30 September 2008

Chocolat, Mon Amour

I get a lot of flack for my breakfast selections. But keep in mind, I grew up in a household where I was taught how to make brownies as soon as I turned eight years old, and a mixing bowl full of M&Ms was a quickly declared dinner if the electricity was out.

In other words, a very sensible household.

Is it any surprise then, that this chocolate tart, along with a cup of green tea, was how I started today?

It's another recipe from the September issue of Gourmet, which is all about eating Paris, one buttery croissant at a time. Instead of its chocolate crust, I made a regular graham-cracker version, which seems a better canvas for the intense chocolate filling and satiny glaze.

Of course, its photography makes mine look like a crass kindergarten crayon etching, but I was too busy eating the tart to take the picture of the three remaining slices until a few days later.

Chocolate-Glazed Chocolate Tart
Makes: 8-10 servings.

8 (5- by 2 1/4-inch) graham crackers, finely ground (about 1 cup)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not more than 65% cacao), chopped
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 3/4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon warm water

1. For crust, preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Stir together all ingredients and press evenly onto bottom and 3/4 inch up side of 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Bake until firm, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack 15 to 20 minutes.

2. For filling, bring 1 1/4 cups cream to a boil, then pour over chocolate in a bowl and let stand 5 minutes. Gently stir until smooth. Whisk together eggs, vanilla, and salt in another bowl, then stir into melted chocolate.

3. Pour filling into cooled crust. Bake until filling is set about 3 inches from edge but center is still wobbly, 20 to 22 minutes. (Center will continue to set as tart cools.) Cool completely in pan on rack, about 1 hour.

4. For glaze, bring 2 tablespoons cream to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in chocolate until smooth. Stir in corn syrup, then warm water.

5. Pour glaze onto tart, then tilt and rotate tart so glaze coats top evenly. Let stand until glaze is set, about 1 hour.

Note: Tart is best the day it is made but can be made, without glaze, 1 day ahead and chilled. Bring to room temperature before glazing.

Chocolate and green tea are a stellar combination, so I brewed up some Uji Mecha, which just may be the happiest medium between a Japanese and Chinese green tea, to complement with the rich tart. And it's cheap (around $3 an ounce, which works out to 30¢ a cup- and yes, I had to use a calculator for that), which was welcome after coughing up over $20 for all that Scharffen Berger chocolate.

It's like making a good cup of tea, however: With so few ingredients, you have to use the highest quality you can find to make it shine.

29 September 2008

Taim: Israeli Good

This may be a blog about tea, but I'm going to let you in on a secret: where to find the best falafel in the city.

It's at the diminutive and immaculate Israeli spot Taim (222 Waverly Place @ 7th Ave.), and it comes in three flavors (green, red and harissa). As you bite through the balls' crispy, crackly exterior to get at the ethereal, steaming, fresh filling, tears of joy will come to your eyes.

And this isn't completely off topic, because there are several tea offerings there as well. Accompanied by an incredible jewelry designer, I stopped in the other afternoon, passing up the homemade pomegranate iced tea and milky chai for a cup of mint tea with honey ($1.75). There's approximately 3.5 stools inside, so I needed something that would keep me warm as we sat on the bench outside and watched the new autumnal dusk overtake the West Village.

It's not better than the Moroccan mint tea I like to make at home, but for less than $2, it manages to be simultaneously refreshing and calming. Where else in Manhattan can you find a deal like that?

26 September 2008

Cha on the Cheap

An incredible jewelry designer I know recently surprised me with a green tea I'd never heard of: aracha.

She handed it to me right before departing on a long trip- explaining that she found it in one of New York few Japanese groceries- so unfortunately, I couldn't brew it up for us to share. But I made myself two cups this morning anyway, so I could generously drink one on her behalf and appreciate her thoughtful gift.

As I sipped, I did some research.

Aracha is referred to as crude tea, but this doesn't mean it's comparable to crude oil versus the delicious product that ends up in your car's gas tank, for instance. Aracha, which usually undergoes a second round of processing and blending before being consumed, is still eminently drinkable in its unrefined state.

Also called primal or unfinished tea, the aracha tasted smoother than I expected for this "simple" green. It was thicker on the tongue than more refined (and expensive) Japanese senchas, and had a slightly cloudy, duller green color, but it was still delicious.

Like other Japanese greens, aracha has that characteristic vegetal, grassy taste, stemming from the steaming of the leaves. This preserves their natural chlorophyll- and for those of you who weren't as riveted in biology class as I was, that's the green-light-loving pigment that enables photosynthesis, and what makes salads taste like they're good for you.

If you're not familiar with Japanese green teas, aracha is a good entry, thanks to its reasonable price and more forgiving brew. You still want to ensure the water is well below boiling (about 170°-180°F), and that you don't steep it for more than a minute and a half. If you still need more guidance, don't beat yourself up: just see my self-proclaimed essential tea brewing guide.

Try to have some company for it, too, so you don't feel quite as insane setting out two teacups when it's just you. (Although I did score both of these beauties at the Salvation Army for 79¢ the other day, and I've been just itching to use them. See, I know how to survive in a depression. Whether I'd want to is another question.)

25 September 2008

Beneficial Wall St. Bubbles

These days, the financial district is is home to many things: broken promises, shattered dreams, fortunes lost. And practically nothing edible within spitting distance from Wall St.

However, there is a new way to drown your economic sorrows, at the few-months-old e-TeaHouse (29 John St., btw. Nassau and Broadway). What could be more appropriate, in these times, than bubble tea?

Bubble, or pearl milk (as it's known in China) tea is said to have originated in Taiwan in the 1980s before rolling into Canada and then to American Chinatowns on both coasts. It comes in a seemingly infinite number of varieties- black or green tea mixed with flavors like coconut, almond, mango or taro- and for the brave, a sunken treasure of chewy tapioca balls at the bottom.

I had it for the first time right when I moved to New York in 2000, and almost did a spit-take at the little cafe table: The sensation of sucking up gelatinous, black balls in a sip of hot, sweet tea just seemed terribly wrong. By the second cup, though, I was relishing having something else to do besides just drink tea- those tapioca balls were like the childhood favorite gummi bears matured into a hipper, chicer shape, and they were really fun to chew on, or jettison back out through the giant plastic straws while walking around Chinatown. (In fact, one of my friends could have won a gold medal for his remarkable accuracy and distance, if the Olympics ever had such worthwhile events.)

Even now, it's hard to find any decent bubble tea outside of Chinatown, so I was a bit wary of this new place- and its website did little to reassure me. A friend I haven't seen in ages was up for the adventure, though, so we ventured in.

It is a miniscule, brightly colored spot- not the most relaxing to sit in- but the service is attentive and the selections are notable for the location: my friend had a passionfruit green tea ($2.85), and I had the rose milk tea ($3.05), a flavor I'd never seen before.

My tea was quite nice- not too sweet, not too creamy, with a faint rose essence and soft, chewy tapioca balls.

There's a selection of traditional Chinese pastries, but the cookies on the counter looked more appealing, and they didn't disappoint.

It may be hard to believe, but there is a good deal to be had by Wall St.: $1 will get you four rich almond cookies, or a dozen thin, crispy coconut wafers.

It doesn't appear that they're house-made, but whoever is supplying the shop knows their sweets. The almond cookies in particular were ideal for dipping into the hot, milky tea, and justified calling the meal lunch.

On the way out, I noticed a sign offering a new special that I've not seen before- coffee bubble tea. In this country, I suppose you have to entice the non-tea drinkers somehow. Perhaps I'll convince my next victim to try it when I go back.

Still, my favorite bubble tea spot remains in the heart of Chinatown, where you can always see a free economy successfully at work. I'll reveal it someday.

22 September 2008

The Great Pumpkin Cake

In case you missed it in the papers, I grew a pumpkin this year. An organic pumpkin, due to a free packet of organic seeds and a very natural (completely absent after toeing them into the ground) farming method.

And now it's official: I love pumpkins. I love watching them grow, I love how they taste, I love them sitting on my kitchen counter, patiently waiting to be consumed.

To commemorate my first hand-produced food, I needed a special recipe. Was it divine gourd intervention, then, that led me to In the Sweet Kitchen's Pumpkin and Orange Breakfast Cake? Whatever it was, I owe it my gratitude.

This golden orange poundcake will warm you like September sunrise; alongside a bracing but smooth cup of Earl Grey, you may find yourself, as I have, repeating this breakfast for lunch and dinner.

The first bite is moist, dense and instantly conjures the beginning of autumn: the pumpkin isn't overly assertive, but rather offers a fresh, vegetal sweetness. A drizzle of hot, sugary orange syrup and a dollop of vanilla yogurt are exceptional accompaniments: The citrus intensifies the bright flavors, and the vanilla adds a subtle, creamy layer to each forkful.

Pumpkin-Orange Breakfast Cake With Fresh Orange Syrup
Makes: 10 servings.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest
3 large eggs, two separated, all at room temperature
1 cup pumpkin puree (homemade or canned)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake or pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Juice of one large orange
1/2 cup sugar
Vanilla yogurt, for serving

1. Butter and flour a 9-inch Bundt pan. Heat oven to 350°. Cream butter, sugar and orange zest together until light and fluffy. Add the whole egg and two egg yolks, one at a time, beating well and scraping down sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat in pumpkin puree.

2. Sift together flours, baking powder and salt. Add to pumpkin batter in three stages, blending gently but thoroughly after each. In a small, clean bowl, whip egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Gently fold into batter, then pour batter into prepared pan and smooth surface.

3. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until top of cake is springy when lightly touched, sides are beginning to pull away from the pan and toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes; turn cake out of pan and let cool completely.

4. For the syrup, combine the orange juice and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat, bring syrup to a boil, and simmer, without stirring, two minutes. Use while hot, or let cool and refrigerate.

5. To serve, place a slice of cake on a plate. Pour some warm syrup over the cake, then add a spoonful of vanilla yogurt.

To make your own pumpkin puree (even if you didn't grow the pumpkin yourself): Slice off the top and bottom of the pumpkin, and roast the whole thing in a 350° oven for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size, until it feels soft and tender. Let it cool slightly, then slice in half, scoop out seeds and pulp, and scrape the flesh into a blender or food mill and puree until smooth. Let the puree cool before using.

Making your own is hardly more complicated than opening a can of pumpkin puree, and it not only tastes better, it makes the entire house smell heavenly.

Is growing my own tea next? If I ever leave Brooklyn, perhaps.

17 September 2008

Do Donuts Dream of Electric Jelly?

I can't say, but I can tell you any Dunkin' Donuts munchkin dreams of being one of these: a warm, pillowy aebleskiver.

Aebleskiver are traditional Danish donuts that I first heard about while nearly falling asleep during a meeting with some jam purveyor, back when I was a food editor and companies would come to pitch their products in the hopes of getting into the food pages. They'd shower you with samples and gifts, seeking that priceless printed editorial approval (otherwise known as free advertising).

This one came bearing marionberry jam, an adorable, seven-holed cast-iron pan and instant mix for making aebleskiver. And it worked- I made sure the company's jam was featured the next holiday issue gift guide.

I never forgot how delicious those hot little donuts were, dusted with powdered sugar and slathered with the berry jam, but years went by before I stumbled across a recipe for them in a 1960s New York Times regional America cookbook.

There it was, tucked into Midwest breads and desserts section, from Iowa. And I just knew aebleskiver would be perfect with a cup of green tea (oops, a Japanese sencha, not Pi Lo Chun- all that sugar made me forgot yesterday's vow) for breakfast today.

The only problem is how many I made. Someone has got to come help me eat these. Iowans, Danes, whoever.

Makes: about 35 donuts.

2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Vegetable oil
Confectioners' sugar and jam, for serving

1. Mix buttermilk, egg yolks and vanilla extract together. Sift flour, baking soda, salt and sugar into a medium-sized bowl.

2. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Pour buttermilk mixture into flour and stir gently to combine; gently fold in egg whites until just mixed.

3. Brush holes of aebleskiver pan lightly with oil and heat over medium-low. Carefully spoon batter into holes until about two-thirds full, and cook about 3 minutes for side, flipping with a knitting needle.

4. Remove to a serving platter and dust with confectioners' sugar. Spread with jam just before eating.

A few tips: Yes, traditionally you flip these with a knitting needle- possibly the best use for one yet. Resist the urge to fill the holes of the pan, as these do puff up substantially while cooking.

And be sure the pan is hot enough before you add the batter (the oil should sizzle if you sprinkle in a drop of water).

If the aebleskiver seem to be browning too fast, turn the heat down.

You want that beautiful golden-brown crust, but you need to give them enough time to cook all the way through.

These would also be delicious with butter, honey, maple syrup, lemon curd or even dusted with a bit of matcha mixed with the powdered sugar.

I should know, because I tried all of them.

There's something so satisfying about the jam, though, as it saturates the hot, fluffy dough just enough before you devour it.

(P.S. You can get the pan or a set here.)

16 September 2008

My Pi Lo Chum

After my last post on Pi Lo Chun, I recently found the bag not-so-subtly buried underneath all those of my senchas and Uji Gyokuro, all the Japanese greens I love.

There's something about Chinese versus Japanese green teas, an earthiness rather than a vegetal greeness that always makes me hesitate a second before swallowing and ask myself: Do I like this?

Chinese green teas are usually processed via sun- or oven-drying, or basket- or pan-frying; Japanese greens by steaming. The steaming typically lasts no longer than a minute, but this is enough to preserve the chlorophyll in the leaves, producing Japanese greens' characteristic vibrant emerald color and fresh, grassy taste.

Perhaps this is why I have trouble with Chinese green tea- the complexities of all those centuries-old processing techniques add range of subtle flavors that sometimes seem to just get in the way of the leaf's natural taste.

Still, I've been trying new Chinese teas to expand my reach here, and also to acknowledge that perhaps my tastes aren't exactly everyone else's cup of tea. The horror. But it's a bit of a challenge to not revert to my old sencha standbys, which is why I'm not allowing myself to drink anything but Pi Lo Chun until I finish my supply or die of dehydration.

And surprisingly, I've been enjoying it more each day.

Keeping the water cooler (around 170°F) and brewing it for no more than 2 minutes really allows this tea to shine. The color may be an uninspiring pale greenish brown, but there's a round, full flavor with a slight astringency that manages to come off as clean, not bitter.

The second brew is still assertive, but with a bit of the edge blunted. That's fine with me. There's more than enough sharpness out there this morning.

10 September 2008

How to Make a Cup of Tea

A recent email from an old friend, who I forced to look at my blog, reminded me that sometimes you must get back to the basics.

left to right: black, oolong and green tea

"So how do I brew a decent cup of tea?" he wrote. "It never seems to come out right when I try to make it at home." My fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to direct him to the perfectly apropos, witty yet informative post here- and then I realized, in a London Sun-worthy wash of shock-horror, that it didn't exist.

How utterly thoughtless of me. Enough about lavender syrups, pie-crust cookies and afternoons at Jean-Georges: It's time to step off the frivolity train.

Here's how to make a cup of hot tea.

First of all, for the best cup, choose loose tea, not the dregs found in bagged- just think about the difference between instant coffee and fresh-ground beans, or astronaut ice cream versus a bowl of homemade vanilla.

When you start with the whole leaf, you'll be able to extract the fullest flavor. With the proper water temperature and brewing time, you'll get all the characteristic nuances of whatever tea you choose. And loose teas, because of their potency, can be saved to brew multiple times after your initial cup.

Even though all tea hails from the same plant- Camellia sinensis- how the leaves are grown and processed produces three major categories: black, oolong and green tea.

Basically, the more processed the leaf, the stronger the treatment. No matter what type you're drinking, though, always start with fresh water (filtered or not, depending on your preference) in a clean pot, and figure on about one teaspoon of tea for every cup of water.

I usually just heat the water in my decade-old teapot (it's one of the first kitchen implements I ever bought), then pour it over the leaves into an individual cup or large ceramic teapot, depending on how many people I'm serving.

I put the leaves in a large infuser so as to easily remove them once they're brewed; if you let them sit in the water, the tea will inevitably get bitter. And we all already have enough of that in our lives, so set a timer and pay attention.
  • black tea (e.g. Earl Grey, Assam, Darjeeling, Keemun): use just-boiled water; steep for 3-5 minutes
  • oolong tea (Wuyi, Iron Goddess): just-under-boiling water (about 200°); steep for 1-3 minutes
  • green tea (senchas, Uji Gyokuro, Dragonwell, Gunpowder): steam just curling off the water (160°-190°); steep for 1-2 minutes
And repeat after me: color is not an indication of brewing. It's the only time in my life that I'll say this, but rely on the clock, not your eyes. As you can see below, these are both green teas (Chinese, at left; Japanese, at right) but their hues vary considerably.

These guidelines are just that: Don't be afraid to experiment a bit- with timing, not temperature- to find the best brew.

It's really not hard to make a perfect cup of tea. It just takes a little bit of care, which when it comes to what you put into your body, is never a bad thing.

08 September 2008

All Hail the Earl

My excuse for making pots de creme was all those egg yolks remaining after the espresso macaroons, but what resulted turned out to be so beyond leftovers.

Pots de creme are basically rich puddings, baked and then chilled in individual serving cups. But with such simple ingredients, a flavor like tea- Earl Grey, in this case- can be elevated to its original lofty status.

This particular recipe, originally from Martha Stewart Living, had been on my to-make list for years, so after a bit of a wait (but not much work), I was eager to taste.

When the first thick spoonful hit my tongue, I could do nothing but close my eyes and moan. There was suddenly creamy, sweet silk adorning my mouth, and a light floral scent positively redolent of opulence.

This is the fine lingerie of desserts: sexy, comforting and powerful enough to be used as a weapon.

I want one of these at every meal for the rest of my life.

Earl Grey Pots de Creme
Makes: 4 servings.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons Earl Grey tea leaves
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. In a small saucepan, bring cream and milk just to a boil over medium heat. Stir in tea and turn off heat; let steep for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2. Heat oven to 325°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest and salt. Reheat infused cream over medium heat, then slowly whisk into yolk mixture. Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl, extracting as much liquid as possible without pressing on the tea leaves. Discard tea.

3. Arrange four 6-ounce ovenproof tea cups or ramekins in a baking pan large enough to hold them without touching each other. Carefully pour boiling water into pan, ensuring none splashes inside the cups, until water comes halfway up the sides of the cups.

4. Divide custard among cups. Cover pan tightly with foil, poking a few holes to let steam escape. Bake until custards are set but still slightly wobbly in centers, about 30 minutes.

5. Carefully remove pan from oven; remove foil. Transfer cups from hot water to a wire rack; let cool 30 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours.

These full-bodied puddings need no adornment, but I wondered how a straight-up serving of Earl Grey would fare alongside it. After I devoured the first one, I paused before starting on the next to brew a hot cup.

From the initial sip, the tea had an incredible smoothness; the round flavor was strong and rich, as you'd expect a ruler to be, but not at all blunt or pushy like Napoleon. Its heat contrasted beautifully with the cool, satiny feel of the pot de creme.

Earl Grey tea usually benefits from a splash of milk, but alongside a dessert this creamy, it was completely unnecessary.

In fact, everything else in the world seems unnecessary after a few of these. What could possibly taste better than this? Ah, yes. A third one.

05 September 2008

More Than Mikey Will Like It

Golden, crisp, sweet, addictive: this may be the Platonic ideal of breakfast cereals. Did I mention that it has chocolate in it?

I originally found this recipe on the cooking blog Orangette, which has it along with a lengthy treatise on the best baguette in Paris and whether chocolate is suitable for breakfast. You can debate that as long as you want- I'll just be here, quietly crunching my way through another bowl.

It's one of the simplest granolas I've ever made, and I admit, I was initially skeptical about how deep the flavor would be. But don't be cynical like me. It's absolutely delicious.

Chocolate Granola
Makes: 5 cups.

3 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup raw almonds, chopped
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
6 Tbsp. mild honey
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

1. Heat oven to 300°F. In a large bowl, mix together the oats, almonds, coconut, sugar, and salt.

2. In a small saucepan, heat the honey and oil over low heat, stirring, until the honey is loose. Pour over the dry ingredients, and stir to combine well.

3. Spread the mixture evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden, stirring halfway through. Remove the pan from the oven, stir well and cool completely.

4. When cool, transfer the granola to a jar, add the chocolate and stir to mix. Serve with milk or yogurt.

This granola is on the sweet side (I did make it, after all), so you'll definitely want that creaminess from the milk or yogurt to cut through it. And it's positively designed for an accompanying cup of Earl Grey- mine was overnight cold-brewed- as the clean, strong, tannic flavor of the black tea resets your palate between spoonfuls.

Earl Grey tea may seem too obvious a choice- it's probably the most popular flavored tea in the world, or at least the most well-known- but it pairs so well with cream, not to mention chocolate. I shied away from it when I started drinking tea in earnest about a decade ago, but I've been drifting back to it lately for both drinking and baking. Unlike other flavored teas, I find its bergamot scent intriguing, not distracting.

In fact, his highness may be the star ingredient in one of the best desserts I've ever tasted. More on that tomorrow.

04 September 2008

Macaroon Delight

Forget the afternoon delight- these elegant, crispy yet chewy cookies will put it to shame, and they're good enough to make you consider a move to France. Almost.

Little pairs better with tea than these delicate espresso-blackberry macaroons from the September issue of Gourmet. Follow its recipe, and you too can conjure an effortlessly glamorous Paris apresmidi with your next cup of tea.

These little orbs, sugary and light like meringues, have an additional, toothsome sweetness from the ground almonds that get mixed into the cookie batter.

And when they're embracing each other through a smear of that late-summer star, blackberry, they're as irresistible as that pair of shoes you just had to buy, but have never worn.

But these macaroons aren't too beautiful to be enjoyed; in fact, their beauty is only fully realized once you shatter the crisp exterior and discover the lush chewiness inside.

With such a well-heeled treat, a plain tea won't do, so I came up with a blackberry-basil iced tea to accompany the macaroons. I actually woke up from a rare nap (summoning your inner French pastry chef can be a bit exhausting) dreaming of this tea, and it turned out as delicious as I imagined.

Blackberry-Basil Syrup
Makes: about 1 cup.

In a medium saucepan, mix together 1 cup blackberries, 3-4 tablespoons sugar or honey, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and several sprigs fresh basil.

Bring to a boil and simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes, until berries have burst. Add more sugar or lemon, to taste, if needed. Remove from heat and refrigerate until chilled.

Pour a few tablespoons of the syrup slowly into tall glasses of cold-brewed black tea- I used Darjeeling so as to not compete with the bright flavor of the berries- and garnish with additional basil leaves.

Then help yourself to a few more of those stylish macaroons, and enjoy them as much as I do my shoes.

03 September 2008

Bouchon Bakery: Pastry 1, Tea 0

As this summer refuses to fade, so my vigil for decent iced tea in the city must remain constant.

Yesterday I found myself at the Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, on the wise advice of some visiting German friends (and my wise advice to you, always listen to Germans when it comes to carbs- they know what they're talking about).

The bagged teas held no interest, so I selected an Arnold Palmer ($2.75) and a raspberry-filled almond croissant ($2.95). It was hard to turn down the jewel-like cases filled with cashew-butter and jam brioche sandwiches, coffee eclairs and linzer tart cookies, but I did need to save some room for lunch.

While the croissant was far closer to a danish than anything recognizable as French, it was still outstanding: The raspberry and almond-paste fillings complemented each other seamlessly, and an ample dusting of golden toasted almonds on top provided satisfying crunch and sweetness from the very first bite.

The drink, however, was less than impressive. It looked like black tea, but the flavor was so insipid that even Lipton could have beaten this one up at recess. The lemonade was from a bottle, and even though I'm sure it was an expensive brand, it still ended up contributing a tinny, vaguely bitter aftertaste. It wasn't the worst iced tea I've had, but it just didn't measure up to the rest of the bakery offerings.

And you can dust as much powdered sugar on it as you like, but you're paying a premium to eat in a glorified mall. Next time, I'll bring my own tea and take a pastry across the street to Central Park.

Finally, please try to ignore the foie gras dog biscuits at the cash register. Sometimes it's just not surprising that terrorists despise us.

02 September 2008

The Pleasure Principle

The Tuesday after Labor Day seems particularly cruel, doesn't it? No more languorous, softly twilit nights; no more white dresses and shoes; and no more sleeping in for three days in a row.

And as for those leisurely breakfasts in your bathing suit, forget it.

If you're having trouble letting go, perhaps you should treat yourself to get through the week- or at least, to stay awake. Even black tea has only about half the caffeine level of an equal amount of coffee, so why not combine the two into a simple, seductive breakfast?

Bien sur, it's just French toast, but it's better than you've ever had it before.

Cafe au Lait Pain Perdu (adapted from Gourmet, December 2007)
Makes: 6 servings.

Butter, for greasing the pan
12 1-inch-thick day-old baguette slices
3 tablespoons instant-espresso powder or finely ground coffee
2 tablespoons hot water
3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
Cinnamon, for garnish

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and butter a shallow 13 x 9-inch baking dish with butter.

2. Arrange bread in single layer in dish. In a large bowl, dissolve espresso powder in the hot water. Whisk in milk, eggs, vanilla and 1/2 cup sugar until smooth.

3. Gently pour egg mixture over the bread and turn slices several times to soak up liquid. Sprinkle top with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

5. Bake until puffed and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then dust with cinnamon and serve.

Black tea would be overkill with all these strong flavors, so I paired it with a crisp, clean Umegashima sencha, one of my favorite Japanese greens. And while this may seem like a lot of work for a bleary-eyed morning, it does reheat beautifully, so you can have it for breakfast all week unless you feel like sharing.

I bet you could even make it with matcha instead of the espresso powder, but I'll need to finish this batch up before I try that version.

And maybe it's just the cafe au lait talking, but I plan on wearing white all week.