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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bobtail Year: Butterscotch Chip Cookie Dough

May was the final month of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •
"Butterscotch, huh? Been a while." This was my reaction and everyone else's when I mentioned Bobtail's latest, Butterscotch Cookie Dough. (The previous month's flavor boasted butterscotch in the name, but hadn't really had much of the taste.)

Absence hath made my heart grow fonder. And good thing, too, since there's enough here to o.d. on the stuff.

There are more tiny butterscotch chips than any mix-in I've ever encountered at Bobtail. When I took the lid off my pint I'm sure there were dozens looking back at me just on the top layer, even amongst the couple chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough and pecans. Hunks of crunch, I tells ya. And it's sweet, enough to give a little tingle to your teeth.

I was sad to see this pint end. Another hit for Bobtail!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Post #300: Top 25 to Visit

Time for another clip show.

Here you will find my top picks, revised since Post #200 back in November 2012. As the blog has grown substantially, I've changed the Top 20 tag to the revised TOP 25 TO VISIT tag. (This includes two places I will post about in the next month or two.)

My hope is that you will check this blog when you travel and use that handy-dandy search box on the right to see what I recommend in your destination city. And if I haven't written about that particular place, I hope you sample the best and report back, maybe even write a Field Report guest blog. (While this blog's primary allegiance is with local scoop shops, see my Freezer Favorites for the best of grocery store ice cream.)

Favorite Ice Cream 
#1 Toscanini’s (Cambridge, MA) 
#2 Morelli's (Atlanta, GA) 
#3 Creole Creamery (New Orleans, LA)

Favorite Doughnuts
#1 Mighty-O (Seattle, WA) 
#2 Firecakes (Chicago, IL) 
#3 Union Square Donuts (Somerville, MA)

Favorite Pastries 
#1 Twice-baked almond croissants at Bakery Noveau (West Seattle, WA) 
#2 Kuoing Aman at Les Madeleines (Salt Lake City, UT) 
#3 Made-to-order cream puffs at Beard Papa's (many locations around the world)

Favorite Chocolate 
Toscano Blond, 63% Dark Chocolate with Peach and Apricot
Amadei (Tuscany, Italy; available in fine chocolate stores)

Favorite Fancy Dessert   
Skyland and Big Meadows Resort (Skyline Drive, VA) 

In addition to blogging about the best desserts from my travels and the occasional recipe (like my creation of the perfect S'mores ice cream), my hope has been to make you laugh along the way. Here are my favorite humorous posts since Post #200:
Thank you for reading and for the emails, texts, Facebook posts and carrier pigeons with your dessert recommendations.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Favorite Ice Cream Ever

The menu where dreams come true.
My first visit to Toscanini’s in Cambridge, MA came during the summer of 2009, an experience I posted about when this blog was not yet two years old. Though mostly a wood-and-brick hipster chic spot, they have two snazzy-looking couches. I sat in one and observed the MIT students doing their homework with spoons in hand. I recall marveling at how I was in the presence of some of the most brilliant minds of our time. Not the students, no; the makers of the best ice cream in the world.

In the years since then, I’ve visited the Boston area a handful of times, even relocated there for a month, and each time the item at the top of my to-do list, right above dinner at Al Dente, has been Toscanini’s. I couldn’t name all of the flavors I’ve tried over the years, but I could tell you that there is rarely a flavor I sample that I do not purchase as a full scoop because each taste, big and small, only further proves that they are masters at their craft.

B3, Blackberry Lime
and Khulfee
Ranging from classic (Cocoa Pudding, one of several chocolate options) to unique twists (Burnt Caramel) to unorthodox (Khulfee, the delicious cardamom-heavy Indian dessert), Toscanini’s beats out all other ice cream shops in nearly every flavor category. Their Chocolate No. 3 is among the richest, darkest chocolate ice creams I’ve ever had, more so than many gelati. It is so popular that it has its own shirt dedicated to it and, presumably, sells out quickly given the fact I’ve only managed to catch it on their menu once. Their Blackberry Lime without question is the best fruit ice cream I’ve ever consumed, besting even sorbets. The lime elevates the flavor to tart peaks over the tangy blackberry base, bringing every region of taste bud to ecstasy. Their Brown Butter ice cream is my favorite flavor of all time, a scoop whose mouthfeel and fullness of flavor are the model of decadence. (For those seeking Brown Butter, you are more likely to see B3 on the menu—brown butter, brown sugar and brownie ice cream—another superlative-earning flavor, the best brownie mix-in I’ve tasted.)

This month, I had the privilege of going to Toscanini’s twice. The first time I ordered their largest size, 2 Scoops, feeling simultaneously fully sated—they know how much is enough—and wishing a larger size had been available to allow for more flavor combinations. The second time I went full glutton, ordering 2 Scoops and a 1 Scoop, feeling triumphant afterwards for seizing the moment to maximum enjoyment.

It is a rare occurrence to revisit an old favorite and find that it actually exceeds your already high expectations, leaving you completely fulfilled. That consistency of product, in addition to their impressive use of imagination and dedication to finding multiple notes to hit with each flavor, are what make Toscanini’s my favorite ice cream ever.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Can Ice Cream Fix the Pothole Problem?

I've already discussed the spring thaw in Chicago. One of the more tangible effects is how the roads and sidewalks get damaged from the winter freeze.  And one artist has found a way to keep the spring thaw from turning into the summer time blues in Chicago and Finland. You see, there ain't no cure for the summer time blues, unless of course ice cream is involved. Check out this article with pictures of Jim Bachor's answer to the pothole problem: ice cream mosaics.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Houston's Best Ice Cream

Top: Beef rib at Killen's Barbecue, flags, George H. W. Bush statue in airport
Bottom: Houston Astros game, fajita relleno at Escalante's, NASA
When many people think of Texas food, they think of barbecue and Tex-Mex. On a recent visit to Houston, I learned Texans also have a unique sweet tooth. With doughnuts, the Houston pallet is in touch with its childhood: they really, really like using
cereal as a topping. (For a solid traditional doughnut, try Christy's Donut Kolaches. Their glazed yeast donut, old fashioned and chocolate devil's food were all great. Or try the Shipley's on Ella.) With ice cream, Houston has their noses pointed straight up, offering some intriguing but truly strange flavors, like fennel-citrus, that make my adventurous side seem pretty tame. They also had two vanilla options: vanilla and Mexican vanilla, which uses a different bean. All in all, Houston was an unusual tour de food, but not without some noteworthy ice cream flavors.*

Best Overall & Best Original Flavor:
Cloud 10 Creamery's Lime Ceylon
Located in Rice Village, a shop-heavy section of town that is perfect for strolling, Cloud 10 boasts the strangest of Houston's ice cream flavors, the best of which was Lime Ceylon. This flavor mixed the sour notes of lime with the bitter notes of tea, resulting in a soft-toned flavor that doesn't bite the consumer with its sharper notes so much as nibbles and nuzzles their taste buds.

Best Flavor with an Unusual Mix-in:
Hank's Moo Moo-licious
Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate-covered Rice Krispies. I've been unimpressed when other places have attempted flavors with puffed (often soggy) rice, but Hank's made me a believer! Smooth ice cream with a sharp crunch. Though it has a cow-themed name, I made a pig of myself eating this flavor. Word has it that Beyoncé is a fan of their product, too.

Fat Cat Creamery.
Best Twist on a Classic:  
Fat Cat Creamery's Buttermilk Strawberry
This is a seriously rich strawberry ice cream. Chock-full of butterfat and with a punch of strawberry, this flavor was my favorite of Fat Cat's. (To be fair, their selection had a lot of boozy flavors, which do not appeal to me. According to the website, even this flavor has gin in it.) Seriously, though, Fat Cat's Buttermilk Strawberry goes to 11.

Best Chocolate Flavor 
Cloud 10 Creamery's Nutella with Marshmallows
Though my friend Jon and I agreed that we didn't taste even a hint of Nutella, he seconded my suggestion that both the texture of the marshmallows and the cocoa powder flavor of the ice cream made the flavor into scrumptious frozen hot chocolate. In a world of many lackluster chocolate ice creams, this unique effect was certainly memorable and worth trying.

Best Logo: Hank's
Just look at it: a waffle cone in the shape of Texas, a playful yet classic cursive script and an ice cream cone for an apostrophe. On their shirts (which come in white, black and purple), the script is purple, producing a New Orleans purple-and-gold look. This logo is a thing of beauty. If there had been a purple shirt in medium, I would wear the heck out that thing.

Best Flavor Names: Eatsie Boys
It should come as no surprise that a food spot that takes inspiration from the Beastie Boys incorporates clever wordplay into their flavor names, many of which incorporate Beastie references. Take a look. Sadly, they were closed. Possibly permanently, based on the hour and an exterior sign that appeared to have been taken down. But maybe they're still open? If I had more time in Houston, I'd stop by again because these flavors sound worth trying.

*Not all of the places I tried ranked or are listed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Carmen's Italian Ice


Comparing Rockville's Carmen's Italian Ice to the New Jersey-based chain Rita's is no stretch. They both serve:

  • Jersey-style Italian ice, so finely cut that there's no crunch or even chewing required. The cold just slides down your throat. You may need to chew certain flavors, though, because some of them contain bits and chunks of actual fruit!
  • frozen custard from a soft-serve machine. It is denser, richer and creamier than soft-serve ice cream.
  • a concoction called a gelati (not to be confused with gelati, the plural of the Italian word gelato) which sandwiches Italian ice between a bottom and top layer of frozen custard. The combination of frozen custard and Italian ice doesn't intuitively make sense on paper, but in practice is a delicacy.

But Carmen's sets itself apart in a few important ways:

  • The long list of ice flavors they have available. Their website lists sixty-three varieties and, as the picture at the top shows, they had twenty-six when I visited. Though Rita's lists more on their website, your average franchise only has maybe eight to sixteen flavors available. 
  • A longer list of frozen custard flavors they rotate between--eleven--as compared to Rita's six.
  • A wider and more interesting range of flavor types than Rita's, from horchata (sadly, not featured the day I went), to sour snozzberry, to strawberry malt, to coconut (with real coconut in it), to spicy mango and more.
After some introspective sampling and conversation with the friendly cashier, I settled on two unique flavors: the tangy and sweet Strawberry-Lemon and Birch Beer, the similar-to-root-beer-but-different beverage that I've encountered in Pennsylvania and Maryland. (Wikipedia tells me it "is most commonly found in the Northeastern United States, and Newfoundland in Canada.") The gelati was mostly frozen custard, but the ice was the stand-out ingredient. When I went back for more, I skipped the custard and got the ice all buy itself. Refreshing and recommended!

- - -

Another fine option for frozen dessert in Rockville is York Castle Caribbean Ice Cream.