Thursday, March 31, 2011

Food Trucks: Yum Yum Cupcakes

I was walking down the street in Tech Square today and what do I see but a heretofore unknown food truck.  I love food trucks.   They usually have very good food, are pretty cheap, they offer the fun of discovery, and in many cases you can talk with the owner.  The kind lady who masterminds the Yum Yum cupcake truck told me that she has had a bakery for six years, started a cart last year, and opened up the truck this year.

But let's get down to business---the cupcake.  I ordered a strawberry.  It was light in texture, very moist and cakey.  The large dollop of strawberry icing was rich but not overly so.  I know that I've railed against cupcakes before, but here's why I like this one: it's rich but not overly sweet; and I simply think the truck adds an element of fun.  In fact, I think that cupcake trucks fit nicely with my mom's tradition of feeding the neighborhood kids with her cookies and cupcakes. This is a nice addition to the cityscape.
Yum Yum Cupcake (Mobile Truck) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Cheesecake Experiment

I decided that this is my week to try baking a cheesecake.  It's one of those things that I never ate as a kid and learned to love in the Tri-State Area.  (Junior's in Brooklyn serves a truly amazing cheesecake.)  But there's always a first time for everything, including baking cheesecake.

The name "cheesecake" pretty well describes what's in it: a whole bunch of cheese, some egg to bind it together, and a surprisingly small amount of sugar.  All too many cheesecakes use gelatin as a filler.  If you see even a hint of gelatin in your cheesecake, flee from it as quickly as you can.  The difference in taste and texture between a real cheesecake and a faux cheesecake is unmistakable.

I started with Giada De Laurentis's cheesecake recipe on the Food Network site, but ended up making some changes.  Her recipe called for 4 1/2" springform pans, but I could only find an 8 1/2" springform.  Sizing up a baking recipe is always tricky. Doing it for a type of dish that you've never made before is very problematic (i.e., dumb).  But I tried it anyway.  Her recipe also called for basil in the cheesecake and I chickened out on that one.

Here's how I ended up doing it.  I combined four 8 oz boxes of cream cheese, 16 oz of ricotta cheese, two 5 oz containers of goat's milk cheese, three or four tablespoons of sugar, two eggs, and four additional egg whites.  I combined all of them in the food processor; I suspect the Kitchenaid mixer would have also worked well, but a smaller mixer might not have had enough power.  The mixture started out very stiff and I was very skeptical about how well it would combine.  But the eggs managed to soften the  mixture quite a bit and the result was soft and easy to spread.  I put the mixture into a buttered 8 1/2" springform pan (I should have put parchment in the bottom---my cake-making technique deserted me briefly) and used a knife to even out the top.  I put the springform pan into a larger pan with water half way up the springform and put into a 350 degree oven.  After 50 minutes it didn't look anywhere close to being done, so I gave it another 20 minutes.  The result of the 70 minutes total is in the photo; the larger pan is the water bath.  Perhaps a slighly shorter cooking time would have been ideal, but I don't think the cake suffered too much.  I turned off the oven and let the cake and water bath cool with the oven for an hour.  I then wrapped it in plastic wrap, pan and all, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.  The next morning, I took the springform edge off and wrapped the entire cake in plastic. 

I learned the hard way that you don't try a cheesecake warm, unlike an apple pie.  I put a small amount of batter in a small bowl and tested it while it was still warm.  The result was a little strong and harsh.  I was afraid that I would only be able to use the cake as a doorstop.  But I tried the rest the next morning and it was pretty good.  So I have high hopes for the cake's debut on Saturday.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Decatur: Sprig

Category: Local date-night-out spot.
Verdict: Long on style, not as much substance as I had hoped.

Sprig opened a few months ago on LaVista Road in the spot where Quinnie's used to be. One couldn't come up with a bigger change in atmosphere. Sprig is another buzzword-compliant Southern restaurant: local, organic,  etc. The decor is very nice. I sat outside where I had a nice view of a small stand of trees and could largely ignore the parking lot. I had high hopes for this restaurant, which was started by an up-and-coming chef who has attracted a fair amount of local attention. And while I think the place is good for a date night out, I didn't think the food was as exciting as it should have been. (Date night restaurant is, by the way, my term for a restaurant that is primarily designed for show, some place that puts more emphasis on the words on the menu and not enough time into executing what's on the plate.)

This seems to be my week for cheese and chops.  I enjoyed this cheese plate which had cheeses from Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, as I recall. I wish that the olives had a little more pucker power and that I had a few more---they make an outstanding complement to the cheeses.

Since Sprig is a Southern-themed restaurant, I tried the pork shank. I thought this was a particularly good choice given their emphasis on roasting.  The meat didn't have quite the interesting roasting artifacts---charred bits, etc.---that I would have expected.  The cut of meat itself just didn't seem to be as porky as I had expected. I decided to try to jazz things up with a little dark mustard.  The waiter brought a serving of a Grey Poupon-like smooth mustard, not the grainier, more interesting mustard that I expected.  I quickly gave up on it and went back to the meat. I did really enjoy the black eyed peas.

I found the service to be a tad supercilious. I've complained before that high end American restaurants often treat customers as if they are privileged to be allowed to be served. This certainly wasn't the worst service I've had but it certainly didn't meet the standards of warmth and comfort that I would expect from a truly Southern experience.
Sprig Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Eating Around Georgia Tech: Pacci

Category: Stylish midtown meeting restaurant.

Summary: Good in a competent way.

Pacci is in the stylish and relatively new Hotel Palomar.  (One of my colleagues stayed at the hotel and really enjoyed it, by the way.) The room itself is, quite frankly, a little overdesigned for my taste.  I think it looks like an interior decorator's attempt to emulate the sort of very stylized rooms that people in 1950's movies seemed to live in.  The entrance is wacky---the receptionist' podium is at a vestibule that no one uses, not near the bar where everyone enters from the hotel.  But these are minor qualms.

I started with a cheese and meat plate, which turned out to be both very sumptuous and the hit of the meal.  Pacci allows you to choose the combination you want and provides both meats and cheeses. I tried a ham, a hard cheese, and a softer cheese.

For my main course, I had the veal chop saltimbocca.  This is a big chop; it arrived with a very meaty aroma, which immediately invigorated my tastebuds. The meat itself was well prepared, but the dish's conception was heavy on the chop and light on the saltimbocca.  That dish is normally served not only in smaller pieces, but in a sauce created by deglazing the pan.  With a chop this size, the sauce got lost. It came with potatoes and greens, which I must admit was an interesting variation on the traditional saltimbocca presentation with escarole.

Pacci Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Decatur: Burnt Fork BBQ

Category: Definitely worth a stop, perhaps worth a drive.
Summary: Juicy, tender, flavorful meat; friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

Burnt Fork BBQ came into Decatur in stealth mode.  It's at Church and Commerce, around the corner from McDonald's.  I noticed a small sign the other day and just made it in.  The place is in a convenience store style location but it has been fully renovated.  We've seen a move toward buzzword compliance (organic/local/sustainable) to simple foods like burgers and BBQ.  Burnt Fork follows along those lines. As is increasingly common in BBQ, they make several different regional styles.  The atmosphere is very friendly and welcoming; one of the gals I spoke to said they have been open for about six weeks.

I went for the brisket sandwich and some cole slaw.  The brisket was very tender with just a little bit of tooth, which I like.  It was very moist and juicy.  It came with some of the fat attached, which I also like.  They have a wide variety of sauces from different parts of the country, part of their BBQ nation theme. The roll was of good quality.  I do wish it were just a little smaller so that the meat/bread ratio were a little higher.  The cole slaw was very fresh and good.

Burnt Fork BBQ on Urbanspoon

Washington DC: 2 Amys

My Maryland friends took me to dinner at 2 Amys, a very popular pizzeria in the District of Columbia.  The decor is fairly simple and bright.  The pizzas are somewhat rustic, more like what you would see in Italy than the New York variety.  All our food was excellent.

I ordered a calzone because I saw one on the way in and the ricotta flowing out spoke to me.  (They give their calzones some other fancy name, folded pizza as I recall, but a calzone is a calzone is a calzone.) I ordered one with meat and vegetables.  The ricotta was just as luscious as I had anticipated.  That red spot on the middle off the calzone is a thin slice of meat that was made crunchy in the baking.  The texture was marvelous.

We tried a selection of desserts: cannoli (pretty light filling, very good), almond cake (great), and roasted pineapple ice cream (wow!).

The problem now faced by my friend Ankur is whether he can keep up the pace of excellent restaurant recommendations.  Based on his recommenations so far, I've come to expect quality ideas.  He can't just throw a hot dog at me and expect me to be satisfied.  Can he keep it up? Or will he fold under the pressure?  Time will tell...

2 Amys on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 7, 2011

Washington DC: Red Velvet Cupcakery

After dinner at Jaleo, we ran through the rain across the street to Red Velvet Cupcakery.  It's a tiny storefront with no seating, but it is connected to the yogurt emporium next door and you can eat your cupcakes there.  Lucky thing---a soggy cupcake is a sad thought indeed.

I must admit that I am a little skeptical of cupcake stores in general.  They do fit into the small, affordable treat category, but every time I see one I can hear my mother saying "If I had a nickel for every cupcake I made, I'd be a millionaire."  (And trust me, her cupcakes are great.)  But I really liked Red Velvet because their cupcakes aren't overly sweet.  Regular readers know that Americans-make-desserts-with-too-much-sugar is a regular rant of mine.  And Red Velvet goes a little beyond the obvious to make something that is sensuous without being overpowering.

Despite the strong hint given by the name of the establishment, I didn't get the red velvet cupcake.  Instead, I had a devil's food.  Their cupcakes don't use the traditional presentation of icing the entire top. Rather, they put a large dollop of icing on top with a little border of un-iced cupcake.  The effect is like a jaunty beret. The devil's food is topped with a bit of gold foil, which is a nice balance to the deep, dark color of the rest of the cupcake.  The icing was definitely rich---no shortage of butter here---but they used a strong dark chocolate.  The contrast between the dark chocolate and the richness of the rest of the ingredients was what made the cupcake for me.

Red Velvet Cupcakery on Urbanspoon

Washington DC: Jaleo

Luckily, my friends from the University of Maryland have good taste.  For my visit, they took me to dinner at Jaleo (plus a cupcake emporium I'll report on next).  Jaleo is the flagship restaurant of a nationally-known chef (Top Chef judge, etc.).  It's a tapas restaurant that, unlike the garden variety of tapas bars, actually pays homage to Spanish food.  

Unfortunately, my camera went on the fritz so I don't have photos.  We tried a total of nine dishes.  We discussed after dinner what we liked most and I think we had a rough consensus, but here are my top picks.  Head and shoulders above the rest was the bacon-wrapped fried date---need I say more? An egg with caviar was a pleasant surprise in its presentation.  The egg was a very light souffle, although it seemed to have a soft yolk.  The caviar served to add a salty note and some toast helped us to eat it.  The rabbit came with a red sauce that was almost like that one would see in a beef stew, although it wasn't beefy per se, and the rabbit self had no hint of gaminess.  We tried the ham, which was fine, but I don't think anyone was overly impressed with it.

Jaleo on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tucker: Technique

Technique is the teaching restaurant of Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta.  I've always enjoyed eating at cooking schools.  The staff are invariably very friendly, they have uniformly good food, and they are inexpensive.  Technique scored very well on all three accounts: a very attentive staff, excellent food, and unbelievably low prices.

The kitchen is huge---bigger than most apartments.  The appliances gleam, the students are spotlessly robed in their kitchen whites.  The chef stands at the front, intermittently calling out tasks.  He seems to inspect every plate before it goes onto the table.  My server explained that the kitchen staff are in their final week of a two-year program.

The standard meal is a five course dinner with choices on all but the initial amuse bouche.  At $15, that is an unbelievable bargain.

The amuse bouche (mouth amusement) was an eggplant concoction with a light sauce.  I believe that my server said it was fried but it was very light.

For my appetizer course I chose the french onion soup.  At first I was slightly disappointed that it didn't arrive with a little more cheese on top, but perhaps I am a philistine on those sorts of things.  The soup itself was full of flavor, which quickly made me forget about the cheese.

Next came a garden salad.  It isn't often that you can smell your salad, but I definitely smelled the vinegar as it was placed in front of me.  But the taste of the salad was very subtle, not at all strong as I had expected.  The combination of the distinct smell and the subtle taste was quite surprising and enjoyable.

Good Marilyn won the battle for the main course, so I had salmon.  The skin was lightly crisped and the flesh was just done to flakiness.

One of the dessert options was creme brulee, which I often use as a reference dish to gauge a restaurant.  But I decided to go for the apple tart, which was an excellent choice.  The entire tart was wonderful but it was the ice cream that left the longest-lasting impression.  Notes of both vanilla and egg came through very clearly, leaving me with a sensation of richness as I finished.

I've been thinking about trying Technique for quite awhile. I understand that they just completed renovating the restaurant, so I seem to have visited at just the right time.  I am very tempted to make my visits a semi-regular affair.  The entire experience reminded me of not just the joy of food but also the joys of preparing and sharing it.

Technique @ Le Cordon Bleu on Urbanspoon

A Rumination on Airport Food

Folk wisdom among travelers holds that pilots know all the good places to eat on a trip.  The underlying theory, I suppose, is that they have tried everything and know what is good and bad.  If airline pilots were flying chefs, I'm sure that would be great advice.  But airline captains have a tough ladder of training and lowly jobs to get to the top of their profession. They survive it by having a cast iron stomach and hermetically sealed taste buds.  When a pilot says "That airport has pretty good food" he means "I don't know anyone whose cause of death has been attributed to that food."

Airports can be lonely places for hungry people.  As I worked on my private pilot's license, I looked forward to the long three-legged cross-country flight that is one of the basic requirements.  I scheduled the trip for Labor Day, which turned out to be a beautiful day to fly.  I flew from Princeton to Harrisburg for my first leg.  I told myself that I should wait for lunch for my next stop, Cape May, right next to the shore.  I'd heard about a great burger place there that seemed like the perfect way to start the home stretch.  I flew to Cape May on an empty stomach.  I landed and parked the plane only to find a nearly deserted airport.  That cute little restauant was closed for the holiday.  Well, I thought to myself, at least I can get something from the vending machines. Wrong---by mid-afternoon all the other hungry pilots had emptied them.  I finally managed to find a candy bar and limped my way home.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my Dad at Jefferson County Airport in Colorado.  The Mooney dealer had a vending machine that fascinated me.  It supplied little cans of dinner: Dinty Moore beef stew, Spaghetti-Os.  Even more amazing, they came out of the machine HOT.  What could be more amazing?  My admiration turned to horror when we finally bought a can.  This poor can had been sitting in the machine for lord knows how long, being tortured by that little heating element.  The food was burned to the bottom of the can.  I drove by Jeffco a few years ago on a visit and noticed that the Mooney dealer is still there.  I wonder if that vending machine is still there, sitting in a forlorn corner of the pilot's lounge, its little cans still hoping for salvation from their private Hades...