Purim 2021

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5781 according to the Jewish calendar) on Thursday evening, February 25, and ends on the following Friday evening. Although this post was originally published a year ago, some things never change. Tradition!

The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or ground poppy seeds (muhn), but these days creative cookery presents some serious competition. Happily, the always mind-blowing Breads Bakery, 18 E 16th St in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet Poppy Seed, Halva, Chocolate, and Apple (their signature flavors) along with a pair of savory challengers, Purple Haze and Pizza. The former, covered in sesame and nigella seeds, holds sauerkraut – a little sweetish and worth a bite even if you don’t care for sauerkraut. The latter is filled with a blend of tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, basil, garlic, and olive oil and tastes exactly like what you’d expect with that set of ingredients; try warming this one up. Fusion food for sure.


Sometimes a change of focus helps to make a point – or six.
 
 

Open Heart Sugary – or, the Anatomy of a Valentine Cookie

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

These are Red Currant Raspberry Linzer Cookies, first cousins of Austria’s Linzer Tart – traditionally, I do stars for Christmas and hearts for Valentine’s Day. This particular batch began months earlier with the acquisition of red currants and raspberries when they were in season followed by a little time spent prepping and cooking them up. It’s a lot easier than you’d expect and the filling keeps for quite a while in the fridge while you’re procrastinating doing the fussy part. If you’re not a fanatic, however, I can recommend Hero Red Currant Premium Fruit Spread; I’ve had pretty good luck with it – it just needs a bit of finessing via the addition of some red raspberry jam to achieve the degree of sweetness you’re after plus some straining.


The dough calls for flour, sugar, and butter, of course, plus finely ground blanched almonds, almond extract, and lemon zest. Start by baking equal numbers of fronts and backs. Occasionally a front or back will fracture which then perforce spells doom for its perfectly intact intended mate, but sadly, I’ve never found an effective way to repair a broken heart. Sometimes, you just have to eat your losses. This is an example of how culinary art reflects life. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Look closely at the finished cookies in the first photo and you’ll see that the powdered sugar blankets only the outer section of the heart while the inner red lifeblood of this classic treat shines through unobstructed. Now, examine the above photo and follow along to see how I do it:

Bottom rows:
Starting with solid backs, use a plastic squeeze bottle to add preserves around the perimeter but not in the center. (Neatness doesn’t count.) Match tops to bottoms.

Top rows:
Let it snow, let it snow, etc. Note the unfilled but sugary centers. Next, squirt a blob of preserves into the cutout thereby hiding the powdered sugar.

Now, here’s the painstakingly obsessive step (why do I do these things?): then and only then, for each cookie, carefully use a toothpick to smooth out any less than perfect curves of the inner heart, et voilà! Your cookies will look like those in the first photo. Maybe better. (Why can’t they make Photoshop for food?)
 
 
When the cookies are complete and have been packed away, your workspace will look like this one, post-sugaring and pre-cleanup, an exercise in negative space.

And the beat goes on.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Girasol Bakery

My cat’s favorite catnip mouse had been missing for over a week. Every night, Mercury (he answers to Murky) would select that one particular, very special mouse from his box of about twenty, deposit it just outside the bedroom door, and meow vociferously until I, in grateful appreciation of his gift, emerge to retrieve it and offer a kitty treat in exchange. Every Single Night. But now, that mouse was gone, and clearly, since Murky had been failing to keep his nightly appointment, there would be no substitute. I missed his bedtime visit just as he missed that mouse.

Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: scope out every pet shop within a four mile radius of my apartment until I could track down an identical replacement. By the end of that afternoon I was ready to give up. Only one store remained on my list but miraculously, there was one such mouse in stock – the last one they had.

Triumphant, I started for home, but a few storefronts away I spotted Girasol Bakery at 690 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood. Being on a diet (thanks a lot, COVID), I’ve been scrupulously avoiding bakeries, “but it can’t hurt to just peek in,” I thought. Famous Last Thoughts.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)
I’m a fan of bread pudding even though some versions can be a little dry, practically begging to be paired in a duet with drizzle of sauce. But this one was so moist, so luscious looking, it was undoubtedly a soloist. I caved.


Its display case neighbor was the archetypal Mexican dessert, chocoflan, aka “impossible cake”. A dark layer of chocolate cake oozing richness topped with a golden layer of creamy flan (they separate during the baking process, hence the nickname) proved irresistible, so okay, one piece, please. They’ll keep; I don’t have to eat them both at once.


Another case nearby flaunted tempting tres leches cake, that transcendent dessert drenched in three kinds of milk (sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream). Makes you wonder if you should consume it with a fork or a spoon. Or perhaps a straw. The trio should last for three days at least, longer if I divvy them up.

I arrived home with my treats and Murky’s new BFF. As I was enjoying a prudently tiny taste of each of the three goodies, he brought me his new mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Thank you.” Awww, Murky!

But then, one prudently tiny taste later, he brought me his old mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Psych!”

Damn. The ignominy of being outfoxed by a cat. Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: polish off the rest of the people treats in stark exasperation then and there. Diet? What diet?
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

From Russia, With Plov

Originally published in 2013, but still fun.
 
KutyaChristmas day had come and gone, but not so its delicious spirit. It’s not a religious thing with me; it’s more of a celebration of the spectacular panorama of international holiday foods that surrounds us this time of year. The problem is, the season just doesn’t last long enough despite my best efforts to prolong it. One year, I valiantly managed to extend the holiday right though Valentine’s Day, ignoring the fact that the festive red and green department store window displays now sported only red trim, wondering where the chipmunks were hibernating when I boarded the elevators, and upon returning home, trying to fathom how the branches of even my artificial tree were becoming brown and sere.

I know I’m not entirely alone in this, even though my behavior may be a bit extreme. Ask almost anyone about their favorite holiday foods and they’ll go misty and begin to wax rhapsodic about childhood memories of treasured treats that their grandmother used to prepare. In every corner of the world, there are traditional Christmas dinner favorites: festively bedecked meats and generations-old recipes for vegetables and pasta, all manner of fish and fowl, not to mention countless renditions of roast pork and baked ham in all its porcine splendor – that singular, universal, culinary triumph of domestic chefs around the globe, translated into a hundred languages and embraced by as many cultures as uniquely and definitively their own.

And then there are the international desserts: panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël, plum pudding, cookies, pastries, cakes, and candies of every stripe – the list is endless. Recently, a Swedish friend excitedly told me about risgrynsgröt. Her eyes practically lit up as she described the Christmas rice pudding served with thick, sweet fruit sauce (she said grape, I’ve read raspberry and red currant, but I can’t help but think lingonberry would nail it) that she so cherished.

In any event, in an attempt to maintain the culinary holiday momentum, I decided to venture into Brooklyn’s Little Odessa in Brighton Beach to see what Russian goodies I could find. Christmas hadn’t yet arrived there, so I was just in time for the festivities.

(Russians celebrate Christmas? Indeed they do, every January 7th. The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the old Julian calendar, therefore its Christmas celebration falls thirteen days behind that of the West. A little history: In the 17th century, Peter the Great brought Christmas to Russia, but after the revolution in 1917, religion was outlawed. Not about to give up their joyous tradition, Russians continued to decorate their trees in secret, until finally in 1935 the Soviet government gave in and sanctioned the practice – but as part of a New Year celebration! Call it what you will, Russians happily trimmed their “New Year Trees” until 1992, when it was again permissible to celebrate Christmas openly and Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, could freely distribute presents to delighted children all across Russia.)

So off I went to Brighton Beach Avenue in search of holiday fare. There are two ways to spot Russian markets in that part of Brooklyn. The first is by their prominent signage touting “International Food” on the awning. Not “Russian Food”, not “Eastern European Food”, not “Ukrainian Food” or the like. Nope. Always “International Food”, as if hiding in plain sight. The second way, of course, is that everything is written in Russian with almost no English to be found. Russian is easy to identify as it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet. Essentially, when you look at Russian printing, you think that if only you had a mirror to hold up to it, you could probably read it.

Now, being a dedicated ethnojunkie, I dabble in a bunch of languages, “dabble” being the operative – and even then, rather generously applied – word. But I dabble mostly in food words in those languages. That means that I have vocabularies rich in nouns with precious few verbs to indicate what I want to do with them. For example, I can point to some stuffed dumpling temptation and say, “Что это? Мясо? Сыр?” (“What’s this? Meat? Cheese?”) Invariably, of course, that begets a rapid fire description of the tidbit in Russian which is my cue to gesture that I’d like one of each, please, and hightail it out of the store before any further inquisitions are levied upon me. I have just enough of a language to get into trouble, but not enough to get out of it.

Wandering into the prepared food department of one store, I spied a pint-sized plastic container of an unfamiliar grayish, soupy substance. Naturally, I was compelled to inquire.

“Что это?” I tried.

“Кутя,” came the response.

“Koot-YAH?” I echoed back.

“Да,” she nodded in the affirmative.

At this point, I realized that my reach had far exceeded my grasp. My Russian is as broken as a set of nesting matryoshka dolls missing two bodies and a head. Futilely, I retreated to English.

“What’s in it?”

The patient, smiling woman behind the counter tore off a piece of butcher paper and wrote out “пшеница” for me. I read the letters slowly trying to pronounce the word. “Pshenitsa?” I asked. Detecting my curiosity, an even more helpful staffer went out of her way to grab a bag of wheat berries so she could point to the English word “wheat” to help me understand.

Needless to say, I bought a pint of the stuff and quickly took it home to do a little research and a lot of tasting. I learned that kutya is one of the most important dishes in Russian Christmas eve’s family feast. Best described as a porridge, it’s made from wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, and customarily includes chopped walnuts and raisins. The wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It is eaten from a single shared bowl to connote unity, and a ceremonial blessing of the home often takes place. There’s a tradition among some families that involves flinging a spoonful of kutya up to the ceiling. Legend has it that if it sticks, this year’s honey harvest will be bountiful. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)

Most of the markets along Brighton Beach Avenue have their own recipe for kutya, each a little different from the last and all delicious, but never really straying from the main ingredients. The four that I’ve tried (ahem!) can be characterized as having a gruel-like, soupy texture, not as integrated as oatmeal, but almost thick enough to eat with a fork. They’re sweet from the honey and raisins, crunchy from the wheat berries and nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds. Kutya can be eaten warm or cold and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season.

Personally, I think it makes a righteous breakfast. That is, when I’m not devouring the last of the panettone!

С Новым Годом!

 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

Originally published in 2017, this post has been updated for 2019 and 2020.

One of these things is not like the others, or so the song goes. In this case, the outlier is the first Panettone, the only orthographically correct version of the subject of this post. To tell the truth, the two imposters share the spotlight only by way of capitulation to less-than-forgiving search engines (and not as a sly reference to the 90s R&B/soul group) because it is my mission to ensure that everyone falls in love with this gift to the culinary arts as deeply, passionately, and yes, obsessively as I have.

You’re all familiar with panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically).

Fanciful spellings aside, you’ll find panettone in most markets around Christmastime and in Italian specialty shops year round (fortunately for us). A little digging uproots an extended family tree including pandoro, pandolce, panforte, panpepato, and pangiallo. The last four differ radically from the subject of our discourse so for the sake of completeness, let’s dispatch them straightaway:

• Pandolce, “sweet bread”, hails from Genoa, and unlike gossamer panettone is dense and somewhat crumbly like a cookie.
• Panforte, “strong bread”, is neither breadlike nor cakey; it’s more of a dense, chewy fruit paste, spicy and sweet. I sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to a cheese plate.
• Panpepato, “peppered bread”, is a subset of panforte, gingery, nutty, and covered with chocolate.
• Pangiallo, “yellow bread”, is Rome’s challenger. Sometimes saffron infused, often laden with chocolate and always dense with dried fruit, I know this one only by repute.

Now that we’ve dispelled any confusion regarding the distant cugini, we can focus on the object of our affection. Our goal is to determine which style and brand you like the best. We’ll start with style; the two you’re most likely to encounter are panettone, the pride of Milan and pandoro, Verona’s answer to it.

The story of how panettone gets its name is the stuff of which legend is made but I frankly don’t find any of the fables particularly convincing. One tale recounts that in 15th century Milan, a delicious bread was crafted that incorporated yeast, an ingredient so dear in that era that it earned the moniker “pane di tono”, literally “luxury cake” – feasible, except that every Italian dictionary I own or found on the interwebs fails to suggest “luxury” as a definition for tono. But I suppose Italian was different back then.

Another more linguistically stringent contender avers that since pane means bread or cake, adding the diminutive suffix -etto turns it into a small loaf cake and then appending the augmentative suffix -one renders it large, thus describing a “large small loaf cake”. Really? But I suppose whimsy was different back then.

Yet another narrative tells of the Duke of Milan’s cook who having prepared an otherwise sumptuous repast disastrously burned the dessert. Fortunately, the young kitchen apprentice, Toni, proposed that they serve the sweet cake he had made for his own breakfast. Delighted, the Duke requested the name of the delicious cake, the cook replied “il pane di Toni”, and the rest is history. I don’t know about you, but if I had concocted so splendid a treat for my breakfast, none would have been kicking around the kitchen come dinnertime – not to mention the fact that the preparation of panettone is a time consuming, arduous process and not something one hastily throws together for breakfast like a bagel with a schmear. But I suppose panettone was different back then.

Less about folklore and more about traditional religious ritual, the people of Milan save a piece of their Christmas panettone, have it blessed and eat it on February 3, the morning after Candlemas which for them heralds the end of the Christmas season. Known as the Feast of San Biagio, it celebrates the saga of St. Blaise as he saved the life of a boy who was choking on a fish bone by feeding him bread in order to dislodge the bone. Eating panettone for breakfast that day therefore pays homage to the “protector of the throat”, patron saint of throats and noses, and ensures that his followers will be safeguarded against colds and sore throats in the upcoming year. Who needs a flu shot when you have such a delicious excuse to enjoy more panettone?

Enough history; what’s it like? The shape is that of a domed, squat cylinder, about 5–6 inches high, 8–9 inches in diameter, typically baked in a pan lined with a ring of corrugated, often brown, paper. Based on a sweet risen dough, it’s airy, eggy, buttery, moist and so light that it practically floats; it pulls apart almost like cotton candy although you’ll want to slice it with a serrated knife. The classic version is stippled with candied citron and raisins and often sports an almond or hazelnut glaze.

Many other less traditional but still delicious flavors abound including pistachio, sour cherry, mixed berry, pineapple, peach, apricot, pear, bits of chocolate, moscato wine, limoncello, zuppa inglese, tiramisu, crema pasticcera (custard), and combinations thereof including varieties without candied fruit.

I’ve seen numerous recipes with recommendations for what to do with leftover panettone. “Leftover panettone” is an oxymoron and bears no further discussion here. I will admit, albeit grudgingly, that you can freeze it, but only if it’s wrapped extremely well.

Like so many cultural dichotomies such as Coke vs Pepsi, the Beatles vs the Stones, the Addams Family vs the Munsters, and Mary Ann vs Ginger, there are those who champion Verona’s pandoro (“golden bread”) over Milan’s panettone. The texture of pandoro is a little denser than that of panettone but not as dense as pound cake. Also sweet and buttery, touched with vanilla, they are customarily devoid of candied fruit or decadent chocolate and creamy fillings; on occasion, you might detect a delicate whisper of other flavorings like anisette or lemon zest. Picture a two-dimensional eight-pointed star, extruded upwards conically into three dimensions and taller than a panettone; it is often presented with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar to resemble the snow-covered Alps in winter. If you insist on inventing more complex dishes using “leftover” Italian Christmas breads and cakes, the more modest pandoro lends itself better than panettone to the addition of crème fraîche, mascarpone, whipped cream, custard and fresh fruits, or the likes of Nutella – since panettone is, after all, perfection straight out of its wrapper (in my not so humble opinion, of course 😉).

Now on to brand. Like everything in the food world, it should always be about what you like personally and individually, not about what somebody tells you you should like. Each brand has its own flavor and texture, let alone unique varieties. Over the years I’ve eaten my way through mountains (think Alps) of these treats and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods. The photo at the top of the page shows this morning’s breakfast: Albertengo Tradizionale Glassato – la colazione dei campioni!

I consider myself fortunate to be a regular attendee at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show every year here in New York City. Featuring thousands of new products from the US and internationally, they’re considered North America’s hottest place to catch the latest in specialty foods. Needless to report, at the 2017 show, I spent a good deal of discerning time in Italy’s pavilion checking out the panettoni both for flavor and to determine where retail outlets will be. After all, when I find a winner, you need to know how to score some!

 
Update:

Nicola’s has gone the way of all estimable suppliers of specialty wares, so to feed my habit, I needed to find a new dealer (as it were). Having exhausted the search at local (and not-so-local) brick and mortar purveyors of panettoni for my favorite brand and style, I had no choice but to turn to the interwebs. Sure, there were plenty of panettoni to be found, but sadly, not the one I was jonesing for. A few sites did list it accompanied by the legend, “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” Not very helpful. Crestfallen, I did sample other contenders, but none measured up to my vision of perfection.

Not long after, a pair of social media friends, hardcore foodies who appreciate the good stuff, contacted me. They had been visiting Montreal and returned bearing an enormous 22-pound panettone made by Loison Pasticceri, a company headquartered in Italy, family-owned for three generations and passionate specialists in panettoni, pandori, and the like. Aware of my addiction, they invited me to their home to partake of this mammoth masterpiece.


Not to put too fine a point on “mammoth”, but that’s a shiny quarter down there.

One taste and I was hooked. That day, two delightful things happened: I finally met this charming couple IRL and I found new love in Loison. Fortunately, Loison’s products were easy to purchase on the web. Too easy, perhaps. Although I prudently ordered them sequentially, all told, I probably bought more than I should have.

The first shipment was the Classico, tasting very much like the Albertengo version in the photo at the top of this post. Sweet and fluffy with an unadorned crown, laden with raisins and candied orange and citron, it was terrific.


The second was Mandorlato (almond), similar to the Classico but with the addition of an almond glaze topping, generously bedecked with whole almonds and sweet, crunchy pearl sugar bits not unlike the Easter Colomba di Pasqua I posted about here.


The third to arrive at my table was the Regal Cioccolato, shot through with bits of chocolate and channels of chocolate cream. Superbly chocolatey and happily in perfect balance with the cake.


The fourth was NeroSale: Cioccolato e Caramello Salato (chocolate and salted caramel). Now, I tend to be a purist about certain foods, so I reckoned that this wasn’t the one that would take the cake, but it may have been the best of the four (all of which were excellent) – and certainly the most outrageous.

The fifth is what I’m going to plead if you ask me if I really bought four panettoni this year.

It’s 2020. What can I say?
 
 

Happy Diwali (2020)

(Originally posted in October, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

The 2019 Collection

Dear Friends,

I can no longer keep this to myself. I am an addict, hooked on mithai. What’s that? You don’t know about mithai? Mithai are Indian sweets and since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us, I can think of no better time than now to tell you my tale. So gather round your diyas and check out my post “Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai” right here on ethnojunkie.com!
 
 
दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!
 
 

Dia de los Muertos

(Originally posted on October 31, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

So I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

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 (the Year of the Rat) on October 1. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

To learn more about the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.
中秋节快乐!
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

(Note 1: I update this post annually because you can never have enough ethnic ice cream. Or at least I can’t! 😉)

(Note 2: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope. Please check before venturing out.)

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.

Since the dog days of summer are upon us, that’s as good an excuse as any to consume mass quantities of ice cream. So that it doesn’t turn into a book, I’m going to circumscribe this post with the following definition of ice cream: if it doesn’t contain dairy (with one exception), it’s a different story – and one that I’ll tell eventually, so stay tuned for more about sorbets, Italian ices, granitas, paletas, piraguas, raspados, bingsu, kakigori, halo-halo, ais kacang, baobing, and myriad other contributions to the shave ice contingent.

And lest you think I’ve forgotten about all the hundreds of incredible flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt that have gained popularity recently and that are liberally sprinkled all over New York City like so many jimmies on a sundae, I’ve drawn the line on the side of “international” as a descriptor within this piece – not that I have anything against fantastical frozen flights of fancy, just that I need to stop somewhere.

So with those two constraints in mind and with spoon in hand, let’s embark on a world tour of summertime scoops. We’ll consider two categories, common ice cream manifested in international flavors and indigenous ethnic ice cream styles.
 
 
Italy: One step removed from America’s favorite warm weather treat is gelato, Italy’s answer to ice cream. Using good old, down home American ice cream as our starting point for comparison, let’s examine the differences. American ice cream has more fat (more cream than milk plus the presence of egg yolks – with even higher quantities of egg yolks in French style ice cream) than gelato. It also has more air (“overrun”) than gelato which is why gelato seems denser. In addition, gelato is usually kept at a slightly higher temperature, another factor that contributes to its alluring consistency and concentrated flavor.

Gelato is available in many of the exciting and unexpected flavor bombs of the prevailing ice cream barrage, but because of its texture, it’s also uniquely suited to certain European flavors. Here are two of the scores of fine gelaterias that can be found around the city.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato, 188 Ludlow Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has over 200 flavors of gelato, many of which are true-fruit and fabulous, but I’m singling them out here because of a few that, in my opinion, work better as gelato than ice cream such as crème fraiche, olive oil, fior di latte, ricotta, and mascarpone.

By the same token, L’Albero dei Gelati, 341 5th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn often has remarkable offerings like extra virgin olive oil, hibiscus, saffron, gianduja, torrone, ricotta, and burro e sale (butter and salt), another example of a flavor profile that works as gelato (yes, really), but I can’t imagine as American ice cream.
 
 
Thailand: Continuing in Park Slope, Sky Ice, 63 5th Avenue, boasts a Thai/Vietnamese roster that often includes Thai tea, roasted Thai coconut, durian, white miso almond, black sesame seaweed, and mangosteen, along with their savory non-dessert items (yet another story).

Thai Rolled Ice Cream, also referred to as “stir-fried ice cream”, has become a trendy craze of late. Found at venues like Minus10 Ice Cream and I-CE-NY and throughout Chinatown, the Village, and pretty much anywhere kids congregate, it’s made from an ice cream base that’s poured onto a metal sheet chilled to a temperature well below the freezing point. The mixture is manipulated on the sheet (mix-ins added optionally), smoothed into a thin layer where it flash freezes, and ultimately scraped up into a roll with a spatula that looks like a putty knife. It did get its start in Thailand, so I suppose it’s ethnic. It’s certainly cute.
(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)
 
 
China: One of the sweeter perks of living in New York City is that instead of a passport, you only need a Metrocard to sample many of those aforementioned hundreds of incredible flavors and global varieties.

For over 30 years, The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, 65 Bayard Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, 115 Delancey Street in Essex Market on the Lower East Side, and 135-15 40th Road in Flushing, has reigned supreme as the king of homemade ice cream in delicious Asian inspired flavors. (Incidentally, they have well over a dozen non-Asian varieties, both innovative and familiar, all of which are excellent and listed on their menu – with a wink – as “exotics”.) Notable “regular” entries include…

• Dan Tat – You know the diminutive sweet egg custard tarts that you see all over Chinatown in dim sum parlors and bakeries? (You don’t? Then you need to join me on one of my Chinatown ethnojunkets!) Those are dan tat (sometimes, don tot) and originally of Portuguese provenance; here is a look at these goodies. This ice cream flavor owes its lusciousness to those pastries.
• Durian – A yellow fruit whose reputation is that it smells like hell but tastes like heaven. It might be an acquired taste but it’s well worth acquiring. (Read my post, Durian’s Best Kept Secret, for more information.)
• Pandan – The leaf of a tropical plant commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking, screwpine in English, green in color. It’s absolutely delicious, and in my opinion has the same kind of magical affinity for coconut that chocolate has for nuts or bacon for, well, anything.)
• Taro/Ube (Yes, they’re different, but we’ll get to the root of that in another post.) – I’m happy to report that these purplish starches are making serious inroads into becoming mainstream around these parts, and deservedly so.

…plus excellent versions of almond cookie, black sesame, lychee, and Thai tea. You’ve no doubt seen packaged pints of red bean, green tea, and ginger ice cream in your local market; Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s versions are richer tasting if only because they’re freshly made, but beyond that, they’re a superior product.

Of course, there are additional ice cream parlors of Chinese character to be found in our city. Brooklyn is home to Sweet Dynasty Ice Cream, 5918 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, a tiny shop featuring handmade ice cream; their milk tea flavor is unique.
 
 
The Tropics: Since you’re already in Sunset Park, you really should check out Luvums Helado de Coco at 4716 7th Avenue. This is the “one exception” I declared earlier. Their coconut milk based helados are so rich and creamy, you might not even realize they’re non-dairy but with such delicious tropical flavors as soursop, guanabana, guineo, bizcocho, morir soñando, tamarindo, maíz, and lots more, I couldn’t bring myself to leave them out. They’ve opened a new location at 1124 Surf Avenue, also in Brooklyn.

Speaking of tropical flavors and Brooklyn, Taste the Tropics brand ice cream has a brick and mortar venue at 1839 Nostrand Avenue where you’ll find flavors true to their Caribbean roots like soursop, rum raisin, rummy nut, smooth and creamy stout, and great nut. Yes, stout and rum do figure significantly into Jamaican ice cream flavors; grown-ups can scream for ice cream too! By the way, great nut, as you might have surmised, is made with Grape-Nuts, the breakfast cereal.

And while you’re basking in Brooklyn’s trip to the tropics, pay a visit to the folks at Island Pops, 680 Nostrand Avenue, where flavors like soursop, sorrel, caramel orange bitters, and Guinness (of course) can be found. Look for them at pop-ups around the city as well.
 
 
Latin America: Needless to say, just about every Latin American country has its own spin on ice cream.

Manhattan has its share of purveyors of frosty goodness from sultry climes. One such is La Newyorkina at 240 Sullivan Street in the West Village representing Mexico with varieties like arroz con leche, canela cajeta, horchata, and chocolate chili. It’s made the old fashioned way, in a metal cylinder surrounded by ice and salt inside a wooden bucket. I had the opportunity to taste it at the World’s Fare in April; so nice, I went back twice.

Paleteria Los Michoacanos at 101-06 43rd Ave in Corona, Queens specializes in the most amazing, intensely flavorful paletas (Mexican ice pops on a stick) that I have ever encountered. Ever. They made the cut in this dairy-only post because of their outstanding milk-based flavors such as coco, galletas con crema, arroz, fresa de leche, pine nut, chocolate, queso con zarzamora (cheese and blackberry, first photo below), and chongos zamoranos (a Mexican dessert made from curdled milk and rennet).

Of course, I could do an entire story on international desserts in Queens alone where 138 different languages are spoken by people from over 150 countries. One of the joys of wandering through any ethnic neighborhood is stumbling upon delights like this Ecuadorian frozen confection sold under the name “Los Helados de Salcedo”. Read my post for more detail.

And that’s actually the best way to ferret out unusual taste treats. While wandering through a Peruvian enclave in Paterson, NJ, it was easy to find cherimoya, cupuaçu, and the extremely popular lúcuma (first photo below) as well as other flavors based on fruits cultivated in South America. I’ve never found fresh lúcuma in NYC but once, on an ethnojunket in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I came across the closely related eggfruit; their flavor has been compared to butterscotch or a mix of maple and sweet potato. I’ve also seen lúcuma ice cream at Creme & Sugar, 58-42A Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood, proof that New York has pretty much everything if you know where to look.

Paterson is also home to a thriving Middle Eastern community where we found this marvelous sunshine yellow homemade Persian Akbar Mashti Bastani (saffron rosewater ice cream) with pistachios. More about the Middle East in a moment.
 
 
The Philippines: Not to be outdone by any of these, emblematic Filipino flavors like ube (purple yam), macapuno (a gelatinous coconut variant), avocado, corn, jackfruit, halo-halo (mixed fruits and then some), quezo (yes, cheese) and combinations thereof are generally available at Filipino markets like Phil-Am Food Mart, 40-03 70th Street, Woodside, Queens and are not to be missed.

On the local front, Angela’s Ice Cream at 151 Allen Street in Manhattan has brought freshly made, small batch, Filipino ice cream flavors to New York City and each one is delicious. The story behind the story is that Angela had been making these at home for her husband who has a passion for the stuff – so much so that they decided she should share her talents with the rest of us, hence, her first business venture which opened on June 15, 2019. Dense and creamy, hand crafted with no artificial flavors (in others words, jackfruit is jackfruit, not a concentrate), it’s the first Filipino ice cream actually produced here in NYC. It’s currently available in mango, langka (jackfruit), ube, choc-nut, vanilla, avocado (and yes, it’s the real deal), pandan, and buko-macapuno.
 
 
Sweden: And speaking of local, only about a block from Angela’s you’ll find Bon Bon at 130 Allen Street. In addition to providing an overwhelming assortment of candy including Swedish salty licorice as well as the sweetish kind, they’ve recently added Swedish soft-serve ice cream, mjukglass. Its recipe is richer than conventional soft serve because of a greater measure of cream, but it’s the unique selection of sprinkles and syrups that provide the vital distinction. Shown here is vanilla (they have chocolate too) with licorice syrup and two kinds of toppings, salty licorice and salty licorice flakes. Amid seven syrups and eleven kinds of sprinkles, this is the combo that I enthusiastically recommend. They tell me that that this treatment is exactly what you’d find all over Sweden, right down to the brand of syrup and the unusual dispenser with its inverted bottles. (See second photo.) If you think you don’t like licorice, let alone salty licorice, this may well be your gateway drug.

 
 
Every summer brings the Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest specialty food and beverage convention, to New York City’s Javits Center; with over 200,000 products on display from 55 countries and regions, I’m in my element. The event offers thousands of exhibitors the opportunity to introduce their wares to consumerland. A few participants from recent years’ spectacles:
 

Brazil: Among many products, the Brazilian pavilion highlighted Cremosinn, absolutely delicious frozen yogurt in an assortment of flavors including acai (of course), passion fruit, soursop, coconut, condensed milk, and azul. (Azul means blue, one of the favored “flavors” of the popsicles of my youth. How blue became a flavor has always eluded me; perhaps there were too many fruits like cherry, raspberry, and strawberry to be represented by a single immediately identifiable color so the food industry decided that a diacritical hue was called for, hence, blue. I still don’t know which fruit it corresponded to though. But I digress.) It comes in a cellophane packet that encloses a plastic pouch filled with the frozen yogurt; snip off a corner and suck out the sweet, creamy goodness.

 
Japan: Mochi is a traditional Japanese food originally made from short grain glutinous rice that’s pounded and molded, often into chewy flattened orbs. Frequently a confectionary, its sphere of influence has extended far beyond the perimeter of its source. A new version was created about 35 years ago that wraps mochi dough around ice cream. This contemporary edition, technically called mochi ice cream, has become so popular that it’s often simply referred to as mochi.

Several companies displayed their renditions at the convention including Mr. Mochi, Sweety Ice Cream, My/Mo, and Bubbies, a Hawaiian contender. Flavors ranged from red bean, green tea, black sesame, and lychee to Kona coffee, chocolate peanut butter, and mango along with the more routine vanilla and strawberry among others. Note that in some cases, the ice cream core carries the flavor unassisted by the somewhat neutral mochi coating, but sometimes the doughy wrapper is infused as well and further enhances the experience. Look for these and other brands in Asian markets, particularly those that highlight Japanese goods. And while you’re there, take note of the seemingly infinite array of Japanese and Korean pops, bars, and ice cream novelties as well (melon is a popular flavor).

Even Chinese Mooncakes, not usually an ice cream commodity, are getting into the act with similar extravagances like Chocolate Icy Moon Cake. More about those in my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post.
 
 
Korea: Back to world flavors of American style ice cream, Scoop by Spot was exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show with flavors like Misugaru, based on a Korean beverage; it’s available at Spot Dessert Bars in New York City. Noona’s (noona means “big sister” in Korean) showed off heritage flavors like toasted rice, golden sesame, black sesame, turmeric honeycomb and green tea.

 
 
Latvia was at the Fancy Food Show as well making a push to pop into the American marketplace with at least four brands of Latvian ice cream available in tubs, cones, pops, and bars with intriguing varieties like orange & macarons, raspberry-pomegranate, and black balsam & blackcurrant (first photo below). In addition to ice cream, the Latvian company Speka offered several varieties of curd snacks. Curd snacks are not unlike a cross between an Eskimo pie and chocolate covered cheesecake; individually wrapped, they come in an assortment of flavors from chocolate and vanilla to the more esoteric blueberry, blackberry, and raisin. They’re currently available as Russian/FSU products in markets throughout the city, with a high concentration in Brooklyn, of course. Always a high point on my ethnojunkets along Brighton Beach Avenue, I’ll do a feature about those soon.

 
 
And speaking of Russia, ask anyone who lived there during the Soviet era about plombir and listen as they wax rhapsodic with nostalgia for this storied delicacy. Back then, the adage was that travelers came to Russia for only three reasons: to see the ballet, to visit the circus, and to eat ice cream. Plombir, named for Plombières-les-Bains in France, home to elaborate frozen confections, was manufactured to the strictest Soviet standards with a high butterfat content, no additives, and a creamy consistency.

I suspect that the plombir I find along Brighton Beach Avenue may be a frosty shadow of its former self, but since it’s too late to journey to the Soviet Union I can’t speak from personal experience. I can tell you that what’s here is good: every food store in the neighborhood carries a multitude of Russian brands, CCCP (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик), the Russian abbreviation for USSR, and Dadu are popular. Although distinctive, many of the Russian contenders are similar to American ice cream; most have more overrun and creaminess varies, some take the form of fancy ice cream cakes, but the flavors often run to the more prosaic chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

Unlike most American styles where cream leads the list of ingredients, Bandi plombir hands the top spot to milk; you’d anticipate a flavor profile that’s less rich, but the second ingredient is butter, so judge it on its own merits. In addition, individual hand-held treats like eskimo with its chocolate shell, tubular lakomka, and waffle cups of ice cream with a swirl of jam or sherbet in tempting flavors like black currant, caramel, and sweetened condensed milk are widespread as well.
 
 
India: Malai Ice Cream always makes an appearance at the trade shows. Malai means “cream” and also refers to a particular flavor of kulfi, the Indian ice cream (more about that in a moment), but in this case it’s the name of Pooja Bavishi’s company which launched in 2015. Shot through with Indian spices and churned out in artisanal, small batches in Brooklyn, the quality is readily apparent. Their gelato-like product comes in flavors like masala chai, rose with cinnamon roasted almonds, Turkish coffee, orange fennel, golden turmeric, star anise, lemon cardamom, sweet corn saffron, toasted nutmeg, baklava, carrot halwa, and more – basically, something for everyone. Visit their new (2019) shop at 268 Smith Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, but if you can’t make it, look for their product line in Whole Foods among many other markets.

Newcomer Kaurina’s was exhibiting their product at the show as well; they emphasize their use of all natural ingredients with an eye towards capturing the health conscious market. Even their chocolate, a flavor kulfi makers often don’t quite have a handle on, was great.

Leaving the trade shows behind and returning to the real world, Kwality Ice Cream, 1734 Oak Tree Road in Edison, New Jersey and 258-030 Hillside Ave, Floral Park, is part of a chain of ice cream shops that feature dedicated Indian flavors including sitafal (custard apple), chickoo (sapodilla), jamun/jambul (black plum), kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio), and dozens more, all of which are authentic and delicious. You’ll find similar shops in similar Indian neighborhoods in New Jersey like Iselin and Jersey City.

Back on the streets of New York City’s Little Indias (Lexington Avenue around East 28th Street in Manhattan and 73rd-74th Streets just off Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens), you’ll find the aforementioned kulfi, available often (and best) as pops but also in tubs in Indian markets.

I must confess that kulfi may be my favorite ethnic ice cream; sweet, creamy, intensely flavored, slightly chewy – so good it’ll make your brains fall out (as Soupy Sales used to say). It starts with milk that’s been cooked down for an eon or two, flavors are added, and it’s poured into molds and frozen directly, not churned. This process contributes to kulfi’s dense texture because no air has been blended in.

One of the classic flavors is malai, but it’s not merely cream; malai kulfi is aromatic with cardamom and nuts, sometimes saffron, sometimes rosewater. But malai is only the starting point along the road of ubiquitous kulfi flavors like pista (pistachio), mango, and almond with other more exotic examples to be found as well.

Slow to melt because of the lack of air, plastic encased kulfi pops are sometimes rolled vigorously between warm hands to get the process started. Favorite brands include Rajbhog and Shahi Kulfi for its unique almond variety. The kulfi that’s found in prepackaged pint and quart containers is available in a wider array of flavors, but in my opinion isn’t nearly as good as the pops.

Look to Patel Brothers on 37-27 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, for both styles, as well as in refrigerator cases inside and outside mithai shops like Maharaja Sweets at 73-10 37th Avenue and Rajbhog Sweets at 72-27 37th Avenue.
 
 
The Middle East: While I’m sure there are some who might not immediately discern the difference between standard issue American ice cream and gelato (and diverse recipes make it more problematic), there’s no misidentifying the unique personality of Middle Eastern ice cream. It’s characterized by a pleasant sticky chewiness and make no mistake, mastic’s magic is the key.

A few summers ago, I stumbled on Holon, an Israeli/Middle Eastern market in Midwood, Brooklyn where I found Amazing Arabic Ice Cream, an absolutely delicious, hand-crafted, orange blossom mastika, “a Syrian delicacy that takes you back in time”.

Saffron & Rose from Los Angeles packages their Persian Golo Bol Bol for sale nationally at Middle Eastern markets; the saffron version is pretty good. They also make an icy version of falooda – you’ll recognize it by its congealed vermicelli and pinkish hue – but it’s not dairy-based so we’ll eschew it here.

You might run across Lezzetli ice cream in your travels; their most authentic flavor is mastiha (so many spellings!) which is resiny, woodsy and probably not for everybody. Aside from that flavor, the product seems to be sort of a cross between American and Mediterranean styles, but I’d suggest you go for the real deal: booza and dondurma.

Booza, an ice cream that hails from the Levant and Egypt, is known for two qualities, its stretchy consistency and its ability to resist melting. The elasticity comes from mastic, the resin that makes Turkish Delight delightfully chewy, and its prowess in fending off the consequences of Middle Eastern heat stems from sahlab (aka salep), a thickener made from ground orchid tubers that’s also used in beverages and puddings.

Turkish dondurma and Greece’s kaimaki are similar to booza, but in my experience, locally at least, booza boasts more bounce. At the Fancy Food Show, Pasha Delights touted their dondurma which they subtitle “Turkish Style Gelato”. Note too that YMMV (Your Mastic May Vary): recipes differ from one purveyor/manufacturer to the next, so expect varying degrees of mastickiness.

A stroll along 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge (which probably should have earned the moniker Little Levant, but didn’t) turns up a handful of opulent sweet shops, some of which feature mastic ice cream. (Did you know that Beirut and Bay Ridge are cognates? Just kidding.)

Cedars Pastry at 7204 5th Avenue usually carries the basic ashta (you might see it as kashta or qashta) mastic flavor, and always has the pistachio version; you can buy it there by the cup. Hookanuts, a few storefronts away at 7214, has pistachio, almond, and other favors as well, available in their freezer case. Antepli at 7216 is Turkish based and sells dondurma scooped fresh from tubs and packaged in cups and squeeze-up pouches.

If you’re a hard core booza booster, you should definitely make the trip to Republic of Booza at 76 North 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They up the ante on mastic/sahlab ice cream with the densest, stickiest booza I’ve found (see photos below). Read my post about Republic of Booza here.

 
 
Honorable Mention: A unique ice cream parlor if ever there was one is over-the-top Max and Mina’s Ice Cream at 71-26 Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Not listed above since they aren’t really about international ice cream, they have created scores of unusual flavors over the years including nova lox, herring, horseradish, and cholent among others which could certainly be considered ethnic. Note that each time I’ve ventured in, their flavor list was different, presumably to accommodate the latest experiments. Their babka ice cream really takes the cake!

For the sake of completeness and with the highest of hopes for its return if only for its novelty value, I’ll mention Uyghur Ice Cream from Xinjiang province in China. For one brief, shining moment, the sweet, milky, brown sugar flavor ice cream could be found at Erqal in the New World Mall Food Court in Flushing but the churn broke and Erqal is no longer in business.
Ever sanguine, we continue to entertain hope for its revival. Moral: Don’t cry over spilt milk, I guess. [Update: See comment below from Food and Footprints regarding a sighting at Kebab Empire’s Manhattan location!]
 
 
Disclaimer: I’m thrilled that New York City is a mecca for bespoke ice cream parlors, each with its own marketing perspective and formidable fungible flavor list. I’ve mentioned a number of them in this piece but obviously I’ve only targeted shops that have a focus on ethnic flavors or styles. So here’s to you too, Sundaes and Cones, OddFellows, Morgenstern’s, Ice & Vice, and so many more who craft wonderfully delicious ice cream and who occasionally dip a finger into some international flavors.

And beyond that, even within my own self-imposed exclusively-ethnic-and-dairy constraints, this post is not intended to be exhaustive in terms of either ice cream varieties or venues. If I’ve left out any of your favorites, please comment below and I promise to do an update. And if by some chance, I haven’t yet tried one of your recommendations, I’ll move it to the top of my to-eat list!
 
 

Cooking in the Time of COVID – Pandan Rice Pudding

Instagram Post 5/23/2020

 
👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

I often insist that rice pudding is the ultimate comfort food, and we can all use a little – no, make that a lot – of comfort right now. But since I’m invariably compelled to put some kind of ethnic spin on something that was perfectly fine to begin with, here’s my pandan rice pudding.

The bright green color comes from the leaves of the pandan plant, aka screwpine, a popular flavoring and coloring agent in Southeast Asian cuisine. It has exceptional compatibility with coconut much the same way that chocolate has with nuts, baked goods, or depression, so this version uses coconut milk along with rice as its foundation.

The cherry on top is the cherry on top.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️