Saturday, December 27, 2014

Spain Exp'ained: Part 3

Not pictured: Carrot and Mandarin.
In Part 2, I discussed the history of Madrid and pastry. This time, I'll talk about the art of Madrid and gelato.

Retiro Park.
While the Museo Nacional del Prado seems to be Madrid's most famous art museum, from all I read it focused on art I don't care about: portraits of posed rich people, devotional pictures of deifically-rendered saints and biblical figures being lit by the heavens whilst suffering or being blessed. But the museum was free from 6 to 8 that particular day, just enough time for me to rush in to see the works of two artists who differed from the rest of the pack. Hieronymus Bosch did some paintings that look like what Dali would have made were he an evangelical Catholic at his peak. Surreal and whimsical, but at times a little creepy. Most notable is "The Garden of Earthly Delight," a triptych which depicts heaven, an overindulgent earth and hell, which kind of resembles Monty Python animation. Also featured there were some works by Francisco de Goya. He did some paintings of war that, rather than simply depicting spotless heroics, show the inhumane moments of battle, "El Tres de Mayo" especially. He also did the nauseating/haunting painting of "Saturn Devouring his Son" and the striking painting "The Dog."

Equipo Crónica's Espectador de
espectadores. Max Ernst's Red Birds.
Oskar Schlemmer's costumes
for Triadisches Ballett.
More my speed than the Prado was the modern art Museo Reina Sofia, which I went to a different day. This was the attraction that most excited me about Madrid and it certainly held up. It featured some classics (most notably Picasso's "Guernica," along with a lot of Dali and Miro), some lesser-knowns and some up-and-comers. I was excited that they also had some of the dance costumes Oskar Schlemmer designed during the Bauhaus movement, something I'd seen video of in theatre history class. A nice mix of mediums, complete with intriguing head scratchers and obvious masterpieces. Plenty of forgettable things and pretentious b.s. too, just to keep them honest. With four floors in three connected buildings, I was arted out when I left at 7:30. Adjacent to the museum is Retiro Park, whose gorgeous grounds deserved more time for exploration than I left in my day.

Museums are great and all, but the finest work of art I experienced in Madrid was the extraordinary gelato at Giangrossi. I was bummed they didn't have the 40 flavors I'd heard they had, but with 15 or so to choose from I still had trouble deciding. The best two flavors I had were Zanahoria y Mandarina (carrot and mandarin; a citrus blast with a clean aftertaste) and Mascarpone de Frutos Rojos (mascarpone with berries; a subtle base with a tart punch of berries swirled in). The other two flavors were Dulce de Leche (which was sweet sweet sweet and carmelly) and Chocolate con/with Cookies (deep dark chocolate). 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Spain Exp'ained: Part 2

Long lines and a fancy pink sign.
Sculpture in Puerta del Sol.
I began my first morning in Madrid by heading to Puerta del Sol on the Metro. I was running late for my walking tour, so I didn't check out the square. Instead, I was rushed to Chocolateria San Gines for their famed churros con chocolate, which they've served since 1894. I thought they were just okay, but that's probably the chocolate snob in me and the budding doughnut aficionado--churros of course being another culture's interpretation of fried dough. For a better chocolate experience, I'd recommend nearby Valor, where I had an exquisite, thick-as-fondue chocolate-orange drink. (Based on appearance, the churros seem about the same as Chocolateria San Gines.)

Plaza Mayor.
My free three-hour tour, given by SANDEMANs New Europe, began at Plaza Mayor which was in the process of becoming a Christmas market. (Throughout my November trip, this was a theme: Decorated areas that might look spectacular lit up, look a bit anachronistic with the unlit, skeletal beginnings of Christmas decorations exposed by daylight.) We learned that the square once carried out some brutal torture techniques below street level, using a wheel to tighten a rope around a victim's neck and drive a screw into the back of their neck. Other highlights from the tour:
  • We reviewed eight monarchs worth of history from Felipe I to Carlos II. There was a lot of inbreeding from marrying their cousins, resulting in an impotent, deformed and mentally disabled Carlos II.
  • The Spanish Inquisition (which went on for 300 years or so, amounting in the deaths of around 3,000 people and the persecution of countless others) is a primary reason ham and pork are such a point of pride in Spanish culture. When the non-pork-eating Jews and Muslims all converted (or "converted") to avoid persecution under the Inquisition, they decided the best way to prove they were true Catholics was to hang a pig leg in the window. These legs are ubiquitous in modern-day Madrid.
The Royal Palace.
  • Many streets in Madrid feature descriptive pictures of the street names accompanying the street sign to aid the illiterate populace from an earlier time.
  • Though the size of the grounds do not compare to Versailles, the palace itself is the largest in western Europe. The Royal Palace tour, which I did later, was a somewhat quick experience for the cost, but the there was still plenty of awe at the decadent rooms within. Nice views in the courtyard too.
  • We learned about Spain's recent history under Juan Carlos, who in the 1970s used his royal power to turn Spain into a democracy! There was a military coupe a couple years or so later, but it failed, bringing even more public adoration to Juan Carlos. In recent years, however, he has been criticized for his spending during rough economic times.
Napolitana de crema.
After all that walking and book larnin', I had earned a tasty treat. And the place to do that was right back where I started: Plaza del Sol. After a dinner of pinchos (little appetizers served on a slice of toasted French bread), I grabbed pastries at La MallorquinaOf the things I had there, I will point you toward two. First, the napolitana de crema, a croissant with custard inside, but not runny custard like you find in doughnuts. In addition to being thick like bechamel or cream cheese baked into a muffin, the filling was subtly sweet while still bring dense, like an Italian pastry filling. The croissant was flaky with a thin and sweet brush of glaze. Second, I'd recommend the Pringles-shaped almond cookies called tejas. There tastiness is like the buttery cookie part of an M&M cookie, tejas are crispy on the outside, while having a chewier coconut macaroon consistency inside. They might not look like much, but they're great!

In Part 3, we'll talk about art and Madrid's best gelato.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Spain Exp'ained: Part 1

Christmas lights in Saville, outside a tasty upscale tapas spot, Enrique Becerra.
After spending nine autumn days in three different Spanish cities, I had many stories to tell. The entire trip was notable, whether the Gaudí architecture in Barcelona, the history and art of Madrid or the seafood of Seville. But when measuring the value of each city on the quality of the desserts I consumed--as always, I had done my research beforehand--the winner was Madrid.

Before we can delve into the food, we must look at the pictures of pretty things. Then we can move on to the pastry of Part 2 and the gelato of Part 3.

Gaudí's Park Güell, Barcelona.

Parque del Retiro, Madrid.

Palacio Real de Madrid.

Plaza de España, Seville.
Octopus Galliga at El 3 Oro. Saville.

Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona.
Gaudí's La Sagrada
Familia, Barcelona.

Christmas lights, Seville.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Cinnamon

December was month seven of Bobtail Year 2, during which I received two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

This month's flavor was Cinnamon. It tastes like Christmas at home and, predictably, is quite good. It also helped inspire the satirical, dessert-free blog below.

• • •

The elf on the shelf is a bunch of nonsense. Kids already get presents under the tree, junk in their stockings, daily trinkets or edibles from their advent calendars and now they have Santa's least stealthy spy watching them more closely than the NSA monitors Scott Stapp's weapons and air fare purchases online. All this consumerist culture brings to mind my first acting role in Ms. Husson's fifth grade winter program in 1994, a bizarre piece about materialism with such songs as "Yankee Doodle Santa" and "Make a Buck." ("Make a buck, make a buck! Spend! Spend! Make a buck, make a buck! Buy, buy, buy, buy!" Stop me in the street and I'll sing this on command.) It could make a person nauseous...or it could get them into the Chri$tma$ $pirit!

I've been thinking: being a feminist, I believe we need a female role model in the Christmas crap-hawking canon. A Disney princess who's also a strong woman. Someone who's good with a bow and arrow, but also isn't afraid to throw down on Master Chef to beat Mrs. Claus. Someone little girls can look up to, but whose outfit can be easily adapted into something skimpy for sexually empowered women doing holiday bar crawls. Finally, there needs to be Christmas magic because WWJD. I present to you Cindy the Cinnamon Witch of the North Pole!

A red hot win for festive fetishism feminism.
This red-haired firecracker waves her Cinnamon Stick Wand to transport her to third world countries to help relief efforts for the underprivileged...or to be the sassy and fashionable MC/DJ of the hippest holiday ho-ho-hoopla! Her presence is immediately known because Cindy the Cinnamon Witch smells like a snickerdoodle dipped in apple cider wherever she goes, appearing and disappearing in a puff of cinnamon smoke! While usually a crossbow-carrying conductor of cheer--in addition to magic, her Cinnamon Stick Wand is good for directing an orchestra in "Ode to Joy"--Cindy is also feisty, punishing bad kids with the cinnamon challenge...and posting video footage on YouTube! Fighting for equality all day and partying all night, it's a wonder when that celestial celebrity Cindy ever has time to go back to the North Pole to do her hair! Cindy the Cinnamon Witch of the North Pole™ will be a spicy addition to your religious and/or secular winter holiday traditions!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Butterfinger

L: Butter. R: Fingers. (Not pictured: Missing fingers.)
November was month six of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •

I’m no gastro-scientist, but my understanding is that anything cooked slow and low for long enough will break down into mush. Apparently, some time between Dia de los Muertos and Thanksgiving, Bobtail decided to test this out with severed digits.

You may be worried that their new flavor, Butterfinger, is a scarlet red bloody mess, but defying expectation they created a bright, white ice cream. Now, I have no personal experience cooking or eating human flesh—Thanks, Obama!—but, even if the fingers are merely a mix-in, it is pretty dang impressive that there isn’t even the slightest pink tint to the base! How might they have accomplished such a feat?

My guess is their first step was draining the blood from the fingers. Then I think they mixed in some confectionary sugar into the blood and cooked it into a syrup. The result is a soft brown solid that is kind of waxy, but sweet. I believe the next step was cooking down the remaining skin and bones into a brownish-orange crunchy mass. Given how sweet and sticky it is, I’m thinking they used brown sugar and corn syrup to produce such a delicious product, perhaps even a touch of smooth peanut butter. Thankfully, there are no cuticles to be found; I’m willing to eat another person’s pinky, but I have my limits.

We could guess at Bobtails’ recipe for cooking fingers all day, but while these facts are veiled in mystery we at least know one other major ingredient: butter. You don’t have to be Paula Deen to realize that many foods are better smothered in the stuff. Personally, I like my carrots that way with a little brown sugar, so why not fingers? Suffice to say, this flavor's base is more buttery than your average Bobtail flavor with toothsome results.

Suppose you want to test your luck at making Butterfinger ice cream in your home kitchen? You'll be happy to learn that butter is for sale at grocers across the country. As for the fingers, your best bet is probably Mariano's. I mean, they sell python meat* so anything's possible.

*scroll to #7

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Spooky Crunch

October was the fifth month of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •

Obviously, I enjoy Bobtail's ice cream, but I have to admit their annual pumpkin flavor isn't pumpkin-y enough for me. I taste all of the pumpkin spices, but not enough of the gourd. I decided to give it another try when I learned roundabout Halloween that their featured flavor, Spooky Crunch, was pumpkin ice cream with caramel, cookie dough and sprinkles.

A few bites in I knew I enjoyed what I was eating even though it didn't taste at all like it's given ingredients. For the base, I tasted cream and cinnamon, topped with more cinnamon. As for the mix-ins, the cookie dough was inspired, the sprinkles added a rough texture and the caramel was probably there. But if I silenced my expectations I noticed the flavor tasted suspiciously (spookily, even) similar to Ben & Jerry's twice discontinued cult-favorite, Oatmeal Cookie Chunk. It wasn't a dead ringer, but enough to make me realize that Spooky Crunch only needs a few slight adjustments to be a new favorite. Simply switch out the sprinkles for teeny-tiny chocolate chips (not Bobtail's somewhat overused chocolate flakes), add a little more cookie dough, let up a little on the cinnamon and drop the other pumpkin spices.

I'm not suggesting Bobtail mimic Ben & Jerry's, but rather that they cash in on an opportunity to improve a one-off Halloween-inspired flavor while also making it into a unique year-round flavor inspired by a classic dessert. Seriously, Bobtail, do it! The loud voice of geek populism demands it! TV: Firefly :: Ice Cream : Oatmeal Cookie Chunk.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Salted Caramel Pecan

September was the fourth month of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •

The best two salted caramel flavors I've had were Morelli's in Atlanta and Steve's, based in Brooklyn but available in many grocery stores. For the most part, salted caramel in general is a trend I don't understand. In my eyes, chocolate-covered pretzels are the perfect representation of the salty/sweet combination. Caramel, on the other hand, is an art few have mastered in its nascent form; and with good caramel being a delicacy that is rarely found, it seems presumptuous that chefs dive into altering it. And why add salt at all unless the purpose is to create a new flavor that seems more than the sum of its parts (as with Morelli's)? With these scatter shot observations, I knew Bobtail would have a tough time convincing me with their regularly-available flavor Salted Caramel Pecan.

But it's so good.

The salt is barely detectable, light enough to make the cream base taste like Butter Pecan. The caramel adds a hint of sweetness to cut through the buttery tasting base. Pecans make pretty much anything better and there are tons of them! In short, Bobtail's Salted Caramel Pecan is Butter Pecan with caramel. The flavor is good enough as is, but if they felt like experimenting they'd only need to trade in honey roasted pecans to make it Pecan Praline ice cream. I'll have a scoop of each please.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Apple Crêpe


August was the third month of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •

Apple Crêpe ice cream is apples in a cream cheese ice cream. Sounds like apple cheesecake, right? That’s what I thought, but the flavor isn’t as heavy. But with no pastry mixed in, can it actually be described as being crêpe-flavored?

The answer is yes and no. The flavor suggests many of the things crêpes also suggest. For example, crêpes are light, yet dense; when eating crêpes at home, it is easy to eat a large quantity, only to realize later that they were not as light as they seemed. Also, crepes have a touch of sour that highlights the dominant flavors; in crepes the sourness comes from lemon, while in this ice cream it comes from the cream cheese base.

But it is hard to make apples work in an ice cream flavor. Apple-flavored ice cream bases often taste both artificial and gross. And apples as mix-ins seem texturally strange, being neither crunchy (like a fresh apple), nor firm and chewy (liked baked or fried apples). The mix-ins in this flavor are icy and frozen, yet soft enough to bite through. (This could possibly be the result of Bobtail choosing the natural route with their flavors.) I’m happy to say that this typically undesirable texture, somehow works in the nuanced ice cream base.

Though named “crêpe,” the base reminds me of the vanilla sauce that was served with the apple strudel I ate in Berlin. The sauce, a staple in Germany, is lighter than custard, but not airy like whipped cream. It is rich, yet subtle. Similarly, the cream cheese ice cream that enrobes the frozen apples is both dense and light. It offers a touch of sweetness that is enough on its own, complementing the tartness of the apples. All in all, delicious.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bobtail Year 2: Strawberry Goat Cheese

July was the second month of Bobtail Year 2, during which I receive two pints of homemade ice cream a month from Bobtail.

• • •

Facebook may have rendered high school reunions obsolete, but certain reunions never go out of style, like when my best friend visited this summer or when I noticed an old friend in the Bobtail freezer. Bobtail's Strawberry Goat Cheese is what put the shop on the map for me, paving the way for numerous other discoveries in their ever-rotating line of new (and often customer-suggested) flavors. Bobtail offers different varieties of Strawberry, including the Chocolate Covered Strawberry I sampled during my first Bobtail Year, but none are as great as this.

Strawberry Goat Cheese is a delicate flavor, balancing tart and sweet into a flavor all its own. It is light, but full-bodied. It is bold, yet sensitive. It is basically your dream boyfriend/girlfriend. If you see this flavor at Bobtail, put a ring on it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pumpkin Rundown

The Ninth Annual Pumpkin Challenge started slow (and late), but ended with me hitting my third highest number yet! (The record remains 52.) Between September 17 and October 31, I consumed 43 varieties of pumpkin foods and liquids.

Milk & Honey's Granola with pumpkin seeds (Rick Bayliss mix)
Homemade Pumpkin pancakes
Einstein Bros' Pumpkin schmear
Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream's Snap-o-lantern ice cream
Homemade Savory Pumpkin quiche
Rick Bayliss' Pumpkin Chipotle Salsa
Homemade Pumpkin-swirl brownies
Do-Rite Donuts Pumpkin Cream Cheese Doughnut
Homemade Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies
Cafeteria-made Pumpkin bread pudding with pecan praline sauce
Homemade Pumpkin bread with chocolate chips and pecans

Pachiugo's pumpkin gelato
Trader Joe's Pumpkin spice chai tea latte
Homemade Pumpkin ice cream w/ marshmallows, graham and chocolate
Einstein Bros' Pumpkin walnut crunch bagel
Xoco's Sikil Pak (smooth dip of pumpkin seed, roasted tomato, sour orange and habanero)
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Croissant
Alliance Bakery's Pumpkin Spice Macaron

David's Tea Pumpkin Patch tea
Homemade Pumpkin polenta with sausage, fennel and onion
First Slice's Pumpkin Cheesecake
Homemade No-Churn Cranberry and Pumpkin Swirl ice cream
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Mochi
Food Should Taste Good's Pumpkin Tortilla Chips
Homemade Pumpkin Alfredo tortellini
Homemade Pumpkin waffles
Trader Joe's Pumpkin spice salted caramels
Homemade Pumpkin and coconut soup

You Can Do Better
Pumpkin & caramel kringle
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Jo-Jos (sandwich cookies)
Trader Joe's Pumpkin bagel
Starbucks' Pumpkin cream cheese muffin
Trader Joe's Ginger cookie pumpkin ice cream sandwiches
Trader Joe's Pumpkin cinnamon rolls
Pies by Fasano's Pumpkin pie
Edzo's Pumpkin milkshake

Dunkin' Donuts pumpkin muffin
Trader Joe's Pumpkin seed brittle
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Greek Yogurt
Pumpkin Cornbread
Pumpkin Ginger Compote
Jamba Juice's Pumpkin Smash smoothie
Dunkin Donuts' Pumpkin Pie doughnut

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Freezer Favs: Steve's Mexican Chili Chocolate

While this blog is primarily a fan of local scoop shops, it acknowledges that sometimes a person just wants to stay in for the night. That being said, this is one of my Freezer Favorites.

• • •

A newcomer to my list of favorites is Steve's No. 45 Mexican Chili Chocolate, a chocolate ice cream spiced with cayenne, cinnamon and guajillo chili chocolate. It is a dense, fudgy chocolate ice cream with a rough mix-in, similar in texture to that of stone ground chocolate. But the first thing to notice after taking the lid off is the spicy whiff of cayenne and cinnamon. But never fear! The spiciness is most present in the mix-in and, though it leaves a burn in the back of the throat, the flavor of the base is classically chocolate. It makes sense: Everything on the ingredient list is pretty straightforward, except the final ingredient, guar gum, which is a commonly used stabilizer.

One friend commented that it was the best ice cream she had ever tasted. It is certainly one of my new favorites. But who (or what) is Steve?

Years ago, Steve's (Est. 1973) was a Massachusetts-based scoop shop that branched into pre-packaged ice cream for grocery stores. They were actually an early rival to Ben & Jerry's, as mentioned in the book Ben & Jerry's: The Inside Scoop. Though discord resulted in the business closing in the 90's, it was revived in 2011 by a former worker of the original store in the Boston-area. The business was moved to Brooklyn where it focuses on small batch preparation and unique flavors. How unique? They do not sell a plain vanilla or chocolate. In fact, every one of their flavors contains two distinct flavors, be it Coconut Key Lime Pie or NOLA Iced Coffee and Donuts.

Steve's Mexican Chili Chocolate, I salute you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Freezer Favs: Häagen-Dazs' Vanilla Swiss Almond

While this blog is primarily a fan of local scoop shops, it acknowledges that sometimes a person just wants to stay in for the night. That being said, this is one of my Freezer Favorites.

• • •

Growing up in southeast Virginia, an area increasingly dominated by big box stores and chains, there weren't many local options for ice cream. On the other side of the water was Doumar's, who, in addition serving up exemplary minced barbecue and limeade, is one business that claims to have invented the first waffle cone. On our side of the water we really only had Hilton Village Ice Cream Parlor (RIP). Truth is, ice cream at Hilton Village wasn't homemade; for all their appeal they were simply serving up Hershey's brand ice cream. We had a few other places that opened for a while--a frozen custard place in Newport News, a gelato place in Hampton--but they never lasted long. Don't get me wrong, no kid turns his nose up at Rita's, Dairy Queen or even a McDonald's caramel sundae, but my ice cream coming-of-age would not really happen until college.

Arguably, my first experience with an "elegant" ice cream was Häagen-Dazs. Unlike Ben & Jerry's cram-it-all-in style, Häagen-Dazs tended to have simpler flavors, most of which were members of the ice cream canon. In years to come, they would branch out with more nuanced flavors, customer-created flavor contests, and a super-luxury line of products called the Häagen-Dazs Reserve Series, which was ambitious, brilliant and short-lived. (Thanks, economy!) Though in recent years they have scaled further and further back, one must remember the brand was quite innovative for having been the first mass-produced super premium luxury ice cream brand. Also notable in their innovation is how they offered flavors that presumably weren't regularly available in half gallon sizes. (In 1961, they started with three flavors: vanilla, chocolate and coffee.)

Tucked amongst the others is one unsuspecting flavor that sounds neither typical nor particularly unusual. It may sound simple, but I cannot think of another brand that attempts to recreate it. Vanilla Swiss Almond is an off-white ice cream that reminds the consumer of the power of vanilla. It may not be the freshest vanilla--it is vanilla extract after all--but it is a delicate flavor that fills each smooth bite. With the ice cream as its pillow, chocolate-covered roasted almonds rest within, eager to add crunchy punches of flavor and a clean after taste.

The good news is this flavor is still tasty. The bad news is that it currently uses corn syrup, which is obvious to me after eating several bites. (I am not sure whether this ingredient is a recent development or something I'm only noticing as my palate improves, but, based on the Wikipedia article about the brand, I am assuming it is the former.) While Häagen-Dazs still uses less weirdly-named ingredients than many mass-produced brands--it's still ice cream, not frozen dairy dessert--in the decades after being sold by its founder, it has lost some of the principles it was founded on: "Reuben noticed that the popular ice cream brands of the time sacrificed quality ingredients and manufacturing for a lower price tag. He decided to create an ice cream that would outshine the rest by using quality ingredients, no preservatives and a higher butterfat content – the secret to creamy, rich ice cream." All this being said, I remind you, it is still tasty.

Häagen-Dazs' Vanilla Swiss Almond, I salute you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Freezer Favs: Oberweiss' Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

While this blog is primarily a fan of local scoop shops, it acknowledges that sometimes a person just wants to stay in for the night. That being said, this is one of my Freezer Favorites.

• • •

It may seem strange that I lean on Oberweiss for my Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough cravings, since Ben & Jerry's are the ones who put the flavor on the map. But I'm going to commit foodie-sacrilege here and declare that Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough is a flavor that doesn't usually work as a super-premium ice cream. Such a heavy mix-in as cookie dough bites demands a lighter ice cream. Oberweiss is a super-premium brand that makes a product that manages to be flavorful without being heavy. Creamy and light, their Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough isn't overloaded with mix-ins, but doesn't skimp either. Most bites have some cookie dough with a few only containing chocolate chips, that perfect touch of chocolate to leave semisweet lingering on my tongue after the ice cream melts away.

Oberweiss' Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, I salute you.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Freezer Favorites

If these aisles could talk.
While I have foresworn some items in the grocery aisle--most notably two major brands' increased use of corn syrup--there are still some items worth your while. I was reminded of this when a new grocery store chain (Mariano's) entered my neighborhood in recent months, opening me to a new world of ice cream brands, not to mention fresh squeezed, unpasteurized orange juice. In this new series, Freezer Favorites, I will explore the best items you can find for those nights you feel like staying in.

I should note that over the years I have tasted many items, national and regional, and I do not expect I can accurately represent ALL of my Freezer Favorites from the past decade. For example, I recall Blue Bell as being a superior regional ice cream maker--I daresay the best!--but I couldn't write about my favorite flavors because I lost my extensive notes from 2009 when I spent three week volunteering in New Orleans, eating as many varieties as possible. (This is one of only two sets of notes from over seven years of blogging that mysteriously disappeared. Seriously, where the heck did they go?!?)

For easy navigation, a list of entries in this ongoing series will be updated here:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ninth Annual Pumpkin Challenge

Western Washington, circa 2008.
We have some new items in the FAQ this year and a few changes in the rules.

What is the pumpkin challenge?
The Pumpkin Challenge is an annual quest to consume as many varieties of pumpkin edibles as humanly possible. Most years, the Pumpkin Challenge has taken place between September 15 to October 31. Last year, we started early. This year, we're starting late.

What are the rules?
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 (i.e. Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory and homemade pumpkin cheesecake). Pumpkin candles or pumpkin soap do not count unless you eat them.

What about beverages?
Yup, they're food. But see the above rule. TL;DR: Twenty pumpkin spice lattes only count as one item.

Does pumpkin spice count? Or does it have to actually contain pumpkin?
Ideally, the ingredients include actual pumpkin. But it all tastes good, so pumpkin spice counts!

What is the record?
During 2012’s Pumpkin Challenge, I consumed 52 different varieties of pumpkin. The previous record (2010) had been 40.

What are my chances of defeating you, Brad?
This year, they are pretty good. I don't think I've had anything pumpkin so far this month, whereas usually I've been eating as much as possible starting September 1. Your chances of beating my record, however, are slim unless you do a LOT of cooking.

Why does it stop in October? Isn’t pumpkin often a Thanksgiving staple?
Ideally, the meeting of mouths to pumpkin products would go on forever. But we most focus our efforts. The Pumpkin Challenge was created to encourage the same sort of crass commercialism extended to that Santa holiday. We want to encourage—through pestering and purchase—stores offering pumpkin foods at progressively earlier dates each year. To focus the Challenge to a time period that is the height of pumpkin consumption is both missing the mark and far too easy.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Brad's Perfect S'mores Ice Cream Recipe

From my Ben & Jerry's cookbook showing me the ropes, back when I first got started making ice cream, to my travels tasting the best ice creams in the country, I am a man indebted to his influences. When I took to the kitchen this time around, I took inspiration from two sources: the toasted marshmallow milkshake from NYC's Stand 4 and the liquid chocolate mix-in from Graeter's in Cincinnati (and beyond). These two components (toasted and melted!) are typically missing from other s'mores ice creams. In mine they work together to create the perfect frozen representation of the quintessential campout fare:

A toasted marshmallow and graham ice cream base, featuring a melted chocolate mix-in that halfway hardens while the ice cream churns. Top it off with more melted chocolate (still warm when mixed in!) and graham cracker dust. Enjoy!

Brad's Perfect S'mores Ice Cream

12 - 16 campfire-sized marshmallow
4 - 6 oz. graham crackers, divided...depending on how much you want to use as topping
½ cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup milk
¾ - 1¼ cup dark chocolate chips...depending on how chocolatey you like it
4 half graham crackers, optional

(1) Place marshmallows on foil and toast in a toaster oven* until golden on top and melty. (A lower temperature for longer is better than a high temperature for shorter.)

(2) While still in the packet, crush the graham crackers in packet with a hammer. Not too hard, or you'll burst the packet open.

(3) Put toasted marshmallows and 2 - 4 oz. of graham crackers in a food processor. (Reserve the rest of the crushed graham crackers for topping later.) Blend well. It should resemble a Rice Krispies® treat made out of Golden Grahams™.

(4) Add cream, sugar and milk to the food processor and blend. Between rounds of blending, scrap the sticky marshmallow mixture off of the blades and sides.

(5) Chill mix in the fridge for at least 3 hours. Then...

(6) Start up your ice cream maker. Pour in the mixture. My ice cream maker takes about 15-20 minutes to whip in a good amount of air. (If there isn't enough air, any leftover ice cream will freeze too densely and be rock hard.)

(7) While the mix churns in the ice cream maker, melt the chocolate chips. (They only need to be soft, not fully liquid. Small portions in the microwave works fine.) Add at least half of the melted chocolate chips into the churning ice cream. Reserve the rest for topping.

(8) When the ice cream is done churning, scoop into bowls and top with the reserved melted chocolate chips and graham cracker dust. If you like, put half a graham cracker on the bottom of the bowl, or on top for extra crunch.

* Use a toaster oven because, like a broiler, it will actually toast the marshmallows. A regular oven would just melt them. A microwave will cause them to inflate, which doesn't help with the recipe, but is great fun when you have two marshmallow Peeps® and want to make them joust with toothpicks.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Minneapolis: Ice Cream Indoors

Worth braving the elements for.
This post is part of a series celebrating my new favorite ice cream destination, Minneapolis.

• • •

What happens for dessert-seekers in Minneapolis after the cold settles in, when the desire to be outdoors ranks about as high as the Minnesota Twins so far this season? For those months there is a dessert worthy of bundling up and trekking to: Sweet Science Ice Cream. You can't take the Skyway to get there, but all you need to do is walk a short block-and-a-half west of the Franklin Avenue Metro stop. When you see the sign that says “Verdant Tea,” you’ve arrived at your destination.

Imagine yourself inside here...
...and snow out here.
Once you enter the cozy teashop, you’ll feel warmed by the wooden tables and accents as well as the light green/sage toned walls. Though it reminds you of the interior of a lodge-y coffee shop, it more closely resembles a boutique stationary store, card shop or florist. You smile, unravel your scarf and know that this is an excellent place to steal away for a wintry evening. All that’s missing from the scene is a fireplace, but that might lean too far into the category of those ubiquitous ski lodge coffee shops. Not that it wouldn’t be nice. Still, you can thaw out by picking your poison of hot drink. After all, there’s ice cream to be eaten.

Sated (and having regained the feeling in your toes), you approach the counter, looking at the display of ice cream options, each flavor represented by a colored periodic table square and scientific abbreviation. The person at the counter tells you that though Sweet Science is a separate entity from Verdant Tea, all of the ice cream is made in-house in their backroom. Small batches—maybe ten pints each—and fresh ingredients. None of that corn syrup garbage. You weigh your options, knowing you’ll want two of the $3 minis they sell…and at least one pint you’ll buy later to take home. But all of the flavors sound good. How will you ever decide?

When was this lesson in chemistry class?
You settle on Dark Chocolate Sorbet—the staff person said she preferred this to the chocolate ice cream—and Rhubarb Cinnamon Almond. You’re presented with two plastic cups on a plate with two tiny spoons. You find a seat that looks out huge windows onto the snow-covered scene outside. You laugh a little to yourself about the pleasant absurdity of eating ice cream in this weather. And then you open the lids.

The Dark Chocolate Sorbet hits you like a gelato, packing in a concentrated flavor. It is neither creamy nor watery and tastes more like dark chocolate—actual dark chocolate—than ice cream does. Cold chocolate with mildly rough textural notes, like stone ground Mexican chocolate. Sweet rhapsody.

A few bites in, you switch to the Rhubarb Cinnamon Almond. It tastes all the more creamy following the sorbet. You recognize that the primary flavor is the cinnamon base, which creeps along the line of not quite spicy and not quite sweet. In bursts, the rhubarb jelly swirls punch out. The almond, it seems, functions primarily as a garnish, resting only on the surface layer, but is a welcome addition. It adds to the overall concept of a rhubarb crisp a la mode.

Ignore the nose prints.
After finishing, you consider trying another flavor before cursing your stomach for not being larger! But then you lean back, gazing out the window realizing you don’t have anywhere else to be. You might just hang out here until closing. Looking around, you realize this must be a great place in the warmer months, too. Big windows, some space for a few outdoor tables. So why ever go home, you think? Why not just hibernate here until the summer comes?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Minneapolis: Ice Cream Downtown

View of the 10th Avenue Bridge from Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9.
This post is part of a series celebrating my new favorite ice cream destination, Minneapolis.

• • •

After taking in Emily Johnson/Catalyst's latest dance/performance/ installation/etc. piece, I made my way to one of the pedestrian bridges, crossing over the Mississippi River. Having been inspired by the piece, my soul felt blown up like a balloon--floating, yet fragile. And though I was a ways away from where I was staying, there was far too much electricity in the air for me to simply go to sleep. I needed to walk around, see the earth in motion, live ice cream.

Très chic, oui?
Just east of Gold Medal Park stands Izzy's Ice Cream, a scoop shop that also houses the production facilities for the cafe of the same name in neighboring St. Paul. The tall white block of a building has a minimalist, IKEA charm, a style that distinguishes it from the oldey-timey 50's music scoop shoppes and the sometimes cluttered, sometimes pastel cozy ice cream cafes that seem to have the market cornered in America. Inside, the menu board consists of polka dots with flavor names in them, which weren't nearly as enticing as peering into their display cases where a much wider palette of colors and inspirations awaited my palate.

Polka dot menu on a flat screen.
Boasting 30 or so flavor options any given night, many old stand-bys are there, but the more adventurous will rejoice to find numerous flavors they have never seen before. With eager youngsters behind the counter offering me as many samples as I wanted--an offer I tested...they aren't bluffing!--it was a relief that they offered a sampler bowl of five mini-scoops, which amount to two or three bites each, because two-and-a-half flavors would not be enough. (This same mini-scoop tops each order and is an idea the business takes awkward pride in, having trademarked the mini-scoop as the Izzy Scoop®. It seems a little misguided to me to want to be remembered for one's top scoop being small than, say, having a superior product, but I'm no businessman.) Though these five tiny scoops were somewhat clumsily piled in the same bowl--as opposed to side by side on a dish as to not contaminate one another, something I expected from such a style-conscious business--I ate it fast enough to preserve the sanctity of each flavor. And, ultimately, it was taste and not style that made this Izzy's experience memorable.

Modern building in
an industrial neighborhood.
Of the numerous flavors I tried, most were above average, but none were as great as these three: Mexican Chocolate Fiesta, Swedish Garden Party and Church Elderberry. Mexican Chocolate Fiesta was not as spicy as many Latino-themed chocolates, choosing instead to make cinnamon the dominant spice. To make the flavor even more memorable, a hint of orange lingered in the flavor. Swedish Garden Party had an eggy, custard-y base, housing a raspberry swirl and gingerbread. I've no idea what made this Swedish--why not lingonberries?--but this cultural confusion didn't stop me from ordering it a second time. (Note: Supposedly the base is elderflower.) Church Elderberry boasts the crisp freshness of a fruit sorbet in an ice cream flavor. The sharp sweet-and-tart combo of raspberries, blackberries, strawberry, elderberry and blueberry ranks this flavor among the best fruit ice creams I've ever eaten.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Minneapolis: Ice Cream from the Market

View northwest from the Guthrie's Endless Bridge.
This post is part of a series celebrating my new favorite ice cream destination, Minneapolis.

• • •

During Saturdays on the riverfront, throngs of people make their way to the Mill City Farmers Market. Tucked between the Guthrie Theatre and the Mill City Museum (a stone's throw from Izzy's Ice Cream) market-goers can buy produce, eat delicious food and become frustrated by Salty Tart Bakery's elusive, always sold-out stuffed brioche. And while they're in the area, market-goers can also enjoy the riverfront by day, walking along the Mississippi, trekking across one of the two pedestrian bridges or taking in the view from above on the Guthrie's "Endless Bridge." But after enjoying the summer sun, a market-goer will need to cool down.

Before the dripping mess.
Perusing the flavors at the Sonny's Ice Cream Cart, I knew I was in good hands. After trying some samples, I wondered if those hands had been touched by the divine. After eating a triple scoop bowl, piled high and dripping over the edges, I wondered where I might wash my hands...but never mind the scars of battle. On to the flavors!

Looking down at
Mill City Farmer's Market.

Downtown in background.
I knew immediately I wanted a scoop of rhubarb sorbet. Having grown up in the south where the ground doesn't get cold enough, rhubarb continues to feel like a special treat for me. Tangy and sweet, this icy scoop reminded me why. Next, I chose a scoop of cantaloupe-lime sorbet. The sour lime overshadowed almost any trace of the cantaloupe, but it was so blissfully refreshing I didn't care. My favorite of the bunch. And my final choice was crème brûlée. This flavor was eggy and rich, complete with some crunchy bits of burnt sugar, adding a touch of caramel flavor.

Luckily, the market isn't the only place to find Sonny's. They have a brick-and-mortar location and, according to Cafe Crema's website (which is far more informative about locations than Sonny's seemingly dormant website), Sonny's ice cream cart can also be found at the Kingfield Farmer's Market and downtown at 8th & Nicollet Mall "on sunny days."

View north from the Endless Bridge.
View looking northeast.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Minneapolis: Ice Cream Near the Parks

The Franklin Ave. location of Sebastian Joe's.
This post is part of a series celebrating my new favorite ice cream destination, Minneapolis.

• • •

When a city gets so cold during the winter that it necessitates the creation of the Skyway System for people to move from building to building in order to avoid being outdoors, you can wager residents have numerous ways to relish the warmer months. Indeed, wandering Minneapolis in June, it was no wonder why people would choose to live here. An immaculately clean downtown area with modern-looking skyscrapers and plenty of greenery, the Mississippi River cuts through the middle with a gorgeous waterside park to enjoy, right near the famed Guthrie Theater.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Two of the most popular (and most worthy of a tourist’s time) outdoor attractions are Minnehaha Falls and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The former, a light rail stop or two north of the airport, is a 193-acre park area surrounding the largest waterfall to feed into a river that leads to the Mississippi; the latter is an 11-acre garden that is part of the Walker Art Center at the western edge of the diamond that is downtown Minneapolis. Another fun activity is renting a kayak at Lake Calhoun and paddling around a chain of lakes. Conveniently, each of these attractions are near places serving Sebastian Joe’s ice cream.

Minnehaha Falls.
Offering a rotating assortment of over 100 flavors, Sebastian Joe’s has all its bases covered, from classics from the ice cream canon, to scoops with tons of mix-ins, to imaginative flavors that might not exist anywhere else. Take for example my first sampling, which I treated myself to after traipsing around Minnehaha Falls for well over an hour.* While dipping my feet in the Mississippi had a rejuvenating effect on my epidermis, eating a bowl of Vanilla Basil ice cream topped with some Raspberry Chocolate Chip washed away any dust that had collected on my soul. The vanilla blended with the basil in a way that was refreshing and slightly herby without being savory, all while tinting the ice cream a light shade of green. And each bite of the Raspberry Chocolate Chip had seedy evidence of real fruit having been used, plus the spare use of the chocolate chip (or chocolate covered raspberry seeds?) added just the right touch of sweetness to balance out the light tarty effect of the ice cream. I’ve had a lot, but I can’t remember a Raspberry Chocolate Chip better than Sebastian Joe’s. I went back and forth in my mind, but I couldn’t decide which of the two flavors I liked better. All I knew was I needed to return to Sebastian Joe’s before my time in Minneapolis was done.

*Sebastian Joe’s ice cream is served at Sea Salt Eatery, a seasonal stand featured on numerous best-of-Minneapolis lists that has lines out the door for its fish tacos. Luckily, the ice cream line is separate on the opposite side.

Images from kayaking the chain of lakes connected to Lake Calhoun.