree it.

halved, mid-way through seed removal and diced into ~1" cubes

2. Steam or boil the squash for 15-25 minutes or until very tender—you should be able to pierce the flesh with a fork without any resistance.

Feb 2010 II 083Feb 2010 II 085

3. Remove the solids to a blender or food processor and puree, adding broth as necessary to make it blend smoothly.

Feb 2010 II 086 Feb 2010 II 090

4. Return to the pot. You could strain it if you wanted to, but that’s kind of a pain and if the squash is tender enough and you blend it well enough, it should be completely silky without straining.

5. Return to a gentle simmer, cover, and let cook another 15-20 minutes. While not strictly necessary, this seems to make the flavor richer, sweeter, and somehow…deeper.

6. Stir in the milk, remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe: Croutons sometimes the loaves are as cheap ast $.50, which makes these So Much Cheaper than store-bought croutons. the ketchup bottle was a temporary olive oil container that failed because it seemed to sort of...seep? it was really oily and gross to the touch.

  • ~6 cups stale bread, cut into 1/2”-1” cubes (that’s about how much one big loaf yields, obviously  sometimes you’ll have less—I usually just eyeball everything anyway but the following amounts offer some general guidelines)
  • 4 T. liquid fat—oil or melted lard or clarified butter
  • 2 t. salt—I don’t use kosher for this because, like with popcorn, you want finer grains that get better distributed and stick better
  • 1 t. ground pepper
  • 2 t. garlic powder or onion powder
  • 1 T. dried parsley
  • 1 t. thyme, rosemary, dill, or a combination
  • 3 T. finely grated parmesan cheese and/or 2 T. nutritional yeast flakes and/or 1 t. msg
  • 1 t. paprika or pimentón (optional)
  • 2 T. buttermilk powder (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with foil. Spray foil lightly with cooking spray if seasoneddesired—that will help prevent the croutons from sticking to it.

2. Drizzle bread cubes with oil and toss to coat lightly.

3. Add the seasonings and toss to coat evenly. Spread on the prepared sheets in a single layer.

4. Bake for 15-20 minutes. After 7 or 8 minutes, remove the pans and stir the croutons and rotate the pans so the croutons get evenly toasted and browned.

5. Let cool completely before placing in an airtight container, like a zip-top bag. Will keep almost indefinitely, but best within 4-6 weeks.

 before bakingafter baking

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?

Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing.–Oscar Wilde

avocado is another tricky one: relatively expensive and often considered delicious, but technically "fresh produce" and generally considered to be healthy despite being high in fat; how would the people who would have food stamps restricted to virtuous, non-luxury items feel about it? would it matter if it was organic? image from Look At This Fucking Hipster http://www.latfh.com/search/avocado

It’s been a couple of weeks, so first a brief recap: in the first entry, I looked the recent article on Salon about “hipsters” using food stamps to purchase luxury foods, which was maddeningly imprecise about the employment and financial circumstances of newly-qualified food stamp recipients and what they’re actually buying, as opposed to merely sauntering past. Relying almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and rumor, the original article seemed designed primarily to build on popular stereotypes about “hipsters” and elicit outrage about this potentially-apocryphal trend in food stamp use.

In less than a week, the article attracted nearly 500 comments (Salon closed it down at 473). I didn’t read all of them, partially because a few themes emerge pretty quickly and they all start to sound the same. Here are the primary camps:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

3. Critics of the article and the sheeple—a number of people brought up the work requirement for food stamps (which has been temporarily lifted in most states by the emergency relief act). Others noted that people qualify for some set monthly allotment of food stamps so it’s not like they get more assistance if they choose to purchase expensive things. This was often expressed as a hope that this article or the idea of hipsters taking unfair advantage of the public food assistance wouldn’t be used as political leverage against food stamp programs or welfare in general.

4. Critics of welfare qua welfare—a lot of people who commented on the article seemed less concerned about what people are buying with food stamps than the fact that anyone who might be described as a “hipster” would qualify in the first place: 

My issue lies with the fact that young, healthy, educated people are receiving government assistance in the first place. Rather than sully their precious hipster cred with some dreaded, uncool job such as waiting tables or manning the counter at Borders, these spoiled, art-damaged infants decide to go on food stamps. –SadieG

I belong to the third camp, which is basically what the first entry covered. I’ll look at the first two responses in more depth some other time. In this entry, I look at the misconceptions and anxieties expressed by this last group of comments and explain why some people find the idea of educated, young people being the recipients of food stamps—whether they’re using them to buy ramen or rabbit—so very infuriating.

Choosing to Be Poor

One of the main factors in this flavor of outrage is the mistaken assumption I discussed in the first entry that people have to be unemployed to receive food stamps. What seems to rankle the welfare critics is their belief that that young, able-bodied, educated people must be unemployed by choice and thus responsible for their poverty. SadieG was far from alone on this:

These are able-bodied 20/30-somethings with education. Granted, the job market is extremely weak but I have a hard time believing these people truly exhausted their options. Did they look into fast-food, janitorial services, retail? Those types of jobs have lots of turnover, so there’s almost always something available. Did they look into picking up a trade? I would say the chances are No – these type of jobs don’t fit into their self-image as an artist or whatever. So, even though this is a situation of their own making – they’re expecting the government to subsidize their lifestyle. And its all being paid for by people who actually bite the bullet and work at jobs they don’t necessarily love do what they do in order to support themselves and their families and not be a burden to society. Yeah, its pretty appalling. –CBFE

I don’t like that food stamps and unemployment are so readily handed out to people who are arguably unemployed or underemployed by choice for years at a time. –ohthatkate

It amazes me that people can insist on saying they would never do anything they consider "beneath" them, that is never some kind of job that is not "art related", and therefore status-y, but still have no problem taking charity handouts. These people need to either find a way to make a living or face reality. –Luccianna

Maybe a degree in post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes wasn’t such a wise choice after all. —Senator Neptune

The author of the original article didn’t actually specify whether the people she interviewed were unemployed, and none of the people she interviewed said anything about refusing jobs that were “beneath them.” However, her anecdotes certainly implied that this trend was largely driven by Even making $10/hr working 35 hrs/wk, a single wage-earner in a family of three would qualify for $288/month in food stamps: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226unemployed artists and people with humanities degrees. For many readers, the anecdotes clearly spoke louder than the dismal unemployment statistics she mentions or the fact taking a low-wage job you might be overqualified for wouldn’t actually disqualify you from receiving food stamps.

As the original article notes, unemployment rose by 176% between 2006 and 2009 for college-educated people between the ages of 20 and 24. The biggest caveat attached to the recent economic “recovery” has been the persisting unemployment disproportionately affecting young people. Increasingly, even for people with college degrees, unemployment or underemployment isn’t a choice right now.  

But even setting the reality of the job market aside, let’s take this brand of outrage to its logical conclusion: if it’s wrong for people with college degrees (or certain kinds of college degrees) to get food stamps, then presumably, that should be added to the list of disqualifying factors. In light of the specific ire directed at the arts and humanities, the exclusion could be limited to graduates with degrees in the actual analog of Senator Neptune’s “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes.” It wouldn’t even be difficult to enforce—I’m sure the administrators of the program could check for applicants’ degree history just as easily as they can verify that senior citizens in the program have no more than $2,000 in assets, and there wouldn’t even need to be a debate about what counts—states could just use the CIP codes for the “humanities” assigned by the U.S. government.

Based on that system, a low-income college graduate who majored in something like math, astronomy, or sociology could still get supplementary nutritional assistance, but one who majored in history, linguistics, or philosophy would be out of luck. Would that really make any more sense or better fulfill the goals of the Food Stamp program? Are people who study art history and end up working minimum wage jobs any more culpable for their poverty than sociology majors? Should the government really deny assistance to people with the naïveté or gumption to major in poetry writing, but extend benefits to journalism majors who chose to ignore the fact that the profession they were training for was in the middle of a precipitous decline?

Especially in the current economic climate, no one is guaranteed a job—let alone one that pays more than poverty wages—regardless of how much education they have and what kind. Aside from unfairly punishing people whose particular interests or talents might not have been well-served by one of the sciences or a pre-professional program, this kind of policy might well discourage people from finishing their degree if they don’t have guaranteed employment. College drop-outs would at least still have a safety net. It might also discourage students who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds from majoring in English or History.

The primary faulty assumption these comments seem to rely on is that if you have a degree, you should be able to get a job, and if you can’t, you have done something wrong—gotten the wrong degree, been unwilling to accept menial or low-paying work, failed to consider all your options, etc. And therefore, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go towards making your life even marginally more tolerable.

The Meritocracy Myth

If white kids with educations – who should be entitled to the good life – end up on food stamps, that bodes ill for everyone. Clearly they must be cheating or bad people, because good people can avoid such problems.—softdog

People tend to attribute the especially fervent faith in meritocracy in the U.S. to the “Puritan work ethic” or the fact that from its founding, America was seen as a “land of opportunity” and mobility in contrast with class-bound Europe. Although opportunity has never been as universal as the American Dream suggests, the idea that hard work could get you farther in the U.S. wasn’t entirely a fiction for at least the first two centuries after the nation’s founding. According to Joseph Ferrie’s analysis of U.S. and British census records from the 1850s through the 1920s, more than 80% of the sons of unskilled men born in the U.S. during that period moved to higher-paying, higher-status positions while fewer than 60% of the sons born in Britain did so. The economic prospects for non-white, female and immigrant Americans were considerably bleaker, but throughout much of the 20th C., intergenerational income mobility in the U.S. increased regardless of race, gender, or nation of birth.

the closer the mobility,percentages are to 20, the greater the mobility, http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/nerr/rr2002/q4/issues.pdf

Intergenerational  income mobility—or the chances of making more money than your parents—began to fall sharply in the early 1980s and have been declining ever since according to a 2008 study. Families have also become less likely to move out of their starting income quintile in recent decades—the panel study whose results are shown in the chart to the right found that between the 1970s and 1990s, the chances of a family moving up or down the income ladder decreased. As a result, contrary to popular belief, class structure in the United States in 2009 is less fluid than it is in countries like France, Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Canada.

Nevertheless, survey research suggests that the vast majority of Americans not only still believe in the possibility of mobility, that belief has actually increased even as mobility has declined. In 1983, only fifty-seven percent of respondents claimed to believe it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich” and thirty-eight percent said it was “not possible.” In 2005, eighty percent  said they thought it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich,” versus only nineteen percent who said it was not possible. And people are not only increasingly likely to believe that mobility is possible, they also tend to say that mobility is increasing rather than decreasing. The most popular response to a question in the 2005 survey about the “likelihood of moving up from one social class to another” now compared with 30 years ago was “greater” (forty percent).

from the great series on class published in the NYTimes in 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_03.html

What these statistics suggest is that the myth of meritocracy isn’t just some historical holdover from America’s Puritan roots—it’s an ideology that has become far more dominant in the last few decades. It’s also worth noting that the “rags to riches” stories associated with Horatio Alger emerged in the Gilded Age, another period of dramatic income inequality and relatively low mobility. Of course, there are lots of reasons why people might want to believe that hard work pays off and talent and effort are reliably rewarded in any era. It enables people to take credit for their success and represents a kind of basic fairness. But I think the reason faith in meritocracy increases as the prospects of mobility and job security decline is that it also offers a form of false but powerful reassurance that becomes more compelling in periods of insecurity and stagnation.

The myth of meritocracy makes people think that they can insulate themselves from failure or poverty by simply making the “right” choices. The more threatening those things get, the more people cling to the myth. To accept the alternative—that making the right choices can’t protect you and systemic instabilities make everyone vulnerable—means that no one is safe.

But of course, that’s the whole point of social welfare programs. No one is safe. Especially since the recent recession, when even many elite law school graduates have been unable to find jobs—or at least ones that will ever enable them to pay back their debt—it’s not just artists and the mythical majors in “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes” faced with lingering unemployment or underemployment. The idea that people choose to be poor because they can get food stamps or that food stamps represent some excessive government largess is, at best, willful ignorance.

Coming in part III, more thoughts on the various ways people in the first two camps are basically in the same camp—although they disagree about the details, they both want to impose their own ideas about how people should eat on the recipients of public assistance.

Homemade Peeps and Chocolate-Covered Marshmallow Eggs, featuring a Recipe Throwdown: Alton Brown vs. Martha Stewart

these are among the least hideous and turd-like of my marshmallow creations. so now you've been warned about what is to follow. 

“As a rule it is better and less costly to purchase marshmallows than to try to make them”

Ida Baily Allen, Cooking Menus Service (Doubleday: Garden City, 1935)

“Marshmallow” is one of those fantastic words that sounds like its referent—round with open vowels that get sort of squashed by that middle sibilant. Saying the word almost feels like eating something fluffy and sticky. But as it turns out, that’s just a coincidence. The “marsh” in the word does actually refer to a marsh, as in that soggy place between a body of water and land  that can’t seem to decide which one it would rather be a part of—a sort of alluvial purgatory. Because that’s where the flower called the “marsh mallow,” whose extract was originally used in the confection, likes to grow.

the marsh mallow, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Althea_officinalis_flor.jpgThe plant itself, Althaea officinalis, apparently has all kinds of medicinal uses—it’s a diuretic and  expectorant and seems to help with some digestive and skin problems. The Latin name Althaea apparently comes from the Greek root altho, which means to heal or to cure and it was also a part of traditional Chinese medicine. The young plants can be eaten raw, and the mature stem and roots can be boiled and fried, but since antiquity, the main delivery method has been candy. The ancient Egyptians boiled pieces of the mallow root with honey and used it to soothe sore throats. In the Middle East, it was sometimes used as a poultice and applied directly to wounds but also added to halva, the dense, sweet nut or seed paste. 

The type of candy we associate with the name “marshmallow” today was developed in mid-19th C. France. Some sources claim the candy was designed as a sort of advanced marsh mallow extract delivery system. According to Skuse’s Complete Confectioner (via foodtimeline.org), French confectioners added the medicinal extract to beaten egg whites to give it lightness dry it out, sugar to make it palatable, and gum to bind the ingredients.

However, other sources claim that it was marsh mallow’s unique culinary properties, not its medicinal properties, that prompted the development of the candy that now bears its name. Marsh mallow contains an abnormally large amount of a thick gluey substance called mucilage. Most plants contain some mucilage, and succulents and flax seeds contain a lot of it—that’s why cactus is so gooey and flax seeds mixed with water can be used as a vegan egg substitute. According to this version of the story, French candy makers used the mucilage extracted from mallow root as a binding agent for a mixture of egg whites, corn syrup and water. A book published in Philadelphia in 1864 called The Complete Confectioner actually mentions mucilage in the instructions for how to make a syrup of marsh mallow root:

Guimave is the French name for both the plant and the candy; the name comes from the English "white mallow" with the g --> w, as in William/Guillame or war/guerre: http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/guimauve

It does seem to make more sense that the candy would keep the name “marshmallow” even after actual marsh-grown mallows ceased to play a role in its production if the plant’s role was more about texture than flavor. By the end of the 19th C., gelatin and starch substitutes were developed that could stand in for the mucilage and industrial manufacturing methods made it far cheaper and more efficient to produce them in factories than by hand. Even the famous cookbook author Fannie Farmer, writing just before the turn of the century, calls for purchased, ready-made marshmallows in her “Marshmallow paste” and doesn’t include any recipes for making them yourself (again via foodtimeline.org).

Despite what Fannie Farmer and Ida Baily Allen would have you believe, there are a couple  of  advantages to making your own marshmallows at home. One is the freedom to flavor them however you want. Most commercial marshmallows are flavored with vanilla, although you can occasionally find gourmet versions flavored with peppermint or cinnamon (flavors seemingly chosen for their potential to enhance hot cocoa). But why limit yourself to those?  the chocolate coating also protects the marshmallow, keeping the inside soft and gooeyI made some with almond extract to accompany jars of homemade spiced cocoa mix I gave as gifts last Christmas. The chocolate-covered eggs I made are flavored with both almond and orange extracts, which is awesome especially with the chocolate. Other tempting possibilities: rosewater, cinnamon-almond, cinnamon-orange. Of course, vanilla’s good too. The second perk is that they’re divinely soft—as different from store-bought marsh mallows as fresh Peeps are from stale ones. I know some people prefer the latter in Peep form but who likes stale un-sugared marshmallows? (If you prefer your Peeps sacrilicious, see DoriaBiddle.com’s “Stations of the Peeps, which for some reason will not show up here in image form: http://www.doriabiddle.com/Stations1.html).

They’re also really easy to make if you have a stand mixer and you’re willing to live with squares or some other really simple shape. You basically just bloom some gelatin in a mixing bowl, heat some sugar and/or corn syrup and water to 240F, add it to the gelatin, and then let the mixer run for 10 minutes or so until it’s really fluffy. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes, and you don’t even have to do anything while the mixer is running. After my successful Christmas marshmallow experiment, I thought making homemade Peeps for Easter would be no big thing, but it turns out the difficulty is not in the making of the marshmallow, but in the shaping of it.

For every Peep I produced that was even vaguely cute-in-a-homely-sort of way, I made at least three horrifying turd-beasts that seem to look at you plaintively, as if to say, “Please kill me.”

baby elephant seal? embryonic anteater? lumpenPeeprotariat?

the whole mutant crew; in front there is what I think I turned into a vaguely passable snail

The problem is that marshmallow sets very quickly. I knew that might be a problem, so I only made 1/3 of the Alton Brown recipe I used at Christmas. But I could still only fit 1/3 of that in my pastry bag and by the time I came back for more, the mixture really wanted to become a marshmallow in the shape of a mixing bowl. Instead of my chicks getting progressively better as I learned how to make them vaguely less excremental, they got worse and worse as I struggled to push the mixture out of the pastry bag’s tip.

even before eyes and noses, a big improvement over the turdosaurish chicksSo, for my second batch, I turned to the undisputed queen of painfully-adorable festive sweets. Martha Stewart actually has a recipe on her website specifically called “Marshmallow for Piping” complete with pictures of perfect little marshmallow bunnies dusted with colored sugar. I used her recipe for my second batch, and it was indeed easier to work with and I made lots of little bunnies that are definitely less hideous than my turosaurish chicks. I also transferred all of the marshmallow extract to two pastry bags and a large ziplog bag I also used for piping as soon as it was done being whipped, and I think that helped prevent it from setting, but it was still getting a little tricky to work with by the end.

Martha’s recipe contains more water than AB’s, but it doesn’t include flavor extract, which as noted is one of the major perks of making marshmallows at home, and uses all sugar instead of corn syrup, which means you have to wash the sides of the pan down with water to prevent sugar crystals from messing up the whole thing. So the verdict in the throwdown, which I guess shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, is that AB wins on taste and application of science to improve the technique, and Martha wins on presentation if you want your marshmallows to look like adorable little animals.

For the last batch, which I made into vaguely egg-like shapes and then dipped in chocolate, I used a combination of both recipes. Also, I vowed never to make shaped marshmallows again. But in case you ever want to: 

Recipe: Homemade Marshmallows for Piping (adapted from Alton Brown and Martha Stewart )

  • 1 package unflavored gelatin
  • 1/3 cup + 3 T. ice cold water
  • 4 oz. sugar (approx. 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup light corn syrup
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/2 t. flavor extract
  • 4-7 drops liquid food coloring, if desired
  • 1/2 cup colored sugar or a mix of 1/4 cup confectioners sugar and 1/4 cup cornstarch to coat
  • cooking spray

1. Put 1/3 cup cold water into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Sprinkle 1 package of unflavored gelatin on top and allow to bloom.

2. Combine 3 T. cold water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a saucepan, cover and place over medium high heat for 3-4 minutes. Uncover and cook another 7-8 minutes or until the syrup reaches 240F (soft ball stage). Remove from heat.

3. Turn the mixer on low and slowly pour the syrup into the mixture—if possible, you want to avoid hitting the whisk because that’ll send the syrup flying all over the sides of the bowl. I aim for a spot on the side of the bowl an inch or two above the gelatin.

this is just after I've added all the syrup, you can see the spot on the side where it hit the bowl after whipping

4. Once you have added the syrup, increased the speed to high and whip 8-10 minutes or until thick and fluffy and lukewarm and holds its shape (if doubling the recipe, 10-12 minutes, if tripling 12-15 minutes). Add the extract and food coloring in the last minute of whipping. 

5. Shape and cool.

  • If you want squares approximately equivalent to standard large marshmallows, make 3x the recipe (or use AB’s original) and pour it into a 9×13 pan lightly coated in cooking spray and a 1:1 mixture of corn starch and powdered sugar. Smooth the top with a lightly-oiled spatula, dust with more corn starch and powdered sugar, and let sit uncovered for at least 4 hrs or overnight. When set, turn onto a cutting board and cut into 1” squares using a lightly-oiled pizza cutter or knife. Toss in more cornstarch/powdered sugar to cover sticky edges.
  • For mini marshmallows, cover 2 baking sheets with a 1:1 mixture of corn starch and powdered sugar, put the marshmallow mixture in a ziptop bag or pastry bag and pipe it in thin strips onto the prepared sheets. Dust the top of the strips with more corn starch and powdered sugar. Let sit at least 4 hrs, then cut into pieces with kitchen shears. Spray the sheers with cooking spray or dust with cornstarch/powdered sugar if they begin to stick. Toss the pieces in more cornstarch/powdered sugar to coat any sticky parts.
  • sugar and cornstarch-lined pans at the readyFor Peeps, color sugar by putting 4-5 drops of liquid food coloring per cup of sugar into a jar  and shaking vigorously until the color is distributed. Spread on a baking sheet and put extra in a bowl for scattering over the shaped marshmallows. Also have a bowl of water nearby—you can dip your finger in that and use it to smooth and reshape the marshmallow a bit, especially when it forms peaks in undesirable places. Transfer all of the marshmallow mixture directly into pastry or zip-top bags as soon as you’re done whipping it and, working quickly, pipe the marshmallow directly onto the sugar-covered sheet. Sprinkle with more colored sugar, and after 30 minutes or so, when they’re set, toss them in sugar to ensure they’re fully coated.
    • For chicks, use a large round pastry tip or cut a 1/4”-diameter hole by snipping one corner off a ziploc bag. Make an oval, and attempt to create a tail at one end by pulling up on the bag as you release the pressure. Then make a blob on the other end, and pull it first toward the tail and then straight up and release, attempting to create a beaked head. Good luck with that.

I suppose it's unreasonable to expect things made of a soft substance extruded from a small orifice not to look at least vaguely like shit

    • For bunnies, use a large ziplock bag with a 1/2”-1” diameter hole cut in one corner to make large round blobs for the bodies. Then use either a large round pastry tip or ziploc bag with 1/4”-diameter hole  corner cut off to make a tail on one end, a head on the other, and ears attached to the head.

the ear position does make the bunnies look a little...defensive or angry, especially before they have eyes

6. If desired, add chocolate eyes and/or dip in chocolate: cut up and melt chocolate in the microwave or double boiler, being careful not to scorch it. Still frequently and remove from heat as soon as it’s smooth. Allow to cool until barely lukewarm and then either dab bits on with a toothpick or dot them on with a small decorating tip. Or dip the whole things in, using two spoons to fish them out and place them on wax paper to harden. When chocolate is set, store in airtight bags for up to 1 month.