Sweetened condensed milk is the raison d’etre behind the popular cookie. The toothache-in-a-can was developed by Frenchman Gail Borden in 1820. Distributed amongst field soldiers during the Civil War, it was also marketed as an ideal baby formula in the mid-1850s because it didn’t require refrigeration. With the advent of refrigeration, the pantry staple needed a new image. In the 1960s, Borden Kitchens sought inspired ideas using sweetened condensed milk, paying a whopping $25 for original recipes. The Seven Layer Magic Cookie Bar recipe emblazoned on the red-labeled cans might be a hybrid of more than one recipe. I am less interested in baking and consuming the pop-culture cookie, more interested in how the multi-layered bar cookie inherited its stage name, Hello, Dollys.
Both cake and cookie recipes bearing the name Hello, Dolly were published in 1965, one in a recipe swap column in a Syracuse, NY paper, another in an Oklahoma newspaper. Is it merely coincidence that a certain musical was playing on Broadway at the time these recipes were introduced? Add to the mix the fact that said musical had just won a record breaking 10 Tony awards and I suspect not.
There is no mention of graham crackers or sweetened condensed milk during Dolly Levi’s lavish dinner at the Harmonia Gardens in Act II of Hello, Dolly. Tuxedoed waiters leap across the stage bearing trays of Charlotte Russe, a gravitational wonder composed of Bavarian cream wrapped in ladyfingers. What is the key ingredient for a gelatin-based dessert playing 8 performances a week, illuminated by screaming hot lights? Plenty of stage magic.
There are many who believe a recipe dedicated to sweets congealed by sweetened condensed milk is worthy of a standing ovation. My co-worker Adam, for instance is a big fan of the bar cookie and the milk that holds it together. Part-time baker, soon-to-be full time research chemist. Adam is the only individual in the bakery with chiseled features worthy of an 8x10 glossy photo. Adam graciously let me borrow his well-loved cookbook, Cookinanny, a compilation of recipes from the B’nai Zion Sisterhood of Shreveport, Louisiana. His grandmother, Sylvia was at the helm of the project, a soft covered book held together with a red spiral binding. The lovely Freida Bauer contributed her recipe for Graham Cracker Squares, closely akin to the 7 Layer Bar and featuring Eagle Brand Milk. The beauty of this cookbook, published in 1964, is the sense of community you get within each recipe. The ladies of the B’nai Zion Sisterhood were not shy when affixing titles to their recipes; adjectives such as “glorious,” “yummy,” and “heavenly” pepper the pages, providing a distinctive voice to the collection. I was sad to note that despite its southern roots, the cookbook offered nary a rhubarb recipe. The Rich Poppy Seed Cake with Yummy Filling did pique my interest, but will have to wait a week.
The arrival of my favorite tart-tongued ingredient has me quietly obsessing over potential pies, tarts and yeast-risen breads. A plant clearly more Dolly Levi than Marian the Librarian rejoins me in the kitchen. The commonplace name for spring's leading lady may be Pie Plant, her stage name, Rhubarb but I’m happy to call her Barb for short. Incidentally, I just happen to know someone named Barb who will enjoy this week's recipe.
As vivid as Dolly Levi’s red sequins and feathers, rhubarb has already stained my fingertips crimson. I am not complaining. Removing a bit of the outer peel with a Y-shaped vegetable peeler, the rhubarb curls like ribbons on a beautifully made hat. Well Hello, Rhubarb. It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.