Brazil: The Ugly (or the kinda weird)

Monday, August 8th, 2011 | Travel | No Comments

Brazil’s dessert landscape has a few more curiosities:

1. Halls (yes, the company that makes your cough drops) are candy.  This realization dawned on me after seeing everyone from street vendors to grocery stores to juice bars hawking them alongside other prepackaged sweets.  At first I thought, “Wow, Brazilians must have 24/7 sore throats or something– ick.”  But then I peered closely and read some of the flavor names, such as “Halls Creamy: Tropical Passion Fruit with Chocolate Center.”  It’s so weird because they still sell the menthol-eucalyptus-cherry-lyptus-honey-horror flavors right alongside the sweet ones, but they just have a higher “Halls Power” rating of, like, 5 out of 5 for “extra forte-lyptus,” rather than a 1 out of 5 for “Halls Creamy: Strawberry Cream.”  Do you think Brazilian kids beg for them when they’re <cough> sick like my brothers and I used to beg for completely ineffective cherry Ludens?

2. Just like the Brits, Brazilians just loooove biscuits.  I would say that this love is similar to Americans and their cookies, but it’s different: there are several chain stores that are literally devoted to biscuits, Casa do Biscoito being one of them.  Inside these yellow-hued wonderlands, you’ll find enormous, heaping towers of biscuits in every kind of packaging imaginable, from rolls to boxes to sacks.  It’s a feast for the eyes, if not necessary the palate.  Are wafer-based items included?  You betcha.  What would the rest of the world do without their wafers?  Despite looking down my nose at them as a young dessertatarian, because I thought they were too cheap and light to be proper sweets, I have now come to appreciate their subtle charms and pleasant crunch.  The wafers I tried from the Casa, however, sent my development back about a year, as I tried to go for the chocolate flavor, and, as already discussed in a previous post, found them to be totally unsatisfying. I also had to close my eyes during each bite for fear that some of the wafer shards would come flying up and blind me.  On the other hand, they were so dry that the billions of crumbs that ended up in my lap just blew right off when I got up.  I hope I didn’t blind anyone around me, though.

3. Do you like vaguely sweet corn pudding?  Because the Brazilians do.  It’s a typical street vendor food that you might think is the aforementioned quindim, but it’s more yellow-yellow what with the corn, rather than eggy golden-yellow.  It’s called curau and comes in a dry-ish form wrapped in a corn husk, tamale-style, or in a cup for the wetter version.  They both taste… fine… just fine.

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Brazil: The Bad

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 | chocolatiers, Travel | 3 Comments

I know that I’m jeopardizing Brazil’s status as one of the world’s great dessert oases and will therefore lose some of you readers here, but it simply must be said: there is almost no fine chocolate culture in that country.  I confirmed this with the American owner of our bed and breakfast in Paraty (the fabulous Pousada Guaraná), who had to go all the way to São Paulo for a decent-enough cocoa to make his chocolate breakfast cake.  He said there just isn’t the demand for fine chocolate as there is in New York, for example, where even the lowliest of bodegas at least stocks Lindt. 

As far as I could tell, if you’re on the hunt for chocolate, you have two choices: Garoto or Cacau Show.  Garoto is your average, run-of-the-mill, store-bought chocolate that comes in all manner of Euro-style bon-bons and bars, sort of like Cadbury’s in the U.K. or Hershey’s in the U.S.  But I tell you this:  Garoto is not even as good as Hershey’s.  It’s a little gritty, totally waxy, and flavorless– like cheap Polish or Russian chocolate.  Are you shocked that it’s now owned by Nestlé after being founded by a German-Brazilian in the 1920s?  If you’re hankering for chocolate, eating some Garoto will be such a frustratingly bad experience, it’s probably not even worth it.  You’ll moan and cry in despair and hope that at least there’s a Cacau Show store in town somewhere that you can hop a cab to.  Cacau Show is the only “high-end” chocolate chain that I could find.  It was actually founded by a 17 year old Brazilian kid in 1988 and is still wholly owned by the original company, which is a real feat in the monopolistic world of foodstuffs.  The chocolate is unevenly good.  The bars and individual chocolates were a disappointment and lacked a rich cocoa flavor.  The brightly-wrapped truffles, however, were actually quite good and come in flavors like coconut, chili pepper, and hazelnut.  They were probably the only chocolate I had in Brazil that I enjoyed and filled that terrible void that I was beginning to feel very desperate about.

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Brazil: The Good

Monday, August 1st, 2011 | Travel | 4 Comments

Brazil provides the dessertatarian with one of her most basic needs: SUGAR.  I can’t help but use all screamin’ caps, because, like, seriously, Brazil has a lot of sugar– they even run their cars on it in the form of ethanol.  The heft of the typical Brazilian table sugar packet is considerably more than those in the US, too.  On my recent trip to fabulous Rio de Janeiro and the little colonial town of Paraty, I did indeed ingest a lot of sugar in a “when in Rome…” kind of way, of course.

Sucos (or juice) purveyors are plentiful in coastal towns like Rio and often have surfer dude names like “Winds” and “Beach Sucos.”  Here you can try all manner of wonderful juices, many of which are made with fruits you never even knew existed (if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere).  My favorite was the highly caffeinated and addictive açai/guarana mix, which is served in a tall ice cream sundae glass.  It’s not juice so much as a melty sorbet that is piled up about an inch over the top of the glass, and it somehow stays there without overflowing.  My first thought at this presentation was “I’ll never see the bottom of this glass,” but then after a few ravenous snorts, snarfs, and brain freezes, it would just… disappear.  It is so dark purple, it almost looks chocolatey and has a pleasantly gritty, rich texture, with the flavor of black currants.  A few others I tried were caju (or cashew fruit, has a putrid smell not unlike durian, but the flavor isn’t all bad and does grow on you when you begin to also taste something akin to pineapple); graviola (or soursop, smooth, creamy, similar to melon or pear in flavor and a favorite),acerola (acidic, berry-like, quite tart), melon (so light and sweet, another winner), guava, cupuaçu (acidic, similar to watery orange juice), and fruta do conde (or sugar-apple, tasty).  At night, sucos gave way to caipirinhas, which are fruity, sugary drinks made with cachaça (or fermented sugarcane alcohol).  The usual ones are lime-based, but I saw lots with passion fruit, mango, and even one with slices of cashew fruit, which has a creepily meat-like, um, flesh.

Coconut is also featured heavily in Brazilian desserts– good thing I love it, as it is one of those oddly polemical ingredients.  I wonder what happened to people in their early childhoods to make them hate the taste of coconut?  Did their first-grade teacher whack them with an Almond Joy bar, rather than a ruler, perhaps?  Probably the best coconut dessert is also the simplest: cocada (or coconut candy), which comes in white sugar and brown sugar varieties.  It’s also nicely shelf-stable, which would make it the perfect gift to bring home, if not for its brick-like weight.

Brazilian bakeries and sweets shops are wonderfully ubiquitous, from self-serve neighborhood joints offering homemade flans, puddings, and cakes, to the famous confeitarias of Manon and Columbo, where you can get French-style patisseries with a Brazilian flair.  One of the most popular items is the bright yellow quindim or quindão, which is a kind of puddingy custard flan thing made with tons of egg yolks (a Portuguese technique) and coconut.  Quindim actually means “girlish charms” in a Bantu language, which was spoken by African slaves in Brazil in the 17th Century, so you can learn your triangle trade history while you eat. When it’s sobremesa (or dessert) time, here are some more of the heavenly words that your pocket translator (or fluent friend) will conjure for you: dulce de leche, ice cream, tapioca, lemon/lime (you’re never sure which, since they’re both oddly called limãos), fresh fruit sorbet, guava paste, and pastry cream.

You’ll be happy and unsurprised to know that the next posts are entitled “Brazil: The Bad” and “Brazil: The Ugly (or just kinda weird, actually).”


Gayle’s Chocolates: A Detroit-Area Treasure

Friday, January 21st, 2011 | chocolatiers, Travel | 1 Comment

My mom’s the best.  Several years ago, she sent me back to Brooklyn with a humble-looking bar of something called “Gayle’s Chocolates.”  She always sends me home with so many wonderful sweets, that I didn’t think anything of it other than “Yay, chocolate.”  We’ve got some of the best chocolate in the world here in NYC: Jacques Torres, La Maison du Chocolate, and L.A. Burdick, to name but a few.  So when I finally opened my little dark chocolate bar of Gayle’s and took a bite, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be… not just good, but absolutely exquisite.  Smooth, sweet, and decadent, it was the perfect chocolate.  How could I have made light of my mom’s taste?

On my next trip (and subsequent visits) back to Motown, my mom took me on a Gayle’s pilgrimage.  The maroon-colored store is a soda-shoppe/café/lounge mix with lots of chocolate molds of shoes in clear handbags decorating the walls.  It’s so darn cozy and inviting, I would like to move in.  Observe:

Accustomed to Jacques Torres’s insanely good chocolate chip cookies, I had to see if Gayle could pick up the gauntlet– turns out she can.  That cookie was almost just as good– it was maybe just a tad too salty.  But it had the same soft butteriness and the same actual layers of chocolate.  In fact, the chocolate layer was so pronounced, the top and bottom of the cookie actually separated at one point.  Extreme!

One confection I’ve never seen before: the Cakeless Fruit Cake, containing “All the good stuff without the bad!!!”  This chocolate-covered treat must have been created using a sweet little bundt pan and is indeed fruit cake-like, with dried apricots, pears, cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, brandied cherries, and pecans, all sitting atop a soft gingerbread cookie.  Of course, the candy makers couldn’t resist putting a huge dollop of chocolate ganache in the center.  My head spin-eth.

A word on the shape of their chocolate bars, which aren’t the usual large, thin rectangle model.  They are, instead, reminiscent of gold bars in their thickness.  While I respect their attempt to be different from the likes of Hershey’s, there’s a reason to keep your bars thin: you have to be able to easily break off pieces.  With Gayle’s, you’re either forced to chomp down on the bar yourself, all but guaranteeing that you gobble the whole thing up by yourself, or share it with someone who doesn’t mind your copious amounts of mouth-watering-induced slobber – OR – you have to harness the power of a thousand suns and try to break it yourself, perhaps wedging it against a hardwood floor or jabbing at it with the back of a hammer, and just about suffering an exploded brain or broken hand in the process.  Gayle’s: please change this.  Are you trying to force me to buy one of your soft truffles instead?  Because I will.  So help me God I will.

Even if you’ve got no plans to head over to Royal Oak, MI any time soon to check out the Detroit Zoo, fear not: you can order Gayle’s online, and there are several locations at Detroit Metro Airport, so you can grab some to sustain you on your flight to Osaka.

Gayle’s Chocolates
417 S. Washington
Royal Oak, MI  48067
Also at DTW

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French Délices Part 5: Wedding Bliss

Friday, July 2nd, 2010 | Events, Travel | No Comments

It was about 12:30am– many hours into the wedding reception of good friends at a château in southern France.  I was busy working on my substantial cheese course as a procession of waiters carrying fancy giant pastries, cakes, and puddings began to wind its way between our tables and into a dedicated dessert room.  I sneaked over to this magical chamber to check out the spread before the other guests could descend upon it.  And what wonders did I see– 17 (count ’em) different delights!  The pièce de résistance was a traditional French wedding croquembouche, a tower of profiteroles stuck together with caramel and decorated with candies and sparklers.  My cup, it overfloweth-ed!

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French Délices Part 4: Pastry Passion

Saturday, June 26th, 2010 | bakeries, Travel | No Comments

It was my 21st birthday, and I was studying in Aix-en-Provence.  The program had just started, and I didn’t know anyone yet, so who cared about my little-ole’ big 2-1?  I turned to our local patisserie, Le Pavé du Roy, to ease my sorrow.  It was the castel praliné that caught my eye– square, powdered-sugary, layered, and creamy-looking, would it be any good?  It wasn’t my type– there wasn’t a hint of chocolate or fruit, but dang, I thought, I’m 21, maybe I should try something new?  I stood outside that shop and took my first bite of utter heaven–  layers of pastry dough, crunchy meringue, and hazelnut cream sent my head spinning.  One of my program mates called my name, but I couldn’t respond.  I was in a pastry passion– my heart and soul were lost forever.  When I got back to the States, I searched in vain for the castel praliné.  I stopped in every French patisserie over the years to no avail.  No one had even heard of it.  And then a pastry chef at Almondine informed me that I would NEVER find the castel in this country because the sugar here is too coarse.  Devastated, I bided my time until I could return to my long-lost love…

After ten endless years, I did come back.  Would the castel be different?  Would I be different?  I worried.  But when my castel and I were in each other’s presence again, there was no doubt that the love would be stronger than ever.  After sating my desire, my head turned towards other temptations, such as a chocolate cakey delight and a chocolate-raspberry-pear hybrid.  These were equally amazing.  I tried to explain in my now-limited French how much I adore the unassuming Le Pavé du Roy patisserie to the other patrons there.  They gave me blank stares.  Of course this place was good– there would be another revolution if every little hole-in-the-wall patisserie in every crappy town wasn’t good.

In my travels, I encountered some over-the-top fancy pastries, too, that were way outta my league.  They looked like ottomans, and were almost scientific in their perfection.  The ones from Richart were accompanied by geologic-like schematical diagrams, so that you could see cross sections of exactly what was in each masterpiece.  They had serious names likes “Fire & Ice” and “Sun’s Zest.”  After scratching my head a bit trying to read the pastry “maps,” I discovered the one I would have chosen had I grown an extra stomach: “Crisp Flavors,” made up of layers of green lemon and caramel mousses, caramel-infused madeleine cookies, almond nougat, salted butter caramel cream, and toasted almond dacquoise.  Just writing this description made me feel faint– does anyone know where I put my smelling salts?

Final note: there is a specialty in Lyon called praline rouge, which you find topping many pastries.  The first time I saw it, I attributed the red color to a fruit, but a pastry proprietor told me that it’s basically just nuts (usually almonds or hazelnuts) ground up with butter, sugar, and some red food coloring; she had no idea why this trend started, and they never use any color other than red.  Weird.  Also not that tasty, really, because it’s a little “one-note” and makes you crave raspberries for some reason…

If you ever find yourself in Aix-en-Provence, by the way, hie thyself to:

Le Pavé du Roy
9, cours d’Orbitelle
T: +33 0442262281

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French Délices Part 3: Ice Cream and Gelato

Friday, June 25th, 2010 | ice cream, Travel | 2 Comments

Also a major player on the French dessert scene is the glace, or ice cream.  Nice has a famous gelateria called Fenocchio, which, funnily enough, has a rival gelateria called Pinocchio.  The rivalry converges at Place Rosetti in the Old Town, where Fenocchio has its flagship location while Pinocchio has two across the way from each other.  We all benefit from ice cream wars, don’t we?  I only went to Fenocchio, and what an abundance of flavors– 96 to be exact!  Of the many delightful parfums, imagine verbena (a flower), beer, vanilla-rose-pepper, thyme, Coca-Cola, Grand Marnier, jasmin, and chocolate-ginger.  French ice cream is delicious and often comes in the form of complicated and expensive sundaes.  I saw a few in Nice that cost 25 Euros!  Yes, they came with seven scoops of ice cream, several toppings, and whipped cream, and probably should be shared, but wow, what a price.  I accidentally purchased one of these while asking for an iced coffee in Lyon.  I said café glacé, which literally means “iced coffee,” and was brought a monster of a sundae featuring several scoops of coffee ice cream, cookies, nuts, and whipped cream for 8 Euros.  It was expensive, but very satisfying.  After consuming this, I became sleepy, so I then purchased a regular coffee.  This is the kind of mindless eating and drinking that you get in France, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I also tried an iced nougat at Brasserie Georges in Lyon, just for scientific study.  It really wasn’t tough or chewy like you’d imagine a real frozen chunk of nougat would be, but rather had that nutty flavor and candied fruit, but with a decidedly ice creamy texture.  It was tasty and a nice antidote for a rich meal.  Our evening was punctuated with the waiters firing up an old-timey barrel organ to play Happy Birthday, which would be followed by a baked Alaska-type dessert garnished with a live sparkler being placed in front of a lucky birthday boy or girl.

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French Délices Part 2: Macaron Madness

Friday, June 4th, 2010 | Store-bought, Travel | 1 Comment

Macarons are the little gemstones of the pastry world.  They come in every color and flavor, and are highly sought-after.  Some of them are even come covered in sparkles!  A stale one is so sad– you hold it delicately and take a tentative bite, then the cookie collapses into shards and dust, and you must console yourself with the tiny bit of filling that’s inside.  But a fresh one is a glorious contrast in textures, with meringue-almond cookies that are crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside.  Then there’s the delicious filling, sometimes a cream base, sometimes more a fruit jelly base.

My favorite place in NYC to find a good macaron is Almondine, with locations in D.U.M.B.O. and Park Slope.  I found that French pâtisseries offer so many more interesting flavors than just your average chocolate or strawberry.  I saw mandarin orange, lychee, zucchini-mint, salted caramel, white peach-saffron, grapefruit, Earl Grey tea, green lemon-ginger, cola, rum-raisin, and marshmallow, to name a few.  Perhaps French pastry chefs like to experiment as much with macarons as their American counterparts do with ice cream.

Here are a few samples from different places in Lyon:

I also learned about the existence of both savory macarons, like black olive, gorgonzola-sesame, and tomato-basil, and sweet and savory hybrids, like duck foie gras with apple-spice, pimento-pepper, and carrot-cumin.  Maybe they would have been nice to try for anthropological reasons, but I had valuable stomach space to preserve!

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French Délices Part 1: The Common Crèpe

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010 | Store-bought, Travel | 1 Comment

I just returned from a wonderful trip to my dessert motherland, France.  This blog cannot possibly express the extent of my insane reverence for the French people’s mastery of sugar and cream.  They have dairy products we don’t even have words for in English, for Pete’s sake!  All I can do is show you some examples of the many delights (or délices) I had along the way.

I begin with the humble crêpe.  Maybe you’ve had one slathered with gel-like “strawberry” sauce at some crêperie in the Lower East Side.  Or you’ve tried a specimen from one of seemingly countless NYC street fairs, or even at the Bastille Day festival put on by the French Institute.  It’s fun to watch them use that little wooden wand to work their magic, isn’t it?  And how wonderful that even the bad ones are pretty good, right?

My favorite crêperie in all the land is Crêpes à Gogo in Aix-en-Provence, a small and chichi college town located just north of Marseille, and my old stomping ground when I studied abroad there.  It’s located in a depressing underground passageway beneath a traffic circle, but they’ve been around since 1979, so they must be doing something right.  They make both savory crêpes (aka galettes) and sweet crêpes:
We began with a forestière galette (ham, swiss cheese, and mushrooms) made with buckwheat flour.  It was plump with filling– a nice amount, but not sickening– and we (perhaps erroneously) felt semi-healthy for getting something with a buckwheat base.  Then we moved on to our lemon and sugar crêpe, made with generous squeezes of a lemon wedge (not that bottled stuff) and lots of sugar.  Yes, you can get Nutella and whipped cream, but the simplicity (not to mention caloric savings) of lemon and sugar are heavenly.  The secret seems to be in the repeated application of toppings after each fold of the crêpe.  Our crêpe was warm, moist, refreshing, sweet, springy, and light.  It was so juicy that the syrup dripped on my purse and leg, and, amazingly, also on my partner’s leg and shoe.  It was pretty windy, but I guess I must chalk my messiness up to being in a crêpe daze.  Adieu, perfect crêpes… until we meet again.

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British Sweeties: Candy Bars and Biscuits

Friday, April 30th, 2010 | chocolatiers, Store-bought, Travel | 1 Comment

Since Kraft recently bought Cadbury, I’m extremely worried that the Flake bar will start tasting like American cheese, so I decided to stock up while I was in Scotland a month ago.  It was ’bout time for a tasting:

Wispa & Flake bars are basically textured Cadbury chocolate.  It just goes to show what a difference texture makes, because I’m not a huge fan of plain Cadbury chocolate, which they sell in the form of the Dairy Milk bar.  I think it’s too rich, milky, and it has a tinge of raisin flavor.  Wispas & Flakes solve this problem by making the chocolate lighter.

Wispas are full of tiny little air bubbles, which somehow produce a light and silky chocolate taste– almost like a meltaway.  I adore them, but they are pretty hard to get in the U.S., so my aunt kindly brings me yearly stocks of them, which I gobble up faster than I care to admit.  The only person I’ve ever shared them with is my chocolate-crazy niece, Maddy, who eats them in quiet reverence at the tender age of seven.  Well done, little one!  For some insane reason, Cadbury stopped making the Wispa in 2003, but a public outcry caused them to come back “for a limited time” in 2007.  Then after more squirming and rage from the public (why must they play with our minds with this whole “limited time” thing?!?!?!), the world gave a great sigh of relief when the Wispa was brought back permanently in 2008.

Flakes are made of bark-like ribbons.  Buying an intact specimen in the store, far less keeping that way across the Atlantic, is almost impossible, but somehow the one in the photo made it, that is until I ate it.  It must be pointed out, by the way, that a soft serve ice cream cone in Britain without a Flake sticking out of it is like a kitty without fur: naked and sad.

Double-Decker bars get their name from the iconic British double-decker buses.  They have a layer of crunchy, chocolatey biscuit, and a layer of nougat.  I do get that hint of raisin flavor somehow, but I like it here.

The Crunchie claims to be a chocolate bar filled with a honeycomb center.  Since chewing on wax is out of the question, the next best thing is chewing on something called a honeycomb, but is actually a super crunchy, tooth-achingly sweet, golden candy.  Thank goodness for the nice amount of chocolate coating to provide some balance.

While doing a scotch of research for this post, I discovered that Kraft also owns: Lu (makers of the wonderful Petit Écolier chocolate biscuits), Côte D’or (the Cadbury’s of Belgium), Marabou (the Cadbury’s of Sweden), Milka (the Hershey’s of much of Europe), and Toblerone (the triangular-shaped Swiss chocolate bar with crunchy bits of nougat).  Kraft’s all like, “Bring it, Nestlé.”

I also would be remiss if I didn’t write a quick word about Britain’s love of biscuits, which are often a chocolate & dry cookie combo and can be eaten at almost any time of day, but most often make an appearance at tea times.  Digestive Biscuits, a deceptively healthy sounding example, are my favorite.  They’re simply delicious.  You can get them without chocolate, but why would you?  They’re like wheat cookies or something– still sweet, but also a bit worthy, as my mother says.

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