Sunday, December 26, 2010

Torrone



















Torrone

Torrone is a feather-light Italian nougat typically made with sugar, honey, and egg white (although this brand uses gelatin rather than egg); toasted nuts or dried fruit are added to the mildly sweet matrix. Like its relative meringue, torrone's texture can range from gooey to brittle, with some regions or companies specializing in one format or the other.

Antica Torroneria Piemontese is based in the Langhe, a hilly rural area in northern Italy's Piedmont region. The area is noted for a number of agricultural products, among them the particularly delicious hazelnuts that make their way to many of Antica's confections.

At Antica Torroneria Piemontese they still do most steps in the process by hand, producing both hard and soft torrone. The base mixture cooks in a bain marie for at least seven hours, during which time the nuts are carefully toasted. Although the idea of torrone has been around for centuries--perhaps millenia--and the list of ingredients is short, making it continues to be hard and skilled work. The timing the final steps is particularly critical, since the mature torrone sets up quickly.

Known as montelimar in France and turrón in Spain, nougats of the torrone family are found all over the Mediterranean region as well as in far-flung former colonies; a few varieties even enjoy special trade protections under EU law. While many of these treats are associated with the Christmas holidays, the Catalan version, torró, plays a role in a particularly colorful tradition.

In many Catalan households, Christmas decorations include a short section of log propped up on two stick legs, decorated with a cheerful face, and draped in a blanket. The tió de Nadal or "Christmas log," is also known less formally as the caga tió or "pooping log." Children beat the caga tió with sticks while singing songs urging it to poop. When parents judge that the caga is whipped, they remove the blanket and reveal the treats that the children have beaten out of the log. Among these is usually a bar of torró, which is shared by all the celebrants.

Want to introduce a Catalan touch to your own family holiday? Check out this radio story on Catalan Christmas at PRI's The World.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fig Jam


















Fig Jam

Thinking about the holidays in England tends to make me swoon with false nostalgia for things I either never experienced at all or only saw on TV: cheerful churchyards and stately homes, snow-dusted cobbles and fires in cast-iron grates, pub sing-alongs and Scrooge smothering the Crachits in a group hug. When my imaginings snowball into something so ridiculously perfect that I'm tempted to run for the airport and the first flight to Heathrow, all it takes to bring me back down to earth are two little words: Christmas pudding.

And just like that, a sodden Seattle Christmas starts looking pretty good.

As a picky eater and pretty-much-vegetarian, I've never gotten too excited by the main thrust of holiday meals--but at least on American holidays, dessert saves the day. July 4th means blackberry cobbler, Thanksgiving is classic pumpkin pie, and Christmas, my mom's Frangelico-topped custard. And since I haven't eaten much else, I get usually get more than my share of dessert!

My first Christmas in England, I discovered that the traditional holiday meal is a succession of foods that I have no interest in eating, capped off by a dessert that I don't even like to look at. "Christmas pudding" is a venerable concoction of dried fruits, spices, treacle, alcohol, and suet (that solidfied fat that keeps birds from starving over the winter), steamed or boiled, and served either on fire or dribbled with runny white sauce. I
want to like it--it's archaic and labor-intensive and oddly chewy--but I just don't.

Yet there's something about the short dark days of mid-winter that makes me hunger for the combination of booze, spices, and dried fruit, so I went on the hunt for Christmas pudding's more palatable cousin. On Heidi Swanson's blog, 101recipes.com, I found a recipe for "fig butter" borrowed from Kim Boyce's cookbook, Good to the Grain. The original calls for cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and port, but I made the following substitutions, then stuck to the recipe:

scant 1/2 c sugar
12 black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods, bruised
1 c red wine
1/2 cup marsala wine
12 oz dried Black Mission figs, destemmed
4 oz unsalted butter, softened
pinch of salt

The result is like the Christmas pudding of my dreams: rich, earthy fruit given a festive warmth by spices and wine. Straight out of the fridge it's dense and stiff and best eaten by the spoonful; at room temperature it's a toast spread, crepe filling, or a partner for cheese and crackers.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Yuzu Marmalade



















Yuzu
Uwajimaya, $14.99/6

Yuzu is a delicious and distinctive Japanese citrus fruit that I will consume in almost any available form. Early last winter I heard rumors that fresh yuzu had been seen in the produce department at the Uwajimaya Grocery. I rushed right down but was too late. The produce guy explained that only a few growers in California sell yuzu commercially; most of their small output goes to local restaurants, with a few extras occasionally making their way north to Seattle. His advice: "Try again next year." I marked my calendar.

Come early fall I started calling Uwajimaya every week. One week it was too early for yuzu; the next week they'd just sold out and weren't sure if more were coming. Finally, the guy on the phone said he was expecting a shipment the next day, probably the last of the season. When I called around lunchtime there was only one pack left.

Knowing how much work I'd put into tracking these things down, the produce guy tried hard to give me an out: "They're expensive, you know, and to be honest, this pack is kind of small...you sure you want 'em?"

I did.

When I stopped by the produce counter and gave my name, the guy handed me a styrofoam deli tray swaddled in plastic wrap. Inside there were six small balls,
rock hard and dark green. I resisted the urge to ask the produce guy if he was joking.

At "12 items or less" the teenaged checker did an indignant double take at my purchase; "What kind of limes are these?"

She rolled her eyes as I tried to make my case for why yuzu are so special; she'd clearly seen her share of crazies.

I was still rambling when she barked out my total: "Fourteen dollars and ninety-nine cents for six...yuzu. You need a bag for those?"

As I blushed and tucked the package into the pocket of my windbreaker I heard the guy in line behind me mutter, "Those better be some good limes."

At home with my booty, I began to feel twinges of buyer's remorse. Out of the wrapper, my yuzu were even smaller, harder, and greener. Worst of all, they smelled like nothing. A scratch-n-sniff sticker would have been more enticing. Discouraged, I stuck my yuzu in a corner and forgot about them.

As the weeks went by, the fruit began to come to life. As they softened and turned yellow, I cheered up enough to start looking at recipes. My original plan had been to candy the peels and drink the juice, but I just didn't think the yield would justify the fuss involved in candying. Remembering a homemade yuzu marmalade I'd had in Japan, I started to lean in that direction, but all the recipes I found called for a particular number of yuzu, as if "one yuzu" were a uniform unit of measurement. Fond as I was becoming of my little yuzu, I suspected that they were well below average.

Eventually, my fruit grew fragrant and I found a simple and sensible marmalade recipe based on the volume of raw fruit. The recipe can take up to three days to complete, but with the exception of one tedious chore (deseeding) the work is easy. I just did a step first thing each day, leaving the fruit to simmer while I did all my usual morning stuff, stirring whenever I happened to walk through the kitchen. It terms of its demands on your attention, marmalade is the outdoor cat of cooking projects.


Yuzu Marmalade

ingredients: yuzu, sugar, water

De-stem, halve and de-seed the fruit (seriously, this the most arduous part of the process; get through it and you're golden). Slice thinly or grind in a food processor. Add 1 1/2 c water for every cup of fruit and let the mixture stand 8-24 hours. Simmer in a heavy saucepan until the peel is tender (1-2 hours). Let the cooked mixture stand at least 8-24 hours. Add a scant cup of sugar (I used light brown evaporated cane juice; that hint of molasses mellows the citrusy sharpness just a little, without making it oversweet) for every cup of fruit, and cook just until the fruit jells. Cool and seal in sterilized jars.


Yuzu marmalade is amazing on buttered toast, and divine in full-fat plain yogurt with toasted walnuts. You can also make a restorative drink by stirring a spoonful into hot water, and I'm toying with the idea of making a small sachertorte and substituting yuzu marmalade for the layer of apricot jam.

If you share my out-of-season craving for yuzu, check out the products at Yuzu Passion.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Goat Caramels



















Caramels
Happy Goat, $7/small box

San Francisco's Happy Goat company makes luxurious caramels that they characterize as "Better for You." By blending high-quality flavorings and organic sugar with milk from goats rather than cows, they deliver an artisanal treat that's lower in fat and friendlier to lactose-intolerant consumers.

Goat milk tends to be one of those love-hate things. Its gamey tang is aggressive in cheese, more delicate but still unmissable in baked goods or chocolate. And in caramel? Happy Goat's trendy chocolate and sea salt caramel is powerful enough to drown out any undertones, while the flavor of the more delicate vanilla bean variety (freckled with real vanilla seeds) shares the stage with soft but distinctive goaty notes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fine & Raw Chocolate



















Crystals + Sea Salt Raw Chocolate Bar,
Fine & Raw, $7.99

In the past year and a half, I've tasted something like 200 different kinds of chocolate. Call it palate education, or snobbery, or whatever, but the simple fact is that many treats that once stoked my chocolate-loving furnace now leave me lukewarm. Worn down by all that chocolate, my tastes have been honed to a fine--and totally subjective--point.

It's very possible that if I had tried Fine & Raw eighteen months ago I might not have cared for it much; today it's one of the few chocolates I just can't get enough of.

Based in Brooklyn, Fine & Raw uses organic Ecuadorian cacao to make a range of raw chocolate bars and confections. "Raw" chocolate, as I discussed in a previous post, is manufactured using specialized techniques that don't allow it to get too hot, the idea being that high temperatures drive off many of cacao's natural nutrients. It's a fast-growing subset of the luxury chocolate industry, and, as trail-blazing pioneers are wont to do, many raw chocolate makers wander off into the wilderness, delivering a mealy, mucky product that I could just bring myself to gnaw on if I were snowbound and had already eaten the lint from my pockets.

I have no idea how they manage it, but Fine & Raw consistently makes raw chocolate that is buttery-smooth, flavorful but balanced, and a joy to eat. My favorite of the range is the Crystals + Sea Salt bar, a 70% dark chocolate. The bar is sweetened with crystals of palm sugar (derived from palm tree flowers) and made savory with a pinch of sea salt; this combination gives the chocolate a nicely gritty texture and a lively flavor, enhancing the fruity-earthy flavor of the cacao.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Panda TIle Cookies



















Panda Tile Cookies
Kirakudo Honpo

Another treat from my Hyogo Confectectionery Event gift bag: a set of three crispy honey-sweetened cookies seared with the image of an adorable panda.

While cookies curved like ceramic roof tiles are pretty common in Japan (baked yatushashi for example) and the practice of branding sweets with icons or logos goes back a long way, the cuddly cartoon distinguishes Kirakudo's version of a run-of-the-mill sweet.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Custard Pumpkin


















Custard Pumpkin

My first-ever Thai meal was at Sawatdee in St. Paul, MN, and I capped off a good dinner with a great dessert: a slice of rich, spongy custard embedded with diced pumpkin. Since that day I've rarely passed up a chance to eat Thai custard, preferably cooked inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, and served by the slice with a side of coconut black sticky rice.

Since I don't always have a retail source, I resort to making my own about once a year, usually around Thanksgiving when the prevalence of pumpkins acts as a mouth-watering reminder. My results have been mixed. True Thai custard calls for duck eggs and palm sugar, so my chicken egg and cane sugar version is bound to be a bit off. For such a short recipe, it also contains a daunting number of variables, from the size and moisture content of the pumpkin, to the volume and freshness of the eggs, to the eccentricities of whatever ersatz steaming contraption I've rigged up. Added to that, I tend to try a different recipe every time, which I realize is not the best approach in terms of trouble-shooting. Accordingly, over the years my "custard pumpkins" have overflowed, fallen, or failed to set--and on one dramatic occasion, the pumpkin sprang a leak and bled out all over the steamer.

But still, this stuff is so good and--theoretically--so simple, that by the time pumpkin season rolls around I'm always ready to try again. Here's what I tried this year:

Slice the top off one smallish kabocha or sugarpie pumpkin (for reference, that's a salad-sized plate in the photo above) and scoop out the guts. Pop the pumpkin into whatever steamer you prefer (I set it on a steel steamer basket inside a crockpot), add water and get the steam going. If you have room you can put the pumpkin lid as well. Mix 1c coconut milk, 1c brown sugar, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon. In another bowl, whisk 4 eggs until foamy. Gently combine the eggs and coconut milk mixture and pour into the pumpkin; ideally the liquid should be pretty close to the top of the opening (the contents will rise and then fall) but I'm never sure what to do if it isn't. Steam until the custard is completely set and the pumpkin is soft but not mushy. Cool, slice into wedges, and serve.

Custard pumpkin 2010 might have been a little short and oddly lumpy, but it was quite delicious. I already have my eye on this recipe for custard pumpkin 2011.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Black Sesame Cereal


















Black Sesame Cereal
Greenmax, $6.79/16 servings

With my demanding sweet tooth, instant desserts always seem like such a good idea. Embarrassingly often I come home from the store with boxes or sachets or envelopes full of magical powder that requires only water to transform into jelly, pudding, gruel, or some species of thick, sweet beverage for which there is no word in English.

Unfortunately, my sweet tooth is almost as discerning as it is demanding, and once I've welcomed them into my home, most of these over-sweet, artificially-flavored, and additive-laden treats languish in the cupboard until the packages are as dusty as their contents.

The one big exception to this rule is Black Sesame Cereal from Greenmax, a Taiwanese company that has been making seed- and grain-based convenience foods since the 1960s under the banner "Make Healthy & Beautiful Wish". Since Greenmax shuns colorings, artificial flavors, preservatives, and non-dairy creamer their sesame cereal looks like sun-bleached asphalt but tastes like the real, comforting, and delicious things from which it is made.

Black sesame cereal contains just eight ingredients: sesame, black beans, brown rice, Job's tears (barley), wheat germ, medlar seed, licorice root, and brown sugar. Amongst my entire collection of just-add-water treats, this is the only instance in which sugar comes anything but first on the list of ingredients.

A little hot liquid renders each packet into a creamy and respectable breakfast with 143 calories, 2.6g of protein, and 4.7g of fiber, plus 11 vitamins and minerals including calcium and iron. Mixing it with coffee instead of water intensifies the nutty, roasty flavor--and adds a little kick.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flavigny Violet Pastilles


















Anis de Flavigny
Maison Troubat, from $3.50

When I was growing up in Tennessee, a trip to Disney World was a sort of middle school rite of passage. In the weeks leading up to my family's pilgrimage, I pored over guidebooks and drafted daily schedules that would maximize my time on the park's best rides.


But as we all know, even the best-laid plans change. In this instance, Epcot Center was my undoing. At the time, I hadn't yet been to any of the countries represented by the pavilions in Epcot's international area, and I found even those lite versions more intriguing than roller coasters. I spent hours wandering the souks in "Morocco," pawing through trinkets in "China," and drinking sweet, milky tea in "England".

It was in "France" that I first tried Flavigny pastilles, small round white candies packed in floral-print tins. The hard sugar balls clacked against my teeth like tiny marbles, discouraging any attempt at crunching down. I learned to wait patiently for the flavored sugar to dissolve before biting into the single, tiny aniseed hidden in the center for a hit of herbal flavor. Whenever I was able to tear myself away from Epcot's gentler pleasures for a ride on Space Mountain or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I perfumed the air with anise-scented screams.

It turns out that Anis de Flavigny are even more evocative than my 12-year-old self could have imagined. If you've seen the film Chocolat, you've seen Flavigny, the picturesque village in Burgandy where the candies have been made for more than a thousand years. In some sense their history dates back even further, to a period more than 2,000 years ago when Roman soldiers introduced aniseed to territory they'd won from the Gauls, and a retired general called Flavinius settled on the hilly site that still bears his name.

Like so many dainty and labor-intensive delicacies, Anise de Flavigny were once produced by a religious community. The Benedictine monks of the Flavigny Abbey made their pastilles from the most exotic and expensive ingredients, including perfumed oils and distillates that required tons of herbs or blossoms to produce. Their candies found an enthusiastic following among the French aristocracy; Madame de Pompadour was one famous fan. Following the dissolution of monastic communities during the French Revolution, a number of local candy makers took up pastille production.

Today anis de Flavigny are made by a single, secular company, La Maison Troubat. The third generation of candy-making Troubats work in buildings that were once part of the Abbey complex, and use a recipe that dates from 1591. They offer Anis de Flavigny in a range of 10 all-natural flavors: plain anise, blackcurrant, lemon, orange blossom, ginger, tangerine, mint, liquorice, rose and violet.

The technique used to make anis de Flavigny is known as panning. This ancient process has an almost pan-global history; it has been used to make sweets as diverse as Portuguese confeito, Japanese konpeito, Jordan almonds, and Boston Baked Beans. Placed in large copper kettles over gentle heat, the aniseeds and flavored sugar syrup are tumbled together so that the sugar slowly builds up on the seed. It takes 15 days of careful spinning for to grow a pastille to the size of a pea.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Olive and Sinclair Chocolate



















Sea Salt Bar

I hate to think there's any cause-and-effect going on, but Nashville has gotten so much cooler in the years since I moved away. There's the Frist Center for the Arts, the new Country Music Hall of Fame, Bongo Java coffee and Las Paletas popsicles, plus countless cool shops and restaurants in neighborhoods where I would not previously have dared to tread.

And to cap it all off, now there's Olive and Sinclair, the South's first bean-to-bar chocolate maker.

O&S chocolate is made in small batches using cacao from Ghana and the Dominican Republic (when available). Their plain chocolate bars are good, but it's the topped and flavored bars that create converts. The frosty white flakes scattered on the Sea Salt bar bring out the fruity flavors of the chocolate and mesh nicely with its stone-ground texture. The equally delicious Salt and Pepper bar has an additional sprinkle of coarse black pepper.

O&S chocolates also look as good as they taste, with a logo and labels that recall Hatch Show Print's vintage wood-block posters for noted Nashville products and musical acts.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bienenstich


















Bienenstich
Wagner's European Bakery, $3.59

From a storefront only a few blocks from the Washington State Capital, Wagner's European Bakery has been selling German-style pastries, breads, and lunch items since 1938. I like to imagine that much important legislation has been hammered out in a corner booth over kuchen and coffee.


The bienenstich is classed as a cake although the dough is yeasted and similar in flavor and texture to brioche. The pastry is baked in a single thick sheet under a coating of sliced almonds and honey, then split in two and filled with a generous layer of custardy Bavarian cream.

The cake's name is German for "bee-sting" and explanations for this range from the ho-hum to the historically sublime. Sure the name probably refers to the honey-laden cake's potential for attracting vengeful bees, but the romantic in me prefers to see bienenstich as the legacy of a scrappy 15th century military victory. As the story goes, a Bavarian village was buckling under siege when two young bakers turned back the invaders by pelting them with beehives. As an encore, they invented bienenstich--so that cake-eating future generations would never forget their quick thinking and verve.

If you're hankering for some bienenstich but nowhere near a German bakery, this
recipe from the blog "Mennonite Girls Can Cook" looks promising.

Wagner's European Bakery and Cafe
1013 Capitol Way S
Olympia, WA
360/357-7268

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dia de los Muertos




















Calavera
Mark Sanchez at PW Kerr's, $30-48


The Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos sees families gather together to honor and celebrate loved ones who have died. Coinciding with the Catholic Church's observance of All Saints' and All Souls' Days, Day of the Dead festivities are distinguished by dark humor, dramatic pageantry, and touching personal details. Altars are built to commemorate specific individuals and decorated with pictures of the deceased, objects representing their hobbies or passions, and favorite food and drinks.


The skull, or calavera, is one of the celebration's most visible symbols. Serving as masks, decorations, or offerings, skulls may be fashioned from materials such as cut tissue, papier-mache, plaster, bread, chocolate, or sugar. Cast sugar skulls are a popular Day of the Dead gift; the skulls are intricately embellished with icing or caster sugar and labeled across the forehead with the name of a loved one--either living or dead.

PW Kerr's
612 West McGraw St
Seattle, WA
206/285-2467

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Northwest Chocolate Festival



















Question: What's brown and sticky?

At any other time, the best answer would be "a stick". On this particular weekend, a better answer would have been "Seattle Center", overrun as the place was by The Northwest Chocolate Festival and hordes of hot-handed, sample-crazed chocophiles. There were booths hosted by manufacturers and confectioners from around the world, expert panels debating fair trade and environmental issues, an adults-only wine garden, and on Saturday night, a chocolate-themed masquerade ball.

I stopped by during my lunch hour on Sunday for a few samples and a demonstration on cooking French-style chocolate macarons given by Antoine Rondenet, an instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle's culinary school. In between ingredient recommendations and technical tips, Chef Rondenet and his assistant delivered some surprisingly funny shtick on the subject of magic ovens and pastry bags full of brown goo. When the finished macarons emerged from the aforementioned oven, the audience lept up from its orderly rows of folding chairs and swarmed the stage (so much for the mellowing properties of all those "feel-good" chemicals in chocolate). My "free" macaron (below) actually cost me several bruises and a smidgen of self-respect.

Chef Rondenet's recipe is available on his blog, "Food and Pastry".

Friday, October 15, 2010

Gaufres



















Gaufres
Kobe Fugetsudo

I held out as long as I could, but I'm finally sampling the sweet swag I brought home from last month's Hyogo Confectionery Event. First up, these old-fashioned cookies from confectioner Kobe Fugetsudo.

Although gaufre is French for "waffel," Fugetsudo's interpretation is more what I think of as a wafer or tuile. Each airy disc is baked crisp and golden between engraved metal plates that also emboss it with the company's name and a leafy border. The gaufres are mortared together two at a time with a thin lick of stiff, sweet, delicately flavored pastry cream. They come three to pack in the classic Neapolitan combo of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla.


Fugetsudo's gaufres owe their distinctly Belle Epoque vibe to Kobe's former role as the official center of Japanese-European commerce and cultural exchange. A century ago, Japanese consumers would have considered gaufres as exotic and modern as Kobe's broad streets, brick buildings, and puff-sleeved dresses. I once compared a Euro-Japanese sweet of the same era to a Victorian lady, but whereas monaka are plump and a bit frumpy, gaufres are their elegant Continental cousins.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Zorba's Chocolates


















Raw Chocolate Confections
Zorba's Raw Chocolate, $29/12 pieces

My parents recently and temporarily relocated to Ashland, Oregon, a small town just north of the California border. Ashland is home to Southern Oregon University, Mt. Ashland, the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, lots of galleries, some great restaurants, a few notable nudists, and enough Tibetan prayer flags to swaddle Mt. Everest. It's an artsy, foodsy, outdoorsy, high-brow hippy haven, the kind of place you could call "granola"--if by "granola" you mean hand-harvested heirloom grains frosted with honeysuckle nectar and trampled flat by yearling llamas under the light of a new moon.

In short, it's a place I enjoy visiting, not least for the unusual experience of feeling comparatively conservative.

At a gorgeous flower shop on the main drag I discovered a display of fine chocolate and one unfamiliar brand. Zorba's Raw Chocolate confections were set out under old-fashioned glass domes; at first sight they reminded me of gems or rare orchids, and after a little research I learned just how apt that impression was.

Zorba's confections are "Raw, Dark, and Divinely created," made in Ashland using single origin Ecuadorian cacao grown by a co-operative of small farms. While cacao in its natural state contains a wealth of nutrients and antioxidants, many of these break down at the high temperatures associated with conventional chocolate manufacturing. By contrast, "raw" chocolate is never allowed over 118 degrees, thus conserving more of the cacao's natural health benefits. According to Zorba's literature, "Cacao in its raw, unroasted form, contains more antioxidants/gram than any other fruit or vegetable on earth," and raw chocolate contains upwards of 300% more free-radical-fighting antioxidants than even best conventional dark chocolate.

Zorba's confections start with organic raw cacao powder and raw cacao butter. To that they add coconut oil as an emulsifier, and a range of flavorings from sources near and far. In lieu of refined sugar, Zorba uses sweeteners such as raw honey, maple syrup, stevia, dates, aromatic oils, Jerusalem artichoke syrup, and maca and lucuma (respectively, a naturally sweet Andean root vegetable and fruit). More assertive flavors come from ginger, matcha, cayenne, mesquite, Himalayan sea salt, and coffee (locally roasted, fair trade, and shade grown).


Pictured above, Zorba's truffle range (left-right, top-bottom): ginseng and cardamom, cayenne/coconut, pure dark, maca-roon, vanilla "karamel", bing cherry, espresso, rose "karamel", and ginger and green tea. I found the texture of the ganache a little dry and crumbly, but in a way that was rustic or hearty rather than off-putting. The standout for me was the rose "karamel", a sweet and creamy concoction made from medjool dates, essential oil, and salt; nothing like a caramel, nothing like a rose cream, but totally delicious.

And the health benefits? While I can't say whether or not Zorba's confections added moments to my life, I can attest that they made me feel better in the short term. I was so intrigued by them that I broke my own two-truffle rule, sampling my way through one after another in quick succession. When I realized just how much I'd eaten I began to dread the impending rush/crash, but it never came. Instead, I just felt good--well-fed, satisfied, and content. Much as I love chocolate, that's not how too much of a good thing usually makes me feel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rocket Donuts

















Almond Cake Donut
Rocket Donuts, $1.29

As if donuts on their own aren't retro-cool enough, Rocket Donuts serves theirs up with a coating of kitsch and a sprinkling of sci-fi.

To find the Rocket Donuts in downtown Bellingham, look for the snub-nosed silver rocket (below left, a not-too-distant cousin of Top Pot's vintage Airstream trailer). Choose your treat from the case (chocolate-glazed cake donut with almond slivers, above, bacon-topped maple bar, below center; there are also vegan and gluten-free alternatives) and order a cup of joe. Perch at the counter and check out vintage sci-fi memorabilia that includes eye-popping movie posters, the "Creature from the Blue Lagoon"'s head, and a full-sized Gort from the "The Day the Earth Stood Still".

306 W Holly
Bellingham, WA
360/671-6111





Friday, September 24, 2010

Sweet Art



















Sweet Art

Like many couples, the Hruskas have divergent hobbies: she paints, he makes candy. More than a decade ago, they merged their individual creative outlets into a combined retail outlet. Sweet Art is a closet-like shop in downtown Bellingham that sells paintings, prints, and cards alongside classic sugary treats.

Lumps of fudge the size of speedbumps show off on a marble slab in the front window: flavors include chocolate, peanut butter, and penuchi (an old-fashioned flavor made with brown sugar and nuts). Inside, shadowy display cases bulge with a enormous selection of truffles, turtles, clusters, handmade marshmallows and dipped fruit.

I walked out with a "couple of days' worth" of dense, delicious peanut butter fudge (which lasted a couple of blocks), and a gingercot truffle, an enormous ball of dark chocolate filled with a pleasantly gritty ganache mixed with diced apricots and crystallized ginger.

Sweet Art
1335 Railroad Ave
Bellingham, WA
360/714-1331

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blackberry Wine


















Blackberry Wine

The drizzly Seattle summer has driven me to drink.

Just after I abandoned all hope of picking any decent blackberries this year, I came across a bottle of blackberry wine at the Whole Foods just down the street. While buying a bottle of wine from down the block doesn't satisfy my hunter-gatherer impulses quite as handily as collecting free fruit from the alley out back, I was willing to compromise.

As soon as I pulled the cork, the room filled with the unmistakeable perfume of a blackberry thicket on a hot August afternoon, sweet and earthy with that faintly tart edge. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a bumblebee buzz by. The taste was even more intense, but sippable rather than syrupy.

Blackberry is only one of the many fruit wines made by Pasek Cellars, a winery based near Mount Vernon, north of Seattle. At their tasting room (an easy detour off I-5), you can try wines made from guava, passionfruit, pineapple, loganberry, raspberry, and cranberry (Pasek's best-seller), as well as a couple of grape wines and a dessert wine made from Arabica coffee. Many of their ingredients are grown nearby; the blackberry wines are made from Oregon fruit. For the sake of the 2011 vintage, I hope Oregon had better berry weather this year than we did!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Moon Cake



















Mini Mooncake
Mon Hei, $1.40


The Chinese Mid-Autumn festival has its roots in an ancient imperial practice of making special offerings to the moon every autumn. In the year 420, the date for observing this festival was set as the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.

Pastries known as "mooncakes" are now so strongly associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival that it is perhaps better known by the name "Mooncake Festival". Friends and family share the rich golden pastries when they gather to admire the moon.

A typical mooncake is round or rectangular, with a pastry crust baked golden and shining with oil. On top there is an embossed design, usually auspicious characters or a commercial logo framed by a decorative border. The most traditional fillings are dense, rich pastes based on ingredients such as lotus seeds, jujube fruit, or red beans. The salted yolk of a hard-boiled duck egg is often baked into the center; when the pastry is sliced open, the yellow yolk appears like the moon emerging from clouds.

Changing tastes and the tradition of giving mooncakes to clients and business associates have spurred ongoing innovation and experimentation. It is now possible to find modern mooncakes made with almost any kind of novel or luxury ingredient, or suitable for any type of dietary restriction.

Like so many sweets that began as special occasion treats, mooncakes are now available year-round. In the the weeks leading up to the Autumn Festival, they seem to be everywhere; a brightly colored mooncake gift bag or box becomes a de rigeur accessory in certain parts of town. I bypassed the glitzier mass-produced and packaged mooncakes in favor of Mon Hei, the oldest Chinese bakery in Seattle's International District. At Mon Hei, several sizes of mooncake are availble with either lotus seed or bean paste filling, and either eggless or with up to 3 yolks inside.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hyogo Confectionery Event


















Yūgiri
, or "Lonely Tranquility"
Kobe Fugetsudo

On September 15th, the Ellis Pavilion at the Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field played host to a very unusual meeting: "A Special Presentation of Wagashi/Senbei Japanese Confectionery and Japanese Culture".

One of the things that I get from Japanese confectionery surprisingly often is a sense of being in the right place at the right time; this is a prime example. I happen to live in a state, Washington, that has partnered with the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo as "Sister States" since 1963. Seattle is "Sister City" to Kobe, Hyogo's largest city and an active port. Kobe is renowned in Japan for producing Japanese sweets with a European twist, a reflection of its earlier role as a designated center for international trade.

For several years, a trade group known as the Hyogo Confectionery Association has been working to promote Hyogo-made wagashi to new audiences. Their foray into Seattle was timed to coincide with a visit from Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's Ambassador to the U.S.

So how did I find out about their "Special Presentation", much less manage to get on the guest list? I happen to be having a show of wagashi photos of here in Seattle, and, more or less on a whim, I thought to send an announcement to the Japanese consulate, not really expecting to hear anything. The consulate responded with an invitation to the event. Like I said: right place, right time. And then they gave me a gift bag along with my nametag, and I was over the moon.

The long, dim space was fitted with a row of tables covered in posters, brochures, souvenirs, and displays of sweets and rice crackers (below: white peach jellies in a presentation tray, and a beetle sculpted from sugar paste). Representatives of various Hyogo confectioners hovered behind the tables, answering questions and giving out samples.














The featured sweet, called "Lonely Tranquility" (top), was offered by confectioner Kobe Fugestu-do. One of Fugestsu-do's leading wagashi designers is also an expert on the thousand-year-old Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji; she spent several years creating a extensive collection of wagashi such as Yūgiri that reflect passages from Genji in both mood and detail:

"In the remote mountain retreat at Ono, the Princess Ichijō-no-miyasu-dokoro quietly passes away. Her daughter, the Princess Ochiba-no-miya, is overcome with grief and loneliness at being left behind all alone in this world.

"Russet and white nerikiri-kinton is used here to express the distraught princess's loneliness. Tsubu-an is enclosed within. The single autumn leaf symbolizes the Princess Ochiba-no-miya, whose name literally means 'the Princess of the Fallen Leaf.'"

Each Yūgiri sweet was sculpted to order by confectioners from Kobe Fugetsu-do (below). They make the rough outer layer by pushing paste through a woven bamboo screen; the scraps are then pressed to the bean paste core with firm but gentle pressure.


















The formal part of the presentation included remarks from Association officials ("Snacks and sweets, when shared, bring people together."), a slide show on wagashi, and a quick but rousing greeting from Ambassador Fujisaki, who lived in Seattle as a teenager and clearly still has a lot of affection for the place. There were also demonstrations of tea ceremony (below) Nihon Buyo dance, koto, and marimba.







Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Simply Desserts



















Bittersweet Hazelnut Cake
Simply Desserts, $4.65

Why would a bijoux cake shop known for scratch baking and all-natural ingredients insist on using flimsy paper plates and plastic utensils? Maybe the on-site bakery is just too full of old-fashioned layer cakes to leave room for dishes. Or maybe it's more calculated than that. The miniature paper plates seem to cower under their oversized burdens, making the slices appear even more generous by comparison. And the plastic forks, straining against the weight of cake and frosting, underscore their hefty moistness.

My dark chocolate slice was a winner--studded with toasted hazelnuts and slathered with fudgy frosting--but I bet you couldn't go wrong with Red Velvet...or Mexican Chocolate...or Blueberry Lemon...

If you're tempted to visit, plan ahead: Simply Desserts only accepts checks and cash.

Simply Desserts
3421 Fremont Ave North
Seattle, WA 98103
206/633-2671

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lucy's Bag o' Donuts


















Lucy's Bag o' Donuts
TASTE Pavilion, $5/6-pack

Throughout the summer, Seattle Art Museum has been hosting a Thursday evening farmers' market at the Olympic Sculpture Park. I can barely think of anything more Seattle-esque: stalls of fresh produce and specialty foods with a dance floor and live music on one side, public sculpture, Puget Sound and the Olympic mountain range on the other.

I'd like to say that I showed up for the last market of the year thinking of heirloom apples or organic chard, but really, I went for the doughnuts.

At the tiny stall operated by SAM's restaurant, TASTE, pastry chef Lucy Damkoehler has made a weekly tradition of creating a seasonal, locavore doughnut based on current market offerings. Her
earlier flavors included s’mores, bacon and brown sugar, and sweet corn crullers, each highlighting a local product such as Finnriver flour, Skagit bacon and eggs, and Alverez corn.

For the farewell market Damkoehler offered an autumn-tinged doughnut flavored with Finnriver's apple cider. The tartness sliced through the grease and a generous dusting of sugar, adding a crisp and high-toned complexity to what would already have been a pretty stellar cake doughnut. A perfect comfort food for those of us looking forward to the coming of fall while still pining for a summer that never quite was.