The Struggle of the Slightly-Informed and Writing Resolutions

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the "thoughts" and "feelings."

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the “thoughts” and “feelings.”

Wow, it’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it? Hard to believe I’m actually sitting my butt down and writing a post for Experimental Gastronomy. But believe it, because I’m hoping to make this a regular recurring deal again. As I promised oh so many months ago, my intention is to have this blog evolve, since my own relationship with food has changed since EG’s inception way back in 2013. Food forms the basis of both my professional and academic pursuits, so it seems foolish to imagine that I could continue posting reviews and musings as just a passionate, fairly uninformed reader. However, before I start busting out new vocabulary (bottarga! torchon! and my favorite, chef de partie!), I want to take a step back into my comfort zone, aka, neuroticism, and talk about some of the pseudo-struggles that have come with my new perspective.

 

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four kids, and the only girl, but I’ve never liked to argue. I’d guess that part of that comes from early formative experiences when my older brothers (the youngest of them 6 years my elder), tore apart my arguments for why I deserved a second chocolate chip cookie rather than them. With that background, perhaps it’s no surprise that I tend to default to avoiding confrontation if I’m not armed with a lot of facts and statistics. This might seem counterintuitive, since I was president of the Debate Club in high school, but actually that’s where I was most comfortable — I’d spend the week before each meeting studying up on the topic so I could make a coherent argument for my side.

 

This is actually a large factor for why I chose to go back to school (that, and a deep, abiding love for spiral notebooks). I found myself getting more and more passionate about issues of nutrition and food policy, but reluctant to take a public stand since my knowledge was limited to what I’d read on the Internet. Unlike many people in my generation, I don’t believe that having a Twitter handle means I’m a qualified expert. I’m hoping that with 3 or so years of NYU Food Studies education stuffed into my brain, I might actually be able to give a thorough answer when my friends and family members ask me about heirloom vegetables or GMOs.

 

Which brings me back to a current dilemma: what role does the informed friend or family member play in the lives of those around them? I was asked a number of times over the holidays about my opinions on factory farming, genetic modification, and organic food. In those cases, as with politics and religion, I feel like the best bet is to gently voice my opinions, but admit that I’m only about a hundredth more informed than the questioner at this point, and try to point them to resources with more information.

 

But what if you see someone making food choices in their life that you feel are less healthy, or even harmful? I really wrestle with this — I told people when I started reading more about the American food system and nutrition that I never want to be the obnoxious, preachy person off to the side. I went to high school with too many overly-vocal vegetarians to enter into that headspace. Food is so intensely personal for people, embedded with past experiences both positive and negative, and imbued with cultural resonance that draws the map we all navigate everyday. It’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate someone’s relationship with food without a deep knowledge of their background, and even then, we all have good and bad days. We’re usually witness to just a small sliver of an individual’s food choices — I recently realized that one of my friends only sees me in group settings where I tend to relax my general healthy food regimen — I have to wonder if she thinks I shovel Oreos and Peanut Butter M&Ms into my mouth 24/7, given how I behave around her. And that’s exactly the problem — I’m far from a paragon of Gwyneth Paltrow-esque purity. So who am I to clamber up on a high horse and raise an eyebrow when you pour yourself a glass of Crystal Light or bust open a box of Skinny Cow?

 

Do you only step in if you know there’s conclusive scientific evidence? Do I push for my relatives to buy organic milk to avoid antibiotics in their dairy? Do I become that person that sends around links to NPR articles about salmonella contamination in industrially-farmed chicken? Or is it the same as other taboo topics — in polite company, keep it to yourself? The Victorian version of food advocacy — speak only when spoken to? One of my cousins is a family doctor, and has to put up with us constantly having her check our throats whenever we sniffle slightly. But I’ve never seen her lay down the law on someone as they dive into their fifth helping of brisket during seder (that someone often times being me).

 

Beyond the initial question of whether to pipe up, even when I am directly asked questions about nutrition and the state of food production in America, I find myself being consciously tentative. One my greatest fears is to come off as patronizing, yet I hope someday to make educational media for mass audiences. How can I one day get up on a soapbox if I can’t negotiate the nuances of a conversation with a relative or friend? Does NYU offer a course on that?

 

Like most things in life, I guess it’s just going to be a messy, complex work in progress. In the meantime, let’s switch gears and get into a little food porn to lighten the mood.

 

Here’s a small sampling of deliciousness from the past couple of months:

 

First up, some bites from my very short trip to LA at the beginning of the month, where I reunited with my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob for a whirlwind tour of old edible favorites and new discoveries.

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite -- just look at butter sheen!

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite — just look at butter sheen!

 

Right after I landed at LAX, we drove over to Manhattan Beach. My colleague Elena had basically insisted we visit Fishing with Dynamite, an elevated take on the seafood shack that had blown Elena away. Jacob and I were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the place — we ended up speaking to both the chef de cuisine and the sous chef over the course of our meal. One of the highlights was the Chef David’s Mom’s Cape Cod Squash Rolls, a sublimely simple dish, which was simultaneously unusual and nostalgic. Served with aromatic rosemary butter, the rolls came in a tiny cast iron skillet, shiny on top and tender, tinted slightly orange from the squash. I could have made a meal of this vegetal take on Parker House Rolls, but it was only the beginning of a smorgasbord of seafood and produce. I’m really hoping I can go back for dinner the next time I make it out west.

 

Just one portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Just one small portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Immediately after lunch, we went for dessert at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica. I spent a good five minutes hemming and hawing over what to get out of the display case that was brimming with baked beauties. Ultimately, Jacob and I settled on the Buckwheat Apple Cake and the Chocolate Pudding.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry -- one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry: one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

I really enjoyed the nuttiness that came from the buckwheat cake. I’d love to start baking with alternative flours this year, since it seems like they’re much more readily available than before. And the chocolate pudding? Decadent, rich, deeply dark chocolate plus homemade whipped cream? I don’t think I really have to say anything more.

 

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend ... the Pizookie from BJ's.

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend … the Pizookie from BJ’s.

My last LA pick is not from a hot-new-spot, does not feature any sort of kale, and is not a taco (although I did have an awesome sampler from Guisado’s while I was there). After hearing Jacob go on about it for years, I finally tried the fabled Pizookie from BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. Faced with an expanded menu that touted an Oreo, Salted Caramel, or Triple Chocolate iteration, I opted for the original. I’ve gotta have a baseline, you know? For the similarly uninitiated, a Pizookie is a giant chocolate chip cookie baked in a cake tin, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Imagine all your grocery store cookie cake dreams, warmed up and topped with your favorite substance on earth. So yeah, it was worth it.

 

Petite Shell's entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Petite Shell‘s entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Moving back to NY, we’re rounding out the round-up with some Jew-y foods. First is the Chocolate-Hazelnut Rugelach from brand-new bakery Petite Shell on the UES. Matt and I went there to check out their line-up of unusual rugelach flavors, which ranged from the trendy Dulce de Leche to the downright strange White Chocolate–Granny Smith Apple. But I wanted to focus on the Chocolate-Hazelnut, since that runs in direct competition to EG favorite Breads Bakery (Petite Shell also offers a babka, but I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet). So how does it stack up? Pretty close, but I think Breads edges a victory out. The Nutella-esque filling from Petite Shell was sweeter than Breads, and I missed the stronger cocoa notes of the first rugelach to open my eyes to the format’s potential. Petite Shell also fell down on service, but it was the first weekend they were open, so they may shape up in time.

 

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

Last but not least, we finally have another entrant to my NYC shakshuka talent competition, this time from the UWS’s Bustan. I went there for brunch with a couple of college friends and was blown away by the freshly baked flatbread (ain’t no pita in this joint). Bustan has an extensive brunch menu featuring sweet and savory dishes, and offers 6, count ‘em, 6 variations on shakshuka. I went with the classic, which featured perfectly runny yolks, a peppery and bright tomato sauce, and stewed bell peppers and onions. I’d still recommend Zizi Limona for the die-hard shakshuka fan, but Bustan gets close to the mark. Especially with that amazing flatbread hot out of the oven and slicked with oil.

 

I’ll end on the note of salivation-inducing carbs, as per usual. Here’s my promise to you — I’m not gonna let this blog linger. I can’t promise I’ll be consistent, or that this won’t end up as a place sometimes filled with the existential crises of a Food Studies student, but at least there will be new content. And as always, if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you’ll pretty much get just food photos, without all the annoying thoughts and context to accompany them. Stay tuned and stay hungry.

Bustan
487 Amsterdam Avenue
http://www.bustannyc.com

BJ’s Brewhouse and Restaurant
http://www.bjsrestaurants.com

Fishing with Dynamite
1148 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach, CA
http://www.eatfwd.com/

Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe
1014 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
http://www.huckleberrycafe.com/

Petite Shell
1269 Lexington Ave

 

A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

2013-06-08 11.40.56

Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

2013-06-08 12.31.33

Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com