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Is Expensive Chocolate Better?

Would does a Hershey’s bar cost less than a buck, and some fine chocolate cost hundreds of dollars for a pound? Writing for the Hungry Beast, cookbook author Mary Goodbody explains why luxury chocolates cost more:

“It’s a complicated process that begins with how the beans are grown, harvested, fermented, dried, blended, roasted, and then made into chocolate. All of these steps contribute to the final cost to the consumer, and because chocolate makers are an exacting breed, they tend to be demanding. They begin with the bean—much as coffee buyers do—and judge the quality of their product on the way it’s handled from there.”

So just like coffee beans, you have your crud and your cream cheese. More variations crop up in the way the chocolate is made, including the relative portions of sugar to chocolate liquor and cocoa butter:

“Finally, most chocolate is conched. The chocolate is put in large conching machines that spin it though whirling blades to knead it for hours. During this time moisture evaporates, volatile acids dissipate, the texture becomes ever silkier, and more cocoa butter and other emulsifiers may be added. The best chocolates are conched for as long as three days, while others are conched only for half a day.”

Nat!onal P;unctuat!on D@y Baking” Contest…

T[o]day :is: N@at!ional .Punctuation; Day!!! :-D

In fact, it’s the sixth annual opportunity to celebrate commas, ellipses, colons, and parentheses. “There’s an epidemic of poor punctuation in the United States, much like the Swine flu. It’s too bad there’s no vaccine to prevent it,” says NPD founder Jeff Rubin.

And, much like the swine flu, it’s an occasion to bake. ;-)

So Rubin wants you to take a cookie, cake, pastry, doughnut, or bread and bastardize its natural shape in the service of your favorite punctuation mark. While I myself share the horror of “misplaced” quotation marks and plural’s misrepresented as possessive’s, I don’t mind celebrating new uses of punctuation, such as the emoticon. Would a cookie baked into the shape of a smiley be disqualified?

Someone’s got to try it: Recipes, samples, and photos of the baked goods must be submitted by September 30. Details are available on the NPD website.

Image source

Barley-Honey Lollipops and Deviled Eggs from Hell

New Yorkers have lots of opportunities to sample artisanal food wares, whether it’s at the indoor Essex Street Market, at gazillions of tiny specialty stores throughout the city, or in one of the many outdoor markets, large and small. Here’s a slideshow of two markets that debuted earlier this month in Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively. One was casual, the other was fancier. Both offered lots of tasty things to eat.

Doughnut Moonshine

For those not keeping up with the eclectic and seminal photographer Bill Owens, best known for Suburbia, his deadpan chronicle of 1970s cul-de-sac California, you may be surprised to learn he’s now way into craft distilling. He hosts a conference every year, through his trade group, American Distilling Institute, publishes a guide to distilleries around the country, and also apparently dabbles a bit on his own. Here’s a picture of some doughnut moonshine he sent out a few days ago to his mailing list. Go Bill! You always know how to push the envelope.

Photograph by Bill Owens

Cheesesteak on a Tiny Waffle

Cookoffs have become quite the thing with the under-32 crowd in Brooklyn. But Theo Peck and Nick Suarez have hit on a winning combination: No matter what the theme, always include a beer division, too. “We want things to get rowdy,” says Peck. At the pair’s “Experiments,” home-brewers compete on one side of the room and cooks on the other. Sunday’s theme was cheese. Here’s a good blog post about the Experiment they did prior to this.

The event, held in the Bell House, a big indie-rock venue/bar in Gowanus, Brooklyn, was packed and noisy to the point of mayhem (a loud DJ was included). A few of the 17 cookoff contestants ran out of food (one had to serve a single piece of penne pasta per person toward the end), and there was not a napkin in sight. Nonetheless, nobody pushed, whined, or excessively tweeted during the event’s unfolding.

The judges (professional brewers, cheesemongers, and a magazine editor) chose a cold tomato soup with ricotta paired with cheesy crackers as their favorite food entry. But the popular vote went to team Righteous Burn, for their Philly cheesesteaks on miniwaffles, a move of textural genius. (“We were looking for mini pie crusts and saw these,” said team member Dan Vallejl.) The cheese was melted on top with a blowtorch.

There were a few mac ’n’ cheese, lasagne, and enchilada entries, but the other standouts included food blogger Dave Klopfenstein’s delicious Morbier-stuffed slider with Gorgonzola mayo on a Camembert biscuit, and a dulce de leche cheesecake with homemade ricotta by Rebecca Lando. My “best of” vote went to Noah Berland, who, working solo, made little morsels of polenta that he smeared bare-fingered with muddled-on-the-spot pesto, then topped with fresh mozzarella and seared with a torch. He called it “sushi.”

The unanimous favorite of judges and audience in the home-brew category was the Propeller Pale Ale, made by Peter Taylor, Josh Knowlton, and Billy Denniston, roomies from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was full of hops, silky smooth, and floral. Brad Hillman from Prospect Heights got props for trying a 100 percent Brettanomyces yeast beer he called 309, which is his address. Of the six other beer contestants, a few had some pretty obvious off flavors—beer is a little harder to make than macaroni and cheese, after all.

Church Bake Sale Chic

What did you do all weekend? I went shopping in New York City for a bunch of food that I didn’t need. There are just too many kinds of food markets in this town. Besides farmers’ markets held in just about every neighborhood until winter hits, and indoor vendor stalls like the Chelsea Market, there are outdoor non-vegetable-focused food markets, with stuff like pickles, mustard, candy, cookies, and cheese from local artisans. Last weekend saw the opening of two new markets: the Greenpoint Food Market in Brooklyn, at the extreme DIY end of the spectrum, and the fancier New Amsterdam Market in the heavily touristed South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan.

Saturday’s Greenpoint Food Market, held in a church basement, had a fun adult-bake-sale vibe and, for the most part, featured amateurs who paid the $50 table fee to sell homemade cookies, cupcakes, pickles (pictured, Brooklyn Brine’s table), and the like. One woman dressed as an angel was selling deviled eggs for $1 each, displayed inside a papier-mâché replica of an exploding volcano.

Best treat of all was a rich, buttery pound cake filled with raspberry mousse baked by Jessica Reed, who’s working on a book about the culture of cake. She got the recipe from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. Reed is part of a program called Sweet Tooth of the Tiger, which allows artists to raise money for their projects by participating in bake sales. “I’m on for two hours,” said Reed. “Then another artist will replace me and sell their stuff.”

The following day’s market at New Amsterdam was a rather different scene, with slicker offerings. Among them: sliders of brisket and of ham, $3 apiece, from the Brooklyn restaurant Marlow & Sons; wild ramps from the Vermont-based Wild Food Gatherers Guild & Cooperative; barley and honey lollipops from Brooklyn-based Liddabit Sweets; and lots of cheese, including the semisoft, ultracreamy Appalachian cow’s milk cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia (its products are distributed through the NYC-based Saxelby Cheesemongers). And even though the asphalt was covered in the previous night’s rain and there was a hint of fall in the air, People’s Pops was doing brisk business selling frozen pops in flavors like cantaloupe and tarragon, as well as hand-shaved ice.

Although I went home with some mind-blowing beer-pretzel caramels from Liddabit, the block-party-style jankiness of the Greenpoint Food Market won me over. There’s more opportunity for surprise and risk-taking when the barrier to entry is low, and I realized I’ve always dug bake sales. Who doesn’t?

The Canal House Cookbook Makes Me Jealous!

Let’s you and me team up, get an old historic brick warehouse in a picturesque little river town somewhere, and start publishing our own cookbooks, K? We’ll photograph heirloom tomatoes picked from our garden in old crockery dishes. Maybe roast sweet potatoes in the coals of the vintage stove. If anybody calls and wants us to test some recipes or take some photos for their cookbook, we’ll do that too. Oh, and we’ll have a cocktail around 5 p.m. everyday, naturellement.

Hey, that’s reality for Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, so we can all just go feel jealous now. The two are both former Saveur staffers (Hamilton was its food editor, Hirsheimer a founding editor, and then an executive editor), and Hirsheimer is a renowned food photographer, as well, who helped spearhead the idea of naturally lit, naturally styled food shots. (She took my favorite food photographs ever, in The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.)

In the forward to their first book, Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 1, they explain that before they decided to “join forces” they had been living in towns across the river from each other, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Now they occupy a historic loft on a canal in Lambertville, NJ, which is their “studio, workshop, dining room, office, kitchen, lair, lab, and atelier devoted to good ideas and good work relating to the world of food.”

Their main endeavor there, Canal House Cooking, will be a quarterly seasonal cookbook series, a cross between a magazine and a book. The first volume, which just came out, is beautifully shot and filled with simple, produce-driven recipes, such as two ways to make potato leek soup (puréed or chunky), roasted eggplant and zucchini with breadcrumbs, and paella cooked over an outdoor fire. (OK, maybe that last one isn’t so easy, but they sure make it look fun.)

Anybody want to go in on a warehouse with me?

Hideous Food Tattoos

The takeaway lesson from this pictorial list of 25 Ugly Food Tattoos? There are people out there who really like pizza and meat.

If you want something to take the taste of bad skin art away, look at CHOW’s favorite 10 Food Tattoos. Hey, look, there’s crossover between the two lists! No accounting for taste.

Image source: Flickr member satanoid under Creative Commons

Southern Food’s Return to the Limelight

Southern-inspired food has been big for a while and there’s no sign of it dying down. Shrimp and grits are on menus everywhere, sweet tea is a cool flavor, and weekly fried chicken nights are sell-out events at unlikely restaurants. We asked Nicole Mouton (pictured, left), the co-owner of the Screen Door in Portland, OR why she thought Southern food has become so popular.

What do you think is behind the current interest in Southern cuisine?

In my opinion, this relatively recent love affair with southern food in the national consciousness coincided with Hurricane Katrina. Post-Katrina there was a massive national effort to help heal that which was broken. As cliché as it is, you don’t really know what you have until you’ve lost it. I think that Americans collectively took a hard look at New Orleans and its 200-plus years of history and saw that its cultural contributions were [uniquely formed]. Americans in all walks of life and in all disciplines and from all over this country did whatever they could to help save New Orleans. Suddenly, we saw a great deal of aggrandizing of Southern culture and Southern chefs, which Americans embraced, whereas, I argue, in a pre-Katrina environment, they would not have had such high billing. Pushing these personalities to the forefront was a way to help the cause of healing. It took a massive, deadly storm to make our nation see the validity of its own history and culture.

What about the hyper-trendiness of some of these traditional foods?

In this post-Katrina nation, we have gotten to the point that traditional Southern foods are now “hot.” They’ve been marked and accepted as valid, but I can’t help but feel that it’s just a phase. Are they just buzzwords for menus, or are chefs and restaurateurs really seeing a connection between their heritage and the history of the food that they are creating and marketing?

This isn’t the first cycle where Southern cooking has been popular, right?

We had a breakthrough with chef Paul Prudhomme in the ’80s, in which he brought Cajun food to the national eye. However, the craze ended up devolving into bastardized notions of Cajun cuisine. In this country, we’ve lost so many of our foodways and we don’t celebrate and investigate those who have done their part to cherish and record [them]. It makes me crazy that so few people know about Edna Lewis and her contributions, for instance. We’ve put Italian and French peasant food on the menus of some of our most celebrated fine-dining American restaurants, yet we still struggle to put our own history at that same level.

What’s happening now to reclaim that history?

Some people are creating new brands for the historical foodways of their particular American regional area. I think that this is great as long as it is done with the proper care and respect to an area’s traditions, local culture, local foods, and unique history. This is how we will find and rediscover our cultural identity, by doing it on a micro level.

Great Grilled Vegetarian Grub

How often have you shown up to a barbecue and been served a really bad, dried-out veggie kebab? Here’s our roundup of some knockout-sounding grilled vegetarian recipes from the blogs:

Grilled shallots (pictured) from The Art of Food

Ginger-glazed grilled carrot and pea shoot salad from Not Eating Out in New York
Easy grilled leeks with basil from wrightfood
Maple grilled tempeh (served with quinoa and portobello mushroom) from 101 Cookbooks
Grilled sweet potato salad with lime and cilantro from Serious Eats

From the CHOW test kitchen:

Baklava Sundae with Grilled Peaches
Grilled Greek Salad
Fire-Charred Green Beans with Cajun Dipping Sauce
Grilled Stuffed Poblanos with Black Beans and Cheese

Image source: Alisa Barry of The Art of Food