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.