Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chang on the Run

fig. a: Chasing the Dragon*

Let's hear it for Southern cuisine!

One of the best pieces of food writing I've read in a while, by one of the best in the biz on one of the best (and most elusive) in the biz:

Todd Kliman on Peter Chang in the Oxford American's 2010 Southern Food Issue, edited by John T. Edge.


* photo by Dan Chung

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mexican Standoff

I'm just going to go ahead and throw down...

With all due respect to this city's full-fledged Mexican restaurants, Montreal's best tacos are currently being served...

a) in some hole-in-the-wall in the Little Italy-Rosemont-Petite Patrie axis?

b) in the back of a Latino grocery store in the Plateau?

c) in some flashy Nuevo Latino restaurant in the Downtown core?

d) at Carlo's & Pepe's?

No. Nope. Nada. None of the above.

They're being served out of a place that should be familiar to many of you longtime readers, and a place where you might least expect them: McKiernan. That's right, McKiernan.

Okay, it's possible that there is a Mexican place hidden somewhere in deepest, darkest Montreal that's serving tacos that can compete with the finest purveyors from across the North American continent (with the multicultural explosion of creativity that Food & Wine has labeled "Taco World")--hell, I suppose it's possible that there's also a ghost taco truck making its way across the cityscape under darkness of night and operating in full contravention of the city's perverse anti-street food bylaws--but, if so, we've yet to uncover these Mexican treasures. All I can tell you is that by far and away the best tacos that we've had here in Montreal in a very long time (outside of our AEB test kitchen, that is) were served to us by our friend Marc-André at McKiernan. We were hoping for shrimp, or maybe even snow crab--it being the season for both--but what we got was a selection of the traditional and the patently non-traditional that just blew us away. Perfectly braised beef tongue (tacos de lengua) & exquisite duck confit (tacos de canard confit). Served on homemade corn tortillas (!). Topped with roasted tomato salsa, julienned radishes, and cilantro. Accompanied with limes, refried black beans, and a limited, but tasty selection of Valentina hot sauces ("hot" & "extra hot").

They've always got a trick or two up their sleeves, but we didn't exactly go to McKiernan looking for tacos. Luckily, they found us.

Casa McKiernan, 2485 Nuestra Señora O., 759-6677

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Three Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

smith island cake 2 fig. a: pretty on pink

When a certain someone requested a Smith Island Cake for a certain special occasion, Michelle rolled up her sleeves. She consulted a number of recipes, including one she found on, and what she found was that it was not uncommon to build Smith Island Cakes out of thin layers of cake-mix cake. Now Michelle being Michelle, she decided to try to create her own yellow cake from scratch because, well... Just because.*

But the problem with making your own yellow cake is that it's tough to create one that's capable of being baked in a thin layer and then moved. All those fancy ingredients in a box of Duncan Hines mix (emulsifiers, etc.) give cake-mix cake properties that are difficult to duplicate without being a molecular gastronomist. What Michelle determined was that it would take a yellow cake batter that was something like pancake batter to get the right architecture.

In the end, however, Michelle decided that it was a whole lot easier and not at all inauthentic to fall back on the expertise of Duncan Hines and the food empire he brought into being. In the end, Michelle followed Saveur's recipe (which is based on a recipe from Smith Island native Mary Ada Marshall) to a T.

Well, almost.

Saveur's recipe calls for the cake to be constructed out of eight layers--a nice even number. Traditional Smith Island Cakes have been known to have been constructed out of twelve layers or more. Michelle being Michelle, she built hers out of nine. Nine fun-loving layers of cake. Count 'em. She also used really good cocoa. On its own, Michelle's three-flavor, nine-layer Smith Island Cake was an out-and-out sensation. With the addition of a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it got pushed into the fourth dimension.

So what exactly is Smith Island Cake? Well, in case you haven't figured it out, it's a tall, traditional, Southern layer cake that's composed of ultra-thin layers of cake (not unlike a torte) and that hails from Smith Island, Maryland. Icings and fillings can vary, but many feature chocolate icing and a combination of chocolate and peanuts as the filling (hence the Reese's peanut butter cups). Smith Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and it's famous for its cake--in fact, Smith Island Cake became Maryland's state cake (!) just a couple of years ago--but it's also famous for its dialect. Smith Island was settled in the seventeenth century, but existed in relative isolation well into the twentieth century. More regular contact with the mainland has eroded Smith Island's rather distinct culture, but a dialect with strong roots in seventeenth-century English is still spoken there.

You could just click on the link above to access's original recipe, but with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome rampant, we decided to save you any unnecessary clicking.

Smith Island Cake

8 large Reese's peanut butter cups, frozen
nonstick cooking spray
1/4 cup flour
1 x 18 1/4-oz. box yellow cake mix, preferably Duncan Hines
2 cups plus 3 tbsp. evaporated milk
16 tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
4 eggs
6 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

Pulse 4 peanut butter cups in a food processor into small chunks; transfer to a bowl. Pulse remaining peanut butter cups into a fine powder; transfer to another bowl. Chill both until ready to use.

Heat oven to 350°. Grease four 8" round cake pans with cooking spray, dust with half the flour, and knock out any excess. Set aside. Put cake mix, 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk, half the butter, vanilla, salt, eggs, and 1/3 cup water into a large bowl; beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 10–12 minutes. Divide half the batter between prepared cake pans. Set remaining batter aside. Using the back of a spoon, spread out batter so that it covers the bottom of each pan, making it slightly thicker around the edges than in the middle. Bake until cooked through and golden around edges, 12–14 minutes. Set aside to let cool slightly, then loosen cake layers with a knife and invert onto cooling racks. Wash and dry cake pans. Repeat process a second time with cooking spray and remaining flour and batter.

When all 8 cake layers have cooled, make the icing. Combine remaining milk, sugar, and cocoa in a medium pot; stir well, then add remaining butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until butter is melted and icing is shiny, 4–5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Stir well.

Spread a cake layer with about 1/4 cup of icing; sprinkle with about 1 tbsp. powdered peanut butter cups. Top with another cake layer and repeat process to make 8 layers in all. Frost outside of cake with remaining icing; sprinkle top with peanut butter cup chunks. Let sit for 2–3 hours before serving. The cake can be stored for up to a week refrigerated in an airtight container.

Makes one beautiful 8" Smith Island Cake.


* The Saveur recipe, like many others, also called for the use of Reese's peanut butter cups. As far as I know, Michelle didn't attempt to make those from scratch, but don't push her...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Top Ten #34

smith island cake 1

1. birthday burger brunch, complete with Smith Island Cake

2. Momofuku-inspired birthday bonanza, complete with cardamom-pistachio-quince cake and lots of sake

3. eating your way across L.A.

townes van zandt

Townes 1

4. Townes Van Zandt, s/t + Townes Van Zandt, In the Beginning...

5. Of Time and the City, dir. Terence Davies

6. Rabelais, Portland, ME

Joanna 1

7. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me

8. "Collection: MOCA's First 30 Years," Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

9. Wolf Parade + Contrived, W.W. Boyce Farmers' Market, Fredericton, NB

10. Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Portland, ME in Brief

If you're looking for a definitive account of Portland, Maine, a city that's been labeled "one of America's foodiest cities," "a foodie's paradise," and "America's Foodiest Small Town 2009," this ain't it.

Not for lack of desire, or anything. It's just that three hours is hardly enough time to get the lay of the land, let alone the lowdown on the food scene. That said, three hours is long enough to have breakfast, check out a bookstore, and pick up a snack, so, for what it's worth...

inside Rabelais fig. a: inside Rabelais

I'd read good things about Rabelais, "fine books on food & drink," but I still wasn't prepared for just how excellent this bookstore is. I wouldn't draw exact comparisons between Rabelais and New York's Kitchen Arts & Letters, or Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks and Joanne Hendricks, but these guys are definitely in the same league. Their collection leans heavily towards the second-hand and the antiquarian, but they also carry a well-chosen selection of new and recent releases. And they're friendly, too. Really friendly. I spent a good, long while perusing Rabelais' shelves and their piles of new arrivals, and had a nice conversation with the proprietor about dessert books, reissues and reprints, and food art (prompted by a fascinating and beautiful piece of Haitian folk art on raising hogs that Rabelais has on display). I also managed to find a stack of goodies for a certain special someone who was just about to celebrate her birthday.*

hash & eggs à la Becky's fig. b: corned beef hash & eggs @ Becky's

Becky's Diner is a neighborhood diner that's located on Portland's waterfront (on Hobson's Wharf, to be exact), and that specializes in fresh seafood. They also make some pretty mean breakfasts, including the eggs & corned beef hash combo you see pictured above. I was pleased when they offered me an English muffin as one of my toast options, and I was even happier when my server asked me whether I wanted that English muffin toasted or grilled on their skillet. I chose the latter option, of course.

File under "When in Rome": when I asked for hot sauce to go with my breakfast, one of the options that was presented to me was a local variety of hot sauce: Captain Mowatt's Canceaux Sauce. Spicy and sweet, Captain Mowatt's special blend was like a Northeastern sriracha sauce, but with a lot more body to it. Win-win-win: delicious on my eggs, delicious on my potatoes, and delicious on my corned beef hash, too.

whoopie! fig. c: whoopie!

Michelle tells me that whoopie pies are the new cupcakes. I'm not 100% sure what she means by that (is Manhattan now littered with boutiquey whoopie pie specialists? are whoopie pies on the verge of sweeping over Montreal?). Whatever the case, at the time that I walked into Two Fat Cats Bakery looking for a simple snack to hit the road with, I had no idea that whoopie pies were trendy. I'd heard of whoopie pies before, of course--I knew they had a following that stretched from the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast--but I certainly wasn't on the hunt for one. When I saw that chocolate cake and marshmallow sandwich staring back at me, however, I knew I'd found what I was looking for. Tasted great with my cup of coffee, gave me a heavy-duty sugar buzz that lasted for the next 5 hours, and it made for a much more manageable roadfood than, say, a cupcake or a muffin.

Not that I needed any more sugar or chocolate in my system, but Two Fat Cats makes a pretty good chocolate chip cookie, too.

Rabelais, 86 Middle Street, Portland, ME, (207) 774-1044

Becky's Diner, 390 Commercial Street, Portland, ME, (207) 773-7070

Two Fat Cats, 47 India Street, Portland, ME, (207) 347-5144


* Among other treasures:

C. Anne Wilson's The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, its History, and its Role in the World Today...

book of marmalade fig. d: The Book of Marmalade 1

Check out the spine!

book of marmalade 2 fig. e: The Book of Marmalade 2

St. Martin's/Marek!