Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ice Cream Sandwich Chronicles

I recently had the pleasure of trying the Ice Cream Sandwich at Fuse Bistro in Lowell, Massachusetts. I thought it would be a fancy ice cream sandwich, but still an ice cream sandwich that you could pick up and eat with your hands.  It was quite a bit more!  It was served on a long, rectangular plate. There were three toffee cookies spaced evenly on the plate, and scoops of salted caramel ice cream were placed in between the cookies.  The cookies were topped with whipped cream, the plate was drizzled in hot fudge, and there was a piece of walnut brittle placed as a garnish in the center.  It was quite an elaborate take on the ice cream sandwich!  It looked lovely and it tasted even better.  The cookies were buttery and just the right consistency; not too soft and not too crunchy. The salted caramel ice cream was delicious; the right combination of bitter and sweet, and I just wished there had been more of it.  The whipped cream and hot fudge were nice accompaniments. The walnut brittle, although tasty, was difficult to chew and proved to be more of a distraction.  The rest of the dessert, however, was fantastic.

I have always been a fan of ice cream sandwiches.  There is something very comforting about the standard ice cream sandwich--vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two rectangular layers of thin chocolate cake. Growing up in the 1970's, that was the one and only ice cream sandwich. In the early '80's the chipwich made its appearance, and I was an instant fan. Two chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream in the middle, and chocolate chips all along the sides.  The chipwich was like a delicacy; it was more expensive, and you didn't get it very often.  It was like the champagne of ice cream sandwiches.  

I have a chipwich story that I would like to share.  It's kind of a bittersweet story.

I was almost sixteen years old at the time.  On one ordinary morning while getting ready for school, I found out that something awful had happened. An older cousin had been hurt badly, and my parents were leaving to be with my aunt and uncle. My brother, sister, and I went to school not knowing how things would turn out, and feeling quite powerless to do anything at all.  It was a difficult day, and when we arrived home, we learned that our cousin had passed.  

It was tragic and heartbreaking.  It is always tragic and heartbreaking to learn of such a loss, but harder perhaps when you are almost sixteen and your cousin isn't that many years older than you, and nothing like this has ever happened before.  

My parents were still with my aunt and uncle, but my grandparents were at home, watching my younger sister and my brother and I.  My sister was upstairs with my grandparents, and I was in my room, having a very hard time with the news.  My brother, thirteen at the time, came into my room. We didn't speak much.  But at some point, I remember that he left.  The ice cream truck was on our street.  I don't remember if we heard it, or if he went outside and saw the truck.  But he left my room, and then he came back.  And silently, he handed me a chipwich.  

I took it and I ate the whole thing.  I remember how I felt when I ate it.  I remember thinking, I'm going to keep eating this chipwich and maybe I will feel better.  

When I look back on that day, I see loss and pain.  But I also see a brother trying to comfort his sister, in the best way that he knows how.  And that makes me want to cry for a different reason. 

Yes, dessert itself can be a comfort.  But I think, more than that, the act of sharing a special dessert at just the right moment, can be a comfort.  I know it was for me.

Have a sweet and comforting week.   

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Of Chocolates and Children

She is two days old.  The nurse brings her into my room, her eyes wide, wide open, a shock of dark hair standing almost straight up from her little head. She looks like she is ready for the world, full of energy, and ready to get started.

She is three weeks old.  She has been crying, actually screaming, for the better part of six hours.  She stops when it's time to take pictures for our fifth anniversary.  From the pictures, you cannot tell that she has been crying at all.  She looks angelic.

She is two years old.  She marches around the house, wearing my work heels and holding a yellow legal pad, proclaiming that she has a lot of trials.

She is five years old.  She has a kindergarten project, where she has to write about a favorite stuffed animal and leave the stuffed animal at school overnight.  I notice that the stuffed animal is still in her room and I rush to the school, find her at her lunch table and triumphantly hand over her beloved stuffed animal.  She does not look at all pleased to see me.  She tells me that she does not need the stuffed animal, and I find out later that she has a moral objection to the assignment and had decided that it was not appropriate to ask five-year-olds to leave beloved stuffed animals in a school, overnight.

She is nine years old. We are holding hands and jumping up and down on the stairs outside of a local community theater.  She has just gotten her first musical theater call back.

She is twelve years old.  We are in a mall parking lot and she is explaining to me why it is imperative that I purchase her a North Face jacket and a pair of Ugg boots.  I deliver a long lecture about being comfortable in your own skin and bucking fashion trends, complete with detailed reminiscing about a fuzzy winter hat with a pompom that I used to wear when I was her age.  She listens patiently until I finish and says, "Mom, you're wearing Uggs."  Several years later, she uses her own money to buy her younger sister a North Face so that she won't have the same trouble getting proper middle school attire.

She is fifteen.  We are eating a host of desserts in my car.  This is our routine; I drop her at her voice lesson and then I purchase the newest desserts and chocolates at Trader Joe's, and we review them when she is done with her lesson.  We share this in common, our love for chocolate.

One of our favorites from Trader Joe's is the Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels. There is something addictive about the salt on these caramels. Underneath the salt is a layer of chocolate, high quality chocolate.  The center is a light, gooey caramel.  The combination of thick salt, dark chocolate, and caramel is delicious.  Another favorite of ours is the dark chocolate peanut butter cups.  The peanut butter cups are small, almost bite size.  The chocolate is very dark, and pairs unexpectedly well with the peanut butter center.

She is almost sixteen.  She has just left for a summer program, which takes her halfway across the country for three weeks.  I decide I will clean out her closet while she's gone.  Mostly, I just want to be in her room.  Somehow it feels better if I'm sitting in her room.

She is seventeen.  We have traveled to yet another city, for another college audition.  We have just turned out the lights in our hotel room, as she has an early morning of acting, dancing, and singing.  In the dark she says, "Thank you for doing this."

She is eighteen.  All week I keep seeing, in her face, flashes of her eight-year-old self, or her eleven-year-old self.  It seems like yesterday, but also, like an eternity ago.  Because she is not a child anymore.  She has a high school diploma and a bank card and a driver's license.  She takes trains into the city, she drives on a highway, she visits out-of-town friends.  She picks college courses and makes plans for this new phase of her life.  No, she is no longer a child.

But still, she is mine.  Somehow, from a hospital room, we have arrived here. My hope, like the hope of all moms, is for a path full of happiness.  

I also hope for room to share some more chocolates.  Now and then.    

Have a sweet week!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

White Chocolate and White Water

While searching for a treat featuring white chocolate, I happened upon Blue Moon Bagel Cafe's White Chocolate Mousse Cupcakes (Medfield, Massachusetts).  This cupcake featured vanilla cake, white buttercream frosting, an abundance of white chocolate curls, and a lemon mousse filling. The filling took up about three quarters of the cake itself, which I thought was an interesting change.  The frosting was a buttercream with an emphasis on the butter.  It was mostly butter, with just a bare hint of sweetness.  There is something to be said for eating your cake with basically a slab of butter on top!  The white chocolate curls added a subtle welcome crunch to the cupcake, and provided a sweetness to the frosting underneath.  The ratio of frosting to cake was perfect.  The best thing about this cupcake was the buttercream/white chocolate combination. 

I don't particularly like white chocolate alone, but I love it when it is used as part of a dessert.  Similarly, I don't particularly like whitewater either, but what I do like is what I learned from whitewater.  I should probably start from the beginning.

I am not an adventurous person.  But for some inexplicable reason,  I decided that our entire family should try whitewater rafting during our trip to Yosemite National Park in California.  It sounded like fun.  It was definitely something we had not done before.  My children, who were 13, 11, and 9 at the time, were all very excited to try whitewater rafting.

We arrived at the river, got suited up for the ride, and began our orientation. As the guide instructed us in rowing techniques, defensive positions should we fall into the rapids, safety on the raft, and other pertinent information, I looked around and thought, ok, maybe just wearing these life vests is enough of an adventure.  Maybe we should leave now and tell the kids that this was our fun for the day.  I may even have suggested this to my husband. But there we were, climbing into a raft with our guide, and setting off on our rafting trip.

The first rapid was very exciting.  It was a thrill to all work together, all five of us plus our guide, to paddle through a wall of whitewater.  I remember the exhilaration as we made it through, and all of us tapping our oars in celebration.  We were having a ball.  The kids were thrilled.  Look what I am capable of, I thought!  And then, we got to our next rapid.

It was a Class 3.  I dug in with my oar, listening to the guide calling out instructions.  But I wasn't hitting any water, I was just hitting air.  And in a split second, I was airborn.

I crashed into the water and all I remember was water, water, rushing everywhere.  And the thought, I cannot believe I fell in.  I flailed wildly and found something to hold onto.  The water stopped crashing for a brief moment and I could finally see; I looked around to find out what I was using as a flotation device.  It was my eleven year old daughter, who was bobbing in her life jacket and smiling at me with a beautiful smile.  And I remember thinking, Oh my God.  She's in the water. I'm holding onto her and I'm going to drown her. And so I let go.

The water took me, threw me.  Just water, water, water. I kept swallowing water.  I felt hard edges as I crashed into rocks.  From the back of my brain I heard someone screaming about some sort of position.  It was our guide, and somehow I registered that I was supposed to be on my back.  I managed to get into the right position but the water kept taking me, kept crashing me into things.  I'm not sure how long this went on for.  It felt like forever, and I remember thinking that I might not ever make it back to the raft.  Like, ever.

At some point I heard the guide screaming swim, swim.  I realized the rapids had stopped crashing me and it was time to swim.  I looked around, saw the raft in the distance, and swam as hard as I could toward it.  When I was almost there my husband reached into the water and scooped me onto the raft.

I remember being very thankful that I was back in the raft, and I remember feeling like it was incredibly difficult to breathe.  I registered that my daughter was back in the raft too, and found out later that she had been scooped up by our guide as soon as she had fallen in, and she thought it had been fun to be in the water.  I was incredibly thankful for that.

It was hard to recover from my fall into the rapids.  I found it very difficult to calm down.  I had bruises and bleeding cuts on my legs from being thrown into rocks. The kids were asking if I was okay, and I kept saying I was fine.  I covered up the biggest cut with my hand and I kept trying to smile.  "You keep saying you're fine, but you don't look fine," said my youngest, my son.  I repeated that I was just fine.  I half-heartedly asked the guide if we were almost done. He looked at me and said, "No, we have about two hours left, and a lot more rapids."

That was quite a sobering moment.  I still felt like I couldn't breathe well.  I could not imagine two more hours of rowing, rapids, and more water, after what I had just experienced. As we began to paddle through some calm water, headed to our next rapid, I looked all around, thinking of ways I could potentially escape.  Had it just been my husband and I, I would have asked the guide to drop me at the nearest embankment and I would have scampered up to the road.  I would have scaled rocks, walked for hours, camped out on the pavement, I would have done just about anything to get out of that river.  But I was determined not to ruin things for the kids.  I did not want their big adventure, and our vacation, to turn into some sort of drama, ending in a rescue for mom.  So I kept rowing.

We hit more rapids and I was determined not to leave that raft again.  And I didn't.  It was exhausting and extremely scary and I don't think I really took a deep breath for quite a long time.  But I dug deep and stayed in that raft and I finished the trip.  It was one of the hardest things I've ever done and I'm not sure how I did it.  I think prayer played a large part in getting me through.  I was simply determined not to ruin things for my kids. Sometimes you do crazy things when you're a mom.

The kids all loved whitewater rafting.  My husband loved whitewater rafting. The pictures of our raft trip show four faces of joy and one face of cowered terror.  But, I stayed in the raft.  And my kids counted whitewater rafting as one of the best things they did during that vacation.

These days, I prefer to look at whitewater from the road, or a nice viewing platform, rather than experience it.  And yes, I most definitely prefer white chocolate to white water.  But my whitewater adventure 
taught me some important things. Like the fact that perhaps someone who was born in the Bronx and doesn't like to be out of breath should not be whitewater rafting.  

More seriously, I'm a little bit different now, because of white water. What I did actually learn is that we are stronger than we think we are.  And that choosing the more difficult path can truly lead to triumph. 

Have a sweet week!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Butter Crunch, Butterscotch, and a Better Ribbon

It's a Butter Crunch round robin!  I first discovered Butter Crunch ice cream at Friendly's as a teenager, in search of the perfect recipe for a Peanut Butter Cup Sundae (see previous blog entry from May, "How to Build the Perfect Peanut Butter Cup Sundae, and Other Stories").  I have recently sampled Butter Crunch ice cream cones at a number of ice cream parlors in the Boston area and have discovered that all Butter Crunch ice cream is not equal.

What is the crunchy sweet stuff in Butter Crunch ice cream?  Butter brickle?  Butterscotch candy?  Toffee?  Unclear. All of the Butter Crunch flavors I tried seemed to have similar crunchy goodness, but with varying sizes and consistencies.  My first stop was Lizzy's Ice Cream in Needham, Massachusetts. Their Butter Crunch ice cream is standard, good quality Butter Crunch;  a vanilla based ice cream with small candy pieces.  It reminded me of the Butter Crunch at Friendly's. The candy pieces are tiny, probably the size of a mini chocolate chip, but there are plenty of them, and there is a subtle butterscotch flavor throughout. Next was Crescent Ridge Dairy in Sharon.  The Butter Crunch flavor at Crescent Ridge is a super sized Butter Crunch. The scoop was enormous. There is something to be said for eating an ice cream cone where the ice cream scoop is twice the size of your fist.  The ice cream itself was vanilla-based and was very creamy.  But what set this Butter Crunch apart from the rest was the buttercrunch candy;  the candy pieces were enormous, probably the size of a large gumball.  Because of this, the flavor seemed less Butter Crunch and more something in its own category.  

The final stop on my Butter Crunch circuit was at Bubbling Brook in Westwood. This was my favorite Butter Crunch ice cream.  Bubbling Brook's take on this flavor presents sweet ice cream, sweet and crunchy candy pieces, and an unexpected, flavorful butterscotch ribbon running through the ice cream.  The butterscotch ribbon adds a tremendous amount of flavor, and plays off nicely against the sweet candy pieces.  It turns an ordinary ice cream scoop into a mini sundae in a cone.  

For me, it was the butterscotch ribbon that made Bubbling Brook's Butter Crunch a stand out.  And now, I would like to share a story about another kind of ribbon.  The story begins on a college campus.

A boy and a girl met in September of their senior year.  They seemed to be polar opposites;  he was all about engineering and computers, she was about social sciences and music.  He was quiet, she was not, he enjoyed staying in, she preferred to be out, he was calm, she was always busy.  But they started dating in November, and by graduation in June they were still dating.  The boy graduated Phi Beta Kappa, in the top percentile of his class, and received a special red ribbon to wear on his graduation robe.  The girl did not graduate Phi Beta Kappa.  This was a particular issue for the girl, as she was naturally competitive, worked hard, and came close, but did not have a high enough GPA for Phi Beta Kappa.  She complained to the boy that she was disappointed that she had not had a red ribbon at graduation.  For some reason this really bothered her.  

So what did the boy do?  After graduation, the boy gave the girl a present. He gave her his Phi Beta Kappa ribbon.  The girl was amazed that someone would give away something that meant so much.  But the boy just smiled and said he thought it meant more to her than it did to him, and he wanted her to have it.  So she accepted his gift.  

Of course, the ribbon did not make the girl magically eligible for Phi Beta Kappa. But it showed her something about the boy, about how very selfless he was. She knew the boy worked really hard, and she knew that he valued what he had accomplished.  But the ribbon showed that he valued her more.  And that making her happy was more important than any award or accolade.  

She had never met anyone like that.  She suspected that there were few like him in the world. Over twenty years later, they are still together, and she still suspects that there are few like him in the world.  He never asked for the ribbon back, never so much as asked to see it. But she still has it. And it means more to her than if she had received her own red ribbon.  Perhaps that is what the boy had intended all along. 

Have a good week!