Sunday, June 27, 2010

Salted Cherry Blossoms

Sakura-no-Shiozuke / 桜の塩漬け

After my semi-successful experiment with homemade sakura daifuku and my delicious experience with Setsuko Pastry's sakura mochi, I decided to try preserving cherry blossoms in salt and vinegar. Having some sakura-no-shiozuke on hand allows you to enjoy a little hit of spring throughout the year, decorating your sweets or cakes with the pickled blossoms, or steeping a little bouquet in hot water for a restorative cup of cherry blossom tea (sakura-yu). 

For my first batch I collected large, pale, aromatic blossoms from some early blooming trees in the neighborhood. After washing the blossoms and letting them air dry (above), I laid them in salt and pressed them under weights for three hours. Cherry blossoms have at least one thing in common with spinach: you start off thinking you have a bumper crop, then one step later you're shaking your head and wondering
 where it all went. I put my meager harvest in a jar full of white vinegar and brine (below) and stashed it in a dark cupboard. 

A week later, the vinegar had leached all the color from the blossoms, leaving them transparent and wholly unappealing (the vinegar, on the other hand, was beautifully pink and perfumed). I ditched that batch and started over with heavier, darker blossoms from a late-blooming ornamental cherry. Right from the start the second batch went better. When I lifted them out of the pickling brine after their week-long bath they were still pink, mostly intact, and seemed to be a perfect texture. I pressed them in paper towels and put them to bed in a tupperware container under a generous blanket of kosher salt (below).  

A couple of weeks later, I got the container down from the pantry to take a look and was horrified to find that my beautiful blossoms had turned blackish-green and putrid (below)!  

So, no sakura-yu for me this winter.

At least I have an entire year to figure out what went wrong before I make my third attempt...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pocket Coffee

Pocket Coffee

For those times when you need a caffiene hit but a to-go mug is just too much bother, consider investing in Pocket Coffee. Made by European confectioner Ferrero (see also Mon Cheri, Kinder chocolates, Rocher, Nutella, Tic Tac), Pocket Coffee is a hollow dark chocolate cube lined with a crisp sugar coating and filled with a concentrated shot of liquid espresso. Pocket Coffee is too fragile to be produced or sold during summer months, but at colder times it's generally available at convenience stores in Italy and can be ordered by the case in the US.

Want more to chew on? Check out other food/travel posts at WanderFood Wednesday...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crazy Dave's Ginger Brew

Ginger Brew
Crazy Dave's Organic Sodaworks, $3

What is it about the water in Bend that makes people want to ferment it?  In addition to Bend Brewing and the Deschutes Brewery, Bend is also home to the non-alcoholic delights of Crazy Dave's Organic Sodaworks: "We make the best Ginger Brew on Planet Earth (which is the only known planet in our solar system to grow ginger)". Unlike most sodas, Crazy Dave's deliciously sweet-spicy Ginger Brew has an abbreviated list of ingredients:  ginger, evaporated cane juice, and lemon juice.  It's available in cafes and shops in Redmond, Eugene, and Bend ("Be sure to pound your fist on the counter as you demand a taste of the "World's Finest Ginger Brew!"), as well as at selected markets and tasting events in Portland and Sisters (at least according to the 2009 market schedule posted on Crazy Dave's website).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sparrow Bakery

The Sparrow Bakery

Bend's historic ironworks district now houses an eclectic assortment of post-industrial businesses, including an experimental theater, a pottery center, and one of the best bakeries I've ever come across. The Sparrow Bakery nestles inside an appealingly weathered brick cube; there's a small area given over to indoor seating but most of the space is devoted to producing and displaying magnificent baked goods.

One of the house specialties is the Ocean Roll (bottom center, $3.25), a swirl of hand-folded croissant dough laced with cardamon and brown sugar. The texture was absolutely perfect--the crisp, flaky outside giving way to layer upon layer of tender pastry flesh as I unrolled it. It tasted of fresh butter and exotic spices, with occasional hits of caramel wherever the melted brown sugar had pooled in the pastry's nooks and crannies.

The Sparrow also serves Stumptown coffee, salads, and a roster of creative sandwiches (they call them "sandoh").

The Sparrow Bakery
50 SE Scott Street
Bend, OR

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Camp Fire Candy

Camp Fire Candy

At the Bend (Oregon) Historical Society there is currently a temporary display commemorating the 100th anniversary of the youth organization now known as Camp Fire USA. Among the artifacts are boxes (presumably empty) of fundraising sweets including Camp Fire Mints and confections by Almond Roca and Russell Stover.

As a survivor of numerous Girl Scout cookie campaigns, I was interested to learn that Camp Fire kids went through much the same rite of passage:

"Almost everyone involved with Camp Fire as a child can remember standing on a front porch with the weight of a cardboard case full of Camp Fire Mints digging into their fingers as they reached to ring the doorbell.

"Youth members have been selling candy since the organization's early days. The unrestricted revenue is used to fund outstanding Camp Fire programs, and clubs and individuals earn incentives including free camp.

"Today, sales are to friends, relatives, and to retail sites."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Powell's Sweet Shoppe

Powell's Sweet Shoppe

Stepping from the bright, tidy streets of downtown Bend into Powell's Sweet Shoppe is like entering a murky Jungian cave of repressed desires. As your eyes adjust, memories begin to materialize from the gloom--Zots and Skittles and Pop Rocks and Lik-m-Stix and gummies in a dozen revolting shapes. Powell's is both archive and warehouse, stuffed to the rafters with half-remembered names and half-forgotten flavors.

The original Powell's opened in 2003 in Windsor, CA, in the town's faux Victorian downtown. Powell's is modeled on what the company describes as "an old-time, old-fashioned, old-world candy store taken from America's imagination." It proved to be a compelling form of treat-based time travel; the first franchise opened in 2006, and there are currently 17 branches in California and Oregon. The Bend store opened in 2008.

One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about candy and other sweets is their disarming ability to connect certified grown-ups to a time when both treats and threats were more intense. Powell's seems to share this view, at least in part: "On the surface we sell ice cream and sweets, but you don't have to stand in the Shoppe too long before you realize that what we really offer are memories...And that is precisely our goal. We want to walk our customers down memory lane and remind them of good things and good times."

Of course, childhood memories are rarely as unambiguously sunny as marketers might like to believe. For me every step into Powell's triggered new and complicated memories: there were the mints my late grandfather favored, the drops I remember from a kind neighbor's candy dish, the novelty gum I saved my allowance to buy but always found disappointing, the candy the rich families used to give out on Halloween. As sweets-centric as I am, Powell's was more like a fever dream than a saunter down memory lane.

Powell's Sweet Shoppe
818 NW Wall Street
Bend, OR

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Baker's Wife

Graham Cracker Sandwich
A Baker's Wife, $1.19

If I hadn't had a local herding me towards the door, I might have taken one look at the kitsch-cluttered windows of A Baker's Wife and walked right on by. Thank goodness I didn't have to learn that lesson the hard way.

If I hadn't been on my way to the airport, I might have ordered one of everything. Just visible over the thronging crowd and between the large hand-written signs were all sorts of tempting treats, from glistening buns and glossy iced cookies to meticulous but unfussy pastries.

Owner Gary Tolle opened A Baker's Wife in 1987, when he returned home to Minneapolis after years as a professional baker in New York. I imagine the fruit tarts, tea cakes and palmiers were the kind of things Tolle perfected while a student at the CIA and a pastry chef at New York's Plaza Hotel. Perhaps he'd already had some experience with doughnuts, sheet cakes, danish, and cookies as a kid growing up in the unassuming neighborhood where he know works.
The graham cracker sandwich displays both down-to-earth baking ability and rigorous pastry skills. A pair of fresh, housemade crackers mortared together with intense chocolate fondant and thick pastry cream, then finished with a sifting of confectioner's sugar, the graham cracker sandwich couldn't be simpler--or better.

A Baker's Wife
4200 28th Avenue
Minneapolis, MN

Friday, June 4, 2010



I moved to Minnesota for college largely ignorant of any Scandinavian traditions not lampooned by Garrison Kellior in his reports from Lake Wobegon.   I must have missed the
pannekoeken episode, because I was amazed by these huge, rich pancakes--and by the fact that in restaurants they are often served to an accompaniment of chanting and hand-clapping.  

While attending my college reunion I stayed with my old friend Jenni Undis. Although Jenni's main job is as doyenne of the Twin Cities' coolest print shop (
Lunalux), she can also whip up a mean pannekoeken.  I still don't get the chanting thing, but I agree that applause is the only proper response to seeing one of these things come out of the oven.  

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sugar Sugar

Sugar Sugar

Open just six months, the Sugar Sugar candy store already has the lived-in, well-loved charm of a good vintage boutique. The paneled walls are decorated with retro sweets labels and ads, and eye-catching candies do double duty as bouquets (pixy stix, below left), sculptures (lollipops, above) and light fixtures (rock candy, below right).

The backbone of the small space is a stretch of wall shelves lined with glass apothecary jars containing treats for sale by the pound--licorice, gummies, drops, and the like.  The bulk orange slices ($1.75/lb) were the first candy that owner Joni Wheeler bought for the store; to Wheeler, those orange slices were, "what it meant to have a candy store."

In choosing the rest of her range, Wheeler kept in mind that "candy" means different things to different people--often according to when and where you were raised.  Reading Candyfreak, sweet-toothed writer Steve Almond's account of his search for America's endangered historic candies, convinced Wheeler that regional and nostalgia treats needed to be part of the line-up. 

Luckily for Wheeler, penny-candy titan Farley Sathers is a local company, as are chocolatier BT McElrath and prodigy chocolate maker Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolate.  Other sweets come from much farther afield.  Rogue's artisanal bars share shelves with imports such as Chuckles, Abba-zabba, Big Hunk, and Rocky Road.  While I was in the store, one customer mock-grumbled that since Sugar Sugar opened he could no longer look forward to business trips as an opportunity to stock up on regional delicacies.  

Sugar Sugar caters to a wide range of budgets and tastes, satisfying kids with a dime for the gumball machine as well as adults splashing out on nostalgia by the pound.  During my short visit there was a steady stream of customers of all ages, and the next day Sugar Sugar was featured in a USA Today article on candy stores around the country. 
3803 Grand Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Salty Tart

Dulce de Leche Cupcake
Salty Tart, $2.50

For years the vacant Sears building loomed over a somewhat sketchy area of Minneapolis like an enormous Art Deco lego (below left).  I am incredibly pleased to find that it has beeen rehabbed and now houses a group of shops and stalls known as the Midtown Global Market.  The business were carefully chosen to reflect the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, and to support local entrepreneurs.  The
Market's goals are explicitly stated and prominently posted--and so noble that they made me choke up a little.  Hawking foods from regions such as Central American, Scandnavia, and the Carribean, the Market's vendors had my mouth watering at every turn.

Of all the baked goods in the building, Salty Tart's were voted "best" in a recent survey.  Opened in 2004 by pedigreed pastry chef Michelle Gayer, Salty Tart offers prime pastry in a blend of rustic European and quirky American styles.  Seasonal, local, and organic ingredients figure heavily (at the moment, my beloved rhubarb is front and center) and all goods are baked fresh daily in the tiny open kitchen.  While Salty Tart's motto is “Cooking with Integrity", it is perhaps equally well known for baking with attitude and serving up sass.  A sampling:

"No one can live on bread alone. Pastries and bread? Now that's more like it."

"For everyone who believes that when life gives you lemons, you make a lemon-filled tart. Or better yet, you have a master pastry chef make it for you."

"Broken cookies have no calories. Call us to discuss."

My dulce de leche cupcake (above) was moist and flavorful, with a substantial dollop of buttercream icing, a sprinkle of bitter cacao nibs, and a hidden heart of oozy caramel.  

Salty Tart
920 East Lake Street
Minneapolis, MN 55407
(612) 874-9206

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Khyber Pass Cafe

In my old age, I anticipate regaling any whippersnapper within earshot with embroidered tales of my sweet-toothed adventures.  Top billing might go to the story of how I used to trek miles through knee-high snow, subzero temperatures, and artic winds...just to eat pudding.

When I was in college in Minnesota the Khyber Pass Cafe was a special destination, a cozy spot for spicy, saucy Afghan cuisine. It was a little too expensive and a little too far from campus for casual visits. It was a place we went to celebrate, or when someone's parents were treating. So we'd make every visit count, packing in as much aushak or shola as possible, then capping it off with a restorative bowl of firni.

Afghan firni is a light, silky pudding of milk and starch flavored with rosewater, cardamon, and pistachios (some Indian versions apply the same flavors to a rice pudding base). A lot of people say that it reminds them of hand lotion, which might be part of the appeal for me.  When I stayed with an Afghan family in Australia, they'd make a huge vat of the stuff for parties, serve everyone their share, then give me the vat to polish off.  

At times when I haven't been living with Afghans or near an Afghan restaurant, I've also resorted to making firni myself, from the actual Khyber Pass recipe.  Some 15-20 years ago another fan wrote into the St. Paul paper begging for the recipe; a reporter tracked it down and it was published.  For many years the yellowed clipping hung on the wall of the Khyber Pass dining room, and I scribbled it down before I left town.  I share it here for everyone who lives in a town without commercially available Afghan food.  If you live in the Twin Cities, for heaven's sake, go and try it at the Kyhber Pass; on weekdays there's a huge lunch buffet for only $10, firni included.

3 1/2 c milk
1/4 c cornstarch
1/2 c sugar
1 Tbs rosewater
pinch cardamon
crushed pistachios

Combine milk, starch, sugar and rosewater in a saucepan.  Bring to a slow boil, stirring constantly.  When thickened, pour into bowls and sprinkle with cardamon and nuts.  

Khyber Pass Cafe
1571 Grand Avenue
St Paul, MN