Saturday, January 31, 2009
Old Country Bakery, $3.99/loaf
Tucked away in a white-bread strip mall in east Bellevue, the Old Country Bakery serves up a delicious and ethnically diverse range of European baked goods. The bakery has been in business for about 10 years, and under its current Armenian management for about a year and a half.
Seeing me frozen in gluttonous bewilderment in front of the rack of sweet breads, the cashier helpfully suggested the Gata, a top-selling Armenian loaf shaped something like a seat cushion. She described the filling as "vanilla cream" but when I tore in I found that the soft, eggy bread was actually stuffed with a delirious approximation of snickerdoodle dough--heady with vanilla, as dense as Play-Doh, and gritty with raw sugar.
Somehow I managed not to eat it all at once, and even shared a piece with my second-in-command, who usually takes an infuriatingly take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards sweets. His reaction: "And why did you not buy four of these?"
I also picked up an enormous chocolate Napoleon for $2, another difficult choice with fruit danishes, meringues, bundt cake, and three distinct styles of Baklava (traditional, Iranian, and Armenian) on offer. Thanks to a first-timer coupon available from their website, I also took home a loaf on the house (the "Georgian", below right, a huge round bread with an amusing orifice).
Old Country Bakery
900 160th Ave. NE #3
Bellevue, WA 98008
Open daily, 8 to 8.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Sweetie / Oroblanco
Known in Japan as "Sweetie" and elsewhere as Oroblanco, this white grapefruit-pomelo cross was hybridized by researchers at the University of California. Thanks to its Pomelo parentage, the sweet flesh is surrounded by a tough green or gold rind and a half-inch of doughy, dead-white pith. Just as UC intended, the flavor is sweeter and less tangy than a grapefruit, although the membranes between the flesh sections are just as bitter. I found that the flavor lingered for an oddly long time, growing unpleasantly metallic.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
D'Unik Oriental Food, $2.39 for 2 sachets of mix
While I'm on the subject of pre-fab Filipino delicacies, allow me to present bibingka, a golden cake essential at Christmas but popular year-round. Innumerable variations are enjoyed throughout the Philippines and neighboring countries. Even having read more than a dozen different recipes, I can't say for certain what definitively separates bibingka from any old cake.
I bought a box of bibingka mix from the Filipino grocery because I couldn't figure out what to do with the coconut jam or jars of chickpeas in syrup and was feeling inadequate; "Baking," I reassured myself, "I can do that!"
My confidence made it as far as the register, where the cashier looked me up and down and speculated that I probably didn't have any fresh banana leaves.
Banana leaves? Uh, nope, none of those in the pantry.
"Oh well, I guess you'll figure something out."
So I lined my pan with wax paper (the banana leaves of the Pacific Northwest) and set to mixing. The mix itself is made up of rice and wheat flours, sugar, and baking powder; to that I added water, eggs, sugar, and melted butter (although the box called for margarine, which I consider to be the Devil's own spread).
Then I had to choose my cooking method from a fascinating range of options. The preferred method is cooking the batter in 4 small batches in a toaster oven; instructions are also given for cooking in a ice cream can (apparently Filipino ice cream comes in huge tins) over live charcoal, cooking on the stove in a skillet or "mini kawali", and last but not least, boring old oven baking (my choice).
About 20 minutes later I was slicing into a hot, plump, golden-skinned bibingka. It was perfectly pleasant but a little ho-hum, like a moist yellow cake with the richness dialed down a notch and the texture set to "slightly rubbery". I definitely wish that I had sprung for some or all of the popular toppings--sugar, salted duck eggs, white cheese, melted butter, and grated coconut. To see bibingka done right, check out the [eatingclub]Vancouver blog.
D'Unik Oriental Food
18002 15th Ave NE
Shoreline, WA 98155
Monday, January 26, 2009
Ranch 99 Asian Superstore, $1.50/single-serving pack
A common snack or breakfast food in the Philippines, champorado is a soft, sweet cereal of overcooked sticky rice, chocolate, and sugar. Although I'd probably pass on the traditional accompaniment of dried fish, there's little not to like about the idea of "cocoa flavored rice porridge". I always imagined it would fall somewhere between chocolate rice pudding and the delicious dregs of all-to-infrequent childhood bowls of Cocoa Pebbles.
So I snagged a packet of Family Recipes' heat'n'eat champorado from the Asian Superstore up the road and spent the next few weeks using it for entertainment whilst in the kitchen waiting for other things to happen; I passed several happy hours gently squeezing the pouch as if building up my hand muscles or mulling over a cheap breast implant, tunefully imploring Champorado to "come to your senses". Finally hunger brought me to my own senses.
If you're out on maneuvers, it's perfectly possible to eat this S.R.E cold and "straight from the pouch"; for a more Martha approach, immerse the pack in boiling water (below) or nuke it in the microwave. Champorado can be dressed up even further with a swirl of condensed milk.
Although Family Recipes promises that when you tear into their packet, "...you are assured of the perfect champorado," I sincerely hope that they are exaggerating. Their champorado might best be described as "primordial", both in terms of its slimy texture and the impression it gives of wanting to be something else without quite making it.
It may be that champorado, like fellow regional comfort foods ochazuke and grits, really needs to be slaved over a little. And I do mean "a little"; from the looks of this recipe, making champorado from scratch isn't that much more demanding than heating and decanting a pre-fab packet.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
I bought these last year in a now-defunct Paris shop that stocked all sorts of old-fashioned sweets and kitschy Catholic candy. Bébés meringues are tough and long-lived as anthropomorphic Circus Peanuts, best served (or displayed) as a conversation piece.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
$17.99 for 10 tablets from ThinkGeek
Last Saturday was fairly typical in that my growling stomach and I were staring at an unappealing assortment of food-ish items and wondering by what miracle they might be rendered into dinner. But instead of being alone in my pantry I was at a "flavor-tripping" party hosted by my dear friends Margaret and Bjorn; the food was as weird or weirder that the dregs in my kitchen, but this time the vinegar-into-wine miracle actually materialized, thanks to a little red pill.
Miraculin pills are derived from a small red berry known as "miracle fruit". When eaten fresh, dried, or in pill form, a protein unique to these berries coats the tongue's taste receptors, causing sour and bitter flavors to be perceived as sweet. The effect was first documented by an French visitor to West Africa in 1725 who saw the locals eating miracle berries as an apertif before meals.
So I chomped my pill and bellied up to the world's worst buffet, laden with citrus fruit, Belgian endive, pickled garlic, radishes, plain yogurt, vinegar, cranberries, baking chocolate, rhubarb, espresso and beer. I nibbled skeptically on a wedge of lime--and it sparked in my mouth like fizzy limeade! Ditto the pomelo, lemon, grapefruit and Granny Smith apple.
Miraculin's effect lasts between 20 minutes and an hour, so with one eye on the clock I began to race my way down the table, trading tips with my fellow trippers as I went. We discovered that under miraculin's influence, vinegar tastes like dessert wine, and goat cheese like cheesecake. I fashioned tiny sandwiches of cranberries and baking chocolate and passed them around like canapés.
Frivolous flavor-tripping parties like this had their first wave of popularity back in the 1970s, but miraculin was originally intended as a much more serious thing, a safe and natural way of satisfying the sweet cravings of diabetics and dieters. One US company's attempt to secure FDA approval for more widespread application resulted in a series of mysterious setbacks, on which some conspiracy theorists detect the sugar industry's sticky fingerprints. Today miraculin is legal in the US, but its consumption is mostly a novelty. Miraculin is commonly used in parts of Africa and Asia; one cafe in Tokyo serves a side of miraculin with its terrible-tasting low-calorie desserts.
There are, however, limits to miraculin's miraculousness. It renders some foods tasteless and even an overdose would fail to sweeten some stubbornly sour and bitter foods (see bitter melon, below center, and resulting squinchy face, below right). And then there's the dreaded miraculin hangover, when all those foods that tasted like a good idea at the time turn around and sucker punch you in the stomach.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Rose's Chocolate Treasures
In England, "chocolate Roses" are lumpen nuggets of Cadbury's most popular over-sweet, over-creamy "chocolate" varietals, swaddled in festive foil and stuffed into festive boxes to await purchase as lowest-common-denominator gifts for people one doesn't know or like all that well.
In Seattle, Rose's Chocolates are fresh, hand-made buds of high-quality chocolate waiting to burst forth with imaginative and well-balanced flavor combinations: tangerine and beet, blueberry and basil, wasabi and nori.
Score one, Seattle.
From a cozy shop in Post Alley, Rose's dispenses a wide range of truffles and bonbons at $2 a piece. There are primo takes on the usual sweet and boozy flavors, but the house specialties reward the adventurous. The "Mexicali" is an almost savory dark chocolate truffle warmed up with cinnamon, nutmeg, chilies, and cumin, and dusted with gold powder. The Rose truffle pictured above is infused with rose petals and a touch of aniseed. And if these flavors become old hat, chocolatier Vie Sweet is also an astrologer, and regularly invents an astrology-based "truffle of the month". In addition to truffles, Rose's sells both drinking chocolate and cocoa, teas, chocolate balms and body butters, chocolate pasta, and roast-your-own cocoa beans ($1/oz).
In keeping with the shop credo that "chocolate nourishes the body as well as the soul," Rose's offers social and educational events. At the West Seattle kitchen, Vie Sweet leads classes on truffle infusion; each group of six students gets to choose their own flavors and take home the fruits of their labor. The shop premises are also available for chocolate tasting parties from 6pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Self-selected groups of of four or eight guests enjoy a guided tasting of 20 chocolates for $15 a head; b.y.o. wine is welcomed.
And in case you're having trouble coming up with a fourth or eighth person---I'm definitely free that night.
Rose's Chocolate Treasures
Pike Place Market
1906 Post Alley
Seattle, WA 98101
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Torta de Aciete
$1.50-1.75 each at coffee shops, boxes from $3.99
It doesn't usually take a dare to get me to eat a new cookie, but in this case...
Early last year I was having coffee in Rosie's, a cafe/deli/bakery in south London's Brixton Market presided over by Rosie herself, a red-lipped, black-tressed retro firecracker who prefers giving orders to filling them. There were a handful of customers enjoying her masterful espresso drinks on that grey afternoon and Rosie figured we needed a jolt. Reaching into a jar she drew out a large flat cracker wrapped in greasy wax paper. She broke the cracker into sections and went around pressing each of us to try a shard: "It's kind of cookie, kind of cracker, with salt and sugar and aniseed. It's really strange! Come on..."
I normally run a mile from anything flavored with anise; liquorice is admittedly an excellent material for making small novelty sculptures, but I'd sooner eat plastic. But since you don't say no to Rosie I accepted a bit and popped in in my mouth while she watched to make sure I didn't slip it into my napkin.
If only I could taste torta de aciete again for the first time! The first bite lit up my mouth like a pinball machine, ricocheting from sweet to salty, lightly dinging the aniseed bell and finally melting away with a buttery finish as satisfying as half a dozen bonus balls.
Torta de aciete, or olive oil cookies, are a Spanish speciality with north African roots. In 1910, in the Andalusian capital of Seville, a woman named Ines Rosales began to sell torta de aciete baked from an old Moorish recipe. At the modern Rosales factory, tortas are still made using the original recipe, and each torta is flatted and wrapped by hand.
In my opinion, the original is also the best, but Rosales has plenty of worthy competitors. San Martin de Porres (torta above and label below) is a little thicker than the croissant-flaky Rosales, with the sugar topping melted into glassy patches instead of standing out in discrete, crunchy crystals; the flavor is great but the texture is a little blah. A newcomer to watch out for is Matiz, a specialty exporter of Andalusian foodstuffs. Matiz tortas are expensive but widely available, and come in a range of non-traditional flavors, including cinnamon, almond, and a savory herb version. The Spanish Table in Seattle's Pike Place Market usually stocks all three brands.
The Martin de Porres label lists the ingredients as wheat flour, virgin olive oil (24%), sugar, sesame seeds, aniseed, essence of anise, salt, and yeast. I wasn't able to find a recipe to match exactly, but this recipe using egg whites looks promising, and for quick fixes when the store is out of tortas, here's a recipe based on pizza dough.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Salvadorean Bakery
From pho to porn, Walgreens to Bartell's, there's not much you can get in White Center that you can't find more conveniently on the sketchier stretches of Aurora Avenue. With one mouth-watering exception: the Salvadorean Bakery. Somehow the collision of colonial and native traditions in the tiny Central American country of El Salvador resulted in a profusion of stellar cakes and pastries.
Housed in a misleadingly drab wood-panel store front, every nook of the Salvadorean Bakery is stacked with treats. An overwhelming array of baked goods peer out of an expanse of glass-fronted cases: wedding cakes, wedding cookies, jam cookies, rice-flour cookies, walnut-and-chocolate cookies, turnovers stuffed with exotic fruits, jalapeño rolls, flaky ear-shaped orejas, and borrachos, plump "drunken" cakes soaked in sweet rum and doused in cinnamon syrup.
Above, my paramour Maria Luisa de Leche ($2.25); I break my try-something-new-rule by buying a Maria Luisa on every visit to the Bakery. She's a plank of dense, rich Salvadorean egg custard, lightly glazed and dusted with cinnamon, resting on a sliver of meltaway crust of mixed white and rice flours.
The alfajor ($1.25) is a triple-decker treat, a "Short bread cookie filled with Dulce de Leche (caramel)." The cookies melt away like buttery snow, and the dulce de leche is pleasantly gummy. Sometime I'll try making my own, using this video recipe.
The quesadilla is "A muffin made of rice & wheat flour, Salvadorean cream & cheese, eggs, and butter. It's a very popular Salvadorean exclusive!!!" I opted for the mini version ($1.25), which was mildly sweet and very rich--like cornbread without the corn, or the casutera of my dreams.
If you want to cushion your system against impending sugar shock, the Bakery also sells savory food, including a full range of pupusas, grilled cornmeal hot pockets stuffed with your choice of meat, beans, cheese, etc., and served with curtido, vinegar-soaked cabbage, and spicy tomato sauce. Slide into a blue vinyl booth, belly up to the faux lapis table, and dig in!
1719 SW Roxbury
White Center, WA 89106
Daily 8 am-9 pm.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
$2.95 / serving
After a delicious dinner of Nepali and Tibetan dishes at Shoreline's Everest Kitchen, the perfect tonic for overtaxed tastebuds has to be kulfi, the famed frozen treat found all over south Asia.
Kulfi is typically made from three dairy products (hey, if one is good...): evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream. The mixture is boiled with sugar and thickened with corn starch. Flavorings can include cardamon, saffron, fruit, rose petals, and various nuts. Everest Kitchen's house-made kulfi is loaded with cashews and pistachios, tinged with cardamon, and topped with a sprinkling of dried coconut.
Unlike churned ice cream, kulfi is frozen solid, often in small servings. Once frozen, kulfi is dense enough to fight off all but the most determined spoons; ours came to the table sliced into four sections, but still so unyielding I had visions of accidentally catapulting a chunk across the room. But after a few minutes of patience and heavy breathing, the kulfi relaxed into edibility. It was just sweet enough, richly flavored and with a creamy/chewy texture that seemed to owe more to the nuts than the dairy.
Shoreline, WA 98155