Friday, February 3, 2012

Fujiya LOOK Baskin Robbins

LOOK Baskin Robbins

It's been a while! Sorry for being so quiet. I'd like to say that I've been too busy with work and graduate school to post, but the truth is, I've had free time, I've just been doing other things. I did notice some new followers, so thanks for being patient with me!

Getting back into the swing of things, I thought I'd give LOOK chocolate another try. LOOK has been hit or miss; their French- and Italian-themed collections were fantastic, but their plain chocolates left a lot to be desired. This is the Baskin Robbins collection, so naturally, the four flavors are ice cream inspired.

LOOK Baskin Robbins

It's fitting to start off with Jamocha Coffee because the coffee flavor seemed to find its way into many of the adjacent chocolates. On its own, it was all right. The milk chocolate went well with the mild coffee flavor, and it definitely reminded me of a blended iced coffee drink.

Strawberry Cheesecake had a slightly tart berry flavor with a hint of yogurt. It didn't really taste like cheesecake, but it was still tasty. As I mentioned, I think there was some flavor mingling going on, because some of the Strawberry Cheesecake pieces had a weird and off-putting coffee note.

Matcha, always the flavor I look forward to the most, had a slight bitter matcha flavor, but it was so subtle that it was easily overwhelmed by the milk chocolate. It was disappointing. One of the Matcha pieces tasted like coffee, too.

Vanilla had a sweet fake vanilla flavor. It was pretty standard fare, but the coffee essence seeped into a couple of these pieces, too. It wasn't too bad for this flavor.

Overall, when the non-coffee flavors didn't taste like coffee, they were fine, but flavor mingling was an issue in this package (even though they were well within the expiration date). It didn't happen to every piece, but I'm thinking the fresher you can get these, the better.


LOOK website

Saffron, Yuzu, and Pepper Crème Brûlée Shooters

I don't want this blog to veer too far into the direction of cooking blogs. God knows the world needs another cooking blogger, but I need to tell you that I am smugger than a dog with a raw steak right now. And not because I've learned how to use the manual setting on my camera. Yes, triggered by the birthday of my sweet partner in crime, I have successfully wrestled crème brûlée to the ground, tackled it into submission and crowned myself the ultimate victor of the eternal battle of man versus flame.
I love my new toy.
As a result of a few rather irrelevant things, I had an awful evening last night. Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: nothing solves problems like a butane torch. Simply figuring out how the torch worked and experimenting with it worked wonders on my mood. I'm not saying you have to do something bad with it, but just having the ability to turn on a bright blue flame and torch the heck out of a jiggling, creamy dessert brings a little peace of mind in itself.
For Miss Love's birthday dinner tomorrow, we decided to keep the menu simple: pasta carbonara (topped with lox, thank ya) and salted rose crème brûlée. As I'd never made it before, it was a daunting, yet fun project for me to tackle. Never one to stumble blindly into pyrotechnics, I decided to start practicing (as one girlfriend can never enjoy too many imperfect tester desserts) a few days early and fooled around with the flavors and the recipe. Without further ado, I must confess to you that I have decided that crème brûlée is totally my new thing. I'm utterly obsessed.
With such a versatile and pleasant base, one can almost put anything into crème brûlée. Had I more time and weren't planning for a special event, I would have been jazzed to try upping the salt in this recipe, decreasing the sugar, and plopping a few pieces of lobster tail into the mix for a savory treat. I experimented with a few flavors and receptacles, settling on the crème you'll see in a few days, but wanted to showcase these adorable saffron, yuzu, and pepper shooters I tinkered with in the process. The yuzu was a gift from Miss Love that I thought would be a blast to incorporate into the dessert.
Saffron, Yuzu, and Pepper Crème Brûlée Shooters (loosely adapted from here)
Ingredients (makes six shooters)
1 cup of heavy cream
1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste/extract or 1 vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup of sugar
A few grinds of freshly cracked black pepper (I used the flower pepper from Trader Joe's...amazing!)
2 tablespoons of honey
A few strands of saffron- enough to color the mix, but not too many
4 pieces of chopped candied yuzu
Superfine sugar for the top

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Mix the cream and the vanilla bean paste/extract together in a small saucepan, simmering over a low heat until warm.
2. While the cream mixture is heating, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until frothy and smooth.
3. Turn off the burner and drizzle a small amount of cream into the egg mixture to temper. Don't use too much or your mixture will seize up and scramble, but add a little at a time while stirring until it is fully incorporated.
4. Once the mixture is smooth, add your pepper, saffron, honey, and yuzu. Mix thoroughly and pour into shot glasses. The yuzu generally sinks to the bottom. I advise mixing it in and putting a few pieces into the shot glasses or sticking it in after you've mixed.
5. Place the shot glasses in a shallow pan filled with water and bake for 25-30 minutes. Make sure the tops don't get brown. When they don't quiver when shaken and are slightly porous on top, you're good to go. Take them out and chill them for 1-2 hours.
6. Take the shooters out of the fridge and lightly sprinkly with superfine sugar. When the time comes to give them their crispy tops, don't fear the butane. Holding the torch at an angle, lightly torch the sugar, moving from side to side so that you are not focusing the flame in one place. When the granules are gone and the sugar has bubbled and hardened, they're done.
Would you not want to hoard these at a party? Or just eat one for breakfast? I did- twice.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blue Corn and Pistachio Chicken Tenders

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I'm a chicken tender wizard. I have literally perfected my recipe for creating amazing, crispy nuggets and tenders to a science. While I could eat plain nuggets and sauces for the rest of my days and die happy, I decided to fool around with some of the ingredients Target sent over as part of our giveaway (details here) and review.
Although we don't have a television at home, I love turning on the TV at the gym or at my dorm to watch Chopped. It's my equivalent of Sunday night football or watching a particularly rousing game of Wheel of Fortune. Once I see a contestant fumbling around with a Buddha's hand or staring blankly at a langoustine, my triggers are set off and I'm screaming at the television- "Are you freaking nuts?! Use the cumin! How effing hard is it to make a hibiscus foam? Jesus!" So I thought it would be fun to see how many components from the Target selection I could use in my nuggets.
Granted, it wasn't too difficult- let's be honest, I wasn't working with whole branzino or gummy bears, but I still had a ton of fun with it. Taking a leaf from the pages of Dude Foods, who also received a similar selection of products and made cheese ball chicken tenders with it, I also went for a funky approach and ground up the blue corn and flax seed tortilla chips along with some pistachio nuts as a crust. I marinated the chicken in a mixture of the salsa as well as some orange zest and harissa for a little zing.
The verdict? Freaking awesome. Served with some of the orange harissa salsa, they made a great and easy meal. Using nuts in chicken feels like an underrated technique that I'll definitely try again. It's a healthy and unique twist on traditional football food and gave the tenders a tremendous burst of protein. Thanks again to Archer Farms and Target for providing the goods, and don't forget to enter our contest so you can make these, too!
Blue Corn and Pistachio Chicken Tenders
Ingredients (makes twelve tenders)
2 large chicken breasts, pounded to roughly 3/4 inches thick
Orange zest
1/2 teaspoon of Moroccan harissa
1/4 cup of orange juice
1/2 cup salsa
1/4 cup pistachios
1 cups blue corn chips
Oil or cooking spray
1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Cut your chicken breasts up into twelve strips, roughly the same size. Toss with salsa, orange zest, orange juice, and harissa and marinate for fifteen minutes.
2. Grind your tortilla chips and pistachios (shelled, of course) in a food processor until finely ground. Pour into a bowl and coat chicken strips in the crumbs.
3. Bake in the oven for ten minutes on 425 degrees, and then turn up the oven and let them crisp at 475 degrees for five more minutes. Let cool briefly and eat with salsa or dip of your choice!
Superbowl Sunday has never been so...fab!

Target and Archer Farms Super/Puppy Bowl Giveaway!

The Puppy Bowl is this weekend. What's that, forlorn jersey-wearer? You say there's something else, too? What, did I miss your birthday? I celebrate no other event this week, unless said event includes chew-toy interceptions and fluffy wummy paw-paw tackles.
Because of the Puppy Bowl (okay, really in commemoration for the Super Bowl!) Target and Archer Farms have provided me with a bevy of awesome goodies to send to one lucky reader. That's right, two simultaneous giveaways. Just how you like it. Comment on this post and tell me what your favorite Puppy Bowl contestant is. If yours matches mine, you win! I won't post the winner until Sunday evening, so multiple people will have the chance to win...if you all guess correctly. Even through they snubbed Corgi dogs again.
(image courtesy of That Cheap Chick)

The prize pack includes:
Archer Farms Blue Flax Corn Tortilla Chips
Archer Farms Corn, Black Bean, and Roasted Pepper Salsa
Archer Farms Buffalo Style Blue Cheese Dip Mix

Trust that I will be creating a Chopped-style recipe with these components later on in the week. Comment now! Puppies! Puppies!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chuao Sweetheart Box and a Giveaway!

Yes, Valentine's Day is coming. And yes, I'm plenty aware that some of you hate it and that some of you love it. Whether you're single or attached, bubbly or bitter, nothing beats the fact that chocolate is everywhere. Before you flip the bird at the Russell Stover samplers or kick the display of bloated teddy bears onto the ground, the Chuao Sweetheart selection should cheer you up. And there's also the possibility of a trip to San Diego and a $50 gift card to Chuao's store. So buck up and play along, and you could be stuffing your face with popping chocolate and potato chip chocolate bars in no time. How do you win? The San Diego deets are on Chuao's Facebook page. If you click through on my link to the right from now 'till February 14th and check out the information, you'll automatically be entered in the running to win the contest. If we get enough clicks through the banner, Chuao will give me a $50 gift card to giveaway to one lucky reader. How's that for awesome? It's blogger-driven, so only bloggers whose readers participate will be entered to win!
To give you a little taste of the goodies to come, Chuao sent over two truffles exclusive to their newly debuted Sweetheart Box, filled to the brim with aphrodisiac-inspired truffles to delight your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. The first truffle, the Love Child bonbon, was squat and petite, filled with a port-drenched dried strawberry hunk in a chocolate ganache. It had an incredibly creamy, milky texture, with a sour tang almost like balsamic vinegar infusing the strawberry. The port influences seemed to come more from the ganache, a delicate, fluffy core with a silkiness similar to cheesecake, and the entire thing was perfectly poppable and not too sweet.
The next truffle, the Firecracker bonbon, was easily one of the tastiest chocolates I've sampled from Chuao. Incorporating all of their funkier elements, like chipotle caramel and popping candy in a ganache with a touch of sea salt, the only thing that could have made this more orgasmic would have been the inclusion of potato chips. Oh, and maybe about fifty more of these. With a crispy texture like a brittle piece of feuillitine and an intense smokiness, its delicate exterior completely belied its inner contents. The caramel was luxurious, the sea salt tangy. I'm honestly inclined to order a box of these and these alone for myself.
If you're too impatient to wait for the contest to end, you can order your own Sweetheart Box here. In the meantime, I'll keep you updated with Twitter- keep those votes coming!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sahale Snacks Ksar Pistachio Nut Blend

Today's review was brought to you by an intriguing comment by a cowardly reader. Recently, it was brought to my attention that my reviews were pretentious and favored expensive, low quality foods over cheap, high-quality condiments that I'm clearly missing out on loving to death. Yup, I'm just out to squash the little guy under my leather Charles Jourdain pumps. I had no idea I was Satan and Big Oil and Pacific Gas & Electric, but that's why the website is called Commenter Reviews, right? All these things make me think a lot of feelings about myself.
Of course, the last time I checked, it wasn't, and that's why I'd like to highlight one of my favorite products to prove you wrong. Have you met my friend Honey Badger? Sahale Snacks is easily one of my favorite snack companies because it takes boring base ingredients (nuts) and gives them thirty pieces of flair (spices, herbs, fruit, and other nuts) to keep them exciting and awesome. Sahale's blends are some of the most original I've come across. I mean, how often does your government-issued campfire trail mix come with lavender, orange zest, or lemongrass? Tonight's offering was indeed found at our local discount grocery store, and I did love it.
The Ksar nut blend features a base of pistachios accented with sesame seeds, pepitas, fig, and harissa. Definitely sounds more like something you'd find orbiting a sphere of pork butt or pumpkin rind at Alinea, no? But this stuff is available to the masses without a crazy reservation for the mere price of $2 and change. Not bad at all. In yet another delightfully self-promotional twist, I'm going to go as far as to liken this to my own website. Perhaps in individual elements, it's not perfect. Your eyes may hurt from my cheap orange and turquoise color scheme or you might not like how chewy the fig balls are in the Ksar blend. You might find my prose trite and the pepitas too spicy, or my photos crappy and the sesame seeds invisible. But quite honestly, if you open wide and take the whole thing in, you'll find that it's awesome. It's a little whacky, and it's definitely not for everyone, but it's delightful to behold and will satisfy you long into the night. Just like that, baby, just like that.
This mix has a charming versatility to it that makes me want to cancel any dinner plans I have on any given day and experiment with this- with grinding the nuts and coating chicken breasts with them, or mixing them into a stew or shredded taco meat. Maybe even blending them with a little oil to create a savory, spicy nut butter? There's just so much to this flavor profile that aches for customization to an individual dish. Not that it's not excellent to eat on its own. The harissa really comes out when paired with the earthy pepita seeds. For whatever reason, this heat is strongest on them, possible from their higher concentration of oil and toasted flavor. The figs added a much needed jamminess to the whole mix to counterbalance the buttery, savory indulgence from the nuts. All in all, pretty darn perfect. And only a few dollars for a quality product. See? Just get to know me. Perhaps you'll find that my elitism isn't as bad as you may think. Or maybe you won't. I guess the truth is that I don't really give a Ksar.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ginger People Ginger Peanut Chews

After a fairly awful week of fairly awful items, I figured you all deserved a break. Here's some good old fashioned food, with calories and flavor and edible components that you might actually want to eat. My good friend Rodzilla once clarified his reasons behind an A+, illustrating his point with an impressive stack of ice cream cartons. Tonight's product follows a similar principle. What makes a good, solid product for Foodette? Well, for starters, it's an embarrassing lack of photos due to consumption. Believe me, we were very close to photographing an empty package for you!
This product has some of the most unique packaging I've ever encountered, not so much in the physical execution so much as the visual. Their logo is an anthropomorphic ginger root, with hedonistically plump features and a come hither gaze. He is typically entwined with whatever additional flavored component is in the actual candy, in this case, a shapely peanut. Perhaps the most disturbing part is that on each package, he is featured either preparing or eating his own flesh- ginger pieces! That being said, if the Ginger People ever marketed a plush version of their mascot or slapped this guy on a t-shirt, I'd be all over it.Once we ate one of these peanut ginger chews, courtesy of the Ginger People, we simply could not stop. With a short ingredient list and a mere 20 calories per chew, these are a winner in not only flavor, but health. Obviously, the Ginger People are known for ginger, and these chews incorporate said ingredient in a very refined and well-executed fashion. For the most part, I found that these chews had an addictive enough flavor and spiciness that grew in intensity with each bite, but weren't so mindlessly chewable that I felt as though I was at risk of eating too many. Each chew is roughly the size of a Starburst, though rectangular, and is coated in corn starch and powdered sugar. It has an initial coolness on the tongue as a result of that coating, but then the sharp ginger flavor comes through brilliantly, with a clean and smooth heat that permeates the entire chew.
The peanut influence is also strong, and manifests itself in a flavor and format similar to the texture of natural peanut butter, with a pleasant graininess and not-too-sweet taste. The sweetness of the ginger really accentuates the nutty flavors of the peanuts, and supplements their lack of sweetness with the natural fruity flavor of ground ginger. Really well balanced and delicious to eat. Because they're individually wrapped, they're incredibly easy to slip in a pocket or purse if you don't feel like taking the whole package along on a trip or to class. These will definitely come in handy for soothing a winter cold as well as satiating my sweet tooth in the months to come.

Sixth Anniversary

It's the end of January, and that means it's Mac & Cheese's sixth anniversary! Where does the time and calories go? Well, I know where the calories go, and that, my friends, is one of the reasons why I've been taking it easy on the posting front this past year.

Many thanks to all who read the blog. Now, here is a roundup of this past year's highlights.

Favorite Posts It was my first year as a CSA member, and I can't say enough good things about the experience. I've signed up again this year! While the weekly posts of how I used the bountiful CSA produce is admittedly a bit boring to read, you can get a sense of how I really eat. Plus, these posts practically write themselves, and those kinds of posts are every blogger's dream.

Favorite RestaurantsMany of my favorite establishments I reviewed last year aren't really restaurants in the traditional sense. Little Baby's Ice Cream is a tricycle (a brick and mortar store is in the works) that makes irresistibly quirky ice cream flavors. While I don't do the Korean fried chicken at Federal Donuts, I love the donuts at this deservedly hyped corner take-out so much that I've had to set myself some limits. Va La Vinyards has long been my favorite winery in the Brandywine Valley, but I only just got around to telling you about it (maybe for selfish reasons). So happy to see the gourmet hot dog trend take off this past year in Philly, and glad when establishments, like Hot Diggity, include us vegetarians.

Favorite RecipesI can't count how many times we've made this recipe for rosemary roasted cashews in the past year; it's that good! Once you go raw kale, it's hard to go back to cooked. I have a soft spot for quirky and fabulous desserts, and these corn cookies hit both marks.

Most Popular Posts
This is the first year that recipe posts did not take the top three spots as the most viewed posts. Coming in at number one and number two, respectively, are Frankford Hall and El Rey. I explain their victory because they are both restaurants from Philly's most popular restauranteur, Stephen Starr. Coming in third is Memphis Taproom Beer Garden. I explain this ranking because Memphis Taproom's courtyard garden selling gourmet hot dogs (they also have veggie dogs!) and canned craft beer from a truck is simply awesome.

VacationWe kept it stateside this year with trips to Seattle and Portland, two cities I've never been to previously, but have long been on my wish list. Our annual trip to Pawleys Island in South Carolina where high humidity, sweltering temps, and pimento cheese nights always make me long for home.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gross Food Week #7: Walden Farms Calorie Free Marshmallow Dip

Ah, yes, Walden Farms. We used to go there on field trips when I was a waifish little girl. Take a stroll past the emaciated cows, lowing for calorie-free feed and water as the calorie-free breeze blew gently on your face. Old Farmer Walden would strap up ol' Treadmill, the starving mare, and we'd take a ride around the field, its crops skinny and sexy as always, the abundant corn and wheat sheaves nearly translucent after shedding all those calories.
Those were the good old days, and no trip would be complete without a taste of Mrs. Farmer Walden's special calorie-free marshmallow dip. Of course, this was before WalCorp bought out the farm, but it was just as heavenly as it could be- just like the real, horrifically fatty obese child snack, only...more wholesome. Ha ha, no it wasn't. I'm just screwing with you. In fact, this has the air of a product made prior to a big corporate buy-out. With its incredibly precious label and short ingredient list, it almost does look like something that an ingenious housewife would whip up in her kitchen, until you open the jar. Shit is downright chemical.
For a brief, miserable summer, my dad decided to teach me some of the basic intricacies of home repair. One of the only things I retained from that summer was how to properly wield an axe to chop firewood, how to perfect my summer burn while lounging outside watching actual home improvement workers do their jobs, and how to use caulk in a small imperfection in an area. Lest you underestimate my mettle, know that this is typical behavior. Because this post isn't about calorie-free axe murder or harassing working people, let's see if you can figure out where this is heading. Caulk is not edible, but appears to be. But if you're a closeted pica sufferer, I've got great news: Walden Farms Calorie Free Marshmallow Spread is as close as you can get to legally ingesting caulk, and it's sort of, kind of, real food.
Let's get the legal mess out of the way: according to the FDA guidance, compliance, and regulatory information, chapter 9, appendix A, the definitions of nutrition claims, a product is able to state that it is "calorie-free" if it has 5 or less calories per serving. You will receive no legal compensation for ingesting eighty jars of this and getting fat. But it's not even worth your zero to five calories per serving. With a perpetually cold, thick texture, like cold cream without the lingering scent of baby powder, and a pure white color that absorbs all darkness and shadows, it's definitely providing all of the defensive indicators to alert you not to consume it. But we forge on, as always. It has a congealed, wet smell like molding wood, with a harsh sugary edge behind it, like the sweet powdered sugar and corn starch scent on marshmallows. It's not quite a solid and yet too gelatinous to be a liquid, and falls off both spoons, knifes, and fingers, leaving a watery, chalky smear of a trail in its wake. Think saturated marshmallows that have taken a trip down the river, capisce?
The flavor is downright abrasive, with a hideous gloppiness, like poorly cooked pudding, that doesn't disappear once placed on the tongue. It's similar to taking an injection of Splenda right into the vein. Any trace of vanilla that was once in this, or at least near this, was absorbed by the great white mass and spat out into the ether, never to be seen again. The flavor is part synthetic and part Elmer's glue, with an emphasis on the latter. It's heinous. There's no better way to tell you. It's nothing like marshmallows, dip, or marshmallow fluff, which I took out to remind myself what real fake marshmallow spread is like. Phew. This product isn't worth saving its exaggerated, implausible claim of 330 calories a day. You're better off eating actual caulk and sealing your own mouth shut. I'm just thankful I didn't spring for the zero calorie peanut butter and make myself a FlufferHater sandwich.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gross Food Week #6: Nexcite

I suppose I've developed a little reputation for myself. The Huffington Post described us as "no holds barred," while my own family took the more direct approach and wondered if we weren't "pushing the line." Frankly, I just like to think of myself as the girl who tried all of the carbonated sexual aphrodisiacs the world has to offer. Simple pleasures, that's what defines me.
This particular beverage came to the United States by way of hatred and copyright infringement in equal doses. Nexcite, a whimsical Swedish penis pumper, is a soda designed to provide a proprietary formula of herbal extracts and caffeine with which will fuel your manbits like no other. Like no other, I say! And because it was fifty cents on clearance and had a rabbit on the label, I tried it for you today. The soda is Viagra blue and smells like an energy drink, if an energy drink was consumed by a toddler and vacated with 50% more melted blue Jolly Ranchers than it originally contained.
It just leads me to wonder, why oh, why would the manufacturers of this drink make it bright blue and candy-scented? With its cute bunny logo, it's just asking to be guzzled by a small child. Or worse yet, it's all getting clearer to me now. With its emasculating smell and antifreeze pallor, it's the perfect way to get a little kink into the bedroom by tricking your man into thinking he's about to down a shot of Prestone. The five supplements, not to be confused with the fifty ways to leave your lover, which yours will undoubtedly do after watching you wince this down, are as follows: Yerba mate, an herb traditionally used in hot tea, which everyone knows makes you look brooding and sensitive, damiana, nature's off-brand Viagra, illegal in Louisiana, ginseng and guarana, everyone's favorite acid-flavored energy drink supplement, and last but not least, schizandra. This is not a Mary Sue-esque Final Fantasy character as I initially thought. It's a Chinese berry that aids in soothing the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. How sexy is that?
Nexcite tastes like the darker side of liquified cotton candy and green tea mixed together at a frat party. It's both bitter and overly sweetened and as a flavor best described as being throat-punched by a lime, with a potently sour aftertaste like a Warhead. Extremely sugary, in a weird way that sticks to your gums and works its way into the crannies of your mouth, like sexual harassment for your teeth. It numbed my taste buds for a good ten seconds after each sip, which I suppose aids in diffusing some sexual tension if you're not sure of, how shall we put it, the provenance of some particular after-dinner treats you may partake in. This'll fix you good. In regards to the state of my sexual performance prior to and after consuming this drink, I can't tell you if it helped. I was too busy looking slack-jawed at the recommendation on the side of the bottle: "As a supplement, drink 1-8 bottles a day." Holy crap, Nexcite, I'm a woman, not a machine. Here's to drinks directly fueling the sex working industry, one male gigolo at a time.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gross Week #5: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Grilled Cheese Explosion

Ugh, I just had a grilled cheese explosion all over my sweatpants. Too much? Perhaps. One might even call it...wait for it...cheesy. I'd personally call it a gloopy, room temperature mess. Welcome to our fifth day of Gross Week, readers. Here's the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Grilled Cheese Explosion, brought to you by bewildered kittens! Hold your horses, adult baby fetishizers- this is so easy you won't have to have your aging mom make it for you.
How many different ways can companies try to shuffle around cheese, anyway? Seeing asiago Cheetos and camembert Easy Cheez just bothers me. It all tastes like the basic, vaguely tangy saltfest we all know and love. I'm not quite eager to whip out a bag of ten-year old vintage Ritz Bits with aged cheddar, if you know what I mean. So the Kraft Grilled Cheese Explosion, now with 100% more splooging on the package, eschews the familiar elbow macaroni format for little ditalini noodles. All the better to hold you with, I suppose. These looked appetizing dry but took on a translucent, slippery quality unlike any pasta I've had recently. It definitely wasn't how I remembered eating it as a child.The directions for Kraft's mac and cheese have also changed, in no part due to their stellar legal team fighting the obesity crisis. What used to be the "light" instructions in small print on the bottom of the box has now replaced the classic preparation and has cut the butter and milk in half. Of course, this doesn't hinder you from adding a half stick of butter rather than a half tablespoon as I did as a child, but does try to detract and sort of screws with the ratios of the proper sauce mixture. When mixed, the entire pot of pasta seizes up unpleasantly instead of melting into a nice sauce, and the cheese powder never quite loses its grainy texture. I was surprised at how large the individual grains of powder were- they were more corrugated and crystallized than the fine powder of yore but surprisingly flavorless.
Despite smelling sharp, like actual cheddar, the only noticeable flavor was incredibly offputting, reeking of salt and butter, and not just the butter I added. It had more of a fake butter quality to it, making it more appropriately flavored as "$9 movie theatre popcorn" and had a clumpy, weirdly thick texture. Even after adding more than the recommended amount of milk, the sauce separated in some parts and seized in others, leaving each spoonful half-full of milky, runny sauce and half-full of chunks of undissolved powder.
As much as I love macaroni and cheese, this was inedible. Add its poor flavor to the confusing fact that there are two more of these "cheese explosion" varieties and you have a god-awful tasting menu. I don't understand how Kraft's menu team translated grilled cheese to a butter-on-butter sleazefest, but there you have it. Even piling a bit on top of a homemade nugget with some hot sauce like a cheap wedding appetizer didn't help it. It was a veritable onslaught of hypertension crammed into small tubes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gross Food Week #4: The Hungry Ghost Bakery, Northampton, MA

In planning out my selections for Gross Week, I initially thought it would be overkill to include a restaurant in an undoubtedly negatively centered theme. However, after trying the pizza at The Hungry Ghost Bakery in Northampton, Massachusetts, all bets are off. To some Northamptonites, this review will strike the wrong chord. They will place it in the same shock category as a "Nobama" bumper sticker. The Hungry Ghost, a two-time James Beard semifinalist, is a small town staple atop a small hill in the center of town, flanked by office buildings and groceries just off the main drag. When I first came here for school, it was all everyone spoke about.
"Oh, you must try the Ghost- they only bake one kind of specialty bread a day and don't bake any more when they run out! The owner wrote a ballad about the bakery! They have a schedule for their bread." Handwritten menus and a shabby workspace pass for status indicators in this area, I noticed. In fact, I entered the bakery twice prior to their late 2011 renovation and left before ordering as I was appalled with the putrid state of conditions there. Formerly a dusty, dank bakery, albeit one with lovely smells, the reviews of The Hungry Ghost's bread range from passionate to pallid. But it was their recent renovation and switch to pizza that piqued my curiosity one evening, prompted by an October 2011 review by Serious Eats writer Liz Bomze, when the bakery had first branched out to pizza. I'm not one to place SE on a pedestal, but I respect their input and recognize their experience in eating many different types of pizza, so their range of comparison would be vast and hopefully serve as a good benchmark for my own experience.
What Liz described as "some of the best pizza in New England" was something I wouldn't have the heart to feed my dog. (Who, for the record, was raised on New Haven apizza crusts slipped under the table.) Perhaps this would pass for good pizza to someone who was heretofore fed exclusively Domino's and Digiorno, but for a Connecticut resident, this barely has the life and character of a freezer-burnt Ellio's. Entering the bakery, we were the only patrons yet stood for a few minutes as the cashier finished a lengthy conversation about boys with a friend of hers. When we made a motion to order and ask for a recommendation, as it was our first time checking the place out, it was made painfully clear that the delicate rhythm of the discourse was disrupted by our presence. This was reflected in the service. Hideously annoyed that her soliloquy about menfolk was stopped in its tracks, the cashier was surly, exhibiting a vapid passivity nearing autistic levels, thrusting a paper menu toward us and all but telling us to go screw ourselves. Any further requests for recommendations yielded blank stares and eye rolls.
We finally agreed to try their margherita pizza, a basic set of flavors that, when done well, transport the eater back to summertime. A simple choice for a first time. Informed that the pizza would take twenty minutes to cook, a strangely long time in a brand new Llopis wood-fire oven, we were told to come back. We perused a local deli and returned only to be informed that the bakery was cash-only. No signage alerted us to this fact, nor did our server choose to capitalize on our twenty minute wait by offering up this fact. Thus, our pizza was delayed another ten minutes as we found an ATM per her vague directions and went on our way.
That ten minutes made no difference at all. In fact, I doubt ten seconds would have made a difference, because this pizza was abhorrent both hot and cold. For starters, the composition. A margherita pizza is retardedly simple: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and a little extra virgin olive oil. Our pizza had rivulets of grease pocking its surface and running down the sides and into the crust and was sparse in the basil department. Apparently there's a shortage of skimpy, free-range basil leaves in the region. Fresh tomatoes were replaced with what tasted like canned tomato sauce, and the cheese was barely browned. Checking out the upskirt, we were once again dismayed by the shoddy performance of this seemingly new oven. I'm not sure if the owners got an upcycled oven or if it was left on the curb and posted on freecycle, but it yielded a flaccid, soggy crust with a gummy interior, each piece collapsing on itself, saturated and glistening with more oil than a male model and shedding dandruffy flakes of cornmeal and flour when moved from box to plate.
The first few bites of each slice were wet, thick, and slimy, the result of the copious amounts oil migrating to the center of the pie. With each bite, I was waiting for International Bird Rescue to come clean my mouth in the same way oiled seagulls are cleaned after a disaster. $13 bought an extremely bland, oversweetened twelve inch pizza that left a sheen on our lips and carried a pervasively annoying sourdough tang, more tangy and sour than their bread. I've suffered from heartburn with a more nuanced flavor than this.
Unfortunately, Jesus did not grace our grease-stained napkin with His presence. He must have seen our pitiful meal and appeared in the craggy crust of a McNugget across the street instead.
An undistinguished and frugally filled alfajore did not make for a delightful end to the meal.
We had structured our day around getting this pizza tonight. I'm just pleased that we didn't go "full pizza" and snag more than one pie or even upgrade to a larger size. This was so unappetizing that we didn't even bother to sit down at the table with it, much less open the bottle of Mondavi we'd left chilling for the occasion. From the many Bret Easton Ellis novels and old issues of the New Yorker I've perused, I gather that high-end restaurants of the 80's were proud of being stingy and standoffish, cultivating the type of clientele who would know better than to question the difference between ceviche and cilantro. I don't, however, understand why this snobby "value" is superimposed onto the more mediocre examples of fine dining I've seen in small towns. It seems like a certain strain of naive people equate this attitude with quality dining, and it unfortunately causes restaurants like this to thrive where they can be king of the college pizza scene. Hungry Ghost comes across as a ludicrously arrogant big fish in a small pond. The hype is not deserved.