Living as an expat in Rome and working at an international organization like FAO means that my day-to-day interactions are usually not with other Americans. My friends and colleagues, if you put them together, are a delightfully diverse group of people, from not only Italy but also Germany, France, England, Gibraltar, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Iran, India, Colombia, Bolivia, Russia, Spain, Canada, China, Rwanda, Kazakhstan, and Greece, to name just a few. For someone like me who likes to bake and cook, this presents an excellent opportunity to expose them to beloved American specialties like Thanksgiving dinner, New York-style cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies, red velvet cake, or cupcakes – but I do admit that this willingness to share my cuisine stretches only to a certain extent. You see, there are other dishes that are so very particularly American that I'm hesitant to share them. How does one explain, for example, that chicken and waffles -- yes, fried chicken, served on top of a large waffle -- is a beloved and widely enjoyed dish in the south of the U.S? Or that s'mores -- consisting of marshmallows and milk chocolate sandwiched between two graham crackers -- are actually really delicious and a popular summertime treat? Not to mention such delicacies as peanut butter and banana sandwiches, Seven-Layer Bars, Rocky Road ice cream, Sloppy Joes, Chicago deep-dish pizza, barbecue chicken pizza, macaroni and cheese, or Beer Can chicken, all of which might be just a touch too unrefined for non-American taste buds. I admit that American cuisine can be unapologetically rich, over the top, and even slightly irreverent-- but that's what I like about it. For better or worse, there are no rules.
Since (gleefully) locating marshmallows at my local specialty food store, I couldn't wait to make Rice Krispy Treats, those crunchy, chewy, buttery squares of goodness invented in 1939 by Mildred Day at the Kellogg's Company, a woman clearly ahead of her time. There was just one problem -- I wasn't sure what my friends and colleagues would think of them. Oh, I knew that the few Americans and Canadians I know would be cool with them, but what about the French, the Spaniards, and -- gulp -- the Italians, with their strong food culture, rules and standards?! How was I to explain that a Rice Krispy Treat was nothing more than a good amount of breakfast cereal stirred into a pool of butter and copious amounts of melted marshmallows until well combined, then spread into a pan to set? Would they think the dessert excessive? Overly sweet? Would they find the texture unappealing? Would they ever truly accept my beloved Rice Krispy Treats?
The answer was, yes. They didn't find them too heavy, or cloying, or strange. They loved them. In fact, they came back for seconds (and even thirds) and pronounced them "delicious," even the Italians (phew). And with good reason -- these are no ordinary Rice Krispy Treats. The butter here is not just melted, it's melted and then cooked, giving it a nutty, toasty flavor that gives the usually straight-forward Treat a bit of complexity. The addition of a generous pinch of salt not only counters the sweetness of the marshmallows, it also plays off the brown butter nicely and, as salt never fails to do, renders these addictive-ly delicious, elevating them from childhood bake-sale treat to truly special dessert. So, moral of the story? I think from now on I'll give the non-American palate more credit -- perhaps it's more indulgent and open-minded than I thought. So...sweet potato marshmallow casserole, anyone?!
A couple of notes: I apologize for the lack of step-by-step photos here, but I made these during one of the many thunderstorms we've been having in Rome these days, meaning my kitchen was quite dark and not at all suited for taking photos -- but trust me, these are beyond simple, and I think you'll manage just fine. I used Rice Krispies, but this will of course work with any brand of puffed rice cereal. You could also make this with cornflakes, plain Cheerios, or Cocoa Pebbles (chocolate Rice Krispies, basically) with good results.
SALTED BROWN BUTTER RICE KRISPY TREATS
10 ounces (about 285 grams) marshmallows
6 cups (160 grams) Rice Krispy Cereal
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (112 grams) unsalted butter
Butter (or coat with non-stick spray) an 8-inch square cake pan with 2-inch sides.
In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Don’t take your eyes off the pot as while you may be impatient for it to start browning, the period between the time the butter begins to take on color and the point where it burns is often less than a minute.
As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off and stir in the marshmallows. The residual heat from the melted butter should be enough to melt them, but if it is not, turn it back on low until the marshmallows are smooth.
Remove the pot from the stove and stir in the salt and cereal together. Quickly spread into prepared pan. Use a lightly buttered spatula to press it firmly and evenly into the edges and corners, of the pan. Cut into squares and serve. Makes 16 2-inch squares or 32 1- x 2-inch small bars