Monday, December 15, 2008

Paris Chocolate tour

A NYT article about chocolate shops in Paris...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving Table

By the time the food was ready I had lost track of the camera, but here's a pic of the set table. The table is so abnormally wide that we managed to get almost all the food (turkey, mashed potatoes, two cranberry sauces, two vegetable dishes, biscuits, bread, two types of gravy, two types of stuffing) on the table.
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Alexis' Turkey Cupcakes

Alexis decided she was going to make turkey-shaped (but thankfully, just vanilla- and chocolate-flavored) cupcakes for the six kids we had over on Thanksgiving. Her creative process was complex, and ended up involving toothpicks and cut up bits of those weird candy peanut foamy candies (she cut them up to make the snood-and no, I did not know the flap over the beak was called a snood until I just looked it up).

They got six thumbs up from the five-feet-and-under crowd. Alexis was triumphant.
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My Favorite Gravy Receptacle

In France, Kathryn and I became obsessed with these antique gravy pourers that have a spout at either end and allow you to choose either the M side, which stands for "mince" or thin, or the G side, which stands for "gras" (I think...I'm sure I'll hear from Joel shortly if I'm wrong). The G side pours from the top, allowing more of the fat to trickle out, while the G spout starts at the bottom to keep the fats at the top from pouring out.

We moved back with a number of them, which we gave as gifts that year. At the time, I wasn't in a gravy-boat collecting space, but now I covet it and wish I had kept one for myself. Luckily, my mom still has the one we gave her, and I'm counting on her short memory and general disorganization when it comes to rarely used kitchen implements to buy me some time with this one. It came from one of the Paris flea markets (either Clingancourt or Vanves, I don't remember which).
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Two Turkeys

I'm a convert. We were a large enough group (19) to need two turkeys, and since it was my first turkey cooking experience, I asked Nancy and John to make a second one. They live close enough that it would only take a few minutes to zip over to our house once it was done, and I knew they'd do a great job on it.

I didn't order in time to get a heritage turkey, so I opted for a Mary's (localish) organic free-range turkey instead. I used the America's Test Kitchen recipe that involves turning the turkey four times to distribute the juices and brown the bird. It went well, even the turning part, which had me manhandling the turkey with paper-towel wrapped hands.

It was moist and delicious, but in terms of flavor my Broad-breasted White just couldn't compete with the Bourbon Red Nancy and John cooked. What's the difference? Well, to start with, it looks totally different:

And the meat tasted really good. Though I try to cultivate an appreciation for dark meat, I prefer the white meat, and on this bird, the flavor of the white meat was glorious. But, there's a lot less of it, which meant a quarter of the table didn't get to try the white meat. Which is fine if you have an even distribution of turkey-meat preference. But we trended light, which was fine since we had the second turkey.

In the end, the trade-off was worth it. Next time I'll plan ahead more, spend the extra money, and get a heritage turkey.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Salmon at Taylor Creek

Finally, after five years of wanting to go to Taylor Creek in Lake Tahoe during the annual salmon run, Joel and I made the trip.

When I was at King's College in London, my friend Ben, who loved to cook, made some lovely salmon in a caper-lemon-cream sauce, little red potatoes, and green beans for me one night. We also had a lot of white wine, and that night when I went to sleep full and a little drunk, I had an extremely vivid dream. I was a salmon turning red, developing a hook jaw, and swimming up stream. I could feel my body starting to decay and I was surrounded by other salmon that were dying. To escape my salmony fate, I crawled up on the shore and caught a commuter bus towards a city I could see in the distance. I'm not a spirit animal type of person, but after that dream I didn't eat salmon for about two years. But I'm back on the pony now.

At Taylor Creek, you walk down this beautiful little path through aspen groves and past wetlands. Eventually you get to the stream, where you can go out onto the sandy bank and watch the fish. The creek was packed. Some fish were, as advertised, swimming upstream; others were just hanging out, guarding egg packets they had already deposited in creek bottom from other fish and hungry ducks. Already there were a lot of dead fish washed up on the bank and floating against rocks. I overheard a woman say that if you got there at five in the morning you could often see black bears come down to the stream and feast.
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Test Recipe: Sole Francese

This month's recipes to test included this sole francese from a new cookbook by a New York City Southern Italian restaurant. I've been trying to eat more fish, and more sustainable/not laced with heavy metals fish specifically, and Monterey Fish Market had a sole that fit the bill, so last night I made it.

An hour and many, many dirty pots, pans, and plates later, Joel and I sat down to dinner. I was a little worried because the sauce required a ton of butter, but didn't look thick or rich. Instead, it looked pale and watery. And the fingerling potatoes, which had been boiled in advance and left to sit (to be rewarmed in the oven at the last minute along with the roasted mushrooms and the sole), hadn't gotten properly warm in the amount of time the recipe alloted for them. And since this is a recipe test, I dutifully didn't stray from the instructions (a feat which has taken a lot of willpower. As it turns out, my natural relationship to recipes is to use them as a general roadmap and then alter according to my mood, gut instinct, and opinions).

The other thing that worried me was the amount of lemon I was supposed to put in the sauce. It called for the juice of two lemons, but I was halving the recipe, so I used the juice of one lemon. I think my lemon was larger or juicier than the writer had accounted for, because it masked with its intense citrusity any subtle flavors the sauce may have had.

All in all, I was underwhelmed. For the number of dishes this meal created, the amount of oil and butter it required, and the length of time it took to put it all together, I thought it was pretty disappointing.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Oran Mor

On the final night of our visit to see Sean and Sue, we went to Oran Mor, a restaurant they had been wanting to try. Good luck for us to have visited when we did.

The restaurant is a series of small rooms upstairs in an old converted house near the water in Nantucket Town. As elsewhere, the crowd was a little stuffy and we heard multiple people marvel at Sean's extended, pointy goatee (Sue calls him, alternately, Mr. Whiskers and ZZ Top), wondering if he was "in a rock and roll band."

Maybe to shake off the threatening clouds of formality, someone suggested ordering a lot of things and sharing them so that we all wouldn't be marooned, alone, in our personal three-course islands.

My favorite dish of the night was this: Hudson Valley foie gras served with toasted brioche and (I think I'm remembering this correctly) balsamic-pickled brandied cherries. Usually, foie gras is just so smoooth I find it hard to like, but here it was served with just the right combination of flavors and texture. The rich, buttery brioche was nice and toasty on the outside but still yielding and bready on the inside, and the unusual boozy piquancy of the cherries totally worked with it.

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Sconset Market

Sue then led us to the little general store up the street, where we got ice cream:

And ate it while strolling down the most charming seaside lane I've ever, ever stepped foot upon:

It seems like it would be utter misery to live there, because you'd always feel obligated to be doing something appropriately charming, and there's only so many hours a day you can tend flowers, whitewash a fence, or pour tea for guests out on the verandah.

This lane was so cute I don't even remember eating the ice cream. It's a total flavor blank. Charm-induced taste amnesia. Oh well.

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Summer House

Our last full day visiting transient island-dwellers Sean and Sue, we piled in the Jeep and drove towards the long peninsula of sand that ends at the reconstructed and now solar-powered lighthouse. When I returned to California, I discovered all sorts of Scott-related things, like that his great-grandfather was the lighthouse keeper in the pre-pre-solar days. Back when the light was powered with whale tears or something similarly, authentically Nantuckan.

After getting lost, getting found (through Alexis' creepily Big-Brothery phone that knew where we were so could tell us where to go), driving along the beach, climbing the lighthouse, sticking our feet in the water, and driving back, we went to the Summer House for lunch.

We sat at the bar and watched the shiny people laze about in $3,000 robes by the pool. The bartender made me an approximation of a Pimm's Cup. And we listened to the bartenders gossip and ate lobster pizza, another version of a tuna tartare sundae, and crab cakes. With a microgreen hat:

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Boarding House

A muddled but delightful combination of the aforementioned passion fruit cocktail, a comfortable table in the dining room, another bottle of wine, and the total willingness of the group to order and share everything anyone was even slightly curious about led to my favorite kind of full: the one where you had a few deliberate bites of many things and gotten to talk your way through it with other people who are as giddy about the tastes as you are.

We had an interesting antipasti plate with a tomato-pomegranate spread, a chickpea and raisin terrine, and something with carrot that I do not perfectly remember. We also tried a pizzetta (pizza named after me) topped with black truffle cheese and mission fig, a pretty pasta, the well-named chicken under a brick, and a few more dishes that I no longer remember. (Until I was in my late 20s, I could be counted on to always remember everything that I ate in social atmospheres, even years later. Alas.)

For dessert, we got something that I'm totally going to make sometime and people will, in turn, steal the idea from me and in this way thousands of people will end meals happy and satisfied, indulged but not overwrought. Nostalgic but hip.

It was this:

Warm chocolate-chocolate chip cookies and little milkshakes in generous shot glasses.

It's like a French Laundry sort of thing, like coffee and doughnuts or peanut butter and jellies, only it doesn't take 47 hours, a $100 chinois (how I covet thee, and Thomas Keller swears I would be a better person with you in my kitchen), six yards of cheesecloth, and 200 sous chefs to make.

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Boarding House Bar

When you're with Sean and Sue, any trip to any restaurant begins at the bar. Often, if the seats are comfortable and the mood is right, things progress no farther, at least geographically. We had learned this much by the time we entered the Boarding House for dinner, about 10 minutes in advance of our reservation. We grabbed a corner of the bar and Sean led the charge by suggesting we order this particular passion fruit cocktail. Sean and Sue might, even as I write this, be opening a bar somewhere in the Caribbean, so for them, sampling the cocktails where ever they go is not just habit, it's forward thinking as well.

Oh my god it was good. I don't like sticky sweet drinks. In fact, a lot of the time I'm not even a huge fan of juice but this...this went straight into my top ten favorite cocktails of all time list. To me, most sweet liquids taste narrow and light. They hover lightly on the tongue as if both of us know they're not there to stick around for a chat, not there to titillate. They're just the forgettable delivery mechanism.

But this had flavors that roamed, that really worked the room. There was a bit of citrus, the mild natural sweet of passion fruit, the colder than cold efficiency of vodka. It was a sipping pleasure. And it came in its own little martini shaker. Love.

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Steamers

Alexis and I, new to steamers, were unprepared for the sight. They seem normal and clamlike on the outside, even served in this case with an unintimidating slice of toast. But then you open them, and out pops this:

And it looks like eight kinds of gross. Add to that the phallic unsheathing that is part of the preparation for eating and it's amazing this is something it's acceptable to do in public.

Dipped in butter though, they're reasonably tasty.

Nantucket Tasting Tour: Captain Tobey's

We sat down and kicked off the lobster roll quest. The first lobster roll coasted atop a glorified hot dog bun and some lettuce, piped with some kind of mayo-plus sauce, and served with seasoned bar fries. It was a pleasant eating experience, but I still suspected that there was just something New Englandy that I would just never understand enough to properly appreciate the lobster roll.

Speaking of cult foods of the salty Northeast, Sue then introduced us to steamers, one of the least attractive foods I've seen in decades.
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Nantucket Tasting Tour: It Begins

Our charming Nantucket hosts Sean and Sue are serious about two things: eating and drinking. No wait, that order isn't right. Drinking and eating. (Editor's Note: This all happened in August. It's been a busy few months. Marriage, obsessing about the election, etc.)

They picked us up from the airstrip in a Jeep all pasted up with those sticker permits that let you drive on the beach and we headed for the Cherry Pit (pictured here), a grey-washed little lean-to behind the larger house named the Cherry Tree on, of course, Cherry Lane, about a seven-minute walk from downtown.

We would eat our way through Nantucket, they promised. I was giddy. We started at the Brandt Point Bar at the White Elephant where we kicked things off with drinks, crispy crab and lobster cakes, and ahi tuna martinis. We sat at the bar outside, overlooking the harbor and its boats, its promenades, and its beaches teeming with children glowing with health, manicured mothers, and men in pink, ahem, Nantucket Red, pants.

We continued to hang out, discussing our food conquests yet to come and that's when I mentioned that, while living in Boston years before, I had only had a single encounter with the famed lobster roll. I described my memory of it--a slice of Wonderbread folded around lobster meat and drizzled in melted butter--and they jumped to assure me that there was more than one way to make a lobster roll. And then Sean got on the topic of steamers, which led us first to a bar on the waterfront and then, when we discovered that they were steamerless, over to Captain Tobey's.
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Friday, October 24, 2008

Berkeley Turkey

Joel and I are hosting our first Thanksgiving this year. Right now it's looking like we'll be about 18 people all together, and it seems like time to start thinking about the turkey.

Here's what I've discovered so far:

In the Michael Pollan high-five hierarchy, the things to look for in a turkey are: local, organic, free-range, and heritage. There are eight breeds of heritage turkeys. They differ from conventional turkeys in that they grow more slowly, are proportioned more normally (not like the Pam Anderson of fowl), and have a richer taste.

The Russian River Convivium of Slow Food is offering a limited quantity (180) of 4-H-raised heritage turkeys. You have to order early and go to Petaluma to pick it up. Turkeys are $7.50/lb
Order form

Slightly more affordable local options.

Mary's Free Range Turkeys: Available for pre-order at some grocery stores and butchers around town. According to some sources, they sell heritage breeds as well, but I don't seen anything about it on the website.

Willie Bird: Free-range and organic, but as far as I can tell not heritage.

Diestal: Family-owned farm and range-grown birds.

Other handy dandy links I'm keeping on-hand:

- SF Gate article about heritage turkeys: Yeah, it's from 2005, but it's a pretty good primer.

- List of local grocery stores with heirloom turkeys

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cloud Dessert

Last year I saw this delicious looking cloud, and ever since have had my eye out for the equivalent dessert. Recently, Nancy gave me the cookbook A Year in My Kitchen, written by Skye Gyngell, head palate at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe in London.

In the autumn section, I found a dessert that looked a lot like clouds. And seemed like it might taste like clouds too. Last night, we did a Gyngell-inspired dinner over at Nancy's, and after feasting on the fantastic combinations of sweet, savory, and meatily complex flavors of lamb with prunes, corainder (cilantro), and spices; sweet potato puree with tamari, maple syrup, and chili; and roasted squash with roasted tomatoes, feta, and basil oil, we tried it out.

The cloud dessert is called apple and eau-de-vie snow. The quick summary is that you stew Pippin apples in a vanilla-sugar syrup, blend it in the food processor, whip egg whites until they're stiff, blend the two elements together, and then put the mixture in the ice cream maker. As it's turning into a frozen cluster of clouds you add the eau-de-vie (I actually added Calvados because it's what I had on hand). The result is a light, cold but not too icy, apple with a kick, truly white as snow dessert that's unlike anything else I've ever had. It is apple clouds.

Here's the recipe:

Put 8.8 ounces of sugar, 500 ml of water, and a vanilla bean pod split in half in a pot over medium heat. Stir to dissolve sugar, and then bring to a simmer.

Peel, core, and chop 6 Pippin apples, then add them to the syrup mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, keeping the syrup at a simmer, until the apples are tender but not mushy. Turn off the heat and let the apples hang out in the syrup until they are cool.

Remove the apples with a slotted spoon and blend in a food processor along with 2 tablespoons of the syrup until it's pale and smooth.

Whip eight egg whites (since they're eaten raw, look for free-range, small-farm, organic eggs) and a pinch of salt to firm peaks. Add the apple puree. Now here she says blend lightly with a whisk, but the weight of the apples doesn't facilitate an easy blending, so I'd suggest folding with a spatula instead.

Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and process. This amount makes enough for two batches in a standard home machine. When the mixture starts to look like ice cream, add two tablespoons of apple eau-de-vie (or calvados) and continue to churn until it you have a "soft, feathery, light slush." Serve immediately.

Friday, October 17, 2008


A few weeks back, Monterey Market was selling these amazing (among the best tomatoes I've ever had) dry-farmed tomatoes from Sealevel Farms. Cutting them open, I found all sorts of resemblances. Here we have...tree.
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And here is lightning (the tomato is not mealy, it's just glistening)
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Next stop: Nantucket

From New York, we flew to Nantucket to stay in an appropriately named back cottage and eat and drink almost nonstop for the next two-and-a-half days. Details soon...

Day 2: Rice to Riches

Walking into Rice to Riches ignorant of the name, you might think it was an ice cream store, a gelateria, maybe a new-fangled frozen yogurt shop. It's got the playful decor, the small tables, the colorful array of delicacies shielded by glass and guarded by young women offering little plastic-spoon samples. But what they're serving isn't cold, and it certainly isn't smooth.

You know, because it's rich pudding.

But it's good rice pudding. And in flavors it had never occured to me to imagine. And it's not like I haven't experimented with rice pudding before.

Cheesecake (yum), tiramisu (didn't sample), coconut, hazelnut chocolate, banana, and of course, sex-drugs-and-rocky-road. As it turns out, since rice pudding is all about texture, and rocky road is largely about texture, this one really works.

The portions are generous, but you can also pick up smaller versions of many of the most popular flavors in little to-go cups in the refrigerator case at the back of the shop.

Day 2: Cafe Habana

The next day, we met up with Riba for lunch at Cafe Habana to-go. I had fond memories of the grilled corn-on-the-cob there, and Riba promised good sandwiches and fine limeade as well.

Riba ordered and got us

a chicken diablo torta (blackened chicken with roasted red peppers, chipotle mayonaisse, and a black bean spread),

a mole chicken torta (shredded chicken with the same black bean sauce), and of course,

the grilled corn coated in cheese, lime, and chili powder.

Eating all of this sitting on the bench outside the shop was as messy and chaotic as it was fun and delicious. We were all hungry, and so the passing around of sandwiches, corn, limeade, and hibiscus iced tea was frenzied and giddy. Afterwards we sat talking for a while, satiated and sticky handed, before heading off for the rest of our day.

The dessert truck

For the better part of the last year, I've been reading with interest articles about dessert trucks. I've wondered: fad or wave of the future? Delicious or just novel? And also: why not on my block, why not in my town? Would a dessert truck work in Berkeley, or do people want seats with their sweets?

When I was researching things to do in New York, I looked up a few dessert trucks but then gave up trying to pinpoint them, figuring there was no way to plan a meeting with so little time available, it would just either happen or not. And frankly, I didn't hold out much hope.

But, just as afternoon was starting to give way to dusk, we crossed a street, either tired (me), thirsty (Riba), or in need of a pee stop (Alexis), and it was there, just sitting on the corner, bathed in delicious aromas and ready to make my dream come true.

Riba and Alexis made fun of me after the fact, because apparently I saw it, made a sharp turn towards it and said "Dessert truck. We're eating more," and then got in line. Riba and Alexis, as you know by this point, take declarations like that seriously, so they got in line too and we started discussing our options. Panna Cotta? Bread pudding? Most things seemed a little dense and warm for the humidity still in the air, but god, it smelled so good, so we ended up sharing a chocolate bread pudding with creme anglaise.

Even before the first bite, I was totally won over by the novelty. Handing over $5 in exchange for a hot foil ramekin heavy with dense chocolate and warmed sauce? A fine moment of commerce. The bread pudding was good, but tasted more like a dense custard than a bread pudding. I expect more variety in textures in my bread pudding, but as a warm chocolate dessert, it was rather good. Even though I always think I like creme anglaise, when it comes down to it, I think the taste is rather dull, but the variety was nice and it made the bread pudding look pretty. If I was making this, I'd swap it out for a creme fraiche sauce or a marscapone sabayon, or, if there were some way to make it not too sweet, a white chocolate and bourbon sauce of some kind.

Drinks: Verlaine

We paused our tasting tour to take a walk through the Tenement Museum, which was really interesting and manages to pretty compellingly capture the mottled spirit of old New York, the tail end of which colored my dad's childhood experiences there (and made him move to California and never want to go back, but that's another story).

Afterwards, we walked to Verlaine for a few of its $5 lychee martinis. It was about 5:30 pm on a Sunday, so the place was mostly empty, though a lumbering and slobbering but very cute dog did insinuate itself into our group and flirt its way into the heart of Alexis.

I wish there was another word for martinis with fruit flavoring in them. They are so unlike actual martinis (and I say that as someone who doesn't have the grit or the dulled tastebuds or whatever it takes to savor a true martini) that it feels a little like riding a tricycle around and calling it a motorcycle.

In any case, the lychee martini was good, as they often are. They're not too sweet and the flavor has a lot of surface area. That is to say that lychee is a taste I like because it's got a lot going on. It's both forward and subtle. And, when combined with cold alcohol and served in a pretty glass, is just the thing for a hot sunny vacation Sunday afternoon.
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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dessert 2: il laboratorio

Ciao Bella is a common sight around the Bay Area. There's one just down the street from me in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto and another at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. As it turns out, our next stop was the latest cold/creamy venture of the guy who started Ciao Bella.

According to the clipped-out news article on the door, il laboratorio del gelato is the shop he has opened with his mother. It's a tiny sliver of a place with a window to order at facing the sidewalk. The flavors were interesting, and included an olive oil gelato that pretty successfully brought out the fruitiness of good olive oils.

However, olive oil wasn't an option since it reminded Alexis of the time I dragged her with me to Sonoma while I was researching a story about farm-to-table travel and made her sample olive oils. You're supposed to take a small mouthful, swish it around in your mouth, and then, in the tradition of wine tasting, either spit it into the nearby small, shiny bucket or swallow it. But unlike wine, it's hard to clear the palate after a sample of olive oil. Everything in your mouth is coated, and even if you don't end up drinking it, it's difficult not to leave with the feeling you need to scrub your mouth out with the most absorbent bread you can find.

So instead, we settled on a refreshing double scoop of fresh mint gelato and strawberry gelato. It was delicious, a combination that I'd like to replicate soon. I was particularly curious about the fresh mint, and how it would taste when made in large batches meant for commercial consumption. Except for the first time I had fresh mint ice cream (at the ice cream shop Christina's in Inman Square in Cambridge), I've always made it myself, so I've gotten to control the type of mint I choose and how long to steep it. Il laboratorio's was good, but I think for fresh mint ice cream or gelato, nothing beats making it yourself and eating it fresh.

On to dessert: Babycakes

Last year, Riba was diagnosed as celiac, which meant no gluten. Since then, the diagnosis has been revoked, but during that time she got wise to all the gluten-free options within eating range. This is how she knew about Babycakes, which specializes in gluten- and refined-sugar free vegan (I know, unless your last name is Goodman, your hopes for this place are plunging with each adjective, but hold on!) baked goods.

Riba is on their mailing list, so she knew that they were giving away free frosting shots. Around the same time she mentioned this, she also told me that the ice cream sandwich I was eyeing was filled not with ice cream, or even sorbet, but with frosting. I began to have my doubts about this stop on the tasting tour.

But I didn't have to marry it, I simply had to sample a few items, and everything looked pretty, so I persevered. After five minutes of deliberation (there was a lot of deliberation at all these places since we were sharing everything), we settled on a carrot cupcake, a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and frosting shots all around.

Perhaps unwisely, given that it was pure sweetness with nothing cakey to mellow it out, we had the frosting first. The frosting was purple. I don't know why, I don't think it tasted like any sort of purple food. And it was sweet. But not too sweet, not headache-in-a-jar, needs-no-refrigeration, suspiciously-long-shelf-life pre-fab sweet. And not even tastes-so-good-even-though-I-know-how-much-butter-went-into-making-this buttercream icing sweet. I won't go so far as to say it tasted like a stand-alone dessert, but it tasted pretty good, and the texture was amazing: creamy and unusually smooth.

Riba and Alexis were sad to see it go so fast:

But they found consolation quickly:

The carrot cupcake was good, though a little dry. But that seems to be a pretty common cupcake issue, regardless of ingredients. It's hard to make cream cheese frosting without cream cheese though, so it lacked the deliciousness that comes from expectation and familiarity.

Even though it was a hot day, we saved the "ice cream" sandwich for last. But only about two minutes had passed since we paid and left the shop, so it hadn't had time to thaw, let alone melt.

Chocolate chip cookies are one of my favorite foods, and ice cream sandwiches rank pretty high up there too, and though this was novel and tasted pretty good, it paled in comparison to the real thing. However, say I had to go gluten-free or could no longer eat refined sugars for some reason, you can bet I'd reverse engineer the crap out of this recipe and make them at home.

The chocolate chip cookie was thin, almost like a lace cookie, and very very crispy. I now better understand the purpose of butter and eggs in the usual recipe. The frosting was cold, held the cookies together, and was creamy and smooth. But the frosting lacked that depth of flavor that you get from ice cream. Luckily, our next stop was the gelateria around the corner...

Next stop: dumplings

As we were walking the few short blocks from the Lower East side into Chinatown (site of me almost getting crushed by the Sunday-night-to-Boston crowd while trying to get on the Fung Wah Chinatown bus years ago), Riba told a story about a historic synagogue in the neighborhood that, to celebrate it restoration and reopening, had a party for the neighborhood and served egg creams and egg rolls.

We were heading to Vanessa's for some dumplings, and we missed it the first time down the block because Riba was looking for a slightly dingy hole-in-the-wall but since she last visited the shop had expanded into the space next door and added tables and a long bar to stand against and watch them cook your order.

In this photo, Alexis is on the right, but I really took the photo to remember the insane woman on the far left. She was in line behind us, and was one of those crazy old New Yorkers (I'm related to enough to spot them) who spent the whole time in line complaining about the last time she had been there, and then took her first two minutes with the cashier relating the riveting story of how the dumplings had been lukewarm by the time she'd gotten them home the week before, and then when the cashier tried to get her to order, decided that the cashier must not speak English so she repeated her complaints, this time shouting slowly. Finally she ordered, and then hovered around the people making the food telling them to make sure the food was hot.

Watching all this was a good way to pass the time until our food came up. Here's what we got:

Starting at 11:00 and moving clockwise, it's pork buns, fried dumplings, and some seriously delicious wontons in a spicy sauce. Alexis ordered the wontons, and frankly I wasn't expecting much from them, but the spicy sauce, the chives and green onions on top, and the filling of vegetables and little shrimps was a winning combination.

First stop: Guss' Pickles

Until a few years ago, I hated pickles. In high school, I almost threw up when I saw a guy on the side of College Avenue in Oakland chugging pickle juice from a jar.

But I do love vinegar, and so slowly I came around. Cornichons really paved the way for me. So when Riba suggested first stop pickles, and Alexis was across the street and sort of hungry-speedwalking towards the barrels set out under the awning on the sidewalk at Guss' even before Riba had finished her sentence, I happily followed.

It was pretty exciting. There were all sorts of pickles as well as other sorts of pickled vegetables, and once we agreed on our selection, the guy behind the barrel reached in, bagged them up, and traded us some small change for some good pickles.

First, we tried the sour pickle:

As you can see, it lived up to its name. As did the spicy pickle, which was next in this particular pickle flight. They were bright tasting, slightly cool, and very crunchy.

We finished those standing on the sidewalk, and were ready for more. So Alexis shelled out the thirty cents or so it took to procure a pickled tomato:

Okay, the face was a bit gratuitous because it wasn't very sour. In fact, it didn't taste like much. Maybe pickled tomatoes is one of those acquired tastes, or perhaps it's a food whose actual time has come and gone and which is drifting along on the nostalgia of another generation.