Archive for September, 2006

One Chocolate Syringe, Please

Thursday, September 28th, 2006
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I’m not the type of person who can see a shop sign that reads Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man and just keep walking. Upon entering, I found myself in one of the most over-the-top, overwhelming spaces that I’ve encountered in NYC. Everything is some shade of chocolate, and most things are chocolate in this 5,000 square foot space near Union Square. At the crossroads of the gift shop, pastry counter, and restaurant areas, you’ll see bins full of hot chocolate powders, a glass-topped table full of truffles, chocolate cakes, chocolate marshmallow pizzas, chocolate bar-filled bagels ready to be warmed, shelves of chocolate candies in boxes, and… sandwiches. There are fantastic pictures here. It feels a bit gimmicky, but it all comes out on just this side of charming — if you know that one thing is true within this chocolate fog, it’s that there’s obviously a passion for celebrating chocolate here.

I kept wondering, “Who are these people, and how did they come to do so much with chocolate???” This article explains that Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner launched it ten years ago in Israel. They sold it to a large food manufacturing company that has been opening franchises around the world. Apparently, Oded Brenner has taken on the Max Brenner role. He is bald.

So, I saw that Chocolate Syringe in a display case.

Me: “What’s in the chocolate syringe?”
Counterperson, with a shrug: “Chocolate.”
Me: “Just…”
Counterperson: “Chocolate.”
Me, accepting the partial truth, and still overwhelmed: “How are you supposed to eat it?”
Counterperson tipped her head back and mimed injecting her mouth with a syringe.

Convinced, I ordered one. I saw someone fill a fresh syringe from a chocolate vat, and he assured me that it would remain melted. I took it home, noticed that I got 60 ml’s, took the topper off, and injected my mouth with that fabulous burst of chocolate. It has the consistency of a slightly fluffy hot fudge (even after it cools), and it’s crazy fun to eat (and believe me, I was skeptical). The internet tells me that the restaurant lists it on the kids menu, but if you ever find yourself here, don’t let them have all fun.

A Weekend in Colorado

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

I met up with Chad in Colorado this weekend to attend a friend’s wedding. I love visiting different parts of the country and seeing firsthand what people are doing with food and drinks, so here’s what we came across in Loveland, Fort Collins, and Boulder (in addition to that fantastic slice of pumpkin wedding cake that I had)…

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Johnson’s Corner was named one of the ten best breakfast spots in the world by Travel + Leisure Magazine in 1998. It’s a full-service truck stop that’s been around since 1952, and has just that sort of charm. The service was very friendly, too.

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Hand-Breaded Chicken-Fried Steak, Hash Browns, Two Eggs, (the remains of) Pumpkin Pie, Biscuit and Gravy, and Pancake. This wasn’t our breakfast… This was my breakfast. As I worked my way through it, Chad said “Oh my god, I don’t know how you’re doing it… That’s awesome!” That’s pretty much how I felt about the Chicken-Fried Steak. It had the best breaded coating that I’ve encountered — thick enough to have its own uniform and slightly crunchy body, but with a good give and an addictive taste, spiked by a bit of pepper.

I also liked the pumpkin pie a lot. Not too sweet and not too custardy, it tasted of fresh pumpkin. I don’t need anything else. Of course, this place bills itself as a truck stop, so you accept the spray whipped cream as part of the territory; or you don’t, and simply scrape it off.

The pancake, eggs, and hash browns were pretty standard.

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Biscuits and Gravy, Hash Browns, Scrambled Eggs. Their biscuits were just a little flaky, but more soft on the inside — almost springy, but not tough and with a slightly crisp crust. They were different and I liked them a lot — especially with the very peppery gravy and sausage on top of it.

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Cinnamon Roll. The day before, we stopped in to get a cinnamon roll, which is their “world-famous” signature item, to go. I liked it. It was balanced — chewy and spicy-sweet, but not cloying; its bottom was just syrup-steeped, but not swimming in syrup like some cinnamon rolls. One of my pet peeves with cinnamon rolls is when the top center swirl part is tough and over-baked, but this one was uniformly baked. They sell them to go in plastic clamshell containers, and they had a microwave to heat it up a little.

A couple friends had one fresh with their breakfast that morning, and commented that it was a bit too moist. It was served still hot, so I could see that. Like most other breads, I think it needs to cool down to get to its proper consistency (and then reheating it slightly is fine), unless you want that extreme gooeyness.

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This is the Johnson’s Corner Chapel across the street.

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We also went to the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, which makes Fat Tire, Blue Paddle, Sunshine, and others. I was amazed by the strong, unusual flavors in some of their beers — like bananas, figs, and cloves (Abbey Belgian Style Ale), coffee (1554 Enlightened Black Ale), smokiness (Mothership Wit Organic Wheat Beer), steak (Lips of Faith), and citrus vinegar (La Folie, Wood Aged Sour Brown — to me, the sour patch kid of beers; no one could drink more than a few brave sips of it). The Sunshine Wheat Beer was the most neutral of my lot — smooth, with just a slight tinge of orange. And btw, the tasting of 4 beers of your choice is free. The tasting room has a groovy lodge/bar vibe.

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They had postcard/coasters that they’d mail for free for you if you filled them out there. Congratulations to those across the country whose addresses I remembered off the top of my head — my tipsy thoughts will be arriving in your mailboxes soon.

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Buffalo Ribeye with Burgundy Mushrooms and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes. At Henry’s Pub in downtown Loveland.

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I just had to include this Bailey’s over ice and Stoli Blueberry with Ginger Ale at the Sports Station Bar b/c they cost only $8. And I find that almost any fruit flavored vodka is delicious with ginger ale.

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My new baker’s biceps actually hurt my shuffleboard prowess. I don’t know my own strength anymore. At least they helped me out in foosball.

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In Boulder, we walked around the Pearl St shopping area, and had lunch at the Boulder Cafe.

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Italian-Style French Dip – Garlic Toast Topped with Shaved Prime Rib, Mozzarella Cheese, Rosemary au Jus, and Fruit. I was impressed by the description on the menu, offput by the simple appearance, and then dazzled by the fantastic taste and texture. The bread was spot-on crusty and just a tad dry (so that it soaked up the jus well), the meat moist and juicy, the garlic spread pungent, the mozzarella melted, and the support from the rosemary spectacular.

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Cheddar and Colorado Ale Fondue w/ Apples, Bread, Jalapeno Chicken Sausage, and Potatoes. The fondue had a loose, saucy consistency, rather than cheesy and stringy. I just couldn’t trust it, even though the flavor was fine.

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Chocolate Guinness Cake. A wet consistency and an off flavor.

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A Powell’s Sweet Shoppe is opening in Boulder. I didn’t realize that it’s a franchise — I really like the Powell’s in Healdsburg, where you can find anything from gummy hamburgers to single origin chocolates.

There was also a very good kitchen and home store called Peppercorn. I got a bag of Goji Berries (known as wolfberries to some and “the most famous berry in the Himalayas”) to experiment with when I start baking on my own again.

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We also stopped into Belvedere Belgian Chocolate Shop, which is connected to the Bookcliff Vineyards wine tasting bar. I was surprised by the number of wine tastings available in Boulder. I didn’t get a chance to try one, but I’ll keep my eyes out for a Colorado wine in the future.

So, I was a bit torn about Belvedere. They had some interesting truffles for sale — like lavender, cayenne, etc — but their chocolates were riddled with air bubbles from improper molding. The bubbles wouldn’t affect the flavor, but I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them. So, I got a Bequet salted caramel (creamy, but needed more salt) and the chocolate bars above (with a “what I can’t see now won’t hurt me” logic and a strong hope that — surprise! they’re properly done). Too bad they both had air bubbles, but the chocolate tasted very good. I believe that Belvedere uses unsweetened Callebaut chocolate and additional ingredients to make them. The dark chocolate had notes of berry and melted quite smoothly; the milk was creamy and rich. They made me wish that I’d tried the truffles and that they didn’t have bubbles that mar their appearance.

Sapa – New York

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

I happened to be browsing around City Search on Sunday night when I came upon Sapa. I was reading their menu when I happened to look up at the Iron Chef: America episode that was playing on my TV. The challenger was Sapa’s own Patricia Yeo. I liked the way that she handled the tofu, so I vowed to visit her restaurant as soon as possible. I went on Tuesday night.

I think of Sapa as a first date restaurant. The kind where the couple can’t commit to a place to go to until one of them mentions this restaurant called Sapa that’s supposed to be fun — that is, it serves French-Southeastern Asian cuisine and cool drinks in a cleverly-lit glowing white and black relief space with pumping music. So, this couple goes, comments on the eclectic menu, orders their food, and never mentions it to each other again amidst their getting to know each other. But silently, to themselves, during low points in the conversation and with an incisiveness similar to their judgments of each other, they discern the triumphs and failures of the dishes in front of them.

The food would warrant a polite end of the night “good” judgment when asked by a date, but with just a little bit more attention to detail, the food could have been great. It was the sloppiness at Sapa that disappointed me. An over-sauced rib appetizer… a fried rice with a sandy texture… an overly sweet and overly reduced Port wine reduction… a sundae that could only be eaten by ingesting spoonfuls of shredded coconut bound by sorbet… a grainy-looking chocolate sabayon. And aesthetically, the plates easily could have had cleaner lines.

But I did love how chopsticks — balanced on small pieces of cinnamon sticks — were part of the place setting. I think chopsticks make everything taste better, and would use them for every meal if they were available.

We were served bread to start. A basket of warm pita with white bean spread and an eggplant dip. I don’t know how they fit in with the menu and why we were served stale pita that was only acceptably soft when it was still warm — or maybe they were supposed to be crunchy crackers when cooled? Some kind of temporal two-in-one deal?  In any case, the eggplant dip was very sweet and wet while the white bean spread was very dry and a little bland. They almost balanced each other out when spread together, but not enough to be truly good.

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Cocoa and Peanut Glazed Spareribs – with Carrot-Orange Pickle. This had a very smooth cocoa flavor that was spiked by the crunchy nuttiness of the peanuts and the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the ribs.  That was wonderful. But there was too much sauce splashing about, and the sour vegetables were too dissonant with the earthy sweetness of the rest of the dish to be enjoyable.

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Halibut. I don’t remember the full components of this dish. I do remember that the halibut was juicy, but seemed almost raw in the middle.

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Coriander Crusted Tuna with Braised Oxtails, Port Wine Reduction, and Baby Arugular Salad. I order fish much more than I order red meat at restaurants, but it’s not because I don’t like red meat — it’s because I usually don’t want to slog my way through a lot of it. So, I loved this combination of pungent tuna and saucy oxtails — the flavors and textures seem to take up where the other had left off. The peppery arugula was the perfect foil for them both. I could have done without the Port wine reduction, though, which detracted from the party with its one-note sweetness and sticky thickness.

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Cod Roasted in Parchment with Porcini Mushrooms and Roasted Mushrooms. Good, but again, the fish seemed undercooked.

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Fried Rice w/ Duck Confit. This had a delicious woodsy sort of a flavor, even if I didn’t notice any pieces of duck. I wanted to eat a lot of it, but something sandy in it prevented me. I asked the waiter, who had mentioned that he’d been asked about it before, and he said that it was probably the Szechuan peppers. So, they know it’s sandy, but they… serve… it… anyway…

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Chocolate Caviar with Chocolate-Rum Sabayon, Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. I’m not convinced that the chocolate caviar works aesthetically… and the warm sabayon was curiously grainy-looking… and the cookie was curiously chilled.  Otherwise, it tasted fine, with subtle variations on chocolate.
As for the Chocolate Chip Cookies, they were brought out from the kitchen on a sheet pan so that guests can take some. A cool yet homey touch, and the cookies tasted good… even they were rather misshapen.

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SAPA Sundae – Pineapple and Coconut Sorbets, Vanilla Ice Cream, Caramel Sauce. I really liked the chocolate covered pretzels stuck into the top of this, which were able to get a fair amount of sorbet and coconut adhered to them for a great flavor and creamy crunchiness. But there was an avalanche of coconut in the glass. And since the glass was so narrow, there was no escaping it, so no opportunity to try the sorbets or sauce on their own. It got monotonous to eat.

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Off to the Races – Woodford Reserve Bourbon muddled with Drunken Cherries, Chambord, and Fresh Lemon Juice. This had an excellent initial bite of bourbon, but this glass also had an avalanche in it — of seeds. I’m guessing that they were from muddled raspberries… not cherries? The seeds made it difficult to drink smoothly from the straw.

Otherwise, the Lychee Bellini was good (with lychee puree and lavender water blended with sparkling wine), but I think I would have liked less lychee puree, more lavender flavor, and more sparkling wine flavor — the wine only contributed a sly bubbly texture here.

The Cosmo was very juicy — not very strong on the alcohol.

I had an Apple Ice Wine from Canada with dessert, and I liked its blend of cider and dessert wine flavors.

A Typical Day Off in New York

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

New York is my favorite city in the world, so instead of jetting around in public transportation or taxis, I like to walk around so that I can immediately explore anything that looks interesting. I loosely base my routes around bakeries and stores that I want to check out. When I have a whole day off, I actually like aiming for places that are far away from each other, b/c it gives me exercise and a chance for my palate and stomach to relax between tastings.

So, today, as I often do, I started off with a cupcake in mind…

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Buttercup Bake Shop, at 2nd Ave & 51 St. Cupcakes are everywhere in NY, and I’m determined to track down the best one. I don’t have a “control cupcake” — it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s vanilla cake/icing or chocolate cake/icing because I theoretically like all those combinations. I just want a delicious, moist cake with flavorful icing (with conf sugar buttercream — not Italian, Swiss, or French buttercream, b/c I just don’t like ’em). The most common letdown is a dry cake… like this one, unfortunately. The icing didn’t taste very chocolate-y, either, so the whole result was pretty bland. Too bad. My cupcake search continues.

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Banana Pudding. I have a sentimental spot for banana pudding — the Magnolia Bakery version was my big discovery of 1999, and I made it countless times after I moved back to Chicago for college (it was probably the first and only dessert that I made for years); it now also reminds me of the entremet cake that I made in culinary school.

Buttercup is owned by an ex-partner of Magnolia, so it made sense that this was here. This version was very thick — the pudding component itself, but it was also packed with Nilla Wafers and banana slices. Texturally, it was too much for me, like a traffic jam in a cup. I wished that the pudding was a little fluffier and that it had more room to breathe amongst the cookies and bananas. The flavor was nice, though (infused with banana, with hints of sweetened condensed milk and vanilla).

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Then, on to Fauchon, at Park & 57th St, whose hot pinkness can be seen from blocks away. They only had a few pastries out at about 10:45, so I got these two petit fours and walked to the plaza in front of FAO Schwartz, at 5th Ave & 58th St, to eat them.

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The Pistachio Eclair was pretty bland (tasted of… sugar) and oddly dry yet chewy. Maybe it was old.

The Key Lime Tart had an initial creamy flash of lime that dissipated into an eggy taste; the lime almost, but never quite took off. I think that the construction is really interesting, though — it looked like that sphere was formed by joining two hemispheres of molded curd. I think it would have been even better if it had been on a crust that really showed off its roundness, rather than this slightly larger round one — the curd was off-centered and looked like it was in baggy clothes when it should have been svelte. It would be good to try to smooth the seam a little more, too.

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I’ve had these caramels before, and they’re rich, chewy, and flavorful; I could only wish that they included their salted caramels in the box, too. I didn’t have any today, though, b/c yes, Chad, they’re for you.

Then through Central Park and this gazebo to get to the southwest corner of the park…

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And to Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. I’ve been there a couple times and will write a full post about it later, but here’s a grape tart that I had there today as a preview…

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And then I walked up the Upper West Side on Broadway. I wandered around Fairway, at 74th St, a bustling gourmet grocery market with an especially fabulous outdoor produce display.

Then I happened upon Beard Papa Sweets Cafe, at 76th St, which I vaguely remembered reading about — there are a few of these Japanese chain stores around NY and they’re known for their cream puffs, so I got an Earl Grey Milk Tea one (the other choice was vanilla)…

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Light and crispy (very admirable on such a humid day as today), with a smooth pastry cream inside that not only had a balanced sweet Earl Grey flavor, but also had a hint of a lemon tang. And it’s just me, but I don’t like the way that conf sugar and choux pastry taste together, though, so that was my only issue with this.

And then found myself in front of H & H Bagels, and got a just-perfectly-chewy sesame bagel, which was the closest thing that I had to a lunch…

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And then to the wonderful Zabar’s. After browsing the grocery section, I spent a lot of time upstairs, inspecting and collecting baking paraphernalia, like tart tins, a food mill, magi-cake strips, silicone cake pan liners, a triple sifter, and some miscellaneous, which I squeezed into my backpack before pointing myself back downtown.

I noticed Ottomanelli Bros, at Amsterdam & 78th St, and was excited b/c I was at a dinner party last night where I was served an amazing New York strip steak from Ottomanelli. But I’ve since found out that that steak came from Ottomanelli Brothers at York & 82nd St. There’s also an Ottomanelli Meat Market in the West Village. I can’t tell if they’re related.

And then I just walked a lot — down to NY Cake & Baking Distribution, at 26th St & 5th Ave. They have everything that people who enjoy decorating cakes would need, and I was interested to see that they have gelatin sheets, acetate, and glucose for sale.

And then into the 18 miles of books lining the shelves of The Strand, at Broadway & 12th St. A while later, I came outside with Cakes by Maida Heatter and The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion — b/c soon I’ll be back in Napa and eager to bake on my own.
Then I read for a while before dinner at Sapa, at 6th Ave & 24th St. I got a ride home, and I admit that was fine with me at that point. I’ll post about the actual meal later.

I’m Kinda Ripped

Monday, September 18th, 2006

After two weeks of externing at the bakery in breads, I’ve been thinking about the name of Shuna’s eggbeater blog, and how I may as well call myself flour-mover — I shape, load, unload, and package a lot of it on most days. But it wasn’t until dinner tonight, when I was struck by a slight chill, that I rubbed my arms with my hands to warm up… and discovered that I’ve acquired bicep muscles — the likes of which I’ve never gotten as the result of any gym regimen. And then, later, when I was washing my hands in the bathroom, I noticed the reflection of some respectably striated forearm muscles. And when posed together, with a flexed arm, even other people were impressed…