Monday, July 16, 2012

Ep.6: The Vosges Knosges

After I dropped Boren off for his flight back, I had a feeling not unlike homesickness. What’s it called? Oh, yeah. Hunger. Luckily I had anticipated this feeling, knowing I would want a taste of Chicago once I arrived in Boston for this extended stay. Though packing a scoop of Black Dog Gelato was not possible, transporting a selection of Vosges Chocolate was.

A taste of home.
While made in Chicago, Vosges is an international presence. In my travels, they are often the American representative at fine chocolate shops. It is a fitting label; the packaging states that the company was founded on the concept, “Travel the world through chocolate.” (It can also be found at Whole Foods stores.) Truly Vosges absorbs the flavors of different cultures, both domestically and abroad, turning the melting pot concept from the figurative into something literal. Which prompts the question: who gets to lick the spoon?

I purchased one of the Vosges Chocolate Libraries, a selection of nine different .5 oz bars, along with a five bars not offered in the sampler. For those unfamiliar with Vosges, they like to mix their rich chocolate with savory ingredients like ancho chiles, wasabi and pink peppercorns. Salty flavors are commonplace, whether bacon, plantains or pink Himalayan salt. This may sound intimidating to some, but in all of these bold decisions Vosges suggests flavors without dominating the simple experience of indulging in fine chocolate. The textures created by the exotic ingredients are just like more run-of-the-mill ingredients in chocolate. Other times, the texture isn’t affected at all, which is jarring when there are nuts in the bar but you cannot feel their crunch or there are goji berries with very little chew. Perhaps I should explain.

Of those I tried, my favorites were the Gingerbread Toffee Bar (65% dark chocolate, seasonal flavor) and Mo’s Dark Chocolate Bacon Bar (62% dark chocolate). The two runners-up were the Woolloomooloo Bar (45% milk chocolate, macadamia, coconut, hempseeds) and the Black Pearl Bar (55% dark chocolate, ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds). In the latter two, the combination of flavors results in an aromatic difference in the overall chocolate, not a sledgehammer of spicy wasabi and ginger, nor a crunch of macadamia or hemp seed. In the Bacon Bar, the bacon adds a crispness similar to what one might find with the chocolate bar with crisped rice puffs or pretzel crumbs, but the flavor is smoky and sweet. And as for the Gingerbread Toffee Bar, the flakes of toffee in the chocolate have a robust sweetness—think molasses—that overpowers the salty undertones, a far more nuanced flavor than the chocolate covered slabs of toffee available at the grocery store. (If Gingerbread Toffee is out of season, Vosges has another bar, Bapchi’s Caramel Toffee, which is a suitable milk chocolate replacement.)

Savoring these chocolate bars over the next weeks made me feel connected with Chicago, even though it was now over a thousand miles away. Though the date of my return to Chicago was uncertain—what ended up being almost a year later—I could only look ahead at all of the trips to Toscanini’s that lay ahead of me in Boston. And they were many.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ep5: Boston Cannoli Rivalry

In Boston's North End, there are two rival cannoli places, Mike's Pastry (the famous one) and Modern Pastry (the other one). While this rivalry is not on the level of, say, the Red Sox/Yankees (or even the Eder’s/Sunset level) it is still notable. It is interesting how alike the two establishments are. In addition to the similarities in their names, take-out boxing techniques and long lines, they both are on Hanover Street, the major strip of Little Italy. But, suffice to say, my taste buds are both feline in nature and among the dearly departed.

Modern Pastry is small, crowded and colorful boutique with an enormous tourist-friendly sign. One or two people work the counter as customers order based on the look of the unlabeled items displayed behind the glass. The big seller is cannoli, which can be ordered with a choice of three fillings (ricotta), three shells (plain, chocolate-dipped and chocolate-covered) and two toppings (chocolate chips of almonds). When you order they select the shell you ordered from the case and take it in the back to fill it, preserving the shell's freshness for longer than if it were prefilled. The ricotta inside my single serving cannolo was subtly sweet, just like most authentic Italian pastry.

Further down the street is the enormous, double-wide, fluorescent-lit storefront of Mike's Pastry. Their wide counters often have four lines at a time, displaying overhead on oversized, laminated images the different varieties of cannoli that are on display for order. The pre-filled shells at Mike’s may be bigger than those at Modern, and they offer a wider variety of options, but the flavor is certainly not an improvement over that of Modern. Like its fast-paced "whaddaya want" service, there is nothing subtle about the cannoli at Mike's Pastry. Their ricotta filling had a sweet creaminess to it which was admittedly tasty, but that’s not the experience I'm seeking when eating cannoli. Their love of and reliance on confectionary sugar is obvious. Still the variety of fillings (amaretto, strawberry, chocolate mousse) do make a customer want to order a bunch to "share" and try them all.

Mike's and Modern are not the only pasticcerias in the North End. Also notable is Bova's, a 24-hour corner bakery that offers a wider selection of items than the other two (including pizza and breads). I received insider information that Bova's was the spot the locals went for shorter lines and superior pastry. I cannot speak for all of the items offered at Bova's, but the sfogliatelle was light years better than those offered at Mike's and Modern, which were both so crunchy I couldn't bring myself to finish them. Bova's was chewy with a doughy middle and crispy edges. Yum yum.

Verdict: If Clemenza tells you to leave the gun, but take the cannoli, grab the box that says Modern.