Sweet Treats: Hot Cocoa

Sweet Treats: Hot Cocoa

When the weather turns so chilly, I start dreaming about hot cocoa. I consider it a quintessential wintertime treat~! ♥ When it’s snowy outside and the wind is blowing fiercely, coming home and curling up with a mug of something warm is cozy and comforting. I drink tea on a regular basis–it’s my beverage of choice–but while I regard tea as a regular beverage, I think of hot cocoa as a treat! Tea involves water and tea leaves. Hot cocoa involves chocolate and milk, ingredients that I associate with desserts. This is a particularly strong association for me because I really can’t drink milk anymore due to a mild lactose-intolerance, so I only have it on rare occasions when it’s an ingredient in with something else.

Most hot cocoa around here is the instant powdered kind, and there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s certainly not the best around, but it does the trick. It’s also really convenient, since there is no actual cooking involved. You only need moderately-warm water to mix up most instant hot chocolate powder–it doesn’t even require water of a particular temperature the way teas do. My husband really enjoys any instant hot cocoa with those tiny dehydrated marbits marshmallows. I’ll sometimes have a mug of it, too, even though the marshmallows are more for show than for taste. They always seem to melt before it’s even cool enough to drink!

What I really enjoy, though, is hot cocoa made the old-fashioned way, by sloooooowly melting chocolate into milk in a pan on the stove top. My siblings and I actually share ownership of a hot chocolate pot thanks to a Christmas present several years ago from our grandparents. It’s made of cast-iron–which ensures even heating of the milk, coated for easy cleaning, has a wooden handle that resists heat, and includes a spout for even pouring. None of that is necessary, but it does come in handy! The spout is what I miss most when I make hot chocolate in a sauce pot; I’m not very good at pouring it out accurately.

This works best if you use low heat, so you don’t scald the milk, and break the chocolate up very fine. One of the reasons I like making hot cocoa this way is that I have full control over the milk and the chocolate used. If you can’t have (or don’t want to have) sugar, you could opt for sugar-free chocolate. I can use rice, soy, or almond “milk” instead of dairy milk, and get different variations of flavor by starting with differently-flavoured chocolate bars! (You can’t really use most filled chocolates, though; the filling gets kind of goopy and weird most of the time.) I have a crazy soft-spot for the very expensive chocolate bars sold by Vosges. By breaking up a Naga bar with curry and coconut I can get a much different flavor than a simpler chocolate-only bar. You certainly don’t have to use a flavoured chocolate to have flavoured hot cocoa, though; you can add spices and extracts, too, for something really customizable. It’s best to add spices to the milk before the chocolate and extracts after the chocolate.

Making hot cocoa on the stove is easy and pretty quick. Low heat is important–scalded or burned milk can be very unpleasant. Add milk (I usually measure it by using the mugs we’ll be drinking out of as measuring cups) to a pan, turn the heat on low, stir the milk constantly to avoid any hot-spots on the pan where the milk could burn, and when the milk is hot (try not to let it boil) slowly mix in the crushed chocolate, little by little. Sometimes I turn the heat off at that point and let the chocolate melt as the milk cools down, so it reaches a drinkable temperature more quickly and the milk doesn’t risk burning.

I also love this recipe for Earl Grey hot chocolate! You could very easily modify it to use any tea that suits your fancy–no reason it must be Earl Grey~!

Toppings are another fun thing~ I’d love to have a hot chocolate party, with blankets and cozy attire, hot chocolate and sugar cookies, and lots of toppings! Whipped cream and marshmallows are pretty classic options to start with. However, recently I had hot chocolate from “Froth,” the hot chocolate bar at Forever Yogurt locations. The toppings included normal marshmallows and fancier marshmallows, such as coconut-coated. There were crushed candies to sprinkle on top, caramel and chocolate syrups to drizzle, and sugars and sea salt to dust with. The sea salt was a really great addition to my Nutella hot cocoa. _ So delicious~ ♥

Sweet Treats: Doughnut Vault

Sweet Treats: Doughnut Vault

Lately I’ve been obsessed with a dessert (or breakfast~) item that is a bit unusual for me–doughnuts. Until recently, I disliked doughnuts. I thought they were greasy, disliked the sticky, saccharine glaze that most doughnuts are drenched in, and didn’t care for the texture of the ring of dough itself. They were something I always passed up in the grocery stores, and doughnut shops didn’t interest me. The only exception to this was the St. Patrick’s Day special flavour at a small shop near my mother’s house–they produce a mint-chocolate doughnut only for part of March. I always liked that it didn’t remind me of a doughnut at all, but was instead more like a ring-shaped cupcake with sugar icing.

This all changed when a new shop opened up in the city: the Doughnut Vault.

The Tastiest Vault
When visited the third time, I brought a camera! The outside of the shop is really lovely.
I like to keep an eye on restaurants and food trends, and I started hearing rumors of this shop before they opened. They operate a Tumblr as their official website, posting entries with beautiful pictures of the doughnuts in all stages of creation. Before the shop was opened the site shared images of the construction-in-progress, with little hints about where the location might be. I was thrilled when they finally announced it would be located near the Merchandise Mart, which is fairly easy to get to. (I will travel far for delicious things, but if I don’t have to, that’s even better~)

It wasn’t easy to taste a doughnut from this shop. The Doughnut Vault opens at 8:30am (9:30am on Saturday) and closes when they run out of doughnuts. Even now that it’s been open for several months, there’s still a line that forms outside the small blue door before an employee finally opens it and starts letting small groups inside. If I’m going to go, I always aim to be there before the opening time, so that I can get a good spot in line and have full choice of the day’s menu. (Particularly because the doughnut I enjoy the most, the old-fashioned, sells out very quickly.)

Usually the wait in line isn’t terrible, although I have avoided the shop during the hottest days of the summer. Sweltering outside in line doesn’t sound quite worth it to me; I suppose I’m simply not hard-core enough. The shop itself is teeny-tiny. The “vault” in the shop’s name refers to the fact that it is built into an old bank vault. The portion that receives customers is what looks to have been a staging hallway for packages entering or leaving the vault before being loaded into awaiting vehicles outside. It’s a tiny, narrow space–you could barely fit two averagely-sized people shoulder-to-shoulder in the width, and less than 10 people can stand in the shop at one time. There are mirrors and windows to alleviate feels of claustrophobia, but it is not a place to hang out and relax–although there is a quaint patio area arranged on the sidewalk just outside the door.

Old-Fashioned Army
The old-fashioned doughnuts are my favourite. They’re dense but still fluffy, with a nice balance of sweetness that isn’t overpowering.
The doughnuts are works of art. If all doughnuts tasted like this, I never would have disliked them in the first place. The shop offers cake doughnuts and yeast doughnuts. The old-fashioned and the gingerbread stack are cake doughnuts; these rings of dough are dense, crumbly, and textured. The old-fashioned have a slight tang of buttermilk, while the gingerbread are fragrant and spiced. The old-fashioned are coated in a glaze that is a nice accent to the crunchy exterior, but not overly sweet, while the gingerbread are rolled in cinnamon-sugar.

The yeast doughnuts are the glazed doughnuts. These giant treats are fluffy and light inside, with a slightly crispy exterior. The outside is then coated in a flavoured glaze. The shop opened with three flavours–chocolate, vanilla, and chestnut–and usually rotates a special flavour in and out of the selection at random. They’ve done pistachio, blueberry, and mocha, but I expect there will be even more new flavours as the shop continues. Special flavours and doughnut stock statuses are updated constantly on the shop’s Twitter, doughnutvault.

Chocolate King
The glazed doughnuts are a bit larger than the old-fashioned doughnuts, but they’re all relatively huge if you’re comparing them to “standard” doughnuts.

Now on my days off, if my schedule allows it, I try to sneak over the Doughnut Vault to acquire an old-fashioned or two. Most people enjoy doughnuts with coffee, but I like mine with tea. The doughnuts’ sweetness pairs will with unsweetened teas–but if you really like sugary things, a fruity or sweeter tea would definitely amplify that. I tend to drink Earl Grey with mine–otherwise Ceylon, Assam, or Darjeeling–and like to dunk the doughnut into the tea.

Now that I’ve found a place with such delicious doughnuts, I want to try my hand at making them myself. I know that I don’t have the skills to make anything nearly as wonderful as the practiced and mysterious chef François at the Doughnut Vault, but homemade treats are always fun~ ♥ (Plus, it’s easy to forgive most flaws in the final product if you know you’ve put a lot of effort and heart into trying your best.) And, if it doesn’t turn out well, I can drown my sorrows in a well-made doughnut the next time I have a chance~ ♥

Sweet Treats: Wintery Teas

Sweet Treats: Wintery Teas

In preparation for my holiday gingerbread party, I bought more tea. I love drinking tea, but more than simply drinking tea I like to drink the right tea.

What is the right tea?

It’s a tea that seems perfect for the occasion at hand! Tea that compliments the flavor of any food being served alongside it, tea that appeals to the palette of those partaking of it, and tea that provides a nice aroma and atmosphere. In the wintertime, I particularly like spicy dark teas that smell like the holidays. When I went to my favourite tea shop, Tea Gschwendner, and I picked out a few teas that I hoped would satisfy my hopes of “winter” coziness.

Baked Apple Tea
A warm cup of tea is even better when the weather is chilly and wintry–or at least, I think so!

No. 908 Gwendalina’s Baked Apple Tea
Apple Flavoured Black and Green Tea

This is a truly fantastic fall and winter tea. I buy this in fairly large quantities as soon as the weather starts to cool. This is like having apple pie in a cup, but is most certainly a tea and not a cider.

The use of both black and green teas in the blend creates a rich tea that has somewhat sharper notes (from the green tea) and a full body. Pieces of dried apple add a distinct apple flavour. You can smell the apple very strongly when the tea is brewing or sitting in the cup, and the apple hint is very distinguishable as an aftertaste with each sip. Almonds add a pleasant nuttiness, and cinnamon accents the apples superbly. This tea is good served black, but becomes even more dessert-like when served with sugar and cream.

White Christmas Tea
White tea is much less dense and less heavy than black or green tea, so the same weight of white tea fills a much larger package!

No. 998 White Christmas
Vanilla-Almond Flavoured White Tea

This white tea has a fresh hint of lemon, paired with vanilla and almond. The package states that it is reminiscent of sugar cookies, and I agree. As this is a white tea, the much less intense flavours of lemon, vanilla, and almond can really stand out. The tea itself lends a pleasant backdrop to the other flavours. It’s a very nice tea for when you want something that isn’t very heavy~

Winter Magic & Banana-Choco
I originally wanted to brew each of the teas, to show them in the cup, but that’s a much more time-consuming project~

No. 1320 Winter Magic
Cinnamon and Cardamom Flavoured Rooibos

This tea has an intense blend of spices that seems to be amplified by the rooibos. Although rooibos is not technically a tea, I still very much enjoy it. It has a rich, earthy flavor that is already fragrant and aromatic. I always think of this red “tea” as spicy. When cinnamon, cardamom, and sandalwood are added, it becomes a blend that is filled with spices without having any of the “heat” traditionally associated with spicy things. I think it feels very warming~ The sandalwood is one of the more interesting tastes in the tea, because it’s very woodsy and smooth.

No. 1588 Banana Chocolate Crêpe
Choco-Banana Flavoured Black and Green Tea

This tea isn’t really holiday-ish, but it’s pretty amazing–so I wanted to mention it anyway. I bought this tea because it sounded like a neat concept; I do very much like the banana and chocolate flavour combination. The tea contains dried banana–not “banana flavouring”–and bits of actual cocoa, so the smell is heavenly. It doesn’t have any of those odd smells that tend to accompany artificial flavourings. (I think that most of the time those don’t taste anything like the real thing, anyway.) The blend of black and green teas is a very enjoyable one–not so strong as to overwhelm the banana, but strong enough to support the cocoa.

With a little bit of sugar added, this becomes even more amazing. Everyone who tried it at the party was very surprised to find that it did really taste as good as it sounded like it would taste. I consider that a success!

When loose leaf tea isn’t practical, for whatever reason, there are a few inexpensive bagged teas that I’ve really been enjoying–those sold by Trader Joe’s. I normally drink their Duchess Earl Grey, a lemon-accented Earl Grey, as my bagged tea of choice, so I was interested in trying their new winter teas when I spotted them in the store. At an incredibly affordable price–roughly $2 per box–I’m not heartbroken if they don’t meet my expectations.

2 Winter Teas
I think these have some of the cutest box designs that I’ve ever seen. I particularly adore the polar bear~ ♥

Vanilla and Cinnamon Black Tea
This is a warm, spicy black tea with a hint of sweetness. The “sweetness” is actually vanilla, and thus it isn’t truly sweet, but it adds a nice high note to the tea. The black tea is laced very heavily with cinnamon; it leaves a “warming” sensation with each sip, but the tea itself is strong enough to avoid being overwhelmed by the spice. The combination of flavours is exactly the sort of thing I hope for in a winter tea.

Candy Cane Green Tea
When I first went to the store to pick up new teas, I passed up this one. The flavour combination seemed strange and perhaps unpalatable. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized I wanted to try it. Green tea, when brewed correctly at a lower temperature than boiling point, has a very refreshing taste that sometimes seems to have notes that remind me of freshly-cut grass. Peppermint is also refreshing. Thus the two would have that in common. Additionally, green tea doesn’t have the same tendency towards astringency that black teas can have, so there would be less chance for a sourness to compete with the peppermint.

I went back and bought a box, and I’m very glad that I did. This a very cooling, soothing tea. It’s the sort of thing I want to drink when I have a headache or an upset stomach. The peppermint is strong, but not too much so. It blends nicely with the leafiness of the green tea.

I do so love tea! ♥

Sweet Treats: Clean Cup Move Down–More Tea

Sweet Treats: Clean Cup Move Down–More Tea

Although my kitchen has a drawer dedicated to and overflowing with tea, I’m always on the lookout for something new. I drink tea on a constant basis–at home, at work, at restaurants, and at the homes of others. My closest friends tend to put the kettle on when they know I’m heading over, even when the summer sun is blazing. ♥ Lately I’ve been feeling somewhat bored with my current options. Mentions of small tea companies producing quality teas have been cropping up in every publication I’ve come across lately. I suspect it’s related to the Alice in Wonderland fever from the recently-released movie.

For Christmas a few years ago, my grandmother gave me a box of Tea Forté. The tea itself isn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it isn’t bad–and the packaging is so adorable! The tea “bags” are little narrow pyramids with a small green leaf atop a green wire, as if a small plant is sprouting from the tip of the bag. The rigid structure is very useful–it won’t slip into the cup like a teabag’s tag-on-a-string might, making it simple to remove the teabag later. Part of my grandmother’s gift included a set of little stands, perfectly suited to resting one of the tea bags. This prodded me towards purchasing another set of their teas when I found some at a store I stopped in for thank you notes.

Dolce Vita Collection
With flavors like raspberry and chocolate, I could not leave this in the store. It had to come home with me.

As I am myself, I selected the “dessert tea” Dolce Vita set. The six flavors are Belgian Mint, Coco Truffle, Orchid Vanilla, Raspberry Nectar, Vienna Cinnamon & White Ambrosia~ The tea is fairly good quality, although not as good as, say Tea Gschwendner, my all-time favourite company. ♥ Although the tea isn’t sugary, the flavours are sweeter than a harsher tea yet also very intense. They’re intended to pair well with very sweet desserts, so they have to avoid being overpowered.

Raspberry Nectar Tea
This was the raspberry nectar teabag~ It brewed a beautifully dark pink cup of tea and was VERY raspberry-ful. If I were going to tea-dye, this is the kind of tea I’d use!

That didn’t quite satisfy my desire for trying something new, though~ I poked around at local stores, but didn’t spot anything that really caught my attention. In an old-lady way, I save magazine and newspaper clippings; I recalled that I had a few for teas I wanted to try. Sure enough, I found one I had removed from a Martha Stewart Living magazine for Steven Smith Teamaker of Oregon. I browsed their beautiful website and placed my order, wishing that I could have smelled the teas in-store before purchasing.

There were so many things I wanted to try, but I didn’t want to overwhelm my already-stuffed tea drawer. I settled on all black teas, as that’s what I primarily drink; white and green teas could wait for a future order, if I place one. I ordered No. 23 Kandy because I couldn’t resist the name, No. 9 Yunna because I thought my husband might be intrigued with the description of “spice & leather,” and No. 64 Ceylon Dimbulla BOP1 because I like Ceylon yet rarely buy it and it’s a common base for Earl Grey, which I adore. (BOP1 is part of the grading system for Pekoe tea. It’s used for broken/fannings/dust teas–there’s a different system for crush/tear/curl teas. BOP1 means “broken Orange Pekoe first grade,” containing roughly 40% full leaves and 60% broken leaves.)

Steven Smith Tea Assortment
The wonderful assortment that greeted me when I opened the small box that arrived to my doorstep~ The thank-you note is a charming touch.

Ordering from Smith Tea was very simple. The website is beautiful but uncomplicated, and the ordering process well-organized. My tea shipped the day after I ordered it and arrived when estimated. The box was a little crushed at the corners, but the tea was well-packed and even the shipping invoice was unbent.

As soon as it arrived we opted to try No. 23 Kandy, obviously because of the name. It’s a smooth, mild black tea without bitterness. I liked the faint floral notes. It was very good, overall, and I can think of a lot of circumstances that it would be perfectly suited to~

No.09 Yunnan
I brewed it a bit darker than recommended, but it didn’t become bitter. I liked the colour–it does have a red tint.

No. 9 Yunna was the second to be tried. It did have a smoky flavor, as listed in the description, but not very intense. Usually, when I think of smoky teas I think of Lapsang Souchong, which is intensely smoky. This had a much more subdued flavor, and the taste of spices paired with it well. It went very well with the mini stroopwafels I had picked up earlier in the week~ ♥

Some other tea companies I hope to try include Damn Fine Tea, Tea for All Reasons, Portsmouth Tea (particularly because they make a blend specifically for Milk Tea), and Serendipitea. Maybe after Dolpa–if I keep buying tea it will interfere with my budgeting!

If you know any others, recommend or suggest something to me! ♥ I’m always looking to try something new~

Sweet Treats: Nice Cream

Sweet Treats: Nice Cream

Sweets are my biggest weakness. I’m sure that’s apparent, given that I created a section just to talk about it! Cookies remain my One True Love, but cupcakes are a close follower. Cake is also acceptable, as are other pastries. But when the weather gets warm, my thoughts turn to ice cream.

I was grocery shopping a few weeks ago when something caught my eye: a white container with a brown stripe and a pink label. It was a full end-cap display of ice cream, the little white pints neatly lined up, their brightly-coloured labels facing straight forward.

Nice Cream Times Two
The two cute little pints of Nice Cream nestled close together. I love the packaging! It’s simple and adorable.

I was intrigued because I had never heard of Nice Cream, and I became more intrigued when I continued to read the labels. I expected vanilla, chocolate, maybe strawberry, but instead found Earl Grey, carrot cake, lavender vanilla, and pistachio. It’s basically impossible for me to resist anything tea-flavoured that isn’t tea, so into the shopping basket it went!

When I reached the register and the ice cream was blipped across the scanner, I almost had a mild heart attack. It was very expensive–I hadn’t seen a price on the shelf, but I had a general idea of how much I thought ice cream ought to be. This was nearly $10 per pint! x_x (Ouch!) At that moment I almost decided to have it put back, but I took it home anyway and hoped it was really that good.

Thankfully, it was. It wasn’t the most perfect ice cream I’ve ever tried, but it was definitely different than typical Edy’s or Ben & Jerry’s. Nice Cream prides themselves on organic, local ingredients. I appreciate the use of real cream, real eggs, and no preservatives–you can absolutely taste the difference! However, it doesn’t have a very long shelf life due to the lack of preservatives, so it needs to be eaten fairly promptly.

Pistachio Honey Nice Cream
The pistachio honey flavor uses raw honey from beeline.

I picked out pistachio honey for my husband. He’s very laid back and generally likes anything, but I know he particularly likes pistachio. The pistachio flavour was very real, and there were pieces of pistachios studded in the pale green ice cream. The honey sweetness paired well with the nuts. He liked it so much he didn’t scold me for paying so much for ice cream. (Although, honestly, he never scolds me regardless of what silly thing I’ve done.)

Earl Grey Nice Cream
I love Earl Grey everything and anything, and this was soooooo tasty~ ♥

Earl Grey was the obvious choice for my ice cream~ The shortbread cookie pieces were so delicious that I’m thinking I might have to take a trip to Swim Cafe and buy some to eat non-frozen-and-ice-creamy. (But perhaps that is part of the charm?) My only qualm was that the bergamot flavour was very heavy–adding a very intense layer of “orange” above the taste of the tea. A little bit less orange would have been slightly more to my taste. I think if I tried it again, I’d go for carrot cake!

There’s always something extra-exciting to me about finding something new that is region-specific. The fact that this ice cream can’t be purchased in stores across the country, because it’s made in one place in small batches, provides a different level of quality and creativity. It makes me wonder what delicious ice cream companies are in other regions that I can’t get here! Or, in fact, what other undiscovered-to-me dessert companies might be right under my nose~

Sweet Treats: Beard Papa’s Cream Puffs

Sweet Treats: Beard Papa’s Cream Puffs

Beard Papa's Chicago

Since I absolutely love dessert with every inch of my being, whenever I am in New York City I try my best to visit at least one new snack shop. I find there’s always some kind of new chain cropping up or some trend that hasn’t arrived in Chicago. It started when I read about Rice to Riches many years ago, and continued with Bouchon Bakery, Buttercup Bake Shop, and Pinkberry, among others. The last time I visited, my destination was Beard Papa’s, a cream puff franchise that originated in Japan. However… I never made it to the shop! ;_; It seemed that I would have to wait until I wound up back in NYC again…or miraculously somewhere in California near a location.

So I was ecstatic to hear about a Chicago location of Beard Papa’s! I first heard about it before the store had opened, and a recent mention in the Red Eye reminded me that it was now open~ It’s located in the new Block 37 shopping complex, directly across from the State Street Marshall Field’s, so I headed there the same day I read the note about the store!

The setup at the store is ingenious–to provide you with the freshest cream puff as possible, you choose the pastry and type of cream when you place your order, and then the custard is injected into the pastry only seconds before it is in your hands. This prevents the custard from soaking the pastry–it stays crisp and light. There are several options for both the pastry and the filling: original, eclair (chocolate-topped), cookie crunch, and I think fruit-topped (but I could be mistaken for this last one) for the pastry, and vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry for the custard. There are several other specialty custard flavors (including pumpkin, green tea, coffee, and earl grey), but they aren’t carried on a regular basis at the Chicago store.

The cream puff was delicious. The pastry was fresh (I even watched them take some out of the ovens while I ordered!) and the custard was smooth and creamy. I bought an eclair/strawberry cream puff to eat immediately, took home two original/vanilla and one eclair/chocolate to share with my person. ♥

The strawberry custard has chunks of fresh strawberries nestled in the cream. The flavor is 100% honest-to-goodness strawberry–not artificial-tasting in the slightest. The vanilla custard is smooth, with a clear vanilla-bean taste. The chocolate custard has fragmented pieces of chocolate in the rich chocolate cream. I couldn’t find fault with any of them! The original puff is definitely my favourite–the chocolate topping on the eclair pastry, although delicious, overwhelmed the cream. (My person and my friends agreed.)

I was also lucky enough to try the green tea custard when it was in the shop for two days~ ♥ It’s very, very good–I really look forward to tasting other “special” custard flavors. The green tea custard was mild and earthy, with small pieces of green tea leaves, and instead of powdered sugar the cream puff was dusted with matcha–powdered green tea. It was especially good in the original pastry! I bought a half-dozen so that I could share with my person and my friends.

Since I’m not really down the street from Beard Papa’s, and because they offer a discount for buying a half-dozen cream puffs, I like to get several and save them to eat days later. To save them, I tuck them into the freezer. Freezing the cream puffs preserves the integrity of the pastry and the cream; if you keep it in the refrigerator, the cream will make the pastry very soggy and rather unpleasant. When I want to eat one, I take it out of the freezer and let it slowly defrost for about 30 minutes. You can’t heat it up, or you’ll melt the custard! Previously-frozen cream puffs are still moister than fresh ones, but they’re definitely not bad!

I also really-really recommend the “mango milkberry!” It’s kinda like a bubble tea, but with small white tapioca beads instead of the traditionally-used black pearl type and fresh fruit! It’s a sweet, frozen smoothie-type drink with chunks of mango, strawberry, and the white tapoica, served with a massive straw so that you can drink the fruit~ ♥ Delicious!!

Sweet Treats: Swirlz Cupcakes

Sweet Treats: Swirlz Cupcakes

Cupcakes have become very “hip” in the past year or so. I’ve seen numerous cupcake bakeries open (and close…) in Chicago. I am very fond of cupcakes myself, since they are small cakes and I am not exactly able to eat an entire big cake. I’ve tried to taste the goods at as many of the cupcakeries in the area as possible, although a few have always evaded me. (I’m not willing to travel for a few hours to eat a cupcake unless I know it’s going to be completely awesome; maybe I’d feel differently about this if I had a car instead of relying on public transportation, but maybe not.)
One of the places I hadn’t been able to visit was Swirlz. Although it isn’t terribly far from where I live, it was always juuuuuust a little bit further than I wanted to travel on that day. (It doesn’t help that there are closer cupcake shops that I am fond of!) However, over the weekend I went out to lunch with my person. When we decided where we wanted to go, I realized we were close to Swirlz, so we decided to stop by for a cupcake after lunch. (Unfortunately, I got us both rather lost on the way there…and it was only about a block away~ Whoops~)

Boston Creme Pie Cupcake from Swirlz

He chose their flavor of the day–Boston Creme Pie. My person adores Boston creme pie when it’s in pie-form, so he was especially excited. He had every right to be–his cupcake was delicious! The flavors of the cake were both well-blended and well-separated. (You can see here that the base was vanilla and the top was chocolate.) The cupcake had the requisite custard filling, which was smooth and tasty, and the frosting was dipped in chocolate~ We were both very impressed.

Red-Velvet Cupcake from Swirlz

I ordered a gluten-free red velvet cupcake. No particular reason in terms of the gluten-free–I was mostly curious. In retrospect, I suspect that I should have ordered the original red velvet cupcake. The cupcake itself, though moist and dense, was rather flavorless. The cream cheese frosting was quite good, but it would have been better were it offsetting a more flavored cake.

Overall, I would definitely patronize Swirlz again, although it isn’t likely to be my go-to for cupcakes. The price is $3.50 per cupcake, which is on the higher end, but the flavors weren’t as intricate as I prefer. I don’t like to purchase a cupcake if I could make it at home with ease, but beyond the flavor of the day the other options were vanilla, chocolate, and variants of the two. For that price, I’d rather head to more and eat something ridiculous. :3

Sweet Treats: Macaron Review

Sweet Treats: Macaron Review

Frozen Macarons
Originally uploaded by sweetmilktea

Macarons are a rather iconic dessert in terms of lolita fashion. Beyond the obvious tastiness of these delicate cookies, the Japanese seem entranced with them in the same sort of way that they idolize many French things. In lolita fashion, the macaron has been featured in several prints by Angelic Pretty. Beyond lolita, however, macarons are the subjects for miniature, felt crafts, cell phone straps, and other household goods.

Recently, the Trader Joe’s grocery stores have begun selling macarons. Not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a pâtisserie that makes macarons, and even fewer people live near one that makes them well.

However, store-bought macarons have perils beyond that of fresh macarons. Macarons go stale very quickly–macaron-Mecca Ladurée warns patrons that the cookies are only good for two days. However, two days is shorter than many foods spend in transit to their final destination; thus most packaged macarons are stale by the time they reach the consumer. The Trader Joe’s macarons, however, are kept in the frozen dessert section–this keeps them from going stale in such a short time.

Although the cookies are not stale, they do not arrive in perfect condition. Macarons are very delicate–the cookie portion is basically a meringue with a touch of flour–and the slightest pressure can crack and crush them. Whenever I bake macarons, sometimes they shatter just from being removed from the cookie sheet. Although the Trader Joe’s macarons are packaged in a plastic tray with each cookie separated, it is not enough to keep them in shape. The tops of the cookies usually look fine, but the bottoms of every cookie in my box was totally smashed.

As these macarons are frozen, they need to be allowed to thaw–sitting out at room temperature for 30 minutes. This step is extremely, extremely important. The macarons I ate that had sat out for the full 30 minutes had soft filling and a crisp cookie. The flavors were light and un-tainted. The macarons that did not get a full 30 minutes had hard filling and (most importantly) tasted of “freezer” more than of the cookie itself–very unpleasant.

In terms of actual quality, I’d say that the Trader Joe’s macarons are not perfect, but they are better than most packaged (and some bakeries’) macarons. The cookies have a nice foot, smooth skin, and appropriate crispness, but I found that they were more meringue-like than I prefer. (This was more pronounced for the chocolate macarons than the vanilla.) They didn’t have enough of the density and texture that the almond flour should add.

The Trader Joe’s macarons are approximately $5 for one dozen macarons–6 chocolate and 6 vanilla. This is, really, an unbeatable value. Most pâtisseries charge much, much more than that this–usually $2-$3 per macaron.

Overall, I don’t think this is something I would buy again, but I would certainly recommend it to others. If you haven’t had macarons before, the Trader Joe’s macarons are a better place to start than other pre-packaged macarons. If you like macarons a lot and don’t want to spend a fortune, they’re a great deal. If you love meringues, you’d also probably really like them! Personally, I will bake my own macarons or patronize my favourite bakery–there are other store-bought cookies I enjoy that I could buy for a similar price; I don’t mind paying a little bit extra for macarons I like the taste of more.

Sweet Treats: Bagged Tea Time

Sweet Treats: Bagged Tea Time

I’ve been a bit sick lately, so I’ve been drinking tea even more than usual. Tea may just be my favorite beverage, and I have an entire drawer in my kitchen dedicated to my collection–right underneath the electric kettle that I love so dearly. Although I have a designated tea drawer, that’s not the only spot for tea. I don’t stick to just one kind, and I like to surround myself with a different tea for a different occasion! And… most of my “traveling teas” are bagged teas (and some aren’t very fancy, either)~

~At Work~
I keep tea at my desk to supplement the varieties that are stocked in our kitchens. I’m very lucky that my office has tea at all, and even luckier that it isn’t simply something another worker brought in and forgot about. A set supply of bagged teas is restocked on a regular basis: Bigelow’s “Constant Comment,” “Orange & Spice,” “Apple Cinnamon,” “Earl Grey,” “Cranberry Apple,” and “Green Tea,” as well as Tazo’s “Chai” and “Awake.”

I’m not terribly fond of bagged tea, as the quality of the tea leaves is usually lower and the tag-shaped paper pouches don’t circulate water very well, but I’m definitely not above drinking it! I find that if the tea is stronger–like a black tea–it can be easier to taste that the leaves are not as flavorful or select as those in loose-leaf tea. Thus I usually drink herbal teas if bagged tea is an option. I lean towards the two apple flavors at work; they’re even better with honey. ♥

I also keep my own tea in my desk. I don’t want to bring my tea accoutrement to work me with (at least not yet) so I like to select a box of tea bags to try. If they’re at work it forces me to drink it even if I don’t really-really like it! At home it could languish in my drawer forever~ Right now I have a box of Tazo’s “Cucumber White.” It’s an interesting flavor–a white tea with cucumber, lime, and peppermint. At first I wasn’t very keen on the taste, but it’s started to grow on me. It’s very refreshing, and it soothes an upset stomach.

~Away from Home~
My other hidden-tea-stash is at my mother’s house. She doesn’t live terribly far away and is centrally located to the rest of my family, so my person and I travel out to see her…or sleep at her house when visiting other relatives. My tea used to live in my mother’s kitchen cabinet, but now there are only a few remnants. My stepfather enjoys tea as well, but he has been working abroad for a while, so there isn’t much in the cabinet.

There are a few golden pouches from a local tea shop that is no longer around. They had a very wide selection and some interesting blends–different from what I notice at most shops, which always made me wonder if they had a different supplier. Most of the teas are green teas, which I am rarely in the mood for. Instead, my mother’s house has my two guilty pleasures–Bigelow’s “English Teatime” and Celestial Seasoning’s “Sleepytime.”

Out of all the black teas produced by mass-marketed tea bag companies, I really prefer the blend that’s in “English Teatime.” It’s strong without much bitterness, having mild undertones instead. I find that it goes well with mostly anything I plan to drink it with, and it stands well on its own. “Sleepytime” is my favorite night-time tea–a chamomile with spearmint and lemongrass. It also brings back very happy childhood memories.

~Make it Quick!~
Quick isn’t even the best word, really–it’s convenience. I do have to admit that bagged tea is awfully convenient. I do keep some of it at home, although it is vastly outnumbered by the rest of my teas. If I’m only choosing bagged tea on a whim when I’m at home, it has to be more than just quick–it has to taste delicious! After all, why else would it ever be consumed?

Personally, I really like teas by ®evolution. I find their flavor combinations quite tasty, and I’m partial to their larger-sized cloth bags–I think it lets the flavors get through and gives the leaves more room to open. (I also like that I can see that the tea isn’t pulverized!) My current favorite is their “Pear White Tea.” I love pears. I love flavored white teas. What else could I ask for? Even opening the box smells wonderful.

However, that’s not my “standard” bagged tea. That spot is reserved for PG Tips; it’s my favorite bagged black tea. I can’t stand generic Lipton, but I drink a lot of PG. It’s strong, has nice color, good flavor, and pyramid-shaped bags for good water flow. Also, it’s really, really quick to steep. I usually only leave it in the water until the color darkens, and remove it immediately. It can become too bitter if left unattended, so keeping an eye on it is recommended.

After thinking about and writing all this, now it’s definitely time for some tea! ♥

Sweet Treats: Macarons

Sweet Treats: Macarons

Macaron Rainbow
Originally uploaded by sweetmilktea

There seems to hardly be a dessert more iconic in lolita fashion than the macaron. (A “macaroon” is an entirely different kind of cookie, and doesn’t feature in anything lolita fashion-related!) Once featured in the Angelic Pretty series “Dreaming Macaron,” the popularity of these tiny pastries REALLY took off! When not appearing tucked into prints on lolita garments, these puffy discs can be seen in a multitude of colors as sweets jewelry. They’re also a common motif for deco projects.

Personally, I love eating AND making macarons, although it isn’t an easy task! Macarons are very delicate, and it takes a lot of patience to prepare the ingredients, incorporate everything just right, and actually bake the halves that will form the sandwich. When I make macarons, I spend a lot of time sifting almond flour until no lumps remain, then carefully folding in the egg whites–which have to be given a few days to age, and MUST be used at room temperature. These are not the kinds of pastries to be made on last-minute notice.

Traditionally, the flavor of a macaron is dictated by the filling, although the pastry itself is colored appropriately. Personally, when I make mine I like to flavor the cookies just a bit with a few drops of extract. Some of my favourite flavor combinations are rose cookies with strawberry, raspberry, or lingonberry jam~ Jam isn’t a particularly traditional filling, but I don’t like most buttery, frosting-type creams; I feel like they overpower the actual pastry.

However, sometimes it’s less stressful to quell a macaron craving with a trip to the bakery~ These small desserts have become very popular in recent years. In Chicago I keep hearing about more and more bakeries trying their hand at these tiny cookies.

When I buy macarons, I go to Bittersweet Pastry Shop. They’re right in my neighborhood, and their macarons are quite good–crisp, not overfilled, and with the appropriately cute “foot.” (That’s the crinkled edge–all good macarons have a foot; it means that the top is crispier than the chewy inside. When the balance is right, it’s delicious!) They’re certainly not the BEST macarons I’ve ever had, but sometimes it’s worth it to spend a few dollars on something tasty instead of spending several days to make them myself. The chocolate macarons are much better deal than the larger, flavored macarons–$16 for one pound, as opposed to $3-$4 per cookie~

Macarons make a lovely addition to tea-time. They both look and taste fancy, and when made or purchased in pastel-colored flavors like rose or violet, it seems that no dessert could be more ladylike! There are few things prettier than a display of multi-colored macarons atop a china plate…although that’s always a fleeting moment for me; they’re too tempting!