New Orleans, Part I: IFBC

Well.  That was certainly a trip.

I’m back home, after eleven days in New Orleans.  It’s not a very long time on paper, but time can be quite subjective, especially when returning to one’s hometown after a long absence.

The first weekend was spent attending the International Food Blogger Conference, or, affectionately, IFBC NOLA, at the Hotel Monteleone.  I met about a million wonderful, kind, talented people, people I wish lived close to me so that we could become better friends in real life.  I learned loads about ways to improve my blog, my photography, my writing, and, yes, my life online and off.

I hope you don’t mind if I bore you with details about the food, rather than rehashing the nitty-gritty educational part of the conference.  I think that might be what you’re here to see anyway.

The organizers of IFBC managed to get fourteen local restaurants to showcase samples of their menus for us, at receptions on both Friday and Saturday.  And, like any good food blogger, I shot first and ate later.

The good people at Wines of Navarra provided a couple of bottles of wine for us to taste on Friday night.

Accompanying the wine, Muriel’s restaurant provided us with their signature shrimp and goat cheese crêpes, a gorgonzola tart with berries and pecans, and proscuitto-wrapped asparagus.

Following the wine tasting, I embarrassed myself a little when I saw Chef Susan Spicer standing basically alone (alone!) next to a full table of canapés: one of smoked salmon mousse, and the other of duck prosciutto with a pickled cherry.

I made sure she knew my mom is her biggest fan, especially of her sweetbreads.  (My mother cannot eat a sweetbread without appending, “…but Susan Spicer still makes the best in the world.”)  I promptly took a picture with her on my phone, texted it to my mom, and forgot to mention to Chef that I have garnered much accolade using recipes from her cookbook for clients of my own.

This shot of the duck prosciutto features the assistance of Andrew Scrivani, who set up the lighting.  No effort or expense was spared in the preparation of this shot; all three votives on the table were used.

Eating my way around the room, I enjoyed the following:

Kurobuta pork cheeks with tomato jam and black eyed pea purée, from La Petite Grocery.  The pork was just out of the fryer, crisp and hot, the interior full-flavored and rich.

Spicy tuna tartare with avocado and microgreens, from Ste. Marie, a new restaurant that I’m going to have to try properly the next time I’m in town.  I appreciate it when something described as “spicy” is legitimately spicy; this tuna certainly was.  They also served an excellent pappardelle with rabbit ragu that I neglected to photograph.

And then, I left to go to dinner with my parents.

Because, you know, there wasn’t enough food.

Friday morning came maybe a little too bright and early, and morning sessions were followed by a lunch reception.  The first thing to catch my eye were the oysters.

A boat full of Gulf shrimp and Gulf oysters, glistening and briny, shucked by the good people at Royal House.

I prefer to not exercise restraint around oysters, particularly Gulf oysters, when I have been without them for a long time.

this was part of round two

I wanted to put that little boat on wheels and drag it around with me for the rest of my trip.  Later that day, the inimitable and delightful Poppy Tooker urged us, in a talk about sustainability: “Eat it to save it.”  Well, last week, I saved the hell out of some oysters.

conservation in action

There were po-boys, too, in fried oyster and shrimp, on proper Leidenheimer po-boy bread.  Sandwich shops of the nation, take note: without this bread, it is never a po-boy.  No substitutes for this bread are acceptable.  And “dressed” means only mayonnaise (preferably Blue Plate), lettuce (shredded iceberg), and tomato (Creole, ideally).  Pickles are occasionally allowed, but you’d better know what you’re doing.

po-boys from three different restaurants. all use the same bread, as god intended.

This was alligator and andouille gumbo, from the classic Parkway Bakery.

i don't recall who served these shrimp and grits; they were not memorable, but they look pretty

The fine gentlemen from Abita Beer made sure our glasses never ran dry, with pours of their flagship Amber, and SOS, a nicely bitter and refreshing pilsner that generates 75 cents per bottle for the restoration of the Gulf coast following last year’s BP oil spill.  And if you’ve never visited the brewery itself, I highly recommend it.  You’re handed a go-cup when you walk in, and are promptly shown where the open taps are.  Oh, yes.

Later that afternoon, I sampled what I’m still shocked was my first ever Ramos Gin Fizz, from the famous Carousel Bar downstairs.  It was… frothy.

I switched back to Abita Amber after, half wishing I had ordered the more lusty Sazerac instead of the fizz.

like so

That night, the Monteleone prepared us an extravagant wine pairing dinner, with ingredients one doesn’t usually see in menus for over a hundred people.

all a food blogger needs: a menu and a smart phone

The first course: crabmeat ravigote, on cucumber gelée, topped with shrimp and rémoulade sauce, paired with a vintage Spanish cava.  The crab was sweet and wonderfully lumpy, and the gelée was full-flavored, though perhaps it had a bit too much gelatin.  Crab and champagne are a natural pair, no exception here.

The entrée: beef tournedo (tenderloin), topped with foie gras and black truffle, served with endive and beets, paired with a red blend from Italy.  It was a lily guilded thrice.  I don’t really understand stacking up three luxury items, when the textures don’t necessarily go well together, even though it’s a classic dish.  All the ingredients were delicious, but the beets were my favorite part of this plate.

The dessert: white chocolate crème brûlée, with berries and pulled sugar garnish, paired with an incredible Muscat from Australia.  The crème brûlée was set in a sort of tart crust, not something you typically see, but it was really lovely.  Unfortunately, the pretty pulled sugar was a sticky reminder why those garnishes do not work well in areas of high humidity.  Muscat is my favorite dessert wine; this one was complex, and caramel-thick in the best possible way.

Oh, and after all this wonderful food?  Chef John Besh delivered the keynote speech of the weekend.  I adore his restaurants, and cannot commend the man enough for his ambassadorship in promoting New Orleans and Louisiana.  I have a professional crush on this guy.

The remaining sessions on Sunday went by too fast, and IFBC NOLA was over.

And then, the rest of my trip back home began.  More on that later.  Stay tuned!

NYC Part III: …And All the Rest

(In which our narrator concludes her tale of a trip to New York City.)

I know it’s dreadfully dull to look at other people’s vacation pictures, but I had a few remaining photos of my (not so) recent trip to New York, and thought I’d share them anyway.  It’s my blog, and I’ll be dull if I want.

After stopping in at the Breuckelen Distillery, we were all feeling a little peckish.  But with big plans to smash together later that evening in a tiny NYC kitchen and cook dinner, we didn’t want to spoil our appetites.  We were guided to nearby Der Kommissar, probably the best bar value in the city, for a quick snack.

Our light repast consisted of expertly-crafted sausages and mustards, pretzels served with various dips and spreads, and a representative sampling of the well-curated beer menu.  The level of excellence-per-dollar here is quite high.  No single item on the menu was over $7, which made it dangerously easy to keep on sampling.

and sample we did

Other than eating, we tooled around the city a bit, avoiding any tourist destinations like the plague.  Mostly, we just hung out and enjoyed friendly friend time.

our host, in his natural setting. yes, that is a 5x5. his solve time is measured in seconds rather than minutes. amazing.

Making our way around consisted of a little of this:

trains are slow

…but quite a lot more of this:

cabs are a necessity

We spent our last night in town in grand style, which meant that I had to leave the camera behind for the evening, so no photos, I’m afraid.  It started with bar hopping at (among others) the comfortably gloomy and überdistressed 124 Rabbit Club, where we ordered beers I’d only dreamed to find someday.  Situated underground and with a barely marked entrance, the speakeasy-style place couldn’t have been more hip if it was taking Polaroids of itself.  I loved it.

Afterwards, we staggered made our way in an orderly fashion to dinner at Blue Hill, where the five of us ordered pretty much everything on the menu without duplicates, and proceeded to make a small spectacle of ourselves by passing our plates after a couple of bites from each plate.  We had it down to a science by the end.  I don’t recall exactly what we ordered, but I remember dying a little over some asparagus and the unabashedly rosy pork tenderloin (before the recent safe cooking temperature adjustment, mind).  Wine happened, and all the elements came together in that exquisite breathlessness of impeccable food, rich conversation, and the camaraderie you wish you could always keep near you.  It was easily one of the top meals of my life.

And the next day, plates of charred squid salad and butternut squash pasta refreshed us before the suddenly arduous flight home.

I think I’ll end with this image.  It makes me smile.

NYC Part II: Breuckelen Gin

(In which our narrator continues her tale of a visit to New York City.)

left to right: gin, whiskey, aged gin

One of the more interesting places we visited in New York was the Breuckelen Distilling Company, located in and pronounced like the famous borough.  In the midst of city-battered warehouses, under the roar of the expressway, you can catch the rustic smell of fermenting grain and yeast, which provides a little preliminary cognitive dissonance to prepare you for what you’ll find inside.

bubbling wheat mash, from whence cometh the heavenly smell. there is no way to make this stuff look pretty.

Breuckelen is staffed and operated by four intrepid souls who are, admittedly, learning the distilling business as they go.  Despite their sleekly designed, club-ready product, the whole operation has the charming nonchalance you might feel if your homebrewer friend got laid off and turned his hobby into a profitable business – which is apropos, since that’s more or less how Breuckelen was started.

They produce a gin, a whiskey, a neutral grain spirit, and a barrel-aged gin.  Let me repeat that last one: barrel-aged gin.  It’s gin.  From a barrel.  It’s brown.  And it’s gin.

And it’s really good.

The regular gin is a fine example of it’s breed: not too heavy on the juniper, a little rosemary and citrus thrown in for brightness.  It’s lovely.  The whiskey is also okay, but I’m partial to Bourbon.  Left in the barrel for a time measured in months rather than years, Breuckelen’s whiskey was described by a fellow whiskey snob as being so young it was “like statutory rape”.  Ahem.

Assuming you’re smart enough to know what to expect from a pure grain spirit (it tastes of naught but alcohol, and you’re meant to steep things in it to flavor it), let’s move on to their star, the aged gin.  It’s at once simple and difficult to describe.  Really, it does what it says on the tin.  Gin.  Aged.  Full stop.  But it’s a bit tricky to wrap your mind around those two descriptors unless you can taste it.

It is unquestionably gin, but with caramel and honey notes that play quite well with the various aromatics and the wheat.  The flavor is well-balanced, which I’m guessing is due in part to a short aging period; it seems like much aging beyond what is done would overwhelm the delicate herbal notes of the gin itself.

After a tour of the distillery, you can head over to the tasting room for a quick sample.  Their “tasting room” isn’t so much a “room” as a “counter”, but there are stools for sitting, too.  In front of jars filled with the various ingredients used to flavor the gin, tastes are poured by one of the four employees, so if you have any question about anything regarding their process or product, it will be answered with confidence.  There is a casual arrangement of bottles near a register, but thankfully no pressure to purchase.  The feeling is similar to the merchandise table at your buddy’s band performance – staffed by friendly acquaintances you enjoy talking to, and they’d probably really appreciate it if you enjoyed the show enough to buy a t-shirt or CD.

they must spend a fortune on ball jars

No, Breuckelen isn’t the only distillery with a barrel-aged gin on the market, but it’s the first one I’ve had, and I was impressed.  I imagine it would be stunning in an Aviation, one of my favorite cocktails of late.

Only one way to find out, I guess.

Corn Cookies, à la Momofuku Milk Bar

On our recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at Momofuku Milk Bar.  Christina Tosi, head Pastry Chef of David Chang’s Momofuku empire, has lately become a darling of the food world.  With my training in Baking and Pastry Arts, I mostly wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

love this logo

I’ve already said my piece on the black sesame croissant we got (the short version: it’s awesome), but we also picked up the five cookie flavors they offered that day: Compost(TM)(srsly), chocolate-chocolate, cornflake-marshmallow, blueberry & cream, and corn.  As you can see, some of them didn’t last until the photo shoot.

left to right: compost(tm), chocolate-chocolate, cornflake-marshmallow

Overall, these are good cookies.  They have many qualities of acceptable bakery cookies: big as a small plate, sweet, interesting flavor bits, texture somewhere between chewy and soft.  The chocolate-chocolate was the best of these three, with a sophisticated flavor redolent of Oreo, which I assume must be due to black cocoa.  But if I’m honest, I didn’t get anything terribly special from the lauded Compost(TM) and blueberry & cream flavors.  Yes, the Compost(TM) has interesting salty bits, and the blueberry has… blueberries; but they’re not really enough for me to travel across town for, let alone get on a plane to NYC.

compost(tm) cookie; reminded me of a gussied-up potato chip cookie my mom used to make

Maybe the problem is with me, though.  Despite my scholastic specialization, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth.  I’d much rather eat something salty and savory over a cookie any day.  So for a cookie to impress me, it has to be something pretty darn special.  It has to make me sit up, narrow my eyes, tilt my head ever so slightly, and maybe curse gently.  It pretty much has to be Plato’s Ideal Cookie.

This, Gentle Reader, is that cookie.

Well, it’s where that cookie used to be, anyway.  This is where the corn cookie used to be, the cookie that made me wish I had been responsible for its existence.  How could anything that is not-corn taste so much like corn?

I’ve never tried to reverse-engineer a baked good before, but this cookie demanded an attempt.  I had two clues at my disposal: one, the ingredients list (listed by weight, remember), and two, the knowledge that Chef Tosi uses high-quality ingredients with simple techniques.  She was likely going to use whatever was easily at her disposal, and not futz with things too much.  There would be no unnecessary complication, like, say, steeping churned-in-house butter with late-July corn cobs to infuse every possible mote with ultimate corn flavor.

cornmeal not ground finely enough yet

The one “mystery” ingredient, if it can be called that, was something listed as “corn powder (dyhydrated corn)” [sic].  I assumed that was a typo, and not corn with two types of water.  And as chance would have it, while procuring cinnamon from the amazing spice store that I am lucky to live near, I noticed a register-side basket of nothing less than freeze-dried corn.  Close enough.

look ma, no water

Back home, my research determined that this cookie dough was most likely a variant of the basic chocolate chip cookie, sans chips, of course.  I listed the ingredients and amounts from four trusted recipes, and developed a recipe based on those, swapping some of the flour for finely-ground corn meal and freeze-dried corn.

The dough came together beautifully, to my glee, and baked into a soft and ultra-yellow cookie that looked surprisingly similar to the real deal.  And the taste?  I couldn’t very well do a side by side comparison, but it wasn’t far off from what I remembered: slightly under-sweet, buttery, and with a truckload of corn flavor.

It’s possible to tweak the amounts slightly and maybe achieve a more accurate recipe, but I’m pretty thrilled with what resulted.  And unless someone is willing to sponsor me, I don’t really want to pay for the shipping involved in acquiring a new batch of “control” corn cookies for further analysis.

i has a corm cookie


EDIT: Based on this tweet that I just saw:

…I’m revising the recipe to include a mandatory fridge rest for the dough.  I don’t know that all of Chef Tosi’s cookie recipes would necessarily include a rest, but one apparently does.  I know it works miracles on most cookie dough, and I’ve always done it for this recipe with great success.  And it’s my blog.  So there.

Corn Cookies
Inspired blatantly from Christina Tosi’s Corn Cookies at Momofuku Milk Bar
Makes about 4 dozen two-inch cookies 

As with most cookie dough, this one may be frozen or refrigerated, and may actually give a better result if left to rest overnight in the refrigerator.  If you can’t get your hands on corn flour, just use a good-quality cornmeal (preferably stone-ground, but whatever) and grind it to a very fine powder in a spice grinder.  Don’t be tempted to use unadulterated cornmeal; it will give your cookies a gritty texture.  No pun intended.

While I found the freeze-dried corn at my amazing local spice shop (they ship!), I know that natural-food groceries (like Whole Foods) often carry a brand of dehydrated vegetables that makes dried corn.  They might have it in stock, or be able to order it for you.

Also, I specify a European-style butter, which has a higher fat percentage than American butter, making for a softer cookie.  I don’t know what sort of butter Milk Bar uses, but I know their dairy is high-quality and sourced from a local farm, so I figured I’d use the good stuff.  The recipe should work just fine with whatever butter you have, though.

Yes, I’m listing everything by weight.  Grams, to boot.  I don’t know how to translate “120 grams of freeze-dried corn” into cups; I’m sorry.  But if you bake regularly, and you don’t have a scale, you should really, really, really invest the $15-20.  It’s much more precise, and your baked goods will turn out more consistently.

175 grams unbleached all-purpose flour
120 grams freeze-dried corn, ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder
55 grams corn flour (see headnote)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
350 grams granulated sugar
225 grams (8 ounces) European-style unsalted butter (such as Plugrá), at room temperature
100 grams (2 large) eggs

1.  Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Whisk together the all-purpose flour, ground up freeze-dried corn, corn flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set it aside.

2.  In the bowl of a stand mixer (or by hand, if you’re into that), cream together the sugar and butter until just combined, scraping the bowl as needed.  You should only need to mix for about a minute, maybe less.  Please do not beat the living daylights out of it; your cookies will spread too much if you do.

3.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.  Add the dry ingredients and mix just until a soft dough forms.  Gently scrape the dough into an airtight container (a plastic container, zip-top bag, or just wrap the lot in plastic wrap); no need to shape pretty logs, though that’s certainly an option if you like.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 2-3 days.  Alternatively, portion the dough out into individual cookie lumps, place on a single sheet pan (it’s okay if they touch), wrap in plastic wrap, and freeze until solid before storing in a gallon freezer zip-top bag.

4.  If refrigerated, leave dough at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before proceeding.  If frozen in portioned out lumps, proceed without thawing, but add a couple of extra minutes to the baking time.  Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto parchment-lined or ungreased sheet pans, leaving about 2 inches between each.  Bake at 350º F for 10-12 minutes, or until the undersides and the occasional outside edge turn golden brown.  Don’t let the tops brown; the cookies should remain bright yellow with no (or very little) browning.  Let cookies cool briefly on the pans before transferring to racks to cool thoroughly.

NYC Part I: Momofuku Milk Bar

Two weekends ago, I spent the most incredible time in New York City with some dear, dear friends.  It was my third visit to the city, but my first in about eight years, and certainly my first since I’ve cared much about food at all.  And, oh.  My.  Goodness.  The food.

The food, the food, the food.

And maybe a drink or two, here and there.

But, oh! the food.  There was a not insubstantial amount of food, and we ate all of it.  I’m afraid there is no more food in New York, because we ate it all.

We jetted off without a food itinerary, aside from one night, which might cause some type-A’s out there to lose a monocle or do a spit-take.  But I prefer to travel that way; let chance, circumstance, and mood dictate the days, and things generally work out beautifully.

My only requirement was to stop at Momofuku at some point.  No, I didn’t care which one.  Any one would do, with weighted preference to Milk Bar and their take-away-friendly baked goods.  Eventually, my (loudly) dropped hints took effect, and we made our way to the Midtown location – which just so happens to share a front door with Má Pêche, where we had a fantastic lunch.  (Or was it breakfast?  What do you call it when the first meal of the day is at 2 pm, and involves beer?)

We left with a taste of Milk Bar’s Cereal Milk(TM)(seriously) soft-serve and a bag of goodies, comprised of 6 cookies (more on those later) and one black sesame croissant.  My holy grail, their kimchi and blue cheese croissant, was disappointingly absent from the case, but the black sesame version went a long way towards assuaging my grief.

I’ve never seen a croissant so swarthy.  Inside, the nearly-foot-long behemoth swaddled a filling of strawberry jam and a sweetened cream cheese that one of us suggested might be Cereal Milk(TM) cream cheese.  The tender and flaky layers of pastry seemed to be dotted with black sesame seeds ground to a powder or paste, which helps explain the off-black crust.  It is also a thoroughly brilliant idea that I might have to try the next time I make croissants.

Apart from being a day old by the time we broke into the croissant (and slightly dried out, but surprisingly very little), I’d classify it as one of the best croissants I’ve ever had.  Certainly, it’s the most creative.  The filling was just restrained enough with sweetness, which pleased me, knowing Chef Tosi’s reputation as a sugar-lover extraordinaire.

And the fact that I missed out on the kimchi croissant just gives me an excuse to go back.  Just as soon as my wallet recovers.

Stay tuned for more NYC adventures, as soon as I can catch my breath and post more.