Posts Tagged ‘sweets’

Strawberry Jam Empanadas

February 11, 2013

As a child, I looked forward to making empanadas with my mother because I was always welcome to take on small tasks in the creation process of these deliciously, sweet-filled pastries. My favorite part was helping my mother cover the empanadas in sugar and cinnamon once they were out of the oven because this meant that they were almost ready to eat. At this point, all that was left was to wait for them to further cool down. While I anxiously waited, I would consider cracking one open to facilitate the cooling process, but then I would quickly remind myself of the rewarding feeling that came with biting into a whole empanada. First, I could cover my lips with the sugar and cinnamon before biting into the delicately crumbling, textured bread, and finally coming across the sweet gooey strawberry jam with which my mom most often filled our empanadas. Empanadas taught me the value of patience!

While studying abroad in Argentina, I was surprised by the empanadas that were no longer a dessert, but creatively filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. It was my first time coming across such empanadas and I struggled with the idea of eating empanadas at the beginning of a meal. Not until I found Cumana Restaurant’s savory, but mouth-watering empanadas in Buenos Aires was I able to let go of my nervousness of eating something so similar yet opposite to what I was used to.

After my encounter with empanadas in Argentina, I was open to the idea that empanadas exist in different forms across the world. The songpyeon that I attempted to make several months ago also struck me as empanada-like, and I found comfort in approaching something so unfamiliar to me in the routine way that I would make empanadas with my mother. These half-moon rice cakes that were sticky and chewy on the outside with an inner delicate sweet bean paste ended up not having much in common with my empanadas, but I nonetheless found warmth and ease in relating this Korean dessert to empanadas.

Below is my mother’s recipe for Strawberry Jam filled Empanadas which makes slightly over 1 dozen empanadas. Please remember that you are welcome to fill the empanada with whatever you like.

Strawberry Jam Empanadas

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Ingredients:
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup  all vegetable shortening
5-7 tablespoons cold water
strawberry jam
¼ cup cinnamon
1 cup sugar

Materials:
rolling pin
1 large bowl
1 small bowl
measuring cups
measuring spoons
plastic bag
baking pan

1) Mix 2 cups of flour with ½ teaspoon of salt in a large bowl.
2) Add 1 cup of all vegetable shortening to the bowl and mix.
3) While mixing the ingredients to make the dough, add 1 tablespoon at a time (out of the 5-7 tablespoons) of cold water to the bowl.
4) Knead the dough into a ball and place in a plastic bag.
5) Set this bag aside for 30 minutes.
6) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
7) After 30 minutes have passed, take the dough out of the bag.
8) Form a small ball that is about half the length and width of your palm.
9) Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a flat circle. It is okay if the circle is not perfectly round.
10) Add 1 tablespoon of strawberry jam to the middle upper half of the circle.
11) Fold the circle into a half moon shape by pulling the dough over.
12) Cut some of the dough off while leaving a border edge from the dough that is not filled with jam.
13) Press the border edge down lightly and with a fork press down to decorate the border.
14) Place your empanada on a greased pan.
15) Repeat steps 8 – 14 until you have used up all the dough.
16) Place pan in oven to bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
17) Combine sugar and cinnamon in bowl, mix, and set aside.
18) Remove empanadas from the oven when they are a light golden brown and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
19) Roll empanadas in sugar and cinnamon mixture one at a time. Set aside to allow to cool for another 10 minutes.

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Fish and rice and choco-pie!

February 23, 2009

Spanish people love jamón so much, it’s a potato chip flavor.

And Korean people love fish so much…

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And squid…

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And rice.  And anything they can tell themselves is healthy.

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But this new-fangled chocolate-covered cake with filling (hey, it’s kind of like an alfajor!) is what really made me happy.

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One of my first and favorite Korean junk foods was “Choco Pies.”  And to think they’ve updated it with rice and chestnut filling!  I can personally attest that it is very tasty.

The last dessert

June 2, 2008

Despite all my complaints, there are several things I’ve enjoyed as an immigration lawyer. My clients, for the most part, have been wonderful people with stories I feel truly privileged to hear. Winning, of course, always feels great. But almost as much as winning, I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to eat with my clients. I’ve eaten Dominican food at the home of the warmest Dominican family. I’ve been given cooking tips by an Egyptian caterer. I’ve tasted a crumbly and sweet anise-scented Palestinian dessert that is such a homey item, you can’t buy it in stores. This one case took over my life in the weeks leading up to the trial, but I ate very well, the Middle Eastern food that I love, culminating with the amazing strategy meal I had at Assayad Restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey.

But now the hearing is finally over. There’s still a written summation to write and the judge won’t render a decision before September, but four days of testimony have been completed. And I am no longer a lawyer. It may not be the last case I work on, but it is for the foreseeable future. So it seems like a good time to end this blog as well, for the few of you who were still expecting something new to be posted. I’m hoping to have other opportunities to write now, including working on a book on regional Korean food with a good friend of mine. But thank you to everyone who faithfully or even sporadically checked in. It was nice to have an audience!

Har gow and tacos and chaat, oh my!

April 2, 2008

My friend Lina asked me recently if I’d gotten tired of my blog. I protested that I hadn’t, but I think I had, just a bit. But I recently spent a long weekend in San Francisco and got reinspired. I didn’t have any culinary epiphanies, despite the city’s reputation. In fact, I got seriously annoyed that my favorite bakery, Tartine, is no longer a place to have a quiet breakfast with a paper on a weekday morning. I think it was having an intense, packed weekend of opportunities to share good food with people I love, who I hadn’t seen in so long. One of those friends even ended up taking me on an all-afternoon eating tour of the East Bay.

“Zizou” (as she prefers to remain anonymous) did preliminary research, and as you can see, provided a full write-up as well. So I’m not going to repeat everything she said, just highlight my most lasting memories.

1) We went to eleven places!

2) We only ate at eight. The remaining three, we picked up food to eat later.

3) Zizou packed a cooler for stop #3, the meat counter at Café Rouge. She always carries a cooler, “just in case.”

4) I had ice cream that rivaled Il Laboratorio del Gelato and I do not say that lightly. The Catalan flavor at Ici, started by the pastry chef from Chez Panisse, was so good, I didn’t want it to end. It had a curious flavor that I didn’t recognize immediately, a mixture of anise, lemon, and something else that made it special and absolutely inimitable. I ordered it in a cup, to which Zizou said, “What! You want the cone. She’ll take the cone,” turning to the laughing ice cream scooper. She was right. The hand-rolled cone had a nugget of chocolate at the bottom.

5) Vik’s Chaat is as good as I’d hoped all that time I lived in San Francisco and never went there. I especially loved the chapati that came with the hyderabadi fish special—simple, flavorful, chewy, everything a flatbread should be.

6) Tao Yuen in Oakland’s Chinatown had crispy, not at all greasy, tofu skin rolls that I would never have believed could come out of a take-out dim sum place. I think they were 50 cents or something equally obscene.

7) We found at the Cheeseboard a bigger, pizza-only place next door to the cheese shop, with an elderly musical trio performing and young, happy Californians spilling out of the restaurant and just sitting on the grassy median in the middle of the busy two-way street. Pizza as excellent as ever. I love San Francisco when it just does its own thing and doesn’t worry whether its pizza crust lives up to some NY/New Haven ideal.

8) Taco trucks are the best, always.

I did eat dinner afterwards. I told Anne I had to eat vegetables, and she, former Midwestern carnivore, suggested we go to Greens, where I had a very simple and refreshing salad of greens, celery root, cheese, and butter beans. I was embarrassed that the waiter might think I was the kind of woman who only orders salad, but he praised my choice, saying, “Beautiful! That’s my favorite salad!” I was in such a good mood, I only giggled quietly and was thankful for all that the Bay Area had bestowed upon me that day.

My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part II

September 25, 2007

Best Market

The most unbelievable one in Oaxaca City proper is Mercado Abastos, which is literally labyrinthine.

Mercado 20 de noviembre and Mercado Juarez south of the zocalo are definitely worth visiting, as they are always bustling with a huge array of stuff, from leather sandals to mole pastes to nieves to piñatas. Ocotlan and Tlacolula are two exciting pueblo markets, held on Friday and Sunday, respectively, that sprawl with plenty of live animals, turkeys, rabbits, goats.

Rick Bayless raves about the tamales and empanadas at Mercado de la Merced, about 8 blocks east of the zocalo, but I’ve never been because I had my own neighborhood market: Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. It’s situated between Tinoco y Palacios and Porfirio Diaz just north of Quetzalcoatl. It can seem really dead in the afternoons, but if you go in the mornings, especially on Saturday or Sunday, it’s bustling with people doing their daily marketing. This is not a country that shops once a week for groceries. In addition to the stands selling meat, fruit, cheese, and bread, there are vendors who just set up tarps outside the western entrance, selling whatever they brought in that day from their village, like roses, chiles de agua, and giant fava beans. There are two tamale sellers, the one in the middle of the meat section and another with a little table by the empanada/memela ladies near the western entrance. The one in the middle has the better tamal de mole, wrapped in banana leaf with mole negro and chicken, but the one on at the entrance has a great tamal de salsa verde, very fresh and bright.

The Mercado Organico at El Pochote on Fridays and Saturdays is also terrific, but I don’t think of it as a true market, as there’s very little fresh produce. There is, however, some of the best street food in Oaxaca, and safe for sensitive gringo stomachs. You can also buy good Real Minera brand mezcal, from a sweet man who will pour a very generous taster of anything you want to try. The Anejo and the Reserva, I think are particularly good, and the cremas, which are sweet versions flavored with everything from passionfruit to coffee, are good alternatives for people who don’t really want to be drinking mezcal. I almost always bought breads (especially the long, flat pizza-flatbreads) and Korean take-out food from Alegria de Angelis, and frequently bought the maracuya-coffee jam, the organic coffee, and pottery. The one man who consistently sells fresh produce has very beautiful lettuce and other greens, right inside the door, though it goes fast, and there are always people with unusual, striking native flowers outside the doors the same days. Don’t bother showing up before 9:30 or even 10, though—you’re in Mexico.

Mercado Hidalgo on Emilio Carranza, a block north of Belisario Dominguez, in Colonia Reforma has beautiful produce, but it’s a little out of the way for most tourists.

Best Supermarket

When you need toilet paper, dish detergent, peanut butter, and unsweetened, plain yogurt: Gigante. The one in Colonia Reforma is the spiffiest, but the one a couple of blocks west of the Basilica de la Soledad on Independencia is probably closer for most tourists.

If I just need a few things, I like going to Pitico, which is a small grocery chain scattered throughout the city, bigger than a bodega but smaller than Gigante, which is sort like Kmart. I’ve bought good chorizo there, decent produce, as well as things like paper towels, but I’ve only seen Alpura brand, unsweetened yogurt at Gigante.

Even though nearly all yogurt is sweetened (and watch out if it says “no sugar,” as it could be sweetened with Splenda), all the granola I’ve tried in Oaxaca, just bought at grocery stores, has been surprisingly unsweet and very good.

Best Bread

The vendor furthest north, or furthest to the right as you’re facing the Tinoco y Palacios entrance at Mercado Sanchez has good bread, chewy and flavorful, my favorites being the flat rolls with sesame seeds on top and the large cinnamon-raisin breads with brioche-like topknots, but only in the mornings. Pan & Co., on Constitucion at the corner of Garcia Vigil, has very good bread, including one of the best ciabattas I’ve ever had, but it’s “European artisanal style,” not Mexican. I am very fond of Fidel Integral on 20 de noviembre, south of Hidalgo, which makes whole-wheat breads that don’t taste like cardboard.

Best Coffee

Mexico produces some of the best coffee in the world, but the highest-quality tends to get exported to the U.S. and Europe, as Mexico doesn’t have the coffee culture of Italy, France, or even Starbucks-America. If you are a coffee-lover, your ordinary cup in Oaxaca will probably taste a little feeble, though if you get a chance, the traditional café de olla, flavored with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon, can be good and strong. A lot of the little fondas in the markets will just use instant Nescafe. It is possible, though, to find places in Oaxaca that serve Mexico’s best, called Pluma Hidalgo. These two are my favorites:

1) El Pochote Mercado Organico, the woman with the stand farthest north, selling also whole-bean and ground coffee called “Maravilla de Araguz”

2) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala.

I’ve heard Coffee Beans on Garcia Vigil, next to Café Brujula, also serves Pluma Hidalgo, and Café Antigua on Reforma north of Constitucion is also popular.

Best Street Food

So good you feel like you’re going to faint, and so hot they made my nose run: empanadas de mole amarillo and tacos de chile relleno next to Iglesia Carmen de Arriba on Garcia Vigil. But almost everything at Mercado Organico is also fantastic, especially the tostadas, the mole enchiladas, and the mole tlayuda, made with what the vendors say is a Zapotecan-style of mole. I love the tamales at Mercado Sanchez, especially the ones sold from the center of the room with the meat vendors. And I will always feel a special fondness for Sra Angelita’s esquites and elotes on the western side of El Llano (Parque Juarez), as that was where I had my first street food.


Best nieves, aguas, and paletas

If the woman selling yogurt and fruit tarts at Mercado Organico is selling strawberry-flavored nieve, get it! Otherwise, they are good but not like you’re going to die. In general, I’ve never had bad nieve, from Chonita in Mercado Juarez to El Niagara near the Basilica de Soledad to the beaches in Puerto Escondido.

The best paletas are at Popeye’s. You’ll see the orange carts all over town and there’s a proper outlet on the southside of El Llano. I tried a paleta at Michoacan once, and there was something sort of metallic-tasting, though it may not be fair to judge it based on one paleta. My favorite flavors are cajeta, nuez, sandia, fresa, y chocolate.

And of course, Aguas de Casilda.

Best Chocolate

Everyone I respect agrees that Chocolate Mayordomo has the best chocolate, even if it is the most commercial and widely marketed. I always took visitors to the one on Mina, between 20 de noviembre and Miguel Cabrera, south of Mercado 20 de noviembre, because it’s bright and spacious with samplers in easy reach. It smells really good, too.

I didn’t taste much prepared mole while I was there, but I am planning to take some home from Chocolates de Guelaguetza and Chocolates de Soledad, based on Patty’s and Soledad’s recommendations. It’s easy to end up with mole that’s too sweet so be sure to taste a sample before buying, it’s normal.

Desserts in Oaxacan restaurants, especially for the set-lunch, can be disappointing, but I had addictively delicious chocolate desserts at La Biznaga and Casa Oaxaca, and I am the kind of person who sneers at molten chocolate cake.

Best Wireless Café

All of these have good, strong signals with plenty of seats. Where I went depended on what I wanted to eat. I would probably give a slight edge to Café los Cuiles for having the broadest menu, as well as alcohol. I like having a beer while I write, don’t you?

1) Café Los Cuiles on Abasolo between Alcala and 5 de mayo, across from the handicrafts plaza. Nothing to write home about, but dependable, decent food and excellent Oaxacan hot chocolate.
2) Café Brujula on Garcia Vigil just north of Allende. The nicest, smiliest staff ever and my favorite drink in Oaxaca, pepe y limonada con agua mineral, cucumber-lime juice with carbonated water.
3) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala. Uncomfortable chairs, sort of metal-café style, but very laid-back, nice staff, and excellent coffee.

Best Cooking Class

Sra Soledad Ramirez, who teaches at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and will teach private classes upon request, is a Oaxacan grandmother to all who know her.

Seasons of My Heart, with Susana Trilling in Etla, is a completely different experience. Not quite like being in a Oaxacan abuela’s home, but also a lot of fun. Susana is not a Oaxacan grandmother, but knowledgeable nonetheless, and just tasting the hand-harvested salt from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and tasting the excellent El Rey Zapoteco mezcal is exhilarating.

Oaxacan breads and sweets, part II

September 4, 2007

I take back everything I said about the bread being bad in Oaxaca.

Two Saturdays ago, I’d mainly perused modern bakeries, selling traditional breads in part, but very different from the bakers in markets with their goods on trays or in deep woven baskets. My experiences with the breads in the markets had been mixed—good pan de yema in hot chocolate making class, but sort of stale and dry at other times, and then other moments that were so lacking I can’t even remember what I ate.

But last week, I wandered up to Mercado Sanchez Pascuas to buy some fruit and decided it was time to take the plunge. There were several bread vendors there, on the white counters near the west end of the market. I chose the man furthest north, a few meters down from the vegetable seller. I would eat the bread with the pink sugar on top. And then for good measure, I asked for another plain, dark and wheatier looking roll. 4.5 pesos, total.

Well, let’s just say I’m not going to be wasting any more of my hard-saved money on “European artisanal bread” at Pan & Co. Mexican bread is good enough for me! The crust on both was hard but not tough, and the bread inside chewy yet soft and flavorful. The roll with the pink sugar on top had a sweet glaze all over the top that made my plastic bag sticky immediately, but it was a pleasant combination with the plain texture of the roll inside and more soothing for an early morning meal than something like a cinnamon roll or a muffin, which are both sweet and heavy with butter. The roll also had a big hollow inside, the tell-tale sign that yeast had been given time to do its thing.

The other roll, with its sprinkling of sesame seeds, was even better. It perhaps could have used a tad more salt, but it had no need to be embarrassed that it was otherwise unadorned. It didn’t rise to the level of a great French baguette, but then, very few breads do, even in New York. This flat little roll had more flavor than most of the bread in the U.S., and probably most of the bread in New York, too.

Two days later, I went back and got another flat, plain roll with sesame seeds and then something that looked like a brioche with its little topknot. This time, sadly, the roll was a tad stale, but with a strong enough flavor to stand up well to slices of avocado with salt and a bit of pepper, a simple and filling breakfast I learned from Erin. The brioche, though, blew my mind. There was whole wheat flour in it, but not enough to keep the crumb tender, and then surprising ribbons of cinnamon and dots of raisins.

This vendor is clearly something special. When Mimi and I went back to get a bag of bread, hoping to soothe Alex’s stomach with something relatively bland, we bought a few rolls from the woman next to him and then a big brioche roll and a little flat roll with sugary sesame seeds and crushed nuts on top. The big bag of bread from the other baker was fine, but this guy’s stuff just shined.

I’m so glad. I hated not liking a whole category of Mexican food.

Oaxacan breads and sweets, part I

August 30, 2007

This is for my sister, who can happily spend a day looking in bakery windows and display cases, maybe tasting a mouthful or two, but really just happy to see rows and rows of sweet things.

Mexican sweets and breads are a mystery to me. There are so many varieties, each with their own name, and I have yet to find a source that will give me all the information I crave. In the markets, a stall may specialize only in pan de yema, an eggy bread with a light anise flavor, or in a chewy, flat roll with a hard crust and pink sugar sprinkled on top. Then there are sweet sellers, with little stacks of honeyed, sticky cookies and cones filled with white cream. By the doors of Mercado Juarez and on corners around Oaxaca, there are several women selling alegrias, “joy” bars made of amaranth and piloncillo, the brown sugar sold in little cone-shaped cakes, and similar bars made with peanuts or pumpkin seeds, as well as round flats of pecans embedded in a crumbly brown sugar. I’ve seen several street vendors sitting around with cases filled with bright gelatins and little flans, clearly specializing in anything that can quiver. Then there are those women with the huge glass jars of stewed fruits in syrup. I haven’t even begun to describe the more modern bakeries and their enormous range of offerings. And apparently, if I go to Puebla or San Cristobal de las Casas, I will find sweets that can’t be found here in Oaxaca, trays of caramels and candies and things I cannot even dream of. The only thing I have really grasped so far are “nieves” and “paletas,” the sorbet-like ice creams and popsicles that taste proudly and intensely of fruit.

To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to really try and taste, as I will generally pick eggs over pancakes, a slice of pizza over a cookie, a piece of levain bread over a tart. And if I do have something sweet, I want it to be small and perfect, like a piece of very dark chocolate or a scoop of ice cream from Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I hadn’t gone out of my way to try more than the few desserts that had come my way, as there was so much mole to be eaten and I feared wasting time eating things that were sugary and sub-par. But considering that I’ve been going around saying I don’t like Mexican desserts and breads, without trying more of them, I realized was being quite unfair. I’ve been missing my sister so much, I wanted to do what she would do, if she were in Oaxaca.

So I decided to spend Saturday afternoon perusing 3 different bakeries in a 2-block radius around the zocalo. I found two more bakeries in this area on my way home, but decided to save them for another day, as my hands were full of bread. I had also started frequenting the enormous bakery, Pan Bamby, on Porfirio Diaz at the corner of Independencia, and so I’m adding that to this post, too. I only bought one pastry or bread at each bakery, so I can’t really speak with authority, but at least I am starting to get a sense of what is out there.

Pan Bamby is the largest bakery I’ve seen in Oaxaca. In the evenings, it’s full of people piling their trays high with bread, buying 10 or 20 rolls, loaves, and pastries. It sells what is expected, the same stuff I see at the giant supermarkets and the smaller weekend markets, but in greater varieties and quantities. So they sell bolillos, the torpedo-shaped white crusty rolls, for a peso a piece; conchas with their swirl of crumble on top, numerous kinds of flaky pastries filled with chocolate or jam or just dusted with sugar.

Their bolillo was terrible, even though it was fresh and warm and the crust crackled promisingly. It just didn’t have any flavor.

But then I had a sweet, soft croissant-shaped roll, with a very tender crumb and such an appealing, lovable flavor, like Hawaiian bread or Portuguese sweet bread. I also had a very good bandilla, a long, rectangular pastry of flaky layers, topped with sugar, a perfect light cena with tea. My neighbor had left me a bag of their garlicky breadsticks when she went back to Iowa, and they were strangely addictive, as well as scarily durable.

Fidel Integral, which specializes in whole-wheat breads, is on the same street further south, except that at that point, Porfirio Diaz has become 20 de Noviembre. Located between Hidalgo and Trujano, just north of Mercado Juarez, Fidel isn’t as large but I could get a sense of what breads must be available by seeing what Fidel chose to make in whole wheat form. Fidel also sells bolillos and conchas and bandillas. They also make a fantastic whole wheat roll, just a simple dinner roll that has great flavor, so great that it’s oddly addictive for something so plain. I also tried something a hard, crumbly sweet bread, shaped like a long, oblong stick, because it looked so much like these “butter sticks” in Korean bakeries I used to love. It tasted just as I had imagined it would, sweet but with a real wheaty flavor, and very good with a cup of coffee in the afternoon.

Walking south from Fidel, if you turn a left at the next corner, you will find yourself in front of Tartamiel. It definitely has the cutest logo, a smiling yellow bee with the tip of its tongue sticking amiably out of its mouth.

It calls itself a “pasteleria frances,” and it did seem to be aiming for a different tone. The English language is poor in only having one word, “bakery,” to describe a place that sells baked goods, when Spanish and French both distinguish between places that sell breads, panaderias or boulangeries, and places that sell cakes, pastelerias or patisseries. There was no way I could buy a cake to taste, but I did buy a little “tartaleta de queso,” and it was really quite good. The crust wasn’t so noteworthy, though it was sturdy and correct, but the cheese part I liked a lot. It was firm, like NY-style cheesecake, and it clearly wasn’t relying just on sugar to make itself appealing.

The last bakery, at least for this post, is Vasconia on Independencia, between 5 de Mayo and Reforma. This place is a little different, selling slices of creamy cake in a window swarming with bees, as well as empanadas with various savory fillings, bread rolls filled with chorizo and cheese, and your usual conchas and donas or donuts. I bought a little empanada filled with champinones, which weirdly is the Mexican way of describing basic button mushrooms, calling them by their French name to signify their high-class ways. “Hongos” describe the gorgeous wild mushrooms you can find in the Sierra Norte during the rainy season. I got excited when I took it out of its bag when I got home, because the top almost caved in as I pressed it, it was so delicately flaky, but overall, I liked it the least of everything I ate today. It felt right and looked right, but the flavor was a little off, probably because Mexican butter just isn’t great, and this was probably made with margarine anyway. I think it must be easier to get away without high-quality butter if the pastry is sweet rather than savory. The mushroom filling was pretty good, though, mixed with tomato sauce.

So it was a very good day! But I miss my sister more than ever.

Neveria, si; pasteleria, no

August 2, 2007

I am not a fan of Mexican bread. It’s often too dry or too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had nothing approaching the heft of a hearty, levain-type bread, what MFK Fisher likes to call “honest bread,” or the delicate crackle of a perfect croissant, or even the homey, soothing quality of super-soft Korean white bread. Most Mexican breads improve greatly upon being dipped in hot chocolate, which is almost always served with any sweetish bread, or “pan dulce.” Still, one can only drink so much hot chocolate, and I miss the excellent toast I normally have for breakfast every morning in NY, along with my favorite butter from Sahadi’s. (When I found little diner packets of Lurpak butter, which isn’t even my favorite, at El Cafecito in Puerto Escondido, I emptied the entire basket into my purse.)

Still, I wanted to see the Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City. Another old-school place in the Centro Historico, it opened in 1927, but with more gilt-edged elegance than the Churreria “El Moro.” You enter into a large room with majestically high ceilings. You could be in a faded ballroom, except there are trays and trays of donuts, muffins, pastries, and rolls lined up in arrays before you. On Sunday morning, there were wheeled racks of breads being rolled around, nearly blocking the grand staircase, but the sign unequivocally declared that the second floor was the exhibition room for cakes.

Nearly every cake was at least 3 tiers tall—wedding cakes, baby cakes, First Communion cakes. Shrek was clearly, peculiarly popular, as were other cartoon characters. Nearly every cake also had icicles of hardened frosting dripping from each tier. One cake was almost twice as tall as Erin. Mona and Leslie, who make hand-made cookies and truffles that look like they came from a machine, must be rubbing off on me, because all I could think was how sloppy they looked. Erin took some fantastic pictures and I’m glad I went, but I can’t even remember what kind of bread I ate. All the chowhounds who are in awe of Ideal should get on a plane to Korea and go to the basement food wonderland of any upscale department store.

But Mexican ice cream, or nieve, that I truly love and respect as something I have never had before and will likely never have outside Mexico. The Roxy Neveria in Condesa is a legend, too, with the look of an American soda shop, with its striped awning and white-lettered list of flavors, except American shops generally don’t have the Virgin Mary hanging behind the counter.

It was clearly beloved by the Mexican families who double-parked to jump in for a cone or a cup. It was so beloved by me, that after eating my first cone of “nuez de macadamia,” I went back and had a second cone of “rompope.” The macadamia was wonderful, so nutty and rich but also pure, like fresh milk. The rompope, which I ordered because I didn’t know the flavor, a Mexican eggnog spiked with rum, I didn’t like as much, but it was surely not regrettable.

I hesitated for a bit before my second cone, but I felt it was the only fair way to treat my body, as I had just had a very bland meal at a health food store/restaurant across the corner. It was the kind of health food that used to plague America—so tasteless, even a vigorous shake of the salt on the table couldn’t save it. When I ordered my second cone, the boy at the counter urged me to go back to my table and sit down, as he would bring it to me directly. People can be so sweet when they realize how much you love to eat.

Why I travel, through the prism of a pink popsicle

June 14, 2007

Everyday after morning classes, I walk through El Llano, a large, rectangular plaza that grandmothers, workers, skateboarders, and children like to hang out in. I’m on my way to the Oaxaca Lending Library for gringos, where they have wireless internet, and on my way, I have to decide, do I get a paleta at Paleteria Popeye? (You would not believe how hard it is to pronounce “Popeye” in Spanish; it’s “Pop-eye-yay.”)

I’m hungry. I’ve been in class for 4 hours without eating anything other than endless cups of coffee or manzanilla tea. I won’t eat my comida correa, or the main meal, with my family until 2 or 2:30, but I know it will be a mountain of delicious food.

Yes or no? Yes or no?

I’ve only had 3 since I got here, believe it or not. Cajeta (goat’s milk caramel), tuna (the cactus fruit, not the fish), and watermelon, the lovely pink one. I think I will have to try every flavor before I leave.

Even popsicles are different here. Maybe my life will change, too.

“The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin.”

– Graham Greene, “The Lawless Roads”