Thursday, October 30, 2008

Essay: Cooking Silently: Liza Shore

By permission from cooking... silently (See original post: Whoopie Pies)

Ask anyone who even remotely knows me, and they'll tell you: for at least six months I have been proclaiming the whoopie pie as the next big dessert.

Why? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The whoopie pie has humble, but not very detailed, origins. A popular East coast treat, they are most commonly found in the heart of New England. They are often attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch, but there is not much literature (perhaps this is my calling? Whoopie pie literature?) offering more than that. Regardless, I will forever have an image in my head of early American settlers walking across the landscape holding whoopie pies in waxed paper. There are plenty of urban legends circulating, too. Some say that whoopie pies were originally created to be easily transportable, individual cakes. Some say that they got their name from the exclamations of children who loved the treats. And I remember reading once that their popularity was somehow tied to the invention of Marshmallow Fluff. Wherever they were created and why, I'm just glad they're catching on.

The most wonderful thing to me about the whoopie pie is that it is completely antithetical to the most recent trend in baked goods, cupcakes. I think we're all starting to realize that it's actually very hard to find an exceptional cupcake. It's not hard to find one that LOOKS amazing, but usually the taste and/or texture disappoints. Cupcakes, plain and simple, try to win us over with their looks. Whoopie pies... don't.

Once I embarked on my whoopie pie crusade, it took quite a bit of tinkering to come up with what I felt was the perfect recipe. Part of my goal was to have a really good base recipe-- something that could be altered for flavor without changing texture or consistency. I wanted my dry ingredient proportions to stay essentially the same, so that only the wet ingredients would really vary. It wasn't all fun and games, landing on the perfect recipe. The chocolate batter alone went through several iterations. An attempt at a cinnamon cake resulted in something that tasted eerily similar to Cinnamon Toast Crunch. One crazed night, in an attempt to make perfectly uniform Whoopie Pies, I bought a plunger-gun that supposedly dispenses batter evenly. It didn't. These whoopie pies were turning out to be quite the endeavor, I tell you!

My other goal was to come up with a perfect, and shortening-free filling. For whatever reason, most whoopie pie recipes call for shortening in both the filling and in the cake. And, while I may tend to have shortening on hand in my freezer at all times, I know most people don't. It's an ingredient that people are scared of, hesitant to buy: "When else am I going to use that?" Lucky for us, there's butter!

So, regarding frosting, there are two options in my opinion. One is a simple butter/powdered sugar frosting. The key to this is creaming the butter forEVER, otherwise it will taste too thick. Cream it, cream it, and then cream it more, until it is super light and fluffy. Remember: when it comes to frosting, you really can't over-cream. Add a splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt with the powdered sugar. The other option is an italian meringue buttercream, a rich frosting lightened with egg whites. Recipes vary in quantities, and I haven't found one that I'm married to, but Martha Stewart and Dorie Greenspan will never lead you wrong.

And now, without further ado, my Whoopie Pie recipe-- fluffy, spongy, moist, and delicious slathered with frosting.

Chocolate Whoopie Pies

2 c flour
1/2 c cocoa powder
1 1/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 c buttermilk
1 t vanilla
1 stick butter
1 c brown sugar
1 egg

Whisk together dry ingredients. Add vanilla to buttermilk. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg. Alternate additions of wet and dry ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry. Bake at 350, until cakes spring back to the touch.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And Now For Something Different: Part 1

Last night I made a terrific dish from the following 1870's recipe. It's sure-fire, finger-licking good for the whole family to enjoy!

I include it in its entirety including the introduction:

"Our readers will be interested in the following communications from our valued and learned contributor, Professor Bosh, whose labours in the fields of Culinary and Botanical science, are so well known to the world. The first three Articles richly merit to be added to the Domestic cookery of every family; those which follow, claim the attention of all Botanists, and we are happy to be able through Dr. Bosh's kindness to present our readers with illustrations of his discoveries. All the new flowers are found in the valley of Verrikwier, near the lake of Oddgrow, and on the summit of the hill Orfeltugg.


To Make an Amblongus Pie

Take 4 pounds (say 4 1/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them into a small pipkin.
Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.
When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out, and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.
Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne papper.
Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become of a pale purple colour.
Then, having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.
Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.
Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible."

Serves 6.

Recession 1 Prosperity 0

Scanning the daily food digest "Grub Street," of New York Magazine, I was directed to a hilarious article in today's Chicago Tribune about the measures McDonald's is taking to increase their bottom line during these difficult times!  Several weeks ago, when the stock market really started to tank, investors were scrambling to determine what were safe investments.  Campbell's Soup and Walmart stocks jumped without too much surprise while McDonald's certainly has been doing comparatively well with an 11% jump in 3rd quarter profits.

How will McDonald's continue to boost its profits into the 4th quarter as most of us are downsizing to Church's Chicken?  Amidst the collapse of financial giants like Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers we now have a new casualty... CHEESE!!!

That's right, McDonald's is re-arranging its 99 cent menu by removing one of the two slices of cheese from its double-cheeseburger and renaming this new Frankenstein the "McDouble."  The original double-cheeseburger can still be purchased for 20 cents more, but why would you want it when the McDouble is much much more healthy for you.  Times are tight folks, so think twice before you throw your next wine and cheese party (or charge your guests 20 cents for that extra Kraft Single).
(Read the original story here:,0,4587964.story)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Ivo Furman

I often find introductions difficult to write, as they must introduce a body of work that has not been written let alone defined. When Max Holtz contacted me about the possibility of writing a column for his blog, I tried to conceptualize how my vocation and my hobby would coalesce. Being a PhD researcher in the UK, I felt that I had to combine my study of sociology with the themes Max wanted to explore. I hope to do this without being too pedantic as most academicians are when it comes to writing popular articles. So, I'll try writing jargon free and using personal references suitable for an international audience.

This column will essentially deal with the sociology of food, with how food is a medium of identification. When we talk about food as a conversation topic, it often serves an indicator of our lifestyles, ethnic background and even our political identity. In doing so, food is an individualized act of consumption in which every possible combination has a particular rationality and order. On the other hand, food is universal; it is the collective act of feeding for subsistence. I will be using the latter of the two definitions for this column. Among the topics will be covering will be issues such as how societies and cultures create the "myth" of cuisine around food, how ideas of nationalism categorize food and how the fetishization of cuisine leads to a transformation from necessity to commodity in urban environments. Lastly, I will also be exploring the relation between sexuality and cuisine in national cultures.

Next week, I will be writing a short article about coffee nationalism(s) in South Eastern Europe. In this area of the world, the same cup of coffee is either a Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Greek or Turkish coffee depending on your political perspective. Therefore in a political context, coffee is a metaphor for the problematic of Balkan identity and nationalisms.

I hope that this article serves as a delineation of the issues I wish to address in this column. I will finish off this short introduction with a Korean proverb I often like to quote as a toast to the culture of food: "the deeper the culture the tastier the food."


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Saint Louis Donut Hunt: Breakfast of Champions

Donuts or Diabetic Shock?

I woke up to a fine gray misty rain, which soon turned into a steady, driving downpour.   With great difficulty I emerged from the warm cocoon of my bed and stumbled downstairs through the frigid house to put on a pot of coffee, wishing that the radiators were on.  It should have felt like Christmas morning - I had been looking forward to my great donut tasting for a long time and I knew that I would have to get over this morning hump and look past the rain.  Last week I had arranged for an informal tasting panel of Washington University medical students to test the strengths and weaknesses of the donuts I planned on bringing in.    With my route established (see map of the Great Donut Triangle below) and map in hand, I set forth with a mug of coffee and a growling stomach at about 9:15am.  Note that in donut time, this is the equivalent of waking up at noon.  I figured since I was unable to have a traveling tasting panel to experience the luxury of hot donuts, that a few hours would not make a big difference.

Before I write further, I want to thank all of the lovely people who helped me, most of whom were the owners of the establishments I visited.  These bakers work hard, love what they do, and are unanimously enthusiastic about the products they create each day.  I also want to thank all of the owners who refused to take any pay for their donuts, making this venture less costly and allowing us to taste a wide variety of specialties.

Our first stop: Lamar's Donuts on Brentwood Blvd.   Lamar's, headquartered in Nebraska, was the only donut chain we tried.  Set up like a coffee shop/ café I sauntered to the counter and was helped promptly; the display was attractive and the donuts looked fresh.  The baking is done offsite (on Olive Blvd.) and thus, unfortunately, the store did not smell incredible as I had hoped.  Instead it smelled of coffee (and so there were no complaints).   The employee behind the counter was happy to serve me and proudly claimed that Lamar's donuts were "bigger and better" than other places.

The display case at Lamar's.

The second stop was the Donut Drive-In on Chippewa. The employees at the Drive-In were friendly and the store, which was claustrophobically packed with to-go boxes and baking supplies, smelled great. "Tender loving care" makes the best donut, claim the women behind the counter who let me take a quick snapshot before I made out with  glazed and buttermilk donuts, as well as an apple fritter.

Pay no attention to the women behind the counter.

The house that donuts built.

As I got back into the car, the skies opened up.  While I was happy to be dry and warm, I was out of coffee, starved, and feeling cranky.   The car smelled good but I didn't dare break into any of my loot.  After all, I had only made it to two of eight planned stops and had 6 donuts to show for it.  I wasn't going to break down and sneak a taste and I certainly wasn't going to eat the unappealing banana, which I had brought with me, thinking that I should eat some fruit to counteract all the lard and sugar I was going to consume in the forthcoming hours.  I continued south to my next stop, the St. Louis Hills Donut Shop.  Momentarily lost and turned around, I was happy to spot the green shack of deliciousness.  

At this point, I have to admit, it was already late for donuts and this establishment was set to close in 2 hours and had been open since 5am.  The baking certainly had been done and the owners were probably ready to head home and rest up before returning later in the night.  The owner, who was very nice, testified to the hard work that it takes to making a good donut.  It was a homey place and I made out with a cheese flip, a glazed donut and a buttermilk donut.

Big Green.

I continued my trek to the southern-most point on my itinerary, the Donut Stop, which was a good distance from downtown, on the outskirts of Jefferson Barracks.  The store was big, smelled great and the owners were still hard at work keeping the display cases fully stocked.   Serving the community's donut needs for the past 55 years, the present owners believed that attention to detail and strong relationships with their clientele proved to be the key to their long-standing success.  I left with a box stuffed with donuts of every variety.  Luckily there were two plain glazed and I wolfed one down in the car.  Not bad...

Donut lighthouse on a gray day.

The Donut Stop family.

I began to head north along Broadway, which was a great drive taking me past an interesting stretch of storefronts, all of which looked like they could have enormous potential in the urban renewal of my dreams.   Sadly, Broadway runs along a terrible strip of the Mississippi river, replete with heavy industry and a sewage treatment facility.  Pharaoh's Donuts was my next intended stop but I had difficulty finding the store.   Time was tight and I was hurrying to meet my 1pm deadline. 

Soulard Market's stall #115 was next on the list, featuring a unique local donut experience; unfortunately, I discovered that Mini Donut, LLC. was closed as they only operate on the weekends. They serve, if I recall correctly, only cake donuts, which come either powdered or plain and are made fresh from a rickety donut-making contraption.  I didn't have time to linger, or get a sausage in the market, so I cut across 7th street and Broadway to John Donut.

Homey and warm.

Disappointed that he was out of the plain glazed donuts, John, the owner, loaded me up with a nice variety of the donuts he had left.  The 26 year old storefront served breakfast and snacks to a wide range of loyal clientele.  The donuts are made nightly from high quality ingredients and stuffed with home made custards and jellies.  John believes that the store's consistency is what sets them apart from other establishments.

Not much was left after a successful morning.

While I wanted to linger over a cup of coffee and some breakfast, I had to move on to my final stop, World's Fair Donuts.

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie...

World's Fair on, open for 32 years, a wonderful throwback to a bygone era.  The woman working the counter had a terrific bee-hive and the bakery somehow reminded me of the Eat-Rite Diner on Chouteau.  Two bakers prepared fillings and plain doughnuts behind the counter and were friendly when I asked to take some photographs.  Old timers sipped coffee and traded stories and, presumably, had just polished off breakfast.  Certainly things were all-right at this shop and there was a comfortable vibe to it.  Maybe it was because it felt like both the establishment and the employees had been frozen in time, a part of south St. Louis that resisted, even scorned change.  When I offered to give this website's address the woman serving me told me that she didn't own a computer and that she laughed that she relied on snail mail.   This was not so surprising but definitely added World Fair's charm.  Fruit top donuts, apple fritters, and plain glazed are the specialties here and I was sent off with a nice variety.

Working hard or hardly working?

Loaded with donuts I drove back north to Barnes Hospital to meet my panel, which was looking forward to a little bit of a pick-me up.  The below photograph shows our loot with third-year student Laura Billadello eagerly cutting into a cake donut before the tasting.  I was so hungry at this point and I was in absolute diabetic shock after the tasting that I neglected to take additional photographs of the tasting and the mass of white-coats that flocked to the free food like moths to light.

Did somebody say free?

So the tasting looks less extravagant than it really was.  It was unfortunately difficult to really spread out without a long table and since I don't have something like a conference room readily available, we had to make do.  In the end we had 6 donut stores representing.  We luckily made a few tasting categories in order to objectively look at which donuts were worthwhile.  The first category was the plain glazed.  The plain glazed donut is the unanimous workhorse of the donut world.  Judge a person not by the color of his donut shop, but by the quality of his/her glazed.  Sadly, John Donut was disqualified from the running in this first category since they had sold out of their plain glazed.  Theoretically this would make them the automatic winner since they were good enough to completely sell out, but this would not be fair to our other contenders.  We looked at flavor (obviously), mouthfeel, and appearance as the main criteria for judgment.

The rankings were objective decisions and the panel was generally unanimous with their conclusions.  In the category of plain glazed donuts the first place went to the Donut Stop.  These donuts were exceptional, slightly crisp but soft and light on the inside.  They had a slight vanilla flavor to them and were exceptionally good.  They were not overly greasy either - I could have eaten a ton of these things.  Donut Drive-In clinched second place but their flavor just could not match those of the Donut Stop.  St. Louis Hills had a very nice donut - slightly smaller than the others and was a solidly delicious pastry.  It unfortunately lacked the pizzaz that the other two had but nonetheless was very good.  World's Fair, unfortunately did not fair so well.  The donut was super-saturated with grease (lard, to be exact) to the extent that it ruined its flavor.  The texture was good but maybe they should replace their frying medium.  Finally Lamar's proved that bigger is not necessarily better.  The donut was light but had a bread-like quality to it.  The flavor was not there and it could not hold its own.

The next category consisted of Apple Fritters.  We had apple fritters from 3 shops.  John Donut's was laden with fresh-tasting fruit and was absolutely phenomenal.  The balance of fruit, cinnamon, icing, and dough was perfect and was a unanimous favorite in the tasting.  Donut Drive-In's apple fritter was similar but did not taste as fresh.  I don't know if they use canned or fresh filling but clearly the secret is in the fruit.  Finally World's Fair could not hold up against the other two.  The fritter was completely coated with icing which made the pastry overly-cloying.  

Since we had a large variety of donuts and focused so much on the plain glazed, we were unable to compare donuts in all the categories.  John Donut and Donut Stop both had great custards and jellies as well as cake donuts.  John Donut received enormous style points as their selection looked particularly refined - their cake donut was also absolutely terrific.

All in all we had a very successful tasting with eight medical students stuffing their faces.

Looking back on the tasting and subsequent need for dialysis, I couldn't help but feel that more could have been done.  St. Louis is a city with many hidden gems and many locally owned stores worth exploring.  Obviously I would have liked to have been able to taste all of the listed stores but a huge time and effort went into even this small tasting.  I will continue tasting new places and will hopefully add a few more places as I continue to explore.

These hard working families have kept donut giants like Duncan Donuts and Krispee Kreme at bay, proving that in a fiercely competitive market, the best donuts are the ones that receive the most attention and care; baking requires a certain amount of love as well as respect for your product.  Hopefully, with the economy shifting towards a serious recession we will see the re-emergence of the donut as people turn to comfort foods in these times of uncertainty.

No matter what happens, there's something comforting knowing that you can easily find a good donut and a cup of coffee. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Great Saint Louis Donut Hunt

Before I start I begin my long awaited grand donut review, I will need to address what many of you may notice as the difference in spelling between donut and doughnut. According to the Oxford English Dictionary both are valid spellings although doughnut appears to be the "correct" or high-brow spelling for this delicious treat. And while the Greater St. Louis Yellow pages directs you to "doughnut" I prefer to use the americanized spelling. St. Louis ain't no highbrow place and we don't need any of those fancy ough words to prove how good our tasty cakes are.

Donuts were introduced to the Americas by the Dutch in the 17th century, specifically to what is now New York. These deep-fried dough cakes were called olykoeks (literally oil (olie) and cake (koek)).

Knowing where to start in this hunt was not too difficult as many donut palaces, drive-ins, and stops seem to be ubiquitous and the lull of the hot, sweet, fresh, and greasy delicacy is why I am here. The yellow pages list 26 independently owned establishments that each purvey their own deep-fried bites of heaven... or hell. I have selected 8 stores, mostly by name and proximity, in order to provide you with a guide the next time you're ready for a caloric breakfast splurge.

Below is a map of the donut establishments that have been put under our closest scrutiny:
(click on the pushpins to see the names and addresses of the donut shops).

View Larger Map

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

OK so I have been pondering the future of this enterprise and mulling over exactly what should be the focus of this blog/ future website. I may be wrong but it seems to me that most "blogs" on St. Louis food focus on reviews that are neither exciting nor all that well written. A full review is only possible after dining at a restaurant several times - I believe 4 times is standard for food criticism. It takes a few times to decide if a restaurant is great, which gets to be both expensive and time consuming and to be honest, not all that interesting if you're just musing over some sort of meat, starch vegetable combination that was most likely delicious but neither exciting nor innovative. I think what I'm trying to say is that I think that most of the big name restaurants in St. Louis (most but not all) churn out very tasty dishes that are comfortable. Trends in general take a long time to break through to St. Louis (if they manage to do so at all is sometimes a miracle) but that is also what is so great about this city. We have the potential to spark great things but the unfortunate reality is that St. Louisans are not always receptive to the cutting edge. This is nothing new. We sealed our fate with cotton and the Mississippi and paid the price. Chicago got the skyscrapers and we got a stainless steel arch. I'm saying I'll take it.

Stay tuned for next week's first real post on... The Great Donut Hunt!

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's.... ALIVE!

OK so this is the first, original post for the newest St. Louis food blog covering eats in and around the St. Louis metro area. We will be featuring original reviews, interviews, information, ratings, recipes, and articles related to food. As we get our writing staff together, we will create a more focused vision on what we think should be going into your bellies!

St. Louis has been finally heating up in the recent years and while still no culinary destination, it's gotten better for all of us! Things change and that's why we're here!

Keep tuned as we start churning out articles and eventually launch our own dedicated website.

Keep eating!