Monthly Archives: May 2015

Villabate Alba

If there is one area where my picky eating still asserts itself quite strongly it’s with sweets. Probably the last place you’d expect to hear a lot of “No, thank you”s, but such is life with me. I sometimes get off at being difficult. But really, it’s more about particularities, apathies, and personal taste that has solidified over the years rather than a picky eater’s fear of the unknown. I know I’m not alone in these particularities—I doubt that Nora Ephron wasn’t inspired by someone, even herself, when she wrote of Sally Albright’s preferences. It’s funny that I’m picky with sweets, however, because out of all my friends, I’m always the first to say yes to a dessert menu or inquire about going for a post-meal treat. I always want dessert, but I know that there will probably only be one dessert that I will end up wanting. Menu stalking has helped with entrée indecisiveness, but it only takes one glance at the dessert offerings to know exactly what I’ll have.

To delve further: I could care less about chocolate, delicate pastries, and cakes. Pretty much anything with icing, frosting, glazing, or fondant can be easily passed over. I stay away from nuts. With the exception of shortbread (which I want straight from the freezer), I only reach for soft cookies. Not so much with crispy things. I like a good French canele for the custardy centre, but macarons and eclairs don’t get a second look. I never curse the office bakers for tempting me away from my boring, healthy desk lunches because nine times out of 10, the wares are as exciting to me as my carrot sticks. My indifference to chocolate almost seems like a superpower at this point.

As you know, cold and creamy rev my engine, and I can always find something suitable in that regard when sweets are needed. I have a very soft spot for homey desserts like pies, crisps, and cobblers—always always always with whipped cream. Yes, I know pie crust is pastry. It’s not a foolproof system. I like baked things room temperature or even refrigerator cold, including cookies, pies, and the cakes I do like (like Nigella’s chocolate Guinness number). Ice cream at home must be served in a chilled vessel. I can’t think of anything at this moment that I like served warm beyond the accompanying tea. And that, of course, should be hot.

This is all (too much, sorry) to say that it was quite strange that I would suggest to a friend last year that we make an hour-plus pilgrimage to the Italian Bakery Villabate Alba in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. There aren’t a lot of things I would like at an Italian bakery (no to crispy cookies and too much flaky pastry) beyond gelato if they had it, which they do. I don’t know where I first read about Villabate, but when I did, trying out Italian sweets wasn’t what I was after. It was the imported Sicilian ricotta used to fill the sweets that I wanted. Dairy fat was enough to get me on those slow trains to the deep heart of Brooklyn last spring. Shamefully, we only just made our second visit. I blame those S-low trains.

Cannolo and cartoccio

Cannoli seem to be one significant measure of a good Italian pasticceria, specifically a Sicilian one. Sfogliatelle, St. Joseph’s Day zeppole, and rainbow cookies seem to have their place, too, but a quality cannolo has more Yelp rating power. There are many other Italian bakeries in New York, but as I’ve tried to research what others have said and going on what I have been able to try, Villabate Alba always gets a big asterisk because of the imported ricotta. When you go into the shop, conspicuous signs also help underscore this for you. Being able to easily say no to almost all of the many cakes, cookies, and pastries they offer, my order is simple: one cannolo and one cartoccio.

I can’t tell you why the imported ricotta is better. I mean, imported fresh cheese from miles and miles away shouldn’t be all that great, should it? I can tell you that Villabate outshines the rest by what it does with that ricotta. My guess is, very little. Most cannoli I’ve tried taste like icing sugar, largely hiding the fact that the filling contains ricotta at all. Pasty and saccharine is not what I want, especially when most places also tend to overdo it with the chocolate chips and candied citron. Sweet on sweet on no, thanks. Villabate’s filling tastes like dairy. It is smooth and creamy, just sweet enough to remind you that this is a treat and just rich enough to rein you in. Excellent mouthfeel. The chocolate chips and citron are at a minimum, to the point where I could use one hand to count their number in one cannolo. More love from me because I don’t like a lot of crunchy in my creamy. Truly, if I had my choice, I would just order a bowl of that filling to eat with a spoon.

The cannoli are not filled to order, but the turnover is fast enough that you don’t have to be concerned about them sitting too long and the pastry getting soggy. And yes, I again let the system fail with respect to the crispy pastry of cannoli. When you go in for your first bite, there is a fear that the pastry shell will break all down your front, globs of ricotta trailing behind. Not so. The shell breaks exactly to your bite, with almost no crumbs, allowing you a perfect mouthful of shell and filling. The hint of cinnamon in the shell makes me very happy.

Inside of cartoccio with tunnel of imported Sicilian ricotta

The cartoccio is what I really came for, though. It is a coiled, yeasted dough that hugs a tunnel of that same ricotta filling. When you order one, the counterperson will ask you if you want baked or fried. FRIED. You want the doughnut. I can’t even fathom how much less of an experience it would be if you ordered what would essentially be a bun with ricotta*. Don’t worry, their expertise also extends to perfect greaseless frying. It is not an airy dough like an American yeasted doughnut; it’s more brioche-like in its density and chew. I’d be fine without the sugaring, but I understand its place. I love pulling it apart with my fingers then squeezing out ricotta to swipe at with my morsel.

Unfortunately, there is no seating at Villabate and there are no park benches in the vicinity for enjoying your purchases. But they do have a small coffee bar, where you can stand and eat your treats just like you would in Palermo. I must stand and eat my ricotta treats right away. Because of the dairy factor, many of the pastries are kept in cases that are slightly chilled. Cool pastry with cool ricotta? I’m pretty sure my pilgrimage pal has seen my orgasm face. No Sally faking involved.

* That being said, I really want to make these buns with cream.


The French dip at Minetta Tavern

Ever since I first tried the prime rib sandwich at Eataly, a little less than a year ago, I’ve had a constant, but manageable, craving for roast beef sandwiches. It hasn’t been simply a want of beef, otherwise I’d probably be hitting up something easy and cheap like Shake Shack a lot more often. No, it’s thinly sliced, tender roast beef that I want, and I think I’ve finally understood why: Arby’s.

When I was in elementary school, Friday night was often restaurant night with my family. And in the grand 80s, fast food fell into the restaurant category without a second thought. McDonald’s was the most regular destination (do you remember the pizza and tablecloth experiment?!), but for variety, we would switch it up and go to Harvey’s, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, and Arby’s. Despite those factory-curled fries, something about the shaved meat sandwiches of Arby’s felt a little bit more like real food instead of fried, frozen stuff. And sitting under the glass atrium at the front of the restaurant made it feel a little bit more fancy (?). I don’t recall that it was my favourite, so that’s not why it is the seed of my craving. I think it’s because for roughly six months, I ate Arby’s every week.

Up until I was about 10 years old, dancing was my after school activity. After that, I played sports. But for one winter, I danced and played basketball, with Wednesday night being the crossover of the two. After dancing, my mom would drive me from the ‘burbs where dance class was held all the way back to our neighbourhood in the city, where I had basketball practice at my school gym. At the corner of St. Albert Trail and the Yellowhead stood an Arby’s. Every week as we turned that corner, we stopped to get me an iced tea, curly fries, and a regular roast beef sandwich. Over 25 years later, it seems that I’m missing that Wednesday night meal. I have no other explanation beyond perhaps mild anemia.

I’ve returned to that prime rib sandwich a number of times. It really is one of the city’s best sandwiches. But for the sake of newness and variety, I recently tried the Dip at Dirty French. Although an okay sandwich, to be critical, it was too small, and the bread and beef were too tough for a French dip. I’ve read in a few places that the version at Minetta Tavern is a sleeper hit, but it’s only available at brunch and lunch. I’m one of those people who is not big on brunch (no to crowds, overpricing, and moody servers). But a weekday lunch in Greenwich Village is not possible, and it became a need to have that sandwich. With plans to visit the new Whitney Museum one Sunday, I called Minetta to see if the bar area was first-come, first-served for brunch as well, with the idea that I’d walk over after taking in Renzo Piano’s new masterpiece. I thought I could sneak in right before the end of service for my usual late afternoon Sunday br/lunch and easily find a stool. It was, replied the hostess, and when I inquired about possibly booking a table, it turns out they could seat me in the dining room at my requested time. I ate at the bar on my only previous visit (for the famous Black Label burger, which was fantastic), but I’ve always wanted to go back to eat in the dining room. Mostly because I fondly remember Peggy and Abe’s date there.

The restaurant is just what you want from something noteworthy and historic. A room that feels too small, white-clothed tables that are much too close together, and banquettes that are too shiny. The lighting is brighter than you’d want but it serves to highlight the charm of the old photographs lining the walls, the light fixtures, the floors, the other patrons. Every single other table was adorned with the burger. I wondered if my server might ask if I was sure if I wanted the French dip given that it seemed like the kitchen could only make one thing. Seemed. Because that French dip was as good as promoted. The bun was soft and spongey, easily soaking up twice its weight in jus. All the better to make a perfect bite when my teeth effortlessly made their way through the very tender, rare roast beef. Now, 25 years ago, I didn’t use Horsey sauce, but I was okay with Minetta’s dip having some horseradish to give heat and keep my palate on its toes. The burger would be more satisfying for a full-on beef craving, but the dip was exactly what I wanted and then some. And then some because of the fries. I think they might be the best fries I’ve ever had. French fries are not my preferred side carb of choice, and I usually prefer thick-cut fries (the ones at The Breslin being my favourite), but these are textbook amazeballs. Crispy outside without being too dark or greasy, tender, fluffy middles, and perfectly salted. I can’t even complain about the overabundance of tiny end-cut pieces because they were wonderful as well. A fry dipped in jus and then mayo? Made me almost as happy as curly fries did to my 10-year-old self.

Simit Sarayi New York

I cannot imagine someone travelling to Turkey without trying a simit. Not because they are the most delicious thing to eat in Turkey, but because they are everywhere. Especially in Istanbul. Bakeries, street vendors, fancy hotel breakfasts, not fancy hotel breakfasts. Their ever-present presence screams, try me. And after having them enough times, you come to crave them despite their simplicity. Many people have described them as a Turkish bagel, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. And because they can be bought on the street, they have more of a kinship with something like a pretzel. Just a snack on the way to or from work or to fuel walking up and down the hills of Istanbul. But yes, like a bagel, they are circular, and they come on breakfast platters where you might use one as a base to spread some butter or jam, or to place a small wedge of cheese on. But no, texturally nothing like a bagel. It is light and fluffy like bread, not boiled or dense like a bagel. If you’re working your jaw to eat a simit, you’ve received a stale one. For the unfortunate souls on this continent whose only access to “bagels” are the buns with holes in them that you find in supermarkets or in bags of six on the shelves (I’m sorry, Edmonton), then yes, a simit is like a bagel in your world.

The best simits I had in Turkey and in Berlin (where there is a very sizable Turkish population) were direct from bakeries. It only takes one hard, too-chewy, tooth-cracking simit from a street vendor or on a breakfast platter to change your mind about them. Don’t. Trudge on until you have one in your hands that feels lighter than it looks, that pulls apart with the ease of fresh bread, and whose sesame crust adds nuttiness and only a gentle textural contrast.

Simits have been in New York for a spell now, and while the “Turkish bagel” moniker had PR tongues wagging with their introduction, I haven’t heard much more. The simit I had from the Upper West Side branch of the small chain Simit + Smith was decent, but not memorable. The texture was okay, but the crust could have been darker, to reinforce the importance of a toasted sesame flavour.  I noticed the location of the Turkish chain Simit Sarayi on Fifth Avenue during one of my recent lunchtime strolls and made a note to return when I needed a snack or to supplement my lunch.

Simit Sarayi is more cafe than bakery. I never went to one while I was in Turkey because I kind of turned my nose up at the thought of a chain. In addition to simit, they have simit sandwiches, the savoury pastries known as borek (which looked worth trying), and a few entrees. I was in a state of shock when I took my $1.62 simit out of the bag. A perfect, fresh, warm (!) specimen was in my grip. I knew as soon as I made the first pull to break the ring that I was in for a little trip down Istanbul memory lane. So, instead of turning the corner and walking back to my imposing corporate/open-concept midtown mountain, in my mind, I just walked out of that little Beyoglu bakery down the street from my Airbnb. I was skirting cobbles and not office workers, but in both worlds, smiling with satisfaction.

Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk

I realized that when I was making schnitzel for the first time, that these monthly cooking lessons I’m blogging about will never be great successes. They will always be imperfect, in need of help, and hardly the source of inspiration to anyone reading. Because I’m making the recipes once and for the first time. How inspiring can amateur hour be? Cooking is definitely a realm of practice makes perfect, so to try things once and expect high (bloggable) quality is ridiculous on my part. It also means I should be cooking from recipes more than once a month. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, in April, I decided to practice a recipe instead of trying something new. For the third time, I made Jamie Oliver’s chicken in milk recipe.

Post-browning, pre-oven

I first read about this recipe on The Kitchn when a writer for the site declared it to be possibly the best roast chicken recipe ever. Even better than the recipe from San Francisco’s Zuni Café, which everyone touts as the best. To boot,  she wrote that it was very easy to make. Best and easy always grab my attention. When I was in search of something to make for a small New Year’s Eve dinner party two years ago, I referred back to the article and the writer’s slight alteration to Jamie’s original recipe. Having not tried a multitude of roast chicken recipes (read: I’d made one once before that), I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s certainly the best that I’ve ever had from a home oven. The aromatics are an unexpected combination, but yield such a delicate and nuanced flavour, in addition to one of the most amazing cooking aromas to ever be emitted from Chez Rhianna. Cinnamon and garlic? Lemon and sage? Yes and yes.  Just don’t think about it if it sounds weird. The odd duck is actually the milk the chook is cooked in, which makes this technically more of a braise. The moisture and added fat do wonders for keeping it moist and fall-apart tender.

The strangeness you most have to prepare for is the resulting sauce of curdled milk. It is not very appetizing to look at, but when spooned over the chicken and accompanying starch (mashed potatoes or rice would be best), it is liquid gold. The sauce, almost more than the chicken, really holds on to the flavours of the cinnamon stick, sage leaves, lemon zest, and roasted garlic and should absolutely be the gravy when served. It all ends up in your tummy, so maybe just heavily garnish with fresh parsley if you’re not crazy about the looks. It is also essential that you fish out the garlic cloves as they are now roasted and sweet. I say to have bread on the table so that you can smear those suckers all over a soft slice. Or, something slightly larger, like I did.

Tired with my monthly plates being the traditional meat/starch/veg, I decided I would load my chicken on a baguette and make a fantastic sandwich. One side got smeared with the roasted garlic, then I laid the chicken about, spooned over some of the sauce, placed some soft sage leaves, drizzled some olive oil, and then—happiness. The chicken is too tender to be carved nicely, so shredding it by hand to make a fresh roasted chicken sandwich was an obvious choice for me. But for you, it could be a nice way to use up any leftover chicken.

Resulting curdled milk sauce

To pretend to be healthy, I wanted something vegetal on the side, but I thought I would put in a little bit more effort than bagged mesclun with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. That week, I had come across a recipe for a radicchio salad on Food52 by Max and Eli Sussman. It was more involved than I wanted for a simple side-salad-for-one, but I stripped it down to make it work. Really stripped it down. Like just putting the fig balsamic dressing on the radicchio. EXCEPT I also employed their technique of browning roughly half the radicchio right before serving. Big thumbs up. The slightly charred leaves added significant depth to the bitter leaves. The dressing was on the sweet side, which contrasted perfectly with the radicchio. I would totally make the fully composed salad for a dinner party.

Cuban natilla

I even made dessert. A very simple Cuban pudding that I learned about while listening to Evan Kleinman’s Good Food podcast. The mix of cinnamon, vanilla, and citrus made it just a little bit more special than your typical vanilla custard without taking anything away from the simple comfort of cold and creamy. I’m not sure I’d make it again, as it was a little looser than I prefer, but the ease of making a custard without tempering the eggs was very welcome.

Now, go make this chicken before it gets too warm outside!

Jamie Oliver chicken in milk recipe

The Kitchn article about the recipe

Sussman brothers radicchio salad with fig balsamic vinaigrette

Good Food blog’s Cuban natilla

Taste of Northern China

Given my carbohydrate proclivities, it was only a matter of time before I made my way to Taste of Northern China after reading Ligaya Mishan’s New York Times review and her subsequent declaration that their griddle pancake was one of her best cheap eats of last year. Sign me up for cheap, warm bread anytime.

On Saturday night, I headed south to taste north. Taking a wrong turn out of the subway, I had the occasion to see Mission Chinese Food for the first time. The people all looked so beautiful, cool, and serene behind the glass and under the dim lighting. A stark contrast to the bright awnings and fluorescent lighting of the restaurants and hair salons I passed as I made the correct way to my destination. Mishan points out that Taste of Northern China is not actually located at its address of 88 East Broadway, but is instead on Forsyth. I turned the corner to find nothing, worried that it might be no longer. But then I looked across the street to see a lit “China Local Cuisine” sign, and my worries dissipated. As I crossed, I soon read “Taste of Northern China” on the door.

The space is basically all kitchen with a small adjacent counter area for eating. The orange wall being the main distinguishing feature. The street was rather quiet at 8:30 and I was currently the only patron, but the three pairs of hands in the tiny kitchen were busy working. Basic English menus were all over the space, but only a few words were spoken. As I placed my order for three skewers (lamb, cauliflower, and the griddle pancake), Chinese characters were written out in a small notebook as I pointed to each item on the menu. The lamb was $1.50, the other two, $1.25. I kept the order short as this was just an appetizer stop before heading elsewhere for dinner. Now, Taste of Northern China might not be a place you would bring your clean freak mom to, but as someone who easily uses too much Purell, I was not deterred by anything I saw. And once the smells of the grill started to fill the small space, my hunger negated all other feelings.

Cauliflower and lamb skewers

Getting my order to stay meant that my pancake was placed in a bag, and my skewers were presented on tin foil. The cauliflower was tender crisp and nicely touched with salty spice and vegetable oil. The lamb was on the tough side and best eaten straight from the stick, but perfect for getting my appetite going with its meaty savouriness. I am always unsure what the descriptor “gamey” means, so never use it. But if it means an undeniable and delicious taste of flesh, only enhanced by fire, then the lamb was gamey.

I wonder now if I ordered a bread different from Mishan’s because mine did not come with spice or on skewers as hers did. There was another bread-like skewer on the vegetarian section of the menu (grilled rice cake, I think it was), so perhaps I went down a different rabbit hole. No matter, I loved the pancake I was presented with, and for this post, we’ll say I ordered right, but only receiving something a bit different. The bread I got (and was expecting, just without spice and not on two skewers) is that used for the Chinese “burgers” filled with sautéed meat like pork or lamb that Xi’an Famous Foods made, well, famous. Taste of Northern China also serves them. The bread was dense yet still had some fluff, like mantou or naan (my Instagram photo shows the interior). Even without the house spice, the exterior was salty and contrasted with the natural sweetness of the dough. It had me swooning. It would have been delicious sandwiching lamb or some other savoury filling, but you know me, I was completely in heaven with it plain. And did I mention it was only $1.25?

Griddle pancake

Taste of Northern China is only minutes away from both Lam Zhou and Sheng Wang,  so I might be making a pancake stop the next time I go for noodles instead of complementing with dumplings. I dream of ripping into that warm circle again and being flooded with all the happy hormones that come with being served a perfect carb. But next time, I won’t be confused by the address. I know to make a beeline for the orange wall on the west side of Forsyth. I’ll also order the other bread just to be sure, and because… more bread, please.