Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Original Boston Cream Pie

Hang around Boston long enough, and you will find the title "Boston Cream Pie" applied to everything from doughnuts to martinis, which has left the Babe a little fuzzy on what exactly a Boston Cream Pie is. Luckily, the birthplace of the BCP (yes, it even has its own acronym) is just a few steps from the Commons. The Omni Parker Hotel has been around long enough that First Lady Roosevelt asked to have their famous buttery roll recipe for the White House, and Charles Dickens spent two years living there. Curious what Dickens drank while ensconced at the Parker House? Look no further than the menu at the Last Hurrah, the hotel's whiskey bar. The "Dickens' Punch" is a gin punch that is reputed to have been Dickens' regular libation. It is even said that this is the place where Dickens gave the first reading of A Christmas Carol. And as I walked by the Granary Burying Ground across from the hotel, swirling in fat flakes of snow, I wondered if this wasn't the sort of scenery that gave Dickens the tone for Ebeneezer Scrooge in the bitter midwinter.

In my opinion, knowing the history of the Parker House is the key to enjoying it. The wood-paneled lobby, while not overly glitzy, still has the echoes of grandeur that drew JFK to have his bachelor party here.

And the Boston Cream pie here must be enjoyed in the same vein, as a piece of history as well as cake. There are three parts of the hotel where you can enjoy the BCP: The Last Hurrah, the Parker bar, or the Parker restaurant. If you're like me, then you might feel a little tentative about stopping by on a weekend afternoon, with no reservation, and asking if you can come in for a single piece of cake. But rest assured, the hotel is used to it, and very gracious in welcoming visitors who are there in particular for the culinary history. Although I'm sure that the Parker restaurant absolutely requires reservations for dinner, I was very welcome at the tail end of brunch. And for those rolling solo, you'll be happy to hear that the waiters in the restaurant will make you feel right at home...for all of the chandeliers and oil paintings and wood paneling of the restaurant, the staff exude a welcoming, attentive, and happy demeanor. This is not the sort of well-to-do hotel where the waiters are looking at you over the end of their long noses and gasping if you use the wrong fork. And what's more, they are genuinely enthusiastic about the BCP.

All of the warm attention and fanfare left me wondering, just what in the world would the BCP look like? A BCP is normally a full-size cake consisting of yellow cake, pastry cream, and chocolate ganache on top, with some almonds patted around the edges. But all told, it's certainly not a neat affair to cut. The Parker House has gotten around this by making individual BCPs, presented with creme anglaise, more chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a strawberry.

 With a pot of tea, I can think of few nicer ways to spend a cold, snowy afternoon in Boston. This may well be the cake that Longfellow, Dickens, Eleanor Roosevelt, and JFK ordered. If you ask me how the Parker House BCP stacks up on taste, I will say that this is a recipe concocted in 1856, and as such, it has a quiet presence that doesn't have the razzle dazzle of vanilla extract or liquor-soaked this-n-that. You will find a soft cake, a satisfying pastry cream, and a very chocolatey ganache. There is no mistaking this flavor combination as anything other than a Boston Creme Pie. If you're curious how they make it, the Parker House has been gracious enough to post the recipe on their website.

On a last note, I will say that Boston will never lack for places to sight-see and appreciate. But when the weather is bad (and it often is), the question of how to enjoy Boston becomes a little trickier. So, on days when the Commons look like this:

 I would recommend lounging for a few hours in the Parker, imbibing the history with a Dickens' Punch and  a plate of Boston Cream Pie.

Parker House
60 School Street
(617) 227-8600

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Austrian Cheese Soup, Oh Glory to Thee?

Normally, I restrict my blogging to sweets, and usually something that I've purchased from bakeries. But for January and February, the Babe is on a soup kick. Having purchased a Cuisinart pressure cooker on mad sale (I call him R2-D2) as well as an immersion blender, I'm all set to sally forth into Soup Land. Cooking shotgun this evening was Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, in the form of "Twelve Months of Monastery Soups."

I was interested to see that several of the soups in this book have cheese as an ingredient (well, who isn't in favor of cheese?), and picked Austrian Cheese Soup as my first try.

I was intrigued by the fact that the cheese soup had no cheese in it! No cheddar, no emmental...just cream cheese and yogurt. Looking at the recipe, it seemed to me that potatoes, leeks, and cream cheese would turn out to be...pretty dang bland. So I decided to deglaze the leeks with Vermouth and add a cube of vegetarian bullion. After sticker shock at the liquor store (16$ for vermouth?), I had all the ingredients assembled.

And was off at scratch with the saute.

After staring at R2-D2 bubbling and hissing for ten minutes, I realized that I had it on the wrong setting. But all told, it had about 17 minutes of high-pressure cooking before I mixed in an entire packet of cream cheese and a small container of Greek yogurt. The result was very rich and comforting, with a sour pucker from the yogurt. However, it did not taste like cheese, and it was a tad on the bland side. I added 1/4 cup vermouth to prink it up and was pleased with the result.

I will say that it's the sort of soup you really don't want to eat in large quantities...I'm never against indulgence, but a heaping bowlful took several hours to recover from. And when I heat this up for dinner tomorrow, I am definitely going to add some actual cheese.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sofra, the land of orange blossoms and honey

I think about food...a lot. A good portion of my day is spent meditating on the topic. But I will admit that after I have a blow-out of treats, like a box of Italian pastry goodies or a trio of Georgetown cupcakes, I don't think a few hours later, "I'd like another box of that right now." But this honor goes to Sofra, my newest food discovery and upcoming contender for best Boston bakery and cafe. Indeed, a few hours after I had ingested all that my stomach would allow at Sofra, I was sitting at home and was overtaken with a strong desire to hop in the car (that I don't own) and slap down a few twenties (that I don't have to spare) and ask for as many goodies as Sofra could fit in boxes.

So what is Sofra? It's a Persian bakery and cafe on the outskirts of Cambridge, next to one of the most beautiful places to walk through in all of Boston, Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Inside, you will find the warm aesthetic of a New England farmhouse mixed with the textiles and ambience of a Middle Eastern tea room. The tables are embossed copper drums that invite sharing a plate or two with your lunchmate, and the cozy seating arrangements lead to a sense of conviviality.

But none of that would matter if the food were not massively gourmet. And it is. Very, very rarely do I sit down to a plate of Middle Eastern food without being smacked across the face with a gaudy excess of garlic. And with dessert, it is usually phyllo dough that has been drowned in a deadly sweet pool of syrup. Maura and Ana are two culinary geniuses, as far as I'm concerned, who have taken eclectic flavors from across the Mediterranean and Middle East (allepo peppers, sumac, za'atar, orange blossoms, nigella seeds...) and created something masterful.

My lunch was a hefty plate of mezze (you can pick five different kinds from their mezze bar). I don't normally do this, but I think that the array is so tempting, that I will just copy the menu here for you:

hot pepper labne with mint sizzle
chickpea salad with harissa & dried lime
smoky eggplant with pinenuts
whipped  feta with sweet & hot peppers
beet tzatziki
maftoul salad with sweet potatoes
Moroccan style carrot salad
bamya - okra with tomato, red onion & saffron
fig salad with piquillo peppers & green garlic
squash skordalia with pepitas
muhammara—red pepper & walnut purée
kale tabouleh with barberries & pickled garlic

Add in some of their homemade flat bread or spongy and wondrous za'atar finger bread, and you have a lunch worthy of the gods. I sat on their patio making embarrassing little lip-smacking noises, marveling at how distinct and unique and complex the flavor was for each of these dishes...And then, when a sane person might have considered themselves satiated, I went back for dessert. Well, this is the Bakery Babe, not the Savory Snacks Princess! 

And Sofra does not disappoint with the baked goods. Greek semolina cakes called revani, soaked with orange blossom. Bird's nests with pistachios and saffron. Doughnuts with Persian spices. Short breads flavored with tahini, Egyptian bread pudding, almond rose cake, light Turkish simits that have a croissant-like flakiness...truly, I stood at the counter a bit slack-jawed, my mind spinning, unable to pick from the little trays of magic. 

But of course, I soldiered on and sampled away. Even if you don't fancy something overtly exotic, you can find yourself quite happy with a piece of pumpkin bread, a morning bun topped with orange-blossom glaze, or a chocolate earthquake cookie. 

This is one of the reasons I really adore can come for coffee and a doughnut or a full fledged mezze feast. And let me tell you, it is supremely rare to find a place that can pull off both sweet and savory with this kind of class. You may find yourself tempted to take home one of the many packages of syrups, spices, and pickles that they sell, ready to take on a cooking adventure of your own.

So make haste, hop on the bus, and take a little field trip to Sofra (don't forget to tour Mt. Auburn while you're there), and get ready for foodie nirvana.
1 Belmont Street, Cambridge MA 02138 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

St. Anthony's Feast in the North End

Don't ask why it's taken me two years to make it down to the North End for St. Anthony's Feast. This is easily one of the most exuberant, intimate, fun festivals I've ever been to. It's not like July 4th, where you will be negotiating millions of people to get a good spot by the Charles. St. Anthony's feels like a small-town feast, like you and a few hundred other people are happily shoulder-to-shoulder in the narrow streets of the North End, clapping for the Italian Street bands, eating zepoli and pizza, waiting for St. Anthony to be paraded through the street.

Here comes St. Anthony!


And then a minute later, kaboom, here comes the confetti!


Whatever your religion may be, it's moving to see people in this modern day, old and young, waiting with baited breath for a saint to come parading through the North End. Families bring their kids to pin a dollar on St. Anthony or touch his head for good luck. And if that doesn't tempt you, the streets are filled with marching bands and food stands.

Torrone, Italian ices, deep-fried rice balls, zepoli, Regina's pizza, sausage and peppers, arepas...really, there is something for everyone here. And just around the corner are the Italian bakeries on Hanover Street, just waiting to fill a box for you with tiramisu and ricotta cake. And if you have the time to come back at midnight, there are candle-light processions for St. Anthony and St. Lucy.

Here's their website, if you want more information for this 4-day festival that happens every August:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Boston Public Garden: Autumn Delights

The Boston Public Garden was created in 1837, adjacent to the much older Boston Commons. It was thought garish at the time, for its brightly colored flowers, but in modern times it certainly garners the lion share of visitors. And although I do love to sneak out for a walk in the Garden when it is piled with snow and icicles, by far my favorite time to see it is Fall. Today, realizing that the predicted "Frankenstorm" that is supposed to hit Boston on Monday will no doubt decimate the last of the leaves, I went for a proper wander. And I wasn't disappointed.



And a hop away from the Garden is the neighborhood of Beacon Hill, possibly one of the most photogenic, oldest, and richest neighborhoods in Boston. Brass street lamps, brightly painted doors, and old brick facades are to be found here, especially on the famous Chestnut street, where people vie in spring to take the iconic photos of flowering trees and old houses. But fall is not bad either, and I happily wandered about.


And I know what you're going to ask next. Bakery Babe, where should I eat in Beacon Hill? My favorite is still Cafe Vanille, a choice that invite anyone to argue with. It is one of the best french-style bakeries in Boston.

So do take a fall ramble, if you have the chance, and stop at Vanille for a slice of chocolate orange gateau. It's deluxe!

Cafe Vanille:
Boston Public Garden:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mt. Auburn Cemetery: Best Walk in Boston

Spoiler Alert: there are no baked goods in this post. But I can't help myself! If you're in Boston during fall and wondering how to spend an afternoon, Mt. Auburn is one of the prettiest and peaceful places to take a walk.

Basically, this is a cemetery that is also a walking park. Founded in 1831 by a Horticultural society, there is no part of Mt. Auburn that isn't packed with beautiful, old trees. In the autumn? Forget about it! There's not nice place to oggle fall leaves, trust me.
And don't be creeped out by the idea of walking through a graveyard. These are beautiful stones from long ago, when people wrote very sentimental things for their loved ones. It is more like a walk through history than creepy.
The only drawback for a bakery babe? You cannot, repeat, CANNOT take a picnic. And there is no cafe at hand to sit and eat goodies whilst gazing out at the park. However, about 5 minutes down Mt. Auburn St. by car or bus you will find Darwin's, one of my favorite sandwich and goody shops. My favorite afternoon involves a walk at Mt. Auburn and then ordering the Mt. Auburn sandwich at Darwin's, followed up by one of their cupcakes.
Curious? Check out the park's website:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Put on your pink tutu and boogie, Boston!

The Honk! parade sounds like it should be a disaster. Troops of brass bands wandering around Davis Square, honking and squaling with their tubas and trumpets. Not really the kind of thing I'd normally leave the apartment and seek out. But last year I was lucky enough to stumble on the parade by accident, and I was hooked. This event is the ultimate revenge of the band geeks. Bands of musicians get duded up in their best alterna band tutus, buzzy bee tights, rabbit suits...anything goes.

In fact, I knew the Honkers! were in town on Saturday when a man walked by me wearing nothing but black tights with lemonade-yellow underwear on over his tights, clutching his trombone. These peeps didn't come here to march in rank n' file, they came to boogie. Seriously, boogie. Honk, toot, drum like maniacs, and parade like the freak circus just rolled into town. Pictures don't really do it justice to decribe the chaotic cacaphony of twenty brass bands rolling through the square, complete with unicyclists, dancing girls on stilts, and some really cute home-grown kids in Halloween costumes too.

It's so casual that it's less a parade and more of a huge block party. The key difference is that under all those wigs and false eyelashes are some really fine musicians. I mean dang good ones. You will find yourself jumping, wriggling, shaking your booty, and cheering for these marvelous revelling band geeks. They really are special, and I highly recommend that you come check out the Honk! parade the next time they roll through town. Given that it's on the same weekend as Octoberfest, you're not likely to lack for food or frosty beverages to consume whilst the fun goes down.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cardullos: And the kitchen sink

I first became a regular at Cardullo's about ten years ago, when as a graduate student, I survived the winters on their liverwurst sandwiches. Bitchin' sourdough, thick slabs of meat butter, and all the usual sandwich accoutrement, plus a jolly big Italian guy who worked behind the sandwich counter and made you feel like you were in a scene from Moonstruck. Fast forward ten years. The Babe doesn't eat anything that started off life with hooves (so nix on the liverwurst), and the jolly Italian guy has been replaced by college kids. BUT, this is still THE place to grab a sandwich in Harvard square. Their french rolls, in particular, should be contraband.

But there are other reasons to visit Cardullos besides the sandwhich bar, namely the entire rest of the store. This place is packed, and I do mean packed, with every imported delicacy, specialty food, and gourment goody you could want.

Need Turkish delight? Check.

Need Hob Nobs and a cuppa British breakfast tea? Check.

Need love tea? Check!

German marzipan?

Ten dollar bars of artisan chocolate?

Basically, every corner of this shop is crammed with something that will make your foodie heart thump loudly. At Christmas, in particular, I have to refrain from buying multiple British puddings (as in, figgy me, you want it). The only catch? Imports cost money. Artisan costs money. So bring yourself here for a sandwich or a treat, but don't bring the rent money!
And where to eat that gorgeous liverwurst sandwich you may order? I recommend the steps of Widener Library, as Harvard yard is only a few feet away. I like to think I get smarter just by sitting on the steps and enjoying some goodies.