Friday, May 26, 2017

Gone But Not Forgotten: Endgrain in Chicago

While going through old blog posts, I happened upon a draft of a post about Endgrain, a restaurant opened by the man some credited with launching the doughnut craze in Chicago. Endgrain was my obsession for a while, even if inconvenient for carless Chicagoans not on the Brown Line. I was saddened a couple years ago when it shuttered.

Endgrain founder Enoch Simpson was more than serious; he wanted people to give doughnuts the respect they deserve. Simpson talked the talk in a Guide to Doughnut Tasting, which, excepting the two bizarre and confusing opening sentences, offers some doughy insight into Chicago's grease-gone-gourmet obsession. Simpson also walked the walk, making the best overall textured doughnut menu in the city.

At the start, there were a mere four doughnut options for customers to choose from: the Butterscotch Bacon—their one constant—and three rotating selections. On most days, there was a jelly doughnut, a chocolate doughnut and a traditional doughnut with a unique glaze, what my waitress called a "vanilla doughnut" and what I'm calling a "rogue doughnut."

The Doughscuit.
After some time, Simpson decided that, rather than jumping on the cronut bandwagon, he’d make his own doughnut hybrid: the Doughscuit, a doughnut-come-biscuit filled with crème frache. It was buttery, sweet and creamy. This was followed by an alternative takes on his creation, including the German Chocolate Doughscuit. The original Doughscuit would go on to win the FirstAnnual DonutFest in Chicago, though I personally preferred the German Chocolate variety.

Despite the Doughscuit’s accolades, I always felt the crown jewel at Simpson’s Endgrain were the jelly doughnuts, which I wrote about in my review of the best of Chicago doughnuts. Put simply, it was the perfect jelly doughnut. And now, sadly, it is gone. My second favorite doughnut at Endgrain was the Butterscotch Bacon, a rare beacon of light in the bacon-doughnut craze. Their version had a gooey butterscotch coating, topped with crispy bacon. In my visits, I also tried Mochanut, Blackberry Peppercorn, Peaches 'n Cream, Nutella Milkstout, Chocolate Turtle and Salted Caramel.

Endgrain, you are gone, but not forgotten!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Marry, Boff, Kill: Doughnuts in Austin, TX

While in Austin, a small group of people with diverse genders and sexual orientations played the game "Marry, Boff, Kill." In this game, three subjects (usually people) are chosen within a particular category and then you pass judgment on which of these three you would marry if given the option, then whom you would boff, and finally which you would be sentence to death. For example, in my previous entry about Austin ice cream, it's clear I'd "marry" Dolce Neve; I'd also "boff" Lick Honest Ice Creams and "kill" Amy's.

Got the game down? Good! Because it's time for "Marry, Boff, Kill: Austin Doughnut Edition"!

Though billed as a hybrid of a croissant and a brioche, La Patisserie's CroBrio felt more to be like a doughnut/brioche mixture. The flaky layers one associates with a croissant weren't present, though nothing was lacking in my enjoyment. It was buttery, doughy, chewy and delicious. The chocolate on top was deep like a ganache. The cream (though billed as being a peanut butter cream) was a light vanilla bean delight. The type of CroBrio being offered changes, but I doubt my extreme desire for the product would. 'Til death do us part.

I couldn't resist the urge to try the over the top options at Gourdough's--pronounced like "gordo," the Spanish word for fat--ultimately settling on the Squealing Pig. It was a doughnut piled high with strawberry jalapeno jelly, candied jalapenos, bacon and cream cheese icing. The entire experience was messy, not to mention too sweet. (The cream cheese icing was far more icing than cream cheese.) I felt gross after eating Gourdough's, but I still feel some guilty desire to try a few more of their flavors on the side, even if my heart belonged to La Patisserie.

Though the hours make this traditional doughnut shop intriguing (7:30pm-noon), the product was not memorable. It appears on most lists of "Austin's must-try doughnuts," but I failed to see why. I love a good spot for traditional doughnuts and, while this one was passable, it wasn't notable nor a must-try, especially for a visitor with limited time on their hands.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dolce Neve in Austin (and Houston), TX

Off the tourist-beaten path of Austin's South Congress Avenue and tucked amongst the foliage of South 1st is a cozy gelato shop called Dolce Neve. Translated as "sweet snow," Dolce Neve finds the happy medium of traditional gelato's simplicity (scoops that emphasize a single flavor) and contemporary gelato's complexity (which combines many flavors and/or mix-ins, eliminating any subtlety). They do this by exploring lighter flavor agents, finding ways to make them shine in a new context, rather than simply recreating members of the ice cream canon in gelato form. And they are good--so good--at what they do. For example:

Pear and Chocolate Chip Sorbet - This sorbet somehow has the mouthfeel of an actual pear. And the chocolate chips, which sounded out of place to my brain, are a nice kiss of sweet to make this flavor a little more dessert-y than it would otherwise be. Refreshing, both in flavor and concept.

Pecan Honey - Nuts (hazelnuts, chestnuts pine nuts) and edible seeds (almonds, pistachios, coconut) have made for winning gelato flavors. Still, others in this group (cashews, walnuts, macadamia, pecans) are regularly ignored by gelato, while commonly being used as mix-ins to ice cream, rarely being given their own flavor. Sit back and let this flavor make right this longstanding gaffe.

Chocolate and Candied Orange Peel - Mixing in other ingredients to an intense chocolate gelato usually results taking away some of the flavor's intensity. The orange peel here adds a new level. It isn't quite a chocolate orange, but has a burst of sweet that enhances the richness of the chocolate.

I had other notable flavors in addition to the above--Frommage Blanc with Apple Curd, Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt, and Ricotta, Pistachio & Honey--but no need to worry if the ever-rotating menu doesn't include any of these I've mentioned. Each visit to Dolce Neve will offer a new opportunity for exploration. Who knows what you'll find when you stop in?


Go and taste the "sweet snow."

- - -

I would be remiss to not mention about the elephant in the room: When one hears about Austin ice cream, usually they hear about Amy's, a local made-to-order model a la Cold Stone which emphasizes mix-ins over its mediocre ice cream. All this praise for Amy's is like saying an entire salad is excellent because of the homemade croutons when its main ingredient is leftover iceberg lettuce that fell off McFish sandwiches. If you only eat ice cream once in Austin, do not be pulled into this moth-to-flame tractor beam. Dolce Neve is the much better bet.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Rise Biscuits and Donuts in North Carolina

Rise Biscuits and Donuts was born in Durham in 2012, eventually opening other locations around North Carolina and even one in Texas. All told, they make a good product on both the savory side of their menu and the sweet. But this is a sugar blog not a biscuit blog, so...onto the last word of the business' name.

Their doughnuts are divided into Old School (traditional doughnuts), New School (fancy doughnuts) and Our School (differs per location, may change). It's not every purveyor of fried dough that offers a simple Cinnamon Twist alongside fad doughnuts (Maple Bacon, Crème Brûlée), regionally specific treats (Cheerwine Icing) and originality (Banana Cake with Nutella). One would expect them to have an endlessly long menu, but they manage such a impressive range with a mere 15 doughnuts to choose from! It's a good problem to have, but deciding can be difficult at Rise. Allow me to introduce the crown jewel of their menu, the Pineapple Basil doughnut.

Incredibly tasty, this doughnut is unlike any I've ever encountered. The pineapple is sharp and tangy, the flavor lasting longer than most glazes. The cream filling offers a counterweight of sweetness, one that doesn't mellow the overall tartness but rather produces another note in the chord. It's all delivered in a delicious doughnut that's topped with pistachios for texture and, along with the basil, adds a light touch of savory. One bite of this doughnut and I knew it was one I would remember. An instant classic.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Innovations in Dessert Delivery

Recently, groups of protesters marched in streets across the nation on behalf of science. And, as many of them know, standing up for a cause must never stop at a march or a Facebook update or a post to one’s ice cream blog. We must champion scientific innovation and vote with our dollars. For that reason, I present to you a an adaptation of a Powerpoint report I did at work on the Innovations in Dessert Delivery, some of the most important scientific studies being done today in service to humanity.

• • •

Trends come and go in the world of sweets: cupcakes are not as hot as maple bacon doughnuts are not as hot as cronuts. But sometimes innovative product delivery can be just as effective for boosting sales as innovative products.

Once upon a time, someone (possibly Albert Doumar) imagined a method of eating ice cream that eliminated waste and was good for on-the-go. Over a century later, the ice cream cone is part of ice cream culture both domestically and internationally.

Here are some of the interesting trends in how dessert is delivered to the consumer. Some still involve a customer service medium:

Made-to-order: This in-store trend has been big for a decade now, whether regional doughnut chains like Duck Donuts and Fractured Prune, a global chain like Cold Stone mixing whatever you like into the ice cream flavor of your choice or an Asian cream puff chain that focuses on natural ingredients. spreading to America, Beard Papa's.

Serve yourself: Taking a page from those tasteful soft-serve sundae bars at buffets, frozen yogurt chains are letting customers choose how much froyo and toppings they want, combining as many flavors as they want. All the people behind the counter have to do is weigh the customer's custom sundae and collect their money...and clean up the mess that soccer team made of the birthday cake/cotton candy twist machine.

Delivered to your home: Cookies straight to your door, for those late night, um, studying sessions. Originally founded with college campuses in mind, working adults can see the benefits of Insomnia Cookies' late-night delivery, too.

Others eliminate customer service altogether:

Vending machine: Ice cream vending machines have been casting their glow on airport breezeways for years now, but now regional chains are entering the market. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams now has an ice cream vending machine in the Columbus, Ohio airport and Ted Drewe's has one in the St. Louis airport.

ATM: Just as cupcakes are a cutesy dessert that has cashed in on style-before-substance nostalgia, the Sprinkles' Cupcake ATM seems a perfect method for a not-quite-adult to delight in their empty calories while getting their dessert in a method that's like Fisher Price Talking Elmo ATM meets Easy-Bake oven, all so willing consumers can stand in line to be treated like the insipid children that they are. The ATM is even bright pink!

Gumball machine: Playing the nostalgia card in a different way, New York's Baked by Melissa created cupcake gumball machine for events rental.

One has to wonder the next innovation to be imagined and made real by dessert scientists. What do you think it will be?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

3 Floyds Brewpub in Munster, IN

My brother (middle), who is not one of the eponymous Floyds.
When my craft beer aficionado brother suggests a road trip to a brewery to me, his sober brother, the appeal doesn't always immediately present itself. It helps when these spots also make craft soda (because they damn well should do that, too) or have a menu that shows a little effort (not just lazy, paint-by-number pub fare) or, even better, a dessert menu with a personal touch. When the most recent trek involved crossing a state line, I hoped against hope that the menu would be something special. I never expected the blog-worthy treat we found at 3 Floyds in Munster, IN: beignets with chocolate dipping sauce.

Before I continue, it is worthy of note how rarely beignets are a success. One cannot even hear the word "beignet" in America without thinking of Cafe Du Monde in the New Orleans French Market, a deserving staple for every tourist. Yet, even with this knowledge of the beignet benchmark in everyone's minds, so often menus fall miles and miles. The so-called "beignets" one usually orders are often nothing more than an oily, yet fancily-named grease bomb of a doughnut, or a flat rectangle of fried dough, or something else that's totally disappointing. This is not the case at 3 Floyds Brew Pub.

Moments before the
beignet massacre.
← ← ← I mean, just look at them. Puffy, light, chewy. Everything a beignet ought to be. And 3 Floyds doesn't skimp on the portions; none of this "three per plate" nonsense, a peeve of mine since most tables are parties of two. Much to my surprise, the chocolate sauce was even better than the pastry. I don't know what brand of chocolate they melt down (and neither did our server) but I'd gladly buy a bar of this. It was rich, of course, but also had numerous flavor notes--the beginning, middle and end that signify quality chocolate.

Craft beer enthusiasts, when you make the pilgrimmage to 3 Floyds, make time for the Brew Pub and do yourselves a favor by ordering the beignets. They may even be better than the ones you tried in New Orleans.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Chicago Pie: TL;DR

(l-r) Hoosier Mama's Vanilla Cream with Strawberries,
First Slice's storefront, Bang Bang's Blue-barb
As a lover of pie and annual host of a Pi(e) Day party, I often seek out the best bakers of round pastry. In my own city, there is no lack of notable stops. I wrote a series on Chicago Pie's Big Three. Here's the TL;DR.
• • •

Best pies: Dutch Sour Cream [any fruit] and Earl Grey Custard
Biggest overall strength: Custard pies
Extra credit: Best in Chicago at savory pies

Best pies: Michigan Cherry and Pecan
Biggest overall strength: Cheesecakes
Extra credit: Gluten free Polka Dot pie

Best pies: Strawberry-Rhubarb and Chocolate
Biggest overall strength: Fruit pies
Extra credit: Biscuit with toppings

Honorable mention:
Chopping Block
Best Pie: Apple pie
Biggest overall weakness: Only available at Apple Fest and for order at Thanksgiving

Monday, May 1, 2017

Chicago Pie: Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits

Chocolate Pecan and Blue-barb.
As a lover of pie and annual host of a Pi(e) Day party, I often seek out the best bakers of round pastry. In my own city, there is no lack of notable stops. Last year, I began a series covering the wonder that is Chicago pie, starting with Hoosier Mama and First Slice. Here’s the last of the Big Three.

• • •

If asked which of Chicago Pie’s Big Three is my favorite, I’ll likely say Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits. Unlike the other two, I can always rely on something I haven’t tried yet from their rotating monthly menu of six pies, plus weekend specials. Why else might that be? Well...

Bang Bang’s Strawberry Rhubarb pie is the best slice of pie I’ve ever had. Ever. That is no small statement. Usually when I have Strawberry Rhubarb pie, I wonder why anyone would ever want to dilute the tang of rhubarb with the strawberry sweetness. Strawberries may be the perfect food, but rhubarb is a delicacy that one shouldn’t take for granted. But Bang Bang has created a pie in which both superior fruits shine brightly, the tang and the sweetness, neither diluted, both combining their forces into a Super Pie, the likes of which has never been seen before by man or beast. Let us thank our lucky stars for being born in the same time as this pie.

Example menu. It changes.
In general, I feel the main distinction Bang Bang has from its peers is its fruit pies. They use a flaky crust with lard in it, the best of their different crusts. It is glorious. Additionally, they tend to add a little somethin’, somethin’ to their fruit pies, like a drizzle of crème fraiche (as with the Strawberry-Rhubarb) or a lemon crumble topping (as with the Blue-barb pie…that’s blueberry-rhubarb). These extra touches make their already superior product stand out even more.

Bang Bang also does a good job on their chocolate pies. The Chocolate was a favorite when it was featured. It was dark chocolate pastry cream, chocolate french silk, whipped cream, chocolate cookie crust. A more oft-featured menu item is their Chocolate Pecan Pie, which is heavy on the pecans and has none of that overrated sweet jelly stuff. What they have instead is a dense maple sorghum filling, plus a chocolate chip or two in each bite.

Brisket biscuit.
Predictably, the biscuits that make up part of the business name are the best part of the savory menu, offered with a variety of toppings (candied bacon, collard greens, etc.) to turn a side item into its own feast. Bang Bang does offer two savory pies, but they are a bit of a let down; the buffalo chicken pie is really the exact same thing as the chicken pot pie, but with bleu cheese and hot sauce on top. But these are minor slights next to the rest of the menu.

Bang Bang may be my favorite in Chicago pie, but be sure to try Hoosier Mama and First Slice for yourself to decide which is your favorite.