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Monday, November 07, 2005
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
I'm not sure why everyone seems to be crazy for cupcakes. What in the world is this trend all about? I know its origin: the juxtaposition of the gorgeous icing stylings (see above) of the Cupcake Cafe in Hell's Kitchen versus the deliberate hominess of the Magnolia Bakery in the Village were coupled with a little publicity from Sex and the City and conspired somehow, some way insidiously to infiltrate American pop culture. Suddenly, cupcakes are the guilty pleasure in which to indulge. Now don't get me wrong, I LOVE cupcakes and I have a hard time resisting any guilty pleasure (doesn't the guilt just make it so much better somehow?), but I also love regular cakes, and pies, and cookies, and . . . I don't quite understand the chic-ness of cupcake consumption. There's a blog devoted to them, a cupcake delivery service in DC called Le Cupcake (trés imaginative), and even this month's Food & Wine has an article on retro sweets featuring a cross-section of a cupcake that could make a grown woman (or man, of course) weep aloud in front of the bakery window. It's all been percolating for a long time, and I guess I didn't pay too much attention to it because, first of all, I'm not a New Yorker, and secondly, cupcakes for me, as the mother of elementary school children, are strictly the stuff of bake sales and school birthday celebrations. I don't have the time nor the desire to indulge in that kind of nostalgia when I'm so busy creating it for someone (three or four feet tall) else. For me, eating a cupcake is simply a straightforward pleasure--not a fetishized baby boomer blast from the past. I grew up, and now I bake my own cupcakes and give them to my kids; it's not necessary for me, myself, to be the kid anymore. I tried the Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and was a little disappointed (who wouldn't be after all that hype?) with them. They were dry, and the icing was teeth-achingly sweet, so chock full of confectioners sugar that there seemed just the merest hint of butter binding all that cloying sugar together. The Cupcake Cafe was much more impressive although, I must confess, their cupcakes were also a little dry. Nevertheless, the amazing and not too sweet butter (LOTS of butter) cream icing and the spectacular flowers topping these cupcakes absolutely saved them. I did want the perfect cupcake however, and I considered the fact that the cupcakes I make are usually a little dry as well. Baking time, it seems, is everything--even the professionals can't quite get it right. Buttercream can go a long way, but ultimately, a slice of a big, moist, regular-sized cake is the only thing that truly satisfies that cake-y craving with which some of us are periodically tortured. technorati tags: food, food and drink, restaurants, New York
Thursday, October 06, 2005
I do a lot of thinking and reading about food but of course, my very favorite thing of all to do is to eat the food I read and think about. Luckily for me, I was able to spend a weekend in New York eating and thinking and even, on occasion, listening to writers and performers at the New Yorker Festival. It's my second year there, and although I had a revelatory moment at a reading by Sherman Alexie last year (I cried, actually cried during his extremely moving reading--one of the few NOT available for download at Audible.com) that was unmatched this year, I did get to experience talent overload* at the Katrina fundraiser at Town Hall Saturday night. Before I went to Town Hall, however, I went to Sugiyama and had one of the best meals of my life. Now, I can only really think of one other meal that came close to this one; it was a meal that really was a feast, an astoundingly diverse and scrumptious reception at a wedding a couple of years ago, also in New York. Now, before profound scepticism sets in, dear reader, this was a wedding reception in the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Plaza at sunset, catered by the Ciprianis. The groom was friends with the chef and this particular chef pulled out all the stops to make the occasion a culinary masterpiece. The buffet before dinner, accompanied by the Cipriani signature Bellini (they're the family who owns Harry's Bar in Venice), featured dozens (yes, dozens) of different dishes, including four kinds of pasta, an array of seafood, technicolor vegetables cooked a myriad of ways, little sandwiches, tiny, tray-served, hot lamb chops, and so many other things redolent of garlic and olive oil, I just can't even remember them. Then they served dinner. And we danced on the revolving dance floor all night and looked out over the lights of Manhattan and felt as if we'd been transported back to the heady days of Fred Astaire and a vintage sophistication we could only dream about at the movies. My next great meal was entirely different. Just a friend and I were dining, and we had a fixed amount of time we could spend eating before the show began that night. A narrow, low room full of amber wood and orchids in Midtown, Sugiyama promised epicurean delight and a certain Zen-like ambiance (I'm always looking for that, aren't I?). Our friendly waitress quickly seated us and without even consulting the menu, we asked for the omikase kaiseki. Ah, the power of research; I do not, faithful reader, speak Japanese but I do have a graduate degree, so of course I did a little research before I arrived (ah hem, well, actually, I was researching sushi prior to reviewing a new place here in Richmond but it did come in handy). Omikase essentially means the chef's choice and kaiseki means a meal of seasonal dishes. Our only quandary was whether to go all out for the 8-course meal or conservatively stick to the 6-course. Our waitress recommended going with the six and adding the other two course in if needed. Six was plenty. Again, this meal began to blur in my memory like the one at the Rainbow Room almost as soon as I finished it. Taste after taste, many of them unfamiliar, sake and the lack of a notebook conspired to strip my recollections of detail. I remember an unctuous sea urchin mousse and a less than delicious raw quail's egg I drank out of a small glass quickly. Lots of sashimi, all of it meltingly tender followed, as well as vegetables, greens, and then, legendary Kobe beef. Small chunks of beef with raw mushrooms and asparagus arrived at the table with a tiny, hot rock, hibachi-type thing called a toba (from the volcanic rock out of which it's made). You quickly sear the beef and vegetables on the hot rock and then rub them with hunk of butter you hold with your chopsticks. Although the beef was, as claimed, delicious and well marbled, it wasn't quite the amazing taste sensation I'd been expecting. Yummy, yes--but remarkable, no. Sticky rice, miso soup and the most eye-poppingly tasty assortment of Japanese pickles I've ever had followed to clear our palates. Dessert was last (of course), and I must confess, I expected little. I've never had a good dessert in an Asian restaurant and have often wondered how sugar can be used so artfully in savory dishes and so poorly in sweet ones. Of course, like almost everything else to come out of the kitchen at Sugiyama, the dessert was both suprising and scrumptious. A smooth, cold grapefruit wine jelly (read jello) arrived with a substantial drizzle of heavy cream on top. The cream mitigated the tartness of the grapefruit but didn't overwhelm the lightness of the jelly. In short, it was refreshing, interesting, and most of all, satisfying. I don't have the natural affinity for Asian food that I do for Mediterranean cuisine. It's been a long learning process for me and I still think I have a long way to go (re: I need to go to Asia--anywhere in Asia) before my opinion is truly informed. Nonetheless, when something's good, I eat it right up. No question about that--and Sugiyama passed my eat-it-right-up test with flying colors. As soon as my credit card recovers, and I can find an excuse to go to New York again, I'll be back to eat some more. And maybe learn something new (although I do know I don't like raw quail's eggs). Bring on the sea urchin mousse! *Let's see, we were a half an hour late and Willem Dafoe was reading as we were seated; then we saw David Byrne, Little Queenie Harris, Kevin Kline (singing and playing the piano), Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Queen Ida, Toni Morrison, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Richard Ford, Elvis Costello, Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Clarkson, those guys from the Jayhawks, and that's all I can remember right now. By the time Buckewheat Zydeco and his crazy old man self had coralled all of the luminaries on stage to sing a song NOT ONE of them knew, it was time to leave and collapse panting in my hotel room. I can only be dazzled for so long. technorati tags: food, food and drink, japanese food, restaurants, cocktails, new yorker, new york