Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bobtail Year: Wrecking Ball

No comment.
October is month five of my Bobtail Year, two pints of Bobtail Homemade Ice Cream a month for donating to Oracle Theatre.

Let's pretend there is no Miley Cyrus and a wrecking ball isn't a method of transport for naked, hypersexualized 20s-somethings with androgynous hairstyles--this is already my best post ever--but that it is nothing more than a steel sphere used to level buildings. Through this lens we will analyze Bobtail's latest flavor.

HISTORY - PATH OF DESTRUCTION. Though Bobtail was likely the first to create a Wrecking Ball ice cream, numerous companies claim to be the inventors of the wrecking ball. The most well publicized claim of ownership is Henry Bath & Co. who possess documentation claiming use of such a device to break up an iron ship in the late 1800s. (Steel beats Iron, Iron beats Aluminum and Aluminum beats Steel by covering it and turning it into a disco ball.) But it is hard to imagine civilization without big, heavy things being used to smash its inferiors to bits. The concept is so basic that it is a wonder anyone can claim to have been the first. Similarly, can anyone really claim to have "invented" white chocolate? It is made by extracting cocoa butter from cacao. A person can no more invent cocoa butter than they can invent oxygen and hydrogen by boiling water. All anyone can do is make sweet use of white chocolate, something Bobtail has ably done.

Keep that tongue in your mouth.
FUNCTION - INSTRUMENT OF DESTRUCTION. Unlike other cranes, which are used to create, wrecking balls are used to destroy. The mighty weight is controlled by a motorized moveable pulley system, the same we see used by cranes. They are sleek, but theirs is a violent function. Kinetic energy gives the smooth, round form hanging from a chain its wild streak of red, like the raspberry swirl in this white chocolate ice cream. The swirl creates a tang amongst the sweet, creating a flavor best described as "pink." Bobtail's flavor also features hunks of raspberry, which were unadvertised but quite welcome.

RESULTS - IN THE WAKE OF DESTRUCTION. Gracefully cutting through the sky, wrecking balls mustn't be wielded with wild abandon. Like a boomerang, this beautiful behemoth of steel returns to its source--push it away and it will come back--but unlike a boomerang, a wrecking ball leaves wreckage in its path wherever it goes. The shards left behind may resemble the toffee or chocolate covered peanuts that remain when the ice cream melts away. And Wrecking Ball has more delicious chunks than any Bobtail flavor I've ever eaten. Grab a spoon and shovel it in your mouth like a bulldozer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flavor Battle: Chicago's Autumnal Doughnuts

The season's best:
Do-Rite's Pumpkin and Apple Caramel from Glazed & Infused
A few years ago, I did a survey of the pumpkin ice cream/gelato/frozen custard around Chicago. Now I have done the same with the pumpkin doughnuts in the Windy City. (If you need to brush up, you can also read a complete review of Chicago doughnuts and brief history.) For gluttony's sake good measure, I also tried other autumnal doughnuts that are available. Here they are, in order of favorite pumpkin doughnut to least favorite:

Do-Rite Donuts - Pumpkin cake doughnut with cream cheese dollop and pumpkin seeds
The cream cheese dominates each bite it is in, but Do-Rite uses it sparingly, unlike its competitors. This is a wise decision since there are so many other noteworthy features to this doughnut. The pumpkin seeds add a fabulous textural element. The doughnut itself is springy like a cider doughnut. The pumpkin is a constant, subtle presence carrying throughout under the glaze, but it isn't overtaken by typical spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. All of these factors make it easy to say that Do-Rite's pumpkin doughnut is the best. They're also offering Carrot Cake doughnuts with a cream cheese dollop in the middle. They are tasty, but completely overshadowed by the Pumpkin doughnut.

Firecakes - Pumpkin cake doughnut with pumpkin mousse and caramelized pecans
This doughnut most resembles the pumpkin doughnut holes my mom would fry up on fall mornings. A simple pumpkin flavor with a soft exterior, rolled in cinnamon-sugar. The pecans are the perfect autumnal topper for the chilling air. Add their texture to the granulated sugar and the smooth, soft mousse and you've got decadent attention to detail. Everything is good about this doughnut, but the pumpkin flavor isn't popping out as much as I'd like, which is surprising. The mousse in my doughnut, which should serve that function, instead had a coffee aftertaste. Firecakes is also offering Banana Goat Cheese Walnut, whose existence I've ignored due to the presence of the enemy fruit.

Endgrain - Pumpkin cake doughnut
Buried underneath that thick layer of glaze might be a superior doughnut, but I would never know. The texture is superior: dense without being heavy, airy without a touch of staleness. Also available is Salted Caramel, which has all the tasty stickiness it implies. These guys know butterscotch and caramel and apply it generously.

Glazed & Infused - Pumpkin chocolate chip cake doughnut with cream cheese frosting and vanilla glaze
As a whole, the treat is good, but is it pumpkin? The pumpkin flavor is not strong enough to be noticeable under the cream cheese and glaze. The chocolate is a nice touch but it would have been a nicer touch if it were in tandem with a strong pumpkin flavor. As for the rest of the menu, Glazed & Infused changes its menu each season and among the new doughnuts, none is as good as the Apple Caramel cake doughnut. With bits of apple in the dough, a gooey dark caramel, a cinnamon glaze and peanuts, Glazed & Infused's Apple Caramel is the best seasonal doughnut of all, beating out all of the pumpkin doughnuts.

Dunkin' Donuts - Pumpkin cake doughnut
A very bright, artificial orange. I taste the spice, but not the pumpkin. A light glaze to sweeten the deal. A solid reminder to go local.

West Town BakeryPumpkin Cream Cheese Doissant
The flavor is good: lots of cinnamon sugar, a few pumpkin seeds sprinkled on top, flaky dough and cream cheese. There are downsides, too: the pumpkin taste isn't much of a presence and the drizzle of white (frosting?) clashes with all the other flavors. But the main issue is I felt I had consumed my weight in grease, something I've felt about all of West Town Bakery's doissants. Also offering an apple butter doissant, which I will not be trying. I'm not sure I'd survive another drowning by grease torpedo.

Krispy Kreme - Pumpkin doughnut & Pumpkin Cheesecake doughnut
Each year I tell myself to ignore Krispy Kreme's pumpkin doughnut. There is a significant amount of spice in the doughnut--more than most "pumpkin spice" concoctions one finds this time of year--but the glaze is so thick it leaves me grabbing for a beverage to kill the sugar burn in my mouth. This year they also featured Pumpkin Cheesecake, a filled doughnut with white frosting and gingersnap cookie crumble. Not terrible, but the filling had two distinct moments that didn't overlap: the sour cream cheese beginning and the pumpkin spice ending. Verdict: the only item worthy of getting at Krispy Kreme is the original glazed...which is still plenty reason to go.

Dunkin' Donuts - Pumpkin Pie doughnut
A mere two bites contained any filling, which was pumpkin pie colored, textured like marshmallow fluff and tasted like room temperature plastic. Like many Dunkin' Donuts, it had far too much cloying frosting, but at least it got the horrible taste of the filling out of my mouth. This was by far the worst doughnut I ate and is among the worst doughnuts I have ever consumed.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Origin of the Squashasaurus Rex

Halloween haunts may be chilling the autumn air, but there wasn't any booing heard during the Eighth Annual Pumpkin Challenge, my month-and-a-half mission to consume as many varieties of pumpkin edibles as possible. This year a new schedule was enacted, which bumped the Challenge earlier than previous years and unwittingly shortened it from 47 days to 45.* Even then, the delicious plague of pumpkin fever has spread so much since I began the Pumpkin Challenge that I was still able to excel at discovering the blessed food on many a romp, scoring my second highest tally ever: 46.

But things weren't always this easy. Imagine yourself in a less prosperous pumpkin time, an age before we were all the ravenous Squashasaurus Rexes we are today, devouring anything that so much as casts an orange shadow. So close your eyes, little one, and be transported to the haunting past of less than a decade ago...

Okay, my bad. It's a blog--you read with your eyes, I said to close them, blah blah blah--so please lift your eyelids once more and read the next paragraph:

Eight years ago, the absolute earliest a person could find pumpkin products was October 1. Any pumpkin inquiries made before then were met with repulsed, are-you-stupid eyes from every college student in an apron. "Of course not. It isn't October yet." But even when October came, it wasn't easy. Anything more extreme than pumpkin muffins or doughnuts were viewed as frivolity, not respectable gastronomic pursuit. The unenlightened powers-that-be (and their condescending aproned lackeys) believed pumpkin to be a novelty item meant only for carving at Halloween and eating as pie in November. But the light of change was shining through the eye holes of jack-o'-lanterns in homes across the nation: the people wanted more. An epicurean revolution was taking place in countless kitchens, internet recipes acting as leaflets of protest, spreading the cause as far as the green vines of internet freedom could stretch. And the people's voice did not die down, affecting social change and stirring pumpkin mania to the obsessive level we enjoy today.

Here's how I celebrated another year of pumpkin prosperity:

pumpkin walnut crunch bagel; pumpkin schmear (cream cheese spread); pumpkin butterscotch white chocolate walnut cookies; pumpkin doughnut; pumpkin pasta with spinach, mushrooms, hazelnuts and Parmesan; pumpkin churros; pumpkin fudge; pumpkin-apple mash; pumpkin muffin; harvest cookie with pumpkin seeds; pumpkin coffee cake; pumpkin chili; pumpkin-chocolate hot fudge; pumpkin baked French toast; pumpkin whiskey butterscotch cream puff; pumpkin-n-spice flax granola bar; vegan pumpkin chocolate chip cookie pie; pumpkin ice cream; pumpkin spice M&M's; salad with pepitas; baked pumpkin stuffed with gruyere, creme fraische, bread with lamb chorizo; pumpkin cream cheese loaf cake; curried pumpkin pizza with feta and kale; pumpkin cheesecake swirl brownies; snap-o-lantern ice cream (pumpkin with gingerbread cookie dough); pumpkin dinner rolls; lentil pumpkin salad with arugula and feta; sage and balsamic pork chops with creamy pumpkin polenta; pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed goat's milk and balsamic; pumpkin and kale risotto with pine nuts; pumpkin spice granola with pumpkin seeds; pumpkin cream cheese doissant (doughnut/croissant hybrid); pumpkin chipotle salsa; pumpkin sugar cookies with maple glaze; oatmeal pumpkin cookies with maple glaze; pumpkin cupcakes; pumpkin cheesecake croissant; chocolate chip pumpkin bread; spooky swirl frozen yogurt (Pumpkin Pie and Marshmallow twist); burger topped with fried pumpkin caramelized apple and Swiss cheese; pumpkin cheesecake with cinnamon whipped cream; pumpkin spice Raincoast Crisp; pumpkin pie bark; pumpkin pie Blizzard; pumpkin cream cheese muffin; pumpkin spice cake

Italics indicate it was homemade by me

It was a great Pumpkin Challenge this year. I feel great. Almost as great as this red panda playing with a pumpkin.

* While this year's Challenge ran from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, previous years ran from Sept. 15 to Oct. 31. The loss of two days occurs because (1) there is no September 31 and (2) the true second-half of September is the 16th, not the nice round number I elected to start on, the 15th. That being said, having the challenge run 45 days is its own nice round number.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hunting the Wild Ophelia

Currently grazing in 48 states. (Sorry, Dakotas!)
Katrina Markoff's Vosges has a new little sister by the name of Wild Ophelia and, as with any family, sibling comparison is inevitable. In both brands, chocolate is the star with each bar's namesake ingredient merely providing an atmosphere to the chocolate's overall flavor, never stealing the spotlight. Where Wild Ophelia most distinguishes herself is this: while Vosges invites taste buds to "travel the world through chocolate," Wild Ophelia leads palates in domestic travel through its use of distinctly American flavors. Here's a bar-by-bar review of the Wild Ophelia product line, in order of my favorite to least favorite:

Sweet Cherry Pecan (41% cacao)
This soft milk chocolate melts quick and easy on the tongue, reminding me of European milk chocolate. What it leaves behind--a chewy fruit and a hint of salt and nut--are a fine reward to an already satisfying bar.

Southern Hibiscus Peach (41% cacao)
The best part of eating this bar is when the hibiscus kicks after the chocolate has melted away, creating sparkly crackles of tartness to round off each bite. If this bar lived up to its packaging's bold claim that "each bite is purely peach," it would be a chunky success surpassing many chocolate bars, but chunky chocolate bars are not Katrina Markoff's style. As is, it still a unique delight.

Salted Chowchilla Almond (41% Cacao)
The salt is no subtle presence, but it successfully cuts the sweetness of the chocolate to a level where I kept craving more, bite after bite. Never the champion of salted chocolate, this bar could make a convert out of me. The bits of nut add a nice texture, similar to what one gets with brittle or Almond Roca. Though the concept may not seem fancy or overtly gourmet, this is simply a delicious chocolate bar.

Beef Jerky (44% cacao)
While beef jerky works better in milk chocolate than bacon does in Vosges' Mo's Bacon Bar (a treat best enjoyed in its dark chocolate variety), I was hoping the Wild Ophelia bar would have a smoky flavor or something else to distinguish itself from it's better-known cousin. In truth, it pretty similar except for a few chewy bites.

Get thee to a rodeo, er, nunnery!
Mount Sequoia Granola (70% cacao)
The granola featured in this bar is made by Milk & Honey, a Chicago company whose product has me loving breakfast again and swearing off cereal. Whether the almonds and dried cherries in their Original Cafe Mix, the peanuts and cacao nibs in the Rick Bayliss Mexican Mix, or the husky flavor of their Pumpkin Spice mix, their granola offers tons of flavor...which is why I was disappointed by how completely overwhelming the dark chocolate was in this bar. The granola seemed to only offer textural diversity and in no way affect the flavor.

Smokehouse BBQ Potato Chips (70% cacao)
Anyone familiar with Vosges' 70% chocolate won't find much of anything different in this bar. The dark chocolate is the only thing one tastes. The only hint of potato chip is the texture (which isn't even half as crunchy or satisfying as a chocolate covered potato chip) and the only hint of barbecue is when a bit of potato chip gets stuck in one's teeth to be found later. Coming from a Katrina Markoff, who so often uses salt in her chocolate, it is a wonder that a flavor showcasing potato chips doesn't taste the least bit salty.

New Orleans Chili (70% cacao) 
An earthy, yet sweet bar with cayenne pepper that goes straight for the back of the throat, creating instant heat. Sadly, the chili doesn't affect the flavor. I'm not sure that the bar offers anything new except for how long the after burn lingers.

Also available is Peanut Butter & Banana (41% Cacao), which due to the presence of the untouchable fruit shall remain untasted.