Birthday Cake


Last week was my birthday, which, of course, meant cake (I don’t know if anyone else has this rule, but it’s one I feel pretty strongly about). This year, my cake was from the Bleecker Street location of Amy’s Bakery, which, you may have noticed, is not pictured above. That’s the view at sunset on my birthday last year, from my hotel room in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. None of my pictures from this year are that great, so I figured I’d start with that instead.


Okay, there’s the cake. In the background is a slice of coconut, which is based on a Hawaiian recipe so I figured it would be awesome. That’s why, despite my better judgement, I ordered it despite the fact that there were only a couple slices left and it was early enough that it was a good bet it had been sitting around for a while. And I have to say that I was sorry that I did. The cake, frosting and filling, which didn’t taste very strongly of coconut, were disappointingly dry and redolent of refrigerator. However, the carrot cake, pictured in the foreground, was extremely moist and sported a generous amount of some of the best cream cheese frosting I’ve ever had. So, my trip wasn’t a complete loss, and I haven’t given up on the coconut; hopefully I’ll catch it sometime when it’s fresh.


So, back to Mexico. Last year I celebrated my birthday with three different pasteles de tres leches (for anyone keeping count, that’s NINE different leches). Two were from a fancy little bakery called Tere Cazola: the one pictured above is their cajeta version, and I also got a slice of fudge.


The third slice, the misshapen chunk shown above, is from Mega, a giant supermarket that I am strangely drawn to, especially for its bakery. I mean, how can you argue with giant slabs of cake from which you can hack off your own piece (thus explaining the weird shape of the one I got)? I can’t remember much about those cakes from long ago except that than the Mega one was the milkiest, and there’s wasn’t anything left at the end of the day.

P.S. There was one amazing piece of cake on my birthday this year. I had dinner at Casellula in Hell’s Kitchen, and among their desserts was a warm individual-sized sweet potato cake, servered with sour cream, butter pecan ice cream and caramel sauce poured tableside. Heavenly.

Amy’s Bread
Multiple Locations
Tere Cazola
401 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Homemade: Pumpkin Soufflé with Maple Crème Anglaise

Note: Most of this post was written before Hurricane Sandy and Election Day 2012. Does that change anything? Not really. Just thought I’d mention it.

If you follow food blogs, this is probably the ninetieth recipe you’ve seen recently featuring pumpkin or some other sort of winter squash. The ingredient is everywhere these days, which is probably what inspired me to whip up this soufflé. And by the way, “whip up” is an intended double entendre; of course, I’m referring to the egg whites that are the base of this French dessert, but I’m also hinting at how easy it is to put this together.

Libby’s canned pumpkin; next time I won’t be so lazy and make homemade purée

There aren’t many ingredients: pumpkin purée, two kinds of sugar, a bunch of spices and egg whites. And if you prepare everything beforehand, it’s super-easy to finish it off right before you plan on serving it. In fact, it’s helpful to do your prep ahead of time, because then you can play with your leftover egg yolks. This recipe calls for a full dozen whites, so good luck using them all, but I usually get rid of a few by making a crème anglaise that goes with my egg white–laden dessert.

For the soufflé, I used a recipe from pastry chef Emily Luchetti’s Classic Stars Desserts. I love her books; she writes in an easy-going, friendly voice that makes them fun to flip through and read. The anglaise recipe was found in a three-ring binder from when I worked in restaurants. I have no idea whose it was or where I got it, but I tweaked it, so now it’s mine.

In terms of outcome, the results were tasty, but the soufflé didn’t rise as high as I’d expected. It also took longer to bake than the time given in the recipe; when I first cut into it, it was still pretty liquidy inside. Both of these things were most likely my fault. First, I folded room-temp whites into cold pumpkin purée, causing it to seize up instead of incorporating nicely; next time I’ll take it out of the fridge earlier. Also, my baking dish is more of a round casserole than a traditional soufflé, and it slopes out at the top a little. I’m not sure that made a difference but it was all I had, and can you blame me for wanting to use Le Creuset bakeware for such a trés Français dessert?

Recipes after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cleveland Eats–Jewish Delis and Humongous Desserts

Deli counter at Corky & Lenny’s, manned by the nephew of one of the namesake restaurateurs

Last November I spent a long weekend in Cleveland with my grandmother, and although I’ve already written about most of the things I saw and ate (West Side Market, Corbo’s Bakery, Geraci’s), I still have a lot of pictures of other stuff, so you get another post.

I love Jewish deli food, so when my grandmother suggested lunch at Jack’s Deli and Restaurant for my first meal after arriving, I was all for it. I ordered what I always order at delis–egg salad and coleslaw–and my grandmother went straight for the sweets with cheese blintzes and a chocolate phosphate (the huge beverage you see above). In case you’re not from New York City or the 1950s, a chocolate phosphate is seltzer water with chocolate syrup, preferably Fox’s U-Bet brand. Everything was fine (except, in my opinion, for the phosphate, but then again, I hate seltzer), but nothing was really worth going into too much detail about.

On our way out, we grabbed a slice of this cheesecake to take home. Though this picture doesn’t show it, a slice was roughly the size of an entire cake from anywhere else. Seriously, it was huge.

To give you a sense of perspective, here’s that cheesecake next to a man’s head. A man who, by the way, took a lot of ribbing from his colleagues working the line behind him at being the subject of my photo. I don’t think they get a lot of food bloggers at Jack’s.

That’s my slice on a dinner plate–notice that it takes up most of it. This piece had been prepackaged with Styrofoam and plastic wrap, and then stored in a refrigerated case with a bunch of other to-go stuff, which might explain its slightly pickle-ish flavor. Did that keep me from eating most of it (with my grandmother’s help, and over the course of a few days; no way can you do this alone and in one sitting)? I’m embarrassed to admit that it didn’t. Other than the hint of brine, it was dense and cream-cheesy, with very little graham cracker crust for texture or balance. I especially liked the well-cooked layer on top.

To bookend my stay in Cleveland, we stopped at another deli, Corky & Lenny’s, on our drive to the airport. While Jack’s had felt more like a diner, Corky & Lenny’s seemed like the real deal, especially for old-school Jewish favorites. Just look at that smoked meat, smoked sable and whitefish in the photo above. “Beefies,” however, aren’t something I’m familiar with from trips to East Coast delis, so I’m guessing it’s a Midwestern thing. I’d Google it, but I’m a little afraid of what sorts of pornographic craziness that might pull up.

Now it was my turn for blintzes. Corky & Lenny’s offers you a number of options: an order of two or three, filled with cheese, cherry or blueberry, and with a side of either sour cream, blueberry sauce or–my choice–both sides for an extra charge. I also opted for the smaller order of cheese blintzes, and the tangy-sweet filling wrapped and fried in eggy crêpes was so good that I regretted not getting that third blintz for about a week afterward. Actually, I still kind of regret it.

The pastry cases at Corky & Lenny’s were also impressive, but once again I got something to go, because you can’t have what is basically a dessert for lunch and then have a giant cookie right after. Just like with eating and swimming, you need to wait at least half an hour. Corky & Lenny’s desserts ran the gamut from Jewish bakery favorites to local Cleveland specialties like coconut bars (squares of frosted cake covered in sweetened dried coconut, much like Australian lamingtons) and Russian tea cakes, which are shown below.

At first glance, you might think this is an extreme close-up of rugelach. However, these are much, much larger, like the size of an adult’s fist.

Once again, perspective: Russian tea cake is on the left, homemade rugelach on the right. But basically, they’re comprised of the same things: a sweet, rich pastry dough, nuts, raisins and either a chocolate or fruit-jammy filling. As for taste, they were all right, but I don’t think their prodigious size helps them any because they can be a bit on the doughy side. Then again, a weekend of eating my way through Cleveland had left me on the doughy side, so maybe that’s just one of the area’s extra-special qualities.

Jack’s Deli & Restaurant
14490 Cedar Road
University Heights, OH 44121
Corky & Lenny’s
27091 Chagrin Boulevard
Woodmere Village, OH 44122

Atlantic Antic, Brooklyn, NYC, 9/30/12

Today was the 38th annual Atlantic Antic, which stretched along about a mile of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. I, of course, went to check out the food. Here’s a bunch of stuff that I saw, and a bunch of stuff that I ate.

The first place I hit up was this table outside a church filled with way more cakes than you see here, all served by women who can only be described as “church ladies.”

I went with the strawberry cake with lemon frosting because, well, pink cake! I’m not sure how natural the strawberry and lemon flavors were but it was tasty, and it was probably one of the moistest layer cakes I’ve ever had.

Mile End Deli was also there–that’s Noah Bernamoff in the top left corner. Though I couldn’t sample their smoked meat sandwich, I’ve included this because Mile End is pretty hot right now and I’m not one to pass up an SEO opportunity.

Ten dollars got you a small version of their sandwich, plus a dill pickle and a scoop of potato salad. Did I mention that this was from MILE END? I ate the pickle, which was excellent.

Other places mostly selling things I couldn’t eat included the hundreds of stands offering various Caribbean cuisines, plus miles and miles of soul food.

I did find one Caribbean joint selling coconut cheesecake. Now you’re talking! I know nothing about Plum Tree except that they were really nice and got extra points for giving me free samples.

I carried this slice of cheesecake around for most of the afternoon and was so excited to finally eat it that I forgot to take a picture until I was about halfway through. But it was as good as it had looked when I first bought it–a little more more eggy and custardy than your normal cheesecake, it had a really nice essence of the coconut, plus a graham cracker crust.

Lest you think I only ate cake, there was also this spanikopita from Sahadi’s, which is also my favorite reason to go to Brooklyn. These were warm, crisp and flaky, and filled with a creamy spinach-feta mixture. I also had some falafel, which had obviously been fried long before and is barely worth mentioning.

Next door to Sahadi’s is Damascus Bakery, my second favorite reason to go to Brooklyn. Their pastries are amazing. I had the cheese knaffee, which is also known as kanafeh.

Close-up of the knaffee, which is kataïfi wrapped around a sweet cheesy filling and then, like most Middle Eastern pastries, soaked in a rosewater-scented syrup. It was messy and delicious.

Also occurring on Atlantic Avenue this weekend was the opening of the Barclays Center and three sold-out Jay-Z concerts. Neither of which are really pertinent to this post, but that’s two more SEO opportunities right there!

Strawberry Gelatin Cake, Random Bakery, Somewhere in Queens.

I found this strange pastry in a bakery on Roosevelt Avenue, somewhere between Corona and Woodside, following a Mets game (they won, in case you were wondering). It was basically two thin layers of cake sandwiching a thick layer of very enticing pink stuff that turned out to be some sort of hard, yet creamy, strawberry-flavored gelatin. No one who was with me really liked it, which was fine–more for me. Here’s what it looks like from the other side (and I’m sorry there aren’t any pictures of the full slice; I’d eaten most of it before I thought to snap a few shots):

Has anyone out there had any experience with this sort of cake? It’s not anything I’d seen before, and I’d love to know what it is. Please hurry with your answer–we’re on the edge of our seats.

Cleveland Eats–Geraci’s Restaurant, University Heights, OH

During my trip to Cleveland a few months back, I was asked to choose a restaurant for a family dinner. I could have picked someplace new, hip and trendy, but when local favorite Geraci’s, a basic red-sauce Italian joint, was suggested, I jumped at the chance to try their famous pizza. Having just seen a feature on them on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (a show I love for its content just as much as I hate its host), I was curious to see if they’d live up to the hype.

Geraci’s is the type of place so frequented by locals that when you sit down, the server asks if you want a menu instead of just handing one to you. Our hosts for the evening, my cousins Mel and Lois, didn’t–there was no question that they would be sharing the antipasto and a large pepperoni pie.

Geraci’s is famous for its pepperoni, which, as you can see in the picture below, is smaller and cut thicker than most. I can’t attest to its taste, but if the crowds lining up to get in are any indication, not to mention the folks raving about it on TV, I can guess it’s pretty spectacular. And on a side note, this will probably be the most pornographic picture of meat you will ever see on this blog.

Not as well-versed with Geraci’s as my cousins, my grandmother and I needed menus, and I have to admit that I grappled with the desire to order eggplant parmigiana, my usual go-to in Italian fare. But I’d gone there to try the pizza, so my grandmother and I ended up splitting a large pie with mushrooms (file with Guy Fieri under the category of “Things I Hate”) and onions on her half while mine featured green olives, which I can never resist if they’re available.

At Geraci’s, your pizza arrives at your table whole and is then sliced in front of you by your server, four “cuts” for the small pie, eight for the large. Even the large pie is not very big–at least by NYC standards–and I managed to eat 3/4 of my half, which works out to be . . . well, you do the math.

With its thick, bready crust, this is definitely not a NY-style slice, and not being a pizza aficionado, I can’t really compare it to other styles. Also, it’s been too long since I was there to properly describe its taste, but the fact that I don’t have any notes suggests that I was too busy enjoying my dinner to take any. I also devoured my remaining slice straight from the fridge the following morning and remember enjoying that as well. The one thing I can say for certain is that I now understand why locals are willing to wait in line for Geraci’s homestyle Italian favorites.

One final note: I don’t usually post personal photos on 5CentsPlain, but I couldn’t resist this one of my cousin Mel and my grandmother, the real reasons for my trip to Cleveland (and you thought I’d only gone there to eat). Aren’t they the cutest?!

Geraci’s Restaurant
2266 Warrensville Center Road
University Heights, OH 44118
(216) 371-5643

First Day in Mexico–Sopes and Pan Dulce

My trip to Mexico feels like it was eons ago, so it’s nice being able to revisit Playa del Carmen through the hundreds of pictures I took. Of course, the vast majority of those pictures are of food, such as the sopes and pan dulce eaten on the afternoon I arrived.

It shouldn’t surprise you by now that my first thought after checking into the hotel was, “What’s to eat?” So I set off into town, following my instinct to get as far away from the zona turistica as possible. A ten-minute walk landed me on this corner, which was home to a assortment of eateries, including the bakery Pan del Carmen, whose racks of pastries are pictured below.

Like at many bakeries in Mexico, you get a tray and a pair of tongs and then help yourself. I was tempted by the conchas, which are the sugar-crusted rolls on the bottom-left. However, I’d been off the plane for all of two hours without having eaten dessert, so I decided to go for something sweeter.

I chose three pastries and then picnicked on a nearby stoop. Predictably, I’d gravitated to this raisin-studded wedge of bread pudding, the most treacly item they had to offer. It was super moist and a little too sticky to eat out of hand, though I managed to persevere.

This next treat fell more into the breakfasty category. It was made from multi-layered, puff-like dough and supposedly filled with some sort of cheese.

However, as I’ve learned is the case with many Mexican pastries, it was a little empty on the inside, though it was fresh, flaky and featured a nice crunch from the sugary coating on top. Still, it left me wanting more, and luckily, I hadn’t been able to leave Pan del Carmen without this cookie. Big and cinnamon- dusted, you could probably call it a polvorone.

Having satisfied my sweet tooth, it was time to find some real food. A few blocks away was a small cafe called Quesadillas Hidalguenses y Sopes. Unsurprisingly, they sold quesadillas and sopes, made fresh to order from little lumps of masa, as well as huaraches, tostadas, empanadas, tortas and other antojitos, or snacks. This was exactly what I’d been looking for.

Sopes are one of my favorite Mexican foods, so I ordered the flor de calabaza, or squash blossom, and was disappointed to learn that it was a seasonal item and not on the menu that day. The same went for the huitlacoche, which is a fungus that grows on corn, but considering my deep aversion to mushrooms, I was okay with missing out on that one.

So I opted for rajas, which is grilled poblano pepper. In addition to the peppers, the sope came piled with refried beans, lettuce, onion, seriously ripe tomato, queso oaxaca, crema and avocado.

Also ordered and enjoyed (though not by me) was this tostada con pollo, similar to the sope but with a flatter and crisper, but also freshly griddled, masa base. Altogether, our order consisted of two sopes, the tostada, an horchata and bottles of water and Coke, all for a grand total of 48 pesos. You read that right–with the exchange rate, this mini feast cost about $3.75 USD, though it was as good as, if not better than, meals for which I’ve paid five times as much.