Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Star Wars Cupcake Toppers

These are somehow incredibly cute and incredibly geeky. My favorite combination.

From deathbycupcake on Etsy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Christmas in June and God's Food Pantry

A long, summer road trip somehow isn't complete without a stop at a Dairy Queen or one of its local incarnations. So an hour or two after refueling on coffee and sandwiches in Mattoon, Ill., we availed ourselves of the ubiquitous freeway food signs and entered a Dairy Queen in the middle of farm country. As you can see below, the store had seen better days. 

Dairy Queen: Christmas in June
Dairy Queen: Christmas in June closeup

If the half-destroyed sign wasn't an indication of neglect, note that we were visiting at the end of June. Clearly, this summer, Yule Flip for Peppermint Chip. Who says we have to wait until Christmas?

However, employees did have Dairy Queen pride: When I mistakenly asked for a "flurry," the cashier informed me that they do not carry flurries, only "blizzards." Oops.

Dairy Queen: God's Food Pantry

One other bit of Dairy Queen fun that will probably only amuse English majors: there was a sign soliciting donations for God's Food Pantry. Now, I don't know anything about the group, and I assume that they're doing a great thing providing meals to hungry people. But the way the words were written on this giant ice cream cone made me think about grammar and punctuation and just how contextual the English language can be: "God's Food Pantry" could have the meaning its founders doubtless intend, a service for those who lack funds as a means of expressing God's love and grace. But "God's Food Pantry" could mean that God needs donations in order to stock his pantry with food - because he gets hungry too. (What?) Or it could mean that God eats a special kind of food (not mutually exclusive to the prior point). Obviously the latter two meanings are slightly ridiculous to Americans in 2011, so we understand that they are not the intended meaning. (Note that those interpretations would not necessarily have been ridiculous to people in other cultures and times.) But musing about how much even modern American English requires context to function makes me think about how much humility we should have when we interpret texts from other eras and languages. For example, Don Quixote is apparently filled with references to the events, places, art, and people of its day - so we as modern readers miss a large amount of what Cervantes was trying to communicate and the jokes that he was making, a problem that is only exacerbated if the reader is someone like me, who doesn't understand Spanish and has to read Cervantes in translation. A similar point can be made to literalists regarding the Bible. There are good resources in that case for getting at cultural context and the original languages, but all the resources in the world are no good if people don't use them.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Evolution of Coffee

Common Grounds
I suspect you could organize a cross-country tour around the idea of visiting coffee shops called "Common Grounds" or its derivations ("Uncommon Ground," etc.). A quick Google search for the term comes up with over 6 million results for cafes in Gainesville, Fla., Lexington, Ky., Waco, Texas, Fayetteville, Ark., Denver, Colo., and my favorite city, Chicago, Ill. And that's just on the first page.

So it wasn't entirely surprising that when I searched Yelp on Saturday afternoon, I was directed to Common Grounds in Mattoon, Ill. We were in the middle of our road trip back from an arts conference in Jackson, Miss. and in need of both caffeine and food. Fortunately, the internet delivered.

It's a cute place, and they take their coffee seriously. The barista said that they roast their own beans, and the walls were adorned with painted chalkboard signs with some fun coffee facts and history. I've written them out underneath the signs to make them easier to read.

Coffee History

The Coffee Break

In the American workplace, it came about during World War II. Employers found out that their employees would work longer and harder if they had a coffee break. Further studies reported that 10,000 marriages a year were traceable to romances that began during these breaks.

The Dancing Goats Story

Coffee was first discovered in what now is called Ethiopia. According to legend there once was a man named Kaldi. His life was forever changed when one afternoon his goats failed to come home. After hours of looking he saw them off in the distance frolicking about. As he drew closer, Kaldi could see that his goats' lively behavior came from eating the little red berries of a green shrub. He tasted some and shared the joy of his dancing goats.

Apparently the cafe is also the home of a local church on Saturday nights.

All in all, it was worth the visit. We loaded up on smoothies, sandwiches, cookies, cinnamon rolls, and coffee, and arrived in Chicago a few hours later. But not until we'd visited one of the more decrepit Dairy Queens in existence. Stay tuned for those photos tomorrow.

Common Grounds
1612 Charleston
Mattoon, IL 61938

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The World, Rendered in Ice Cream

Simply amazing. How do you get such precision with the continents? And what ice cream flavor comes in blue?

Image courtesy of Cutest Food.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Millennium Falcon Wedding Cake

It's the only cake that can make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. And yes, it really was for a wedding.

From Geeks are Sexy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sneaky Beans

When I'm not blogging about food-related topics, I often perform as a singer-songwriter. Thanks to that vocation, I'm currently in Jackson, Miss. for an arts conference - it's my first time in the area, and I was surprised to discover that the city itself has less than 200,000 inhabitants. The metro area has less than 500,000. Coming from Chicago, this seems quite modest. But even with its relatively small size, I've discovered some local cafes that take their coffee quite seriously: One is Cups, which roasts their own beans. Not far from Cups is Sneaky Beans, which sources theirs from a local roaster in Oxford, Miss. I have to say, besides the charm of finding a cafe housed in an old house, I found their logo quite amusing:

A closeup of our bandit beanie friend:

He's so cute.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Hundred Years of Processed Foods

Campbell's Soup - advertising
Advertising from 1932: retro-ads.net
It's crazy to think that the same chicken noodle soup I ate as a kid also fed children who grew up in the era of the Titanic and World War I. The 1910's saw the invention of zippers, refrigerators, telephones, and traffic lights - ordinary items that we take for granted, or, the case of telephones, find almost passé (if you're anything like me, you haven't had a home - or business, for that matter - landline for years). As someone said to me recently, we call it "technology" if it doesn't always work. And I can't think of anything from that decade that we would still label with the term. To put the era in even more perspective, Arizona became a state in 1912, the same year that x-rays were discovered.

So stumbling across a survey of advertised retail prices from the Daily Record in Morris County, New Jersey from October 1-15, 1910 was quite interesting. I've put the inflation-adjusted dollars in parentheses. Note the price of eggs in particular.

Bacon: $0.20 ($4.62) per pound
Beef, pot roast: $0.125 ($2.89) per pound
Bread: $0.10 ($2.31) for three loaves
Butter: $0.30 ($6.93) per pound
Cereal, Kellogg's Corn Flakes: $0.09 ($2.08) per box
Eggs: $0.27 ($6.24) per dozen
Juice, Welch's Grape: $0.35 ($8.09) per quart
Lamb chops: $0.18 ($4.16) per pound
Soup, Campbell's: $0.25 ($5.78) for three cans

And to put the food prices in perspective, here's how much a five-room apartment (I'm guessing this would be two bedrooms) would cost: $25.00 ($578.00) per month. The average salary was $750 ($17,326.98) per year - and the average woman lived to 52. Men only lived to 48. (Granted, I don't have statistics on hand for how much infant mortality skewed these numbers). Social security and income tax didn't exist, and people worked six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Here's a comparison to current prices in the same county:

Bacon: $6.99 per pound **
Beef, roast eye of round: $5.49 per pound **
Bread: $5.00 for two loaves *
Butter: $4.59 per pound **
Cereal, Cheerios: $3.79 per box *
Eggs,: $2.29 per dozen *
Juice, Welch's Grape: $1.60 per quart **
Lamb chops: $6.49 per pound **
Soup, Campbell's: $2.00 for three cans *

Two-bedroom apartment: $2200.00 per month *
Average salary: $34,410 a year

Conclusions? Welch's Grape Juice is cheap in our modern times, as is Campbell's soup. (Can you believe that both brands have lasted over 100 years?) But while the price of processed food has gone down quite significantly, the price of housing has quadrupled and salaries have only doubled. No wonder we've become a nation of processed, fast food.

* A survey of retail prices advertised in the Daily Record, Morris County, New Jersey, October 1-15, 2010.
** Prices according to Peapod for Morris County, June 2011 - since we're comparing today's standard prices with advertised prices from 1910, I usually chose a modern price on the cheaper end, which I hope will approximate sale pricing.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Korean Tacos

Update: I just found out that the restaurant is Coppelia, which considers itself more Cuban than Mexican - or Nuevo-Latino, though there are plenty of Mexican items on the menu. They're in Chelsea, for those curious about trying huevos rancheros, chocolate dipped churros, yerba mate shortbread, blue corn meal pancakes, enchiladas, and yucca croquettes filled with beef picadillo.

Spotted at a restaurant in New York: one of these main courses is not like the others.

Korean Tacos

It's trendy right now to fuse Korean food with Mexican - in New York City, a food truck called Korilla (pronounced "Korea" to rhyme with "tortilla") serves burritos and tacos filled with bulgogi plus a side of kimchi. Belly Shack in Chicago serves tofu, chicken, or bulgogi on a crispy plantain and adds tortilla chips to one of their salads. I guess the Mexican chefs decided that it's time to fight back with their own creations. Food wars! The winners? You and me, of course.

Thanks to Justin Dombrowski for the photo and NYC news.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Bread

There's something incredibly comforting about baking bread - it's methodical and the tactile sensation of kneading dough can be a wonderful way to release stress. My roommate jokes that this is my angry bread, or what he finds on the kitchen counter in the morning when I'm upset. (His life is hard.) This recipe is a variation on Irish soda bread, with results similar to a scone.

Chocolate Chip Bread

Servings: 12
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1/2 cup cold butter, cut into large chunks
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (you can use cranberries instead, or most dried fruits)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a large baking sheet.

In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Use a pastry blender to cut in the butter - if you don't have one, a large fork or two knives will work as well - until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the chocolate chips (if you're using dried fruit, soak the fruit in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes, dry, and then stir them in). Add the milk and vinegar, mixing until just combined. Once the ingredients are moist, stop stirring - the bread will become hard if you keep doing so.

Place the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead it gently a few times. Divide the dough into two balls and place them onto the baking sheet with a fair amount of space in between. (If you don't want to bake both loaves at once, you can freeze one for later - just wrap it tightly in plastic and place it in a Ziploc bag.) Bake for 15 minutes at 400°F, then reduce the temperature to 375°F and bake for around 15-20 minutes until the bread has turned a nice, golden brown.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hobbits and Food

Lembas breadEvery year, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas does a screening of all three of the Lord of the Rings films. This year, they also served breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper - favorite hobbit mealtimes - for a total of eight dishes. Wired has the full set of delicious-looking photos, though I see one problem with the spread: the courses are too fancy, too well-plated for hobbits, whom I picture relishing hearty, simple fare. They're a people that would feast from tin or pewter plates, not rectangular, white china that screams "fine dining." (Not that I have anything against fine dining - I just don't think hobbits would feel entirely comfortable in such a setting.)

That said, the lembas looks exactly like what I'd imagine - I may have to host my own LOTR viewing with themed meals in the near future. Anyone in the Chicago area up for the challenge?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Dinner Party

A few years ago, Sherpa "Stephen" Wood and David Perez-Lauterbach decided to turn into chefs for a day and host a dinner party for a handful of friends. Now, when most people host dinner parties, they'll place a few dishes around the table and guests will be treated to a good, home-cooked meal. When Sherpa and David host dinner parties, they plate multiple courses that would not look out of place in any fine dining establishment. David jokes about carrying photos of past dinners around in his wallet like a proud parent, and after Saturday night and the fourth incarnation of the dinner party, I'd say he's entitled. The two chefs and their wives Sonya and Grete turned a Pilsen apartment into a miniature restaurant for 10 of their friends, and I will personally vouch that everything tasted as good as it looks.

Photos courtesy of Joel and Rachel.

Poached quail egg with edible flowers and greens.


A twist on the typical Insalata Caprese: tomato consommé with a slice of tomato, mozzarella, and basil.

The plates-in-progress look like pieces of modern art. The black comes from squid ink.

The next step in plating: a dab of color. We're still in art gallery mode.

The finished dish: baby octopus with squash and egg, squid ink, and spinach noodles.

Watermelon with pistachios, balsamic vinegar, and tomato purée.

Lamb with sunchoke and puréed cauliflower. My favorite course.

Mini cakes with pomegranate seeds, mascarpone, and citrus wedges, served with limoncello. The liquor reminded me of visiting Italy last spring and being served complimentary limoncello after a meal on a patio overlooking the Tuscan countryside.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lord of the Rings Cake

Lord of the Rings cake

This incredible Minas Tirith cake looks like porcelain, but it's almost entirely edible - only the cardboard cliff is unfit for human consumption. The 13-flavor creation was sculpted by an amateur baker for her sister's Lord of the Rings-themed wedding - I hope she was thankful!

Related note: we now have official release dates for The Hobbit: December 14, 2012 and December 13, 2013. Apparently it's going to be a two-part series.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Recipe: Roast Chicken Legs with Grapes and Shallots

I love unpretentious food, prepared well. I also love playing with presentation. This is an incredibly easy recipe that captures the best of both - every time I've served it, guests have been terribly impressed. If you don't tell them how simple it is, I won't either. Deal?

I like to serve this with Israeli couscous cooked in chicken stock - you can make this in around 20 minutes while the chicken cooks. The trick to this dish is not to overcook it - chicken should never be dry. Meat continues to cook even after you take it out of the oven, which is why it's so important to let it rest - if you allow it to roast until it's fully cooked in the oven, by the time you eat it, it'll be dry. Fortunately, dark meat is quite forgiving.

Roast Chicken Legs with Grapes and Shallots

Servings: 4
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour


  • 1/2 pound red seedless grapes (you can also use green or a combination of the two)
  • 4 large shallots
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 chicken legs
  • 3-4 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut the grapes into small clusters and thinly slice the shallots. In a large bowl, combine the grape clusters, half of the chopped thyme, and olive oil, gently mixing so that the grapes are well coated.

In a small bowl, combine the rest of the chopped thyme, butter, honey, salt, and pepper. Loosen the skin from the chicken legs by working your fingers between the skin and meat, making sure not to tear the skin in the process. Rub generous amounts of the butter mixture under the skin, and rub the remainder all over the top and bottom of the legs. Reposition the skin if necessary.

Place the chicken in a large casserole dish (most oven safe pans will work) and tuck grape clusters into the spaces between the chicken legs. Sprinkle shallots on top. Roast until the juices run clear, around 30 minutes. Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Bacon Ipsum

I've worn many hats: singer-songwriter, dancer, editor, non-profit volunteer director, experimental marketing manager, berets, newsboy caps. One of the hats I started wearing out of necessity - that, like so many other things, turned into its own beast - is graphic and web designer. As a musician, I needed to design flyers and CD artwork. But as a musician, I couldn't afford to hire a professional. Like the crazy person I am, I thought, "Well, I have a good eye - I could probably do this if I just taught myself Photoshop." (If it sounds interesting and I haven't done it before, it's just another challenge.) So that I did. Coding websites came soon after, though that had a larger learning curve, and paying clients followed a couple of years afterward.

As any designer knows, if clients can read the content text of a design mockup, they'll get distracted - instead of looking at the layout, they'll start pouring over details in wording. Enter Lorem Ipsum, the standard dummy text of the design industry, which, interestingly, has been in use in the 1500s. How's that for tradition? Since the text is derived from a piece of Latin literature, it looks like real text - but it's unreadable. 

Combine Lorem Ipsum with a programmer who has a sense of humor and a love for bacon - and meat in general - and you get Bacon Ipsum, filler text for the hungry masses. An example:

Bacon ipsum dolor sit amet in jowl aliquip pig shoulder, commodo beef consequat fatback shankle. Ex exercitation beef ribs aute eiusmod, magna quis ham cow eu short ribs bresaola nulla mollit. Tempor dolore salami bresaola, occaecat nisi velit tongue pancetta ut shank id cupidatat elit aute. Pork pancetta jerky, ut tri-tip quis chicken hamburger. Shoulder consectetur nulla, jerky cupidatat sirloin tempor rump pastrami voluptate nostrud cow tenderloin bacon labore. Cupidatat officia ad, spare ribs hamburger pork sirloin cow ea occaecat ground round aliquip ullamco consequat commodo. Ham cillum meatball, tempor venison id rump fatback.

Thanks to Peter for the link.

Marketing FTW!

Monday morning it was 63°F. By 4:00pm, it was 94°F, the hottest it's been so far this year. For those of you that don't live here: No, it's not normal for summer temperatures in Chicago to fluctuate by 30°F in one day. On Tuesday, I was walking around the neighborhood when I saw this:

I'd be willing to bet that more than a few people decided to buy wine that day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Recipe: Strawberry Ice Cream

Strawberry ice cream

Whenever I walk into an ice cream shop, I invariably leave with the flavor that's managed to cram the largest amount of chocolate into the smallest amount of space. With the exception of that rare occasion when I can find durian ice cream, I never order fruit flavors. Why order fruit when chocolate is so enticing? In fact, if you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have told you that I didn't like strawberry ice cream at all. And then I was introduced to Nice Cream, a local, artisan ice cream company that was featuring an incredible pairing of strawberry ice cream with pound cake. And then I made this recipe by request of my roommate, who loves strawberry ice cream and isn't exactly a fan of chocolate (sacrilege!). I was sold. This was the first ice cream I ever made, and it's still the one I make most frequently. Even though it makes a generous amount, I've found that it's only enough to satisfy 3-4 people. It's just that good.

Strawberry Ice Cream

Servings: 6
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 8 hours


  • 1 pound strawberries
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups heavy cream

Trim the strawberries. Place strawberries, sugar, lemon juice, and salt into a blender. Pulse the blender on chop mode until the mixture reaches a chunky, mashed consistency (this will only take a few chops). Let this sit for 10 minutes.

Transfer half of the strawberry mixture to a large bowl. Add cream to the remainder in the blender and puree until smooth. Combine the strawberry cream with the mashed mixture in the bowl, mixing until there are no streaks. Cover and chill for 5-6 hours.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. (Note: follow the directions for your ice cream maker - mine, for example, requires the bowls to be left in the freezer for at least 24 hours before being used.) At this point, the ice cream will have the texture of soft serve. For firmer ice cream (my recommendation), transfer to an airtight container and freeze for 2 hours. Makes 1 1/2 quarts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Most Expensive Coffee in the World: Civet Poop Coffee

How desperate for your morning caffeine would you have to be in order to try drinking coffee found in animal excrement? In short: ask the Indonesians, who would then blame the Dutch.

In 1696, the Dutch governor of Malabar (southern India) sent Arabica seedlings to the governor of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), who was also Dutch. Fifteen years later, the Dutch East India Company was exporting Indonesian-grown coffee to Europe, and by 1725, the company had a monopoly on the coffee trade, which now consisted of over 60 tons of beans per year. As one might expect, the company made a large amount of money.

However, the situation was less rosy for the Indonesian farmers, who (quite literally) saw little fruit for their labor. For the forty years of Cultuurstelsel, colonialists grew Arabica coffee on large plantations as a cash crop while refusing to allow native farmers and workers to pick coffee berries for their own use. As often happens when someone tells you that you can't have something, the farmers' desire for coffee grew, and one day they discovered that undigested beans could be found in the droppings of the Asian palm civet, or luwak.

It takes something special to move from discovering undigested coffee beans in excrement to deciding to clean, roast, grind, and brew a pot from the stuff, but apparently the farmers were crazy enough to think that this was a good idea. The resulting coffee was unexpectedly delicious - so delicious, in fact, that the Dutch plantation owners who brought about the insanity to begin with also started drinking the concoction. It even became their most prized coffee. (One wonders how long it took the farmers to tell their bosses the origins of their new favorite beverage.) As soon as the Dutch developed a taste for the brew, prices were high - though to be fair, the rarity, complexity, and repugnant nature of the process ensured that it would never be cheap. Japanese soldiers, who occupied Indonesia during World War II, were the next lovers of Kopi Luwak, though the drink nearly disappeared in the late 1950s. It's only recently that the coffee has gained attention in the US, Europe, and East Asia.

So is Kopi Luwak worth $30 a cup (or, for the most expensive version, Vietnamese weasel coffee made from the droppings of wild civets, $1363 a pound)? I haven't tried the beans myself, but apparently the resulting drink is quite smooth, with strong hints of chocolate. Enzymes in the civets' stomachs break down the coffee's proteins and, while there, the beans begin to germinate, both processes that result in less bitterness than ordinary brews. And yes, according to research from the University of Guelph, civet poop coffee is quite safe - it has a lower bacterial count than ordinary coffee.

But what do modern Kopi Luwak cultivators think about all the fuss and expense? Why are foreigners willing to pay so much for the stuff? As one said,“We are a bit surprised. A bit perplexed.”

Where No Ice Cream Van has Been Before

Remember how the ice cream truck used to play the same song (over and over and over) in your neighborhood every summer as it drove around? Growing up just outside of Detroit, I thought that was the only way to buy packaged ice cream without going to a stand or store. When I moved to Chicago, I discovered a second option: the ice cream cart. These are pushed around the neighborhood with bells instead of music, and they're actually more common where I live now than the trucks of my youth. Leave it to London to bring about a third option: the amphibious ice cream van. If only I had a boat.

Thanks to That's Nerdalicious! for the link.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Should I Be Worried?

Not exactly the most comforting words to find on your half-eaten Popsicle stick.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Thor's Cabbage Rolls

What superheroes eat for breakfast. The recipe says it serves four, but I think it's safe to say that Thor can eat an entire batch on his own.

Hello World!

Was the croissant actually invented by the French (some say that credit belongs to the Hungarians)? What insanity made coffee found in animal excrement the most expensive in the world? Why did goose fall out of favor, replaced by turkey as America's traditional Christmas fowl? The answers to these and other questions form the basis of culinary lore, the tales and history behind the food that we eat. It turns out that eating - one of our most basic activities - can be quite fascinating. Along the way, we'll explore recipes, talk to the people behind the scenes, and take the not-so-occasional foray into geekdom. It's going to be a great ride.