I want to talk politics today. I wanted to talk pumpkins, but it's been a week. Actually, it's been 18 months of weeks. This election business has hijacked my brain, and although the polls are closed and enough chads undimpled to yield results, I can't quite shake it. We may be over it, but I'm not. The divisive discourse. The combative tone. The unrelenting exaggerations, accusations, skewings, skewerings. Jeez.
So I want to just set the niceties aside, for a moment, roll up our sleeves, and really get into it. Take sides. Me vs. you. Us vs. them. Right and wrong, my wants versus your needs. How we manage the inevitable limitations life brings, wrangle with restrictions, make sense of differences.
Ready? Sleeves up? Marshmallows on hand? You'll need them. Alright, then. Let's have at it.
A few years ago, we found ourselves in a class in which there was a nut allergy. Also, an egg allergy. Also, a wheat allergy. The students looped, grade after grade, which meant we faced this same opportunity each year.
I choose that word, opportunity, carefully, because for a while it felt a lot like constraint. See, if you have a child of a certain age, and they attend school, and that age changes, said child gets to celebrate. Pencils are given, birthday wishes blared over the PA, and treats welcomed into the classroom. Good fun.
Except for figuring out the treat bit, when the aforementioned opportunities are in place. We weren't required to accomodate them all. In fact, we weren't even asked to. Nuts aside, all we were asked to do was supply an ingredient list. Teachers are realists. Informed consent was sufficient. Kids who couldn't eat X, Y or Z would, I was told, defer. Curious, I inquired as to what said kids would, if needed, defer to. "Oh, we always have a box of Rice Krispie Treats," came the answer.
Rice Krispie treats. Of course. Puffed rice, marshmallows, butter, salt. No nuts, no eggs, no gluten*, no problem. I assume every last other parent already knew this. I also assume every last other parent knows to make their kids mashed potatoes. And tomato soup, and lasagna, and, oh I don't know, french toast? I am a litle slow, sometimes.
I had, at this point, never made my kids rice krispie treats. Mostly because I loathe ordinary Rice Krispie treats. I mean, where is their texture, their flavor, their soul? What do they possibly have to offer next to, say, a lemon bar, fragile eye-squinching tart custard on top, shattery shortbread crust underneath? Or next to a dense, deeply dark brownie, studded with chips and shadowy with coffee and 6.2 degrees north of fudge? How could these blindingly sweet sugar bombs, shamelessly sticky, utterly one-dimensional, these lowest-common-denominators of the dessert world, DEIGN TO CALL THEMSELVES A TREAT?
I get a little riled up, sometimes.
(I was not, mind you, riled up at the kids, or the policies, or the allergies, because what possible sense would that make? Who would wish nuts out of their lives? Or wheat? Or eggs? I mean, think of the Nutter Butters... No, I was miffed at the debased nature of acceptable industrially-produced foodstuffs. More, I was angry at my own ignorance, that I didn't immediately have a good alternative. Most of all, I was upset by the notion that if I didn't think fast, kids would be excluded, handed something substandard, just because I'd come up short. That, THAT rubbed me entirely the wrong way.)
I also, sometimes, get determined. I poked around, read up, dug and dug and dug, until I spotted a promising compromise—the details of which are spelled out below, the crux of which is extra salt and BROWNED BUTTER!!!—and stepped off my insufferable soapbox. What I'm talking about here is a Rice Krispie treat that is actually, absolutely deserving of its title. A treat that doesn't just check the sweet box, but also those labelled Oh, My...; and More, Please?; and Yes, Another! A treat I would make, opportunities or no. A treat my three consider a celebration. A treat so terrific, I sneak crumbs after bedtime. A treat which, most importantly, doesn't exclude, or divide, or leave out, or discriminate. A treat every last kid could eat.
I'm nowhere near Pollyana enough to believe sticky squares can mend a nation. I don't believe bar cookies have super powers, much as I wish it were otherwise. Marshmallows won't re-glue an economy unravelling under its own weight. Puffed rice won't bind together a people, whiplashed by rhetoric. (Even puffed rice bound by browned butter, hazlenut-nutty, addictively salty-sweet, chewy and crispy and cross-the-aisles excellent.) Even cautious optimism often eludes me. Irreverant cynicism is probably closer to my truth.
I don't have the right answers. Most days, I don't even have the right questions. Still? I believe absoutely in the power of civility. In the long reach of respect. In the conviction that most of us, most of the time, have mostly good intentions. I believe that taking the time to listen delivers far greater ROI than any billion in ad spend. I believe limitations, turned, tweaked, approached differently, yield some of the finest opportunities. That an alternate spelling for "no" is y-e-s. That constraints beget the best creativity. I believe in taking the time to find that space that includes, that wedge of common ground, that fine slender sliver of compromise, however narrow. Even when it measures but a few square inches. It's a start.
Caramelized Rice Krispie Treats
adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser
Yield: 39 - 1 x 3" rectangles
Two notes: The proportion of goo (marshmallow + butter) to cereal is significantly greater than in the original, because a) I always come up short, with dry patches of cereal and no caramel to bind it, and b) I think they taste infinitely better this way. More nutty, brown-buttery, deeply rich caramel, to set off those little pops of crunch. They do take two hours to set; plan accordingly. Cut into them sooner, and they'll slouch and slump—still delicious, but not party-ready. Never fear: after 2 hours, like magic, they cut cleanly and stand square-shouldered. Also, do use the mini marshmallows here. The large ones, leftover from summer s'mores, take too long to melt, which causes the sugar to crystallize, which makes for treats that are hard and crunchy instead of chewy, which is sad.
*Please note: You'll need to use a labelled Gluten-Free version of Rice Krispies, such as these, for these treats to be gluten-free.
20 ounces mini marshmallows (2 - 10 ounce bags)
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) salted butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
12 ounces rice krispies (1 - 12 ounce box)
Butter, oil, or line a 9 x 13" pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
Brown the butter: Choose a large pot, ideally light-colored, that will accomodate the marshmallows and rice krispies also, as it will become your mixing bowl. I use a stainless steel stock pot. Over medium heat, melt the butter, then continue to cook it, 5-8 minutes, until it goes brown and nutty and deeply fragrant. First it will melt, then foam loudly with white bits, then foam more quietly with white bits, then foam with browned bits. Once the white foaming action quiets, stir steadily, until bits brown, and melted butter turns gold, and then amber, and kitchen smells of fresh nuts. When the butter's the color of hazlenuts, it's done.
Add salt to the hot browned butter, stir, pour in the mini marshmallows, and stir to melt. The butter's heat should suffice, but if needed, set the pot back on the stove on low for a few moments, stirring steadily. Once the marshmallows are completely melted, and incorporated into the butter, immediately pour in rice cereal. Stir vigorously and carefully with a wooden spoon, being careful of the hot goo, until cereal is evenly coated with marshmallow butter. Scrape promptly into the prepared pan with a silicone spatula, spreading into the corners and smoothing the surface. Add sprinkles, if you'd like, after the top is even and before the goo cools.
Allow to cool completely, 2 hours, then remove entire block from pan. Cut into squares, nibble crumbs, celebrate something, and go wage peace.