Thanksgiving Blessing Mix is not a new idea. Many variations can be found on the internet, but I would like to share the recipe that I have used for the past twenty years. Printed in a charming cookbook titled Sweet Surprises for the Holidays 1997, each ingredient is a reminder of the sacrifices made by Pilgrim setters as they struggled to survive in a new land. Tossed together in trail-mix fashion, the salty-sweet mixture is a great pre-Thanksgiving snack.
When my children were growing up, we created a fun tradition of sharing packages of Blessing Mix with our family, friends and neighbors during the month of November. We would simply put the mix in zip-loc bags, but for a fancier presentation, the mix can be scooped into mason jars or other pretty glass jars with a length of ribbon or raffia tied around the neck. We also included a signed note explaining the significance of each ingredient. It’s delightful how something so simple can create so many fun memories. Enjoy!
“These are heavenly and should be called ‘Oh-no-I-shouldn’t’ cookies. They’re terribly rich, but terribly good, particularly when served with coffee as a dessert.”
Grace Barr, Orlando Evening Star Food Editor, 1968
The Back Story of Sweetened Condensed Milk
In New York, during the early to mid-1800s , the most dangerous food a child might consume was fluid cow’s milk. With germ theory yet unknown, contaminated milk was a leading cause of child mortality.
Gail Borden, a self-taught food scientist, attended The World’s Fair in London in 1851, where he received awards for his invention of a shelf-stable meat-biscuit (think protein bar). Though revolutionary, the dehydrated meat didn’t sell well because of its unpleasant taste. While on his return voyage to New York, Mr. Borden witnessed first-hand the horrors that raw milk could hold. Two dairy cows were brought on board the ship to provide milk for immigrant babies whose families had booked passage to America. During the journey, the cattle became sick with an infectious disease and died. In turn, the children fell ill and lay dying in their mother’s arms. Mr. Borden was moved with compassion.
Upon his return, Borden immersed himself in the development of a sanitary shelf-stable baby formula. With no knowledge of germs or bacteria, Borden knew something needed to be done to stop the “incipient decomposition of milk.” First, he boiled cow’s milk in a pot to reduce the amount of liquid to make it more transportable. Then he added sugar. Unfortunately, the result of boiling milk in an open vessel was a burned, bad-tasting mass. Having learned the hard way with his meat-biscuit, Bordon knew that taste and appearance would be key to the success of his product. He went back to the drawing board.
Hearing about a curious way that Shaker’s processed medicinal herbs by boiling them in an enclosed vacuum pan, Mr. Borden arranged to spend some time with them to learn about the process. He tried the vacuum method with milk, which resulted in a pleasant tasting product with a creamy milk-like appearance. By boiling the milk in an enclosed vacuum pan, it killed any bacteria that was present and prevented any other bacterial exposure during the cooking process. Bordon also discovered that by adding a substantial amount of sugar, the shelf-life of the milk was greatly extended since bacteria cannot grow in such a sugary mixture.
Cook’s Science 2016 from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen explains that sweetened condensed milk has 60% of the water removed and has 40% to 45% added sugar. The editors note that an open can of sweetened condensed milk can be left at room temperature for several weeks without spoiling.
Borden did not understand the science behind the process he had developed. He just knew that it stopped the decomposition of milk, it tasted good and kept for a long time. His application for a patent on the vacuum boiling process was denied for several years due to the lack of scientific knowledge to understand what he had actually done. In time, science caught up, and in 1856, Borden was awarded the patent he sought. Little by little, the new baby formula began to catch on and is credited with saving the lives of thousands of children. Sweetened condensed milk was to be Gail Borden’s greatest accomplishment.
Always a man of hard work and humble means, Borden’s fortune was finally made in 1861, when the U.S. Government ordered sweetened condensed milk as part of the rations for the Union army during the Civil War. Canned, compact, and calorie-dense, the rich fluid served the soldiers well, not only through the Civil war but also during WWI. Sweetened condensed milk was later included in the foodstuffs dropped into besieged West Germany during the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s. Returning soldiers shared their enthusiasm for the product, and “Borden’s Milk” was on its way to becoming a pantry staple.
Advertising was important to the Borden company from the beginning. First, for baby formula, then as soldiers and their families began enjoying sweetened condensed milk in their coffee and tea, the company’s advertising pivoted from filling a nutritional need to becoming the quintessential ingredient in making desserts from ice cream to fruitcake. The printed advertisements exploded from black and white scientific-style ads in newspapers to full-page colored ads in magazines. During the mid-1960s, a recipe for Borden’s Magic Cookie Bars, with sweetened condensed milk as the “magic” ingredient, burst onto the baking scene, and desserts have never been the same.
The Recipe — 1970s
While researching this article, I was interested to learn how the recipe for Magic Cookie Bars has changed over the years. In a magazine ad from the 1970s (below), the recipe calls for one cup (6 oz) semi-sweet chocolate or butterscotch morsels, a 3 oz can or 1-1/3 cup flaked coconut, and a 15 oz can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk. The directions say to melt the butter or margarine in a saucepan before pouring it into the baking dish to be mixed with the graham cracker crumbs. The order given for layering the remaining ingredients is illustrated in the ad with sweetened condensed milk poured over the top.
The Recipe — 1999
In a magazine ad from 1999 (below), the recipe for Magic Cookie Bars instructs the baker to preheat the oven to 325* if using a glass pan. The butter or margarine is to be melted in the baking pan in the oven, then combined with the graham cracker crumbs or chocolate cookie crumbs. The sweetened condensed milk is then poured over the crumb crust with the other ingredients layered on top. The can size of sweetened condensed milk was reduced to 14 ounces, and the recipe doubled the amount of chocolate chips to twelve ounces. Yum! Once layered, the home cook is instructed to “press down firmly with a fork” to bind the ingredients together. Some substitutions are suggested at the bottom of the recipe — mini M&Ms, dried cranberries, raisins, mini marshmallows or butterscotch chips. Its evident that part of the “magic” in Magic Cookie Bars is the variety of ways the recipe can be personalized. Several Christmas’s ago, a coworker substituted white chocolate chips and Craisins for the usual semi-sweet chocolate chips. They were amazing! It seems that Magic Cookie Bars are limited only by one’s imagination.
A Final Note: Not everyone calls these bars Magic Cookie Bars. Sometimes they are called Seven Layer Bars, Hello Dollies, Coconut Dream Bars or Screaming Eagles. I call them delicious!
In the 1980s, I listened to a radio show broadcast from Salt Lake City called The Gabby Gourmet. Fredric Wix, the Gabby Gourmet, a retired marine who loved cooking, helped pioneer the concept of gourmet cooking at home. Fred moved from radio to television when he was invited to host a cooking spot on KUTV’s midday news broadcast. Highly successful in both mediums, The Gabby Gourmet went on to publish a cookbook that is now out of print and highly collectible; however, some of his cooking videos are available for viewing on YouTube.
Mr. Wix shared the recipe for Taffy Apple Dip one day when I happened to be tuned in. I quickly wrote it down, and I have been serving it ever since, especially in the fall when the apples are ripe and fresh and crispy. Adults, as well as, children enjoy this dip, and it is much easier to make and eat than caramel apples. I serve the dip either at room temperature or a bit warmer, but it must be stored in the refrigerator. To jazz things up, a sprinkling of salt flakes over the caramel creates a delightfully sweet and salty contrast. Enjoy!
I remember the year I turned eleven as the apricot summer. The neighbor’s lone apricot tree bloomed its heart out and blessed the earth with a plethora of fruit. Everyone around was invited to help themselves to the apricot bounty, but my mother was the only one that accepted the offer.
The tree rarely produced much fruit, due to the fact that apricots bloom ridiculously early in the year, and springtime in the northern states is notoriously fickle. But this year was different. The ambitious apricot tree burst into bloom with dainty white and light pink blossoms covering every limb of its twenty foot stature. Providently, the weather was moderate, and tiny apricots began to grow as the tree leafed out around them. Gradually, spring morphed into a hot summer, and by mid-July the tree limbs were drooping from the weight of the fruit. By early August the fruit was ripe. A canning enthusiast, my mother got out her water-bath canner, sterilized her jars, grabbed her laundry basket and started picking apricots.
Twice a day she filled her basket, washed and pitted apricots, packed them into quart jars with some sugar syrup. Then, while the apricots processed in the canner, she sterilized the next set of jars, prepared more syrup and headed back out to pick more apricots. At the end of the day, she would boil down the extra apricots into a batch of jam. (To a child that jam smelled as sweet as candy as it cooked). Once thickened, the hot jam was ladled into up-cycled jars of various sizes and shapes. Then a layer of hot melted paraffin was poured over the jam to “seal” it. While filling our mouths with warm juicy freshly-picked apricots, my siblings and I looked forward to eating home-canned apricot jam on homemade bread.
Mom’s canning routine went on for days until finally the now overly ripe apricots fell off the tree. She had canned dozens of jars of fruit, nectar and jam and we enjoyed the bounty for several years, taking them with us when we moved.
Throughout the fifty years since the apricot summer, my mother and I have continued to can, but never has there been another neighborhood apricot tree. In fact, around here backyard apricot trees have mostly been cut down and chopped up for firewood. Its as if apricots have become a forgotten fruit.
Curious about the significance of apricots in the American diet, I started doing some research. The earliest record of an apricot tree in the US was in Virginia in 1720 grown from seeds brought over from England, however the fruit was slow to catch on. The west coast was introduced to apricots by Spanish monks coming north from Mexico into what is now California to establish missions. The apricot trees were planted and cultivated in the gardens of these religious settlements.
The Santa Clara Valley, the location of one of the Spanish missions, proved to be an ideal location for growing apricots and other fruits known as drupes (this includes peaches and almonds). The fruit became popular almost immediately. By 1792, California produced its first significant apricot crop. A hundred years later, the annual apricot harvest was close to three million pounds. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, fruit production increased as orchards grew, reaching 24,000 acres of trees producing 160,000 tons of apricots by the late 1920s.
What in the world did America do with all those apricots? Well, during the twenties, 60 — 75% of California’s apricots were dried (laid on fruit racks by hand out in the sun), 15 — 35% were commercially canned and shipped out for retail, and less than 10% were shipped fresh or consumed locally. At that time, the US was involved in restoration efforts in post-WWI Europe by helping to feed the hungry, so many of California’s dried apricots were exported to Germany. That is, until Hitler came to power and suddenly stopped importing from the US in 1933. This happened as American farmers were grappling with low demand and even lower prices brought on by the Great Depression. At one point, the US Government stepped in and purchased most of California’s apricots to prevent farmers from just plowing them under because of the extremely low prices. The apricots were distributed this time to feed America’s hungry.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor engaging the the United States in WWII, the US government again purchased almost all the dried California apricots to feed the US military and that of its allies. In 1944 and 45 all the California apricots were reserved for the war effort.
Following WWII, interest in apricots began to wane. Orchards in the Santa Clara valley were sold in large parcels to the aeronautics, defense and technology industries, leading to Santa Clara Valley’s “make-over” into Silicon Valley. In 1964 there were still 35,000 acres of apricot orchards in California, but they had dispersed to other areas. Today only about 17,000 acres of apricot trees remain.
In the 1970s, dried apricots had a bit of a resurgence with the popularity of tail mix. Although raisins were the dried fruit most commonly added, many people liked dried apricots in the mix as well. Now days folks make trail mix from any combination of their favorite dried fruits, seeds, nuts, cereals, grains and of course, candy.
As I researched my twentieth-century cookbooks, I found that at one time the use of apricots was common and creative with a majority of recipes calling for dried apricots. Only instructions for home canning or jam-making called for fresh apricots. It became evident that during the twentieth century it was common for home cooks to keep a supply of dried apricots, like raisins, on hand for cooking and baking. Never having cooked or baked with dried apricots all these recipes piqued my interest. Over the next several months, I will feature some of these twentieth-century apricot recipes in my blog posts so we can appreciate the creativity of our mothers and grandmothers cooking.
Recently, I enjoyed a walk down memory lane by making a batch of apricot jam. I created a photo collage as I worked. You will notice that I even sealed one of the jars of jam with paraffin like my mother used to do. The others I sealed in my water-bath canner. Enjoy!