Nibbles

Welcome to Silver Webb's food diary!



Lemonade from Lemons

When I hear "lemon tea cookies" I am thinking of something delicate with a jeweled dab of clear yellow jelly on top. Something like this: 


My coworker gifted me some lemons last week, and so I proposed to my baking buddy that we try Pillsbury's recipe for Lemon Tea cookies. She was elated, as she'd just come into a windfall of Meyer lemons. So, a plan was made. Lemon bars. Lemon cookies. Lemonade with ginger. Lemon everything. 


The 1987 Pillsbury Best Cookies Cookbook has a lot of comfort cookies in it. Things like Fudgy Butterscotch Bars and Cherry Winks. The kind of cookbook that has margarine as an allowable substitute for butter in practically every recipe. 


It's a simple shortbread-ish cookie base of flour, sugar, butter, and vanilla. But I found that it was a little short on practical information. Most pressingly, although it advises to cook the lemon filling "until smooth and thickened," it doesn't actually say for how long. My baking buddy looked at it after twenty minutes of stirring and advised stopping there. But it wasn't actually thick yet. Just kinda thick. So I kept stirring. That is how I ended up with lemon caramel instead of lemon curd. Because if you cook the egg, sugar, and lemon too long, it turns into something chewy and dense. Pellets of lemon caramel. This caused me to shake my hand in the air and say unladylike things about Pillsbury. I won't repeat. Okay, I will. "Fudge you, Pillsbury, fudge you!"


It also belatedly occurred to me that although I should've had 72 cookies from a double batch...I had about thirty. That would explain why they took double the time to cook. Toward the end, I abandoned ship and just added jam instead of lemon pellets. 


Now that they've had a day to cool in the fridge, I have to say, they are very tasty. If I make these again, I will just buy some lemon curd or lemon jelly from the store and use that. As for my baking buddy's lemon bars...well, they are glorious!


Even though zesting 20 lemons was a challenge, and I may or may not have zested part of my knuckle, it was quite worth the effort. Making cookies, even if you mess up, is good for the soul. 

The Doyenne of Doilies


My resolutions for 2017 are very ambitious. And deadly serious. I have resolved to try as many new cookie recipes as I can. I know, hard work. What can I say, I'm a cookie warrior! And this project begins, as so many, by me staring at the refrigerator and wondering how I'm going to use up left-overs. In particular, two bags of dried cranberries and a jar of homemade cranberry sauce, abandoned in the aftermath of Christmas. A little online research, and I settled on Soft and Chewy Vanilla-Orange Cranberry Cookies, courtesy of Arthur Flour. 

Unlike most of my kitchen adventures, this went very smoothly. I used pistachios instead of walnuts, and I have to say, these would make fantastic Christmas cookies, with red ornaments of cranberry and little flecks of green pistachio. I also tripled the vanilla extract...because I am incapable of restraining myself when it comes to vanilla. The recipe says that you should cook a scant 6 to 7 minutes, and they aren't kidding. These cook up quickly, and if you go over by a minute, you have scorched bricks. 

I was overly crafty and tried one batch with a thumbprint impression and dollop of cranberry sauce. And they were quite tasty. But they look like they've suffered gunshot wounds. Perhaps something for Halloween!



All told, a fine cookie. Refined pistachio, bright orange, and tart cranberry. We had quite a nice tea with them!



Please do note the dual-spouted teapot (a Christmas gift) and also the crochet doilies underneath. I have gone on a crochet jag this week, and experimented with making tea doilies and tea cozies and such things.


In fact, I have doilies beginning to stack up all around my room, looking like brightly colored stacks of pancakes. I've resisted the urge to pour on maple syrup! My friend asked what I'd been up to, and I said, "I've been doilying." She said, "Don't dally doilying." I said, "I'm the Doyenne of Doilies!"
And that, I think, is that.


Pavlova: Hysteria and Despair in the Kitchen


The Pavlova is a dessert named after the ballerina Anna Pavlova, for the ethereal beauty of meringue topped with whipped cream and berries. It should look something like this: 


In my youth, I made a Pavlova and found it to be the easiest thing possible to create. So when I set out to make a Pavlova last week, I expected an easy confection, whipped up in an hour or two, delivered to ooh’s and ahhh’s at my writer’s group. Alas, it was not to be.

Here, then, is a quick list of instructions for how to completely and utterly botch a Pavlova:

1. Ignore directions for super fine sugar and use granulated sugar instead.
2. Let droplets of water splash into the egg whites as you’re trying to beat them.
3. Decide that you do not want to purchase a hand mixer, because how hard could it be to beat egg whites by hand?
4. After you collapse with the exhaustion of beating said eggs, and find that they will *never* reach the point of stiff peaks, run out to the store to buy an electric beater, racing back to find that the electric beater cannot save your swamp of marshmallowy egg whites.


5. Start over. With the same granulated sugar. Watch in despair as the egg whites, after thirty minutes of beating, still will not achieve stiff peaks. Become desperate to thicken it. Find that your housemate’s box of corn starch has recently hatched moths. Panic. Run down to the corner store and buy corn starch, flour, and even coconut flakes. Add copious amounts of these to your egg whites, and find that nothing, repeat *nothing*, can bring the egg whites to the proper texture. Spill the corn starch all over the counter.

6. Punt. Line a brownie pan with wax paper and attempt to bake the semi-soft egg whites like a cake. Behold in despair that it cooks into a hardened square that cannot be cut without a steak knife.


7. Open your first can of beer and consume. You’ve used up all dozen eggs, and there are only a few hours until your writer’s group. 

 

8. Realize that your nectarines and plums are still hard as a rock, despite your housemate having left them in a bag in the sun to ripen.
9. Sob. Consider purchasing a cake from the local bakery.

This is precisely what happened in my efforts to make Pavlova. But I did what all desperate bakers do…I took the ingredients I had left, and I improvised. I threw the hard-as-rock nectarines and plums into a cast iron pan with some sugar, squeeze of lemon, butter, and a splash of Armagnac, cooking until soft, then adding in some vanilla and almond extract and a pinch of salt. 


Then I popped that in a brownie pan, and improvised a crumble topping with what I had on hand, based on a recipe I found on thekitchn.com. Forty minutes later, I had a tasty crumble topping with ruby red fruit bubbling underneath. Judging by the enthusiastic consumption of it, I'd say it was a hit.



Since the crumble topping was a modest success, I will record it here for posterity:

1 cup flour
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup oats
1 cup slivered almonds
10 candied walnuts, crushed
8 tbsp butter
Pinch of salt.

I mixed it together with my hands, and once on top of the fruit, baked it at 375 for 30 minutes. Then I put some extra slices of butter on top and put it under the broiler until it was toasty and golden. For the fruit, I used 4 nectarines and two plums. I whipped heavy cream and added a dollop to each plate. I liked this well enough that I will make it again for the next social gathering.

I am not giving up on the Pavlova, however. I intend to seek out the elusive super-fine sugar, perhaps try a recipe with fewer egg whites, and try, try, try again!

Vegetarian Bolognese and Rigatoni Casserole!

I get excited about pasta. I can't help myself. So I was pretty well over the moon when Botticelli sent me a box of goodies to try. And even more excited at the prospect of a vegetarian bolognese sauce made with little flecks of soy. It's hard to get the hearty flavor of a bolognese without meat, but it can be done, and it just got a little easier.


I gathered my troops...


I love to take sauce from a bottle and improvise. I quickly scanned through recipes on rigatoni casseroles, and as it is the start of September, I thought something hearty sounded right. First step, I popped a head of garlic in the toaster oven, wrapped in tinfoil. It really does not take much longer than half an hour to roast a small head of garlic, and I find that it gives instant depth of flavor in pasta dishes, without being bitter or overwhelming. While that was roasting, I went to town with the fruity, rich olive oil, onions, shallots, mushrooms, and a little extra oregano and thyme. 


As they were looking a little thirsty in the pan, I did the generous thing and poured in a cup of shiraz. When all that cooked down, I added fresh basil, black olives, and the jar of veggie bolognese, which was fragrant with basil, mellow, and rich. Just right for an autumn pasta bake!



I mixed in al dente cooked rigatoni with a little pasta water, and stirred it all together. Next step, a casserole pan...and....wait for it...the very very best part...an entire bag of shredded mozarella! That is really the only reason it needs to go in the oven for 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, to get that cheese oozy good on the bottom and browned and blistered on the top.


You know you've done something right when every single member of the household manages to amble by the kitchen and poke their head in as dinner is cooling. And I have to say, the rigatoni was toothy without being heavy, a cross between macaroni and penne, with lots of grooves for the cheese and sauce to cling to. 


I really enjoyed this little food adventure in my own kitchen, and I hope you did too!

Santa Barbara Spanish Days: Viva La Fiesta!


Welcome to Fiesta, an exuberant celebration of all things Spanish and Mexican in Santa Barbara's history and present day. This is a hometown party that everyone is invited to, with three days of unapologetic throwing of confetti and indulging in all manner of tasty treats. Fiesta starts off on Friday afternoon with the largest equine parade in the United States. State Street is taken over by flamenco senoritas, Mexican trick riders, African Americans wearing Civil War uniforms, Native Americans on beautifully decorated ponies, and even a friar or two...all on horses and floats. It doesn't really matter what your reason for participating in the parade is, as long as you're on a horse or being pulled by a horse!





But the parade is just the start of a city-wide party. I did a little research and found that common consensus considers the fair put on by the Virgin of Guadalupe Church to have the most authentic Mexican food available for Fiesta. And having sampled all options, I have to agree. There are several other mercados or fairs spread out over the city during Fiesta, but a good deal of the food at those other spots are made by stalls that I suspect travel all over the country during the summer to state fairs...in short, they may have nothing to do with authentic Mexican food. But the Virgin of Guadalupe Church makes all of the food that they sell at their fiesta, so you can buy homemade pozole (hominy soup heaped high with cabbage, onions, and lemon slices), tortas, tacos, and enchiladas of every variety, churros, and even elote (roasted corn slathered in mayonnaise and cheese).

Pretty shrine at the front of the church

Elote...that is grilled corn with mayo, cheese, and chile powder...a tasty treat!

Cheese enchiladas. Delicious!

The happy crowd...family friendly and not at all rowdy

agua fresca of hibiscus and cinnamon, with a churro!

As I munched on homemade treats and saw families celebrating together, watching a dancing school put on a flamenco show, I felt I was at a happy, small town gathering, with food made by church volunteers...this to me is the essence of Fiesta. Personally, I found the mercados downtown to be a bit stressful, just because there were so many people packed in, and much of the food paled in comparison to the Virgin of Guadalupe Fair. But many enjoy sitting out in the sunken garden of the courthouse to listen to music and cheer for Mexican and Spanish dance troupes. You may get the sense, as I did, that a lot of Fiesta happens at private parties and events. Luckily for me, my brother makes amazing fish tacos and margaritas that were part of our fiesta this year.



There is also a carnival further up State Street that I explored. Many families were there to enjoy the rides, but the food was more reminiscent of a country fair than a fiesta (think funnel cake and fries).



And just when I thought Fiesta was over, walking down State Street on Sunday morning, about, oh, five hundred folks on bikes pedaled past me, dressed in lucha libre masks, sombreros, tutus, and even one fellow wearing the Mexican flag as a cape and pulling a sound system behind him that trumpeted glorious Mariachi music. "Viva la Fiesta!" a Chicano man on a low-rider bike enthused, and a moment later I was happily covered in confetti.


After the party reluctantly ends, the sidewalk is left awash in confetti, and the sense that there are already folks planning next year's fiesta fun.


If you'd like to come visit for next year's Spanish Days, keep your eyes peeled here: www.oldspanishdays-fiesta.org.

The Natural Cafe, Santa Barbara: Shhh, don't tell anyone...It's healthy!



It's hard to describe the Natural in fair terms. I adore it madly. I go once a week, without fail, to have the albacore tuna salad with lemon herb vinaigrette. Lower State Street is where people go to sit on the patio of a nice restaurant, have a beer, and people watch. There are a lot of tourist traps here...places where you can sit on the patio and pay a fortune for very mediocre food. Yet many people end up at those places because they have passed by the slightly less glamorous exterior of the Natural. It has a perfectly good patio on the sidewalk where you can sit under the umbrellas and eat...but it doesn't have that "we are so cool you'd be lucky to get a seat" vibe that its neighbors do. That's because it is...a health food joint. I know, most foodies (including me) will often go out of their way to avoid falling into over-priced "skinny" hell-holes, sinking under the weight of their whole wheat buns and tofu this-and-that. But...hey girl (or guy), you're in Santa Barbara, and part of the food culture here is heavily focused on being healthy (yoga, sunny beaches, smoothies...you know, California!). And the thing is, health food or not, the Natural makes comforting, yummy food. It's the kind of place where you feel kind of like your mom made you a nice meal...it's not super glamorous, but she made sure you'd get some good food and nutrients in your tummy.



And the Natural is adaptable. If you're a carnivore, they'll do you a nice chicken or salmon dish. If you're vegan or vegetarian...well, you've arrived in heaven. It's the kind of place that puts Bragg's, olive oil, sesame seeds, spike, yeast flakes, and a hundred other healthy condiments out by the water bar (self serve water with lemon slices and ice). You can get a salad with grilled tofu and brown rice on top. But you can also get a super tasty pasta primavera with garlic bread that will make your mouth happy.



The decor is very casual, as is the vibe. You order at the counter, grab your number and a glass of ice water, and then pick a seat at a booth, table, or the patio. It's very airy and relaxing...the kind of place where you can go solo and nobody will look at you funny for sitting by yourself. Long ago, when I was a college student, I would bring my books here and study while I ate. Now I bring my laptop and write for a leisurely hour while I enjoy a nice meal. So that's 15+ years this place has felt like home to me. If I haven't been clear enough yet, let me spell this out: LOCALS LOVE THE NATURAL. I see people I know from around town there pretty much every time I go. There are visitors to Santa Barbara too, but it is the kind of place where locals come back week after week. Perhaps for the black bean enchiladas?



Or the wild salmon salad, if they have it on special?


Not to pick favorites, but you can't lose ordering one of their salads. They come in enormous bowls, with tasty salad dressing (the lemon-herb vinaigrette is the best) and can be had from vegan to carnivorous, depending on your preferences. It's about ten dollars for a salad, and you really will be having the Santa Barbaran experience here.


www.thenaturalcafe.com

Lilac Patisserie, Santa Barbara: Beauty on a Fork


 Lilac Patisserie, in my opinion, makes the best cakes in Santa Barbara. Period. And cheesecakes. And tarts. It is really one of the nicest places in town to sit and have a cappuccino and a slice of cake. But what makes it even more amazing is that it is gluten free. Everything in the shop, not just one or two items. And biting into a slice of princess cake, after you are done swooning over the marzipan and the pastry cream, you might just for a second think the cake was a bit spongier than regular cake...but you would not think there was anything missing from it..like the gluten!


The feel is very old-school here. Marble-topped tables, bistro chairs, and glass shields behind which the bakery nymphs decorate cakes. Everything is airy and light. And, oh yeah, everything here is insanely tasty.






Personally, I recommend princess cake, summer berry cake, or the chocolate caramel. The ingredients are top notch, so it will be reflected in the prices. But trust me, you will not only pay $8 for a slice of this kind of happiness, you will take another slice home in a to-go container.



The  vegan offering, the red velvet cupcake, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It reads as salty and slightly sour on the tongue but without a lot of sweet to balance it. If you're vegan, you may find it scrumptious though



Lilac doesn't just serve pastries, it has lunch fare as well. I noticed the bread they use in their sandwiches is very thick and spongy...in fact, it is a lot like the cake they serve, just minus the sugar. But if I were on a gluten-free diet, I am fairly sure that I would not care about the texture, I'd just be ecstatic to be eating real bread.



So bring your appetite and give Lilac a try. I promise that it is the best pastry going on State Street!

lilacpatisserie.com


Julienne, Santa Barbara: Life Lived Well

There are some dinners that I remember ten, twenty years later. Exquisite food and the company of loved ones (if possible in an amazing location). Dinner at Julienne is one of those moments. It is the kind of restaurant where the sommelier will pick a new glass of wine for each course (and it will be ridiculously good wine), and you should come with a bit of green saved up so you can do dinner right (it's worth it to do three courses with wine pairings, trust me). We started with a half glass of bubbly Rose (my latest mania) and perused the menu.


We decided to go for a starter called "seacuterie"...which I believe means seafood has taken over the charcuterie. Let me break it down for you: smoked mussels, a shrimp chimichuri kabob, halibut pastrami, half a roasted garlic, smoked salmon, pickled beets/carrots and dill cream cheese with slices of grilled rustic bread and lemon wedges. Bloody genius. There was a wolfish silence at the table as we consumed this kaleidoscope of flavors. Seriously, come just to get this appetizer.


And then another glass of wine. Or two.


A burrata salad with pumpkin seeds and charred onion that was most edible.


I do not eat pork, but a certain brave member of the party did. And as a result I have evidence of crispy pig ears on frisee. Tipsy by this point, I nearly had paroxisms looking at this piggy thicket, but I was assured that it was quite tasty as well.


My main course was not as elegiac. It was salmon mixed with Indian food spices. The spices were an interesting experiment but not something I'd repeat. And the salmon was...a wee bit overcooked. Not rubbery-shoe overcooked, but still not plump and juicy the way a carefully cooked salmon should be.


We rounded out the evening with a chocolate pudding that was very charming, and having tried about four heavenly glasses of wine (plan to take a cab home), I fairly floated out of the restaurant, delighted at a memorable evening of wine and food.

www.restaurantjulienne.com


Industrial Eats: And the Angels Sang!



There are some bad things in Solvang. Pink things. Pseudo Dutch things. Bad danishes. And not a Starbucks in sight. But if you go no further than Solvang and beat a hasty retreat back down the mountain, to Santa Barbara, you will be missing out on something extraordinary. Keep driving. Cross the 101, and dip down into Buellton and Santa Ynez valley. For there, in glowing and elegiac terms, you will find the restaurant Industrial Eats, and the glory of Santa Barbara wine country.


One thing is quite certain as you pass the giant plastic cow that greets you at the door, you are about to eat plentifully and well. This is not the moment to cheap out. Save your pennies so that you can order the cheese plate, a few kinds of pizza, and a glass of wine. The chefs who work here are passionate about food. Most of the food is cooked in the open kitchen, in wood-burning ovens (even things like sauteed veggies are cooked in the blistering hot oven, imparting that lovely hint of smoke to their taste).




Pizza from their menu:
rosemary, parmesan, sea salt 7
tomato, mozzarella, basil 13
tomato, fennel sausage, mozzarella, basil 14
garlic scape, morbier, fennel, spinach 14
n’duja, fontina, kale, pistachio 14
gorgonzola, pear, bacon 13
wild mushroom, pancetta, radicchio 14
skirt steak, chopped tomatillo, queso fresco 14
I do not say this lightly. And anyone who has read my many reviews of pizza in Santa Barbara will realize what a serious statement this is: Industrial makes the best pizza crust in the entire county. Impossibly thin at the center, yet still chewy, radiating out to a crusty, bubbling ring of crust. And the toppings are top notch. I had the simple tomato, mozzarella, and basil offering, while my food buddy had the steak, tomatillo, and queso fresco. As we were sitting right in front of the chefs, when they had a pizza misorder from another table, they gave us a bubbling hot, wild mushroom, pancetta, and radicchio pizza, gratis. I brushed off the pancetta (well, girl don't dig on swine), and was still floored. Their pizza is better than any pizza I had in Rome (I'll grant you, I had some crap pizza in Rome, but you get the point). With a "country glass" of local wine, it really does not get much better.


But don't pass by the non-pizza fair. They have a wonderful array of entrees, starters, and even desserts.


From their menu:
caesar, green garlic, grana padano 8
beets, hummus, spicy chick peas 9
little gems, boquerones, pancetta, farm egg 9
smoked salmon, beets, mediterranean things 13
smoked pheasant, citrus, basil 14
chicken liver, guanciale, capers, gribenes 8
white shrimp, pancetta, chile, garlic 10
potatoes, chard, cream, summer truffle 12
mussels, cauliflower, vadovuan curry, cilantro 11
fava, ricotta, bruschetta 8
porchetta, broccoli, fried egg 15
tea smoked chicken, veggies, tare 10
tandoori salmon, spinach, lemon 13
fennel, walnut, parsley, lemon 8
carrots, peas, dill, onion strings 10



If you are lucky enough to snag a counter seat in front of the kitchen, you can watch the dynamic chaos of brilliant minds making sublime food. Seriously. It is worth the drive. Stop here first, and then proceed to a tour of wine country. It makes for a foodie's dream trip.



Hamburger Habit: My kingdom for onion rings!



Let's be clear. The above photo is what I had for lunch a few weeks ago. This is what I had for dinner tonight:


Avocado kale smoothie with lemon and garlic. The beginning to a week long endeavor to liquefy and blend myself back into a state of fully nourished health. So I am blogging about what any sane woman would turn to at a moment like this...the best hamburger joint in downtown Santa Barbara! The official name of this place is the Habit Hamburger Grill, but everyone I know calls it Hamburger Habit.


Long ago and far away, when I used to eat beef, this was my favorite spot in Santa Barbara to grab a burger. It is an order at the outdoor counter and eat at the outdoor tables, watching people stroll by on State Street, kind of joint. An outdoor burger shack. Not to be confused with McDonald's or a burger restaurant. They've got a grill and they know how to use it, with a talented deep fryer and nice sauce. It's kind of a scene. Everyone comes with their sunglasses and maxi dresses and stuffs their face, while people watching. You are likely to wait in line quite a while to order, and then again to snag a table. If this were Los Angeles, this would be a place celebrities eat at just to have their pictures snapped.



So, you may wonder, what does a foodie do at a burger joint when she doesn't eat beef or turkey or chicken? There are three distinct options. Grilled Cheese. Veggie burger. Grilled Tuna fillet. All of these can be asked for "char" style, which means that you get all of the same goodies the hamburger does, only minus the beef patty. Combine any one of those with onion rings or fries and a side of ranch...well, it's hard to get more Southern Californian than that.



What are some of the distinguishing features of their burgers? The onions are caramelized...once you've had a burger this way, you'll wonder why it isn't LAW that all burgers come with these soft, sweet beauties. The sauce is standard mayo, but you can prink by asking for an additional shot of their teriyaki sauce (the mayo and teriyaki sauce with the fish fillet is quite a situation). The veggie burger patty holds the distinction of being edible...something that many veggie burgers are not. It is moist and substantial and tastes good with burger accouterments and fries. I think you will find it very filling. In fact, I've never come away from the Habit without feeling like I've severely grubbed. Just be sure you ask for it "char" style...otherwise, you will be suffering with a whole wheat bun and other healthy atrocities!

www.habitburger.com


Persona Pizza: Righteous Pie!


As detective Nick Charles said, "Come friends and get it!" Run, jump, and leap to get to Persona Pizza on State Street! This family friendly, casual restaurant is making some of the best pizza in Santa Barbara. And I do not say that lightly.

Ironically, I have been putting off visiting Persona, because it has no lunch special and the restaurant is an oblong box lacking in aesthetics. I knew that they had a wood-burning oven, but I wasn't in love with the idea of just having a personal pizza for lunch (hey, I like salad, and I don't want to spend more than $10 on lunch). Thank goodness I decided to give this place a try.


You start with a server holding a wood paddle with pizza dough on it (how many places actually let you see the dough, hmm?), and you pick which basic type of pizza you want (margherita, marinara, pesto, etc.) You watch the sauce and cheese and herbs being put on, and if you want to add toppings ($1.25 each), you get to see them do it. Then? Pay at the register and behold the two R2-D2 ovens right there in front of you behind the counter. They got a guy who does nothing but tend those ovens and cook your pie for you. And the temperature is such that it does not take much more than a minute to cook. You can actually stand and watch your lunch being cooked.


The thin crust is chewy and toothy in the middle of the pie and blistered on the edges. The cheese also has those lovely brown blisters on top, with creamy goodness underneath. The marinara sauce is a mellow trifecta of sweet tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. And...drum roll...the pizza is HUGE. It was almost too much for me to finish by myself. I said "almost!" I asked for a side of their ranch, which is cool, tangy (buttermilk?), and flecked with dill, and found myself maniacally dipping the crusts into it, making little lip-smacking noises and chortling to myself...in short, I acted the dang fool in devouring this glorious beast. For ten bucks, this is one of the best pizza experiences I know of in Santa Barbara. I will be back, often. If you go with a second person, I would say that one of their generously sized salads and one pizza would make a great meal split between you. 


It's not probable that you will have room in your stomach after the pizza, but they do also have a gelato bar there, with two scoops for a reasonable $3.50. And their pizzas are available gluten free. So don't be put off by the minimal decor, and give Persona a try. 

www.personapizzeria.com


Nicky D's Wood Fired Pizza: The highs and lows


It's not nice to promise a girl a lunch special and then change your mind. Walking up to Nicky D's in what is clearly a run-down shopping plaza off De la Vina Street, I lectured myself, "Sometimes gems are hiding in unlikely places." I'd done my research, and read from their website about the lunch special with two cheese slices, a side salad, and a fountain drink for $7.99.  And the idea of a wood-burning oven sounded very promising.


The guy at the counter was very nice, but shook his head when I announced I was there for the lunch special. No lunch special. "But it's on your website!?" Well, "not no more," as they say. Maybe the lunch special is only at their Silver lake location? At any rate, I rebounded, and decided to order a slice of cheese pizza. That and a Pellegrino soda were $5. Not quite a lunch special, but very affordable. If you just want the slice and skip the soda, it's $2.50.


And, you know...it is really dang good pizza! That wood oven makes a difference. The crust was crisp on the edges, with good tooth tensity. The cheese was slightly gooey underneath but then bubbled on top to little browned patched of crispy delight. The sauce was not particularly herby but had a nice scent of garlic. And the slice is big. I added some pepper flakes, herbs, and parmesan, and was a really happy camper. It was juicy in the right places, chewy in the right places, and crispy in the right places. All told, this may be the nicest slice of pizza I've yet had in Santa Barbara. You don't go for the ambiance (not a ton of seating; it is a place where people clearly come to pick up and take away), and you don't go for the lunch special, that's for sure! But if you want that good, old-fashioned slice delivered on tin foil and hastily devoured, this is your spot. Give Nicky D's a try!


www.nickydspizza.com

Petrini's Family Restaurant: Old School Italian



Ah, Petrini's. Old School, Italian happiness. As soon as I walked into this Santa Barbara establishment (it has been here since the 1950s), inhaled the good scent of herbs, saw the light-blocking "chandeliers" made of wine barrels, the red-checked table cloths, and the fake grapes on the wall, I sighed a deep, happy exhale. This is not high-brow food. There are booths to sit at, plastic glasses for the iced tea, and patrons who have clearly been coming to Petrini's for years. The waiter could not have been nicer, and it is the kind of place where it is okay if you come by yourself to sit down and stay for an hour or two, which is what I did on a rare rainy day in Santa Barbara.


Whatever you plan on ordering as your main course, I recommend making sure you have some of the garlic bread. Warm, fluffy bread, toasted on the sides and bottom, with mellow garlicky goodness and what may or may not be melted butter (could be margarine...it doesn't matter, this is the garlic bread you dreamed about when you were a kid). As I watched what the people around me ordered and looked at the menu, it became clear fairly quickly that Petrini's is not a place where people come for the pizza. They serve awesome-looking salads and pasta dishes. And there is no lunch special for pizza. Were I not on a mission to review Santa Barbara pizza, I would have gone with fettuccine and a salad. But I soldiered on, and ordered one of their "personal pizzas"....I technically read the description of a 7" pizza, which sounded fine in theory. With olives and mushroom, it was a little over 8$ for the personal pizza. For that amount of money, you can have a personal pizza, a salad, and a drink at Rusty's...so it was a bit of a gamble, in my opinion, to charge that much just for the pizza. Add in the ice tea and the garlic bread, and it was a $14 lunch.



Which would be fine, if it were the kind of pizza that sent my taste buds into paroxysms of delight. But oh me, I cannot lie. The pizza literally fit on a plate that they normally serve dinner rolls on. It was oh-so tiny. The toppings were lovely and generous, the olives were chopped to a fine mince, which I enjoyed more than the ubiquitous sliced olives. But the crust...oh dear me, what tragedy. The crust was the texture of a matzo cracker. I so wanted to love the pizza there, because the restaurant is so amazing. But I had to slurp the toppings off because the crust was not going down my gullet without a fight. 


But, I will be back. Not for the pizza, but the pasta. And I recommend that the next time you want casual Italian comfort food done right, give Petrini's a try as well!

p.s. It sounds like the location in Goleta has a lunch special. But as far as I could tell, the restaurant in downtown SB, where I ate, does not.

www.petrinis.com


Patxi's Pizza: Bullied by Mr. Anchovy



I think we can agree that the dining experience is highly subjective. Some look at escargot with the light of love in their eyes, while others stare in horror. So I can admit that the foible that tripped me up during Patxi's lunch special is, in fact, the anchovy. Mr. Anchovy. On top of the Caesar salad, plump and blue-skinned, looking...well, normally anchovy is a little brown slip of oil-cured fish that comes from a tin and is smooshed in the dressing...this bad boy looked like he had recently been alive.



Which brings me to my little dilemma. Patxi's is an upscale pizza place on State Street, with great outdoor seating. A perfect spot to people watch, have a beer and enjoy the ten-dollar lunch special, which is a personal pizza with two toppings and either an arugula salad or the above-mentioned Caesar. This is no pizza parlor; it's a restaurant. Little crostini accompany the salad, real Parmesan cheese shaved over the romaine lettuce, and Mr. Anchovy glistening on top. But here we run up against what is, for lack of a better term, my American palate. I don't actually enjoy a heavily fishy taste in a Caesar salad, and I don't do well with fish carcass laid out on lettuce. Yet I suspect that many people would be delighted to eat this salad. As the song goes, "When I fight the anchovy, the anchovy always wins." Mr. Anchovy was left on the plate, a mark of shame on my foodie dance card.

My view of State Street from the table
The thin-crust pizza, clearly made of homemade dough that was perfectly cooked, was really very tasty, with herbs and a few tender shreds of cheese on top, generous toppings, and what I suspect are crushed San Marzano tomatoes as the sauce. My only complaint? It lacked salt. I suppose if I'd ordered pepperoni as a topping, this wouldn't have been an issue. But lacking that one taste element, I found myself vaguely unsatisfied, especially as there was no salt at the table to add. 


So where does this leave us? A solid, upscale pizza, a fishy Caesar, and a great view of State Street. Just bring a little packet of salt, just in case.



Taffy's Pizza: Crust and crunch, is it too much to ask?


I'm going to come right out there and say it. Healthy, soft, slightly bitter romaine lettuce paired with thousand island dressing is a frickin' travesty. An offense to the mouth. Thousand island dressing goes with only one thing, and that is crisp, light lettuce whose main virtue is texture rather than flavor: to wit, ice burg lettuce. And while my feelings may be stronger on the topic than your average foodie, I think my argument at least triumphs when it comes to the pizza parlor salad. The pizza parlor salad is not supposed to be healthy. It is supposed to be crunchy lettuce drizzled with creamy salad dressing, with extra crunch on top from croutons. Period. So the above salad, my introduction to Taffy's lunch special, did not put me in a good mood. And then the slice arrived...


A blond slug of dough, contemptibly flavorless sauce, and cheese that had hints of the kid's cafeteria to it. In a word, I ate it because I had to for this review. Genuinely, the crust was so soft that it slithered about in my hand. I had to eat it with a fork. There has to be some tensity in the crust or it is simply not pizza, to my mind. I also dislike it, when ordering pizza by the slice, that the toppings lay on top like beached seals. The olives and the cheese should be melted and cooked together. I don't think I'm being overly fussy there.



That said, I feel bad that my lunch experience at Taffy's was so tasteless. It is a locally owned pizza restaurant, for some a beloved tradition, with an outdoor patio, a t.v.for sports fans, and nice staff. I went in hoping for amazing. Their Website shows wonderfully crisped crust. Maybe I came on an off day? But there's no denying that I left 8$ poorer and very unimpressed. 

www.taffyspizza.com


Rusty's Pizza Parlor: Children of the 70's Rejoice, Thousand Island Dressing Lives on!


Let me hearken back to, oh, say, 1978. Back when doughnut shops were sit-down restaurants and pizza parlors were things of glory. You remember (well, you do if you were born before 1980). Video games glittering in the dark belly of the cool, dimly lit pizza den, long wooden benches and tables, salad bars with old-time goodies, and the thrilling scent of olives, tomato sauce, and oregano in the air...ah, to my child eyes, there was no better Friday night. Perhaps because just such a treat was usually out of my family's budget, each and every glorious moment spent at the pizza parlor was utterly cherished. It is where we went after I broke my arm in fourth grade on the monkey bars, as a sort of way to reassure ourselves that everything was okay. Back then, Domino's and Pizza Hut and Straw Hat were sit-down restaurants where families went to celebrate birthdays, Friday night, and just about everything else.



Rusty's Pizza is the kind of place where you can get that nostalgic thrill. The pizza is good; not mind-blowing, but a solid effort. The crust is very good. The sauce veers toward a strong tomato paste, but the herbs are nicely present. All told, it's a tasty slice. If you go to the location downtown, you will find a kitschy medieval theme, complete with a framed poster of St. George slaying the dragon, a nest of video games, and the most gloriously 1950s salad bar you could ask for. It doesn't look like much, but this baby is a treasure trove.


Ice burg lettuce. Crumbled boiled eggs. Celery. Shredded beets. Shaved red onions. Croutons. And that most important, most high, most elegiac of salad dressings: thousand island. All of these things must be present in order for me to feel I am recapturing my childhood. And Rusty's has it.


For seven bucks, the lunch special is the way to go. A little mini personal pizza (the equivalent to about two medium slices) with two toppings, one trip to the salad bar, and unlimited trips to the soda fountain. Just make sure you go between 11 and 4, when the lunch special is on!
www.rustyspizza.com


Sicilian Express, Gino's Pizzeria: A meditation on the provenance of Sicilian Pizza


Gino's is good, don't get me wrong. A sweet little pizza shop on Figueroa St. off State Street, with the red checkered table clothes and the nice guys working the tiny kitchen behind the counter. The lunch special is $6 for a salad, a slice, and a drink. Not bad at all.



The salad is super simple. Chopped romaine and tomato with either ranch or Italian. And the slice (your choice of cheese or pepperoni) is super thin homemade crust, with sauce and freshly grated mozzarella baked on there. No gooey strings of melting cheese. Just chewy crust with thin layers of sauce and cheese...the kind of slice that New Yorkers sprinkle some pepper flakes on, fold in half, and then devour.

So it is not that I am unhappy with the slice. Not by any means. But as I sat there, glorying in the ambiance, I had to ask myself, "Is this Sicilian pizza?"

A serious question. But I am a serious eater! My research of Sicilian cuisine usually points to sfincione as authentic Sicilian pizza. A spongy, soft dough, made like a foccacia, baked in a pan, with very simple ingredients of crushed tomatoes, anchovies, cheese, and bread crumbs. In a city like Boston, for instance, that is the mainstay in Italian bakeries. If you ask for a slice, you are getting sfincione (minus the anchovies). So why do most things I see in California labelled as "Sicilian" go with the super thin (and very tasty crust) with cheese that is seriously broiled to the bone? It's not that I don't love it (I do), it's that I wonder, if we sat down with a table full of Sicilian foodies, and asked, what is Sicilian Pizza?...would we get an answer?

Well, according to the infallible Wikipedia, the answer is that each region of Sicily has its own brand of pizza. In Palermo, the sfincione; in Sortino, the round, stuffed Pizzòlu. And it gets more complex from there:

"In the province of Catania the traditional Scacciata is made in two different ways: a first layer made of dough covered, within the city, by a local cheese (Tuma) and anchovies or, in the region around Catania, by potatoes, sausages, broccoli, and tomato sauce. In both cases a second layer of dough brushed with eggs covers everything. Also in the region of Catania, in Zafferana Etnea and in Viagrande a typical pizza siciliana is a fried calzone stuffed with cheese and anchovies."

So if Gino's wants to make round pizza with thin, chewy crust and call it Sicilian....guess what, it IS Sicilian. I recommend Gino's when you want an affordable lunch stop in a pretty little shop with nice guys making the food.


www.ginospizzapies.com



Pizza Guru: Healthy Pizza?


A restaurant named Pizza Guru is pretty well throwing down the gauntlet and declaring itself to be the best. Or so I thought. It turns out Pizza Guru's main directive is healthy food...an oxymoron for a pizza joint. Everything is hand made, locally sourced, organic, no hormones, etc. For the seven dollar lunch special, you get a drink, a slice of pizza with two toppings, and a side salad. Quite a lot of food for the same amount of money you spend for a venti this-and-that at Starbucks.

Maybe I'm a fuss-budget. But if I walk into a pizza place and am not rendered faint with the narcotic scent of freshly baked dough and oregano, I immediately suspect I'm about to be disappointed. But for the sake of science, I soldiered on and ordered. The organic side salad meant well, but it tasted suspiciously as if its ingredients came from Trader Joe's (you know that funny taste TJ's cherry tomatoes get in those plastic containers? Yeah, that.) I had to run for the condiments to prink it into a state of edibility.
\

The slice of pizza itself was steaming hot, with the sides melting off cheese that crisped into little brown edges. The toppings and cheese were generous. But I got a sinking feeling when I realized that the cooked dough was the texture of a cracker on the inside, and out toward the crust, still there was no doughy goodness. The sauce was very light, not fragrant or rewarding. There was not a ton of flavor going on, and I had to redress it with some of their hot pepper oil and splashes of ranch dressing...even then, I didn't finish it.

Now, I should put this in perspective. A few weeks ago I went to a non-organic, non-healthy, fully hormone laden pizza place that is not too far from Pizza Guru. I was served a side salad with ice-burg lettuce that was actually brown on the edges, and a slice that hit me in the gut like a tractor. In short, it was so very bad that I slunk away feeling vaguely ashamed that I'd eaten there. Pizza Guru is nothing close to that. It's a decent pizza place that has healthy options. If you need vegan cheese, they have it. But for me, it all rides on the crust; so I will keep looking in my quest for pizza perfection.

www.pizzaguru.com

Boston Bakery Babe Retrospective 1: Bao Bao Bakery


Although I no longer live in Boston, for many years I resided there as the Boston Bakery Babe, testing and tasting every sweet thing in town. I developed a list of what I think are some of the finest bakeries in Boston, and I'd like to share them with you here, on Silver Webb. If you want to read three and half years of posts on eating in Boston, by all means go to www.bostonbakerybabe.com and see every tender crumb spilled out on the page!

In the meantime, if you are in Boston, I recommend a trip to Chinatown, to visit Bao Bao Bakery!



Bao Bao did two astounding things: it took me straight to Kowloon and it converted me to bubble tea. For this alone, I can recommend it as the first bakery you should go to in Boston’s Chinatown.


Behind the counter are a phalanx of bakery goddesses, cracking jokes in Cantonese but very happy to help a gaijin visitor who can only point at the goodies and make hand gestures. I highly suspect that they were, among other things, making a wry commentary on my personage, although having failed to learn more than three words of Cantonese, I can’t prove it. But that’s the feeling of Hong Kong I was missing: busy, crowded, and jovial. That’s the intangible fun of Bao Bao. That and the fact that there’s plenty of room to sit, a huge selection of little cakes, buns, savory pastries, bread, and full blown birthday cakes. The boxes are cute, the price is right, and you really find a sense of contentment in the busy shop, sitting at the counter with your cute cake, sipping bubble tea, watching a steady stream of characters go by.


And when I say cute cake, I’m really not kidding. Right in the door, I saw a tray of sprinkled sponge cakes with little frosting chicks sitting on top that are clearly labeled as “cute cakes” that made me feel a little swooney. You can’t find a piece of cake with that much charisma for $2.25 anywhere else in the city.


And while they have a section of perfectly respectable buns and dainties, go to the end of the cases and behold their decorated cakes.


You can argue that the cakes in Chinatown all taste vaguely similar, that the frosting is made of shortening, and the ingredients are not worthy of a French patisserie. But really, who cares? This kind of joy and exuberance is a payoff of its own. And make no mistake, Bao Bao is the only bakery in Chinatown making cakes this dang cute.  
       

I didn’t know I needed a cake frosted to look like a pouting puffer fish until I saw it. But now that I know it exists, I have to have it for my next birthday cake! 

Now, down to the bubble tea. It’s definitely an acquired taste. If you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently inhale a truckload of tapioca balls. I initially just ordered a peach green tea from the huge tea menu, but the bakery goddess smiled and shouted encouragingly, “bubbles?” I was weak for the picking and nodded. The tea itself was wicked good, sweet and peachy with a jasminey green tea. With the first tapioca bubble that slithered into my mouth I started to think, “No way, I’m not eating this.” But after the second, and then the third, I found that having a sip of tea and then chewing on a soft little bubble of goodness was actually quite pleasant. By the time I was done with Bao Bao’s bubbles, I was thinking about how soon I could have another.


Five bucks will buy you a venti something or other at Starbucks and not much else. I say take the fiver and head to Bao Bao for "cute cake" and bubble tea.

 Bao Bao Bakery 77 Harrison Avenue

Retrospective 2 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Cakeology... Sprinkles are Love!


Cakeology is another of my favorite bakeries in Boston, from my time as the Boston Bakery Babe. I highly recommend a visit.

Double Chocolate cupcake
Heart counts for a lot with cupcakes. I'm not sure it's even humanly possible for a grouch to make good cupcakes, and who wants to find out anyway! No, I think cupcakes need to be made with love. And Victoria Donnelly of Cakeology has it in spades. It's clear from the minute you walk into her little bakery hidden in the heart of downtown that whimsy has gone into every detail. The wonderland even has sprinkle dispensers. That's right, sprinkle dispensers. One with chocolate sprinkles and one with rainbow; because what cupcake can't get a little more swoony with extra sprinkles? That's the love, people.

Vanilla Vanilla cupcake

Now, down to the cupcakes. They carry about 6 regular flavors and then mix things up with 2 or 3 flavors of the day. When I came in, she had just set out a batch of special brownie sundae cupcakes: a chocolate cake base topped with whipped cream frosting, chocolate sauce, walnuts, and a cherry. Tell me who doesn't think any dessert or situation in life can't be made better with a maraschino cherry?

brownie sundae cupcake

After having one of these cupcakes, along with a glass of mango iced tea, you'll start feeling like you just bellied up to the happy sugar bar. Because the cupcakes, no doubt, are very sweet. Or at least the frosting is. Piled gloriously high on such staples as the vanilla vanilla and the double chocolate, prepare yourself for a high octane dose of sugar and butter, followed by a spongy moist cake that carries all that frosting with dignity.


One really could get lost in the sea of chocolate glaze and cream...and those are just the everyday cupcakes. Given the specialty flavors I've yet to try (Margarita, Peach Melba, Earl Grey...), there's no doubt I'll be back for Cakeology's goodies in quantity.

Boston Cream Pie cupcakes

http://cakeology.com/


Restrospective 3 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Burdick Chocolate, the Apex of Lux


Even now, across the country from Boston, settled in Santa Barbara, I long for Burdick chocolate. If you are ever in Boston, I beseech you to give them a try!


There really is no day so dour that it can't be salvaged with a high octane chocolate mouse with almonds for ears and a pretty ribbon tail. Come to think of it, you can pretty much pick any given chocolate at Burdick and come away with a significant yet legal buzz.


And although chocolates are the kissing cousins of baked goods, I review Burdick here with impunity: this is no longer just a chocolate shop, it is also a killer bakery and coffee shop. They've evolved into a European cafe of the highest water, serving sumptuous round mugs of espresso with homemade caramel, among other wonders. And it's an awesome place to sit for an hour and soak in the warm, glowy ambiance, amongst happy patrons who fairly resonate from chocolate/coffee highs.


What used to be a selection of one or two tarts has grown to a full blown dessert case that could hold its head high in the Tuilleries for artisanship and quality. Macaroons, mousse cakes, praline, and of course, chocolate, all carefully made. This is the essence of Burdick: they really, really care about what they make. It's the kind of joint where the guy foaming the coffee and the gal putting together boxes of chocolate are uber foodies that crave chocolate the way vampires crave...well, you get the picture. I'm not saying it's an unholy alliance; on the contrary, you can practically hear the heavenly choirs singing after you've had a few goodies.


On my visit, I was in a particular mood for something more mellow. The lady at the counter suggested the raspberry tart, warmed up with a dollop of whipped cream. I ordered this with a steamed milk and honey. Really, for $7, you can't have any more fun than this.


A flaky under carriage topped with warm, tart raspberries and a cloud of whipped cream. And filigrees of golden honey crisscrossed on a half inch layer of decadent milk foam, followed by a deeply lux cup of honeyed milk. Truly, comfort can be bought, people. Especially on a cold Boston day in Harvard Square.


It can be a little crowded on the weekends, but if you come by around 4 p.m. on a weekday, you're likely to score a seat. My favorite maneuver is to sit for a piece of cake and then on the way out peruse the chocolate counter. There are few joys as potent as dangling one of those chocolate mice by the tail, imaging a few chocolatey squeaks of protest, and then summarily devouring the choco bomb in one fell swoop. Trust me, you will practically levitate down Brattle Street on your way home.



http://www.burdickchocolate.com 
52 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138


Retrospective 4 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Cafe Vanille; Love and Magnolias on Beacon Street


In a city like Boston, where the winters are epic and will drive even the modestly hardy from town (well, cough, I am now living back in California!), Spring means so much. The first sign of magnolia blossoms means that winter has been survived and there is hope that cherry blossoms are not far behind. One of my favorite spots to enjoy this time of year is Beacon Hill and Cafe Vanille.

Magnolias in full bloon on Beacon Street
Never fear, this will not be a post about happy young things in J.Crew sweaters necking on Beacon Street in the first flush of Spring. Although there are magnolias bursting with flowers in downtown Boston, the love I refer to is the deepest, the most sustaining and elevating love there is: Dessert. And more particularly, Vanille Cafe on Charles Street.


Perhaps I was somewhat predisposed to love this little shop of edible jewels, after walking throuh the Public Garden and marvelling at the blossoms, revelling in the 80 degree weather, past a sea of pasty Bostonians in various stages of sun worship. But I wouldn't have fallen head over heels without justification, and Vanille has it.


Nestled amidst the Tuttie Frutti tarts and the Annabelle cake (sponge cake topped with meringue and cranberries), live a miriad of drool-worthy French desserts, whipped up by the pastry chefs who own the joint.


And that's just the cakes. The breakfast pastries don't look half bad either.



But the gauteau that won my heart? The chocolate orange cake topped with orange macaroons that have chocolate smiley faces on them. Mind.Blowingly.Good. Chocolate mousse layered with light spongy cake and topped with a waxy layer of dark chocolate. Light yet substantial, chocolately but not to the point of death. It was the whimsy of the macaroons that put me over the edge. This is it. I will be coming back to Vanille at every opportunity to eat this cake.


Not that it's a hardship to amble around Beacon Hill's cobblestone lanes. Cafe Vanille is just the place to people watch and gander at the iconic churches and townhouses that make this one of the cutest three square blocks of real estate in New England.





Retrospective 5 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Flour Bakery, Gird Yourself for Battle, Bostonians!


Flour is without doubt the most crowded and the most famous of Bakeries in Boston. Definitely worth a visit!



Flour is THE bakery. The one everyone has heard of in Beantown. The Magna Regina of bakeries. Started by Joanne Chang, Flour has grown from one location to three, with the sticky buns achieving the status of legend after she trounced Bobby Flay in a Sticky Bun Throwdown. Add to that her gorgeous cookbook, Flour, and you have an empire in the making. And it's an empire worthy of the hype. The counter of baked goods is a study in plenty, pleasure, and care. Raspberry bars, "Oreo" cookies, and brownies meet you first at the counter.


But hold out, friends, for the meringues and the bread pudding, which is something of a transcendental experience in the winter.


But the thing that everyone comes to try is truly the sticky buns. So the I was honor-bound to try one. It's a tough life, eh?



This bad girl tasted as decadent as she looks. A yeasty, moist coil of bread drenched in a sugary glaze and studded with pecans. All I ask is for a little melted butter to drizzle over it and I'm fairly certain I'll have arrived at the sweet end. Having downed only a quarter of this beauty, and thereby feeling like a sugar coma was coming on, I also ordered one of their ridiculously good sandwiches, the tuna curry dotted with apples and raisins on crunchy grilled bread. Trust me, you want this.



Just don't forget to ask for a to go box. You're going to need help hauling home all of the cookies and goodies you couldn't manage to eat in one sitting.


So, what's the catch? EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN BOSTON WANTS TO COME HERE TO EAT ON A SATURDAY MORNING. I was only at the modest Central Square location, and it took twenty-three minutes of standing in line before I had my sandwich in my clutches. Not that the line doesn't move fast; there is an army of bakery goddesses behind the counter moving at break-neck speed. It's just that you are likely to find twenty to thirty people ahead of you in line or milling around trying to score a table. It's the sort of "problem" every bakery owner would love to have, and there's really no cure for it, short of expanding the seating area to something the size of a football field. This is not to say that on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. you can't swing by and find only a mildly crazy scene, but to go on the weekend is to step into the bakery battlefield. Put on your game face, bring your I-pod, and get ready for the line and the table hawking. It is, in my not-so-humble opinion, entirely worth it.


www.flourbakery.com

Retrospective 6 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Sofra, the Land of Orange Blossoms and Honey


Now that my time in Boston is done, truly one thing I miss the most is the distinctive taste of Sofra Bakery and the beauty of Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Both are fundamental to experiencing Boston, in my opinion.


I think about food...a lot. A good portion of my day is spent meditating on the topic. But I will admit that after I have a blow-out of treats, like a box of Italian pastry goodies or a trio of Georgetown cupcakes, I don't think a few hours later, "I'd like another box of that right now." But this honor goes to Sofra, my newest food discovery and upcoming contender for best Boston bakery and cafe. Indeed, a few hours after I had ingested all that my stomach would allow at Sofra, I was sitting at home and was overtaken with a strong desire to hop in the car (that I don't own) and slap down a few twenties (that I don't have to spare) and ask for as many goodies as Sofra could fit in boxes.


So what is Sofra? It's a Persian bakery and cafe on the outskirts of Cambridge, next to one of the most beautiful places to walk through in all of Boston, Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Inside, you will find the warm aesthetic of a New England farmhouse mixed with the textiles and ambience of a Middle Eastern tea room. The tables are embossed copper drums that invite sharing a plate or two with your lunchmate, and the cozy seating arrangements lead to a sense of conviviality.



But none of that would matter if the food were not massively gourmet. And it is. Very, very rarely do I sit down to a plate of Middle Eastern food without being smacked across the face with a gaudy excess of garlic. And with dessert, it is usually phyllo dough that has been drowned in a deadly sweet pool of syrup. Maura and Ana are two culinary geniuses, as far as I'm concerned, who have taken eclectic flavors from across the Mediterranean and Middle East (allepo peppers, sumac, za'atar, orange blossoms, nigella seeds...) and created something masterful.


My lunch was a hefty plate of mezze (you can pick five different kinds from their mezze bar). I don't normally do this, but I think that the array is so tempting, that I will just copy the menu here for you:

hot pepper labne with mint sizzle
chickpea salad with harissa & dried lime
smoky eggplant with pinenuts
whipped  feta with sweet & hot peppers
beet tzatziki
maftoul salad with sweet potatoes
Moroccan style carrot salad
bamya - okra with tomato, red onion & saffron
fig salad with piquillo peppers & green garlic
squash skordalia with pepitas
muhammara—red pepper & walnut purée
kale tabouleh with barberries & pickled garlic

Add in some of their homemade flat bread or spongy and wondrous za'atar finger bread, and you have a lunch worthy of the gods. I sat on their patio making embarrassing little lip-smacking noises, marveling at how distinct and unique and complex the flavor was for each of these dishes...And then, when a sane person might have considered themselves satiated, I went back for dessert. Well, this is the Bakery Babe, not the Savory Snacks Princess! 


And Sofra does not disappoint with the baked goods. Greek semolina cakes called revani, soaked with orange blossom. Bird's nests with pistachios and saffron. Doughnuts with Persian spices. Short breads flavored with tahini, Egyptian bread pudding, almond rose cake, light Turkish simits that have a croissant-like flakiness...truly, I stood at the counter a bit slack-jawed, my mind spinning, unable to pick from the little trays of magic. 


But of course, I soldiered on and sampled away. Even if you don't fancy something overtly exotic, you can find yourself quite happy with a piece of pumpkin bread, a morning bun topped with orange-blossom glaze, or a chocolate earthquake cookie. 


This is one of the reasons I really adore Sofra...you can come for coffee and a doughnut or a full fledged mezze feast. And let me tell you, it is supremely rare to find a place that can pull off both sweet and savory with this kind of class. You may find yourself tempted to take home one of the many packages of syrups, spices, and pickles that they sell, ready to take on a cooking adventure of your own.




So make haste, hop on the bus, and take a little field trip to Sofra (don't forget to tour Mt. Auburn while you're there), and get ready for foodie nirvana.


www.sofrabakery.com
1 Belmont Street, Cambridge MA 02138 
617-661-3161

Retrospective 7 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Tatte Bakery and Cafe; Look out Flour, there's a new bakery in town!

Since I first reviewed Tatte, it has grown in popularity quite a bit. It is worth every penny. This is the place to stretch your budget and try a little of everything. Especially the cheesecake, which is the best in Boston, in my opinion.


Some days, the gods smile on me. Some days, I'm ambling along to review a cafe, and out of nowhere, a new and intriguing bakery will spring up and wave at me. This is exactly what happened as I was walking to review Voltage Cafe near Kendall. Across the street and up a block was a promising store called Tatte Bakery and Cafe that I hadn't read about in any search of Kendall Square. So, in I wandered, and, oh NELLY, oh SWEET HEAVEN. I just about needed my fainting salts at the sight of a beautiful, rustic style French cafe that was absolutely packed with high-octane goodies.

Do I need a fig tart?


Do I need a cherry clafouti?


Do I need ten of these?


And five of these?


And an entire pistachio cheesecake? Why, yes. Yes, I do!



And I wasn't even to the part of the counter that had cinnamon rolls and croissant. Sweet little stacks of cookies here and there, tall sticky buns, unexpected flavors like rose infusion. It was, quite frankly, a bit much for this humble bakery reviewer. Tatte Bakery very nearly knocked me out of the ring with a tantalizing bounty of French dessert done right.




How was it that the entirety of Boston wasn't crammed into this treasure?



Well, it turns out that Tatte is an outcropping of Tatte Cookies, and has only been in this location for two months. But I guarantee that once you clap eyes on this oasis of beauty, you pate-choux heart is going to melt, and you will be here every weekend. I don't say this lightly: Tatte is just as good as Flour. And the line in this undiscovered gem is one or two people at most. True, the sit-down tables were packed with happy diners eating the savory dishes that Tatte serves. And the long wooden common tables were filled with folks having pastry and coffee. But it was nowhere near the mania you must fight through a T-stop away to get a pastry at Flour. And as I said, it's just as good. Really.

So take the plunge a veer a few blocks from the Kendall Stop, and step into modern rustic charm and a bonanza of bakery goods. Just be prepared to part with cash for some of the more high end items. The croissant (made in-house) is under two bucks, but the clafouti is more like $7.




www.tattecookies.com

Retrospective 8 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Paris Baguette, More Bliss Than Should Be Legal


There are times, not many, but there are times when I am about to eat a dessert, when I stop and wonder if I am about to cross some invisible line of decadence, go over some cliff of indulgence from which there is no return. One such moment occurred at Paris Baguette, when staring down this beauty, the choux tart:


This tower of delight is one of the larger desserts at Paris Baguette, and certainly the most expensive. As I sat down with my $7 castle of thick custard cream, strawberries, raspberries, and profiteroles stuffed with lightly whipped cream, I did stop and think that perhaps this was too much, even for me. That moment lasted about three seconds, before a man stopped with his tray of goodies that he'd purchased and offered to trade me for the choux tart. And being seated next to the window, it did not escape my notice that several people walking on the sidewalk slowed their pace to gawk at the beauty I was about to devour. It is, in short, a show stopper. But it is merely one of the many, many pastries that Paris Baguette offers, and I've spent many weekends investigating their cases.


Paris Baguette is new to Central Square, and had it not be recommended to me, I would've walked right by it. Why? It is located inside the new H Mart, a Korean superstore. It's not that I don't like Korean food, because I do. It's that I never in a million years would've thought, "Sure, I'll try the Parisian pastries from the Korean store." But as soon as you step in the doors and see the glowing cases of goodies, the dove grey tufted chairs, the beautiful decor, you are going to forget you ever doubted. Yes, this is an international chain of bakeries started by a Korean company that has actually founded the Korea-French Institute of Baking in Seoul...in a word, these folks ain't kidding around about pastry. The cake case harbors everything from blueberry chiffon to berry cream cake to...a caramel cake that has an entire package of Pepperidge Farm cookies on the top.




And those are just the offerings in the cake case. There are three other cases of croissant goodies. You take a tray, a pair of silver tongs, and go down the gauntlet, picking your own. This inevitably leads to a breakdown in self control.


I will say this about their croissant...they're very, very good. Perhaps the best I've yet had in Boston. Flaky exterior with that pull-apart, chewy, moist insides with the usual fillings (chocolate, almond). The croissant has been the Waterloo of many a baker, but Paris Baguette passes with flying colors. You will also find pastries stuffed with green tea, doughnuts with red bean filling, blueberry danish, and just about anything you can imagine that can be done with wheat and dairy products.




But I will say there is one item at Paris Baguette that you must approach with particular reverence, perhaps even on bended knee. The croissant doughnut.


This is mind-blowingly rich. Deep fried croissant dough filled with creme Anglaise. I've eaten two thus far, and each time, I had a transcendental moment, followed quickly by the realization that I'd just eaten more oil and fat than I should probably have in an entire week. It is profoundly decadent, perhaps too rich for some, and certain worth seeking out.


One of the beauties of this cafe is that there is something for everyone (except perhaps the gluten intolerant or dairy averse)...but you can pretty much bring your whole crew, and there is such a plethora of choices that nobody is going to feel left out. And on top of that, they have an amazing drink menu...I had an iced almond tea that came with a delicious cream foam that was infused with almond extract. In the summer they even have shaved ice parfaits. In short, any bakery tour of Boston would be woefully remiss not to include the Paris Baguette. Do go!



581 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 714-3456
http://www.parisbaguetteusa.com/

Retrospective 9 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Georgetown Cupcakes, A Vision of Plenty



I think I've hit upon one of the most important factors in a good bakery experience, and Georgetown Cupcakes is to credit for the revelation. Often at shee-shee cupcake joints, there are perhaps 4 or 5 varieties of cake, and of each there might be ten cupcakes at most out on display. So one feels like a hummingbird buzzing about a modest bunch of flowers. When you walk into Georgetown Cupcakes, the new store on Newbury street, you are hit by a wall of cupcakes. Hundreds of them, stacked high in a beautiful display case. I was immediately buoyed up by that wonderful sense of plenty. And no doubt, the many people behind me in line were happy also to see that there was more than enough for everyone to haul a box of treats home. And be warned, on a weekend, there will definitely be a line, and for a good reason. This place is, for lack of a better word, the bomb.


Salted caramel beauties that truly taste of both salt and caramel. Oreo mint, strawberry, key lime, red velvet...I was nearly buzzing about in an anticipatory sugar high, trying to decide which cupcakes to order. Really, would you be able to chose just four? And if you begin to fret that the several hundred in the display case might be the last, look to the back and see a tower of industrial cooking trays stacked with more to come. I have noticed in my eating adventures that places which make the food on the premises feel better; they just do. There is a certain happy humming of activity and creation that gives a sense of contentment. Someone worked hard to make these cupcakes, and odds are good she's one of the bandanna'd bakery goddesses behind the counter. It's that kind of happy place.


And I wasn't disappointed with the taste. The cake was fine-crumbed and spongy, not at all likely to fall apart but still tender. The icing was a just-right pillow of butter cream that tasted... real. You know what I mean, people. Sometimes, even at fancy bakeries, you have a bite of butter cream and are left with the sinking suspicion that no actual butter ever went in the mixing bowl. You won't have any doubts at Georgetown, where they do it right. They even have winsome birthday cupcakes that would be amazing at a party, and even one variety of gluten-free.



Take a peek on their website and you will see the most precious seasonal cupcakes, including Halloween beauties that have convinced the Babe to line up this October and snag some. But no matter what the season, make sure you plan a trip to Newbury Street to visit this bakery; it really is a special spot.
www.georgetowncupcake.com

Retrospective 10 on the Boston Bakery Babe: Rosebud Diner, At Last the Pie Gods Are Sated!

Here is the last retrospective blog entry from my time in Boston as the Boston Bakery Babe. I couldn't bear not to share the top ten places I treasure in Boston. I hope you will find them as tasty as I did. And if you're in Boston, wave hello to the city for me. 


The Rosebud has been rebooted! The iconic diner car restaurant of Davis Square has been reopened to much fanfare. Although presently only dishing up dinner, it will soon be serving lunch and brunch with much aplomb. But why, you may ask, would I be fiddling about with an upscale gastro diner with green leather-tufted bar stools, designer lighting, and no shortage of hipster patrons?

The answer is simple. Pie.


Regular readers will know that my summer pie quest, although diligent, did not end in a particularly satisfying way. The pie gods were not sated, and I remained unable to recommend a place in Boston for truly good pie...until now. The Rosebud's dessert menu is largely comprised of pie. And although there are some tweaks to the classics, it is more-or-less the kind of pie that you imagine would be served at Grandma's kitchen table circa 1950.


Having been invited by my foodie conspirator to have a pie tasting, I found myself hard pressed not to plant my face into billowing whipped cream and thick, honest-to-goodness chocolate pudding in the chocolate cream pie, with a crust that was soft, a little chewy, and very satisfying. I fear my face may have been speckled with chocolate in my enthusiastic devouring. But we had two more kinds to try, and I expected what you find at most restaurants and bakeries: the same crust filled with different toppings. But the Rosebud treats each of these desserts like its own little kingdom, and the crust for the apple cherry ginger pie had a sweet layer of caramelization on top that perfectly enclosed soft apples, tart cherries, and little gems of ginger. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I was verging quite close to sugar nirvana.


And for the unusual and alluring grapefruit caramel meringue pie, I found a crumbly, sweet cookie crust housing a grapefruity custard, topped with cloud-like pillows of meringue...that truth be told did not taste like meringue...it tasted like a mountain of marshmallows that had been toasted to glorious perfection. How they are turning a profit by charging only $6 a slice for gourmet pie, I don't know, but I hope they keep it up!


And also of note, cocktails are a specialty at the Rosebud. I can report that their mocktail Blueberry Collins is excellent.


So, Boston, you have your answer at last. If you're in the mood for a heavenly pie jag, make the trek out to Davis Square and grab a seat at the Rosebud Diner. It's well worth the trip!

www.rosebudkitchen.com

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