Archive for May, 2008

You can’t spell “team” without c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e

May 28, 2008

I am not a sports guy. Ever. The sports section of the newspaper only sees action in our house when we’re painting. So when I got an email invitation to meet Team USA, I came thisclose to hitting DELETE.

Then I saw it was Team USA of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. The World Pastry Cup. This was a decidedly different story. So it was, a couple of Mondays ago, that Marion and I found ourselves at the lovely Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel, sipping wine, nibbling on delightful little appetizers and anxiously awaiting the dessert portion of the evening.

Established in 1989, the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is the most prestigious event in the industry. It takes place bi-annually in Lyon, France, during SIRHA, the International Hotel Catering and Food Trade Exhibition. This year, after a grueling selection process followed by months of intense training, teams of pastry chefs from 20 countries will convene in Lyon in January to dazzle a panel of 22 judges and a live audience with their technical and artistic wizardry in the realm of desserts, chocolate, sugar and ice. Specifically, each team is required to perform live before an audience and prepare in ten hours:

A Chocolate Cake, composed of Valrhona Grand Cru Chocolat, presented on an all-sugar sculpture
A Plated Dessert, representative of the team’s country, presented on an all-chocolate sculpture
A Frozen Dessert, using Ravifruit Frozen Fruit Purées, presented on an ice carving.

The official partner and founder of the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie is Valrhona, a premier French chocolatier. Since 1922, Valrhona has been producing chocolate couverture in the middle of the famous vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage in the Rhone Valley, France, near Lyon. The company is literally “Aux sources du Grand Chocolat” in its role as a planter, discoverer, selector and blender of fine and rare cocoa beans. The French are nothing if not obsessive about food, and we are all beneficiaries of their perfectionist tendencies. Valrhona, for instance, is committed to the creation and enhancement of authentic, intensely-flavored and unique chocolates; they are unique among chocolate producers in offering more than 10 dark chocolates with a cocoa percentage above 64%. And they are currently the only company in the world that produces vintage chocolate made from beans of a single year’s harvest from a specific plantation.

Valrhona’s business is also concerned with encouraging initiative and talent. They have sponsored the Coupe du Monde from its beginnings nearly 20 years ago.

Geographically spread out, Team USA’s training schedule forces them to be organized and focused. Once a month, throughout 2008, the team will meet for intensive weekend training sessions at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This year, the team consists of President and pastry chef consultant En-Ming Hsu; Team Captain David Ramirez, Executive Pastry Chef at The Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida; Rémy Fünfrock, Executive Restaurant Pastry Chef at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colorado; Roy Pell, Executive Pastry Chef at The Phoenician, Scottsdale, Arizona; and Team Alternate Jim Mullaney, Executive Chef at The Cloisters Hotel, Sea Island, Georgia.

The United States has sent a team to Lyon since the competition’s inaugural event in 1989 and has come home with the Gold in 2001, the Silver in 1997 and the Bronze in 1995, 1999 and 2005. Team President Hsu served as Team Captain in 2001 when Team USA was awarded the gold.

So what are Team USA’s prospects for winning this year? Well, if the Chocolate Passion Fruit Cake we sampled [winner of the Best Chocolate Cake in 2007, and yes, those are little flecks of gold leaf on the top] is any indication, I’d say they’re pretty delicious—er, good.

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Small Bites: Drinks, a cool tool and a sharp blog

May 21, 2008

Worst drink on the planet?

According to Men’s Health magazine, it’s the Heath Shake, part of Baskin-Robbins’ Candy Bar Madness promotion. The Baskin-Robbins website describes it tantalizingly thus: “Toffee and coffee have never been better! This blend of Heath and Jamoca ice creams, chopped Heath Bar pieces and caramel, are layered on top of caramel, then topped with whipped cream and chopped Heath Bar pieces.”

Their nutritional chart on the site tells a different story, though. The medium-sized 1,420-calorie drink [more than 2/3 of your daily calories needs, by the way] delivers 103% of your Daily Value for total fat and a whopping 200% for saturated fat. If that’s not enough of a fat bomb for you, they have a large size that packs an amazing 2,300 calories!

And the best drink? White tea is the new black.

Black tea is by far the most popular tea in the world. I’m a big fan of black tea myself, but lately green tea has been getting loads of press for its antioxidants. We all know by now that antioxidants fight cancer, reduce the risk of strokes, heart diseases and diabetes and generally slow the aging process.

Well, it turns out that white tea not only outperforms black tea when it comes to antioxidants—it blows the doors off everybody’s darling green tea in this regard too, delivering three times the antioxidants found in green tea. What’s more, According to ScienceDaily, white tea outstrips green in fighting germs, including Staphylococcus infections, Streptococcus infections and pneumonia. And studies by Oregon State University show that consumption of white tea can fight colon cancer, actually reducing tumors.

Is there anything white tea can’t do? Well, it doesn’t have the satisfyingly robust, slightly bitter taste of black tea. On the other hand, its somewhat subtler taste doesn’t carry any of the grassy aftertaste of green tea. And as an added bonus, its pale gold color is far less likely to stain than black tea. For everything you’d ever want to know about white tea, visit White Tea Central.

This cool kitchen tool can really take the heat.

Heat resistant, nonstick silicone has been showing up all over kitchens these days. And one of the best uses we’ve seen of it is these handy Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs.

They’re made with commercial-quality stainless steel, and the nonstick silicone ends are heat-resistant to 575°F [300°C]. Pull on the hanging hoop and you lock them closed for easy storage in a drawer. Pop the hoop against your hip or the counter and you can open them with one hand—a useful feature in a busy kitchen.

But what really makes these tongs for me are the silicone tips. You can flip chops or chicken breasts or whatever in a hot nonstick pan without fear of scratching. You can grab green beans or asparagus spears or other cooked vegetables without bruising them. And best of all, as far as I’m concerned, they’re ideal for handling cooked pasta. You get a sure grip without breakage, and the pasta can’t get stuck in them the way they can with open metal tongs [am I the only person bugged by this?].

Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs come in a dazzling array of sizes and colors. Whichever you choose, they’ll make life in the kitchen just a little bit easier.

A sharp new blog. Seriously.

The first rule of blogging if you want to build a loyal readership of more than just friends and family is to specialize. Your readers need to know that each time they visit, they’ll find something on a topic that interests them. Well, I recently heard from a blogger named Ken who has carved out quite a specific niche for himself.

The blog is called Only Knives. You’ll find plenty of useful information about kitchen knives—including this exhaustive article called The Best Kitchen Knives For Any Budget. You’ll also find posts about hunting knives, survival knives [did anyone else shudder just then?] and even swords!

Besides thorough, helpful product information, you’ll find plenty of articles on the industry and history of knives and blades. Like this post on The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers. So if you’re in the market for new kitchen knives, check out Ken’s blog. And if you’re in the market for a survival knife, I’d just as soon not know about it.

Goodbye, Robert Rauschenberg. Thank you.

May 14, 2008

This will be a short post. I just saw on the New York Times website that American artist Robert Rauschenberg died Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Florida. Please read their excellent obituary of this seminal artist. It is far more articulate than anything I might write here.

Rauschenberg is sometimes identified as a Pop Artist, but he actually predated Pop Art of the ’60s, emerging in the early ’50s. And his work over his long career defied definition or pigeonholing. Here’s how Michael Kimmelman of the Times puts it: “A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.”

Jasper Johns came to prominence about this same time and while both he and Rauschenberg embraced and, in fact, heavily shaped Pop Art, they transcended it as well. Coming out of the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others, their work was more painterly than other Pop Artists. And this only served to make their inclusion of found objects and mixing of media more exciting, more shocking, more energizing.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing good fortune to see the show Robert Rauschenberg: Combines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Combines was his term for pieces that included painting, collage and sculpture. I considered myself to be reasonably familiar with Rauschenberg’s work and a big fan of his. But suddenly seeing these 67 works, all created between 1954 and 1964 and all in one place, was electrifying.

In looking back at art from other periods, I’m sometimes frustrated by not seeing it with eyes of the time in which it was created. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art is among the most beloved today—Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh… But when the work was first exhibited, it was revolutionary and caused an absolute uproar. Walking among these Combines at the Metropolitan some 40 or 50 years after they were created, I could get some sense of either how outrageous or wonderfully fresh they must have seemed when they were first exhibited.

It was an amazing show. An amazing career. An amazing life. Thank you, Mr. Rauschenberg.

RIP, The Spindle: Big art in Berwyn dies

May 7, 2008

Last fall I wrote about an unusual landmark in suburban Chicago that was threatened with demolition. Sadly, it fell last week, another victim of progress, if yet another Walgreens can be deemed progress. We learned about it first at Curious Feet St. Louis. Be sure to read this brief, heartfelt post. You’ll also find links there to photos and video of the demolition. Here’s my original post:

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Alas, it is now gone. And the world is just a little bit blander.