Pumpkin Caramel Kringle

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My first encounter with kringler, the filled Danish pastry, occurred decades ago courtesy of an annual snail-mail catalog specializing in Christmas goodies that was headquartered in Wisconsin. (Racine is renown as the kringle capital of Wisconsin and kringler are the official state pastry.) In the year 2 B.C. (Before Covid), I wrote about Holtermann’s Bakery on Staten Island – they offered a rendition which, in my opinion, tasted as close to homemade as you can get from a store-bought baked good – and subsequently posted a face-off between theirs and a version from Trader Joe’s.

TJ’s product comes to us from the O&H Danish Bakery in Racine, Wisconsin, a family business that’s been making kringler and sharing hygge since 1949, so their Danish culinary bona fides are well established; their website touts over 20 tempting flavors.

When I posted the challenge, a friend tipped me off that TJ’s offered a seasonal pumpkin variety and I promised myself I’d track one down. And now, two years later, it’s “pumpkin spice szn” again and I finally made good on that promise. (In fairness, TJ’s is pumpkin caramel and not pumpkin spice.)

As Danish go, it was pretty good – sweet, dense, and doughy – but I’d be hard pressed to identify it as pumpkin caramel (or pumpkin anything) even after tasting the subtle filling by itself, devoid of pastry or icing. Maybe if it were a multiple choice option – but even then the choices might have to be sufficiently disparate like a) pumpkin, b) chocolate, or c) fish to guarantee landing on the right answer using the process of elimination.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not carping. Alongside a cup of hot cocoa, it made a righteous breakfast that was a hygge harbinger of seasonal calories to come!


Complete and uncut, with a quarter for size comparison.
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2021

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A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated this year on September 21. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

Since 2021 is the Year of the Ox, known for his patience and resolution, I was determined to purchase (and eat my way through – no matter how long it might take me 😉) an assortment of these delicacies in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you. For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

中秋节快乐!
 
 
Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary. The Mid-Autumn Festival, however, will be with us forever – as long as there are autumns to celebrate!
 
 

Chinese Snowflake Crisps

More from the sweet snack aisle at the Chinese supermarket, specifically Snowflake Crisps (aka Snowflake Cakes) this time.

Yes, it’s a thing – if I am to believe what I’ve seen on the interwebs. They’re a popular dessert in parts of China and Taiwan (based on the number of recipes to be found) and a favorite commercially packaged treat as well (borne out by the number of varieties I see in Chinese markets).

On my last Flushing excursion, I chose two of the many selections vying for shelf space, Strawberry Snowflake Crisp (with Chinese and Japanese labeling)…

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…and Boba Milk Tea Snowflake Cake.

They’re pleasantly sweet but not overly so; they share a common texture, at once a little crispy and perhaps a bit melt-in-your-mouth, marshmallowy-chewy like junior varsity wannabe nougat; and they’re feathery, gossamer – so lighter-than-air that it compelled me to scrutinize the ingredients on the label, but helium was not among them.


The Strawberry Snowflake Crisp had a little crispy, snowy white “icing” on top but only the merest suggestion of a crunch, somewhere along the candy <-> cookie continuum.


The Boba Milk Tea Cake was less chewy – but that’s acceptable because the boba, appropriately, were very much so; the bobas do taste like those in ubiquitous bubble tea.


One factor to keep in mind is that because of their fragile nature, you’re also buying a lot of packaging. Each 1¼-inch square is individually wrapped ensuring a protective cushion of air, then verrry loosely packed in a bag or an eminently reusable container (peeking out at the bottom in the first photo).
 
 
More snacks from the Chinese market to come. Stay tuned….
 
 

Bakewell Bakery & Restaurant

Although Guyana is located in northeast South America, its culture is more Caribbean than South American; a former British colony, English rather than Spanish is the official language.

Bakewell, the aptly named Guyanese establishment at 127-08 Liberty Ave in South Richmond Hill, Queens, turned out to be a pleasant surprise; their baked goods were a cut above the competition.

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This Guyanese sweet coconut roll known as salara gets its vibrant red hue from food coloring, not some obscure South American red coconut or from Photoshop. Viewing it in the case, I was expecting something a lot drier, but it was moist, doughy, and one of the best of its kind that I’ve experienced. (You know you wanna bite into that, don’t ya now?)


By the same token, their cassava pone was stickier (in a good way), spicier, and generally fresher tasting that those I’ve had in the past – and I’ve sampled many.


Beef and chicken patties were not bad, gently seasoned with pronounced salty overtones, but the sweets really took the cake that day.
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Court Order

You may remember my St. Joseph’s Day post about a visit to Brooklyn’s Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St, to procure some sfinge for the holiday. My bathroom scale certainly does. Since everything in the display case had appeal, I had to restrain myself from my customary one-of-each-please order, but it did warrant adding add a few other items to the docket:

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Almond Biscotti and Cassata. When I was into baking Christmas cookies, I took great pride in my toasted almond biscotti with Amaretto infused dried cherries. But then I tried these. <sigh>

Sharing the spotlight is a single-serving cassata. The full-sized version is an iconic over-the-top sweet Sicilian sponge cake, saturated with rum or liqueur, stuffed with cannoli filling (often shot through with chocolate bits or candied fruit), clad in marzipan, and loaded with more calories than a Christmas dinner in Palermo.


The inner workings.


The Urban Dictionary says that “half in the bag” means “subject has consumed some alcohol” so this rum baba which is wholly in the bag means that it has consumed more than “some” alcohol; I’d suggest ubriaco.


The inner workings. Hmmm. Perhaps a straw….

The verdict: I can testify that there were no objections – and a preponderance of evidence for a continuance in the future.

 
 

Honeycomb Cake

I’ve written about this triumph of texture over gravity before; in that post I described Vietnamese Pandan Cake, Bánh Bò Nướng, easily identified by its emerald hue, but Honeycomb Cake, aka Beehive Cake, has its fans throughout Southeast Asia and in China as well. It’s easy enough to find a snow white version in Chinatown bakeries around these parts (sometimes even on dim sum carts) but less frequently a chocolate colored (notice, I said colored, not flavored) variety like this one from Dragon Bay Bakery at 5711 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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Above, a slab cut from the loaf; this piece is about nine inches long. It’s sweet but not too sweet, which I know will be welcome news to many of you; its texture is the key to its charm.

How does it come to look like this? Recipes differ. I’ve read that the type of flour used can be rice (common), tapioca (often in the Vietnamese version), or even wheat; the leavening agent, yeast (common), baking soda, baking powder, or a combination thereof; even the method of preparation can vary from steamed (common), to baked, or stovetop pan “griddled”. But somehow, the results manage to be rather similar: springy, bouncy, airy, spongy, fluffy, chewy, and squishy.

(Which quite by coincidence, I think were the names of the Seven Dwarfs. But I could be wrong about that.)


A more modest slice revealing the light cakey-looking top layer and the virtually weightless honeycomb structure supporting it. Its color comes from the use of brown sugar instead of white.


Still don’t get the “honeycomb” part? Here’s a cross section of the above slice, cut against the grain.
 
 
And a reminder: New York City boasts at least six Chinatowns and perhaps a few more depending upon your definition of what constitutes a Chinatown; just pick one and go! Now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 

D’oh!

On April 24, Dough Doughnuts opened a new location in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Normally I wouldn’t go out of my way for a doughnut, but I had witnessed the mountains of accolades heaped upon this legendary bakery and now, since it had found a home in my neighborhood, I braved the lines and selected four:

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From upper left, clockwise:
• Boston Cream, custard filled and topped with chocolate glaze and “soil”
• Brooklyn Blackout, a chocolate doughnut filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with “chocolate soil”
• Banana Hazelnut, not a filled variety
• Cheesecake with Red Velvet Topping

And for those who crave a look into the inner workings:

Boston Cream


Brooklyn Blackout


Banana Hazelnut


Cheesecake with Red Velvet Topping

Now for the heresy: I’m glad I bought four (at $4.50 each!) because had there been only one, I would have thought, “Damn, it’s a little stale – probably a day or two old”, but the odds of all four being substandard were infinitesimal. They were thick, dry, dense, heavy, bready, not flavorful – actually a little sour tasting but not in a yeasty good way, with a paucity of filling – and not very good filling at that.

And just to be snarky, here’s a photo from years ago of the outstanding product from Doughnut Plant that I hadn’t really intended to include in this post until now.


Top row: coconut crème (filled), peanut butter blackberry jam (filled); bottom: vanilla blackberry jam dough seed, crème brûlée dough seed, marzipan star.

Had the opening been on April 1 rather than April 24, I might have caught the joke. But it wasn’t.

Seriously, people, what am I missing?

If you’re one of those folks who get all twitterpated over Dough’s doughnuts, please explain your passion to me – particularly if you’ve ever reveled in the joy that is a Doughnut Plant doughnut.
 
 

Eid al-Fitr – 2021

Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2021, it begins on the evening of May 12. Since I’ve recently been revisiting the neighborhoods we explore on ethnojunkets, this seemed like a good time to return to the Middle Eastern section of 5th Avenue in Brooklyn which I refer to fondly as Little Levant.

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Ma’amoul are shortbread cookies filled with a paste made from dried fruit, often dates but sometimes figs, or nuts, such as walnuts or pistachios; they’re frequently associated with Ramadan but fortunately are available year round. Paradise Sweets, the Middle Eastern bakery at 6739 5th Ave, was offering three kinds the day I stopped by: clockwise from left, pistachio, walnut and date.


Can a cookie actually melt in your mouth? These were wonderfully fragile, disintegrating into a crumbly powder like a Mexican polvoron: you’ll start with a bite, but you’ll want to finish with a spoon. For those who don’t care for uber-sugary cookies, the good news is that this version is not especially sweet; I discovered that the flavor seems to blossom in the company of a hot beverage – tea or Arabic coffee would be perfect.


Some of the smaller markets along the way were offering prepackaged ma’amoul like this one from Pâtisserie Safa, a Montreal based company. Its structural integrity was sturdier than the freshly baked specimens and the cookie was surprisingly tasty.


Both the dough and the filling were significantly sweeter than the locally crafted examples and I detected a welcome note of orange blossom water that enhanced its flavor profile.


Another survivor of the pandemic is the stalwart bakery Nablus Sweets at 6812 5th Ave. These are Qatayef (aka Atayef), made only during Ramadan and especially for Eid al-Fitr; they’re often sold by street vendors in the Middle East. They start out with a batter akin to that of pancakes but they’re griddled on only one side, then they’re filled with white cheese or nuts, folded into a crescent, fried or baked, and soaked in sweet rose water syrup. This pair enclosed a syrupy chopped nut filling.


They’re thicker and chewier than I anticipated – I was expecting a straight ahead, lighter pancake texture based on what I saw as they were being prepared:


Fresh off the griddle. Some folks buy them just like this, ready to be brought home to be filled with the family recipe (of course) of creamy cheese or walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.
 
 
More to come as I continue contemplating the resumption of ethnojunkets….
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – May 2, in 2021. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies.

Yeah, right.

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On my recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Former Soviet Union shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Russian/Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukranian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, shot through with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

з великоднем!