Birthday Cupcakes.

I’ve said it before, but here I go again: I’m not super into baking.  Even though cooking is more my speed, I’ve recently found myself popping more and more items into the oven lately.  I even told Keith on his birthday this past Wednesday that I wanted to make something for him — though I was careful not to use the word bake.  I was semi-hoping he’d ask for a steak.

After some thought though, he said, “I like cupcakes.”

Of course, I didn’t just want to make — I mean bake — a prosaic sort of cupcake; since I know how much Keith likes cinnamon I decided I would try to figure out how to make one fashioned after a snickerdoodle cookie.  The thing was, I had no idea how to go about doing this, so I got on the phone.

“There are so many recipes for orange-cinnamon cupcakes, or strudel-y things,” I said to Marcella, “but nothing snickerdoodle-y.  I don’t want just a cinnamon cupcake.”

snickerdoodle-cupcake“You could try rolling an iced cupcake in cinnamon and sugar, or using a textured sugar,” she suggested, which got me thinking…

What if I were to butter my cupcake tin so that a cinnamon-sugar mixture would stick to the walls of each depression?  Or, better yet, what if I were to instead use individual foil cupcake liners, each sprayed and dusted with cinnamon-sugar?  I could whip up a vanilla cupcake batter in lieu of a sugar cookie dough, and still end up with exteriors marbled with cinnamon just like a snickerdoodle.  This way, I wouldn’t even need to make a frosting to top the cupcake; their cracked and swirled domes would be decoration enough.  I could even sprinkle a little cinnamon into the cupakes themselves for a little more pep…

You know what?  Not only did the cupcakes came out perfectly, but they were ridiculously easy to make.  Not as easy as a steak, but simple nevertheless.

Snickerdoodle Cupcakes, adapted from Everyday Food’s yellow cupcake recipe
Makes twelve cupcakes

1 ½ leveled cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
1 ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 stick salted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/8 cup plus one tablespoon ground cinnamon, separated
2 large eggs
Baking spray

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Arrange 12 foil cupcake liners on a baking sheet; spritz each liner with baking spray.  In a small bowl, combine 1/8 cup cinnamon and ¼ cup sugar.  Spoon mixture into foil liners, swirling to thoroughly cover entire interior of each one.  Tap out excess and return liners to baking sheet.
  2. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and remaining cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. In a liquid-measuring cup, mix milk and vanilla; set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With mixer on low speed, add half of dry ingredients, followed by milk-vanilla mixture, then remaining dry ingredients. Take care not to overmix.  Divide batter evenly among prepared cupcake liners; bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

Café Round-Up: Boston Common Coffee Company.

Who: Boston Common Coffee Company
Where: North End, Boston
When: Three and a half hours spanning early morning to just before lunchtime.
Ordered: Toasted onion bagel with lox and plain cream cheese, and a medium coffee for $6.20
Info: An utterly ridiculous amount of tables and chairs, though a slightly cluttered/cramped layout; the chairs seem awfully close to each other. Surprising amount of foot traffic, including many babies and lapdogs, but everyone seems to know everybody else; there’s a very neighborhoody vibe.  Bright and sunny, thanks to ceiling-height windows, but it’s awfully cold near the door. Comfy-looking sofa and armchairs next to a woodburning stove and an interesting panino selection — if I didn’t have a lunch date elsewhere, I’d certainly  take a break from writing to also order the “Sal”: prosciutto, Fontina, roasted red peppers and a fig spread. Next time though. Also: free wireless.
Conclusion: A cozy spot off of Hanover Street that probably gets packed with tourists on the weekend.

Boston Common Coffee Company
97 Salem Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02113

Boston Common Coffee Co, on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Blackbird.

Friday afternoon found Keith and me in almost the same place as the night before, but instead of being at 615 West Randolph, we were at 619.  And  instead of sitting inside Avec‘s slick wood-paneled walls, we sat by Blackbird‘s sleek floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the street.

Blackbird is owned and operated by the same team behind Avec, but the parallels between the two restaurants mainly end there.  Both spots share an attention to detail, but it’s clear even from the sidewalk that Blackbird is Avec’s more sophisticated older sister.  While Avec is all edgy hard angles, Blackbird’s interior could only be described as, well, sexy.  It’s almost as if each surface craves human contact, particularly the soft gray banquettes.

Sexy or not, lunch is definitely the more economical way to experience Blackbird, where the dinner entrées average out at $32.50; the restaurant offers two different prix fixe menus alongside its à la carte choices.  You can select three courses from a set menu for $22.00, or spend $15.00 on a sandwich and a salad; for an additional five dollars, you can even get a glass of Blackbird’s featured wine.

blackbird-1Regardless of the special lunch deals, I ordered off of the regular lunch menu, mostly because one of the appetizers sounded too good to pass up: duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1 and tater tots ($14.00).

First of all, isn’t this the prettiest plate?  Second, a clarification: the A1 smears each encased dollops of strawberry preserves, and  were dotted with crumbled up bits of dehydrated strawberries.  It was not mixed with the tartare, which was probably the most surprising thing I’d eaten in a long time.  The first bite I took brought Asian flavors to mind — mostly sesame, specifically — but after that all I could think about was its marvelous texture and delicate taste.  In fact, I soon realized that I was sliding smaller and smaller amounts onto my fork, to make the tartare last that much longer.  When my plate was scraped clean, I asked for more detail on the tartare, and learned this: the following parts of the duck are roasted at a low temperature for four hours, then bound together with a housemade mayonnaise — breast, skin, and heart.  Now, eating heart didn’t and doesn’t bother me at all, but I did say to Keith that I found it interesting that this particular ingredient hadn’t been listed on the menu.  Should it have been?  Or is Keith right in saying that the sort of person who doesn’t mind eating a duck tartare probably wouldn’t mind eating heart?

But back to my dish…

I should take a second to say that the tater tots were fantastic.  Not too long ago, Keith and I ate at Cambridge’s Garden at the Cellar with our friend Melissa; the three of us discussed the restaurant’s tater tots.  They’re like deep-friend balls of mashed potatoes, I had said, to which Keith had replied, Isn’t that what all tater tots are? Melissa and I tried to explain that sometimes tater tots are made of shredded potato, which is exactly how Blackbird makes theirs.  Crunchily, saltily, perfectly so.

blackbird-2For my main, I chose the croque-madame, a grilled ham and Fontina sandwich topped with a fried egg and served alongside a substantial pile of pommes frites ($11.00).  I’m always so torn as to what to do with the egg on a croque-madame; I don’t know if it’s “proper” to break the yolk and let it soak messily into the toast, but that’s how I like it.  While the sandwich itself was very nice indeed, I almost felt sorry for it, as it had to follow as incredible an opening number as the tartare.  Personally I’m very familiar with having to play second fiddle, so in that regard I’m sympathetic to the  croque-madame, charming as she is, but at the same time I don’t know if anything on the menu could compare to my starter, I really don’t.

There’s a thoroughness at Blackbird that’s lovely to behold; Keith had a gorgeous little baby spinach salad with morels and white asparagus ($12.00) that was so beautifully composed that I wish I had a photograph of it to share with you.  Since I haven’t, I’ll just hope that those of you who can do drop by Blackbird.  Take advantage of the lunch menu, and pretend I’m there with you, praising each plate set in front of us.

619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Blackbird on Urbanspoon

A Late Dinner at Avec.

Located in the West Loop, Avec is a popular spot, one that doesn’t take reservations.  For that reason, we thought dropping in later in the night would improve our chances for getting a table for Keith, his friend Dave and myself; we only had to wait about fifteen minutes.

Avec’s menu promotes family-style eating; rather than the traditional appetizer and entrée offerings, the menu is divided into small and large plates.  Two small plates, we were told, equal the size of a large, so we decided on two of each size.

avec-1We started with chorizo-stuffed medjool dates alongside smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce ($9.00); the small earthenware dish it was served in might have been from a tagine, which is fitting as both date and dish are North African.  Its sauce was smoky and sweet, thanks to the roasted peppers; in the end it delivered a sizable hot kick — well, it felt like that to me, spicy sissy that I admittedly am.

Our second small plate was a frisée salad with pan-fried frogs’ legs, prosciutto and fried fennel, all of which were drizzled with a paprika aiöli ($11.00).  I chose this not only because I love frisée, but also because I’ve never had frogs’ legs before, believe it or not.  The legs had been fried to a nice crispiness, and the meat had a subtle fishy flavor that I found really appealing.  Also, it did not taste like chicken.  If anything, there was a chicken-like texture to the meat, but if anything the legs reminded me more of fish than of anything else.  As a whole, the salad was incredibly fresh and light — a nice way to start a meal.

avec-2Though I enjoyed the small plates, the two large plates  we ordered were even more of a hit for me.   First up was bucatini pasta with housemade Italian sausage, neck sauce, tomato, fresh herbs and Reggiano cheese ($16.00).  Even if the rich chunks of meat hadn’t been as appetizing as they were, my favorite part of this still would have been the nutty, chewy noodles.  I could have eaten a plate of these alone; by “alone” I mean both “without any accompaniments,” and “without sharing.”  Dave and Keith are lucky that my sense of propriety prevailed, as I could have easily grabbed the bowl to my chest and charged for the door.

avec-3We followed up the pasta with a flatbread scattered with yet another sausage; this one was a housemade merguez sausage, and its partners on the pizza were white anchovies, feta, roasted garlic purée, chili flakes and fried orange chips ($15.00).  I loved the combination of the citrusy orange, the hot chili and the sweet garlic — it was an exciting mixture of flavors.  The sausage here had a complexity to it as well, and its denseness gave the lighter elements of the flatbread a nice weight.

Now, while I relished my meal, I’ve got to say the following about Avec: if you don’t like people, don’t eat here.  In a way, the restaurant’s layout is like its menu: it is set up to encourage communal dining.  Most patrons are seated at long wooden tables, either on stools or benches; each table seats about eight, so if your party is on the smaller side, chances are you’ll be sharing the table with two or more groups.   We ended up sitting at a very popular table…  meaning we had to get up about three times during the course of our meal to let other diners in and out.  And while you won’t have to worry about anyone trying to eat off your plate, per se, the quarters can be close; Keith did comment at one point that he thought his neighbor would accidentally drink out of his water glass.  It didn’t happen, but it’s easy to see how it might.

615 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661

Avec on Urbanspoon

Lunch at Hot Doug’s.

Here’s the thing: I love hot dogs.

Here’s another thing: when I say “love,” I mean it in an epic, Shakespearean, star-crossed sort of way.  Ours is a legendary affair.

Considering my past liaisons with the hot dog, I quickly came to realize that it would be truly impossible for me to travel to Chicago and not partake in a dog or two.  (Or, in this case, three.)  But where to go?  The city is packed with hot dog and sausage emporiums, after all, and a Google search for “Chicago hot dog” brings up a handful of local joints peddling dogs.  In the end, the winner was Hot Doug’s, which in 2007 was the first Chicago restaurant to break the foie gras ban.  Could there be a more perfect match for me than a hot dog seller who loves foie?

And so, less than two hours after we landed in the city, Keith and I stood in front of the Hot Doug’s menu, mulling over our options.  Hot Doug’s offers about ten “regular” dogs, meaning they’re always available (though their names oftentimes change), and about six specials, which change daily.  During our visit, the specials’ global influences were certainly evident, ranging from Algerian merguez to teriyaki chicken to Alsatian sausage.

hot-dougs-dogsKeith and I had already agreed to share “The Dog” (Chicago-style with mustard, onions pickles, relish, and tomatoes; $1.75) and the Marty Allen thuringer (made with beef, pork and garlic; $3.25), along with a large sack of fries ($2.25).  The combination of our hunger and my hot dog love made us doubt two dogs for the pair of us would be enough, so we asked Doug himself to pick the third.  Should we have the smoked Portuguese linguiça with smoked paprika Dijonnaise and queso Iberico ($7.00), or the ribeye steak sausage with horseradish cream sauce and smoked Cheddar?

“I’m always partial to pork,” he said, so the linguiça it was.  And you know what?  I think it was my favorite of the trio.  The smokiness of both the linguiça and the paprika sauce was absolutely magnetic; even as Keith ate his half, my hand kept reaching for the dog.  When he wasn’t looking, I dragged a few fries across the sausage’s surface, picking up as much of the Dijonnaise as I could.

The Dog was actually my first brush with the Chicago version, and I have to say that it was without a doubt love at first bite.  The relish in particular was a surprising bit of loveliness, bright and sweet.  The Marty Allen was also fantastic — we got it with what the menu described as caramelized onions; sautéed would be more accurate, though they were delicious nevertheless.  The thuringer itself tasted like a traditional dog, but with a more intense, denser flavor.  Mouthwatering stuff, these dogs.

A few things to note, if you plan on stopping by Hot Doug’s:

  • Hot Doug’s is nowhere near an El stop.  There is, however, a bus stop located directly across the street at the intersection of Belmont and California.
  • Make sure you give yourself plenty of time at Hot Doug’s, and not just to savor the sausages.  I can all but guarantee that you will encounter a line; apparently in nicer weather, it wraps around the block.  I overheard an inside tip, though: call ahead to place an order for take-out, and you can skip the wait altogether.
  • Hot Doug’s offers fries cooked in duck fat, but only on Fridays and Saturdays.  If you’re coming in just for those, check your calendar first.  (I didn’t know this, and would have been far more bummed out than I was had I not eaten duck fat fries before.  They’re definitely special.)
  • Technically, Hot Doug’s is open Monday through Saturday from 10.30 to 4.00, though it’s best to phone in to confirm that the restaurant is in fact open.

Hot Doug’s
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60618

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

Back in Town.

Friends, I am exhausted.  During a vacation, I normally like to make sure I’ve not only time to explore a new place but also that I’ve set aside an hour or two to take off my shoes and relax. An ideal schedule for me would be something like a semi-early start with a nice breakfast, followed by checking out an interesting museum exhibit, sitting down to a three o’clock lunch and walking around a picturesque neighborhood; as the day winds down, I love chilling out with a drink before heading out for a late dinner.

This, however, was not a kick-back trip.  Practically the only minutes Keith and I had off of our feet were those that found us riding the El or sitting down before a plate of food — otherwise it was all hustle hustle hustle before falling into bed each night and waking up feeling only partially restored.  Regardless, I had an absolute boatload of fun.  I’ll write more specifically on certain aspects of it, but for now, here’s a highlight reel of sorts:

Arrived at O’Hare before ten in the morning, tired but excited,  so after a quick Starbucks detour at the baggage claim* (skinny vanilla latte for me, skim chai for Keith), we grabbed a taxi to our hotel on the Gold Coast to check in before flagging another taxi for the ride across the city to Hot Doug’s.  Afterwards we wandered around the area for a bit before sliding into fourth taxi of the day (the first was from our apartment to Logan at 5.30 AM, EST) for a ride to the Water Tower and a chilly walk up and down the Magnificent Mile.  Stopped in Borders to pick up a Frommer’s Guide and take a break from the cold; at some points, I couldn’t feel my face.  My absolute favorite building was the one that houses Bottega Veneta at 800 North Michigan, a charming gem absolutely dwarfed by the more modern Park Hyatt.  Walked back to our hotel, ducking into Barney’s and Jake when we felt too cold.  Later, we met up with Keith’s old friend Dave for a drink at the Hotel Burnham‘s Atwood Café before the three of us flagged a taxi (number five — luckily Chicago cabs are cheap) to take us to Avec in the West Loop.

Overslept, but only in the sense that I got up, took a shower, then got back into bed for another two hours.  Does that count as oversleeping?  Regardless, we got off to a late start, only having time to poke around Millenium Park before hailing the first taxi of the day to ferry us to Blackbird for our one o’clock lunch reservations.  Rode the Green Line to Adams/Wabash, the stop for the Art Institute.  We didn’t get tickets to the Munch exhibit but I was excited to see Ivan Albright‘s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which is creepy and sad and evocative and thought-provoking.  Left the musum at exactly closing time, walked across the BP Bridge and along Lake Michigan to Navy Pier — which should be renamed McDonald’s Pier, as everything in sight seemed to be emblazoned with the golden arch logo.  Taxi number two back to the hotel; hung out before dinner at Alinea.  We took the El to North/Clybourn and walked from there to 1723 North Halsted, but afterwards had a taxi called for us; it was almost one AM.

Wanted to sleep in but couldn’t — we had prepaid for tickets to take an eleven o’clock tour with the Architecture Foundation (though when we arrived at 224 South Michigan no one even checked).  Traveled amongst the insanity and congestion of Saint Patrick’s Day while making our way downtown.  Didn’t see the river actually get dyed green but saw the end results while we walked with the tour, squinting up at Art Deco buildings.  Avoided stepping into green-tinted vomit.  More walking to the North Wells location of Gino’s East, Dave’s recommendation for deep dish pizza.  Didn’t realize deep dish takes forty-five minutes to make so afterwards hailed a cab to bring us to the Metra, one of the few ways to get to Hyde Park and Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Robie House; had more prepaid tickets for a tour, as well as plans to meet up with my friend Lara, a Ph.D student at the University of Chicago.  After the tour she took us around campus, stopping at the Oriental Institute and Hallowed Grounds, before heading to Hopleaf for a pre-dinner beer (the bartender suggested the Goose Island Matilda and I’m here to tell you it was fantastic) and then over to The Publican for the meal itself.

Wake up for brunch at Bistrot Zinc with Dave, his wife Isobel and their daughter Paloma, who just might be the most laid-back, Zen baby in the entire world.  Walked to the Lincoln Park Zoo; the weather had gotten considerably warmer and the ice was audibly thawing.  Heard two lions roar, an incredibly impressive sound, and a jaguar, um, mark his territory (if you get my drift), much to the childrens’ combined delight and disgust.  Dog watched outside the zoo before walking through Old Town to Isobel’s dining recommendation, Adobo Grill.  It was probably our earliest dinner of the year at five o’clock but within a few minutes the restaurant was packed so our timing was perfect.  Dogwatched some more from our seat next to the windows.  Realized haven’t taken a taxi all day.  Walked back to the hotel and packed.

Total number of taxis taken during trip: 9 (including taxi to O’Hare and from Logan on Monday)

* Generally, I like to travel with carry-ons only but since Alinea requests that men wear jackets, we had to not only check Keith’s suit but also pay the additional fee to do so.