Saturday, March 29, 2008

care and feeding of the starving college student

"Did you figure out where you wanted to go for dinner?"
"Dinner? You said lunch!"
"I said dinner."
"I can't do dinner! I'm busy!"
"How about afternoon tea?"
"Okay. But I'm choosing the place this time."

Lucille, as you may remember, is my younger sister. I'm in New York again for another visit, and she is being whiny again.

The care and feeding of the starving college student is usually a parental duty, a requisite part of college visits. It consists of two parts: one, having a meal someplace other than the college dining hall, and two, stocking the cube fridge with something other than caffeinated beverages. Sometimes, though, the duty cannot be carried out by the parents, and it falls to a substitute. In Lucille's case, that would be me. And this time, Lucille is determined that I will not use this duty as an excuse to carry out any of my personal culinary goals.

Lucille has decided that I'm going to fulfill part one of my duty by taking her to afternoon tea at a place called Alice's Teacup. The place is - surprise, surprise - decorated with Alice in Wonderland motifs. I'm a little alarmed by the profusion of glittery butterfly wings dangling from the ceiling, but the stencilled slogan "Off with your cellphone, or off with your head!" does make me smile. I'm almost sorry when we check with the hostess, and learn that there's an hour-long wait for a table. Too long for Lucille. We'll have to find someplace else.

"Almost sorry" becomes "very sorry" when we embark on a hunt for a replacement. We pass blocks and blocks of cafes and bars that don't appeal to Lucille. I am on the verge of proposing that we just go to the nearest Starbucks when a place with lace curtains in the windows catches Lucille's eye. The sign reads "Magnolia Bakery."

Something about the name sets off a distant bell in my head. It's famous for some sort of baked good.

We walk inside. There's a long queue, and everyone is buying... cupcakes?

Oh. That was it. The Magnolia Bakery is famous for its cupcakes.

This is unfortunate. You see, I don't like cupcakes. They're somewhere near the very bottom of my scale of desserts, right next to pumpkin pie and Rice Krispie treats. I'm fairly indifferent to classic white or yellow cake, and the appeal of sugar frosting completely escapes me. I wonder if I can persuade Lucille that we could find someplace better.

But Lucille is nodding enthusiastically, and it occurs to me that if she takes a box of cupcakes to go, I can kill two birds with one stone. We join the queue, Lucille picks up a box, and we embark on the task of selecting its contents.

(Photo is not mine. It's by luisvilla, and I picked it up from flickr.)

Well, they certainly look pretty. All those dainty little cakes, graced with swirls of frosting in pastel colors, and decorated with sugar flowers or festive sprinkles. Sadly, they don't provoke any reaction from my appetite. They register as "edible," but not "possibly tasty."

Lucille has no such issues. She makes her choices without hesitation, gesturing for my help only when she has difficulty wedging one last cupcake into the box. After the cupcake has been secured, I lick a smudge of frosting from my finger. Bleah. Pure, unmitigated sweetness. No, I don't want a cupcake, no matter how famous this place is.

They have coffee. Maybe I can get just coffee?

I'll see what other desserts they have. Brownies. Cookies. Banana pudding. Peppermint icebox cake. Hmm. Icebox cake is just whipped cream and chocolate wafers. They can't do anything too terrible with whipped cream and chocolate wafers, can they?

The lady at the counter cuts me a slice, and packs it neatly into a white box. Lucille selects a chocolate swirl cheesecake. We order coffee and hot chocolate, pay for everything, and then move into the little side room to sit down.

Once we've seated ourselves, I open the box. For such a simple dessert, it's really quite visually striking. Unlike the cupcakes, the sight of all those wafers sandwiched together with snowy white cream definitely pings my "potentially tasty" meter. I sink my fork into the multilayered cream-and-wafer concoction, and take the first bite.

Oh. This is good. This is very, very good. The cream is moderately sweet and fragrant with peppermint. The softened wafers are pleasantly bitter, almost cakelike, and the unexpected presence of tiny bits of shredded coconut adds textural interest. It also goes very well with coffee. I immediately start dreaming up ways to play with the recipe myself.

I try some of Lucille's chocolate swirl cheesecake, just for the sake of culinary curiosity. It has a dense, fudgelike texture... and a dense, fudgelike flavor. If there's any cheese in it, I can't taste it. It doesn't hold a candle to the icebox cake.

Still, Lucille is happy. I've done my duty, and I have a new dessert to tinker with. Maybe next time, I'll even let her drag me to Alice's Teacup without a fight.


N. & J. said...

I don't remember seeing that recipe in their cookbook but the Magnolia Bakery has two books out now and everything I've tried from there is great.

Jen Dockter said...

I love chocolate wafer icebox cake. I made one for a friend's birthday once, and everyone (while I was making it) balked at the idea of such a ridiculous thing being tasty, but it was gone within an hour of it being ready to go when all was said and done :)

adele said...

n. & j. - I found the photo via Google search, which took me to the Oprah website. They had the recipe.

Jen - I think it's a perfect example of the fine line between genius and insanity. :)

Ann said...

Chocolate wafer icebox cake has been around for decades-- always loved it!

Hey, next time you're in NYC, sister or no sister, you MUST come to hipsterville and let us buy you a drink and a nosh.

adele said...

I've never been to Williamsburg. I guess I now have no excuse not to. :P

Julie said...

Yes! Icebox cake is wonderful! And so simple.