Happy Diwali!

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

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!
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

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 10Below 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, 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 La Michoacana at 407 South Broadway in Yonkers 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, galetas con crema, arroz, fresa de leche, pine nut, chocolate, queso con zarzamora, 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 (it’s everywhere there!) 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, 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.
 
 
Every summer brings North America’s largest specialty food and beverage convention to New York City’s Javits Center; with over 180,000 products on display from 50 countries and regions, I’m in my element. This event, along with Brooklyn’s own food and beverage trade show, Brooklyn Eats, offers thousands of exhibitors the opportunity to introduce their wares to consumerland. A few participants from this year’s spectacles:
 
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 conventions including Mr. Mochi, Mochi 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, Noona’s, (noona means “big sister” in Korean) exhibited 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 (shown here). 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; 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.

Speaking of Russia and Brighton Beach Avenue, every food store in that neighborhood carries a multitude of Russian brands of ice cream, one of which is CCCP (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик, the Russian abbreviation for USSR). They’re 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.
 
 
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. Look for their product line in Whole Foods among many other markets.

Leaving the trade shows behind and returning to the real world, Kwality Ice Cream, 1734 Oak Tree Road in Edison, New Jersey, 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; mastic is the resin that makes Turkish Delight delightfully chewy. A walk along Fifth 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.) Note too that YMMV (Your Mastic May Vary): recipes differ from one purveyor/manufacturer to the next, so expect varying degrees of mastickiness.

Cedars Pastry at 7204 5th Avenue sometimes 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, usually has pistachio and almond as well, packaged in their freezer case.

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.

And speaking of the real deal, you should definitely make the trip to Republic of Booza at 76 North 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Booza ups the ante on mastic ice cream in that it also contains sahlab (aka salep), a thickener that helps it resist melting in searing Middle East temperatures and contributes further to its stretchy consistency. Sahleb is also essential in the Turkish version of ice cream called dondurma and Greece’s kaimaki. 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. Ever sanguine, we continue to entertain hope for its repair. 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!
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Very Short Stories” that never fails to resonate this time of year. If you enjoy reading it, there are more in the column on the right side of my home page.)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! The callithump of Chinese drums and cymbals played havoc with my ears as the pungent miasma of spent fireworks assaulted my nose. “These are my people!” I beamed. An equal opportunity celebrant, I was in my element.

I picked my way through the ankle-deep sea of technicolor metallic streamers and confetti. “Looks like a dragon exploded,” I mused. Shuffling from market to crowded market, each festooned with the accoutrements of the holiday, I searched for authentic goodies with which to welcome Chinese New Year in style.

Definition: Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling two-week long celebration occurring in January or February that is laden with more symbolism than a Jungian interpretation of a Fellini dream sequence inspired by a Carlos Castaneda novel.

The shape of the holiday’s foods suggests their analogue: dumplings are crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, long noodles emblematize a long life, melon seeds epitomize fertility. Color plays a significant role as well: mandarin oranges allude to the color of gold. Sweets are often tinted red, the color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

But nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. As any precocious third grader will tell you, homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (for, four, and fore in English, for example). At these festive gatherings, a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses. Also gracing the table will be Buddha’s Delight, a complex vegetarian dish that contains an ingredient the name of which sounds like the word for prosperity.

(We don’t have that kind of thing in western culture, but maybe we should. Imagine if you rang in the New Year at an American restaurant by ordering the surf ‘n’ turf, a certain portent that this would be the year that you meat your sole mate.

Just don’t wash it down with wine.)

And no traditional food is more important than the ubiquitous Chinese New Year delicacy, nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” — with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

Now, I had seen nian gao dished up and steamed in aluminum pie pans in every market in New York’s five or so Chinatowns. But one particular variation packaged in a six-inch wide container shaped like a Chinese ingot (as many items are this time of year) caught my eye and beckoned to me. As I inspected it more closely, I realized that I could not for the life of me fathom how it open it! This fact alone was sufficient bait; I stood in line with my fellow revelers, paid, and took it home.

With bugged-out eyes and a glower that betrayed both puzzlement and frustration, I turned the semi-translucent vessel over and over again like someone who had reached a cul-de-sac with a recalcitrant Rubik’s Cube. The object was fashioned of two mirror image concave pieces of plastic fused together — plastic somewhat thicker than that of the average shampoo container — too thick to squeeze easily, for sure, and inseparable along the seam. I could make out an air bubble which migrated as I shifted its orientation, so I had a clue as to the texture of its contents — typical semi-firm glutinous rice cake, perhaps with a little syrup around it. Searching for an instruction manual, I found that Google had abandoned me: either no one else on the planet had ever encountered these contrivances or everyone else on the planet buys them every year and I am the only soul who is too inept to persuade them to yield their bounty. There was a tissue paper-thin label stuck to the bottom that showed the “best before” date as May, so even allowing for my customary procrastination, I had some time to solve the mystery. As long as that case remained closed, the case was not closed.

Wait a minute. What if some sort of key was hiding beneath that slip of a label? A slot to pry the two halves apart or a helpful arrow embossed on the obdurate plastic? Slowly, carefully, I began to peel back the label. THHHHPPP! The tiny air bubble instantly expanded to fill half the case as air rushed inside. Could it be that this gossamer leaf was the only protection the rice cake had from the elements, furry predators, and me? Such was the fact.

But then, I was confronted with a further conundrum. Lurking beneath said label was a hole the size of a half dollar. (Remember those?) This carapace was obviously a mold constructed so that its contents would delight the eye when served. But the only way I could see to get to the goods inside was to dig the stuff out with a fork! Not what they intended, I was certain. Somehow, there had to be a way to pry the halves apart without damaging the springy contents.

I hooked my thumbs on either side of the hole and yanked. Gnrrgh! Nothing. I laid it on the kitchen counter and pressed down with as much muscle as I could muster hoping that it would split along some weak, unseen fault line without damaging the contents. Again, it did not succumb to my efforts. I grabbed my nastiest knife and attempted to slice through the case along the seam. Nope, that’s not it either, I thought as I licked my finger where I had cut myself when the blade slipped.

Silently, the ingot mocked me. Was it designed this way on purpose? Some sort of arcane object lesson about anything worth achieving is worth struggling over? Or conversely, was it perhaps trying to tell me that I would never achieve riches, no matter how much I persevered?

Frustrated, I stashed the thing in a corner of my fridge. Days passed. The days melded into weeks. It was time to begin plans for Thanksagaingiving.

Definition: Thanksagaingiving is a joyful, annual family ritual. Not content to celebrate the merely dozens of diverse international and American holidays, each with its own panoply of tempting traditional foods, I created one more.

Over many years, I have developed, tweaked, and perfected an elaborate Thanksgiving menu that I prepare annually, much to the delight of my clan. And over those many years, we would ask ourselves, why don’t we do this more often? Pondering the possibility, we recognized that just about every month has some delectable holiday or seasonal foods associated with it. But there is that frigid, desolate chasm between Chinese New Year and the promise of tender spring vegetables that cries out for a joyous — and delicious — festival to uplift us from our disheartened doldrums.

Enter Thanksagaingiving. When we give thanks. Again. And rerun the whole November spectacle.

Invariably, each day as I loaded the fridge with more ingredients for our feast, it became necessary to move the Chinese ingot around to make space for the latest bounty. Now onto the second shelf, the customary residence for leftovers, now far back into the lower left corner where that jar of homemade boysenberry jam had been languishing for the last three months, now precariously balanced on a tall bottle of pandan syrup lying on its side in the least accessible corner — where the ingot unfailingly teetered, slipped, and fell, locking its neighbors into an exasperating jigsaw of jars and urns that prevented anything from being extricated from the shelf.

I had no choice but to toss it.

Thanksagaingiving came and went. We happily devoured our Roast Turkey with Chestnut Cornbread Stuffing, Dandy Brandied Candied Yams, Maple Sugar Acorn Squash, Corn Pudding, Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon, and the subsequent procession of turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, and turkey soup.

The fridge was once again barren. Wistfully, I gazed at the empty spaces that my forlorn little nian gao had been sequentially evicted from. Had I forsaken it prematurely? Would one more hour of negotiation have solved the mystery? Nostalgically, I remembered all the time we had spent together getting to know each other.

But then, I realized that all was not lost — come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another ingot-encased nian gao and try again. I felt my spirits lifting.

And suddenly, I comprehended what had come to pass without my even being aware of it. In the light of that existential moment, the words “come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another…and try again” echoed in my mind — and the cosmic meaning of this episode, the raison d’être for this tortuous journey became brilliantly clear:

It had been the maiden voyage of a new annual tradition!

 
 

An Eggnog Excursus

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That time when folks dust off words like ’tis and ’twas as Bing Crosby croons creaky, arthritic chestnuts with inscrutable lyrics like “Christmas is a-comin’ and the egg is in the nog….”

That one always baffled me. I mean, what else would be in the “nog”?

There is vigorous unresolved debate over the etymology of the word “eggnog” (or phrase “egg nog”, if you prefer), proof that anything so resplendent is worthy of detailed analysis and ultimately obsession. Investigation harkens back to the late 1600s and hypotheses range from the term for a strong ale or possibly the wooden mug it was served in to a scrambled portmanteau of colonial argot, “grog” (rum) and “noggin” (mug). Eggs and dairy never even entered the picture (or perhaps, in this case, the pitcher). A libation did exist, however, called “posset” that was prepared with alcohol, milk, spices, and sometimes eggs, quaffed by the Brits during medieval times, that persisted for centuries. The recipe underwent refinement (as all worthy recipes do) and was surely the forerunner of today’s glorious elixir.

Of course, there are those who refuse to be satisfied until they’ve added a little something extra to the standard issue brew: down south, eggnog is often spiked with bourbon, not to mention Southern Comfort, but sherry, brandy, cognac, whiskey, rum, and grain alcohol, individually or in combination, have all managed to stagger into America’s punch bowl. Of course, this wouldn’t be an ethnojunkie post without at least a nod to international mixology, so from Wikipedia: “Eggnog is called coquito in Puerto Rico, where rum and fresh coconut juice or coconut milk are used in its preparation. Mexican eggnog, also known as rompope, was developed in Santa Clara. It differs from regular eggnog in its use of Mexican cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol. In Peru, eggnog is called biblia con pisco, and it is made with a Peruvian pomace brandy called pisco. German eggnog, called biersuppe, is made with beer and eierpunsch is a German version of eggnog made with white wine, eggs, sugar, cloves, tea, lemon or lime juice and cinnamon.” The list goes on. (Speaking of far away places with strange sounding names for things, I have to admit a certain fondness for the French spin on the word for eggnog, lait de poule – hen’s milk.)

All of which raises the question of whether I favor mixing eggnog with alcohol. I was afraid you’d ask. My personal observation is that it’s a waste of good booze and a waste of good eggnog. Unless of course it’s homemade (the nog, not the hooch) but that’s a nag of a different color. This post is about commercial eggnogs, and we’re only considering dairy based entries at that – not soy, rice, coconut, or almond milk nor lactose-free rivals – simply because there would undoubtedly be winners and losers among those categories which would eventually be pitted against “the real deal” and that would only serve to complicate comparisons.

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? Fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary.

You probably know that flavor variations among brands of eggnog aren’t like those of milk – milk tastes pretty much like milk regardless of the purveyor (there are nuances but they’re not worth considering in this context). The dissimilarities among brands of eggnog, however, are cosmic by comparison; they may as well be different beverages. And to complicate things, a few brands taste radically different from year to year. (My theory is that there is some sort of practice among smaller dairies where they acquire the flavor base from a third party source and blend it with their own milk, but sometimes, for whatever reason, the base changes – perhaps it’s sourced from an alternate supplier, perhaps it’s a mandated change in recipe – hence the extreme annual variance within a single brand. It’s all about that base.) Note also that some brands are local and unique while others are the regional offspring of a national food company that may provide the same product under varying names (see the Garelick and Tuscan cartons above, both brought to you by Dean Foods).

Having read dozens of reviews, I find it fascinating that there is absolutely no critical agreement as to which commercial eggnog tastes best; one reviewer’s nectar of the gods is another’s paint thinner, so it is evident that eggnog’s charms are very much in the mouth of the beholder. My own memories of the bewitching flavor of the Ethereal Eggnog of My Youth remain vivid to this day and are the genesis of the impassioned quest I am about to share with you. But even if you disagree with my personal preferences, you’ll be able to make use of the template I’ve devised in order to develop the ultimate eggnog of your sugarplum dreams.

The Great Nog-Off Schema

The strategy is to identify significant universal eggnog characteristics and rate how each contender performs in each category. Picture a table, the kind that folks use Excel spreadsheets for even though there are no numbers to crunch but that are ideal for sorting data. Headers across the first row are Brand, Vintage, Body, Creaminess, Artificial/Natural, Flavor Notes, Finish, Special Features, Comments, and Overall Rating. Let’s examine each:

• Brand – seems obvious, but might include subtitles like Hood’s brood of Golden, Caramel, Cinnamon, Sugar Cookie, Pumpkin Pie, and Vanilla flavors; the single column simplifies sorting.

• Vintage – the year you’re evaluating. This is useful for two reasons: Tracking by year can identify certain brands that vary annually. For example, in 2008 (yeah, I’ve been at this for a while), Farmland was rather good but lately it’s been running in the middle of the pack. It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2017 Farmland Lait de Poule est arrivé! And some unpredictability can be welcome; after all, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some surprises. Farmland actually comes in handy, as you’ll see later.

The second reason is that some brands never change and that’s a good thing because it can make life easier. For example, in 2014, I sampled (and had unsurprisingly forgotten about) International Delight and observed that the flavor notes included butter rum Lifesavers (not in my nog, thank you very much). This year, 2017, I inadvertently bought it again and my butter rum flavor notes were identical to those from three years earlier. Since my comments ran along the lines of “worst ever”, “the word ‘egg’ never even appears on the label nor in the ingredients list so no surprise there”, and so forth, it’s obvious that I’ll never need to carry that brand home again. See? Makes life easier.

• Body – rated on a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is thinnest and 5 is thickest. You might not care for a super thick eggnog (or the yellow mustache that accompanies it), so maybe a 4 in this category beats a 5 for you, but it certainly shouldn’t be a 1, otherwise you’re just drinking eggnog flavored milk and what’s the point of that? But it’s all a matter of taste, as is everything in this post.

• Creaminess – different from body, this is about mouthfeel where 1 may very well be thick but not at all creamy (think Pepto-Bismol) and 5 coats your mouth with dairy cream.

• The Artificial/Natural continuum – where 1 denotes dominant artificial flavoring (usually ester-based) and 5 tastes like someone made it at home using only eggs, dairy products and sugar. Appreciation of this trait is idiosyncratic. Personally, I’m trying to recapture the Magical Eggnog of My Kidhood and that one had just a wee dram of that ester component. To understand them, you first need to know that there are many flavors derived from ester compounds. You’ll find them in artificial flavors of every stripe but probably the most universally recognized example I can describe is that artificial banana-y flavor of Circus Peanuts, those orange, oversized-peanut-shaped, marshmallowy candies that are an affront to the tastebuds of anyone over the age of five. That’s only one kind of ester (isoamyl acetate, C7H14O2, for my fellow science geeks out there) but there’s a common combination that screams “Eggnog!” to anyone whose tongue is half listening. I’m searching for just a soupçon of that in my nog.

• Flavor Notes – for example, descriptors like eggy, nutmeggy, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, carrageenan (a thickener often found in commercial rice puddings and a flavor easy to recognize once you’ve experienced it), cooked, nutty, or sugary sweet.

• Finish – you oenophiles will grok this. A food’s aftertaste is often different from its flavor (think artichokes) and it’s connected to whatever remains on your tongue plus the sense memory that you’re left with after taking a sip. I once had some eggnog that was sort of okay in the mouth but whose aftertaste was downright chalky. I’ve found that a few organic brands have a “grassy” finish.

• Special Features – categories like organic, lite (whatever that means), and if you must, soy/nut/coconut-based, lactose free, etc. This is the column in which I noted that SoCo actually provides instructions on its label, admitting, “Preparation: Mix with Southern Comfort” so perhaps it’s intended to work optimally in that application – as a mixer, not a beverage – since I don’t care for it as a virgin standalone. Again, that’s just me; YMMV.

• Comments – have fun with it. One eggnog I tasted (which will go nameless) inspired me to write, “tastes the way my parents’ plastic slipcovers used to smell when I was a kid.”

• Overall Rating – where 1 is worst and 5 is best; not to be confused with an average of any numerical ratings you may have assigned. Think of it as how many stars out of five you’d give the product.

Now as you buy particular brands of eggnog (I’ve been through dozens of brands and vintages), fill in the cells in the table. I recommend using a blind taste test form listing the aforementioned categories so that you’re not haunted by ghosts from Christmas past in the row above competing for your attention, but you don’t have to. (I did warn you that this was an OCD undertaking, right?)

So you’ve collected a mountain of data but how do you use it? Certainly there is no such thing as the perfect commercial eggnog as the lack of consensus among reviewers would suggest. I find those beverages always lacking in one feature or another and that’s where this chart comes into play. The best way I can demonstrate its application is to show you how I’ve implemented the information to recreate the taste of my Childhood Enchanted Eggnog.

Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s eggnog is pretty darned delicious straight out of the (deposit) bottle (I gave it a 4.5 overall) and if you want to just buy one brand without all this folderol (or falalalalalderol perhaps) it would top the list, but its carrageenan and guar gum levels make it a little thicker (rated 5 for body) than the Nog of My Dreams. That’s where a solid middle of the road eggnog like this year’s Farmland (3.5 overall) comes into play. Farmland is a journeyman level nog, modest and nicely balanced in terms of flavor, and coming in at 3.5 on the body scale is the perfect addition to mitigate Ronnybrook’s viscosity while not overpowering its essence. But when I cut Ronnybrook with it, an ineffable characteristic was missing. Another sip. Ah, the ester component, of course – which was ultimately provided by Turkey Hill. Turkey Hill scores a 1 on my artificial/natural scale (way too estery for me) but a dollop of it added to the Ronnybrook/Farmland mix was all the recipe needed. Three parts Ronnybrook to one or two parts Farmland plus a good glug of Turkey Hill was the ratio I formulated. (Don’t forget to garnish with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg!)

Another time, when I couldn’t locate Farmland for my attenuation purposes, I was able to procure Cream-O-Land (whose slogan used to be “Made From Real Cows” before some marketing guru thought the wiser of it). This year’s batch was okay but nothing special (rated 3 overall), certainly not horrible, but its 2.5 score for body indicated that it could provide the tempering influence that was called for. Since Cream-O-Land is more artificial tasting than Farmland, bringing Turkey Hill into the lineup was unnecessary.

So there you have it. Yes, I concede that this venture involves imbibing an ocean of eggnog and ignoring a volcano of calories. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t feel that you need to slavishly follow my recipe proportions or recommendations. The takeaway here is for you to identify the special characteristics you’re seeking in the eggnog of your fantasies, and piloted by a little R&D as you navigate the nogosphere, come up with your own bespoke, personalized blend.

Incidentally, recounting your saga comes with the delicious bonus of dumbfounding your discriminating foodie friends. And perhaps your therapist. 😉
 
 
Happy Holidays!
 
 

How I Got Into Cooking

I’m frequently asked how I got into cooking. Now, I suspect that what follows is something of an apocryphal tale: I certainly can’t vouch for its veracity since it took place, in theory at least, when I was five tender years of age and I have absolutely no recollection of the event. But this, according to the saga circulated by my beleaguered mother, was my initial foray into the culinary arts.

As she would tell the story to her cronies, one wintry Sunday morning – I’m using the word “morning” loosely since I’m told it was 5:00 – I awoke hungry. Realizing that my parents were still very much asleep and recalling their disagreeable response to being roused in the darkness, I decided to address the absence of a ready breakfast by taking measures into my own little hands.

I had watched my mother prepare our morning repast on many occasions. She would fill a large pot with water, pour in some stuff from a red and blue cardboard canister graced with a quaint rendering of an avuncular looking fellow sporting a black hat (the container would later be reincarnated as an annoying percussion instrument), and stir monotonously and apathetically with an oversized wooden spoon. Sure enough, some minutes later, a bowl of steaming, stick-to-your-ribs mush would appear on our war-torn kitchen table.

Seemed simple enough.

I managed to clamber up a chair to fetch the oatmeal and the spoon, but the pot proved too heavy to wrangle. So, demonstrating the improvisational skills that would later prove invaluable to this budding jazz pianist, I made straight for the bathroom. Leaning over the edge of the bathtub, I turned on the water – full blast – and proceeded to dump the entire contents of the box into the roiling cascade. Noisily wielding the spoon, I stirred with such vigor and reckless abandon that it awakened my mother who came charging into the bathroom to see what all the commotion was about.

What happened next? I wish I could tell you. By that juncture in my mother’s narrative, she and her captive audience had usually broken into paroxysms of laughter. (And I suspect the unpleasant denouement would best be left to the imagination anyway.)

But the reason I told you that story was so that I could tell you this one: I am willing to wager almost anything that even then, my foamy concoction would have tasted better than my mother’s most determined attempts at cooking. And that directly addresses the gist of the initial question – why did I get into cooking?

Simply put, childhood trauma. My mother’s cooking could best be described as child abuse. Recognizing her ineptness in the kitchen and having no desire to rectify the situation, she decided that Swanson’s TV Dinners™ and Morton’s Chicken Pot Pies® would serve as our quotidian fare. Oh, and the occasional bowl of canned mixed vegetables. Did you ever hear of Veg-All? I have a hazy (and most likely inaccurate) memory that there was a prototypical version that, for some unknown reason, had little wax paper disks between each of the vegetable types: beige corn, gray string beans, grayer peas…you get the idea. There may have been diced potatoes in there too. Or something that was sort of a lighter shade of gray than the rest. And mushier. After a while they eliminated the paper, probably having discovered that their customers were ingesting it, preferring it to the “vegetables”, I imagine. Or perhaps being unable to distinguish between them.

Any poison she could find at the grocery store was grist for our table. I’ll never forget the fateful day when she returned from the supermarket brandishing a box of Butter Buds, a sort of faded yellow, gritty, granular substance that looked exactly like something from my Gilbert chemistry set. (I had the F model – the one with the Bunsen burner. I learned how to make hydrogen sulfide gas, rotten egg smell that overwhelmingly stunk up the kitchen. It beat the stench of her cooking hands down, though. But I digress.) “We’ll use this instead of real butter,” she clucked, offering neither an explanation nor an apology. That was the day I learned what industrial waste tastes like. It’s a wonder I don’t glow in the dark after consuming all those chemicals.

So there you have it – the when and the why. And QED that in this case, revenge is a dish best served delicious!