CENTRO’S MARSHMALLOW SUNDAE: ORIGINS

In honor of Aug. 30 being “National Toasted Marshmallow Day,” I thought I’d share the story of the origins of one of our most popular toasted marshmallow dishes – “George’s Marshmallow Sundae” at Centro.

Sometimes when we create a new dish at one of our properties, there’s a rather interesting story about how it came to be. Maybe we were inspired by something we tasted on one of our many travels. Perhaps it comes about from using a combination of experience and experimentation to satisfy our “off the wall” cravings.

The Centro Sundae was a dream. Quite literally, in fact; those who know me know that I am a very restless sleeper. My brain gets full of recipes, ingredients and ideas and I can’t turn them off. So while other people are counting sheep, I’m thinking about all the ways I can turn them into lamb tacos!

On a particularly restless night, I had dessert on my mind. I’d spent most of the evening reading vintage confectionary books with a goal of making Halloween candy. I was focused on the section about marshmallow formulas (side note: Check out the local marshmallows from Beaverdale Confections – we carry them at Gateway).

My dream was centered on assembling the ultimate sundae. Although I was alternating between gelato and ice cream, I worked my way through a very specific ingredient list: dense fudge (rather than cake) brownie, a rich dark chocolate sauce, Virginia peanuts and marshmallow cream. As I completed the final touch – toasting the marshmallow on top – I woke up.

It’s like I had chugged a coffee and was ready to get to work. I had already worked the recipe out in my sleep; since I was experimenting with shakes for Zombie Burger, I had all the ingredients on hand. I sneaked down to the kitchen, gave it a quick test run, and it worked!

The next day, I picked up my pile of supplies and hightailed it downtown. After a quick preliminary stop at Django (which yielded little interest from the kitchen staff), I stopped by Centro. By the time I got there and started whipping up a couple test runs for the crew, the servers were starting to arrive and naturally their curiosity was piqued. I was greeted with many “what’s that” and “what ya making” greetings. My response was the popular “well, you’ll have to wait and see!”

I started with a little chocolate sauce, then a piece of brownie, a scoop of gelato and some marshmallow cream. I repeated the process, topped it with an overflowing dollop of the marshmallow cream and whipped out the torch to finish.

It was love at first site, greeted by the iPhone paparazzi and a swarm of spoons. In fact, the mass attack reminded me of a scene from Day of the Dead. In a few seconds, both sundaes were completely devoured – there was no way the chefs could tell the clambering staff that they were not going to put this on the menu. Once the public caught wind, a star was born!

RETURN TO LUNCH LADY LAND

“Back to school” time in Des Moines always gets me thinking of one thing – school lunch. Memories of  school lunches tend to trigger an array of emotions in most people. Oddly enough, chefs and other foodies can get really fired up on the subject of school lunches. If you’re like me you probably have fond memories of the lunch ladies at your school. Anyone old enough to remember the early 1980s might even recall when the federal government made a move to classify ketchup as a vegetable in 1981.

Some people speak of their love for the neon yellow gravy. Some, the rectangular pizza. Others the Salisbury steak. (Here’s a little known side note: Salisbury steak was invented by a doctor in the late 1800s as part of a low-carb diet.) And who didn’t love sticking Lil’ Smokies in mashed potatoes? (I’m sure Dr. Freud would have enjoyed psychoanalyzing that behavior!) As for me, I was particularly fond of any day when freshly baked rolls were available. I am not sure if any schools still make their own rolls… perhaps in some of Iowa’s more rural areas?

Once upon a time this is how school lunch rolls used to look.

My ideas of school lunch are strongly rooted in my own childhood era. My father brought his own lunch to school in the late 30’s and 40’s and would tell us that other children would poke fun at the Italian kids for their sack lunch. Standard fare in Italian lunches included fried peppers – the juices would leak through the lunch sack and leave a trail from home to school and back again. If the other kids knew better, they should have followed that trail to “the good stuff!”

My love of food history has resulted in my collection of cookbooks, both current and vintage. What I love most about cookbooks is that they serve as a snapshot into what food is or was like at any given point in history. I have several old cookbooks about school lunches – nearly all have very simple menus with basic ingredients. Around 1940, creamed chipped beef, meatloaf, smoked pork, and ham and gravy made from “real” drippings look to be most popular. Scrapple, liver, bean loaf, baked meat with cereal, pecans and rice seem far less popular. Canned vegetables from that era often needed further processing… and their potatoes actually had skin! Desserts of puddings, crisps and cobblers ruled the day – but I’ve got feel for the kids who looked forward to “prune whip” for dessert!

Curiously, one collection of 1943 school lunch recipes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture features a strong focus on soya. Was that due to World War II-related rationing? Or was the USDA really trying to encourage soy consumption for some other reasons? Regardless, these soy recipes were not vegetarian by any means – the soy was clearly used as an “extender” or filler. Recipes included soya meatloaf, soya meatballs, and soya scrapple – all very bland, akin to something that might get served in a penitentiary!

By 1947 more international options became prevalent. Dishes such as chicken a la king, Hungarian goulash, Italian spaghetti and chop suey might have made their way onto menus alongside chili, meatloaf and creamed chipped beef. Of course, if you were to look at these recipes you would probably associate these dishes more with hospital food of today (if today’s hospital food were still made from scratch, that is). Also, the international-themed dishes were not real Hungarian goulash or Italian spaghetti; they were very Americanized versions of those dishes.

By the 1960’s standardized recipes looked to be more sophisticated and recipes were a bit more seasoned. A wider range of spices were more widely known and made their way into the school cafeteria. If you are like me and looking for some additional reading, you might want to check out The School Lunch by Marion Cronan. You are not going to find any ground breaking recipes here, but you might find that long-lost taste of your childhood!

Michigan School Lunch Recipes is another interesting read. Sometime during the early 70’s, a new dish popped up called a “Perowski,” no doubt a regional specialty. Basically, they’re meat and cheese-filled milk rolls. To this day these rolls are one of my favorite dishes. Sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980’s, pre-made breaded meat products, such as beef patties became popular, as did prepared burritos.

Fast forward to today. Some ready-made products are still staples of the lunch room. But state-of-the-art equipment is being utilized in the pristine, lab-like conditions of the Des Moines Public Schools at their central kitchen facilities located in the old Colonial Bakery building on Second Avenue. This is where they produce a huge amount of food from scratch for schools across the district. While that saves time, money and manpower, I can’t help but feel sad sometimes for today’s school kids. One of my favorite memories was walking through the hallways of my elementary school, surrounded by the smells of what was cooking in the kitchen!

Here’s a hands-on recipe for on of my favorite school lunch treats.

SCHOOL LUNCH ROLLS
As I said before, school lunch rolls were a favorite of mine. I’ve adapted this from classic school lunch recipes from a simpler time – back in the day when students sang Christmas carols around a big Christmas tree, brought homemade snacks to school on their birthday and climbed on that insurance nightmare  – the jungle gym.

Ingredients

  • 1 quart warm water
  • 1 package yeast
  • 1/2 cup lard or shortening
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • 5 pounds of  flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered milk

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place warm water in a large mixing bowl. Add the lard or shortening to melt. Add yeast and then add the powdered milk and dissolve. Follow with salt and sugar. Mix well.

Slowly start adding flour until dough forms.

Place dough on floured table and knead until dough is soft and smooth.

The dough must be kneaded until it is soft.

Place dough back into the bowl rubbed with a small amount of oil. Let rise.

When dough has doubled in size, cut it into small pieces. I don’t worry too much about each one being exactly the same. Roll into little balls and place on a lightly buttered sheet pan.

This is how the dough will look before it goes in the oven.

When you poke the dough with your finger and the print stays, the dough is ready to bake.

Brush dough with milk, melted butter or egg wash.

Bake in preheated 375 degree oven, directly on center rack for about 25 minutes. Rolls should be golden brown.

GEORGE’S RICOTTA GNOCCHI

As I mentioned last week, I’m teaming up with Kenmore at this year’s Iowa State Fair for their “Kenmore Honored Harvest Time Recipes” competition on Saturday, August 10. The competition revolves around a few key themes: fresh, local ingredients and a compelling food story.

When I signed on, I started thinking about these themes in my own recipes. As you know, I’m a sucker for a story – all of my favorite restaurants, foods and drinks have some sort of a story and history attached to them. The recipe I decided to share as part of the State Fair competition does, too – in fact, it’s basically the story of my own culinary heritage.

Growing up in a large Italian-American family, the kitchen was always the most important room in the house. My grandma was a very talented cook, who passed all her secrets along to my Mom. Cooking was a way of life – nearly all our meals were made from scratch, and Mom was especially gifted with pasta.

One of the first pastas that my mother showed me how to make was ricotta gnocchi – simple and elegant pasta that was a favorite at home. And, when available, we’d always prepare gnocchi with fresh, local sweet corn. According to my mom, the best way to enjoy fresh sweet corn in Italy was to cut it off the cob and eat it slightly warmed or even raw. She explained that when the corn is enjoyed in its simplest state, it retains its unique sweetness and freshness – to this day, it’s one of corn’s best-kept secrets, even here in Iowa!

Try this one at home – it’s easy to make and a great way to enjoy the flavors of summer.

Ricotta gnocchi with Iowa summer garnish – a great way to enjoy the tastes of the season.

George’s Ricotta Gnocchi with Iowa Summer Garnish

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 to 1 cup 00 flour

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, egg, cheese, and 3/4 cup of the flour until all ingredients are fully incorporated. Mixture should have a smooth, doughy consistency. If the dough is too sticky, add additional flour one tablespoon until the dough is no longer tacky. Let the mixture rest for about 15 minutes.

After resting, refrigerate the dough for an additional 15 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Sprinkle a baking sheet/cutting board, your work surface and hands with flour.

Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a log about 3/4-inch thick.

Cut the log into 3/4-inch pieces using a sharp knife or a dough scraper. (If you want to shape them into the traditional grooved gnocchi you certainly can; simply roll the dough segments off the back of the tines of a fork using your thumb).

Transfer this batch to the baking sheet and toss them with flour to prevent sticking. Repeat rolling process with the remaining dough.

Add half the gnocchi to the boiling water. Gently stir, making sure the gnocchi don’t stick together. Once they rise to the surface, allow them to cook an additional 2 minutes.

Remove gnocchi with a slotted spoon and transfer to a colander set over a bowl for draining.

Repeat the process with the second batch of gnocchi.

Once drained, sear the cooked gnocchi in butter until lightly browned on one side. Remove from pan and sprinkle with salt. Hold warm.

Iowa Summer Garnish

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups SUNSTEAD FARMS leeks, cleaned and chopped
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 2 cups cut raw GRIMES sweet corn
  • 3 cups loosely packed CLEVERLEY FARMS spinach, chopped
  • 1 cup diced GRADDY’S tomato
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons KALONA SUPERNATURAL butter
  • Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • Parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Truffle oil (optional)

Using the same pan you used to sear the gnocchi, add olive oil on medium high heat.

Add leeks, mushrooms, garlic and salt. Cook mixture until all the liquid has evaporated and vegetables are softened and lightly browned.

Add spinach, tomato and corn. Cook just long enough until spinach wilts and the corn is heated. Avoid overcooking the sweet corn.

Toss in the seared gnocchi. Heat thoroughly. While gently stirring the mixture, add butter one tablespoon at a time.

Once butter has melted, transfer the mixture to a serving tray. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and a light drizzle of truffle oil.