Irish-American Dining: Leprechaun Cookies

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Sometimes I worry that we Americans are putting the Irish off leprechauns. We’ve taken the little creature and run with him, and the results, including sports mascots and preposterous St. Paddy’s Day costumes, are a little embarrassing to the Irish, I hear. I can imagine a real-life leprechaun sneaking into some Irish farm house to do some late-night cobbling and being met with an Irish farmer, broom in hand, crying out “Away with you, to America, like all your kin!”

He’d live a welcome, if degraded, life here, as Americans affix leprechauns to just about anything they want to seem Irish. Let’s take a leprechaun cookie, as an example. I see no evidence it is made out of leprechaun at all, although, to be fair, the first time the treat is mentioned, on Thursday, March 16, 1922, in the Caledonian-Record, there is no recipe. The story merely mentions that Mrs. W.R. Prouty entertained her Fortnightly club with green-colored food in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. Among the foods she served were leprechaun cookies, and, although it goes unmentioned, perhaps Mrs. Prouty did trap a leprechaun or two and put them in her food.

We don’t get a recipe until 1960, when the Lexington Herald offered the following:

To make 2 1/2 dozen cookies, cream 1/2 cup softened butter or margarine and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Sift 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour , 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt together. Combine 1/4 cup chopped maraschino cherries, well drained (about 10 cherries), 1 slightly beaten egg and 2 tablespoons milk; mix well. Add dry ingredients and cherry mixture alternately to cream mixture. Mix well after each addition. Chill 1 hour. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with floured 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Place on greased baking sheets. Arrange cherry halves on cookies to resemble shamrocks. Bake in moderate 375 F. over or until cookies are lightly browned.

The recipe isn’t explicit, but I expect the cherries should be green colored and not red, or one will end up with a cookie that looks made from a pulped leprechaun.

Some sort of leprechaun cookie made it into school lunch menus: Around St. Patrick’s Day in 1976 and 1977, the Rockford, Illinois Lexington Herald published the school meals for the day, and the cookie was there, along with St. Patrick’s Salad and cold meat. They made it to Michigan schools in 2004 and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2011. The last newspaper mention I find of the cookie is this past year: The Press of Atlantic City wrote about St. Patrick’s Day partying, and mentioned that Bally’s Boardwalk Cupcake were offering leprechaun cookies and Guinness Stout Intoxication Cupcakes. In most of these cases, it’s anyone’s guess about what is being called a leprechaun cookie, but I found an image from Bally’s and it is a gingerbread cookie in what looks to be green icing lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

As this little fellow suggests, there are great things that can be done with frosting, and I must say I genuinely marvel at the cookies decorated by blogger Sugarbelle, pictured at the top of the page. You supposedly can make these at home, and the creator is kind enough to offer step-by-stem instructions, but were I to attempt it I know the results would be better sent to the Nailed It blog than given out as food.



Irish-American Dining: Irish Bisque and Irish Trifle

"I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too." -- Mrs. Martin O'Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

“I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too.” — Mrs. Martin O’Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

If we are to discuss the American recipes called Irish bisque and Irish trifle, we need to clear up a few things first. And, first of all, it is very confusing that the food is called “bisque.”

Bisque is, of course, a French food, a spicy broth of lobster, crab, shrimp or crayfish. Since the creatures used for the meal are typically too imperfect to be made another way, bisque traditionally including the ground up shells of the poor crustaceans, uncleaned, and previously simmered in wine, which sounds less like a food than a nonsensical stanza from one of the mock turtle’s poems in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

There is a recipe for Irish bisque that started making the rounds as far back as 1916; I first find it in the Macon Telegraph, but it was widely republished. It was a St. Patrick’s Day recipe, and true to Irish-American cooking of the era, it had nothing to do with Ireland, nor anything to do with the food it was named for; it is, in fact, a dessert! It was, however, green-colored, and that was enough. The recipe is as follows:

IRISH BISQUE — Bring one quart of new milk to a boil, dissolving in it one pint of granulated sugar. When this mixture is cool, add a quart of whipped cream, a teaspoon of vanilla and freeze until it is the consistency of mush. Remove the dasher, add wine glass of sherry, and a coffee cup full of macaroons ground very fine. Color to the right shade of green with vegetable coloring matter, pack and set away to harden. This is an excellent substitution for pistachio, the green ice cream offered by caterers.

I can’t say it sounds entirely appealing, but they had me at “add wine glass of sherry.”

In fact, the presence of the alcohol suggests this is a variation of an actual popular dessert in Ireland, the trifle, which is a thick custard with fruits or nuts and whipped cream.

The Irish trifle made it to America at least as far back as 1931, when the San Francisco Chronicle published a version of it credited to Umberto Dean, the chef at Cafe Marquard. His recipe was simple and seemed constructed out of leftover desserts:

Line a dish with strips of stale sponge cake or lady fingers; put in a layer of rich custard, then a few spoonfuls of raspberry jam, pieces of stale fruit cake or nuts, if preferred, then another layer of custard with a second layer of jam, cake or nuts. Put a heavy layer of whipped cream on top and garnish with cherries. Macaroons may be used instead of fruit cake. Serve very cold. Flabor with sherry or brandy as desired.

Duncan Hines himself offered a recipe for trifle in 1953, crediting it to an Irish-American friend who recalled the trifle of her ancestors. It must be said, the version Duncan Hines come sup with does not sound authentically Irish, but typically American, consisting largely of dumping packets of premade desserts on top of each other. His version:

For six servings you will need a jelly roll, some raspberry jam, a cup of sliced almonds, a wine glass of sherry, 1/2 cup of thin custard and 1/2 cup of whipped cream.

Choose a deep bowl that will be pretty enough to serve from and put in a layer of sliced jelly roll. Spread with jam and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Repeat until about an inch from the top of the bowl. Pour a wine glass of sherry over the cake and let it stand until it has soaked into the cake.

Make a thin custard — you can use 1/2 package of vanilla pudding mixture — and pour over the cake. (Thin custard, beat 1 whole egg in the top of a double boiler, blend in 1 tablespoon sugar, a pinch of salt, milk. Cook over simmering, not boiling water, stirring constantly. When custard coats the spoon, remove from heat.) Refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, top with 1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream and decorate with sliced Maraschino cherries and angelica.

Angelica is an herb of the carrot family whose roots and fruits furnish the oil used as flavoring for liqueurs and as a perfume and whose leaf-stalks may be candied. It is the candied stalk that is used for this dish.

There were variations: Patricia Murphy published a recipe in in 1964 that included instant coffee powder and used green Maraschino cherries. The Boston Record American had a variation in 1971 that involved dumping in a canned fruit cocktail. The Oregonian added a banana, that most Irish of foods, in 1979.

And, foodie though I am, I am loathe to offer any recommendations that will detract from the essential American-ness of these recipes, the act of taking packages of sweet stuff and dumping it atop sherry-soaked old dessert cakes, although obviously the recipe would be improved by hand-making the various ingredients. Martha Rose Shulman, writing for the New York Times, suggested handmade crème anglaise instead of custard and berry compote rather than jam, and Julianne Glatz in the Illinois Times suggested using Irish whiskey and not sherry on the cake. Both seem like fine suggestions to me.

Irish-American Dining: Irish Mist Desserts

Mrs. Kickham, creator of an Irish Mist torte.

Mrs. Kickham, creator of an Irish Mist torte.

Irish Mist managed at once to be very old and not especially old. The brown whiskey liqueur with that name dates back to 1947, when the Tullamore Dew distillery was founded, but it was reportedly inspired by a possibly mythical older drink called heather wine that was favored by ancient chieftains. It’s not certain the liqueur was actually inspired by an ancient recipe — liqueurs are notoriously prone to creative storytelling on that account, such as Bénédictine, which claims to have been invented by monks but was actually invented by a businessman and a chemist. Nonetheless, Irish Mist has a pleasantly honeyed, herbal flavor, so if it wasn’t drunk by chieftains, it feels like it should have been.

The liqueur was mostly made for export, and so, very quickly, Americans started concocting desserts with the stuff. I suppose, in the American imagination, Brian Boru might have drunk a long quaff of heather wine, wiped his mouth, and declared that might it not make a lovely torte?

A reader had written to Poppy looking for St. Patrick’s Day recipes, lamenting “all those old cliches … the cakes with the green icing … the shamrocks made out of gumdrops.”
In fairness, the originator of this trend seems to have been Frances Kelly, the Irish painter and wife to Frederick Boland, the Irish ambassador to the U.N. In a 1958 story to a New York wire service, she complained, as Irish people do, about the fact that the American Patrick Day didn’t seem very Irish at all. She recommended making roast beef and not corned beef and cabbage, and then suggested making “strawberry mousse tullamore.” Her recipe involved simmering one pint syrup and then allowing it to cool. To this she added one pint fresh strawberry pulp flavored with one-half glass Irish Mist and two pints fresh whipped cream. This is all whipped together, chilled, and served in a glass.

There’s a wonderful ersatz authenticity to this, but I’m going to go ahead and say that I do not believe Frances Kelly ever made this dessert at home in Ireland. I suspect the recipe was concocted to take advantage of Kelly’s visibility in New York as a tool to sell Irish mist to Americans — especially as her recipe for roast beef included an Irish Mist cocktail. I am, therefore, going to declare the an Irish-American recipe, the first of many.

A society author with the marvelous name Poppy Cannon provides us with our next dessert, published in the Baton Rouge Advocate on March 16, 1964: Compote of green gage plums with Irish Mist. A reader had written to Poppy looking for St. Patrick’s Day recipes, lamenting “all those old cliches … the cakes with the green icing … the shamrocks made out of gumdrops.” Poppy, who also called herself The Fast Gourmet, offered the following suggestion:

COMPOTE OF GREEN GAGE PLUMS … Chill and drain canned green gage plums. Anoint with Irish Mist, a cordial made from Irish whiskey and heather honey.

There’s not a lot to Poppy’s recipe, but its is elegant in its simplicity. Louisiana remained ever an inventive leader in Irish Mist desserts, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune greeted St. Patrick’s Day, 1964, with a recipe called Irish Mist delight, as follows:

2 qts vanilla ice cream 1/2 of 12 oz. jar, green mint jelly 1 or 2 jiggers Irish Mist liqueur

Place scoops of ice cream in large bowl. Dab with mint jelly and sprinkle with Irish Mist liqueur. Yield: Eight fill servings.

The same year, the Augusta Chronicle introduced the Shannon Spirited Souffle, which was, at long last, an Irish Mist recipe that required a little more work than just dumping the liqueur on something sweet, although it is so particular in the brands it insists that you use that it reads as an advertisement for Borden. Here it is:

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon Borden Instant Coffee, dry form
1-1/2 cups water 1 tablespoon
RealLemon Reconstituted Lemon Juice (owned by Borden, incidentally)
1/2 cup Borden Instant Nonfat Dry Milk, dry form
1-1/3 cups (15-oz. can) Borden Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup Irish Whiskey (Irish Mist goes unnamed in the recipe itself, but its use is strongly implied in the introductory text, which reads “Remember that all that Irish Mist isn’t rain — many times it’s whiskey”)

Measure a 22-inch length of aluminum foil; fold in half lengthwise. wrap around a one-quart straight-sided souffle dish to form a three-inch collar above edge of dish. Tie in place with string. In a medium-size saucepan, combine gelatine, coffee, and 1-1/3 cups water. Place over low heat; stir until gelatine is dissolved. Place mixture over ice water. Stir until the gelatine is the consistency of unbeaten egg white. Set aside. In a small electric mixer bowl, combine lemon juice, , 1/2 cup cold water, and nonfat dry milk. Beat at high speed or electric mixer about 6-8 minutes or until stiff. In a large mixing bowl, combine dissolved gelatine, condensed milk and Irish whiskey. Folk whipped nonfat dry milk into milk mixture. Carefully turn mixture into prepared souffle dish. Chill in refrigerator about 2-3 hours or until set. Carefully remove foil collar. If desired, garnish sides and center top with shaved chocolate.

Did you think I was kidding about a torte recipe? I was not kidding. This one is from the Boston Herald from August 10, 1969, but properly should be credited to Mrs. CharlesKickham, a Jamaica Plain woman who married and Irish man and lived in Galway for five years, and so invented this recipe out of nostalgia for her years in Ireland. It is so perfectly 1960s I can barely stand it, made almost entirely from combining a few ingredients with a box of cake mix and then getting incredibly fussy with it, and here it is:


1 box yellow cake mix
1 pint medium cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons Irish Mist, sherry, rum or brandy
1 tablespoon cold strong coffee
1 square semi-sweet chocolate

Back according to package directions, in two round pans. When cool, using a long sharp knife, cut each layer horizontally into three layers. You have a total of six layers.

Combine liqueur and coffee. You may use 1/2 teaspoon powdered coffee dissolved in 1 tablespoon water, or regular coffee. This is the flavoring.

Beat cream with brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of the liqueur-coffee flavoring until stiff enough to spread. This is the filling and frosting. Place first layer on serving dish and drizzle two teaspoons flavoring over the layer, frost with a little of the whipped cream mixture. Spread evenly out to edges. Top with another layer cake and repeat until all layers are used.

Frost top and sides with whipped cream. Decorate with chocolate curls. (A potato peeler used on a chocolate square makes the curls.)

Refrigerate. This may be made a day in advance. For a fresher look, store the whipped cream for the top and sides in a covered bowl and frost it the day you serve it.

I must say, I think Mrs. Kickham is on to something here. Obviously, the cake should not be made with a store-bought yellow cake mix, and just smearing it with flavored whip cream seems awfully declasse. It might be worth considering making a chocolate/coffee layer cake from scratch and simply topping it with a dab of whipped cream beaten with Irish Mist — or, better still, clotted cream, if you can find it.

Better still, it might be worth playing off the honey and herbal quality of the Irish mist by making a honey layer cake and joining it with a spread of sour cream blended with Irish Mist, sugar, and honey. Heck, add some herbs in. I’m going to recommend burdock, nettles, and dandelion. I don’t know if these will be any good together, but they were herbs favored by the ancient Celts, and, if you’re going to make a torte, you might as well make one that Brian Boru would actually enjoy.