Somewhere buried in an old cupboard is a brittle sheet of newspaper with a photo spread of a 6-year-old boy making s'mores on an outdoor grill. The boy has a burr haircut, wears a grubby Cub Scout uniform and has the chubby cheeks of an avid eater. In the photos, the boy is seen dropping graham crackers, Hershey bars and marshmallows in the dirt before placing his concoction on the grill to melt into its ultimate state of gooey delight. It was 1966. "A little dirt won't hurt the taste of such a delicious treat!" read the caption under the photo of me in my hometown paper.
And it didn't. I will never forget the crunch, the goo, the grit — wonderful sensations all. I've found that local chefs, whether by calculation or intuition, have tuned in to the inner Cub Scout (or Brownie) in us all, re-creating the sweets of our youth with a grown-up twist. Politics aside, the news of late has been distressing, and you don't need a psychoanalyst to explain the attraction of gustatory regression.
As Julien Wagner, pastry chef at Opaline in Los Angeles, says, "Most people's early childhood memories relate to dessert. So one thing I do when writing menus is try to reach back to that childhood memory." To wit: Wagner's Venetian-style carrot cake with cream cheese ice cream and Madeira syrup. Ah, carrot cake — as I recall it, an early 1970s creation masquerading as health food but loaded with sugar and fat in the form of cream cheese. Well, it had carrots, so presumably some vitamin C survived. Whether Wagner's version qualifies as spa food doesn't interest me. A treat is a treat. The concept is what counts.
But back to s'mores, which are newly au courant. You find them everywhere, from the Korean barbecue restaurant Gyu-Kaku and Luna Park in Los Angeles (assembly required in both cases) to Cinch in Santa Monica, where the "mmm factor" is what pastry chef Aaron Lindgren, formerly of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, strives for. He hit on the idea of a stylized s'more during a camping trip, where he made them for his kids using the time-honored Girl Scout recipe: Honey Maid graham crackers, Hershey bars and Campfire brand marshmallows. What he does at Cinch is more high concept, to say the least. From the bottom up, it consists of a milk chocolate graham cracker, honey vanilla bean marshmallow (lovingly torched, caramelized and smoked) and milk chocolate cheesecake girded by "flames" of milk chocolate ganache. It covers all the bases from taste to texture, but perhaps most comforting was hearing Lindgren praise the value of dirt in s'mores when making your own over a campfire.
It is odd how the thought of comfort treats brings to mind the event one needed comforting for. For example, on exactly the third day of the first grade, our teacher slapped the daylights out of my desk mate Laurie and me, for reasons that are still a mystery to us. Sister Maria Theresa hissed something about our feet sticking out into the aisle and jeopardizing the life of a classmate; that's as close as we got to an explanation. Well, that just happens in life now, doesn't it? It was Laurie's mom's day to drive the carpool, and she took us to a local soda fountain. Laurie ordered a cherry Coke, which I'd never heard of, but it sounded good to me. Still sniffling, I seconded the motion.
I'd purged that memory until discovering Luna Park's decidedly adult twist on the syrup-enhanced soda fountain drink. The libation is called You're a Pepper Too, and it is just the thing if you've had the daylights slapped out of you for no reason. You get an 8-ounce bottle of the original Dublin Dr Pepper, along with two sidecars, one with Absolut Vanilla and the other with Monin brand organic vanilla syrup. And there's Dr Pepper Jelly Bellies to boot. Not approved for sniffling first-graders, but quite an attitude adjuster nonetheless.
As one who was born during the last gasp of the baby boom, I continue to be amazed at how much dessert we were served for breakfast. That Pop-Tarts, which my family ate in abundance, could be considered a healthy start to the day seems rather hard to believe from this distance. But at the ever-whimsical Fred 62 in Los Feliz, you now can find Punk Tarts, the thinking person's version of the aforementioned '60s breakfast staple. Real pastry dough, real sugar frosting, cinnamon-laced apple filling. Ice cream optional. There's also the traditional Rice Krispie treats. My grandma made those once for me when I was about 5. I didn't like them then and I don't like them now, but this is an individual preference, as attested to by my neighbor Stanley, also 5, who devoured the entire tray as my granny glared at me.
Following the breakfast as dessert theme, Señor Fred in Sherman Oaks (no relation to Fred 62) offers hot chocolate with churros and an assortment of cookies. This is the Latin version of hot chocolate, a deliciously tarry concoction — almost a fondue — meant more for dipping than drinking, served for breakfast in Spain and parts of Central America. And at Grace in Los Angeles, pastry chef Elizabeth Belkind offers jelly doughnuts fried to order, filled with rhubarb jam and served with buttermilk ice cream.
As for cookies, one finds them everywhere, from Citrine in West Hollywood to Blair's in Los Feliz, where instead of dipping them in milk, cookies are dipped in a buttermilk panna cotta, with just the right hint of sourness to make for a grown-up flavor.
The list goes on. At Campanile there's an ensemble called Childhood Favorites, featuring house-made Oreo-type cookies, chocolate pudding and a hot fudge "sundae," not to mention, separately, a rockin' strawberry sundae.
"A lot of people say it has to do with the war and times of fear and that's why we turn to the familiar and the comforting," Belkind says. "But, honestly, I think people just go for what's yummy."
DESSERTS: Tapping the inner cub scout
Kids' sweet treats are remade for adult tastes.
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