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Summer 2011

Happy Foods
by Michael Ballon




If I have learned anything at all in over 30 years working as a chef, it is that there are a couple of nearly universal "Happy Foods." By that I mean foods that bring an almost childlike joy and smile to almost everyone. I think they are foods from childhood, which we continue to love in almost the same way, even when we are older. The sad reality is that today many people have so much anxiety about food that eating brings no joy at all. Worries about cholesterol, gluten, carbohydrates, allergies, adulterated and unnatural food, and animal welfare are just some of the issues which preoccupy increasing numbers of eaters, and which diminish the joy of eating.

Spinach may be the source of Popeye's power, and healthy to boot, but I doubt it is among the foods that commonly brings happiness to most people. I love great homemade bread fresh from the oven while still hot, and while it is satisfying and comforting, I don't think of it as being joyous. Even more than the British, we are a nation of Beefeaters. Millions of us are sustained on burgers every day-but even among those with no qualms about eating humanely raised animals, eating meat is inherently serious.

We are about to enter the high season for two of what I think of as being the happiest of foods.

What makes me happy, and a lot of other people happy, is ice cream and watermelon. Two of the most important attributes, if not requirements, of Happy Food are sweetness and juiciness. Happy Food has a lot of moisture. It is instantly satisfying in a way that drier food is not. We sapiens are over 90 percent water, and especially in the heat of summer, we need to drink a lot. After a hot busy summer night in the Café, I have witnessed many times how a wedge of cold watermelon can bring instant joy and happiness to a tired and sweaty staff. Even the most sober and upright find it hard not to grin with juice running down their chin. Generally cantaloupes are not as sweet as watermelons, but in recent years I have had some intoxicating and almost alcoholically sweet melons from Farm Girl Farm that were wonderfully messy and juicy to eat.

We're also genetically predisposed to be attracted to sweetness. Nothing is as primally satisfying as ice cream on a hot summer day. We have all seen long lines at local ice cream parlors on scorching hot days-and they are not all kids. Even though the drive to maintain warmth is more powerful than the need to cool down most times, I don't think a bowl of hot soup on a cold winter day creates as much happiness for most people as a bowl of ice cream on a hot day.

Of course the glaring exception to the rule that Happy Food has moisture is chocolate. But it is sweet, and oh so satisfying, and right at the top of the list of Happy Foods.

Making home made ice cream is one of the most happiness inducing experiences there is. It's not hard at all, and fun no matter how old you are. Ludditte that I am, I have a fondness for the old fashioned kind which requires ice and rock salt, though countertop models work just as well. In the Berkshires, we are blessed with the incredible cream from High Lawn Farm, which has a very high butterfat content that is ideal for making ice cream.

'Tis the season. Who needs anti-depressants when you can make homemade ice cream?

Vanilla Ice Cream -makes about 1 quart
2 Cups Milk
1 Vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1 cup Heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 Cut vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and scald in hot milk.
Scrape out the seeds from the bean, and put in milk 2 Beat yolks and sugar together, add extract, and then add hot milk. Beat well
3 Cook yolk and milk mixture over low heat while constantly stirring, until mixture thickens, and is warm to the touch - but be careful not to scramble eggs
4 Place the mix in ice bath to cool down, and add cold cream.
5 Churn in machine

To make espresso ice cream: delete vanilla bean and extract, and after scalding milk, add ˝ cup ground espresso to the milk, and let it steep for 5 minutes. Strain out coffee through a fine filter, then repeat steps 2-5 above.


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