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

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

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

, 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

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.

Manhattan Special

Manhattan Special

Five or six years ago, I was visiting friends in Brooklyn when I heard vague rumors about a locally made coffee-flavored soda with an historic pedigree. I set my sights on this exotic new quarry, trekking from corner store to bodega to corner store in a futile search for "Manhattan Special". Most people had heard of it; nobody had it to sell. My frenzy culminated in an act of sweet-toothed stalking: I bused over to Williamsburg and knocked on the factory door.

And knocked again. And again.

The guy who eventually answered the door was surprised to find a tourist in search of soda, and politely regretful that he couldn't direct me to a single neighborhood store that would have Manhattan Special in stock.

I admitted defeat and left town. When I eventually tried Manhattan Special it was in Oregon, of all places, where a neighbor nostalgic for her East Coast childhood had taken to special ordering it by the case. It tasted more or less like what I always expected coffee would taste like before I'd ever had any: a little fizz and a lot of sweetness rounding off the bitter espresso's sharp edges. The "secret recipe" dates from 1895 and is heavy on coffee beans and cane sugar (the exception being the modern diet version, which contains NutraSweet). The label appears to date from about 1922, and is heavy on drama, verve, and allusions to Rudolph Valentino.

Fast forward to 2010, and Manhattan Special is still in production, still a nostalgic novelty, but now somewhat easier to find thanks to internet sales and growing interest in niche and vintage foods. In this
NYT article, read more about the brother and sister behind Manhattan Special, who took over the family business as teenagers after their father's murder.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Sweet Travel" Show

First there was Sweet Travel, the there's Sweet Travel, the show (not to be confused with "Sweet Travel! The Musical," debuting in 2014).

From now through September, a selection of my photographs from Japan is on display at Fresh Flours' Phinney Ridge location. The centerpiece is a 44-photo mural made up of individual wagashi portraits (above).

Fresh Flours is a lovely little coffee shop that features Japanese-inflected baked goods. It's also right across the street from Tokara and sells her wagashi on the weekends.

You can also see the show online by visiting my Flickr set.

6015 Phinney Ave N
Seattle, WA