Pop-Tarts: Hate to love them or love to hate them?

Another food fad remake struck the foodie world in the past few years: The often reviled Pop-Tart, an American breakfast icon,  has experienced a renaissance of sorts  in bakeries and restaurants. In the Washington, D.C. area, knowing foodies sample homemade “poptarts” at Ted’s Bulletin and Northside Social, among other places.  These eateries have put their own spin – from bacon peanut butter to old-fashioned apple, on the toaster pastry, known to most as the Kellogg’s Pop-Tart.

But why the Pop-Tart? More importantly, to all those haters, why NOT the Pop-Tart?

Ask anyone who grew up in the United States (or has raised children here) about Pop-Tarts, and you’ll almost certainly see an emotional response.  People tend to either love them or hate them.  Even Jerry Seinfeld offered his opinions during a very funny bit on a recent tour, saying,  “When they invented the Pop-Tart, it blew the back of my head off…it was the ’60s, we had toast!”  For anyone raised on bland, low-sugar breakfast staples, Pop-Tarts brought Wizard of Oz Technicolor to our world of black-and-white.  As Seinfeld joked, “The people who invented [Pop-Tarts] must have come out of the lab like Moses with the tablets with the Ten Commandments.”  Who cares that they bear little resemblance to any actual fruit or pastry when they’re that novel – though I personally think calling it a pastry is a bit of an insult to pastries everywhere.  It’s like calling shortening-based Cool Wip whipped cream.  That brings me to the haters.  I certainly understand their viewpoint, but I respectfully disagree.

I have had a lifelong love affair with Pop-Tarts. I can’t remember The First Time – when Pop-Tart and I met, but right away I knew I found my breakfast One (ok, so maybe not compared with a chocolate croissant, but I was probably four or five years old). Pop-Tarts were an oh so bad, oh so good breakfast indulgence reserved, in my family, for vacation at the beach. So maybe for me it wasn’t so much the Kellogg’s Pop-Tart itself, but the association with my beloved ocean, sand, and sun.  Regardless, I relished the pastries I always ate them unheated, nibbling off all four sides of the crust first, saving the delicious interior for last.  Initially, the frosted varieties were banned completely (FD&C Red 40 anyone? Why add even more sugar to the sugar bomb?), but it became increasingly difficult to find the unfrosted ones, and so I met my Pop-Tart match: Frosted Cherry.  For years as a kid, the Frosted Chocolate Vanilla Fudge trumped the cherry, but eventually, the cherry ousted the choc-vanilla as number one. The sweet and tart cherry filling drowns the usually lackluster crust, and the sugar sprinkles add a nice texture.  Remaining in a not too distant second place are the chocolate with vanilla fudge filling. The vanilla filling has a bit of a marshmallow character without too much sweetness, and the chocolate crust doesn’t hurt, either.  To this day, though, I crave cherry Pop-Tarts.  No matter that I am an insane foodie with a penchant for healthy, natural food, I enjoy them once or twice a year when I’m willing to bear with the insulin shock.

 

Trader Joe's pumpkin toaster pastries.  A for effort, B- for execution!

Trader Joe’s pumpkin toaster pastries. A for effort, B- for execution!

Since my first early ’80s experience with Pop-Tarts, I’ve watched the genre expand, adding even more and more outrageous flavors, created from just as outrageously artificial, lab created ingredients, with colors to match: blue raspberry  with purple and blue frosting to pro, chocolate cookie dough, low fat apple cinnamon, etc.  In fact, while developing this post, I  recently tried Limited Edition Kellogg’s Gingerbread Pop-Tarts and Trader Joe’s organic Frosted Pumpkin Toaster Pastries.  I would rate the gingerbread a D and the pumpkin a B-.  The gingerbread variety in no way resembled gingerbread or even nutmeg (a much better artificial rendition was Twix holiday gingerbread flavored cookie bars).  The pumpkin version tasted more as advertised, but it still fell short of the original Kellogg’s Brown Sugar Cinnamon.

Kellogg's Gingerbread Pop-Tart.  So they've made tattoos for food, which about matches the disappointing lack of gingerbread flavor.  I had such high hopes!

Kellogg’s Gingerbread Pop-Tart. So they’ve made tattoos for food, which about matches the disappointing lack of gingerbread flavor. I had such high hopes!

I’ve tried the off-brand versions and even a few of the homemade versions. I find the homemade versions to be fresher, more plump, softer to the bite than the original Kellogg’s and their manufactured knock-offs. The fillings have – gasp! – real fruit and often, natural ingredients. Overall, the eating experience feels more akin to a hand pie than the original Pop-Tart.

So in this case, I applaud Ted’s Bulletin and others for their effort, creativity with flavors like peanut butter and bacon, but I have to say that you just can’t match the intensity and texture of the real Pop-Tart. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes. How can I stake a claim on foodie-ism and prefer a mass-produced, hydrogenated, flat, sugar bomb over an inspired, natural version?

I do so because taste isn’t just about flavors – it is the eating experience. The nostalgaia. The memories and the flavors in concert. My mouth is watering already.  Sigh, and I just broke into a four-month old packet. Yum!

So what do YOU think? Pop-Tarts: Yay or nay?

What was your favorite flavor?

Homemade – better than the original?  Share your own pop tart stories!

Redefining the salade chèvre chaud

I crave salads.  I adore cheese.  So for me, few salads – or entrees for that matter – can top the contrasting, yet complementary mix of flavors in a salade chevre chaud (hot goat cheese salad), ubiquitous in France and, actually, much of Europe.   The traditional French salad typically consists of large-leaf lettuce (like Bibb or butter lettuce, sometimes with radicchio or other greens) dressed with a light vinaigrette and topped with toasts of baguette or a country loaf  brushed with honey and topped  with medallions of broiled goat cheese. Just typing the description makes my mouth water! A true French – and definitely not vegetarian – version may have lardons (think chewier, chunkier bacon); sometimes it also will include apples, golden raisins, or other fruits and veggies. The cheese is the crumbly type found in a typical American salad; the stinkier, the better here.  I haven’t found a version in the U.S. that quite nails the balance of acidity and butteriness, crisp and chewy, sweet and pungently salty.

On a recent extended trip to northern Europe, I had avoided cheese for about a month when I finally gave into my salade chevre chaud cravings on a quick trip to Helsinki, Finland.  I don’t know how much the cheese deprivation was a factor, or simply the relief that we managed to find a nice restaurant open for lunch on a Sunday anywhere in the city (especially one that was filled with locals), but I absolutely loved this Scandinavian version of the classic.  This particular version featured a variety of leafy greens and nicely broiled and browned medallions of goat cheese with melting centers atop the baguette toasts. What made it unique was the introduction of pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds. The sweetness of the roasted root veggies nicely complemented the pungent cheese.  Since I can’t turn down Scandinavian black bread, I ended up scraping some of the goat cheese off of the baguette toasts and eating it instead with a side of the sweet, dense black bread.  What is black bread, you ask?  Oh, I definitely will share more on that in a future post!

Pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds add an interesting take on this salad.

Pumpkin, beets, and pumpkin seeds add an interesting take on this salad.

Weeks after this Scandinavian experience and while visiting Belgium, a brush with the greatness that is the classic French version inspired me to create my own version.  The result couldn’t top a few of the restaurant versions, but I was more than satisfied with my eclectic – and a bit more nutritious – version.

Call mine a slightly Californian take on the salade chevre chaud.  Arugula, my favorite green, and sprouts formed its base.  Arugula, also known as rucola and rocket, is my go-to green for several reasons:  its small size and lack of stems ensures it needs no chopping or tearing apart, its texture is free of the stryofoam-like quality of radicchio or romaine stalks, and its flavor is earthy and mild (it is often described as peppery, but I disagree).  To the base, I  added slices of avocado and prepackaged, tandoori-spiced cooked chicken (hey, it wasn’t my kitchen!). I thinly sliced a seeded, whole-wheat demi-baguette to create small rounds, topped them with divided medallions of a very soft, creamy goat cheese with rind, and broiled the toasts for 5-10 minutes. From two attempts, I learned the importance of going easy on the cheese, as the already oozy cheese at room temperature goes sci-fi under heat. Translation:  as it melts even more, it will ooze everywhere you don’t want it!  I whisked together a very light vinaigrette with what my friend had on hand: white wine vinegar, stone ground whole mustard, pinches of salt and sugar, and extra-virgin olive oil.  The standard ratio of oil to acid in most vinaigrettes is two parts oil to one part vinegar.  I prefer higher acidity and don’t like a lot of oil and fat, so mine was probably closer to the opposite ratio.  The finished product (photo in header) was devoured way too soon.

Make it your own

Salads are so easy to make and customize, why not try your hand at this one yourself?  I’ll offer a few tips to guide your own creative adventure:

  1. The right goat cheese makes all the difference.  Use a soft cheese with a rind and not the crumbly, semi-soft variety most of us are familiar with.  The latter is great for breading and frying, but it will not melt, and the flavor doesn’t quite work.  You’ll find this type of cheese closer to the gourmet cheese counter – look for rounds instead of ovals/logs of cheese and think double creme, like brie.  The best are so rich and pungent that your refrigerator will smell like something died inside – yes, that’s a good thing.  Just use and serve immediately.  The broiling will soften some of the edge of the flavor and odor.   Ask a store employee for help in locating one.  If you have access to a Whole Foods Market in the U.S. or U.K., you will have no problem doing so.  Pictured here is a prepackaged variety I found in a local Washington, D.C. My Organic Market (known as the MOM).

    This pre-packaged goat cheese is marketed just for melting.  It is a bit pricy, but a small amount goes a long way.

    This pre-packaged goat cheese is marketed just for melting. It is a bit pricy, but a small amount goes a long way.

  2. Create the toasts:  Thinly slice white or wheat baguette. I prefer whole-grain for added flavor and nutrition.  You need not toast the bread before adding the goat cheese; 5-10 minutes under the broiler as the cheese melts will crisp the outside edges of the bread, while leaving the interior soft. Also before adding the cheese, brush or drizzle honey over the bread to create an ‘authentic’ French flavor of sweet and salty.  You might also consider adding a touch of honey to a homemade vinaigrette.
  3. The salade chevre chaud is all about contrasting flavors.  So try out your own favorite salty and sweet additions to the salad:  dried fruit, bacon, salted nuts or seeds, or even sweet root vegetables.  Balancing between the two is key.

So give it a try yourself! Please share your own variations and photos here. Bon appetit!

New Year’s Resolution: Eat Latvian honey cake!

New Year’s resolutions are so yesterday. I mean, I really would appreciate it if everyone staggered the start of their resolutions so I could get mat space at yoga and a parking spot at the gym. Thanks! Just kidding…sort of (really, has anyone ever tried to get into a gym the second week of January? It’s like waiting in line for a newly released IPhone or IAnything). #developedworldproblems

Sidebar over. In all seriousness, I realize posting a recipe for this delicious, tempting, easy to make – yet impressive – cake is probably the worst idea on New Year’s Day. I certainly don’t want to derail anyone’s health resolutions. But thinking of my friends over in the long, dark winters of the Baltic region, I realize that sometimes, you just need a little cake to get through winter’s chill.

On my first morning in Latvia, I derailed my own health resolution to try a piece of mysterious cake at breakfast, which I later learned was medus kuka, or honey cake. The combination of dense, moist honey-accented cake and creamy filling was worth the calories. Though I sampled other versions of this honey cake, the hotel’s – with the telltale velvety richness of mascarpone – was the one to beat.

Once home, I was determined to recreate this cake. I scoured various Pinterest recipes, converted from metric to English units of measurement, and tinkered several times to produce the best version. Though you might be tempted to add spices or make substutions in the filling, I encourage you first to try it as is: rustic, yet elegant, drawing your focus to its pairing of honey with layers of smooth, creamy filling. Don’t get me started on this filling! It is so good that you’ll be wondering where it has been all of your life – even if it does involve sour cream (I know many of you might be sour cream haters).

And it’s so easy, even non-bakers can get it together. So give it a try, make it your own, and share your story! Untried suggestion: add nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice to the cake batter or 1-2 tbsp. liqueur to the filling)

Latvian Honey Cake

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup (8 fluid oz.) dark amber honey
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose (or white whole wheat) flour
  • 16 oz. sour cream
  • 8 oz. mascarpone cheese
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and crushed into crumbs (optional)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 365 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a large jelly roll pan (essentially a cookie sheet with raised edges) with parchment paper.  Set aside.

Beat all three eggs in a large mixing bowl [either manually with a whisk or electric mixer] until frothy.  Gradually beat or whisk in honey gradually, followed by the sugar, salt, and baking powder.  Sift the flour into the mixture and mix thoroughly.  Gently pour the thick batter onto the parchment paper; moving methodically from one end to the other, top to bottom will help distribute the batter evenly, since it is a bit difficult to manipulate once on the tray.  Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until slightly risen, brown, and springy to the touch.

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While the cake is baking, make the filling:  in a medium mixing bowl, combine the mascarpone, sour cream, sugar, and vanilla extract until the sugar has dissolved.

Once the cake has baked, set it aside to cool.  To cool more quickly and allow for easy cake assembly, set the baking tray in the freezer for about 10 minutes.  The cake should be slightly cool to the touch.  Separate the tray from the cake and parchment paper.  Evenly divide and cut the cake crosswise into four sections of equal size (you may want to use measuring tape instead of eyeballing it).

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Carefully remove and flip (invert) one end section of the cake from the parchment onto a serving plate (bottom side up).  Spread a thick layer of the filling atop the cake.  Optional:  sprinkle the toasted walnut crumbs on top of the filling.  Next, remove and flip a second section of the cake from the parchment and atop the first layer of filling.  Trim any uneven edges as needed.  Again, spread another layer of filling, and, if desired, walnuts, on top of this layer.  Repeat again with the third and fourth layers, leaving the top unfrosted.   You may wish to frost the entire sides of the cake or leave unfrosted.

Cover and chill overnight to set before serving.  The cake also freezes well in advance of serving.

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Welcome to The Culinary Diplomat!

Travel the world without leaving your kitchen, and venture out of your comfort zone when you do leave home!

Thanks for checking out the inaugural post of The Culinary Diplomat.   May the site inspire you to discover new places, tastes, and cultures and inspire you to create and share your own food adventures. Each post will introduce – or reintroduce – you to a particular food, dish, restaurant, or style of cooking. We’ll share plenty of cooking and nutrition tips, resources to find that ingredient or restaurant, and other helpful hints to recreate these culinary adventures in your own kitchen or travels.

I love food. Like many of you out there, food plays at least a supporting role in my most memorable experiences. From my travels around the world to my own backyard in my adopted hometown of Washington, D.C., food, the shared experience of discovering new ingredients, dishes, methods of preparation – with my friends, family, and even strangers – has shaped my life.

Admittedly reformed since my childhood picky eating days, my sense of adventure eventually eclipsed my food fears. Over the years, I’ve become more open than ever before, not only to individual ingredients, but also to the people and cultural influences that inspired them.

As an adult, I’ve become more aware of the subtleties of culture: how often do we focus on the things that make us different, which often really boil down to fear of the unknown? How often do we misunderstand individual people and the backgrounds – ethnic, national, or even regional – we judge them to represent? From the recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri that ignited my own country to centuries-old rivalries between Turks and Greeks; Jews and Arabs; Sunni and Shiite sects, for example, history and current events heighten our awareness of cultural differences.

Those who study history and the role of diplomacy in history are aware that these divides have no easy fix, and it is not likely we will ever find that silver bullet that solves the world’s problems. But in experiencing previously unknown people and cultures, we can achieve a better understanding of and appreciation for the things that make each of us – and each tribe, region/state, and country we represent – unique.

Food is an inherent expression of culture. Tastes vary widely around the world, and my own travels have illustrated that reality to me. For example, I love my western dark chocolate bars and other traditional western desserts. The idea of eating red beans and rice as a dessert was unconscionable to me until my first trip to Hong Kong. After that trip…well, let’s just stay I’ll stick to my chocolate, but that first taste has made me more open to something similar in the future.  With each trip to a new place (sometimes within my own country!), I have acquired a taste for a wider range of foods and seasonings. In doing so, I find myself with a greater understanding of others’ tastes and traditions and less fear of what is different. I have so many wonderful memories of some of those first or second experiences with a new food – whether eating a cricket with mezcal in Mexico (boy, was that a night!), alligator in Zambia (yes, it does taste just like…turkey. What, you thought I’d say chicken?), foie gras ravioli in France (the best dish I ever ate – stay tuned for that), alpaca carpaccio in Peru (tender and delicious), feijoada in Brazil, or homemade spicy Karnataka noodles in India. Those are experiences I will always treasure, the food memories that stick – even if I have no desire to ever eat one or two of those dishes again!

All of this is to explain why I’m launching The Culinary Diplomat: I hope that in sharing new or rediscovered foods, recipes, techniques, and restaurants it will help inspire us all to branch out to increasingly diverse flavors and cultures. Join The Culinary Diplomat community to make the world a smaller – and yet no less miraculous or varied – place. Please contact me to share your stories or to be a guest blogger on this site. While food is the heart of this blog, its soul is the act of sharing our experiences. Let’s join together in our shared appreciation of food – and the people and cultures that have shared theirs with us!

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