Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Vacarro's Italian Pastry in Baltimore

Downtown Baltimore has many notable features: one of the nation's prettiest waterfronts, Edgar Allan Poe's grave, the Baltimore Orioles' home at Camden Yards, an iconic view of the Domino Sugar factory, close proximity to one of my favorite museums ever (the always original, often bizarre American Visionary Art Museum), and Little Italy. Ranging from authentic to kitsch, Baltimore's Little Italy may be smaller than some, but the quality of one particular business puts other city's would-be competitors to shame: Vaccaro's Italian Pastry. Offering a wide range of pastries to choose from, you really can't go wrong--Want a Coconut Cream Napoleon? Dive right in!--but the main event are Vaccaro's cannoli.

There's nothing surprising about the cannoli other than how great they are. Like any respectable purveyor of Italian pastry, the cannoli are not filled with the ricotta cream until after the customer orders, keeping the shell crisp. They offer plain and chocolate-dipped shells filled with regular or chocolate cream. Once again, you can't lose, but the regular ricotta in a plain shell is work of art. The cream is thick and heavy, emphasizing the ricotta, unlike lesser businesses whose sickly sweet product uses far too much powdered sugar. Vaccaro's pastry is sweet, but in a more subtle Italian way. Their ricotta is dotted with chocolate chips and has aromatic spices that awakens the senses and gets the sweet tooth twitching. To look at it, the cannoli from Vaccaro's look similar to just about any other cannoli you'll come across, only they get every part of it right. No frills, no surprises. Just great pastry.

It's no wonder that, when I was eating at a nearby Italian restaurant and some nearby customers asked about the dessert options, the waiter started to tell them only to stop himself midway through to say, "You know what? Vaccaro's is right around the corner. That's the place to go." And I agree. If you're in Baltimore: Vaccaro's.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Charmery in Baltimore

Though I've never heard the nickname used outside the city, Baltimore is sometimes referred to as the Charm City. It is from this nickname that the best ice cream I've eaten in Baltimore derives its name: The Charmery.

Top L: Otterbein Cookie Creamcicle
Top R: Tell Tale Chocolate
Bottom: Old Bay Caramel
Baby Scoop: Pistachio Toffee
Located on the W. 36th St strip in Hampden (along with shoe-store-cum-chocolate-shoppe Ma Petite Shoe and another location for blog-favorite Dangerously Delicious Pies), this corner shop sticks out for its bright mural, giant scoop sculpture and nighttime lights. The exterior is just one part of this destination's creative design decisions. My favorite of the shop's artwork is actually the nautical-themed washroom, where soft mood lighting illuminate a wall mural and hanging sculptures of sea creatures (made from colorful plastic ice cream spoons). Back in the store, in addition to their main product, they also sell a collection of odd, Charmery-branded knickknacks, including baby onesies, ice cream pint koozies, turntable slipmats and car air fresheners. Finally, their creativity even extends to their customer loyalty program: when a customer gets their Charmery card punched a certain number of times they get to spin a wheel to see what free thing they earn while a light show spectacle happens and song plays.

The fun doesn't stop there. The Charmery's ice cream showcases originality in its risky flavors whose names often take inspiration from Baltimore landmarks and foods.
The menu changes a little each day.
  • Old Bay Caramel, the Charmery's best selling flavor, chooses an unlikely pairing of flavors using a certain spice known best for being used on seafood and potato chips. The Old Bay adds a spicy aftertaste and unexpectedly makes the caramel come alive.
  • Otterbein Cookie Creamcicle features a local brand of cookies to create a creamcicle ice cream textured with cookies and white chocolate chips. Delicious.
  • Tell Tale Chocolate, an ice cream so dark you'd think it's a sorbet, references Baltimore's grim antebellum poet Edgar Allan Poe...and makes for a much more evocative flavor than the overused "Death By Chocolate." 
  • The Baltimore Orioles' home field gets a nod from the Charmery flavor Day at the Yard, an ice cream with black and orange chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. (This is the first I've seen sunflower seeds in ice cream. Not for me, but I still tip my hat.)
Having tasted nearly all of the available flavors, the top three of the above were ones I'd heartily recommend, along with Pistachio Toffee--an ice cream that takes the subtle flavor of pistachios and complements it with a punch of sweet that makes one marvel at how this pairing hasn't caught on--and their vegan/dairy-free flavor Choco-nut Coconut, which uses coconut milk instead of dairy. (There was also a flavor with Wasabi peas, which the scooper and I agreed was fun to sample, but not to our liking.)

Mural on building exterior,
which bleeds onto the sidewalk.
A glance into their pint freezer revealed numerous other flavors I hope are being served next time I visit: Berger Cookies & Cream (which uses a traditional Baltimore cookie), Cinnamon Ramen (which presumably like a dessert kugel), Queso Frito Fresco (sign me up!) and Peanut Butter Fig.

Not sure what to order? Happily, the Charmery offers a $1 baby scoop that one can add on to any order. A double with a baby scoop on top is a perfectly respectable sampling, though a triple with a baby scoop is also a portion size I found myself more than capable of eating.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Freezer Favs: Ciao Bella's Blood Orange Sorbetto

While this blog is primarily a fan of local scoop shops, it acknowledges that sometimes a person just wants to stay in for the night. That being said, this is one of my Freezer Favorites.

• • •

Blood oranges are among my favorite foods on earth. My intimate relationship with the fruit began during two days in Cinque Terre, five neighboring cliff-side towns on the Italian Riviera. The first day was spent enjoying the views while walking from one town to the other and hiking up into the hills. On the second day, I simply found a bench to gaze at the Mediterranean Sea for hours and hours while writing postcards and enjoying a blood orange.

From the outside, blood oranges look identical to conventional orange oranges. But beneath its pulp is a fruit the color of carnage, so dark it looks like it would leave a permanent stain, much like murder leaves a stain upon one's soul (or something). Suffice to say, blood orange fans are often left red-handed. The flavor--oh! the flavor!--lands somewhere between the sweet, sunny citrus of oranges and the bitter, sometimes harsh and cleansing flavor of grapefruit.

Over the years, I've purchased many a product with the words "blood orange" on its label. With the exception Aliseo's 100% blood orange juice I can get at my local Italian market, none have captured the essence of the fruit as well as Ciao Bella's Blood Orange sorbetto. The flavor intensity is so high because 99% of the product is water, cane sugar and blood orange juice/concentrate. The smooth, smooooth sorbetto (not that chunky, icy stuff some companies serve) curls onto the spoon and slides down the throat, awakening the senses as it does.

Ciao Bella's Blood Orange Sorbetto, I salute you!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Upchurch Chocolate, Richmond's Own Bean-to-Bar Brand

The current product line from Upchurch Chocolate.
On a recent trip back to Richmond, VA to see family, I visited one of my favorite purveyors of fine chocolate, For the Love of Chocolate. Located on the Carytown strip, For the Love of Chocolate sells all sorts of brands, from the somewhat obscure Galler from Belgium to the often seen Baci from Italy, from Seattle-favorite Fran's Chocolate to Brooklyn's Mast Brothers, from brands with flashy mix-ins like Chuao and Vosges to bean-to-bar brands like Taza and Theo, from artisanal chocolate bars from Valrhona and Michel Cluizel to low-quality British-exclusive candy bars like Yorkie and Crunchie. All this in addition to the truffle case. It offers such quality and variety that, during my college years at VCU, an unrealistic expectation was set that all large American cities would have such a shop. Alas!

Walking around, I noticed a tiny display at the cash register of four different bars marked as being a Richmond brand. Always a fan of local flavor, I took a closer look and discovered that the brand, Upchurch Chocolate, was a bean-to-bar company with ingredient lists that are short, just as the chocolate gods intended. Each bar is organic cacao and organic sugar, with two of the bars featuring a single additional flavor. Nothing else. Also featured on the packaging is a handwritten batch number and the maker's own flavor notes. A little internet research reveals that the young company, started 2015, was founded by a VCU undergrad (Go Rams!) and a recent grad from nearby Mary Washington with some helpful seed capital from VCU and Lighthouse Labs totaling $25,000. With Richmond being one of the country's up-and-coming medium-sized cities for young people, culture and beards, here's hoping Upchurch Chocolate puts RVA on the chocolate map as well.

Needless to say, I bought all four bars and hosted a tasting for my family. The main distinguishing feature is the texture of chocolate, which is tempered, yet manages to feel partially--oh, let's say 20%--stone-ground (like one finds in popular brands like Taza). This means the texture was primarily smooth with a touch of rough, enough to feel alive but not enough to be gritty. Here are the other findings from our tasting, in order of bar preference:

The Bouncy Bar - Cacao from Tanzania, added ingredient of goat milk
Since my first introduction to goat's milk chocolate, I've jumped at the chance to purchase other brands' take. The Bouncy Bar features the rich and slightly sour qualities of other bars I've had, but in a way that somehow feels more simplified. It felt like the chefs were using sleight-of-hand to make themselves disappear and only the ingredients shine through. My family's unanimous vote for favorite bar in the bunch.

The Sassy Bar - 72% Cacao from Madagascar
Nothing but cacao and sugar in this bar, meaning the emphasis for the tasting is the beans' source, in this case Madagascar. The chocolate-making process has various steps that impact the flavor, but the effect of the cacao plants' soil, climate, etc. is the most interesting to explore. Like the best chocolate bars always offer, the Sassy Bar is a roller coaster of flavor, hitting numerous notes from when the bar touches the tongue all the way until the lingering aftertaste. A rich, dark, earthy bar and my dad and I's second favorite.

The Party Bar - 72% Cacao from Tanzanian
As the only other bar in the current line to only contain beans and sugar, it felt natural to compare it to the Sassy bar. We found that when we tasted the Party Bar independent from the others, it had more tart nuances to its flavor, but when we tasted it after the other bars it was delicious but somehow seemed less exciting than the other bars.

The Hype Bar - Cacao from Tanzania, added ingredient of coffee
The most polarizing of the Upchurch bars, the lone coffee-lover in my family declared this bar to be his second favorite of the bunch, saying he found the coffee flavor to be light. Meanwhile, the non-coffee drinkers (who obviously hold a negative bias) did not care for the bar and found the flavor to be like huffing coffee grounds. Coffee lovers, take note of this bar.

Like Upchurch Chocolate on Facebook. Then check out the website's "Find" tab to see if the chocolate is anywhere near you. (As of this writing it is principally in Virginia with an outpost in St. Paul, MN and another in Missouri.) Or shop online and have it shipped to you.

Friday, January 1, 2016


Ice Cream U Scream will be on hiatus until spring 2016.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ciao Bella's Holiday Flavors

As a dessert blogger, I am occasionally given free samples, as is the case with the products in this post. My words still represent my true feelings toward these products.

• • •

Having all-but-forsworn the two leading grocery store pint brands (Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's) for their drastic slump in quality, I was delighted when Ciao Bella made me aware of their new flavors whipped up for the holidays, especially ones so unlike anything else found in the grocery store freezer. Here are my reviews, in order of preference:

Mulled Apple Cider Sorbetto - Apple cider sorbet is something I order every time I see it--an occasion that is sadly rare--so I was elated to see the flavor popping up in a mass distributed form. Given that sorbets are basically water + sugar + flavor-naming ingredient, it's only natural that this pint is an undiluted punch of apple cider. The only thing lacking here is the texture one hopes to get in a sorbetto; because of the high water content, normal freezers render the sorbetto into an ice block to be chipped away at, rather than the smoothly shoveled sorbettos of gelaterias' temperature-controlled freezers. This isn't always the case with Ciao Bella sorbets, but no matter. This is so good it is earns the patience one needs to scrape until one has a full spoon's worth.

White Chocolate Peppermint Gelato - I generally prefer chocolate mint, but while chocolate mint is delicious, it doesn't scream the holiday season. Ciao Bella went the peppermint route, but not quite full-on peppermint bark. This experiment ran a risk, though, since the margin for error is much smaller with peppermint ice cream; far too easily it can fall into Altoid territory, making it into an unappetizing, higher calorie way to get fresh breath. What Ciao Bella's flavor does, wisely, is toss a snowy white chocolate into the mix. That sweetness added to the base makes the eating more enjoyable, while the burps that follow are still minty and fresh.

Almond Nougat Gelato - The most unique of the flavors, the effect of this gelato reminded me of pistachio ice cream. It is a light flavor with diced nut pieces sprinkled sparingly throughout. It is more creamy than nutty. For fans of subtle ice cream or folks who often find American desserts to be too sweet, this is the grocery-store gelato for you. It is delicious, so much so that fans of sweeter desserts may accidentally down the whole pint in one sitting. Whoops.

Ciao Bella makes numerous other flavors year-round, including one of my Freezer Favorites, their Blood Orange sorbetto.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Tenth Annual Pumpkin Challenge

Welcome to the Tenth Annual Pumpkin Challenge, my autumnal toast to the gourd of the gods. This year, we follow the same rules as last year. Onto the FAQ:

What is the pumpkin challenge?
The Pumpkin Challenge is an annual quest to consume as many varieties of pumpkin edibles as humanly possible. Most years, the Pumpkin Challenge has taken place between September 15 to October 31. This year, I'm getting a late start. Feel free to count anything you ate on Sept 15 or 16.

What are the rules?
Food items may not be doubled. Two slices of pumpkin cheesecake count as one item. The only way it could count for two different items is if the second item has a distinct enough difference of flavor that it warrants a different name AND the item comes from a different source than the first item (i.e. Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory and homemade pumpkin cheesecake). Pumpkin candles or pumpkin soap do not count unless you eat them.

What about beverages?
Yup, they're food. But see the above rule. TL;DR: Twenty pumpkin spice lattes only count as one item.

Does pumpkin spice count? Or does it have to actually contain pumpkin?
Ideally, the ingredients include actual pumpkin or pumpkin seeds. But it all tastes good, so pumpkin spice counts!

What is the record?
During 2012’s Pumpkin Challenge, I consumed 52 different varieties of pumpkin.

What are my chances of defeating you, Brad?
This year, they are pretty good. I'll be on the road for roughly three weeks of the pumpkin challenge and I'm going to guess the pumpkin spice craze is more of an American thing than it is a British or Dutch thing. Your chances of beating my record, however, are slim unless you do a LOT of cooking.

Why does it stop in October? Isn’t pumpkin often a Thanksgiving staple?
Ideally, the meeting of mouths to pumpkin products would go on forever. But we must focus our efforts. The Pumpkin Challenge was created to encourage the same sort of crass commercialism extended to that Santa holiday. We want to encourage—through pestering and purchase—stores offering pumpkin foods at progressively earlier dates each year. Ten years ago, it was uncertain one could find the stuff in September; this year, I blessedly bought stuff in August. Rather than change the period the challenge takes place, we celebrate the bounty we have received.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bobtail Year 3: Introduction

Welcome to my third Bobtail Year! Because Chris over at Bobtail, has been such a fan of my posts during years one, and two, I will continue receiving two pints of Bobtail Homemade Ice Cream a month. As before, I will review my favorites. Man, I could get used to this whole sponsorship thing.

Bobtail Year 3 Rundown
June - Raspberry Cheesecake
July - ?
August - ?
September - ?
October - ?
November - ?
December - ?
January - ?
February - ?
March - ?
April - ?
May - ?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Freezer Favs: Ben & Jerry's Phish Food

While this blog is primarily a fan of local scoop shops, it acknowledges that sometimes a person just wants to stay in for the night. That being said, this is one of my Freezer Favorites.

• • •

My first experience with wacky ice cream flavors came via Ben & Jerry's. Though I was likely aware of the brand before this, I don't think I demanded my parents buy some until, during my freshman year of high school, I saw Phish Food featured on an episode of Felicity--the pre-haircut first season, for anyone who's asking.

Phish Food sounded quirky and different, which appealed to both my sense of self and my palate. Its contents reminded me of a Milky Way Dark, the candy bar that in the late 1980's put dark chocolate on the map for an entire generation of trick-or-treaters. But Ben & Jerry's's creation would prove far more memorable, more influential, more enduring. The runny caramel swirl was a revelation, setting the bar for what caramel swirl mix-ins could actually be. The marshmallow swirl was somehow both gooey and fluffy. The fudge fish were softer than your average chip and would linger long enough to melt on your tongue like real chocolate. And the chocolate base was darker and richer than the weak sauce offered in most half gallons. This was super premium ice cream, baby, and there was no turning back.

Despite their many admirable social stances, the quality of Ben & Jerry's products has declined in recent years along with my opinion of them, but the fact remains that they were a major part of my ice cream coming-of-age. Phish Food was the gateway drug to super premium ice cream and, given the age I was at upon first tasting it, it certainly helped that the brand prided itself on being a little different. Over the years, there have been many Ben & Jerry's flavors that have been in frequent rotation for me. Some of these are among the dearly departed in the Flavor Graveyard (Pulp Addiction and Dave Matthews Band® Magic Brownies™ - Encore Edition), while others are still in production, for now at least (Milk & Cookies). But Phish Food was and is ice cream royalty, an undeniable star of the grocery store freezer, loved by one and all.

Ben & Jerry's Phish Food, I salute you!

For more info on the hilarious history Ben & Jerry's check out my two part book review of the nonfiction book, The Inside Scoop.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Union Square Donuts

Right across the water from Boston, bordering Cambridge, is Somerville, MA. Waiting there is an instant entry into my Top 25 to Visit, Union Square Donuts. Though the combination of their hours (closed by 3pm) and my work location (the southern suburb, Braintree) meant I could only visit once during my trip, I have two pretty great reasons to add this place to my list of must-visit Boston-area places. Here they are:

Chocolate Pretzel
An airy pretzel roll with thick crystals of salt on top, topped with a melty, sticks-to-your-fingers milk chocolate. Each bite is delicious and makes you wish you had a little more chocolate. Then you take another bite, but still wish you had a liiiittle bit more. So you chase the dragon until you’ve finished the entire thing, wondering if you should turn around and buy another. This is more of a roll than a doughnut. Don't care.

Brown Butter Hazelnut
A moist doughnut that is also airy, but not nearly as light. The intense sweetness of the brown butter glaze is balanced out well by the husky, nutty flavor of the hazelnuts. I'm pretty sure that if I put on some ruby slippers and clicked my heels together, I'd be transported to a place where I tasted this always. This doughnut is unquestionably a top five doughnut of my life.

Looking forward to my next visit to Union Square Donuts, even if transported there by Kansas tornado.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bobtail Year 2 in Review

How do you measure...measure a year?
- Jonathan Larson (RIP)

• • • 

While the characters of Rent choose to find value in the passage of time by the love they give and receive throughout a year, I've found it far more reliable to measure it based on ice cream consumption. Last month marked the end of Bobtail Year 2, during which I received two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail. After twenty-four pints, it's fun to acknowledge some stand-outs and crown some winners. But, first, a little review:

I first received this bi-monthly ice cream allowance two years ago as a donor benefit for giving to Oracle Theatre, After a year of eating and blogging, Chris at Bobtail gifted me with another pint punch card, thereby legitimizing my blogging bent that has now gone on for nearly a decade. While I'm grateful to receive such sponsorship, nothing has changed: I blog about ice cream I like* and try to put a spin on it when I can.

Bobtail Year 2 was crunchy, nutty, dreamyspice-y and occasionally crepe-y. It had spooky moments where we ate friendly snowmen and even fingers. It had appearances by the drizzly cousins, butterscotch and caramel. And it included a reunion with an old friend.

Year 2 was even tastier than Year 1, so much so I will highlight the best three. Topping the list is Butterscotch Peanut Brittle. It defied the expectation of what peanut and ice cream do when combined, tasting like peanuts instead of peanut butter. Number two is Olaf, the cream cheese, carrot and walnut ice cream that I liked so much I couldn't let it go. And number three of the year was Butterscotch Chip Cookie Dough, which still has my teeth tingling with delight. Here's hoping some of my favorites from the past two years make it into regular rotation.

*Because, really, who cares if I eat ice cream that I don't like? I don't want to read about that, much less write it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Häagen-Dazs Artisan Collection

I'll review the flavors, but first a little history:

Once upon a time, there was a line of Häagen-Dazs products known as the Häagen-Dazs Reserve Series. It took the concept of super premium pints of ice cream and elevated it even further with niche flavors. But the timing was off. Just a year after this line premiered, the housing market crashed, which made the higher-end-yet-affordable luxury of $5 pints of ice cream seem a tad absurd. And, sadly, as the economy went south, it took the Häagen-Dazs Reserve Series with it.

Years later in 2013, Häagen-Dazs would introduce a new line of products that played off their elegant branding and the idea of something high end, Häagen-Dazs Gelato. This line offered products with almost identical ingredient lists to each corresponding ice cream flavor, but with a smoother texture. The catch was the one notable new ingredient was high fructose corn syrup, which accounted for the texture and the disgusting flavor. This series, which somehow still exists, is gross. That this was what the company put out the same year it ended its Five line (ice cream made with only five ingredients, meant to have a "more natural" appeal) is criminal.

This year, Häagen-Dazs premiered yet another new line, the Häagen-Dazs Artisan Collection, which I'm happy to report is better than the Gelato line, even if it falls short of the Häagen-Dazs Reserve Series. The aim is boasting collaborations with lesser-known artisan dessert makers (only one of which I've heard of before) to create unique flavors. Below, I have reviewed the five flavors that do not contain the fruit that shall not be named, ordered from least desirable to most:

Applewood Smoked Caramel Almond, a collaboration with San Diego's Praline Patisserie®
One bite in and you think, "This is...interesting. It is! It's really....different. A bold, new choice for an ice cream flavor." Two bites in and you think, "That was a fun exercise. What else is in the freezer?" The ice cream enrobing the smoked almonds isn't enough to make the savory smoked flavor feel like a dessert.

Chocolate Caramelized Oat, a collaboration with San Francisco's Clairesquares®
The caramel flavor of this ice cream is over-the-top, but at least it covers the flavor of the bargain bin chocolate that coats the oats. The texture of the oats, which is neither crunchy nor chewy, doesn't add much even though the mix-in is unusual.

Tres Leches Brigadeiro, a collaboration with NYC's My Sweet Brigadeiro™
Pictured on this carton is what appears to be like a spherical cookie dipped in chocolate. It looks delicious. It must be the "brigadeiro" thingie the flavor name suggests. This is what you'll think until you are a few bites in and you realize there are no cookies here. You read the back of the package and it says the brigadero has been melted down...and Wikipedia says a brigadeiro is basically a piece of chocolate...and it occurs to you that tres leches literally means three milks...and you slowly realize Häagen-Dazs just sold you a $5 pint of pretentious fudge ripple. I mean, it's good, it's rich, but it's a $5 pint of fudge ripple.

Ginger Molasses Cookie, a collaboration with Brooklyn's The Good Batch®
The clear winner of the bunch. The ice cream is a refreshing bite to eat and has the slightest spicy kick. It claims the ice cream is vanilla cinnamon, but the taste of the ginger bleeds over. The cookie mix-in, which has the crunchy/crumbly texture of the cookie in a Twix bar, adds a diversity to the texture, but not much flavor except for the times it houses a tiny bit of crystallized ginger.

Spiced Pecan Turtle, a collaboration with Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate™
The chocolate ice cream is not the powerhouse, sock-to-the-jaw flavor I hoped for (and Häagen-Dazs has had in the past), but the spiced-caramel swirl and the pecan clusters make up for it in spades. The spices have a wintery quality to them as well as a tiny kick of picante. This is also the only flavor in the new line whose collaborator I'd heard of, thanks to Chocolopolis.