Friday, February 27, 2009

Butterscotch Krimpet

Butterscotch Krimpet

Tastykake, $1.39

While driving along a twisty rural road yesterday, my friend Janna and I were nearly in a very messy accident. At the bottom of a dip we hit black ice and started to fishtail. I was too fascinated to scream, watching the action movie unspool on the other side of the windshield. We spun from one shoulder to the other at least 5 times, with Janna skillfully avoiding numerous posts and trees before finally muscling the car off onto a flat patch of grass. We sat there a few seconds, both holding our breath, until another driver who'd seen the whole thing from a safe distance pulled up and mouthed, "Are you OK?" through her window. We gave her a synchronized thumbs up and started to breathe again.

When we got home safely later that evening I walked up to the convenience store and bought a Butterscotch Krimpet from the Tasty Baking Co., a Philly-based commercial bakery. I first learned about Tastykakes from mystery writer Janet Evanovich's series about bumbling 30-something Jersey Girl detective, Stephanie Plum. Stephanie has the kind of diet only feasible in fiction (or Jersey?), subsisting on pizza, meatballs, peanut butter, and pie, with the occasional Butterscotch Krimpet thrown in for fiber.

There are more than a dozen installments in the Stephanie Plum series, and I'd hungrily devoured each one up until about number 9 or 10, when the author and I seemed to tire of the series simultaneously. I still hankered for a Krimpet, though, imagining it to be just as insubstantial, fresh, and enjoyable as books 1 though 3.

I tore my Krimpet open on the bus back to Manhattan, crossing over a section of New Jersey lacking in any contour or local color. The butterscotch aroma hit me like kiddie perfume at a birthday party, but the icing tasted of sugar alone and chewed like uncured tile grout; the cake appeared to be recycled carseat foam. I ate one of the three perforated sections and left the rest in the wrapper. While I'm a big fan of cheap pleasures and no fan at all of wasting food, the shorter life gets the less reason I see to choke anything down. I know I have to die someday, but I'd rather it not be with faux butterscotch on my breath.

On the plus side, "Oh, krimpet!" is my new G-rated expletive of choice.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shoofly Pie

Shoofly Pie

from 99¢ a slice

Although it bears a vague family resemblance to both coffee cake and pecan pie, shoofly pie lacks the redeeming qualities of either. The bulk of the pie is made up of a mealy layer of damp, gummy flour (like streusel with most of the key ingredients missing). This topping rests heavily on a layer of molasses jelly, which in turn coats a thin, soggy, shortening crust.

A famous product of the Pennsylvania Dutch, shoofly pie gets its name from the fact that flies find it irresistible--flies, of course, not being known for their discriminating little palates. As far as I'm concerned it should be "welcomefly pie"; I'm more than happy to let them to have at it.

But since I realize that tastes are subjective, here's a recipe.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Weiss, $4.49/12

Many Christian communities the world over spend the Tuesday before Lent eating and/or drinking themselves silly. Foods associated with Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras are generally heavy on sugar, eggs, milk, and fats--luxurious ingredients that shouldn't be eaten during Lent itself, but wouldn't keep for forty days. Cake and pancakes are typical fare, but in Pennsylvania-Dutch country, the Tuesday before Lent is Fasnacht Day, dedicated to the consumption of outrageously fatty holeless doughnuts of yeasted flour and potato dough.

It seems like a good omen that I should find myself in Kutztown, PA, on a day dedicated to pastry. Promisingly, the neighborhood convenience store sells fasnachts supplied by (in the clerk's words) "an old lady", but they are also fried in lard--a substance I have trouble eating unless I have no idea I'm doing so. They also sell out before 9am on Fasnacht Day, thus saving sleepy-headed me the trouble of making a difficult decision.

The local supermarket had a huge fasnacht display, including 6-packs and 12-packs, jelly-filled, glazed, and powdered. The box of "Old Fashion Fastnachts" was emblazoned with a day-glo orange sticker reading, "Get to know what good is", which firmly clinched my decision.

The fasnachts were golden-brown, dimpled, and as greasy as a bike chain; sugar was far down on the list of ingredients, just behind potatoes and well behind vegetable shortening. My friend Janna, a PA native, taught me to toast them carefully (the grease catches fire easily) and slather them with jam (in a cursory nod to nutrition I added a schmear of plain yogurt). The hot, crisp fasnachts were sinfully delicious, and substantial enough to cling to one's ribs for a full 40 days and nights.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Black and Whites

Black and White Cookies

Greenberg's, $3.50

Many years ago, when I was living overseas for the first time, a very thoughtful boyfriend sent me a care package all the way from New York: some knicknacks, some reading material, and half a dozen black and white cookies.

Black and whites are a New York confectionery icon--a disc of firm yellow cake bisected by swathes of vanilla and chocolate frosting, like a no-nonsense, urbanized yin-yang. Like most icons, black and whites are instantly recognizable but open to endless reinterpretation. Every bakery and nearly every quickie mart sells a version, and aficionados hotly debate which ones are "real" and which one is "the best".

William Greenberg Jr.'s black and whites are often at or near the top of these lists. Greenberg's was founded in 1946 by a GI who returned from service in occupied France with a hunger for rich treats and enough poker winnings to start his own bakery. On the bakery wall there is a photo of another soldier with the poignant caption, "I am a Jewish soldier stationed in Iraq and and a gentleman from CBS just arrived here and at my request bought me two black and white cookies from your store. Just wanted to say they were incredible."

All black and whites are more vertically-challenged cupcake than cookie, and Greenberg's cake base is very pleasant--soft but firm, moist, and buttery. The icing on black and whites is typically a stiff fondant, with the white side sometimes tinged with lemon. Greenberg's white icing is sweet and chewy, as if confectioner's sugar and well-aged Elmer's glue were the main ingredients (note that this is not a criticism!). The black icing, slightly less dense, was fudgy (Greenberg's is known for baking with high quality chocolate) and mellow, and seemed to have a little coffee flavor thrown in for good measure. In a nod to the times, Greenberg's also offers mini black and whites and gives special orderers the option of choosing their own colors (Ted Turner would no doubt approve).

I enjoyed my Greenberg's black and white very much, but somehow it didn't taste quite as sweet as those care-package cookies from long ago. As soon as that box arrived I ate one cookie, then put the rest away, planning to ration them out over the following weeks. Later that same evening my housemate came home stoned, let herself into my cabinet, and polished them all off. When I confronted her (probably tearfully) with a wad of icing-smeared plastic wrap, she offered no apologies, only this whiny excuse: "But I had the munchies..."

I was pissed off but not unsympathetic; black and whites just have that sort of power over people. I never spoke to that housemate again--but I did restrain myself from burying her in the back yard.

William Greenberg Jr. Desserts
1100 Madison Ave. (82/83rd)
New York, NY

Other sources of note:
Hot & Crusty
East Broadway Kosher Bakery
The Black & White Cookie Company

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sakuraya / Dainobu

Sakuraya Green Tea Daifuku

Dainobu, $2.80/4

Visiting New York 10 years ago, a Japanese businessman was struck by the freshess and variety on offer at New York-style delis. On Christmas Eve last year, he opened
Dainobu Japanese Deli + Grocery. The bright, shiny shop might still have that new-store smell were it not for the aromas wafting from the open kitchen in the back. The deli churns out a huge range of bentos, noodles, and rice balls, the grocery section claims to stock some 2000 products, and a prominently placed cooler spills over with a good selection of workaday Japanese sweets--not artisanal, but tasty.

Several of the brands are available nationwide so I went for one I hadn't seen before, Green Tea Daifuku from Sakuraya, a Japanese confectionery company based in Flushing. Although the daifuku were clearly machine-made (note the extrusion belly-button), the mochi was fresh and succulent, and the paste of white beans, egg yolk, and green tea was creamy and light and smelled like freshly mown grass. Sakuraya makes a number of other mochi variants and a cream puff that several reviewers consider the best in the city.

From Dainobu it's only a few steps down to the Japan Society; the park across the street is a pleasant place to have a rice ball and daifuku picnic before seeing the latest exhibition.

Sakuraya Japanese Confection Inc.
11319 14th Rd, College Point, NY 11356

Dainobu Japanese Deli + Grocery
129 e 47th St., New York, NY (Lexington/3rd)


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New York Suggestions?

I'm heading to New York tomorrow--first, to teach a weekend jewelry workshop at the 92nd St Y, and then to eat myself silly for the following week. My agenda currently includes:
The Hungarian Pastry Shop
Rice to Riches
Minamoto Kitchoan
Bespoke Chocolate
Jacques Torres
The Doughnut Plant

Any other suggestions? The more obscure, the better, and I'm quite willing to travel to anywhere worth trying!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bonbon Maquillage

Bonbon Maquillage
Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, ¥4220/12-piece gift box

In an earlier post on Paris-based Japanese patissier Sadaharu Aoki, I discussed his pastries but neglected his equally artistic
bonbons maquillage, or "makeup chocolates". Aoki bonbons are fondant-filled bars infused with a strikingly idiosyncratic range of flavors: matcha, yuzu, wasabi, caramel, coffee, currant, lemon, coconut, Earl Grey, strawberry, rose, passionfruit, orange, blueberry, and raspberry. To prevent customers from reaching for rose and ending up with wasabi, the bonbons are "made up" with a slick strip of edible color--with the result that the bonbon case does look rather like a Shu Uemura eyeshadow display.

When I visited Aoki's Port Royal boutique, I spotted a few bags of bonbon seconds hanging around like stray dogs on an out-of-the-way shelf. I picked the bag with the most varied spectrum and treated myself to a scratch-and-dent tasting on the Eurostar back to London. Sadly, I found the bonbons' charm to be mostly superficial; the texture of the chocolate was fine but undistinguished, and some of the flavors reminded me of eating off a spoon that still has dish soap on it.

But according to a dozen Japanese experts, I have no idea what I'm talking about. In Japan, Valentine's Day is less an occasion for romance than an opportunity to curry favor with male co-workers and acquaintances by lavishing them with sweet treats (women get theirs a month later on "White Day"). The Nikkei's news service commissioned 12 experts to perform a cost-benefit analysis on 122 assortments of high-end chocolates (at least 8 pieces, up to
¥6000/$60). Coming in at number 5, Aoki's bonbon maquillage giftbox was reckoned highly likely to impress the boss.

Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki
Port Royal
56 boulevard de Port Royal 75005 Paris

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Fruits Glacés

Glacéed fruit at a Paris street market, gleaming in the slanting sun like piles of jewels in a dragon's lair: orange peel, redcurrants, clementines, and angelica. When a fit of coughing impeded my picture taking, the stallholder made me all better with a sample of candied ginger.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Indian Sweets & Spices

Indian Sweets & Spices

Another strip mall treasure trove, Indian Sweets & Spices offers groceries, toiletries, a weekend lunch buffet, and a great selection of succulent mithai, Indian confections made fresh on the premises every other day. Whereas many mithai I've had in the past were almost narcotically sugary, ISS's are not quite such a piledriver to the pancreas. They have a mild sweetness that allows flavors like cardamon, saffron, pistachio, and rosewater to flourish.

Here are a few of the dozen-or-so varieties usually available (although I've done my best to match names to pictures, note that ISS is a relaxed place where it is perfectly acceptable to point at whatever you want):

ISS's most popular sweet, gulab jamun, is also a good choice for mithai-curious first timers. Plump, doughy balls of Indian cottage cheese are given a thin brown skin in the deep fryer, then soaked in spicy honey syrup.

Chum chum are essentially oblong gulab jamun, slit open lengthwise and stuffed with flavored, sweetened cream cheese.

Jalebi are big looping swirls of blaze orange dough, deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup.

Gajrela is a North Indian carrot cake, particularly popular in winter. The pudding-like carrot base is topped with pistachios and khoya, a creamy "cheese" made from reduced milk.

Kalakand is a tender, crumbly fudge made from ricotta-like cheese, condensed milk, and sugar, topped with crushed pistachios.

Other choices include laddoo (made from chickpea flour), burfee (creamy slabs topped with edible silver leaf, flavored with rose water and kewra water, a distillate of pandanus flowers), and in the freezer, rasmalai (milk-soaked dumplings flavored with dried fruit and saffron).

ISS sweets range from $5.99 to $7.99 a pound--and they're so dense and moist that a pound notches up quickly. I've found that an assorted box is fun to take along to a party; cut each sweet into smaller pieces so everyone can have a taste.

Indian Sweets & Spices
18002 15th Ave NE
Shoreline WA 98115

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

À la Mère de Famille

À la Mère de Famille

Around this time last year I visited Paris for the first time, with a long list of sweet sights to see and a short stack of euros. Luckily a lovely woman I had met at a party months earlier agreed to let me crash on the floor of her genuine student garret. It was nearly midnight by the time I got off the Eurostar, trundled to her place from the Gare du Nord and made my way up eight flights of funhouse spiral stairs; I was cold, tired, turned around, and starting to question why I had come. Then Maria mentioned that the oldest confiserie in France was just across the intersection--8 floors down and not a half a block away. I had a hard time getting to sleep but no trouble at all getting up the next morning.

Founded in 1761, À la Mère de Famille specializes in supplying old-school sweets that are not readily found elsewhere. Their chocolates and a number of other fresh items are made in-house; other cakes and candies are sourced from small suppliers all over France. The shop feels something like a museum of sweets, with treasures displayed in glass jars or polished wood cases and lit by gleaming chandeliers, and transactions taking place at a sort of ticket booth near the back (below right).

Easter came early last year, so I got to see the familiar eggs and bunnies, plus chocolate sardines and bells, sugar-coated almonds (below right), and real brown eggshells filled with chocolate truffle and sealed with a chocolate disc (below left).

There were also bags of fresh marshmallows (guimauve, below left), and hard and soft candies from around the country including tins of anise pastilles and sparkling squares of pate de fruit. The glass-topped cases just inside the door held rows and layers of marzipan bars and Calissons d'Aix, diamond-shaped confections of mixed almond paste and candied fruit from Aix-en-Provence in southern France (below right). Each smooth slab of paste is enameled with a thick coat of brightly-colored royal icing in flavors such as nature, currant, raspberry, strawberry, orange, pistachio, hazelnut, and coffee--oddly reminiscent of display tiles in a bath showroom.

ALMDF has several branches; I visited the shop nearest the Cadet Metro station. Their website promises to be up and running very soon.

À la Mère de Famille
35, rue du Faubourg Montmartre
Paris 75009
tel. 01 47 70 83 69

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kittyhugs Baking Company

Kittyhugs Baking Company

Although named for the owner's cat's tendency to give affectionate embraces, the Kittyhugs Baking Company is no crazy cat lady enterprise. There's no fur flying in the kitchen and no whiff of anything less pleasant than vanilla and hot butter.

Located in a bright, airy storefront in Shoreline's North City neighborhood, the bakery began selling to the trade in the summer of 2004 and opened its doors a year later to retail customers. Kittyhugs' products range from the familiar to the comforting, and are baked from scratch and to order. The menu lists cookies, brownies, scones, muffins, quick breads, coffee cakes, cheesecake, tarts and fruit pies--nearly 100 different items, all (with seasonal exceptions) available to pick up given at least 24 hours notice. A more limited selection of the smaller items is offered for sale to walk-in customers on Fridays and Saturdays.

It pays to stop by early on retail days for the best selection--or for any selection at all, since Kittyhugs will close early if the baked goods sell out (I learned this the hard way). On my last visit, they were down to one brownie and out of red velvet cupcakes. I opted for a vanilla/vanilla cupcake (pictured above) that would be the star of any bake sale. The cake was fluffy and not too sweet, practically groaning under the weight of a generous whorl of vanilla buttercream frosting; whatever your personally preferred cake:frosting ratio, too much (good) frosting is always preferable to too little. It was also fresher, bigger, and, at $1.35, over $1 cheaper than the wares at Seattle's more glamorous cupcakeries.

Kittyhugs Baking Company
1508 NE 179th Street
Shoreline, WA 98155

Wholesale Monday-Friday, 8-4
Retail Friday 3-6, Saturday 9-2