Friday, October 16, 2009

Cupcakes are the exception

I'm not sure what it is, but I don't like cake. It's not like I've had a bad experience or anything. My dad is a cake connoisseur so we Gregg's it up, or get cakes from nice little Italian bakeries when we have occasion to.

I just always feel gross after eating a piece of cake. Even the tiniest pieces are too big, and the most sparsely frosted cakes have too much frosting. The cake part itself is kind of spongy, less dense, sugary bread, and conceptually that just throws me. And frosting is just sugar and butter. Ew. There's a good reason cake is "a sometimes snack." I'm just not sure why someone would eat cake when they could eat ice cream.

After years of experimenting, I still haven't discovered the ideal way to eat cake. If you smear all the frosting around yourself, to get the optimal cake-to-frosting ratio [which I'm not sure exists] it looks like you're destroying your piece of cake as opposed to eating it. If the piece is in a wedge and you start at the tip, you'll have a bunch of cake-less frosting on the outer edge. If the piece is on its side, and you eat it layer by layer, you still end up with extra frosting from the top of the cake. The square pieces that can stay upright still squish a bit when you cut bits with your fork, and each bite ends up uneven.

I'm just a little OCD.

But still, someone should make cake easier to eat. And less sugary.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Festival Food

So I had a caramel apple for the first time. It was easier and less messy to eat than I had expected. The caramel was chewy but not sticky, and not sickly sweet, and Cortland apples might be the most fantastic kind of apple ever, tart and sweet and crunchy and bright white. I'm glad I caved and finally had one, it's a fall festival food stable.

The vile roasted candied cashews and the unnaturally yellow popcorn aside, festival food is amazing. And the key to enjoying festival food is to not consider too deeply what you're eating, how it was made, and how bad it is for you.

The scariest thing I had was a steak sandwich, but it was okay because I had personally packaged the roll and seen the preparation and seasoning of steak and onions. The sandwiches had turned my stomach the first day I worked at the booth, but the second day working to make sandwiches on an empty stomach was a kind of torture. I had to have one. So I did. And it was delicious. Perfectly contained in its foil sleeve, nice and hot to contrast with the chilly air, and, I'm generally a fan of steak and cheese sandwiches. [The best part was arguably that it was free -- the compensation of a volunteer! It was almost worth smelling like a slaughterhouse.]

I had some hot cider from the Boy Scouts, because it's fall and cider is infinitely fitting. And I bought a sleeve of cookies from a friend to stick in my lunch bag the next day, because festivals are the best place to buy overpriced baked goods.

Fall is the season for good eating. Thanksgiving is the culinary mother-lode, harvest-time means everything delicious is in season, soup makes a comeback after being banished for summer, and . . . festival food. It's messy and undignified and horrendously bad for you, and probably prepared in some sketchy ways, but oh so worth it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's this about my mommy?

I watched The Magic Schoolbus. I was a huge Miss Frizzle fan. We had the books, and the CD-ROM, and the VHS tapes. My mom would even say, "Seatbelts, everyone!" before we went on a trip. We were so hardcore. That's how I learned the different sense of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. (Glucose, hydrochloric acid, sodium chloride, and quinine, eff-tee-arr.)

So when my dad asks me, "Do you know the fifth taste receptor?" I tell him, "Ptth, Dad, there are only four taste receptors. That's how it was at Phoebe's old school." He handed me a Wall Street Journal article. Read and weep.

So I stand corrected! Japanese researchers in 1908 first discovered the separate taste, and isolated it as monosodium glutamate as the chemical responsible. MSG has been a generous seasoning in Asian food since them. The fifth taste is savory, called umami, said "you-mom-ee." Western scientists, until more recently, have been hesitant to call it "the fifth taste" because it doesn't work in the same way as the other four tastes, with specific synapses, instead it uses specialized receptors to secrete a neurotransmitter.

Something like that. I'm not a biologist, I don't really know.

Things like soy sauce, parmesan cheese, and shiitake mushrooms are naturally high in umami, ditto for seafood like anchovies and cod and crustaceans like lobster and shrimp. Carrots and tomatoes are supposedly umami-rich, as is, surprise surprise, seaweed! Truffles, too. I really want to try truffles. Any foods one would usually associate with the term savory have a pretty decent amount of umami in them. This discovery has apparently opened up a whole new host of culinary options -- which is totally exciting when I'm watching Top Chef and Richard starts in on a umami emulsion that I actually know what that is!

It goes to show that the human's sense of taste is far more sophisticated than we often give it credit for. The philosophy of taste meets the science of eating!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Canadian road-trip sort of food

I was somewhere in Canada. My head was wedged between the seat and my pillow as my family embarked on the eighteen hour drive from Baddeck, Nova Scotia to my little home in the States. My dad, not thrilled about making the entire journey in one day, opted to stop to stay overnight in New Brunswick. The hotel, while sparkling new and squeaky clean, was not the ideal place to feed my family, so we drove around until we alighted on "Holly's Restaurant."

And I am now full of regret, that I haven't even the faintest idea where in New Brunswick we were. A quick Google search tells me it might have been Hampton, but I can't be sure.

Anyway, Holly's Restaurant it was. Unimpressive looking inside and out, it almost reminded me of a Gregg's style restaurant, down to the spinning refrigerated cake display case. The place was nearly empty, so the waitress stayed by our table, chatting with us as she passed out the hand-drawn place mats for the kids, and illustrated menus. She told us about Holly, who actually legit ran the place, and made all the desserts. And I guess that's part of what I liked about Holly's Restaurant, everyone was so friendly, nice, warm, laid-back.

I say this sheepishly, because it seems to be a negative reflection on the food itself, but I have no idea what I ordered, or what anyone in my family ordered. Maybe I had a wrap, with melted cheese on it? And my mom had some sort of Asian chicken salad? The food was New Americana, as I remember, and I know my siblings didn't order chicken tenders because Holly's Restaurant's kids menu didn't carry the traditional family restaurant crud. It was really good. The food. I tried a little bit of everyone's food, and speedily finished mine, it was really delicious. New, interesting, fresh. I am usually scared to death of these "small town, family run" type joints. But the food was thoughtful, and genuinely yummy.

And the place was clean. That counts for a lot.

So score one for the Canadians! It was easily the best meal I've eaten in Canada, I suppose not counting anything my memere's made, but understand my skepticism of these kinds of restaurants! The small touches like the hand-drawn place mats and friendly staff were nice enough, but interesting dishes made family-friendly was the kind of thing I'd never seen in a restaurant before, and I was impressed. Not bad, New Brunswick.

(Parenthetically, the best place for food, especially raw ingredients, in New Brunswick is still the City Market in St. John's -- a Quincy Market feel, only ten times bigger, and ten times better. Pwned.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

If You Give a Moose a Muffin

I woke up this morning cozy in my makeshift bed, a light September rain dripping in the drainpipes, and the happy prospect of going to church after a warm shower. Autumn Sundays aren't so bad. They are specially wonderful if you are greeted by pumpkin chocolate chip muffins upon entering the kitchen!

Understand, I am not a muffin person. Muffins are what we used to eat before road trips and tournaments, so inevitably, muffins are the breakfast I usually ended up seeing again mid-digestion. It's not even just the unfortunate experiences linked to muffins, it's just that conceptually muffins make no sense to me. They're like bald cupcakes. Jim Gaffigan gets me.

But these muffins. They are so moist and spongy, but aren't heavy in your stomach in the least. They have that distinct but mellow pumpkin-y taste, the kind that's not so burdened by spices that it's comforting and familiar. The chocolate chips are kind of the crowning glory of these muffins. I can think of very few places where chocolate chips are more appropriate. Granted, they're just as lovely without the chocolate chips (and my mom's made some without, for my dad, but she says we can spread Nutella on them if we like, yussss) but next to the distinct semi-sweet chocolate burst, the sea of soft pumpkin muffin-ness is made exponentially more divine.

And I don't generally like pumpkin.

But I hoard these muffins like no tomorrow. They're not so sugary that you can feel your teeth rotting at you eat them, but they're just sweet enough to feel like you're eating dessert, without ingesting anything that's too horrible for you. They keep for a long time, and freeze well, too. Massive plus for me. This recipe is some kind of magical, because so far, no other pumpkin muffin (or any other muffin) has won me over. We shall see.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Italians' Gift to the World

Pasta? Pizza? The Olive Garden?



You know those truffles wrapped in gold foil, the special ones that are sold in triangular pyramid packages at wholesale stores? If we examine the structure of this truffle from the inside-outward, it's a roasted hazelnut, surrounded by hazelnut cream that is encased in a wafer shell that is covered in chocolate and rolled in chopped hazelnuts and walnuts. I had one at a wedding once. They're pretty much divine.

Ferrero Rocher, yes. Made by the Italian company Ferrero. The company that also makes Nutella! Just in case you needed a prelude to the awesome.

Nutella actually tastes, and has the same consistency as, the hazelnut cream in the Ferrero Rocher truffles. But you're allowed to eat it for breakfast! It's a hazelnut spread with cocoa in it, that's conceptually similar to peanut butter.

But you probably already know all about Nutella. I'd seen the commercials and heard murmerings via word of mouth about the awesome of Nutella, but the thought of a chocolate hazelnut spread you could eat for breakfast was just too good to be true. Actually, Nutella is mostly too good to be true. Half the calories in a serving come from fat, and the other half come from sugar. This and the fact that it's not exactly an economical food choice kept me from discovering the awesome of Nutella for myself for quite some time. Enter Mom-Emily. Who eats Nutella on strawberries and Maria Goya cookies, and kindly evangelized the combination on our trip to New Hampshire this past summer. And my Nutella infatuation began!

It's mostly best with fruit or on toast (graham crackers, wafers, et cetera), especially with a little swirl of peanut butter, but I've also discovered recipes for Nutella brownies and cookies. It's awesome in wantons and croissants and crepes, and I'm still discovering the extent of Nutella's utility, in addition to its raw genius.

February 5th is World Nutella Day. Be there or be square.