Monday, August 29, 2011

Star Trek Cupcakes

Star Trek cupcakes

Korina at Wild Streak Treats made these amazing Star Trek cupcakes for her best friend's birthday. Aren't they amazing?

Star Trek cupcakes

Her friend is one lucky gal. I almost want to make a comic strip featuring these guys. Kirk is looking pretty dashing.

Star Trek cupcakes

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Recipe: Bacon Crab Cakes

Bacon crab cakes

They say you should never go grocery shopping when you're hungry. But I apparently make that mistake all the time. One night I was wandering through the aisles at Trader Joe's and noticed that they carry large cans of fresh lump crabmeat. Suddenly crab cakes sounded like a good idea. Then I remembered that I had a pound of fantastic Danish bacon in the fridge and thought, hey, maybe the crab and bacon will compliment each other. Poof! Bacon crab cakes were born.

The light flavor of the crab pairs nicely with the smokiness of the bacon without being overwhelmed. These are substantial crab cakes, adapted from a recipe in Gourmet created by chefs who appreciate "meaty beauties" rather than the sad affairs you'll find in many restaurants, which are more bread crumbs than crab.

Bacon Crab Cakes

Servings: 4
Active Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes


  • 4 slices firm white sandwich bread
  • 4 slices extra thick-cut bacon
  • 1 pound fresh lump crabmeat
  • 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon butter (if needed)

Cook the bacon in a large skillet until crisp. Remove from the pan and cool slightly (I like to place them on a cooling rack that's been set on top of a plate - alternatively, you can put them on paper towels). Make sure to leave all the bacon fat in the pan. Cut the bacon into chunks.

Tear the bread into small chunks. In a large bowl, combine the bread, bacon, crab, mayonnaise, egg, and Worcestershire sauce so that the mixture roughly holds its shape.

Bacon crab cakes, in process

Form into 4 large patties.

Bacon crab cakes, in process

Cook the patties in the skillet with the bacon fat - you can add butter if there isn't enough grease in the pan. Cook until each side is golden brown, turning once.

Bacon crab cakes, in process

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Geeky Cookies

Here's an idea that I can get behind: Geeky Cookies, a Utah-based company that makes a variety of sugar cookies with Super Mario Bros, Pac-Man, Star Trek, The Guild, and D&D references. Also amusing: the questions in the FAQ section on their website are written in lolcat-speak. Normally I don't encourage excessive use of such grammar, but I think it works because they write the responses in normal English. Cookies run around $20 a dozen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chicago Ice Cream and Gelato Festival

Photo from the Chicago Ice Cream and Gelato Festival website.

It's difficult to find a more perfect dessert than ice cream. While it's fun to savor expensive, elaborate chocolate concoctions (and believe me, I do), I'm just as happy with a scoop of good, high-quality ice cream or gelato. And as an additional bonus, that scoop (or two or three) from the local creamery is usually cheaper than the pastry chef's latest offering. So it's no surprise that I look forward to the Chicago Ice Cream and Gelato Festival, which offers tastings from makers from all over the Midwest, every year.

The festival is in its third year, its first in Little Italy. And this time, I wasn't just sampling ice cream - I served as a volunteer. I spent most of the night stationed at the ice cream sandwich booth, which featured chocolate chip cookies from Tate's Bake Shop. I took one bite and could tell that these cookies didn't contain unpronounceable preservatives. They taste homemade because the ingredients list is one that could come straight out of any kitchen. And hands down, they're some of the best cookies I've ever had out of a package.

Upstairs on the rooftop deck, festival participants could enjoy beer, cocktails, grilled chicken tacos with spicy mango salsa, gelato from Canady le Chocolatier, and a fantastic view of the Chicago skyline. Downstairs in the ballroom, I was excited to see Zingerman's Creamery (pistachio gelato), which reminded me of my years in Ann Arbor as a student at the University of Michigan. I also spent some time talking to the guys from Mitchell's Soda Shop (banana chocolate chip, vanilla, and chocolate chip), which hails from the Chicago area, and sampled treats from vendors including Graeter's of Ohio, Hudsonville Ice Cream (Grand Rapids, Mich.), and Intelligensia Coffee (Chicago).

But the standout creamery was Columbus-based Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, with an incredibly smooth dark chocolate. Wow. Now I'm upset that her store was closed the last time I was in Columbus and had no idea what I was missing. Next time, that's the first place I'm visiting. Jeni Britton Bauer also did an ice cream-making demonstration - unfortunately, I didn't catch much of it since I was working - and passed around samples afterward. She made a batch of fennel pollen ice cream, which I didn't think sounded terribly appetizing, but which turned out to be surprisingly delicious. This woman clearly knows her ice cream. Here's hoping that she comes back next year!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Farewell to La Sera Cafe

Photo courtesy of
Today I walked past La Sera Cafe (1143 N. Wells, Chicago) to find its windows covered with newspaper. A man was disassembling the railing that enclosed the outdoor patio, and all of the chairs and tables were gone. A sign on the window said that they were closed, and given the signs of desolation, this seems to be a permanent situation.

Three years ago, I discovered the cafe, with its Ethiopian and European influences, cozy vibe, and friendly staff. It was one of the few places - perhaps the only place - in the city where you could order both Turkish and Ethiopian coffee. Some weeks I practically lived there since it was one of the few non-Starbucks options in the neighborhood. I held meetings there and ordered food and coffee when I had business nearby. All of the staff recognized me. 

Alas, those days are gone. Goodbye, La Sera Cafe. I will miss you and your tasty lamb wraps.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Get your cappuccinos from a police box. Hint: It's bigger on the inside.

Courtesy of Hello, I'm the Doctor.

Friday, August 12, 2011

More on Artisan Ice Cream vs. the State of Illinois

Kris Swanberg, Nice Cream
Photo of Kris Swanberg from the Chicago Reader.
Yesterday I wrote about how the Illinois Department of Health is shutting down local, artisan ice cream makers for using fresh fruit and cream in their products instead of syrup and prepackaged soft serve mix. Kris Swanberg, the founder and creator of Nice Cream, emailed me last night with some additional information about the situation: "After reading the comments and your post I wanted to emphasize a very important point: We DO repasteurize our ice cream - we just do it on the stovetop in a pot, not in a fancy machine. Even though our process is safe and a common practice for ice cream making, they won't approve it."

I want to again note that the "fancy machine" the government wants Nice Cream and other small makers to use carries a hefty $40,000 price tag, something that Swanberg's three-person company cannot afford. They use industry-standard production methods for small-scale makers, but the regulations that they're now facing - which were never made clear to them or others in Chicago until this - are intended for large-scale manufacturers with the money to spend on expensive equipment that is overkill when you're making every pint by hand.

Swanberg is meeting with governmental agencies, legal experts, and others to see what can be done to make the situation in Illinois more hospitable to local, independent ice cream makers. In the meantime, you can contribute to Nice Cream's Kickstarter campaign, attend the fundraiser on August 28 if you're in the Chicago area, or contact the governor's office in Illinois about the situation.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

If You Love Food, This Should Make You Angry

Photo from Busy Beaver Buttons.

Update (8.12.11): Information on Nice Cream's manufacturing process (they do repasteurize their ice cream already, just not with the expensive machine) and how you can help Nice Cream.

The State of Illinois is shutting down local, artisan ice cream makers for such terrible offenses as using fresh fruit instead of fruit syrup and fresh cream instead of pre-packaged soft serve mix. What, you say? How can this be? Health officials in this state are known for being overzealous when it comes to making sure that small, independent businesses follow obscure rules - and when I say small and independent, I'm talking about businesses that are often owned and run by 1-2 people renting space in a shared, licensed commercial kitchen. These are not corporations with large amounts of money who have the capital to hire lawyers or contribute significant sums to political campaigns. No, these are real people, individuals who do their best to follow labyrinthine food regulations based on the information that they're given by governmental agencies who don't always agree on what the rules should be.

Illinois health regulators seem to hate anything that isn't incredibly processed. Last year, they destroyed thousands of dollars worth of local fruit that had no health issues. Why? Monica Eng from the Chicago Tribune put it this way: "At best it was a victim of paper work confusion among city bureaucrats who couldn't agree on a policy." One woman was put out of business for six months.

Now, the health department is saying that Nice Cream, a local maker (read: primarily one woman, Kris Swanberg) that I've followed since reading this 2009 profile from the Chicago Reader, is being forced to shut down because she lacks a dairy permit. Nevermind that she and others in her field have been creating artisan ice creams for years without ever hearing that such a permit existed - or that they needed one. Nevermind that the office that issued their business licenses (the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection) failed to inform any of them that they needed one in order to operate. IDPH has spoken, and now Swanberg and others will need to use sub-par ingredients or cough up around $40,000 for a pasteurizing machine.

Processed ingredients would mean that Nice Cream - which built its reputation by using fresh, organic ingredients that are sourced from local farms - would be allowed operate without needing the dairy license. The problem with the dairy license is that in order to pass inspection, you have to make sure your bacteria levels are so low that using real ingredients simply doesn't work.

Technically, using fresh strawberries is legal. However, IDPH does not recommend using them, because "when you try and clean a strawberry to make sure it doesn’t have any bacteria, it kind of deteriorates.”  Irradiated strawberries apparently look fine but are somewhat lacking in the taste department. So IDPH explicitly suggests "strawberry syrup." Fresh cream requires the dairy license, so the alternative would be to use premade ice cream mix, the kind of stuff that is full of stabilizers and additives and usually found at places like Dairy Queen. (If you've never done it, read the label of your grocery store ice cream sometime - if you're not buying Häagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry's, or Breyers, you'll probably be reading a long list of ingredients, half of which are near unpronounceable.) Clearly, the results of these changes would turn Nice Cream into a generic brand that's barely worth mentioning, rather than the wizards who made me realize for the first time that strawberry ice cream could actually taste good. Better than good. Amazing.

Which brings us back to the pasteurizing machine and its $40,000 price tag. That's a lot of money for a small business to find. But it's not a lot of money for a large corporation, and that's the type of organization that the rules were invented for. In fact, the rules about dairy licenses apply to the mega-corporation and the one-man show equally in the eyes of the state. Something's wrong with that. Something's wrong with the fact that Cargill can stay in business after having to recall 36 million pounds of salmonella-tainted turkey, but Nice Cream may not be able to stay in business after keeping a clean record. Something's wrong with the fact that health departments are pushing businesses to produce processed food rather than fresh, locally-sourced food, which is much healthier. Something's wrong here, and local ice cream may be a casualty of it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Findlay Market Wrap-Up

Findlay Market

For the last few days, I've been talking about Cincinnati's Findlay Market, with its excellent Liege waffles and the local delicacy goetta, but here's an overview of some of the other fun things you can find there.

Dojo Gelato

We'll start with Dojo Gelato, an artisanal maker that uses Ohio milk and fresh ingredients that are sourced locally whenever possible. They've been named Best of the City by Cincinnati Magazine, and the accolades are well-deserved - it's good stuff. And if you're vegan, don't worry - they have dairy-free sorbettos as well.

Dojo Gelato

Colonel De carries an impressive array of gourmet herbs and spices:

Spices at Findlay Market

And this may just be due to the fact that I'm not from Ohio, but I think this is hilarious: "Smoked Turkey Tails: Full of flavor!" Um... eating poultry butt has never been terribly appealing to me, even if you call it something more polite, like "bishop's nose."

Smoked Turkey Tails

The outdoor area features a beer garden, dining tables, and some appropriately-themed murals:

Mural at Findlay Market

And we'll end with a serious injunction to "Ride the champ!" Hey, it's cheap.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cincinnati's Regional Cuisine: Goetta

One of my favorite things about traveling is getting the opportunity to explore regional cuisine. And something fun that few people seem to realize is that you don't have to go far to experience local specialties - I live in Chicago, and driving a few hours in the Midwest brings pasties in Northern Michigan, walleye near Lake Erie, and goetta in Cincinnati. Goetta. I'd visited Cincinnati before while touring and was then introduced to the local style of chili (Skyline Chili makes a popular example), but I'd never heard of goetta. Thankfully, last weekend rectified this grave omission. 

You probably won't find goetta anywhere outside of Northern Kentucky and the greater Cincinnati area - the dish likely has German-American origins, though some theories also posit that it has roots as a haggis substitute, brought to Ohio via Scots-Irish migrants by way of Kentucky. (Got that?) The Germans love their sausage, and goetta would make some sense as an outgrowth of that tradition: it's essentially a sausage made from pork (or pork and beef), spices, onions, and steel-cut oats. That last ingredient is especially important: goetta must be made from steel-cut (pinhead) oats, not your typical garden-variety oats found in the supermarket aisle. It's not salty, and it's usually served in patty form from the sliced sausage.

Cincinnati loves its goetta - there are entire festivals dedicated to the stuff. Imagine goetta pizza, goetta cheddar cheese, goetta jambalaya - so it wasn't surprising that a stall at Findlay Market featured goetta burgers. No matter how skeptical you might be about oats and pork sausage - I couldn't imagine what this combination would taste like, especially on a hamburger bun - given the opportunity, you need to try it. It's surprisingly delicious, and I'm already wishing I could go back for more.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Liege Waffles & Taste of Belgium

Findlay Market, Cincinnati

Cincinnati always surprises me. It's not a very large city, and often underrated - but it can be surprisingly interesting. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that my favorite band hails from there.) My friend Gabriel is also a foodie, and when I visited him last weekend he introduced me to the wonders of Findlay Market.

Findlay Market, Cincinnati

I've always been of the opinion that some of the best food in the world resides in local markets, and Findlay was no exception. We'll get to the savories and a Cincinnati special in another post, because right now I want to talk about waffles. Belgian waffles. Real Belgian waffles, made in the Liege style, from imported pearl sugar. Taste of Belgium, whose owner Jean-François Flechet actually grew up near Liege, makes what are perhaps the best waffles I've ever eaten - it's been days, and I can still taste them. They accomplish the formidable task of feeling heavy and dense while remaining simultaneously crisp and light. (It sounds like these things should be mutually exclusive, and I'd agree with you - except that I've eaten the contradiction.) The waffles are small, only about the size of a hand, yet weigh more than the large concoctions that you'll find at diners and breakfast joints around the country. And the outside is delightfully crunchy, with a thin sugar crust (this is why using pearl sugar is important - when baked, the heat actually brings the sugar to the surface of the waffle). These are waffles that would hold up to fruit, syrup, ice cream, or whatever else you'd care to throw on top of them without running the risk of becoming soggy at any point. But they were excellent plain, and I'd almost hesitate to mar such perfection with unnecessary and distracting accoutrements.

Waffles from Taste of Belgium

I almost missed tasting the waffles, as we were all far more concerned with savory food at that point. But as we walked by, the friendly staff offered us samples. Free samples: they'll get you every time. And I'm so glad they did! I'm determined to recreate Liege waffles in my own kitchen since Cincinnati isn't exactly nearby (though Taste of Belgium will ship). The hunt for pearl sugar is on.

Taste of Belgium

Taste of Belgium
1801 Race St. (Findlay Market)
Cincinnati, OH 45202

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

AT-AT Cake

I know you've always thought, "I wish I could eat an AT-AT!" And thanks to a team of incredible bakers and artists, you can. The downside: It'll cost you $5000 if you want one of your very own.

Star Wars: AT-AT Cake

The incredible Star Wars cake took 60 hours to create, and if you're the type that likes to see in-progress photos, you can check them out on Flickr.

Star Wars: AT-AT Cake

Courtesy of Geekologie.