Photo by adactio/Flickr CC
Gingerbread Coffee Cake
The sour cream coffee cake from the Bakehouse has been our single biggest seller by mail order. But when it comes to sweets this relatively new coffee cake has me smitten. This one's got an exotic little caravan-load of stuff in every cake--Indonesian cinnamon, cloves from the Malacca Islands, lovely long pepper from Bali, real vanilla from Mexico, crystallized and ground ginger from Asia, a bit of brewed coffee from Brazil, Muscovado brown sugar from the island of Mauritius.
All those exotics are blended with a splash of fresh orange juice, lots of butter, flour and fresh eggs, to develop a dark, mysterious, marvelously gingery flavor that seems to appeal to almost all ages and taste preferences. It gets this really thin sheen of a sugar crust on the outside too--sort of like that very first bit of ice crystals that start to form on the lakes early in the autumn (be sure to let the cake breathe for about 20 to 30 minutes after you open its plastic package). Put one of these on your table--holiday or otherwise--and you're pretty much sure to successfully win friends and influence food loving folks in the year to come. I'd be very thankful to get one as a gift any time!
Exceptional Olive Oil from Pasolivo
While I write this holiday piece, our shelves are filled with oil that's nearly a year old. That's a not bad thing, mind you. Well-made oils of the sort we buy are going to last upwards of 18 months. Some, made from varietals that have particularly green, peppery flavors (like this one), will last over two years, meaning that what we might buy right now is--if stored properly in the shade and away from excessive heat--easily going to still be good for a solid six to twelve months.
Because I've got the new season's oil (no doubt being pressed as you read this) in my mind, and because Pasolivo oil is excellent both at 11 months OR 11 days out of the press, I'm particularly excited to write about it now. When it comes in, the new Pasolivo oil will be particularly peppery, green, punchy, and powerful. Experience tells me that it will be almost too much so for some folks--there are plenty of people who will far prefer the Pasolivo at a year out, when it's a bit mellower and smoother on the palate. "New" is not universally recognized as better--some of our suppliers won't even let us have their oil until it's had a good six months to soften up.
Of course, what counts most to me is the quality of the oil. Its color is a really beautiful deep emerald green. The aroma is enormous, with that definite fresh cut grass thing that you get with these oils. Personally I'm big on simple ways to use is toast some bread, pour on a bunch of the oil and sprinkle a bit of sea salt. Or pour it liberally on a bowl of hot Martelli spaghetti with maybe some chopped fresh garlic or a little fresh arugula and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano. If you're in the mood for meat, pour some Pasolivo onto a just-cooked steak; the classic dish of Florence is the La Fiorentina, a big T-bone steak grilled rare then dressed with a big green oil like this one and a bit of sea salt.
Although the Pasolivo isn't inexpensive, remember that the oil is the point on any of these dishes so if you can make the mental leap past the cost and pour it on liberally you'll really see how good it is.
--A Great Comeback in The British Countryside
Stichelton is a revival of the traditional version of what is probably England's most prestigious cheese--Stilton--made by our friends at Neal's Yard Dairy, who are probably the best-known purveyors of traditional British cheese. Because both Stilton and Neal's Yard have spent many years (nearly three centuries for the cheese; three decades for the Dairy) building their reputations around the UK and the world at large, not much about either is going to go unnoticed by lovers of traditional foods.
The making of Stichelton is the shared effort of Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal's Yard Dairy in London and Joe Schneider, an American who learned his cheesemaking first in the Netherlands and then in England. The two have partnered with the William and Alison Parente, owners of the Welbeck Estate. Randolph has been talking about how to revive raw milk Stilton ever since the last one was made back in the mid 90s. Why isn't the cheese called Stilton then? Well, although Stilton was always made from raw milk, when the makers filed for name protection in 1996, they set up requirements that all Stilton be made from pasteurized milk. Randolph and Joe decided to call their carefully crafted cheese Stichelton, which is actually the Old Saxon name by which the town of Stilton was originally known.
Although it adds considerably to production times, they use very small amounts (by modern standards) of starter culture and very little rennet, making for a more traditional gentler, creamier and more complexly flavored blue cheese. Production is really very small--they're making a little over a hundred cheeses a week. All the work is done by hand at every level from cutting the curd to ladling it into the forms--although most producers don't do it any more, very gentle hand scooping of the curd is totally critical to the quality of Stilton.
When the milk is all being used and all the cheese made it from it is successfully sold, that's about it. "Growth" for Stichelton will come from other farms in the area that decide to follow in their traditionalist foot steps. They hope to start teaching other makers in the area how to do the work so that over the next 10 or 15 years they can reestablish a solid root system for old time raw milk Stilton. Or, I should say, Stichelton.
What the Fudge?
A New Candy Bar is Born
At the top of my list for the fall (or really any other time of the year) are the amazingly good, old-fashioned, full-flavored candy bars that Charlie and the pastry crew make out at the Bakehouse. I love how passionate people get about these things; not surprising, I suppose, because they really are very exceptionally good.
We have one guest who walks two miles to the Deli to a buy a Zzang! bar in order to minimize any calorie gain; another ships them all over the country to her kids; I heard about a professor in Arizona who was brought one for the first time and insisted we should change the name to "Dang!" instead of Zzang! because they were so good. Joe Schneider, the man who makes the very special Stichelton cheese told me when I visited him in England that the Zzang! was "the best candy bar I've ever had in my life."
After three years of eating and enjoying the original Zzang! bar, and a year and a half of enjoying the Cashew Cow, this fall we get to experience the newly released What the Fudge? bar. This one starts with a base of Belgian Callebaut milk chocolate fudge, layered under a homemade Muscovado brown sugar caramel, which is in turn topped with homemade malted milk cream fondant. To finish off the What the Fudge?, the entire thing is covered in 65 percent dark chocolate from Ecuador.
Charlie says, "It's sweet and smooth with a nice milk flavor coming from both the fudge and the fondant. I think it's one of those addictive combinations that keeps you wanting more."
Les Seigneurs de Baux Olive Oil from the South of France
Just arrived in Ann Arbor, this is a limited edition of a very excellent oil we're getting from the folks who make the equally delicious, but very different, Castelas . Like the Frantoio oil from Elvio Olave in Chile, this is a bottling of a single varietal, one of the four that Jean Benoit and Catherine Hugues are growing on their farm in the South of France.
We've been carrying the Castelas for a couple of years now--it's big, green, grassy, alert, and alive--but in all in a sophisticated and stylish way. One of the beauties of good olive oils is that the more you get into them the more you discover how much variety there is to explore. Which is why I'm excited to have this compelling counterpoint to the Castelas--whereas the former is front loaded and very full flavored, the Seignore de Baux is softer, more sensual, gentler, smooth, suave, mouth filling but buttery, delicate, and, again, delicious. Great for fish, vegetables, egg pastas. I love them both equally.
There isn't really enough of Provence's finest to go around. It contributes less than one percent of world production, and France overall accounts for a VERY small segment of the world's production. While I don't know that quantities of Provencal oil will ever grow very much--there's just not enough land and so much more to be gained financially from wine or tourism--there has been very good work to improve the quality of the oil we can get.
The sweetness of the oil makes it particularly interesting to use in the context of desserts. Drizzle it with honey over sections of fresh citrus fruit. It's great on potatoes, delicate greens, and really nice on fish. A special, really good, newly arrived gift for any oil-lover.
Really, really good and really special chocolates made from organic cacao from the feistiest, most determinedly talented cacao fanatic you'll find. Claudio Corallo has been farming cacao on the West African islands of SaÃµ TomÃ© e PrincipÃ© for 20 years now and I truly think his chocolate is about the best around right now. There are a lot more than these three so come by and try them all.
The Raisin d'Etre
Pardon the bad French punning but I needed a catchier name than "Chocolate with raisins soaked in the liqueur of the cocoa pod" that Claudio's used to christen it. The main thing about it is that it's really, really very darned great. I kind of think of it as an artisan, African, organic, chunky bar. It's fat bar of 70-percent cacao chocolate studded with raisins that have been soaked in liquor distilled from cacao pulp. There's a deep wineyness in the dried fruit that blends really well with the liveliness of the cacao. It's an especially time-consuming and difficult chocolate for Claudio to make which makes me extra appreciative of just how deliciously good it is. This is seriously fun chocolate. Don't miss it!
80 Percent Cacao Chocolate Bar with Coarse Sugar Crystals
An amazingly good very dark chocolate bar that's completely at the other end of the spectrum from the smooth, creamy, long-conched European-style chocolates that most of us are so familiar with. Don't get me wrong--those are lovely too. But this bar is something seriously special and exceptionally good. The first bites you get have a bit of delicate crunch from the coarseness of the cacao and the sugar crystals, but then it becomes almost velvety as it melts across the tongue. No vanilla or soy lecithin to get in the way of the flavor of the fine cacao Claudio and crew are crafting. It's dry in the mouth in the way that you'd experience a big red wine, but then remarkably clean and creamy at the end.
A Trio of Terrific Chocolate Covered Coffee Beans
A really great Kraft-colored boxed set that will make a seriously gift for anyone who loves the combination of chocolate and coffee. Claudio has put together three different Arabica coffees that he grows on his own plantation "Nova Moka" on the island of SaÃµ TomÃ©. All of the beans are pulled through a pot of 55 percent dark chocolate from Claudio's cacao plantation on the neighboring island of PrincipÃ©. The set comes with a tasting guide to the chocolate and coffee beans and instructions that will help you set up an educational and flavorful tasting.
7.) A Pair of Cheeses from the Mountains of Germany
I really just happened on these cheeses serendipitously. I met a woman named Birgit Bernhard at one of the 15-plus food shows I go to each year. I stopped at her stand to taste the cheese she was showing and it was clear to me on first taste that these cheeses were pretty darned good but just still too young to make them as amazing as I thought they might be, given more time to mature. I asked Birgit if they had any older cheese I might taste. She apologized and said she didn't. I told her that if she could find some I'd be very interested to try it. Six months later I was shocked, in a good way--to get an email from Birgit telling me that she had those extra-aged cheeses I'd been asking about. A week later the samples arrived as promised, and the cheeses were very seriously outstanding. Just what I'd hoped would happen if we could get them more mature. We bought up a mess of this specially aged cheese. There's not a lot of it though...
Made by hand, using only whole raw cow's milk during the summer months when the cows are up in the mountain pastures eating from unplowed pastures. The cheese makers work with traditional animal rennet (better for flavor development than the non-animal options). Aged for us (as per that whole dialogue above) over a year, it's got a firm texture akin to a GruyÃ¨re; its flavor is forward, well balanced, very big, nutty, earthy and complex with a really long big-in-the-nose finish. You might not have known that they even had a crown to begin with, but Birgit calls it the "Crown Jewel of German Alpine cheeses." If you like big flavors and you like mountain cheeses, don't miss this one!!
Or this one either! Aged "herdsman's cheese," is hand made from pasteurized milk that's taken from herds that are grazing in open pastures high up in the mountains farmed (all above 2600 feet). It's flavor is nutty and rich, with a Swiss meets Parmesan flavor, more I'd say like Sbrinz from Switzerland but with a bit of that butterscotchy thing that I really love in super-aged Dutch goudas. Shave in into thin slices and eat with French Mountain bread from the Bakehouse and a good bit of cultured butter. Or eat it after dinner with slices of ripe pear.