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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Mooncakes by Mail

The Moon Festival is of Chinese origin, but Asians everywhere now celebrate Autumn and the harvest moon. This year’s festival is on October 6th. Asian markets and bakeries will soon have versions of the traditional Moon Festival dessert: moon cakes, pastries filled with sweet pastes like chestnut, or red bean. Some have a salted egg yolk tucked inside. This delicacy is very rich, so be sure to share each cakes with some willing participants.

Order online from Kee Wah Bakery, which has several different types.

Here’s a listing of bakeries and online vendors.

About the festival.

Board Links
Where to order mooncakes?

Nutty Butters

Peanut butter is just the beginning! There’s also pistachio, cashew, almond, sunflower seed, and macadamia butters. It’s relatively easy to make your own nut butters, too. Toast the nuts and whiz them into a spreadable paste in a food processor. It can’t handle as many nuts as once, but a blender makes an even smoother butter. If it’s too thick, add some neutral oil into the mix.

Adding flavors makes an even more interesting spread. PseudoNerd adds cinnamon and/or nutmeg to peanut butter. Sometimes, when he’s feeling crazy, he adds raisins, too. Almond butter benefits from chopped up dried apricots. Macadamia nuts combine well with orange or lemon zest, fresh or dried. And Fauchon suggests a bit of curry for almond butter.

Check out Peanut Butter & Co., with lots of flavors to order.

Board Links
Peanut butter, almond butter, pistachio butter?

Catskills, Cupcakes, and ‘Cuing

Crushing disappointment: I’d been looking forward to breakfast at Shandaken Inn (One Lower Golf Course Road, Shandaken, New York; 845-688-2622), which locals speak of in rapturous tones. Insanely delicious omelets. Little touches. Bucolic, woodsy idyll.

But I was confronted by that bane of chowhounds everywhere: a sign reading “Closed for Private Party.” If I ruled the world, private parties would not be allowed to render entire restaurants inaccessible to their loving and loyal fans. It’s so terribly unfair.

I did poke my head in, and it’s a charismatic, informal country place, sort of like the inn one would imagine at Walden. They rent rooms, which I hear are charming and reasonable. There’s a nice splashy pool out in the grassy back area. I must return.

As I headed out of town, I spotted a hand-scribbled sign for baked goods and screeched into a side-street in a hail of gravel. It was there that I made my first real find of the trip. An elderly woman named Yvonne sits immobile in a hut at the intersection of Route 28 and Ernst Road in Phoenicia, New York (845-688-7340) amid a wide range of knickknacks. (I get the sense that Yvonne is in a more or less perpetual state of garage sale.) I may have been the first person to stop in hours—days? weeks?—and she spun into action, peppering me with homilies, culinary theories, and alternative cupcake-flavor options, her bright, youthful eyes flashing all the while.

I chose a butterscotch cheesecake cupcake and answered “yes” to fresh whipped cream. Yvonne drew from the refrigerator an ancient, heavyweight pastry bag, which emitted the thickest, most luxurious-looking cream imaginable. If you told me Yvonne’s refrigerator was actually a portal to Vienna circa 1870, I’d be inclined to believe you. The flavor of both whipped cream and cupcake was astounding, and a brownie was top-notch and full of personality, as well. (Note: Yvonne is really into moistness; the cheesecake is nearly liquid and even the brownies are runny. Go with it; it’s her aesthetic.) Foolishly scarfing the thing as I drove off, as one does with trifles bought from a roadside stand, I realized I was wrong—blasphemously wrong. I pulled over, got out, and sat, with impeccable posture, on the rear bumper, and gave this amazing pastry the full attention and respect it deserved. Do not pass within 35 miles without stopping at Yvonne’s.

Yvonne clearly comes with an interesting story (I just Googled a clue; see this 1986 article from The New York Times, which says she once owned a restaurant), and she was clearly eager to recount it to me, but I’ll have to wait for another time to hear it, because I was late to meet friends at …

The Hudson Valley Ribfest

Peekskill, New York

Hear my three podcasts:

MP3 file Arriving at the Ribfest.
MP3 file ‘Cue Geek Spiel
I could listen to ‘cue geeks go on all day about their craft. Here, I’m chatting with a fellow from Tennessee who lives up north and enters barbecue competitions on weekends to reconnect with his roots. See photo, below.
MP3 file Ribfest Redux

Photos of Commercial Vendors

Commercial vendor (“Eat well, stay fit, die anyway!”).

Another commercial vendor.

The third and final commercial vendor.

Photos of Amateur Competitors

Barbecue geek (a Tennessee fellow who lives up north and does barbecue competitions on weekends to reconnect with his roots … that’s him speaking in the ‘Cue Geek Spiel podcast, above).

Newbies on the circuit with their tiny little grill, next to veteran competitors with top-end equipment.

A drinkin’ team.

My party works through disappointing fare from the commercial vendors.

4H Milkshake Tent

Master chowhound Barry Strugatz always swears by milkshakes made by 4-H Club girls at county fairs. So I eagerly made my way to the 4-H milkshake window, where I spied bored-looking girls desultorily scooping cheap ice cream and squirting cheap generic syrups from big plastic containers. The shakes cost something like $4 each, and the whole thing showed no promise at all. But all the quality was injected during the final blending stage, which was managed by the only perky, cheerful girl in the entire squadron. On request, she recited the 4-H pledge. I forget what all the Hs stand for, but one of them is surely “Helluva milk shake”—a perfect, old-school rendition.

Strictly Local Legends
Mendham, New Jersey

New Jersey is chock-full of local food legends—places to eat that are widely known and loved within their areas, but never written about or patronized by outsiders. I find it irresistible to try to uncover as many of these as possible.

My cousins Bob and Cindy have for years regaled me with tales of Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill (353 Mendham Road West [Route 24], Mendham, New Jersey, 973-543-7675), a super-quirky, super-expensive local steakhouse established in 1933 and still run by the same family. They were certain I’d get a kick out of this extraordinarily characterful place, but, as is often the case with local legends, they were unsure whether the place stacks up in terms of pure deliciousness.

MP3 file Hear Bob and Cindy’s pre-meal briefing.

Sammy’s was actually startlingly good. The house salad (iceberg hued deep brown from way too much vinegar) was as off-putting as I’d been warned, but everything else rocked. Lobster was primo quality and cooked by a kitchen that really understands lobster; lamb chops were humongous, charry, and juicy; and superbly fried shrimp were doused with perfectly balanced lemon garlic sauce for scampi—a rendition I’ll forever hanker for. Sammy’s crunchy, slightly overcooked shoestring fries were fun. There’s great stuff to eat here, and you unquestionably walk out the door feeling like you’ve been somewhere.

MP3 file Hear Bob and Cindy’s post-meal appraisal.

Sammy’s (no signs!).

Across the street: Sammy’s Cider Mill.

Sammy’s dining room (it really feels this blurry; a clear photo simply couldn’t capture it).

Sammy himself!

We won’t stand for it

Will a prohibition on standing and drinking in pubs reduce the incidence of barroom brawls?

Police and health officials in Lancashire, England want to enforce a no-standing policy designed to preempt violent outbursts by preventing potential combatants from drinking while vertical.

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Jack Turner, author of Spice: The History of a Temptation, questions the logic behind the initiative, citing a string of historical failures at
controlling eating and drinking: Boredom with Lenten dietary restrictions begat an indulgence in expensive, exotic ingredients and spices; the ideal of the communal “civic meal,” born in the French Revolution, was erased by the advent of restaurants, and so on.

My favorite example in Turner’s article has to be that of temperance movements in Australia and New Zealand which required that bars close
at 6 p.m. to encourage men to spend their evenings with their families rather than getting drunk. The result was that imbibing only accelerated, with drinkers cramming their drinking into “60 liquid minutes” (some pubs even “fitted a spigot on a hose to fill drinkers’ glasses as soon as they emptied”).

So what’s Turner’s solution for worried officials in Lancashire?

“The answer, I think, is known to anyone who has visited the tourist spots of Paris or Rome. Many a footsore traveler has retreated to a
cafe only to find, when the check arrives, that a coffee costs double when seated. In Lancashire maybe they should do the same but they
should, so to speak, turn the tables. Charge more to stand, and they’ll be falling over themselves to sit down.”

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

NYC restaurant watchdog blog The Strong Buzz gives a little thumbnail sketch this week of BAMN!, a modern-day Automat stocked with Asian noshes and domestic comfort food.

For those of us born after 1950, a quick refresher course might be necessary. The Automat hovered somewhere between a vending machine and a full-on restaurant. A coin-operated machine surrogate took the place of the waitstaff, dispensing slices of pie, macaroni and cheese, rice pudding and a variety of other comfort foods for a few coins and the flip of a wrist.

BAMN! kicks this almost-completely-extinct concept squarely into the 21st century, serving up Asian buns and cakes, 100 percent beef sliders, and Musubi, which The Strong Buzz’s Andrea Strong describes as “a Hawaiian shaped seasoned cake topped with sliced beef.”

It unclear why anyone would want to eat a meat-garnished cake shaped like a Hawaiian, but BAMN! certainly sounds both exciting and difficult to pronounce.

Poo poo platter

Have you seen those rather…questionable commercials for Domino’s Pizza’s newest sugar-shocked treat and wondered if toilet paper would be free with delivery? You’re not the only one.

The commercial in question features a chocolate brownie that hugs Domino’s customers, smearing them with chocolate that looks, um, unsavory. As if the chocolate trails that the advertised Fudgems leave on its happy (or hapless?) victims wasn’t odd enough, as any South Park devotee knows, Chef once concocted his own batch of Fudge ‘Ems on the show as an extension of his original Chocolate Salty Balls recipe.

Posters in Television Without Pity’s thread “Commercials with People Who Should Just Go Away Now,” have had graphic reactions. Cyb says, “It does what I thought until recently was impossible: Makes me lose my appetite for chocolate,” and Muffyn adds, “That commercial really is disgusting. It looks like the chocolate block smeared feces on everyone.”

Add to all of that the fact that the Fudgem looks like a gas-passing Japanese television mascot and you gotta wonder first, “What the hell is Domino’s smoking?” and second, “Can I get it to go?”

Eat. Discuss. Die.

Inspired by a BBC food survey, Melissa at Travelers’ Lunchbox asks the food blog community to list five “things you’ve eaten and think that everyone should eat at least once before they die.”

The answers are rolling in. From the simplicity of a garden-fresh tomato warmed by the sun, to the sophisticated tasting menu at the French Laundry, food-obsessed bloggers are sending in their picks for the flavors of a lifetime. Melissa is posting the submissions at Travelers Lunchbox and the list is impressive.

Is there a clear winner? With contributions ongoing it is hard to tell, but the current leader is the delightful almond macaron cookies from Pierre Hermé.

Now, get thee to Paris (or Tokyo) and grab some macarons! You never know when the end is near.

Lick it up

Summer’s fading, so now’s the time to lick, munch and slurp through NYC’s best ice cream sandwiches. New York Magazine puts its insatiable roundup rustlers on the cookies ‘n’ cream beat to find the top handheld treats.

But no Chipwiches need apply: instead, these frozen delights are made by hand using top-notch ingredients like Il Laboratorio del Gelato ice cream and cookies chunked with Jacques Torres chocolate. Much to our surprise, the winner wasn’t the sleek bar at ‘wichcraft, but the humble lil’ cutie at One Girl Cookies, a tiny storefront bakery in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill that slathers ricotta gelato onto cakey pumpkin puffs.

Not everyone loves these chi-chi creations, however. Over at Gothamist, a poster shudders at the mere mention of (two) cheese-flavored fillings, while the East Coast/West Coast throwdown on A Full Belly ends in a TKO for Frisco’s It’s It.

Created at the original Playland-at-the-Beach seaside amusement park in 1928 and still made at a Bay Area factory, the It’s Its is a swirl
of ice cream (I love the cappuccino) sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies, dipped in chocolate, and sold for cheap at a corner store on
those three days when it’s actually hot enough to eat ice cream in San Francisco. Speaking of the Bay Area, as if those stock options
weren’t enough, worker bees at Google’s HQ now get a special rainbow-labeled, locally sourced, trans-fat-free version in their in-house cafeteria.

This cheese stands alone

As the embers of the 2007 grilling season fade to black, 101cookbooks has a suggestion for sending the summer off right —a magnificently simple but surprisingly flashy recipe featuring Halloumi cheese.

The appeal: you get throw cheese directly onto a grill! And it doesn’t melt into a molten puddle. Instead, it warms up and develops
a tasty exterior crust. For reasons known only to food scientists, the obscure-but-wonderful Halloumi is one of the few cheeses that can
stand up to grill-level heat and emerge as a perfectly forged medium for, say, the mini-green bean salad/appetizer featured on 101 Cookbooks.

Also worth reading: the recipe comments section, where a debate over the national origins of Halloumi (“It’s Greek!” “It’s Cypriot!”) threatens to spark a low-intensity ethnic riot.

Fleur de Sel Gelato

Bacco has an incredible dessert: toasted olive oil cake with fleur de sel gelato and caramel baked pears. The fleur de sel gelato is amazing–smooth and distinctly salty. That gelato is, by itself, worth a special trip, says Robert Lauriston.

Ristorante Bacco [Noe Valley]
737 Diamond St., at 24th St., San Francisco
415-282-4969
Locater

Board Links
Fleur de sel gelato at Bacar