Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


Homemade “Magic Shell” (or How Three Ingredients and a Dash of Culinary Wizardry Saved the Day)

December+three kids+one sentimental husband=nonstop Christmas hullabaloo.

On Saturday, that hullabaloo included the annual Festival of Lights Parade, a ritualized enactment of small-town holiday joy, complete with baton twirling, marching bands, light-strung tractors, Shriners driving tiny cars in crazy circles, multiple Santa Clauses, fake snow machines, beauty-queen-style waving, teensy horses, and lots of candy canes being tossed willy-nilly at mittened children. It’s adorable. Usually.

But this year’s parade was kind of a bust…at least for our family. We arrived a little later than usual–in part because my daughter couldn’t decide what to wear. She is 8. And she’s not a priss, I swear. Proof: Recently, she created a “princess test,” consisting of a large piece of cardboard with Disney princess stickers arranged across it, kind of like an eye chart. She administered this test to her brothers and all of her dolls. If the test-takers liked any of the princesses except for Merida, they failed the test and were declared “too fancy.” So, yeah: That seems definitive. But for some reason, ever since she was knee-high and stomping around in her Robeez, she has been periodically seized by the desire to exercise extreme control over her attire. This urge hit hard on Saturday evening. Eventually, with only a modicum of door slamming, she was dressed and bundled up, and off we went.

When we arrived, we tried to nestle into a spot that was more or less our normal one. But the organizers (for some reason) had decided to reverse the parade route this year, which left us at the tail end of the parade rather than the nose end. And that wouldn’t be a big deal except that our little guy definitely thinks the acquisition of as much candy as possible is the primary objective, and by the time the floats started floating by us, most of them seemed to have exhausted their resources.

There were also inexplicably large gaps in the flow of the parade, and those gaps gave all the nearby kids–mine included–enough time to decide, over and over again, that 43 degrees is miserably cold. (Not so.) Eventually, about a dozen floats/tractors/trucks/bands into the thing, it came to a stop. My husband wandered back up the parade route to see if anything else was coming–the parade is usually 4 or 5 times that long–but he couldn’t see anything. All around us, people started packing up. About this time, an officially dressed woman riding a little parking-patrol scooter came squealing down the parade route shouting into her walkie-talkie “No units on Washington! No units on Washington! People are leaving!”

We looked at each other and one of us said, “Let’s call it.” Our little guy had, by this time, fallen off the curb multiple times–why?– and spent so much time trying to open cellophane-wrapped candy with his gloves on that it was really driving me crazy. No one seemed particularly invested in the enterprise except him (because he was still waiting on the gobs of sugar to begin falling from the sky), and I prefer to feed my kids candy that hasn’t been, you know, dropped in the crumbly road dust along the curb.

Furthermore, one of the last parade entries that had paraded by consisted of two guys carrying AR-15s and walking in front of a Hummer. No Christmas lights, no Christmas greetings, no smiles, no candy canes, and–most importantly–no explanation. No kidding. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.

So we bailed on the parade, promising the kids peppermint milkshakes and a drive around town to look at Christmas lights. We took our time winding toward the DQ, and when we pulled up to order our milkshakes, we realized neither of us had a wallet. So there went the back-up plan. All three kids dissolved into misery and disappointment and pleas.

We assured them we had peppermint ice cream at home. They whined.

We promised to make the peppermint ice cream into milkshakes. They moaned.

We said, fine, don’t eat anything then. They wailed.

Then I said I knew just the thing: I would make them special homemade magic shell. They sniffled, tacitly consulted one another, and conceded. Of course, they didn’t really have a choice. The adults were definitely done.

Of course, when we got home, I couldn’t find the recipe. I had torn it out of a Food Network Magazine last summer and stashed it…somewhere. (Our organizational skills are legendary.) I couldn’t locate it on their website either. I tried to reinvent it and did a fairly good job. The kids were amazed at their mother’s ability to just dump some things into a small pan without measuring and have it turn out alright. (I take my props where I can get ’em.)

It’s not, strictly speaking, “Magic Shell,” of course. I’m pretty sure Magic Shell is liquid in the squirt bottle in the fridge and then turns crackly hard when you squeeze it over ice cream. This stuff is solid in the fridge, liquid when you heat it, and firm when you pour it over ice cream. It does taste better than Magic Shell, though–probably because all of its ingredients are real food and it contains no…wax? Or whatever it is that gives Magic Shell its magical properties. In any case, it saved the day for us on Saturday, and the fact that I wizarded it up on the fly without so much as a recipe or measuring cup was magic enough–especially after the streak of minor fails that had led us to that point.

Next time, I’m going to start with a recipe, though. (I did eventually locate the original one using my library’s online magazine archives. I tell ya: Now and then all those hours perfecting my academic research skills really come in handy):

Homemade Magic Shell-ish Ice Cream Topping

6 T butter
6 T bittersweet chocolate chips (or semisweet ones)
1 1/2 T corn syrup

(optional add-ins: a splash of good vanilla and a pinch of salt)

In a pan with a heavy bottom over low heat (or a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave) melt the ingredients together. Stir them up really well. And pour them over the ice cream. Ooh and ahh and eat.