WND – Belated Birthday Wishes

November 19, 2009

As I beat several cups of cream into whipped cream this week I found myself wondering, not for the first time, about how people make culinary leaps of logic.  It doesn’t take all that much imagination to turn really heavy cream into whipped cream.  Really heavy cream practically whips itself, and only a little bit more agitation will turn it into butter, and I can see how it might have accidentally happened the first time.  Egg whites, on the other hand, are a lot less obvious.  Who decided to stand around and beat those vigorously until they turned into a meringue the first time around?  It takes a lot of beating to take egg whites from something that’s kind of slimy to something that’s fluffy and white, and I can’t say that I think it’s a logical transition.

Most foods are not mysterious and I can more or less imagine how people figured out that they’re edible.  Fruits and vegetables – check out what the local wildlife is eating and what they’re staying well away from.  Meats and seafoods – you figure that most things can be eaten and they generally taste better when they’re cooked.  From there it’s a short leap to searing, stewing and deep frying (because everything’s better when it’s deep fried).  Even for some not immediately obvious foods I can imagine a narrative in which someone discovers them by chance.  Popcorn was clearly invented when someone inadvertently dropped some dried corn kernels in a fire, and five minutes later things exploded out of the hearth and voila! popcorn.

But what about the foods that are much less obvious?  I want to know who the first person was to look at an artichoke and think, ‘I bet if I steam that and then pull off all the outer leaves that the tips of the inner leaves will be really tasty (especially if I dip them in some clarified butter or hollandaise), and then if I pull off this hairy totally inedible thing, what’s underneath will be delicious’.  Because really, the edible parts of an artichoke are scanty and hard to find.

I wonder who first looked at a chestnut and thought, hmm I think if I roast that it’ll be full of nutty goodness (I’m guessing the cutting slits in it before you roast it happened after the first couple of chestnuts exploded out of the fire)?  Who was the first person to experiment with cooking rhubarb and realize that while the leaves are poisonous that the stalks are really tasty (and for extra bonus points, not deadly) if you cook them with a bucket of sugar?  For that matter who was the first person desperate enough to find out that while durian fruit smells like rotting meat it’s actually (apparently) quite tasty if you can just get past the smell?

Morrocan-style Roasted Chicken
Corn Pudding
Green Beans

Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle

Moroccan-style Roasted Chicken

Recipe previously given:  Paean to Summer Vegetables

Corn Pudding

Recipe previously given: Corn Pudding and Other Gateway Drugs

Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle
(serves 12, and could serve more easily because this is kind of deadly)

My office labors under the delusion that I’m some kind of health nut.  This is mostly because I eat yogurt from breakfast every day and oatmeal for lunch.  They don’t realize that I think that bacon is a major food group, and that there’s very little that can’t be improved with a splash of sherry and a dash of heavy cream.  I brought in the leftovers of the trifle to work and was greeted with a bemused round of, ‘you eat dessert?’.  I eat dessert.  I even occasionally make dessert.  I’m just picky about where I spend my calories.  This, for the record, is worth the calories.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
½ cup mild molasses (not robust or blackstrap)
¾ cup buttermilk (not powdered)
½ cup hot water

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.  Butter a 13- by 9-inch baking pan.  Line pan with foil, leaving an overhang at both ends, then butter foil.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, spices, and salt.

Beat butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.  Beat in egg until blended, then beat in molasses and buttermilk.  At low speed, mix in flour mixture until smooth, then add hot water and beat 1 minute (batter may look curdled).

Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.  Cool in pan.

Using foil as an aid, transfer gingerbread to a cutting board and cut into 1-inch cubes with a serrated knife.

Pumpkin Mousse
1 (¼ oz) envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup cold water
1 (15 oz) can pure pumpkin
½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup chilled heavy cream
½ tsp pure vanilla extract

Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a small saucepan and let soften 1 minute.  Bring to a simmer, stirring until gelatin has dissolved.  Whisk together gelatin mixture, pumpkin, brown sugar, spices, and salt in a large bowl until combined well.

Beat cream with vanilla using cleaned beaters until it holds soft peaks, then fold into pumpkin mixture gently but thoroughly.

Note:  When you’re folding whipped cream or egg whites into a much denser base – pumpkin, melted chocolate, what have you –  stir about ¼ of the whipped cream/egg whites into the base to lighten it and then fold the rest in.  It’ll work much better.

Whipped Cream
1 ½  cups chilled heavy cream
3 Tsbp granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Beat cream with sugar and vanilla using mixer until it holds soft peaks.

Put half of gingerbread cubes in trifle bowl.  Top with half of pumpkin mousse, then half of whipped cream.  Repeat layering once more with all of remaining gingerbread, mousse, and cream.  Chill at least 2 hours before serving.

Trifle, without top layer of whipped cream, can be made 1 day ahead and chilled; whip half of cream just before serving.

Note:  I don’t have an appropriately sized glass bowl, and since half the fun of trifle is seeing all the layers, I did mine in wine glasses for individual servings.



  1. I’ve always been curious about the really complicated proceses that we don’t even usually do ourselves today. Like, how the hell did we get from coffee beans on the vine (or wherever they grow), to coffee the beverage? Or how about the entire olive-making process?

    • Coffee was discovered – or so the legend goes – by an Ethiopian goatherd who noticed that when his goats ate the berries off a particular plant they got really hyper. And then I figure, he tried some and thought they were nasty but useful for long night vigils keeping foxes (do they have foxes in Ethiopia?) away from his goats. And then, I don’t know he tried steeping them to make a tea, and then one day burned them in the tea pot over the fire and discovered they made a much tastier drink if they were roasted. Or something like that. I figure a lot of things were discovered when someone accidentally dropped them into the fire.

  2. […] I made the cake base from the Gingerbread Trifle, but used the spice mixture from Jes’s version of gingerbread to make a slightly darker and […]

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