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!
 
 

La Colomba di Pasqua

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Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concurrent this year. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate.

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.


Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for this photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.


And a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?
 
 

Sanguinaccio Dolce

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An equal opportunity celebrant, I’m always keen to learn about traditional foods that are associated with religious holidays. Lent, the forty day period that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends just before Easter Sunday, is celebrated in southern Italy with an unusual delicacy called Sanguinaccio Dolce, a sweet (“dolce”) dessert pudding made with pig’s blood (“sangue”) although some bakeries around these parts opt for beef blood. (For the faint of heart <groan> bloodless versions can be found.)

Now don’t go running off: if you follow me you know that I wrote a piece for Edible Queens last year suggesting that durian pizza is the gateway drug for durian, the much maligned tropical fruit. I propose that sanguinaccio dolce fulfills the same role for food crafted with blood as an ingredient. Numerous cultures are at home with it – blood rice cakes in China, blood pancakes in Sweden, dinuguan in the Philippines, as well as sausages in Great Britain and Ireland, morcilla in Spanish speaking countries worldwide, boudin in France, and so many more in Northern and Eastern Europe. Pretty much everywhere actually. And you also know that I only recommend truly tasty food; I have never been one to embrace the sensationalism of “Look what gross thing I just ate!” No. This is genuinely delicious.

An expertly crafted version tastes like a rich, dense, dark chocolate pudding that carries notes of cinnamon and bits of candied orange peel, pine nuts and sliced almonds. There is no hint of minerally blood flavor. It’s often served with savoiardi, crisp ladyfingers, but a spoon will suffice. The pasticciotto sports a tender shortbread crust with a kiss of lemon and is filled with sanguinaccio. These two examples came from Morrone Pastry Shop at 2349 Arthur Ave in the Bronx last year but it can be found at other hardcore Italian bakeries as well.

If, like me, you appreciate the concept of snout-to-tail cooking and decry food waste, you should look into this. But if you just want to sample the richest, most delicious Italian dark chocolate pudding you’ve ever tasted, you need to give this a chance. Unless of course you just don’t like chocolate pudding at all, in which case move along, nothing to eat here.

#bloodydelicious (couldn’t resist 😉)
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which is drizzled into hot oil in coil shapes. The resulting deep fried confections look like pretzels; they’re crispy when they come out of the oil, then they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture.

These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!