SWEETIES!! With a raging sweet tooth, coming second only to my devotion to all things deep-fried, the sugary treats on offer in the States left me satiated through means ranging far beyond the odd chocolate bar. Sadly there was a surprising lack of overlap between my two loves, with no blossoming trend in fried chocolate bars; but I forgive you America, we can’t all be Scotland. What I did find is the same determination to do something exceptionally well and create something shamelessly scrumptious that was found in other aspects of their cuisine. This final instalment will provide a last longing look at the tooth-dissolving wonders to be found on the sweeter side of American food culture.
Let’s start with the fundamentals: chocolate. Well, I say chocolate, what I mean by that is Reese’s Peanut Buttercups because they are my all. These salty, nutty, creamy little cups of chocolaty wonder are cheap and they’re everywhere. Coming in a myriad of forms far surpassing the original pack of two available in the UK (hard sought for and almost four times the price), but coming in several pack variations using the original size, and branching out into king size (extra deep cups), snack bars, seasonally shaped limited editions (Halloween ‘pumpkins’ are definitely the best – they look like little chocolate butts), white and dark chocolate coverings, and individually wrapped mini cups. The most dangerous of these are by far the unwrapped version of the mini cups, as their nudity makes it possible to literally shovel fistfuls into your mouth even whilst doing other (let’s say ‘active’) things. This said the full-size versions have a much more pleasing filling-to-chocolate ratio so your petitioning energies should really go into campaigning for an unwrapped version of those. There is even a Reese’s peanut chocolate spread which is the clotted cream to Nutella’s semi-skimmed milk. Ok, so there are definitely other brands of chocolate available, but aside from the notable absence of Cadbury (your loss, guys) the brands were remarkably familiar. Although, the use of corn syrup – or similar – to sweeten many brands (which, being a direct result of America’s extensive corn production, is something not really seen in Europe) does affect the flavour, making the US version much sweeter than when that brand is manufactured elsewhere. As such, even for my sweet tooth, British versions taste superior; except, of course, Reese’s Peanut Cups. I wouldn’t have those any other way.
Did I mention that you can even get an ice-cream peanut butter cup? Because you can; and this is but one way in which you can find peanut butter cups combined with frozen cream with Ben and Jerry’s alone including them in three of their standard US flavours. This is an important point, as their home and native land Ben and Jerry’s keeps the US well stocked with flavours, many of which have never even peeked over to Europe. There are even currently limited editions based on Saturday Night Live Sketches which are worth exploring (as though it wouldn’t be worth it). Even visiting the East coast during one of the coldest and most prolonged periods of winter weather (the coldest month on record in some of the areas visited) did nothing to stop me wrapping up and cooling down with some serious ice cream time. Another off shoot of the extensive Italian presence on the culinary landscape is wide availability of quality gelato with many committed ice cream parlours and scoop shops. As one would hope, there is a plethora of flavours to explore, and it is even possible to see your flavourings of choice mixed into a base ice cream right before your eyes before having it served fresh. This may seem gimmicky, but if you like fillings with texture then this method keeps many ingredients from going soggy before you get to chow down on them (hullo, super crunchy butter popcorn pieces).
Admittedly, one can’t always be in the mood for ice cream and that’s where the nation’s intense and overwhelming love affair with the doughnut comes into its own. They are near impossible to escape (as though you’d want to), with the market dominated by Dunkin’ Donuts in the North East. Surprising, seeing as I actually found Dunkin’ Donuts somewhat lacklustre, and not helped by their apparently chronic inability or reluctance to spell doughnut correctly (though to be fair this appears to be a cultural issue). Despite many options, they all seem just a little dense and bready unlike the soft and chewy style found in Krispy Kreme – which is worth hunting down, as they’ve cunningly placed their New York branch (yes, they’ve only one) in Penn station, conveniently central if somewhat grim. This fair city is also home to the innovative and resplendently flaky cronut: the much coveted lovechild of doughnuts and croissants. Undeniably lighter than their purebred doughy counterparts, such texture is nonetheless cunningly achieved by a significantly higher butter content. Such exotics, despite walking into immediate cult classic status, are still far from widespread with a much greater variation in quality than the standard doughnut, so be sure to feast discerningly. Yet, if you won’t settle for a standard doughnut, the finest advice I can give you is that the Amish area truly delicious people. No, really. The finest baked (and fried) goods I came across were invariably from Amish bakeries with the softest, moistest, most exquisite of doughnuts ever tasted to be found in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. The queues for that store invariably wound around several other food stands, but the quality and extensive variety of fillings and flavours making the wait worth it every single time.
If you think a plateful of doughnuts is not a valid breakfast choice (it is) then America has still got your sugar addiction covered. Waffles and pancakes are a breakfast staple, cheap and plentiful as well as fluffy and filling, paired with butter and maple syrup (the butter is important) a plateful will easily keep you fuelled for a snow-swept five minute walk to the nearest means to doughnuts. Without exception, everywhere I stayed during the six weeks of my visit offered pancakes for breakfast, every last one, which says a lot for their place within the culture. Also, should you feel you’re not having enough, then pancakes are also an excellent means of getting extra Reese’s mini peanut cups into your life (and face), they melt into the batter beautifully. Such delicacies are not even the foremost virtue of diners, with the fluffiest of all delights being squishy chunks of French toast made from challah bread. Exquisite on its own, even better when taken to the next level and filled with sweet, creamy lemon ricotta. Essentially, you should start every day in a diner as an experience both quintessentially American and quintessentially delicious, with the endlessly appealing top notes of maple syrup.
It is surely only fitting that our little journey should end with a look at the American idea of British cuisine, as found in the delightfully twee and overthought presence of English style tea shops. I found two, though not exactly looking for them so there are undoubtedly more, both heavily stylised with themes along the lines of Alice in Wonderland, Monarchy, and blooming gardens. Despite the, frankly unforgivable, lack of clotted cream (no, whipped heavy cream is not a valid substitute), the delight and playfulness that clearly goes into their creation makes a truly soothing experience. That one also had the option of dressing up with an accessories corner (we absolutely dressed up) reaffirms a sense of theatre, unreality, and even caricature that only adds to the sense of ceremony created around the serving of tea and scones. Gratuitous and wholly inaccurate, its very shamelessness makes this an experience I can only recommend. That is, of course, if you can put up with their appalling attempts at tea (sorry, not sorry).
I fear we have come to the end of such culinary reminiscences, and although there is no doubt much that I have missed out of what makes American cuisine so heart-stoppingly delicious I hope that these articles have nonetheless succeeded in opening you to a little of the wonder and temptation it has to offer. As such, it is worth casting aside preconceptions and taking what you find on its own terms as, despite traditionally lacking some of the refinement found in other countries, there is nonetheless a commitment to flavour and indulgence that deserves appreciation.