November 21, 2012
When Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America, Inc. asked the public in 2008, who makes the best pie, “mom” earned 27 percent in favor with store-bought brands following close behind at 26 percent. Poor “grandma” only got 17 percent of the vote. But the correct answer, according to the American Pie Council’s 2012 Championships, is Jennifer Nystrom. At least, in the category of amateur sweet potato pies.
Nystrom’s original recipe for her maple pecan sweet potato pie took home first place in April. Though she’s been competing at the event for almost a decade, it was the baking enthusiast’s first entry in the sweet potato category.
“Every year I do some kind of apple,” says Nystrom, who also usually enters four or five different categories each year. “I like doing apple, I like doing the berry pies.” In truth, she says, fruit pies are her favorite but she remembered trying a sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping and thought, “I like all of those flavors and I like them together so it would be good in a pie.”
The championships, which accept only original recipes, are held each spring in Orlando, Florida and coincide with the Great American Pie Festival in the nearby town of Celebration, in case competitors haven’t had their fill of pie for the weekend. “We have all our pie friends,” says Nystrom. “It’s like going to summer camp every year.”
After learning about the weekend on the Food Network, Nystrom and her sister decided to give it a try. No novice to the competitive baking scene, Nystrom entered her first contest around age 30. “I entered a cookie recipe contest and I won the grand prize of $10,000 and so I was hooked.”
For what has now become a sort of sisters’ weekend, Nystrom and her sister rent a place with a kitchen so they can cook the pies when they arrive (some people choose to bring the pies already made, but Nystrom says the journey from Morrow, Ohio, is a bit too far for that). Nystrom remembers her first year at the contest; “We went not knowing what we were doing at all. We just were going for the fun of it.” But the judges were impressed. Her first year out, she won third place in the amateur apple pie category. “I thought I had won the lottery or something,” says Nystrom. “It was great.”
Nystrom has been a bit of a baking queen since she got her first Easy Bake Oven as a kid. “I like to experiment,” she says of her constant forays into new flavor combinations. She jokes, “My husband, he just is so upset that he always has to taste these pies.”
Aside from the spring championship that she prepares for all year, holiday season is her favorite time of the year. With three grown kids, a son and daughter who live nearby and another son currently serving in Afghanistan, her house is the place to be for Thanksgiving. “My oldest son, he’s so funny. He was inviting one of his friends,” says Nystrom, “and he said, ‘You know this is my mom’s Super Bowl.’ And that’s kind of the way I look at it.”
Having spent years perfecting her pies, Nystrom says her best advice is to just not worry too much. She says, “The pie crust can be funky but I’ve learned, if it turns out looking kind of icky just call it rustic and you’re good to go.” There are a couple tricks that help, though. Nystrom stresses that ingredients for the pie crust should all be -just-out-of-the-fridge cold. She even uses ice water when recipes call for the liquid. And she adds a bit of vinegar (a couple teaspoons) to her ice water to help keep the crust flaky. “Then after I roll out the pie crust, if I have time, I prefer to put the rolled out crust in the pie tin back in the fridge for a few minutes before I fill it,” she says.
As for the filling, Nystrom says it’s all about your personal taste. For her first-place pie, she preferred canned sweet potatoes over roasting them herself. “It was a lot easier,” she says, “but you could also measure what you have more easily.”
Nystrom says they’ll be sticking with the traditional apple, pumpkin and pecan–her husband’s favorite–pies for her Thanksgiving table this year. Every now and then, she’ll throw in a new recipe, but, she says, “We’re pretty traditional. We just like the traditional stuff.”
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup butter (not margarine)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup cold water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the salt. With a pastry blender, cut in shortening until flour resembles cornmeal. Cut in butter until it resembles small peas.
In a small bowl, beat egg with a fork. Beat in water and vinegar. Quickly mix egg mixture in with the flour until flour just begins to hold together. Depending on the humidity, you may have to add up to an extra 1/4 cup flour. Separate dough into halves and form each half into a disk. Wrap each disk tightly with plastic wrap and let rest in refrigerate for at least an hour and up to two days.
Take one disk of prepared and refrigerated dough and roll it out and place in a 9 inch deep dish pie plate that has been sprayed with cooking spray.
40 oz can sweet potatoes, drained
14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
In a food processor, place drained sweet potatoes and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add maple syrup, sweetened condensed milk, cream, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, and eggs. Process until well incorporated and smooth, about 10 more seconds. Pour mixture into prepared pie pan. Cover edge with foil or pie shield. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. While pie is baking, prepare topping.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup quick oats
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, melted
To prepare topping, in a medium sized bowl, mix the brown sugar, oats, flour, and pecans until combined. Stir in melted butter until very well incorporated. Set aside until ready to use.
When pie has baked for 15 minutes, take out of the oven and remove pie shield. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Sprinkle topping over the top of the pie, spreading evenly. Replace pie shield and cover top very loosely with a piece of foil so topping does not burn. Put the pie back in the oven and bake an additional 45 – 60 minutes at 375 degrees. Check pie after 45 minutes. If a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (or almost clean), the pie is done. If not, return to the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes and check again.
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Scant 1/2 teaspoon maple extract
1 cup powdered sugar
While pie is baking, make the drizzle by mixing the maple extract with the cream then adding to the powdered sugar. With a fork, mix thoroughly until drizzle is smooth. Set aside.
When pie is done, remove to a wire rack and let cool completely. After pie is completely cooled, put the drizzle in a small zip top plastic bag. Snip off a very small corner of the bag. Squeeze drizzle over the pie.
Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
November 16, 2012
The first thing I did when I got into the office this morning was a Google search for DIY Sno-Balls because I woke up to the sound of NPR confirming my worst fears: Hostess, the bakery responsible for Twinkies, is declaring bankruptcy and liquidating its assets in light of a labor strike that began on November 9. I’ll leave the discussion about how the bakery ran afoul of its workforce to other information outlets and instead focus on the actual baked goods. In the pantheon of novelty foods, Hostess was the prima domestic diva bar none. Not only were her wares fun to look at—a Sno-Ball’s shaggy mound of pink coconut-topped creme-filled chocolate cake, the curlicues of icing atop their branded CupCakes—but also fun to say. Oh that there were some sort of diagnostic to measure the volume of tittering that Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos elicited in schoolchildren over the decades. And while I used to joke that Twinkies could survive a nuclear holocaust on account of the preservatives, they and their brethren now seem to be on the critically endangered list of supermarket snack cakes. (There is the possibility that Hostess’ nostalgia factor will attract the attention of another company will buy out and continue certain product lines, but as of this writing, that remains to be seen.) So what does one do should these cakes go extinct?
The cream-filled sponge cakes debuted in 1930 with banana-flavored cream filling—later changed to vanilla when World War II made sourcing bananas a tough task—became a cultural touchstone in the 50s after becoming a sponsor for Howdy Doody, the wildly-popular children’s television program. Ever since, Twinkies have been the everyman’s eclair, and of all the Hostess cakes, they may very well be the most versatile. A staple at state fairs, you frequently see them battered, and fried. In 2006, an entire cookbook was concocted, inviting fans to expand the horizons of the humble Twinkie—sometimes in strange directions, such as the recipe for Twinkie sushi. The cakes have even inspired mixologists. Michael J. Neff, co-owner of Ward III bar in New York, admitted to experimenting with muddled Twinkies in his cocktails—although he found the combination of cake and booze to be perfectly unpalatable. Most people, however, approximate the flavor by combining a few choice liquors. So on the one hand, there’s an entire cookery subculture that would die off should these products no longer be available to sustain and inspire trash food devotees. On the other hand, this situation may be a win for our national fight against obesity and diabetes.
During a lunchtime trip out to the nearest CVS, I had a George Bailey moment and saw a vision of what the world would be like if Twinkies ceased to exist. The prepackaged cakes rack was stripped down to the wire, with the only Hostess products remaining being a few packages of Zingers and a healthy supply of fruitcake. If there’s a run on Twinkies, like I think there will given this morning’s news, what’s a person to do? It is not impossible to replicate these snack foods at home. Twinkie pans have been available to home cooks for ages and America’s Test Kitchen even came out with their iteration of Hostess CupCakes. For me, the more difficult treat to make at home is the Sno-Ball, because in this case, you have the component of marshmallow frosting that has to be sticky enough to make the colored coconut flakes stick, but no so sticky that you can’t eat it out of your hand without making an epic mess. It’s a delicate line to tread and I’m amazed at whatever chemistry and unpronounceable ingredients converged to produce this scientific marvel of modern baking. I found a recipe or two to work with, so we’ll see how this goes. So it is possible to more or less get your fix. But what you give up is the convenience of cakes that will stay fresh ad infinitum and packaged so that you can only have one or two at a time. If you make batch, you need to liquidate your stock in a matter of days. And that’s a lot of sugar—and fat—to have to consume in a short span of time. On the upswing, you may be able to produce a higher-quality product at home because you have control over the ingredients. And to be honest, part of Hostess’ downfall has been a cultural shift away from the processed foods that are the company’s bread and butter. (Well, Wonder Bread was the company’s bread and another culinary icon that may be biting the dust.)
Faced with the prospect of cowboy mascot Twinkie the Kid riding off into the sunset, is it worth the elbow grease to produce your own novelty cakes at home? And is the media buzz about the loss of the Hostess dessert products simply a case of overblown nostalgia or are we losing something more than a line of junk foods? Talk to us in the comments sections below.
October 31, 2012
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you feel like a regionally-specific, hometown-proud confection that you just can’t find anywhere else (or if you can, everyone knows they won’t be as good). This Halloween, we’re saluting those finds that marry place and taste for a lasting bond.
Given our country’s proclivity for sweets, it’s no surprise that the Census Bureau has collected data on the confectionery industry since 1926. All so the government can tell us that in 2010, the average American consumed almost 25 pounds of candy.
And if that average American was living in Ohio, you can bet that included Buckeyes. Or maybe he was living in Texas and snacking on Chick-o-Sticks. Thanks in part to the dedicated foodies over at NPR, Serious Eats and CNN, we’ve created a roundup of the seven best regional finds:
1. Goo Goo, Tennessee: A hunk of marshmallow, peanuts and caramel covered in chocolate, the Nashville-born, century-old treat even has its own app: the Goo Goo Finder. The candy was a regular sponsor of another Nashville icon: the Grand Ole Opry, according to NPR, delighting listeners with its slogan: “Go get a Goo Goo … it’s gooooooood!”
2. Buckeyes, Ohio: Other than being the mascots for the best college football team in the entire country, the buckeye is a time-honored candy tradition enjoyed year-round. Peanut butter mixed with confectioners sugar and dipped into melted chocolate to resemble the actual (and not so tasty) nut, buckeyes are almost always better when made at home.
3. Velatis caramels, Washington, D.C.: Masters of all things caramel, Velatis (whose new location in Silver Spring, Maryland comes after a sad hiatus from its original location in downtown D.C.) brings crowds for its marshmallow-stuffed vanilla caramels. The company’s roots stretch back to 1866, according to the City Paper, and it remains a staple for stocking stuffers.
4. It’s-It, San Francisco: Stretching the definition of candy a bit, It’s-It is an ice cream treat worth the category-bending. First made in 1928, the individually packaged creations sandwich ice cream between two oatmeal cookies before dipping the whole thing in dark chocolate. The sandwich was named “the official food of San Francisco.” Take that, Ghirardelli.
5. Saltwater Taffy, Atlantic City: No one knows how long it will take for the Jersey shore to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or whether or not the taffy shops on the city’s boardwalk will ever return. Ironically, the local delicacy allegedly has its roots in a 19th-century flood which soaked a candy-maker’s taffy with saltwater. Though no one has proved who first invented it, Joseph Fralinger certainly popularized it in the 1880s, from his boardwalk stand to his empire of stores. Chewy, sweet and, of course, salty, it may be the most difficult thing to eat on this list.
6. Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts, Hawaii: Though we’d be happy to receive a box of Hawaiian Host in the mail, it’d be a little sad to miss the Hawaii part. “Oh yes, Hawaiian Host has been imitated by many over the years but the unique quality of our secret milk chocolate has never been equaled,” claims the site. But what about when the French Laundry serves guests chocolate covered caramelized macadamia nuts dusted with sugar? Seems like that’s a safe bet to sample.
7. Bizcochito, New Mexico: Taking the honor of being the first official cookie of any state, the Bizcochito made history in 1989. A shortbread cookie with cinnamon and anise flavoring, it dates back centuries and combines many of the flavors from New Mexico’s past. Another seasonal favorite, the cookies also pop up at major community events.
Other popular items from the lists: New England’s Sky Bar, the Idaho Spud, Kansas’ Valomilk, Chukar Cherries from Washington state and more.
June 19, 2012
When temperatures start climbing, ice cream trucks and frozen treat stands start popping up on the streets. And although available year-round, popsicles, Italian Ice and Icees have greater appeal as a sweet way to cool off. These desserts are also delightful in their simplicity. Who knew that flavored frozen water could be such a marketable concept? For people who have to get their fix as fast as they can, specialty rapid-freezing appliances have hit the market that can produce frozen treats in as little as seven minutes. Frivolous? Perhaps. But I say this before 100-plus-degree weather has hit my neck of the woods. For those of you who want to explore chilly desserts outside of ice cream, try these treats.
Granita: According to the Food Timeline, this Sicilian semi-frozen dessert became popular in the late 17th century, about the same time that ice cream came into vogue. (Some trace its history even farther back, pointing to the Romans, who used lumps of snow to chill their wine.) The texture is slushy and granular, and the consistency is somewhere between a drink and a frozen treat. Flavored with fruit or coffee, granita is eaten at breakfast during the summer months, accompanied by a brioche, which the diner can use to sop up the slowly melting dessert.
Shave Ice: The delineation between this dessert and a snow cone is that the ice is shaved, not crushed, making for a fine powdery snow that absorbs flavors from fruit juices or syrups. Offhand, this might not make one seek this treat out. But what makes this an interesting dessert is the other components you can pair with the flavored ice, which are typically a scoop of ice cream and/or a dollop of sweet azuki beans. Yup, beans. Popular in Hawaii, some food historians think that shave ice has its roots in Malaysian cuisine, which has a dish called ais kacang (“bean ice”), which can include corn and jellied toppings.
Snowball: Another shaved iced treat and regional favorite, the snowball was the forerunner of the modern snow cone—but while you’ll likely be able to find the latter at almost any swimming pool, you may be hard pressed to find snowballs outside of Maryland. When mass-produced ice became widely available in the late 19th century, someone had the idea to fill a cup with ice shavings and add flavoring, which was originally egg custard. The whole concoction was sometimes topped with a dollop of marshmallow. They took off in popularity during the Great Depression of the 1930s as a frugal—but nonetheless tasty—alternative to ice cream. But once economic conditions improved, the treat fell out of favor and now you have to actively seek them out. For those who won’t be passing through Baltimore this summer, New Orleans has also laid a claim to the snowball, although that city’s version is topped with condensed milk.
March 13, 2012
Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.
By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.
Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.
Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.
The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)
Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.
Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!
All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming system. Pac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.
The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.