Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anyone know how to cure regional food envy?

One night this summer, I spied one of my coworkers carrying a Ziploc bag full of bready, doughy, buttery homemade goodness. It was on this day that I discovered the undeniably delicious West Virginian pepperoni roll. In a fortuitous string of events, a care package of pepperoni rolls baked by a West Virginian coworker's mom ended up as a part of this West Coaster's midnight snack. And it hit me, like a slap across the face: I had regional food envy (RFE).

Unbeknownst to me, I had been living a life void of one of the most simply satisfying marriages of bread and meat. Until this point, I was unaware that pepperoni rolls existed at all, and that they are as everyday to folks from West Virginia as avocado consumption is to Californians. Always intrigued by baking traditions, I started to investigate for The Great American Bakery Hunt, intending to write a tell-all history of the P-roll. RFE had me hooked. Then, a little paper you may have heard of called The New York Times, with all of the time and resources of full-time writing professionals, recently scooped me in their "United Tastes" series. But I'm happy to be echoing their pepperoni roll praises, so long as it means the P-roll gets to live on.

As the NY Times article "Fast Food Even Before Fast Food" describes, the meaty rolls have their roots in the hearty lunches miners packed to get through their long days at work for the coal companies. What the New York Times does not mention is the controversial legal past of the pepperoni roll. According to pepperoni roll lore, West Virginian Senator Jay Rockafeller "saved" the pepperoni roll from West Virginia extinction by lobbying against proposed health department restrictions that would have doomed many pepperoni roll bakeries to go out of business. It was a historic victory for the P-roll, its makers, and all of humanity. You can read Rockafeller's thoughts about his pepperoni heroism in this letter. Internet sources also suggest that such rolls, where meat is baked "hidden" inside of bread, may be forbidden in some US locations.

While I'm not sure what the regulations are in California, it's very possible that I was unlawfully consuming pepperoni roll contraband at some point this summer. I'm typically a law-abiding citizen, but some rules are clearly meant to be broken. In the case of pepperoni roll legislators Vs. The Great American Bakery Hunt, give me my pepperoni rolls, lock me up, and throw away the key.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

try these San Francisco treats...

Thanks to Lisa, a Bay Area representative of the Great American Bakery Hunt, for introducing us to Kara's Cupcakes. You know you're dealing with a true friend when someone drives hours from the Bay Area to LA with pastry box in tow, and resists digging into the treats during the long trek.

As for Kara's Cupcakes, there's something particularly endearing about a bakery started by a woman born the daughter of a dentist, who was routinely discouraged to eat sweets as a child. Baked goods with a touch of rebellion? Fantastic!

Try the fleur de sel cupcake for a tasty treat. And as long as you're in San Francisco, you might want to save room for Andronico's "Adult Brownie." I haven't yet tasted one, but after the descriptions, I'm ready for a trip up North.

If you're far from California, this article on Serious Eats provides you with the guidance to make an Adult Brownie in the comfort of your own home. Adulthood just got more appealing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fanatical pumpkin consumption in Los Angeles may have unintended consequences

Planning any pumpkin recipes? If you live in Los Angeles, you better plan ahead. A Whole Foods employee says "it's becoming impossible to find canned pumpkin in LA. People are buying it by the caseload to feed to their dogs." Better start shopping now for those Thanksgiving pie ingredients, or you'll be vying against some pumpkin-hungry golden retrievers for your favorite traditional holiday dessert.

And kids, you can forget about carving those jack-o-lanterns in October. Your Halloween fun is now at the mercy of health-conscious pet owners, who will surely take their overzealous pumpkin consumption to the patches. Welcome to growing up fast in Los Angeles.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Let your will to bake be strong

Awhile ago, I decided that having a tiny studio apartment kitchen was daring and adventurous-- mostly in that "I would be so bold as to cook an eight course meal in here if I really wanted to" sort of way. Once I made this decision, every culinary endeavor was an opportunity to prove I could not be defeated by the small misfortunes of sparse counter space, a minuscule sink, or an oven just slightly larger than those of the E-Z Bake variety.

While I took a solemn oath to persevere for the good of the bakery hunt, I failed to anticipate that a near death experience would be a part of this gig. During a Santa Monica sunset this week, on an otherwise typical evening, an abrupt and dramatic crash rattled the studio. I rounded the corner to the kitchen and before my eyes was a crime scene of fallen dishware.

Formerly bolted to the wall, a massive cabinet now hung in the precarious balance, wedged between the wall and kitchen table. Among its fallen relics: champagne glasses with golden-inscribed "New Year's 2005!", a post-studying abroad Paris-themed martini glass, some 50's diner-inspired ice cream sundae glasses, and most of all, a plethora of random dishware with uncertain origins. Long before people force their relatives to purchase designer china patterns under the guise of matrimony, us modern, single twenty-somethings embark on a journey of mismatched adulthood. We're so full of the spirit of culinary adventure, we care not for convention and cohesive dish sets and care only for a colorful life where we savor the ingredients with the best flavor. This is a simplicity we long to hold onto at The Great American Bakery Hunt. When we don't have the fancy cooking tools in the recipe, we improvise. When each use of the broiler sets off the smoke detector within 30 seconds, we open the front door. When use of a 450 degree oven transforms studio apartment into sweat lodge, we keep on baking, but we change into shorts. Nothing can stop us.

It took me awhile to clean up the great cabinet catastrophe. My glass measuring cups, somehow, survived the carnage, as if to tell me "Go on and bake fearlessly in this kitchen, against all odds."

So beware the hazards of studio apartment cooking, but let your will to bake be strong.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Cupcakes, economics, and solutions for mending a broken heart

Daniel Gross at Slate has urged us to consider that the "cupcake bubble" may soon burst. While it's true that consumers are bombarded with the variety of cupcakeries that have sprung up recently, I'm holding on for dear taste to the hope that the best of them will survive. If I have to make a cross-country pilgrimage to New York's Magnolia Bakery in an act of bold support, I will.

While trendy bakeries may come and go, I firmly believe that some cupcakes have serious staying power. You've tasted them before and their frosting has spoken to your heart. They've provided a perfect, sticky, finger-licking conclusion to your picnics. They've gotten you through bad days, rainy days, days with too much traffic, and days where your work continues long after 5 o'clock.

Perhaps most importantly, they've helped to mend the heartache of friends after bad break-ups (particularly after your computer crashes and you have to find a replacement for that melancholy break-up mix CD you were crafting. If you were planning on helping your heartbroken friend to "forget about life for awhile" via the lyrics of Billy Joel, consider that small cardboard bakery box full of cupcakes as an equally legitimate form of escapism.)
Sure, we could bake our own cupcakes for the heartbroken, but we'd like to go on living in a world of great cupcakeries if possible. However, if the Daniel Gross cupcake burst omen comes true, I've developed a list of alternative solutions for mending broken hearts:
Option 1) Famous film breakups marathon, with heavy emphasis on the John Cusack-- please highly consider High Fidelity and Say Anything. If the night gets long, turn to Swingers for a little comic relief courtesy of Vince Vaughn. (Stray from Vince Vaughn in The Breakup, which is too obvious of a choice.) If things are really bad, you may have to break out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Transition into lightening up that angst with hopeful or non-threatening romances with inconclusive endings. See Juno, Paper Heart, Ghost World, and The Royal Tenenbaums. A variety of Woody Allen movies can also be helpful. For some, Match Point can make most reasonable people seriously reconsider ever dating again. Of course, adjust all screenings based on personal taste and genre preference.
Option 2) Haagen-daas
Option 3) Spring for some of the good stuff and make a celebration of it.
Option 4) Any combination of the above three.

This urban pie-hound is taking a stand

The scene: a recent vacation in a peaceful mountain town. My quest: the perfect piece of fresh fruit pie. The dilemma: Everywhere I turned, food vendors confessed their pies were made with frozen or canned fruits. And where there's smoke, there's fire. After such admissions, one must assume the worst about the crust. (In a recent post, the blog At the Very Yeast confirms this store-bought crust suspicion.)

It's not that a pie with pre-made, frozen, or canned ingredients can never be tasty. But when you're used to living in Los Angeles, with everything at your fingertips, you become a bit fresh-ingredient obsessed. So I'll ask you this, readers: When it comes to frozen fillings and pre-made crusts, what's an urban foodie to do?

Call me the city's most discerning pie-hound, or just call me plain practical: if you're consuming all those calories, why not eat the best of the best? When it comes to a great piece of pie, I prefer to make no compromises.