Superspark

a year in food and life

Los Angeles cupcake taste-off October 25, 2007

Filed under: baked goods,Dessert,food,Restaurants — superspark @ 8:22 am

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When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in L.A., go eat cupcakes. There must be a reason why Los Angeles has established itself as the cupcake capital of the world over the last few years, surpassing the early fame of New York’s Magnolia Bakery and Buttercup Bake Shop. You can’t throw a dead cat these days (or so the slightly horrifying expression goes) without hitting a cupcakerie in L.A. Boston, on the other hand, is apparently a black zone, a dead spot on the cupcake map, boasting only a single devoted cupcake shop, Kickass Cupcakes, last time I checked.

Several weekends ago, Amanda and Zarin, my best grad school pals hopped a plane from Boston to L.A., with memories of a disappointing trip to Kickass Cupcakes in the recent past. On our heavily food-laden agenda, a trip to some of Los Angeles’ foremost cupcake shops. Call it a research expedition, a fact-finding mission (we are pseudo-scientists, after all), but how often can you justify skipping work with two good friends with the sole aim of cruising around Beverly Hills in search of cupcakes? Realizing that there were only four stomachs between us (counting Dylan’s iron gut), we showed some restraint and chose to limit ourselves to just three locales, stopping at each to purchase goods for the evening’s formal taste testing.

On our list of contenders? First, Sprinkles, Los Angeles’ most famous cupcakerie. I had heard the Sprinkles lore of frosting shots and decadent flavors, but not often finding myself in that particularly tony section of Beverly Hills, I had never actually tasted them. Second, Crumbs, a rogue newcomer with the audacity to open mere blocks from the Sprinkles juggernaut. I first heard of Crumbs here on the eve of their opening and had been carefully plotting how to get my hands on those unusual, creative cupcakes ever since. And finally, my sentimental favorite, Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock. I’ll admit it’s a bit unfair to include Auntie Em’s since it’s really a restaurant that just happens to sell amazing cupcakes, not a cupcake shop, but for me, their cupcakes are the gold standard, the benchmark to which all cupcakes should be compared.

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We forced ourselves to eat a light dinner, knowing what was in store for us later on, six cupcakes (none of them diminutive), cut into quarters for optimal sampling, plus a mini red velvet from Auntie Em’s for Zarin. In the top picture, moving clockwise from the left, are Auntie Em’s phenomenal carrot cupcake, cappuccino from Crumbs, and cobbler from Crumbs (note the cute crumbles on top- so creative!). In the bottom photo, also going clockwise from the left, are Sprinkles’ chai latte, dark chocolate, and pumpkin, with the Auntie Em’s baby red velvet up front. So what were the results of this highly scientific experiment, beyond uncomfortably full bellies?

Believe it or not, there was no clear winner. In fact, each of us had trouble deciding upon a favorite. There were raves about the Crumbs chocolate cake, but the icing was thought to be too sweet. Usually a lover of all things excessively sweet, I found the Sprinkles chai latte icing to also be too sweet. The cream cheese frosting on the Auntie Em’s carrot was to die for, though we disagreed about what constitutes a proper carrot cake. (Chunky with nuts and raisins or a smooth batter? I’m in the former camp.) One thing we could all agree upon, the Crumbs cobbler cupcake was a huge disappointment. It was essentially a muffin, outfitted with a little icing and a few crumbles. Good for an indulgent breakfast maybe, but dessert? Not so much.

In the end, I probably liked the Sprinkles pumpkin and the Auntie Em’s best BUT that said, I’d be most excited to return to Crumbs. There were so many interesting flavors there, all outfitted with heaps of icing and chunks of toppings- visually they were the most interesting to me and it was the store in which we spent the most time by far debating the merits of the various flavors. I was pleasantly surprised by Sprinkles, having expected them to be entirely overrated, but in the end, their sort of sterile, neat cupcakes just don’t draw me in as much. And Auntie Em’s? Well, I’ve raved about them here and here before. So the take home message for this little experiment is that they’re ALL worth a stop should you find yourself jonesing for a cupcake in L.A. If only science were always so easy.

 

Doughboys June 28, 2007

Filed under: food,Restaurants — superspark @ 9:21 pm

Sometimes you come across a restaurant you like so much that it makes you wonder whether the discovery was a blessing or a curse. Doughboys, in West Hollywood, is one of those places and while my id wishes I lived right next door so that I could just roll out of bed and eat there on any and every given day, my more abstemious superego sighs in relief that I live far, far away. Doughboys is a mere 1/2 mile jaunt down 3rd street from my office, though, and I can only hope that laziness, vanity, or reason will prevent me from yielding to temptation too often at lunchtime.

Doughboys is the sort of place that I’d like to go for brunch EVERY single Sunday. One look at the enormous menu (which merits checking out online though I don’t think it includes everything), with a full page of mouth-watering, served-all-day breakfast treats and I was hooked. The one time Dylan had been there previously, he came home raving about their blueberry flaxseed pancakes (perhaps the healthiest thing on the menu), so much so that we recreated them at home the very next day. And the Sunday after that…and the one after that. You get the point.

When we went to Doughboy’s recently for a going-away lunch with our friend Natalia, who is off to Oregon to study volcanoes, I was in the rare mood for something savory and couldn’t resist the afterschool special, a humungous bowl of tomato soup paired with an ooey, gooey grilled cheese sandwich. Like most of the menu, it’s comfort food with a modern, upscale twist. The grilled cheese, featuring what felt like a whole pound of emmenthal, fontina, and cheddar, was a big step up from those nasty American cheese slices that many places serve as comfort food.  The tomato soup was similarly delicious with a little bit of texture and veggie bits unlike the totally homogenous stuff that comes out of a can. I stuffed myself at lunch and yet still had enough left to make a dinner of it that night as well.

Next time you can bet I’ll be ordering from the griddle and already have my sights set on the black and whites, their spin on the classic chocolate chip pancake. I don’t think I’ve ordered a chocolate chip pancake since I nearly ate myself ill on one at IHOP as a kid, but the lure of dark and white chocolate chunks with raspberry syrup on top may just be too much to resist. Any other recommendations from Doughboys afficianados?

Doughboys on 3rd: 8136 3rd street, Los Angeles, CA 90046 (323)651-4202

Doughboys on Highland: 1156 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038 (323) 467-9117

 

The Graduation Saga, Chapter II: Veggie Planet June 15, 2007

Filed under: food,Musings,Restaurants — superspark @ 8:20 am

Yes, that’s me on the left, doing my best Harry Potter imitation. Another June, another round of graduations, only this time, I was up on stage (FINALLY! HOORAY!). Though I had finished my Ph.D. last September and “officially” graduated in November, I returned to Cambridge, MA last weekend to walk in my long-awaited graduation ceremony. I debated the merits of the cross-country trip. Given the demands of work and the timing of Dylan’s Ph.D. graduation ceremony (very conveniently scheduled in Pasadena, CA the very next morning), it would literally be a 36 hour jaunt from LA to Boston and back. In the end, the promise of seeing friends and family won out. And in all seriousness, finally getting a chance to wear those rockin’ robes was no small incentive. The velvet tam, the satin hood- when else can you get away with wearing such ridiculously over-the-top attire? Fabulous! So the shoulder pads were worthy of a linebacker and the sleeves were so long that we had to pin them up in order to allow my hands to peek out…it was a kick anyway and I only wish I had been able to prance around in them all afternoon rather than jetting off to the airport immediately after graduation. C’est la vie!

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Another factor luring me back to Cambridge? Veggie Planet, my favorite Harvard Square eatery. I’ve yammered on and on in the past about my beloved Veggie Planet cookbooks (Entertaining for a Veggie Planet and Vegetarian Planet), so much so that you might think I was on commission, but these days I rarely have the opportunity to go straight to the source for their terrific cheap, quick, all-natural vegetarian and vegan pizzas. I took the red eye to Boston, arriving at 4:50 am and by noon I was happily perusing the menu at Veggie Planet with Dylan, Amanda, and our long-lost friend Zarin, who recently returned from a year of following chimps in Uganda. With so many favorite pizzas, it was hard to choose, even when given the option of splitting it into two half pizzas of different flavors was presented (see photos below). A little peanutted out, I passed on my usual favorite, Thai Peanut Curry, and skipped over another favorite, Dinner for Henry (a delightful butternut squash, goat cheese combo) as well, figuring that I could make it myself using the recipe in Entertaining for a Veggie Planet. In the end, I went with the ever-popular Caesar on a Cheesy Crouton (a delicious pizza crust with a thin layer of cheese topped with a vegetarian caesar salad) and the Blonde on Blonde (their version of a white pizza). As always, the food was delicious, the environment mellow, and with my husband and two old friends in tow, I couldn’t imagine a better return to my old stomping grounds.

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Dinner for Henry (butternut squash and goat cheese)

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Caesar on a Cheesy Crouton and Blonde on Blonde (white pizza)

Veggie Planet: 47 Palmer Street (Harvard Square); Cambridge, MA 02138; (617) 661-1513 

 

The Graduation Saga, Chapter I: The Moosewood Restaurant June 13, 2007

Filed under: food,Restaurants — superspark @ 4:12 pm

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Photo from http://www.deltos.com

Forgive me if my posts become remarkably graduation-centric over the next week or two. We managed to cram three big family graduations into a span of about 10 days. Naturally the food is of prime importance on Superspark, but these occasions seemed festive and personally note-worthy enough to merit a little rhapsodizing on other matters as well. Onward to the graduation saga, part I, where we find ourselves in upstate New York for my brother, Stephen’s, college graduation…

Trekking cross-country the other weekend to Stephen’s college graduation from Cornell, I found myself almost as excited to finally visit the Moosewood Restaurant as I was to watch my baby brother get his diploma (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift). Over the years, the Moosewood Restaurant has become synonymous with healthy, mostly vegetarian eating and their eleven cookbooks tend to be represented in nearly every vegetarian “chef”‘s collection. I myself have Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day as well as Still Life With Menu Cookbookby Mollie Katzen, one of Moosewood’s co-founders.Given the restaurant’s location, tucked away in the hills of upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, it’s not terribly convenient to visit in person. Tiny, remote Ithaca, New York hardly qualifies as a major tourist destination, after all. Given the rare opportunity, the day before graduation I dragged our generally carnivorous party of eight to Moosewood for lunch. To be fair, there were no objections; in fact, the two people who had given me my Moosewood cookbooks, my mother and my cousin Katherine, were among us. I was pleasantly surprised to see how casual the Moosewood was; I suppose its crunchy reputation should have tipped me off to that, but somehow I never figured such an unassuming, relaxed restaurant could have generated so much publicity and have become so well-known. With paper and chalkboard menus, Fiestaware, and a small giftshop of Moosewood paraphenalia, the dining room was sunny, friendly, and welcoming.

With such a relaxed atmosphere, there were, of course, some downsides including a cheerful, but forgetful waitress and sold-out menu items (including the one not entirely vegetarian dish, a sesame crusted seafood cake, which half of our party had ordered). Nevertheless, it was the perfect spot for a tasty, healthy meal on a beautiful day in the hills of upstate New York. With a long day still ahead of us, we skipped the wine and cocktails list and instead sampled sodas from Ithaca’s local brewing company (the ginger beer is great!).

From the bread and butter (homemade in two varieties) to the thai curry and tofu-walnut burger I split with Dylan, everything was decidedly healthy, but tasty. In fact, the food was very representative of the cookbooks and had the same homey, comfort food quality to it. Well, perhaps not everything was entirely healthy…despite our terribly full tummies, we decided to sample the desserts and they turned out to be the highlight of the meal for me. Between the various members of our group, we managed to sample several flavors of freshly-made ice cream, all of which were delicious and in huge quantities, a brownie, and my favorite, a mixed-berry crumble topped with homemade whipped cream. Yum!!

For someone like me, whose at-home cooking efforts tend to be quite similar to the Moosewood’s offerings (relatively light, vegetarian fare), the restaurant was not so earth-shatteringly unusual that it warrants a special trip. But I came away from our meal thinking that had I gone to Cornell, I would have become a regular. I would have gladly and gleefully ordered any of the six reasonably-sized lunch entrees (all of which came with a cup of soup or salad) for $8-9. I only wish there were more restaurants like Moosewood (and in more accessible locations!), where one can walk out feeling not only full and happy, but healthy, as well.

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Happy graduation, Steve!

 

Cupcake throwdown May 13, 2007

Filed under: baked goods,food,Restaurants,television — superspark @ 8:19 pm

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photo from the Auntie Em’s website 

Imagine my delight last week when Amanda e-mailed me to tell me that not only would the latest episode of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown tackle cupcakes, but that he was challenging Terrie Wahl, the baker at my all-time favorite cupcake joint, Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock, CA. I’ve written (or I should say, RAVED) about Auntie Em’s before on Superspark and was thrilled to see that it would be recognized on national television.

Thanks to a poorly attended event Dylan and I held earlier this year which resulted in lots of leftover cupcakes, I’ve sampled each of Auntie Em’s flavors and thus feel that I’ve done enough research to avow that though her flavors are pretty classic and standard (chocolate, carrot, coconut, and red velvet), Terrie Wahl makes an outstanding cupcake. (And not only delicious, but GIANT and smothered in fabulous frosting!)

For Throwdown, Terrie decided to go with the red velvet, which apparently is the most popular cupcake at Auntie Em’s, selling 5 times more than any other flavor. I LOVE red velvet cake, but I actually have to say that the red velvet at Auntie Em’s is not my favorite. The cream cheese icing is downright amazing, but the cake itself was just a little too vanilla for me. Now I realize that red velvet is essentially a vanilla cake with a touch of cocoa, but that said, there’s a lot of variation from baker to baker and I tend to prefer the ones that are a little on the chocolatier side of the spectrum.

So what would Bobby Flay do to compete with the beloved Auntie Em’s cupcakes? After discussing how people often don’t pay enough attention to matching the cake and frosting parts of a cupcake, Bobby came up with the inspired combination of gingerbread cupcakes with mango-vanilla buttercream frosting. Intriguing…Clearly the two chefs had slightly different approaches, with Wahl rejoicing in the red food coloring and kiddie-sprinkles that adorned her red velvet while Bobby talked up his fresh mango and imported vanilla beans. While hers had a down-home appeal, his was more exotic and unusual.

In the end, the judges (who included the head chef at Sprinkles, LA’s best-known and trendiest cupcakery) agreed with me that the red velvet just wasn’t quite chocolatey enough and awarded the competition to Bobby’s more unusual offering.

What I would have liked to see, though, was how the outstanding carrot cupcake, which pairs that amazing cream cheese frosting with a fabulously moist and flavorful carrot cake would have fared in the competition. It’s my favorite of the bunch and apparently, it’s Terrie’s, too. I think she could have taken Bobby with those carrot cake cupcakes, but I guess we’ll never know. I’m just delighted to see Auntie Em’s on the L.A. cupcake map AND in even better news, the recipes for both Auntie Em’s red velvet cupcake and Bobby Flay’s gingerbread-mango-vanilla cupcakes have been posted online at the Food Network.

Auntie Em’s Kitchen:  4616 Eagle Rock Boulevard; Los Angeles, CA 90041; (323)255-0800

 

Orean’s Health Express May 3, 2007

Filed under: food,Restaurants — superspark @ 3:52 pm

Southern California is such a weird place. I can only think of a handful of places around the country where a vegan fast-food drive-thru would be a feasible endeavor, but sure enough, Pasadena is one of them. I had heard of Orean’s Health Express (also mysteriously called Orean’s The Health Express) a few months ago and had been curious, but hadn’t managed to make it there until in a recent edition of Erin’s Kitchen, local blogger Sean Bonner declared the Orean’s strawberry milkshake one of his top three foods to try in the LA area.

Declaring that tonight would be a rare fast food night for us, I e-mailed the menu to Dylan, told him to pick out what he’d like, and headed over to Orean’s after the gym. Naturally, I took a quick look around the web to see if others had suggested specific menu items and decided that we’d share the African burrito (no idea what makes it African), the Teriyaki “chicken” burrito (keep in mind, the menu is entirely vegan), air fries, and the famous strawberry shake.

As a girl who spent most of her life ordering nothing but french fries when brought to a fast food restaurant, I wanted to love Orean’s. After all, here was a whole menu full of things I could order and it was downright cheap! But in the end, I’d have to say meh. You know, not bad, not great, just meh. The African burrito, which was heavily bean-y with a few veggies and some soy cheese thrown in was fine, but not as good as a bean burrito at nearly any taqueria. The teriyaki chicken, which I decided to try mainly out of curiosity about what soy chicken might entail, was far too authentic for my taste. I guess I was hoping for some clearly phony tofu version of chicken, but this actually looked like chicken and had a similar texture and was drowned in sauce with barely any fresh veggies. Again, fine, but I’d prefer a burrito at Senor Fish or even Baja Fresh.

The air fries were an improvement from the burritos; from what I can tell, the term “air fries” means that they are baked rather than deep fried, like most french fries. They were less greasy than standard fries, but otherwise shockingly authentic, so if they are, in fact, healthier than ordinary fries, I would definitely recommend them. (Can anyone definitively speak to how air fries are made and their nutritional content?) As for the famed shake, I liked the subtle soy flavor (again, remember we’re talking entirely vegan here), but the neon pink color and fake strawberry flavor were a little off-putting. My husband compared it to drinking strawberry Quik, something I’ve never tried, nor do I ever plan to. But again, if it is healthier than the average milkshake, I’d be more than willing to head back to Orean’s to try the carob or perhaps the intriguing rum granola flavor. And I guess that sums my whole experience at Orean’s, the food was fine and I’d be willing to eat there again, but didn’t like the burritos enough that I’d order them again nor will I be racing back any time soon.

 

Auntie Em’s cupcakes March 26, 2007

Filed under: baked goods,Dessert,food,Restaurants — superspark @ 4:29 pm

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When my friend Amanda comes to town to visit, one of our primary occupations is food.  Temporarily freed from our more spontaneous significant others, we tend to go into hyper-planning mode, so much so that within a few hours of her arrival from Boston on Friday night, we had planned our entire three-day weekend’s worth of meals.  Clearly there had to be some cooking, as that is one of our favorite joint pastimes.  Naturally there had to be trips to some of her most beloved eateries in the LA area.  And of course I had to recruit Amanda, an inveterate dessert lover, in my ongoing quest to find the best cupcake in town.

A trip to Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock and all other cupcakes fell by the wayside.  Dots’ cupcakes were fine, Violet’s Cakes were downright scrumptious, but Auntie Em’s?  They were in a different league altogether.  For starters, these hulking cupcakes were at least twice the size of the petite cupcakes found at most bakeries today.  For me, that’s a clear plus.  Second, lest you think your eyes deceive you, yes, the pile of gorgeous cream cheese frosting atop this delightful carrot cake cupcake was nearly as tall as the cupcake itself.  (I know there exist unusual types who prefer a miserly smear of frosting, but that concept is absolutely foreign to me.  In my mind, the more frosting, the better.)  This cupcake was perfection from its moist, spiced cakey bottom up to its sugared carrot top. My only regret? That we went so late in the day that just one flavor was left.  I’ve heard rave reviews of the red velvet and am anxious to explore what other flavors they have.

Since I’ve made a commitment to sampling the cupcakes of Southern California I suppose I’ll have to continue my mission intrepidly (sigh), but I’m having a hard time imagining that I’ll find anything better than Auntie Em’s.  Anyone want to suggest some worthy competitors?

Auntie Em’s: 4616 Eagle Rock Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90041; (323)255-0800