Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Thanks to dozens of hours spent on the road living a semi-vagabond life, my participation in the pumpkin challenge was at an all-time low this year. It is difficult to cook new recipes when you don’t have a kitchen. Still, the year was not without discoveries. My favorite invention was the oh-so-yummy turkey, cheese and pumpkin butter toasted bagel sandwich.

Last year I consumed 40 pumpkin items between September 15 and October 31, this year I did not even achieve half that number. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Here’s the list:

pumpkin pie, pumpkin bagel, pumpkin cream cheese schmear, pumpkin waffle, pumpkin bread, pumpkin pancake, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin milkshake, pumpkin pecan roll, pumpkin frozen yogurt, squid ink pumpkin and squash ravioli, Snap-o-lantern ice cream, pumpkin whoopie pie, pumpkin spice gelato, pumpkin pie ice cream, pumpkin butter

How did my competitors fare this year? Have I been dethroned?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Cicada Ice Cream

I’d gladly take things that go bump in the night over things that go chirp in my stomach.

When Sparky’s in Columbia, MO created cicada ice cream it became an instant legend, not just for being the most gastronomically grotesque creation of the year, but also for batting a thousand. Only one batch was made and it sold out in just thirty minutes. The store pulled the flavor before it made a second batch because the health department did not give its endorsement; apparently the most hygienic cicada preparation has not been fully researched.

In all seriousness, more spooky than brown sugar and bug ice cream is that anything “not specifically provided for in the local health code” is understood to be illegal. Bureaucratic red flagging in food regulation is the same battle being fought by Nice Cream in Chicago. I’m certainly no authority on the subject, but I worry for the future of small businesses.

(Thanks to Laurie for the tip.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cubism or Zombie?

Picasso believed in two things: ice cream and zombies.

In all seriousness, I once went to an ice cream shop in D.C. (which shall remain nameless) that had a huge mural of Guernica, only each of the characters doomed to die in the horrible bombing were holding ice cream cones. Appalled, I remarked to my brother how completely and utterly tasteless the mural was. Loudly, I might add, which probably explains the pay-and-get-out attitude of the proprietor. Whoops.

Hey, the word "zombie" reminds of something! A creative writing curriculum I wrote for elementary schoolers called "Brains! or, Writing with Zombies" was recently published. Money from the sales go into the programs at 826, free after-school tutoring and creative writing centers in several US cities.

Note from 2012: Read some of the amazing and hilarious zombie stories written by my young students as published in 826CHI Compendium Vol. 3!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sixth Annual Pumpkin Challenge

This could be your year to win. Your chances are better this year because the reigning champion will be less of a contender. Baffling as it may sound, I will be preoccupied by a number of life events that people claim to be more important than pumpkin season. I mean no dishonor to the Great Pumpkin and hope he will not bypass my patch this year. But ho! Perhaps you are new to the Pumpkin Challenge!

Every year, from September 15 through Halloween, all are invited to consume as many pumpkin foods as possible. So epicurate a cornucopia of new recipes and buy out the grocery. Or, better yet, try and beat my record. Here are the rules:
  • The only beverage allowed is the milkshake.
  • 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.)

Why have was the Pumpkin Challenge created?

Originally the short-term goal was to encourage pumpkin season to start earlier than October, since they are mostly only offered around Halloween and Thanksgiving. Happily, this year and last year have shown progress of pumpkin activity in early September! The long-term goal is for pumpkin products year round. If you aren't currently active in the off-season of the Pumpkin Challenge, my hope is your participation will help you branch out into new pumpkin dishes (not just pie, bread and muffins) and give you post-autumnal pumpkin pangs.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Greatest Desserts: Rhubarb & Crème Fraiche Sherbet

I have bonded between bites of a rhubarb cobbler and made lifelong friends. Some would attribute this to my winning charisma, but I know better. When shared, the tartness of rhubarb transforms its consumers into both addicts and a support group. In short, when we eat rhubarb together, we are forever linked. And though these uniting forces cannot be denied, I have found a rhubarb product brings my altruism into question.

Snookelfritz creates seasonal artisan frozen desserts, emphasizing sustainability and using local ingredients. Their pints are sold at Chicago farmers markets and some neighborhood stores. While many of their flavors are nothing short of creative (raspberry-rose petal, roasted strawberry-brown sugar, maple-candied), their Rhubarb & Crème Fraiche Sherbet stands out as being among the finest frozen desserts I’ve ever had.

Though there is never a need to dilute pure rhubarb, this sherbet creates a balance of flavors that (rather that compete with another) seem to ask one another to dance. Unlike the overpowering strawberry with which rhubarb is usually paired, the subtle crème fraiche gracefully lets the rhubarb take the lead while it is whirled round and round. And the texture of the sherbet is the light, soft footing that effortlessly carries your taste buds across the dance floor.

I will say it again: this is one of the finest frozen desserts I have ever had. As I think now, the Brown Butter ice cream at Toscanini’s (in Cambridge, MA) comes to mind as another on this short list, as well as the Mile High Blackberry Ice Cream Pie on Virginia’s Skyline Drive. Snookelfritz’s Rhubarb & Crème Fraiche Sherbet is one for the history books.


Update: Snookelfritz appears to have stopped being in business. This may or may not be because of the same shutdown that killed Nice Cream.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chicago Blackhawks Ice Cream: Phase 4

What is Chicago Blackhawks ice cream? As far as I know, no such flavor exists outside my kitchen. Together, gentle reader, we will explore this question to create the definitive Chicago Blackhawks ice cream…even though hockey current events mean we will be enjoying our treat from a dish instead of a cup.

After exploring strictly the visceral elements of hockey in Phase 3, I decided to retreat back into the team color approach taken in Phase 2…or so I thought.

Pictured is black cherry ice cream with brownies, which is not the deep red color I expected. Truth be told, the whole thing was a disaster. (Let’s be honest, though: Bad ice cream is better than “good” almost anything else.) My ice cream maker wasn’t producing anything thicker than a milkshake, I overcooked my brownies and I forgot to put in the white chocolate chunks, an addition my brother suggested to keep the visceral “shattered teeth” motif. But I am not ungrateful; I ate the messy liquid and stuck the leftovers in the freezer, hoping its frozen consistency would be somewhere between soup and a rock. The leftovers, though ice cream, lacked the punch I’ve had in other fruit ice creams I’ve made. The brownies were a fantastic touch, but again the cherry ice cream was yellowish brown, not red. This was easily the low point on the journey to hockey/ice cream marriage.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Death of Local Chicago Ice Cream?

Finding homemade ice cream in Chicago isn't easy. I can think of only two scoop shops that specialize in homemade ice cream, one gelato place and a few artisan ice cream makers that distribute at farmers markets and grocery stores. But that last category could soon be eliminated.

Friend and fellow blogger, Dawn Xiana Moon, made me aware of this news story. In short, small artisan ice cream makers in Illinois are being targeted by Public Health to maintain the same standards that are held for billion dollar national ice cream makers. These licenses were not mentioned when the businesses were created, so why are they being brought up years later? Effectively, this could end the use of local, organic ingredients and, by doing so, end small business ice cream production in Illinois.

Nice Cream is first on the hitlist. And you can help. You can donate to their Kickstarter page or attend their fundraiser. Also, stay tuned to the Nice Cream website on further instruction for writing a letter to the state.

UPDATE: Dawn has more info.
UPDATE #2 (3/23/2012): Here's the latest.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Great Waldough Search

Finding doughnuts in Chicago that aren’t from the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts is not easy. The best reviewed donut place on Yelp (Old Fashioned Donuts) is all the way down on 112th Street and the other major players (Huck Finn and Dat Donut) are at closest 34th! Speaking for northside Chicago, this is unacceptable.

Doughnut Vault heard the call when they opened their River North business, a converted elevator shaft with fancy décor. But while their donuts are meaty, their hour-long lines are frustrating, their options somewhat simple and their supply extremely limited. Happily, Chicago’s Year of the Donut was only getting warmed up.

Dirty Betty’s offers lower-fat, baked donuts with inspired flavor combinations. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but Pomegranate Glaze (top left) wins with me. Another flavor, Ginger with Key Lime Glaze (bottom left), is more citrusy than most pastries hope to be. And the chocolate glaze on their Chocolate Toffee (top right) doughnut is the easily best chocolate topping I’ve ever had on a doughnut. Unlike Doughnut Vault, where the only difference between their yeast doughnuts is the glaze, the doughnuts at Dirty Betty’s are unique from one another in every way and they’re all delicious.

Since Dirty Betty’s lives inside Cookie Bar, I wasn’t at all surprised by the range of options. The daytime business, a 70’s disco cookie joint, makes Jalapeño Chocolate Chip, Red White & Blueberry and, my favorite, the Potato Chip Chocolate Chip cookie. Can’t decide between cookies and doughnuts? Then you should go on Saturday when they make both cookies and doughnuts all day.

How good is Dirty Betty’s? I’ve been making a mental list of best donuts I’ve had, absolutely certain that Dirty Betty’s makes the list.

Note from 2012: I have since tried Dat Donut and in my opinion it wasn't any more special than your average mom-n-pop doughnut shop. Two more Southside locations to go.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Turkish Hospitality

My friend Lisa shared this video of a Turkish ice cream vendor having some fun with a tourist. The scoop-smith’s talents bridge the gap between Cocktail bartender and vaudeville clown. Really quite impressive! Give it a watch.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Literacy, Music and Ice Cream

I believe I’ve discovered the unified theorem:
826CHI + Pitchfork Music Festival = Free Ice Cream

What makes this a unified theorem? Quite simply, if we all united in doing good and good tunes, we would be rewarded with ice cream. What other solution do you need? Though some scientists will miss working with variables, I’m sure most will be very relieved to learn that the unified theorem requires very little math at all. Plus, the unified theorem is delicious.

Perhaps you’re wondering how I discovered this equation. The back story is that 826CHI, a free after-school tutoring and creative writing center, offered a music journalism workshop in which fifth-through-seventh graders were given VIP access at the Pitchfork Music Festival. The students were granted interviews with Neko Case [editor's note: Swoon!], Battles, Das Racist, James Blake, Woods, OFF!, Fleet Foxes, Juliana Barwick, Cold Cave, Sun Airway, HEALTH, Kurt Vile, Zola Jesus, DJ Chrissy Murderbot, No Age, Shabazz Palaces and GSide. And then the students and instructors were visited by the Ice Cream Man, a touring ice cream truck with the simple goals of giving away free ice cream and motivating people to fulfill their dreams. Needless to say, this particular workshop got rave reviews. (This workshop evaluation is particularly amazing.)

I look forward to taking cone in hand and reading the zine that these young journalists produce.

826CHI is a chapter of 826 National, co-founded by writer/publisher Dave Eggers. As of this writing there are eight chapters of 826 nation-wide. So far I have volunteered with 826 Seattle and 826CHI. Methinks 826 Boston will be next.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Best Horchata on the Chicago Northside

32 oz. is never enough at The Famous Taco Burrito.
The first time I tasted horchata was when my dad, an adventurous eater, and my mom, his comic foil in this regard, took us to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place in Pilsen, Chicago’s southside home for visual artists that seek low rent. When he ordered it and I asked about it, he explained with the efficient mastery he usually employs: “It’s good. You should try it!”

Being that I was still in college at VCU and far away from authentic Mexican food, there were no opportunities to have horchata again until I returned to Chicago with my theatre class senior year. Between the L and my first destination, I stopped in a Mexican place (#3 below) and filled up on grub. I shared some horchata with Boren, offering more explanation than my dad had given me: “It’s like a milky rice drink that has cinnamon and almond flavors.” (Note: most horchata contains no milk or lactose.). As his thoughtful tasting went underway, his eyes grew to Muppet size.

Through the duration of our stay in Chicago, Boren and I stopped for horchata at every opportunity we could, which amounted to twice or more a day. Doing this we concluded that not all horchatas were mixed equal and that one should be aware of a few things:

• As with most Mexican food, the best comes from hole-in-the-wall tacquerias.
• Ice only waters it down, so request no ice. The drink is kept cold and doesn’t need it anyway.
• If you are being charged more than $2.50 (for a 44 oz.), you are being ripped off by people who likely don’t even know how to make a good horchata. (Signs of bad horchata include: chalkiness, plastic or Styrofoam taste, flecks of poorly mixed ingredients.)

While horchata was available a few places in Seattle, it was not until I moved to Chicago that it was elevated from beverage choice to lifestyle choice. Horchata is the sermon I preach to any willing stomach. I have tasted it here, there and everywhere (if “everywhere” were “Chicago’s northside”). And with this knowledge, I can pass on to you, beloved reader, my list of the best horchata on the Chicago northside.

(1) The Famous Taco Burrito – NE corner of Western and Addison
(2) La Pasadita – South of Division on Ashland
(3) Taco Burrito House – South of Irving Park & Broadway

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Some pictures leave us without any words.

I think it’s fair to say that I wear my heart on my sleeve. That being said, I have never felt the need to have it tattooed on my arm or, to an even lesser degree, tattooed on my face. Unsurprisingly, Gucci Mane, processes life differently than I.

Back in January, the rapper, who famously wears a chain around his neck with an ice cream cone on it, celebrated his release from a mental institution by getting a brand new tattoo. On his face. Of an ice cream cone. With lightning bolts coming out from it. Someone may have had too many sprinkles on his sundae.

Along with the now infamous Twitter photo (linked above), an artist’s recreation of Mr. Mane (and his ink) serves as cover art for his latest release, The Return of Mr. Zone 6. The lyrics of “Mouth Full of Gold” give us a little insight: “Ice cream on my face and chain ‘cause that's the life that I live, shawty."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chicago Blackhawks Ice Cream: Phase 3

What is Chicago Blackhawks ice cream? As far as I know, no such flavor exists outside my kitchen. Together, gentle reader, we will explore this question to create the definitive Chicago Blackhawks ice cream…even though hockey current events mean we will be enjoying our treat from a dish instead of a cup.

In Phase 1 and 2, I explored color and texture to create an ice cream that featured the Blackhawks team colors (predominantly red, black and white) and the visceral elements of hockey (blood and teeth). Thanks to suggestions from my very creative friends, Phase 3 journeys even further outside the box.

Pictured is Phase 3, a blackberry ice cream with macadamia nuts and both dark and white chocolate chunks. How this flavor relates to Blackhawks hockey may not be intuitive because what appealed to my friends were the visceral elements of the sport. Blackberry, the color of a bruise (though you can't tell in this photo). Macadamia nuts, crunchy and far better at representing knocked-out teeth than marshmallows. Dark and white chocolate chunks, ice and pucks in motion. (Eat your heart out, Umberto Boccioni .)

Suggestions for Phase 4? Leave a comment.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Who am I kidding?

These people are idiots. I didn't want to be on their Millennial Advisory Panel anyway...unless they changed their minds, of course. Let me know! kthx

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Report: Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop (Part 2)

Published in 1994, this book was written by Fred “Chico” Lager, the man who became the company’s first general manager in 1982. More than just a dry history lesson, this is an entertaining read written from someone on the inside. Anecdote after quirky anecdote makes this account of the company’s path to success worthy of a Coen brothers movie. Continuing where I left off in Part 1, here’s Part 2 of my book report.

By 1983, Ben & Jerry’s had already outgrown their manufacturing plant, which had seemed far too large when they moved in during 1981. But their wholesale business was taking off, much due to their unique product. Though superpremium ice cream was first introduced to grocery stores by Häagen-Dazs in 1960, Ben & Jerry’s (funky, unpretentious and full of chunks) had perfectly carved out a unique niche that helped them get placement. Supermarkets would only stock three superpremium ice creams, which generally included Häagen-Dazs (the market leader) and, before the entrance of Ben & Jerry's, two Häagen-Dazs copycat brands jumping on the band wagon with elegance and faux-foreign branding. As they grew, Ben & Jerry’s expanded into new markets with innovative approaches, such as storming office buildings in Boston to give away free ice cream.

In all of this expansion, the company strived to stick to its community focus and its investment in their employees. When the company needed to raise money for a new factory, Ben defied the input of all in his decision to sell stock exclusive to Vermont residents. It worked, meaning 1 in every 100 Vermont residents held stock in the company, thereby making those who made the business successful part of the profits. They made it their goal to use milk from Vermont farms and ingredients from local sources. The company increased their donations to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation from 5% to 7.5% of pretax profits. At this time, they also had a rule of 5-to-1 pay scale ratio, where the highest paid could only get a max of 5x the lowest salary. 5% of the pretax profits were distributed to employees, giving them a stake. And there was also the 3 pints/day benefit for all workers. More people were hired when they opened the Waterbury factory; a larger staff meant workers had a greater distance from the product. To keep them engaged, meetings featured “small group” sessions where groups pitched their ideas to cut costs or suggestions to improve conditions. They also had annual recognition, ensuring an employee’s efforts were acknowledged at least once a year. And to keep things fun, the Fred Award (named after the book's author) was given out to those who nominated themselves for frugally finding ways to cut costs.

More ice cream meant they were generating more waste. To offset this, they bought a local farmer $10,000 worth of pigs to consume the edible portion of the waste, provided one pig was named Ben and another Jerry. This wasn’t the only crazy idea floating around the offices at the time: Ben wanted to start Zippy, a company that sold a carbonated milk beverage. But the craziest idea, which thankfully never became a reality, was from a short-lived marketing director who suggested opening scoop shops for breakfast to “serve scrambled eggs in waffle cones, an item he wanted to call ‘Cone Egg, the Breakfast Barbarian.’” (159)

Around this time in 1987, a flavor was launched whose name was suggested by two Deadheads in Portland, Maine: Cherry Garcia. The reaction from Jerry Garcia was “‘As long as they don’t name a motor oil after me, it’s fine with me.’” (157) Following the flavor’s success, other customers suggested witty(?) flavor names—Donny Almond, Milly Vanilla and Scoop O’ Jesus—that never moved past the suggestion phase. Which isn’t to say that Ben & Jerry’s didn’t create some duds all on its own. Some career lows for Peter Lind, hired as head of Research and Development around this time, were Fred & Ginger (ginger ice cream with chocolate bow ties) and Sugar Plum (plum ice cream with a caramel swirl). Their policy at the time was to discontinue one flavor as another was added, rotating a total of 12 flavors. People wrote in when their favorite went away; Sugar Plum was not missed. In 1991, customer suggestions once again struck gold when Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough became the best selling flavor in just 2 months, surpassing Heath Bar Crunch.

As the company’s success continued to grow, they looked for even more ways to be community-focused. Ben wanted the company to be socially-minded in how it chose the suppliers of ingredients. In one example, they hired Greyston Bakery (an organization that employed the homeless and put money into programs that served the homeless) to make the brownies for their ice cream. They also launched Partnershops, where Ben & Jerry’s waived the franchise fee and provided management assistance to the get business running. Local service organizations could open a Partnershop to provide job experience and business training to populations that needed it. The profits made the programs self-funding.

During 1992, sales were up 36% to $132 million, profits up 79% to $6.7 million and Ben & Jerry's was named by Forbes Magazine one of the 200 Best Small Companies in America for the third straight year. After that, well, I’ll need to write my own book.

(I do not take credit for the information in this blog entry. All credit is due to Fred “Chico” Lager, author of Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Report: Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop (Part 1)

Published in 1994, this book was written by Fred “Chico” Lager, the man who became the company’s first general manager in 1982. More than just a dry history lesson, this is an entertaining read written from someone on the inside. Anecdote after quirky anecdote makes this account of the company’s path to success worthy of a Coen brothers movie. Here’s the quick version.

Ben and Jerry became friends in junior high and worked summers together growing up in Merrick, NY (part of Long Island). After high school, Ben applied himself where he liked, which included a brief stint at Colgate University (an institution he selected because of its inclusion of fireplaces in the dorms), jobs working on ice cream trucks and teaching crafts in the Adirondacks. Soon after Jerry successfully completed college, Ben decided they should start a business together.

After ditching their first idea of Sunday Bagels & Lox delivery in NYC, they decided on making homemade ice cream in a rural community with a large college population and a warm climate. In pursuit of this dream, they took a correspondence course in ice cream making through Penn State, splitting the $5 tuition. Though the climate was far from warm, Burlington, VT was the setting they chose. They secured a loan in Dec. 1977 (impressing the bank with the fact they had taken a course in ice cream from Penn State, but not mentioning the key words “correspondence course”) and on May 5, 1978 opened their flagship location in an abandoned gas station.

People lined up from the beginning. They were after all, offering a unique product. Beyond some of the zanier flavors (Mocha Chip, Pina Colada, Burgundy Cherry, Banana Rum, Coconut, Carob and their best-selling Oreo Mint) they had tricked out their ice cream maker to churn at just 20 rotations per minute, thereby lessening the amount of air that got whipped into the ice cream. On only ninth day of business, they sold out of ice cream. It would be the first of many times. After two months of business they had to close for a day to figure out finances, putting a sign up in the window that said, “We’re closed today so we can figure out if we’re making any money.” They seemed to be breaking even, though their non-ice cream products (including Ben’s sea scallop crepe with mushrooms and onions) were not selling well at all and were soon after dropped. Being that they were just a couple of guys and not accountants, they learned as they went: “At first Jerry paid the bills, but when they ran into cash-flow problems Ben took over. Ben stopped paying bills and cash flow improved immediately.” (28)

Beyond a unique product, they were a part of the community, holding events that were part-circus sideshow and part carnival fair. (At one such event, Jerry set his chin on fire while fire-eating.) They projected movies on a neighboring building. And at their 1-year anniversary, they introduced Free Cone Day, an annual event that still happens each year. Flyers for the event included a quote from Ben: “Business has a responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support.”

While still a young business, they started wholesaling ice cream, first to businesses and later to mom-n-pop grocers. They offered 8 flavors: Oreo Mint, French Vanilla, Chocolate Fudge, Wild Blueberry, Mocha Walnut, Maple Walnut, Honey Coffee and Honey Orange. They bought a machine to fill the pints, but it frequently got clogged due to the larger-size chunks. This sparked a debate: Jerry wanted smaller chunks so there would be a chunk in every bite, but Ben wanted larger chunks because the downside of not having a chunk in every bite was overcome by getting a huge chunk in other bites. They made the holes in the machine bigger to allow for the bigger chunks.

Business continued to grow, so they decided to begin franchising and in July of 1981 the first franchise was opened in Shelburne, VT. But this growth made them worry that “they had become a cog in an economic machine whose values they had questioned all their lives. The business had grown well beyond the small, community-oriented ice cream shop they had set out to open.” (54) Ben changed his mind when he met Maurice Purpora who said Ben could “[redefine] the business so that it was consistent with his personal values, even if they didn’t conform with traditional notions of how a business should be run.” (57)

Continued in Part 2...

(I do not take credit for the information in this blog entry. All credit is due to Fred “Chico” Lager, author of Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Flavors: Ben & Jerry’s Class of 2011

Dear Ben & Jerry’s,

To show there are no hard feelings over not being chosen for the Millennial Advisory Panel, I will dedicate a few blog entries to you, starting with this review of your new flavors. Since I'd been expecting to receive those 52 free pint coupons you give to Panel members, I held out on purchasing the new flavors. But now that reality has kicked in, so has my wallet.

Much anticipation preceded the new batch of flavors because of the 20-30 minute survey your company invited me to take regarding flavor innovations being considered. The results of that data must have contributed to this year’s batch: two new creations and three flavors that have long been explored in neighborhood scoop shops, but are uncommon to the grocery store freezer.

Red Velvet Cake – In my mind, the cake batter ice cream craze derives from the nostalgia of the quintessential birthday combination of cake and ice cream. For me, the true determinant of a successful cake ice cream is texture, namely the inclusion of cake pieces throughout. In red velvet cake, the trick is to have a balance of cake and cream cheese. In this flavor, Ben & Jerry’s uses the same delicacy and subtlety that they use in their cheesecake ice creams. My friends are going gaga for this flavor, and though it can't compare to Creole Creamery's flavor of the same name, I find myself stocking my freezer with this Ben & Jerry’s treat. Good thing since New Orleans isn’t exactly close by.

Clusterfluff –When I read the name of this flavor, I figured it was Fluffernutter ice cream, a flavor I myself had made before. But strangely, the flavor isn’t that at all. A peanut butter ice cream base features caramel cluster pieces, peanut butter and marshmallow swirls. The overabundance of peanut butter (When did peanut butter become a dessert? Am I in the minority in disagreeing with this?) makes for not enough cluster (which lack crunch) and not enough fluff (which is inferior to the deliciously gooey marshmallow fluff one finds in Phish Food). But the misleading nature of this flavor is nothing compared to the next one…

Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night Snack – When this flavor advertises that it contains fudge covered potato chips, it sounds delicious and innovative. But while I’m sure legal obligation means the clusters are actually potato chips, they taste like rice puffs to me. Where’s the salt to balance out the sweet? I couldn’t taste it. High expectations, terrible disappointment.

Also new is Bonnaroo Buzz which I skipped. It seems to be an amalgamation of ice cream flavors I don’t enjoy. All that’s missing is banana.

So there you have it, an almost completely negative review of the Class of 2011. I swear it wasn’t on purpose, Ben. Dry those eyes, Jerry. I promise to show some love in the blog entries to follow.

Yours in ice cream,

P.S. If you have any more of those free pint coupons, I still have a stomach.

UPDATE: What the fluff? Clusterfluff is now being labeled What a Cluster. This name is tamer than the original name and a LOT more tame than "Mothercluster" or "Fluffing Ridiculous."

Friday, May 13, 2011

What Charlie Sheen & I Don’t Have in Common


I submitted an application for consideration to serve on Ben & Jerry’s Millennial Advisory Panel. The first of its kind, those chosen for the panel will be flown out to Vermont for a week, write and respond to Ben & Jerry’s queries about products and product ideas, have someone from Ben & Jerry’s shadow them for a day and be given 52 free pint coupons to use throughout the year. I felt that within a two month time span—submissions were accepted between February 4 and April 8—there couldn’t possibly be twenty American 20-somethings more qualified than me. Apparently, I was wrong. But no hard feelings, Ben. I'm sure we’ll meet someday, Jerry.

The application included five written answers and a video. Here are excerpts from my responses:

Video: Showcasing your creativity, share one strength of the Ben & Jerry’s brand and three things they could improve.My video is awkward, strange and humorous. You should watch it, though, because of the end when I sing a song I wrote that strings together 24 Ben & Jerry’s flavor names while paying homage to both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Hallelujah chorus.

#1: Summarize your life in 140 characters or less.
Superpowers include: clowning in burlesque shows, playing acoustic punk rock and teaching creative writing workshops for kids about zombies.

#2: Share your coolest discovery from the past 6 months.For this answer, I edited down the tale of learning the secret ingredient to authentic Belgian waffles.

#3: Share your life passion.
Growing up, I was given many opportunities; I feel I could pay this forward for the rest of my life. For this answer, I wrote about my volunteer efforts at 826 CHI and Barrel of Monkeys.

#4: Another brand you admire.
What impresses me more than anything about California Pizza Kitchen is that people of different economic classes are always eating there: three-piece suits have business lunches while jeans-and-polo parents wrangle their toddlers. What makes this possible is their simple model: American fusion cuisine meets pizza joint.

#5: What excites you about this opportunity?
All I really needed to know I learned from ice cream.

Growing up, eating ice cream was mostly reserved for celebrations. Then my dad started buying half-gallons of ice cream he found on sale. It was exciting, eating this frozen delicacy “just because.” Today, when I offer high-end ice cream to friends, neighbors and people I’ve just met—I’m not kidding—I can tell that between birthday parties ice cream gets forgotten. It seems strange that, as much as everyone enjoys ice cream, so many eat it only on rare occasions. I am known for my ice cream evangelism. When I call friends to meet up, they suggest going for ice cream. I can almost hear them smiling because, in their Pavlovian minds, when I am around ice cream is consumed.

And what a wonderful gift to share! Ice cream brings out the best in people. When a group of people eat ice cream together the conversation stays pretty positive. Try to imagine someone eating ice cream angrily. Absurd, isn’t it?

In my mind, ice cream gives people a reason to celebrate during a regular day. I feel serving on the Millennial Advisory Panel will make this celebration even more widespread.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Last Dance with Sfogliatelle

Growing up, I thought of Italian pastry as being confined to cannoli and the somewhat flavorless biscuit-like cookies neighbors made for Christmas parties. This is probably what most people in small-town and suburban America think, while urban dwellers have access to a much wider selection at neighborhood shops or in their city’s Little Italy. Joyously, my taste buds have learned new languages and not just because of the weeks I spent in Italy. My neighborhood, Andersonville, is home to Pasticceria Natalina. Or at least it will be until May 22.

In the time of an economic downturn, people turn from extravagant luxuries (recreational space travel) to affordable ones (edible commodities). Unfortunately, that trend did not carry to my neighborhood pasticceria (“bakery” in italiano), whose prices for authentic hand-made delights should have been seen not as steep, but cheap in comparison to an international plane ticket. Here is a list of favorite items I will miss:

• Pasticceri di Cioccolato – Imagine the richness of flourless-chocolate cake only lighter, more texturally diverse and packed into a giant sandwich cookie. Hands down, the best chocolate pastry I’ve ever had.
• Crostatina Piemontese – A tart filled with rich dark chocolate and topped with hazelnuts. This place knew how to do chocolate.
• Sfogliatelle – My favorite pastry during my trip to Italy. Flaky pastry filled with sweet ricotta. Deceptively simple, but unmatched.
• Cannoli – You may believe you can already get the real thing at your favorite Italian restaurant; this one is a good litmus test.
• Baci di Dama –My aunt dubbed these “little chocolate hamburgers.” More dark chocolate between nut and spice cookies.

Leading up to their closing, Pasticceria Natalina will be doing final batches of a select group of their pastries by order only. After that, you’ll need to fly to Sicily.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 3: Test Kitchen

With certain odds surmounted, it was time to enter the gauntlet. Google searches for “authentic Belgian waffle recipe” (liege waffles) returned a bevy of options. Wise with world travel, I was able to quickly omit any recipe that had no mention of Belgian pearl sugar. This secret ingredient, which caramelizes when cooked, is what separates the real waffles from mere dented pastry.

I opted to first follow the recipe on the back of the Lars’ Own Belgian Pearl Sugar box. The dough was dense and my waffle-maker had trouble shutting. The resulting waffles were both crunchy like a cookie and hard like stale French bread.

Next I doubled the yeast used in the Lars’ Own recipe, which resulted in a delicious waffle by American standards. Fluffy, but neither sticky nor chewy. But I knew I was on the right track. See that small, dark area on the waffle below? That amount was sticky/chewy perfection.

Then I tried this recipe, but I did a somewhat hasty preparation. “Softened butter,” my mom explained, “is used instead of melted butter for a reason.” The final of the three waffles was the closest I’ve gotten.

The lesson, for anyone else attempting to bring the flavors of Belgium into their kitchen, is to add patience to the ingredient list. Given the amount of time needed, one must either (a) sacrifice the self-righteous idea that waffles are exclusively a breakfast commodity or (b) wake up super-early and accept stabbing hunger for several hours. I’ve made my decision and now the test kitchen is operating into the night hours.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 2: Belgian pearl sugar

When I wasn’t drooling in chocolate shop windows or nose-deep in a waffle, I was trying to learn government secrets, specifically what makes Belgian waffles superior. I learned that their distinct flavor and texture come from using a special type of sugar, Belgian pearl sugar, notable for how it caramelizes into what is being made. I planned to spread this information like a WikiLeak when I returned stateside, but first I had some exporting to do. I was crestfallen when the sugar wasn’t available at any of the shops in the Brussels airport, including the airport grocery store. (I drowned my sorrows in a quart of blood orange juice, which I downed before I went through security. Lesson: never shotgun blood orange juice for the pain of it going down the wrong way is unmatched.)

When I returned home, my Google searches told me that Belgian pearl sugar is not easily found in America (Uff da!), but was often sold at IKEA (Var sa god!). But how would I get out to the suburbs? I began scrolling through my mental list of friends with cars who could be easily bribed with waffles that required no syrup. But then it came to me: IKEA is Swedish and I live in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood of Chicago. Perhaps there would be a less-than-obvious trend of Scandinavians stocking their stores with Belgian products. So I summoned Viking-like courage and barreled into the bleak Chicago winter toward Erikson’s Delicatessen

The plump, blond proprietress of the family-owned business—open since 1925; my Swedish uncle recalls going there as a boy—eagerly waddled out from behind the counter. “We had some [Var sa god!], but it looks like we’re out. [Uff da!]” I inquired about the Swedish pearl sugar on their shelves, but she let me know that substitutions would not work, especially when making authentic Belgian waffles. It seems that despite possessing nearly identical names, Belgian pearl sugar—notable for how it caramelizes—is diametrically opposed to Swedish pearl sugar—notable for how it does not cook into what is being made. You’ve probably seen Swedish pearl sugar before; it is used for the large ornamental crystals found on Swedish cookies. (I wondered: Did the first translator to use the phrase “pearl sugar” feel ripped off when another translator chose the same phrasing? Was the second translator using the phrase despite crucial differences during chemical reactions more foolish or less foolish than Columbus when he declared America to be India?) The plump, blond proprietress told me she would get a shipment of Belgian pearl sugar later that week.

When I returned I was hungry and desperate. I had called ahead to make sure they were stocked and an impatient, bossy man answered the phone. When I asked if the shipment of Belgian pearl sugar had come in yet, he checked and let me know that they did have some pearl sugar. But he had not specified its country of origin. Didn’t he know the difference between the two pearl sugars stocked at his family’s store? He was not nearly as knowledgeable as the Swedish woman from last time. Uncertain of my waffle-y fate, I once again put on my horned hat to go pillaging in the cold.

Erikson’s was packed but thankfully they were stocked with the sugar I sought as well as its inferior cousin. Both were made by Lars' Own and to make matters more confusing the two products had nearly identical packaging. While mothers with antsy children decided on how many pounds of potato sausage, the man from the phone rang me up on the 1920s cash register. When I pulled out my plastic, the man pulled out his impatient, bossy demeanor that he had acquainted me with earlier on the phone. He successfully added “annoyed” to his list of defining adjectives. He let me know it was "cash only" in a manner that suggested the workday was his puppy and I had just kicked it.

Meek and cashless, I left to find an ATM. This short errand turned into an odyssey as every ATM I found had extortionate fees that one-by-one I rejected. Eventually, I had walked far enough north on Clark St. to reach the Jewel/Osco, where I used my debit card to get some cash. Back at Erikson’s, still sadly devoid of the plump, blond, accommodating proprietress, I held my fresh $20 in clear sight as I returned my Belgian pearl sugar to the purchase counter. Showing no appreciation for the effort I made to return with hard money, the bossy, impatient, annoyed man asked me, with disgust, if I had the cash. I looked at the $20 that I was already holding in plain view and said yes. He sure hated me for buying things from his family’s business. By the time I left, he had added a noun to go with the adjectives in his defining features: jerk.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Belgium Month: Spéculoos Spread

George Washington Carver was a bit of a one trick pony. He was a genius, but imagine if his innovations had explored markets other than peanuts. Imagine if, after he invented peanut butter, he looked at other food items and reasoned that they too could be grinded into a paste and eaten on bread. Now imagine he did this with cookies.

Fortunately, George Washington Carver’s one shortcoming has been redeemed by Els Scheppers of Belgium. She concocted a recipe for a smooth spread made from spéculoos cookies (also known as biscoff), entered her recipe on a Belgian reality television show (“De Bedenkers,” or “The Inventors”) and won. Lotus, the major mass distributor of spéculoos, took notice and went into business with Scheppers. As elaborated upon in the New York Times article I used as reference, the paste has been quite successful, resulting in multiple, equally successful imitators.

Americans may be familiar with spéculoos/biscoff cookies as the cookies they sometimes get on airplanes. The flat, cinnamon cookies with crystallized sugar also have their diluted dollar store variety, Dutch windmills. To give full disclosure, I do not find the cookies themselves to be very special; I will continue to eat them when served by flight attendants, but it is highly unlikely I will purchase them for consumption while anchored to earth by gravity. What’s amazing is that the spread, which has a consistency not unlike Nutella and peanut butter, transcends its cookie counterpart. I actually find it difficult to stop eating the spread once I start, a problem I honestly don’t have with most other foods, including desserts. Pictured are two “dead soldiers” that fell victim to my obsessive compulsive spéculoos eating disorder (OCSED).

And, St. Nicholas be praised, the spread is available stateside! The American variety has a slightly less crystally and slightly oilier texture than what I purchased in the Belgium airport. (Actually, I purchased it twice. First at the airport grocery store, but security confiscated my solid food item for being a liquid. Second at the duty free shop, which I visited immediately after having the first jar taken away.) The European variety had a more robust flavor, which I would identify as being somewhere between molasses and that “baked cookie” taste. Both were good enough for me skip the gluten middle man and eat directly from the jar.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 1: Brussels' Best Deal

Tourist guides for Brussels seem to agree on a few things:
(a) The correct way to eat a Belgian waffle is au naturel—the waffle, not the consumer. Only scoff-worthy tourists top it with chocolate, fruit and whipped cream.
(b) Proper Belgian waffles all taste more or less the same. Just make sure you avoid the rectangular ones.
(c) When it comes to waffle dealers, they are all equal.

Having tasted many waffles during my stay, I agree:
(a) While the toppings were delicious, they completely overpowered the flavor of the waffle. If you want to taste strawberries, go buy strawberries.
(b) They are indeed visually and orally identical, except the rectangular Americanized waffles, which are fluffy instead of chewy.

But I must disagree on the final point. There is a specific waffle dealer tourists should seek out: Waffle Planet by the Manneken Pis, the famous Brussels statue of a small boy urinating. Being that the statue is life-size (Read: small) it is not much to see, but it is worth lingering for the waffles. The waffles are only €1; half the price means you can double your waffle intake.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Belgium Month: Chocolate and Frittes

When I went to Brussels, I had a short checklist: Eat.

Belgium is famous for many delicious treats. I spent my days imbibing in chocolates, frittes and, my favorite, waffles. In between, I marveled at art nouveau and explored museums dedicated to Magritte, contemporary art and musical instruments. And then I went back to eating.

On the streets surrounding La Grand Place, there were literally chocolate shops next door to chocolate shops across the street from chocolate shops. Most of them shoved free samples in my eager face. Nearby was the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat, which principally consisted of signs telling the history of chocolate from South America to Europe and information I already knew. (See Becoming a Chocolate Connoisseur, Steps 1 , 2 and 3 .) The new information I gathered from my visit consisted of the history of Belgium’s most famous chocolatiers: Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Callebaut and Leonidas. It was Neuhaus Chocolates that premiered the first ever bite-sized chocolates in 1912, “pralines.”

While this particular international trip isn’t one I feel everyone must take, here are my recommendations for chocoholics bound and determined to hit Brussels. It is important to distinguish the legit chocolate from the tourist junk. For starters, the stuff in boxes may be perfectly okay by American standards, but it’s not the good stuff. To taste what Belgium is famous for, cough up the good money for the fresh treats behind the glass. But, even with those items, it is important to recognize the difference between chocolate makers (roasters who affect how the chocolate will taste) and chocolatiers (those who outsource ready-made chocolate for the use in their own concoctions or simply molding the chocolate into shapes). As you walk from shop to shop, you’ll notice some identical products that were clearly outsourced and whose cocoa butter may be cut with vegetable oil. Thank them for their friendly samplings and do the truffle shuffle to the next place.

The frittes, while not dessert items, deserve at least a short paragraph. I learned frittes are called French fries because (1) the person who named them this consumed frittes in Belgium and (2) one of the major languages in Belgium is French. Thus, (3) the conclusion was made that frittes were a French invention. (Makes sense. I first ate gelato in Charleston, SC; I guess the Italians stole the idea.) What gives Belgian frittes their signature texture is that they are twice fried, which also happens to be the best way to cook plantains. After this, the frittes are topped with your choice of sauces with untranslated names.

As for the waffles—THE WAFFLES!—I will need several blog posts to fully record this religious experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I have fond memories of standing in the falling snow outside of Big Dipper’s in Missoula, MT. While my dad and I took our time determining which flavors we wanted to try, he asked what cardamom ice cream was.

Cardamom is the dominant spice that makes the smell of chai tea so incredible. (There is no single recipe for chai, so the spices vary. Commonly used are the equally aromatic anise, cinnamon, clove and ginger.) But all tea, including chai, just tastes like hot water to me. I realize this puts me in the minority. Happily, chai has been embraced as a flavor worth exploring in other mediums. I present to you, the best of chai:

1.) Located on Portage Bay between Lake Union and Lake Washington, Seattle’s Agua Verde rents kayaks in addition to serving Baja-style Mexican food. Some of my favorites are their mango quesadilla, veggie burrito (with sautéed yams!) and their Mexican Chai. This warm beverage is like traditional chai tea, except they use horchata instead of hot water. This is a great way to warm up after paddling around in the Northwest.

2.) In Chicago, brunch doesn’t mean having something light to tide you over; it means shoving as much food in your face as possible since you’re skipping a meal. And with M. Henry, Ann Sather’s and Orange, Chicago has no shortage of tasty brunch spots. Orange’s menu runs the gamut from cute (their appetizer fruishi, fruit presented to look like sushi) to bizarre (complimentary water flavored with cucumber might be good with a salad, but not with breakfast) to delicious (everything else, it seems). Their award-winning dish is their Chai Tea French Toast, served in a chai tea latte reduction and topped with caramel apples and honey. This rich and filling brunch is not for sissies.

3.) Being that I am neither a coffee drinker nor a screenplay writer, I am not a man who hangs out in coffee shops. (Were it not for my love of hot chocolate and apple cider, one might think me a hater of warm beverages.) But if more coffee shops were like Kopi in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, I might have a change of heart. Their atmosphere is colorful, worldly and comfy—I’m told this is the Californian approach to coffee shops—as opposed to chic and lodge-esque—which, no thanks to Seattle, is what coffee shops are like everywhere else. The dessert menu at Kopi includes two favorites: frutti di bosco, a short Italian cake with ricotta whipped cream (think cannoli) and topped with berries, and their Chai Milkshake. As I mentioned in my review of Haagen-Dazs’ Sweet Chai Latte ice cream, chai lends itself better to being a milkshake than hard ice cream because the smoother texture better reflect the essence of chai. At Kopi, you can taste the proof.