Good Eatin Y'All

This past weekend, we made a long-planned pilgrimage to North Carolina to visit our newlywed friends and take in a show at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. The trip was a whirlwind 36 hours, filled with blue crabs, vinegar-tinged barbecue and heaping bowls of cheese grits.

There was a country song playing on the radio while we drove into town, something about 'honky-tonk badonkadonks' and I had to smile--- with food this good, I'd probably become a muse for some such lyrics if I stayed any longer. And I blame it all on the biscuits. Delicious, hot out of the oven, buttery biscuits.

My two favorite stops closed one day and opened another:
Late night, we followed the Chapel Hill college crowd and post-concert goers down the street to a hopping 24 hours diner of sorts known as Time Out.
Before diving headfirst into my late night meal, this is the last sight I can recall...a buffet of southern comfort, replete with barbecue, fried chicken, okra, mac 'n cheese and just about any other homestyle ingredient specially designed to soak up whatever moonshine you consumed earlier that evening.

For our group, it was various incarnations of the "four corner biscuit" that captured our favor. The biscuit, a huge square consisting of nothing but the fluffy, melt in your mouth insides of a biscuit could sandwich anything from fried chicken (sublime) to bacon, egg and oozing cheddar cheese (take that McDonalds!), to my choice- a simple drizzle of honey. The bite was perfectly soft, tinged with a sunny taste of orange and clover that took me back to my childhood days of a Golden Blossom-kissed biscuits at the breakfast table. A solid, decidedly Carolinian way to end the night.

The next day, after a slow start and a bit of laziness, the group gathered at an infamous Southern food spot at the end of the Chapel Hill drag, known for writer and cook Bill Smith's influence in shaping the national perception of 'shrimp and grits' in the 70's. What better way to celebrate our last few hours than a brunch at Crook's Corner, laden with grits, fried oysters and feathered eggs (lighter, creamier frittatas) ...and of course, plenty of biscuits on the side. The biscuits here were more of the traditional, round and thick variety, pre-sliced and ready to be slathered with the butter and strawberry preserves served alongside. The crunchy exterior provided a satisfying crumble while the fluffy inside was every bit the taste of buttery tradition.

Perhaps by no coincidence but the mere fact that I'm destined to bring a bit of the South home with me, my travel reading (Bon Appetit December issue) shared a treasured Baltimore family recipe for sweet potato biscuits from Molly Wizenberg. If there's anything we love in my kitchen more than buttery bread, it's buttery sweet potatoes. I can't wait to try this one out--- and maybe I'll blast a little of that honky-tonk song, just for good measure.

One 3/4 pound-red-skinned sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of cayenne pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk

Cook sweet potato in medium saucepan of boiling water until tender, 8-10 minutes.
Drain, cool and mash.
Position rack in lower third of oven, preheat to 425 F.
Butter bottom and sides of 9 inch cake pan (with 1 1/2 inch high sides)
Whisk flour and next five ingredients in large bowl. Add cubed butter to flour mixture; toss to coat and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Whisk 3/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes and buttermilk in medium bowl. Add to flour mixture; toss with fork.
Gather mixture in bowl, kneading until dough comes together. Turn dough out onto floured work surface and pat into 1 inch think round. Cut using 1 1/2 inch think biscuit cutter, flouring after each cut.
Arrange biscuits side by side in prepared cake pan. Brush with melted butter.
Bake until puffed and golden on top and toothpick inserted into center biscuit comes out clean (about 22 minutes).
Cool for 10 minutes in pan, then turn biscuits out and gently pull them apart.

Cut crosswise and fill with whatever you wish. Wizenberg recommends salty cured ham and sweet-hot mustard. I recommend simply a dab of butter and a drizzle of honey, of course.


Take Five...

By now, if you've followed the apple pie saga, you might be wondering- where is she? Did she burn out, give up...face plant in her pie dish? Absolutely not! I wanted to take a bit of a break and share a delicious foodie discovery perfect for after a long day in the kitchen. And of course, it will make your mouth water just the same!

I decided to treat myself to a delicious indulgence, in the form of a bubble bath, for some calorie-free detox. The warm, spicy scent of butterscotch and nutmeg with a hit of spice make the pumpkin fragrance in this bath soap sing. Mmmm...and wouldn't you know it, there's a recipe on the bottle! Guess it will take more than a long soak to keep me out of the kitchen.


Pumpkin Spice Muffins, courtesy of Philosophy products.
2 c. flour
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. sugar, 1 tbsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. ground ginger, 1/2 c. melted butter, 1/2 c. cooked pumpkin, 1/3 c. buttermilk, 2 eggs- slightly beaten.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Stir together all ingredients except butter, pumpkin, buttermilk and eggs, in large bowl.
Stir together all remaining ingredients in medium bowl.
Stir into flour mixture just until moistened.
Spoon batter into greased muffin pan. bake for 15-20 min. or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes; remove from pan.


The Aftermath...

I wish I could return to you with news of blue-ribbon glory, but participating in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest (not to mention my own challenge of taking on an unknown pastry in less than a month's time) did come up as a winning experience in my books.

After dropping off contestant pie #7 early Sunday morning, I was awed at just how big this 5-year-old event had gotten- 120 beautiful pies and a waiting list of bakers in the wings! I met contestants that quoted an heirloom depression-era recipe, some that shared a few secrets-apple butter and orange juice, and a few very strange renditions for show-hickory smoked apple pie is not on my list to reproduce any time soon!

I found myself wandering not one but two 'pie rooms', trying to guess which crusts were shortening and which were butter simply by appearance, finally comparing my pie to others gathered by my ticket holding friends. And naturally, that resident taste tester had nothing but superlative words for my 'rustic' little number. I call it rustic because at 1 a.m. in the morning, crimping pie crusts by hand is not high on the priority list.

And so I discovered I'm a flavor person, not a precision baker. I'm proud that I was able to produce edible pies that sold tickets, but like anyone that's worked as a busboy or waitress, sometimes it's just better to be on the receiving end of a good meal.

Perhaps by Thanksgiving I'll be able to present my family with an apple pie remember! Or I might just take this year off...



The Calm Before the Storm...

I've included the last of my 'practice pies' above, opting for a straightforward route- Granny Smith Apples, a few left over Empires (a tad mushy when baked but the potential for outrageous applesauce is great!) and my one-time nemesis, the butter crust.

I'm getting a little better with the timing but I venture to say, it's important to nail the crust execution before starting the apple filler. Even peeling the apples too soon and certainly mixing the filling too soon likely influences the texture of the filler. Also, it's important to toss the apples thoroughly so there aren't too many pockets of cinnamon and sugar.

I'm getting a tad better at crimping my crust, but I'm still trying to figure out the best technique for that...thoughts anyone? I did managed to have some leftover dough to experiment with a leaf or two...to add a little festive smile.

The competition at Holstein Park is this Sunday! I can't believe it...it's come way too soon. Wish me luck and perhaps I'll see some of you there for a taste. I'd love the support and can't wait to take part in this great tradition (5 years running!).


Apples, Straight from the Source

I decided to play around with the apples a bit in this attempt, making the most of a weeknight burst of energy and a few leftover Pink Ladies in the fridge.

This pie wasn't really created with the intention of achieving perfection, but it provided some solid butter crust practice (less messy this time, better dough to work with), and I switched up my sugars, substituting brown for my lack of white sugar. Problem: I forgot the flour this time around, which resulted in a bit more of a juice, but the flavor received a significant brightness from some experimental orange peel. A very fragrant, fresh filling came through in the end.

As I mentioned, this was more or less a 'practice pie' so I didn't bother with the egg/ milk wash this time around. You can see the difference here. You can also see where I taste-tested the crust a little- hehe.

I do not yet have a photo of my shortening attempt, but I felt the crust was a little too 'pop tart' tasting for my liking. Could use a tweak or two next attempt. Thumbs up for the Pink Ladies in this one. The more the merrier!

And this past weekend, after an expanding waistline required a baking break, (c'mon, it's not like the butter crust is going to eat itself!) my resident taste tester and I took our research on the road to celebrate a perfect fall day at Kuiper's Family Farm apple orchard in Maple Grove. Fantastic day, and some delish Empires were ripe for the pickin'.

So, after receiving tips on the best heirloom, tart, firm, traditional apples (I made my mother solicit advice from our family Thanksgiving pie suppliers, who only use Granny Smiths- 'to better control the level of sweetness' they said).

I welcome recommendations on a reliable filler fruit for the impending contest...what would you pick?


Pie is Where the Heart Is...

This post provides the first slice of what will come, over the next month of trials and taste tests in my apple pie education. I decided to begin by attempting a traditional butter crust apple pie, bubbling with cinnamon and tart apples. Doesn't look too shabby, right? Think again.

Despite ample warning, I convinced myself that it's best to begin with the hardest and work from there...I struggled a bit with the actual making of the butter pie crust, the first crust of this kind I've attempted. Exercising too much restraint can be a bad thing- especially when it's witholding the last few drizzles of water that help along the 'pea sized' crumbles become a workable dough. But darn it, I had my dough and I wasn't going to waste it. There were flour and dough bits on my hands, face, floor and counter tops but somehow, not enough to assemble a truly spectacular, crimp-able dough.

After picking up the non-ball of dough like dog poo in my saran wrap and launching it into the fridge, I found that refrigeration, and the warmth of a baker's hand can't work miracles. Or my work surface would look less like a doughy flour hurricane hit it.

LESSON #1: Don't underestimate the dough making process, or the temperature and quantity of each ingredient therein. Note to self: exert deftness in working with cold dough, and patience in the transportation process from counter to pan, as evidenced here.
I'm already eagerly anticipating the shortening dough trial!

The apples, referenced in my previous post, were a delicious surprise. Two mildly tart options- Mutsu and Jonathan- proved a perfect foil for the flour-sugar-cinnamon-spices coating. I will definitely continue with this mixture, perhaps adding more apples to the sauce next time and experimenting a bit more beyond just lemon juice. Behold the final product:

I could have taken more pleasure in the fact that the pie at least came out with a golden glow (thanks Ben for the milk tip!), and that we did manage to clean our plates.
For me, though, I found the truest pleasure in baking something complicated from scratch, from the smell of a butter crust cooling on the counter and adding a certain coziness to the air of a football-filled Sunday. And of course, the best part of cooking from scratch is having that 'resident taste tester' there to provide plenty of hunger-fueled support...and if I'm lucky, mop up that flour-coated floor, too.

F&W's Grace Parisi's 'Perfecting Apple Pie' Recipe:

2 1/2 cups flour, plus 1/4 cup flour for filling
1/2 salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, plus 1 tbs butter for filling
1/2 cup ice water
6 large apples (Food and Wine recommends Granny Smith, Pink Lady and Golden Delicious), peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tbs lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Combine flour, salt and unsalted butter. Pulse in food processor until small 'pea size' balls form, drizzle in water until evenly moistened crumbs form. Shape into a ball, divide in half and refrigerate until firm.
Toss peeled and cored apple pieces with lemon juice, the remaining 1/4 cup flour and sugar, plus cinnamon and spices (I would recommend more than the recipe calls for here).
Roll out dough and fill pie pan with the first half of the dough, the apple mixture, then cover with second half of dough. Be careful to seal and crimp the edges of the pie, and poke holes in the crust to allow the steam to vent during the cooking process.
Bake pie 1 hour 10 minutes at 375 degrees or until crust is golden brown. Let stand up to four hours before serving.



So Many Apples, So Little Time

Last weekend, I embarked on my first apple reconnaissance mission at my favorite local market, the Green City Market. I often feel like I can't have a Chicago food conversation without a reference to this marketplace slipped in- and judging by some esteemed restaurant menus, it appears the market is the lifeblood of truly spectacular cuisine. 

What better way to embark on my apple pie education than with the apple itself, which shines each fall at the market. Seedling Farms is without a doubt, my go-to fruit vendor, not only for their passion and knowledge of orchard fruits, but the sheer scope of options. You haven't experienced apples until you approach their tent and find there are subtleties in variety as widespread as wine grapes.
The goal for a good apple pie, or really any fruit dessert, is balance. A good crust is always a treat but the fruit should shine all on its own. Not too sweet, not too tart. I fell in love with the green apples pictured above, called Mutsu. After enjoying one with my lunch, I would describe it as a Granny Smith hybrid that has a thinner skin and a milder bite. The tartness is cut but a pleasant sweet flesh and mild juiciness. 

I also bought some red Jonathans to sample as well.  Seedling recommends the following (pie apples hold shape while apple sauce apples are very juicy and break down more easily in texture):

I have a feeling that for a contest that demands apple-only fruit pies, the choice will still be a tough one!



Paging Martha!

First, for purposes of full disclosure: this is NOT a picture of my pie. Let's call it the goal. But first, from the beginning....

It's our fall ritual. Far be it for us to build a ritual around JUST leaf collecting, pumpkin hunting or something festive without also including a little taste of the season. After three years (and one intended, but failed after a sudden and tragic brush with food poisoning) of making the trip to Holstein Park for the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest, we know how to handle the festivities. We camp out, we line up and strategize ('one lap around the tables, then we split up, you get the lattice work, I'll look for the crumb'), and in a methodical and swift maneuver, we emerge from the gymnasium with no less than four slices of traditional, all-American apple pie. The next few minutes are filled with satisfied groans, a few offhand comparisons and our own winner among the group.

At this annual neighborhood fundraiser, as many as 200 pies are featured and judged by a panel of celebrity chefs, local bakers and volunteers gathered on an early fall Sunday morning. The top five are celebrated with blue ribbons and of course, one is crowned winner. Prizes are awarded, but wouldn't a nod from local pastry queen Gale Gand be enough?! The crowds come later, purchase tickets and sample the leftovers (while they last!), as bluegrass music pumps into the gym.

Last year, as we arrived a bit TOO early to claim our samples, I looked around at the registrants, turned to my resident taste tester and fiance, and shrugged. I inherited my mother's knack for over-producing legions of Christmas cookies, I insist on not one but two kinds of coffee cake for hosting my brunches and consider baking my forte. I could do this.

And so, gulp, I did. Yesterday, I registered to join the group of 120 amateur and accomplished bakers all putting forth their best pie pans and offering up traditional apple pie. The only catch is, I have never, ever made a pie. I haven't even produced a turnover.

Call it trial by fire- and for my readers, perhaps a bit of what the Germans call schadenfreude. I'll be posting updates along the way toward my apple pie eduction. I welcome suggestions and favorite recipes. And come October 18th, we'll see how the pie crust crumbles.


Blueberry Season!

There is something so perfectly summery about the month of August, underscored this year by Chicago's disappointingly cool season so far. It seems everyone is anxious to stretch daylight hours to the max. Works seems a little less important, and as the humidity peaks, beaches, ball games and festivals make their last stand.

But for me, August marks peak season for my favorite fruit- the blueberry. I can remember watching my dad pile on the fruit, dressing up his ordinary breakfast cereal. My Nana playfully gave him the nickname 'the blueberry kid' early on... and I must have inherited the same berry-worshipping gene. Even my first swimsuit featured a cartoon bushel of blueberries prominently across the chest.

It wasn't until I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that I considered my habit of eating blueberries like M&Ms could be remotely dangerous....but I suppose that it's this limited seasonality of the fruit that directly influences my addiction. The month of August welcomes, in opinion, the choicest blueberries, where large orbs are sugar sweet and smaller berries intersperse just the right mix of tart berry tang.
At the farmer's market recently, I ran into my usual trap. One bushel became two and soon I had more than my ample share of blueberries stocking the fridge. That's when a few classic coffee cake recipes can really come in handy to showcase blueberries at their peak. It's simple recipes like this Cooking Light version that truly shine when blueberries are right in season. That is, if you can keep them around long enough to add to the batter!

Cooking Light's Blueberry Coffee Cake Recipe:
8 servings (I adapted this to smaller squares backed out of a square pan)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (about 6 3/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1 1/3 cups low-fat buttermilk
(It's recommended that a little less is used if fruit is peak season, to prevent it from sinking to the bottom of the cake batter)
Cooking spray
2 cups fresh blueberries
(I actually used about 1 1/2 fresh blueberries and a handful of raspberries to brighten the color)
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar (Yes, this DOES make a difference in appearance and really helps the dish look polished in the end)

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt, stirring with a whisk.

3. Place granulated sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 2 minutes). Add vanilla, egg, and egg white; beat well. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture; mix after each addition.

4. Spoon half of the batter into a 9-inch round baking pan coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle evenly with 1 cup blueberries. Spoon remaining batter over the blueberries; sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 cup blueberries. Sprinkle the top evenly with 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar. Bake at 350° for 50 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.


Lollapalooza snacks!

I'm thrilled to share a little tidbit from Gaper's Block for my fellow local Chicagoans...and music lovers who like to eat!

Before wandering down for what looks to be the best- if not the hottest- of Lollapalooza's three delightful days of music, check out Fox and Obel for some picnic snacks.

On Sunday afternoon, the gourmet grocer is receiving encouragement by The Carrot Mob, an org that supports 'buy-cotts' or movements to reward local businesses for their environmentally and socially conscious business practices, is descending on Fox and Obel. The store, who already embraces everything from organics to LED lighting, is truly outstanding in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

So join me and grab your music fest munchies and support an outstanding grocer and a solid organization at the same time. Isn't buying power a delicious thing?!


As a follow up to my previous post, a few of the highlights from the Chef's BBQ:

Crofton on Wells was the most surprising winner in my 'classic barbeque with a twist' category. I wasn't too familiar with this long standing restaurant, known for contemporary American cuisine presented with French classical technique. Their offering, a mildly earthy, slightly gamey rabbit sausage made me never want a hot dog again. Topped with pickled fennel and mustard seed, the simple elements that together make a the classic 'brat and kraut' combo, the petite bun was dressed instead in a more refined coat that complimented but hardly overshadowed the subtle meat. Served alongside the dog was a hard cider 'sno cone' in a nostolgic paper cup (courtesy of Seedling Farm's new frozen orchard-based treats).

Another shot of the rabbit sausages before plating, proving you don't need to be fancy to taste so darn good. Another surprise of the day was the Goddess and the Grocer's table. In addition to an addictive purple potato salad, that hinted at mustard and vinegar rather than mayo, they served up housemade pickles, cucumbers and beets married together as a tangy relish salad. I only wish I could have toted this jar along to half the barbeque tables, using the lightly brined veggies as a finisher. Kudos to my favorite gourmet deli for carry out--- I'll be looking to you for the sides to our next summer cookout!

Alas, while I could dissect more and more from this night, new meals have overtaken old and I must move on!

Until then, cheers!


Green City Market Chef's BBQ Recap Part 1

Sigh...almost a week has passed since I found myself at the foodie's true Taste of Chicago type event. The annual Chef's BBQ, put on by my lovely neighbors The Green City Market, allowed me to revisit some of the best places we've dined in the city, and add a few unexpected must-try's to my list.

Despite the weather (a rain or shine event in a not so lovely Chicago summer), the park was abuzz with wide-eyed foodies, and overjoyed chefs. This really is a great opportunity for restaurants to give back to their best customers, and often this means the executive chefs is the one serving up the food, along with about half their kitchen staff.

White coats were stirring behind each cute checkered table display, working an assembly line of small plates and turning over gourmet mass production. Puffs of smoke rimmed the area, lending the air a frangrant aroma of charred pork belly, a decidedly summery scent. Crowds moved as if they were browsing an open air flea market, sampling some, watching others with skepticism and occasionally, calling friends and partners back with an order- you've got to have this! That was me.

I've collected a few photos here to give a taste of the look and celebrity of the twilight event. I'm already excited for next year! Did anyone else attend- would love to hear your comments?

(LEFT) North Pond's seasonally correct chef Bruce Sherman shares goat summer sausage croutons slathered with apricot butter. Like all of the produce at the event, it's sourced locally and often from the Green City Market itself.

(RIGHT) Over at the Sola table, I took a liking to the cocktails. While mixologists stirred up drinks in a center 'island' and local vintners shared pours liberally, these stood out as the perfect blend. Blueberry puree mingled with housemade ginger ale and Maker's Mark bourbon. I might have had seconds...

(LEFT) The best thing about Green City Market- sourced cocktails are the freshness factor. A summer beverage is perfected when touches of fresh apricots, peaches and muddled mint color vodka, like the North Shore variety hosted by Prairie Grass Cafe. Love the glass spicket jar!

I promise, there was much more eating than drinking. Most chefs chose a literal interpretation of summer BBQ, with brioche mini-buns sandwiching everything from lamb patties, to barbequed chicken, and even salads were topped with braised meats like Elk (Naha), smoked beef ribs (Smoque), Sorghum cured pork belly (Big Jones), and a variety of sausages and hot links combining multiple ground meats (the Bristol, of course!)

(ABOVE: One of the local celebrities dishing out notorious samples was Stephanie Izard, Chicago's own Top Chef. Between restaurant ventures, and hosting a dinner series, she chose to showcase beer braised 'drunken' goat, atop a market vegetable slaw.)

Another star of the day, and an active member of the Green City Market's board of directors, was the king of fresh mex. Rick Bayless mingled and spoke Spanish with his staff, plating up the occasional 'Tacos al Pastor' to the starstuck fan (marinated grilled pork, served with grilled red onions, Frontera Grill's 3 chile salsa and nestled inside a homemade corn tortilla).

We unfortunately were too late to sample the street food that put Bayless in the final round of Top Chef Masters, but I'm sure it won't be the last opportunity.

Before I get ahead of myself, a few words on dessert. While the search for dessert was a little more difficult, and many restaurants offered both sweet and savory options to revisit, the most memorable was a surprising one. Kevin Hickey's Seasons Restaurant table showcased an deconstructed peach 'cobbler' with a grilled half peach, oatmeal crumbles and the most heavenly dollop of pecan carmel ice cream. In fact, it was so luxurious, it beat out Hot Chocolate's artisinal ice cream, despite their long line. I wish I had a photo, but frankly, it wasn't on the plate long enough to snap :)

In my next blog entry, I'll highlight a few surprising faves for the night. Until then, cheers!


Notes from the Road...

Have you ever indulged in a meal that felt as though you were perched at a long family-style table in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, sharing summer vegetables so sublime they echoed the rolling landscape and firm pasta made by hand. I was rewarded with such an experience recently at NYC's Del Posto, my first taste of Mario Batali's work.

While Chicago consistently blows me away on a culinary scale, I've been longing to experience the orange-clogged-one and my recent trip home was just the time. His cooking proved, as I had hoped, to truly exude rustic Italian charm and class, not just an Iron Chef but a true gustatory journeyman.

This particular Batali-Bastianich legend has an atmosphere steeped in luxury and dimly lit dark wood, and I sensed a stir in the air that I was in for a treat.

I started with a salad, which seemed to be a cop out in a place that treats meats so lovingly, but all reservations were gone by the time a virtual painter's palate was presented in front of me. I was blown away. My fork bounced from fava bean puree to edible herb and flower blossoms to marinated artichoke and rough crumbles of pumpernickel croutons for lapping up fresh goat's milk ricotta...

The pasta was delightfully springing and firm. My dad, who's been known to play it safe when venturing out to eat, was pleasantly surprised by his spaghetti roti (firm, chopped, large ropes of pasta) that nested chunks of dungeness crab, scallions and mild jalapenos.

I looked to our waiter for his spot on recommendations, and went with my gut with the white rabbit panzotti (large hand-formed packets filled with sausage like dark meat and ricotta), bathed in black truffle butter and sliced pencil asparagus. It transported me to that farm table in Italy. Simple ingredients, sunny and bright but so chewy and indulgent that I was left more than satisfied.

Dessert was a necessity at a place like this. The selection was difficult and daring, but my butterscotch semifreddo proved a study in contrasts. The buttery, coffee tones spooned up deliciously cool and creamy. Nestled beside it was a bouquet of baby mint leaves and a dollop of rhubarb marmalade. The semifreddo felt so old-world in it's comfort and indulgence, but the rhubarb and mint were surprisingly lightly simple yet modern nod to the fresh bounty of the season. Perhaps this tiny bowl captures the magic of Del Posto and Batali himself, combining rich Italian culinary sensibility while invoking the purest contemporary ingredients to bring the meal to life.

This week, I'm welcomed back to Chicago with an event I've truly been looking forward to: the famed Green City Market's annual Chef's BBQ. I can't wait to report on my favorite local chefs (64 in attendance!!)...and ones I'll be dying to visit on their own turf.



Back for Seconds

Brunch, to me, is truly the most special form of weekend celebration. And like the best weekends, I prefer my brunches to be slow, luxurious, a little adventurous and for no special occasion.

When we decided to make the trek to Logan Square, I already knew what to expect. Lula Cafe stands like a beacon on an otherwise bleak square filled with tattooed parents and bespectacled twenty somethings that look like they've fallen out of a Ting Tings video. The atmosphere around here is shamefully honest and urban, yet the feeling is surprisingly homey. The real draw for most of these hipsters is the food, and while Lula is not new, it is a pioneer in some locavore circles (they pull much of their fresher than fresh produce from Chicago's charitable City Farm).

I've been to Lula Cafe before, and had possibly the most satisfying cafe food in the city. The menu pulls from all ends of the globe to create a fantastic fusion of tastes that are perfectly pitched without overwhelming the fresh local ingredients. I could have stopped with the perfectly grilled piece of Gunthrop Farms chicken breast, so tender and juicy. But then I nearly forgot it was a side- we added it to their Pasta Yia Yia, which, in a word, is comfort. Bucatini mixes with succulent browned butter sauce, garlic, feta cheese- and the kicker- Moroccan cinnamon. It's insanely addicting. So much so I nearly forgot I had my own dish to work on.

To accompany a bright blackberry Bellini, I selected the Tineka Sandwich, a vegetarian option on toasted multigrain bread. Like a club sandwich given an international passport, spicy peanut sauce, sambal and Indonesian sweet soy sauce mingled with a crisp collection of cucumber, red onions, sprouts and tomato.

But all this is simply meant to demonstrate how high my expectations were for the return to Lula for Sunday brunch. While the homemade sausage and organic sides followed the standard menu expectations, I was all about the specials. How better to find fresher than fresh, and with each weekend's update, I was sure to find something memorable.

While my other half ordered a savory slow roasted pork taco skillet nestled with tender scrambled eggs, pickled red onions, beans and crema in a saucy, cumin spiked gravy and corn tortillas to collect it all, I was all about tradition.

While the dining room showed a decided bent toward French Toast over pancakes, I couldn't resist. I'm not a pancake girl when we order brunch out, but the breakfast gods were smiling on me that day when my Oatmeal pancakes (not pictured here but similar in look) arrived, silver dollars overlapping like browned scales on a sea of perfectly thickened almond anglaise. Strewn across the pancakes was stewed rhubarb, which makes so much sense I cannot believe it's taken me this long to find it on a pancake. The sweet-tart rhubarb was the perfect bite against a smooth and silky almond creme. As for the pancakes themselves, the oats and streusel seems to blend to make a tender cake, chewy but largely moist. Sigh, I didn't even want to share.

Clearly, I'm not the only one who agrees this is a front runner for top brunch in the city. I'm not really sure why it took us so long to add this to our brunch rotation, and I promised myself after running my finger around the rim of my anglaise-covered plate, I wouldn't wait so long before I returned again.

Lula Cafe is located 2537 North Kedzie Blvd. Chicago, IL 773-489-9554


Punk Rock Pastry

I once heard that you can never have breakfast too many times in a day...and I would extend that to pastries. I can never, ever turn down a proper pastry, whether 6am or 6pm. That said, those little devils in disguise aren't the healthiest morsels in the marketplace, so the thought of a relatively conscious pastry is simply the best.

And so I would like to introduce my first pick for neighborhood- and farmer's market- gem. My attraction to Bleeding Heart Bakery perhaps began with my fascination with the people behind the business. Valentin and Michelle Garcia, and a large part of their staff, are not afraid to dig in, work hard and roll up their sleeves- revealing colorful tattoos and piercings. Amidst the preppy Green City Market, their tent used to remind me of a foodie infused indie rock show, and their Belmont and Damen home base is thumping alternative rhythms that underscore the fantastic individuality of this couple and their sweet vision.

While they call it punk rock, I have to call it progressive. The bakery is all organic and has a tremendous amount of vegan offerings. This naturally translates to some of the coolest, most unique wedding cake selections I've seen in Chicago. I can't help but linger a little too long, admiring the bakery like the kid that rushes to the front at a rock show, only to nose dive back onto the crowd's waiting arms. The atmosphere, served up with a side of skull and crossbones, is so screamingly comfortable in its identity- the Ramones meets Paula Deen.
While my better half prefers their savory items like the stuffed cheese and spinach croissants and mini-quiches, I cannot resist gazing longingly at the fantastical flavors of cupcakes. This month, salted caramel is the designated 'charity' cupcake, a gesture that shows both community influence and social awareness at this favorite shop. But this month, my heart has to go out to the Tandoori cupcake- a tropical East-meets-West combination of curry cake, cayenne, mustard seed, cardamon soaked green raisins, fresh mango, pineapple, curry frosting and topped with a cardamon pod and a strip of cayenne. If that's not a flavor trip, I don't know how to help you.
Since the folks have moved on from my backyard market this summer, I still bike down to the headquarters of "punk rock pastry" occasionally to stock up on my anytime staple- the infamous Take a Hike Scone. I like my scones on the dry side, happy fruit-flecked biscuits that provide a substantial partner to my latte. This one is a veritable trail mix of flavors packed into one brick (perhaps named for its staying power in your belly on long journeys? or for me to stop hovering in front of the pastry case and order already?!) Well, picture whole wheat flour and oats, peppered with a hearty handful of flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, apricots and apple pieces. My devotion is bordering on the need for Birkenstocks soon.
And every time I lock my bike and walk through the flyer-strewn doorway to stand next to a neon orange table, I know exactly what I'll order. But just like the pink hair dye and tattoo sleeves of the visionary owners, hanging out in a bakery feels a little naughty and a little indulgent. So I smile and buy a little bit more than I came for.
Bleeding Heart Bakery is located on 1955 West Belmont Ave. in Chicago.
Starting this Saturday, I'll be stalking them at the SouthPort Farmers Market!

Local Flavor Launches!

NOTE: I've decided to start a new weekly highlight- Local Flavor Wednesdays.
I'll be sharing a neighborhood foodie gem that has surprised and delighted me. Hopefully through these posts I'll be able to share what I feel the universal attraction of food- discovering new tastes, new places and most importantly, chefs that inspire personal memories in us all.

* Stay tuned for this week's inaugural post! *


Fresh Catch, in a Bowl

There's something about salty sea air that stokes the appetite. Add a cool breeze and damp low-lying fog and you've got a recipe for hunger that only a large bowl of local seafood can satisfy.
I never counted myself among the consumers of large pots of 'a little of this, a little of that,' generally less adventurous than willing to dig into what's available yet...er...undefined. That was before I discovered how beautifully cioppino showcases the catch of the day.
An Italian fisherman's stew, cioppino has origins along the wharf towns in California but has been linked to San Francisco most frequently. Dating back 100 years, when Italian seamen flocked to the ethnic neighborhood of North Beach, they wandered amongst the docks looking for leftovers from the day's catch, or 'chopped' pieces, as the Genovese dialect roughly translates. A communal stew was procured from one man's dungeness crab, another's mussels, another's dash of herbs and veggies. Truly a rustic group effort, the fish somehow harmonize in a delicious fresh tomato and wine broth. Sourdough was a popular accessory for sopping up the remains.

While in Moss Landing, CA (near Monterrey) with my future in-laws, we made a beeline for Phil's Fish Market after an excursion out on the Elkhorn Slough (the largest salt marsh outside of San Francisco Bay, and a key ecological breeding ground). Despite the highlights of snugly sea lion pups, rafts of sea otters and a few bird nests, I was chilled to be the bone (May on the Peninsula is not quite summer like!). Time for a warm up, and we picked the local favorite.

Like San Francisco, Monterrey is home to another tourist's haven Fisherman's Wharf. But it's out to this landing that truly feels authentic. Seconds away from the sea, the fish is beyond fresh and Phil's famous cioppino is properly zesty and overflowing with sea legs and shells. Bib and shelling utensils are included, as they should be with a true rustic cioppino. Portions come for one, or the whole table, but always in one big pot. I didn't realize it at the time, but Bobby Flay had even paid Phil a visit for his throwdown challenge on the Food Network, an honor for one of the best versions of the fish stew on the coast. According to the tale, there's no less than seven different types of locally caught, fresh fish in the batch. From striped bass to scallops, it's an unforgettable combination.

Back here in Chicago, the lake can definitely cause some cool weather to come in, even during these early weeks of summer. While the West coast and sea air might be hard to match, I'd suggest paying a visit to Dirk's in Chicago, a local favorite that promotes fresh and sustainable fish.
I've included the Gourmet magazine recipe here, and suggest stealing a twist on the sourdough bowl that Bobby Flay used and making sourdough croutons to top your flavorful fish stew. Try making the broth a day in advance, then grab some friends and hit the market that day. Try having everyone pick a shellfish or whitefish to contribute to the pot- chip in! chip in-o!

Classic Cioppino:

4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 (28- to 32-ounces) can whole plum tomatoes, drained, reserving juice, and chopped
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 cup chicken broth
1 (1-pound) king crab leg, thawed if frozen
18 small (2-inch) hard-shelled clams (1 1/2 pound) such as little necks, scrubbed
1 pound skinless red snapper or halibut fillets, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20), shelled (tails and bottom segment of shells left intact) and deveined
3/4 pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each if necessary
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Cook garlic, onions, bay leaf, oregano, and red pepper flakes with salt and pepper in oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in bell pepper and tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by about half, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice, and broth and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

While stew is simmering, hack crab leg through shell into 2- to 3-inch pieces with a large heavy knife. Add crab pieces and clams to stew and simmer, covered, until clams just open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking every minute after 5 minutes and transferring opened clams to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon.

Lightly salt and season season fish fillets, shrimp, and scallops with salt and add to stew, then simmer, covered, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Discard bay leaf, then return clams to pot and gently stir in parsley and basil. Serve piping hot!


Subtle Sips

If I were to post personal adds in search of the perfect cocktail partner, it would look something like this: To margaritas, I'm looking for a mate with balance and roughness to your sweet side, stand up for who you are and be strong. To my martini, as much as you might shake my core and stir my heart, I hate it when you're cloyingly sweet to me. You're hard enough to handle.

When it comes to cocktails, few ingredients move me in an irresistible way as dinner companions and warm weather friends- one is definitely fresh ginger. (The other is cucumber, but that warrants it's own post).

My earliest memories of the spicy-sweet punch of ginger were against the backdrop of lemongrass and peppercorns, at London's own version of the Blue Elephant Thai chain. Surely the most common experience is the pink or white pickled ginger that provides a welcome flower of refreshment between bites of spicy tuna rolls. I've eaten my fair share of candied ginger in homemade trail mix where the zest is a delicious textural and taste counterpart to dried pineapple. But perhaps the most intriguing ginger I've had has been fresh, infused in a lightly sweet, tart cocktail.
Ginger's stomach soothing properties seems a natural fit for booze (okay, the irony doesn't escape me either) but I tend to like my cocktails to be a cool, understated compliment to a more dominant dish, or else not at all. I discovered a whole menu of deliciously balanced cocktails when dining recently at Chicago's Veerasway. A modern take on Indian food, the restaurant balances traditional tastes like curries and raita with modern twists like tamarind glaze, cumin seeds in a very pure way. The beauty of Veerasway's updated yet authentic cuisine is that nothing overpowers - just like their 'mumtaz maharita', a gently spiced nod at what might be a margarita in another culture, using el jimador reposado tequila, fresh ginger, fresh lime juice and ground cumin seed. Deliciously surprising, and great through every course. I credit the ginger.

In searching for the next cocktail to toast the entry into summer, I stumbled upon Tyler Florence's recipe for a frozen ginger-lemon cocktail that might soon replace that pre-mixed margarita standby at your first cookout. Give it a try and put your own spin on ginger. I'd recommend substituting lime, or incorporating fresh herbs like mint, basil seeds or other exotic takes for a great cocktail to pair with international tapas or satay.
Now only if this Chicago weather would cooperate. Cheers!

Tyler's Icy Lemon Ginger Vodka Cocktails

(as featured in Food and Wine Magazine)

One 3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cups water

1 1/2 cups sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 cup fresh lemon juice

8 cups crushed ice

2 cups vodka

Create your simple syrup by combining the water and sugar in a saucepan. Simmer with fresh ginger for about 5 minutes. Puree and strain the ginger syrup, then add lemon zest and juice.

Freeze mixture overnight or at least 4 hours til firm. Chop into small pieces and divide in half. Take half of the ginger-lemon reduction, add 1 cup vodka and 4 cups ice to a blender and blend until slushy.

Each batch should pour 4 servings. Relax outside and enjoy the return of decks and patios!

(This post is dedicated to Melissa... thanks for the request for a cocktail recipe! Requests are always welcome for ingredients, dishes and drinks!)


Ham It Up for Easter

Not until we decided to make Easter weekend all about brunch did I really get excited for the holiday. Growing up, Easter ham and scalloped potatoes were about as anti-climactic as finding that Easter egg with no jelly beans inside.

This year, I highly recommend incorporating your Easter ham in a clever, tongue in cheek brunch item that invites guests to pick up their own portion and pile it on a plate full of sweets. After all, ham is always going to play second fiddle to a couple of Cadbury eggs, no matter how early you start your munching!
Read my notes built into the recipe below, as you'll see I've made quite a few adjustments to the preparation of this recipe. It's as flexible and creative as you want it to be, as long as you start with a muffin pan.

Green Eggs and Ham

Recipe adapted from Rachel Ray

1 tbs olive oil

1 tbs butter

2 large shallots, finely chopped

1 10-oz box frozen spinach, cooked and drained

1/3 to 1/2 cup heavy cream (eyeball)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch grated nutmeg to taste

6 large sliced of deli ham (or prosciutto di Parma)

8 eggs
(optional- pesto; freshly grated parmesan cheese)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
This recipe should fill an entire muffin pan. Heat a skillet on medium and add the oil, butter and sweat the shallots. Add the spinach and heavy cream to the skillet, season with salt and pepper. Add nutmeg to taste and stir until the cream is thickened.
Truly, if you can pick only one ingredient that makes this dish, it's the nutmeg. It makes the spinach taste authentically creamed and plays beautifully as a brunch flavor with eggs. Don't leave it out!
I chose to heat the ham in a skillet with a little olive oil, making it more flexible and easier to fold the halves around the muffin tin. One cup is made from two halves of a slice. Spoon the spinach into the bottom of the cup for each.
When I made it earlier this year, I wanted the ease and popularity of scrambled eggs, which took the place of cooking the eggs in the oven. Traditionally, a cracked egg goes on top of the spinach and bakes until set, about 15 minutes.
For added 'green' flavor, I added a heaping tablespoon of pre-packaged pesto into the eggs and stirred gently. Make sure the eggs stay fluffy and moist. Add a spoonful on top of the spinach until the eggs are evenly distributed. Add fresh grated Parmesan cheese on top of each before baking for about 10 minutes.
The great part about this dish, especially with scrambled eggs, is that it can be reheated if you guests arrive gradually on Sunday morning.
Either way, it's a clever, handheld way to enjoy your Easter Eggs...and ham!


Some Like It Hot

On a recent trip to visit my family, I decided it would be fun to dig through the annals of our family's extensive photographic history. I paused to dissect a familiar pic dating back to age four. My dinner plate is filled with dietary options, with my parents hedging their bets on nature versus nurture. It was time for my orientation. A plump, happy little frank perched plainly atop a white bread bun, loaded with ketchup and untouched. I recoiled from the image of the boiled hot dog. Then, proudly, I noted that in my hands had been the proof that I willingly assumed my genetic role as a heat lover. I was munching on my trial run taco, followed by a sampling of my parent's beefy-hot, corn encased tamales. And just like that, another buffalo wing eater was born into the family.

My mother, whose family has the high Midwestern heat tolerance, would always sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes on her pizza, and Tabasco in her bowls of soup and chili. I admired her lack of water while eating such things. And while I won't turn down an 'atomic' wing or too, I've tried to locate more ethnic, sophisticated and perhaps even trendy (I say this because I found mine at the Chopping Block cooking school shop) hot sauces- and have found sriracha and sambal.
Sriracha, preferably the Huy Fong Foods variety, can taste more than a bit garlicky if not paired with the right food. It's made of a smooth puree of chilies and garlic, for a simple orange-red squirt of a sauce. A little goes a long way, as I often find when I overload my eggs or pad thai. I prefer to counter heavy doses with a bit of vinegar or perhaps some lemon juice.

Now I realized, that for a milder chili sauce, perfect to combine pre-cooking, I should choose sambal. I'll try to break down the difference here and let you decide your own instrument of pain!

I consider sambal a paste or side condiment, rather than a sauce. It has a thicker, heartier texture and often can catch someone by surprise if they happy to eat one of the chunkier chili seeds or bits when incorporated into a stir fry. I almost always use a hefty spoonful to add kick to darker sauces like korean bbq or kung pao hoisin (combos reign at Flat Top Grill's create your own bar in Chicago). It tastes incredible with beef.

Sambal, or Sambal Oelek as it is often labeled, describes the Indonesian mortar and pestle process of creating the condiment. Often, the addition of shrimp paste, onion, lime juice or lemongrass offer a brighter, more maleable flavor than sriracha. I personally am choosy about where I insert too much garlic flavoring in my meals, particularly those with high heat.

And so, it's amazing how the little chili proves a lot goes a long way in cooking. Give it a try next time you sit down in your local noodle shop. Many restaurants offer it on the table to add a little to taste.
A long time ago, when I lived in New Jersey and a few years following that trial taco bite, I discovered a virtual land of hot sauces in Red Bank, at a place called The Pepper Shack.
It was there that I was entranced by the metrics of 'spicy' and the all to scientific Scoville Scale. For those of you who are daring enough to try your hand at it's uppermost notches, all I can say is- 'that's hot!'


The Secret to Soda Bread

After reveling in Chicago's extended St. Patrick's Day festivities over the past few days, I wanted to share one ritual that isn't green, nor does it involve consuming a regrettable amount of beverages. My favorite holiday ritual is the baking of Irish soda bread, a simple, almost savory addition to just about any meal. This year, I decided to take my time and bake it from scratch. This scone-like bread is unique in that it only takes about 45 minutes to make, no yeast, no eggs involved. Easy enough to make me wonder why I only eat it once a year.

While the addition of buttermilk is the defining characteristic of soda bread, the pungeant fermented cream seemingly makes up for any other standard wet ingredients and creating a dense dough in no time. Yet, that's not the trick here. And while raisins or currants are often a sweetening element in Americanized soda bread, purists claim this makes the recipe the European 'spotted dick' instead. In Ireland, true soda bread was a brownish table bread made from baking 'soda', buttermilk, flour, etc. Rather dull. Dried fruits were considered a luxury item originally.

Still again, I'd argue raisins are delightful and I will always include them to please my party guests' tastes, but the true element I can't live without is the caraway seed. These tiny, buglike seeds provide the heavenly aroma of soda bread that whets my appetite even before the first butter-slathered hunk even enters my mouth. The scent is as rich as a folkloric tale of Irish ancentry and might be as heady as a Guinness stout in my book. Almost.

Caraway seeds, or actually fruits, are products of the biennial herb of the parsley family (also sometimes known as the Persian cumin plant). They are tapered on each end and have deep ridges throughout the length of their bodies. Caraway seeds are a defining characteristic of authentic rye breads and help make cheeses like havarti something memorable.

Thought to be the spice used longer than any other in Euroupe, Holland remains the largest producer of caraway fruit today. The Essential oils in caraway fruits contribute that anise-like aroma that is so savory it can't be replicated. The oils (like limonene) are known for yeast-killing attributes, which interestingly enough, makes for denser breads and might be why soda bread doesn't require any yeast in the first place.
To enhance the flavor of caraway seeds (or fruits if we are talking on a literal level now), add them in the last fifteen minutes of cooking. Try them in cabbage soups, krauts, cheeses, breads, pretty much anything that requires a deep, savory element. For dairy, you might want to try toasting them lightly first to enhace their flavors.

For my St. Paddy's treat, I used the recipe below:

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1 1/2 tbs sugar
6 tbs solid shortening (I stuck with the recommendation of Crisco, it maintains the color and is easy to mix in)

2 tsp caraway seeds (I tend to make these generous portions)

2/3 cup raisins (yellow or regular, also use as much or as little as you like here)
1 cup buttermilk

Sift the dry ingredients together, then add the shortening and combine with a pastry blender until crumbly. Add in raisins and caraways until thoroughly combined.
Add buttermilk 1/4 cup at a time until the dough is wet but not runny.

Position in a round on a greased baking sheet, hatch two deep lines in a cross down teh side (both for looks and traditionally, to ward off the any evil sprits!) Bake at 375 degrees for about 40-45 minutes

Slice and serve warm or cold with Kerrygold Irish butter.
Top O' the Morning to you!


A Slice of Heaven...

To be completely truthful, beyond the promise of sunshine and snorkeling, the incentive for planning our winter vacation in Key West was the prospect of dessert. Creamy, tart and tangy key lime pie to be exact. We vowed we'd order nothing but key lime pie, a task that proved far too easy in the land of the Florida state pie. The beauty of such an indigenous treasure is that everyone wants a piece of the pie- with their own unique interpretation to share. Using a New York Times article devoted to the parrothead dessert, we mapped out our own 'must try' list and embarked on a daily Key Lime adventure.

Key limes, as opposed to Persian Limes, are smaller and slightly more yellowed, perhaps contributing to their tart juiciness. Sometimes called bartender limes, they provide an intense citrus splash to every margarita and G&T they touch. About the size of a golf ball, the key limes are indigenous to the Keys region. The earliest recorded key lime pies were created before the 1930's, when tankers began importing produce and milk to the islands. Prior to this time, without true means of refrigeration, key lime pie was created out of necessity with its now characteristic silky-sweet condensed milk filling. The citrus was enough to curdle the condensed milk and egg yolks, making this an easy no-bake pie. The remaining egg whites often went into the merengue topping. Many classic recipes stick to this approach.

For an easy, no bake recipe using supermarket ingredients, check out Real Simple's Key Lime Pie recipe. After making this for a barbeque last summer, I would recommend freezing for about 4 hours or overnight if you plan to travel with it. It's important that the heavy cream in the recipe has a chance to firm into a custard. Try it out with key lime concentrate or stick to the recipe's frozen limeade concentrate.

Our first stop in Key West, after a quick grouper sandwich down the road, was Pepe's Cafe. Like most successful Key West establishments, it's as worn as a washed up piece of sandalwood and is still packed with a mix of well informed tourists and suntanned locals. A late entry in our key lime pie crawl, the slice that followed was so large and gooey it was served in a bowl. The dessert set the bar high for the rest of the trip, with it's delightfully tangy filling, covered by tons of sundae-style whipped cream (a bit too much, if you ask me) and encased in a crumbly, buttery graham crust that tasted every bit homemade.

The key lime bug has bitten...what's next? The following evening, we headed to a much lauded backyard restaurant rumored to have inspired local hero Jimmy Buffett- Blue Heaven. The wait was long, as they don't take reservations for dinner hours, as wild roosters and cats meandered around the heels of hungry diners.

The key lime pie was what brought us here tonight, and while it made our jaws drop when it arrived, we weren't as pleased with the outcome. Piled so high it looked like a dessert suitable for a Dr. Seuss Who, the meregue was sticky and tough, not airy like it usually is....perhaps too much marshmallow in the mix? We concluded the whipped confection was cleary compensating for a, er, meager showing of the good stuff- a filling missing it's signature punch . The atmosphere and the scene were great, but not enough to settle our appetites yet...

The next night, we sought a new dessert venue to continue our key lime crawl...and decided to brave the caberet/ transgendered scene at La Te Da on Duval, where Alice's rumored pastries still reign supreme. Sitting on the porch on a cool evening, the most unique pie slice arrived, with creme fraiche piped along the edge- alone a treat with the fresh strawberries scattered atop. The pungeant (borderline neon yellow?!) key lime custard found a pleasantly unusual counterpart with bittersweet chocolate, hidden between the filling and the crunchy graham bottom. Imagine a perfectly smooth bit of citrus dissolve on your tongue, crunching a bit of graham, only to have the lasting taste of dark chocolate linger in an aftertaste. Very odd spin on tradition, but if s'mores and limes mingled, this is the way to do it.

Straight off the cruise ship, streams of tourists seemed to flock to one of the many Blond Giraffe outposts. Operating as one of the few key lime pie factories on the island, I thought it might be a turn off. Mass produced pie? I shuddered and thought of the sorts of key lime offerings I would find in the freezer case back in Chicago. With this in mind, we continually ignored the prominent Duval Street outpost until the last night of our trip. After all, we did admire the look of their merengue. Blond Giraffe was home to everything from key lime cookies to ice cream, juice to lollis, but almost everyone that sets foot on Key West leaves with either a whipped cream or merengue slice. Being partial to the merengue ourselves, we brought our last taste of Key West back to the room to enjoy on the privacy of our balcony. And how surprised we were that the last pie, a factory production, was the best, most quintessentially Floridian Key Lime pie out there. Pepe's will still hold a special place in our hearts, as the pie that blissfully set the tone for a sun soaked, lazy vacation. But Blond Giraffe has mastered the art of balance- a soft yet structured graham crust, cradling pleasingly sweet-tart filling (there's the condensed milk-tart key lime combo you want) and an impossibly ethereal cloud of marshmallow toasted topping.

Key lime pie is something to be done right or not done at all. If it takes another trip to the Keys to find more, so be it. After all, it's far too depressing to pack our bags and leave this island oasis. But first, one more slice for the road...