It all started with a lollipop. Driving through UNC's campus each day to take my son to preschool, I get an eyeful of the latest in 20-something fashion. What struck me as especially weird one morning, though, wasn't the low-rise jeans or high-cut boots. It was the fashion for baby food. Well, maybe toddler food is more like it. I'm amazed by the number of students crossing campus with lollipops in one hand and juice boxes in the other.
It reminds me of a Miss Manners column in which she decried adults who refuse to grow up and children who can't grow up fast enough, often aided by parents who seem to think acting and dressing like a trampy teen epitomizes the best of life.
As a somewhat fuddy 30-something, I couldn't agree with her more. I'm perfectly happy to act my age, and wandering around sucking on suckers doesn't quite fit with that. And since juice boxes weren't around when I was a kid, I can't say I've ever had the urge to suck one of those down, either.
Mostly, I like grown-up food: eggplant, fish, greens, lamb (except for leftover lamb--cold or reheated, what a wrenching smell). I celebrate the "r" months for giving me oysters.
But that's not to say a few truly kid foods don't still appeal to me. Although restaurants have tried since the onslaught of "comfort food" to gussy up mac and cheese, mixing four cheeses or muddying it with curry, mushrooms, prosciutto--even lobster!--getting a straight version done right more than comforts me. And, I think few combinations are more perfect than a Hershey bar, graham cracker and roasted marshmallow.
There are, though, ways to improve those kid favorites a bit without getting too fancy. S'mores with homemade marshmallows come high on that list (there are approximately two million good reasons to buy a stand mixer, but these are so good they may be the only excuse your wallet needs). Good old graham crackers can't match the flavor of an English digestive "biscuit" (especially after you've watched an old Mr. Rogers episode that shows how graham crackers are made--fascinating, but not exactly a turn-on for your tummy). Chocolate-dipped pretzels combine everything good in one bite--salt, chocolate and crunch. Or how about homemade Twinkies, or "hot dogs" made of kielbasa in sage brioche or puff pastry, with Gruyère cheese and honey mustard? Better yet, a mocha fudgesicle for the hot days ahead.
And yes, I do make lollipops. They're generally a once-a-year thing, since I own bunny and Easter egg molds, and they're wrapped up for the kids' baskets. But the flavor of a homemade lollipop is so superior, they're hard for adults to resist, too. The trick is to let a single, strong flavor shine through. I usually make orange and lemon ones, but a coffee-caramel lollipop goes over well with adults looking for a sugar high. Better still, you don't even need a candy thermometer to make them.
(If you're looking for adultified kid treats, one book worth reading is Gale Gand's Just a Bite--but use it for inspiration more than the actual recipes, unless you're an experienced baker good at spotting a recipe dud or able to fix a recipe before you've ever made it.)
So go on, feed your inner child. But think about doing so in the privacy of your own home. And hey--Miss Manners says to pull up those hip-huggers, you hear?
COOK'S NOTES: Both the fudgesicle and lollipop recipes can be adjusted easily if you don't want the coffee flavor; just leave out the espresso powder. The fudgesicles will be fine without it; you may want to add a few drops of orange extract to the lollipops to heighten the caramel flavor. If you don't own popsicle molds, you can freeze this the old-fashioned way--in paper cups that you peel off when frozen. It helps to cover the cups with foil and rip a little hole to stick the wooden stick through, to keep the stick standing straight. If you don't own lollipop molds, you can simply spoon out circles of caramel onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and press lollipop sticks into the rounds. (You can find supplies at craft stores or through the Sweet Celebrations catalog, online at www.maidofscandinavia.com--just be sure to get molds for hard lollipops, not chocolate molds, which can't take the heat.) This marshmallow recipe is on the simple side of such recipes (though you do need a candy thermometer); other recipes include whipped egg whites for further fluff. Those are delicious, too, but they're probably only for hard-core bakers and candy makers.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup (packed) cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 1/2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
3 cups milk (skim to whole; all work fine)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
In a medium pan, whisk together sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch, flour, salt and espresso powder. Very slowly whisk in milk until smooth. Whisk pudding over medium heat until it comes to a simmer and is thickened (about 3 to 5 minutes). Whisking nonstop, simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and almond extracts. Pour into popsicle molds and insert wooden sticks; freeze until firm.
makes about 3 dozen, depending on size
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin (from 2 packets, but measure it)
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
confectioner's sugar for sprinkling
Heavily dust a 9-inch square pan with confectioner's sugar and set aside (an 8-inch pan will also work, producing thicker marshmallows). Sprinkle gelatin over water in the bowl of an electric mixer, preferably a stand mixer fitted with a whisk beater. Let stand while you prepare the sugar.
In a small saucepan, gently stir together sugar, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a boil over moderate heat without stirring. Until it comes to a boil, periodically wash off sugar crystals from the sides of the pan, brushing the sides with a wet pastry brush. Then clip candy thermometer onto pan and cook syrup without stirring. Watch the thermometer; as soon as it reaches 248 degrees (firm-ball stage), remove it from heat.
With mixer on low speed, very slowly pour the syrup into the gelatin (try to pour it close to the side of the bowl, not onto the whisk). Raise speed to high and beat 1 minute, then add vanilla. Continue beating until very thick, white and about tripled in volume (about 5 minutes with a stand mixer, 8 to 10 with a handheld one).
Pour marshmallow into prepared pan and dust top with confectioner's sugar. Wet your fingers, then gently pat marshmallow down into an even layer. Dust with more confectioner's sugar and let stand, uncovered, for about a day (or overnight) until firm. To cut, use a thin-bladed knife that's been run under hot water. Roll marshmallows in a little more confectioner's sugar to coat the sides; store in an airtight container with layers separated by parchment or waxed paper.
makes 10 to 12, depending on size
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup light corn syrup
3/4 teaspoon instant espresso powder
Spray lollipop molds with cooking spray (such as Pam) and put lollipop sticks in molds. Set aside a bowl of ice water large enough for the base of a small, heavy saucepan you'll use to cook the lollipops.
Put sugar, water and corn syrup in the pan; stir very gently with a wooden spoon to moisten the sugar. Bring to a boil over moderate heat without stirring. Until it comes to a boil, periodically wash off sugar crystals from the sides of the pan, brushing the sides with a wet pastry brush. Boil syrup, swirling pan from time to time, until just golden--don't let it get dark or it will taste burnt. Quickly add espresso powder and swirl to dissolve and distribute it, gently whisking if necessary.
Remove pan from heat and briefly dip the bottom of it into the ice water to stop the cooking. Working quickly, pour caramel into molds, being sure to cover the sticks (warm it briefly over low heat if it gets too thick). Let cool completely before removing from molds.