Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lovin' Levain

If Cookie Monster didn’t live on Sesame Street, he would be stationed right above Levain Bakery.

Founded in 1994 by friends Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes, Levain Bakery is a cozy neighborhood spot located in New York City’s Upper West Side. The bakery’s legendary baked goods draw locals and tourists alike. The overwhelming demand inspired Levain to open locations in the Hamptons and Harlem, as well as offer shipping of their world-famous cookies around the globe.

The bakery’s name comes from the French word levain, a natural leavening agent that traditionally consists of flour, water, and wild yeasts; it is also known as sourdough starter in the U.S. McDonald and Weekes thought that the French term for a natural starter was the perfect fit for their new bakery.

Levain prepares a variety of tantalizing baked goods that are baked on-site, including breads, sticky buns, and muffins, but what puts them on the map are their cookies. Four types of cookies are available: chocolate chip walnut, oatmeal raisin, dark chocolate chocolate chip, and dark chocolate peanut butter chip. With their $4 price tag, you are most definitely getting your money’s worth; each massive six-ounce cookie is literally the size of your fist and can easily replace a meal. Levain’s staff bakes trays upon trays of these decadent mountains throughout the day, so they always come out fresh, warm, and delightfully gooey.

The Levain cookie experience stimulates all five senses. Smelling the mouthwatering aroma of fresh-baked cookies as you wait in a line that stretches out the door. Hearing the constant clatter of metal trays as they are pulled off towering racks, laden with hulking mounds of cookie dough, and shuttled to ovens nearby. Seeing staff members transfer the hulking masterpieces directly from an oven tray into a brown paper bag for customers. Feeling the cookie’s steady warmth and satisfying heft in your palm upon extracting it from the bag.

And the taste... oh, the taste. Levain’s cookies can only be described as heavenly. They are by far some of the best cookies I have ever sunk my teeth into. Each cookie has tremendous depth of flavor. The exterior is just crisp enough to hold the whole cookie package together, giving way to an incredibly soft, chewy interior slightly reminiscent of cookie dough. My personal favorite is the dark chocolate chocolate chip; it is a rich and decadent treat, with huge chunks of dark chocolate chips studded throughout the cookie that slightly melt all over your fingers as you dig in. A chilly glass of ice-cold milk is practically necessary to complete the experience.

If you can’t finish these enormous treats in one sitting (and I don’t blame you), not a problem—the chips and insides stay soft and melted for hours. The cookies taste just as incredible if you pop them in the microwave for 10 seconds later on.

Cookie Monster may croon “Share It Maybe”, but Levain’s scrumptious cookies will make you want to keep them all for yourself. After one bite, you’ll be going back for seconds, thirds, fourths…

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Fractured Prune

Ocean City, Maryland is more than just a town of sand and sea. All along Coastal Highway, the main drag of the city, lie rows and rows of places to eat- fast food, sit-down, bars, cafés. Although some are certainly tacky, apropos of a beach town, there are some gems tucked amongst all the crab shacks. To my surprise, it wasn’t the Maryland crabs that struck me most, but instead, donuts from The Fractured Prune.

The shop was small and cramped, but nevertheless cute. The line went out the door during the morning rush, past the shop’s signature sign of a quirky cartoon prune wearing shades and a bandage. As more and more people ordered, they had to crowd to the sides to wait for their donuts. Behind the counter, employees worked swiftly and efficiently filling boxes with hand-dipped donuts. Each customer was given a playing card from a deck when they ordered and was called by the number and suit instead of by name. When the king of clubs was called, I went to get my donuts. To my surprise, the box was hot—not luke warm, but hot! At that point, I couldn’t wait any longer to sink my teeth into a donut. Fortunately, it did not disappoint. The donuts were warm and golden throughout. When I bit into the first one, I could taste the soft buttery cake on the inside, complemented by the crisp perfectly fried outside. When I looked at it, I could even see the butter glistening off the dough. Although the wait felt long, I decided that in the end it was well worth it.

Each donut at The Fractured Prune is made fresh to order. They are churned individually out of a machine. Then, still hot, they are dipped by hand in a glaze and a topping. Glazes include, but are not limited to, caramel, chocolate, peanut butter, mixed berry, banana, and maple, while toppings consist of chocolate chips, rainbow sprinkles, chocolate jimmies, coconut flakes, graham crackers, and Oreo cookie pieces. There is also a choice of sugars: powdered, granulated, or cinnamon sugar. You can choose your own combination of toppings or select from a list of specialties that have already been created. The pre-made combinations range from simple, like mocha glaze with Oreo pieces, to more complex, such as banana glaze with cinnamon sugar and peanuts. There is even one called Plain Jane, which is just a plain donut without any toppings. Frankly, the donuts have such a rich flavor on their own that they would taste great even without any toppings or glazes at all.

I tried a maple glaze with cinnamon sugar and graham cracker pieces, as well as a peanut butter glaze with rainbow sprinkles. The maple glaze was subtle. It gave the donut a hint of extra flavor, but the buttery taste of the donut itself was stronger than that of the glaze. The cinnamon sugar gave the donut more texture, as the sugar crystals added some crunch, while the graham crackers were crushed so small that they were closer to a powder than pieces, not providing much added texture. The peanut butter glaze was a little more palpable, but still not overpowering. I think that peanut butter flavor in general is just more robust than maple. And the sprinkles gave the donut a nice extra chewiness. Overall, the glazes were subtle. They were not thick frostings, so the flavor of the donut didn't rely on that of the frosting. The toppings gave the donuts a little character, some more striking than others, but the taste and texture of a plain one would still be delectable.

The donuts at The Fractured Prune were the best donuts I have ever had. They were served hot and fresh, fried perfectly crisp with a supple center. And the flavor combinations were endless. On the one hand, it is atrocious that there is no Fractured Prune in New York or Philadelphia, depriving such substantial cities of this delicious fried goodness. On the other hand, it is probably a good thing, as it would be difficult for me to resist buying a donut every day.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Vendy Awards

On July 28th, a voracious crowd descended upon The Lot at 39th and Market, ready to eat the entire afternoon. They were there for the second annual Vendy Awards, a competition of the city's best food trucks. While the location was not as glamorous as last year's awards (held at the Piazza at Schmidt's), the promise of delicious food kept people's spirits high, even during the mid-afternoon downpour.

The food trucks competed for the title of People's Choice, Best Dessert, and the coveted Vendy Award. People's Choice was given to Vernalicious, which serves up "eclectic comfort food" and the most scrumptious grilled-cheese. Vernalicious is owned by the dynamic duo of Verna and David. We had the grilled tomato, pesto, and mozzarella sandwich. The gooey mozzarella provided a great balance to the ripe tomatoes and the flavorful, homemade pesto. Though the sandwich was grilled, Monica found the butteriness of the bread to be a bit too much. But if you don’t mind a super buttery sandwich (which Elliott definitely doesn't!), then Vernalicious will be sure to satisfy your comfort food needs.

Best Dessert went to new-kid-on-the-block Lil' Pop Shop, whose permanent location can be found near campus at 44th between Locust and Spruce. Elliott discovered Lil' Pop Shop earlier this summer, and before the Vendy's had already had an embarrassing number of popsicles, with the goal of trying all their flavors. The mini-sized popsicles served at the Vendy's allowed her to get closer to accomplishing that goal, concluding that Vietnamese Iced Coffee is the best. It was smooth, creamy but still refreshing, with the perfect combination of coffee and sweetened condensed milk. Even their most unique flavor, Sweet & Salty Summer Corn, was tasty.

Finally, the Vendy Award went to the Smoke Truck for their pulled-pork on mac and cheese. We were quite surprised that Smoke Truck brought home the gold, because we found their dish to be the most disappointing of the afternoon. The Smoke Truck specializes in Southern BBQ and soul food, bringing a taste of the South to Philadelphia. We tried their southern style BBQ pulled pork over a bed of homemade mac and cheese. Their pulled pork was unpalatable with a very vinegary taste and left slight fizzy feeling in our mouths after the first bite. Giving up on the pork, we took a taste of the mac and cheese and were disappointed by the bland flavor of the macaroni and the uneven distribution of cheese. Regardless of their new title of Vendy Cup Champion, we will not be returning to the Smoke Truck.

So, we have decided to create our own award, the Penndy Award! And our Penndy goes to... Philly Delicias! Delicias serves up traditional Venezuelan cuisine carefully crafted to please the lunch crowds. They specialize in arepas which are thick cornflour patties that are split open, making them perfect for stuffing. For the Vendy's, Delicias served a mini platter of appetizers that consisted of a tender and juicy pork loin topped with a colorful salsa, sweet melt-in-your-mouth plantains, and a mini arepa stuffed with plump black beans. The soft and doughy arepa was filling, satisfying, and oh-so-delicious. This was Monica's first time trying Delicias, and she is now hooked. Luckily. Luckily, Delicias is located on 34th and Market, so she can become a regular.

Our two other favorites of the afternoon were SweetBox, King of Falafel and Yumtown. Yumtown is unique in that their menu changes based on the seasonal ingredients that they locally source. The side of their truck sports a hand written list of each ingredient used on their menu and the local farm from which it originates. Not only does Yumtown deserve a pat on the back for keeping it local, but their food is delicious. We tried their beer braised pork topped with a sesame slaw and cornbread underneath. Their pork was done right and the slaw had a satisfying local bite. Their cornbread was a little buttery for Monica's taste, but the flavors were all there. The sweetness of the cornbread balanced out the kick of the pickled jalapeño. In addition, they served up a peach cider and black tea that was bursting with flavor and so refreshing that we returned multiple times throughout the afternoon.

We were also big fans of King of Falafel, owned by the Syrian couple Nabil and Hined Akkeh, who arrived sporting matching Team Babaganoush and Team Tabouli jerseys. They pride themselves in serving up authentic cuisine, including soaking and grinding the chickpeas used for their falafel and hummus themselves. The dedication they put into their food showed- their falafel was the best we've had in Philly, while Monica deemed the tabbouli to be "just like her mother makes it," with lots of parsley and lemon. They also served hummus and babaganoush, with warm pita for scooping.

Besides the Lil' Pop Shop, we were quite taken with Sweet Box, who won Best Dessert last year. Since the Vendy’s, Monica has been dreaming about their vegan chocolate espresso cupcake topped with a hazelnut and praline crumble. The cupcake itself was delicious and moist but what really reeled us in was the crumble on top. Covering the cupcake was a smooth layer of ganache that allowed hazelnut and praline pieces to stay intact on top of the cake. The cupcake was therefore not overly sweet and instead perfectly showcased the flavor of the deep chocolate and bold espresso. Though the cupcake we tried was vegan, Sweet Box specializes in many non-vegan creations. Upon a Google search to locate the whereabouts of their truck since we are now completely in love with Sweet Box, we found out that they are opening a store soon (in addition to their truck) on 339 S. 13th Street. We can’t wait to pay them a visit at their new storefront!

Check out our photos from the Vendy's below.

-Monica Purmalek and Elliott Brooks

Lil' Pop Shop's Sign

Popsicle power!

Decadent espresso and praline cupcake from Sweet Box

Yumtown's sign

The disappointing Vendy champion: Smoke Truck

And our Penndy goes to Delicias!

Lip-smackin' grilled cheese from Vernalicious 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Smorgasburg: Your Summer Mission

Are you near New York right now? Even better, are you in it? And if not, can you catch a bus to the Big Apple in the next few days? Well mark your calendar for next Saturday because you have a date with the L-train or your car- you're going to Smorgasburg!

Smorgasburg is a food market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Located right on the water, it's full of hipsters and incredible food. Only here would you find skinny, vegetarian girls in head scarves selling the most decadent grilled cheese, huge lines for tempeh, Arnold Palmer slushies, and much more. Smorgasburg was created by the same masterminds behind Brooklyn Flea, which has been described as a "Etsy-in-person". Smorgasburg happens every Saturday and has incredible offerings. For around $20, you can try a diverse range of foods. I went this week for the first time, some of which were definitely worth repeating. However, the strength of Smorgasburg is that there are so many options, I could also go back and eat totally different things. There was so much variety and range in price, ethnic cuisines, and type of customer.

Here are a few snippets of what I ate:

From Dough in Bed Stuy. I want to visit their brick and mortar shop. Cafe au lait is a flavor I've never seen in a doughnut and it deserves more recognition. The doughnut was not greasy and had great coffee flavor. It was one of those doughnuts that makes you think it's illegal for Dunkin Donuts to claim its dessert items are doughnuts.

From The Milk Truck. This breakfast sandwich grilled cheese was the last one! It had a fried egg, pickled onions, and lots of cheese on Balthazar rye bread. My friend ordered one with apples, three types of cheese, and rosemary bread that I could probably eat an entire loaf of.

Blue Bottle Iced Coffee. SO SO SO GOOD. I stopped by their brick-and-mortar store while wandering around Williamsburg and was so impressed by the cold brewing apparatus. I got the style with milk but there is another black version. The coffee was so rich tasting with the perfect amount of whole milk (don't even ask for skim).

The company was called Rob and Anna's Bananas but I can't find their website. As explained by the caption, they literally frozen bananas put through a cold press. They make them to order and have a variety of sauces to go. I chose nutella, my friend got berry. The bananas have no added sugar, dairy etc. They're vegan and healthy and actually taste good. This was the perfect second dessert at Smorgasburg because it didn't make us feel too full. We passed lots of ice cream sandwich shops but had no room.

Smorgasburg was a great way to spend Saturday morning. Get there early because the most popular items do run out. Bring your appetite, a taste for adventure, and your most alternative outfit. Smorgasburg is also a great spot to look at food trends. If this place is any indication, cupcakes are totally out, cookies are coming back, cold brewed iced coffee is major, and iced tea/slushies/homemade sodas are having moments.

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