Archive for the 'Bakeries/Pastry Shops' Category

Bouchon Bakery’s Cheese Danish Game is On Again

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

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As I drove up to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville on the Thursday morning that I was in Napa, it occurred to me that I’ve been going there for two years now, which means that I’ve been following their cheese danish for the past two years, as well. Yes. Two (2!) years on the Bouchon Bakery cheese danish trail…

The first time I wrote about it on January 19, 2006, I was in love with the rich, muscular dough and bright, tangy flavor.

The second time on March 12 of 2006, the love continued, this time with Chad’s enthusiastic approval and comparison of it to a cloud… A dreamy cloud (ok, I added the “dreamy”).

The third time, in January 2007, (in the “edit”), I was incredibly saddened by a bland flavor and superfluous coarse sugar crystals. My perfect cheese danish was… gone.

But this time, I fell in love all over again.

2The pastry has changed, in fantastic and even surprising ways. First of all, it’s a little smaller, a little rounder… Compact and elegant. The slightly lemony cream cheese filling is piped on top, and there’s a kind of almond filling in the middle (perhaps ground almonds mixed with the cheese fillings?) I normally think that nuts can overwhelm a pastry, and make it heavier, but this works. There’s more dimension to this danish than every before…. AND it’s a cloud again. So light. The dough was not as muscular as before and I was ok with that — it was the definition of a perfectly airy laminated dough, just slightly softened by eggs (which separates the danish from the croissant)

Looking back at my pictures, it looks like there’s less powdered sugar on top, which might be another reason why it’s so strong and true now… I generally dislike powdered sugar because it hurts my teeth upon initial contact and leaves a funky aftertaste in my mouth and a trail of dust on my clothes. Without much of it in the way, the flavor is dead on. There are visible grains of coarse sugar on top, but oddly, I didn’t feel their texture.

I have to admit — I usually don’t finish pastries, and almost never in one sitting. But this danish was gone in no time… and even made me come back from Sonoma county a few hours later so that I could get two more — one for a friend to try and one for the road back to LA.

I think that this could be made at home, and if you’ve ever considered making a laminated dough (croissant/puff pastry/danish), I urge you to try it. It’s fun and just challenging enough, and the results are amazing. Seriously, I wouldn’t go on and on about a cheese danish if it wasn’t fresh, hand-crafted danish garnished just how you like is nothing like the sad swirls of sugared, greasy dough that danishes often exist as today. A great thing, too, is that you can make the dough and freeze it so that you can bake off just as many as you want fresh at a time.

The Chronicles of Napa, Part 1

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

So, last weekend, Chad and I journeyed up to Napa for a wedding… and well, to eat.

First, we rushed off from the Oakland airport to have lunch at Canteen in SF. We paid $3 worth in quarters for the privilege of an hour’s parking, only to arrive at 2:02pm… and be told that they were closed. We’d once had a wonderful lunch there, watching the chef and his assistant cook from our perch at the counter. I remember that teasingly moist skate sandwich well, and still do… b/c my memory remains unclouded by any new dishes there. Sure, I could have mentioned that we’d just flown up from LA, loved the restaurant, and were dying to eat there again (along with their rmg guests)… but the stove was empty and I felt like it was right to accept that their shift was over. I hope someone used up the 53 rmg minutes on the meter, so that I can stop regretting my wasted laundry quarters.

In any case… to Tartine! Where parking was free and there was practically no line at 2:30 in the afternoon!

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Their Croque Monsieur is one of the better consolations you could come across. They’re displayed unassumingly on the counter, but once their heated up and cut into…

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…they’re beacons of comfort and deliciousness. The secret is in the bechamel sauce, which soaks into the bread to provide a silky canvas upon which the Niman ranch ham, gruyere cheese, thyme, and pepper play. The bread is also just soft enough, even though it looks like it’d be hard to cut into.

Unfortunately, Chad’s Ham and Gruyere Sandwich was rather soaked through with mustard, and he only felt fortunate that the nasal passages behind his nose hadn’t caught fire by the end of the sandwich.

And my pickled carrot was shockingly spicy… which I liked.

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The chocolate eclair was also a little funky. The pastry cream was very runny and the glaze very thick. I made a mess of myself trying to eat it, and turning it upside-down helped only until the pastry cream started spurting out the sides. The glaze was also a little too harsh with cocoa flavor for the rest of the eclair.

We also had the Lemon Meringue Cake again, but the chiffon cake was too dry for it to do its magic.

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And then to Emeryville, to catch up with the good people at Charles Chocolates, where I worked with the chocolatiers during the holiday season. They now have a retail store which has a seating area that overlooks the chocolatiers at work, and where tours are given.

I was lucky enough to be lavished with the peanut butterflies and lemon-pistachio clusters that I once daily rationed to myself… 12+ hr days were never so much fun before. I also got a jar of their newly offered Meyer Lemon Marmalade. It’s made with just organic meyer lemons and sugar — no commercial pectin, so it has a slightly more delicate set and the lemon flavor is bright and delicious. It’s nice on bread… or just on a spoon, if you’re me.

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By the time we got to Napa later that night, I was too excited to laze into the hotel room, so Chad and I went to have dessert at Redd, where Nicole Plue is the pastry chef (formerly of Julia’s Kitchen). We shared Sweet Corn Fritters with Cherries and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. I loved how creamy the fritters were inside, and everything was good on its own but I wasn’t totally in love with everything on the plate together — even though the subtle yet brilliant apricot sauce did its best to tie it together. I do like corn as a dessert, but I think it’s hard to match its flavor and intensity with other components. I also really liked the corn pop-like puffed corn kernels. I wonder if they do that themselves… and how.

It was cool to have microgreens on a dessert dish, and actually, they probably fit in best with the corn according to my taste buds. And the texture of the leaves was something novel and nice in a dessert. When we inquired, we were told that they were baby cilantro, which was interesting b/c they neither looked nor tasted like mature cilantro.

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The next day, we set out on an exploratory mission to Wild Flour Bread, committed to basking in the scenery, turning onto mysterious roads, and otherwise finding pleasure in getting lost.

We happened upon the historical Kenwood Depot this way.

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A walk around back brought me under a canopy of what I thought were possibly long-lingering apricots, blushing orange in the sun.

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So, when I reached out to touch them, I was surprised by their smooth texture… and the fact that they were plums. I’m not sure which variety. Rather small and yellow, with a smooth honeyed taste, a bit like greengages. If anyone cares to guess what they were, please let me know.

There were also thorny blackberry bushes rambling here and there around the tree and fence. If only we’d also come across some puff pastry and an oven, I think we would have had the galettes of our lives.

As a city dweller, even this little bit of wild fruit chase was enough to give a glow to the morning. Even when I lived in Napa, I realized that for all the lush landscape, it’s hard to feel truly outdoorsy without some effort. Driving through it or walking past it on the way inside a winery is far more common, unfortunately, if you live in an apartment.

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Once we made it to Wild Flour Bread, we got three loaves for our lunch. All were still hot from the oven, including this gloriously chunk-laden fougasse. We also got a goat flat and the egyptian, with a cinnamon bun-like form flavored with fig, ginger, and pear. All wonderful.

And this was the first time that we wandered into the beautiful garden behind the bakery, and next to the pile of wood used in the oven. It’s full of vegetables, berries, and flowers… and just enough wildness.

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Our little traipse in the garden must have given us time to digest, b/c we went to Patisserie Angelica in Sebastopol for dessert. On the left was the cleverly-designed Peanut Envy, with peanut butter, caramel and nuts in a cylinder of chocolate, and on the right was the key lime tart. Both were flavorful and fresh, and miraculously, completely consumed.

An East Coast Weekend: From Fried Green Tomatoes to Wiffle Ball

Saturday, July 7th, 2007
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I went home to the New Jersey to surprise my Mom for her birthday last week, and in between wiffle ball games with my brothers, I scavenged for food in the area, including a brief trip to New York. So, here are the food highlights… and then some.

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At Momofuku in NYC, the Fried Green Tomatoes with Anchovies, Chervil, and Kimchi was one of the most boldly delicious plates of food that I’ve had in a long time. The perfect bite involved the cold and spicy kimchi hitting your tongue first, followed closely by a piping hot wedge of green tomato that crunches open to let loose its almost molten interior, and then finished with the sharp salty tang of the slightly chewy anchovies and chervil. It reminds you how much flavor food can have. Even though most dishes contain elements of crunch/chew/salt/hot/cold, this was one of the few that made it seem special, like an elaborate balancing act. And now I much prefer the wedges of fried green tomatoes to slices; there’s more room for flavor and texture that way.

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Unfortunately, my Momofuku Ramen, which ironically came out in better focus than the FGT’s, was insipid at best. Everything in it seemed over-cooked and tired. During last year’s visit, my bowl had been perfect, bordering on transcendental.

And I got to sit at the counter directly in front of the cooks, which was great entertainment.

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The caramel ice cream sandwich from ‘Wichcraft in Bryant Park was boring and very sweet… though there was a ballerina for entertainment.

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I went to Columbus Circle to get something from Bouchon Bakery at 5pm on Sunday, but the prices stood out more than the small variety of food remaining ($4.75 for a donut, $3.75 for a linzer cookie??). I didn’t get anything.

I was amused that Per Se had ratatouille on the menu, echoing Thomas Keller’s involvement in the Pixar movie.

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Back in NJ, Umberto Pizzeria in Fair Haven is my pizza of choice. It’s a mom & pop pizza shop with a Sicilian pizza that has a gooey top, pillowy middle, and crunchy bottom. They don’t deliver, but we’ve been taking it out for years. Their NY-style is also quite nice.

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The Steak au Poivre at Avenue in Long Branch was velvety and juicy, and satisfied my steak craving.

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The restaurant is on the water above the beach that now has palm trees (!).

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I also wandered into my parents’ garden and yard, in search of any and all things edible among the beguiling greenery and flowers.

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I was delighted to discover that the cherry tree that I used to be only vaguely aware of is actually a sour cherry tree.

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My parents had already picked most of them for liqueurs, but I had plans to make a pie, or compote if need be, the next day with the rmg few… but they disappeared overnight! Either by the birds or spoilage, I guess.

At least this one will be forever in mid-bite…

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Then there were the black raspberries…

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And the wild black raspberries. The immediate gratification of impromptu berry-picking is one of the greatest pleasures I know of.

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There were blueberries in the making.

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And apples.

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And pears.

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And there are always more flowers…

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One Day in Napa on May 5

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007
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Thanks to special deals from Southwest, Chad and I were able to indulge my wily scheme to visit Napa (and Sonoma!) for one day. No hotel… mostly movement. We flew out of Los Angeles at 8am, and we flew out of Oakland at 8pm. It was a tight schedule, but everything went like clock-work — the 4 shuttles, 2 planes, and 1 rental car. There was the issue of the collapsed freeway, but that only added a tolerable amount of traffic.

It’s been 3 months since I moved away, and I was so eager to remember the day that I took pictures of everything that I could. I’ve compiled them into an album on Snapfish of 136 photos with some captions (sorry, registration required). They are snapshots, not composed photographs. The majority of them were taken from the passenger seat of our rental car, going as fast as Chad deemed fit. It’s amazing how many of them are in focus, and even contain pieces of what I was aiming at. I like to think they fit well on the web, which reveals and preserves so much of day-to-day life around the world. I recommend slideshow mode. This was what it looked like to drive around Wine Country on May 5.

I did miss some things, though, like the two girls in Sonoma walking around with a youtube-inspired sign that said “free hugs” on one side.

Since this is a food blog, I don’t want to bury all my leads, so these were the food and drink goings on…

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The top sirloin burger at the girl & the fig in Sonoma (here are previous posts). The cambozola option is the way to go with this burger, but bacon’s optional. I love the way this burger tastes, but as always, the subtle genius is in the Dutch crunch roll. It gives a satisfying crunch, but its inner softness marries it well with the other elements in the burger. I’ve read that a burger bun is ideally as soft as the burger meat, and I agree… and I can admire this bun because it bends the rule for a greater good. I suspect that the bit of salt from the cheese and the bit of butter from the bun are also secret weapons in this burger.

Unfortunately, Chad and I ordered our burgers medium-rare, but mine turned up rare and his medium. His was also missing cheese, which is, as I mentioned, mandatory. When informed, the restaurant took the plate back, put a piece of cheese on it in the kitchen, and brought it back out. I’m kind of conflicted about that. While I hate to see food go to waste, a cooled off burger isn’t as much fun to eat and doesn’t melt cheese well. It’s like a permanently defective burger.

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At least our Roederer and Fig Royale (w/ black mission fig syrup) were refreshing. And the bread was freshly soft on the inside and delicious.

And for fellow devotees, the rabbit pappardelle pasta is on the menu again. When I had it last year, it was phenomenal.

Then to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville (previous posts here). Disappointed that their once heavenly Cheese Danishes were still sporting a coarse sugar crystal dusting and looked over-baked, I got a pistachio macaron, and Chad got a caramel.

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The caramel flavor was good — caramel-y, butter-y, salty, but the cookies a bit too dense… and the filling a bit too light and buttery. Instead of a lighter than air wonder, the whole thing felt more like a standard sandwich cookie.

On the other hand, my first bite of the pistachio macaron was spoiled by my need to exclaim that “this is the worst macaron I’ve ever had!” The top crust shattered above the empty pocket of air in the cookie to lead to the way to the hard and chewy remainder of the cookie.

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I went back into the store with it, and told them that it was really tough, like it was stale, and asked for a caramel instead. I would have loved a good pistachio one, but I didn’t want to take another chance with it. I was promptly given a caramel one by a courteous staff member, and was told that it was odd that they were stale b/c they were baked in the last day or two… but in my opinion, that’s a day or two too much for macarons. They don’t age gracefully.

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I wish that the pain au chocolat could have made up for it, but that was off, too…

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It shattered more like a folded cracker than a laminated dough. Perhaps it was old, but it seemed more like a prep issue to me. Either not enough butter was used or it was rolled while too warm to prevent it from laminating properly. At least the chocolate inside it was unaffected, and quite edible.

That was all the food we ate there. You might say that it was a little disappointing, but we’ll probably go back to both the next time we’re up there. This is one reason why I’ve never been comfortable with “reviewing” eateries, and recommending them to other people. None of them will ever have perfectly consistent food. Every dish that leaves the kitchen is different. Every dish is practice to improve.

I can reconcile these facts two ways. The first way reminds me of something that a film professor once told me – the skill of a director is measured by what she edits out of her movie. What’s shown is truly the best and most pertinent. This applies to restaurants in so far as what they choose to put into customer’s hands. It’s quality control. There will always be some rejects in food preparations, but standards vary about what will go out, from restaurant to restaurant, employee to employee, and day to day. There are waste and cost issues with this, so that’s where the “every dish is practice to improve” idea is handy.

Also, there are the emotional ties to restaurants. I happened to like the girl & the fig and Bouchon Bakery as local hangouts and will always have good memories at both, food-wise and personal-wise. Very subjective. Only an offensively bad experience would keep me away from them in the future, and going back to them is nostalgic excitement. Like most of this trip, it was just pleasing to know that they’re still out there.

Anyway, I also bought a couple spices from The Spice House in Chicago while in the campus store at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. According to their labels… Ground Mahleb, which is the pit of sour cherries, is used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern breads, cakes, and pastries… China Tunghing Cassia Cinnamon has a very high 4% natural oil content, which lends it a smoother, sweeter flavor while maintaining a strong spiciness. I’ll report back when I use them. I also bought a fancy cherry pitter at the Sign of the Bear in Sonoma, because I have high hopes for lots of cherries this summer, along with every other fruit I can manage.

I wanted to go to Duckhorn Winery, but it was closed for a special event. I have a good knack for choosing wineries on days that their closed, but luckily, Plumpjack was open.

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The lively rock ‘n roll and conversations that surrounded us mirrored the boldness of the wines, which were a bit tannic and strong for me. Chad was more of a fan.

We also went to Paraduxx, which is is affiliated with Duckhorn. Again, the mood fit the wines. A relaxed, chic tasting room (and patio) matched the smooth and luscious wines.

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Their wines are all fusions of zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

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Be aware that tastings are $15, though it does include table service, spiced almonds, cheese straws, and bottled water.

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Frankly, though, if you’re going to Wine Country with someone else, sharing tastings is the best option. Once you become accustomed to the fact that all wines taste and feel differently, you become eager to see what else is out there — what else wine can do. If you have to drink all the tastings by yourself, you’re more apt to become tipsy and unable to sample more, at least thoughtfully. After a while, the tasting size seems like so much. If you like it, you know you want to buy some or look out for it on the future, and if you don’t, you want it out of your way. For better or for worse, wine tasting is rarely a time to savor, per se. It’s a time to evaluate, and you may as well try as much as you can without getting overloaded. On the other hand, I prefer wineries like this one — with tables and chairs, a mellow ambiance, and pre-filled up glasses — so if you want to savor… well, just go right ahead.

Grilled Cheese Month Is Here!

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

We may not have the most dramatic changes of seasons in Los Angeles, but for the past two years, the month of April has become a season all of its own for me… One that is dramatic, beautiful, and full of glorious cheese.

It was two years ago that I first found out that Clementine, one of my favorite bakery/cafes in Los Angeles, makes at least one specialty grilled cheese sandwich every day during the month of April (closed Sundays). Their most standard version is an aged Vermont Cheddar on Country White Bread, with a choice of bacon and/or roasted cherry tomatoes, but looking at their brochure, it’s obvious that they are mining from a very deep knowledge and love for variations of melty cheese and toasty bread.

The theme of the names this year is based on the idea of a Cheesedance Festival, like a film festival. I went for the inaugural sandwich yesterday, Deconstructing Dagwood, which had cheddar, swiss, pastrami, salami, chopped olives, tomatoes, roasted peppers, pickles, mustard, “and whatever else we can find in the fridge” on a crusty roll. I forgot to take my camera along, but trust me, it was dramatic, beautiful, and full of glorious flavor. It will also be served again on April 24.

Chad and I actually sat down with the schedule to plan when we want to go… which was somewhat fruitless b/c I would have ended up putting a star next to every date if we’d seen that idea through. My waistline and wallet will probably determine my attendance.

So… if you’re in LA… some dates you may want to keep in mind… even though I doubt you could go on a “bad” day even if you tried…

  • April 4 (and 19) – Mediterraneo – Aged Provolone, Sauteed Spinach, Marinated Artichokes, Basil, Garlic, and Chili Flakes on crusty bread.
  • April 6 – Short Cuts (Small Sandwiches, Presented in Combination) – The Gouda, the Bread and the Buttery:
    • Goudafellas – Smoked Gouda with Meatballs (and Marinara Sauce for dipping)
    • As Gouda as it Gets – Aged Gouda with Young Garlic and Fried Capers
    • Gouda Night and Gouda Luck – Red Wax Gouda with Turkey, Wisconsin Bacon and Russian Dressing
  • April 11 – High Steaks: Panino Royale – Havarti, Gorgonzola, Grilled Steak, Bacon, and Balsamic-Roasted Onions on House-Made Panini
  • April 12 (and 25) – The Philadelphia Cheese Steak Story – White American, Provolone, Rib Eye Steak, Peppers, Onions, and Mayo on French Roll
  • April 16 – Basque in Glory – Etorki, Bayonne Ham, and Fig Preserves on Crusty Bread
  • April 30 – Medianoche in the Garden of Gouda and Edam – Gouda, Edam, Ham, Roast Pork, Pickles, Mayo, and Mustard on Pan Cubano.

I could go on… and on… Oh, one more, my favorite name – “Melt: Collateral Heatings of Sharp Cheddar and Crispy Bread For Make Benefit Glorious Sandwich of Tuna.” I think Borat would be pleased.

It may not be surprising that this grilled cheese has pedigree. Annie Miler, the owner and chef of Clementine has worked with Nancy Silverton, who among many other things, created Grilled Cheese Night at Campanile (which still happens every Thursday night). The Buffala 66 sandwich (on April 17) has mozzarella, pecorino, italian sausage, red onions, and fennel pollen on country white, and “clearly owes its inspiration to Nancy Silverton and the fennel sausage pizza at Mozza.” I’ve been dying to go to Mozza, and this is yet another reason to check it out… and see how the open-faced versions of melty cheese and toasty crust (aka pizzas) there compare.

And if you can’t make it to LA this month, Nancy Silverton has a rather wonderful Sandwich Book, that also includes sandwich cookies, such as versions of oreos and nutter butters to make at home, or in culinary school.