“Chow Hall” is a semi-regular column by Justin Slavinski, a writer incarcerated in Florida who provides anecdotes and insights about food and meals served in prison.
My mom and cousin visited me before Christmas last year. Having not seen them in a while, we caught up as families do.
Eventually, my mom spoke about the holiday desserts she would be making. The first two desserts sounded fun: a variety of Christmas cookies and a piña colada cake, which is a pineapple upside-down cake with toasted coconut frosting.
“Great!” I said.
The third dessert was weird: a cranberry and tahini pie.
She wanted to put tahini, which is a paste of ground sesame seeds — a birdseed — in a pie!
I dialed back my outrage and thought more about it. Like many people, I enjoy halvah. Halvah is like a sesame fudge.
That made me think about all the weird stuff I’ve put into desserts at home. Stuff that no one would normally claim should be in a dessert. In many ways, baking is like a junior chemistry experiment. I’ll save discussions on salt, vinegar and chemical leavening for Alton Brown, but I’ve put fennel seeds in biscotti in the past. I had to admit that even I would not be above putting birdseed into dessert.
When our visit ended, I hugged my mom and cousin and walked back to my dormitory, thinking about the peculiarities of making dessert here in prison with our limited ingredients.
I’m generally not complimentary of the efforts put forth by the dining hall to feed us anything recognizable as food (Thanksgiving and Christmas meals excepted), but they do a good job with cake.
It’s probably a mix from a 50-pound sack, but it’s fluffy and light, appropriately sweet, and most often covered in a half-inch of buttercream frosting. That’s an A-plus in my book.
Trying to make desserts in the dormitory is an entirely different experience. It involves time, effort, money and supplies that are not always easy to find around here. Sometimes baking involves oddball ingredients like pickle juice and mayonnaise in a cheesecake.
That said, making such desserts can be a fun group activity that won’t typically get you into trouble. They’re nice for holidays, birthdays or graduations from classes.
Here is one recipe that everyone can try.
NO-BAKE PRISON BROWNIES
- A kitchen: A bunk, a footlocker or table will do.
- Cooking tools: a durable plastic bag (for crushing things up); a cylindrical deodorant bottle (also for crushing); several spoons, sporks or “recovered” plasticware; and plastic bowls.
- Plastic gloves (for mixing)
- A serving dish: Find an empty cardboard ramen noodle soup case, line it with plastic wrap, and secure with tape.
- 8 bags of chocolate chip cookies (5 oz, Uncle Al’s brand)
- 2 duplex cookies (5 oz, Uncle Al’s brand)
- 5 packs of peanut M&Ms
- 5 powdered cocoa packets
- 10 cream cheese cups (1 oz, Kraft brand)
- 5 peanut butter squeezes (2 oz, Squeezums brand)
- 5 chocolate pudding cups (3.5 oz, Kraft brand)
- 1 pack of gummy bears (6 oz, Family Choice brand)
- 15 sugar packets
Note: You may have noticed that there are no strange ingredients involved in the creation of these brownies. If you want to try adding pickle juice, mayonnaise or sesame seeds to this, however, go right ahead. It probably won’t break the recipe, provided the additions aren’t excessive.
- Separate the duplex cookies, scraping the filling into a bowl and tossing the cookie parts into your durable plastic bag.
- Using the cylindrical deodorant bottle like a rolling pin, crush up all the cookies in the bag. You may need to do this in shifts, depending on how big (or thick) the bag is.
- Scoop out all of the pudding and squeeze all of the peanut butter into the big bag full of crushed cookies. Mix it real good until it resembles dough. Your plastic gloves may be helpful at this point. Set the dough aside.
- Crush your M&Ms by (gently) throwing the packets to the ground a few times. Don’t throw them too hard or the package will break, sending shattered M&Ms everywhere. Set aside.
- Scoop all of the cream cheese into the bowl with the filling from the cookies. Add all of the sugar and all of the cocoa. Stir aggressively until smooth. Set aside the frosting. Now it’s time to assemble!
- Open three packs of the crushed M&Ms and scatter them on the bottom of the ramen noodle soup case.
- Spread the dough evenly across the bottom of the soup case. Gloves may be handy for this, but spoons work too.
- Spread the frosting evenly on top of the dough.
- Sprinkle the remaining crushed M&Ms on top of the frosting (Warning: if you wait too long before serving the brownies, the colors from the candy shells will run, making your dessert look super trippy. Maybe that’s not a warning as much as a recommendation.)
- Arrange the gummy bears on top of the nearly finished brownies. They can be evenly spaced, or you can have them acting out scenes that make you and your friends shoot milk out of your noses.
- Slice and serve to 10 to 12 of your best friends.
After all that effort and money — this endeavor costs about $35 — wouldn’t it just make more sense to purchase a quarter-sheet pan of cake from the dining hall?
Yes, it would. But it wouldn’t be as much fun.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.