Erhmagerh so much busy lately. No time for writing. Any who, here’s what I’ve been up to lately.

 

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Coconut dino coconut panna cotta. Vegan-ified by using agar agar. This stuff is good. I’m on a huge coconut kick lately.

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New hot water heater installed (not by me). Yay hot water that lasts longer than 10 minutes and doesn’t make loud sounds after use. This is especially nice in December when it’s all chilly.20151126_144157[1]

Gingerbread Ninjas Maka brought up for Thankgiving in Amherst, MA.

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A blueberry pie by Papa Amherst. I think I ate half of this (don’t worry, there was another pie for other people)

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3 roasted ducks for 6 people. No turkey this year. Duck all the way.

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One of the most beautiful plates ever.

20151126_172439[1]20151128_104202[1]And duck cracklins for breakfast. Be still my fat-filled heart.

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Breadku:

This is tasty bread
What I wanted homemade bread
to be as a child

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Homemade bread was always great as a kid for the first hour or two out of the oven, until it turned into a hard, grainy and dry loaf later on. But these were the dark ages. Days without internet feedback with trial and error, and documented recipe nuances. I recently had a flashback of this when I tried some bread made in a bread machine at a demo, with that familiar toughness and dryness. The kind that leads to cotton mouth and easily gives way to crumbs.
This oatmeal toasting/sandwich bread from King Arthur Flour is what I always wanted in a homemade loaf of bread. It turned out wonderfully. It uses all bread flour, and a hearty cup of oats. The bread stays soft after you cut it. All hand kneaded and baked over here. I remain skeptical of a bread machine’s ability to put out a decent loaf of bread, even sandwich bread.

Half of this loaf went to a dear friend. The rest I sliced up for ease of consumption (while the Mr cringes at my knife skills, I still remain the only one in our household who is able to slice an even slice of bread from a loaf). It retained moisture overnight and made for both good toast and sandwich bread the next day. Even pre-cut it retained moisture and pliancy. Consider this a sandwich bread we’ll keep on rotation in our kitchen.

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I tweaked the recipe ever so slightly, using 1 T molasses and 1.5 T sugar in place of the 3 T sugar, and approximately 2.5-2.75 C of bread flour in total (2 mixed in initially, the remainder added during hand kneading).  Butter slathered on top for a nice and soft loaf overall. Seriously, that interior was nicely springy and soft.

Pizza parties added an instant air of “cool” to any party invite when I was a kid. I don’t care what kind of pizza party it was, if pizza was involved, kids got excited. Homemade pizza party where you can make your very own pizza? COOL. Party at Pizza Hut? COOL! Party at the local pizza parlor? COOL! Parents picking up pizza from the local pizzeria for a home birthday party? COOL!

And I’m happy to say that adult pizza parties are much the same way. Adult pizza parties? No, there aren’t whips, blindfolds, and locks involved, but adults are rendered to child levels of glee and excitement at the pizza at hand. Sometimes it’s a DIY pizza party. Sometimes it’s “Come over, we need to eat massive amounts of pizza” and other times your pizza-phile friends invite you over to try some of the magic he’s been making. Jon in Albany is one such pizza-phile in the area, and he invited some of the more recent All Over Albany Tournament of Pizza judges over to taste some of the pizzas he’s been talking about. A reunion? Pizza? How does anything get much better?

20151114_163230[1]The first pizza up with a white pizza with mozzarella, creme fraiche, and sauteed baby bella mushrooms. John’s got his own propane powered pizza oven that all of us were peering in to watch the pies bake. They’re done in about two minutes.

20151114_164612[1]A traditional margherita pizza.
20151114_170137[1]The Rosa pizza. Pistachios, red onion, little bit of parmesan and that’s it. It’s a delightful combination of textures and flavors I’d have never put together before.
20151114_172405[1]Oh, and of course a buffalo chicken pizza. For old times’ sake.
20151114_174419[1]Now this was another creative pizza – topped with a thick layer of utica greens! It was nice to get a bunch of veggies all on one pie, and my first taste of these mystical Utica greens. They are escarole with some garlic and pepper, some parmesan cheese. Overall, a tasty combination.
20151114_175858[1]Jon’s favorite – the meatball bacon. I also loved this. The meatballs were great on a pie, and the bacon was a nice supporting flavor.
20151114_185210[1]It was a great night to see exactly how Jon does it, and leave us plotting and scheming, dreaming of how to get a pizza oven set up in our own homes with spousal approval.

Jon has so much dedication to this (it’s something more than a hobby at this point), and is constantly critiquing himself and his skills just get better and better. These pies were outstanding, and its pies like these that make it so difficult for me to go out to eat anywhere else in the area. Jon, thank you for having everyone over and giving us a glimpse into your pizza world!

Chewy cookie 350

I don’t know about you, but I like a little science with my cookies.  I was curious to see how I liked my cookies baked: At a higher or lower temperature? I baked some cookies at 350F and 325F.

Chewy Dough Label

I started off with some soft batch cookie dough (you swap out 2 T or so of cornstarch for flour in a given recipe to make them soft batch). Refrigerated for a day, and ready to bake.

Chewy Dough

Hmm, someone’s been eating my cookie dough. Par for the course in Albany Jane’s house.

Chewy Cookies 350 scoop

I also picked up a small cookie scoop and was curious/skeptical of its portioning abilities. Turns out it’s great and man do I ever love it. The cookie above on the left was scooped out with the scooper, the one on the right I scooped out by hand. The right has a little more character, and the one of the left is pretty damn uniform.

chewy Cookies 350 pan

Good amount of scooping size consistency, too. Any way, the cookies above were baked at 350F. They had crisp edges and soft, gooey interiors. My kind of cookie. Mmm.

Chewy Cookies 325 350

Then I let them go 2 minutes longer at 325F.

Chewy Cookie 325

OH NOES I DON’T LIKE THIS COOKIE. The cookies cooked at a lower temperature but for a bit longer wound up puffier and less chewy and gooey. If that’s your thing then, well, bake ’em at a lower temperature for a little longer. Very uniform texture. Not very pliable.

Chewy Cookies all

My favored cookie on the right. 350F gives the cookie a chance to fully cook, while leaving the interior delightfully chewy and soft. The cookies baked at a lower temperature developed slightly more caramel undertones, but were overall less pleasing to me because of their uniform texture.

So how do you like your cookies? A little crisp on the edges, and gooey in the center? One texture? Crunchy? Or maybe straight out of the container?

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Ah, Toronto. You’re going on my list of places to return to. Jimmy’s Coffee on Baldwin was around the corner from my Air BnB rental. Albany John found them and they were a favorite morning stop for us. They even made me a really tasty decaf cappucino (I was on a decaf kick for a while there). They also had a pretty tasty pecan butter tart, which makes for a fabulously decadent vacation breakfast.

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Since I was staying in the heart of Hipsterville, Toronto (Kensington Market), I decided to check out one of their many unique food offerings. Bunner’s Bake Shop on Augusta Ave was just a skip away from my rental. The storefront itself was minimalist once inside, with an open plan so you could peep everyone making goodies in the background. They have a vegan soft serve which I had to try just out of curiosity. It was a small cone, about 3-4″ high for around $3. We’d probably call this kiddie-sized here in the Capitol Region.
Overall it wasn’t really my thing. It was icy, had a bit of a lingering aftertaste that was parts cloying and bland. I think it was an almond-milk based plain vanilla cone that tasted mostly of almond milk, which is to say, not much. Hard serve vegan ice cream has a better texture and flavor to me. It was fairly icy because of the milk used (coconut milk, with its higher fat content, would yield a creamier confection). If I were vegan, this would rock my world because I hadn’t seen vegan soft serve before. But since I’ve been eating dairy-based ice creams all summer I found this gritty and generally unsatisfying.

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But thankfully Bunner’s is right next door to Dolce Gelato. Someone tipped me off to their pistachio gelato, and I had to get in on that (left). Oh man, was that ever delicious. They use real pistachios, and the flavor just shines through. This rich, toasty pisatchio gelato just hit the spot for a creamy, rich dessert. The pink grapefruit on the right was also a winner – tart, sweet and perfectly nailing grapefruit in frozen form.

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And then I got a cold, because what else do I do on vacation? Albany John and I walked around downtown Toronto as much as I could (not much). We came upon a street fair and watched some buskers perform. That was cool. This guy was great, too. He really knew how to work the crowd and heckle rude audience members.

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More walking called for some banh mi. Not as good as Montreal or NYC, but better than we have in Albany.

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And a disappointing falafel wrap back in Kensington Market for dinner.

We grabbed some Montreal-style bagels at NuBugel on our way out. I like the size. They are a little more dense than NY bagels, smaller, and sweeter. Good for what it is, and something I’ll grab if it’s around, but not something I’ll go out of my way for.

I still hate crossing back into the US. The guards in Toronto were more aggressive than in Montreal. I wish the US guards would take a note from our neighbors to the north. The Canadian guards are nothing but polite, convivial, and generally nice people. The US border guards in my experience are usually aggressive and combative, as if they assume that you’re doing something illegal and want to catch you. The last time I had a positive interaction with US border patrol was over a decade ago. I just don’t see the point in the current mentality. Dude. I didn’t buy anything. I just went to Toronto for the weekend to see family and tourist around. No I didn’t buy anything. No, really, I’m not bringing anything over. Ok, did I buy anything? Yes, I bought dinner last night. And some chips at duty free. Which you should see since I have to give my license to check out at Duty Free. We could really be doing a better way of policing our border without coming off as stereotypical American bully types, you know? When I was at the 100th birthday party dinner everyone else spoke of how much they disliked crossing into the US because of how rude the US border patrol was. I am embarrassed as an American for this to be the first interaction someone may have when crossing the border, for this to possibly be their first interaction with an American.
The silver lining to this is that while the border patrol agents are more aggressive at the US/Toronto border, the line also moved much faster than Montreal, where I’ve usually had a 45 minute wait to return on a good day. Toronto was about a 20 minute wait. So I guess if I have to pick, I’ll go with ruder but faster border (ugh, one time I waited 3 hours in line to return to the US from Montreal. People were getting out of their cars and playing football on the side of the road).

20151005_193834[1]AYCE (All You Can Eat) is an interesting concept. Pay one price, eat as much as you want. We’ve got a few sushi restaurants in the area with caveats that you eat what you don’t pay for, which is nice from a waste mitigation perspective. One of my friends has a theory that you should check out AYCE restaurants in the Albany area when they open and are serving the best/highest quality fish until they realize that people in the Capitol Region will settle for less. Which is kind of disheartening, but an interesting theory that isn’t exactly outlandish.

I recently went to Kuma Ani with 3 other people, and we went for the $20.99 all you can eat dinner option. They’re still fairly new and haven’t been open a year yet. LorreBob over at Albany Dish has a review of their AYCE and non-all you can eat options, and Susie Davidson Powell has a great write-up over at the Times Union of their meal options, too. The AYCE menu is a little smaller than other places in the area (no sashimi), but it’s also a few bucks cheaper than other places, too.

We arrived to a restaurant at about 20-30% capacity. A few tables, but overall fairly quiet on a weeknight. It took us about 2 hours to get two orders, with priority given to non-AYCE dinner options. We waited about 30 minutes from when we placed our 2nd order to when we received it.

We got a little bit of everything for nigiri – roe in the background, octopus, mackerel, eel, white tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and tuna. Nice presentation, but the salmon, mackerel, and probably the tuna should not have been served – They tasted fine initially but finished with a very funky flavor at the end, especially the mackerel, which had a strong note of ammonia in its finish. Not at all like a pungently briny mackerel should be. This was unpleasantly disappointing. The eel was good, but it’s cooked fish. White tuna was also fine.

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Most of the specialty rolls were very rich affairs with kani/imitation crab salads, fried, and heavy on mayonnaise or rich eel sauces. We got every specialty roll we ordered, but a few of the normal maki rolls were skipped with each order.

The cooked/non-sushi appetizer options are small portions, except for the imitation crab salad, which is comically large when compared to every other portion size. It’s like a meal-sized salad of fake crab salad! I don’t like imitation crab so this dish didn’t really work for me, but the others in our party enjoyed it. One dish was the grilled squid, which were small pieces of squid with a heavy coating of old pepper – pass on that one. Also pass on the sashimi salad, which are end pieces of fish and not very pleasant tasting.

Overall it seems like Kuma Ani is ready to give you a challenge for your AYCE experience. Overall I found the experience a bit drawn out (who wants to have a 2.5 hour dinner on a weeknight?), and the food was really hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits to go back for AYCE. The regular dinner menu gets great reviews, so if I go back it’ll be to order off of the regular menu.

Mother's Dumplings

Toronto was such a great city to visit. I’m still happily remembering my trip for my Uncle’s 100th birthday celebration. I’d heard Toronto had a big Chinatown with lots to see and do, and wanted to stay nearby. I booked an Air BnB reservation in the heart of Kensington Market, which was basically like a little hipster neighborhood in the middle of Chinatown. A microcosm in a microcosm (also, holy wow on hotel and rental prices in that neighborhood). It was cute and a great place to stay while on vacation. There was a ton of stuff to see in just a 1/4 mile radius, and even more to walk to within 5 kilometers.

One such place was Mother’s Dumplings on Spadina Ave. If there’s one thing I love it’s a good dumpling. Most reviews touted Mother’s as a must-try. The hardest thing was deciding on only two types of dumplings to try for Albany John and myself. We decided we’d get an order of 12 boiled dumplings and 10 pan-fried dumplings. Ah, the perils of being but two diners in a city full of treats to try.

They were out of lamb shu mai, so we went with a dozen pork and dill boiled dumplings. I never see this combination, so it was a must-try, and I’m really glad I did. I usually think of dill as an Eastern European flavor, but it went incredibly well with juicy pork and Chinese spices. Even soy sauce. I’ll definitely be making pork and dill dumplings of my own in the future. Seriously – a  nice bright punch of dill leaves really counterbalance the rich juiciness that good pork dumplings possess.
Mother's Dumplings fried

 

Oh. My. Glob. Yes on those pan fried dumplings.
Mother's Dumplings fried detail

DO YOU SEE THAT GLORIOUS LACEY CRUST ON THOSE PAN FRIED DUMPLINGS??? DO YOU?

I almost couldn’t even. But then I could.
Mother's Dumplings fried 2

 

We got the pork and shrimp dumplings for our pan fried order. Juicy pork meatball with bits of shrimp inside, made even more texturally appealing by crisping up one edge of the dumpling. These were well executed – each skin was nice and crispy without being greasy. Oh, that fine lace edge was just divine, too. The skins on both the boiled and pan fried dumplings tasted the same – a  nice and hearty, thick dough that complimented the rich flavors inside. Held up well to boiling and pan-frying.

If you’re in Toronto, this is the place to check out. Cash only. Condiments at the table. Fast serivice.

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