Sunday, September 27, 2009

Country Pumpkin

I absolutely love fall. Let me rephrase that. I absolutely love fall while it is still sunny and above 60 degrees outside. One of the best things about my recent travels was getting to enjoy my sightseeing while still graced with the lovely sunshine and warm temps of a lingering summer across the Continent. But no sooner had I touched down back at Dulles airport and emerged bleary-eyed from the baggage claim was I greeted with the undeniable proof that fall had arrived during my absence; the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte had returned.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the true reason I love fall is that, in fact, I love all things "spice." Pumpkin spice. Apple spice. Gingerbread spice. You name it, I can't wait for the excuse of cooler temps to tuck into a warm bowl of anything-spice-with-caramel-on-top. I don't know why there are certain flavors that we come to associate with specific seasons of the year, but I also don't ask too many questions before stocking up on jars of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice that herald the return of the holiday season.

Thus, I apologize in advance for what is sure to be an inundation of pumpkin spice recipes over the next three months, as I've already come across several pumpkin-themed custards, bread puddings, cheesecakes and candies that I can't wait to try. If you get spiced out, just check back with me in the New Year when I'm sure to have returned to my senses :) And, to kick it all off, I bring you Pumpkin Chocolate Brownies! The title of this recipe is a little misleading, as the "brownies" are really more of a cake or quick bread texture in the shape of brownies, but they are delicious nonetheless. Also a note, these will turn out just as well if you accidentally buy a can of pumpkin pie mix (which already includes some spices) instead of plain pumpkin. I mean, not like I would ever do anything like that know, just in case you were wondering.... (Whoops!)
Pumpkin Chocolate Brownies
makes 16

1/2 canned pure pumpkin
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
2 egg whites
2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cocoa powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Spray 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Combine pumpkin, sugar, egg, egg whites and oil in large mixer bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until blended. Add flour, baking powder, cocoa, cinnamon, allspice, salt and nutmeg. Beat on low speed until batter is smooth. Stir in chocolate chips. Spread evenly into prepared pan.

3. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until wooden pick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack. Cut into 2-inch squares.

*I also doubled this recipe and baked in two pans

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Le Cupcake

I have a complex about fitting in when I travel. Fortunately, not to the point that you'll find me sporting these pants currently fashionable in Europe for some ungodly reason. But I have been known to get horribly, horribly lost before I will sink to pulling out a map and labeling myself as a tourist. On my recent trip to NYC I even made a big deal of slinking surreptitiously behind the statue of Atlas under the guise of art admiration only for the chance to peek at my map where no one could see. This may stem from from my experience living in Washington, DC and having seen groups of tourists that will stop in the middle of the sidewalk or actual road during rush hour just to snap a photo, interrupt locals mid-conversation to ask directions to the nearest McDonald's, and even hold the doors of a Metro train to keep it from leaving just so that Grandma and Tater Tot can make it down the escalator. When I travel, I'm there to experience the city, not to inhibit its inhabitants from going about their daily lives.

That being said, when I'm in a place for any length of time, I do begin to long for the comforts of home just like anyone else. Whether it's ordering Cokes at the local cafe, reading The Economist in the park or catching the non-dubbed English version of a movie from back home, it's these little perks that can make travel a little less lonely. So, not surprisingly, on my recent trip abroad I set out to see just how global the cupcake phenomenon has become. And, believe it or not Parisians, the cupcake has landed. With help from the global cupcakery listing at Cupcakes Take The Cake, I selected two shops in Paris that I just had to try.
The first was Berko in the Marais, amazingly only a couple of blocks from where I was staying (fate!) In addition to cupcakes, Berko also offers a few other pastries as well as salads, I guess in case you want to round off your meal with a little something healthy instead of just straight sugar :) You can eat sur place but there are only a couple of stools at the counter, so you may be better off to take your cakes to go in their cute little box and find a sunny spot in the park. I mean, hey, you're in Paris after all. I tried to choose flavor combos that I hadn't had in the U.S. and went with a lemon meringue and a white chocolate raspberry. The lemon meringue had a layer of lemon curd inside and was topped with a crunchy layer of toasted meringue (almost too crunchy, it was a little hard to eat). The second cupcake was a white cake filled with fresh raspberries and topped with white chocolate ganache--it was delish. Unfortunately, both of the cakes were much drier than the American style of cake, but the tasty fillings more than made up for it. If you're not in the mood for cupcakes, Berko also offers several flavors of cheesecake that will make you feel right at home. At Berko a cupcake will run about €2.80.

The second shop I visited was Cupcakes & Co in the 11th arrondissement. Although Cupcakes & Co claims to be open everyday except Mondays at 10:00am, I made the mistake of showing up on a Sunday when they didn't open until 11:30 because, well, it's France on a Sunday and who was I to think they'd open on time? Sheesh. Anyways, the shopkeeper was incredibly nice and even entertained my questions in pathetic French after politely asking me to repeat myself several times. I chose a caramel cupcake that came with a dollop of salted caramel on top as well as a cupcake that needs no translation, Red Velvet. Unfortunately, the caramel cake suffered from the same dryness as Berko's cakes but the buttercream was delicious. The Red Velvet cake was softer and the flavor of the cream cheese frosting was spot-on, though I wish it hadn't been served cold. The cupcakes here were a little pricier, at €3.40.
One difference I noticed right away with the French cupcakeries is that they don't have placards denoting the flavor choices. Some will have a menu on the wall but you may be out of luck when it comes to flavor descriptions if your French vocabulary doesn't include words like "peanut butter" or "chocolate with lavender ganache." Fortunately, "cupcake," "carrot cake," and "red velvet" are the same in any language.

If you go
23 Rue Rambuteau
Paris, 75004
Metro: Rambuteau
Tues-Sun 11:30-8pm (7:30pm on Sundays)

Cupcakes & Co
25 Rue de la Forge Royale
Paris, 75011
Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny
Tues-Sun 10am-7pm

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Does food actually taste better when it's famous? On my trip to Paris last week, it was clear that everyone wants to be recognized as a superlative in this world capital of cuisine; The Best Ice Cream in Paris, the Oldest Bakery in Paris, The Most Exotic Chocolate in Paris, The Most Flamboyant Cocktail Hour in get the idea. But simply because a particular food, restaurant, or chef is cemented in popular imagination as "The Best," does that necessarily make it so? Times are tough, the dollar is worth about a handful of marbles and pocket lint, and unfortunately some of those Parisian Bests have price tags to match their reputations. Nothing is more disappointing than traveling around the world and shelling out for a special treat only to be disappointed when that Best Of isn't really so great after all. With this in mind, I set off to sample one of the supposed best and oldest bakeries in Paris: Poilâne.

While it might be somewhat of an American fantasy that Parisians spend their days crisscrossing the city to seek out the best market gems Paris has to offer, more often than not people stick to their local neighborhood shops for staples like bread, cheese and veggies. Thus, having to navigate two metro lines to reach Poilâne's Boulevard de Grenelle location and schlep my loaf back across town, I was really hoping this boulangerie would live up to the hype. Opened in 1932 by Norman baker Pierre Poilâne, the bakery is so famous in fact, not only is it recommended by Martha Stewart and Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame, but you can actually order some of their loaves online for worldwide delivery to the tune of €8-€40, plus shipping, depending on the loaf. Even artist Salvador Dalí, having meet then proprietor Lionel Poilâne in 1969, began to order objects and sculptures made of bread, culminating in an entire room made of bread in 1971.
The Pain Siegle wheat boule I selected was dense but soft and slightly sweet, stayed fresh for the rest of my trip, and cost €3.80 (which converts to about 95 marbles and 3 handfuls of lint). Ultimately, while I wasn't disappointed with my Poilâne loaf, it's clear that at this shop you're paying for the experience. The nice shop ladies are dressed in cotton shifts and aprons reminiscent of a long-ago Paris, the loaves are flour dusted and decorative, and if you come by for your daily baguette or croissant you'll be out of luck; Poilâne doesn't sell either of these. Additionally, because of Poilâne's fame, you're just as likely to find loaves sold at some supermarkets or served at local cafes. While I'm glad that I got to visit this historic Parisian institution of baking, I also passed a no-name bakery on the same street that had a line out the door both on the way to and from Poilâne, thus confirming my belief in getting out to explore the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood when you travel. Just goes to show that sometimes the "bests" may actually be places you've never heard of at all.

If you go
8 rue du Cherche-Midi
Paris 75006
Metro: St. Sulpice
Mon-Sat 7:15am-8:15pm

49 Blvd de Grenelle
Paris 75015
Metro: La Motte-Piquet Grenelle
Tues-Sun 7:15am-8:15pm

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


One of my favorite parts about traveling is getting to sample regional food in its native territory. For example, even though most of us have probably had deep dish pizza or gyros, I'm sure the experience is altogether different for those who've had the opportunity to try them in Chicago or Greece (respectively). Similarly, when I embarked on a trip to Europe last week with my first stop in Brussels, many previous travelers assured me that there was no shortage of regional specialties in Belgium. Of course there are several well known mainstays that come to mind: beer, mussels, fries, chocolate...and Belgian waffles.

I'll admit that most of my previous experience with Belgian waffles includes contemplating the menu at Bob Evans, or IHOP or Denny's (I like breakfast, ok?) and wondering aloud, "What makes a Belgian waffle different than a regular waffle?" Usually, no one seems to have an answer and they busy themselves dumping hot sauce or ketchup or whatever else onto their eggs and pretend not to have heard my ridiculous Belgian waffle question for the 14th time. Oh well. But just this week not only was I able to visit a friend in Brussels, but was able to sample some of the local fare and discover, once and for all, what these Belgians have been up to with their waffle irons for the last several hundred years.

And, no, the difference isn't just that they're bigger than an Eggo.

In fact, it's more likely that the Eggo is just a poor approximation of a Belgian waffle (Dear Eggo, please do not sue me. Thanks, Hilary). If you're lucky enough to stop by one of the ubiquitous waffle stands in Brussels, you'll see right away that the real thing is square or rectangular instead of round, will be served wrapped in paper as a takeaway, and will be served with powdered sugar, whipped cream and/or chocolate rather than butter and syrup. Additionally, different regions of Belgium even have their own twist on the waffle and you're likely to find the most popular of these served alongside the typical Belgian waffle: the Liege waffle.

If you have a sweet tooth, the Liege waffle is for you. Whereas the regular Belgian waffle is plain in flavor and softer in texture, the Liege waffle is made with sugar and thus develops the most amazing caramelized sugar coating on the outside when baked in the waffle iron (clearly you can tell which one I picked). If you're on the go, this is a great alternative to a regular Belgian waffle with heaps of sweet toppings that might be harder to eat while sightseeing through the picturesque, gilded pathways of downtown Brussels. So, next time I'm at IHOP I'll just take mine wrapped in paper to go and ask, "Which way to the Manneken Pis?"