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 the Chinese observance of the Lunar 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, a banquet for the soul 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!

 


(And speaking of maiden voyages, please join me on one of my ethnojunkets, food-focused walking tours through New York City’s many ethnic enclaves. Learn more here.)
 
 

Chinese New Year 2019

Instagram Teaser 2/5/2019

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

The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year is upon us!

One aspect of the holiday that I particularly enjoy is how wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods. An example is 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.

This is the Year of the Pig 🐷 which, of course, is my cue to taste every traditional delight I can get my trotters on, but there was one year when the means by which to sample a particular nian gao turned into a complete mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”

 
 

Durian Pizza in Flushing (for Edible Queens)

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

I wrote a story about Durian Pizza in Flushing for Edible Queens. It begins:

There’s an old adage about durian: “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven!”

Whatever you may have heard about this fruit, it probably wasn’t encouraging. Some regard durian with mild amusement, some with outright disdain, while others have come to appreciate its unique personality. My objective is to disabuse you of any prejudices you may harbor about the “King of Fruits” (as it’s known in Southeast Asia) and direct you to a local restaurant where you can indulge—fearlessly—in its charms….

…keep reading….
 
 

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.

Inevitably, 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 running well but then for a few years it had drifted to the middle of the pack; happily, in 2018 it hit its stride again. It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2018 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). Then in 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. Do not confuse this 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? Surely 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.

In 2017, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s eggnog was pretty darned delicious straight out of the (deposit) bottle (I gave it a 4.5 overall) and if you wanted to just buy one brand without all this folderol (or falalalalalderol perhaps) it would have topped 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 that 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 scored 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 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). That 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.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering about 2018’s trials, Ronnybrook has lost a bit of its luster; a 50-50 blend of that and Trader Joe’s was rather good. And oddly, a 50-50 blend of over the top Turkey Hill and under the radar Cream-O-Land was a hit as well.

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!
 
 

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 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 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; 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. 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!
 
 

Durian’s Best Kept Secret

Back in the seventies (ahem), Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Scotch Boutique, a store that sold nothing but Scotch Tape. They carried a variety of widths and lengths to be sure, but that was it. Just Scotch Tape.

MK Durian Group at 5806 6th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sells nothing but durian. They carry a variety of cultivars and variations to be sure, but that’s it. Just durian.

And the durian they carry is wonderful.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” (some would have the order of the phrases swapped but you get the idea), so much so that the fruit is banned from hotels, airlines and mass transit in some parts of the world. (And yes, I’ve been known to smuggle some well-wrapped samples home on the subway.) If you’ve never tasted durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (yes, really), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what durian smells like. The scent appears to defy description; I’ve encountered dozens of conflicting sardonic similes, but suffice it to say that most people find it downright unpleasant. Although I have a pretty keen sniffer, somehow its powerful essence doesn’t offend me although I am acutely aware of it – just lucky I guess, or perhaps I’m inured to it – because this greatly maligned, sweet, tropical, custardy fruit is truly delicious. So I was thrilled to learn about MK Durian Group (aka MK International Group) from Dave Cook (Eating In Translation) whom I accompanied on a visit there.

Often called the King of Fruits (perhaps because you’d want to think twice about staging an uprising against its thorny mass and pungent aroma), it comes by its reputation honestly but with a footnote. The divine-to-demonic ratio varies depending upon the cultivar and, if I understand correctly, a window of opportunity when certain cultivars are sweet and nearly odorless simultaneously. This, I believe, is durian’s best kept secret. But more about that in a moment. (Click on any photo to view it in high resolution.)

MK Durian Group works directly with plantations in Malaysia and is a wholesaler and distributor to restaurants and retailers in addition to catering to walk-in customers. We entered the commodious space with its many tables, all unoccupied at the time. Chinese-captioned signs showing photos of fifteen cultivars and another seven in English decked the walls along with a menu that, in addition to a price list for the fruit itself, included durian pancakes, mochi, and a variety of cakes, buns, and biscuits, a concession to the timid, perhaps. Durian cultivars are typically known by a common name and a code number starting with the letter “D”, so you might see Sultan (D24) or Musang King (D197), but sometimes you’ll find just the code numbers or sometimes just names like XO or Kim Hong. Scientists continue to work on hybrids to maximize flavor and minimize unpleasant smell.
Fion, without whom I would have been at a complete loss, urged us to get the Musang King, often regarded as the king of the King of Fruits. She selected one from the freezer case and microwaved it for a few minutes to thaw it but not warm it up. Our four pounder, stripped of seeds and rind, ultimately produced about one pound of (expensive but) delicious fruit.Using an apparatus that looked a little like some sort of medieval torture device to crack the husk, she then adeptly removed the yellow pods; each pod contains a single seed that can be used in cooking like those of jackfruit. We took our treasure to one of the tables where boxes of plastic poly gloves were as ubiquitous as bottles of ketchup would be on tables at a diner.

That Musang King was perhaps the best durian I had ever tasted, so much so that my new personal aphorism is “Durian: The fruit that makes its own custard.”

You may have seen durian in Chinatown in yellow plastic mesh bags where the fruit is often sold by the container and you don’t have to buy a whole one; you might conceivably experiment with whatever is available. But these were a cut above. As we left, I realized that something about the experience had been unusual: I asked Dave if he had noticed any of the customary malodourous bouquet. He replied no, but he thought perhaps he was a little congested that morning. I knew I wasn’t congested that morning. There had been no unpleasant smell to contend with. Had we stumbled upon that elusive golden window of odorless but sweet opportunity? Was that particular Musang King odor free? Or perhaps all of them in that lot? Did it have something to do with the fact that it had been frozen and thawed? We were beyond the point of going back and asking Fion, but I think it’s worth a return visit to get some answers!
 
 

Macaroons and Macarons: So Close and Yet So Far

The following post is presented as a public service. 😉

There seems to be some confusion regarding these two very dissimilar cookies with very similar names, but oh, what a difference an O makes. Let’s get the pronunciations out of the way first: macaroon rhymes with “black balloon” and if you honk the final syllable of macaron through your nez, you’ll nail the proper French pronunciation of that one.

Were the two cookies once a single biscuit that bifurcated due to some culinary tectonic shift? In search of the proto-macaroon, I consulted my copy of Larousse Gastronomique. There was a macaroon (their spelling) based on almond meal that has been made in a French monastery in Cormery since 791 (no, that’s not a typo) that’s not too different from one half of today’s macaron. I say half because the definition of a French macaron is that it comprises two almond flour cookies joined back to back by a sticky filling like jam or ganache. The seemingly infinite variety of flavors (more about that later) derives from the filling alone, and the coloring is just that: coloring. In my experience, they require the patience of a saint (or perhaps a monk) to produce competently.

Macaroons, in contrast, are quintessentially American; a mounded cookie consisting of shredded coconut, sugar, egg whites and sometimes sweetened condensed milk that in its rudimentary form is so uncomplicated as to make it a good candidate for a child’s first baking experience.

Etymologically, the word “macaron” makes a brief appearance in the writing of Rabelais in 1552. It stems from the Italian word “maccherone” meaning a “fine paste” (consider how the combined ingredients appear before baking) and yes, the word macaroni shares the same root (consider pasta/paste while you’re at it). Subsequently, it shows up in an English language recipe from 1611 that spells it “macaroon” and identifies the word as having been derived from the French “macaron”. So the words diverge centuries before the cookies do and the conflation conflagration begins.

The Renaissance version of the cookie itself was pretty well defined as a “small, round cookie, crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and beaten egg whites” folded together, essentially what we think of as Italian amaretti. And so these macarons/macaroons prevailed for many years – there’s a recipe in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery – until just before the 20th century when two events occurred that altered the course of cookie history.

At that time, coconut palms were introduced to and cultivated in Florida and their fruit became the darling of the American kitchen. In 1871, Esther Levy published the first Jewish cookbook; it featured a recipe for macaroons in which grated coconut replaced the traditional almond flour. Because the dietary restrictions of the Jewish holiday Passover prohibit the consumption of leavened baked goods, coconut macaroons handily filled the dessert bill and they caught on.

A few years later, the Parisian bakery and tea salon, Ladurée, began selling almond flour macarons in pairs, flat sides back to back, with sweet fillings like ganache to hold them together. So at that juncture, we formally have two different cookies, each with its own proper name.

These days, French style macarons are quite trendy and can be found everywhere from fancy pâtisseries to bakery chains in Chinatown, although obviously the quality varies from venue to venue. This cutaway view shows the fillings inside a couple of macarons and the lack thereof in the standard issue macaroon. (The photo also serves to illustrate the way the cookie crumbles.)

Macarons come in several sizes but are always paired and share the classical puck-like shape. The sheer number of flavors to be found borders on the ridiculous and precludes any attempt at a comprehensive list, but you’ll see fruit flavors like cherry, banana, peach, pineapple, pomegranate, honeydew, coconut, papaya, passionfruit – actually pretty much every fruit you can name; what I’ll call “roasted bean” like coffee, latte, mocha, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate; nuts like walnut, almond, pistachio; boozy specimens like Grand Marnier, Jack Daniels, Baileys Irish Cream, mojito; other dessert interlopers like crème brûlée, salted caramel, praline, Nutella, cotton candy, Oreo cookie (a cookie that’s designed to taste like another cookie?); Asian influences like pandan, durian, candied ginger, thai tea, red bean, mung bean, matcha tea, taro; floral/herbal flavors like lavender, mint, rose; and just plain brazen contenders like fois gras, wasabi, maple syrup & bacon, cheeseburger, bubblegum, Cheetos, and Vegemite. Mon dieu!

Then there are the double combinations like raspberry almond, blueberry cheesecake, lavender honey, white chocolate mint, strawberry kiwi, rhubarb cilantro and the like, not to mention triples like s’mores – you mathletes out there could calculate the permutations and combinations if only the flavor list weren’t infinitely long.

Not to be left out, popular brands of Passover macaroons including Manischewitz, Streit’s and Gefen have entered the fray but with somewhat less rebellious flavors like almond, chocolate chip hazelnut, red velvet, cookies & creme, pistachio orange, carrot cake, cappuccino, toffee crunch, chocolate mint, and purely coconut – again, a list that’s far from exhaustive.

I kind of like the fact that you can get almond macaroons and coconut macarons. Seems right somehow.

Beyond the popular brands of macaroons often sold in cans, I’m also seeing some serious bespoke examples at upscale bakeries. These second generation macaroons, if you will, turned up at the incredible 2018 World’s Fare in Queens and were crafted by Danny Macaroons: original coconut, peanut butter chocolate, salted caramel, and pineapple-guava filled. Incidentally, the 2nd Annual World’s Fare will happen at Citi Field, 123-01 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, NY on May 18-19, 2019.

Dedicated holidays cement the distinction: National Macaroon Day is celebrated on May 31; International Macaron Day appears to be tied to the first day of spring, around March 20. (There’s even a Chocolate Macaroon Day on June 3rd but it seems to embrace both macaroons and macarons.)

So armed with this fresh batch of information about the difference between macarons and macaroons, you can officially consider yourself one smart cookie. If you’re anything like me, you’re a fan of both!
 
 

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 4

Daylight Saving Time, my second favorite holiday after Christmas and the undisputed harbinger of Spring as long as you don’t look out your window, has at long last arrived. Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concomitant this year, so this post is a nod to both. I haven’t forgotten Nowruz, of course, the Iranian (or Persian) New Year that occurs on the vernal equinox, but I feel that it deserves a post of its own accompanied by photos of delicious traditional foods which, with some luck, I’ll be able to provide.

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

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate. And also as with panettone, charming but somewhat specious tales of its origin abound. (If you haven’t already, please read my passionate paean to panettone for more information and folklore about this extraordinary contribution to the culinary arts.)

(Click any photo to see it in high resolution.)

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

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

The third photo depicts a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

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

On to Passover. Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

“Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!”

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, of course, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking at its finest, Jewish soul food, and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked! Here’s the finished product:

And no matter which one you’re celebrating (or perhaps all of them like me) – Happy Holidays!
 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

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, 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 at 997 First Avenue in Manhattan. 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!

 

Note: I’ve learned that Nicola’s Specialty Foods has gone out of business so now I need to find a new “dealer”, as it were! 😉