Saturday, May 30, 2009


Truffles, $9.25/6-piece gift box

Located is various scenic spots around town, Chocolati cafes are nice places to linger over a coffee or a sweet treat, watching the world go by from the climate-controlled side of a gleaming picture window.  The Chocolati factory outlet on Aurora, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you get in, get your fix, and get out.   

The dust-colored, board-paneled facade is a little tricky to spot the shop from the busy street, and seems to invite furtive visits from customers in dust-colored overcoats, with faces concealed by upturned collars.  The only window is small (to discourage ram raids?) and grilled by a large neon sign.   

Inside, the shop is dimly lit but clean and hospitable (I was helped by the owner's mother, a charming woman who was in the middle of wrapping 4000 chocolate umbrellas and describes herself as a "volunteer").  To the right are shelves lined with molded chocolate novelties that make perfect small gifts; there are touristy molded chocolate tulips and umbrellas and Space Needles, or molded chocolate tool sets for DIY enthusiasts--all securely wrapped in cellophane or colorful foil.  On other shelves there are cocoas and wedding mints and mis-wrapped hospitality chocolates. 

There is also a display case full of truffles, to which I gravitated.  Chocolati's truffles are on the large side and available in a wide range of flavors--many of them nicely spicy.  I especially liked the dark chocolates and those that had been rolled in crunchy sanding sugar.  I also had a funny-looking cherry cordial from the bottom shelf, where factory seconds are sold for less than half price.   

Chocolati Factory Outlet Store
7708 Aurora Avenue North
Seattle, WA

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fran's Chocolates

Seattle chocolatier Fran's is probably most famous for its sea-salted caramels, a much-trumpeted favorite of President Obama's. They also do an elegant range of bite-sized truffles in both milk and dark chocolate. The ganache fillings are silky smooth and infused with a range of flavors that, while not particularly innovative, boast an intensity that not many truffles match. Of the small assortment I tried I especially liked the richly aromatic espresso, but found the raspberry sadly unconvincing, despite the inclusion of both fruit puree and framboise.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mora Iced Creamery

Mora Iced Creamery

Ever notice how a good day for a ferry ride is also a great day for ice cream?   A few years ago the owners of Mora Iced Creamery banked on this coincidence, closing their popular Bellevue Square shop to focus their retail efforts closer to their production facility on Bainbridge Island, a beautiful half-hour ferry ride across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle.  

To sum up:  assuming you don't live on Bainbridge, sinking your spoon into a scoop of Mora's finest involves a trip down to the docks, a boat ride, and an uphill hike.  And every time I've made the trek the line has been up to or out the door. 

The Mora experience is both old-fashioned and space-age:  small-batch ice creams made with and tasting of identifiable ingredients, scooped from rows of cryogenic-looking stainless steel jars (apparently this reduces oxidation and preserves the intended flavor and texture).  Part of the fun is watching the servers confidently whip off the correct unlabeled lid.  

Given that the shop is cheekily named after the blackberry--both a much-loved fruit and a much-hated weed in these parts--the Mora philosophy seems to suggest when life gives you invasive species, make ice cream.  The wide-ranging fruit flavors rotate seasonally, as do other inventive specials, including Ginger, Eggnog, and Rose Petal (a favorite of mine that I have yet to find at Mora--maybe it appears at a time of year when the ferries are fogged in?). On my most recent visit, my cup was crowded with Italian Chocolate (a potent mix of chocolate ice cream, cognac, and walnuts), Bob's Peppermint, and Irish Coffee.  In the past I have also greatly enjoyed Sabayon (marsala wine and egg yolks), Cinnamon, and Pink Grapefruit.  Frozen yogurt is an option, as are shakes, floats, and affogato.  

My only quibble is that, unlike Elevated Ice Cream in Port Townsend, Mora sells its rather pricey ice cream by scoop rather than weight--but that's admittedly nit-picking.  Their pricing policy is in line with almost every other ice cream shop on the planet, and Mora is almost outrageously generous with samples.  I once asked my server what was the record number of samples ever dispensed to single patron; she said that it wasn't unheard of for a customer to sample every available flavor--usually because he or she was conducting "research".  (Why didn't this ever occur to me???)

As of earlier this summer, Mora is also available at a new shop in Kingston--a short, scenic ferry ride from Edmonds.   

139 Madrone Lane
Bainbridge Island, WA

11250 State Hwy 104, 
Kingston, WA 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vietnamese Coconut Cake

Vietnamese Coconut Cake
Saigon Deli, $1.50

Another Saigon Deli sliced cake, this one is even moister and more coconutty than banh bo nuong, and again it has that plump texture that points to rice or tapioca flour. Sadly, I was in too much of a rush to ask what it's called and a Google search of "coconut vietnamese cake" is just too overwhelming. Does anyone out there know what this cake is called? Or where I might find a recipe?

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Dark Side of Mars

Pure Dark and CocoaVia

Having made its name on milk-chocolatey checkout line staples such as M&Ms and Snickers, the Mars Company is now setting its sights somewhat higher, aiming for your heart rather than
your gut.

Owned by Mars subsidiary Dove, CocoaVia makes and markets a range of "healthy" dark chocolates. Thanks to a proprietary process 15 years in the making, CocoaVia chocolates maintain higher levels of cocoa's naturally occurring flavanols, along with added B6, B12, folic acid, antioxidants C and E, and calcium. Published clinical studies have shown that these "heart-healthy" components reduce cholesterol and promote circulation.

While I'm a little leery of those shoehorned-in nutrients, I suppose I'm willing to let frankenfood be my medecine when it tastes like this: mellow, potent, mineral-y, intriguing without being too complicated. CocoaVita bars don't have the pudding-like quality of other Dove dark chocolates but are still pleasantly silky. The variety shown above also contains crackly bits of soy crisp.

But here's the rub: according to Mars' own PR, "only a relatively small portion needs to be eaten to reap the heart-health benefits." A single (doll-sized!) 20g bar contains 90 calories--half of them from fat--along with a little sodium, a respectable 2g of fiber, 20% of the RDA of calcium, and no cholesterol. It would be easy to overdose if not for the recommended retail price of $4.99 for a 5-pack (I got my stash for half price at one of those scratch-and-dent outlets that sells everything from punctured sacks of kitty litter, to prestained undershirts, to dogeared boxes of froufrou chocolate).

CocoaVia has been around for a while and I'm not sure how the brand is faring; it certainly isn't a ubiquitious candy-shelf presence. Perhaps that has something to do with Mars' much quieter relationship with another upscale chocolate venter, the Pure Dark chocolate boutique in Manhattan's West Village. Different stations around the the store dispense the various formulas in formats including slabs, discs, and powders; samples are plentiful. There's a drinking chocolate counter and a trail mix bar where you can order up a bespoke combination of dried fruits, nuts, and chocolate nuggets.

That Pure Dark doesn't allow photography inside the store is understandable but unfortunate; a wall display at the back of the store gives one of the best explanations I've ever seen of the complicated transformation that turns beans into chocolate, complete with scale models. Throw in an animatronic toucan and some motorized seating, and Pure Dark would be a top-notch EPCOT Center attraction.

Pure Dark
350 Bleecker Street (at W 10th St)
New York, NY

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sugar Shack

Sugar Shack Baking Co., $2.50 each

It's hard to get the attention of motorist barrelling down Lake City Way, but the Sugar Shack Baking Co. does its best with a mural as big as the building and as bright as the most tantalizing turn signal. Inside, things are much more relaxed, with ample seating and walls hung with local art. The menu features homestyle baked goods such as cupcakes, bars, muffins, cookies, rolls, along with savories. sandwiches, soup, and of course, coffee. On the day I visited, the baker on duty was a graduate of Seattle Central Community College's lauded Culinary Arts program and the scones (apricot-ginger, raspberry-strawberry-lemon, and blueberry) were clearly a professional job--big, crusty, moist, and fruity rather than just sugary.

Sugar Shack Baking Co.
8056 Lake City Way
Seattle, WA

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Banh Dau Xanh

Banh Dau Xanh
Huy Ky Bakery, $2.50

Every time I stop by the Saigon Deli I get the same sandwich (tofu) but a different kind of cake.   Today, in addition to the locally-made, plastic-wrapped cakes, they had a small assortment of more heavily packaged products from other commercial bakeries.  

This banh dau xanh came from the the Huy Ky Bakery in San Diego California.   The ingredients are pretty typical of Southeast Asian confections (sweet rice flour, mung beans, sugar, and oil), but they're combined in a less familiar way.   The rice starch forms thin foamy planks reminiscent of Japanese higashi or rakugan;  the bean paste filling is firm and buttery, and, unusually, scented with vanilla.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rhubarb Pie and Once-a-Week Pie Crust

Rhubarb Pie

Seattle summers just about make up for the bleak, soggy winters.  For three months there's rarely a cloud in the sky and every time you turn around another fruit is ripe and begging to be made into pie.  I adapted this recipe for an olive-oil-based pie crust from one in an old diet cookbook, and I practically have it memorized by now.  I like to make the dough on Friday night and stash it in the fridge; Saturday morning I come home from the nearest Farmers' Market with whatever looks juiciest and in under an hour I have a hot, fresh, seasonal pie.  

Once-a-week Pie Crust
¾ cup + 1 Tbs all-purpose flour
¼ cup + 2 Tbs whole-wheat flour
2 Tbs sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbs + 1 tsp oil (olive, grapeseed, etc)
3 Tbs ice water

Whisk all the dry ingredients together, then add oil and stir until the mix looks like fine bread crumbs.  Stir in the ice water 1 Tbs at a time until the dough sticks together.  Wrap in plastic and chill for at least an hour (or freeze for up to two weeks).  Roll out the dough, place in a 9" pie plate, and prick all over with a fork.  Bake at 400 degrees until golden (about 18 minutes).  Add the desired filling and bake or chill as needed. 

This crust is pretty much foolproof, healthy enough to eat regularly, and hearty enough to pair with a variety robust and flavorful fillings.  As the summer goes on I'll paste more recommendations and pictures, but I'll mention here that I've used it with blackberries, peaches, mixed berries, and apples.  Since it's vegan I've used it to make tofu "French Silk" pies for vegan parties.  I've also left out the sugar and cinnamon and used it for quiches and savory flans. 

My favorite filling of the moment is locally-grown rhubarb, which I prefer not to dilute with strawberries.  Chop a scant pound of clean rhubarb and cook with 2-3 Tbs of sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When the rhubarb gets tender and juicy, make of paste of 1 tsp cornstarch and a little hot water and stir it into the fruit.  Let the fruit simmer for a couple more minutes, then pour into the hot pie crust.  Put back into the hot oven, shut the door, and turn off the oven; the residual heat will set the filling.