Archive for July, 2007

Small cakes, big fun

July 25, 2007

When did cupcakes go from being the thing your kid tells you he needs 37 of for school the next day [usually about 9:30 at night and when you know for a fact you’re out of flour or baking soda or some other key ingredient] to being artisanal creations that people line up around the block for?

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This new take on cupcakes started appearing on my radar screen thanks to New York magazine a few years back. Places like Magnolia’s and Crumbs were doing a land office business, and frequent magazine dispatches alternately offered breathless descriptions of their wares and smartass jabs at all the hype over, well, cupcakes.

cupcakes.jpgTo me, they were still pretty much, well, cupcakes. And then I found, well, cupcakes, right here in Chicago. This appropriately diminutive and charming bakery [even its name is in all lowercase] specializes in heavenly little cakes it calls, modestly enough, the “best cupcakes anywhere!” Not having extensively sampled cupcakes everywhere, I can neither substantiate nor refute this claim, but I’m here tell you their cupcakes are really, really delicious. They’re also just the right size. After you’ve eaten one, you neither feel cheated nor piggish.

The pastry chefs at cupcakes hand-bake and hand-frost the cakes in small batches. Each week, they offer eight or so flavors from their repertoire of more than sixty. Everything from Classic Yellow to Red Velvet, Key Lime and the Double Chocolate and Spiced Mango [fresh mango cake with ginger white chocolate buttercream frosting] shown above.

You can check out the flavors of the week on their website, an evil little feature that has been responsible for more than one car trip over to the Lakeview neighborhood. Every time, it’s been worth the drive.

cupcakes
613 W. Briar Place [just west of Broadway]
Chicago
1-866-525-0817

Open Monday through Saturday, 10am – 7pm. Closed Sundays.

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Reader’s, um, what’s another word for digest?

July 18, 2007

Here’s a quick round-up of a few cool and/or strange articles recently found on that wonderful place called the Internet.

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‘They made me a pasta I couldn’t refuse’—Our friend Mellen found this article on a restaurant that’s even harder to get out of than it is to get into. It’s dauntingly located in Fortezza Medicea, the 500-year-old prison near Pisa, Italy, and the chefs and waitstaff include Mafiosi, robbers and murderers.

California’s Wine Surprise—State fairs are usually best known for eating corndogs and deep-fried Twinkies and for judging heifers and apple pies. But at the California State Fair, there’s an apparently prestigious wine tasting competition. This year’s winner has me thinking that serious drinking was definitely involved.

Where does our heart call home?—My friend Carolyn found this touching, insightful article about gaining a new perspective on home by moving halfway around the world. Anyone who’s moved, even from one city to another, will understand.

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Putting food in its place

July 11, 2007

nyt_food_sections.jpgFirst, let’s be painfully honest here. Part of the joy of cooking is the ooohs and ahhhs our efforts produce in others when we do it right. It just is. But going through a backlog of New York Times food sections the other day, I came across an amusingly disturbing [or perhaps disturbingly amusing] article that got me thinking about achieving a balance between food as showmanship and food as, well, food: Dinner at the Foodies’: Purslane and Anxiety.

The thrust of the article is summed up beautifully by a history professor who lives in Harlem and admits to being both a victim and propagator of culinary anxiety: “It becomes less about having people over and more about showing off your foodie credentials.” The lengths some home cooks go to to impress their guests are appallingly detailed in the article. It’s a good read, so I won’t spoil it for you here [other than to say one story involves a divorce in progress].

But in the end, cooking for others isn’t about showing off [well, okay, maybe it is a little]. It is about having people over. Yes, we work hard [or at least try to give the impression of having done so] to create delicious, exciting meals. And yes, there is a certain amount of performance anxiety inherent in entertaining, especially as things come together at the last minute—if there isn’t, you’re probably being lazy or complacent. These are your friends, your family. You want them to feel welcomed and well fed—to feel that they’re part of a special moment. Once you reach a certain level of goodness, though, you have to ask yourself if you’re cooking for your guests or merely for their accolades.

As a bit of perspective, not all that long ago in polite society, complimenting your host or hostess on the meal was considered rude. It was assumed that the help had prepared it, and it was expected to be very good. Otherwise, the help would be seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Personally, I’m just as glad to not be living back then [and besides, I would have probably been the help, not the host, and not even very high up that food chain]. I do like to hear how delicious everything is, best of all in the form of a delighted moan from a mouth still full of the first bite. I just also like to hear about a new movie, book, band or art exhibit. And about someone’s vacation plans, job, kids or take on alternate side of the street parking. You know, conversation.

So how do you achieve that balance of serving wonderful, memorable food without letting the food take over the entire evening? A couple of guidelines. First, when putting together a meal or a party stops being fun for you, it’s probably no longer fun for your guests.

If, on the other hand, on the way out the door at the end of the evening, a guest turns to you and utters a heartfelt, “Everything was wonderful!”, you’ll know it was—and not just the food.

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Downtown St. Louis’ second act

July 4, 2007

Originally posted 7/4/07

In the most recent census, the population of the city of St. Louis actually increased after decades of decline. I’m speaking specifically of the city proper now—the metropolitan area has shown steady growth all along, but in recent years, the city had been bleeding population to the suburbs. it had been losing businesses too—the compact but beautiful downtown was becoming a ghost town, with perilously high vacancy rates in the office buildings that weren’t just plain empty. Amazingly, the convergence of these two daunting problems [common, by the way, to far too many mid-sized American cities] is leading to a single, elegant solution—one that has even garnered the attention of the New York Times.

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So what is bringing people back to the city? The reinvention of downtown as a residential community. Vacant and near-vacant office buildings are being converted to lofts and condos. More important, people are snapping them up and moving in. Restaurants and various neighborhood services are following. One of the pioneers, City Grocers, has even spawned competition—two of the local supermarket chains are opening stores downtown, something I’ve argued that they should have done years ago. There are bars, clubs and art galleries sprinkled around the area. And some of the businesses do still remain, adding their own energy to the mix. The overall result is that downtown St. Louis is becoming not just a neighborhood, but a fun, lively, very urban neighborhood. Other cities have tried this approach—and are trying it now—but for some reason, it is really taking hold in St. Louis.

One of the hubs of all this cool new development is Washington Avenue, the former garment district. Even when much of downtown was on life support, this area was already making things happen. Artists and photographers were renting entire floors of former clothing factories and warehouses for cheap. Soon, young entrepreneurial promoters were renting storefronts and converting them to live music venues and lounges. People started flocking downtown for more than just Cardinals games. Eyes were opened.

Washington Avenue remains at the heart of much of the development. And one of our favorite places for a weekend bite to eat is there—Crêpes in the City. It’s only a part-time restaurant, tucked inside Washington Ave Post, an office services and supply center that offers photocopying, UPS shipping, rental mailboxes, Internet access and a full service coffee bar. Washington Ave Post also offers its wall space to local artists and participates in the First Friday Downtown Gallery Walks.

crepes.jpgCrêpes in the City adds just one more element to this cool patchwork quilt of a business. On Fridays at lunch and Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 2pm, Mary Gonzalez and her partner José set up a crêpe station with three electric crêpe griddles much like those you’d see street vendors using in Paris. And there the Peruvian-born duo turns out a delicious assortment of savory and sweet crêpes. The crêpes themselves are light and paper thin, the fillings fresh, inventive and generous. No wonder happy diners quickly fill the handful of tables inside and on the sidewalk out front.

To some, this half-copy shop, half-crêperie might seem like an odd setting for food. To me, the cobbling together of all these elements into a business is part of its charm. Of course, this kind of casual, let’s-give-it-a-try-and-see-what-happens entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of many of St. Louis’ more interesting businesses and endeavors. Enjoy it while you can at Crêpes in the City—Mary and José are talking about taking the crêperie full time a couple of blocks up the street sometime this fall. I can’t wait to go there when they do.

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