I’ve been obsessed with food and fine dining since childhood when I used to pore through my mother’s copy of Gourmet and make horrific messes in the kitchen. Then, like today, I was always way better at cooking than cleaning and then, like today, I found that kitchen experimentation teaches life lessons.
I learned about materials and the joy of Sil-Pat when I stained my mother’s counters with a turmeric pastry dough for Caribbean Meat Pies. I learned why you can’t bake a layer cake in pie pans with a chocolate/banana “vol-cake-o” (so named because I piled the trimmings of the cake on top and let them explode over the sides). Most importantly, I learned that when your mother forbids candy in the house, you can still indulge your sweet tooth if you bake dessert for the whole family.*
When I went on junior year abroad to Paris, I was in food heaven and learned that when you’re in Europe with your dad’s credit card, you should eat up! I had croissant or pain au chocolat every morning from my local pâtisserie. As I was studying at the École du Louvre, I was able to go to Angelina, the famous salon du thé known for its divine, thick, practically perfect chocolat chaud and fancy pastries frequently but absolutely despised their most popular dessert: le Mont Blanc which was a mix of chestnut purée and whipped cream.
Study abroad in general is a time when it’s best to say yes as often as possible. It leads you to amazing wine tastings, South African rugby bars, sketchy men, and strange art galleries. However, for me, it led me to my first opportunity for professionally published work. While flipping through Time Out Paris one day, I saw a small ad that read “do you love to eat?” The ad went on to explain that Time Out needed restaurant critics — something I had done for the Williams College newspaper in spite of the very limited dining options in the Berkshires. While I wasn’t paid, Time Out would reimburse me for my meals and needed someone to write the new reviews for the Salon du Thé chapter.
I suddenly had an excuse to spend more time at Ladurée and Pierre Hermés while also hopping around the city and finding new pastry shops. I said “oui” to every carb, sugar, cake, cookie, sorbet, and chocolat chaud I could find. I ended up trying virtually every macaron flavor on the map as well as pastries flavored with roses and flecked in real gold fit only for a princess. Since Paris is a magical place, I was able to do all of this while still losing 20 pounds.**
In the last few years, macarons have gained popularity in the U.S. especially now that Maison du Chocolat, Pierre Hermés, and Ladurée all have establishments in New York and, moreover, I was able to find delicious ones at ACKC in DC. However, now that I’m in Michigan, what’s a French pastry-lovin’ gal to do?
I thought I found the perfect solution: a macaron making class at Sur La Table . You may recall I’ve shared experiences at cooking classes before, but was hopeful a baking class for a fairly challenging pastry would attract a different crowd.
Today’s lesson in the kitchen is that I have no future as a pastry chef. I found myself thinking way too often: this is way more trouble than it’s worth. You see, I’m an ambitious but lazy cook in that there are some things that are just easier to buy than make. I’m never going to spend a day making fresh pasta and I feel similarly about ice cream. I’m now adding macarons to that list. While not overly complicated, a lot of effort goes into producing a final product that, for what it’s worth is tasty but lacking the sophistication of the originals. The meringue based pastry is actually rather simple to make: egg whites, cream of tarter, and sugar brought to soft peaks, fold in almond flour, pipe into circles, let sit for a bit, then bake.
However, it’s just very finicky material: easy to let sit too long pre-baking, can’t use food coloring drops because that’s too much added liquid so you must buy food coloring gel, etc. Furthermore, the fillings are a reasonable amount of work and if you want any variety at all, you do need to make multiple fillings or multiple shells. The results were tasty, but I know myself well enough to know this is likely not a project I will repeat.
Sadly, more memorable than my below average cookies, were the other women in the group. Out of 14, nine were women who belonged to the same knitting circle led by a tall blonde named Beth. I won’t judge them for their lack of culinary knowledge (although if you don’t know how to fold in flour, you might want to re-think the class), but will judge them for mean girl antics. They insisted on going four and five to a table even though we were supposed to be three and four. Then, when my table produced the only decent trays of lavender cookies, Beth and her comrades seized them and filled them. They commandeered all of the fillings leaving the remaining two tables with one each and walked out of the class with 3x the cookies the rest of us had because one of the women brought her daughter and kept sending her to the back to get the cookies that had just come out of the oven before the teacher brought them to us.
Perhaps that’s the the thing that was ultimately missing from the experience: there’s something about entering a French bakery and seeing macarons displayed like jewelry and needing to respect the food and the venue. Parisian culture is that certain “je ne sais quoi” that takes a macaron from mere cookie to food of the gods.
*Or smuggle in Tootsie Rolls and hide the wrappers under the bed. Guess we now know how I got those 13 cavities…
**I’m typing this and wondering why I came back.
I was reminded recently of Adam Richman’s “20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die,” an article from GQ in 2006. You see, despite all my food snobbery, I believe that the cheeseburger is still the perfect sandwich and absolutely nothing tops a really really good one.
At the time, I vowed to eat all 20 in short order, but apparently stopped after making sure I hit all of the NYC locales and, sadly, had to admit to a friend that JG Melon’s was probably the superior NYC burger. (The Peter Luger burger, while delicious, was almost too much to handle).
This week, however, I’ve been in major cheeseburger-craving mode. I thought this would be satisfied with a slider from Green Dot Stables (which is, actually, a surprisingly good burger, but due to its slider size doesn’t really handle my fix). In my cheeseburger daydreaming, I came back to Adam’s list and discovered with great shock that I was a) only at 40% completion and b) one of my bucket list burgers was located just 30 minutes away at Sidetrack in Ypsilanti!
Friends, this is a great pub cheeseburger. Perfectly hand-formed 1/3 lb patty, soft simple sesame seed bun with a great meat to bread ratio, great melt on the cheese and cooked to a perfect medium rare.
And, because I am disappointed in myself for taking way too long with this challenge, I vow to hit the remaining 11 in the next three years. Prepare for trips to Seattle, Newport, New Haven, Miami, New Mexico (x2), Dallas, Napa, Hackensack, San Fran, and Chicago. I am accepting elastic waist-banded volunteers to join me!
This weekend, I tried to introduce a friend to a fun new game called “Guess Whether or Not Karen Likes This Waiter.” Unfortunately, I was informed that this game would probably not be very much fun as the answer is generally obvious within seconds. So, for those who don’t have the pleasure of dining with me, or who just miss the experience, I present:
My Top 10 Things Waiters Can Do to Make Me Hate Them*
- Ask if I want more water. Well, if it’s empty, that means I’m drinking it and since it’s free for you, why don’t we go with yes. Yes, I do want more water. Keep that glass at least half full.
- Bring the check while I am still consuming dessert and/or before asking if we’d like coffee or anything else. This is actually just rude. Not only does it reduce the chance of a final few items being put on the bill (thus adding to the tip) but it leaves a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I’m not a starving writer camping out at Starbucks for Wifi, I promise I’ll leave when I’m finished.
- Use the royal “we.” This KILLS me. “What are we having today? Are we enjoying our hummus? Do we need some more Diet Coke?” This is both grammatically incorrect and could lead to some uncomfortable moments. What if I said “we are” and she replied “well actually you haven’t let me have any yet?” How awkward would that be?
- Not have an opinion on the food they’re serving. I’ll admit it, I ask a lot of questions when I order. I’ve been called a “high maintenance orderer” before (albeit by someone who didn’t know the difference between brioche and a popover so take that for what it’s worth). The point is, if I ask which is better the burger or the chicken and you ask me “which are you in the mood for?” that doesn’t actually help me at all. If I was in the mood for one, I would have ordered it.
- Try to upsell me on a “signature” appetizer before I’ve ordered my drink. This used to kill me at Dos Caminos when I still had my menu, hadn’t thought through my meal, and had $15 guacamole forced on me in a lava pot. Just give it time, I promise I’ll order three courses, but I don’t want overpriced avocados just because you put it in a special box on the menu.
- Act too Disney-esque. Maybe I’m cynical, but when someone is that cheerful with me, I assume it’s a front and they’re thinking of stabbing me in the face. It’s tough to feel at ease when you’re looking over your shoulder all night for a steak knife-wielding maniac with a big Disney grin.
- Explain the restaurant “concept” to me. “Have you been here before? No? Great, let me explain what we’re about to you. We’re into a locavore dining experience specializing in small plates with Mediterranean influences. We recommend you order 2-3 items from column A, 3-5 items from column B, and at least 2 items from column C, but if you order 3 or more items from column C you should probably eliminate everything from column A.” Guess what, I went to your website, I figured out what your concept is, and it’s called pretentious, but the Yelp reviews are good so just bring me some wine.
- Add to my own personal anxiety. When you seem nervous or flustered or brusque or distracted, I start to assume my food has been poisoned.
- Not be around enough. I may be paying to eat at your restaurant, but in some ways, I’m a prisoner. When I’m out of bread or want a lime wedge or need a utensil, I just have to sit there and hope that you’ll remember to come back and get to me. And if it takes too long, I have to contemplate eating with my hands and bringing shame to my mother from afar.
- Be around too much. The third time you ask me if my meal’s okay, it starts to taste a little funky. Save all that personal attention for your loved ones.
*I should note that I don’t believe any of the reasons above are cause for poor tipping unless they’re over the top (or they really do stab you per #6).
And if you are a demanding diner, you should certainly reward those on their feet getting your meal for you.
This is the first in what will be a very valuable series to KU Says readers with tips for succeeding on various reality television programs. With “Chopped All Stars” premiering on Sunday, it seemed appropriate to kick this off with with “Chopped,” a.k.a. the greatest food competition program involving multiple surprise ingredients since “Ready, Set, Cook” with Sissy Biggers.
Since J and I are devoted “Chopped” viewers, here are some tips we prepared if you don’t want Ted giving you the knife.
You’re supposedly a professional (except for that lobster roll delivery dude). Get the basics right.
- Cook your protein correctly, above all else. Here’s the thing: if three people screw up, the guy who got a nice sear with a medium rare temperature is definitely making it through.
- Don’t leave in bones, strings, cartilage, or anything else inedible. That’s just amateur hour and this is usually where the home cooks/caterers/private chefs who specialize in “kosher locavore dining” fail.
- Don’t forget your sauce. It cures dryness, pulls multiple components together, shows your personal style, and allows you to mask an ingredient you didn’t understand how to use properly.
- You should know how to budget time for: starches (rice, pasta, risotto, potatoes), protein (see #1), and baked goods. Poorly cooked rice is a common competitive food show enemy; unless it’s in the basket, we recommend staying away.
Embrace what Chopped stands for: creativity and resourcefulness.
- If it’s in the basket; it must be transformed. We know you didn’t know what to do with those corn chips, but crumbling them and sprinkling on the side isn’t incorporating them into the dish. If you didn’t fool us, you’re not fooling Zakarian. I mean, the man’s basically one step away from God (did you see him get a perfect score on “Iron Chef America?” Does that even happen?)
- No clue what an ingredient is? Regardless of round, you can probably put it in a blender.Other tips:
- Appetizer round: use for vinaigrette or chop into salad
- Entree round: gastrique that bitch*
- Dessert round: blend with Marscarpone
We know you’re not a pastry chef, but go out with a bang.
- Your dessert needs to be a dessert (not breakfast, all ye French toast offenders), but it can’t be too sweet. None of the judges like that (except sometimes Aaron Sanchez).
- If you think you can make an ice cream, do it. A good ice cream pretty much always wins this round. That said, if you think you’re going to make an ice cream, get to the machine first. I shouldn’t have to tell you that if you lose that machine, you’ll be stuck trying to make a last minute parfait and hoping the deep freezer works faster (spoiler: it never does).
- Don’t bake anything, it will not be done in time (unless you’re a baker and they’re looking for that from you). If you are able to bake successfully, by all means do, and feel free to offer a touching story about how the recipe for that crisp came from your blind grandmother who you’d like to use the proceeds from winning to visit.
Seriously, this is television, be presentable.
- Plate before the 1 minute mark and don’t use a ring mold if what you have won’t set, it will ultimately look like dog food. There’s very little you can cook in under 60 sec and the judges reward strong presentation.
- Don’t contaminate your food by double dipping/tasting. The judges who need to eat that food are maybe 12 feet away… what’s wrong with you???
Additional personal pet peeves:
- J doesn’t like people who cut themselves and bleed nor does he like people who are a**holes.
- K doesn’t like people who tell long stories about how they want to win for their [insert sob story]-afflicted family. It’s called Chopped not Make A Wish.
*K believes that gastrique is to Chopped as sous-vide is to Top Chef. Discuss.
Today, my beloved MoPo and I are headed to Eisenberg’s Deli for lunch for the greatest egg salad in the world. I get mine on toasted rye with extra crispy bacon (no lettuce/tomato/onion) AND a chocolate egg cream.
If you haven’t been to Eisenberg’s (and if you like egg salad, that’s a travesty), then you should absolutely buckle up and enjoy this adorable mini-doc about the 83-year old diner.
Just last weekend in DC, I went to We The Pizza, and also ordered an egg cream only to have the woman at the counter whisper “are you sure you want this? Do you know that it’s not a cream soda?”
Not that I needed further proof in New York’s supremacy, but that was pretty much the nail in the coffin.
Something you should know about me: I spend so much time at the Henry Hotel that I have an uncomfortably close relationship with their staff. Some recent incidents have forced me to venture elsewhere:
- The dining room manager (who is a lovely human being) is also a mouth-kisser. I’m barely even a hugger so… that’s not going to work
- They’ve been promising a new menu for 6 months and it was supposed to arrive two weeks ago… still not here and I can’t have another lamb taco
- They “changed the prices on select wines” forcing my favorite $35 pinot noir to now be $80
Anyway, no biggie, it’s fun to venture out of a hotel. Especially when your hotel is located in a mall parking lot. J and I decided to hit up PizzaPapalis on Michigan Avenue and it was such a letdown. No roaches or inedible food but just a terrible disappointment.
My Yelp review is below. I gave it two stars.
I remember a time when sticky floors, bad pizza, and cheap wine were available in abundance: it was called college and even then I didn’t pay $66 for a meal this mediocre.
We were greeted at the door and seated… Oh no, wait, we weren’t. But after a few minutes of waiting, a sad teenager walked us and another guest back, threw 2 menus on a table, and walked off without saying a word.
The menu is simple enough that we planned our meal quickly: a small VIP deep dish, Greek salad, and garlic bread (based on the yelp reviews). When our waitress arrived to take our drink order, we informed her we didn’t have drink menus, and she then told us we were wrong and searched both our menus before concluding we, in fact, hadn’t received any. Some might have been turned off by her attitude but I found it comforting: her warmth was reminiscent of that of my middle school bus driver.
One mediocre $24 bottle of Pinot Grigio later, the garlic bread and salad arrived. The garlic bread was fine but didn’t merit raves and was served with jarred grocery store marinara on the side — a sign of what was to come. Both the sauce and salad dressings were served with lids in to go cups, which sugests that perhaps PizzaPapalis is a better choice for takeout in general.
Short description of our pizza: meh. It was a little overcooked (so the crust wasn’t as flaky or buttery as it could have been) and the sauce was just poor quality (I imagined a vat of Ragu simmering in the back that someone sprinkled extra oregano into to “kick it up a notch”). Basically, we wandered into a take out joint with mediocre food and from start to check (which took an hour and 45 min) were treated like an afterthought. Not the worst experience, but you deserve better, Dearborn.