Friday, October 24, 2008

Sprinkle Some Sugar on Me

Armed with a cardboard shaker of salt, Albert seasons the yolk, before eating his cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread, a pickle, and the egg so they all come out even with the milk in his thermos. When Frances brings her own elaborate lunch to school, she sets a tiny vase of violets on a doily before unpacking: cream of tomato soup, a lobster salad sandwich, celery, carrot sticks, black olives, plums, and cherries. To finish, she has a vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles.

Bread and Jam for Frances was probably my very first encounter with food writing, and it left a deep impression. First, the lunches struck me as tasty. I might have tweaked the menu a little (cold fried chicken, anyone?), but the sharp tang of rye bread with the mild and sweet flavors of cream cheese and tomato sounded perfect. (As “Harriet the Spy” knew, very few pleasures surpass the perfectly ripe tomato sandwich.) While the lobster salad sandwich was clearly an instance of one-up-manship on Frances’s part, the inclusion of black olives was genius. A little girl badger after my own heart.

But the deeper pull of these descriptions tugged at something other than the palate. I was fascinated with the implied labor of preparation (Frances's mom put her cherries in a tiny basket), the ceremony of eating (nibble egg, bite sandwich, taste pickle, sip milk), and the finishing touches (the disposable salt shaker, the chocolate sprinkles). (Molly Ringwald opening her sushi bento box in The Breakfast Club provided a similar thrill many years later).

While Albert had me at rye bread and salt, it’s the non pareils that won DD’s heart. She’s my little Frances (think pasta and butter, instead of bread and jam), so the olives, and lobster, and pickle failed to resonate with her.

Of course, sprinkles have a baseline appeal. Kids love 'em. But if we move beyond their superficial allure (sugary taste; crunchy texture) and ignore their nutritional offenses (HFCS, dyes), then we might see that Sprinkles (a.k.a. jimmies, sanding sugars, non pareils, fairy dust, pixie dust, angel dust . . . wait, that’s not right) harbor something more. They hold the same aesthetic and ritualized charm of Frances’s vase of violets. They transform a plain cupcake into a festive one. They invite the smallest hands to the decorating table. And their sparkle is superfluous, giving the decorator license to be rebellious, tasteful, or tacky, as she pleases. Reason not the need.

Plus, they’re pretty.

Here’s the cookie recipe that DD and I bejeweled with sprinkles, adapted from The Best of Fine Cooking, Cookie Edition:

Classic Cut-Out Cookies
2 Cups of unbleached flour
1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder
½ teaspoon of kosher salt
¾ Cup of unsalted butter, softened
¾ Cup of granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 Tbs of heavy cream
½ teaspoon of lemon zest
Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl. With mixer, in a large bowl, mix butter and sugar until well-creamed. Add vanilla, cream, and lemon zest until well combined. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture until well combined. Portion the dough into three disks, wrap in plastic, and then refrigerate from 2 hours to overnight. Grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Flour a work surface and roll out one disk at a time to ¼ inch thick. Cut out cookies, add sprinkles, and bake for 9-10 minutes until edges turn golden.


Nazarina A said...

I love the cookies and this post, the little hands and I believe non pareils can fix anything as long as there is icing!

I have an award for you!

Joie de vivre said...

I feel this way every time I see someone bento blog. Just a beautiful way to eat huh?