Sunday, February 28, 2010

Colombian-style Hot Chocolate

Colombian-style Hot Chocolate

While my part-time weekend job in a chocolate shop is not always as idyllic as it might sound, it certainly has its moments. One recent evening a couple came in asking to see the owner--not usually a good sign. When I explained that she was out for the day, they were crestfallen. Turns out that they had driven in from the far side of town just to bring her, out of the blue, a big block of cheese.

The backstory: they had attended one of the tasting events our shop does for a local business and heard about our range of drinking chocolate. The woman, who grew up in Colombia, decided that we needed to experience drinking chocolate done Colombian-style, which involves soaking a piece of fresh, lightly salted cheese in the cup, then eating it when it's warm and soft and saturated with chocolate.

This generous pair of chocolate evangelists searched the Latino markets for a queso fresco that would best approximate the kind used in Colombia, then schlepped it all the way to our shop. Finding that the boss wasn't in, they left us the entire block of cheese (!) and some verbal instructions.

I finally had time to fix myself a cup today. Keeping to the theme of the experiment, I used a single-origin Santander chocolate from Colombia for the drink. Then I dropped in a cube of cheese and started sipping. As I drank, I couldn't detect any cheesy flavor, but when I got to the bottom there it was: still cube-shaped but soft around the edges, pale ivory mottled with brown blotches like some alien sweetbread.

Since I'm about to start an elimination diet that will exclude all of the components of this treat (dairy, chocolate, and sugar--among many other things), I was sort of hoping it would turn me off chocolate for a while. No such luck. The cheese was a little rubbery and squeaked against my teeth (which, as my fellow former eraser chewers will agree, is a rather pleasant sensation), and then the fattiness melted across my tongue and released alternating ripples of salty chocolate and sweet cheese.

I can't believe I'm going to have to wait at least a month before I try Colombian drinking chocolate again!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

John Nielsen's Authentic Danish Pastries

Pastry Potato
John Nielsen's, $3.50

Robin Williams once noted that you don't see a lot of happy people at a happy hour, but he certainly wasn't talking about happy hour at John Nielsen's, a Danish-style scratch bakery established in 1965. Between 2:30 and 3:30 the purchase of an espresso drink comes with your choice of pastry (including danish and snitter) on the house. Since Nielsen's offerings are made daily and without preservatives, this is a smart way to keep the goods moving while they're in peak condition.

Not part of the happy hour special, but worth the extra outlay, are more elaborate cakes and pastries such as the tosca, the Sarah Bernhardt, and the multi-story marzipan cake (fake but appealing display model pictured below). Their most popular item is the "potato" (above), an outsized profiterole bursting with whipped cream, swaddled in a blanket of marzipan, and dirtied up with a heavy dusting of cocoa powder.

Having alway previously thought of trompe l'oeil pastry potatoes as more of a German thing, I'm always surprised to run into them in Seattle's Scandinavian bakeries. Also surprising, the fact that so many pastries I would normally refer to as "danish" are sold in these bakeries under the name wienerbrod, or "Vienna bread".

It turns out that this is another of my beloved instances of history being inscribed in our sugary treats. In 1850, Danish bakery workers went on strike, leading bakery owners to import labor from nearby countries, including Austria. The foreign bakers brought with them their own traditions, which merged with existing Danish recipes and gave rise to many of the pastries that we know and love today.

520 Second Ave W
Seattle, WA

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!!

Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours! As a token of my regard, here's a little wagashi bouquet made from homemade shiro-an and beet-stained nerikiri. I pressed each ball into a mold carved to look like a peony bud on the cusp of blooming, and dotted the buds with with kanten dewdrops.

And the black sesame seeds? While I was looking up pictures for the mold, I was surprised to see many peony buds crawling with ants--the suggestion of which makes my skin crawl in sympathy. Digging a little further I learned of an "old gardeners' tale" that says the ants actually encourage the buds to open.

I decided to throw in a few ersatz ants because I can't think of any better Valentine's wish than this: whatever temporary discomforts you may be experiencing, I hope that they will help you, in the end, to bloom bigger and brighter than ever!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Top Pot Doughnuts

Raspberry Glazed Chocolate Cake Doughnut
Top Pot, $1.49

Top Pot has been suppling Seattle with "hand-forged" gourmet doughnuts since 2002. Their pleasingly symmetrical name was a happy accident courtesy of a recycled neon sign from the derelict "Topspot" Chinese restaurant, which lost its "S" along the way. Actually, most things about Top Pot have that retro/recycled feel, from the melamine-topped tables and vintage books at their 5 stand-alone cafes to their recipe itself, which dates from the 1920s. When they start a mobile doughnut cart later this summer it'll be housed in--what else?--a Airstream trailer.

Top Pot offers more than 40 vintage varieties, including "old-fashioneds", crullers, cakes, fritters, and the coconut-covered "boa". Doughnuts are grouped and priced in three categories (in ascending order of extravagance): standard, premium, supreme. My "premium" chocolate cake with raspberry was lovely: soft and fresh with a comforting cocoa warmth and bright little bursts of raspberry.