Birthday Cake!(s)!!!

Somehow, Georgetown Cupcake and Cake Love always get all the cupcake press in DC and “Hello, Cupcake!” (by far the winner for cutest name) gets a little forgotten.  Why? Look at how wonderful they are:

Double Chocolate, Carrot Cake (the bottom center one got a little mushed!), Lemon

Chocolate Peanut Butter, Lime Coconut, Gluten Free Carrot Cake, Chocolate Cake with Pink Sugar Icing, Dark Chocolate Hazelnut, Root Beer Float

This is my favorite: chocolate peanut butter kiss

The cupcakes were a wonderful afternoon-cake (on my Birthday I eat cake at all mealtimes and for snack. Why not? It’s the one day that pigging out is completely sanctioned.  Maybe also Valentines Day, but in my experience that never feels quite as liberating…)

The only problem with the cake-all-day lifestyle is that you have to pace yourself.  Take small bites. Example: the pink cupcake above.  The goal is to make it to the final after dinner cake and fully enjoy the birthday present I ask for every year: a fancy dinner.

This year I made a reservation at The Source.  I got a little nervous when the waiters described the testing menu as a “marathon.” Honestly, I think they should rethink that description, since “marathon” has torturous connotations.  The dinner was by far the opposite of torture, but it was also definitely the opposite of rabbit food.  Thank god.  All eight (!!) courses were tasty but the tuna tartare ‘ice cream cones,’ slightly seasoned tuna in crunchy sesame seed cones, and the crispy suckling pork were probably my favorites.  My brother loved the slices of Kobe steak and everyone enjoyed the “dim sum” course, a tray of dumplings.  As an unexpected bonus, the dim sum course required chopsticks and then everyone benefitted from the added enjoyment of my brother’s hilarious running commentary on my chopstick use, or lack thereof.  I love to eat sushi, lived for a summer with an Asian food fanatic (Alicia) and been to freaking Thailand, and I still drop my food everywhere, hold the sticks in the wrong direction and pinch with the wrong fingers.  It’s a disaster.  Imagine the comedy after a few glasses of wine… But the pork belly dumplings are worth any level of humiliation.  They are so addictive, and our family table was probably acting so drunkenly amicable, that a friendly waitress came up to chat about the dim sum.  Apparently, she likes the pork belly variety so much that the staff gave her the nickname “tiny dumpling.”  I’d love to have that nickname.  I don’t think I’m being sarcastic but I may not have fully thought through the consequences of my conviction.

It was a a day of extended deliciousness.  I am proud to say, I MADE IT TO THE LAST CAKE (s)!

Important lesson learned: why have one when you can have more?

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As if we didn’t eat enough desert in Boston… it was totally necessary to take a trip to what Leslie calls the “Tiffany’s of Pastry.”   In Boston, small white boxes with bright blue writing and thin, matching blue braided rope bows, labeled “Mike’s Pastry,” are apparently just as iconic as Tiffany’s little blue (teal) box.  I think this is for good reason.

When I was young, I mean young enough that I can’t clearly remember being able to read books on my own, my Mom took my brother and I to bookstore regularly–for desert.  I wish I could say we were supporting a local coffee shop and book store but no, for whatever reason we preffered Barnes and Noble.  The craving code word in the car was “cannoli-oli-o.”  Once, my mother stepped up to the counter to order our  brain snack (we were doing at least some looking at books!) and accidentally said to the sales person, “may we have three cannoli-oli-os,” with a completely straight face.  It took her a second to realize what had happened.  I’m still not sure why were were so obsessed with the “oli-os.” I must admit that I’ve had a B&A cannoli in relatively more recent memory and found it cold, soggy in the middle of the pastry, cardboard at the edges of the pastry.  Maybe they’ve gone downhill?

Either way, my mom’s little afternoon snack ritual is wholly (or maybe partially?) responsible for two personality defining loves: books and chocolate chip cannoli.  Once again Leslie proves herself a kindred spirit, providing chocolate chips in their two best filling rolls, cookies and ricotta cream stuffed pastry. Wow. Did anyone notice there is also cheese involved in a cannoli? No more comment necessary.

At Mike’s there is a daily ‘special’ selection added to a list of ‘classic’ cannoli–plain ricotta, lemon cream, chocolate dipped, chocolate ricotta, chocolate chip ricotta, florentine… at this point I had to take deep breaths because I was getting overheated with excitement.  After much discussion everyone picked their cannoli-match-made-in-heaven.  Except Alicia and I, who can never officially settle on food choices until we agree to swap bites.   How else will you know if the ricotta is tastier on the other side, the amaretto almond covered side?

Avery’s soul-cannoli wasn’t messing around, but sort of was: double chocolate is a serious commitment, but how can it totally scare you off with those adorable mini chocolate chips and unapologetic youthful sweetness?

Leslie’s soul-cannoli might be mislabeled “traditional,” when really it has simple perfection that makes it ever-enduring, loyal, constant, with a tiny twist: classic ricotta cannoli in it’s little black dress of chocolate chips on the ends.

Sarah, a cannoli newcomer opted for the completely classic safe-guy: ricotta filling.  I’m happy to announce I think she might be ready for more jazz the next time around.

Alicia chose the very sweet, rare, quirky (or even nutty?), cannoli special of the day, almond dusted amaretto.  I wanted that one for just a taste, but it turned out as I feared, too sugary for the longterm.  But I loved my chocolate dipped ricotta.  Any thoughts on that?

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Comfort cookies

From Selinsgrove, it was a 10 hour drive through the rain to Boston but very worth it.

Leslie's "Sunday Night Cookies" (I took the liberty of officially naming them... I wonder if she will like the name)

I bonded with Leslie over all of the most important things in life: eating brownies from the baking tray, squeezing raw cookie dough directly into one’s mouth, eschewing the use of coconut in baked goods.  In our first year of college Leslie baked every Sunday night.  It was a wonderful comfort, on the verge of the week, when you had way too much homework, and since we were all far from the comfort of our home couches, to be able to sit in front of the television, watch Grey’s anatomy and have Leslie serve us melting chocolate in all of its most delicious forms.  She makes brownies, chocolate gingerbread, peanut butter kiss cookies, and most famously, the best plane old chocolate chip cookies you have ever tasted.

Obviously, I can’t give away the recipe but here is a little photo journal of the process:

Alicia’s face gives it all away.  Now, we watch HBO sunday instead of Grey’s Anatomy (we matured so much in four years!) but the cookies are probably still the best part. Leslie claims they are just a cookbook recipe but no one else ever manages to recreate the exact soft, salty, tiny just-melted chocolate chip taste that Leslie pulls out of the oven.

f.y.i Leslie is starting her own cookie business. Soon everyone can have a batch of Sunday Night cookies, or another mix from a selection of 12 choose your own mix-ins, mailed directly to their house.  But, in a ugly possessive way I’m secretly a little glad that, given the mail delivery schedule, only Leslie’s original crew of Sunday sweet-toothers will still be able to eat the cookies fresh on an actual Sunday.  Right off the tray. Right in front of the television (as if we could focus on anything other than how many cookies are left on the tray).

As soon as she starts up the website it will be linked here for everyone to order!

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Back in the U.S.A. and still “here:” Reunion beer and pretzels

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything new.  I flew home and thought of starting a new blog.  After all, now I’m actually home and not just “reporting from here-is-anywhere.”  This weekend, however, I drove up the east coast for a break from the heat in DC and stayed with old friends at their homes!  Back on the road (and the blog) again.

Pennsylvania pretzel with some spicy mustard

Four tasting glasses

The first stop was Selinsgrove PA where Alexa (yes, from Thailand travels) is now finishing some training to be a vet.  She took me to the tiny Selin’s Grove Brewery.  The speciality here is carbs: beers, pretzels, sandwiches.  A perfect reunion spot. Roughly every day of our lives at college featured Alexa breaking out pretzel bags for late night snacks and studies and me trying new sandwich-making culinary genius (or disaster) at our beloved Middlebury Proctor dining hall panini machines.  I think the relevance of the beer as a tradition should be obvious.

The Selin’s Grove Brewing Co. has about 8 home-brewed beers on tap.  We tried Scottish Red Ale, Wit, Porter Shade Mountain Stout and Kriek.  The Wit, despite my high hopes because it has a “cute name,” which is really the extent of my ability to choose beer, was too fruity for us.  The best of the four was the Shade Mountain Porter, Alexa’s one recommendation that brought some coherence and knowledge to my otherwise random method of selection that she was polite to indulge.

Alexa was also right about the pretzels, they are good. Made better, I must add, by spicy MUSTARD, an ingredient Alexa earlier claimed to dislike on all foods but apparently didn’t realize was the same as the ‘stuff’ served with her beloved pretzels.  The same mustard was the winning ingredient, other than soft Brewery Bread on my bacon and Turkey sandwich.  Alexa tasted the sandwich, approved, and then asked, “what is that spicy Mayonnaise?” MUSTARD. It’s mustard. And it’s great.

As might be expected by anyone who knows Alexa in person or via the blog, after much deliberation about the possibility of ordering a bacon, ranch and avocado wrap concoction she settled on a Alexa standard not dissimilar to her favorite for breakfast at Farmer’s Diner, the chimichanga.  Some things never change.

Veggie chili, salsa, sour cream, Alexa's heaven.

Selin’s Grove Brewing Co.

121 North Market St.
Selinsgrove,Pa. 17870
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A little twist of favorite English things. Plus, little spirals of bacon.

Yes, those are 'sticks' of pork belly and curls of bacon fat. Unbelievable--even when I was eating it.

Bistro Loubet was the grand culmination of my “goodbye London” dinners.  Well, there were only three. But that does justify the plural and Loubet is worthy of the word “culmination.”  The two other dinners, at The Modern Pantry and Acorn, were fun (and I had great dining company!) but neither restaurant really offered a taste I couldn’t get anywhere else, and that is the most important part of a goodbye ‘fill-in-the-place’ dinner, a final, fleeting taste of a place you won’t see for a while.

I suppose, however, my Loubet dinner wasn’t really that last-taste-of-British either.  It’s French and not exactly serving the classics I crave when I re-cross the ocean: baked beans at breakfast, mushy peas with a massive fried fish, millionaire shortbread bars, really good lamb in the spring, strawberries…  Wait a second. I did eat a lot of those things at Loubet, but like the Lyonnaise salad (pictured above), they were “Revised.”  The food was not exactly French anymore. It was–dare I make this judgement–a very London, comfortably gourmet fusion of local British ingredients with cooking styles from all over the world.  I had my strawberries with the addition of pepper ice-cream.  I had lamb but it was ‘confit’ and served with lemony white beans, a sweet red roasted pepper, and a spicy green pepper.  Then, there were moments of the meal that were more personal special ingredients.  Ian, for example, is a soup aficionado and master, he cooks it all the time because it is a food group that never wastes.  You can add anything that ‘needs to be cooked-up’ to soup.  He had two courses of soup, one which involved the Englishness of peas.  The outdoor seating area was another ‘special ingredient.’  Even the potential devilry of marauding city pigeons (Ellen is engaged in mortal-battle with all birds) was a warm joke rather than dinner-destroying havoc.

“Fusion” famously spells destruction, though New French usually misses that end, but this meal succeeded with each of its ever so slightly twisty goals, from the bacon spiral to the swirls of chocolate around the dark chocolate torte with salty caramel ice-cream.  Rather than offering a menu with a list of ingredient descriptions that never seem to actually show up on the plate, Loubet has the outstanding quality of serving food with distinct distributions of tastes and textures.  The pepper ice cream will make you feel your sinuses.  The two types of bacon in the Lyonnaise are crunchy and greasy. The lamb “confit” bursts out of its circling fatty skin into flakes of juicy meat.  I could go on, instead, here are the illustrations…

Ellen's beet ravioli salad. Ian ordered a good pea soup as his starter, but soup never photographs well.

Fish stew with two types of fish, colorful beans, and the scallop-shrimp "boudin" seafood sausage.

Balsamic strawberries, strong pepper ice cream, and a strawberry macaroon-on-top.

Bistro Loubet (at The Zetter)

St John’s Square, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road

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More proof that there is no “genetic man stuff.” Gasp.

Never fear, NO ONE here is getting food poisoning from undercooked burgers.  Can you get poisoning from charcoal?

I spared everyone the enlarged shot of the burnt burgers.  They are just too tragic.  I am, however, going to feature ‘bad food’ today.  The best thing about food is that it’s always an experience and not always one were the most memorable thing is taste.

But first, back to the pure horror pictured.  This is what happens when the men I know grill (where have all the chefs gone?).  They are too distracted by daydreams! All of them are such awfully cute nerds, artists and general ‘free spirits,’ to bother noticing that the food is burning.  Or, to bother being so square as to even care about what a burger is supposed to be before it is deconstructed by flames.

I love them for the effort anyway, and fully admit partial responsibility in the burnt-burger fiasco.  First, I am, despite my cruel gendered jokes, a feminist and I’m pretty sure no one should just assume men can grill… or do anything else. OH I’m at it again! And second, I was there too.  I sort of wondered why it was so freaking smokey in the middle of Oxford’s Port Meadow.  In the middle of the night. Ah yes, I think we all deduced it: Sam’s cigarette, is not the ‘smoking gun.’  It’s remarkable we didn’t set the entire field on fire.

And what were the manly-men up to while their meat was soaking up FIRE?

You know, the usual. General contests of strength and intellectual prowess as they devised an experiment in theatrical satire aimed at debunking the myth of the skill and artistry involved in cheerleading.  A general strategy was also in preliminary testing stages, of how to somehow get inside the mind and body of a cheerleader. Too far?

Yes these really are the people I spend my time with.

The best things about them, now I’m finally being serious for the day, have never involved mindfulness, elegance or that strange and repulsive thing “machismo.”  Who needs those things when one’s friends know just how to spend an evening-to-early morning in a cow infested meadow.  And then know how to attend a classy breakfast in the morning. Even when still emitting the odor ‘de-cow-meadow and late night burnt-burger. Ew.

The key is: don’t order anything that involves cow.

Better yet, order something rustic transformed ‘gourmet’.  It can still be a bit gross, after-all you just came home with the cows. Try English beans on toast with parmesan “curls.” And–this is important!–never, ever take your dirty feet out from under the table!

Breakfast was at Oxford’s Grand Cafe, The Highstreet.

I don’t think anyone wants to know more about the burgers.

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Oh yeah, I was in Belgium. Eat the chocolate!

What is it about nice chocolates that make your heart race until you’ve ripped one open? Am I the only one that does this?  I read the card of flavors, inevitably get frustrated because I can’t decide what picture is what chocolate, and then stare at the dark ones trying to decide which one is least likely to have an offending fruit flavor like orange or coconut.  I soon tire of that too and pick out milk colored one that looks most likely to have caramel, peanut butter or nougat involved.  And it’s downhill from there…

Let’s face it, chocolates are just too pretty and perfecting. They are sit in their box, pristine and dainty, just teasing you with all their deep dark (or maybe nutty?) secrets.  What are they hiding under that smooth hard exterior?  I can’t take the suspense.  That is my excuse for eating them all…

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