30 January 2009

A Good Tea Is Hard to Find

It's kind of sad how surprising it is to find truly good tea.

But when you do, after just a few sips, all that frustrated longing, disappointment and heartache fades; delight starts to warm you, inside and out.

It might only last for five minutes- but you can always make another cup.

So far, every sip I've had of David's Tea offerings has had this effect. It's a year-old Canadian company whose age belies its almost paralyzing selection- over 100 teas, ranging from pure, premium estate blacks and greens to flavored oolongs, herbals and unusual blends.

I first tried the sencha ashikubo ($9 for 25g; pictured right), a Japanese green which is dried over wood fires, giving a pleasantly roasted, milder taste than expected. Even though I love that traditional grassy-green sencha punch, this tea would be ideal for someone who thinks they don't like Japanese greens.

And if they still don't after a cup of this, I am always available to deliver a real grassy-green punch to help change their mind.

The quangzhou milk oolong ($9 for 25g; pictured left) is a knockout in its own right.

It brews up a luminous gold color, with a surprising scent of heated milk.

Names are so often little more than a marketing tool, but this tea lives up to its moniker: the taste and texture are somehow creamy, with a perfectly balanced sweetness and faint floral undertone.

Subsequent brewings don't diminish the impact, either. After the first cup, this oolong's leaves really open up and give almost as much flavor to the third. It's grown in China's Wuyi Mountains, which turn out my favorite oolongs, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how much I adore it. But it really is a very special tea.

Just look at all the loose leaves below (clockwise from top, Turkish delight, quangzhou milk oolong, sencha ashikubo): they're fresh, incredibly fragrant and you can tell they've been treated well. They can't wait to get in your cup.

David's Teas even has me reconsidering my tea snobbery when it comes to tea blends- how is it possible to resist, with names like pumpkin spice, gunpowder taffy, lime bang, bear trap?

Just what I need, more fuel for my addiction. Damn you, David.

29 January 2009

Doughnut Ask, Doughnut Tell

Some teas are gentle; others feel like a punch in the mouth. And, like people, sometimes they masquerade as the other.

Such is the case with megami sencha, a Japanese green which has a clear, bright jade appearance and lighter mouthfeel than other senchas- but a bold, almost astringent taste. I love the contrast, but it does need something alongside to balance it out. What better than something hot, sweet and fried?

I'll justify making these Japanese hiking doughnuts any way I can.

I got the recipe years ago, from my absolute favorite cooking magazine Saveur. Unfortunately I didn't save the accompanying story, in which the author related how she and her husband had been hiking at Mt. Fuji, and while stopping to rest along the trail, met an old Japanese couple who offered these doughnuts. One bite, and the author knew she had to have the recipe, so despite the language barrier, gestured that she would love to know how to make them and gave the old woman her email address. On the way down, her husband scoffed she would never, ever see that recipe.

But over a year later, an email from one Mrs. Nishiwaki turned up, with the recipe for the elusive treat.

(Oh ye of little faith. I would have made and eaten the entire first batch myself, telling that doubting Thomas he was welcome to fish out any blackened remnants from the oil.)

I can see why the author was so enchanted with these doughnuts: They're crispy and moist on the outside, sweet and lightly lemony inside, and if you eat them fresh, the oil warms your fingers and turns the powdered sugar coating into a heavenly paste that you have no choice but to lick off.

For junk food, they seem almost good for you, with a dense crumb but an interior lightness- well, until you eat more than five. After that, you may have to reconsider any hiking plans.

Japanese Hiking Doughnuts
Makes: about 15.

3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon
1 heaping tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil plus more for frying
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch salt
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1. Put granulated sugar, yogurt, eggs, lemon juice, honey and 1 tablespoon of the oil in medium bowl and stir until smooth. Gradually sift flour, baking powder and salt over yogurt mixture, beating with a wooden spoon until batter is smooth. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until batter is chilled, 30 to 60 minutes.

2. Pour oil into a wide medium heavy-bottomed pot to a depth of 2 inches and heat over medium heat until temperature reaches 300° on a candy thermometer. Working in batches to avoid crowding with the pot, carefully spoon a scant 1/4 cup of the batter into hot oil and fry, turning occasionally, until doughnuts are deep golden brown all over and cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes per batch. Transfer doughnuts with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Dust with confectioners' sugar.

If you can manage to save any, you really can pack these for an outdoor excursion. Just let them cool completely before wrapping them up, to avoid sogginess.

And do keep in mind that you will burn the first batch; it's a well documented phenomenon, from crepes to blinis, that the first one has to be discarded because it never turns out quite right. Just take a deep breath, a sip of sencha, and then throw the burned ones out the window.

Someone always benefits from your mistakes.

28 January 2009

Brioche, Meet Babka

You know that climactic scene in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle when the protagonists finally sit down to their table full of burgers, start jamming them into their drooling maws, and Kumar almost immediately stops, mid-bite, and starts to sob with joy?

(Wait a second. What do you mean, you haven't seen Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle? It's a film classic, way better than Casablanca, Chinatown and all those other pretentious movies everyone pretends to have seen a million times. Go order it on Amazon, then rent it so you don't have to wait to watch it. NOW.)

That's exactly how the first bite of this cinnamon-swirl babka made me feel.

It's based on the outstanding brioche recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert, and I've been wanting to make it ever since I got the cookbook. But you know how things can sidetrack you (unfortunately, nothing involving a hitchhiking Neil Patrick Harris). It took just a bit of cajolement from a sugar-fiend sister and the next morning, we were sinking our teeth into bite after pillowy bite.

Brioche and Cinnamon-Swirl Babka
Makes: 10 small loaves or one large babka

3 cups bread flour
20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup warm water (105° to 115° F)
5 large eggs, cold
1 tablespoon sour cream or yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
For babka:
3/4 cup packed muscavado sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1. Place the flour into a mixing bowl, cover, and freeze for 30 minutes. Place cold butter in mixing bowl and beat with the paddle attachment only until creamy and smooth; there should be no hard lumps when you pinch it between your fingers. Scrape the butter onto a small plate and refrigerate (proceed with the dough right away; a long delay will reharden the butter).

2. In the clean mixing bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar in the warm water. Attach dough hook and add remaining 1/3 cup sugar, eggs, sour cream, salt and flour. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are blended, scraping down the side of the bowl as needed. Knead the dough on medium speed for 5 minutes; it will be very soft, moist and sticky and very elastic, and should be wrapped around the dough hook.

3. Add the cold butter in small pieces, letting each incorporate into the dough before adding more. Scrape the dough into an oiled bowl and cover. Refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours. (Brioche can be prepared plain, at this point: place small balls of dough in buttered brioche pans; let rise for two hours, until doubled. Heat oven to 350° and bake until tops are deeply browned, about 20 to 25 minutes.)

4. For babka: In a small bowl, mix together muscavado sugar, cinnamon, salt and butter.

5. Scrape the cold dough out onto a floured surface. Roll out to an 18 x 12-inch rectangle, about 1/2-inch thick. Spread the sugar-cinnamon mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1-inch margin on one long side. Moisten the margin with a little water. Beginning at the long side opposite the margin, roll up the dough, pressing firmly at the end to seal the seam.

6. Turn roll seam-side down and cut into 18 slices, each about 1 inch wide. Toss slices gently into an oiled Bundt pan, without arranging them; just ensure they all come to about the same height. Cover pan with a damp cloth and let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 2 hours.

7. Heat the oven to 350° F. Place Bundt pan on a baking sheet and bake until top of babka is deeply browned, about 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert pan to turn babka out, then let cool another 10 minutes before slicing.

It's hard to improve on brioche- that rich, soft slice that holds more butter than you'd think scientifically possible- but with veins of spicy muscavado sugar and fragrant cinnamon running through it, it's elevated to divine territory.

And having your babka with a simple cup of Darjeeling- or any not-overpowering black tea- makes for a breakfast of the gods, even in such an imperfect world.

27 January 2009

Little Miss Flaky

Finding the perfect croissant is a lifelong pursuit. They may be everywhere, but unfortunately, most just aren't that good.

When you do discover one, you treasure it. And you eat it as often as possible, even if it's from a bakery that's a 20-minute walk from your apartment. No matter how long it takes you to get there, the buttery, toothsome croissants at Almondine (85 Water St., Brooklyn) will make it worth it.

On my most recent morning visit, I decided to try a new one- the almond-raspberry croissant ($2.65)- with a cup of Mighty Leaf English Breakfast tea ($2). The pastry was sublime; the rich but not-too-sweet almond frangipane topped with a layer of raspberry jam brought to my uncultured American mind a PB and J fit for Louis XIV.

And the tea, for a bag, wasn't bad either. But if you're going to be turning out croissants like this, why can't you pay as much attention to the accompanying drink? When I go to Almondine in the summer, I just bring a thermos of my own looseleaf brew and take the pastry to eat in the nearby Empire Fulton Ferry Park, nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

Still, the tea they served did the trick this day. And with all those creamy, glazy traditional French pastries, chocolate-chip cookies as big as your face and warm, freshly baked multigrain loaves ($4.75), Almondine won't disappoint.

23 January 2009

Slappy New Year

I've needed to restock my tea supply for over a month now. My freezer may be full of sugary treats, but I was running low on what to wash them down with. It's just been so very cold, and with that pesky economic collapse it's hard to justify dropping $50 on dried leaves.

But even so, on a recent day that could only be described as feeling Jack Frost's wintry slap (I'll admit I lifted that from weather.com, circa 2005), it was still worth walking 20 blocks to Ito En (822 Madison Ave.) for the tea I discovered.

Stalling so I could thaw out, I asked if there was anything new in stock, and was introduced to obukucha ($10 per ounce).

This Kyoto tea consists of a shincha, or first sencha harvest of the spring, which is aged in clay pots- unusual for Japanese greens, because the whole point is to have them as fresh as possible- until a few weeks before New Year's. It's served to celebrate the upcoming year with a taste from the old, and to usher in good fortune (something we all could use at the moment).

Even though it was almost a year old, the scent of the aged leaves, when I stuck my nose deep into the bag, was intensely sweet and grassy. I could hardly wait to get home to make a cup.

It brews up a pale florescent green, like the stems of those first brave snowdrops that unfurl through the thawing spring ground. And the smell is almost more nuanced than the taste, which is the roundest, least-brassy Japanese green I've had: Close your eyes and imagine the pale sun hitting bales of hay in a barn on a March morning. (Trust me on this one, even though the closest barn is probably 200 miles away.)

I had to keep making more to attempt to describe the flavor- every time I looked down, the cup was empty. It's that smooth.

The only thing this tea possibly needs is a stack of these simple, crispy almond brown-sugar cookies (adapted from the December 2008 Gourmet) beside it.

Almond Cookies
Makes: about 100 cookies.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered or whole blanched almonds (2 1/2 ounces)

1. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in egg and vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until a dough just forms. Stir in almonds.

2. Divide dough in half. Using a sheet of plastic wrap, form each piece of dough into a log about 9 inches long (about 1 1/4 inches in diameter). Refrigerate, wrapped in plastic wrap, until very firm, at least 4 hours. Freeze 30 minutes to facilitate slicing.

3. Heat oven to 350°F with racks in upper and lower thirds. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut 1 log of dough crosswise into slices less than 1/8 inch thick with a thin sharp knife, rotating log after each slice to help keep round shape. (If dough gets too soft to slice through nuts easily, freeze briefly.) Arrange cookies about 1/2 inch apart on baking sheets.

4. Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through, until golden brown all over, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment to racks to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

There's still a bit of the obukucha left at Ito En, so if you want to enjoy 2009, I'd suggest getting yourself some as soon as possible.

22 January 2009

The Loudest Ones Are Having the Best Time

It can be obnoxious to everyone else, but when you're the ones laughing out loud for a few hours straight, it translates into a good time- for you, at least, as it did on a recent snowy afternoon at Naidre's (502 Henry St., Brooklyn). The Carroll Gardens branch of this cafe is an unassuming but welcoming space, even for a misanthrope like me.

The tea selection wasn't enormous- I could have found more in my refrigerator at home, a few blocks away- but it strayed pleasantly beyond the basic English Breakfast. I had the triple green tea with jasmine ($1.25), which was a blend of what looked like sencha, Dragonwell and jasmine pearls. The water was too hot (repeat after me: water boiling for black; just steaming for green), but the tea was still made with care- the loose leaves were bagged and tied to order, and if I had asked, I'm sure I could have had the bag separate. But I was being annoying enough.

The tea was good, though, and finding any cup of loose leaf for under $2 in this city is notable. The extensive food options were intriguing as well, even though I was still coming down from a crescent-cookie coma and didn't want anything. I did see a disgustingly delicious-looking mac and cheese float by, and the vegetarian reuben sandwich that my friend ordered wasn't too shabby, either. I could only force down a bite, but anything that contains a slab of fried tofu topped with fake bacon is going to ensure another visit.

Remember that part at the end of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy has her big epiphany about not needing to look further than her very own backyard for her heart's desire? That wasn't just the Seconal talking. Sometimes it really is right there.

20 January 2009

An Earl Grey Remix

I hate to throw food away, so when faced with the leftover orange-peel syrup from those delightful little pistachio crescents, I knew what had to happen: flavored tea.

I usually don't sweeten tea- if you buy decent loose leaf and brew it correctly, you shouldn't need to either, because it won't be oversteeped or bitter. Unless, of course, you're addicted to sugar and have to have several batches of cookies, brownies and cupcakes stockpiled in your freezer at all times. Ha ha ha. We'll leave those freaks aside for the moment, though.

The bright, strong flavor of an orange syrup needs an equally bold tea, so I went for a black variety. After trying a few different brews, it was Earl Grey that stood out.

But Earl Grey already is flavored, blockhead, you're no doubt shouting at your screen. Yes, but the flavoring is bergamot oil, which is derived from the highly aromatic bergamot orange. According to Alan Davidson's comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food, Earl Grey is actually one of the oldest blended teas, coming onto the scene in the 18th century. Perfect time for an update, then. The tea's citrus overtones are pleasantly intensified by adding the orange syrup; together they create a warm, welcome fragrance.

And if you throw in a few fresh orange slices into the hot cup, you'll have a wakeup that can get you through any bleak winter morning.

If you don't have leftovers from the crescent cookie filling, then can you at least get your lazy duff off the couch long enough to cut the peel off an orange, chop it finely, and simmer it for 30 minutes in a mixture of equal parts water and granulated sugar (try 1/2 cup of each)? Yes, you can.

18 January 2009

Ancient Orange

The December 2008 Gourmet had a holiday cookie spread almost too gorgeous to eat. Even though those days are blissfully behind us, I've slowly been working my way through them, somehow ignoring the little voice that came up with the brilliant idea of going a whole week without eating sugar. I'll get to that. Next week.

These rich crescent cookies are the magazine's take on ghotab, an almond-filled, deep-fried classic Persian pastry. I've never had one of those, but after tasting this, I don't think I need to: the flaky, buttery dough is faintly sweet, and somehow tender yet firm enough to cradle the fragrant, chewy, citrus-nutty filling (just like I like my Persians).

The powdered sugar that gets all over your fingers as you eat them might be the best part. And when you think that they're not deep-fried, it's like you're having something healthy in comparison. Whatever. Just serve the cookies with steaming little cups of mint tea and no one will be complaining. They're practically designed to go together.

I know the recipe looks long, but I actually streamlined it a bit, and you can do much of it in advance. Plus, making the candied orange peel will make the entire house smell like the citrus grove empire you've always dreamed of owning. Oh wait, maybe that's just me.

Orange Pistachio Crescents
Makes: about 2 1/2 dozen.

2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 large egg yolks
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
1 large navel orange
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pistachios (2 1/4 ounces)
About 1 cup confectioners' sugar, for coating

1.Dough: Whisk together flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl (or pulse in a food processor). Blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender (or pulse) until mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Beat together yolks and 3 tablespoon water with a fork and stir into flour (or pulse) until incorporated.

2. Gently squeeze a small handful of dough: If it doesn’t hold together, stir (or pulse) in 1 tablespoon more water. Do not overwork dough or pastry will be tough.

3. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently gather together. Divide in half, forming each into a 4-inch square. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 1 hour or up to two days.

4. Filling: Cut off peel, including white pith, from orange with a sharp knife and finely chop. (Reserve fruit for another use.) Put peel in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, then fill with water. Add salt and bring to a boil; boil, uncovered, 10 minutes. Drain.

5. Bring granulated sugar and 3/4 cup water to a boil in saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved; cover for one minute to wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan. Add peel to syrup and gently simmer, uncovered, until peel begins to turn translucent and syrup is reduced to about 2/3 cup, 20 to 30 minutes.

6. Drain peel in sieve set over a bowl, reserving 3 tablespoon syrup. Stir together peel, reserved syrup and pistachios. Let cool (can be refrigerated for two days).

7. To make cookies, heat oven to 375°F. Roll out 1 piece of dough on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 15 x 12-inch rectangle. Cut out 16 to 20 rounds with a 3-inch round cookie cutter. Put a scant teaspoon filling on each round, then brush edge lightly with water and fold pastry over filling to form a half-moon. Press edges to seal. Shape each into a crescent by pushing a finger against middle of flat side.

8. Bake 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet until golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool 2 minutes on the sheet, then gently toss warm cookies in confectioners' sugar to coat generously. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough, rerolling scraps once.

Why do all the things that are such a pain to make have to taste so, so delicious?

12 January 2009

Pecan Do It

I'm not a competitive person. I just don't see the point.

If someone wants to let their ego rule the day- and if it's that satisfying to their immaturity- go right ahead, push to the front. I don't need to evaluate my accomplishments in terms of yours.

The only exception comes when faced with a culinary challenge. I've been tricked into making apple pies and brownies, chocolate-chip cookies and scones, all at little more than a few words' suggestion that someone else's- or heaven forbid, a prepackaged version- is better than mine. Even though I know what's happening, I can't help it; the compulsive baker takes over and I find myself up at 1 a.m., measuring out sugar and greasing pans, muttering This'll show them tomorrow as I mix up a batter.

At least it's not a self-destructive habit- the only damage is to my sleep schedule. And since I'm compelled to share the finished goods (out of generosity, not anything as base as gratification), it's less selfish than typical competitive behavior.

Still, the most intense challenges tend to come not from an innocent outside remark, but from within, like when I spotted this pumpkin cheesecake with praline sauce on the last page of the November 2008 Food & Wine. Give me a break, I thought, noting the total time of six hours, plus overnight chilling. Who would be asinine enough to waste that much time making a cheesecake?

A month and a half later, the presumptuousness of such a recipe still had me foaming at the mouth- or was it salivating at the thought of those caramel-covered pecans oozing down the side of a slice? I didn't care if it took over a day. I needed to prove that this recipe wasn't worth it.

You know how this one turns out.

I ended up buying a can of pumpkin and a bag of pecans later that morning and before I knew it, I was waiting the directed two hours for the puree to dry and figuring out which tea would go best with the spicy, brown-sugar flavors. I certainly had the time to think about it.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
Makes: 12 servings.

1 15-ounce can (1 3/4 cups) pumpkin puree
8 whole graham crackers, broken
1/2 cup (2 ounces) pecans
1 tablespoon light-brown sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing pan
1 1/2 cups (14 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Set a rack over a counter and line the rack with 2 layers of paper towels. Spread pumpkin puree over the paper towels and let drain for 2 hours, until puree is fairly dry.

2. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the bottom and side of a 9-inch springform pan. In a food processor, pulse graham crackers until finely ground. Add pecans and brown sugar and pulse until finely ground. Add melted butter and pulse just until incorporated. Press crumbs onto the bottom of prepared pan. Bake crust for about 5 minutes, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Let crust cool completely.

3. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with paddle, beat cream cheese until very smooth. In a small bowl, whisk granulated sugar with salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. With machine on, add spiced sugar to cream cheese and beat until creamy, scraping the bottom and side of bowl. Carefully add drained pumpkin puree and beat until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down bowl between each addition. Beat in heavy cream, lemon juice and vanilla until batter is smooth.

4. Pour cheesecake batter over the cooled crust and bake at 350° for 12 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 225° and bake the cheesecake for about 1 1/2 hours, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 150°; the center will be very jiggly but not liquidy. Let cheesecake cool on a rack, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

5. Run a hot knife around cheesecake and loosen springform ring. Carefully remove ring and transfer cake to a plate. Using a warm knife, cut into pieces and serve with the Pecan Praline Sauce (recipe below).

A note on the recipe: I adapted it a bit from F&W's original, which I believe had some serious timing issues. I also halved the praline sauce and found it still ample for the entire cheesecake, but by all means double it and challenge yourself to put it on everything, if you're like that.

Pecan Praline Sauce
Makes: 1 1/2 cups.

3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons dark-brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (4 ounces) pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In a large saucepan, combine butter and brown sugar and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until smooth. Stir in heavy cream and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer just until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Let the caramel cool.

2. Spread pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and toast for about 6 to 8 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant. Transfer pecans to cutting board and let them cool. Coarsely chop the nuts, stir into cooled caramel and serve sauce. Leftovers can be refrigerated up to one week (and tastes fabulous on vanilla ice cream); rewarm gently before serving.

As soon as I tasted that rich, creamy, tangy-pumpkin bite along a plain black tea (something not too overpowering, like Darjeeling, works best) the next day, I knew it was worth it. Damn you, you delicious, interminable cheesecake.

But I still think I won.

06 January 2009

Plant One on Me

I have to take back everything I've ranted about, at least in terms of takeout chai tea. (Everything else is still fair game.)

I've finally found a chai ($2.25) that is creamy, spicy and sweet- and made with decent loose-leaf tea- at the Lower East Side's Doughnut Plant (379 Grand St.).

Make no mistake, this chai is served up sweet. But after that initial insulin-spiking bite of doughnut, it won't seem so at all, and a faint peppery and citrus-rind afterbite offers further balance in the cup.

The tea was even more remarkable to me because I was all ready to finally write the Doughnut Plant off. It just has such a "my doughnuts are more artisinal than yours" New-Yorky vibe, and that's annoying. And at around $2.50 apiece, they're no bargain.

But the eggless, yeasted, secret-family-recipe batter does yield some outstanding doughtnuts. I didn't want to like them, but I just couldn't help it. And I had to get something to go with my tea. The fresh orange had that sunshiny burst, so welcome in winter, of citrus at its peak; the pistachio was studded with crunchy, plump nuts.

But it was the creme brulee doughnut ($2.75) that stole my heart.

You could actually see a worker in the back torching the tops of rows and rows of them, which were bravely weathering it, like troops of an elysian army, for their big chance out on the counter. I managed to wait until I got home to dig into mine, because I had a feeling about this one.

Words escaped me with the first bite: I just felt the crackly, burnt-sugar top and softly yielding dough exterior give way to an unctous, vanilla-bean-flecked pastry cream filling. I couldn't describe it with anything other than a low moan.

It was gone in seconds, but not before it conjured up a treasured childhood treat that I didn't realize I'd been missing so much all these years: little sugar-glazed doughnuts- I have no memory of the name, but they came frozen in a long, flat black box- that my sister and I would inhale whenever we had a babysitter. Then I suddenly remembered the time we came up with the brilliant scheme of just turning the temperature up to 500° on the toaster oven to make them cook faster. At least we weren't as dumb as the babysitter, who opened up the oven door and tossed an entire pitcher of our waiting accompanying limeade on the flaming pastries.

Such a tragic waste.

That's all behind me, however, and now I know where to get a chai and creme brulee doughnut whenever I want to.