A Shamefaced Admission

I had a really lovely Thanksgiving — full of friends and family and an utterly incomprehensible amount of food. I have so much to be thankful for, from a great job to an unbelievable support system, to even the basic necessities of light, heat, food, and a roof over my head, which I am all the more so grateful for in light of Hurricane Sandy. But I do have one regret from Thanksgiving, a disappointment in my own behavior. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve discovered my threshold: I ate myself to the point of nausea.

To be honest, I’m hardly a prodigious eater on an everyday level. I don’t usually try to push the limits, Kobayashi-style (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj0CXP_xSL4) (gross, I know), but on certain special occasions, I try to bring my A-game. The most recent incident was at Rosh Hashanah this year, when I challenged the notion of how much dessert is too much dessert (I don’t know, because I didn’t reach a point of saturation. BOOM.) But this Thanksgiving I … I just don’t know what happened. Maybe it was all of the cheese and crackers (Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisp, check them out) and stuffed mushrooms and chips and salsa I ate for appetizers. I tried to compensate by reining myself in during the main meal, knowing the importance of sampling the dessert platter — after all, I have a reputation to uphold. But even with an enforced sabbatical of 90 minutes to settle and prepare my stomach, I found myself incapable of coherent conversation after just a small slice of pie and a single lump of rice pudding. I excused myself from the table in pain and humiliation.

Let’s try to focus on the positives, though. While my consumption was somewhat underwhelming (on a public showing level, of course. Clearly stuffing my myself to the brim personally counts as eating a lot.), the holiday provided a venue for me to try out a number of recipes I’d been sitting on for a while. And man, did I let my foodgawker freak flag fly. Here are some of the dishes that graced our table during Thanksgiving:

Round One: Appetizers

For the appetizers I made stuffed mushrooms and rolled a log of goat cheese in a mixture of chopped pecans and craisins. My mother provided an excellent selection of Spanish cheeses plus good ol’ cheddar, and chips and salsa. New favorite tortilla chip (because yes, I am this specific in my tastes)? Tostito’s Multigrain Scoops.

Round Two: Main Course Overload

This gives you the panoramic view of the Thanksgiving table. Starting on the left, we’ve got the classic turkey (expertly carved by my mother) with gravy and stuffing nearby, then Ina Garten’s cranberry conserve, popovers and phyllo deli rolls in the background (by my brother’s girlfriend), butternut squash-pomegranate quinoa (by my good friend Sarah), my take on a veggie gratin, Sarah and my attempt at honey fig goat cheese stuffed muffins, green bean casserole (Pioneer Woman by way of my mother), and my mom’s classic sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Phew.

Round Three: Dessert Extravaganza

Now here are some major stops on the train to dessert-town. First up, my Bourbon-soaked Raisin Cinnamon Rice Pudding. It was my first attempt at rice pudding, and I think it turned out pretty well. Thankfully I managed to snag some leftovers, since my stomach could only handle a teaspoon of it on Thursday.

A Cookie Menagerie

Okay, so here we’ve got a mishmash of authors. From the left we have my mocha white chocolate cookies, then my pumpkin-pecan tassies (tartlets), then my mother’s white chocolate mint M&M cookies, and finally her world-renowned, lifechanging chocolate chip cookies that are a staple at my house, regardless of the time of year.

Chocolate Ganache S’Mores Pie

And last, but definitely not least, we have my favorite dessert of the holiday. Sarah made a mocha ganache s’mores pie with a Nutella-graham-cracker crust and marshmallow topping. Now I’m not a Nutella fan for the most part (I know, I know, but I just don’t like hazelnuts! I’m a mutant, I get it), but whatever web of magic Sarah wove with this pie, I could not get enough of that crust. And obviously my previous posts on both chocolate items and coffee make it clear that I’m a mocha fan. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have 2/3 of this pie sitting in my apartment’s fridge right now, just biding its time.

There was also a tray of assorted M&Ms (peanut butter ftw), a fruit salad, and a bowl of jelly beans, because heaven forbid there isn’t enough variety on the table. Although I guess the fruit salad counts as a last-ditch effort to be virtuous. I had a couple of grapes.

In the end, I was pretty satisfied with my first Thanksgiving as a foodie and aspiring home cook. Some of the dishes turned out only mediocre (veggie gratin, I’m looking at you), and some I was really proud of (those mushrooms were delicious). But it was a nice preview of how my Thanksgivings down the road could be, with all the stress of managing oven temperatures and scheduling when you’ll start dishes, combined with the sheer joy of sharing my passion and efforts with family and friends. Oh, and all the eating, that was pretty great, too.

And yes, now my fridge is full to the brim with tupperware, although I already used up most of the turkey with my new go-to leftovers recipe — Turkey Pot Pie Soup!

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The Grand Cookie Crawl: Levain Bakery

Outside Levain

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t have a Thanksgiving/food/family related post this week, with the big Turkey day coming up. But in the meantime I wanted to share a quick recap of my recent trip to Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side. It’s part of my epic, never to be finished cookie crawl through NYC. In a vain attempt to set parameters, I’ve made the top priority chocolate chip cookies, but my foodie cohort Jacob and I have already amassed a list of about 15 bakeries we need to explore. Heaven forbid I ever expand beyond the 5 boroughs.

Levain was actually the second stop on our informal cookie tour. Last week I went to City Bakery, but being a much better eater than blogger, I immediately stuffed the cookies in my face without taking a single photo. To provide contrast to my Levain experience, here’s a quick recap:

City Bakery in the Flatiron District is more like a snack bar/cafeteria, with sandwiches, soups, salads, etc. to go along with their desserts. It’s a fairly spacious place when you walk in, with seating on two floors and a main ordering station in the center. The cookies are situated under heat lamps near the register. Jacob and I tried the regular chocolate chip (they also offer a vegan one), and the double chocolate cookie. Both are palm-sized, thin and crispy cookies with a good bend upon breaking. The chocolate chip was solid, with strong vanilla and cinnamon notes, but the winner of the day was the double chocolate, which was rich without being overbearing, and skirted the line between dark chocolate and milk. They were both solid contenders, and I’d definitely recommend City Bakery to someone who prefers a chewier cookie.

Now Levain is a different beast altogether.  The bakery is a bit of a NY institution — its goods have been declared among the city’s best by countless websites and magazines, from Time Out NY to Daily Candy, to New York Magazine, to my personal fave, Serious Eats. Not to mention the fact that multiple close friends had raved to me about the cookies as being “life-changing.” So clearly I had to get my butt over there.

 

First Impressions:

I was surprised at how tiny Levain is. It’s basically a hole-in-the-wall storefront with the space devoted almost exclusively to the actual baking operation (good sign — these people take their baking seriously). You walk down a quick flight of steep stairs and cram into a tiny space to order from their very limited menu. Levain makes 4 types of cookies, a couple of rotating scones, and a handful of sandwiches and bread loaves. There are a few seats at a high counter by the window, but the crowd of people made it impossible to linger when Jacob and I were there.

From my perch at the top of the stairs, I tried to pick out which cookies I should sample (pro tip: bring a friend with you to avoid the shame of buying two cookies by yourself). I thought at first that the display was full of scones, but was quickly corrected — those, my friend, were the cookies. Holy moley.

The Cookies:

Since my main criteria for the cookie crawl is the noble chocolate chip, I of course had to get Levain’s signature Chocolate Chip Walnut. To mix it up, we also picked the Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter, leaving the Dark Chocolate Chip and the Oatmeal Raisin for another day. The cookies we were given were warm, and seemed to be fresh out of the oven. A quick sniff from the bag overwhelmed my nose with buttery, chocolatey aromas. This was gonna be good.

I’ve included a picture of Jacob’s fist next to a cookie to give a sense of scale. These things were massive, and heavy. There was a real heft to each one, and again I was reminded of scone more than anything else from the crispy outside. But thankfully, these cookies were far from the dry, crumbly scones at your local Starbucks. Once split apart, it was clear that Levain bakes each cookie fresh — the insides were warm and doughy, just underbaked so the chocolate chips liquified. The same was true of the dark chocolate peanut butter cookie, creating the effect of melted peanut butter swirled through the dough.

 

The Verdict:

Oh man, everyone was so, so right. I’m not usually a nuts-in-baked-goods person, and walnuts are my least favorite of the bunch, but I would eat Levain’s signature cookie for a living. It was my perfect consistency — a little crunch on the outside, but reminiscent of cookie dough on the inside, as opposed to the chewy, but fully baked cookies from City Bakery. And my god, you could pretty much taste the sticks of butter in these. Gooey, sweet but not overpoweringly so, I am totally a Levain convert now.

The high quality of the ingredients was especially clear in the dark chocolate peanut butter cookie. I think that the peanut butter/chocolate combo can often be spoiled by cheap peanut butter than tastes artificial and waxy, detracting from the chocolate rather than enhancing it. But Levain uses the best peanut butter chips I have ever tasted, hands down. It was such a rich, strong peanut taste, it was more like they somehow made baking chips out of the best natural peanut butter on the market. I was blown away by that aspect more than the dark chocolate base.

Now obviously these cookies are pretty monstrous, and once you’re done, there’s a small sugary pit that forms in your stomach, so if you’re looking for a light snack, don’t go to Levain. But if you’re a baker, cookie connoisseur, or just on the hunt for a damn fine dessert, check it out. Levain takes the top spot on the cookie crawl rankings, silly as that may be since there are only two so far. But it’s interesting to already see the distinctions in the types of cookies — can you even really compare City Bakery and Levain since they’re striving for such different consistencies? I guess I’ll just have to keep trying new cookies and see if the wider sample set reveals any trends. What a burden.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope you have plenty of turkey, joy, and of course desserts awaiting you on Thursday!

 
City Bakery 
3 West 18th Street  New York, NY 10011
http://www.thecitybakery.com/

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street  New York, NY 10023
www.levainbakery.com/

The Ballad of Geraldine Skullcrusher (Aka how I got my Kitchenaid Mixer)

Of all of the gadgets I’ve lately desired
A Kitchenaid Stand Mixer was highest aspired
For years I had managed with whisk and greased elbow
My dreams of speed-baking resigned to a “hell no.”
And so ever the realist, I eagerly pined
For a wedding-day registry that I had designed
For otherwise my mixer was a fanciful dalliance,
My dough-making hopes stalled by bank account balance.

But one fateful morning, my friend texted a dispatch
“Stoop sale! Stand mixer! I think it’s a clear match!”
So I hustled on down to her block in the East
And found, sure enough, that my quest had now ceased!
For alongside the books and the knicks knacks displayed
Lay a dusty stand mixer, faded, but staid.
With quavering voice, I meekly asked for the price
Assuming my hopes would be crushed in a vice
But the seller was eager to offload all her wares,
And for just half a Benny, thus was answered my prayers.

With my new prize in tow I trekked to friends’, then to home
(The weight of this purchase was physically shown —
This old-fashioned mixer, at least 10 years accrued
Left its mark on my heart, and my arms black and blued)
I christened her Geraldine, in a nod to the homemaking
I envisioned our duo to be soon undertaking
And surname Skullcrusher to acknowledge her heft
My mixer could kick ass and take names for the WWF.

In the year since that day I’ve made countless confections
Ms. Skullcrusher only gathering more of my affections
I can’t even conceive how I managed before
I dragged that big ass stand mixer inside of my door.
She may be a used model with a decades-old labeling
But I’m indebted to GS for the sugar-addiction enabling.
Though she lives in the hall closet when not whipping cream,
I’ll always think of owning Gerry as achieving a dream.

My baby, Geraldine Skullcrusher

The inspiration for my poor attempts at poetry — Ms. Skullcrusher herself.

Review: Brick Lane Curry

I am one of the lucky few in the New York/Tri-state area to have made it through “Superstorm Sandy” with nary an inconvenience, except for extremely long lines at the grocery store and occasional houseguest using my shower and electrical outlets. Cozy in my UES apartment with lights, heat, hot water, and a steady internet connection, I can only count my blessings and keep my thoughts with those who were not so fortunate. Here’s hoping that the disaster relief crews and utility services work safely and speedily to restore service, and many, many thanks to all of the men and women out there who are trying to do so.

It seems sort of callous to post a restaurant review in light of all of the hardship being endured right now, but I really wanted to share my thoughts on Brick Lane Curry, now that I finally managed to have a meal there.

After a number of scheduling and weather-related mishaps, I was able to sit down to dinner last night at Brick Lane. Here’s what I found:

Note all the wood paneling and chandeliers

From inside the restaurant looking towards the front.

Decor:

Lots of wood all over the place, with four zones of tables starting at the front windows (the very same tables that had taunted me for months), then across from the bar, up into a balcony, and in a back dining room that seemed almost French-salon-esque in decor. The main space is dominated by a gorgeous and enormous bar, but it’s completely empty at the moment, since Brick Lane has yet to acquire its liquor license (a quick trip to the Duane Reade across the street made our dinner BYOB). Overall the tone of the place is very upscale, from the table settings to the dress of the waitstaff — this is not your average Curry Hill lunch spot.

The large and empty bar (those beers are byo)

Service:

The service was a little slow, unfortunately, but you have to be a bit forgiving considering they only opened a few weeks ago, and the transportation issues from Sandy that left most restaurants uptown understaffed. Our waiter was very nice and speedy with the water refills and the initial basket of papadom, but they brought out our dishes in two spurts with a bit of a lag in between, and they messed up handling the bill between cash and credit card instructions, charging one person only $4 instead of the amount she wrote on the check.

View from the front of the restaurant looking back into the balcony and rear dining room.

Food:

– Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the food because I was so ravenous and eager by the time it came (I have to get better at this food blogging thing). I ordered lamb saag and naan, which came with the normal rice pilaf, in good size portions. The meat was very tender and juicy, and the naan was warm, fluffy and well toasted, but the rice was lukewarm, and unfortunately, the flavor of the saag itself was a little too mild. I have a pretty low tolerance for spicy food, so I wasn’t interested in a hot curry, but the saag sort of just sat on my tongue without leaving a real presence. It certainly wasn’t bad, but considering their claims of being a real British curry house, I was a little disappointed at just how far afield this dish was compared to the wonderful saag I had when I was living in Scotland (if you ever find yourself near the University of Glasgow, please go to Ashoka. Best Indian food I’ve eaten, hands down.)

What made the underwhelming saag even more disappointing was the cost of the meal. Each curry has a base price of $15, and my lamb saag was at $19, not including the order of naan. Understandably, Brick Lane is going for a more upscale vibe, but I have honestly had a more flavorful Indian dinner at cheaper restaurants in New York, from Baluchi’s to Om to Gandhi Cafe. Everyone at dinner last night paid upwards of $20 for their meal, which is far from ridiculous in Manhattan, but as an underpaid, deal-centric 20-something, if I’m going to make the choice not to spend money on a non-Chipotle or pizza dinner, I’d like a little more bang for my buck.

Final Thoughts:

As I said before, there was no way that Brick Lane Curry could ever live up to the expectations I built up over the months of watching and waiting for it to open. Overall, it was pretty middle of the road for me, and I definitely would opt for ordering a different dish over saag if I go again. They don’t seem to have any delivery deals the way most of the Indian places around here do, so I’ll probably stick to my current favorites on Seamless. However, the convenience of Brick Lane’s proximity to my apartment, and the fact that they offer a lunch deal with an entree, rice, naan and dessert for $10, makes it likely that I will return during weekend lunches to explore new Indian dishes. At least I can now firmly close this chapter of restaurant stalking, albeit with more of a gentle page turning than a resounding thud.

(PS: The bakery I mentioned in my post Restaurant Stalking has closed again. They are moving uptown to East Harlem, and assuming yet another name. The UES economy claims another victim.)
Stay safe everyone!