Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas Bakery Hunters!

Ah, the obligatory Christmas post. Today was a gorgeous Christmas day in Southern California, and I had plenty to be thankful for-- I was surrounded by my whole family and an excess of baked goods.

My family was more than generous in their holiday giving, and many of their gifts will help me to contribute more content to The Great American Bakery Hunt in the future. I acquired an entire library of treasures including:
  • A 2-year subscription to Nordic Reach, a magazine dedicated to Scandinavian culture. (In its own words, Nordic Reach "covers people, places, and stories of interest to everyone with a foot-or soul- in both the Scandinavian and American cultures, as well as to those who wish to appreciate them more deeply.") With articles like "In Cod We Trust", how can I go wrong?
  • A selection of expatriate novels, including Peter Mayle's Provence A-Z (I really enjoyed reading his book French Lessons because of all of his adventures with French food, so I'm hoping it will be another good read)
  • Not one, but three, repeat three books about the greatness of cheese! My selection includes The Cheese Plate, Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best, and The Cheese Board: Collective Works. Oh happy day! (Side note: The great thing about a cheese book is that it will always pick you up when you're feeling down. A good friend of mine once mailed me "The Cheese Companion" after I suffered a break-up. Since she had temporarily relocated and couldn't provide a shoulder to cry on, she sent the Companion to me as a substitute. Perhaps the healing power of cheese doesn't work for everyone, but that cheese companion sure saw me through some tough times. God knows my Connoisseur's Guide will come in handy one of these days!)
  • The Cake Bible. I have been wanting to get the Cake Bible ever since acquiring the Bread Bible about a year ago. Clearly they belong sitting side by side on my bookshelf, in holy baking communion with one another.
  • A pastry cookbook from the La Brea Bakery
  • A cupcake cookbook, titled "Crazy about Cupcakes"-- Just how crazy will it get? Only time will tell.
  • the Tartine cookbook, from the San Francisco bakery I have been dying to try- one of the bakery's founders has Scandinavian (Swedish) roots, so I am already a fan...
  • The 3rd edition Food Lover's Companion, an alphabetized culinary reference book from which I have already learned that "Abbacchio" is Italian for a very young lamb. I sneaked a peak at the end of the book, confirming that exciting discoveries await me throughout the whole reference guide. Zwieback, my friends, is a "twice-baked" German bread often served to people with digestive problems. Who knew?

Aside from all this reading, I really do need to make more time to bake, especially because my parents also got me three silicone Le Creuset pastry brushes! They are so adorable, and go perfectly with my new "drop, smidge, pinch, and hint" measuring spoons. A new whisk, measuring cups, and ceramic pie weights will also be welcome additions to the kitchen.

As we approach the New Year, I am armed with plenty of reading materials and baking tools to aid me in future bakery hunts and baking endeavors. Time to get to work! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good pastry...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Live each season

It's my first semester after college and officially in the working world, which means there is no nearing "Christmas vacation" to speak of. I will have two days off for Christmas, two days off for New Years, and then it's back to reality. It is clear that four days is simply not enough to fully appreciate the good tidings and cheer of the holidays.

To address this dilemma, my friend and I started brainstorming several weeks ago. We needed to have a low-key celebration for the ages, one that would end 2006 with a jolly good helping of food and some drink to toast the coming new year. We planned it for a Saturday night, since I work Saturday mornings at the farmer's market. I was to work the market, pick up any fresh market goods that struck my fancy, and head down to his house.

I must say, I gathered a particularly delicious array of farmer's market loot that day. Among the culinary booty, there were fresh tomatoes, potatoes, and onions from Jacque the produce vendor, amazing hickory and chile lime almonds from Andre (who recommended these flavors as his favorite with beer), fresh sea bass from Marvin the fisherman, and German bakery cheese bread from Eddy.

To go along with the food, I picked up a selection of craft beers at Hi-Time Liquor (a Costa Mesa legend!), where the staff gave me some friendly advice about their seasonal (winter ales) and all-season favorites. (My favorite ended up being The Three Philosophers by the Ommegang Brewery, a Cooperstown, NY based brewery that makes Belgian style beers. I have heard this brewery is a mecca for beer lovers, so naturally I am already planning a trip in my future.)

I tried to make a cheese dip with my "Cooking with Beer" book, an impulse buy I snatched up while waiting for a price check at the grocery store. The dip turned out horribly (I secretly knew it would), but there was plenty of other good food to go around.

The great thing about the night was the spirit behind it--good friends and good eats. It mattered little if there were a few flops in the kitchen. We stole our inspiration from Thoreau: "Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each."

At the end of the night, we ended with some chocolate kalua cake, made by the cake company I work for. It was the perfect late night snack, but not as good as my early morning, on- the- way -home A & W Root Beer Float. As I changed lanes to pull into the parking lot and slowed to the drive-thru ordering spot, I fully acknowledged that this craving was ridiculous. But then I thought to myself, it's never too early for a root beer float. It's five o'clock somewhere. Mostly it reminded me of how different my lifestyle is here in the United States versus when I lived in Denmark. Surrounded by the metal heap of my Volvo station wagon, I am at one with my American roots, slurping away at my sugary-soda concoction. I pause at a stoplight, and think "My dear readers! What would they think if they were here with me, patroning fast food establishments while driving around in my not so fast '88 Volvo??" I have taken a picture for you all, to appropriately capture this very stereotypically American moment. It's at times like these that I am reminded how much I miss wandering the streets of Europe and interacting with people outside of the constraints of a moving box. While I have the convenience of personal transportation and fast food here, I miss the contact of the outside world, and the pleasure of being free from an automobile.

Someday I will go back to Europe. But no matter where I am living, my worlds will continue colliding in American-European fusion. As I drive along the 405, I often get the urge to hear the sounds of Europe, and I reach back to grab my Danish listening CD's. The next day, I use the French ones. And in January, I'll attend the Scandinavian film festival in Los Angeles, crossing the barrier from Orange to LA County in none other than a Scandinavian made automobile. Fitting, no?

"Blind cookie justice for all"

A recent LA Times contest named Sherry Yard of Spago the proud maker of the "Cookie of the Year". The winning cookie was an Austrian- American version of a macaron, with an influence of Lebkuchen (a traditional German gingerbread recipe).

Do not mistake this contest for some food entertainment holiday fluff piece. Competitors were serious, and one even sent in an entry anonymously, with a note that read : "Blind cookie justice for all"! It doesn't get much better than that.

This contest has inspired me...My King Arthur Flour cookbook includes a Lebkuchen recipe I have been eyeing for weeks, so this reminds me that I need to get to the oven and start baking.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sugar is not the enemy

For all you baking fiends out there, take a look at this humorous campaign for sugar. The marketing slogan rings true for champions of sugar everywhere: "Who wants a world where sugar is forbidden?". For a bakery hunter, such a world is nothing to joke about.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Wi-Fi in Paris...

There's hope for Parisian bloggers yet as Paris integrates free wi-fi access into the city. According to the LA Times, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe will spread "wee-fee" throughout Paris in hopes of attracting young people and business to the city. Ah, the "battle of hipness" continues!

The wi-fi sounds like a great idea, but I would love Paris any day without it. As long as the city continues to have amazing boulangeries, I will be a happy camper.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Time to Scandinavianize!

SAS Airlines is offering travelers a chance to "Scandinavianize" themselves. By visiting the SAS website, you can send Scandinavian phrases to your friends and family in the language of your choice. Whether you choose Finnish, Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian, who doesn't love a friendly reminder of dejlig, lovely Northern Europe?

One of the funniest phrases SAS includes to lure travelers to Scandinavia? "I'm so bored with the sun."

Monday, November 13, 2006

the phantom of the metro is here

The Associated Press recently reported that historical and railway buffs can sign up for all-night tours of old Paris metro stations. An organization called ADEMAS facilitates the tours in its quest to preserve the history of the Metro. According to the article, the tours have at least a six month wait, but once inside, participants get to explore "phantom" metro stations that have been closed since World War II.

The mystery surrounding these tours has a certain underground, geeky appeal that I find irresistible. What types of people might I meet on a tour like this? Historians? Train junkies? Documentary filmmakers? Parisian Bloggers? Whoever they are, they are people who find value in observing fragments of the past, and this makes me want to observe them. How did they get there? And why? How long have they been waiting for the chance to see the phantom stations? Perhaps some Parisians go here in pursuit of an alternative to the crowded hustle and bustle of an afternoon at the Louvre.

Unfortunately, it will surely get to the point where Rick Steves covers ADEMAS in his next book, thus truly opening the floodgates of American tourism and wreaking havoc on the whole underground appeal. He means well, but those navy books are everywhere you look. After all, part of the beauty of travel is wandering the unknown.

The best part about the ADEMAS tours?? They serve croissants at the end!

The heart behind Poilane

I'm a little peeved that the Hiltons felt it necessary to name their daughter after one of my favorite cities. Here I sit, but a peasant blogger, just trying to keep tabs on recent news and events happening in the city of lights. But my Google Alerts keep bombarding me with stories of notorious socialite shenanigans instead. I'm going to have to see about some sort of filter.

Thank goodness Google Alerts don't always lack relevance to The Great American Bakery Hunt. Tonight Google alerted me to a fascinating Washington Post story about a different Paris heiress: Apollonia Poilane. Poilane is the 22 year old Chief Executive of Paris- based Poilane bakeries, a family-run business she inherited from her parents.

Poilane is a bakery I have declared my love for in the past. However, this was the first I had heard of Apollonia's story. While running one of the best bakeries in the world, this Chief Executive continues her studies as a Harvard undergrad, where she will graduate with a degree in economics.

After discovering Poilane on my last trip to Paris, I can think of few bakeries that have a lovelier feel when you enter their doors. As you step inside, you are greeted with a cheerful "Bonjour!" by a group of French women in matching aprons, and the products--well those speak for themselves. If it's any indication, people have been eating their famous bread since 1932, which is made in a wood fired oven. Apollonia Poilane describes herself as having "a sweet tooth" for the family business.

Her story combines two of my great loves: a passionate energy for business combined with a serious love for quality baked goods. And now that I know there is so much heart behind this bakery, I love it even more. Although it's probably why I loved it in the first place. It is clear from walking into Poilane, from tasting their bread, from sinking your teeth into their apple tarts, that the company takes pride in the products they bake.

The Washington Post article conveys Apollonia's personal passion for the business. The story describes a letter she wrote to the Pope in an effort to convince him to take gluttony off of the list of seven deadly sins. With spunky moves like that, I can tell Poilane and I are kindred spirits.

A souvenir bag of Poilane flour has remained on my diningroom table since June. Untouched since its purchase, it is reserved for a special use. Although I haven't determined what exactly I will use it for, I'm hoping the end result will be so tasty that it would make the Pope blush.

Monday, November 06, 2006

From California to Baltimore, it's Taco Tuesdays and German Thursdays galore

In Southern California, we start the week off right with our much beloved tradition of Taco Tuesdays. For those of you who are not familiar with Taco Tuesday, it is a day when you are guaranteed to find a wealth of Mexican food to feast on for well under $6. On this day, Mexican food restaurants lower their prices, giving wallets a break so you can guiltlessly partake in all the piping hot tacos your heart desires. For taco lovers in Southern California, Taco Tuesday means freedom.

I don't know how the Taco Tuesday trend originally started, but by God, I'm not going to question it. Ever.

There are endless possibilities when it comes to Mexican food in Southern CA. Travel five miles in any direction and it is likely you will find several Taco Tuesdays occurring all around you. But for all you locals out there, the best Taco Tuesday around is at Taco Mesa on 19th street in Costa Mesa. Los Golondrinas comes in a close second. (For all of you serious taco hunters out there, check out L.A. based taco blogger at The Great Taco Hunt).

Taco Mesa remains my longtime neighborhood favorite. Although my devotion to bakery hunting never wavers, I do often have serious Taco Mesa cravings (particularly when Monday night rolls around).

During any typical week in my life, Tuesday is my most favorite food day. Taco Mesa's original Costa Mesa location is the only way to go. Positioned in a rather unglamorous spot across from the Costa Mesa DMV and next to a MacDonald's, it looks any other typical Mexican eatery from the outside (nothing to blog home about). But anyone who has sampled the greatness of their menu knows better. For this Costa Mesa diamond in the rough, outside appearances are incredibly deceiving. On Tuesdays, Taco Mesa sells tacos for $1 a piece. I can say with confidence that it's the best Taco Tuesday in town! If I were to ever have a firstborn, I would have to consider naming said firstborn Taco Mesa in honor of all of the amazing food I have eaten there over the years. I will be their loyal customer for eternity. (You can also try Taco Rosa for a slightly more upscale version of their food).

Food days definitely make the week go by faster-- anyone who has visited Acapulco's $2 margarita mondays knows this to be true. Speaking of "food days", it turns out that if I ever move to North Baltimore, I'll be able to participate in German Thursdays. Nicole Fuller of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Edelweiss Bakery and Cafe offers German Thursdays to customers in a weekly celebration of German culture. With a name like Friedersdorf, it's about time I get in touch with my German roots. Once a year at Oktoberfest just isn't enough. Bring on the German Thursdays Baltimore! Prost!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lamenting labels...

In Canadian news, the Ottawa Sun reports that a popular local bakery will have to shut its doors due to Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations. This family owned bakery has been in business for thirty five years, but was recently ordered by an inspector to label products according to rigid government standards. The new labeling regulations created up to $100,000 in costs that the bakery could not reasonably afford, particularly with the approaching holiday rush. Should small businesses remain subject to the same packaging and labeling compliance laws as large businesses? I'll give my vote to the bakery, not the bureaucrats. If only politicians would champion neighborhood bakeries as much as they do libraries, parks, recycling bins, and senior citizen centers. At The Great American Bakery Hunt, we have our priorities straight.

Day of the Dead Bread...

For those of you who are still obsessing over Halloween, don't forget that November 1st and 2nd mark traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. The Napa Valley Register features a dazzling Day of the Dead photo by Andrea Roth. Like any dedicated bakery hunter, I value any holiday that glorifies bread products, and this photo features quite a spread.

I can think of no better way to honor the dead than through a bread tribute. And this is the purpose of "“pan de los muertos” (bread of the dead), one of the many objects that family members gather for this holiday to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. Bakeries that specialize in this type of bread experience a typical spike in sales around the time of this holiday.

This tradition reminds me of one of my favorite movie sequences, from "Man on the Moon" with Jim Carrey. Carrey plays comedian Andy Kaufman, a man who buys milk and cookies for thousands of strangers as one of his last hurrahs after finding out he has lung cancer. (In reality, Kaufman's timing was not quite as touching as it appeared in the film. According to L.A. Weekly, Kaufman did this years before he was diagnosed). I have always remembered that story though, despite the fact that the tricky screenwriters took some liberty with the sequence of events.

That moment on film just seemed so appropriate to me. Kaufman's cookies and milk gesture pays homage to the idea that when it comes to honoring a life, food is everything and everything is food.

Food remains the one constant in our lives. On any given day it is there to feed you, but also to comfort you, thrill you, romance you, make you drool-- even make you feel whole. Whether to celebrate life or celebrate death, food becomes a part of our most meaningful expressions, our most closely held memories. And this is why The Great American Bakery Hunt is a noble hunt indeed.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Back for more at Cafe Blanc!

When it comes to nibbling on pastries at Cafe Blanc, once a week is not enough. I am officially infatuated with this bakery. Those who work at Cafe Blanc are definitely starting to recognize me. I can see it in their eyes when I walk through the door. As they wave at me and greet me with a smile, they are surely thinking to themselves: "She's back for more." I returned again on Thursday to partake in some tea and pastries with my friend Justin. I am eager to convert as many people as possible to Cafe Blanc fandom, and it turns out that I won't have to try very hard. As we were deciding what to order, a man stood up from his table and walked up to the counter to get a business card. We exchanged knowing glances, both clearly fanatical customers. His eyes were wide as he said "I live in Glendale, but I would drive all the way down here for some of that stuff. So good." I smiled and nodded. Words could not express my wholehearted agreement. (Even so, I am quite grateful that Cafe Blanc is only just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my house).

This time I tried the tart poire (pear tart), and also tasted a bit of the creme brulee.
tart poire with gelato at Costa Mesa's Cafe Blanc
creme brulee at Cafe Blanc
Both were delicious, although I think the Ojai mandarin orange tart remains my most phenomenal choice thus far. Maybe it's the perfectly placed piece of orange zest in the middle of the tart that gets me every time. All I know is that I'm in love, and I'm falling hard. Not to worry, we went back to Cafe Blanc the next morning after a night celebrating my German heritage at Old World's Oktoberfest. My friend and I both ordered the orange tart. I could not resist reliving the experience. There is simply nothing better than following a night of German music, brats, and beer with a superb Cafe Blanc tart the next morning. "Prost" to that!

heaven in tart form at Cafe Blanc

another happy customer at Cafe Blanc

*for Cafe Blanc's location info, view my other post on Cafe Blanc by clicking on my archives or by typing in "Cafe Blanc" in the "search this blog" function at the top of the page-- enjoy!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Confessions of a Farmer's Market Cake Slinger...

I recently started slinging cakes at a nearby Farmer's Market. I was hired by a cake company to sell their products, and given my enthusiasm when it comes to cake, I love this job. They never assigned me a specific job title, so I have declared myself the "Unofficial But Passionate Bringer of Buttery, Sugary Joy to the Folks of Orange County". The only downside (blessing?) is that I get an employee discount. So by the end of the market, after staring at cake for several hours, I end up wanting to spend half of my pay so I can gobble up the delicious, moist, sweet goodness. Most of the time I can hold myself back, but sometimes I give in to buying a few of the mini-cakes. Hey, don't judge. At least I am working to support my habit.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cafe Blanc

From the outside, it is just another bakery in a strip mall. But from the inside, Costa Mesa's Cafe Blanc is full of treasures. I just heard about Cafe Blanc this weekend, so naturally I had to swing by the cafe "on my way home" today.

When I entered, I was greeted with a friendly wave from the counter woman as well as the chef in the back. Although the inside of the bakery is simply decorated, Cafe Blanc holds your attention with its thoughtful elegance. The bakery is designed so that customers can view preparations through a mirror positioned above the pastry chef's workstation, and customer and chef can also interact through the glass window separating the kitchen and the seating area.

When you order a pastry, you are served at a small table with the typical silverware and napkin ensemble. It's all standard enough, but as you look down at your plate, this visit to the bakery feels like a special occasion. The dish has been lovingly decorated, and a small scoop of complimentary gelato sits alongside your pastry. The attention to detail, the visual experience, and the overall presentation is exquisite, and unlike anything else you can find at a typical bakery in the area.

An after work treat at Cafe Blanc: My heavenly Ojai Mandarin Orange Tart

Yet Cafe Blanc's creations are far more than just eye candy for the pastry enthusiast. When I heard Chef Harase's philosophy was to "serve happiness", I knew his bakery would be something special. As I took my first bite of the Ojai Mandarin Orange tart, it almost brought tears to my eyes. And when the mandarin orange gelato melted in my mouth, my heart melted right along with it. Here in Southern California, it is a rare occasion when I find a baked goods that are reminiscent of my finds in Europe. Harase has truly inspired me! My heart was pumping as I left the bakery, and I started to call (almost) everyone I know, at least the people who share in my bakery addiction. My squeals of delight were left on one voicemail box after another. There were also a few frantic text messages. It's not every day that a hunt turns out this well. Run, don't walk, to Cafe Blanc the next chance you get:

298 E. 17th Street Unit B

Costa Mesa, CA 92627

(949) 631-9999

Cafe Blanc's exterior

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Don't get trapped in a giant tub of dough

When baking or hunting for bakeries, take care not to get trapped in a giant tub of dough like Brian Byrne of Eugene, Oregon. While working at Williams Bakery, Byrne was almost suffocated after he fell into the huge tub of dough. Luckily, he is going to be alright, according to the Seattle Times. This story reminds me that we should all be thankful to the brave men and women who make America's baked goods each day.

Cake boom!

Betty Hallock of the L.A. Times features the latest bakery boom in her recent article "Serious bakeries, whimsical cakes". The article features a list noteworthy bakeries to hunt, and also gives us a sense of what's going on in the minds of local bakers. Susan Sarich of Susie Cakes in Brentwood wants to "tap into the nostalgia for all-American desserts". Debra King of CakeWalk(east of downtown) explains that somebody has to stop with the cupcake craze, and says that "it might as well be me". The most exciting news, however, is that Tomi Harase, a well-known chef who used to have a restaurant in Beverly Hills, has returned to his "first love" and opened up a bakery in my hometown! Costa Mesa's Cafe Blanc on E. 17th street sounds like a promising bakery to hunt, and with summer hours lasting until 9 pm on the weekdays and 10 pm during the weekends (Fri & Sat), I can tell this will be a prime spot for my future late night summer bakery cravings. Chef Tomi Harase has a great philosophy too-- on his website he explains that "Here [at Cafe Blanc] we strive to serve happiness and want to communicate to our customers though our desserts and new creations". Well put. Anyone who wants to serve me happiness makes me a happy camper.

Goat cheese dreams

An amazing “Feuillete au chevre”, or in my translation: a goat cheese pastry. You might be able to tell that I was so excited to eat this that I forgot to take the picture until halfway through the pastry!
Another pastry from the same shop! Delicious!

As promised, I am forwarding my favorite French cheese pastry find to fellow blogger The Girl Who Ate Everything, who is studying in Paris right now and needs to experience it! I must apologize that it has taken me so long to send this information to my fellow bakery hunter. As the Girl Who Eats Everything, I am sure that she has no time to spare when finding out about the best goat cheese creations in town. Unfortunately, since my last trip to Paris in June, I have yet to properly organize all of the business cards, receipts, food stained scraps of paper and eating related scribbles that serve as records of my French food hunts. Finally, I am getting my act together for the purposes of The Great American Bakery Hunt, so without further ado: the goat cheese pastry to end all other goat cheese pastries.

Go forth, bakery hunters, hop on a plane the next chance you get, and try D. Sylla’s Boucherie de l’Étoile for yourself. Because his goat cheese pastry, or “Feuillete au chevre”, will change your life!

It’s truly scrumptious, and I fell for it so hard that I had to return back to this butcher shop several times during my last stay in Paris. The dough that wraps around the goat cheese center is just the right amount of flaky, and the cheese inside is just strong enough, just crumbly enough. The first time I sank my teeth into it, it was clear this was a special find. I tried a similar pastry from a different shop, one that actually specializes in cheese products, but there was no match for D. Sylla.

The tricky thing about this butcher shop (if you don’t speak much French) is that no one who works there speaks English, not even a little. But the good news is that the two men who work here are so genuinely nice that they are willing to resort to gestures to communicate with their customers. When ordering, there will be two cheese pastry options. Make sure you try the more expensive one-- I promise that it’s worth it!

Another tip: My first glimpse of the pastries happened when they were featured in the window display. But it is possible that you may not see any signs of these pastries in the shop. Before you curse my name for leading you on a wild goat cheese pastry hunt, try an inquiry with the butcher. Don’t fret, non-French speakers. Try your best French, or just gesture, until D.Sylla gets the gist of what you are after. At this point, he will go to a nearby refrigerator and pull out his selection, and although the goat cheese pastry is the most exceptional, he also has some meat pastries that are very tasty. There was one with ham, mushrooms and cheese and another with rabbit and pâté inside, and both were delicious.

D. Sylla clearly appreciates those that are hunting for an exceptional pastry. After the third consecutive visit of the week, he was so taken with the enthusiasm of his newfound American customers that he slipped some free sausages in the bag with the pastries. True to form, D. Sylla achieved excellence in his sausage sales as well, as these thin small sausages proved quite the tasty treat on the plane ride back home.

You can also find roasted chicken outside, which is excellent and makes for a decently priced dinner. Don’t be shy with the chicken, and make sure you buy some of those potatoes that rest underneath of it. As the chicken cooks, the juices from the poultry continue to coat the potatoes, and this collaboration between the ingredients transforms this into an outstanding feast that begs to find its way into your stomach. A similar chicken and potato duo is recreated in Orange County at none other than the Laguna Beach Farmer’s Market off of Forest Avenue, so for all of you locals, you can find that on Saturdays starting at 8 AM and lasting until noon (but make sure to go a bit before the market closes if you have your heart set on it-- the potatoes will sell out, and from experience, I can tell you that Felix the chicken-potato man does not enjoy being the bearer of bad news!)

For those lucky enough to be in Paris, you also have to be wary of closing times. Some stores have business hours that are quite different from the US, where they close down around the afternoon for a few hours, and then return again afterwards. Beware of this as you venture out to the shops and hunt for food.

Boucherie de l’Étoile
D. Sylla
27 Rue des Acacias
75017 Paris
Tel: 01 43.80-12-63

If you’re around Paris, hunt down Boucherie de l’Étoile by taking Metro Line 1 toward La Defense. Metro stop: Argentine

D. Sylla also has a variety of Spanish and Italian hams, sausages, and meats in his shop. There are a few wines to choose from along with some salads, so if you want to spring for an excellent picnic, you’re in the right spot.

Picnic fixingsFull of melancholy, I get ready to feast upon my last pastry of the trip

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Feasting on The Motherload...

A night with the The Motherload: friends enjoying some cake, milk, and wine
It was Friday night and I had a serious sweet tooth. After happy hour, we made our decision. The night was still young, and it was time to hit up The Motherload. For anyone unfamiliar with The Motherload, it is an enormous and very rich chocolate cake with walnuts, chocolate chips, and thick chocolate frosting. You can find The Motherload at the Claim Jumper, famous for its huge portions and an ideal haunt for competitive eaters. My brother once had a bet with his friends over who would weigh the most after a night at Claim Jumper.
So when you order a slice of The Motherload, it isn't just any slice of cake. A slice of The Motherload is, in a word, gigantic (at $10 a slice, it should be). But I was looking forward to the cake so much that this slipped my mind. While it makes for a great dish to share with a friend (if not 5 friends!), ordering The Motherload is a serious commitment. Bakery hunters, you've been warned.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

World's Most Expensive Restaurants...

Check out the World's Most Expensive Restaurants article featured on Out of the restaurants they describe, my favorite one to dream of will be Alberto Ciarla in Rome. According to Forbes, dinner for one at this Italian restaurant will run you about $113, but it all seems worth it since any prix-fixe menu you choose will come with SIX different kinds of bread.

After all, six breads are way better than one.

40, Piazza San Cosimato Rome 153 Italy
+39 6 581 8688 / +39 6 581 6068

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Hard crime and brownies...

Did anyone hear about the people who were caught breaking into a Dominoe's Pizza just so they could bake some brownies at 5:30 in the morning? I swear, that's all you hear in the news these days, hard crime and brownies, hard crime and brownies. Give it a rest Couric!

Speaking of good old Katie, one of her own blog entries came up in my Google alert under "American bakers". Google alerts are quite useful tools if you want to keep tabs on certain subjects through the internet. Just when I thought that Google GMAIL had made my life complete, the folks at Google made me fall in love all over again. I discovered Google Alerts, emails that Google sends me each day with articles relevant to any and every topic I might ever desire. In theory, this system is perfection, but recently I have had to come to terms with the following Google Alert dilemma:

Sometimes, Google Alert alerts me to things that I simply do not want to be alerted about. Take the aforementioned Katie Couric blog as an example. Since I have requested that Google Alert send me emails about "American bakers", Couric's blog post featuring "her own" apple pie recipe was included in my last Alert email. This sounds innocent enough, but little did I know the horror this blog would unveil. To be fair, you should really read this blog entry yourself for the full effect, but let me highlight my favorite moment for those of you who do not opt to click the link!

Throughout the entry, Couric describes a recent family outing of apple-picking, and this all leads up to the apple pie recipe at the end. I'm pretty sure Couric never took a course in food writing, because just before the recipe at the end, she shares with her readers that baking a pie with your family can be a great way to teach your children math, while adding, in parenthesis, mind you, that ("This is so wholesome, I’m about to throw up!"). Note to Katie: Parenthesis do not equal humor, and references to vomiting in food articles seem a bit out of place. But it gets even better. The crowning glory comes as Couric wraps up the article and segues to the recipe. To her readers, she offers these words of advice for all novice bakers as they prepare to read her tasty recipe: "Remember, if I can do it, you can do it! (that’s what I tell everyone about my colonscopy, but we can chat about that another time!)".

Okay, first of all, she spelled colonoscopy wrong. Doesn't CBS hire little blog proofreading underlings to take care of this sort of thing?

You can see that I hyperlinked that bad boy once again, because if you didn't want to read Couric's blog before, you might have some twisted desire to do so at this point. But if you really want my advice, don't bother. If you're thinking that something you read at the beginning of her entry will help you make sense of the end of it, you are sorely mistaken dear reader. When it comes to food writing, let's leave the colonoscopy references out of the apple pie articles, even if that means we have to go back to stories about hard crime and brownies. I liked it better that way.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Food, Wine and Micro-Brew Fest...

The other night I volunteered at the Food, Wine and Micro-Brew Fest at South Coast Plaza. Signing up to be a volunteer not only helped a good cause (The Second Harvest Food Bank), but it also gave me some serious dinner perks for the night.

After checking in with the volunteer coordinator, I was told I had thirty minutes before I started my assignment at 6:30 pm. The event was already in full swing, and I knew that I had to make these 30 minutes count. Naturally, I signed up for the earliest shift that I could possibly make as I rushed to the food fest from work. I didn't want to miss this...

As the name of the event suggests, the "fest" features many different wineries, micro-breweries, and restaurants, all of which had tasty treats to offer those in attendance. The best part is that you pay for everything before you attend ($37.50/ea for a group of 10, or $55 per person otherwise) so there is no dealing with pesky scrip cards, cash, or other forms of payment. The theme is simply to eat, enjoy, and frolic around the mall in wonderful culinary excess. (Though it's better if you're a volunteer, because then you get a free ride through the fest. If you don't mind working the event, this is definitely the way to go.)

There was a check-in table for guests, where you could claim your wine glass and tray, but I decided to opt out of standing in line for this so I could make sure to check out the whole event in record time. I was limited to beer as far as the beverages went, since the beer vendors had empty cups there for the taking (the Icelandic one was the best!).

After quickly stopping to say hello to a good friend of mine who was also working the event, I started to make my way through the hustle and bustle of people and sampled away. There was a Godiva chocolate stand, where I was able to sample three wonderful truffles. I just barely swallowed my last candy in time to get a hunk of cheese from the only cheese vendors I spotted (Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, based in Northern CA). There was a delicious chicken and rice sampler from an Indian restaurant, mini sourdough bread bowls full of clam chowder from Boudin, scoops of Haagen Daas, pastries from Vie de France, ravioli, breweries, fondu, oh my! There was hardly any time to think as I stuffed samples in my mouth haphazardly and tried not to run into people as I dashed from booth to booth. There was no turning back. Thank god for the escalators, which made it much more efficient as I rushed from floor to floor (the entire event consumed a whopping three floors of the mall).

I was infatuated with all of the delicious morsels, and as I dashed in and out of lines and in between crowds of people, trying to balance my food and drink (s), I realized that it was probably better for my health that there was a time limit to all of this madness. My whirlwind romance with each of the vendors could only last for so long-- I was about to turn into a volunteer pumpkin.

Since I also recently worked at the 'Taste of Newport' food festival, I knew that the volunteers might get a few perks. But the truth is, I really enjoyed having a part in the event as a volunteer as much as I enjoyed being a guest for my whirlwind 30 minute adventure. As much as I enjoy partaking in good food and drink, I'm quite happy to sit by the sidelines and watch others having a good time at shindigs like this, especially if it is going towards a good cause-- I have a serious soft spot for the nonprofit organization! I ended up volunteering alongside another local, who gave me the rundown on the raffle ticket booth where I was stationed.

We were raffling off all kinds of things for the event, including a BBQ feast for 15 in your backyard, a glamorous hotel stay, a few foursomes of golf (imagine the comments I received from some of the more "thirsty" guests about winning a foursome), and a $250 shopping spree for South Coast Plaza. I think I did a pretty good job pushing the tickets, but most of all I was glad to have the opportunity to talk with so many people as they passed by the booth. Not only did I make bank for the food bank, but I also got an insider's perspective on how people were liking different foods at the event. A few overall hits that I can recall include the paninis (possibly from Chat Noir, but shamefully I cannot remember), and the chocolate lava cake from another French sounding vendor.

The paninis were definitely a standout hit with me, they were full of garlic jam and goat cheese! But my favorite morsels were the chocolate cups with Trader Joe's raspberry wine inside. These only get my top vote for sentimental reasons, since they reminded me of the many chocolate cups full of liquor and topped with whipped cream that I gobbled down while visiting a charming little bar in Seville, Spain.

There was the custard pastry from Pacific Whey Cafe, which was excellent. After I complimented them on the pastry, they pointed downstairs to the floor below. This is where their new location will be, and they wanted to direct my attention to it. I responded to this with: "OH, i already know ALL about it. I definitely know when a bakery opens in the area". They seemed pleased with that, but also appeared a bit puzzled by my self-declaration. They were possibly thinking to themselves that I was some sort of secret agent baking industry insider. I really should have told them about the hunt, but I thought it more enjoyable to act mysterious. (At the end of the event, we collapsed by California Pizza Kitchen so we could recover. It was a happy coincidence that the pastry booty from Pacific Whey was being transported right past our table as all of the different vendors were packing up. One of the employees stopped when he saw my eyes light up, and offered one to my friend and me. And that really sums up the spirit of the whole evening. Giving food, loving food, eating food, and doing it all with a lively jazz band playing in the background).

Perhaps one of the funniest moments of the evening came when I went to grab a last minute wine taste from one of the wineries present. The fest was winding down, but we had a few post-volunteering shift minutes to check everything out one last time before everyone packed up. As I approached the table, I noticed two individuals serving the wine- a man and a woman, probably in their 20's, with the most Danish looking features I had seen in quite awhile. I thought I was probably imagining things, but something made me blurt out: "Wow-- you look really Danish". And then there was a pause. I was expecting laughter, confusion, bewilderment maybe-- after all, it was a random thing for me to say. The man responded first: "We look really Danish? That's probably because we are Danish". I couldn't believe it. They were probably the only two genuine Danes in the building, and I found them. My friend was there to witness it, and we have since established a theory that I have "Dane-ar", Dane radar that is. We learned that these friendly Danes are only here for a few months, and that they are doing an internship with their family friend, the owner of the wine shop. I guess I have a talent for spotting the ones fresh off the boat from Denmark, after my time as an exchange student there.

After everything was over, my friend and I considered what move we should make next. Ironically, I felt pretty hungry at the end of it all. Though we had been surrounded by food all night, I never actually ate a substantial meal, so it only seemed logical that I had a ham and cheese croissant craving. Luckily, I had the best 24 hour ham and cheese croissant joint only 15 minutes away. We ended up at that great donut/croissant shop down by the Balboa pier, eating those legendary ham and cheese croissants that are the love of many a Orange County local. I don't know the name or the address, all I know if that I am eternally grateful to my older brother for introducing me to this place. I was excited to finally have a chance to chat with my friend after our night as sample junkie volunteer superpowers. He is an old friend from high school and one of the greats, the very best company when enjoying a good croissant or taking a food festival by storm!

While standing in line for croissants, we ran into the usual Newport Beach characters from the partying crowd. Tonight it was a bunch of visiting Europeans (British?), who were being introduced to the croissants by their local buddy. They were all drunk, and the local proceeded to get way closer to our faces than necessary and tell us about how this place made him think of this little cafe he eats at when he visits France (??). His eyes were wide as he described his favorite sandwiches around the world. He was a kindred spirit, even if he was a little too drunk to be making much sense. He invited us back to party out on his yacht-- the existence of said yacht is questionable, but we declined the friendly offer respectfully, with a grateful "thanks but no thanks". We opted to stick our toes in the sand and head back home.

And that was our night. A little excess, some hard work, a charity event, and the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean- all the makings for a typical evening in Orange County.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Why I love Craigslist and Taiwanese Hospitality...

A "hot pot soup" feast...

A good friend of mine from Portland just started law school, and as her most locally based crony, I feel it is my duty to help her get settled in the area. She recently found a posting on, a posting that brought her instant and much needed relief.

After purchasing a new mattress from IKEA, with the very Swedish name of Fangebo (!), it had been lying sadly in the corner of her apartment with no boxspring to speak of. But Craigslist offered hope, and Craigslist sure delivered.

We planned to go on Friday night to pick up the goods, but little did we know that we would soon make some great friends through this sale.

In order to make the move, I borrowed my grandfather's old light blue Ford truck, the one he used to cart his construction materials around in back in the day, when he was a contractor. Vintage cars have always been a love of mine, so there was already magic in the air that night.

(Any locals who are interested should check out Adam's Donut Shop in Huntington Beach. If you arrive early on a Saturday morning, you will come upon a gathering of vintage car fiends/donut junkies. You'll get to feast your eyes upon some great rides, and also scarf down some donuts with a gathering of mostly local dudes who have a good old appreciation of good old vehicles. I recommend the Tigertail twists, in case you were wondering about the donut selection)

Anyway, back to the mattress sale. Like I said, there was magic in the air that night.

We set out to pick up the mattress, cruising the 22 freeway and cursing the construction that was adding more traffic during our journey.

After all of the typical confusion about where to park at the apartment complex, a young guy came out to direct us to the boxspring in question.

When we opened the door, we were immediately welcomed by a huge group of friendly faces, seated at a table with an elaborate feast arranged.

We were immediately welcomed to sit down and join in the feast, and after nervously chuckling in that "oh you must be joking" way, we realized they were serious about the invitation. Never ones to turn down a free and piping hot meal, my friend and I accepted.

Usually I am a bit wary of strangers, but these folks were just about the most nonthreatening, jolly people you might ever encounter. We were immediately at ease as they dished out some food to us and started up the conversation. We eventually learned that this group of friends (about 15 people? who could count with the feast distracting me?!) gathers every Friday night for huge, never- ending pots of Taiwanese soup, $5 poker games, and in the case of this night, some TV baseball.

Just about all of the folks gathered here hail originally from Taiwan, and most are here studying at graduate school at either UCI and USC for engineering. In addition to creating lovely feasts each Friday, they also find time to play on a co-ed softball team with one another. One cluster of the party sat in the family room enjoying a broadcast of that evening's baseball game. I couldn't tell you who was playing. Even though we see baseball as an American past time, I hear it is quite popular in Taiwan as well. Personally, I think the best part of the game involves throwing peanut shells, drinking beer, eating hot dogs and possibly seeing fireworks. While half of the room was intently focused on the game, the rest of us were seated at the dinner table, engaging in lively conversation about what exactly we were eating and whether we could handle eating with chopsticks (We could, indeed, handle them- to our hosts' surprise- but I had already dirtied the fork so I stuck with that. My friend switched to chopsticks-- to her credit, she is ever the law student trained to constantly prove a point). But utensils didn't matter here. I probably could have fashioned a spoon out of modeling clay and used that to eat directly out of their soup pot and it wouldn't have mattered-- they were such lovely people, and so good natured, that our interactions flowed on, effortlessly. Once strangers, we went from fidgety people with plans to stay for five minutes, to making fun of ourselves and each other, eating, and being merry for about two hours after that. We asked them about local markets to shop at for soup ingredients (they tipped us off to French 99), and they recommended their favorite Dim Sum restaurant, suggesting that we should all go sometime.

The soup we were eating was delicious-- we learned that the broth is made by placing only the bags of herbs, water, and meat in the pot. After this, additional ingredients are put in such as mushrooms, flavorful little balls of pork, fish cakes, rice cakes, meat, cabbage, and pure goodness!

Perhaps the most charming quality about this soup is the never- ending nature of it. This is the everlasting gobstopper of soups if there ever was one. After a few helpings are taken, dry ingredients continue to be placed in the pot, and after a waiting period, you continue to eat more soup. We tried to maintain an awareness of social cues, a recognition that there would be a point where we overstayed our welcome. But it never felt like this, as people just kept offering us soup, over and over again. How could we resist as they kept encouraging us to ladle more soup into our tiny bowls? It was heaven.

And this is why I love Craigslist, and why I adore Taiwanese hospitality, if such a thing even exists specifically. No matter what you want to call it, this was simply one of those good, downright random nights.

It was a really cool experience to be able to peek into another culture- and of course, it's always a highlight when I get to know good people over good food. The best part was being able to hear the stories of the once anonymous online boxpspring seller. Eve and Dale, the couple who live in the apartment (along with a friend) were recently married, and they had purchased a whole new bed set. After "Aww" and heartfelt "congratulations!" came my next natural reaction, as I was compelled to ask: "What kind of cake did you have at your wedding"? (Even in the presence of good soup, the bakery hunt continues).

They explained that they had no cake, since they celebrated with a very small ceremony, with one witness from the chapel. They said that it lasted only 15 minutes long, and I couldn't help but smile. My friends know that if I ever get married, my wedding cake will inevitably prove to be more important than the groom (I'm kidding...?). For years I have tried to coerce male friends into masquerading as future spouses so that I can go cake tasting and sample the very finest in matrimonial bakery goods with no strings attached, but unfortunately I can't find a cake enthusiast brave enough for the job. Despite the fact that I would be horrified if I didn't get a truly satisfying wedding cake, Eve and Dale made me appreciate the no frills approach to an event that seems to be more of an overblown headache and a chance for your friends to get drunk than a night to honor your vows. I can bakery hunt anytime, but I will only (technically?) get married once, if everything goes according to plan. And, if I don't get too greedy about wanting to try wedding cakes. I can always become a "crasher" if going through the divorce doesn't seem worth it.

I learned a lot that night in Garden Grove. I learned about making Taiwanese soup, which will forevermore be deemed "Everlasting Taiwanese Gobstopper Soup". I learned about the true love of two people, who were nice enough to give my friend a good deal on a boxspring, generous enough to share their meal with us, and lucky enough to be surrounded by friends who would at any time, happily get up from watching a baseball game to lug a boxspring out to the parking lot for a couple of random college graduates just starting out in life.

We got into my grandpa's old truck, and my friend flipped through the pictures of the soup we had taken with my cell phone. Dale made sure we got out of the parking space okay, and we rode away into the distance. Normally I always carry my digital camera just in case something like this happens-- in and around Los Angeles, one never knows when you will step into another culture, another network of completely amazing people, another impromptu feast, moments that you MUST capture on film. I had forgotten the camera tonight, but our hosts pulled through for us again, taking down our emails and promising to send additional pictures. When we asked for their Dim Sum recommendation at dinner, Dale searched through the Yellow Pages in a more dedicated way than I had ever seen anyone pursue a yellow page in my life. When he couldn't find it, he emailed it to us (You'll have to comment and leave your email if you really want to know where this Dim Sum is--I can't go giving away all my trade secrets just yet, and I'd like to hear from some of you).

I also learned that our new friends have a love for karaoke. Since karaoke, other than baked goods, serves as one of my defining passions, I would absolutely love nothing more than to go out for a night of karaoke with the softball crew! They were just about the nicest, most genuine people I have ever randomly met while picking up a mattress, or even just in general. We talked about the fact that we should get together again, and I truly hope that this happens someday-- we all exchanged "it was nice meeting you/eating with you" emails.

While at their apartment, I explained to them that since they gave us this wonderful soup, we would be friends for life. They probably thought I was joking, but anyone who knows me understands what it's all about in my life: good food, and good people.

Southern California is full of these beautiful moments of cultural collision, but those with food don't happen nearly enough. I guess next time I'm craving a feast, I should buy a mattress off of craigslist, but I highly doubt that every story is such a success. Not every boxspring trip transports you to another culture, and not every seller greets you with open arms and everlasting gobstopper soup. I think it was my grandpa's old Ford that made the night complete-- riding around in that old vintage truck, we couldn't have felt younger. We were free to eat gobstopper soup all night if we wanted to, and that's how it should be right now. Soon I will be starting a job, and my friend is already in the thick of it at law school, and though we're still young, we know our days are numbered. Granted, we have quite a few good years left in us-- but we know that eventually, we'll have to worry about more than just getting our mattresses off the floor in pursuit of a good night's sleep. We know the time will come, faster than we want it to, when our recent stories from college will become distant legends. Those days of college roommates, freedom, and garden grove friendships will fade, and we will grow in years, and hopefully in annual income too (especially if we're living in Orange County and desire shelters of some sort). We will try to pretend we can still be spontaneous enough for gobstopper soup. I hope we will be. Although I just graduated, I can already tell that I'll never have nearly enough of those nights with the windows down and the true spirit of youth and improvisation and new beginnings in the air. This one was a night to remember, so thank you Craigslist! And my compliments to the chef.

A picture with the Chef and his "everlasting gobstopper" soup!

Friends enjoying a good bowl of soup!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pastry crawl, anyone?

Poilane in Paris, France

Chowhounds are people who live to eat, or so says, a site dedicated to everything and anything related to the quest for good food (you might say that The Great American Bakery Hunt is the small, modest, red-headed chubby stepchild of, as we are so focused on one aspect of the food industry and could never possibly encompass the informative, exhaustive, and entertaining culinary grandeur that is Chow. Even so, I'd like to think that Chow and Bakery Hunt readers alike might one day develop a mutual respect for each other in this crazy and mixed up blog saturated, media frenzied, mouth watering land of food-questing Internet utopia).

I was recently looking through Chow's Los Angeles message board when I came across some kindred spirits: Los Angeles bakery hunters who go on much celebrated and adventurous "pastry crawls" or "bakery crawls" in order to search for elusive sources of perfected baked goods within Southern California.

It occurs to me now that I have been on many a pastry crawl, but I had just never thought to describe these searches with such a clever term of endearment. Although I plan on adopting this lingo as a part of my bakery obsessed vernacular, I feel the need to differentiate between "bakery crawls" and "bakery hunts".

Bakery hunting refers to a serious mission, one approached with drive, perseverance, and unfaltering determination to fulfill the quest for new bakeries. During a bakery hunt, you must stop at nothing to pursue discovery and new culinary conquests. This is serious, très sérieux! (French added for emphasis). You vow to try new things. Although the hunt will sometimes end in disappointment, you vow to begin hunting another day with even more vigor. It is always a worthy challenge.

You give no thought to social consequence. Your face may be smeared with sweet jams, your vehicle might be covered in baguette crumbs, you might even have little balls of molasses cookie residue forming in the crevices of your lips. You are certainly not going to be sharing the details of this trip with your fellow members of Overeater's Anonymous, and you doubt you will be squeezing into a bikini/speedo anytime soon. But you go on, you persevere. You're dough-thirsty for fresh treats, and you've got tunnel vision.

Bakery and pastry crawls are much different. Crawls are all about pleasure, not business. Crawls involve a certain amount of predetermined planning. You set aside a whole day for a bakery crawl, it is indeed, a long awaited, much anticipated event-- an occasion if you will. If you're desperate enough for a good crawl, you call in sick to work. You fill up your car with gas on the night before. You make a visit to the ATM for extra milk money. You avoid wearing black in anticipation of powdered sugar consumption. You have extra quarters ready for parking meters, or to compensate "the reserves", aka little kids you give extra change to, so they will go inside the bakery and buy you a fourth helping of your favorite baklava to escape the judging looks of the other customers (Hey, someday they'll be asking you to buy them cigarettes, right?). You tell the girl/guy that you're dating that you have to wash your hair that day, or get rid of them a la Greg Brady, by explaining that "something just suddenly came up". And you enlist the help of a worthy crony in your life, someone who will not judge you when you have to unbutton your pants a little at the end of the day, someone willing to block out an entire day on their calendar for the love of the crawl.

After all of the plans are made, your slumber is hindered by the anticipation of the crawl, much like a child on Christmas Eve awaiting a new Transformer or perhaps a Tenth Anniversary Tickle Me Elmo (Elmo has anniversaries??). You awake to drool, slathered on your face as a testament to your love and dedication to pastries. And the crawl begins. The crawl need not contain new stops along your bakery tour, it may simply be a day for you to celebrate your favorite pastries and baked goods. Sure you can throw a few curve balls into the lineup, but most of the goods will be your old stand-bys.

At the end of the day you will feel satisfied and full. You will allow yourself to sit in a vegetative state, dazed in front of the television by a news magazine show featuring a shocking story about pesticides, then one about teenage prostitution. You will have no free will to move in order to get the remote, so you will then watch an acne infomercial hosted by Marie Osmond. Fabio will make a cameo, followed by Kelly Clarkson, after which you will fall into a deep slumber. Ah, sweet pastry crawl.

I welcome suggestions from anyone who has a favorite pastry crawl. Hopefully, with the help of my blog, you will begin to understand the subtle differences between pastry crawls, hunts, and everything in between.

Personally, the following is my ideal pastry crawl if expense and logic is not an issue:

I would fly to Denmark, landing at CPH, Copenhagen's peaceful airport, and then take the train to the Norrebro stop. From there I would go to Skt Peders Bakery, which is about a ten minute walk away from the train. Following my stroll in the city, I would surprise my host mother in Roskilde, and request that she make me her famous Cinnamon rolls and breads. Also, I would ask for her hot dogs and sausages with warm, homemade fresh bread wrapped around the dogs in a heavenly warm embrace.

The best hot dogs in the world, straight from my host mom's Danish kitchen!

My host mom's cinamon bread-- It must have been fate when I was placed in a homestay with such an excellent baker!

Then I would fly to France, stopping off for breakfast at the Hotel DeVille Bakery (Hotel DeVille stop) for an Ouranais. Then I would swing over to Poilane, where I would have an open faced sandwich at their cafe (featuring their famous bread), and then grab one of the best apple tarts I have ever laid my eyes on (it has the best flaky outer ring of dough), waiting to eat it until I reached the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Boulangerie de l'Hotel de Ville in Paris, France

Then I would come back over to the U.S., grab some French's chocolate fudge torte cake, and call it a day. (Of course, I would need a side of ice cold milk). If there was still room, I might squeeze in a chocolate chip cookie or two made by my mom.

Next week, on the Great American Bakery hunt:

Pastry benders, binges, and extravaganzas- indulgent and excessive pastry marathons, resulting in sugar-induced stupors, empty wallets, and most likely health problems if you engage in this behavior enough! Then again, let us not speak of such things. A crawl is indulgent enough-- a bender just goes beyond reason. Pastries, especially exceptional pastries, should be savoured, not devoured. Thus, our adventures of pastry crawls, not pastry runs! Pastry crawl, anyone?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Oh Canada!

I recently ventured to West Hollywood for no good reason in order to go to a trendy bar with a group of my friends, who are mostly the kind of people who I love for not really caring about going to trendy bars. But alas, the air hockey table and long list of imported beers (including Danish beers) awaited. I quickly cut to the chase with my fellow bar-goers as I set out on a quest for some bakery blog material. That's right-- some go to bars to party and meet up with intriguing members of the opposite sex, but let's face it, I have a job to do. My priorities are in order.

After striking up a conversation/air hockey challenge with a group of visiting Canadian air force pilots, I started to think about what people eat in Canada and I had an unexpected flashback. Although I have never traveled to Canada, I once had a nice old Canadian neighbor who helped me with my fourth grade school report on Canada by giving me a cherished Canadian recipe.

As the conversation waned with the Canadian air force pilots, it was my golden opportunity to broach the subject of my most favorite Canadian baked treat: The Nanaimo Bar! It's actually quite a miracle that I remembered these Canadian delights. Had I not pounded on my Canadian neighbor's door, in the desperation of a fourth grader who needed two sources besides the encyclopedia, I might have never obtained the recipe.

One of the Canadians immediately smiled when I mentioned Nanaimo bars, saying that "Those are SO good!". Common ground. I still maintain that we could resolve countless international disputes if only we conversed just a little more about food together, if only we had transnational food appreciation conventions with open bars.

I get the impression that Nanaimo bars are quite the revered baked goods around Canada, and this is somewhat warranted. Canadian expatriate blogs wax on about Nanaimo bars being the much longed for treats of the Motherland. Apparently there is also a certain amount of mystery and lore surrounding the original recipe. All I can say for sure is that my neighbor's recipe was amazing, and it reminds me of my happy chubby fourth grade days eating sweets and feeling jolly.

I posed an important question for the Canadian: Is the Canadian Nanaimo bar tradition the equivalent of the America's love affair with the chocolate chip cookie? The Canadian answered firmly: "No. The Nanaimo bar is for special occasions. It is much more special than the chocolate chip cookie."

Putting my American pride aside, I acknowledged that Nanaimo bars were delicious. But in my head, I was defending the chocolate chip cookie like others might defend American football, freedom, or cheeseburger drive through joints (all logical choices, the cookie being the most under appreciated as far as I am concerned). The Canadian insulted my favorite cookie of choice, and this meant war, conflict, heartache. The chocolate chip cookie can be special, and often is special, but it has to be done right. And we all know that this rarely happens. How many times have you paid more than one hard-earned dollar on a rock hard, almost burnt "chocolate chip cookie in what is clearly a disgraceful representation of one of our most beloved national treats? Don't even get me started with Chips Ahoy.

For my new Canadian friends, I must state for the record that they are right, but only in one sense. Any old chocolate chip cookie (i.e. the Chips Ahoy variety) may not be the cherished dessert for special occasions and celebrations in America. But the truly satisfying chocolate chip cookie (slightly crispy edges, gooey slightly undercooked middle, warm from the oven with a chilled glass of milk), the chocolate chip cookie that is done right, can be cause for a celebration all its own.

I'm still going to dig up my Nanaimo bar recipe, and I'll always dig the fact that my old Canadian neighbor gave it to me. She was a sweet lady who shared her Canadian pride with the little waddling fourth grader neighbor child. And the jovial Canadians visiting West Hollywood shared the same sense of pride as I cunningly preyed upon them for blog material (We even got them to sing their anthem "Oh Canada" to the bar at one point). They told us sugary tales of Canadian forests, filled with maple trees with taps in them, and spoke highly of the local sweet shops which feature maple syrup products. Apparently they are sugar fiends over there in Canada. As one of my friends put it, when Americans hear this, we picture small Canadian children frolicking around in forests, running up to maple trees and licking them, out of control despite their parents' warnings not to spoil their dinner. Totally accurate? Perhaps not. Entertaining visual? Indeed.

Conveniently enough, our night ended across the street at IHOP, where American folks venture when they just simply "need" a stack of pancakes at 3 am, (or in WeHo perhaps also when they are having clandestine Hollywood affairs). As always, IHOP featured several selections of maple syrup to choose from. We asked the Canadians to rate the syrup, and it was just as we suspected: sub-par. "Too runny," one of them commented with a tone of Canadian authority. After one Canadian ordered bacon, we discussed other stimulating topics such as whether Canadian bacon was just bacon to them when they ordered it back home (To clarify, they identified Canadian bacon as "back bacon", and bacon bacon by its regular American title. Clearly, these are the burning questions of the American intellect).

As I reflected on the night of my maple-syrup induced coma, I caught a glimpse of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central when Colbert was "interviewing" comedian Martin Short. During his interview, Short stated if someone were putting a gun to his head, forcing him to choose between his Canadian and American citizenships, he would pick Canada. I would think him a traitor if not for the glory of Nanaimo bars, clearly a part of his unstated rationale for this decision, eh?

Monday, September 04, 2006

In absentia...

My posts have been dwindling over the past week, as I took a much needed vacation to Mexico with some family and friends. Sadly (and happily) there were no bakeries to be found there and no bakery hunting endeavors to engage me. I say happily because this is not the sort of vacation in which anyone involved engages in any way with outside civilization. (As everyone who has ever lived in the vicinity of Los Angeles can attest to, this momentary alienation can be a relief).

We retreat to a house by a fairly remote beach with a beautiful ocean view, barricade ourselves in with little more than food (mostly dozens of avocados, chips, all the makings of guacamole, and several cases of Corona), tequila, and a reading list that we look forward all year to completing with no interruption. No phone calls, no network news, nothing.

Since I couldn't go to bakeries myself, I decided to live vicariously through my growing collection of European travel novels, which I gathered to devour on my trip. I am determined to read each and every story about Americans who have moved or traveled to Europe, particularly the ones who definitively and openly share my love affair with France and/or Denmark.

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik has become one of my immediate favorites. Gopnik writes so beautifully about his family's stay in Paris that I do not even fight the urge to make excited notes in his margins, constantly agreeing with his observations and sentiments about living abroad. (This is why I loathe borrowing books from the library, because I don't get to make enthusiastic notes in the margins. Plus, when it comes to novels written by expatriates, you better believe I am keeping detailed records of where to visit when I finally get back to Europe.)

Anyway, Paris to the Moon is a treasure (you should buy it NOW), and I am in love with several quotes from Gopnik's commentary (see citation at end of post). Like myself, Gopnik appreciates the details that arise when visiting the small shop owners of Paris. These details are immediately apparent to a first time Paris visitor, at least to the visitor who pays attention. The best way to describe the experience of the small French shop is that it feels like a real human exchange, wholly devoid of the usual corporate flavor of your local strip mall bakery in Typical, USA. The French small business is without any robotic customer service behavior-- it does not seem to be influenced by an employee handbook with catchy marketing slogans and reminders to greet customers with a pre-formulated "how can I help you today?" statement (that is most likely delivered half-heartedly by the person behind the counter because this greeting is mandated). It has no rules about singing a corny song if someone throws their change into the tip jar, in fact, it does not even have a tip jar. You get a friendly "Bonjour!" with no hidden intentions, no motives, no countertop tip jar coercion to speak of. It certainly does not sell apparel for dogs, the bakery insignia strategically placed across the canine's torso. (Readers who are interested can note my prior blog entries about the maddening trend of 'dog bakery culture'). Furthermore, there are no customers holding up the line by yakking on their cell phones, yelling at their child's nanny that 'NO, she most definitely cannot have Tuesday night off to take her mother to dialysis, your husband's gala event is on that same night, you have a million things to do, and the children mustn't be forced to endure the traumatic transition of a new babysitter, and on such late notice too'. There are no French people who would put up with that crap, only in Orange and Los Angeles County I tell you! People are missing out on the daily quirks of life-- our cell phones are so glued to our heads that we feel the indentation of the rubber keypad upon our cheeks more often than we feel the human touch of a handshake or appreciate the value of a sincere hello while in public.

The French bakery has warmth and character, and Gopnik captures this perfectly in his analysis. Gopnik writes the following, in harmony with this concept of warmth:

"There is hardly a day when you are not wild with gratitude for something that happens in the small shops: the way that Mme. Glardon, at the pastry shop on rue Bonaparte, carefully wraps Luke Auden's [Gopnik's son's] chocolate éclair in a little paper pyramid, a ribbon at its apex, knowing perfectly well, all the while, that the paper pyramid and ribbon will endure just long enough for the small boy to rip it open to get to the éclair." (pg 103)

This passage says it all, and although I do not know Gopnik personally, I feel confident in assuming that he was not on his cell phone while Mme. Glardon attentively and gracefully wrapped his son's pastry. Clearly Gopnik and I are on the same page when it comes to French bakeries, when it comes to life really. The small things must be appreciated, without a doubt. At the ripe old age of 22, this is one thing (and maybe the only thing), that I can truly say for certain.

My dream would be to move to Europe and spend huge chunks of time in Paris and Denmark training with the best of the pastry chefs there. Afterwards, I would bring excellence to the American people in pastry form, and I would have a blast doing it. I would probably never be as truly charming as a Danish or French baker, but hell, I could still try.

Gopnik inspired me once more as he wrote about a pair of Americans who left their lives behind in the academic field to live with a flock of goats and make goat cheese (pg 162). And it's Gopnik-esque anecdotes like those that make me think to myself, why not? If someone offered to pay me to make goat cheese and live with goats, I would be down for it. You just can't say no to something like that. Saying yes to goat cheese is like saying yes to adventure, to absurdity and spontaneity and random challenges--the stuff that should make up your life if you are lucky.

Other highlights include Gopnik "refining a long term plan" (pg 230) with his wife to have their ashes permanently placed atop the dessert counter at their favorite Paris restaurant. Moments like these make it clear that Gopnik and I are kindred spirits. They also make me regret having lived six whole years since Paris to the Moon's original publication date without discovering the treasure of this book.

For all this time, Gopnik was ruminating on the same European love affair that I was obsessing over myself, the one which led me to start this blog. Longing for Paris and Copenhagen has created an ever present ache in my life. Luckily I have a knack for discovering the happy distractions of French and Danish culture in the United States. For example, Netflix selections from the foreign genre section always seem to find their way into my queue. I have even taken to watching my Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD's with the French subtitles turned on (who knew you could do that!?). I have my first "Practical French" lesson tomorrow at our nearby community college. I admit to buying somewhat ovoverpriced language CD sets at bookstores, and then making the most out of traffic ridden commutes by practicing on the 405 freeway (Most likely this makes me look ridiculous to other drivers, but in the end I will have the last laugh when I can order the best pastries flawlessly in the baker's native tongue! Take that you freeway skeptics). Besides that, there are the typical food festivals, enclaves of European communities within L.A., the occasional Octoberfest here and there, the French owned bakery/restaurant I discovered in Silver Lake while dining out with a friend. There is the Nordic Fox in Downey, CA, which did not wow me with its food but had a Scandinavian themed interior/menu that charmed me nonetheless. I can always drive to Solvang if I'm really desperate. (There will never be better Danish cooking than my host mother, so at times it seems pointless to search). There are also some other European themed shops scattered across Orange County and LA. (My next conquest is a Danish furniture store in LA that I recently discovered online). And of course, this blog has allowed me to obsess on an even deeper, some might say scarier, level that my friends and family marvel at.

I'll leave you with my favorite quote from Gopnik, a simple one which seems to perfectly encompass my hopes and dreams of an adventurous European life-- as well as the inadequacy I feel in trying to describe why I need Europe in my life. Gopnik explains that "The hardest thing to convey is how lovely it all is and how the loveliness seems all you need" (pg 270). I don't think anyone could ever sum it up better than that. Don't take it from me, buy the book people! Or, just go to Europe and learn to make a little goat cheese, you'll see what I mean.

Gopnik, Adam. Paris to the Moon. Random House, 2001.

Old Towne Orange International Food Festival...

Tonight I attended the Old Towne Orange International Food Festival, which included a Danish street! Nothing made me happier than approaching random Danes (or "Danes by marriage"as some of their buttons indicated), and speaking to them about my love for Danish culture.

I was able to gather a wealth of information about Danish events in my local area as well as Danish lessons that are available to take in Yorba Linda. (I got to listen to Danish accents, which I love! I was so inspired that I bought some Danish CD's later at Barnes and Nobles, something I have been wanting to invest in for awhile). I even got invited to a happy hour after the Danish Sunday mass. I am considering a membership in their church to gain access to endless events with traditional Danish food and undoubtedly awesome Danish folks (Does that make me a bad person, or a smart person?). The fair itself could have used some more traditional Danish food, but being able to chat with some Danes was enough to make me happy for tonight.

I may not be moving back to Denmark anytime soon, but a life with some Southern California American-Danish fusion action will have to do for now.

There were no promising pastry sightings at the food festival (disappointing, particularly in the area of Danish pastries), mostly there were a lot of fried "pastry" items being sold at the booths that were not so appealing to me. But I still got my international groove on and chowed down on some bratwurst!

While in Old Towne Orange, I also noticed that the Frogs Breath Cheese Store is attempting to start some wine/cheese tasting events (pending approval from the city of Orange), so I am looking forward to swinging on by and checking it out. I don't know of many cheese stores around here so I am planning on going back there during their normal business hours. (It was closed during the fair, which was a shame because I was in the mood to buy some cheese).

I am reminded of the Danish phrase "Jeg elsker ost!", which is Danish for "I love cheese!". My host sister was quite proud of me when I successfully learned to repeat this one after Danish class. I would be even prouder if I could remember the names of cheeses that I sample (I always get so darn caught up in the cheese sampling moment that I forget to write them down. Or, I eat the cheese with wine and forget to care or have slightly illegible writing).

While we're on the subject, there is one particular cheese that I enjoyed in Denmark that is a mystery to me. It was insanely stinky, very strong, and very delicious with fresh bread, butter, and jam in the morning. (Also, my Danish family and I invented a sandwich with this "mystery" cheese, butter, jam, and then some Port Salut cheese which was truly unforgettable--a sandwich I have been craving since June of 2005). Someone help me discover my lost mystery cheese! The one in my host family's fridge never had a label, and they could never seem to tell me the name of it in a way that I could understand or repeat as a non-native Danish speaker. Oh, what to do!?

I will continue my quest for this lost cheese! I have decided that Orange County is lacking in its amount of cheese shops featuring cheeses that smell grotesque but taste amazing. If anyone knows of any, please pass them along to me. These are the times when I wish that I could stroll through the cheese shops in France once again and inhale the strong odors of truly legendary cheese. (I could speak of my favorite goat cheese pastry here, but it deserves a blog post of its own, believe me--I await my next trip to Paris just so I can go and have this one amazing pastry. It is worth a lifetime of saving for that next plane ticket abroad).