Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

Dolce de Leche, a Sweet Cultural Surprise

Everyone knows I’m a dessert snob. Brought up being served European style pies, tarts and cakes right out of our oven, I can’t get myself to set foot in most American-style bakeries for a sugary rainbow overload. I favor Italian and French pastries with nods yet again to Pasticceria Rocco’s and Silver Moon in New York City. Bergen County, New Jersey shines with L’Arte, Erie and Ciel.

Today began with the notion of lunch at Aumm Aumm in North Bergen, arriving at 12:20. It’s been a year exactly since I last ate there. We walked in from the 18-degree weather to be told, “We don’t open until 1:00 for lunch.” I couldn’t comprehend why so late to start lunch service. In a panic, I Googled “lunch near me” and up popped a Yelp 4-star eatery La Sorrentina only .5 miles away.  My first impression was a pizzeria. I downgraded my expectations of having a satisfying lunch. But once the oven-warm bread and olive oil came out, I thought the runway was clear.

I am not particularly enamored with pizza unless there’s something special about it. This one was a little special tasting. We ordered a small (six slices) QUATTRO STAGIONI with
Eggplant, Artichokes, Mushroom and Prosciutto. That almost could have done it for me. Nervously I ordered the SPAGHETTI AI SAPORI DI MARE: Mixed Seafood with a Spicy Tomato Sauce because that’s what I had in mind for Aumm Aumm. Well the shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari were married with an arrabiata sauce that was reminiscent of Bocconi.  And the LA CAPRESE, Homemade Mozzarella with Tomatoes and Extra Virgin Olive Oil starter was quite satisfying.

Photo of Trattoria La Sorrentina - North Bergen, NJ, United States. Spaghetti ai sapori di mare. Mixed seafood w pasta in tomato sauce. Served fresh, hot, and delicious.  Yum

It was when my Argentinian friend brought up dessert at a nearby Argentinian bakery that I began to pout internally.  I pre-judged. I had an image of churros – a fried dessert. Oh no! That’s all I could see. He insisted, “We go for coffee there too!” Less than a half mile drive and we arrived at Dolce De Leche, a large, bright bakery cafe with many tables, most occupied. The first thing I noticed was the busy bakers in the kitchenIMG_5374through the glass. It was nice to actually see through the kitchen. This cafe offers a selection of savory breakfast and lunch items too, such as quiche and sandwiches and empanadas, but it’s hard not to go directly to the dessert cases. I skipped over the fried section to dispel my preconceived notions and went directly to the small desserts that look like they could’ve been in Rocco’s or Silver Moon’s cases. I actually tried an elephant ear too just because they looked so perfect. It was the mini desserts, though, with fruit and dulce de leche that were my favorite. And yes, the coffee measured up…in this instance, a cappuccino (a real cup rather than paper would’ve made it better for staying in house). Who knew Argentinians did dessert in a European style — not too too sweet!

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In Search of Pie to Die For, Part II – The Stairway

It was only three days after I found a most delicious baker of pies in Southern Bergen County, New Jersey, and wrote this blog post, that I made a new discovery and found the stairway to the golden gate of the apple pie in the sky. It is nearly heavenly, but again, only Mom’s pies will ever be worthy of that adjective. I will not reveal a secret component.

To reiterate, unfortunately, Mom is under temporary medical care at a hospital in Northern Bergen County. I visit her daily, and food always seems to help improve the mood. Monday it was my homemade lasagna with ground turkey and broccoli. It was that same day I received a local news eblast and was attracted to a headline about a local farm making cider donuts for the season. It brought me over to this story on the best cider donuts from Bergen County farms: http://mahwah.dailyvoice.com/lifestyle/farm-fresh-these-four-places-have-bergens-best-cider-doughnuts/724031/. Not a huge donut fan, I was till piqued by the thought of the taste of the “best” of them. Coincidentally, the number one place, Abma’s Farm, was just half mile from where I had to go to see my Mom! The farm name is familiar to me because of a local supermarket’s long-standing partnership with this family of farmers for their produce.

Complete with an actual petting zoo, greenhouse and country store, Abma’s has been running for nine decades, and I’m ashamed to say it was my first time there. I am thrilled when I hear about the longevityIMG_5027 of a local family business. It warms my heart, and in this case, my belly. I walked into the market, doused with that country feel and in search of these outstanding donuts, and what did my wandering eyes see – PIES, rows of pies with golden, well-baked crusts and ingredients straight from the ground of this farm I was walking around on. What donuts? I saw good old covered apple pie with an open center (Erie did not have traditional basic pies, rather a little fancier on the flavors).

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There was a tug of war going on between the apple and the Swedish apple, which had walnuts as well, along with a baked crumble topping. According to Abma’s, they bake everything from scratch. All of their fresh ingredients are preservative free. They pride ourselves in baking the finest homemade pies, muffins, breads and treats from their own homegrown fruits and vegetables.

I hurried back to the office to share this Swedish Apple key to the gate but needed some IMG_5028unbiased opinions. It was unanimous! — This is among the best pies that my associates have tasted. A friend even called it, “Nearly as good as your Mom’s!” That’s huge! Not only do they have the freshest ingredients, but somebody there knows how to bake with them! Don’t they go hand in hand. What did they have the edge on — the edge! The crimped crust at Erie’s was a bit thicker and at moments was a little hard to get a fork through. I didn’t mind because fingers were used to break it off. But I favor the thinner, flakier pinched edge, even though both were browned to near perfection.

Take a trip and explore the bottom of the stairway leading to the golden pies. Other varieties included pumpkin (and pumpkin walnut), harvest (apple, cranberry, peach) and pecan. While you’re there, explore the homemade soups, eggs from their hens, and lunch and dinner options. Say hello or goodbye to the barnyard animals because you will be back.

 

In Search of Pie to Die For

If you know me or at least read my blog, you’ll know that my Swiss Miss Mom is a most delectable baker, with pies being a specialty. Anyone and everyone who is fortunate enough to catch me on an unselfish pie Sunday and who has tasted as little as a forkful will testify to the maximum level of deliciousness she delivers. Unfortunately, it’s been about a year since she has been well enough to perform her culinary craft, and that leaves me, family and friends pieless!

I have been in search of backup pie for years. Nothing is ever as good as Mom’s European love touch that forms every golden crust. I thought for certain that my favorite Italian pastry shop Pasticceria Rocco’s would deliver, but for me, it’s the one thing they fall short on.

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The dough is more like a sweet cookie crust and thick; I require flaky and thin pie crust, not a thick tart frame. It is good under another definition but not “pie”.

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I receive lists in food-oriented e-blasts of the “best pie in the country”, but it doesn’t help me when they are located 3,000 miles away in San Francisco or when I merely see a photo of a pie with a half-baked blonde-colored crust! Oh no; dough! However, one such establishment was on a list of best pies in Bergen County, NJ. I couldn’t imagine any of the mostly American bakeries in this county being able to deliver a Pie worth Dying for.IMG_4984Erie Bakery in Rutherford’s web site lists both sweet and savory pies, scones, muffins – more like European breakfast baked goods – no icing or color. So I happened to be passing the exit on the way back from a business meeting and took a quick detour to find a cute bakery with a window counter and a handful of stools. I immediately put it to the test by trying the pear-crumb muffin and the burnt banana bread. Everything is made on premises. I was quickly ready to graduate to pie. Unfortunately, only whole pies can be purchased. Surprisingly, there was no standard apple pie. Varieties include Buttermilk

Sweet Potato, Bourbon Pecan, Pumpkin Pepita, but I went with the Salted Caramel Apple Crumb. It was about 15 minutes before I couldn’t resist the temptation of the taste test. In went the fork, and when there was a slight struggle getting the prongs to easily go through the bumps in the crust, I knew there was great potential here.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4988At $30, this pie better have a lot of love packaged. It embraced me, and I felt as close to home as I’ve been on Sundays a year prior and past. Next came the judge and jury though. I was then on my way to visit mom. Even though she hasn’t been completely herself these days, I approached with the box and a plastic fork, opened it up and put it in front of her. Nothing was said, but the fork went from box to mouth repeatedly, and her fingers broke off that bumpy end. There was a pause as it rested in her mouth awaiting a verdict. It got a nod – passing grade. An hour later Dad called and said, “By the way, that pie you let me taste was very good.” So far, it leads the race in the chase towards Mom’s pies, even though they will always be a lap ahead of the rest of the pack. Finally, something can join the race as a temporary substitute.

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CIEL IT WITH A SEMI-SWEET KISS

If you even just know me by name, you probably know that all retail desserts are measured against the quality of my mother’s desserts. Most don’t come close: too sweet, too many artificial ingredients, not baked enough, etc.  As a result, I am extremely selective – some label it snobbish – as to if and where I eat dessert elsewhere.

Most of you who do know me, know I’ve found the perfect competitor in Rocco’s, New York City, but that’s across the big river. I’ve written about two worthy contenders in New Jersey:  one in Ramsey, L’Arte , where I even dared to bring my mother once, and the other in Teterboro, Palermo’s. So when I saw a nearly full-page newspaper article (yes, I look at an actual printed newspaper), on a four-month-old French pastry establishment in Westwood, NJ, my eyes and mouth perked up. A panic rush of self-addressed questions comes over me – why didn’t I know about this, could it be as good as the pictures look, how soon can I try it? The first answer I don’t know. I was four months behind on this intel. Shame on me. The third answer was …this evening! And that would provide the second answer: yes!

20170920_214927Open until 10 p.m., which excites me by fitting into my late night schedules, I dashed to Westwood at 9:30. The space is tucked sideways, perpendicular to a strip center with another Korean-owned eatery, focused on bbq, called Kimchi Smoke, which moved from Bergenfield. The bakery case in front appeared nearly wiped clean, but there were a few desserts left. The Korean man (owner/partner) explained that these rectangles were called pallets. They are like mini-pound cakes that are warmed up and sliced, but they’re elaborate. One was pistachio, draped in white chocolate and another was milk chocolate and coffee with almonds. I ordered one of each to sit down and enjoy.

 

The back room is the open kitchen with counter and stools, along with a handful of tables. I was given a menu for separate plated desserts, which were more elaborate. At this point of the night, I had not eaten dinner. Dessert was destined to be my dinner because that’s what Ciel serves, and it’s served very well! Chef (and co-owner with her spouse) Jane’s resume sparkles in the pastry arts. Eleven Park Madison, Le Cirque and Nobu piqued my level of impression.  They both explained that they don’t and won’t serve savory dishes because they are doing only what they do best…..dessert! After all, you wouldn’t expect the pitmaster at Kimchi Smoke to serve up crème brulee.

When asked for a recommendation off of the dessert lounge menu, the gentleman suggested the chocolate soufflé as a first timer (a familiar French word of course). It is

 

baked to order in seven minutes and served with fresh made creme chantilly. The airiness and the gooey inside combined in a light and not-so-sweet marriage. That choice paired with the two “pallets” should’ve been a good enough first-visit tasting. But no; I had to notice the apple tarte tatin. I couldn’t  pass it up. It was the most beautiful looking of the desserts I had, but also the smallest portion. Here, Chef Jane’s artistic prowess was exhibited best. The “tarte”  looked like a large, square caramel filled with pieces of fresh apple. It was decorated with thin, dried apple slices, dabs of meringue and radish micro greens.

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Remember, French pastries such as these are meant to be tasted meticulously and slowly with small bites because the portions are not large. The textures are meant to touch every side of your mouth. In fact, the tasting of such desserts, rather than shoveling, is celebrated with a distinctive offering….a dessert tasting menu experience. Ciel offers a 20170920_215724five-course dessert tasting that she serves at the counter. The unique experience with her personal explanations takes about 1.5 hours. There’s also a three-course version that would take about 45 minutes. Reservations for a tasting experience is required at least 48 hours in advance. The tasting menu option truly brings the quality and New York food experience across that river and into this Bergen County town that’s filling up as a foodie destination.

She is quoted in The Record: “I barely use sugar. Fruits — raspberries, mangoes, cherries — have plenty of sweet in them. I don’t use anything that isn’t good for your body.” Her partner told me he goes to the market every morning to select the freshest fruits.

Dessert you can feel good about consuming! She even offers some that are vegan and gluten free, so there’s no excuse for anyone not to try her creations.

UPDATE: This writeup tasted so good to my co-workers, we all decided to try the three-course tasting created by Chef Jane. The images will artfully and tastefully speak for themselves…

 

 

Silver Moon has Silver Lining

If I dine out, I generally prefer having dessert at a place that…well.. specializes in desserts. My staple is Pasticceria Rocco’s, but today there was no time to head all the way down to the Village. Lunch was at Macchina at 106th and lo and behold there’s Silver Moon on the corner. I always get excited to see such a bakery and generally am always disappointed. Not this time. The selection is small but delicious. Both the peach tart and plum crumb were tasty. The coffee was acceptable too. What really excited me was the variety of breads baked there. I had to take one home. Perfect crispy bread is perfect for any time of day. I know what I’ll be having for my late afternoon snack.  Read the charming story about the owner in the window. It makes it even more enjoyable to sit outside.

Well it is passed midnight. Driving home I see the long load of fig and black pepper bread in a white bag I had to try it. So I just bit into it like an apple and then I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t even really hungry, but it was so good that I think I crunch and a quarter of the loaf.

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Oh, did I fail to mention in a return trip to get a rosemary olive loaf and cranbury walnut sourdough, the thin napoleon and pear tart begged to be eaten?!

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The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.

 

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And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Sunday Baking

Fruit Loops, Wise, Coca Cola and any other chemical-laden ‘food’ products were never welcomed guests at our door when I was growing up. They never saw the inside of our home, and I believed – and in a sense still do – that those names only resided in the bad kids’ homes. Except, now, I think of it more as the bad parents’ homes.

We ate my mom’s home-cooked meals seven nights a week, but we weren’t deprived of a rewarding treat; it came typically on a Sunday. It’s a shame that back then I was on the opposite side of the foodie track – I only ate to survive. Not only did I not appreciate it, but eating was a chore. Sweets had no bargaining power for obedience. That was reaffirmed by a photo I just came across: I was nine years old, and there was a chocolate Gugelhupf cake with melted marshmallow icing, sitting on the table, getting zero attention from my goofy eyes.Picture

Every Sunday, nowadays, I look forward to the approximate 3 p.m. call: “Do you want dessert and coffee?” She must know by now that this is a rhetorical question, unless I’m more than 200 miles away (and even then, I would say, “in a few hours”). There’s never a standard name for the dessert of the week. They’re usually self-titled, “Rosmarie’s something something Special,” and they range in ratings from very-good to damn-that’s-good to incredible.

In European style, the sugar content is probably half of what Americans are accustomed to. I recognized the similarities when recently touring Germany. I always thought Mom was a little “out there” with her need to put at least a shot of kirschwasser (cherry brandy) into every dessert she makes, be it in the icing or the cake layers or the fruit. But I indulged in a slice of Black Forest Cake while, naturally, in the Black Forest region, and realized when I was giggly at the end of consuming this kirsch-soaked piece, that Mom is actually conservative in her doses.

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This birthday, I was enjoying cake made by a restaurant in Lake Titisee. I was nearly 4,000 miles away from my usual Sunday dessert call, and it was quite good, but I longed for my special-request pie. She must have read my mind, though. Upon returning home from the two-week vacation, two days after my birthday, I opened the empty refrigerator to find a decadent home-made gift. “Wow, what is that Mom,” I asked on the phone immediately. “It’s kind of like a tart coated with apricot jam, filled with white chocolate mousse, chocolate shavings, topped with fresh, split figs, and of course…..some kirsch.” It always works!

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