Sometimes You Feel Like a Legume: Dinner at Peanut Butter & Co.

2014-01-19 16.38.37

I am a peanut butter freak, and I’ve discovered it’s an ailment that has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. When I was younger I used to be very picky about the quality of the peanut butter I tasted — Ritz Bitz was authentic enough for me, but Lord, the indignity of lowering myself to the artificial flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I was a loyal Jif girl, and looked down my nose at other peanut butter brands. And though I’d like to think that my palate has gotten more refined as I’ve gotten older, my love of all things peanut butter has curiously grown by leaps and bounds, breaking free of my previous (mis)conceptions and invading all aspects of my eating (did you know peanut butter tastes great with yogurt? salads? cheese?).

Way back in April of last year I mentioned my desire to visit Peanut Butter & Co., and now I am proud to say I can finally check that item off my NYC food-list. I’d heard about Peanut Butter & Co. years ago, but had never found the time to go downtown and visit their store, nor even try their line of peanut butters that I’ve seen slowly expand through the tri-state area. Thankfully, Laura, my partner in crimes-related-to-pb & j (see our Jam Crawl and our visit to Bantam Bagels), was kind enough to take me to dinner at PB&Co. as a belated holiday present. It was a trip nearly a year in the making, but for a peanut butter devotee such as myself, it was a decidedly necessary pilgrimage to the Valhalla of cream-and-crunchdom.

 

First Impressions:

Peanut Butter & Co. is located in Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square Park and the hub of NYU. It obviously benefits from being so close to a huge student population, and its menu of sandwiches, cookies, brownies and ice cream seems tailor-made for hungover college kids.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe's space.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe’s space.

The photos I had seen of the cafe made it seem like a large space, but standing outside the doors it became clear that it’s a relatively shallow store, with nearly half of the real estate taken up by the kitchen and counter. Entering the cafe, you find the cashier to the left, a small retail section in the back featuring the titular line of peanut butters, merch, baked goods and drinks, and then to your right a collection of tables, seating probably the same amount of people as the average Manhattan Starbucks. The decor is friendly and pared down, the exterior of the store painted bright blue and white, and the inside evoking a classic American kitchen with pastel yellow walls covered in vintage advertisements for peanut and sandwich products.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter's place in American hearts.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter’s place in American hearts.

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than "marshmallow."

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than “marshmallow.”

The service style is a little odd. There’s no table service (you order at the counter), but they do bring your food straight to your table … sometimes (we had to go up and fetch our own dessert). We also encountered a somewhat strange scenario during our visit — generally, PB&Co. has a faucet at the counter that dispenses regular NYC tap water (since everyone including Barney knows that PB leaves you pretty parched), but it was broken, and therefore covered to prevent anyone trying to use it. This meant that when we asked for tap water, the cashier told us our only option was to buy a bottle of water, citing a violation of NYC health chodes to fill a customer’s glass from a tap behind the counter. Now, granted I don’t know the health code, but you’d think they could have gotten a cooler or filled a pitcher, rather than forcing people to pay and engendering ill will. But then again, it seems to be a bustling place with a steady stream of customers, so perhaps they think they’ll just try to get a few more bucks out of folks until someone really puts up a fight.

 

The Food:

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

In order to get the most out of the PB&Co. menu, we opted to split two sandwiches and share a dessert, ordering The Elvis, The Heat is On Sandwich, and the Bananarama Sundae to finish up. All of the sandwiches are served with both carrots and PB&Co. brand chips, which helps to fill out the plate a little bit. Not surprisingly, our sandwiches were ready in no time, so we could get down to some serious chewing.

 

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis (“A grilled peanut butter sandwich, stuffed with bananas and honey”) is offered with an optional addition of bacon, and part of me regrets deciding to go without, because I think it would have added that extra salt and crunch the sandwich needed. The sandwich was very uniform in texture, soft and gooey from being grilled. Now both Laura and I agreed that almost any sandwich improves with grilling, but in this case, because of the melted quality of the peanut butter, it was nearly impossible to tell that we had chosen PB&Co.’s “Crunchtime” crunchy peanut butter, which I had hoped would mix things up a bit in terms of mouthfeel. The flavor was certainly pure and strongly peanutty, and ended up being the dominant note of the sandwich. I have to question the cafe’s definition of “stuffed” here, because both the honey and the banana seemed conservatively applied, getting lost in the melting swirl of the peanut butter. Still, you can’t fault the combination of flavors as a classic, and I thought the peanut butter itself was top notch. There’s just something so delightful and nostalgic about the oozing, gooey drip of peanut making your fingers sticky and forcing you to lick it off like a 5 year old. But Laura and I concurred that The Elvis was very much a sandwich we could have made in our own kitchens (even with PB&Co.’s own product), and gotten more bang for our buck.

 

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich (“Spicy peanut butter and chilled grilled chicken, with a little bit of pineapple jam. Like a Thai satay — only better”) was definitely the most interesting dish of our dinner, and I’m glad that Laura convinced me to order this over another meatless option. The title refers to PB&Co.’s spicy variety of the same name, and I was a little nervous about how hot the spread would be. It turned out to have a substantial kick to it, with the inherent sweetness of the peanut butter up front and the cayenne really coming through on the back end. The chicken was firm yet moist, although it mostly served as a vehicle for the peanut butter’s dominating flavor. Similarly, it was hard to discern the pineapple flavor of the jam, although I appreciated the gelatinous texture and the jam’s use as a cooling element against the spicy peanut butter. Although PB&Co. describes it as similar to a Thai sandwich, I found it lacked the soy/umami taste that separates satay sauces from regular melted peanut butter. We got the sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, and I had hoped that meant the entire sandwich would be grilled (see comment about the benefits of grilling above), but alas, the toaster touched the bread only. This was certainly a more creative and more filling sandwich than The Elvis, and I could see this being a knockout dish if it was first grilled, and then had the pineapple jam applied.

Now before I even comment on our sundae, let’s take a moment to discuss proper ice cream serving etiquette. Ice cream sundaes, if served in a tall glass or high-rimmed bowl, should come with long-handled spoons, preferably metal ones. Otherwise you’re left with an inadequate tool for digging deep to the bottom of the bowl to scoop out lingering hot fudge or an errant chocolate chunk, and risk getting melted ice cream all over your hands in the process of excavation. (This pertains mostly to hard-style ice creams — a soft-serve Carvel sundae, for example, will yield easily to a plastic spoon.)

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The Bananarama Sundae (“What a banana split! Three scoops of ice cream, sliced bananas, graham crackers, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Wonderful for sharing, if you are so inclined”) was cutely served in a large mug, but arrived with only flimsy plastic spoons with which to tackle it. This made it difficult to get a bite that involved all of the elements of the dessert, especially considering the middle layer of solid chocolate ice cream. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a large dollop of whipped cream on top, drizzled with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. Generally the sundae comes with vanilla ice cream, but PB&Co. had sold out of it earlier in the day (a testament to the appeal of their ice cream, since it continues to be frigid in NYC). We opted for chocolate ice cream as the base of the dessert, and I’d actually recommend requesting it over the vanilla if you have the chance. I liked all of the individual components of the sundae, but once you dove in it seemed like the construction wasn’t given proper attention. I’ll admit I’ve become a bit biased about this after experiencing the intense consideration that goes into Big Gay’s Salty Pimp — first sea salt, then dulce de leche in the cone, then ice cream, etc. Here the Bananarama had chunks of graham crackers on the bottom, covered in peanut butter and Fluff, then the ice cream, then the whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. That meant that you had to struggle to get through the ice cream to reach the crunchy crumbs and gooey Fluff, which over time stiffened up to make things even more difficult. Initially it was super goopy and true-to-name fluffy, but by the end (and trust me, we didn’t dilly-dally, since Laura is as much of a fast-eating food honeybadger as I), everything had started to congeal and required a dedicated application of elbow grease. An easy solution would be to replace the chocolate sauce with hot fudge (frankly, always a good choice), which would have kept the Fluff warmer for longer, and allowed better mixing with the graham crackers and peanut butter sauce. And just like The Elvis, Laura and I felt like there was a serious lack of bananas — why so skimpy on the fruit, PB&Co.? But as a positive, the Bananarama allowed us to sample a variety of the toppings offered, so I’ll be able to make a more strategic order the next time I stop in.

Final Thoughts:

My trip to Peanut Butter & Co.’s cafe was a great holiday present, and I’m grateful to Laura for taking me. Overall, it’s a cute homestyle spot offering familiar and comforting, if somewhat pedestrian fare. I’m happy I visited and sampled the savory menu, but I think if I go back it’ll be when the weather warms up so I can try out some of their other ice cream options (word on the street is that their milkshakes are killer). When it comes down to it, unless I suddenly develop a serious allergy, peanut butter is going to be a big part of my life for the foreseeable future.  For all of the quibbles I have about the food at their cafe, I have to applaud Peanut Butter & Co. for giving peanut butter a proper place in the spotlight, and helping to spread George Washington Carver’s message of brotherhood and legume love.

 

Peanut Butter & Co.

240 Sullivan St. (between 3rd and Bleecker)

http://ilovepeanutbutter.com/sandwichshop

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Snackshots Seattle, Part 1: A Fresh Food Fantasy at Pike Place Market

For someone who makes her bread and butter (or rather, is able to buy her bread and butter) from the entertainment industry, I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the West Coast. I’ve only been to California a handful of times, and never visited any of the other states west of Iowa. That is, until this past weekend, when I had the chance to visit my brother in his new digs in Seattle. As with many of my interests, my older brother Dan was a major influence on my passion for food. Up until June he lived on the UES near me (in fact, in the same apartment building, because we’re too cute like that), and one of my favorite parts of getting to know the neighborhood was exploring new restaurants and bars with him. So when I hopped on a plane on Friday to visit the Northwest for the first time, I believed my expectations of delicious overindulgence were reasonable. Little did I realize I was seriously underestimating our genetic predisposition for pie-hole stuffing. Suffice it to say that I have way more to talk about than can reasonably fit in one post. So, much like my last travel experience in Israel, I’m going to break up my trip into more manageable bites. First up, a look at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market. This place is just enormous.

 

Beyond the amazing food I encountered at Pike Place, what struck me most was the easy comingling of obvious tourists (like myself) and the local crowd. Sure, there are kitschy shops peddling t-shirts and trinkets, but much of Pike Place Market is made up of serious local vendors selling fresh produce and homemade items. I kept describing it to Dan as a strange mix of NY’s Chelsea Market and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, somewhere between the higher-brow artisanal wares of Chelsea’s Ronnybrook Dairy and Eleni’s Cookies and the Amish shoo-fly pies and cheesesteaks down Liberty Bell way. And did I mention it’s huge? A sprawling, multi-floor, multi-block, and multi-street, partially open air market, with arms that snake out leading you down paths of flower and jerky vendors, or spice stalls and coffee sellers. Dan and I must have spent a good 3 hours there and never really explored anything beyond the ground level.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Soon after we entered we came upon the famous Pike Place Fish Market. The Fish Market is known for its tradition of throwing whole fish that customers have purchased from the back storage area to the fishmongers working the counter. An order will be yelled out — “Alaskan Salmon!” — and lightning quick a freaking whole carcass is tossed carefree up from the floor to the raised platform, where the fish are then butchered and wrapped. Tourists crowded around the stall to watch the performance, but after the first throw I turned my attention to the table across the way, which was laden down with all different types of dried fruit and vegetables. Dan got some fabulously sticky and sweet dried pineapple, but I was feeling more adventurous, and asked the woman behind the counter for something “good, but weird.”

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

She passed me a piece of dried okra, a vegetable I’m usually pretty ambivalent about. It was crunchy and salty, with a underlying freshness and a texture that reminded me of the dried greenbeans I’ve had from Fairway. I immediately bought a bag, completely enamored with this strange vegetable creation that was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. Why can’t you buy dried okra everywhere?

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier Cherries.

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier cherries.

 

I had a similar eye-opening experience when I tried Rainier cherries for the first time. I’ve always shied away from cherries, finding their tartness too aggressive. I also tend to dislike cooked fruit in desserts, so cherry pie or even the classic Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia aren’t really in my wheelhouse. But as we made our way through the market, an eager fruit vendor handing out slices of peach cut fresh from the fruit caught my eye, and I made my way over to him (hey, I’m never one to turn down a free sample). I can say without any doubt in my mind that that was the best peach I’ve ever tasted. It was luscious, velvety in texture, juicy and tender and exploding with natural sweetness. When I told this to the vendor, he insisted I try the Rainier cherries, proclamining them to be just as fresh as the peaches. And dagnabit, this guy was on the money. I found myself comparing the Rainier cherries to fresh grapes, with a soft and creamy flesh and a mild sweetness that was simply addictive. Dan bought a bag and we finished that day (even in the face of all of the other food we managed to fit in our stomachs).

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

 

After strolling through most of the top floor of the market, we made our way across the street to Post Alley, where most of the Market’s restaurants and shops can be found. Our attempt to go to Pike Place Chowder was thwarted by the outrageous line, so I guess I’ll just have to leave that for my next visit. We did manage to try a Plain Jane Cinnamon Roll at Cinnamon Works, a bakery that specializes in the cinnamon pastry diaspora (aka pull-apart bread, sticky buns, honey buns, etc). The Plain Jane had excellent flavors, but it was disappointingly room temperature, and you never want to eat an under-warmed cinnamon roll — it highlights the chewy, unforgiving nature of the batter. Next time I’m going to specifiy a fresh roll, or a reheated one.

The menu at the original Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

The menu at the original Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.

 

More importantly, I also paid a visit to the original location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, so I could finally make a proper comparison to my lovely meal at Beecher’s NYC. The original Beecher’s location is significantly smaller than it’s NY outpost — most of the space is devoted to the actual production of cheese, which I suppose is getting your priorities straight. The retail area is dominated by the cheese counter and cafe menu prep stations — no restaurant/lounge here, just sandwiches, soups, and cheesy breadsticks. You can still peer down into the cheesemaking arena at the Original Beecher’s, but this time from milk-can stools at the cafe’s narrow ledge, the only area to eat their wares. After sampling Beecher’s signature crackers and cheeses, Dan and I decided to split the Flagship Sandwich, a caprese-style grilled cheese featuring Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, their Just Jack, the “Beecher’s spread” and tomato and basil.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher's.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher’s.

Our Flagship Sandwich -- look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

Our Flagship Sandwich — look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

 

I usually like my grilled cheese unadulterated, but the density and richness of the two cheddars was mitigated by the sharp savory basil taste and the moist tomato. The “Beecher’s spread,” mysterious and left unexplained, seemed to add a subtle bite of mustard. Thick white bread helped to hold the sandwich together, and was toasted to perfect golden-brown. Overall, the quality of cheese and food in general at the original Beecher’s was still stellar, but the creativity and diversity of choices on the menu at the NY outpost make me happy I live nearer to the East Coast option. Dammit, now I want that mushroom tart again.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

 

Another shop of note is the Crumpet Shop, a small cafe hidden away upstairs in one of the buildings on Post Alley. Their menu is limited to three categories: the titular crumpets, scones, and looseleaf teas. However, there are seemingly endless variations within those sections, including both savory and sweet options. In all of my UK adventures, I’d actually never tried a crumpet before, due to my enduring love of a proper scone and my general ambivalence towards the crumpet’s North American cousin, the English Muffin. For those who have yet to encounter a crumpet, they’re traditional English griddle cakes, slightly crumbly and usually served warm with butter, jam or some other type of spread. Although I was tempted by The Crumpet Shop’s scones, I felt I should give the cafe’s namesake its due. Also, Dan was intent on having a crumpet, and at that point I had tried so many other treats that I couldn’t imagine having another pastry all to myself (well, that’s a bit of a lie … more on that in a bit).

On line for some serious crumpet action.

On line for some serious crumpet action.

The shop itself is charming, and I would recommend a stop in, especially if you don’t feel like dealing with all of the crowds of Pike Place Market proper. The entrance features the counter/kitchen where you place your order, plus bar seating along the wall. A small collection of tables are located just past the counter and down a few steps, where you can cool your heels for a bit and take a gander at the whimsical artwork and Alice in Wonderland murals that line the walls.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Dan and I split a crumpet with fresh raspberry preserves, very lightly toasted so that it was not quite browned, but still warm enough to gently melt the preserves into a luscious goo. Ultimately, I think I’m more of a clotted cream and scone gal — the texture of the crumpet and its straightforward yeasty flavor were fine, but far from revelatory. The most memorable part of the dish was the raspberry preserves, which were unbelievably fresh and pure in their flavor. I’m sure I’ll be repeating myself endlessly about this, but I was completely blown away by the quality of the basic ingredients of my Seattle meals. From fruits to vegetables to seafood, everything seemed like it had been hand-picked just for me.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

 

I started out this post by talking about my exuberance over dried okra, so it seems only fitting to bookend the discussion by jumping to the other end of the spectrum — doughnuts. Dan was insistent that we pay a visit to the Daily Dozen Doughnut Co., a small counter not too far from the Pike Place Fish Market stall. We had actually passed by it when we first entered the market, but the line was absurdly long, so DDDC ended up being our last stop of the day. DDDC does one thing, and one thing only — make piping hot mini doughnuts to destroy your arteries and blow your mind. (They also sell espresso and coffee, because what else are you going to have with your doughnuts? Milk? What are you, a weirdo?) DDDC is a ridiculously small operation, considering the sheer quantity of mini-dos they churn out each day. With a small area in the back for prepping the batter and decorating the finished donuts, DDDC’s main attraction is the “Donut Robot, Mark II” a miracle of modern technology that squirts out two perfectly formed mini doughnut rings into a roiling river of oil. The rings of batter then travel along a conveyor belt, frying for the precisely the right amount of time before being slid out of the machine and onto the continuously growing pile of puffed perfection.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

 

These bad boys, roughly the size of Entenmann’s mini powdered donuts, are only sold in multiples of 6, with any collection of toppings you desire. Aside from plain and powdered, you can also get chocolate frosted (with sprinkles), along with whatever special toppings they have for the day. We chose two plain, two cinnamon-dusted, and two coated in a maple glaze. I hate to veer into hyperbole, but these were actually the best donuts I’ve ever had, simply because they were the freshest, and the batter had such a pure sweet taste to it. Like the best version of funnel cake, with the right amount of crispness to the outside, while steamy, light and airy inside. The bag was still warm as I grabbed it, yet not a spot of grease transferred from the bottom to my hands. My favorite was the cinnamon sugar donut, the uniform coating achieved by the seller drops the donuts in a bag, tosses in some cinnamon sugar, and shakes. No fancy schmancy toppings or fillings, just old-fashioned, well-made, fresh from the fryer donuts. To be honest, you really can’t compare Daily Dozen Doughnut Co. to the Doughnut Plant — it’s like trying to compare a homemade brownie to a chocolate ganache cake from a high-end bakery. These establishments have two different goals. But if I grew in Seattle, I would have begged my parents to take me here on the weekends, and thoroughly thumbed my nose at the barely heatlamp-warmed measly offerings at Dunkin Donuts.

 

Pike Place Market is the closest to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market that I’ve found in the US. The mix of high-and-low-end vendors, the obvious plays towards tourist wallets combined with neighborhood shopping, and the unabashed delight in all that the local producers have to offer struck me as hewing closer to the Israeli model than Big Box Americana. Of course, it would be silly to ignore the fact that there is a Target just around the corner from Pike Place, and that the very first Starbucks (now a bonafide  international behemoth) is just down the row from Beecher’s. But my visit to Pike Place Market seemed to underscore the overall impression of Seattle. I felt like this is a city with a lot of pride, both in the larger sense of the Seattle itself, and the microcosms of each neighborhood. Fortunately, that pride is combined with a distinctly laidback, unself-conscious attitude. For me, that meant meeting a lot of people who wanted to share what they thought makes Seattle special, or what they themselves added to the culture, from hand crafted piggy banks to badass spice blends. So next time you’re in Seattle, pay a visit to Pike Place Market. Don’t worry that you’re buying into the tourist to-do list — there are so many layers to this locally-sourced onion, you can easily make your trip truly unique. I know I’ll be back — if only to finally get my hands on a bowl of that famous Pike Place Chowder!

The loosest definition of trail mix I've ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

The loosest definition of trail mix I’ve ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

Pike Place Market

1916 Pike Pl,

Seattle, WA 98101

pikeplacemarket.org

 

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):

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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.

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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

Brunch at Good Enough to Eat: It’s all About the Biscuits, Baby

I like to think of myself as a fairly tolerant, openminded person, but there are two types of people in this world that I believe I fundamentally cannot get along with: people who hate dessert, and people who hate bread. I’m just not sure what common ground we could find. Obviously we’ve heard a fair amount about my love of dessert — today, let’s focus on the other vice.

There are restaurants I frequent purely because of the bread they offer, from megachains to haute cuisine. One of the best parts about going to Outback Steakhouse (Bloomin’ Onion aside) is the endless supply of their Questionably Authentic Aussie Brownbread. The breadbowl at Panera is equally legendary, as is the Rustic Flatbread of Cosi, and the buttermilk biscuits at Cracker Barrel.  Not to mention the complimentary bread baskets like those I encountered at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa, or the cornucopia of white, multigrain, and raisin nut rolls offered at restaurants like Daniel or Toqueville, where you may pick as many as your carb-loving heart desires.

An embarrassing personal story to further illustrate: the summer after my freshman year of college, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Cannes Film Festival through Penn’s Cinema Studies program. Although we had access badges for the festival, they were very limited, which meant that the only way to see the top-bill movies was to wait on line, sometimes for hours, for any extra available seats. And so what did this fresh-faced, first time in France ingenue choose for sustenance during the long, hot hours of hope and disappointment? Why, entire loaves of raisin bread, of course. Much like my deplorably slow learning curve with Starbucks hot chocolate, it took me way to long to fully consider the ramifications of consuming entire boules daily.

While I’m slightly more realistic these days about the amount of bread I should be putting in my body each day, my fervor is far from diminished. And so after months of Jacob regaling me with tales of the buttermilk biscuits (and generally high caliber brunch) at Good Enough to Eat, we finally found a Saturday morning to make the trip to the Upper West Side, and try them out.


First Impressions:

Good Enough to Eat's cozy, laid back charm.

Good Enough to Eat‘s cozy, laid back charm is obvious from your first glimpse.

Good Enough to Eat is another one of those New York food scene staples. The restaurant was established in 1981, a fact they rightly take great pride in, considering the ephemeral nature of restaurants in Manhattan. GETE’s enduring popularity was clear to see when I arrived on Saturday morning. The restaurant opens at 9am, outrageously early by NY brunch standards, but even by the time I got there at 9:30, there was already a line waiting outside. Yes, the weather was especially nice this weekend, but the majority of the brunching populace was unlikely to be out and about for at least another hour and a half.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

The line greeted me bright and early on Saturday morning.

GETE’s whole aesthetic evokes a folksy New England small town cafe, from their maroon awnings with white trim to the literal picket fence that borders their outdoor seating. The fence actually appears again once inside GETE, where is separates the bar from the dining area. Inside, the walls are exposed brick, covered with knick knacks and odds and ends, most of which involve depictions of cows. Even the bathroom has a collection of hand-drawn cows sent in by children. Some of the quirkier decorations include a random muffin tin high on the wall, Good Enough to Eat -branded clothing (another testament to its popularity), and fake potted plants. The place is small, with probably only ten tables inside and another six outside, and there is a general bustling air of charming unpretentiousness, from service to plating to the menu itself. There’s a full bar, as well as a classic diner-style case full of homemade baked goods, from muffins (clearly they have other tins available) to a variety of pies.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The indoor section of the picket fence is just visible at the bottom center.

The pie case next to the full bar.

The pie case next to the full bar.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Looking towards the back of the restaurant. Note the muffin tin on the right hand wall.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this casual attitude in the way that incoming customers are handled. The staff is very nice, but GETE does not take reservations for brunch, nor do they take your name up front. Instead, everyone gets in line outside of the restaurant, and the hostess comes by to find out how many people are in your party, then seats available tables depending on size. With this system, it is perfectly possible that a group of four arriving after a group of two could be seated first (as actually happened to us). Jacob and I ended up waiting about 30 minutes for our table, so I can only imagine what the wait would be like around noon.

 

The Food:

Eventually we were seated, and once we sat down the service was prompt, but never to the point of ushering us out the door (we had time to eat and linger for a bit afterwards). As it was Cuatro de Mayo, there were a number of Latin-themed brunch specials, but I opted out because they came with tortillas instead of biscuits, and I had my eye on the prize. I think this ultimately tempered my enthusiasm, however, as in my heart of hearts I was really in the mood for Huevos Rancheros or something similar.

On the weekends, GETE only serves breakfast and dinner menus, so even later-arriving brunchers should expect maple syrup over mayo as the condiment of choice. There are a number of options within this sphere of brunchfluence, luckily, so diners can pick from several different types of pancakes, waffles, and egg dishes, and GETE even offers a tofu scramble for vegans. I ended up ordering the “Little Italy Omelet,” while Jacob picked the Turkey Hash. After our half hour wait just to get it, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly our meal arrived.

The "Little Italy Omelet" -- well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The “Little Italy Omelet” — well executed, but nothing spectacular.

The omelet was filled with roasted mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese, and came with biscuits and strawberry butter, of course. GETE cooks their eggs loose, which they do mention on their menu, but I neglected to notice this until after I had ordered, so the omelet was a little underdone for my tastes. It was still cooked well, and there was a good proportion of eggs to filling. The roasted mushrooms and tomatoes dominated the dish, especially the tomatoes which definitely tasted of being packed in olive oil. I found the eggs a little underseasoned, but still it was a solid omelet that was the right size to leave me full without being too heavy.

Jacob's "Turkey Hash" -- a pile of breakfast.

Jacob’s “Turkey Hash” — a pile of breakfast.

I thought Jacob’s dish was a bit more successful. The Turkey Hash is made up of roast turkey, potatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, celery, and two poached eggs, and comes with the aforementioned biscuits and strawberry butter. At least on Saturday I had a serious need for potatoes in my breakfast, because I went after the ones in Jacob’s dish when he offered a taste. It was a sizable dish, and I probably wouldn’t even need the turkey to be satisfied by it, although I was impressed that there was actually chunks of roast turkey, rather than slices of cold-cut. The dish was really elevated when Jacob broke open the poached eggs, and the rich, buttery yolk soaked into the hash. The turkey and vegetables were fork tender and far from dry, but you really can’t argue with throwing another layer of cholesterol on the pile.

But the best part of my brunch by far were the biscuits and butter. Although they had been built up quite a bit, I did not think they were oversold. The strawberry butter was soft and fresh, and had small slivers of actual fruit in it, muddled in like a beautiful butter cocktail. It’s hard to recall, given the sangria-induced stupor of my brunch at Calle Ocho, but I think Good Enough to Eat trumps it in terms of purity of strawberry flavor. The biscuits were small, about the size of those store brand square Parker House rolls my mom used to put out for dinner (those rolls were sick — can you still buy them?). The biscuits split apart easily, the middle soft and just a touch flaky, but far from the commercial endless layers of Pillsbury Grands. They arrived on the plate slightly warm. I don’t think they were fresh from the oven, but in terms of texture they were still tender and moist, and buttery in a real, goddamn there’s a bunch of butter in this way, almost creamy when mixed with the strawberry butter.

Just two biscuits was not enough, and I think if I could do it again, i would just accept the fact that I’m a bread fiend and get one of the other, more exotic brunch dishes (like the Apple Pancake, the Pumpkin French Toast, or the standard menu item of the Migas: scrambled eggs with tortillas chips, bell pepper, cilantro, onion and cheese) and just shamelessly order myself a side of biscuits as well.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, my brunch at Good Enough to Eat was solid, if not awe-inspiring, but in retrospect a lot of the disappointments probably came from not listening to myself. The lesson here is trust your gut when you’re about to fill it, folks. Good Enough to Eat is a cheap enough Manhattan brunch for you to indulge in a side of biscuits if it’s mandatory like it was for me. I’d recommend trying it out, if mostly to have the experience of dining at a NY institution — not too many places in New York make it into their fourth decade. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere friendly and homey, and the biscuits are worth the trip uptown. Since Good Enough to Eat takes reservations for dinner, and offers both the biscuits and some of the more popular brunch dishes (like the Migas and the Gramercy Omelet) on their dinner menu, I think I’ll avoid the wait next time and go in the evening. That way I can hit all my weaknesses and indulge in dessert as well. Because if their biscuits are any indication, in the category of baked goods, Good Enough to Eat very much lives up to its name.

 

Good Enough to Eat

483 Amsterdam Ave (at 83rd St)

http://goodenoughtoeat.com/

 

Coffee Break

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.

I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year,  I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.

Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.

Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.

Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.

Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.

And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of  the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.

During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.

Fencing epee in high school