When life hands you snow, make dessert!
Desserts that fall from the sky
By Eliza Barclay
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; E03
Riding the MARC train to Baltimore a day before last week’s blizzard, I overheard two older women reminiscing about snow cream. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but a murky memory surfaced of crumbly, sweetened snow accompanied by supreme excitement. It is a child’s winter novelty, the stuff of snow days, reloading after a snowball fight and impatiently watching flakes accumulate in a bowl my mother had set outside.
Making snow cream couldn’t be simpler: Mix together freshly fallen snow; milk, cream, or condensed milk; sugar; and vanilla. (Some recipes call for the addition of whole raw eggs, making the snow cream custardy.) This homemade cousin of slushies, shaved ice and sorbet might not dazzle the palate, but it is a low-budget, traditional treat of the Mid-Atlantic.
Snow cream probably is cherished in this region because snowstorms here are rare and thrilling events (though Snowmaggedon might have forever changed that). North Carolinians, in particular, seem to have a rich tradition of making snow cream: A recent request for recipes from a Raleigh news station prompted 23 responses. The recipes were largely similar, with the occasional variation, such as the addition of vanilla pudding.
Chloe Tuttle, an innkeeper in Williamston, N.C., a town that’s lucky to get one snowfall a year, considers snow cream a peak pleasure of the winter season.
“As a child we would freeze big buckets of the stuff and eat it all through the year,” Tuttle says. Her mother’s recipe called for whole cream and “soft snow, the stuff you find after you scrape off the crusty top.”
Beyond snow cream, snow has inspired confectioners for centuries.
Jeri Quinzio, author of “Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making,” says the first people who made ice cream used snow to freeze the cream. The Chinese, Iraqis and Persians might have been tinkering with various combinations of snow, ice and sweeteners for millennia. Meanwhile, cream-based desserts called snows were quite fashionable in Europe: In the 15th and 16th centuries, the French and British elites indulged in snow desserts heavy on cream and stabilized with egg whites, Quinzio says. A British recipe for “snow creams” from 1672 calls for a spoonful or two of rosewater to flavor the whipped mound.
In the 17th century, Quinzio notes, members of the Neapolitan aristocracy sent their servants into the Alps laden with large chests to collect snow, which was then soaked in wine and decorated with fruit and fennel.
Back in the New World, Native Americans were sweetening snow with maple sugar, according to a history of candy written by Ruth Freeman Swain. And Canadians say they have long poured hot maple syrup onto snow to create sticky maple toffee.
Over time, various regions of the United States developed their own combinations of sugar and ice, some of it unrelated to snow. In Hawaii’s shave ice and New Orleans’ snoballs, fruit-flavored syrups with a walloping concentration of sugar are the sweetener of choice.
Washington cookbook author and pastry chef David Guas says the snoball earned its place among New Orleans’ culinary traditions during the Great Depression, when the Hansen family developed a machine to thinly and cleanly shave large blocks of ice, a naturally refreshing diversion from the heat. Today a variety of snoball stands in New Orleans compete for customers, each boasting ice as thin as paper, gilded with the freshest, most creative syrup flavors.
Guas, author of “Damgoodsweet,” about New Orleans desserts, says he has ordered a customized ice-shaving machine that he hopes to use at a future bakery in Northern Virginia. In the meantime, he says, he is unlikely to use snow because the texture can’t compete with the lightness of shaved ice. But for home cooks who’d like to experiment with a Washington-New Orleans snoball hybrid made with local snow, Guas recommends an all-natural syrup made from frozen fruit, such as strawberry, raspberry or blueberry.
“I put the fruit in a heatproof bowl, add sugar and cover with Saran wrap,” Guas says. “Then I place it over a double boiler on low heat to draw all the juice, and it mixes with sugar and makes wonderful flavored syrup with an intense berry flavor.”
But back to snow cream, and eavesdropping on the MARC. The two women I heard talking about it had raised a key question: Is the snow today worthy of snow cream? In other words, is it a good idea to make snow cream in an age of air pollution and excessive urban grit?
To answer the question, I conducted a thoroughly unscientific study and then consulted a few experts on snow quality and environmental health. First, I collected four samples of snow in plastic bags from sites near my home in Columbia Heights, melted them and checked for visible particles. Aside from a few tiny whitish blobs, the melted snow looked clean enough (though it did have a slight chemical taste).
David Arnold, acting director of the regional air protection division of the Environmental Protection Agency, says snow could pick up particles, byproducts of the combustion fossil fuels from power plants or vehicles, on its way to Earth.
“Sulfate or nitrate particles might give it a weird taste,” Arnold says. “But they’re usually in low concentrations. We worry about inhaling them but not ingesting them.” The EPA does caution that melted snow should not be substituted for drinking water and that snow should not be consumed in large quantities.
John Groopman, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, frowns on eating snow because of what the snow might pick up on the ground. “You would not drink from a water puddle on the sidewalk, so why would you want to eat snow from the same source?” Groopman asks.
Yet big snowstorms do yield snowdrifts reaching far above the street. And some snow cream devotees contend that the snow gets cleaner the longer it snows. Experts say there could be some truth to that idea.
Russell Dickerson, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, College Park, says the first few inches of falling snow capture most of the pollutants in the air, and anything falling after that should be clean. Moreover, he says, if a snowstorm keeps vehicles off the road, that means lower emissions to pollute the air and snow.
If that’s the case, and we keep getting pounded by blizzards, this may be the best winter in years for snow cream.