Portuguese pastry perfection

This is the face of an addict, a pastel de nata addict.

The face of an addict, a pastel de nata addict.

With its resplendent blue skies, abundant sunshine and cool Atlantic breezes, Lisbon had me smitten almost from the minute I stepped off the plane.  But the moment I held a pastel de nata in my hand and felt its flaky crust and warm, custard filling in my mouth? Wooo! That was something else. That, my friends, was love.

Pasteis de nata, traditional Portuguese custard tarts, are everywhere. All the cafés and bakeries have them, and in the morning, people leaning over counters, sipping coffees and scarfing down pasteis, are a common sight.

Production line of deliciousness.

Production line of deliciousness.

I tried my first at Manteigaria, a Lisbon bakery that makes them fresh in-house, all day long. When a friend took me there my first night in town (remember: any time is a good time for pastries), bakers filled tray after tray of creamy custard treats.

Little cups of sugar and cinnamon dusted happiness.

Little cups of sugar and cinnamon dusted happiness.

The best pasteis de nata have flaky, buttery crusts and custard centers that are smooth and creamy, sweet and subtly eggy in flavor. The tops are slightly charred so the sugar caramelizes and gives each tart the burnt-sweetness that goes so well with a sprinkle of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

During my week in Lisbon, I had these pastries for breakfast in the morning and snacks throughout the day, at cafes all over town, and with varying degrees of deliciousness, and while it’s worth noting I never once had a bad one, Manteigaria’s pasteis were some of my favorite.

Cranking out pastry perfection since 1837

Cranking out pastry perfection since 1837

The title of absolute best, however, is an honor that most Lisboans reserve for Pasteis de Belem, a bakery in nearby Belem that’s been turning out these little tarts of perfection since 1837 when monks from the neighboring Mosteiro do Jeronimos started selling them as a means of making money. The old-timey café is a bustling scene of pastry gobbling tourists and locals, while the glass counter in the front keeps a steady crowd of admirers snaking out the front door.

Ladies and gents, THE best, the one, the only, the pastel de Belem

Ladies and gents, THE best, the one, the only, the pastel de Belem

When I made the pilgrimage to the famed pastry shop (and the monastery down the street, thank you very much) and finally got my hands on one of their baked treats, I immediately understood what the fuss was about. While other pasteis had been good, this one was perfect. The crust, made of layers of delicate, thin pastry dough, was buttery and crisp, and the still-warm custard center, made of egg yolks, sugar and at least some small part of heaven itself, was velvety soft and sweet without being cloying.

Call them pasteis de nata or de Belem, I’d gladly eat these every day for the rest of my life, just like I did during that that delicious week in Portugal.

Smitten with Smitten’s pumpkin

October always finds me in the midst of a serious pumpkin binge. I’m one of those people, the pumpkin obsessed. This year, of course, has been no different, and while I’ve already eaten plenty of tasty pumpkin treats, my favorite, by far, is unfortunately almost 3,000 miles away.

It was during my days in San Francisco that I ate the most delicious ice cream to maybe have ever landed in my mouth, the maple brown sugar squash ice cream at Smitten Ice Cream in Hayes Valley.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin ice cream I could eat all day every day

All of Smitten’s ice creams are made to order on the spot using liquid nitrogen to freeze the ingredients at crazy low temperatures super fast. In this case, the ingredients were pumpkin, milk, molasses, cinnamon, cardamom, brown sugar, nutmeg and ginger. If you want the whole scientific breakdown, better read this than try and get a proper explanation from me. What I can tell you, however, is that this ice cream is phenomenal. Thick and deliciously creamy, with all the spicy warmth of pumpkin pie spices, this was the ice cream version of the best imaginable pumpkin pie.

It’s a seasonal ice cream but all kidding aside, I could eat this year round, every day actually.

Smitten Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Someone send help… and doughnuts

It’s not like I didn’t know moving would be an epic nightmare. Cause I did, I knew. Having moved already a few times in the just four years I’ve lived in this city, I knew good and well what was in store for me. Yet somehow, it’s still managed to be more of an overwhelming headache than I was expecting.

So now, just a few days before the big move, on my day off when I should be out doing fun stuff, here I am instead, sitting in a chaotic mess of boxes, suitcases, and piles and piles of crap. Clearly, I’m not packing and organizing though, because if I was I wouldn’t be writing this.

Dammit packing and moving, why can't you be as fun as eating doughnuts?

Dammit packing and moving, why can’t you be as fun as eating doughnuts?

No, instead I’m daydreaming about doughnuts, which I woke up craving and now that I need to be productive, am being completely distracted by. And because I’m stressed out and prone to stress-induced binge eating, I really wish I had a plate stacked high with the ones from Vegan Divas. I had them about a month ago when I  brought a few to a vegan friend’s brunch, and now, well now I wish I could teleport to the Upper East Side to buy some more.

Sure, they lacked the over-the-top, full fat, gluttonous quality of say, Krispy Kreme, but they were actually really good. Soft and moist, they would’ve been great dunked in coffee or the way I had them, stuffed into my mouth, quickly and often. The chocolate frosted and cinnamon sugar varieties were both tasty but my favorite were the toasted coconut.

And now that I’m sitting here, I wish every one of these boxes, these piles of things to maybe keep maybe throw away, these magazines to recycle, these knick knacks to wrap and package, would all just turn into delicious, guilt free doughnuts.

A bread pudding victory

I see foods in blogs, magazines, books and TV shows all the time that I want to eat, but rarely do I feel like actually making them. I usually just rather go the restaurant or store where they’re sold and cut straight to the chase. But every once in a while when the spirit moves me, I think, “You know what, I can make that.”

Earlier this week, while reading old entries of a blog I’m newly obsessed with (Cupcakes and Cashmere) I came across a recipe which the blogger had actually found in another blog I really like (Smitten Kitchen) where that blogger had adapted it from Gourmet magazine (ahh, the power of the interwebs): pumpkin freakin’ bread pudding. Mind. Blown.

So I immediately ran out and bought all the ingredients. I followed Smitten Kitchen’s variation of the recipe which you can find here, but instead of bourbon, which I didn’t have any of, I used a little bit of brandy. (Not pictured though.)

The ingredients

I put the butter and the bread aside and threw everything else (in their appropriate quantities, duh) into a bowl. But because I’m ever the rookie in the kitchen, I used a bowl that wasn’t big enough for me to whisk it all together without making a huge goopy mess, and ended up having to pour it into a big pot. Unnecessary steps are always part of the experience for me.

Mixing everything up

After melting the butter and coating the bread in it (a very hands-on step, by the way), I filled a square baking pan with the now slightly soggy, buttery bread. I will fully admit several pieces of bread never made it into the final version because I ate them along the way.

Warm, buttery bread cubes are hard to resist.

Next, I took the pumpkin-milk-eggs-spices mixture, which had been whisked together into a velvety, gold, sweet smelling cream, and I poured it over the bread cubes, using a spoon to make sure it seeped into all the corners and edges.

Nothing like a little creamy pumpkin bath.

The good thing about having a small apartment is that when you make something like this, the whole place smells like it. So while I waited for the bread pudding to set, I enjoyed the warm, spicy sweet smell that quickly filled the air. Once out of the oven, it didn’t immediately look very different than when it went in, but after poking it a bit I could tell the bread had soaked up the pumpkin mix and all of it congealed together to make bread pudding. (At which point, I may or may not have done a little celebratory dance.)

I wish the technology existed for you to be able to smell this.

While a scoop of vanilla or butter pecan ice cream would have been great, I took Smitten Kitchen’s recommendation and topped my chunk of pumpkin bread pudding with a generous dollop of vanilla greek yogurt. With its subtle sweetness and sour tang, the cool yogurt was a nice contrast to the warm, soft creaminess of the bread pudding. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m going to: this was a damn good bread pudding! Maybe there’s hope for me yet!

And voila! Pumpkin bread pudding!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Rolf's german restaurant... like being INSIDE a Christmas tree

With the exception of my hatred for Kenny G. and all other pseudo jazzy, easy listening versions of classic Christmas music, I freakin’ love everything about the holidays. I love the twinkling lights and the smell of Christmas trees, movies like It’s A Wonderful Life and Bad Santa (Billy Bob is a dirtbag but there’s never been a more hilarious Santa), the parties, the dinners, the presents, and— you guessed it— the holiday treats.

Egg nog! Cheers to that!

Without even having to think twice about it, I can tell you my absolute all-time favorite in December is egg nog. While I’ve had a few different ones this season and Ronnybrook continues to be the best, the prize for most fun and festive definitely goes to Rolf’s egg nog. Served over ice, spiked with Southern Comfort and garnished with a dash of nutmeg and a cinnamon stick, Rolf’s version gives me the same giddy feeling I got as a kid on Christmas morning. (You know, before I learned Santa didn’t exist and my parents were liars.) Rolf’s itself is the most insanely decorated, holiday-crazy, Christmasy place I’ve ever been to with the exception of maybe Disney World during December. Everyone in New York should absolutely go at least once to this Gramercy german restaurant. If you go and don’t feel even a little flicker of holiday cheer, then you my friend, have no soul and a dusty piece of coal for a heart.

Chestnuts, another great holiday snack

Another favorite of the season, though thankfully not as disgustingly gluttonous as egg nog, are roasted chestnuts. The woodsy, nutty, almost-burnt smell as they roast, the warm, soft inside, the cracking them open and chipping away at the toasted shell— I love them. I want to sit in front of a fireplace on a snowy night and eat dozens of them. Even though I have to buy them from a street vendor with mechanic hands and impatiently eat them on the subway, I still love ’em.

Now if stores would just cut the crappy Christmas tunes. I mean, really, Michael Bolton’s A Swingin’ Christmas? No. Just no.