12 Hours in Tainan

One of the virtues of an island such as Taiwan is that you can go from one tip to the other in about 2 hours on the high speed train. Rather like going from New York City to San Francisco in 2 hours. So, hello high speed train and snack cart!

Tainan is far less snazzy and developed than Taipei. It boasts many more historic sites, however, and slower pace of life. Our first stop was the Confucian temple, a thing of austere beauty!

From there we saw many beautiful buildings where government had been the key activity. 

What I found quite unique about Tainan was the traces of Dutch rule, in the form of Fort Zeelandia, and the ubiquitous presence of Koxinga, the pirate who defeated them. 

Unfortunately, my lunch, provided by our kind hosts was slightly underwhelming. It is called the box lunch, and is quite popular in Taiwan. All I can say is that this box lunch, named after the liberator Koxinga, involved some kind of gluten protein and other things that I could not identify. 

So I was quite ravenous by the time we made the train back to Taipei. Luckily, the trusty snack cart did not disappoint! 

All told, I wished I'd had more than a day in Tainan; there is so much more to explore there! 

Voodoo Doughnuts in Taipei

I've always wanted to go to Voodoo Doughnuts in Seattle, but have never had the opportunity. So it was a certain rising glee that overtook me as I realized that Taipei has a Voodoo Donuts! This was worth a great deal of walking, in unrelenting heat, umbrella over my head to fend off the sun. At last I found it, on a quiet, unassuming street.

Ex-pats are, of course, a danger at such a place. And I did have to pointedly ignore several loud and self-involved American holding court. But the inside of the store is pure donut joy, and I found myself debating how many I could eat in one go.

At last I decided on a doughnut covered in Fruit Loops and the iconic voodoo doll. 

I am not sure that artistic prowess held sway when this voodoo doughnut was decorated...but no matter, it was quite tasty. And the Fruit Loop doughnut was a sugar bomb of the highest order. While I would not call out Voodoo Doughnuts as having anything to do with Taipei, if you are in town, and wanting a little culinary adventure that is more familiar, do give it a whirl! 

Thunder and Lightning at Bao'an Temple 

People in Taipei make an art of avoiding the daily afternoon deluge during the summer. They stop in at a coffee shop, or wait under the eves, or just don't go out until the torrent is over. I am not one of those smart people. I had a map, a few hours free, and I was determined to find Bao'an temple. I just had a hunch it would be a special place. Which explains how I arrived at Bao'an temple completely soaked. The tour buses were nowhere to be found, the temple was practically deserted, as all rational beings had retreated to dry ground.

And so, it was mine alone, as thunder and lightning and rain came down.

To the side, tucked away and quiet, I found this beautiful goddess...perhaps Matsu, the island's protector? 

All of which is to say that although you should avoid electrical strikes, there is nothing grander than grabbing a map and exploring a new city. You never know what treasure you will uncover. 

Taipei 101 and Mango Cha Cha!

Being rocketed upward 88 floors in a high-powered elevator and having my ears go bananas was worth it! Taipei 101 is one of the tallest buildings in the world, shaped like a pagoda. Beautiful! From the indoor viewing area, you can gaze down on Taipei with a view that would normally require a seat on a plane!

My adventure buddy for the day was nutty for mangos, so of course we had to stop at Mango Cha Cha (just saying that makes me Cha Cha mango Cha cha Cha!) A cross between shaved ice and Haagendaz with perky lumps of mango and marshmallows. A distinctly unique treat that I so wish I could find in the U.S.!

My Foodie Street Cred is Earned: Tales of Stinky Tofu in Taipei

Being a reasonable foodie, when I found out I was visiting Taiwan, I googled the local specialty of Taipei. All searches revealed that something called "stinky tofu" was the beloved dish of the North. A fermented tofu dish that was said to be quite fragrant, thus the moniker. Still, I hoped it was an exaggeration. Still, I hoped it would be like Camembert cheese, a little stinky but worth eating.

My first evening in Taipei, I immediately began to realize a few things about eating family-style in Taiwan. First, if you are a pescetarian, you are hosed. Period. And you are also likely to cause your host and co-eaters a lot of stress. Because it is imperative to the collective joy that everyone eat and enjoy themselves. If you are the one at the table picking a random bit of bok choy out of the ten meat dishes, it is a point of concern for everyone. 

As plates of cow knuckles and other sundries went by, I began the first of many such meals where I was obliged to eat the one vegetarian dish on the table. This was either stir-fried greens and/or tofu. I tried to make up for this by participating liberally in consumption of the "white wine"...which is an 80 percent proof clear liquor that is akin to is drunk in shot glasses with no mitigating factors, with a toast given at the table every other sip. 

And so, I was far from sober by the time it nose twitched. I thought I smelled dog doo. I discretely checked my shoes, but they were clean. I wondered if my neighbors had dog doo on their shoes. But no. That smell was just the waitress walking up behind me with a plate of stinky tofu, fat pillows of tofu studded with ground beef, and for all the world a dead ringer for the smell of feces.

I was obliged to cover my nose and mouth with my napkin to prevent myself from actually gagging at the table. That is, in my recollection, the first time something so foul has been put before me that I nearly vomited. The kind souls at the table were very excited at the arrival of the stinky tofu. At last they had something to feed the vegetarian. "No, no," I declined politely. But polite refusal carry no currency at the Chinese dinner table. Within a minute, the ground beef was swatted off the top, and a liberal spoonful of stinky tofu landed on my plate, while everyone looked at me expectantly. In that moment, I knew the stinky tofu was going down the gullet, no matter what. "Maybe it's not that bad once you taste it," I reasoned. And in an adrenaline-fueled jag, I slurped it down as quickly as I could and immediately downed an entire shot of "white wine."

I wish I could tell you that upon consumption, I found this to be a heady treat, a new flavor experience that broadened my horizon. No. Just, no. Bluntly speaking, it was what I imagine swallowing doody would be like. For a day afterward, despite copious amounts of toothpaste and mints, my mouth had the resonant funk of dog poo. To say the least, I have earned my Anthony Bourdain street cred. 

My Introduction to Taiwanese Cuisine

I've been to China and Japan and Hong Kong, but never Taiwan. Because in the 1980s it was flash-fried into my brain that the only thing that happened in Taiwan was the manufacturing of watch batteries and Walkmans. At the time, Taiwan was experiencing a manufacturing boom, but that quickly passed. So when work led me to Taiwan in June, I was surprised to find a charming tropical island that is a wreathed in mysterious clouds as you land. Although I did not appreciate the fury-of-the-gods thunder and lightning that happened every afternoon, nor the blisteringly near-fatal heat, I still explored with abandon.

And one inescapable conclusion must be made: food is everything in Taiwan, and yet it is hard for a Western tourist to appreciate. Part of the dichotomy in expectation is the fact that most Chinese restaurants in the States believe in rich, lovely sauces, fried rice, and big plates of chow mein. Taiwanese cuisine does not. It is light fare, not much salt or flavor aids. EXCEPT FOR THIS: The Bubbling Egg Beast, consumed at the food court above the main train station. Obviously, this is from an Indian restaurant...but I submit that no Indian Restaurant I know of would drape a thin layer of egg over a mound of rice and put it on a sizzling hot plate with vegetables and curry sauce. It stared at me with its one mean eye. I stared back. And then I devoured it! The Bubbling Egg Beast turned out to be quite tasty!

I did manage to have a few fried dishes. I suspect but cannot prove that this was fried taro bits. Very tasty with beer.

But this, oh dear...this was deep fried shrimp covered in mayonnaise and...cookie sprinkles. There was not enough beer in the world to take care of this situation!

I did enjoy the buns and the jiaozi and a few vegetable dishes.

And I think you will find that it is the night markets in Taipei that have the most fun and creativity in terms of eats.

There is a joviality and fun to night markets that brings the flavors alive, in my opinion. I would much rather buy "cheesy potato" from a cart than face down these purple meat balls in a restaurant.

Call me fussy, call me a pescetarian, but it's a no on the purple meatballs!

45 Minutes in Narita Airport

You may not think a 45 minutes layover in an airport is enough time to gather anything about a country's culture. But I HEART Japan, and there was no way I was letting two layovers in Japan go by without a speedy tour of the airport!

Super yummy noodles!

I passed on the cantelope kitkats, and feel perfectly fine about that decision!

The bathroom sign may seem odd to find in such an advanced country, but I saw something like this in many bathrooms in Taiwan, where people who are accustomed to "squatter" toilets may be somewhat baffled by the bowl!

On my layover on the way back home, also through Narita, I managed to spend $100 on sake and cookies...if you are not aware, Japanese cookies are euphorically good. But so is their McDonalds...yes, I just said that. The Japanese passion for extraordinary food shines through even in this most ordinary of food joints.Although I admit, the woman at the cash register thought I was out of my mind when I asked for a Big Mac without any meat! I lacked the language facilities to explain my vegetarian "sauce burger" preferences...

And after that, it was a mere 13 hours of turbulence home!

Blueberry Bliss at FarmShop and, oh yeah, the Getty!

The perfect day. The architectural glory of the Getty, replete with impressionist masterpieces and a stunning view of Los Angeles. And the blueberry Danish at FarmShop in Brentwood. I know, it's a little nervy to speak of the intrinsic value of a blueberry Danish on the same esoteric level as the Getty Museum...but I dare. Because the blueberry Danish is one of the most mind-blowing pastries I have every consumed. Weeks later, all I need say to my companions from that day is "the blueberry thingy" and they look maudlin and dreamy and bereft. For once you have had this goodness, no other breakfast pastry will do. We had ours with Gruet bubbly Rose, and it is one of the finest and fun little feasts I've had in a long time. It started off hiding innocently on the back row of their pastry case:

And even on the table it did not raise my pulse:

But, oh, one bite, and my mind melted. This is a shell made of crunchy chewy croissant dough, stuffed with blueberry pie filling on the bottom and then cream-cheese vanilla frosting in the middle and top, with a wee bit of lemon zest on the mountain peak.

Let me explain its effect in these terms: one of our party was a man with a relatively advanced social ego. He waits for others to go through the door before he does, he is not in the habit (that I know of) of pushing others out of the way or trampling them on the sidewalk. But one bite of the blueberry Danish and he practically dove for it on the table and inhaled it down in two big gulps like some kind of long-beaked crane. We were obliged to buy a second. It was that good. It is called a danish, but it is actually something much more interesting, in pastry terms. And it is just one of the many baked goods they have, along with a stellar case of cheese, and a good restaurant to boot. But you will not happen on this beauty by happenstance. It is tucked away in a courtyard that locals clearly know about (it was packed). Check the hours before you go (the restaurant had stopped serving brunch by the time we got there, although we were still able to sit down with our pastry and bubbly). It's a ten minute drive from the Getty and it is a stellar way to end a museum day.

Getty Gardens 

Freedom's Eve 

I really felt blessed this New Year's, in a way that I normally do not (I have nothing against New Year's, but it is very often celebrated for a few minutes at midnight, in my jammies.) This year, my friend suggested we go to the Freedom's Eve celebration at Lincoln's Cottage, which is on the outskirts of DC.

It is kind of embarrassing to admit this, as I have plenty of college education, much of it in history, but I did not know that this "cottage" (it's actually a rather large house) is the place where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, a powerful document that changed the face of our nation for the better. He signed it on New Year's Day, and the evening before, a vigil was held, with many people praying for that document to be signed. That is why it's called Freedom's Eve. As I watched a stream of old photos showing what life was like before the Emancipation Proclamation, in the very house where Lincoln did something extraordinarily brave, I felt that I was partaking in honoring a very special moment in history.

Not that I was too virtuous. There was a dessert buffet. And nothing says Emancipation or Happy New Year's like champagne and cupcakes!

And so, although a little belatedly (it's already April...I'm a little behind on my posts!), I'm wishing you all Happy 2015!

NJ and NYC 2014!

Call it my Winter Wonderland Tour! I had a wonderful Christmas in New Jersey, a state that has graciously ignored years of my smack talk and still allowed me in. I was off to a good start with Christmas Eve mass at Newark Cathedral, complete with cop cars stationed on every corner and girls walking down the aisle in stiletto heels! Fog cemented the dramatic picture. I felt like it was the beginning to a Sherlock Holmes novel!

Meanwhile, back at the Manor, my very kind hosts treated me to a Christmas feast that I will not soon forget. I ate so well and so extensively that stuffing myself back into the car to leave was an arduous task!

And, of course, how could I not visit Fifth Avenue for Christmas decorations galore! The tree at Rockefeller Center was glorious, the store windows were gleaming with Christmas sparkles...and the spirit of St. Nick kept me from getting too cranky as my toes became distinctly frosty after walking around for 5 hours!

On a more meaningful note, this was the first time I have spent Christmas at a friend's house (rather than in my own home or with family). Although my friend's family was not so keen on Christmas decorations, they went out of their way to make me feel welcome and to feed me well. There is something very touching and special about being welcomed into what is usually a family-only celebration. I have to say, New Jersey's stock is rising in my book!

Halloween in NYC 2014

Ah, New York City. Perhaps the most pastry-dense real estate in the country. As often as I've visited and gleefully sampled goodies, there are always new places to explore. On the recommendation of my good buddy (and fellow foodie), we went to Payard, a bistro-slash-patisserie with orange and brown decor that made an excellent vegetarian croque monsieur with mushrooms and Gruyere.

And a pastry case that made the Babe slightly weak in the knees.

The caramel tart was so good that I actually dipped my finger in it and foraged like a monkey to slurp up all of it's caramelly-goodness. Or, in layman's terms, I flipped my wig.

But our weekend, was far, far from over. A quick stop at Teuscher chocolates. A Halloween cupcake or two from Magnolia bakery...

And, oh yes, a visit to the patisserie Laduree...maker of arguably some of the finest macaroons in the city (well, at the very least, a solid tie with Maison du Chocolat's macaroons, my heretofore top choice). Laduree often has a long line out the door, but we lucked out on a rainy Saturday, and it was only a few moments in this charming shop before we were laden with fluffy, slightly chewy macaroons that justified the price tag.

How, you may ask, was I still walking at this point, having ingested quite a swath of edible delight? Well, for the sake of science and research, I carried on, somehow. Perhaps it was the lure of pu-pu's and martinis at Salon Ning, the rooftop lounge atop the Peninsula hotel? No drink tastes bad when looking down on the lights of Fifth Avenue!

That said, there was at least one attempt at penance. Although the usually serene and lovely St. Patrick's Cathedral is so heavily under construction that it was not quite its normal self.

And truth be told of my visit to St. Patricks, I was still dressed for was very nice about not tackling me in the aisles for my choice of stockings.

Last on the weekend's list of indulgences was a trip to the Met to see an exhibit of Victorian mourning clothes. Absolutely beautiful clothing, all in jet black and black-tinged appropriately macabre display for Halloween.

So, NYC, let us say au revoir, until we feast again!

Adventures in Toronto 2014

On the occasion of a dear friend being married, I recently hopped on a Greyhound and made a break for the border. The Canadian border, that is. Fourteen hours later, I emerged in Toronto, a "hit list" in hand: 1.Poutine 2. Butter Tart 3. Wedding. After all, I could not visit a foodie town like Toronto without sampling some of the specialties.

First up was a quest for poutine. I've read about it on food blogs, seen it on the Food Channel, and always wondered what in the world a "squeaky cheese curd" would taste like. So within an hour of arrival, my foodie cohort and I were winging our way down Queen Street, in search of Poutini's House of Poutine, a shop that does only one thing: homemade fries, smothered in gravy (vegetarian gravy is top notch there), and topped with...yes, the squeaky cheese curd. 

Now, friends, it is perilous work to ferret out the food secrets of a city. And sometimes, national treasures are an acquired taste. And all told, being prepared to faint from the ecstasy of comfort food done to a high art, I was...a little underwhelmed by the poutine. And my cheese was squeaking when I chewed it. My foodie cohort pointed out that were I stuck in a Canadian winter, with my metabolism fighting to keep flesh on my bones against the perilous cold, I too might begin to worship the bucket-size vat of fries, gravy, and cheese. And perhaps she is right. But in August, being in no danger of frost bite, I decided to leave the poutine to the Canadians, and move on to the unofficial specialty of the city: the butter tart. And I had a hot tip on Andrea's Gerrard Street Bakery, hiding in the byways of Chinatown.

As we drove to Andrea's, I couldn't help but worry, how could something called a butter tart turn out to be a memorable eating experience? 

And it's true, given my choice of lemon curd, frangipane, and raspberry tarts, I probably would've passed over the plate of plain brown ones in the back. Luckily for all, I didn't. And oh, just for a moment, as I bit into the gooey, soft brown bliss, my tongue swirling in maple syrup, browned butter, and cream, I had one of those bakery babe moments where months of dry scones and soggy cake all dwindle away in the heaven of one perfect bite. One of those "I'd sell my soul for a six pack of these butter tart" kind of moments. The crust was light and flaky on the outside, a little moist on the inside, and by the gods above, it is the sort of treasure that I live for in my food blogging adventures. Not kidding. Five stars on Andrea's butter tarts. My friend and I bought one of the sizable tarts to split. Five minutes later, we were back up at the counter to buy another. And oh, the four or so we got in the to-go box. Now, I will admit, Andrea uses maple syrup in her butter tarts, and that is what launches them into the stratosphere. But I submit that as you ditch modesty and lick the plate of the last crumb, arguments about what constitutes a "real" Toronto butter tart will not make it into the conversation. What you will be talking about is how soon you can get back to Andrea's for another!

But woman cannot live on butter tarts alone. And after a few more investigations, I can now tell you. 1. Do have a beer at the Duke of York Pub. 2. Do not order nachos in Canada...ever. 3. Don't fear the sushi. Toronto has some excellent Japanese restaurants!

And if you have the chance, make haste for St.Lawrence food market, an indoor stadium of food stalls the likes of which this bakery babe will not soon forget!

There are other places to see, of course, and I saw most of them at a flat out sprint. St. Jame's Cathedral, St. Michael's Church, the Royal Ontario Museum, etc. And many other bakeries that I did not have time to visit (Bakerbots, Prairie Girl, Tori's). But let's not forget, there was #3, the most important to consider on my list: the wedding. The weekend was filled with many sweet moments of visiting with old friends, and convening at the University of Toronto for a heartfelt wedding that reminded me that no matter how far we've traveled on our way, love will always call us back to what matters most: friendship, joined hands, and dare I add that sweetest of confections, wedding cake. Or, in this case, the plural, wedding cakes. Well, what can I say, those Canadians know how to throw a party!

And so, sugar blissed and fortunate in friendship, I must say, au revoir, Toronto. Let us meet again soon!

DC and Cherry Blossoms: Pie Sisters Rock My World! 
April 2014

I've never been to DC for cherry blossom season. And even though I went to visit a good friend there at the first week of April, I have to admit I've still not been to DC for cherry blossom season...that's because the flowers were late this year, and I came smack in time for magnolia blossoms, but a week shy of cherry blossoms. Ah well! DC is still one of the neatest cities I know to visit, and when not hearting Lincoln and hearting Washington, and hearting the Whitehouse, I took the opportunity to fulfill two long-held culinary dreams.

I had a veggie dog at Ben's Chili Bowl. And believe me, it was the first chili dog I've had since going vegetarian that satisfied as a taste experience...literally, I wouldn't have known there was no meat in that thing, that's how tasty it is. I found this politico hot dog diner to be a place where it is hard to score a seat, but if you're lucky you might just be sitting in the same spot where the president had a chili dog. Throw in some cheese fries, potato salad, and coleslaw, and you have a party!

And for my other food adventure, I feasted on pastries in Georgetown! Now, truly, and entire chapter could go to Georgetown pastries, and I only had one weekend. So I will simply tell you about the bakery I went to that will now and forever have a pie-shaped slice of my heart: Pie Sisters.

Located on the edge of the Georgetown strip, Pie Sisters is a little shop that does something extraordinary with pies...among other mysteries, they have created cream pie cupcakes. Piecakes, if you will. A little pie crust baked in a muffin tin, stuffed with every pie filling you could desire and topped with flaky pie crust "cookies." They have full sized pies, of course, that you can order by the slice.

But it was the piecakes that got me. I do believe that I may actually have made little gurgling exclamations of joy, somewhat akin to the noise that llamas make when excited, as I caught site of their cup sized mini pies. There is something so utterly alluring to the notion of devoting a store to this one culinary art form. We all know that when pie crust is done right, it is one of the most heavenly things you can eat. And yet, so often it is only in our collective imagination that we have that perfect pie crust that is both flaky and moist, a juicy filling, and perhaps a scoop of ice cream on top. Pie sisters conjures all of that and more, with everything from coconut cream to strawberry rhubarb to bourbon chocolate pecan. And they even have savory pies!

I think pie is a fundamental comfort food, that one dessert that says Americana, remembered and imagined from our childhood, now often lost in the world of modern food experiences. It is really very rare that you sit down at a cafe or a restaurant and say, "I'd like a slice of pie, please." And even rarer that you might look at a menu and see the main accoutrement offered are glasses of milk and scoops of ice cream.

And that to me is the charm of Pie Sisters. You can and should come across town, if not across the country, to sit down in a sweet little cafe, order a piece of pie or two, and don't forget the glass of milk!

Amherst August 2012

Farmer's Market, Amherst 

Not having a car, I tend to discover things that have been sitting in Boston's backyard like they're a bit of a miracle. Like realizing that Amherst is only three hours away by bus. Like realizing that we even have a bus system that goes out into the "wilds." Well, lucky for me, we do. And I recently went there for a weekend visit, determined to find the best goodies they had to offer. I inadvertently landed in the quaint little town, formerly the home of Emily Dickinson, in the middle of farmer's market. And let me tell you, after suffering through Boston "farmers markets" that are as expensive as Whole Foods, it was with something like euphoria that I dallied amongst dirt cheap veggies, plates of watermelon, beautiful home grown flowers, and even handmade brooms. Oh, and I did I mention the bakery stall?

Not a bad introduction to a town, eh? But my first official stop was at the Black Sheep Deli on, I'm not kidding, Main Street. Yes, it's the kind of town that still has a "Main St." and I advise you to go there for cookies or a sandwich at the Black Sheep, a ramshackle hippy joint that is renowned for their bread and goodies.

Driving through fields of green and lovely, shadowy forest, past paint-chipped barns, I found myself near Haydenville, at a swank little place called Bread Euphoria (perhaps coincidentally, they are also responsible for the goodies at the Amherst farmer's market).

This pretty little place is half pottery studio half bakery, with a sweet patio to sit on, surrounded by lanterns and tall summer flowers. May I recommend starting with the avocado sandwich that come with oh-so-good potato chips (homemade, we speculate).

Just be sure to leave room for dessert, as the bakery case has everything from strawberry buttercream cupcakes to sublime lemon and blueberry tarts, peanut butter crumbles, and even galettes.

But I must say, besides the good company, the highlight of the weekend was actually seeing the bridge of flowers in Clayburn Falls. The town has taken a pedestrian bridge and turned it into a garden. There is something really magical about this place and I highly recommend a visit.

Do go:

Bridge of Flowers

Black Sheep Deli

Bread Euphoria

Amherst farmers market

Vermont August 2012

Mr. Bear at the Orvis Store in Arlington 

Ah, Vermont. Don't be fooled by the map showing major routes that you can take to traverse the state. Prepare yourself for wee little roads dotted with "moose crossing" signs. The good news is, Vermont is so lovely that you won't care if your tires are being slowly flayed off your car. Case in point, as we bounced over an unpaved road to Grafton, I stared at the lush green forest that arched above us into a canopy, dappling the road with filtered light, and I saw what might've inspired Robert Frost's line, "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep." There is a cool verdancy to the thickly forested land that seems like the kind of magic that would lure Hansel and Gretel further and further in, their trail of crumbs mysteriously disappearing. I was interrupted from this thought, however, when we rounded a corner and saw a bear crossing the road. My companion seemed quite delighted at this turn of events, while I stabbed at the auto-lock and squeaked for her to roll up her windows.

Near Bear Central 

And the bear was not the first wildlife sighting of the weekend. Packs of wild turkeys, kamikaze squirrels, fuzzy little chipmunks, and trout the size of bread loaves were duly noted by the Bakery Babe. There's no getting around it: there's nature in Vermont. Luckily, there are also many humans who take inordinate amounts of pride in making really good food.

In the town of Bennington, we were treated to Cafe Nova Mae, an old-timey cafe with good looks and a tempting sweets case. The service was a bit slow, but altogether it's the sort of place you could happily while away a few hours over cofee.

Alas, all that glitters is not gold in Bennington. Just down the street, we stopped in at the intriguing "Crazy Russian Girls" bakery, only to find that despite warm cookies straight from the oven and cupcakes that looked like schnauzers, the bakery itself had a bit of gloom to it, with sparse shelves and a few bits of frosting that was beginning to crust over.

Feeling somewhat in need of a cheery thought, we fled next door to the Village Chocolate Shop.

But as we entered what should've been the cutest store in the entirety of Vermont, I quickly noted a plethora of cellophane badness, the absolute lack of the scent of chocolate, and two large "chocolate" moose that looked like their origins were strictly scatological.

Empty handed, we landed with some desperation at the Bakkerij Krijnen, an unassuming little building on the outskirts of town that has only the sign "Bakery" as any form of identification to the passerby. But trust me, it's worth hunting down. Inside you will find a bright Dutch bakery with exquisite frangipane tarts, pies, and cookies made with the best cocoa and marzipan.

This is exactly the sort of bakery I dream of stumbling into by chance on a quiet country road. At prices that are not too dear, you will walk out with a tower of goodies.

But for those seeking a truly unique Vermont experience, I suggest you proceed from Bennington to Shaftsbury, where you will find the Chocolate Barn on Historic Route A.

Now, I know that normally things which end in "barn" are not good (Liquor Barn, Dress Barn, Yarn Barn, etc.). But in this instance, you are to swerve, parachute, or walk on bended knee if you must to get thee to the Chocolate Barn. Why? Inside lurks the most heavenly, rich, creamy, substantial homemade ice cream that you will ever devour. I opted for the maple walnut, and my face was quickly attached to a thick cream tower that was splendid with maple and absolutely packed with walnuts. It was magnificent. It was bloody good. And it was devoured so fast that I did not stop to take a picture. So you'll have to find out for yourself what the world's best ice cream cone looks like. But I can leave you with some idea of the other goodies that one might procure at the Chocolate Barn.

There were, of course, many treats of the inedible variety. Splashing about in idealic Lake Shaftsbury with a some very energetic water monkeys, lounging on the cool screened porch and drinking Pimms with good friends, oggling fishing lures that looked like rock-star hair extensions at the Orvis Headquarters, fesh corn from the farm down the lane, and even trowling the local thrift sale for goodies. But I have to tell you, the very best treat of the weekend was something that simply cannot be bought in a store. Our gracious host brought out an amazing breakfast treat: maple syrup made from the trees on her land. In a quart jar. Served with a ladle. This is the kind of lux food indulgence that makes my heart and my blood sugar soar. A few puddles of this glorious stuff on blueberry pancakes gave me secret ambitions to move to Vermont permanently.

Do go:

The Chocolate Barn, Historic Route 7A, Shaftsbury, VT 05262

Nova Mae Cafe, 512 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201

Bakkerij Krijnen, 1001 Main St, Bennington, VT 05201

New York City June 2012

NYC Magnolia Bakery: The Babe Needs Her Smelling Salts!

I have to be careful in describing Magnolia Bakery, because the temptation to break into frenzied, heightened phrases of elation is rather pressing. There are many times when a place gains a reputation, puts out a cookbook, has lines out the block, and once you finally go, you think, "Seriously, what was the hype about?" That is NOT the case with Magnolia Bakery, a shabby-chic bakery in the heart of the village that is justifiably legendary for their cupcakes. As I walked into a small bakery with mixers running frosting in the background, plump & bulging cakes set in the window, rows of cupcakes with frosting of robin's egg blue, old-time Depression-Era green, and pretty-in-pink, I inhaled deeply, and very nearly swooned. Yes, the Babe needed her smelling salts, so taken was she with the intangible feeling of having arrived at your best Grandma's house circa 1920.

What is the key to a really good bakery, I often ask myself. More and more I think it is this: don't try to reinvent the wheel. The oldies but goodies don't need to be fiddled with, they just need to be made well. Magnolia Bakery takes those things we remember from our childhoold, like icebox cake (wafers layered with whipped cream that turn into the most marvelous cake after they've set), and makes them without apology. In an age where many bakers feel obliged to run on about their creme brulee crystals and salted lavender foam toppings, it's a delight to finally come face to face with dainties done right.

And boy, are these dainties wicked!

And why are the cupcakes so famous, you ask? Well, I can't say much more than this: I bit into a light-as-air cake and soft cloud of sweet icing and my brain went limp. I can't tell you what it tasted like, just that it jolted me into a state of zen enlightenment, a state that I intend to revisit at every possible opportunity. No need for a thousand years of meditating, just belly up to the cupcake case and go nutty.

And if cuppies do nothing for you, may I recommend the many kinds of mini cheesecakes?

One visit, and I submit you will understand why New Yorkers will wait in a line out the door in the middle of December with little icicles hanging off their noses just to get in an order of cupcakes. So do go. Grandma is waiting for you.

Crumbs Bake Shop NYC: In n' Out Cupcakes

Don't be fooled by their title; Crumbs Bake Shop has anything but the leftovers. What I found was the quintissential NYC sugar pitstop. There are no chairs or space to linger. You go into one of their many locations and get straight to business. The cupcakes are not situated to entice or bewitch, rather they are loaded on racks just tall enough to fit them. The expectation is not so much that you'll linger, but that you already know what you want.

With flavors like blueberry swirl and cheesecake brownie, you might just have to order one of each. And if you are in a party mind, try one of their gigantic cupcakes that will feed four people handsomely.

I had a birthday cupcake, which was simple yellow cake and lovely chocolate frosting with a halo of sprinkles.

I have to say, this cupcake was not too expensive, the cake was light, and the frosting was quite pleasant. I made the mistake of eating an entire one on my own and it was several hours before I could contemplate another nibble.

Perhaps there is an original Crumbs bakery floating around NYC that is richly quaint and charming. But until I find it, I'll say that Crumbs is a great source of well-priced cupcakes that you can drop into anytime and snark out with a party-full of goodies.

NYC Fine Food Emporium:
A Worm in the Big Apple

There's always a certain thrill about arriving in NYC and walking down the sidewalk in a canyon of silver buildings, hives of neon lights, honking taxis, subway grates spouting plumes of smoke, and New Yorkers dashing like irate road runners through traffic. And for the Babe, the most pressing sense of thrill is the certainty that on any given block in the city, there is a multiplicity of eating opportunities. 

Prior to my trip there this weekend, I would've said that you can't go wrong in NYC. Pick a bakery and dive in. While hanging around for broadway tickets on W. 49th Street, I saw what looked to be a promising Zabar's knockoff: Fine Foods Emporium. Feeling a bit peckish, I wandered in and found an enormous dessert case of every conceivable bar, cheesecake, brownie, and parfait. Truly, I thought I'd discovered some unknown treasure.

Everything looked good. And expensive. But in NYC, one must learn not to flinch at the idea that a cupcake costs $7. Or so I told myself as I buckled at the sight of this flaming beauty:

It was the red velvet cupcake to lay ruin and waste to all others. The Big Mac of cupcakes. It was enormous, and had looks like no pastry I'd laid eyes on before. I snapped it up and was barely on the sidewalk before I popped this weighty devil out and stuffed it in my mouth. But, OH, what sorrow. What tragedy. What a ding dang rip-off. The icing had the distinct flavor of dairy product that has gone off and may or may not be presenting a bacterial danger. And the cake had such an overdose of salt that I couldn't taste anything else. Bad cream cheese and a cup of salt. I'd been had. And there, flat and slithered on the sidewalk, lay my prospects of a sublime eating marathon for my weekend in NYC.

I can say with total certainty that you should shut your eyes and plug your ears as you walk past the Fine Food Emporium; resist the siren call of these bad-tasting beauties. 

But don't despair, friends. I had 2.5 days in the city. Do you really think I let one bad cupcake stop me? Stay tuned for my pilgramage to such shrines as Magnolia Bakery, Tea & Sympathy, and Crumbs Bakery...and even, drum roll, THE RUSSIAN TEA ROOM!

San Miguel De Allende, Mexico June 2012

I will admit, I left for San Miguel de Allende with visions of Mexican pastries piled up high on silver trays and delivered with elegant little tongs while sitting in carved wood chairs, possibly with a lone guitarist strumming in the corner. "Another cinnamon snail, Senorita Pastela?" Why, yes, thank you! But as with all adventures, they rarely turn out as one expects. San Miguel is a beautiful town with many sublime little corners of old beauty. But it is micheladas, a wicked refresco consisting of a base mix (tamarind? V-8? Every bar has its own secret mix), beer, lime juice, and a salted rim that seem to be on every menu, and a raft of highly edible savories that populate every table. Not so much with the cupcakes and cafe lattes. But as I said, it may not matter much in the end. When in Rome...

While it's true that I did cavort on ancient pyramids, witness the amazing pageantry of the vaille de maize celebration, and stroll about ridiculously photogenic cobblestone streets in a michelada haze, I did also find a few sweet nibbles. Mexican pastries for the most part stay away from butter and veer toward light and flaky. The cinnamon pastries mostly seem to be more like rolls with flakes of whole cinnamon bark scattered throughout.

Cake tends to be decorated with elaborate fruit toppings that are very edible (but I beg you, make sure it is from a good source. Unwashed fruit = pain).

On the outskirts of town, out in the suburbs, you can find larger supermarkets with goodies for sale.

But in all seriousness, the very best pastry I ate in San Miguel de Allende was sold from the back of an old Ford truck with bountiful rows of fat doughnuts and custard horns lined up. The local doughnut lady pulls up by the church, opens the back of her camper shell, and the whole neighborhood knows to descend and claim a haul of plump pillowy goodness. Dodgy? Perhaps. Legal? Who knows! No photo evidence shall be tendered; the identity of the Queen of Mexican Doughnuts is mine alone to know. But trust me, she is there, on dusty cobblestone streets, amongst a cacophony of street dogs, chickens, church bells, and backfiring '72 chevies. But you will have to venture outside the picture-perfect town center to find her. Such pastry rewards are for the brave, my friends. For all others, there's always a cold michelada and a bowl of chips looking out on the peaceful Jardin. Hey, either way works for the me!

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