Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2022

(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 on September 10. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.


And here’s one of my favorites, Five Mix Nut Moon Cake, from Golden Fung Wong Bakery at 41 Mott St – one of the stops on my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket, of course!

Since 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, known for his bravery and adventurousness but also for his impulsive unpredictability, I decided to purchase an assortment of these delicacies even if I was unable to identify every single one of them in the bakeries in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you.

For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, you can get the skinny – er, poor choice of words there – in 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!
 
 

La Mira Gelateria

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

New kid on the block in Flushing with an assortment of flavors calculated to please everyone.

Opening Day, about three weeks ago, featured Oolong Peach, Green Tea, Sesame Seaweed, Lychee Rose, Purple Yam & Taro, Dragon Fruit, Hazelnut, Pistachio, Mango, White Chocolate, Chocolate, and Vanilla. All were delicious.

Oh wait – was I supposed to take a pic before I started eating? Dang!

Here’s my cup of Pistachio and Purple Yam & Taro – which was fuller when served. 😉

La Mira Gelateria is located at 133-35 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.
 
 

Bearin Wheel Pie

About three years ago, I wrote about Happy Wheelie, purveyors of Taiwanese Wheel Cakes in Landmark Quest Mall, 136-21 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing. They no longer occupy that position, but Bearin Wheel Pie is currently filling the void. And speaking of fillings, Bearin’s selections include Red Bean, Cream, Matcha, Chocolate, Taro, Peanut, Black Sesame and more, along with some special creative combinations that range from savory to sweet.

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

Shown here are Taro with Salted Egg Yolk representing Team Savory and Cream with Tapioca (i.e., custard with boba) playing for Team Sweet. Taro is the chameleon of the tuber/vegetable world running the flavor gamut from savory to sweet; here, Chinese preserved duck egg yolks intensify the flavor. Regarding its neighbor to the left, the hot custard is sweet but not too sweet (I know how important that is to some of you 😉) and the boba provide a welcome textural contrast.


Using a modest batter and a variety of fillings, they’re prepared in this custom apparatus whose roots are in Japan’s Imagawayaki (今川焼き) where they’re often filled with adzuki bean paste; the experience is as much about watching the process of making these traditional Taiwanese treats as it is about eating them. The batter for the bottom half is stirred gently so it rises up the sides, then the filling is added; the top is made similarly. As with any art form, the technique is a little difficult to describe, so I guess you’ll just have to come with me on my Flushing ethnojunket to see how it’s done!

To learn more about my food tours, please check out my Ethnojunkets page and sign up to join in the fun!
 
 

Dondurma

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

On my Bay Ridge food tour, The Flavors of Little Levant and Little Yemen, we visit a few of its opulent sweet shops, some of which feature mastic ice cream. Booza hails from the Levant and Egypt and is known for two qualities, its stretchy consistency and its ability to resist melting; Turkish dondurma and Greece’s kaimaki are its somewhat less sticky, somewhat more melty close cousins.


This is dondurma from Antepli Baklava, 7216 5th Ave, and they offer it in two forms: a squeeze up pouch…


…and roughly pint-sized containers in çilek (strawberry), kakao (cocoa), fıstık (pistachio), and sade (plain) flavors. Needless to say, I’ve tried them all – in a quest to ferret out the best of the best, of course. 😉

So is this the magic mastic ice cream we’ll enjoy on our Bay Ridge ethnojunket? Only one way to find out: check out my Ethnojunkets page and sign up to join in the fun!
 
 

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! 🍨
 
 

Paradise Sweets 2022

I have to admit that it was a real treat to revisit my old haunts as part of revitalizing my ethnojunket, The Flavors of Little Levant and Little Yemen in Bay Ridge (read about my ethnojunkets here); the other part, of course, was tasting the goodies I had been missing during COVID isolation for the past many months.

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

These dense, rich semolina squares came from Paradise Sweets, 6739 5th Ave, Brooklyn. The nomenclature can get a bit sticky (not unlike the orange blossom/rose-water sugar-syrupy Middle Eastern treats themselves): the pistachio nut laden delicacy perched on top was identified to me as Basbousa, the two supporting players as Harissa. The harissa dressed with an almond is the basic version, the other is shot through with crunchy, flavorful fenugreek seeds.

A limited amount of interweb research (hey, you try typing with sticky fingers and see how far you get) suggested that basbousa and harissa refer to the same dessert, the choice of noun reflecting where in the world you happen to be. So far, so good. But it seems that they’re also called namoura and revani. And then, naturally, there are the English orthographic variations (haresa, hareeseh, hareesa, harisah, ad infinitum – and those are just for harissa) and a few in Arabic as well.

Wikipedia teaches us: “Basbousa is the dessert’s Egyptian name and it is called the same in North Africa. It is often called ‘hareesa’ in the Levant, and also the Egyptian city of Alexandria, though in other parts of Egypt hareesa is a different type of dessert. Also note that ‘harissa’ in North Africa is a spicy red sauce.”

And as if that last bit weren’t enough, we should also take note of the dish harissa (aka jareesh), a porridge made from boiled cracked wheat, which itself is another name for the meatier halissa, halim or haleem, a fixture in Central Asian cuisine around Navruz (aka Nowruz elsewhere) which I wrote about here.

Right. Not confusing at all.

But what’s in a name? That which we call rose water by any other name would taste as sweet!
 
 

Eid al-Fitr (2022)

Eid al-Fitr or Eid ul-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2022, it begins on the evening of May 1 and ends on the evening of May 2. (Photos in this post were taken last year.)

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

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 in Brooklyn, 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.
 
 
My Flavors of Brooklyn’s Little Levant ethnojunket will be resuming soon with some new and delicious post-COVID changes. Stay tuned!
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich (2022)

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

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 – April 24, in 2022. 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. 😉

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 a recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Eastern European shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a 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 Ukrainian 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, laden with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

And at Orthodox Easter this year especially, our thoughts and hearts are with the heroic, resilient, brave, beautiful people of Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians now.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 💙💛
 
 

Italian Grain Pie

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

If you follow me, you know that I’m a sucker for international holiday foods, sweet treats in particular. And since I live from holiday to holiday (hey, whatever works, right?), I always look forward to Easter for traditional Neapolitan Grain Pie.

For starters, don’t be deterred by its name in English; I suspect “Pastiera Napoletana” has a more agreeable ring to it. The aforementioned grains are wheat berries, and their presence is no more unusual than grains of rice in rice pudding. They’re embedded in a sweet ricotta/custard cream infused with orange blossom water and augmented by bits of candied orange peel and citron along with a touch of cinnamon; the heady aroma of orange and lemon is key to its success. The rich filling is swaddled in a delicate, crumbly shortcrust shell.

This example came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn; I’ve written about them here, here, and here – they’re that good.

Per favore, if you have a solid Italian bakery nearby or even a bit of a walk away (think of the calories you’ll burn!), head out there and try this delicacy for yourself while the season is still upon us. Grazie!