Sunday, February 26, 2012
Sesame Brown Rice Wafer
Something about wafer cookies is so irredeemably childish to me. Is it because they were cheap enough to be a staple snack at my kindergarten? Or because they're as colorful as construction paper and a thousand times as sugary? The little slabs of pink, yellow, or orange cracker cemented together with frosting seem like something Dorothy might have snacked on after her world turned Technicolor.
If those rainbow wafers recall the past, Mic's sesame brown rice wafers just might represent the future: delicious, but dark, in all senses of the word. The textures are familiar--crisp, foamy planks and unctuous cream--but the goth coloring and mild, toasty sweetness are unexpected. Both come from the addition of ground black sesame seeds. As a nutrient-dense crop capable of surviving in inhospitable conditions, sesame has been cultivated for thousands of years, spreading from sub-Saharan African to countries around the world (today Myanmar, India, and Mexico are big producers). Many cultures have already developed a taste for sesame (try to imagine a McDonald's bun without its sprinkles) and it seems likely that as the world's climate grows more erratic, we'll be finding more uses for this flavorful "survivor" crop.
In Seattle, you can find Mic's wafers at Rising Produce in the ID. Want to get better acquainted with this flavor of the future? Check out black sesame cereal, keo me xung, goma dango, or kyung-dan.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Cafe du Monde, $2.10/3
Cafe du Monde's original location in New Orleans' French Market sells fresh beignets 24 hours a day. Whether you need something to balance out your morning oatmeal, or--more likely--could use a sobering bedtime snack, Cafe du Monde will supply you with as many deep-fried dough pillows as you require. During the day, the cafe is teeming and boisterous to an almost Disney-esque degree. In the small hours it has the unflattering starkness of an Edward Hopper painting, only with a few more people and a lot more powdered sugar.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Left: Mother Nature's Cupboard, $3
Right: Tee-Eva's, $2
Absolutely the only fault I can find with visiting New Orleans in February is the lack of sno-balls. This Louisianan delicacy of finely shaved ice topped with flavored syrup and condensed milk is a summertime staple but in the off-season most sno-ball stands are shut up tight. Most.
After spending much of my 2011 visit on a frustrated hunt for this frozen treat, I decided to dedicate 2012 to tracking down easier prey. And as will happen, the path of least resistance delivered me to not one but two sno-ball shops.
The first was Tee Eva's Famous Old-Fashioned Pralines and Pies, in the Garden District.
Eva Louis Perry grew up in rural Louisiana and learned to cook by hanging around the kitchen watching her mother, aunts, and grandmothers. Family recipes became the basis of her business when Eva moved to LA and made her name as a caterer specializing in Southern food. After a decade on the West Coast, Eva returned to New Orleans in the late 1980s and became well known for pies and pralines, which she sold from a basket, walking down the street or through office buildings (even City Hall!); once some cops pulled her over, lights flashing, just to see if she had any pies left.
Even after opening her own shop in 1989, Eva continued to hit the streets with her basket, seeing herself as part of a "proud tradition" of women entrepreneurs of color, generations of whom walked around New Orleans with their pralines, pies, and calas. Eva even won a few parts in locally-filmed shows and films by setting up shop outside casting calls.
About ten years ago Eva retired; in a video from the Southern Foodways Alliance, she discusses the business and her legacy. She handed the business and the archive of family recipes over to her granddaughter, who still runs Tee-Eva's today. Specialties include pralines, mini pralines, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pecan pie, and cream cheese pecan pie; hand pies are $2 and larger pies made to order.
I wasn't aware of any of this backstory when I walked by. What drew me in was the eye-catching sign announcing "snowballs year-round!!". Perusing the list of flavors, I was attracted to "cake batter"; I asked the woman behind the counter what it tastes like.
"Like cake batter," she replied.
She switched on her ice machine and shaved off a serving of fine, dry snow, then poured on the syrup. As she passed me the cup I was momentarily distressed by memories of "yellow snow" jokes, but then the reassuring perfume washed over me: vanilla, butter, and--power of suggestion?--something creamy and rich and deliciously dangerous, like raw egg yolks.
Tee-Eva's World Famous Pies and Pralines
5201 Magazine St
New Orleans, LA
My second sno-ball came from the same stall where I finally tracked one down last year, Mother Nature's Cupboard in the French Market. In this video, proprietor Gene lets us in on all the secrets of a genuine New Orleans sno-ball, from layering the cup, to testing for quality, to what's really in "Tiger's Blood" syrup:
Mother Nature's Cupboard
1008 N Peters St
French Market Farmer's Market
New Orleans, LA
Friday, February 17, 2012
Antoine's, included with $20.12 lunch
Early in the 19th century, Chef Antoine Alciatore was already making a name for himself in his native France when he felt the pull of the New World and its seemingly limitless possibilities. New York was a crude disappointment so he struck out again for New Orleans; the booming cotton town proved a welcoming home for his extravagant tastes and French traditions. In 1840, the 27-year-old established Antoine's, which quickly became one of the city's best-reputed restaurants. In 1874, Antoine left the restaurant in the capable hands of his wife and children (including son Jules, inventor of Oysters Rockefeller) and returned to France in 1874 to die. His namesake restaurant went on to become the United States' oldest family run restaurant.
What with its white tablecloths and attentive service, Antoine's is not the kind of place I normally have the opportunity to visit, but a generous lunch special puts it within the realm of possibility: an appetizer, entree, and dessert for $20.12, along with martinis for $0.25 each. Dessert choices included a classic cheesecake with berry sauce, a nut-studded bread pudding smothered in caramel sauce, and "meringue glace", a crisp meringue nest topped with ice cream, toasted almonds, and fudge sauce.
In between tucking in your chair and setting fire to Baked Alaska, Antoine's servers are more that than happy to answer questions about the business or the maze-like building, the restaurant's home since 1868. At lunch, most diners eat in the "Large Annex", a dim cavern wallpapered in the autographed photos of Antoine's hundreds of illustrious visitors; it's perfectly acceptable to browse and gawk as long as you don't get in anyone's way.
Creme Caramel (top)
Chocolate Cream Pie (bottom)
Harrah's Casino, $13 buffet
Chocolate Cream Pie (bottom)
Harrah's Casino, $13 buffet
There's one sure bet at Harrah's Casino: if you ante up for the buffet, you won't want to eat again until spring.
From its clashing carpets to its flashing lights, the casino itself is meticulously designed to keep even the calmest eye from settling anywhere for long, giving every visitor decorator-induced ADHD. The buffet plays along, with more than a dozen stations offering everything you might hunger for, until your plate is piled so high you can't remember what's underneath and eating becomes an archaeological excavation of your basest impulses.
After grits, mashed potatoes, mac 'n' cheese, and well over a pound of steamed asparagus I wandered over to see how much trouble I could get into at the wraparound dessert counter: plenty. Not the best creme caramel or chocolate cream pie I've ever had, sure, but the best I've had from a buffet, and they did a great job of padding out the rough edges left by my previous courses.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Angelo Brocato's, $.40/ea
Continuing my tour of Sicily by way of New Orleans, I present the scadalina, or "dead man's bones" cookie.
Angelo Brocato opened his first gelateria in New Orleans' French Quarter in 1905, using techniques and recipes learned during his apprenticeship in Sicily. In the 1970s, the shop moved out to its current location on Carrollton Avenue--appropriately enough, an easy walk from streetcars running on the "Cemeteries" line.
Inside the cheerful parlor, chilled cases display a huge selection of Italian and Sicilian delicacies: pastries and candy, gelato and ices, composed desserts such as cassata and torroncino. I could easily have whiled away hours sampling my way from left to right if not for the glass jar filled with somber scadalini, lurking on the counter like a mouth-watering momento mori. I ordered a cup of pistachio gelato and passionfruit ice, and a "bone cookie".
Texturally, scadalini are more terracotta than pastry: that white cylinder is crisp and nearly hollow, the clove-infused cookie dense and chewy, underpinned by a glassy skin of caramelized sugar. I believe that these cookies are an example of pasta forte, a type of pastry dough developed in Sicily and better suited to the island's climate than are doughs reliant on eggs, butter, or yeast.
Pasta forte is made from just sugar, flour, and just a touch of water; typically, ground cloves are the only other flavoring that might be added. The stiff mass is kneaded well, then formed (with their religious significance, bone shapes are common)and left to air dry for a few days. Just before baking, the cookies are sprayed with water; the heat of the oven dries out the dough and causes the bottoms to glaze over.
Angelo Brocato's Italian Ice Cream Parlor
214 N Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
The Cake Cafe, $1 with meal purchase
It was an offer I couldn't refuse. After I ordered my meal at the New Orleans Cake Cafe & Bakery, the woman behind the counter asked if I wanted a cupcake with that. For only a dollar more I could take my pick from a broad glass case filled with fat, frosted cakes.
The only catch? I was ordering breakfast. For a few seconds I held a silent debate.
The outcome? I can now say that cake goes just fine with grits.
Cake Cafe founder Steve Himelfarb first came to New Orleans to work as recording engineer, but eventually realized he was happier baking. He started out selling sliced of his homemade chocolate cake door-to-door, then to order, then from a small storefront in Exchange Alley. Just about a year after the bakery opened, Katrina hit. Himelfarb spent some time managing a restaurant in New York, but was back in New Orleans as soon as he had the chance, re-opening the bakery in a larger space in the Faubourg Marigny. The cafe is now the kind of neighborly place where people share tables when the free coffee refills and $1 cupcakes result in full-capacity crowds.
After making up my mind to have a cupcake, I was faced with an even more difficult choice: chocolate, red velvet, or wedding? I went with the "wedding" cupcake, a chubby puck of soft white cake crowned with a rich buttercream frosting saturated with swoon-inducing almond extract.
The New Orleans Cake Cafe & Bakery
2440 Chartres St
New Orleans, LA
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Velvet, $1 each
Velvet dispenses serious coffee and frivolous baked goods from a diminutive corner shop in New Orleans' ritzy Audobon neighborhood. The coffees are carefully curated and include Stumptown, Ritual, and Verve, made using your pick of methods; there's an espresso bar with the usual range of options, and three "slow bar" choices: a Chemex, a syphon, and a pour-over system.
The tiny kitchen also bakes and cranks out light meals. Featured treats included homemade pop-tarts and "artisanal teacakes"--a.k.a. bite-sized cupcakes. The vast selection caused me to panic a little and pick a couple of cakes that seemed reassuringly familiar: a "Sour Puss" (lemon cake stuffed with homemade blackberry jam with blueberry on top) and a "Coconut" (chocolate cake with buttercream coconut top). Only later, when read the full menu on Velvet's website, did I have a little twinge of buyer's remorse--and hunger. I could have had:
Mast Brothers Syphon: syphoned hand sorted Stumptown coffee w/Mast Brothers bar cake stuffed center as well as Madagascar chocolate frosting
NOLA: yellow cake-praline stuffed-praline frosting
WHO DAT: saffron rice filled cake with Creole frosting
Blood Orange: orange cake with a slice of blood orange stuff inside with orange frosting
Blue Flower: Mem Imports Earl Grey tea cake, blue flower frosting
Velvet Espresso Bar and Artisanal Teacakes
Monday, February 13, 2012
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, admission $5
Housed in what was once the premises of the country's first licensed pharmacist, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum offers a rollicking look at the health care endured by our ancestors, featuring: leeches, bone saws, chocolate-covered poison pills, drug-laced tampons, and reusable syringes the size of a small jackhammer.
In a cheerier corner near the front there's a soda fountain dating from 1855. Made from black, white and pink marble, it's an appropriately grand monument to the pharmacist's skill at making the medicine go down. Back in the days when most medication was administered as shots of off-puttingly bitter liquid, pharmacists discovered that flavored syrups could be beneficial, whether added directly to the medicine or mixed with fizzy water and served as a palate cleanser.
Customers grew so fond of the sweet drinks that soda fountains flourished and became a standard feature of pharmacies for more than a century. Many early soft drinks contained narcotic ingredients, and many of today's most popular drinks are based on those original recipes. It's a new take on Hippocrates: "Let soft drinks be thy medicine and medicine thy soft drink.
Sadly, you won't get a soda at the Pharmacy Museum--or if you did, it would be far from a health tonic. Their ornate soda fountain still functions, but all of the pipes and spigots are made from lead.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Pat O'Brien's, $8
After you've spent the afternoon screaming encouragement at a stream of dressed-up dogs roaming the streets during the Mystic Krewe of Barkus--Mardi Gras' only canine-friendly parade (see below)--it makes a certain kind of sense to recuperate in a smoky bar screaming Elton John songs over foot-tall glasses of rum dressed up as fruit juice.
Pat O'Brien's is a legendary and labyrinthine bar complex with lounges, a courtyard, a cavernous dueling piano bar, and a house drink, the Hurricane, whose original purpose was to maximize rum consumption. The bar's founder came up with the recipe during World War II when cheap booze ran freely but top shelf liquors were scarce; crafty salesmen required bars to buy dozens of cases of rum per every one case of whiskey. At O'Brien's the surplus rum was sweetened and served over ice in a glass the size and shape of a hurricane lamp.
Today you can take your Hurricane glass home as a souvenir--which seems like kind of a cruel thing to suggest to a drunk person.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Portera's Panetteria, $4/bag
Sure, the renovated Market in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter is a genericized tourist trap: where else can you find feathered masks, taxidermy ashtrays, blingy sunglasses, and marked-up cans of chicory coffee?
In at least twenty other souvenir shops within a four-block radius.
But in other ways the French Market still has its own unique texture, accumulated over the two centuries that trading has taken place on the site. For a glimpse into that past, turn your back on the sparkliest stalls and head for the tables reserved for a rotating cast of small-scale vendors and craftspeople.
Maybe you'll run into Cynthia Portera, smiling from behind two card tables piled high with colorful cookies and sweets. Pastries from Portera's Panetteria are a delicious reminder of the Sicilian migrants who once made up almost half of the French Quarter's population, many of whom made their livings more or less this way, selling fruit or sweets from carts, stalls, or small shops.
Portera's products are based on Sicilian traditions; ingredients and flavors that signal the island's rich heritage of Mediterranean and North African influence. Cookies include potent little nuggets scented with anise or lemon, and cucidate stuffed with fig jam and topped with sugar sprinkles (above). For special occasions there are bouquets of candied almond "flowers" (the five petals invite health, wealth, long life, fertility, and happiness) and, in season, bags of the shaped pastries offered on a St. Joseph's Day altar (including a sandal, wreath, cross, crown, and loaf).
12652 River Rd.
Destrehan, LA 70047