Friday, June 22, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets - Full List

This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to the full reviews of #21-25#16-20, #11-15#6-10, #1-5.)
• • •

1.) Strawberry Rhubarb pie at Bang Bang Pie (seasonal)
2.) Ellen from Alliance Bakery
3.) Cioccolato at Osteria Langhe (rotating menu)
4.) Goat Cheese Cashew Caramel gelato at Black Dog Gelato
5.) Strawberry Mascarpone doughnut at Firecakes (seasonal)
6.) Apple Pie at Chopping Block (only at Apple Fest)
7.) Sour Cream Dutch Apple pie at Hoosier Mama Pie Company (rotating menu)
8.) Chai-infused French Toast at Orange (pictured above)
9.) Cookie Dough Peanut Butter milkshake at Chicago Diner
10.) Tagalong cake at Defloured (seasonal)
11.) Panna cotta at Spacca Napoli
12.) Chocolate chip cookie at Publican Quality Meats
13.) Authentic drinking chocolate at XOCO
14.) Stuffed French Toast at M. Henry
15.) Almondolas from Amy's Candy Bar (seasonal)
16.) Katie Cakes at Taste of Heaven
17.) Purple Velvet Cupcake at Jennivee’s Bakery
18.) Pumpkin cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes (seasonal)
19.) Tiramisu at "Original" Ferrera Bakery
20.) Pecan caramel corn from Garrett Popcorn
21.) Cheese and Honey gelato from Frio Gelato 
22.) Cherry pie from First Slice Pie Cafe 
23.) Strawberry Milk Shake at Allende
24.) Mango Italian ice at Miko’s Italian Ice (closed during the winter)
25.) Coconut bao at Wow Bao

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets #1-5

This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to #21-25#16-20, #11-15, #6-10.)
• • •

1.) Strawberry Rhubarb pie at Bang Bang Pie
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The best slice of pie I have had in my life. Sadly, these fruits are not always in season.

2.) Ellen from Alliance Bakery
The Ellen is a layered pistachio, white chocolate and cinnamon mousse dessert. It is delicate, which means you have to pretend to be eating it daintily while you shovel it in your face.

3.) Cioccolato at Osteria Langhe
Their menus change, but look for it if you go. The dinner I had there was my favorite ever in Chicago, though again the menu changes. All I can say is that while I ate this I understood chocolate in a new way.

4.) Goat Cheese Cashew Caramel gelato at Black Dog Gelato
When I moved away from Chicago for a brief spell, this dessert was the last thing I ate before driving out of the city. The things it does to my taste buds is borderline erotic.

5.) Strawberry Mascarpone doughnut at Firecakes
As I've said before, my second favorite doughnut of all time. This one is seasonal, though, so if you go when it's out of season, grab the Valrhona Chocolate Glazed yeast doughnut.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets #6-10

This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to #21-25#16-20, #11-15, #1-5.)
• • •

6.) Apple Pie at Chopping Block
Don't tell my dad this, but this is the best apple pie I have ever eaten. Only available one weekend a year at Lincoln Square's AppleFest.

7.) Sour Cream Dutch Apple pie at Hoosier Mama Pie Company 
As I've said before, Hoosier Mama is the queen of the custard pies in Chicago...but her sour cream fruit pies are even better. I've also had the sour cream blackberry, which would rank equally high on this list. This one it just a titch better in my opinion.

8.) Chai-infused French Toast at Orange (pictured above)
I've blogged about this before, but I still believe it puts other French toasts to shame.

9.) Cookie Dough Peanut Butter milkshake at Chicago Diner
The best milkshake in the city is vegan. From the makers of the famous veggie Reuben sandwich comes a perfect milkshake. Did I mention it's vegan? It's vegan.

10.) Tagalong cake at Defloured
The best slice of cake I have eaten in my life...and it's from a gluten-free bakery! Defloured features a Cake of the Week and only offers this one once a year around Girl Scout season, but everything about it is worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets #11-15

This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to #21-25#16-20, #6-10, #1-5.)
• • •

11.) Panna cotta at Spacca Napoli
If you close your eyes, you might think you are eating the silkiest vanilla gelato ever, punctuated by fruit and a balsamic drizzle. This jiggly Italian custard delivers.

12.) Chocolate chip cookie at Publican Quality Meats
This cookie is the best cookie I've had that wasn't made by a family member.

13.) Authentic drinking chocolate at XOCO
From Chicago chef Rick Bayliss, this spot offers tortas, churros and, the best of the bunch, Mexican drinking chocolate. Mexican drinking chocolate hot chocolate.

14.) Stuffed French Toast at M. Henry
I take all of my out-of-town guests to M. Henry. Usually when I go to brunch, I like to split with a friend, so we can get half savory and half sweet. At M. Henry splitting isn't necessary because the morning sugar high is worth it.

15.) Almondolas from Amy's Candy Bar
These are chocolate hazelnut paste-covered almonds. They are seasonal, because Amy likes to play with our hearts. Either that or because she also injects some elf magic into them.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets #16-20

This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to #21-25, #11-15, #6-10, #1-5.)
• • •

16.) Katie Cakes at Taste of Heaven
Buttermilk pancakes, triple berry compote, whipped cream, lemon streusel crumb topping. The challenge, if you choose to accept it, is for the majority of bites to contain a little bit of all four components. Taste of Heaven also serves up a variety of cakes, including the Katie Cakes-like Jeanine's Cake.

17.) Purple Velvet Cupcake at Jennivee’s Bakery
From an earlier post: Also available as a cake slice, the dense cupcake is the better choice. If you've never had ube before, this is an excellent place to start. It's a delicate flavor knocked up a few notches into something truly unique to the Chicago dessert scene.

18.) Pumpkin cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes
I've written about Molly's before. What I might not have said is that, come fall, this is the best pumpkin option to be found in the city. Good luck savoring it. Or go up for a second to really get that autumnal spirit going.

19.) Tiramisu at "Original" Ferrera Bakery
I've blogged about this before. Everyone has their preference of what component of their tiramisu should be in the forefront. Is it the espresso? The chocolate? The ladyfingers? For me, it's the custard, offset by the cocoa dusting on top. To me, this is the perfect tiramisu.

20.) Pecan caramel corn from Garrett Popcorn
I defy any dessert-loving omnivore to pass by a Garrett Popcorn without salivating; they pump the intoxicating scent of melted butter and sugar out into the street in front of their stores, making such resistance an impossibility. Most will point you toward the cheese and caramel corn mixture, but I point you toward the pecan.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Chicago's Best Sweets #21-25


This week we explore the Top 25 Sweets in Chicago. (Jump to #16-20, #11-15, #6-10, #1-5.)
• • •

21.) Cheese and Honey gelato from Frio Gelato 
This Evanston store opened a second location just south of the Music Box. Most people are lining up outside of Jeni's, but you can beat the crowds with this local option's Argentine ice cream. Don't know what that means? The Cheese and Honey flavor is the place to start.

22.) Cherry pie from First Slice Pie Cafe 
I've blogged about First Slice before, naming its Blueberry Cheesecake as the standout dish. And it is one of the standouts. But time has made me realize how irreplaceable a slice of their cherry pie is. More fresh, tart cherries; less gelatinous sauce.

23.) Strawberry Milk Shake at Allende
Not a milkshake in the sense most people would expect, this thin drink contains no ice cream. Indeed, it is milk, sugar and the flavor of choice. And I'm here to tell you the flavor of choice should always be strawberry. I treat myself to one anytime I go to Victory Gardens' Biograph Theatre or to my favorite music venue in town, Lincoln Hall.

24.) Mango Italian ice at Miko’s Italian Ice
Decisions are tough at Miko's. I could just as easily have named their blueberry or coconut Italian ice as my top pick. But mango is perhaps the perfect Italian ice flavor: sweet with a slight tang, meaty but it goes down smooth. Only open during the summer season. Stop by anytime you pass Damen on the 606.

25.) Coconut bao at Wow Bao
This local chain (from Lettuce Entertain You) is my main go-to for fast-casual when I'm in the Loop. It's a nice, inexpensive local option amongst the chains. But don't skip dessert: warm coconut custard in a doughy bao.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Scoops in L.A. and Orange County

Brown Bread ice cream. 
I ate a lot of good ice cream in L.A., but without a doubt the best of the bunch was Scoops, which conveniently has its original location in Koreatown near where I was staying. I went a total of three nights in the course of a week or so. Two of these were back-to-back nights, but even then there was huge flavor turnover!

The decor is much like the city of Los Angeles, both dingy and flashy. The difference can be seen between the exterior at day (a worn-out white awning with sun-bleached lettering) and at night (an inviting glow of the black-and-white checkered and its faux stained glass). Inside, the walls are lined with benches for sitting, but no tables to eat at or sit across from one another. But it is a spacious place with high ceilings that accommodate the magnificent Calder-esque mobile that hangs above, offering colorful plastic shovel spoons in the place of Calder's abstract two-dimensional forms. And then there's the ice cream itself: the first time I went, I arrived to find most of the tins empty or nearly scraped clean. Still, the guy behind the counter was eager to have me sample most of what was left.

There is no shortage of exciting flavors to try: Almond Tea, Ricotta Toffee, Red Velvet Oreo, Burnt Sugar, Jackfruit Lime and Cookie Butter Toffee. I can't say the taste of many flavors evoke the names they've been given, but what matters is that they are delicious! The best is called Brown Bread, which has grapenuts in it to give it a crunch. But what does it taste like, if not brown bread? You'll have to try it yourself and let me know. All I can say is the flavor makes Scoops a member of this blog's TOP 25 TO VISIT.

Orange County location.
One final note: it is funny that a place called Scoops only offers sizes with a singular scoop, the Kiddie Scoop and One Scoop, both of which are decidedly not plural. But never fear: the One Scoop has two scoops! While this is the biggest size, at the original location in Koreatown refills are permitted at a discount price. So for $5.25 total I was able to have three scoops.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Taza Chocolate Factory Tour in Somerville, MA

Taza's two best: Chocolate Mexicano 70% Dark Chipotle Chili and Coco Besos
You may be familiar with Taza Chocolate. It comes in two round discs, has a course texture and boasts itself as being "Mexican Stone Ground Chocolate." But that isn't all there is to know about their product. Here are some things I learned when I went on the Taza Chocolate Factory Tour:

What are the origins of Taza Chocolate? 
Alex, the founder, went to Oaxaca where chocolate is primarily for drinking, not eating. While there, he studied with molineros (mill experts). Taza started in 2007 in Somerville, MA. The goal was to make the Oaxacan style chocolate, but in a way that was both good for eating and drinking. Today Taza still uses molinos (stones used to grind chocolate) from that region, though Taza carves the ridges into them themselves to their chocolate-making specifications.

What is the benefit of the stone ground method?
There is no conching. Conching pulverizes the bean. Taza's stone ground method doesn't pulverize because pulverizing causes chocolate to lose some of its nutrients, like magnesium and antioxidants.

What is the process for making stone ground chocolate?
All of the bean harvesting is the same: the cacao pod is cut from the tree, the beans--actually seeds--and white fruit are removed and placed into wooden boxes to ferment for up to 7 days, the beans are dried on wooden slats for up to 8 days, and then they are packed and shipped.

Because Taza is bean-to-bar, the process in their factory starts here with roasting the cacao bean. Roasting both develops the flavor and loosens the shell. Next, winnowing separates the shell from the nib. (All there is is nib and shell, so to eliminate waste, the shells are used as mulch.) Next the nibs are crushed between the stones. One stone is stationery, while the other rotates. The nib is ground up into a paste known as chocolate liquor, which has a texture like hot peanut butter. The chocolate liquor is then combined with cane sugar in the mixing tank. At this point in the process, chocolate used for the Taza's disc chocolate is ground once more to break down the sugar crystals. Then it goes in a holding tank, followed by tempering for texture and appearance, molding and wrapping. Then you can eat it!

The process is a little different with their bars. For their bars, they use a wheel with more finely etched ridges to lightly pulverize the bean to get a smoother texture. This pulverizing is not as much as a conch used typically in chocolate making. The bars are European style, which is to say they add more cocoa butter.

Why are most of Taza Chocolate's products round?
So it can fit in a cup for drinking chocolate.

Is Taza Chocolate Fair Trade?
No, they are not Fair Trade by choice. Instead they are Direct Trade, which has less intermediaries/bureaucracy via brokers. Instead 100% used toward the product goes to farmers.

Learn anything else?
Sure did:

  • Cacao plants are the size of a "fully-inflated American football." They are cut open with a machete.
  • The flavor of baba, the white fruit cacao beans (seeds) live in, is like lychee, jackfruit or durian in quality. (The guide said that it is the sweetest fruit he had ever tasted.) Baba is what activates the fermentation. It's called "baba" (which translated to "spit") because originally people sucked the fruit and spit the seeds out.
  • Cinnamon is originally from Sri Lanka, so the Aztecs and Mayans couldn't have used it in their chocolate drink.
  • Tempering actually changes the melting point, which sounds like black magic, but heating up other foods also has an effect, like how the texture of onions changed when carmelized.
  • My guide's favorite chocolate other than Taza is El Rey. Gotta check that out!
Learning's fun and all, but what about the chocolate? Was it good?
Yes! There's no denying that the rough texture of stone ground chocolate is a paradigm shift from the chocolate most people are used to, but it sure is tasty. In the shop after the tour, we were allowed to sample chocolate to our heart's content. After doing my duty for my readers and eating as much as needed for a full report, I can say that there were two Tazo standouts I would direct you to first: the Chocolate Mexicano 70% Dark Chipotle Chili disc and the Coco Besos chocolate-coconut bar. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Quick post: Four shops to try

Salt & Straw.
As time passes, there are four spots I wish I'd blogged about when it was fresh in my brain. Consider this humble post a small tribute to four places I hope to visit again so I can make good on a full-length post for each. Here they are, all different time zones!

Salt & Straw in Portland, OR - Ate there two or three times. Multiple varieties of chocolate and some weirdo flavors here, too, like Pear & Blue Cheese and Arbequina Olive Oil. They have locations in California now, too.

Churn in Phoenix, AZ - When I went to Phoenix for work, a friend directed me here. Of the flavors offered, I only recall one of them being off the beaten path. Classics are the focus at Churn and they do them well, so well that Churn has earned a spot in the TOP 25 TO VISIT.

Betty Ringer Ice Cream in Dallas, TX - Betty Ringer hadn't been open long before the Dallas Observer named it the Best Ice Cream Shop in 2017. This one is actually fresh in my mind, but I feel I needed to visit multiple times to do it justice. Sadly, this was the last ice cream shop I stopped at after a week in Dallas!

Sister Pie.
Sister Pie in Detroit, MI - What I can tell you is I went for up for seconds...and I would have gone up for thirds if the store hadn't been closing for the day.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Freezer Faves: Graeter's Black Raspberry Chip & Buckeye Blitz

Packaging from days of yore.
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.

• • •

Cincinnati has many ubiquitous local food chains around town. Some are worth all of the hype they've been given and are a must-try for tourists, like chili-topped spaghetti at Skyline Chili and the reuben at Izzy's; others are less deserving of their fame, like provolone pizza at LaRosa's or ribs at Montgomery Inn. But one chain in particular gained so much deserved acclaim that it is now available in grocery stores across the nation.

The flavors in their native habitat.
I've blogged about Graeter's ice cream before, but it deserves to be revisited, especially for how widespread it has become. To review a little bit: Graeter's ice cream is made using the French Pot process, which is a small-batch method: a mere two-and-a-half gallons per batch! The main benefit of this inefficient process is a denser, creamier ice cream; it has less air in it, but it doesn't freeze into a rock. There's no denying the texture of Graeter's ice cream is different, smoother and more stuck to itself. But even better than the texture of the ice cream is the chocolate chips. Instead of using solid chunks of chocolate, Graeter's pours in liquid chocolate. By doing this, the chocolate chips in flavors like Black Raspberry Chip and Buckeye Blitz are soft, yielding and far more flavorful than the chalky snap of most chocolate chunks. These two flavors are perfection on a spoon: sweet and tart black raspberry and rich chocolate peanut butter. Simply unbeatable.

It is this blogger's personal opinion that Graeter's ice cream is even better at the scoop shop, perhaps because the ice cream is kept at the optimal temperature for eating. Grocery store and home freezers are at the best temperature for preserving ice cream (and other foods if you use your freezer for something other than ice cream). If you do go to Cincinnati to enjoy Graeter's, be sure to check out the art deco Cincinnati Union Station, Fountain Square, the river trail, the view of the skyline from Devou Park in Covington, KY. Just don't forget the ice cream!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ice Cream Tasting Game at Rick Moonen's RM Seafood in Las Vegas

16 scoops, all alike in dignity and mystery. A colorful sampler of the ice creams, sorbets and ice milks they rotate between at Rick Moonen's RM Seafood in Las Vegas. The Tasting Game presents the customer with the scoops and asks them to guess what flavor each scoop is. Each customer is given a free spot--Vanilla Bean--while the rest of the 15 scoops are part of the game.

Much harder than it sounds, I guessed eight-and-a-half correct, not counting the free spot. (Half points are for flavors I guessed partially correct, like knowing there was banana in the banana-caramel flavor, but missing the caramel portion.) My server said the average was five or six correct, so I was above average. He seemed most impressed that I guessed coconut curry and lychee correctly. Meanwhile, I'm kicking myself that I didn't correctly identify pistachio or cherry. Not that it mattered in the big picture because I never would have guessed cardamom with star anise or green tea. I asked the server and he said no one had ever guessed them all and that the record was guessing 14 of the 15 mystery flavors correctly.

Row 1: Pistachio, Coconut Curry, Coffee, Vanilla Bean
Row 2: Cardamom Star Anise, Thai Mango, Banana Caramel, Candy Cane
Row 3: Strawberry Guava, Green Tea, Raspberry, Cherry
Row 4: Nutella, Passionfruit, Lychee, Chocolate

Located at The Shoppes at Mandalay Place right on the Las Vegas strip, there is no shortage of places nearby to spend a pretty penny, but RM Seafood offers a three course business lunch for $28, though the Ice Cream Tasting costs an additional $10. The Ice Cream Tasting is $22 a la carte, though, so that plus two other courses is a steal at $32. Adventurous and fun. Recommended!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Chicago Cake: Molly's Cupcakes

On my dessert hierarchy, cakes are usually way, way down near the bottom, above desserts I dislike (Turkish Delight, banana anything) and below those I do like. But Chicago has taught me what cake and cupcakes are capable of being.
• • •

During the cupcake bubble, I thought I'd tried it all, cupcake after meh cupcake. Then Molly's Cupcakes opened my eyes. All of their cupcakes are worthwhile, so I'll have to limit myself to the Top 5:

1.) Pumpkin Spice - spice cake filled with pumpkin mascarpone, topped with cream cheese buttercream 
An annual favorite during pumpkin season, this cupcake stands tall amongst many would-be competitors for Chicago's pumpkin crown.

2.) Chocolate Raspberry - chocolate cake filled with fresh raspberry puree, topped with chocolate ganache and a fresh raspberry
Raspberry puree is borderline erotic in this dessert. And the chocolate is rich enough to warrant adding the tart raspberry to cut through.

3.) Ron Bennington - chocolate cake with peanut butter filling, chocolate ganache and crushed butterscotch topping
Decadence, thy name is Ron Bennington. Well, maybe not THE Ron Bennington, but the cupcake for certain.

4.) Peach Cobbler - vanilla cake with a peach filling, whipped topping and peach on top
Buttery, sweet and fruity. Just like a cobbler, but lighter.

5.) Red Velvet with Cream Cheese Frosting
Pulling from Molly's selection of make-your-own non-filled cupcakes is a standard so good you're reminded of why it's a classic.

Though they've expanded to New York City and Iowa City, Molly's was founded in Chicago, where it has two locations.