Archive for Eating the Big Apple

The Amateur Gourmet’s 2nd birthday party at The City Bakery

Rebecca, her boyfriend and Adam
The Amateur Gourmet, right, entertains his guests

The Amateur Gourmet, arguably the most humorous food blogger, celebrated his site’s second anniversary this Saturday at The City Bakery.

Ever since reading Adam Roberts’ “Condoleezza Rice Pudding with Berries of Mass Destruction” entry, I fell in love with his writing. Since then, he’s been featured in the Sacramento Bee, Boston Globe and even has a book due out spring 2007.

I sweated up a storm while talking with Adam, but not because he’s intimidating in person. Actually, he was a gracious host, making sure to say “hi” to everyone, remember their names, and sharing a delicious tart that he now claims I stole.

No no, everyone’s pores opened up wide because The City Bakery was like a sauna. Their ovens must be on all day, constantly churning out fresh desserts.

City Bakery chocolate chip cookie

I finally tried their chocolate chip cookie, which was revered by New York magazine, NY Daily News, Words to Eat By, and The Wednesday Chef. The cookie was still warm, with swirls of chocolate melting on my fingers and lips. There was a high crispy to chewy ratio; a thick brown crust and pale interior that suggested a high proportion of white to brown sugar (or maybe no brown sugar at all). The giant brown blob on the bottom left suggests that chocolate discs, in addition to chips, were used.

The City Bakery makes a great case for a crispy cookie. Usually, crispy means biscuity, like the Original Chips Ahoy cookies. Crispy at The City Bakery means buttery and crunchy. There was also an extra flavor to these cookies. Words to Eat By called it toffee-esque, but I think it tasted of almond paste.

It was a fun eating experience, but I honestly prefer my own. Chocolate chip cookies are typically described as cakey, chewy and crispy, but there’s a fourth characteristic: soft. Soft and chewy are often used interchangeably, as they tend to occur together. However, the City Bakery’s cookie did not have a hint of softness. The chewy middle required a bit of a workout. My favorite chocolate chip cookies are soft, where one bite can sink your teeth all the way down to the bottom.

City Bakery autumn tart

Adam’s autumn tart was the best tart I’ve ever tasted. Tart cranberries and caramel-covered almonds came together harmoniously in a crispy crust. Too often, tarts have thick, soggy crusts (from soaking up fruit juices over several days). Everything is fresh at The City Bakery, so there’s no need to compensate with brick-like crusts. The tart would have been even better if it was combined with Johnny Iuzzini’s pate sable recipe. Yes, you can make City Bakery tarts using their book, The Book of Tarts!

City Bakery chocolate tart

The chocolate tart was another winner, with its silky, dark chocolate custard. The crust was a little too much like shortbread than a chocolaty crust. Once again, I’d sub Iuzzini’s tart dough but add a little more sugar and some cocoa powder.

City Bakery French toast with hot chocolate

You want a meal? How about a thick slice of French toast with the syrup built in? The burnt edges were crispy, chewy and caramelized. The inside was very eggy, like a dense sponge. The whole thing was sweet, buttery and delicious.

The City Bakery is pricey: $12/lb salad bar, $6-tarts, $2-cookies, $3-French toast and $3.50-hot chocolate, but it’s worth a treat once in a while.

group shot

Oh yeah, on to the people, the reason why I sampled these desserts in the first place! About 20 showed up, including but not limited to Molly (Orangette) Gerald (Foodite), Stacey (Just Braise), Rebecca (who hosted the last NY food bloggers potluck), Anne (of Houghton Mifflin), The Anonymous Lawyer, Lisa (the infamous vegetarian who has posted while Adam was away) and Adam’s real-life friends. If I didn’t mention you, please say hi and remind me!

more guests

Ricky (I think) and Lisa

Adam wows some more of his guests

There was a pop quiz when Lisa asked me why American macaroons were made out of coconut and mine (which I brought along) were made of almonds. Off the top of my head, I explained that traditional French Italian macaroons were made with ground almonds and egg whites. When they came to the U.S., Jewish people substituted coconut and sweetened condensed milk. In short, macaroons are chewy cookies made with nut meat, lots of sugar and some type of binder. I felt unqualified to answer the question, as my macaroons have French ingredients, but they are domed and crackly like American macaroons. It’s something that I haven’t bothered fixing, because they taste so good anyway. Phew, everyone believed me, so I passed the test!

Now that I’ve talked to Adam in person, I know his dirty little secrets, like how he grossly exaggerates his blog. :-) He’s made Lisa out to be a mean, picky eater, but she was nice on Saturday! In Adam’s recap, he claims that I hogged his tart, but I had two pieces that were the size of my thumbnail. This was after he passed his tart around to everyone, and he still had half of it left when the party was over. Honest!

Buy the Book of Tarts: Form, Function, and Flavor at the City Bakery

The City Bakery
3 W 18th St
New York, NY 10011
(212) 366-1414

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Four Star Meets Lone Star: Desserts by Johnny Iuzzini featuring Texas Grapefruit, part two

Frozen grapefruit and orange carpaccio with warm almond cake

Continuing on with four-star pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini’s grapefruit dessert demo, we have almond cake with frozen grapefruits and oranges.

The almond cake was served warm from the oven and was like a souffle: light, airy and creamy. It had a delicate browned upper crust. The frozen grapefruit and orange carpaccio’s (Italian for thinly sliced cold food) kaleidoscopic colors were elegant, but I didn’t care for the taste or texture. It was very icy, like a watered down popsicle. I think grapefruit sorbet, bursting with bright flavors, would have been more appropriate. Or, if you’re keen on contrasting textures from the pudding-like cake, a granita would work too.

Grapefruit-tarragon millefeuille

The most elaborate dessert was the grapefruit-tarragon millefeuille. While it did not have a thousand layers as the French name suggests, it did have several components neatly stacked on top of each other. The base was pate sable (tart dough),then citrus sponge cake, sweetened grapefruit sections, white chocolate, tarragon pastry cream, another layer of white chocolate and candied grapefruit peel on top. What a mouthful to say and eat.

With so many layers, I focused on getting an equal amount of everything in one bite. I literally had to stab the beautiful creation in my feeble attempt. The chocolate shattered into shards; the pastry cream drooped out; an entire grapefruit section slid out leaving subsequent bites naked; the fork hit resistance with the coarse cake; and the crust crumbled. The eating experience could easily be remedied by cutting the citrus sections into smaller pieces.

The dessert was heavy on craftsmanship, but my favorite parts were just the top three layers: cool pastry cream, crisp white chocolate, and some citrus for a little tang. The flavor combo was like an elegant creamsicle. For home application, you could make white chocolate cups, fill with your favorite pudding or pastry cream, then top with citrus sections.

Chocolate-grapefruit crepe suzette with meyer lemon confit

Rounding out the dessert tasting was a relatively simple chocolate crepe filled with grapefruit curd. My favorite dessert of the bunch, the smooth curd (a milkless pudding augmented with eggs and butter) oozed out of the crepe. Really great. At home, you can spread any citrus curd on a crepe, pancake or even tortilla. The buttery suzette sauce isn’t necessary, but the sugared lemon on top is a nice touch.

The experience made me more aware of the different styles of dessert. Iuzzini reminds me of The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller: both bring several components together for the final dish. Iuzzini is no doubt a talented craftsman. He has only worked at four star restaurants: Payard, Cafe Boulud, Daniel and Laduree (they claim to have invented the macaroon sandwich cookie in Paris). He has appeared on several best pastry chef lists from New York magazine, the James Beard Awards and Pastry Art & Design. However, his desserts aren’t for me. It’s haute cuisine: art that’s admired more for its concept than its usefulness (in this case, my stomach). I prefer not to be blatantly aware of every dessert component. It’s as if each part cries out, “Pay attention to me, I’m honey!” “I’m Meyer lemon!” “I’m tarragon!”

It’s not that I’m mindless when I eat. My philosophy is just to use a few quality ingredients and handle them minimally.

More info on Johnny Iuzzini:
New York profile
The Amateur Gourmet’s two reviews of Jean Georges

Jean Georges
1 Central Park W
New York, NY 10023-7703
(212) 299-3900

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Four Star Meets Lone Star: Desserts by Johnny Iuzzini featuring Texas Grapefruit

Johnny Iuzzini's signature dessert tasting
Photo courtesy StarChefs

Every day, four-star pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini dazzles diners at New York’s Jean-Georges with his signature dessert tastings. Contrasting textures and temperatures come together in a central theme, be it chocolate, berries or even beets. This Saturday, he did it for free at the French Culinary Insitute. The demo and tasting was sponsored by Pastryscoop.com (an online publication of the French Culinary Institute) and TexaSweet Citrus Marketing, Inc. Can you guess what the theme was?

Johnny Iuzzini shows off the red-fleshed grapefruit

For three hours, about 80 guests watched Iuzzini prepare five grapefruit desserts and ate the fruits of his labor (pun intended). As a bonus, each person brought home a grapefruit giftbox, a zester (made for dang right handers!) and Iuzzini’s recipes, which I’ve provided through the links below.

Although the desserts were specially created for this event, the building blocks are mainstays at Jean-Georges. The instructions are sparse and assume you have a working knowledge of pastries. If you get past the French terms like chinois and quenelle, you can re-create four-star desserts at home. Where applicable, I’ve included Iuzzini’s tips. I felt like I was at culinary school, greedily jotting down the master’s secrets. Also, the quanities are by weight. One cup of flour can weigh between four and six ounces, a 50% difference! The beloved cup and teaspoon aren’t so accurate after all. Pastry Scoop lists conversions for liquids, flour and sugar to help you out.

WARM HONEY TART, GRAPEFRUIT-SHISO GRANITE,CHARRED ORANGES

Iuzzini’s first dessert was a warm honey tart, accompanied with grapefruit-shiso granite (ice) and charred oranges. The tart crust was technically a pate sable, which is French for “sandy pastry.” The term sounds like a coarse, mealy dough, but it’s not! Pate sable is like a crisp cookie that disintegrates in your mouth. If you only try one tart dough, make it this one. The custard was exceptionally smooth and hid a layer of tart grapefruit sections for contrasting flavors. Continuing with the theme of contrast, the grapefruit granita was cold and chunky. I thought the soul of this dish was the custard and the crust. For home application, I’d skip the citrus sections and the granita. Besides, I couldn’t even tell what that Asian herb, shiso, tasted like.

GRAPEFRUIT MIRROIR, THAI BASIL, BRIOCHE, AND HONEY GINGER ICE CREAM

Next up was honey ginger ice cream, accompanied with grapefruit mirroir (like a runny Jell-O), brioche (a rich bread with lots of butter and eggs) croutons, and a drizzle of Thai basil oil. The point here was to contrast sweet, smooth cream with tart, textured jelly. The mirroir’s texture reminded me of (dare I say it?) brains. Sorry, all that time working at Court TV is infusing me with morbid humor. Iuzzini intended the crunchy croutons to add another dimension of texture, while the basil-infused oil was supposed to contribute a fresh flavor. I thought the dessert could have been fine without these two. At home, you can just layer premium vanilla ice cream with tart jam or citrus curd to get a similar experience.

Coming up in part two: almond cake with frozen grapefruit and oranges, grapefruit-tarragon millefeuille (layered pastry), and chocolate crepes filled with grapefruit curd.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park W
New York, NY 10023-7703
(212) 299-3900

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Cupcake Interview

Cupcakes Take the Cake logo

Cupcakes Take the Cake is a super niche blog.  It doesn’t just specialize in dessert, but it devotes every post to the humble cupcake.  Besides posting pics of every cupcake imaginable, they review several cupcake bakeries and interview cupcake fans.  This blog tipped me off about free cupcakes every Tuesday at the Original Penguin store by Bryant Park.  It is messy to shop for clothing (or pretend to) while gorging on a generously frosted Sugar Sweet Sunshine cupcake, but Penguin also offers napkins and excellent customer service.

A couple weeks ago, I met two of Cupcakes Take the Cake’s founders at a party that Susie Felber, a co-worker/comedian/romance novelist’s daughter (all separate "occupations"), threw for her mom.  Small world.

Some conversations led to others, and Nichelle interviewed me for the site!  Check it out!

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Chocolate Haven tour

Chocolate Haven sign

As promised, here’s an extended tour of Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven in Manhattan. Part storefront, part chocolate factory, an outside glance of the building showcases its industrial side.

industrial interior

Can you guess which part’s the inside and which part’s a reflection from the outside?

oompa loompa

Large windows allow passersby to spy the inner workings of Jacques’ store. Here, an “oompa loompa,” as he calls his employees, pops the chocolate out of its mold.

Unlike most chocolatiers, Jacques makes his own chocolate from scratch, all the way from bean selection to the roasting, grinding, conching, tempering and molding. (From what I’ve heard, most chocolatiers buy chocolate from somewhere else and then re-melt them into truffles.) In a recent chocolate demo, Jacques said that making chocolate didn’t make sense from a business standpoint. It would be a lot cheaper to outsource the chocolate, but Jacques loves the craft of chocolate so much that he can’t wait to come in every morning and smell the beans that have been conching (a process to smooth the gritty beans) all night.

conveyer belt

A chocolate conveyer belt, in which goods are packaged.

Chocolate Haven entrance

Upon entering the store, a large welcome mat and bright red walls whet the visitor’s appetite for chocolate.

branches

Here are more chocolate teasers: a two-foot tall bag of cocoa beans, molinillos (wooden Mexican whisks used to froth hot chocolate) scattered on the wall, and a metate y mano (a stone rolling pin traditionally used to mash cocoa beans into chocolate).

cocoa press

Before modern machinery, chocolate making was literally a hands-on process.

truffles

One of Jacques’ biggest draws are his truffles. I don’t know what’s more exciting: the exotic flavors like passion fruit, European peanut butter (hazelnuts and chocolate are a winning combination, as proven by my love for Nutella) and wicked fun (chili), or their $1 price tag! Yes, Jacques’ truffles are cheaper than Godiva’s!

more truffles

More truffles.

chocolate bark

Tower of chocolate bark.

milk-chocolate covered cheerios

Jacques also has a collection of ever-changing candy. Here, the chocolate-covered Cheerios show off his sense of humor.

mini cookies

In addition to the chocolate, the store has baked goods, including mini-cookies…

pastries

…and full-sized pastries if your wasteline can handle them.

Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven
350 Hudson at King Street (1 block South of Houston)
New York, New York 10014
212.414.2462 phone
212.414.2460 fax

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Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven demo

Jacques and me

Jacques Torres is my hero. I grew up watching his PBS show, Dessert Circus, where he made whimsical desserts, such as chocolate checkerboards with playing pieces, chocolate cages and croqombouche (a pyramid of cream puffs surrounded by spun sugar). The man can pipe out an entire batch of macaroons in one minute. I’ve made about a thousand macaroons, and it still takes me several minutes to form them.

Even more astonishing than Torres’ skill is his eagerness to share knowledge.  Besides serving as Dean of Pastry Studies at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Torres gives free Saturday demos about once a month at his Chocolate Haven store.

This week, he showed a crowd how to make a chocolate Christmas tree.

tempering chocolate

First, Torres explained that you must temper chocolate to realign the crystals…

…so it snaps cleanly when you break it.  Untempered chocolate develops white streaks (called bloom) on top, because the solids separated from the fat.  Once hardened, untempered chocolate won’t pull away from molds, so you’ll have to give people your molds along with your truffles, Torres said. His preferred method of tempering is melting chocolate over a double boiler and then adding solid chocolate to the liquid.  Then, use an immersion blender to break up the chocolate bits and circulate the good crystals.  Continue adding solid chocolate until the liquid measures 88F (for dark chocolate) or 86F (for milk and white chocolate).  To test the temper, dab some chocolate on the tip of a knife.  It should set up within one minute.

It’s easiest to keep the chocolate at the correct temperature if you work with a lot of it.  If you only temper one cup of chocolate at a time, it will cool down and harden too quickly…

pouring chocolate

…which is why Torres tempered about seven pounds of chocolate for the Christmas tree base.  If you have leftover chocolate, pour it in a pan and let it harden.  You will have to re-temper it if you work with it again.  What a pain.  Now I know why chef David Lebovitz hastily dips everything in leftover tempered chocolate.

Note: you only have to temper chocolate if you’re making candy or need a hard, glossy surface.  You do not need to temper chocolate for cake batters, mousse or ice cream.

staying clean

The hardest part about working with chocolate is staying clean, Torres said. When I’m at home, I lick my fingers rather than wiping them (shh, don’t look).

Christmas tree stencil

To make the Christmas tree, temper white chocolate and pour it into a pan so it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Then cut out a stencil out of wax or parchment paper.

eating your mistakes

Lay the stencil on top of the chocolate and use a paring knife to cut around it. Don’t cut all the way through the chocolate on the first pass, or else it will crack. Just score the chocolate and go over it a couple times. But if your chocolate does crack, it’s okay, because you can always eat your mistakes, Torres said as he showed off his belly.

heating the cutter

To make holes in the tree, heat up a metal cutter.

too hot

Oops, that was too hot.

cutting the white chocolate

Then use the cutter to plop out holes.

chocolate glue

Torres made “glue” by putting melted chocolate in a parchment cone.

steadying the tree

Torres and his assistant steadied the tree on top of the circular base and “glued” it in place.

gluing on bon bons

Then, he glued truffle “ornaments” into the holes and on the ends of the tree.

one more hole

Oops, one hole didn’t quite make it.

cutting the hole

It was time to use some more fire power.

painting the leaves

Next, Torres painted leaves…

chocolate dye

…by using a mixture of powdered food coloring and melted cocoa butter.

painting the ornaments

Lastly, he painted some ornaments.

notice how the one on the left looks better

The finished product, along with a tree that was made earlier. Can you guess which one was prepared beforehand?

No, we did not get to eat the demo, but his staff did pass out samples of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and peanut butter cups. The peanut butter cups were what Reese’s were meant to be: intense peanut flavor without being overpowered by high-fructose corn syrup. The milk chocolate was a little too creamy for me though. I would have preferred it to have the snap of well-tempered chocolate.

autographed chocolate

Afterwards, I proudly bought a two-pound bag of dark chocolate.  At $6/pound, it’s the best bang for the buck, especially since Torres claimed it was fair trade.  Chances are, non-fair trade chocolate is made through child labor.  I’m not talking about young farmhands helping out their family.  I mean child slavery, in which children are reportedly bought for about $30 and forced to carry bags that are bigger than they are.  But that’s another post.

Torres’ “pistoles” were well-tempered (he practices what he preaches!) and had hints of caramel and coffee flavor.  I’m no expert on tasting chocolate, so excuse my description.  There were no patches of bitterness or acidity, but instead it was almost too neutral.  Of course, the last chocolate I used was Valrhona guanaja, which spoiled my tastes.  Guanaja’s flavors are so multi-faceted that eating it is a cerebral experience.  The taste lingers long after the chocolate is swallowed.  It’s a little bit woodsy and cherry like.

P.S.-If you look at the first picture of Torres and me, he’s wearing different clothes.  That’s because I met him during another demo in the summer.

Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven
350 Hudson at King Street (1 block South of Houston)
New York, New York 10014
212.414.2462 phone
212.414.2460 fax

Shows/Recipes:
Chocolate with Jacques Torres
Passion for Dessert with Jacques Torres
Blue-Chip Cookies for the NY Times

Books:
Dessert CircusDessert Circus Dessert Circus at HomeDessert Circus at Home

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The place for hummus

Hummus Place
Photo: Kenneth Chen/New York magazine

To the uninitiated, the word "hummus" may invoke images of mucuous secretions. But at the aptly named Hummus Place in the East and West Village, their namesake dish is as decadent as butter.

The Hummus Place subscribes to the philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well: on the menu are hummus tahini (plain chickpea puree with a swirl of olive oil), hummus masbacha (with whole chickpeas) and hummus foul (with fava beans and a chopped hardboiled egg), all for about $5.  The waiter said the hummus, which Time Out magazine called "vegetarian foie gras," was merely chickpeas, tahini (sesame butter) and garlic.  :-?  I’ve made hummus with those ingredients, and it didn’t make my mouth sing. He neglected to mention that the tahini was imported from Nablus in the West Bank.

The gigantic platters come with two thick pull-apart pita breads with which to grab the creamy goodness.  The pitas are the best I’ve ever tasted: they’re thick, soft and hot out of the toaster.  They surpass the ones at the respectable Damascus Bakery in Brooklyn and put Aladdin’s sawdust-like pitas (which should be banned from supermarket shelves) to shame.

Or, you can get the $2 sandwich special: an overstuffed pita with hummus, fresh tomatoes to cut through the richness, and a hardboiled egg to once again, make it rich.  It’s a better value than McDonald’s value menu and better executed than a $150-private dinner at the Park Avenue Cafe.  I actually had to scoop out a large portion of the hummus, or else gobs would have plopped out.  It was so good that I had the leftovers for breakfast the next day.  It takes a lot for a sweet tooth like me to start the day on a savory note.

All the dishes come with a side of pickled cucumbers, onions and peppers.  Their crunchy sweet-and-sourness provide a foil to the nutty hummus.

According to the Sephardic Heritage Update (scroll to the second to last article, "A Bit of the Middle East in the East Village"), the Hummus Place is also planning a third shop on the Upper West Side.  All the more easier to get gourmet food at fast food prices.

The Hummus Place
99 MacDougal St. between First Ave. and Ave. A, (212) 533-3089
109 St. Mark’s Pl. between Bleecker St. and Minetta Ln., (212) 529-9198

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New York Bloggers Otto Get Together


New York is crawling with food bloggers, but it’s ironic how a French woman prompted us to finally meet in person. Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini (she’s the quintessential food blogger and an NPR writer, for good reason) took a break from Paris and travelled to NYC this weekend.Just to show you how much influence she has, she proposed that us local bloggers meet at Otto, Mario Batali’s restaurant, and we all joined her this Sunday.

I met old “friends” (people whose blogs I already read) as well as new ones. One news article compared Clotilde to Audrey Tautou in Amelie, and I’d have to agree. She’s really cute in person, and I’m glad she’s the food blogger representative to the media.

It was cool to meet local “celebrities” like Josh of The Food Section and Adam of The Amateur Gourmet. I also bumped into Julie of A Finger in Every Pie (I was so flattered–she knew my blog name after I merely told her my first name), Lulu of Lulu’s Gonna Love Manhattan, Samantha of The Samantha Files, David of What I See, Danielle of Celebrity Baby Blog, and Paul of Paulfrankenstein.org. I had hoped to meet Debbie of Words to Eat By, Kelli of Lovescool, Allen of The Impetuous Epicure, Andrea of The Strong Buzz, Alaina of A Full Belly and Adam of Slice, but alas, another time. (How’s that for name dropping?)

I don’t have a liking for drinks, so I opted for “Gelotto” instead. Susanne (in white) and Andrea (in pink) and I split a trio of olive oil, hazelnut chocolate chip and ricotta gelati. (Picture is at the bottom of David’s post.) New York foodies like Adam and New York magazine unamimously agree that the olive oil gelato is the best in the city, and my favorite condiment is Nutella, so those two flavors were no-brainers. My favorite of the bunch, however, was the ricotta. It tasted just like cheesecake. But I have to say, the Gelotto wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. In Italy, the gelato flavors explode in your mouth (chocolate gelato tastes like the highest quality chocolate bar, and fruit gelato tastes like the ripest fruit imaginable). At Otto, the flavors were more subtle.

Also, David shared fava bean bruschetta with everyone. It came with crusty artisan bread. The fava bean puree tasted like buttery, garlicky mashed potatoes. It was an awesome combination of soft, chewy and crunchy. Otto’s now one of my favorite restaurants! Supposedly the main dishes and pizza aren’t so hot, but I’d be content just ordering the appetizers and gelato. If you can’t get a reservation, the bar area is spacious and provides instant gratification.

We bloggers were so inspired that we’re getting together again for a potluck! If you’re interested, leave a comment at Lulu’s Gonna Love Manhattan or e-mail her with the subject “NYC Bloggers Potluck.”

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Sahadi’s Stash

Italy has its olive and hazelnut oil, France has chestnut spread, Greece has fresh filo dough, Morocco has couscous, and China has roasted soybeans, but Sahadi’s in Brooklyn has it all.

This weekend, I prepared for the trek by bringing along an empty backpack. According to Gothamist, Sahadi’s shelves of imported oils, coffee, tea, spices, dried fruits, nuts and cheeses guarantee that shoppers will buy more than they can carry.

I told myself that I was just stocking up on ingredients for Su Good Sweets, but who was I kidding? I brought home this stash instead.

Clockwise:
Cocoa – $3.50/lb
Hazelnuts – $5.25/lb
Whole wheat couscous – $1.40/lb
Dried natural mango slices – $3.50/lb
Zatar (A woodsy, lemony spice blend consisting of sumac, sesame seeds, oregano and thyme. It’s excellent when combined with thick yogurt, used as a dry rub, or mixed with olive oil and spread on pitas.) – $2.50/lb
Dried natural Turkish apricots – $2.50/lb
Dried cranberries – $3.50/lb
Dried pitted dates – $2.35/lb
Knowing that I saved a buttload of money – priceless

New Yorkers in the know go to Fairway, Zabar’s and Gourmet Garage, but why pay $150 for balsamic vinegar again? Sahadi’s is just the first stop in Brooklyn off the 4/5 train. It’s a small price to pay for a cheap gourmet smorgasboard.

Supposedly Sahadi’s has super fresh ingredients since they have so many customers. My stash, however, was a mixed bag. Some of the dates were soft and moist, but most were a bit dry and chewy. The mangoes, while not doused in sugar, were not as fragrant as Costco’s Philippine variety. The stringy texture was also reminiscent of ginger. Thankfully, the cranberries were sweet, tart and moist.

If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by Damascus Bakery just a few doors down. Try their baklava (The almond and pistachio are equally good, but I don’t recommend the blonde bird’s nest: it’s too sweet and doesn’t have that toasty flavor.), mamool (The world’s first sweet cookie, traditionally made with semolina flour. I wasn’t too big on the oily, sandy texture), or pitas (6 for 75 cents in the unmarked bags!). Or, just nibble on whatever free sample they have out. While you’re in the ‘hood, you can also make a day out of exploring the entire street.

Sahadi’s
187-189 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Hours: Mon-Fri 9-7, Sat 8:30 -7
718-624-4550

Damascus Bakery
195 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Hours: Open 7 days 7AM-7PM
718-625-7070

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The Beauty of a Bagel


Photo: Christopher Smith/New York Times

“A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed.

“All else is not a bagel.” – Ed Levine, New York Times

Sometimes New Yorkers can seem like snobs, proclaiming that there is no other city in which to live. Surbanites resent that the “capital of the world” presents itself as the leader in museums, theater, fashion and media.But trust New Yorkers on this: they truly make great bagels.

I’m not trying to be a snob. I grew up loving Noah’s and Lender’s bagels. Almost everyday in eighth grade, I went to my local Socal store, Just Bagels, where I delighted in the chocolate chip and blueberry bagels. That was before I knew better.

A bagel, contrary to popular belief, is not a doughnut-shaped roll. There should be a marked difference in texture between the crust and the interior. The crust should crack, not crinkle, when you bite into it. The insides should be chewy, elastic and moist. Its crumbs should not resemble sawdust.

A plain New York bagel is so good that it does not need to be toasted, buttered or cream cheesed.

This weekend, my friend Thom hosted an after-church brunch. It was really an excuse for me to make bagels. I normally wouldn’t make them for myself, since I don’t have enough room in my overstuffed freezer to store the leftovers. I’m a huge fan of cooking and freezing, since it keeps food fresh and offers built-in portion control.

I used a recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. If you don’t live in New York, these are as close to an authentic bagel as you can get. Hot out of the oven, these are better plain than with any spread. It sounds like heresy, but Nutella detracts from the dough.

Basically you make a sponge out of high-protein flour, instant yeast and water. Let it sit for two hours, or until double. This extra step helps the dough develop more flavor.

Then you add some more flour, sweetener (preferably barley malt) and salt. After some heavy kneading, you shape the dough and let it retard in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, you briefly boil the dough and sprinkle on toppings while it’s still wet. I used oatmeal, black sesame, flax seed, chopped almonds and white sesame. Into a blistering hot oven it goes.

Notes/tips:
The bottoms developed a crunchy golden crust, thanks to the cornmeal-covered baking sheet. However, the tops did not brown, even though I cooked them for almost double the time. I suspect it’s because I put two sheets on the middle rack, thus preventing air circulation. Next time I’ll put the sheets on separate racks and alternate them halfway through baking. Don’t spoil your hard work by pulling out the bagels before they brown.

The texture of the interior was right on, and it tasted better than any grocery-store brand. However, the flavor wasn’t as complex as my favorite bagel, Murray’s Bagels. I suspect it’s because the sponge didn’t have enough time to develop its flavor. Since I had active dry instead of instant yeast, I made some changes to the recipe. Active dry yeast does not dissolve as readily, so I mixed it with hot water rather than room temperature water, as the recipe instructed. I also added all the yeast to the sponge, since the second step didn’t involve any liquid. As a result, my sponge doubled in only an hour. To slow down the rise, I’d dissolve the yeast in cooler water. I’d also divide the yeast and dissolve the second addition in 1/4 cup water (reserved from the sponge).

High-gluten (14% protein) or bread (13% protein) flour is necessary to give the bagel its texture and structure. You can make your own bread flour by adding 2 tsp vital wheat gluten to every cup of all-purpose flour.

Don’t be greedy with the toppings–every square inch doesn’t have to be covered. Any excess will fall off and be wasted, although sprinkling the extras over rice is tasty.

My dough was dimpled rather than smooth because it was difficult to knead by hand. The entire mass was as big as a basketball! And it only made 12 regular (or 24 mini) bagels. No wonder bagels have up to 400 calories, before the cream cheese! You’ll get better results if you use a stand mixer with a dough hook. But either way, the bagels are delicious.

Here’s how to spot an authentic bagel without even biting into it:

  • The exterior should be glossy – a sure sign that the bagel was boiled before being baked.
  • Little air bubbles peaking beneath the crust is a good sign. I suspect the dough blisters because of a hot oven (hence the term “blistering hot”).
  • When you tap the crust, it should sound like you’re hitting hard candy. If it sounds like a hollow football, you’ve hit a dud.
  • Avoid all bagels from New York street carts. They’re oversized, pillowy breads that “whoosh” when you bite into them.
  • Generally, authentic bagelries do not sell “gourmet” flavors. Asiago cheese and jalapeno toppings cover up a bagel’s shortcomings. I mean, would you ever eat a plain, untoasted and unadourned Thomas’ bagel? Ewwwwwwww.

    However, Bagel Oasis in Queens seems to be an exception.

If you visit New York, be sure to stop by my two favorite shops:

  • Murray’s Bagels-242 Eighth Avenue (between 22nd and 23rd Streets) or 500 Sixth Avenue (between 12th and 13th Streets)
  • Bagelry-429 Third Avenue (at 30th Street)

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