Saturday, June 30, 2012

A bit o' crumpet, please!

Of the many life dilemmas I ponder, it's the culinary variety that yield the biggest payoff. "What exactly," I asked myself, "is a crumpet?" The closest thing we have in America are Thomas's English Muffins, which just don't sing out "tea with the Queen, please!" An academic at heart, I did some serious researching (typed "crumpet" in google), and found this definition:
A thick, flat, savory cake with a soft, porous texture, made from a yeast mixture cooked on a griddle and eaten toasted and buttered.
Or, in other words, it's a cross between an English muffin and a pancake, more spongy and light than a gluteny muffin, pale and soft, the perfect mechanism to trap large quantities of melted butter in its cavernous crags.

But where to find such a beauty? Well, some days the gods smile on the Babe. And this week, not only did I find a bag of crumpets at Shaws (in their bakery/bread section, not in the regular bread aisle), but Bonne Maman jam was half off. "Hello, hot cheeks!" I shouted and snagged a bottle of apricot and a bottle of raspberry. Well, what can I say, the bakery babe gets a little heated about subjects like quality jam, and Bonne Maman really is one of the nicest. If you ever have a chance to try their cherry preserves, it is heavenly.  But taking what they had, back to my toaster I ran, and proceeded to slather my crumpet with inordinant quantities of butter and apricot.

The payoff was spectacular. Or, as I imagine Prince Charles would say, they were bloody good!  Even plain, they make a cup of tea into an event. And lately, as you can see from past entries, I've been pondering the beauty of the afternoon tea ritual. Most of the world has moved on to grabbing a cafe latte at Starbucks for their afternoon pick-me-up. And goodness knows, I often do so myself. But there is something very comforting, in this life of calorie counting and scrambling up the corporate ladder, to spending half an hour with a pot of tea and a buttery crumpet. Call it gentility. Call it a sure fire plan to gain weight. But whatever it is, the Babe is in favor of it. Plus, need I say, there is a certain joy in simply saying "Crumpets!" in a loud voice. I guarantee that if you invite your friends over for crumpets, nobody will turn you down (warning: "crumpet" is slang for an attractive girl on the other side of the pond). So get thee to Shaws, Bostonians, and unleash the crumpets!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

NYC The Russian Tearoom: the best birthday ever!

The Bakery Babe and her good buddy at the Russian Tearoom
On my trip to NYC, my dear friend (hereafter known by her true name, Wonder Woman) treated the Babe to a birthday present so deluxe, so unique, and so distinctly New Yorky, that it goes down in my book of unforgettable birthday presents: High tea at the Russian Tearoom.

Enter a densely decorated restaurant done entirely in forest green and red, complete with gold phoenixes and fake Chagalls on the walls, Russian waiters in military uniforms, and a singular sense of "they just don't make 'em like this anymore" at the over-the-top kitsch. As we were seated in a glorious, deep booth and looked at the menu, there were only two choices. High tea. Or High tea with even more caviar. Such are the kind of dilemmas I can suffer.

The tea itself comes in glasses inserted in brass holders, and a little dish of sweetened cherries arrives. One is to sweeten the tea with a cherry instead of sugar, the waiter informed us, as the Babe strained to discern if he was faking that marvelous Russian accent. As he went on to describe in detail the glories of herring finger sandwiches, blini with caviar, and the many kinds of truffles and cake we'd be eating, I decided the accent was real. No actor could fake that kind of sentiment for herring paste. The food comes arranged on the tea tray like a modern piece of art, as if each little sandwich is a constructed art form that must have its own space. It was the opposite of the crowded tower of British teatime goodness eulogized in my last post. Was the food the zenith of all that was possible in tea goods? Caviar and herring are not my normal fare, so the meal was more like an adventure than a comfortable sail on a pleasure barge. But in looking around at an ambiance where you expect to see Catherine the Great having a smoked salmon sandwich, it really doesn't matter if you find it puzzling to eat fish eggs on a pancake with sour cream. The point is, you're in the Russian Tearoom, and it's amazing. So thank you, Wonder Woman, for a present I'll never forget!

Friday, June 22, 2012

NYC: A Cuppa Rosie Lee at Tea & Sympathy

In the heart of the village, just a few blocks from Magnolia bakery, is Tea & Sympathy, a small tea shop that takes the art of British comfort food to a holy event. Now, some claim that there is no such thing as British cuisine, that you have brown sauce in a bottle, beans from a tin, and dodgy sausages mocking the art form of the hot dog. Well, having lived in England, all I can say is that it grows on you. And it won't be too long until you too want your fry-up with a side of beans and sausages. So see if you can grab one of the tables with waxy floral table clothes, squeeze in, and savor the kitsch. Tea nick-nacks, commemorative Charles & Di plates, a mask of the queen...tongue is clearly in cheek at Tea & Sympathy, and they have every right, given that almost everyone associated with the restaurant is British, including a bevy of tartish, good-hearted lasses at the counter.

On the menu are classics such as Welsh rarebit (a glorified grilled cheese sandwich; there's not actually rabbit in it, before you ask), fish pie, sausages, and a mammoth array of baked goods. On the day I was visiting, there were two Victoria sponge cakes on the counter (two plain yellow cakes that sandwich a thick layer of jam and whipped cream), a pineapple cake, and a bevy of sticky toffee cupcakes.

If you order the full tea, a three-tray bonanza of cake and sanwiches will appear on your table, along with a marvelous pot of tea. It may well be as close as you will get to "real" tea time in NYC. I say "real" because the essence of British tea time rotates around comfort food, chipped china and all. You should in fact, feel that you have been stuffed to the gills with simple luxness, then have a few cups of tea and see if that doesn't clear the way for another cucumber and butter sandwich. It can be, in its purest form, one of the most comforting food rituals that I know of. And Tea & Sympathy is THE place to try it.

One of my favorite memories of Tea & Sympathy was going near to Christmas time and finding that they had mince pies on the menu. And when I inquired if there was brandy butter to go with, the waitress embarked on a rhapsody of how she too thought brandy butter was akin to godliness. When she brought flaky little pies filled with raisins, nutmeg, and cloves, it was with a glob of brandy butter the size of a softball. I think I may have gotten a little tipsy from that brandy butter, but it stands out as one of the most wonderful treats I've ever had. That's the sort of magic that happens at Tea & Sympathy. And if you want to take the recipes home with you, they have an excellent cookbook you can buy in the little store, which is stacked from floor to ceiling with British goodies that you may or may not be longing for. Personally, it was with great self control that I walked out without buying ten of their hand-crocheted tea cozies and Staffordshire teapots. Such are the strange thrills of a bakery babe.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

NYC Lily O'Brien's Chocolate Cafe: Good Times in Bryant Park

Bryant Park is a wasteland of frozen zombies in the winter; you can walk by on your way to the NY public library and see not a soul in the park. But the summer is a different story. They have movies on the green, an outdoor cafe, and a merry-go-round. In short, it's the quintessential New Yorker summer close to nature as you can get without going to, shudder, New Jersey. And right in back of the carousel is a very nice, tucked-away chocolate shop: Lily O'Brien's Chocolate Cafe.

I would've walked right by Lily's, had my good buddy not spotted it. A wee little shop, with a small counter of homemade chocolates, a wall of to-go choco gifts, a small barista set-up for coffee, and, drum roll, a case of macaroons. Now, the chocolate was good, don't get me wrong. More than good, although by no means cheap.

But what drew me in like a tractor beam were the macaroons. Small delicate meringues with any number of heavenly fillings. Chewy and sweet, light and yet decadent. The macaroon is one of the most understated residents of a bakery, and when done well, are capable of transporting otherwise sane people into swooning adolescents. At least, that's how I feel about them.

Lily's even had an Earl Grey macaroon, which was...yes, blue. Adoration would be the word, as I let the true taste of tea dance over my tongue. So often when chefs say something is flavored with Earl Grey, it disappears into the taste of the dish. Lily's really does theirs right, giving a bright punch of flavor. Besides, who could say no to this color?

But if European style macaroons don't thrill you, take heart. Lily's has the big clumpy kind that taste like an Almond Joy.

The other nice thing about Lily's? They give you a free bon-bon with every coffee. So, if you're feeling a bit peckish on you way to visit the public library lions, stop in and give Lily's a chance. It's worth it!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Crumbs Bake Shop NYC: In n' Out Cupcakes

Don't be fooled by their title; Crumbs Bake Shop has anything but the leftovers. What I found was the quintessential NYC sugar pit stop. There are no chairs or space to linger. You go into one of their many locations and get straight to business. The cupcakes are not situated to entice or bewitch, rather they are loaded on racks just tall enough to fit them. The expectation is not so much that you'll linger, but that you already know what you want.

With flavors like blueberry swirl and cheesecake brownie, you might just have to order one of each. And if you are in a party mind, try one of their gigantic cupcakes that will feed four people handsomely.

I had a birthday cupcake, which was simple yellow cake and lovely chocolate frosting with a halo of sprinkles.

I have to say, this cupcake was not too expensive, the cake was light, and the frosting was quite pleasant. I made the mistake of eating an entire one on my own and it was several hours before I could contemplate another nibble.

Perhaps there is an original Crumbs bakery floating around NYC that is richly quaint and charming. But until I find it, I'll say that Crumbs is a great source of well-priced cupcakes that you can drop into anytime and snark out with a party-full of goodies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NYC Magnolia Bakery: The Babe Needs Her Smelling Salts!

I have to be careful in describing Magnolia Bakery, because the temptation to break into frenzied, heightened phrases of elation is rather pressing. There are many times when a place gains a reputation, puts out a cookbook, has lines out the block, and once you finally go, you think, "Seriously, what was the hype about?" That is NOT the case with Magnolia Bakery, a shabby-chic bakery in the heart of the village that is justifiably legendary for their cupcakes. As I walked into a small bakery with mixers running frosting in the background, plump & bulging cakes set in the window, rows of cupcakes with frosting of robin's egg blue, old-time Depression-Era green, and pretty-in-pink, I inhaled deeply, and very nearly swooned. Yes, the Babe needed her smelling salts, so taken was she with the intangible feeling of having arrived at your best Grandma's house circa 1920.

What is the key to a really good bakery, I often ask myself. More and more I think it is this: don't try to reinvent the wheel. The oldies but goodies don't need to be fiddled with, they just need to be made well. Magnolia Bakery takes those things we remember from our childhood, like icebox cake (wafers layered with whipped cream that turn into the most marvelous cake after they've set), and makes them without apology. In an age where many bakers feel obliged to run on about their creme brulee crystals and salted lavender foam toppings, it's a delight to finally come face to face with dainties done right.

And boy, are these dainties wicked!

And why are the cupcakes so famous, you ask? Well, I can't say much more than this: I bit into a light-as-air cake and soft cloud of sweet icing and my brain went limp. I can't tell you what it tasted like, just that it jolted me into a state of zen enlightenment, a state that I intend to revisit at every possible opportunity. No need for a thousand years of meditating, just belly up to the cupcake case and go nutty.

And if cuppies do nothing for you, may I recommend the many kinds of mini cheesecakes?

One visit, and I submit you will understand why New Yorkers will wait in a line out the door in the middle of December with little icicles hanging off their noses just to get in an order of cupcakes. So do go. Grandma is waiting for you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NYC Fine Food Emporium: A Worm in the Big Apple

There's always a certain thrill about arriving in NYC and walking down the sidewalk in a canyon of silver buildings, hives of neon lights, honking taxis, subway grates spouting plumes of smoke, and New Yorkers dashing like irate road runners through traffic. And for the Babe, the most pressing sense of thrill is the certainty that on any given block in the city, there is a multiplicity of eating opportunities.

Prior to my trip there this weekend, I would've said that you can't go wrong in NYC. Pick a bakery and dive in. While hanging around for Broadway tickets on W. 49th Street, I saw what looked to be a promising Zabar's knockoff: Fine Foods Emporium. Feeling a bit peckish, I wandered in and found an enormous dessert case of every conceivable bar, cheesecake, brownie, and parfait. Truly, I thought I'd discovered some unknown treasure.

Everything looked good. And expensive. But in NYC, one must learn not to flinch at the idea that a cupcake costs $7. Or so I told myself as I buckled at the sight of this flaming beauty:

It was the red velvet cupcake to lay ruin and waste to all others. The Big Mac of cupcakes. It was enormous, and had looks like no pastry I'd laid eyes on before. I snapped it up and was barely on the sidewalk before I popped this weighty devil out and stuffed it in my mouth. But, OH, what sorrow. What tragedy. What a ding dang rip-off. The icing had the distinct flavor of dairy product that has gone off and may or may not be presenting a bacterial danger. And the cake had such an overdose of salt that I couldn't taste anything else. Bad cream cheese and a cup of salt. I'd been had. And there, flat and slithered on the sidewalk, lay my prospects of a sublime eating marathon for my weekend in NYC.

I can say with total certainty that you should shut your eyes and plug your ears as you walk past the Fine Food Emporium; resist the siren call of these bad-tasting beauties.

But don't despair, friends of the Bakery Babe. I had 2.5 days in the city. Do you really think I let one bad cupcake stop me? Stay tuned for my pilgrimage to such shrines as Magnolia Bakery, Tea & Sympathy, and Crumbs Bakery...and even, drum roll, THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Babe is Back! Tales of Dodgy Doughnuts in San Miguel de Allende

I will admit, I left for San Miguel de Allende with visions of Mexican pastries piled up high on silver trays and delivered with elegant little tongs while sitting in carved wood chairs, possibly with a lone guitarist strumming in the corner. "Another cinnamon snail, Senorita Pastela?" Why, yes, thank you! But as with all adventures, they rarely turn out as one expects. San Miguel is a beautiful town with many sublime little corners of old beauty. But it is micheladas, a wicked refresco consisting of a base mix (tamarind? V-8? Every bar has its own secret mix), beer, lime juice, and a salted rim that seem to be on every menu, and a raft of highly edible savories that populate every table. Not so much with the cupcakes and cafe lattes. But as I said, it may not matter much in the end. When in Rome...

While it's true that I did cavort on ancient pyramids, witness the amazing pageantry of the vaille de maize celebration, and stroll about ridiculously photogenic cobblestone streets in a michelada haze, I did also find a few sweet nibbles. Mexican pastries for the most part stay away from butter and veer toward light and flaky. The cinnamon pastries mostly seem to be more like rolls with flakes of whole cinnamon bark scattered throughout.

Cake tends to be decorated with elaborate fruit toppings that are very edible (but I beg you, make sure it is from a good source. Unwashed fruit = pain).

On the outskirts of town, out in the suburbs, you can find larger supermarkets with goodies for sale.

But in all seriousness, the very best pastry I ate in San Miguel de Allende was sold from the back of an old Ford truck with bounteous rows of fat doughnuts and custard horns lined up. The local doughnut lady pulls up by the church, opens the back of her camper shell, and the whole neighborhood knows to descend and claim a haul of plump pillowy goodness. Dodgy? Perhaps. Legal? Who knows! No photo evidence shall be tendered; the identity of the Queen of Mexican Doughnuts is mine alone to know. But trust me, she is there, on dusty cobblestone streets, amongst a cacophony of street dogs, chickens, church bells, and backfiring '72 chevies. But you will have to venture outside the picture-perfect town center to find her. Such pastry rewards are for the brave, my friends. For all others, there's always a cold michelada and a bowl of chips looking out on the peaceful Jardin. Hey, either way works for the babe!