Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Break in the Big (Soggy) Apple

I had a week for spring break this year as usual, but with Cyd having only worked at her job for a couple of months, we didn't think it was wise for her to push it by asking for too much time off so that we could go somewhere together. Therefore, we decided on a just few days in the Big City, especially since we hadn't been there since she moved to Minneapolis. It was just our luck, though, that we were there during MONSOON season! I have never seen the like! The streets were lined and the trash cans were filled with busted umbrellas that the crazy winds had blown inside-out. We made the foolhardy decision to drive in to the city for a couple of the days that we were there (couldn't walk far and/or wait for buses in that kind of downpour!), and when we drove back to Secaucus to our hotel at night, the flash floodwaters were up over the tires of my car! Naturally, the sun came out and things dried up the day we had to leave for home! BOO HISS! We want a do-over!

The weather and transportation situation made this a different trip to NYC than usual. Normally, we focus on one neighborhood or borough at a time, and spend a day checking out many attractions in each. But the weather kept us from doing much of that kind of leisurely poking around, so we drove around a lot, and most of our city views were through the car window. In some ways, that was neat, because we saw a lot of places that are typically out of reach of tourists on foot. Also, with the weather so bad, not as many people were out and about, so we often got lucky and found parking very near our destination. If not, we tag-teamed a desired location, with one of us double parking and/or circling the block, while the other ran in and made purchases. In that way, we hit a LOT more places than we would have taking the subway or bus.

One night, we sucked it up and paid the big bucks to park in the Theatre District to have dinner with friends and see a show. (I happened on a website called that really helped, though. We actually found a lot for fifteen dollars to park all evening, and it was only a couple of blocks from the theatre.) We were meeting our friends at Joe Allen, the famous eatery right near to most of the Broadway theatres. The food was boring and horribly overpriced, but I had a great time seeing my old pals, and the most exciting thing was dining one table over from Victor Garber on one side and Scarlett Johansson on the other!

Then we went to see a show called "Next to Normal," which neither Cyd nor I cared for very much, but we sat right behind Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer of Green Day. So it was a star-studded evening in Gotham!

Since the weather was so awful, we thought we might do something indoors one day, perhaps a museum. I have never been to the Museum of Natural History, and I tried to convince Cyd to go, but she was none too keen, muttering something cynical about not wanting to spend the day looking at rocks and dirt and old bones and plastic Indians! (Sigh.) So instead, we checked out the Tim Burton exhibit at the MOMA. It was SO great! You got to see his early works (children's books, commercials, t.v. shows, short films), his drawings and paintings, sketches and models, movie props and costumes, and much more. I highly recommend it, especially if you're a Burton fan!

As for food recommendations, here are the highlights from this trip:

Baked: Worth the trip out to the hinterlands of Brooklyn for goodies like Sweet and Salty Cupcakes and Brownies, Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Bars, Brewer's Bars (=blondies), and so much more.

Balthazar Bakery: The best bread in the world! Try the brioche loaf, the walnut bread, the baguettes, and especially the Valrhona chocolate loaf!

Dean and Deluca: The source of all good (and expensive) things. One special find this time was a beautiful and delicious cheese called Cahill's Irish Porter Cheddar.

Doughnut Plant: This is, HANDS DOWN, the best thing we ate in NYC! In fact, we made two trips down to the Lower East Side for these doughnuts while we were in the city, and we are still obsessing about them, trying to figure out how to get some friends down there to overnight us some more!

They are just SO amazing--light and tender and made with real fruit glazes and fillings and fresh nuts roasted in house. I loved the yeast doughnut with sunflower seeds and one with a fresh, organic orange glaze. Cyd loved the coconut cream and the peanut butter and jelly-filled square doughnut. But we agreed that the best doughnut by far was, surprisingly, a cake doughnut called Tres Leches (the unassuming little one in the top left corner). It had a light, sweet glaze on the outside, and buttery cake on the inside that was oozing with a luscious, creamy filling. SO GOOD! Totally worth the ridiculous two-dollar price.

Five Napkin Burger: This place had a nice, bistro-like atmosphere, and we got there early enough to get a booth by the window, which was fun for people-watching. Their signature burger (ground chuck, caramelized onions, Gruyere and rosemary aioli on a soft, white roll) was good, but smallish and way overpriced at $15. The Tuscan Fries (with parmesan and rosemary) were particularly yummy. I also ordered a side of their fresh pickles made in house, but they were too sweet for me (I prefer dills).

Junior's Cheesecake: Best cheesecake in NYC...or anywhere! We shared the chocolate mousse cheesecake, which was OUTRAGEOUS, but I really think it's all about the "plain" cheesecake. No need to gild the lily here!

Levain Bakery: Finally sampled what is reported to be the world's greatest chocolate chip cookie.'s certainly the world's BIGGEST and RICHEST cookie, but I honestly think the knock-off I've made at home was better. Levain's secrets to success seem to be make them big, overload them with chocolate chips, underbake them, and serve them warm. Still, I found the flavor a little lacking. Maybe it's missing the vanilla that the bakers find unnecessary? Maybe a pinch more salt?

Momofuku's Milk Bar: Tried another of NYC's most famous cookies--the Compost Cookie at Momofuku's bakery called Milk Bar. Again, a HUGE specimen that underwhelmed me. I loved the texture and all the crunchy mix-ins, but the pastry chef, Christina Tosi, adds a pinch of coffee grounds to the dough (you heard me), and though I love coffee-flavored anything, the resulting cookie tasted bitter and had an aroma not unlike a kitchen garbage can. When I got home, I made my own version (from the recipe Chef Tosi shared on Regis and Kelly), and I LOVED them!

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches: I first saw this place featured on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" from the Food Network. I think it was a favorite haunt of Anne Burrell. And she was dead on with this one! The pork chop bánh mì sandwich--grilled pork chop pieces, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and mayo on a toasted baguette with hot sauce and sliced, fresh jalapenos on the side--was a revelation! And a cheap one, too, at $5.50 apiece!

Tom's Restaurant: Our destination on the first day was Brooklyn, and we tried to have brunch at a place getting a lot of buzz called Buttermilk Channel, but we got there too late. So we headed over to the Brooklyn landmark, Tom's. Even on a blustery, torrential day, we had to wait in line outside for a table (though they brought us hot coffee and cookies). Their huevos rancheros didn't do much for me, but their heavenly, ethereal lemon ricotta pancakes with a choice of three flavored butters (cinnamon/spice, strawberry, and the last one was my favorite, but I'm not sure what it was--it had walnuts and maybe pineapple?) were completely worth the wait! I'm not sure that they weren't the best pancakes I've EVER had!

WHEW! This post is getting Biblical in length! I better wrap this one up and maybe do a "part two" later. But we must end with a recipe inspired by my spring break adventure in the Big Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Milk Bar Compost Cookie (or my take on it, anyway)!

To begin with, I made my cookies a bit smaller. And mine were an even thickness throughout, whereas Milk Bar's were thin on the edges with a doughy mound in the middle. I actually liked the flavor of mine better (Cyd said there was no contest!), and I think the texture improved after chilling the dough overnight. Of course, I omitted the coffee grounds. Using a little espresso powder might be a better choice, though I didn't add any this time. I think Milk Bar adds more chocolate chips than I did, then pretzels, potato chips, and some kind of nuts (pecans?). I added extra crunchy stuff to mine, including Rice Krispies, Cocoa Pebbles, potato chips, macadamia pieces, and the piece de resistance, peanut butter pretzels!

I used the following recipe, tweaked by my pal, Anna, on her blog (credit goes to her for the peanut butter pretzel idea!). Because I added a couple of extra cups of crunchy bits, I got a yield of 18 ginormous cookies, using a regular ice cream scoop.

Milk Bar's Compost Cookies
(adapted from Cookie Madness)

8 oz (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, chopped up
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups flour (fluff up the flour and scoop up one heaping cup, sweep top flat, repeat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups* semi-sweet chocolate chips – wouldn’t recommend chopped chocolate because it might cause more spreading
1 1/2 cups* snack foods (potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, nuts, etc.), broken up

*I only used a cup of chocolate chips and three cups of crunchy/salty things

In a stand mixer with the paddle attached, cream the cold butter, both sugars and corn syrup on medium high for 2-3 minutes until fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl. Add eggs and vanilla and stir to incorporate. Increase mixing speed to medium-high and run mixer for 10 full minutes. During this time the sugar granules will dissolve, the mixture will become an almost pale white color and mixture will double in size.

Meanwhile, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. By hand or using lowest speed of mixer, stir in the flour mixture – don’t beat it in or the cookies won’t be as tender. Stir in chocolate chips and salty things. Using a heaping 1/3 cup measure or a traditional ice cream scoop, form rounds. Put the shaped rounds on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours or until ready to bake. DO NOT bake your cookies from room temperature or they will not hold their shape. I recommend baking them off six at a time, and leaving the other balls of dough in the fridge until the first batch has been consumed. You can even freeze the unbaked cookies and bake them off at a future date.

When the dough has sufficiently chilled, heat oven to 400F. Arrange chilled cookie dough balls on a parchment, Silpat or nonstick foil-lined cookie sheet. If your cookie sheets are thin, you might want to stack two and bake the cookies on the stacked cookies sheets or use an insulated sheet. Bake 9-11 min (I baked mine for 12-14). While in the oven, the cookies will puff, crackle and spread. According to the original recipe, at nine minutes, the cookies should be browned on the edges and just beginning to brown towards the center. But at nine minutes, mine were pale and doughy. All ovens are different so you’ll need to watch the cookies, specifically the edges.

Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pan before transferring to a plate or an airtight container or tin for storage.

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