Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff

Back when I was a kid, I was fond of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series of books about pioneer life. Such a fan, in fact, that I tried to replicate a scene from Little House in the Big Woods where Laura and her sister boiled maple syrup and then poured it over snow to harden into candy. Being an unsupervised eight-year-old, I ended up with a ruined pot full of burnt, rock-solid gook. Still, I figured I'd have more luck this time around. You see, now I own a candy thermometer.

Or at least I used to. Couldn't find the dang thing anywhere, but half a bottle of Trader Joe's Dark Amber was already bubbling away on the stove. The goal was 255 degrees Fahrenheit, the "hard ball" stage where the syrup forms firm but pliable threads. I kept the heat low and a close eye on the syrup as it slowly thickened and began to darken. I swirled the pot every now and then to check viscosity, and once it got to the consistency of molasses, I decided it was show time. The boys brought me a pie pan full of snow and, after plucking out some pine needles, I carefully drizzled molten maple over the frozen packed powder. The hot syrup burned right through the snow to the bottom of the pan but did harden into sticky freeform candy.

We gobbled it right down: It was delicious — an intensely dark caramel flavor with a texture sort of like fruit leather. There was still some syrup left in the pan, so we took the rest outside and poured it over a snow bank. Given a deeper bed, this syrup sank into the snow and immediately hardened into actual maple-sugar candy.

With that, we'd used up our supply of maple syrup, but there was still all this snow everywhere. I dimly recalled a "snow cream" (as opposed to ice cream) recipe from my Girl Scout days and improvised with ingredients on hand. No heavy cream or even half-and-half in the house, alas, so I used a cup of whole milk and beat in 1/4 cup of organic evaporated cane crystals (or "hippie sugar" as my friend Heather calls it, and she's right: an 'ose by any other name is still basically sucrose), plus a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract for flavor. Then it was time to harvest the snow.

The topmost layer of our three-plus-feet of snow had formed a hard, icy crust, but just underneath was clean, fluffy snow (and, beneath that, the hard icy topmost crust of last week's blizzard leavings). I scooped up six cups worth, trying to keep it light and unpacked and, still trying to keep the snow texture as fluffy as possible, we gently — well, as gently as excited children can manage, anyway — folded the milk mixture in. The end result looked not unlike an egg-custard snowball.

Snow cream was a huge hit with the boys. "This is the goodest thing I ever tasted!" declared seven-year-old Jack after his first bite. Cole, age three, was too busy scooping snow cream into his mouth by the whiskful to comment. I wasn't as big of a fan; it was just sorta OK. The snow cream tasted good and had a texture as ice cream-like as the stuff turned out by our home ice-cream maker, and with significantly less time and effort — no advance chilling of freezer containers, no pre-cooking and cooling of custard — but I would rather have real ice cream.

A little while after we downed the whole huge bowl of snow cream, it occurred to me that maybe I ought to be retroactively concerned about eating snow. After all, snow crystals occur when water freezes around minute particles in the atmosphere, including pollutants. Could I have just fed my children the dessert equivalent of toxic waste?

Actual studies have been conducted on the safety of snow-eating; the Canada Safety Council analyzed snow from all over the world and found that the most worrisome element found in snow is not atmospheric mercury but bacteria: Each of the CSC's 20 globally diverse samples, from dirty urban to pristine mountaintop, showed low toxin content but high bacteria levels. Grrrreat. Does this mean that eating snow must now go the way of other now-forbidden childhood pleasures like dodgeball and riding a bike without a helmet?

Not necessarily: The most abundant bacteria found was Pseudomonas syringae, which sounds sinister, but actually just causes diseases in beans and tomatoes. The report concluded, sort of anticlimactically, that the amount of bacteria in snow is comparable to the amount of bacteria children are exposed to when they play in dirt.

Awesome, since recent studies show that children who play in actual dirt have more robust immune systems and thus better health, due to being exposed to a larger spectrum of germs. (Conversely, kids who lead overly sanitized lives can have their underutilized immune system turn on itself, thus self-creating autoimmune disorders like asthma and eczema). So: A little snow cream, it turns out, is even a sort of health food.

Obviously, when gathering snow for culinary purposes, you should avoid visibly soiled snow. There are also some who say that the first few inches of snow "scrub" the air of pollutants. Since those first couple of inches are also the part that touches the ground, maybe waiting for the later snow isn't a bad idea. But once that second layer lays itself down, it's chow time.

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