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.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Flavors: Häagen-Dazs Class of 2011

Häagen-Dazs makes a product regarded for its elegance and simplicity. Conversely, their major nationwide competitor, Ben & Jerry’s, is known for ice cream innovations that are both fun and loaded with mix-ins. For the most part, each company’s new products conform to these signature brand traits, just as Häagen-Dazs has with one of their new flavors, Sweet Chai Latte. Over the past 10 years in America, chai has progressed from being exotic and obscure to being a recognizable part of the warm beverage lexicon. Less common than coffee or espresso, but more common than say, I dunno, absinthe, chai is a perfect flavor for Häagen-Dazs to add to its palatable palette of flavors.

The second most notable feature of Häagen-Dazs is their “all natural” approach to ice cream. (For those keeping score, for Ben & Jerry’s it’s their values-driven business model.) While the best example of this is their Five series, most of their products have a minimalist approach to ingredients and avoid artificial flavors. The major exception is their mix-ins; while used sparingly, mix-in ingredients aren’t exactly straight from mom’s kitchen. Two of the other new flavors exemplify this by choosing recognizable (but less common) flavors and taking the “all natural” approach: Blueberry Crumble and Caramel Apple Pie. Both ice creams have bases that use actual fruit and include mix-ins of fruit and pastry crust. These flavors make sense with the Häagen-Dazs brand: Caramel Apple Pie for its classic appeal and Blueberry Cobbler for their elegant treatment of an underutilized ice cream flavor. All of this realized, I will explain why each of these flavors, whole tasty, were not fulfilling in the way that I hoped.

Certain flavors are more about the experience and are better served out of the pint. When I pay superpremium ice cream prices (which I’m grateful to do) I want the complete package, not a dessert condiment. Blueberry Crumble would be better next to a cobbler, either that or served closer to its melting point (or even slightly melty) on cake cone. And though blueberry is delicious year round, it is best in the summertime. The other major strike against blueberry ice cream is how the intensity of fruits fade with increased freezer time and mass production. (No manufactured blueberry ice cream will compare with the batch I made this past summer using blueberries that were picked the previous week.) Sweet Chai Latte would be better as a milkshake because a smoother texture would better reflect the essence of its namesake; it certainly would be preferable to impatiently fighting the hard pint of uninterrupted ice cream with spoon.

As for Caramel Apple Pie, I’ll cut to the quick: I have never had an apple ice cream I liked because they always have an artificial apple flavor, even Häagen-Dazs’ all natural apple ice cream. The trick is using apples as a mix-in—Well-done Häagen-Dazs!—but having them in a brown sugar or light (light!) caramel ice cream. F
or those willing to hunt it down, an even better alternative is apple cider sorbet.

While my first taste of each of these flavors was less than memorable, I will admit my opinions change. (Last year I named Boston Cream Pie my favorite of Ben & Jerry’s new flavors, but it has since been overtaken by Milk & Cookies.) It is conceivable that I will return to Blueberry Crumble and not just because I am so rarely in possession of fresh blueberries. The crunchy/crumbly mix-ins in both this flavor and Caramel Apple Pie, while a step away from Häagen-Dazs simplicity, adds the much needed textural diversity these flavors need.

Your best bet: Try them for yourselves!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2nd Annual Pi(e) Day Pot Luck & House Concert

My mom and I share a love of Clint Eastwood-directed films, singing and comfort food. So after I threw my first Pi(e) Day party last year, she decided to throw her own this year: chicken pot pie, mini-quiches, apple-berry pie, key lime pie and chocolate Andes mint freezer pie were on the menu. She also fully embraced the science of the holiday, printing out many (many) songs about pi. My favorite was “O Number Pi,” which was “O Christmas Tree” with different lyrics.

Over in Central Time, my 2nd Annual Pi(e) Day Pot Luck & House Concert noted the holiday’s scientific origins only in so far as we consumed round foods. Delightfully, I continue to make new friends who are bon chefs. After last year’s only-one-savory-pie-for-the-first-90-minutes fiasco, we started with shepherd’s pie, Spanish pie (frittata), chicken pot pie and, later on, mini quiches. And then the desserts came rolling in: blueberry pie, cherry pie, peach pie, spring-form pan cheese pie (cheesecake), four (Count ‘em: 4!) budget fruit pies in a bag, whoopee pies, fudge pecan pie and, my personal favorite of the evening, strawberry kiwi pie. In non-pie foods, there were chocolates and a cobbler that made an excellent breakfast this morning. Attended by over 30 people throughout the evening, everyone ate to their heart’s content while enjoying the music of Brad Brubaker & The Crowd Goes Wild and Dawn Xiana Moon .

This year no pictures were taken because my stomach and I had other pie-orities.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Not just a Sufjan Stevens song.

I was almost too ravenously excited to document photographic evidence.
Last night, I made the trek to the library only to find the lights off and the doors locked. The sign said the library was closed in observance of Casimir Pulaski Day. Without missing a beat I boarded a bus and went to the grocery store. Hmm...That might not seem like a logical progression of events. Let me start over.

In Illinois, the first Monday of March is when we all pause and reflect on the contributions and sacrifice of Casimir Pulaski, who…excuse me while I look this up on Wikipedia...“is known for his contributions to the U.S. military in the American Revolution by training its soldiers and cavalry.” And for doughnuts. His contributions to Polish doughnuts, or paczki are unmatched. Let me start over.

In Illinois, the first Monday of March is when we all celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day by eating Polish doughnuts. Paczki are similar to other bismarcks (round doughnuts with filling). Traditional fillings are "Powidła (stewed plum jam) and wild rose hip jam" but Jewel/Osco only had strawberry, Bavarian cream and raspberry.

Time to get learned: “In Poland, pączki are eaten especially on Fat Thursday (the last Thursday before Lent). Many Polish Americans celebrate Pączki Day on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, the reason for making pączki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, because they were forbidden to be consumed due to Catholic fasting practices during Lent.” Thanks Wikipedia. You’re welcome, Brad.

“But Brad! Doesn’t Chicago have the highest concentration of Polish people other than that found in Poland? What if I don’t live in a geographical locale with a sizable Polish and/or Polish-American population?” While I doubt you’ll be able to eat paczki, I will invite to indulge your aural senses. Come on and feel the Illinoize!