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September, 2010:

Special Dork Tower Recipe Entry: Igor Bars

Igor Bars

BarsCutOutDork Tower is a wonderful comic strip by John Kovalic. Its characters make their way through the world with the help of gaming, geekdom, puns, and one another. One of the central characters is Igor, whose role in the strip is to represent reckless abandon. To Igor, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He’s the kind of gamer who will stay firmly ensconced at the table for the DoughMixedlongest, most complicated, most exhausting RPG at the con. If it’s excessive, it’s right up Igor’s alley.

And nothing is more excessive than Igor Bars.

John is contributing to the book “Geek Dad II” from the Geek Dad blog folks, and because recipes should be tested before they are printed in books, he CookiesBaked3asked for volunteers to test the recipe for Igor Bars. I’ve been curious about them for ages, so decided to go for it, with a degree of trepidation more appropriate to skydiving. That’s a silly comparison, I guess, though if I did go skydiving I’d be more likely to admit it to my doctor at my next checkup.

As John explains in the recipe, CaramelsPanMilkSaltCloseupmaking Igor Bars is a great family activity because kids of different ages can all help, and because there is endless opportunity for improvisation. Little fingers can unwrap the caramels; older children can cook the sauce or melt the chocolate. Everyone can suggest improvisations and additions: more nuts! Reese’s Cups! Milk Duds! There is no wrong variation on an Igor Bar. CaramelSauceMostlyMeltedHow can there be? When something is nutritionally wrong, all the rules fly out the window.

I decided to follow the classic structure for Igor Bars and add just one variation. So I began by lining a baking sheet with parchment and preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough to bake as a slab. John spells out the recipe in the version for the CaramelAndPeanutsbook, but I already know it by heart: cream butter with white and brown sugars, add vanilla, add eggs, add flour that’s been stirred with salt and baking soda, add chocolate chips, bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes. (Slightly underdone is better than overdone here.)

While the cookie layer baked I began the next part: the caramel StirringMarshmallows2sauce. I unwrapped two bags’ worth of Kraft Caramels. This is a tedious task, but soon enough I had a heavy saucepan full of little golden nuggets. I added three tablespoons of milk and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and heated the mixture slowly until it melted into a smooth sauce, stirring constantly. I spread the caramel sauce over the slightly cooled pan of cookies, then MarshmallowSaucesprinkled on a cup and a half of salted, roasted peanuts.

AddingRiceKrispies3Now it was time for the third layer: Rice Krispie treats. I melted three tablespoons of butter in the same heavy saucepan (washed out), then added a 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows. (Sure, now that it doesn’t matter which kind of marshmallow I use, I can find mini marshmallows.) AddingRiceKrispiesToCookiesI stirred until the marshmallows were melted, then added six cups of Rice Krispies; when I’d fully incorporated the cereal into the marshmallowy mess I scooped it out onto the top of the caramel and peanut layer and used wax paper to press and spread it more evenly across the surface.

Now it was time for the variation I’d chosen: I spread a bag of peanut butter M&Ms across the top, pressing them lightly into the Rice Krispie treat layer to keep them from rolling off. They made a cheery and colorful addition.

And finally, the top layer: I melted a bag of semisweet BarsToppedWithKrispieschocolate chips and drizzled the melted chocolate over the top of the bars. I was hoping for a kind of artistic line-drawing effect, but there’s quite a bit of chocolate in a bag of chips, and my final artistic effect was more Pollock than pointillist.

I let the structure cool for a while, then cut it into more-or-less even squares (a messy business); I AddingPeanutButterMMs3just cut to a size that seemed reasonable to me and yielded 28 pieces. I put one each on plates for me and Scott, and we dug in.

Wow. Igor Bars are overwhelming. The juxtaposition of the caramel and the Rice Krispie layer is brilliant, and the contrasts are numerous: sweet and salty, chocolate and cookie, nut and sugar, marshmallow and MeltedChocolate3butter. I felt slightly dizzy after finishing my square. I began to think that John’s recipe estimate of “serves 20” was conservative; 40 might be more like it. Of course, I thought, I might see it differently if I were 13 instead of 43. When I was 13 I could drink Mountain Dew without feeling queasy, which is not true today. So serving count may vary by average age of the party.

ToppedWithChocolateA friend who has been staying with us was out on Saturday night when I made the bars, but she sampled the concoction last night. I didn’t realize that’s what she was doing in the kitchen until I heard a shout of “Oh, my god!” that had me afraid she’d managed to cut off an arm with a kitchen knife. But no, she was just swooning at the excess of Igor Bars.

BarsCutOut2Ken’s reaction in the Dork Tower strip turns out to be remarkably accurate.

I brought most of them in to work today. The dieters took one glance and determined not to come anywhere near them; others were drawn to them a moths to a flame. Nobody’s head exploded during the course of the day, so that’s good.

Verdict: Success, of the “What hath God wrought?” variety.

Real Vegetarian Thai: Spicy Goodness

mussaman curry paste, mussaman curry with seitan, rice noodles with broccoli, cucumber salad, coconut ice cream

MussamanCurryI love Thai food, but I’ve always assumed that it’s difficult to make: so many unusual ingredients, plus the effort of making your own curry paste. I’ve had Real Vegetarian Thai sitting on my shelves for years, and it looks like in that time the only dish we’ve tried is the Pad Thai, which Scott prepared (with the marginal note “double everything”). So with the holiday weekend ArbolChiles2approaching, I decided it was time to throw a dinner party, invite a few people who haven’t been here for the last few blog efforts, and put together some Thai food.

I leafed through the book and decided to make a cucumber salad, a noodle dish, a curry, and dessert. I made a list of ingredients I’d need, and was CorianderCumin2impressed to find that the only thing I hadn’t found locally before was lemongrass, which would be a base for the curry paste. I canvassed the stores in the neighborhood; no lemongrass. A few shopkeepers said “sometimes we have it, but not now.” I finally found some at an organic store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that I was passing on my way to do something else, and my shopping Lemongrass2list was complete.

I began with the coconut ice cream. This is a dairy-free dessert, and very simple: You cook coconut milk with some sugar, then let it cool, then churn the mixture into ice cream. After I’d chilled the mixture I was startled to find that it had separated into thick solid and liquid, but with some effort I was CurryIngredientsable to break up the solid part enough that it would blend well in the ice cream maker. I set that going and proceeded with my next effort, mussaman curry paste.

Curry pastes are the bases for curry sauces in Thai food. The basic ones are green curry, yellow curry, red curry and mussaman; mussaman is basically red curry CurryIngredients2with some additional spices that import a little more of an Indian flavor, the name deriving from the Muslim traders who brought goods from elsewhere in Asia. I began by breaking the tops off about 15 red arbol chiles, shaking out as many of the seeds as I could, and then soaking them in hot water for about 20 minutes. While they soaked, I chopped my lemongrass stalks into small MussamanCurryPaste4pieces and put them into the bowl of the mini-food-processor attachment for my mixer. To this I added chopped shallot, cilantro, ginger and garlic. Now it was time to dry-toast some cumin and coriander seeds, then grind them in a spice grinder with some peppercorns. I zested a lime and added that to the mixture, then added some cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and Cucumbersalt; these are the spices that make the difference between red curry and mussaman curry. I drained the chiles and added them to the bowl, and pureed it all into a thick paste, adding a bit of water as necessary to keep the blades moving and grinding. I offered it to Scott to smell and he didn’t want to give it back.

I put the curry paste into the RedOnion2fridge and prepared the marinade for the cucumber salad: sugar, salt, vinegar and water, boiled together and then allowed to cool. Closer to dinnertime, I peeled and chopped a couple of cucumbers, minced a red onion, and chopped some cilantro, then mixed these together and added the vinegar mixture. The bowl went into the fridge, and I chopped some peanuts and pulled some cilantro CucumberSaladleaves to garnish them with just before serving.

For the curry I was going to need seitan balls. The cookbook gives a recipe for old-school seitan, mixing a flour paste and then rinsing away the non-gluten part. I don’t have the patience. I mixed some vital wheat gluten flour with some nutritional yeast flakes, garlic powder, soy sauce and Seitan2water, following a recipe I use for my Thanksgiving vegetarian feast; I kneaded the spongy mixture briefly, then shaped it into chunks, and browned them in olive oil. I set them aside.

Closer to mealtime I began the other dishes, starting with the mussaman curry. I did my vegetable prep: two diced sweet potatoes, two diced white RiceNoodlespotatoes, and some chopped onions and garlic. I heated 2/3 cup of coconut milk in my big Calphalon pot; when it was warm I stirred in two tablespoons of the curry paste and cooked it together for a few minutes, then added more coconut milk to total two cans, some vegetable broth, the vegetables and seitan, and some spices including cilantro and cardamom pods. I brought the CucumberSaladPlatedmixture to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Then I stirred in some peanuts and let the mixture sit keeping warm. Technically I was supposed to let it sit 5 minutes, but I forgot to start the rice cooker until it was nearly dinnertime, so I let the curry mixture sit a little longer while the rice finished cooking. We served the curry with rice, and warned guests to be careful RiceNoodlesWithBroccoli2about the difference between cardamom pods and peanuts when chewing.

The last dish was the noodle dish, which was pretty simple. I soaked some dried rice noodles in hot water to reconstitute them; while they soaked I sauteed garlic, mushrooms and broccoli, then set those aside and added fresh oil to the pan. I drained the rice noodles and sauteed them. At this point I was supposed to add beaten eggs and cook them, but one of our guests was a vegan and I decided to just skip the eggs. Once the noodles were sauteed I returned the vegetables to the pan and added a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, and vegetable broth, and tossed it all together.

I brought out the cucumber salads first, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, then the noodle dish. The rice was ready about 10 minutes after that, so we brought out the curry and dug in. Everyone loved the food; the noodle dish was especially delightful, and we were all tempted to fill up on it without leaving enough room for curry. But the curry was tremendous. It wasn’t overly spicy, though I think if I made more for just me and Scott I’d add a little more curry paste to the sauce mixture. We ate so eagerly that we were a little worried about having room for dessert, but the coconut ice cream was light and refreshing, a perfect end to the meal.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be using the mussaman curry paste again, and making other dishes from this as well.

Sorry for the delay; new post later this week

I’m a bit behind with things; I made great Thai food last week but haven’t had the chance to write it up yet. We’ve had a chaotic time here behind the scenes and I will not be back in the cooking and writing groove for a few days more. Sorry for the lapse.