Saturday, October 20, 2012

Amaretti Morbidi

Amaretti Morbidi
World Market, $3.99/box

Amaretti morbidi:  what a great expression!  Alas, instead of being death-obsessed little goth biscuits, these are soft-textured versions of the classic Italian cookie.  

Although almonds are often substituted, the primary ingredient in old-fashioned amaretti is apricot kernels; "amaretti" refers to a slight bitterness that comes from the kernels' natural cyanide content.  

Legend has it that when the Cardinal of Milan made an unexpected stop in the town of Saronno in the early 18th century, one devout young couple whipped up these cookies with the only ingredients they happened to have on hand:  apricot kernels, sugar, and egg whites (one wonders what they were planning to have for dinner...?).  Presented in colorful paper twists, the cookies were a hit and the couple's descendants have been making them ever since; their company, Chiostro di Saronno, is still based in the cloisters of a former monastery in central Saronno.  

Other competitors have been producing amaretti for nearly as long, with Lazzaroni being perhaps the best known internationally.  Lazzaroni has been a pioneer in both manufacturing and marketing, industrializing the production of its cookies in the 1800s and shipping its products in eye-catching packages since 1888.   

Most amaretti are hard enough to shatter when bitten, unless dunked first into tea or coffee.  The amaretti morbidi is a relatively new innovation.  Although its surprisingly chewy texture calls to mind the chemical laced "Soft Batch" cookies of the 1980s, there are no surprises on the ingredients list: 48% apricot kernels and 2% almonds plus sugar and egg whites.  Perhaps the heavy airtight plastic wrapper inside the paper twist is the real secret ingredient. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Behind the Museum Cafe

Behind the Museum Cafe, $2.75

Certain things about the Pacific Northwest have helped generations of homesick Japanese visitors and settlers to feel more at home:  the stands of tall, dark cedars, the intricate coastlines with little islands emerging from blankets of haze, the familiar grandeur of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Hood.  

Now add to that Portland's Behind the Museum CafĂ©. 

In the neighborhoods where I lived and worked in Tokyo there was almost always at least one gem of a coffeeshop.  While they varied wildly in style and size, all tended to be tricky to find and strongly atmospheric, with an unusual selection of carefully prepared drinks and food. 

Behind the Museum fits that description--except for it's relatively prominent location in back of the Portland Art Museum.  It's a narrow, high-ceilinged room in a modern glass highrise; a selection of Japanese antiques and contemporary crafts adds warmth to all that chrome. 

Owner Tomoe Horibuchi was a cafe manager and culinary instructor in San Francisco before feeling the pull of the Pacific Northwest.  She's dedicated to cultivating a space that's more than just a cafe, offering exhibition opportunities to artists, tables large enough to accommodate small group meetings, and regular demonstrations of Japanese traditions such as the incense ceremony and calligraphy.  

The cafe serves tea, locally-roasted coffee, Japanese beer and sake.  Appetizers and small meals are made in house, with organic ingredients wherever possible.  In addition to cookies and pastries, Horibuchi handmakes fresh Japanese confections such as the manju of the day above:  a small, soft bird filled with smooth red bean paste and flavored with toasted soybean powder.  

Behind the Museum Cafe 
1229 SW 10th Ave
Portland, OR