We are living in interesting times. When I woke up on Friday morning, I really didn’t expect to flip on Morning Edition and hear that the Leave side had won the Brexit referendum. (Apparently, a lot of people who voted on the Leave side didn’t expect it, either.) I confess I was never totally clear on what that was all about. Politics generally leaves me feeling a bit stupid, and as an American I can’t pretend to fully understand the British mindset, but the assassination of MP Jo Cox by a Leave supporter made it clear even to us ignorant non-Brits that the whole thing was a mess of huge proportions. Maybe that’s why I expected that Remain would win, and things would go back to normal, or normal-ish.
Come on, UK – aren’t we Yanks creating enough turmoil in the world right now?
Just kidding – I have enormous sympathy for the folks in the UK as they go through this upheaval. At the same time, I can’t help but think of it from my U.S. perspective. To me, as a member of the liberal elite (ha ha), the parallels between the Leave campaign there and the Trump campaign here are eerie. On both sides of the pond, it partly seems to boil down to a longing for “the good old days”, though what exactly that means is never spelled out. There are theories, not very nice ones.
As the writer of a blog that deals, at least in part, in nostalgia, I have to say that the past is at best a mixed bag. It’s only human to have a selective memory, keeping what pleases us and tossing the things we’d rather forget. That’s sort of what nostalgia is. The thing is, even if time travel were possible, we couldn’t go back to a time where the things we remember fondly are there, but the not-so-good things are absent, because that time does not exist. (I’m assuming here that we’re moving back and forth through time in the same quantum universe. If we can move between alternate universes as well, then all bets are off, of course.) Back in “the good old days” people took the bad with the good, just as they do now.
Anyway, since we haven’t figured out how to manage time travel (hell, we haven’t even sorted out the pesky paradoxes), we can only move forward in time and try for the best results from what’s happening now.
Which is not to say we can’t enjoy a little nostalgia from time to time. Or nostalgia and cupcakes. I’ve been thinking of trying to make poke cake for a while, and since this week on the editorial calendar is a “free week”, it seemed like a good time to do something fun. If cupcakes aren’t fun, I don’t know what is.
I started out with a box of white cake mix – probably the first time in decades that I’ve used a boxed mix, but I’m not sure what a white cake is, really. I have to admit I was seduced by the dead easiness of whipping up the batter. Even better was using an ice cream scoop to dole out the batter like they do on Cupcake Wars, which is genius, and I wish I’d known to do that as a kid when I was making cupcakes more regularly.
When the cupcakes were cooled, I “poked” them with fruit punch flavored Jell-O. For frosting, I didn’t want to use Cool Whip because I wasn’t sure how well it would keep (or travel, depending on what we decided to do with the cupcakes). Instead, I went with the White Mountain Frosting recipe from my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s boiled-sugar-and-egg-white based, essentially a marshmallow icing, but fluffy and not too perishable. White Mountain Frosting was a reprise of the “napalm” experience of Fruit Flavor Marshmallows, except that this time I was working with a mixer with a spatter guard, so the hazard was greatly reduced.
The glam theme was inspired by the foil cupcake cups, and by Vince Noir’s glam ski suit in the “Tundra” episode of The Mighty Boosh, which we’ve been re-watching in the summer TV lull. Those silver dragées are getting s little hard to find, but luckily they’re available at a local spice shop.
So finally I was pleased with the look, but as far as eating them? Man, these cupcakes are sweet. But we can’t stop eating them – just like in the good old days…
“I know why we should go to D–‘s party,” Bryan announced a few nights ago.
“Because you can bring Jell-O.”
And there you have it, a pretty good sketch of our social life.
Actually, it’s not quite true that this is a “virgin” recipe. When I was a slip of a girl back in the wacky 1970s, my Auntie Kathy (all of my aunts were “auntie”, pronounced “AHN-tee”) taught me how to make this. It’s a simple recipe consisting primarily of shredded coconut and ground blanched almonds, bound together with sweetened condensed milk, and flavored with a little almond extract and a three-ounce package of Jell-O.
Auntie Kathy passed this on to me as a recipe for “strawberries”, and that’s what I made here. You can use other Jell-O flavors to produce marzipan of different colors that can be shaped into different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and I had originally intended to make a few different batches. The idea had a certain appeal, I think, because it reminded me of a bowl of wax fruit that my grandmother had that I used to covet* (yes, I was a weird kid), but once I’d gotten started with the strawberries, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. After the ingredients were combined, I found the resulting paste to be sticky and difficult to work with. As the pink goo accumulated on my hands, the paste would stick to them rather than cohering into balls that could be pinched and poked into strawberry-ish shapes, and I had to stop a couple of times to wash my hands for a fresh start.
According to the book, the recipe should make 36 pieces. Lacking the patience to make more, smaller pieces, I managed to get 29, which I decided was good enough. Anyway, the coconut gave a peculiar-looking hairy texture to the smaller ones – which, as it turned out, the tasters didn’t mind.
They went into the fridge to chill overnight, and according to the book, they were also supposed to get dry. I was dubious. Auntie Kathy taught me to use a second box of Jell-O to coat the strawberries in the powder. I decided to go with the book to see what happened.** The candies were still a tad sticky by morning, but much better than they’d been the night before. I added the finishing touch, a cluster of “leaves” on the top of each using a store-bought tube of green frosting.*** After another couple of hours in the fridge, the strawberries were packed into a plastic container for transport to D–‘s house in TheMiddleOfNowhere, Massachusetts.
We weren’t really only going to D–‘s in aid of the Project, but I knew that the old science fiction convention crowd could be counted upon for some unfiltered opinions on my dish, provided I could get them to eat it.
There was a good amount of food at the party, and, hermits that we’ve been, I had nearly forgotten that at any party there are always people who will at least try, if not hoover up, practically everything on the table. About two-thirds of my strawberries were consumed. Two of the tasters were children who were strangely unenthusiastic considering that food so sweet and simple-tasting traditionally appeals to kids. Grown-ups’ responses ranged from “I can’t eat that, I’m vegetarian and that has gelatin in it”, to “Fantastic!”, to the comment from D–‘s husband G–, in a small homage to Douglas Adams – “These taste almost, but not entirely, unlike strawberries.”
My bringing what I still think of as “Auntie Kathy”s strawberries” turned out to be a fitting sort of convergence, as the party was imbued with an air of nostalgia. We’ve known D– and some of the other guests for roughly 30 years, and there was talk of old times, and relaying stories to guests who were younger or newer friends. At one point the photo albums came out, and we got to look back in time to our younger, skinnier (and in Bryan’s case, clean-shaven) selves. It seems so long ago that we were that tribe of techno-hippies, all smooth faces and dark hair and tie dye.
Anyway, it turned out that Marzipan wasn’t so bad. Bryan and I finished off the last of the berries this evening while watching This Is the End.
* If I’m being honest here, I have to admit that I still covet that wax fruit. Yes, I turned out to be a weird adult.
** Not so much out of purist impulse as because the price of Jell-O has gone up by 50% in the last five years.
*** It has struck me repeatedly that using so-called convenience foods doesn’t make cooking all that much easier. The frosting-in-a-tube saved me maybe 15 minutes of work, and could not compensate for my lack of mad frosting skillz.