This week, my post will be a little different; it features a few quick illustrations by me, as I meditate on that king of cupboard food culture, the Pop-Tart, and briefly discuss my attempts at a home-made version.
As of this writing, there are 37 flavors of Pop-Tarts as listed on the corporate website, ranging from the classic fruit flavors of strawberry and blueberry to the “limited edition” items like Frosted Pumpkin Pie (for the basic bitch in all of us.) This doesn’t even include flavors that I know I have seen on grocery store shelves, the cross-over line with Dunkin’ Donuts featuring Vanilla Latte, or the Watermellon Jolly-Ranchers flavor which sounds . . . A bit less appetizing.
How best to explain the Pop-Tart? Wikipedia says simply that Pop-Tarts are “a brand of rectangular, pre-baked, convenience food toaster pastries,” and I find it hard to get across the concept clearer than that. Most flavors are iced, filled with a sweet paste, and ubiquitous in American cupboards for the many families wishing for something quick and easy that, like cereal, is for some reason socially acceptable to feed a child for breakfast despite high sugar content and a paucity of nutrients.
They are the bastard children birthed of the commercial food industry’s take on what a sane person would consider a pastry, the germination of an idea that never should have been. Take something like a short-crust pastry; remove any ingredients (like butter) that would add cost to the production process; sub in high-fructose corn syrup and a mish-mash of dextrose and the like; squish it flat and dehydrate it; drip some damn icing on there; wrap it in foil. You have the Pop-Tart.
I’m sure I sound disenchanted in my description.
I love Pop-Tarts. Notice I say “I love Pop-Tarts,” not that I necessarily condone their establishment as a staple food, and not that I eat them regularly. But if you grew up in America after their release in the 1960s, how can you look at these spunky little colored rectangles, decked out with sprinkles and drizzles evocative of a Simpsons’ cartoon donut, and not feel some sense of childlike excitement?
The satisfying brittleness when you bite in and your teeth crack the layer of icing, pushing your tongue between the layers of crumbly crust to that bright sugared stripe of filling. I feel that, like most Americans, I have developed an almost Pavlovian response to the crinkle of the thin foil wrapper, the national signal for “here are cheap, easy calories, made delicious by generous sugar and additives.”
As a child in a household operating on one income, we were not privileged with many brand-names for our snack foods, barring a good coupon or deal. I remember the dreaded days when, instead of the Lunchable that was an occasional treat, mom would come home with an off-brand featuring styrofoam rounds of cracker and cheese almost like rubber coated in oil.
Great Value’s version of Pop-Tarts weren’t terrible, at least, but thankfully Pop-Tarts were one of the few name-brands I can remember semi-regular access to. I think the love I have even now is testament to those childhood memories. It’s funny how we develop specific methods of consumption as kids, and even now I follow the formula, breaking off the pale crusts that surrounded the icing to be consumed first, saving the filled middle, “the good stuff” for last. As a child I would feed about half of the crusts to my faithful mutt Simon, who went cross-eyed with enthusiasm any time he heard the cupboard open. In college, the crusts instead went to my ferret Luna, who strangely loved them despite a general disinterest in other human foods (pro-tip; ferrets should NOT have added sugars. I have ceased giving my tube-snake any such non-ferret specific treats.)
I distinctly remember requesting some of the flavors that were a bit more honest about their dessert qualities, the Strawberry Milkshake or the Oreo, and being told no because they were sweets and not “an appropriate breakfast.” This was before my mom realized that no Pop-Tart makes for “an appropriate breakfast.” She would eventually relent in my teen years, offering access to sweet treats I’d sneak downstairs to grab by the sleeve-full at midnight, fuel for video games and online chats with friends.
But even once I had the Pop-Tart world at my fingertips, there was one flavor that then, as now, stands as king; Wildberry. With bright red filling, purple icing lashed with bright blue, it was my absolute favorite. There was much contention in my household because my older brother was himself a Strawberry man (one of his largest shortcomings as a person,) and given our modest budget, mom would only buy one flavor at a time.
The weeks she came home with Strawberry, I was convinced she hated me, that my brother was her unquestionable favorite. The logical fact that Wal-Mart was often out of Wildberry, or that it was his turn to pick, didn’t matter much to my mind. We at least could both commiserate when she came home with the off-brand Great Value blueberry.
I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before that my boyfriend still, at 27, shops the way our six-year old selves dreamed of; fruit roll-ups, PB&Js for lunch, Oreos and Chips Ahoy cookies stashed in the cupboard. And of course the logical progression is that his breakfasts are often Pop-Tarts.
One of the ways I know I will one day marry this man is that he understands Wildberry to be superior. It is consistently the flavor in his cart. I very rarely eat them now, but somehow I feel a smugness when I see him purchase them for himself; That’s right, I think, this guy knows what’s up.
Now, I love cooking and baking. Assuredly, at an amateur level, but all the same. And recently I stumbled upon a recipe on Reddit for… You guessed it. Homemade Pop-Tarts. A food generated from degrading pastries, has itself now been reverted back to home baking. This was a chance for me to make a special weekend breakfast for my boyfriend and I, to indulge the inner child while maintaining the illusion of adulthood.
My success was . . . Middling.
Saturday morning I managed to sleep in, or my version of it now that I am old and boring, getting up at 8am ready to bake some dang pucks o’ pastry. Here’s a link to the original Reddit post, if you yourself are interested in trying your hand at an approximation of childhood joy.
As mentioned, Wildberry is the superior flavor, so I DID modify the recipe a tad; rather than strawberries, I decided to use the medley of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries that I already had in my freezer. I’ve used frozen berries for jam before, so I thought there’d be no problem.
Okay, so here was the problem… I got too engrossed in multi-tasking the making of the dough with the boiling down of the jam. I did not continually check the simmering jam for doneness as I should have. Instead, I let it cook down to what seemed appropriately thick and, mistake number two because I was in a rush with my dough, I popped the pot of cooling jam directly into the fridge to chill rather than dumping it into a fresh bowl.
The result? I take out my pot of jam… And it is not merely congealed in the bottom, but hard as a rock. Hard as Chris Pratt’s abs in Guardians of the Galaxy. So hard that I ended up having to soak that pot for over a day to even get the “jam” to budge (and shout-out to Tim for managing to later scrub it out.)
We were nearing the time we’d need to leave to help some friends move, and I still hadn’t baked my little poptarts, because I had no filling. Filling is essential to Pop-Tarts. What kind of travesty would it be to serve them without?
So, I hurriedly tried a second batch of jam – this time, I used ½ cup fresh blueberries and ½ cup fresh blackberries. This jam would have formed up nicely, I think, but again, time constraints. Needing to get these in the oven by 10:30am, I had to stop the jam before it had cooked down enough, meaning it was still too runny.
I hurriedly assembled, using the round crusts I had cut from my dough with one of our table glasses, dropping a dollop of the runny jam inside and hurriedly pressing the edges of two rounds together with a fork to form a sealed pocket.
Again, due to timing, I had to skip making what would have been a very simple icing. Now, Pop-Tarts do have a few versions with no icing, probably as an extra way to lie to yourself about their health value, but we all know those are the worst varieties.
What are the seven steps of grief, again? Do they culminate with the acceptance of your ill-formed, sub-par Pop-Tarts?
Still, I served the piping hot little circles to Tim at our table, the leftover runny jam on the side. And it wasn’t, truly, a complete disaster.
The circles were irregular, pressed together in a hurry, a bare pale gold. The ratio of crust to filling was certainly off, since the runny jam had run out a bit during baking. I scalded the roof of my mouth on the first bite, and for the next few days when touched by tongue was cursed with that strange texture of burnt skin, like peeling paint on a sunlit porch.
But, the flavor of the jam was good, if much too thin. The crust had the pleasing crumble of a shortbread, rich with butter. I had made something new, and Tim made his usual “mms” of enjoyment as he bit in, chewing contentedly.
In the end, that’s what matters to me when I cook. The warm glow of knowing you put in some effort to make someone else happy – to see their face light up on the first bite.
I’m certainly disappointed they didn’t turn out as I wanted, but there’s always next time to perfect. Maybe I should even dye the icing the garish but fun coloring of a true Wildberry Pop-Tart. I certainly should actually time and test my jam.
But this is what you get for spending an inordinate amount of time making an item that was invented for convenience. This is the definition of the human condition; to needlessly complicate a process, to work backwards from our innovations and progress in search of something that feels more connected and personal to us, that feels like home.