Archive for the ‘California’ Category

The Next Iron Chef, Week 2; Innovation ~ Coffee and Donuts

Monday, October 11th, 2010

I was very excited to watch the Food Network’s second episode of The Next Iron Chef and see the first challenge of the evening involve coffee and doughnuts! What could be closer to a Fried Dough Ho’s heart after all? And I admit up front that I am rooting for Chef Mary Dumont as I had the distinct pleasure of dining on her scrumptious cuisine many years ago when she was the chef in foie gras-centric Sonoma Saveurs (now closed). Wishing I could taste the offerings, here is my thoughts based solely on what I witnessed.

But you must know that what was offered to the chefs to cook with were obviously sub-standard doughnuts. Considering this was being filmed in Los Angeles, I would have hoped the producers of the show might have sourced this ingredient from Randy’s Doughnuts but I could tell from the images of the doughnuts that these were mediocre at best. Given that, I am sure what the chefs did was to create the best possible dishes considering the mediocrity of their core ingredient.

Chef Pagan: Donut Tapa with ricotta, coffee-infused cream (the cream had come from a doughnut), bacon and pine nuts  as well a deep-fried doughnut with banana. There were some great comments about the fact that that Chef Pagan re-fried and already fried dough with Chef Estes alluring stating, “it was naughty!”   But Chef Caswell commented that he could not taste the coffee in either dish. The extra crunch on the outside of the double-fried doughnut looked like a bit of overkill, but apparently it tasted better than it looked.

Chef Tio – Her Old Fashioned Griddled with butter and Bacon and Egg Donut and served with red-eye gravy looked pretty disgusting; flat and lifeless. But the second offering of a buttermilk fried powdered doughnut topped with fried chicken livers with hearts – her version of chicken and waffles – was well-received by Estes and seemed quite appetizing to me. It was Chef Canora who said that chicken liver was not a breakfast meat and I wanted to bitch-slap him right there for that. Oh, so wrong, my friend! Her dish was favored by Chef Tsai.

Chef Dumont – Duo of bananas; Bananas which had been caramelized and served with a sauce made from the scrapings of a glazed doughnut and croutons from French doughnuts with a coffee crunch. The second was also bananas, this time deep-fried and served with a sauce made from the chocolate from a doughnut glaze.  She admitted that she wanted to have a lemon cream but a sliced finger prevented her from other additions. Chef Forgione expressed empathy over the injury, but pragmatic that it was a competition. Chef Dumont was quite possibly the least traditional of the evening’s offerings by going off on the banana junket, and not showcasing more doughnut and coffee flavor and it definitely hurt her in the long run, as Chef Tsai noted.

Chef  Chauhan – Doughnut Grilled with Cheddar and Fontina Cheeses as well as Doughnut Frittata made with glazed and chocolate doughnuts. It seems she used coffee and basil in the flavorings which elicited a wink from Chef Pagan. I would be curious which flavor doughnut she used for the grilled cheese; it looked like a standard cake doughnut and while that might work, I am more intrigued with the basil-scented frittata. Chefs Tio, Pagan and Dumont picked these dishes as their favorite.

Chef Tsai – The only one to make a beverage this evening; an iced, frozen espresso topped with a thinly sliced section from a chocolate chip-studded doughnut. To complement the beverage, he sliced a glazed doughnut to make a panini with sliced green tomatoes, eggs, and ham. Chef Canora commented that he couldn’t get any coffee flavor and I wonder if the objective was to assure there was coffee flavor in both dishes. More surprisingly was Chef Caswell’s objection that “he’s seen it before.” Like Chef Tsai, I would be curious where one would find such a dish. It seemed innovative and oddly tasty.

Chef Estes – Tried to create baked shirred eggs but had to fry them up at the last minute with doughnut serve. Coffee yogurt with doughnut granola and coffee’d apricots. Like Chef Tsai’s beverage, the idea of a granola seemed more innovative and daring than what some of the other chefs were doing in the classic sandwich sense. Although the eggs seemed like they were not going to work, the presentation looked appetizing. Chef Canora picked Estes as the winner based on the granola.

Chef Forgione –  Coffee Sabayon served in eggshells served alongside a doughnut grilled in brown butter. His other dish was a deeply gorgeous browned French toast served with caramlized bananas and a coffee and bacon syrup. Chef Caswell thought the sabayon was perfect and Chef Chauhan chose Forgione’s dishes as her pick of the evening. Chef Pagan thought the French toast was innovative but did not like it because of texture. Honestly, if you are going to serve a dish in eggshells, make the eggshells presentable! I know they are on a time limit but having bits of broken and hanging shell bits dangling around what you are about to eat is less than appetizing.

Chef Caswell – Cake doughnut Pain Perdue and here I *do* see another glass with a beverage.  The pain perdue was made with a cake doughnut and served with a roasted peach, bacon bits, and coffee syrup. His version of a Vietnamese coffee was shockingly created a BLENDED monstrosity of buttermilk doughnuts with buttermilk, coffee and heavy cream. Excuse me? You blend fried dough with liquid and expect people to drink it? Well, obviously not well because no one could taste the doughnut in the dish. Some bickering occurred with Chef Forgione thinking Caswell’s French toast was undercooked (it did look a bit pale and pathetic!) as “it was squishy.”

Chef Canora – Breakfast sandwich which depicted a sliced, grilled doughnut was the base under an egg with fontina cheese, some spinach, and this slice of coffee-crusted Canadian bacon. The coffee crust made the dish look burned and unappealing. His second dish was cinnamon doughnut French Toast with sliced banana and a bunch of other toppings which were hard to distinguish. With comments from his fellow chefs that they were tasting bitter, Chef Canora tried to justify it with a comment that “Bitter is a great flavor that does not get enough recognition.” Oh really? Well, he did acknowledge later that he might have over-griddled his toast. This was favored by Chefs Caswell, Forgione.

THE WINNER: Chef Chuauan

THE LOSER: Chef Dumont

Doughnut Culture Pervades in Japanese Snacks

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

No, what you are looking at are not actual doughnuts. They are part of the rising culture of the doughnut obsessed. And they come from Japan. These little biscuits are about the size of a half-dollar. Light and crunchy, they are slightly sweet and studded with black sesame seeds, giving them a darker, more subtle flavor. The texture are light and addictive; almost cookie-light without being cloying.


The Donut Hole – Roadside Architecture

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

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The Donut Hole in La Puente is definitely one of those establishments that one goes out of their way to find. Not necessarily for the doughnuts — although they were very good — but because it is one of the more impressive examples of offbeat, roadside architecture. Up until now, I had only been experiencing those roadside attractions where the giant doughnut sits atop the small stand. And while these other stands offer drive-up capabilities for the automobile-bound, The Donut Hole is unique for being able to drive through two giant brown doughnuts, half-submerged in concrete.

A little research revealed that this building was one of five in a chain, constructed in 1968 with the two end-caps made from fiberglass and measuring 26 feet high. Unfortunately, the other four no longer exist. When you drive into the back doughnut, you can see the production equipment on the right-hand side of the structure; large fryers and ovens. The left-hand side is the shop with its racks of overly large offerings. I liked the drive-through aspect of the adventure and I was intrigued by both the size and variety of the selection.

Considering I had already consumed a malasada, a churro, and four gourmet doughnuts that morning, I was not quite up for a full tasting but instead relied on my tried-and-true test, the apple fritter. Just to check their raised, I also picked up a single doughnut hole as well. The fritter was quite good, large and uniformly thick/flat without the doughy pillow in the center. Not quite a crunchy or dark as I prefer, but with a nice toothy exterior and tender interior. The doughnut hole was light and fluffy with no hint of oil. I wish I had been hungrier to try others. Not quite an easy stop off a freeway exit, but worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Churro – Mexican fried dough on Olvera Street

Monday, August 16th, 2010

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It is true that there are a number of places I could choose to experience a churro; Disneyland, any number of street festivals, or even the occasional mall kiosk. But I was headed to Los Angeles anyway and what better place is there for the quintessential tube of Mexican fried dough than Olvera Street? This historical village consists of a small marketplace, restaurants, and strolling musicians. One of America’s oldest landmarks, some buildings within Olvera Street, date back to the 1780s.  Wandering the plaza, visitors are subjected to an expanse of color in the bouganvilla-dripping pueblos, the bright fiesta colors painted on maracas and sombreros, and the aromas of spicy frijoles or chips and salsa waft through the air.

A distant mariachi band’s high-pitched wail rang in my ears as I searched out Mr. Churros. Tucked in a small alcove, off the main drag, lied the rather dingy, unremarkable room. To my immediate left I could witness the production area; the extruder through which the magical wands of dough were passed, the deep fryer, and the large tray of cinnamon-sugar. As you walk in, why lies directly in front is a service counter with ice cream selections (ice cream? What for?), the cash register, and a selection of ready-made, already sugared treats. I asked to have mine freshly dipped and the the guy behind the counter was more than amenable in granting my request.

He asked if I wanted mine filled and we chatted for a bit. “What is traditional?” I queried. In Mexico, he informed, the Dulce de Leche is the most popular, but they also offer custard or strawberry. I wanted to taste pure, unadulterated dough, but he gladly obliged a small taste of his favorite, the Dulce de Leche as a dipping sauce. Not exactly traditional to not have it filled within the hexagonal spear of sweetness, but it did allow me a taste of the richly sweet sauce.

The churro on its own was quite good; firm to the tooth with a nice crunchy exterior with most of its hollow interior rimmed with a bit of tender sweet dough. The two-foot tube of dough had a nice flavor although it was a bit too sweet for me, with the Dulce de Leche providing an even more substantial tooth-achingly painful experience. An entire churro filled with Ducle de Leche would have been far too sweet for me and considering I had already eaten a malasada and four other gourmet doughnuts that morning, it should be no surprise that I only indulged a bite or two of this tasting. In retrospect, it was not the most memorable fried dough of my extensive Los Angeles excursion, but rather blasé in comparison.

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Nickel Diner – Gourmet Doughnuts Extraordaire

Monday, August 9th, 2010

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Nickel Diner in downtown Los Angeles is now legendary. But in a way, I can say I knew about it when it was just a glimmer in one of its owners’, Monica May’s, eyes. Monica and I frequented the same foodie chat list when she started talking about the renovation of the location and the fight to bring wholesome, home cooking to a derelict neighborhood more known for its homeless and crack addicts. In two short years, she and her partner, Kristen, have been instrumental in changing the neighborhood.

After my excessive fried dough excursion the night before, I thought I wouldn’t be up for another heavy round, but the reputation of Nickel Diner’s doughnuts prevailed and I knew there was no way I was leaving without trying every available flavor. We also ordered some savory cuisine as well, as reported on Feast. The Nutella and the Orange Popcycle were sold out when we arrived, but I was more than thrilled with the four flavors which were available.

The most lauded and talked about seems to be their Maple Bacon Doughnut. Easily the best Bacon Fried Dough to date, far surpassing Voodoo’s and Frances bacon beignets, Nickel’s offering has a tight, rich crumb of a ring, topped with Applewood-smoked bacon bits which have been delicately suspended in a lightly authentic, not overpowering maple glaze. In speaking with Monica, she confirmed a suspicion that the bacon was fried to the point where absolutely no uncooked fat is left, assuring maximum crunch factor of this savory component. And the bacon bits were fully laden across the top of the plate-sized fried dough goodness; rich and satisfying with a great balance between the salt of the bacon and the sweetness in the glaze, without being overhwhelming in any one of its ingredients.

The oddity of the four doughnuts we consumed was the Strawberry Crunch. This simple, plain cake doughnut is heavily and decadently coated with tiny bits of freeze-dried strawberry bits. Upon first bite – without remembering exactly what our waitress told us its flavor – we were tasting the pungent, tanginess which hearkened to fresh citrus. It was only later, after we confirmed its flavor, did we realize exactly what flavor it really was. While trying to recall its flavor before knowing, one in the party reminisced back to Trix cereal and the crispy, almost concentrated flavor. It makes sense, though. Freeze drying the fresh strawberries would concentrate those flavors, producing forth a bright, tangy and envigorating flavor.

When we arrived at the diner, I saw a young boy consuming the Red Velvet Doughnut and I knew I had to have one of those. Differing from the classic Red Velvet cake in that the actual cake of the doughnut was plain and the Red Velvet flavor was a crumble topping which completely encased the rich doughnut, then split and filled with cream cheese whipped filling. I am still trying to decipher exactly what ingredients would have been combined to create that classic Red Velvet taste; a bit of cocoa and vinegar, yes. But the slight tang of cream cheese played off the delicate crumble to incite childhood memories of the classically moist and playful Red Velvet Chocolate Cake. As attested by the photos, it was hard to not stick our fingers in the filling.

The piece de resistance, however, was a new creation not yet on the t-shirt (which I acquired, of course), or the menu; an Irish Car Bomb doughnut with Guinness crumble and Jameson-infused cream filing. Had I thought the previous, unctuous presentations were exceptional, in this we had a show-stopper, Hall of Fame doughnut. Rich without being cloying, the Guinness crunch was at first undiscernable exactly what flavor profile it was profiling; sweet, yes – but with umami and a touch of earthiness. In this creation, we were experiencing doughnut perfection known only a few times before, most memorably at The French Laundry. Yes, ladies and gentleman, for doughnut nirvana in the Los Angeles area, it does not get any better than Nickel Diner and the creation of the Irish Car Bomb doughnut goes beyond inspiration to the level of epiphany. Without kitsch or the gimmick of a children’s cereal topping, a truly exceptional taste has been created and while one might expect to experience such flavors in a cupcake or a plated dessert, it is brought forth in the form of the humble doughnut; elevating the doughnut beyond the realm of mere breakfast pastry and into a religious experience.

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