Oreo Day (or The Sieve and the Sandwich Cookie)

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The old packaging I remember from the 1990s.

Another food celebration day has crept up on me. This time, it’s Oreo Day, though I would have gone with “Sandwich Cookie Day” for two reasons: a) Oreos aren’t the only sandwich cookies with a creamy center out there (especially since Nabisco is doing all it can to make Oreos different), and b) you know some overly politically-correct activist is going to get on his or her soapbox and declare that the name is racist. For those who don’t know, “Oreo” is a derogatory name for a black person who “acts white” (read: doesn’t listen to rap, has a good credit rating, isn’t on welfare, has a respectable job, etc). Other variations of this include the “banana” (an Asian who acts white), a coconut (a Hispanic or black person who doesn’t have African roots [like a Brazilian, a Jamaican, or someone from India] who acts white), and a “backwards Oreo” (a white person who acts black). While being called an “Oreo” may be a compliment (because, hey, you don’t follow the stereotypes of your race and cookies are always good), it does have the sting of “You should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to The White Man, the same White Man that enslaved your ancestors and took their sweet time giving us the same rights they have, and still keep us down today, albeit in more underhanded ways, never mind that we’re keeping ourselves down and, therefore, making ourselves look bad.” I guess whoever came up with these was only racist when he or she was hungry and, rather than get something to eat, decided to fan the flames of hatred a little more.

I can’t think of a time when Oreo cookies weren’t part of my life. It’s always been in my pantry, whether it’s the real deal or some discount store knock-off. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a discount store Oreo knock-off in my pantry, called Benton’s Chocolate Sandwich cookies waiting to be devoured by everyone in my family within the span of, oh, say, five days. And even when I couldn’t have the cookie, I’ve always had a dessert with Oreos in it (or flavored like a chocolate sandwich cookie), be it ice cream, cake, pie, or pudding. Oreo cookies are a lot like some of the cartoons I watched when I was younger: kids love them and are the main demographic, but the periphery demographic is mostly adults.

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The competition: 1908-2001, with a brief comeback in 2008

Oreos were created in 1912 (making them a little over 100 years old, 102 to be exact) as a competitor to Hydrox Cookies, which, sadly, aren’t around anymore due to mergers, rebranding, and Oreo kicking Hydrox’s butt in sales. The last time Hydrox were seen was when they were sold as part of the product’s 100th birthday in 2008. Compared to Oreos, Hydrox’s filling wasn’t overly sweet, it was kosher/halal  (Oreo’s original recipe had lard in it, and, as Jewish and Muslim dietary laws will tell you, pork products are verboten, as pigs are seen as dirty, disease-ridden scavengers), and Hydrox’s chocolate wafer could stand its own when being dunked in milk.

When Oreo first started, it was known as the “Oreo Biscuit” (which is somewhat true, as a “biscuit” is what Americans and Canadians call a “cookie” and not a quick bread that’s used in a sausage sandwich for breakfast and served alongside chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, and the product was originally made for British people in mind). It was developed and produced by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) in New York City (Chelsea area) on Ninth and 15th (which is known as “Oreo Way”). The original packaging was in novelty cans with clear glass tops and they sold for 25 cents a pound. Keep in mind that $.25 a pound in 1912 would be $5.86 today when adjusted for inflation, which is how much Oreos are priced in some of the mom-and-pop delis and kwik-e-marts I’ve been to. Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve seen them go anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99 — minus tax, of course. As for the original packaging, Nabisco probably switched over to the “We Three Sleeves” packaging to keep the prices down and for freshness reasons, though I’ll bet you there’s a farmer’s market out there that has homemade, heart-smart, gluten-free, vegan Oreos in a decorative can (made of recycled materials, because that’s how the fair-food, go-green crowd works) that’s probably somewhere between $1.50 to $2.50 a pound (maybe more).

As mentioned before, the filling to the Oreo cookie had lard (pork fat) in it, making it unsuitable for eating if you were Jewish, Muslim, or just didn’t like pork and pork byproducts (and, unlike today, people didn’t really care if you were any religion other than Protestant or some kind of Baptist or Anglican Christian. Even Catholics were ragged on because they had a pope as their conduit to God and Protestants didn’t…or, if you want to put a modern perspective to it, maybe Protestants knew that Catholic priests did unsavory things to children, but it wasn’t a major concern until the 1990s, the 2000s, and now). Of course, to cover it up, they used vanilla and sugar. There was even a lemon-flavored cream filling in the 1920s, but has since been discontinued (though if you ever go to Japan or to some American markets, you will find lemon cream Oreo cookies, albeit with the Golden Oreo wafers instead of the chocolate ones. Lemon and chocolate don’t really make a good flavor profile, which is probably why it was discontinued).

Sam “Mr. Oreo” Porcello (exact day and month unknown, but the birth year is somewhere between 1935 and 1936 – died May 12, 2012) was a food scientist from New Jersey credited for devising the modern Oreo cookie filling, in which the lard is replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (still not healthy, but slightly better than lard). It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the Oreo would switch over to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil in an effort to rid food of trans fats (which, despite what you’ve heard or read, doesn’t affect the flavor, so those episodes of American Dad (“Live and Let Fry,” season four, episode 11) and King of the Hill (“Trans-Fascism,” season 12, episode 11) where Stan Smith and Hank Hill respectively fight back against the new “no foods with trans fats” laws because the no trans fats foods lack flavor is a fallacy.

The etymology behind “Oreo” is a mystery. Some say it’s partially from the French word “or,” which isn’t a conjunction used to denote a decision or choice in this case (in French, that word is “ou,” without the left-leaning accent. If it’s spelled with the left-leaning accent [où], then it’s the French word, “where,” as in “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”). In this case, “or” in French means “gold,” possibly meaning that this cookie is the gold standard. Another theory is that “Oreo” is from the Greek word “όμορφο,” meaning “beautiful, nice, or well-done” (Quick word: I don’t know Greek all that well, except for the alphabet, and that was back in sixth grade when I was taught about the Greek and Roman Empires and from watching TV shows and movies about college frat and sorority houses getting into trouble that would get real-life frats and sorority members hurt, expelled, arrested, shut down, put on academic probation, or, worst case scenario,  deported. I got the word off Google Translate). A final, and simpler, theory is that the name was made up by the company and it was chosen because it was easier to pronounce and remember.

Through the years, Oreo has become so much more than a chocolate sandwich cookie. Its filling has been everything from lemon to mint to chocolate to peanut butter — heck, if you go to China and Japan, you can get green tea filling in your Oreo, while other countries, like Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have blueberry ice cream filling, orange ice cream filling, strawberry filling, and dulce de leche (a milk-based confection that’s common as muck in the Hispanic world, particularly in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the South American countries that have Spanish as an official language. Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname are the only ones that don’t) filling. There’s been Oreo pies, cheesecakes, regular cakes, brownies, ice cream, and frozen dessert dishes. The wafers, when ground up into crumbs, have been molded into pie crusts (or edible dirt, if it’s Halloween and you want to make a food-based scale model of a cemetery. Someone in my high school senior class did that, and it was amazing) and used as mixin’s for yogurt and ice cream. Basically, if something on the dessert menu says “Cookies and Cream [something],” you can bet that Oreos or an Oreo-inspired chocolate sandwich cookie (whether pre-made or homemade) are involved.

As part of Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day, I’m going to leave you with a fool-proof recipe for how to make your own Oreo cookies (or, at the very least, the wafers, so you can use them for desserts or just eat that part without worrying about the creamy center). “You can make your own Oreos?” you ask incredulously. Yes, you can. It may seem hard, as the dark chocolate wafers are easy to overbake (their color obscures browned edging, which is an indicator of doneness in most cookie recipes) and the filling is very easy to foul up (coming out either too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had enough Oreos and no-brand sandwich cookies to know the difference), but this recipe fixes those mistakes.

The cookie/wafer part is prepared the same way as vanilla icebox cookies, only you substitute part of the flour for Dutch process cocoa (or a mix of black cocoa — which can only be found online or at gourmet grocery stores — and Dutch process cocoa), though you don’t have to bother with the cocoa powder if you’re making mock Golden Oreos. As for the filling, it’s a simple blend of confectioner’s sugar, water, vanilla extract (for best results, try and find clear vanilla extract, as that makes it as white as the actual Oreo filling), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. You don’t need lard or hydrogenated oil for it.

So break out the milk (doesn’t matter what kind. I had my Benton Sandwich cookies with Almond Vanilla Milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, but everyone else in my family is and I’m open to trying new milks, like when I tried goat’s milk with spiced tea at Three Stone Hearth) and have a happy Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day with this copycat recipe:

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Black cocoa (found in specialty shops or online) is what gives these cookies their distinctive dark color and deep flavor; if you can’t find it, substitute additional Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Also, if you can find it, clear vanilla extract will make a bright white–colored filling.

COOKIES

2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup black cocoa powder

¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon instant espresso or instant coffee

1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) all-purpose flour

FILLING

4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

Pinch salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2½ tablespoons water

FOR THE COOKIES:

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter, then combine with the cocoa and espresso powders in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool, about 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, beat the cooled cocoa mixture, remaining 16 tablespoons butter, granulated sugar, and salt together using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour in 3 batches, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until the dough forms a cohesive ball, about 10 seconds.

Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 6-inch log, about 2 inches thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the dough into ⅛-inch-thick cookies. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart.

Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown and firm, 10 to 12 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough using freshly lined baking sheets.

FOR THE FILLING: In a large bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar and salt together with an electric mixer on low speed, slowly adding the vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the water until the filling is uniform and malleable, about 1 minute. If the filling is dry and crumbly, beat in the remaining ½ tablespoon water. Transfer the filling to a clean counter and roll into a log slightly smaller than the cookie dough (about 1⅔ inches wide). Wrap the filling in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. 7. Slice the filling about ⅛ inch thick. Pinch each slice of filling between your fingertips to soften it, then sandwich it firmly between 2 cookies and serve.

Thanks, and happy eating!

To see where your favorite Oreo cookie type places, read this article from the food section of Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/oreo-flavors_n_4904442.html?utm_hp_ref=taste&ir=Taste

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First World Food Problems: Smooth Like Velveeta (or Process Cheesed Off)

As I was searching the Internet for future food topics on this blog, I came across a story that just screams, “First World problems” (or, if you want to get technical “#firstworldproblems”). Apparently, Kraft Foods announced that, because of high demand (especially around this time, where people are making cheesy, fattening snacks for the BCS [college football] and the Super Bowl), Velveeta may be in short supply. As per usual with a lot of news stories in this day and age, it’s been blown out of porportion. How blown out? It’s been dubbed “The Cheesepocalypse” on Twitter (which I use to get fans for this site, whether or not they actually know me). Don’t believe me. Check it out here:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101316810

Now what does this mean to me? Absolutely nothing. I don’t like processed cheese at all. There was a time when I did, but that was because the lunchladies at school only had processed American cheese for their burgers, and I nor my mother thought to bring in provolone or mozzarella or write a note to the school, saying I’m allergic to American cheese. Hey, if they can do it for kids who have allergies to peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, walnuts, pecans, shellfish, eggs, and some of the less common foods a person can be allergic to, like strawberries, bananas, pineapples, chocolate — yes, chocolate allergies are a thing and I feel bad for people who will never know the simple joy of a Godiva truffle on Valentine’s Day (or Singles Appreciation Day, if you’re lonely and/or bitter), chocolate coins on Christmas or Hanukkah, Reese’s egg-shaped cups on Easter, or a Halloween jack-o’-lantern bag filled to bursting with the best Hershey’s has to offer — any artificial dyes or preservatives, or, in the case of one girl I knew at my basic Job Corps center in Kentucky, anything that wasn’t steamed chicken, buttered noodles, and steamed vegetables (I’m not kidding. Her food allergies were so bad that that was all she could eat), then my mother could do it for me. But that’s the past.

So why am I reporting on this? Two reasons: one, I find it a bit melodramatic that they’re treating this like it’s going to be an impending famine. This has NOTHING on Ireland’s potato famine between 1845 and 1852. That famine meant tremendous human suffering (the actual death toll isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say that around a million bit the big one due to disease and not, as you would believe, starvation), forever shaped  the cultural and political landscape of Ireland and the United Kingdom, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish (Gaelic) to English as the language of the majority since the potato famine affected poor Irish districts and led to the formation of the Gaelic League which works to promote Ireland’s mother tongue, added fuel to the fire of tension between the Irish and the British, and drove many Irish people to emigrate to other countries (most of them did end up in the United States. And if you think Mexicans are treated unfairly because of their emigrating to the United States, look up how the Irish were treated. And, yes, it does explain why, in old cartoons, police officers had red hair and/or Irish accents), and two: it gives me an opportunity to dispense options for those who just can’t live without their processed cheese.

I’ll never understand how eat something that’s made of milk, water, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate; contains less than 2% of: salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), and cheese culture (which, to me, is more of a relic from my junior year chemistry class rather than food), but “Take Back the Kitchen” isn’t about judging you on the foods you eat; it’s about offering healthier options.

“Healthier options for Velveeta?” you scoff, “That’s just a myth, like The Tooth Fairy or a balanced budget.”

“Well,” I retort, “it’s true. You can make Velveeta by hand and it will taste better and be slightly better for you, as my idol,  American Test Kitchen, will show you with this recipe.”

Homemade Velveeta

1 tablespoon water
1½ teaspoons powdered gelatin
12 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
12 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
12 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon whole milk powder (now, this ingredient is going to be a pain in the butt to find in typical grocery stores. Try a gourmet kitchen store that specializes in rare and bizarre ingredients, or look online)
1 teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

1. Line 5-by 4-inch disposable aluminum loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over sides.

2. Place water in small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over top, and let mixture sit for 5 minutes. Pulse cheese, milk powder, salt, and cream of tartar in food processor until combined, about 3 pulses.

3. Meanwhile, bring milk to boil in small saucepan. Off heat, stir in softened gelatin until dissolved, and transfer mixture to 1-cup liquid measuring cup. With processor running, slowly add hot milk mixture to cheese mixture until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Immediately transfer cheese mixture to prepared pan, pressing to compact. Wrap tightly and chill at least 3 hours, or overnight.

If you want something more homemade, you can just cut cubes of Colby, Cheddar, and Swiss (now, why these three? Because that’s what the ingredients allegedly are of the actual product, according to a 1980s commercial jingle. I’m too young to remember that, since I was born in 1985 and came of age in the 1990s and the 2000s), add some Gruyère, some flour (or cornstarch if you’re going gluten-free), garlic clove, white wine, cherry brandy (called “kirsch” in Swiss German) [or omit both if you don’t want alcohol], lemon juice, nutmeg, and dry mustard in a fondue pot (or, more realistically, a four quart pot that could pass for a fondue pot if it’s fancy enough), cook until melted and creamy (being super careful not to let it boil. Boiling it will cause a mess and burn it), serve with French bread, raw vegetables, ham cubes, and some fruits that taste great with cheese (the mild, autumn fruits, like apples and pears. Apple slices with melted cheddar and ham makes a great sandwich, especially if the apple is anything but a Red Delicious, as Red Deliciouses are better off being eaten raw out of hand, turned into apple juice, used in reenactments of the Adam and Eve story [even though the Bible doesn’t specifically mention that an apple is “the forbidden fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge], or given to teachers in a transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself to them. When cooked, they taste too mushy), et voilà! You have a classy take on melted queso. A little heavy cream and roux turns it into a cheese sauce that can be served over steamed broccoli or loaded nachos or baked potatoes (which can also be served loaded).

It’s always a concern when your favorite food is in short supply or is about to be discontinued or affected in some way, but in an age where you can find alternate ways and substitutes for it, these doom and gloom stories about it shouldn’t impact this many people (unless it’s especially dire, like with water and certain fruits and vegetables).

Thank you, and happy eating!

Copycat Recipes: Cuckoo For Cocoa Bombs

This is episode one in a new “Take Back the Kitchen” segment centered on making your favorite restaurant meals and pantry/refrigerator staples from scratch.

Welcome back, readers! It’s January 3, 2014, and, where I live, it’s an ass-biting 14ºF and is going to hit 5º by nightfall (and feel like 14 below). It’s times like this I wish I were back in San Francisco, where their winter weather is no different than what it’s like in early spring (mild and a little rainy).

But, this blog isn’t about the weather or where I’d rather be. It’s about food…and, in this case, drink.

In weather like this, hot drinks are the way to go, be it tea, coffee, cider, toddies, or cocoa. Nestlé, Swiss Miss, Ghiradelli Premium, Trader Joe’s, some Save-a-Lot no-brand — whatever your taste (and your budget), there’s nothing like a hot mug of hot cocoa (especially with marshmallows, but I’m not a marshmallow person, unless it’s roasted over a fire and sandwiched between a chocolate bar and some graham crackers or melted down and used to make Rice Krispie treats). But what if I told you that you can actually make hot cocoa mix and save yourself the time and money? Initially, you’d give me an incredulous look or dismiss me as being crazy, and, prior to that, I’d agree with you, but, yes, it is just as possible to make hot cocoa mix just as it is to make herbed crackers, egg foo young, or Fruit Roll-Ups (which I will touch on in later installments of “Copycat Recipes”). And this take on hot cocoa mix won’t leave a gritty, powdery aftertaste, which is one of the things I don’t like about hot cocoa.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it’s not a powdered mix, more like melting chocolate, then chilling it and turning it into pseudo-truffles or an edible fizzing bath bomb. That’s to reduce the mess you get with powders and to put you in control of how you want it flavored. What if you want some mint hot cocoa, or nutmeg, or cinnamon or Mexican-style (with dried, ground chiles)? Yes, you can flavor the powder with spices or add a flavored syrup, but it won’t mix well. Here, you get a better blend of chocolate plus whatever you’re flavoring it with (and, yes, you can use your favorite dessert liqueur, like Remy Martin, Kahlùa, Bailey’s Irish Cream or crème de mènthe if you want to make your hot cocoa adults only).

Instant Cocoa Bombs
(adapted from American Test Kitchen’s recipe)

Ingredients

12 oz (1 bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
Optional flavorings (mint extract, vanilla extract, crushed peppermint candy, smoked sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin spice, dried ground chiles, your dessert liqueur of choice, ground coffee, etc)

1) Combine the chips, heavy cream, whatever flavoring you’re using (if any), and salt in a microwaveable glass bowl (I swear by Pyrex).
2) Microwave for 2 minutes (your microwave time may vary). If you don’t have a microwave, then melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or place the bowl with the mixture in it over a boiling pot of water (or the flame on your gas oven if you’re feeling ambitious). Either way, you’ll want to stir your melting mixture until it’s smooth. If you’re flavoring it, taste it to see if the flavored chocolate is where you want it to be.
3) Wrap the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (or use a shower cap and some rubber bands) and refrigerate for two hours or until firm.
4) After the mixture has hardened, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and unwrap.
5) With a tablespoon or a small disher scoop (Disher scoop is what laymen call “an ice cream scoop”. In restaurant supply stores, their sizes range from #6 to #100. A #6 or #8 [which is small and used for cookies] is ideal for this recipe), scoop the mixture into balls.
6) If you’re not going to use the cocoa bombs right away, wrap them in plastic and put them in a resealable freezer bag (or just put them in a freezer bag if you don’t have plastic wrap). They’ll keep anywhere from five days (refrigerator) or two months (freezer)
7) To use the cocoa bombs (either right away or later), place a cocoa bomb in a microwaveable mug (material doesn’t matter. It just has to be able to handle microwave temperatures), add milk (doesn’t matter if it’s cow, goat, soy, or lactose-free), and place in the microwave for 2 minutes (again, your microwave cooking time may vary). Stir until the cocoa bomb melts into the milk. Enjoy either with marshmallows, by itself, with whipped cream, or with a warm pastry, cookie, or brownie of some kind.

*You don’t have to use semi-sweet chcolate. Experiment with milk chocolate chips and white chocolate chips, or use Nutella (or any type of chocolate-hazelnut spread, whether store-bought or homemade)

As an added bonus, I’d like to include this video of how to make homemade marshmallows, along with the video illustrating how to make the cocoa bombs. The marshmallows take a bit more time to make, so you are better off getting store-bought, but, if you hate store-bought or have the time and energy to make homemade, then give this a try:

Instant Cocoa Bombs Video:

Homemade Marshmallows Video:

Happy New Year and happy eating!

Making Bacon: Not Just Sexual Innuendo Anymore!

Hello readers. Only three more days until I go back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

In the meantime, enjoy this video from America’s Test Kitchen (probably the only cooking show out there that isn’t inane or considered “food porn”). I don’t know if this show comes on where I live, but, this is the 21st century, and there’s practically no TV show out there that isn’t available online in some capacity (except for maybe these late 1990s horror comedy cartoons I liked: one was called “Toonsylvania,” which Steven Spielberg made when he first started DreamWorks Studios and the other was called “Monster Farm” about a boy named Jack who inherits a farm filled with monster animals. The latter show came on ABC Family Channel back when it was called FOX Family. The former show aired on FOX back when that channel and other free-TV channels, except for NBC and PBS, aired Saturday morning cartoons).

Enjoy, have a happy and healthy new year, and I’ll see you with new material.