Friday, April 30, 2010

Chocolate Madness 2010

For the second year in a row, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts invited me to be a judge at their annual Chocolate Madness event. It wasn't even a possibility for me to say no.

I arrived just as the rest of the judges were sitting down at the tables in the center of the Cyclorama. The participating bakeries and restaurants had been split up into five groups, and five sets of judges worked their way through their candidates. I was on the "Down to Earth: Mother's Contemporary Candies" table, and we all carefully sampled our five offerings before debating their merits. One point that came up amongst us was that only one choice - Taza's chocolate - could actually be deemed a candy (although I thought Care's Bakery's Chocolate-Covered Caramel Waffles fit the bill as well because just about anything enrobed in chocolate can be considered a candy). We voted based on taste and originality, and when we were done, we were sent to look at all the table displays, to vote for our favorite.

The six (well, seven) winners:

Into the Aether: Sky High Layer Cakes
Canto 6 Bakery's Chocolate Whiskey Cake

Down to Earth: Mother’s Contemporary Candies
better batch/Cakes to Remember's Mini Chocolate Meringue Sandwiches

Flowing Water: Spoonfuls of Puddings, Ice Creams, and Sorbets

Christina’s Ice Cream's Ice Cream Surprise

Out of the Fire: Fresh from the Oven
South End Buttery's Bacon and Brooklyn Brown Ale Cupcakes with Espresso Smoothies

Light as Air: Served in a crust (A tie!)
Beacon Hill Bistro's Chocolate Custard Tartlets with Maple Sugar and Sel Gris
Petsi Pies' Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pies

Best Dessert Table Display
Canto 6 Bakery (picture at top of post)

My favorite desserts of the evening were:

  • Flourless Chocolate Cookies from Athan's Bakery - I've eaten dozens of this type of cookie over the years, but this was probably the best one I've ever had. The edges were crispy and the middle was chewy, almost brownie-like. The nut flavor didn't even bother me, although I'm usually adverse to nuts in cookies or brownies.

  • Mini Chocolate Meringue Sandwiches from better batch/Cakes to Remember - This was the ultimate winner at my table, although we argued over whether it could be considered a candy and that it was really more of a marshmallow than a meringue. Whatever - it still tasted damn good, with a crispy cookie base, chewy marshmallow middle, a hint of espresso, and a topping of chopped hazelnuts.

  • Chocolate Mignardises Trio from Peter Ungar's Dining Alternative - These three little bites are something like what Chef Ungar serves at the end of a meal, when you need something sweet but don't want to eat much. Each of these bites were filled with flavor. They were chocolate truffle cubes with yuzu and candied meyer lemon, marzipan and chocolate madeleines, and dark cocoa and peppermint meringues. They were just one bite each and yet immensely satisfying.

  • Chocolate Lavender-Ganache-Stuffed Cupcakes from the Regal Beagle - What seemed like a fairly normal chocolate cupcake (albeit moister than most that are out there) was filled with a delightful creamy lavender ganache. Lavender can often be overpowering of cloying, but this was mild while still imparting its flavor. I've enjoyed savory food at The Regal Beagle, and word is they're starting brunch soon. If they called this a muffin, I'd have one for breakfast ;)

  • Bacon and Ale Cupcakes from the South End Buttery - I enjoyed these last weekend at the Bacon and Beer Festival, and I'm glad more people got to try them.

  • Chocolate Lime Ice Cream with White Chocolate Chips from Christina's Ice Cream - Wow. This stuff was just amazing - chocolately and limey, with most of the sweetness coming from the white chocolate. It was refreshing while also being chocolatey, which I don't think I've ever had before. Christina's was also serving their Taza 80% ice cream, which I've had in their store before - if you like chocolate, you MUST try the Taza 80%.

There are a few more pictures of the event on Flickr.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Boston Bacon and Beer Festival '10

Who doesn't love bacon and beer? Ok, to be honest, me. I only like half of the equation that made up @eatboston and SoWa Sunday's Boston Bacon and Beer Festival, but that didn't stop me from loving every minute of the event.

The event was held at the fantastic SoWa Power Station, a giant shell of a building with towering ceilings - I wouldn't want to be anywhere near this place when the zombie apocalypse happens, but it's definitely a great spot for an event. The line curved down the street, but it progressed fairly quickly - nothing could keep me away from the bacon.

Inside, there were dozens of restaurants and beer breweries set up on folding tables. It was odd to see which tables had huge lines and which had no wait at all. I ignored the beer tables all together - in fact, I think I lost my cup in my bag within only a few minutes - and focused on the food.

  • The Symphony branch of Whole Foods Market was serving up a crispy piece of thick-cut bacon topped with homemade pimento cheese. The bacon was perfectly cooked, and the cheese - oh the cheese. I'd make it at home to go on my homemade pretzels.

  • The Gallows, a restaurant that is soon to open in the former Sage space on Washington Street, had my favorite item of the day - bacon chex mix (above and here). Popcorn popped in bacon fat, chex cereal, pretzels, peanuts, and bacon pieces tossed in a sweet and salty glaze. I could (and probably would) eat a whole bowl of this stuff. Pure heaven. I can't wait to see what their kitchen can turn out once they open.

  • I can't remember where I grabbed this little BLT from, but it was decent if not terribly special.

  • Chocolate-covered bacon from Trina's Starlite Lounge left me wanting. The chocolate to bacon ratio was way off. It left me wanting some candied bacon.

  • Turner Fisheries had a beautiful display of fresh scallops with bacon, parsley, and tomatoes. I loved seeing all the open scallop shells as the chef took the lid off the pot. I thought the bacon flavor got a little lost, though - not my favorite.

  • The South End Buttery's display was filled with pictures of dogs (the theme of their restaurant), so it took me a minute to figure out what they were serving. I was handed a beautiful bacon stout mini cupcake, though, and was thoroughly impressed. Like I said, I don't like beer, but I found that the stout was in perfect balance with the chocolate and bacon, and it was actually moist(!) and had the right amount of salty and sweet.

  • Happy Pig Salumi, a local artisanal sausage maker, served up pieces of gin-infused bacon, one of their many speciality flavors. There's no liquor in the bacon, but it is infused with the same botanicals as gin, like juniper and anise. So tasty.

  • Myers + Chang had a bacon version of a dish that is often found on their menu - the banh mi. The soy-glazed bacon was thick cut and both crunchy and chewy. As with typical banh mi, there were pickled carrots (daikon too?), cilantro, a light mayo spread, and a whole ton of spicy peppers. It's hard to order a banh mi when it costs more than $3 (like the ones at Pho Viet), but I'd be willing to try one on my next visit to M+C.

  • The milkshake cart from b.good was in attendance, whipping up bacon chocolate milkshakes. Read that again - bacon chocolate milkshakes. These things were magical. Clearly, bacon plus chocolate equals LOVE.

  • Atwood's Tavern had a bit of a line, and it was clear why. Their maple-glazed breakfast buns were fantastic and would probably be the best cure ever for a hangover. The light and fluffy bun itself tasted a lot like pancakes with their maple glaze, and they were stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, and cheese. Definitely not your typical egg and bacon sandwich.

  • Bacon-stuffed pretzel bites from a place that I can't remember now were good but not amazing. Maybe the next time I make pretzels, I should stuff them with bacon? And serve them with the homemade pimento cheese from Whole Foods?

  • Gaslight, which shares a parking lot with the event's location, served up beignets in a mustard dipping sauce. I wasn't entirely sure where the bacon was - I'm assuming it was in the fried dough, but I wasn't really reading it. It was a good beignet nonetheless.

  • I found the bacon and bourbon brownie sundae from Union to be almost inedible. The brownie was dry and tasted only of nuts - I'm assuming there was bacon in there somewhere...

  • Rocca, with new chef Tiffani Faison of Top Chef fame, served up bacon chips with hot sauce. This bacon was fried within an inch of its life, but it was even better for it. "Chip" is definitely the right word for these things - if they sold them in bags at the supermarket, we'd all be 20 pounds heavier.

  • This bacon and cheddar scone from I-can't-remember-where was alright, but it was ruined by a liberal dousing in warm apple sauce. Why?!

There were a few more places that I didn't try because the lines were too long or they just didn't sound good to me, but I was still full when I left. I even went back for seconds from the Gallows and b.good (the second mini shake might have put me over the edge). I thankfully left before it became too rowdy, as the food was running out but there seemed to be plenty of beer.

Overall, the event was a great success. I'm already looking forward to next year...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Taste of the Nation Boston

One of the best events I have attended in the past year was Taste of the Nation last April. For months, I was eagerly awaiting this year’s bash, and last Thursday, the wait was finally over. Over 70 local restaurants and caterers and 40 wineries (plus some delightful liquor brands) were on hand to raise money for the event. All of the money from tickets and the silent auction went to Share Our Strength, which is dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

On entering the hall, my friend Ann and I were handed glasses of prosecco and set free into the wilderness of delicious foods. We were drawn first to the Food Should Taste Good table, a local snack company that manages to meet the expectations brought with their name. They had all of their chip flavors available for sampling, and I especially enjoyed the new cheddar flavor as well as the chocolate (both sweet and salty, which is clearly something I like). Their olive chips are still one of my favorite snacks out there. Right next to Food Should Taste Good was Corzo Tequila, which was serving margaritas and watermelon-and-cucumber-infused tequila. I loved the mix of watermelon and cucumber – very light flavors – and the way they mellowed the tequila out a bit. I’m not one for tequila shots, but these went down easily.

We wandered a bit, tasting bites from the Oak Room (grilled halibut with fresh pea shoots and a parsnip puree – nice use of both winter and spring veggies to make this an ideal dish for this time of year) and Sensing (a phenomenal cream of pea soup – smooth and sweet), as well as a mocktail from POM Wonderful (would have tasted better with a dash of gin, I bet). From there, we were sucked into the VIP room, where things started to get hazy. There was a Bombay Sapphire booth, manned by some ladies from LUPEC – the drinks were ice cold and perfectly mixed, who was I to say no? We also stopped by Chocolee’s table. She is possibly the best chocolate maker in town, and her new shop just opened in the South End. Make sure to order a salted caramel (there’s that salty and sweet thing again), which needs to be eaten in one bite so you don’t lose any of the amazing gooey caramel.

Back on the main floor, we wandered some more, and time seemed to speed up. Blue Ribbon BBQ showcased a whole roast pig and had bottles of all their different sauces to try. We enjoyed tastes from Verrill Farm (steak with spring greens and a roasted purple potato), Market (handmade passionfruit marshmallows), Laurel (decadent but not heavy lobster mac and cheese), KO Prime (so-so sloppy joes and amazingly fantastic A-1 potato chips), and Ole (dessert tamales). We enjoyed more drinks from a second LUPEC/Bombay Sapphire table and from Guatamalan rum, Ron Zacapa. We went to a bunch of other tables, but either many restaurants ran out early or I had more to drink than I think I did. (OK, it’s probably the latter.)

My two favorite bites of the evening, however, were not from regular restaurants, but from a caterer and a bakery. The chicken and potato gaufrettes from Season to Taste Catering were phenomenal and layered together crunchy potato, salty chicken, and a sweet caramel-y sauce. I came back for seconds of these perfectly proportioned appetizers and would have had more if I didn’t want other people to try them as well. We stopped at the Glutenus Minimus table because I had heard of the bakery before and was interested in trying their things for my gluten-free friend. I was totally blown away, though, by their baked goods. Gluten-free pastries often feel heavy and definitely don’t taste quite right, but that wasn’t true of anything I tried here. In fact, their chocolate chip cookies were better than some I’ve had at other bakeries – mind-bending!

And did I mention that the local band I enjoyed last year, Cassavettes, was playing again, and when I talked to them at the end of the night, they remembered talking with us last year? I’m listening to their new cd, Shake Down the Sun, right now, and it’s killer.

Taste of the Nation still has another local event coming up. Taste of the Nation Worcester is next week on April 19th, and if it’s anything like this event, it’s bound to be a blast.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Potato Chip Cookies

I spent the last weekend in March at a fantastic non-food-related event and came home with a desire to bake. Strange? Not if you've met me.

PAX East (the East Coast offshoot of Seattle-based PAX) was host to 50,000 gamers (video games, tabletop games, board games, pretty much anything and everything) at the Hynes Convention Center, and for three days, I was surrounded by fellow geeks (in fact, I found myself on the "casual" gamer end of the spectrum amongst this group). I took some embroidery with me to keep me occupied while we waited in lines (I don't have a Nintendo DS, which seemed like the most common thing people were using in line, so this kept me busy).

On Saturday morning, while waiting in line for a panel with Foxtrot author Bill Amend, a guy walked through the crowd with a bag filled with little tin-foil-wrapped goodies, taking donations for Child's Play and handing out cookies. He was part of what I later learned is called the Cookie Brigade. I handed him a donation and he asked what I wanted.

"Chocolate chip, oatmeal, sugar, experimental..." he said.

"Experimental? Sure, why not," I told him, and while my friend dug into a serviceable chocolate chip cookie, I quickly unwrapped a golden cookie studded with little flecks of what looked like corn flakes.

But those were no corn flakes. Instead, they added a nice crunch to an otherwise crumbly shortbread and a healthy dose of salt to something that was fairly sweet.

"Potato chip cookie!" I called out, and there were "oooh"s of interest from those around me.

So a few days after the con ended (I needed some time to recuperate!), I started searching for potato chip cookie recipes. Most of what I found included pecans, but the one I had included no nuts, and frankly, was better for the omission. I jury-rigged my recipe from the ones I found to be more like the one I ate at PAX, and I'm convinced that this is pretty close to that cookie.

I used Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt potato chips because, despite saying "lightly salted" on the bag, they are one of the saltiest chips out there (they're also not greasy, which is a plus). They are my second favorite potato chips, but my favorite (Cape Cod Potato Chip's Robust Russet) are very dark in color and I thought they would look burnt in the cookies. This is a great way to use up the chip crumbs at the bottom of the bag, so feel free to use whatever you have on hand.

These cookies are great with just the chips, but they're even better with a little bit of chopped chocolate. I tried them with both milk and dark chocolate, and I think I liked the milk better.

Potato Chip Cookies
2 sticks salted butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups crushed potato chips
1/2 cup chopped chocolate (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°.

Cream together butter and powdered sugar. Add vanilla and mix until combined. Add flour and and mix until completely combined. Add crushed potato chips and chocolate and mix until incorporated. Roll dough into walnut-sized balls (use your best Ralph Wiggum voice to say "These cookies give my hands ouchies!") and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a baking rack before serving; store in an airtight container.