A friend brought up an interesting point the other day. She said, “Why do Texans refer to all soft drinks as Coke?” And while it’s true, I don’t have an answer for that. (Do you?) But what’s even more puzzling is that Coke isn’t even a Texan product—it’s from Georgia. Our local soda is Dr Pepper, born in Waco in 1885 one year before Coca-Cola was conceived.
Dr Pepper turns 117 years old this week, and the town of Dublin, Texas is having a weeklong celebration. If you’re not familiar with Dublin, here’s a bit of background. The bottling plant in Dublin is the oldest Dr Pepper bottler in the world. But what makes it even more special is that it’s one of the few plants that still bottle Dr Pepper with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. And yes, it tastes much, much better. In certain circles, drinking a Dublin Dr Pepper is akin to sipping a magical elixir.
Like all precious things, Dublin Dr Pepper is not widely available. In New York City, you’ll have more luck finding Big Red than Dublin Dr Pepper (though you can order it online). For many years, there were legal restrictions that prevented the Dublin plant from distributing beyond a 44-mile radius of the small town. Those have been lifted now, but it’s still difficult to find the drink. This stuff is sensational, so demand far outstrips supply. Enter bootleggers and a black market. Robb Walsh recently wrote a brilliant about Dublin Dr Pepper and the people who go to extreme lengths to satisfy their thirst.
In his article, Walsh also talks about cooking with Dublin Dr Pepper, namely his Dr Pepper-marinated tenderloin recipe. Cooking with soft drinks is nothing new to Southerners as recipes for Coca-Cola cake, 7Up punch and Dr Pepper barbecue sauce abound. Heck, on the Cadbury Schweppes web site there’s a book called, naturally, Cooking With Dr Pepper and 7Up. Most of the recipes are for cakes, sauces and marinades, but one jumped out at me: Dr Pepper peanut brittle.
Texans have a long tradition of putting peanuts in their Dr Pepper. This phenomena, however, is not exclusive to Texas as others in the South are known to put peanuts in their Cokes. To wit, Barbara Mandell sings in her early ’80’s hit “When Country Wasn’t Cool:”
“I remember circlin’ the drive-in
pullin’ up and turnin’ down George Jones
I remember when no one was lookin’
I was puttin’ peanuts in my Coke
I took a lot of kiddin’, ‘cause I never did fit in
now look at everybody tryin’ to be what I was then
I was country, when country wasn’t cool”
That said, Barbara Mandrell is a Texan, so while she used the word “Coke,” she could have very well been singing about putting peanuts in her Dr Pepper. No matter, placing peanuts in your Dr Pepper (or Coke) is done for two reasons. One, the peanuts make your Dr Pepper fizz. And two, it tastes good. The salt from the peanuts cuts the sweetness of the soda, plus it’s entertaining to have a bit of crunch in your mouth as you sip.
So when I saw the recipe for peanut brittle made with Dr Pepper, I had to try it. The flavor did not disappoint, as it was a pleasing combination of sweet and salty with each bite crunchy with peanuts. Instead of being glassy and sharp, however, the texture is creamy—a bit like a praline. But that just means it’s easier on your teeth. As for the Dr Pepper, like most recipes that use it what you’re really getting is the sugar, not too much of the flavor. But this brittle is still a hit and the batch I shared with my colleagues was gone in five minutes.
I’ve recently found a reliable source of Mexican Coke (to the uninitiated, this is Coke made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup) in my neighborhood. I don’t know what the distribution policy is for Mexican Coke, but the Korean deli where I buy it has it hidden away in the back of the store so part of the fun is the feeling I’ve discovered a hidden treasure. But it also tastes better—cleaner and brighter—as sodas made with cane sugar do.
There is talk that with rising corn prices bottlers will return to using cane sugar—a welcome development. In the meantime, if I want Dr Pepper made with cane sugar, I can order it online. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, however, that an enterprising New Yorker will decide to one day bootleg Dublin Dr Pepper here—I know that it would do very, very well. And while we Texans may refer to all sodas as Coke, what we really want is Dr Pepper. Or at least this Texan does.
1 1/4 cups of sugar
3/4 cups of butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne
1/4 cup of Dr Pepper
2 cups roasted and salted peanuts, shelled
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Combine all the ingredients except for the baking soda in a pot, cook on medium heat and bring to a boil stirring often.
When the temperature reaches 290° F, remove from heat and stir in soda. Mixture will foam up and double in size.
Spread mixture thin on baking sheet using a silicone spatula.
Yield: 1 1/2 pounds
Adapted by Lisa Fain from Cooking With Dr Pepper and 7UpLisa Fain