January 31, 2014
This Chinese New Year piece – adapted and changed significantly so it stands on its own – was originally a chapter in my book, “Sharp Knives, Boiling Oil: My Year Of Dangerous Cooking With Four-Year-Olds.” I meant to place this piece somewhere, but time got away from me. So you can read it here. And excuse the plug, but you can still buy the book for your Kindle for just $1.99. And if you do, thank you for that. Know that I’ll be doing the happy dance. xo
I didn’t want to make Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls.
I wanted to make something easier – ginger ice cream, maybe, or almond cookies. But there’s no chocolate in an almond cookie, and the idea of a no-chocolate dessert made the four-year-olds stare at me with blank, listless, annoyed faces.
I had just cooked an entire month of Chinese food with 25 kids in my daughter, Lucy’s, Pre-K class at a New York City public school called Central Park East II. We had been cooking together for almost six months, making celery root latkes, pumpkin pancakes, homemade ricotta cheese, which we served on toast, dribbled with honey, and scratch-made fettucine with sauce. It was wonderful and hard and messy, but it was nothing like our month of Chinese food.
The Chinese food had kicked my ass.
In week one, we risked life and limb frying up homemade pork egg-rolls in a wok full of boiling oil on a circa 1975 electric hot plate. In week two, we made three kinds of pan-fried dumplings from scratch – hand-made dough and all – pork and chive, shrimp, and tofu. Then we fried them into lumps that looked, remarkably, like goat testicles. In week three, we made vegetable fried rice, which required children – with the motor skills of a chipmunk – to hack up completely weird-looking vegetables with serrated steak knives.
It was touch and go for awhile, but we didn’t lose any fingers during stir fry week.
And now, instead of making something easy, something that would help us cruise to the end, easy-peasy, no problem, not one child maimed in the line of action, the kids demanded chocolate and I found myself about to summit kid-culinary Everest.
We were going to make Pichet Ong’s Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls.
Kumquats, or Gam Gat Sue, are a symbol of good fortune in China. Gam rhymes with gold, gat rhymes with luck. The leaves—green, small, fertile—symbolize wealth. The shape of the fruit itself, the orb, means perfection and unity. It is a balanced, beautiful fruit with all kinds of life-affirming messages; luck, money, good fortune, happiness, prosperity coming towards you just because you are eating it.
The kids couldn’t have cared less about Kumquats and prosperity. All they cared about was chocolate.
I know this because of what was happening under the table.
I had done all kinds of research on Kumquats. I was a Kumquat master. I told them everything I knew – how they’re the only citrus fruit that have a skin more edible than its insides, how the Cantonese put them in glass jars, loaded with salt, and let them sit for a long time, until they got briney and shriveled and then use the contents to cure sore throats. I shared it all, from the medieval to the modern.
And in the middle of my speech, I noticed something kind of weird. Lucy, my own flesh and blood, and a boy named Orlando, had crawled under the table.
That was weird enough, but then they had these guilty looks on their faces. And their cheeks were bulging. And they were chewing, like, very slowly, almost so slowly you might not notice. Like they had something in their mouths but they didn’t want you to know.
And because I am like a CSI detective, I noticed that all the all other children sitting at the table, who had been seemingly listening to me tell my fascinating kumquat stories, were also slowly chewing, with bulging cheeks and guilty eyes.
And that’s when I saw that the bag of chocolate chips had gone missing from my bag. A deal had been done, chips had been passed, hand-to-hand.
Duped by four-year-olds.
Liz, their teacher, a woman never duped by four-year-olds, confiscated the bag.
I’m not gonna lie – I had some shame.
We seeded the kumquats, sliced them, and laid them in a sauce-pan. We added cream, and salt, and let it get bubbly and warm. Then we turned off the hot plate, and let the pan sit there. The hot plate, even at the best of times, was never consistent. And it had only two speeds – off and mad-ass boiling. We didn’t want to scald the cream.
Everyone wanted to add the chocolate, of course, but not to be a sucker twice, I gave the job to Jamila. She was quiet, smart, composed, an old lady in a kid’s body, with a good comfortable sense of herself. She was a rule-follower, the responsible one, and Lucy’s best friend. I imagined it would be the teenage Jamila who ordered the teenage Lucy to put the bourbon back in our liquor cabinet.
Or so I hoped.
Jamila didn’t let me down. Every bit of chocolate went right in the pan. We let the bits melt up in the cream, the kids hovering over, watching the bits lose their shape and swirl into the cream. They took turns stirring, helping it along.
Ahmad, a boy who had recently come from Syria, and was still discovering his English, added the egg yolk, and only got a smidge of white in there. Rosa, the flamboyantly-dressed drill sergeant with a red gardenia in her hair, added the butter while reminding Ahmad that she could do it better, and that he was holding the spoon the wrong way, and didn’t she want him to show her? And then, taking the spoon from him, she showed him the right way to stir, narrating her technique like she was on The Food Network, and then handed it back to him, where he just went on stirring as he had before, and she kept chewing in his ear about how he he was doing it all wrong.
He either didn’t understand or pretended not to.
Teddy, the boy who, two weeks earlier, I had reduced to tears after he shot-putted a ball of freshly-kneaded pasta dough across the classroom, to the standing ovation and cheers of about 12 boys, poured the whole thing into a cake pan lined with plastic wrap.
There it was. All we had to do was freeze the chocolate and let it set overnight. In the morning we would cut it into bars, fold those hard little bars into spring roll wrappers and fry them within an inch of their lives, so they were crispy and oily on the outside, molten and sweet, with hot, liquid chocolate, on the inside.
I jammed the cake pan into the shoebox-sized classroom freezer. It had all night to get hard.
Except it didn’t.
The chocolate had frozen a bit around the edges, but it was soft and cold in the middle. I poked at the bars with my finger tip and felt the ooze.
New York City Public school freezers do not actually freeze anything. They are there to taunt you.
Liz called the kids for cooking, and they settled in at their table. I considered post-poning, taking the bars home and re-freezing them, and coming back tomorrow with a cooler of perfectly frozen bars.
But I saw their faces. I wasn’t leaving this room without giving them chocolate. We had to make it work. We heated the oil. I put Ahmad, Lucy and Rosa near the wok.
“Will I die if I spill this wok full of boiling oil onto my lap?” Rosa asked me.
“Yes. Yes, you will die.” I said in my most serious voice.
That was all I needed to say.
I stood with my head in the fridge, my hands inside the freezer, cutting the chocolate into “bars”, so that it would stay cold as long as possible. It didn’t matter. I was asking four-year-olds to fold something that was nearly liquid into a spring roll wrapper that was, basically, the consistency of snot.
The kids slurried their wrappers with egg wash, while I raced from table to freezer, scooping out a tablespoon of chocolate, and plopping it on their wrapper, nudging them to work quickly, so that the chocolate didn’t run off the table, onto the floor, or all over their clothes.
We needed 25 spring rolls. That didn’t seem like so much. We could do it.
But the heat of their fingers liquefied the chocolate even faster. And the radiators, which were right next to the table and blasted heat like a Russian sauna, just hurried the melting process, so that now only lumpy, soft chunks of chocolate and puddles of it were now everywhere across their table..
And then it started dripping over the sides of the table.
Their hands were covered. And their bodies and clothes too, as they wiped their fingers, dropped some in their lap, itched themselves, touched their hair, their faces. The more they tried to wipe the chocolate away, the more they streaked it across a new clean surface. Every movement just compounded the problem.
That’s when I saw Orlando, licking himself. His whole arm, up to his elbow, was covered in a thick bath of chocolate. His sleeve was brown and completely wet, his face was covered in a dripping, chocolate beard. He had tried to fold the chocolate into the wrapper, but realized it was impossible and decided to simply suck the chocolate off his body instead.
The rest followed suit. The idea spread like a YouTube cat video. The folding just stopped and they stood there licking their fingers, the wrappers, the table, their arms. Teddy bent over and stuck out his tongue and tried to lick his belt buckle. A girl named Stella sobbed uncontrollably because she got chocolate all over her new giraffe pants and she was sure her mother was going to yell at her. Lucy had chocolate twisted into her hair.
It was anarchy.
Even Liz was powerless. She came over to us with her pre-k teacher face on, intent on whipping us into shape, but it was like lecturing the naked orgy attendees about the perils of sex. Liz said a few stern things and the kids, nodded passively, as if they had been put in a catatonic state. While she talked, they searched their bodies for stray patches of chocolate.
Liz didn’t seem to notice that Orlando had his elbow in his mouth, sucking it like a baby bottle. There was no coming back from this.
I sent them to wash. And when they came back, I asked Lucy, Ahmad and Rosa to stay and help me finish the job.
“I need your help.” I whispered.
“If we want to have dessert, we have to be a team.”
I said this with some urgency.
“It’s like Saving Private Ryan,” I told them, as if they knew what the hell I was talking about.
“The spring rolls are Matt Damon and we have to storm the beaches of Normandy, and summon all our courage to save the spring rolls.”
They stared. I knew it didn’t make any sense.
“Focus,” I said desperately.
“We have to focus.”
“Oh! it’s like Handy Manny,” Lucy said. “He has to focus so he can fix Mrs. Portillo’s oven so she can bake the cookies for the bake sale…”
Lights of recognition flickered on. Everyone was home.
There was nodding. There were high fives.
A team formed.
I did the folding, which wasn’t really folding at all, since all the chocolate was now liquid.
I pushed it around on the wrappers, grabbing whatever lumps of chocolate I could find, and folded them into as neat a shape as possible.
I handed the limp rolls to Lucy, Rosa and Ahmad and watched as they gently laid them in the oil, without splashing.. Then they calmly removed the browned rolls, and placed them on paper towels.
The rolls came out crunchy and dark brown. And un-appetizing, like little turds. But Ahmad dusted them in confectioners’ sugar, which I just happened to stash in my bag, and they looked nearly good enough to eat.
We served the turds on paper plates. Probably not what Pichet Ong had in mind for his superb recipe. But still, the kids went bananas. Rosa said it tasted like a hot candy bar. And it did—a hot, ugly candy bar turd.
They were sweet, runny, and super-crispy, and, if only more chocolate had found its way inside the wrappers, souped-up, fried candy bars, worthy of a booth at an upstate county fair.
While the kids ate, I went back to the freezer. It was a freakin’ mess. I had defiled the back of Liz’s classroom.
There were pans everywhere, dirty plates, and spoons, and bowls. There was a slight stench of burnt chocolate, and bits of it floating in the wok. There was chocolate burnt into the grates on the radiator, and streaked down the front of the refrigerator. It was smeared across chairs that weren’t even near our cooking table, slopped on the window-sill, and inside the guinea pig cage—how the hell did it get there? The inside of Liz’s pristine, rarely-used Pre-K freezer was streaked with chocolate that was now freezing to the sides.
After school ended, and every sane person had gone home, I spent two hours, on my hands and knees, chiseling chocolate off the floors with an exacto knife.
That night, at home, with a tequila rocks with a twist of lime, a double, all stuck-on chocolate melted off of me in a boiling shower, I told my husband, David, the whole sordid story.
I left out nothing.
I didn’t want to see chocolate, or small children cooking, for a really long time.
Yet, I knew we had done something important in our month of Chinese cooking. These kids, regular little kids, not the ones on Top Chef Junior, could work to overcome problems. They could chop with knives and cook with heat. They could be counted on when things went hurtling off course. We could ask them to focus hard, and get the dessert made, and they would summon the best of themselves and get it done.
And they were four. They could do all that before they even got to kindergarten.
And I knew, even as the tequila took over and I fell into the bliss of my husband, my sleeping children, my snoring pets, and the bottomless couch, I would have to go back and cook with them, and I wouldn’t regret a minute of it.