Friday, November 19, 2010

Field Report: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

With the opening of Part 7 Part 1 (P7P1), my dear friend Amber tells of her own magical journey:

As the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits theaters, I find it a perfect time to share my thoughts on the culinary (and other) delights of my own visit the Wizarding World this past summer.

If you can ignore the long lines, sweaty tourists, children bobbing and weaving through the crowd, and roller coaster careening in the background, your first steps into the Wizarding World, or “Harry Potter land”, as I took to calling it during my trip, will be truly magical. I had the pleasure of early entry to the park during my stay, and so all the above-mentioned distracters were not a problem at 8am. The shops and scenery are far from fake-looking, and if you are one who can maintain suspension of disbelief at least temporarily, you will be truly amazed.

The first thing you’ll see in your path is a huge barrel with “BUTTERBEER” emblazoned on the side, making it clear that Universal Studios, their Executive Chef Steve Jayson, and all the Wizarding World staffers take great pride in this concoction. “What is it?” you ask yourself. We may never know, as they’ve kept the recipe top-secret, and the only place to access Butterbeer is within the park. Not only that, it’s whipped up on the spot and designed to be consumed immediately, so guests smuggling samples outside the park (what, to study it in their magical laboratory?) will be sorely disappointed. All you need to know is that it is delicious and has been described by many loyal Harry Potter fans as a “religious experience.” What they mean by that, in my opinion, is that it’s a similar experience to reading about and imagining a beautiful exotic location and then stepping into it. Many have likened its flavor primarily to butterscotch, but also to root beer, cream soda, shortbread, Werther’s caramel candy, or some combination of the above. Personally, I’d go with a butterscotch-flavored cream soda with a salty caramel aftertaste.

They’ve made efforts to please all by offering Butterbeer frozen or unfrozen. Both are topped with a rich foamy cream that joyfully clings to your upper lip so you can wear it as a badge of deliciousness. I tried both frozen and unfrozen Butterbeer, and in my personal opinion, frozen is the way to go. For one, it prompts you to drink slower, fully taking in the butterscotch and salty caramel flavors. It’s also not as sweet and the cream sticks around longer. For me, the unfrozen Butterbeer was overwhelmingly sweet. The surest path to a diabetic coma: Drink some unfrozen Butterbeer, and then down a bottle of the Wizarding World’s other beverage prize child, Pumpkin Juice. Both are good in their own right, just do me a favor and pace yourself, won’t you?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nice Cream’s Fall Selection

After learning about Nice Cream this past spring at the Neo-Futurist Theatre, I swiftly joined their email list. With Chicago’s outdoor market season over—brrrrrr—it isn’t as easy to find Nice Cream since they don’t have a store to call their own. All the more reason to be in-the-know online. Earlier in the season, I received an email about a tasting of their new flavors happening in a neighborhood that is particularly difficult for me to get to on public transportation. Luckily, my priorities were straight as I took pen in hand and copied directions from Google Maps.

Nice Cream makes four different flavors per season, always making sure to have a splash of something all their own. In the spring, they had cream cheese with carrot cake. In the summer they had chocolate basil, one of my favorite flavors from the Chicago Ice Cream Festival. And this fall, the stand-out is Burnt Caramel with Crunchy Toffee.

Caramel ice cream is usually made by simply blending caramel into a sweet cream base; maybe some caramel cups or a caramel swirl are added in the finally moments of mixing. But what Nice Cream has created is a cup of cow love that explodes with flavor much like a good gelato. The joy my mouth felt was reminiscent of eating Fran’s Chocolates, which have the best caramel I’ve ever tasted. On a different note entirely, it seems I like to eat frozen burnt things; Toscanini’s brown butter continues to be a chart topping ice cream memory for me.

Other flavors of the season are Salted Chocolate with Marcona Almonds, Pumpkin Spice and Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate Chunks. (Needless to say, I did not try the latter since it contains the fruit that is best left forgotten.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Snap-O-Lantern & Other Pumpkin Ice Creams

Primarily I think of pumpkin as a delicacy to be enjoyed at a warm temperature. I have not been tempted by the pumpkin smoothies offered at Jamba Juice, nor was I very jealous when my brother said he had pumpkin Italian ice at Rita’s. The one exception, you guessed it, is ice cream.

Without a doubt, the best pumpkin ice cream I’ve had is the one I make myself. But, since everyone can’t be me, I thought I’d assist my Chicagoland neighbors by reviewing the major concoctors of ice cream and otherwise. Here they are, from best to worst:
  • Snap-O-Lantern ice cream by Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream (Madison, WI, sourced by many Chicago-area ice cream providers) – While this ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s were the only ones to spice up pumpkin ice cream by adding some textural element, the addition of gingerbread cookie dough isn’t the only reason Snap-o-Lantern tops the list. The ice cream reminds me of my first memories of pumpkin ice cream at the Hilton Village Parlor Restaurant back home: sweet in front, pumpkin in the back, creamy all the way around. I attribute this to the gingerbread cookie dough, which excuses the ice cream from having to be all spices at once and instead to focus on being pumpkin. At first taste last year, this became a seasonal favorite. (pictured)
  • Pumpkin Pie gelato at Pachiugo (locations around the country) – Though products named pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice usually indicate a watered down pumpkin flavor, this product tasted the most like pumpkin than any of the others. And, as is to be expected with gelato, a really smooth texture appropriate to its flavor inspiration.
  • Pumpkin gelato at Black Dog Gelato (Chicago)
  • Pumpkin ice cream at Bobtail (Chicago)
  • Pumpkin ice cream at Oberweiss (many Midwest locations)
  • Pumpkin ice cream at Homer’s (Wilmette, IL)
  • Pumpkin Spice ice cream by Nice Cream (Chicago)
  • Pumpkin Pie frozen custard at Culver’s (many Midwest locations)
  • Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream by Ben & Jerry’s (grocery store) – This offering is not new this year, but the recipe must be. Either that or the 7-11 at Western & Foster got a bad batch.
  • Pumpkin kefir at Starfruit Cafe (Chicago) - Ever heard of kefir? It’s a yogurt product that is supposedly healthier. Guess why you’ve never heard of it? It tastes like frozen earwax.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Oh My Gourd!

For the fifth year running, I sought to consume as many pumpkin edibles as possible between Sept. 15 and Halloween. My total this year was 40 different items, busting my 2008 record by a whopping ten items! Considering that there are only 47 days in the pumpkin challenge, I must have slacked off 7 days.

This year I cooked more than any other year, sifting through my stack of untested pumpkin recipes given to me by past years' MVPPs (Most Valuable Pumpkin Provider). Of these, I was most impressed with the pumpkin mole sauce (though not heavy in pumpkin flavor) and the pumpkin cinnamon rolls. I was least impressed with the wontons and the soups. If anyone cares to share, I need a recipe for a good soup that has textural diversity but doesn't have its pumpkin flavor overwhelmed by other ingredients.

To make all these recipes I purchased 8 large cans of pureed pumpkin (232 oz). Luckily the stores have not run out since that quantity has been used up!

Here's the list:
vegan pumpkin cookie, pumpkin doughnut, pumpkin chocolate swirl brownies, ginger pumpkin soup, pumpkin ginger rice pudding, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin ice cream (various sources), pumpkin pie, Culver's pumpkin pecan custard, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin fudge, Rick Bayliss' pumpkin mole sauce on chicken, dark chocolate covered pumpkin seeds, pumpkin muffin, pumpkin bagel, pumpkin schmear, pumpkin hummus, curry pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread pudding, pumpkin seed granola, Paciugo's Pumpkin Pie gelato, pumpkin risotto with bacon and spinach, pumpkin layer cake with chocolate icing, chocolate chip pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting, black bean pumpkin soup, chipotle pumpkin salsa, savory pumpkin wontons, pumpkin cinnamon buns, pumpkin cream cheese roll (like a jelly roll), Thai pumpkin custard, pumpkin-topped cream puff, pumpkin chocolate truffle, pumpkin milkshake, pumpkin butter, savory pumpkin quiche, pumpkin cheesecake ice cream, pumpkin chili, pumpkin gingerbread pie, Beard Papa's pumpkin eclair, pumpkin keifer

italics indicate items that I made myself

Next time: The best frozen pumpkin desserts in Chicago!