Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures in International Candy

On Sunday, I went down to the river and took a stroll along the south bank Thames Path, starting at London Bridge, heading west, and crossing to the north side of the river at Waterloo. From there, I wandered north to Covent Garden. I really enjoy this particular walk because it ends up in an area that is at once both a tourist attraction and a place filled with hidden treasures if you only turn down the wrong side street. The tourism brings in phenomenal street performers, who have to audition to secure an acting space at Covent Garden. The old covered market dates back hundreds of years, but has been converted into small shopping mall. Shooting off the central square, alleys the width of two donkey carts hold boutiques, pubs, small theaters, cafes, and the like.

I don’t know how I’ve managed to miss it before, but along one of the more traveled roads (Garrick Street) is a candy store. It’s not just any candy store. It specializes in international stuff as well as limited edition pieces.

The unfortunately named Cyber Candy (it sound like it should be a novelty and gag shop) has two stores, one in London and one in Brighton, U.K. The company also seems to do a good deal of business via its web site as well.

When I found the shop, I thought I’d poke around, but not buy anything, on account of it being a danger zone for me. When I first arrived in London back in September, I went on something of a candy bar kick. It last through November. At the time, I didn’t even think of my candy bar obsession as a phase, but looking back on all the candy I ate -- and I can name almost a dozen distinct candy bars that I ate in those three months -- it suddenly seems excessive.

The purpose of my candy bar kick was that there were a number of English or European chocolates that I had heard about, either through reading or talking to people, but had never tasted before. Then again, there were also some candies that I have had before, but not in so many years that I really couldn’t remember accurately what they were all about.

English Candy
The Double Decker (shown) is one of my favorites; it’s a layer of airy nougat and a layer of crispy puffed rice cereal embedded in soft chocolate, all covered lightly in milk chocolate. The Yorkie Bar, on the other hand, whose slogan is “It's not for Girls” and the "not" is underlined(incentive enough for me to buy it without reading the description) is nothing more than a fat rectangle of low-grade milk chocolate. The famous English Mars Bar has been through a makeover in the last decade, having once held the reputation as a super chewy, machismo, after-soccer refueling tool, but lightened up a few years back (the fillings are now whipped and thus less dense) to catch a more diversified market. In other words, it’s now practically the same as a U.S. Milky Way.

Bounty Bars seem like they are the same exact thing as a Mounds Bar in the U.S., but the Bounty Bar has coconut and milk chocolate, whereas the Mounds is dark. And of course for all bars, the chocolate in the U.K. has more sugar and less corn syrup, or sometimes no corn syrup at all. It’s the same reason name-brand sodas taste different outside the U.S.

There’s a category of English chocolate bars that I like to call “ -- only better!” Mars Bars and Bounty Bars fall into this category, being like a Milky Way or Mounds “ -- only better!” Malteasers are like Whoppers “ -- only better!” and it’s true. Malteasers are awesome. I had heard that Smarties are just like M&Ms “ -- only better!” Unfortunately, I was horrified and completely disgusted to taste an overpowering chemical flavor in the hard outer coating. These things are not candy; they are polluted pastel-colored discs from the devil!

When I was feeling less adventurous (for example after the Smarties episode), I stuck to the Cadbury section and picked a new variety on the old tried-and-true staple: solid milk chocolate, caramel filled, Turkish delight filled, fruit and nut, hazelnut, and crème egg, which can be found in bar formation as well as the egg-shaped classic. The Cadbury Twirl became a short-lived favorite of mine around the holidays, when I brought a five pack back to the U.S. and shared them with my sisters, often having them with a bit of strong coffee. It’s a glorious combination. Twirl bars are aerated rolls of chocolate that flake and crumble as you eat them, giving a new texture to otherwise mundane, but very tasty, milk chocolate. Like Twix, there are two fingers in a packet, so they’re perfect for sharing (though the old slogan was “Two for me, none for you”). They also make great pick-me-ups on long flights, so sometimes I stash a Twirl or two in my carry-on bag

I do feel the need to point out that all this candy eating was spread over several months and made up the vast majority of sweets that I ate during this time. It’s not like I was eating all this junk and coming home to Swiss rolls and Hostess cupcakes. Our flat is stocked with produce, fresh herbs, skim milk, yogurt, eggs, whole grain bread, smoked salmon and so on. A single bar of chocolate sometimes lasted several days -- really!

This is starting to sound too defensive, even for me. Doth I protest too much?

So those were some of the typical candy bars I ventured into while here. You’ll notice a distinct pattern: “candy” means chocolate.

Venturing Beyond the British Isles
Back to last Sunday ... I found this place called Cyber Candy. Inside, I could immediately tell that the goodies were grouped by country. A huge bay of shelves was dedicated to Japanese candies and snacks, which wasn’t particularly interesting to me because it mostly contained things I could get when I lived in San Francisco, like Pocky and the hilariously translated Collon Creams.

Another few shelves held specifically regional American candies, like the Idaho Spud, Valomilk, Skybar, Zagnut, and so on. Although I did take my time looking through all these selections, they’re old news to me. Back in 2004, I dedicated a few weeks of my life sampling regional sweets after reading Steve Almond’s book Candy Freak. The experience coincided with an academic paper I wrote about candy as a cultural artifact. If you’re going to be reading and writing about candy, it’s very difficult to not eat it in the process.

Still, among the American stuff at Cyber Candy, I did find some limited edition goodies, including a Java Twix. Released in Japan (and possibly not limited edition, but more likely just a regional bout of test marketing) there were sour cherry M&Ms and raspberry M&Ms. An explosion of Reese’s products have been or are being test-marketed across America. In the product line are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in a classic wrapper, a Reese’s brownie, Reese’s with nuts, the deep-dish big cup, and a white chocolate cup.

Kit Kat City
Finally, I gravitated to the Kit Kats. The Kit Kat brand is highly experimental, but it tends to release its more adventurous products in Japan and other Asian countries. I’ve heard of the Kit Kat filled with green tea flavored crème, apple crème, and strawberry crème. Cyber Candy had all those. Most people have seen the Kit Kat Chunky and the Kit Kat Chunky with Peanut Butter.

Some of the Kit Kats you probably haven’t heard of are a Japanese one that’s robed in white chocolate and flecked with vanilla bean, and a “double dark” or "double chocolate" Kit Kat, which isn't even on Wikipedia yet -- though not to be confused with Kit Kat Dark, which was released in the U.S. a few years ago and then promptly taken off the market but is wholly ubiquitous here in the U.K. (it’s constantly on sale at the grocery store, alongside 10 packs of cappuccino -- another one not on Wikipedia -- and orange flavored Kit Kats). The Kit Kat Dark might even have been revived in the U.S., though I’m not sure.

Because the Kit Kat has such an adventurous range, I felt I owed it to Nestle to dabble in its goodies. Hailing from Australia and in a shiny blue wrapper was the “New!” chunky Kit Kat Cookie Dough. The other one that tickled my fancy was Wa Guri Kit Kat, or chestnut flavored.

Two bars would keep my total to just less than £3 (about $6 USD), which still seems a bit extraordinary, but this is truly the kind of thing I consider fun. I was planning to blow a wad of leftover GPBs on candy at the airport when I leave in a few days, so I might as well spend it on some things I’ll never get to try anywhere else.

The cookie dough Kit Kat was very good, with a nice weight to it. There’s something quite visceral about sinking your teeth into a candy bar that has real heft. The cookie dough layer tasted more like that cheap peanut butter filling you find in mass produced chocolate bars, only without an outright salty-peanut flavor. There was nothing dough-like about it. But it was still very yummy. The chestnut Kit Kat surprised me in that it was covered in white chocolate rather than milk chocolate. As a matter of pride, I generally despise white chocolate. It’s not chocolate. Nevertheless, the chestnut lent the bar a coffee flavor that I wasn’t expecting.

Two days later, I had to go back to Covent Garden to meet a friend back so I got there 45 minutes early and hit the candy store a second time. Again, I limited myself to a £3, though I went over budget this time by a few pence. I picked up an eggnog Cote d’Or bar filled with eggnog goo, a straw shaped piece of Moomin licorice from Finland with pear and vanilla yogurt filling, and a small package of Tim Tams, which are chocolate “biscuits” from Australia. “Biscuit” loosely means “cookie,” but also includes anything with a wafer. For example, those Kit Kats that are always on sale in the supermarket are shelved in the biscuit aisle rather than the chocolate aisle. The Tim Tams appear to be a chocolate finger cookie or sandwich cookie with chocolate cream that’s covered again in milk chocolate.

I haven’t had a chance yet to try all the things I bought, and my little stash of international candies is slowly growing out of proportion for someone who is about to pack up all her things and leave the country. Good thing they’ll all fit in my carry-on luggage.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Postcard from Athens: Booze-o Ouzo

My fancy night out, and how it ended badly

My sister and I spent five days in Athens last month. This is the story of our one fancy dinner outing, and why at 2 a.m. things got ugly.

Friday night arrived, and we decided to try and eat somewhere special. We looked through some of the ads in the hotel literature, flipped through the expensive restaurants section of our guidebook, and decided to seek out an upscale and hip placed called Pasaj, which was described as having modern Greek food.

The ultimate goal of this meal for me was to get one glass of really good ouzo. Pasaj is tucked down a mall arcade area, so we weren’t right on the street -- not an ideal spot for people- watching.

The décor certainly suggested “modern” and “upscale,” with a slight nod toward minimalism without being sterile, and the menu was still within our budget. A huge basket of fresh breads arrived, as did a plate of mixed olives. The amount of bread we received could have been enough for dinner on its own.

We started by asking the server for help ordering some Tsipouro, an anise-free ouzo. A small bottle arrived with two high-ball glasses and a small tub of ice. Even on the rocks, the stuff seemed more like vodka than ouzo -- throat-burningly strong and crystalline -- and not to our liking at all. We actually sent it back (we offered to pay for it, but it never showed up on the bill) and got a different small bottle of the more traditional ouzo, which was stronger than I expected, but much smoother and more flavorful.

We ordered two mezes to share: taramousalata, a dense dip made of pureed cod roe, and a trio of small fishes smoked, tinned, and pickled.

The taramousalata, glistening with a top layer of olive oil, came with a plate of hearty sesame breadsticks. More bread. The fishes (smoked sturgeon, anchovies, and a third one that I was unsure of) came with a buttery citrus sauce, scallions, petite diced raw root vegetables, and a few adorning slices of grapefruit and orange.

The dinner was great -- a girls’ night out. But three hours and one giggly stumble back to the hotel later, we made a very bad a decision.

I could have sworn we had learned our lesson the night about getting an after-dinner drink. The problem was not the drinks. The problem was the cocktail nuts.

The night before, we ended up consuming an entire bowl of nuts and spent the next 24 hours lamenting it. I didn’t regret drinking too much. I didn’t regret eating too much bread and olive oil. But I most certainly regretted ending that little binge with a bowlful of high-fat nuts.

In our defense, this wasn’t any peanut-filler cheap mix, but a grand array of dagger-shaped almonds, crunchy hazelnuts, and pistachios still in the shell (okay, there were some peanuts, but not more than 25 percent).

So after eating at Pasaj, getting a little tipsy on ouzo, and feeling reenergize by our walk back to the hotel, we noticed that, hey, the bar’s still open!

We ordered two drinks and when they arrived, so did another bowl of irresistible nuts. We must have pushed the bowl to the edge of the table ten times, declaring, “No really. Don’t let me eat any more of these,” only to shimmy it back within reach again and again.

Sometime around 2 a.m., we made it back to our room. Sometime around 8 a.m., we both admitted that we had not actually puked, but that was subject to change.

Eventually, still a little bit hung over and entirely bloated, we huddled behind my digital camera and flipped through the photos from the night before. I nearly hurled at the sight of the anchovies, and I think my sister dry-heaved at the fish roe spread. And then we both groaned and swore off nuts “for good!” (again).

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Home Food

Where I’ve Come From, Where I’m Going

Note: This post is only marginally related to food.

I first left home and headed to college a few months’ shy of my 17th birthday. That was nearly 12 years ago. I’ve moved around a lot ever since.

I didn’t just move a lot -- I uprooted. I was young and angry, sometimes rightfully so, even in hindsight. I shunned my past, my Long Island heritage, and my family's home. Picking up and leaving the state of New York was my way of cutting all ties. I needed to go somewhere very different, and ended up at a little college in North Carolina. That didn’t last more than a few months. I couldn’t pay the tuition, despite two small scholarships and some financial aid, and was asked to leave. I drove back to suburban New York, defeated, jaded, with a heavy heart and my tail between my legs. Until I could transfer to another school in the fall, I moved back home.

I didn’t actually mind the town I grew up in, but I had a Holden Caufield attitude toward suburban life in general. I looked down on the people (“phonies”) who were so attached to that lifestyle and all the things that came with it: mega stores, chain restaurants, drive-thrus, having a bigger and better SUV/lawn/bar mitzvah/set of Christmas light than your neighbors. To this day, I’m not a suburban person (I cringe at the thought of having to own a car), but I’m well-rounded enough now to appreciate some of the things nicer aspects of my hometown -- like the beaches, good public schools, and having a mailbox where you can actually send outgoing mail -- and don’t automatically discount people anymore for choosing to live there.

No Place Home
When I left Long Island, I wasn’t looking for a new place to call “home.” I just wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t there. So I floated. I never lived at any one address for more than 12 months, until 2004, when Boyfriend and I moved into an apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. We lived there for two and half years. It was tremendously hard to leave that place.

As much as I’ve prided myself on being a traveler, I’ve found that in the past year or two I’ve begun to differentiate between experiencing the world and not having a “home.”

I was talking to a girl at a party the other night about this very thing. I could tell she didn’t understand where I was coming from. She’s a student studying in a foreign country and had recently come back from a two-week trip to Eastern Europe. My guess is she’s very wrapped up in living and traveling abroad. I think she’s a few years younger than I am. At one point, she tried to summarize what I was saying: “It’s like you need to have a base.”

I didn’t correct her, but that statement was far from what I was trying to get at. Her version seemed to imply that you can travel and live different places, but you need to have one place that is “home,” where you can always go back, where you keep your stuff. The difference for me is that I don’t want to feel like I can go back at any time -- I want to be there. I want to live in my home.

When Food Trumps ‘Home’
Of all the places I’ve lived as an adult, Northern California is where I spent the longest continuous stretch. California was where I really acquired an advanced appreciation for food and cooking. (Lucky me, too. The state matches France and Italy for its total awareness of food, from production to preparation to consumption.)

Because food plays such a central role in my life, it’s sad that I know California is not where I want to make my home. I love Northern California. I love that the 100-mile radius around any single point in the state supports such an array of climates that there is a wide variety of agriculture year-round. Good wines are easy to come by and are as bountiful as the basic wine education you can absorb just by talking to the people who work at the region’s vineyards and wine bars.

California helped shape me into the person I am today, and a great deal of my experience living there is closely associated with food. Food is vital to our being in ways that are more than just survival-based. We celebrate with it. We turn to it for comfort, or turn it down in an act of self-denial in times of distress. The taste and smell of different foods invoke memories that we can’t always quite grasp. Other times, those same senses force us to relive an exact moment in history, for better or worse.

Ultimately, though, what I learned and the experiences I had in California, and who I became as a result, weren’t fully connected to the idea of “home.”

The most important factor that was always missing was closeness with my family, both geographic and emotional. It’s painful to think back on being 16 years old and leaving, needing to shun suburbia and sever so many ties, which I did intentionally. I deliberately chose to move to a place that wasn’t easy to visit, and long-distance phone calls were not something my family could easily afford. Whether I would have a relationship with my family was suddenly in my control, and at the time, I needed it to be. I needed a good amount of distance and isolation to let some emotional wounds heal. It’s funny; it’s more difficult now to think about that overwhelming desire to be cutoff from my past than to think about what caused the wounds in the first place.

When Home Trumps Food
All those things are different now. In the coming weeks, I’ll be moving to the New York area, where I plan to see my immediate family a lot more often. I already have plans to hop on a 45-minute flight up to Buffalo to visit my older sister during Memorial Day weekend and meet her fiancé’s family at a barbecue. I’m looking forward to Sunday dinners with my mom, who lives on Long Island and loves to grill when the weather is warm. I’m looking forward having some girl time with my youngest sister on “free topping Fridays” at one of the local frozen yogurt shops that she likes. Another of my sisters lives in the dorms of a university in Manhattan; while I was in the area around Christmas, I made tzaziki one day and called her up to say, “I made too much Greek yogurt sauce. I’m gonna pop by and bring you some.” It was an inconsequential moment, but it’s the kind of thing I genuinely look forward to doing more often once I’m there.

It’s these small acts with the people I care about most that’s more important than the food that goes with them.

Where I’ve Lived

1996-1997 North Carolina
1997 Long Island
1997-2000 Buffalo, NY
2000 London
2000-2001 Buffalo, NY
2001-2002 Long Island
2002-2002 Oakland, Calif.
2002-2003 San Mateo, Calif.
2003-2007 San Francisco
2007 Queens, NY
2007-2008 London

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Awaiting my Cooking Tools Reunion

It won’t come as a big shock to anyone who knows me, but I’ve been in a bit of slump this year, and it has extended to my cooking.

Living in the U.K. has taken its toll, but not in the way most people would assume. England, historically, has not had a positive reputation for its food. The country has had some culinary high points: a resurgence of traditional foods, a mission to reinvent those traditional foods, driven by a number of highly notable chefs; a pop culture awareness of food issues from obesity to free range chicken farming to the harmful nature of some additives; a frenzy of television, books, and magazines dedicated to food and cooking. But on the whole, England isn't best known for its food.

My slump, however, is the direct result of my living here for only a temporary period. When I moved, I didn’t bring any electrical cooking tools because I didn’t want to risk blowing up my Cusinart food processor with a faulty converter. I brought only one pan initially, thought I desperately crammed a second one into my suitcase on my way back to England after spending the holidays in the U.S.

My goal was to have nothing in our flat that wasn’t absolutely essential. I'm so tired of schlepping heavy "things" around in suitcases. But what is "essential" changes when you're talking about a two-week period, a one-month period, or an eight-month period.

When he first arrived in the U.K., Boyfriend bought a small pot, which we use for everything from steaming frozen spinach to boiling water for tea. Surely, a pot is an "essential." But having only one pot was problematic. For example, I can make rice with peas, but not rice and peas. You can make rice and peas, but not simultaneously. I can boil potatoes for nicoise salad, but I have to wait until the potatoes are done (then wash the pot quickly) before steaming the string beans. What happens is you end up with small piles of no-longer-hot food all over your cutting board ... because of course you only have two plates and two small bowls, so everything gets stacked in piles on the cutting board.

We ran into the same problem with our one big mixing bowl, which doubles as a salad bowl. If I prep a big salad for dinner, then I can't make cookie dough until all the salad is gone. If you don't eat your salad, you can't have any cookies -- for real!

About a month into my living here, I broke down and bought a second pot, an 8-quart vat, mostly to make soups, but also because I was beyond frustrated at cooking so minimally.

We’ve done all right on these bare essentials, but I’ve certainly come to realize just how often I used to use my favorite cooking tools. The Cuisinart food processor (the one I didn't want to risk blowing up here) can be converted into a blender, which I used at least three times a week for breakfast yogurt drinks and maybe once a month for creamy soups. The food processor has a mandoline-like attachment, which I relied on to make potatoes au gratin and to shred fennel, carrots, and cabbage.

A very heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven was never going to make the trip across the Atlantic, much to Boyfriend’s dismay, as it’s an un-substitutable tool for making Italian-style braised short ribs.

Nothing browns chicken, pork, or lamb quite as nicely as my range-top, dual-sided, cast-iron grill pan (a gift from a friend). It weighs in at about 10 pounds and thus doesn’t travel easily in suitcases.

Though I’m heading back to the Land of Plenty soon, there is one minor problem: I’m going to New York and half my tools are still in San Francisco, where I lived previously. It’ll be another month or two of long-haul flights and digging through boxes that I left in friends’ garages and basements before I’m completely reunited with my kitchen essentials, but I’m looking forward to it!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Rose Petals

Check mark number two on my New Year’s Cooking Resolutions

One of the items on my cooking-related list of resolutions for the New Year was to buy an ingredient that I was unfamiliar with and figure out how to cook with it. I didn't quite do what I set out to do, but I came up with a challenge that's pretty close in intent.

Yesterday morning, I went to Borough Market, possibly for the last time, as I’m moving out of the country in just three weeks. My goal of the morning was to get a little tub of harissa from Borough Olives, but just across the way I noticed a spice vendor that I had never seen before.

The stand sold a good number of ingredients that I’ve read about but have never actually used, like ras al hanout, fresh tamarind, ground pomegranate, and whole dried limes from Egypt. There was a spice from Thailand, powdery and gray-sand in color, that I had never heard of before (I already forget the name), and half a dozen specialty salts, the prettiest of which was an orange-tinted Basque chili salt.

What I actually bought, though, is an ingredient that many people know well. I’ve seen many times before, have eaten it, but only know one major use for it: dried rose petals, primarily a garnish. Their only other common use that I know of is in teas. Any other food that’s rose flavored would most likely get it from rose water or syrup -- no?

The container seemed to hold a good amount for a dainty little ingredient, and it only cost £1.50 (about $3 USD). When I opened the lid, the fragrance was much stronger than I expected, floral, but not sickly so like potpourri.


The challenge is to come up with a few inventive ways to use it.

But first, some unoriginal uses:

Completely Unoriginal Uses for Dried Rose Petals
Garnish on truffles and cupcakes. Seeing as rose petals really are a gorgeous garnish, I will save some to decorate summer cupcakes, using tweezers to place a few delicate pink petal pieces atop mounds of fresh white frosting. I’ll save another teaspoon or so to decorate truffles the next time I make them, too. (I made chocolate truffles last summer, but I got a little ghetto with my creative side and rolled them in pieces of crushed Entemann’s cookies. They were awesome.)

Jilleduffy’s Saturday morning milk ©. I’ve been toying with an idea in my head for something I’m going to call “Saturday morning milk ©,” The idea struck me while reading an article in The New Yorker about a chef who mentioned using “cornflake milk” in one of his recipes. I have no idea what cornflake milk actually is, but I imagined it could mean milk that has had cornflakes steeping in it. Some of today’s biggest groundbreaking chefs have learned how to use flavor, smell, and sight to conjure up memories of childhood. In this same vein, reading the words “cornflake milk” immediately made me realize how strong a memory sensation I have for milk that has been flavored with sugar sweetened cereals, specifically, Cap’n Crunch. “Saturday morning milk” would be a dessert course item: milk that has sat for at least an hour in a bowl of Cap’n Crunch -- but that’s not good enough on its own, I thought. There needs to be something mature about it, too. Maybe the milk could be steamed and frothed and served in lovely thin-lipped coffee mugs, on a saucer, with something cereal-esque on the side, like a tiny slice of Rice Krispy treat made with Cap’n Crunch, or sliced strawberry, or sliced banana – or better, a long slice of banana, slit so it rests on the edge of the coffee cup.

Now thinking about how to use the rose petals, I’m envisioning them as a garnish on my Saturday morning milk. Maybe the strawberry slice, lightly sprinkled with rose petals like falling snow, could float on the foam…

Inventive Uses for Dried Rose Petals
Penne à la roses. I’d love to come up with a savory use for rose petals, too. How about penne a la vodka and rose petals, replacing the acidic tomato in the sauce with the more fragile rose pieces?

Soup. Cream of celery and rose petal soup. Rosy seared tuna: Sesame and rose petal-crusted seared ahi tuna. Dressing: Lentil salad with steamed artichokes and rose petal vinaigrette.

The trick with some of these theoretical dishes would be to steep enough of the dried rose petals in liquid to extract a palatable flavor, though I suppose you could always supplement a little rose water to get things going.

Back on the sweeter side, how about rose petal, cranberry, and walnut bread? Or rose petal and lemon scones. Or muffins … with orange and rose petal marmalade (I found a recipe for rose petal jam -- pretty close). How about rose petal ice cream (it’s been done).