The supremacy of Iowa's scotcheroo
Editor's note: This story originally published in March 2017 as part of the Register's Iowa Pride series.
Scotcheroo season may possibly be the most wonderful time of the year. It's an extra-special moment when a dessert that’s easy to make, handy to eat and impressive to kids from 1 to 92 reigns supreme.
“It’s impossible to resist a scotcheroo,” said Darcy Dougherty Maulsby, an expert on Iowa’s culinary history. And they're hard to miss when they’re in season: Scotcheroos are infamous for peppering tables at birthday parties, graduation and holiday get-togethers and church potlucks.
Like a Rice Krispies Treat on steroids, scotcheroos take the basic concept of the Krispies treat and candify it by adding peanut butter to the bar and a melted chocolate-and-butterscotch topping.
“It ends up being like a chewy candy more than a bar, honestly, but it still has the crisp of the Rice Krispies Treat,” Maulsby said.
History isn’t clear as to where the scotcheroo was invented, Maulsby said, but she’s fairly sure that even if Iowa isn’t where this peanut-buttery dessert was created, it’s certainly the epicenter of scotcheroo enjoyment.
First made popular in the post-World War II period, the supremacy of the scotcheroo has less to do with any of Iowa’s historically dominant ethnic groups — the Germans, the Dutch and the Scandinavians all love desserts, Maulsby said — but more to do with the fact that the recipe first appeared on the side of a Rice Krispies box.
“The back-to-the-land and make-it-from-scratch ideas that are popular today were not at all the en vogue way to cook in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s,” Maulsby said. “At that time, the sophisticated cooks were using convenience foods and processed foods and modern products. So taking a recipe off a box like that would show you were on the cutting edge.”
“Frankly, it would have been trendier to bring a pan of scotcheroos to a party than a homemade apple pie,” she added.
The scotcheroos’ staying power comes down to the simplicity of the recipe, Maulsby said. All one has to do is mix together sugar, corn syrup, peanut butter, vanilla and Rice Krispies and top that sticky concoction with melted chocolate and butterscotch. Voilà: scotcheroo.
“When it’s easy to have almost all the ingredients on hand whether you live in the smallest town or one of the metro areas, that’s one of the hallmarks of Iowa cooking,” Maulsby said. “I mean, when you live in a town of 1,700 people, like I do, you can’t just run to a gourmet grocery store, you have to use what’s on hand at the Lake City Food Center. And the Lake City Food Center definitely has all the ingredients for scotcheroos.”
Don’t confine your scotcheroo dreams to a 9-by-13 inch pan, Maulsby cautioned. Scotcheroos provide a fantastic opportunity to get creative with ease: “Take a heavy-duty cookie cutter and make them into whatever shape you want or make them into little truffles by covering them with chocolate.”
“Iowans are busy, practical people, we want tasty food that we can take just a small extra twist with to give it that ‘wow’ factor,” Maulsby said. “We want to do our bake sales right, we want to show up, so we take something like a Rice Krispies Treat and make it into a scotcheroo and then we take a scotcheroo and make it into a truffle.
“We Iowans are serious about taking our desserts to the next level!”
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1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 ½ cups peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 cups crisped rice cereal
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
Combine sugar and corn syrup. Cook until mixture boils. Stir in peanut butter and vanilla. Add cereal and stir until well blended. Press mixture into a buttered, 9-inch by 13-inch pan. Let cool. Mix the chocolate chips and butterscotch chips together and microwave for 3 minutes. Stir until smooth. Spread over cooled bars.