Mini Confectioner's Haggis - a Tale of Experience Design

Pot Luck. A team-building tradition in organizations large and small, formal and informal, for centuries! About once a year we have one at work, and when they came around asking for volunteers to bring a dish I was glad to sign up. I felt like I hit the jackpot and drew a coveted dessert slot. One quick trip to Costco for some macademia nut cookies and I'd be good to go!

Or so I thought.

The day before the luncheon a colleague said "Did you know the pot luck was ethnically-themed?"

A chill ran down my spine as I casually replied "Why no, what gives you that idea?"

"The posters they put up to advise the locations of the appetizers, entrees, and desserts."

I like eating ethnic food, but my skills in cooking ethnic food start and end with Sheboygan-style bratwurst! I had a choice: a) make this into a fun learning experience, or b) make a horrible mockery of the concept.

Have you ever played the game Balderdash (or it's open-source predecessor, Dictionary)? The concept is simple. A group of 3 or more players gets a dictionary and some paper and pens. One person randomly selects a word from the dictionary that the other players are unlikely to know. The person reads and spells the word to the group. Each player then writes a fictious definition of the word on a slip of paper, and the word selector writes down the real definition. The slips are passed to the selector, who reads them aloud. People then vote for which definition they think is the real one. Players score points when their bogus definition is chosen. It's a real challenge to write a good fake definition. You need to devise something that fits the sound of the word, and something that sounds unusual, but not too outlandish. You also need to factor in the kinds of associations other players use in making their guesses (Are they relying on phonetics to discern meaning? Do they have biases for length of definition or certain adjectives?).

Horrible mockery Balderdash-ethnic-food-style it would be! And for added excitement, I challenged myself to come up with a concept that used Hostess-style snacks as a base and required less than 5 minutes prep time.

First concept: Redneck Petit Fours - cut up some Twinkies and decorate them with a can of cake decorator frosting. Workable, but too much of a cliche.

Second concept: Mini Confectioner's Haggis - similar concept using Ho-Ho's and leftover chocolate syrup from a recent ice cream social. Yes, this one had possibilities. It was a real ethnicity with a caricature reputation for questionable foods such as the haggis itself. But wait, the caricature Scot also has a reputation for being cheap, so instead of Ho-Ho's let's see if Little Debbie has a cheaper alternative.

Yes! Cue heavenly choir!

Chocolate syrup and pre-swirled frosting! The blind squirrel has found his acorn!!

Cut these babies in half and stick a toothpick in each piece and you'd have a workable mini confectioner's haggis. But who would know what they are?

We could just put a little name card next to the plate, but pot luckers would be more likely to fall for believe in MCH's if we provided some additional details about them. It's what they call 'provenance' on the Antiques Roadshow. Where did Mini Confectioner's Haggis come from, and who the heck would call a dessert a haggis? Here's what I came up with:
"Originally developed in EuroDisney test kitchens as a fingerfood snack, these delicacies have since become staples at Robert Burns dinners worldwide."
Those crazy Europeans eat lots of stuff us 'Mericans don't, and a specific well-known organization sounds even more plausible. And what else do you bring for dessert to a Robert Burns dinner - besides whiskey? Yes, that'll do.

So now we have a cheap, premade, snack cake - based recipe that embodies the Mini Confectioner's Haggis concept under $5 with less than 5 minutes prep time. We've got provenance to help sell the concept, and we're ready for the event itself.

A couple more things went into the actual prep. First, presentation makes a difference, so you don't just want to randomly place the MCHs on a paper plate. Use a real dinner plate and arrange the MCHs in concentric circles with the cut sides facing out to the edge of the plate. It doesn't take any extra time, but looks much better. Second, sprinkling a little powdered sugar on the final product partly covers the obviously pre-swirled frosting. They are now unrecognizable to the untrained eye.

So how did they fare at the actual pot luck event?

I first showed them to a couple of colleagues who thought I was lying about where I got them, until I produced the box. At that point they burst in laughter! So far, so good. I set out the MCHs and a tent card with the name plate and provenance and went back to work. The woman who was monitoring the dessert station came to me and said "Who the &%#$ serves haggis for dessert?" I explained the story and she, too, laughed heartily. It's a good thing I told her the whole story, because she later reported that people largely reacted in one of two ways: the revulsion-turned-mirth reaction she had or "Ooh, something with toothpick! Mmmm."

And they were gone in no time!

posted by Mike at 11:16 AM


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