A Heritage Dessert Platter for my French-Vietnamese-Nigerian-American Sons

After finishing off our flan, we’d move on to the next item on the platter: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies from illustrated food memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley, a hands-down student favorite on my course reading list. Knisley uses the graphic novel format to tell her story of growing up in New York City and Upstate New York with a mom who was a chef and a dad who was a food connoisseur.

Knisley writes of the comfort in baking chocolate chip cookies. “For me, the act of assembling and combining chocolate chip cookie ingredients is like watching ‘The Sound of Music,’” she says. Her recipe is comfortably familiar to anyone who has ever made chocolate chip cookies before, though she adds a cup of coconut flakes, which I recommend increasing if you love coconut as much as I do.

While my boys and I nibble on our cookies, I’d tell them just how All-American the chocolate chip cookie is, having been created by accident during the 1930s by Ruth Wakefield, who owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. She added broken pieces of a chocolate bar into her cookie batter assuming incorrectly that they would melt. We’d giggle while applauding her delicious error.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

A Nigerian dessert from Longthroat Memoirs

Then we’d dive into the next item on the platter: Peppered puff-puffs with the aroma of newsprint from Yemisí Aríbisálà’s Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds, a recent find that I look forward to adding to my syllabus. In her memoir, Aríbisálà memorably introduces the world to the complexity of Nigerian food. “Delicious as a tangible morsel of food sanctioned by the senses, journeying over the pink rug into the gut, it is also a multifaceted cultural treasure trove full of intriguing stories,” she writes, after declaring her country’s cuisine long overdue for its turn in the global spotlight.

Aríbisálà describes puff-puffs as “fried, sweet, bad things” served as a snack on the way to work. She encourages “a pinch of dried Cameroonian pepper” in the dough for a surprise kick of spice, but for this dessert platter we’ll take them sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

I would prepare the traditional treat in true Nigerian fashion by fishing the puff-puffs “out of the oil and [putting] them directly on the front page of today’s newspaper,” which Aríbisálà notes is the standard way for Nigerians to purchase their puff-puffs from street vendors on busy workday mornings. “[They] are not croquembouches, not doughnuts, and even if they were, even if you could buy them as street food in some other country, you wouldn’t find the necessary punctuation of old newsprint flavor,” she writes. So as we ate delicious bites of fried dough and licked specks of cinnamon and granulated sugar off our fingers, I’d ask my boys if they can taste the subtle hint of the L.A. Times on the puffs’ exterior.

A French Dessert From When French Women Cook

Finally, we’d conclude by sampling the last dessert on our platter: Macarons Aux Pignons from Madeleine Kamman’s memoir When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir With Over 250 Recipes. Another recent addition to my reading list, Kamman’s book tells of her culinary education at the hands of eight French women, all from different regions of the country. In her introduction Kamman says that her book is an attempt to bring back to life the France of the early 1960s that she left and is nostalgic for, a place she says no longer exists. “Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience. Where are you?” she writes.

Kamman’s macaron recipe nods to tradition but has adapted to the times. She writes, “This is a modernized recipe. Years ago, one pounded the almonds with the sugar for two hours at least—or so it seemed to my young arms.” So as my sons and I enjoyed each bite of these cookies, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, I’d make sure to point out that the almond paste that served as the cookie’s main event and is a favorite ingredient in our household used to be much harder to acquire.

Having sampled a delicious dessert from each of their heritages, my sons and I would absolutely want second helpings, so we’d give the platter one more go around. We’d start all over again with Tung’s ginger flan, enjoying each other’s company as we devoured each jiggly, custardy spoonful and reflected on the pleasure of having so many cultures to call our own.

Flan made with ginger being served on a plate.