Mom’s Hot Cocoa

One of the pleasures of taking a walk after a good snowstorm is the chance to observe the status of snow art and architecture in the neighborhood. The quantity and quality, as I judge it, varies from year to year, but there is clear evidence of creative urges in some children today.

Besides conventional snowmen, there are sometimes snowwomen and even snow families. I once saw a family of snow people complete with scarves, mittens and caps. The biggest one wore a beret, which made me think that it might be the Neige family visiting from France.

Snow monsters with strange faces, ears and protuberances have impressed me too, and I have marveled at how kids managed to sneak enough food coloring out of the house to turn their creations into red, blue or green individuals braving the whiteness of winter. With my first digital camera I took a photo of a snowman with an orange head, green jacket and blue bottom. Somehow the artists (there were lots of tracks around it) had also managed to trace a brownish stripe down the front. It looked something like a zipper.

I have been pleased to note that the construction of snow forts continues to this day, though none I have seen match the elaborate structures we built as kids, some designed after illustrations of medieval castles complete with moats, towers, keeps and dungeons. A couple of years ago, three ambitious youngsters built a good-sized fort with ramparts constructed of snow blocks quarried along the street and two access tunnels. Incidentally, the tunnels served their purpose: Neither I nor any other adult could get inside to attack the defenders. It was an impressive job that undoubtedly kept them out of their mother’s hair for a day or two.

Our mother encouraged us to build forts in the woods behind the house in summer and snow forts across the road where there were hard drifts along the snow fence. In fact, though modern mothers may disapprove, Mom sometimes ordered us to get dressed in snowsuits, boots, caps and mittens and go outside and play, even if it was below zero. Like eskimos we were taught how to live with cold, and we never ended up with any permanent damage.

One exception may be my ears, which are still very sensitive to below zero temperatures. That wasn’t my mother’s fault, however. She knitted me a warm stocking cap each year to fit her growing boy and told me to pull it down over my ears so they wouldn’t freeze when I walked to school. However, she couldn’t make me do that, because all us boys knew that only sissies pulled their caps down over their ears.

The teacher didn’t even tell on us when we froze our ears, since nearly every boy did it. She didn’t have much sympathy for us, either. “It’s your own fault.” she would say. “I’m sure your mothers told you to cover your ears. Just hold your hands on them and they’ll stop hurting after awhile.”

I think she told us not to do it again, too. Not that we followed her advice either, though many of us began pulling our caps down when we didn’t think anyone could see us. If you weren’t carrying books, you could cover your ears with your mittens. That was a pretty good technique because you could pretend to be adjusting your hat when you met someone.

Besides building snow forts we pulled our toboggan to a hill along the Namakagon River where we zipped down the slope and tried to keep from getting too scratched up in the blackberry bushes and thornapple trees at the bottom of the hill. We hiked or skied to a pond on the north forty of our property where we shoveled snow to make a skating rink, and of course we made snow angels, had snowball battles and in general enjoyed a time of year when, as a promoter of Bayfield, Wisconsin once wrote, there is no rain or mud or mosquitoes.

As much fun as those activities were, the best part was what awaited us after we had swept the snow off each other and gone inside. I can still smell and taste the cookies or cinnamon rolls and hot cocoa. In later years my mother began using chocolate milk mixes, but until I was nearly out of high school she bought cocoa powder in large tins for cakes, frostings, cookies and hot cocoa.

She made a syrup and stirred in milk. Then she put the pan on the back of the stove so the cocoa would be ready for us when we came in from the cold. She used real milk, but you can make it with low fat milk if you want. Speaking as an experienced consumer of hot cocoa, however, I assure you that adding a little cream or half and half improves the taste and texture.

INGREDIENTS:

2 T cocoa powder
2 T sugar
Dash of salt
3 T cold water
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

PROCEDURE:

Mix the cocoa, sugar and salt together in a saucepan. Stir in the water and bring the mixture to a boil over moderate heat. Use a fork to blend the solids into the water so you have a smooth liquid.

Whisk the milk into the chocolate with the fork and continue heating. Stir in the vanilla extract and stir the cocoa occasionally until it is steaming. If you want, you can top each cup with marshmallows.

NOTE: This recipe makes two cups of cocoa. Use your trusty calculator or a piece of paper and a pencil to increase the ingredients for the number of servings you need.

Once you try it, I think that you will agree that real cocoa powder, sugar and real vanilla with no ingredients added to extend shelf life or make it easier to stir the powder directly into the milk give this hot cocoa a richer flavor than anything from a mix.

Perfect Popcorn

Uncle George was my father’s older brother. He had a farm near Orchard, Nebraska and came to visit Grandma and Grandpa Rang every couple years when I was growing up. He raised corn, hogs and beef cattle. When we visited Uncle George and Aunt Alice and their family in Nebraska one time, my cousin Vernon took me out to see all the piglets. Vernon was seven and I was nine.

We climbed over the fence into the farrowing pen and watched the piglets nursing on the biggest sow I had ever seen. I am still impressed by that massive sow. Vernon then showed me the bull, the grain bins and his father’s big John Deere tractor, which also impressed me. It was an exciting introduction to another way of life that I shared with everyone when we came back into the house for supper.

Vernon’s mother was not pleased to hear that we had gone into the pen with the sow. I remember her saying that we could have been attacked and killed. But, young as he was, he had been taught to be careful around the sow. We did not go too close and so we lived to eat a good supper and have a ride around the fences on a wagon pulled behind the tractor.

One time Uncle George brought us some popcorn from his garden. For some reason it had never occurred to me that farmers like Uncle George could grow popcorn, and it prompted me to start begging my father to plant popcorn. When he explained that northern Wisconsin was not a good place to grow popcorn, I just kept saying that maybe if we tried we would have all the popcorn we wanted.

We planted two short rows of popcorn the next summer, and I hoed it with special care. I even carried water in buckets on my wagon to irrigate the rows during a bad dry spell in July. A frost in August before the kernels were hard ended my hopes, and we never tried growing popcorn again. Today I understand that some varieties have been developed that mature in a shorter time.

So we kept buying our popcorn at the A & P or Co-op, and my mother popped lots of it, especially in the winter. Watching “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet” or “The Red Skelton Show” was even more fun with popcorn fresh from the pan and I think I saw my first Shakespearean play on “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” while chomping away. Mom first popped it in her large frying pan until she got an electric popper.

Our cook at Blair School, the one-room school I attended for three years, popped gallons of popcorn for us about two weeks before Christmas. She and our teacher showed us how to make ropes of popcorn and cranberries that we used to decorate the school Christmas tree. On the day before Christmas vacation, the janitor would show up early, and we would all help move the tree outside so the birds and rabbits would have a special Christmas treat too.

Once I entered college I graduated to an electric popper that was actually a multifunction food cooker used for everything from frying fish to warming soup. Over the years we have used at least two different electric poppers, a popper designed to be held in the fireplace or over a bonfire, many different frying pans and skillets and even those handy little packets you put in the microwave. The one thing that all these devices have in common is that they always leave a bunch of “old maids,” unpopped kernels, in the bottom of the bowl.

When a neighbor gave us an ice cream pail full of premium popcorn kernels last fall, I decided to search the Web for a popcorn recipe that might solve this problem. In a few minutes I found one on a wonderful food blog called “Simply Recipes.” I followed the instructions and am happy to report that it works. The ice cream pail is nearly empty, and I have had fewer than four old maids in any batch. Here is what you do.

INGREDIENTS:

3 T canola oil or other high smoke point vegetable oil
1/3 cup high quality popcorn kernels
Salt to taste

PROCEDURE:

Heat the oil and four kernels of popcorn over medium high heat in a three or four quart covered saucepan or skillet. When the kernels pop, remove the pan from the heat and add the corn. Cover the pan and swirl the kernels in the hot oil for thirty seconds.

Return the pan to the heat. The kernels will begin popping in a few seconds. Gently shake the pan over the burner. After the corn has been popping a few seconds, you can lift the lid slightly while shaking the pan to release any steam.

When the popping slows to a couple of seconds between pops, take the pan from the heat and dump the popcorn into a large bowl. Salt lightly and serve immediately.

NOTES: Popcorn pops because the moisture in the kernel expands when heated. Like any food product, popcorn dries out gradually. When I popped some from a partial bag of popcorn which had been hiding on a shelf for several years at the cabin, only half of the kernels popped, so buy good quality popcorn and try to use it within a year.

Some folks like to add melted butter to their popcorn, and until theaters started using imitation butter I used to order it when we went to movies. I love butter, but it makes my fingers greasy when I am eating popcorn. Besides, popcorn is one healthful food that I like as is. I do have some cheese-flavored salt that is pretty tasty, however.

Elise Bauer has a good explanation of why this method works so well. You can visit her site at simplyrecipes.com.