We recently acquired the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, and haven’t been able to put it down. It’s full of satisfying stories and imaginative recipes, both delicious. Tales of two World Wars, France, the US in the ’30s, Gertrude Stein. It’s just delightful. We’re only sorry to not have come to it sooner.
We’ve come to the chapter titled Treasures, and Alice opens it by asking the reader: what is the first food you remember, remember seeing it, if not eating it? She tells us the first foods she remembers are breakfast foods, and later, her mother’s cook’s soufflé fritters. It’s an intriguing question, and a difficult one, even for us who are much younger now than Alice was when she published her cookbook-cum-memoir. What are our first food memories? And are they real memories, or ones absorbed later, from a photograph or a home video or someone else’s story? Does that even matter?
It’s a lovely question, we think. So, here are ours. What is yours?
The older of my younger brothers, the younger not yet being born, and I are sitting on the floor, on a stretch of tile that separates the kitchen from the dark brown carpet of 1980s American living rooms. I can’t be more than three, and if my memory is well-placed, I probably also have the chicken pox. But I don’t remember that. We’ve just moved from Italy and into the house on Ridge Road, in the town I will later come to call, mostly affectionately, Cowtown. It’s our first – and only – American house. I don’t remember why we’re not sitting at a table, or where my parents are. I vaguely remember a red sweater, and much commotion. Maybe it was a holiday? Maybe the furniture had not yet arrived, or was yet unpacked? But I absolutely remember that my brother and I are eating platefuls of Shepherd’s Pie.
There are other dishes, when I think of it. And many. Asado, empanadas, alfajores and turrón at Christmastime. Tostadas mágicas, magic toast – crackers laden with salted butter and honey, Abuela Arce’s specialty. Or breakfast in Córdoba with Abuela Nidia, at the small table by the French doors leading to the terrace – medialunas with dulce de leche, toast with butter and cinnamon sugar. Milanesas with fresh squeezed lemon, spinach quiche studded with wedges of hard boiled eggs, fondue by the fire at New Years. There’s the dreaded manicotti, over-stuffed with grainy ricotta, and the even more dreaded puchero, boiled chicken and vegetables whose flavor had been sacrificed to a sturdy broth, and which only sometimes were served as delicious ropa vieja – literally old clothes – shredded and dressed with vinegar. My mother’s fantastical birthday cakes, the dark beer bread set aside in later years by my father in favor of the more sophisticated baguette. Lentil soup with sausage, crispy layers of gnocchi de semolina. Marble cake with powdered sugar. Mate.
(I even remember, though am embarrassed to admit it, the sugary not-chocolate taste of easy-bake oven “cakes”.)
But, I think, to answer Alice’s question, my first memory of food is this one.
My mother makes Shepherd’s Pie the way she makes empanadas: with raisins, hard boiled eggs and olives. Because why would she make it any other way?
(It’s not a particularly photogenic dish, especially not under the energy-saving bulbs of our Brooklyn kitchen.)
For 6, generously
2 to 2 1/2 pounds potatoes (we recommend yukon gold or fingerlings for mashing!)
A few cups of chicken stock, enough to cover potatoes
Butter and cream (or whole milk)
1 large onion
2 pounds of ground beef, not too lean
5 eggs, hard-boiled and diced
1 cup raisins
1 cup green olives, roughly chopped
Salt, pepper, nutmeg, cumin & paprika
1 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup plain breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 375.
2. Peel the potatoes, and chop into small pieces (the smaller they are, the easier they mash later). Cover with stock and boil until soft enough to mash. Strain the potatoes, reserving the starchy broth.
3. Mash the potatoes gently by hand using a fork or a potato masher (or better yet, a ricer, if you have one). Add two tablespoons of butter and about 1/2 cup of cream, and continue mashing until most of the lumps have been smoothed out. Switch to a whisk, and slowly add the reserved stock until you reach your desired consistency. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste – you likely won’t need much salt, depending on your broth. Set the potatoes aside.
4. Dice the onion and saute in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 of olive oil until translucent but not brown, a few minutes. Remove from the flame and put in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, olives and raisins to the mixing bowl.
5. Season the ground beef with salt, pepper, cumin & paprika. Brown evenly in a cast iron pan, and then continue to cook until done. Add beef to mixing bowl – fats and all. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary.
6. Spoon the beef into a buttered, 9×13 ceramic baking dish, and dot with a few small pats of butter. Mix the parmesan and breadcrumbs together. Spread the mashed potatoes over the top of the beef and sprinkle evenly with the parmesan mixture.
7. Bake for 20 or so minutes until the top’s golden brown and middle is piping hot.
Weird that my first food memory is something I feel no strong connection with, except for the lone fact that it is my first food memory. I remember a Snickers bar distinctly because my dad gave one to me before I met my brother Joel for the first time when he was born at the hospital. Perhaps Dad was sedating me (my parents were the right-amount-of-strict on candy, so I don’t recall getting it too much) so my perfectly natural feelings of jealously at a cuter, younger baby would be assuaged.
We scoured the interwebs for a recipe for homemade snickers that looked both manageable and not obscenely unhealthy (we don’t eat snickers these days, and we weren’t about to introduce corn syrup by the cupfuls into our diet.) Of all the ones we found, the post over at Instructables seemed the most appropriate. (This recipe at Bon Appetit also seemed delicious, but perhaps too gourmet for the memory we were trying to capture.)
The recipe seems long but it’s surprisingly easy to execute. The hardest part was, oddly, rounding the up the right kinds of sugar. Butterscotch chips and fluff aren’t, apparently, regularly stocked at our local CTown and despite visiting every grocery and 99 cents store within reasonable walking distance, we couldn’t find soft caramels anywhere. We finally came across some caramels filled with nougat, and improvised by digging out the center. (Still, we recommend using “nice” caramels, ones made with sugar and milk and none of the extra ingredients you can’t pronounce. They’ll taste better and melt better and…no corn syrup!)
What a sight:
The search was worth it. Because wow. These are addictingly good and despite the lack of (added) corn syrup and our use of organic peanut butter, they really taste like snickers. And they’re even better right out of the freezer (at room temperature, they’re a bit soft.)
We made half the recipe – reflected in the amounts below – because otherwise we’d never get through them, no matter how good they are….sugar…over…load…
homemade snickers bars.
Adapted from Instructables
7 oz milk chocolate chips
1.5 oz butterscotch chips
100 g creamy peanut butter
2 3/4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup evaporated milk
80 g marshmallow fluff
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cups salted peanuts, chopped (or substitute nuts of your choice)
1/2 pound chewy caramels
1. Line a 9″ x 6″ (ish) baking dish with waxed paper or plastic wrap, making sure there’s plenty of extra draped over the sides and ends of the pan. This will make it easier (i.e possible!) to remove the Snickers bars when you’re done.
2. Make the bottom chocolate layer. Prepare a bain-marie. Combine 3.5 oz chocolate, 0.75 oz butterscotch, and 33 g peanut butter and heat, stirring constantly, until melted and well combined. Pour into your baking dish, and spread in an even layer. Stick the dish in the freezer to set.
3. Make the nougat layer. Combine 2 tbsp butter, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/8 cup evaporated milk in small heavy-bottomed pot. Heat on low, stirring until the sugar has melted, and the mixture starts to bubble. Remove from heat, and add the vanilla, 33 grams of the peanut butter, and the marshmallow fluff. Stir until all ingredients are melted and smoothly combined, then let it cool slightly. Pour into your dish on top of the chocolate, spread in an even layer, and return to the freezer. (And wash the pot, you’ll need it in step 4.)
4. Make the caramel peanut layer. Combine 1/8 cup evaporated milk, 3/4 tbsp butter, and the caramels in a small heavy-bottomed pot. Heat on low, stirring frequently, until the caramels have melted into the milk and butter. Be careful not to burn the caramel! Once melted and smooth, add the peanuts. Allow to cool slightly, then pour over the the nougat layer, spread evenly, and return to the freezer.
Note: because we didn’t have proper caramels, it took significantly more evaporated milk, another tablespoon of butter, and much patience to stir the caramels into enough of a liquified state to be able to mix with peanuts and pour into our pan. We also switched back to a bain-marie half way through because the caramels were starting to burn. In theory, if you start with proper soft caramels, you won’t have an issue.
5. Make the top chocolate layer. Prepare a bain-marie. Combine 3.5 oz chocolate, 0.75 oz butterscotch, and 33 g peanut butter and heat, stirring constantly, until melted and well combined. Pour into the dish, and spread in an even layer. Return to the freezer.
6. Leave the snickers bar in the freezer for about an hour, until the top chocolate later is hard to the touch. Carefully lift the bar out of the dish using the overhanging wax paper or plastic wrap. Remove, and place the block of frozen snickers on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, trim the edges of the block to make a neat rectangle, and cut the block into candy-shaped bites. Place on wax paper and return to the freezer to solidify. Store between layers of wax paper in a tupperware in the freezer…though they likely won’t last long!
Note. We didn’t dip our edges in chocolate to make a proper candy bar, but if you want, melt another batch of chocolate/butterscotch/peanutbutter, dip the edges in the slightly cooled mixture and lay on wax paper to set.