Sunday, December 20, 2009


I rarely cook. I'm single and have a small kitchen and rely on my microwave more than is necessary. A combination of forces this weekend, including a ridiculous snowstorm and the upcoming holiday, have driven me into the kitchen. Yesterday, in addition to the pink popcorn, I made these peanut butter cups, which were good (although tricky), and later I'm going to try making this caramel corn. Or at least I was, until my morning project completely derailed me...both me and my kitchen are currently covered in bits of melted chocolate and coconut, and I had to take a breather.

So - about these needhams. My paternal great-grandmother was something of an awesome cook. The stories my dad tells about her whipping up magnificent chocolate cakes at the drop of the hat are family legends. She died when I was three, but one of my earliest memories is of standing in her pantry on top of a little step stool, watching her pop popcorn, which is what she did whenever I visited. I called her "the popcorn Nana" (literal even then...) to differentiate her from my other Nana, my great-grandmother on my mom's side - who was also an excellent cook in her own right.

One of the things "the popcorn Nana" made for my dad when he was a kid was needhams. I think this is an old Mainer thing, because pretty much anyone not from Maine blanches when they hear the ingredients. Baked potato mixed with coconut and powdered sugar...well, it is a bit of a stretch. When I was younger, there was a company called Seavey's in Lewiston, Maine that used to manufacture these, but they went out of business a few years ago. Their needhams were a good-sized square, individually wrapped in a wax-paperish bag. You could buy boxes of them at the grocery store, and every once and awhile they'd make an appearance during the holidays at our house.

Back in 2005, one of my dad's sisters gave me Nana's recipe for the needhams. Let me just say that when I moved out of that apartment two years later, I was still finding splotches of melted chocolate in cracks and crevices. Dipping sticky coconut in melted chocolate is an under-appreciated art form, is what I'm saying. Luckily, they tasted fine, but they did not in any way resemble the needhams anyone else in my family made.

So this weekend I tried again. Last night I baked the potatoes and made the filling, spreading it out on a pan, and stuck it in the fridge. This time I didn't even TRY for squares and went straight to making little balls before dipping it in the chocolate. The first few looked nice - rustic, handmade, but certainly edible. But after a few dips, the coconut got mixed in with the chocolate, and the next few were a little, well, ploppy looking. Exhibit A:

What is missing from this photo is me, covered in chocolate.

I've stuck the pan of coconut in the freezer, where it is currently sitting, in hopes that it will firm up more and make the dipping easier. The recipe encourages the use of paraffin wax in the chocolate, which I don't use because the idea of it grosses me out a little, but it will give the chocolate a nicer, glossy finish.

If you are motivated and have some time, here's the recipe, complete with my editorials. Let me know how yours come out!

2 medium baked potatoes
4 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 pound shredded coconut
butter size of a pea
1 teaspoon vanilla
24 ounces chocolate chips
1 or 2 squares of paraffin wax (3 inch squares)

Mash hot baked potatoes with the butter, and gradually add the sugar. [Editorial: what turns up in the bowl resembles glue. As far as I know, this is the intended outcome.] Add remaining ingredients. If the mixture is too dry, add more potato. Pat into buttered sheet 9 x 13. [I just lined a cookie sheet with wax paper.]

Chill mixture overnight. Cut into 1" squares. [Good Luck.] Take a portion of squares off the pan and stick the remainder back in the fridge, as these dip best when chilled and not at room temperature. [Amen.]

Melt chocolate chips on top of a double boiler. [I microwaved mine.] Add wax if desired. Dip squares into the chocolate, then place on wax paper to harden up. Since mixture is rather sticky, putting the square on top of a two-prong meat fork to dip into the chocolate seems to work well. [I wouldn't know, as I can't get squares to begin with.]

Needhams freeze well.

Edited to add: sticking the coconut mixture in the freezer about 30 minutes prior to dipping enabled me to get something resembling a square/rectangle. Alas, the freezing made the dipping more difficult, as the chocolate began to set up pretty quickly. I'm thinking that the paraffin wax might be necessary after time.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful story! Can you describe how the potato part tastes? Last night as I was standing outside letting my male bird dog have his final airing, and I was looking at my freeze-drawn Rhododendron, I asked what in the world do mashed potatoes and coconut taste like. :) If I bit into a Needham, would I know I was indulging in potato? I won't be able to try this recipe, so I am curious. What does the potato add to the dessert? Thank you and Happy New Year! Sher in Alaska

Anonymous said...

I, too, embarked on a Needham adventure this Christmas. Where is Seavey's when you need them? Our experiences are remarkably similar. I do use the wax...about 2.5" off the end of the block. Many of my squares more closely resemble blobs than squares and, of course, there are any number of coconut floatees in the melted chocolate that attach themselves to the chocolate coating.

Where was the bridge picture taken? It reminds me of Gannett's Woods in Augusta.

To the first commentor: It soumds weird, but you would never know that the potatoes were there.

Barbara in Raleigh (Maine born and bred)

Halcyon Days said...

Yes, the potato just serves as a "binder" and you don't taste it at all, particularly with the chocolate and coconut.

The photo is actually of Vaughn Woods in Hallowell, of my old haunts when I lived there a few years ago.

Thanks for reading!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer regarding the taste of the potato. I was curious. Sher