Mid-Week Tangent: my love for ice cream DOES have limits

When we told people we were going to Portland a couple weeks ago, almost everyone told us that we absolutely had to go to Salt and Straw. As a passionate lover of ice cream, I gladly accepted a recommendation. I’ve heard of Salt and Straw before and figured it couldn’t hurt to try it.

After 2.5 days of wandering, eating and drinking our way through PDX, it was time to give Salt & Straw a try. And so, on our last day in town, which wasn’t even a full day in that would had to leave for the airport mid-afternoon, I dragged my poor better all the way to Nob Hill (i.e. up a giant hill from our downtown hotel…in 30+ degree heat) for the sole purpose of checking out Salt & Straw.

We got there around 12:30 and headed straight inside where there appeared to be a small line (I couldn’t actually tell if the people hovering were in line and just not paying attention to the fact that the line had moved up, or just  milling about).  I figured we should strike while the ice cream iron was hot (i.e. while the line was short), but my partner reminded me that we hadn’t eaten lunch yet and should probably do that first. Personally, I don’t subscribe to only eating dessert after a proper meal, but I’d also eaten no actual, healthy food in three days so I conceded for once.

That was where I made my mistake. Had I gone for my usual footloose and fancy free “eat dessert whenever the hell you feel like it” approach, I would be writing about their ice cream, rather than rambling on about the limits to my love for ice cream. Instead, we ate a sensible lunch (salad, no less!) and returned almost two hours later to find that the line for ice cream had extended to outside the shop, snaking itself around the corner and doubling over itself into two rows.

I still stand by my initial thought which was ‘Good God, all this for ice cream?!?! It cannot be that good.’ I was eyeing up the ice cream of those sitting outside, those who hadn’t foolishly arrived at 2:30pm on a hot, sunny Sunday, which also happened to be Mother’s Day. It looked, dare I say, like any other ice cream. People were oohing and ahhhing over it, but wouldn’t you do the same if you’d just waited in line for the better part of an hour? I know I would, if only just to prove it hadn’t been a total waste of my time.

Alas, we got in line anyway, and I was doing the mental math on how long it would take to serve the scores of people ahead of us, most of whom I imagined greedily sampling every flavour under the sun before hemming and hawing over their final choice as if an ice cream choice ever has any real consequence (and I say this as an ice cream obsessive). My mental math, and the fact that we hadn’t advanced at all in five minutes, was telling me that this was easily an hour-long line up.

It was at this point that I was faced with a dilemma: do I suck it up and waste my last hours in Portland waiting in line for ice cream that, quite likely, is overhyped and merely good, or do I walk away never knowing if this was the one ice cream shop whose ice cream isn’t highly overrated?  You can tell the title of this post that my choice was to walk away. Because even though I love ice cream probably more than any other confection, and even though a good ice cream is such a magically wondrous delight, and even though I live to write posts about any ice cream experience good or bad, apparently there is a limit to my love for ice cream.

That limit is a one hour line.

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Mid-Week Tangent: the gelato bar of my dreams

I have written about QB Gelato not once but twice. It is that good. Seriously, if you live in the Okanagan or are passing through the Okanagan at any point this summer, you must go.  We stop any time we are passing through town and I never regret shelling out inordinate amounts of money (full disclosure, a pint is $18) for a little bit of gelato joy.

On my last visit, I decided to branch out from my usual two flavour cup to test out their gelato bars. These are small-batch house made logs of heaven. Yikes, I’m sorry, using the term “logs” doesn’t make these sound appealing in the slightest…but to me they look more like a log than a bar.  Semantics aside, they are the best gelato bar/logs that you will ever eat in your entire life, bar none (come on, that was a good pun).

Anatomy of a Life-Changing Gelato Bar

Like most of my food photos, this picture just does not do justice to the bar itself. For one, it makes it seem like the smallest bar ever. I also fear it looks ultra boring. Let me spare you those concerns: this gelato bar is sizeable and spectacular. Now let me tell you why:

1. Life Changing Ultra Thick Chocolate Coating: In my opinion, most ice cream bars have woefully thin chocolate coatings. Even worse, many don’t use actual chocolate. Ever notice products that say “chocolatey coating”?That’s your sign that it’s not even real chocolate. Not so for this bar. This bar is drenched in Valrhona milk chocolate. Like drenched. It provides a satisfying snap to the bar, and provides the ultimate balance to the gelato center and salted peanut caramel. Trust me when I say the first and last bites (where you’ll get the maximum chocolate coating) will be your best.

2. Life changing vanilla gelato centre: Vanilla gelato would never be my first flavour choice. Ever. This is actually fior di latte gelato, which is even more neutral than something like a vanilla bean gelato. Lest you think this makes the centre boring, let me assure you it does not. With the richness of the chocolate and the boldness of the salted peanut caramel, this simple yet perfectly smooth and creamy gelato is exactly the centrepiece this bar needs to shine. This gelato bar doesn’t need a fancy flavoured centre. It’s rocking a plain centre and pulling it off flawlessly.

3. Life changing salted peanut caramel: I don’t even like peanuts. In fact, I consider them a waste of a nut. Normally I’d say give me a pecan or cashew or almond, or virtually any other nut.  However, somehow here the peanut is perfection. Their crunch holds up even when bathed in a sea of the most well-balanced salted caramel you can imagine. To be fair, I am always a fan of any salted caramel, even mediocre salted caramel, but I am extra appreciative of a caramel that retains its gooeyness in a frozen treat without becoming the kind of caramel that threatens to extract your teeth. And, while it looks as though there’s barely any caramel at the base of this bar, it is actually far thicker than the picture suggests. It is the perfect ratio of caramel and peanut to gelato. There is no other word for it: perfect. Did you catch that? Perfect.

If you aren’t already Google mapping just how far QB Gelato is from your house, you are already behind the eight ball. Get on it. It might be a $6-8 bar (honestly, I didn’t even look at the price), but it is worth each and every hard-earned dollar. My only regret was not buying a half dozen to squirrel away in my freezer for future indulgences.

Perfect.

 

 

Mid Week Tangent: NYC Walking Sugarfest

Last week, I was in New York for a conference and, as sugar addicts do, I devoted all my spare time to seeking out sugary treats I’ve read about on other’s blogs. My sweet spot (pun intended) was any place in Manhattan that featured cookies, cakes or cupcakes, and that did take out. I do not have the self-confidence to dessert in a cafe or bakery alone. No one needs to see me eat that much sugar at one time, and I don’t need the self-induced shame associated with it.

Moving on.

Given that I only had time on lunch breaks and after 4:30 pm, I believe I crammed a lot of treats into a 3.5 day stay. I still had a million places I would have visited if I’d had more time or the will to travel outside the boundaries of Manhattan proper, but really I think you’ll see that I consumed quite enough as it is.

I could simply present you with a list of the bakeries I visited and the treats I consumed, but since I completed this entire mission on foot alone (i.e. no cabs, Ubers, Subways or any other form of motorized transport), I felt compelled to work walking distance into an overly complex rating system that no one but me will understand. I’ve taken into account not just taste and appearance and quality and value for price, but also the distance I had to walk to acquire the treat. Sure, that should have no bearing whatsoever on how good the treat was, but let me tell you that walking 8 km for a cookie will make a big difference to how good it tastes. I’ve also included photos wherever possible, but I warn you that they are poor because a) I am not  a food photographer…nor any kind of photographer and b) I took them while squirrelled away in my hotel room hiding from the shame of my sugar consumption.  Here goes nothing.

1. Magnolia Bakery Chocolate Cake (4.8/5): First place goes to the closest bakery to my hotel, which conveniently also had the best chocolate cake base of any I tried. Moist, not too crumbly, and richly chocolately, this cake was a winner. The frosting, however, was way too soft. I’m team firm frosting all the way. It was also underwhelming. I took off a bunch of points for the frosting factor (frosting is life), but it got bonus points for total ease of access (800 m from my hotel). Scores could also be higher than usual because I ate this cake after watching a live taping of Late Night with Seth Meyers. I suspect anything tastes better after that.

[I am ashamed that I somehow didn’t take a picture of this cake. Who knew it would end up top of the list?]

2.  Magnolia Bakery Carrot Cake (4.6/5): I gotta tell you, Magnolia Bakery knows what they’re doing with cakes. I’m normally not one to even care about the cake itself. I view it as merely a vehicle for frosting. But this carrot cake base was delicious without being overly moist like some carrot cakes can be. The cream cheese frosting was the biggest let down. I’m sure 99% of the world would love it because it’s not very sweet, but I want my frosting sweet as can be. In fact, I was initially drawn to this cake because of its intensely thick layers of frosting that promised a supremely deep sugar coma.  It was good, but could’ve been so much better. Full disclosure: this may be ranked higher than it should be because I spent SEVEN HOURS at the Toronto airport waiting for my flight and any piece of cake would’ve tasted like heaven after that level of hell.

3. Levain Bakery Famed Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie (4.4/5): I don’t know about paying $4.25 US for a cookie. It was good, but I’m not sure any cookie is worth that kind of price tag. Still, I walked 42 minutes in each direction to get my hands on this bad boy and I didn’t regret it. Points were deducted because they serve the cookies with oozy, warm chocolate. I suspect I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a fan of warm cookies. I like my chocolate chips once they’ve returned to their solid state. The 2/3 of the cookie that I saved until it cooled off was fantastic.

4. Eataly Amarena Gelato (4.3/5): That cookie barely edged out this gelato, and I had to walk a lot farther for this. In other words, had this gelato been closer than the cookie, it would have beat it out. As you may know, I spent the summer on a quest for gelato perfection, one that was mostly disappointing with only a couple promising finds. I wanted to see if celebrity chef Mario Batali had anything to offer in the way of gelato. Hello, he’s Italian. Plus I am hugely skeptical of all these celebrity chef empires. I am pleased to say that the Amarena Gelato was the second best I’ve had outside of Italy. Texturally, it was spot on and many, many bonus points were awarded for the abundance of sour cherries. The only real downsides were the price ($6 US for a tiny cup) and that the vanilla base was overly sweet. Okay, Mario Batali, you might be the real deal.

5. Buttercup Bakery Chocolate Cake (4/5): Buttercup Bakery was started by the woman who originally opened Magnolia Bakery, so I had high hopes for this slice of cake. Its frosting to cake ratio was high, and the frosting had all the most promising characteristics: it looked firmer and more intensely chocolatey than Magnolia Bakery’s. Once again, life proved that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  The frosting was a disappointment. Sigh. I can’t put my finger on it, but it lacked the buttery factor I associate with buttercream and had a bit of a bitterness to it. The cake itself was quite good, but just ever-so-slightly less intense than Magnolia Bakery’s cake. I mean, I ate this whole piece, of course,  but I didn’t swoon with each bite.

6. Molly’s Cupcakes (3.5/5): Here is where we start to take a downward slide. I walked all the way to Greenwich Village for these cupcakes, and yes I bought two: Cookies n’ Creme and Salted Caramel. Both were filled cupcakes, for which I have a special place reserved in my heart. I will cut to the chase here and say that I was disappointed and that my massive disappointment comes down to one thing: swiss meringue buttercream. This will demonstrate my utter lack of class, but I find swiss meringue buttercream to be an abomination. For me, its mouth feel borders on repulsive and it lacks the sweetness I crave in frosting. So, while Molly’s Cupcakes cake base was actually quite good and its fillings delightful, they lost epic points for the frosting. Also, the picture below was taken after I walked fifty five city blocks back to my hotel. As you’ll see, they didn’t fare particularly well on the journey.

7. Citycakes Stuffed Red Velvet Cookie (2.5/5): Ugh, this one hurts. I was so, so, so looking forward to this one and my massive disappointment is the result of a total and complete reading failure on my part. I walked like fifty blocks expecting this beast of a cookie with ridiculously thick frosting sandwiched in the middle, because that is the picture I had seen on a blog. Well, as it turns out if I’d read the accompanying text I would have seen that picture on that blog was the cookie ice cream sandwich not the stuffed cookie. The frosting layer in the stuffed cookie was negligible to the point that I think a small piece of my heart broke the second I saw it. To add insult to injury, the outer edges of the cookie were crispy (death to crunchy cookies) and had the distinct and overwhelming taste of food colouring, which is often my complaint with red velvet in general. Let’s just say that I’m glad I bought this cookie on the day that I also bought a giant slice of chocolate cake because 50% of the cookie ended up in the garbage and I was able to drown my sorrows in the chocolate cake.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a medal. Also, I assume that it means your sugar addiction is right up there with mine. I hope this post saves you the heartache of the disappointing stuffed red velvet cookie and gives you enough information to find your own perfect chocolate cake should you find yourself in NYC. And lastly, a warning: if ever you plan to replicate this level of sugar consumption, I strongly recommend walking to any and all destinations. This level of sugar consumption necessitates the epic walking…and then some.

Happy desserting (yup, just made that word up)!

Quest for Gelato Perfection: All Summer and No Perfection

Well, that was an unexpectedly long departure from blogging. I was away for an extended long weekend and planned poorly for this week’s posts. Never fear, though, I am back with my final installment of this Summer’s quest for gelato perfection. And I left the granddaddy of local gelaterias for last. I wish I could say that I planned it that way but this, too, was opportunity gelato.  I also wish I could say I went and saved the best for last (cue sappy Vanessa Williams to accompany), but sadly that was also not the case.

After a summer of trying desperately to find the best gelato, what I’ve come to believe is that nothing will ever taste as good as what I ate in Italy. It’s possible that the gelato there is leaps and bounds better, but it’s equally possible that its deliciousness was heightened by the fact that I was, you know, in Italy, surrounded by vast countrysides of vineyards and historic castles and whatnot. Yeah, that could be it. Still, here we go with this latest experience.

Where: Bella Gelateria (Marinaside location)

What: I ordered the Amarena Cherry and Wickedly Burnt Caramel. My better half ordered the classic salted caramel.

Salted Caramel
Cherry and Wickedly Burnt Caramel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stood out: First, I have to get this off my chest. I have mentioned several times how I despise gelato shops in which gelato is hidden from view in charmless stainless steel bins. I don’t know why it irks me so, but it does. Only once have I been blown away by the contents of those bins. This was not that time.

Second, and a bit of a sidenote, some advice for those less wise than me: gelato does not make a great pre-concert choice. We stopped for gelato en route to the Guns n’ Roses concert and, though it seems obvious now, I didn’t question whether a giant bowl of gelato would make an ideal pre-show snack. It does not.

In terms of the gelato itself, I can say that the texture was lovely. It was velvety. It commenced melting the second it hit the warm air outside, as one would expect from gelato. It was served properly with a spade and not in scoops.

When it comes to the flavours, I was tremendously disappointed. They were fine. But here’s the thing: this gelateria is widely acclaimed as the best gelato in the city of Vancouver and supposedly the best outside of Italy. The location near my office regularly has a long line (upwards of 45 minutes!) wrapping around the block. If I had waited 45 minutes for this gelato, I’d have been pissed. I do not want to wait 45 minutes for gelato that is “fine”.

The Salted Caramel was nice enough, and was clearly the winner of the three flavours, but I’ve come to believe that salted caramel is one of those flavours that is hard to mess up.

The Amarena Cherry was a grave disappointment. Perhaps this is the one area where Italy legitimately has a leg up because I’m certain their cherries actually taste like cherries, whereas anything cherry-flavoured here seems far too subtle and/or overly sweet. I have decided that, aside from Dolce Gelato in White Rock, I am through ordering cherry flavoured gelato here. It is dead to me.

Now let me unleash my bitterness about the over promising and under delivering Wickedly Burnt Caramel. This flavour is living a lie. It is decidedly not burnt, and presents its consumer with nothing even remotely wicked. My boyfriend described it best when he said it was “caramel lite”, as in it had the most subtle hint of caramel flavour possible for such a boldly named gelato. It was the biggest disappointment of the evening.

My final conclusion on Bella Gelateria is twofold: 1. This place is overhyped to the extreme and 2. Location may matter for this gelateria. We may have chosen a dud, but then again, part of multi-location eateries is meant to be their consistency. Make it good everywhere or don’t make it at all, I say.

I’m sad to end this summer’s quest with such a lacklustre finale. However, I still have hope for finding brilliant gelato next year, or at least visiting my Kelowna discovery many, many times when we make our move to Vernon. Until then, may you find your own gelato perfection and, if and when you do, please loop me in!

 

Triumphant Return of the Quest for Gelato Perfection

This was opportunity gelato, plain and simple, as in my boyfriend and I were picking up a birthday cake in a quaint little bakery somewhere in the heart of Bellingham when I noticed there was a chocolate and gelato shop next door. Had it not been for proximity, no gelato would’ve been consumed.  I should know better than to be tempted by a store that sells two completely different products. One of them is bound to be inferior. Though I can’t say for certain that the chocolate was any better, I can say the gelato left a lot to be desired.

Where: Chocolate Necessities & Gelato, Bellingham, WA

What I Had: Cherry Mania and Mascarpone

What Stood Out: I have no idea what is going on with me this year. I have never in my life been so tempted by cherry-flavoured anything, and now it appears to be my flavour of choice.  This was NOT my best cherry flavour experience.

The picture says it all. Disappointing. Texturally off.  Sigh.

Here’s the skinny:

The Mascarpone ice cream had good flavour, with more of a distinct mild cheesiness than I’ve had in many similar flavours. The Cherry Mania was indeed cherry-like, but completely unbalanced (i.e. way too sweet, and that’s saying a lot for a sugar fiend like me!). This is the most positive feedback that I have.

In general, the “gelato” had way too many icy crystals to be considered true gelato. I couldn’t tell whether it was just ice cream, or whether it was stored at an improper temperature. The glass case housing the gelato had a great deal of condensation on it, so much so that I had to bend down and crane my neck to even read the names of the flavours in the back row. On top of that, the gelato broke my spoon. Now, I may be an aggressive consumer of sweets at the best of times, but even in my most enraptured gelato eating moments I’ve never broken the spoon.

I should learn that when gelato doesn’t look fantastic in the case, it’s probably not going to taste much better, but I feared that if I didn’t seize the opportunity I would never get back to my quest for gelato perfection. I’m sure you can tell this stop on my gelato journey was far from perfection. In fact, I feel certain that the Orange gelato, which looked heinous in colour and even stranger in texture, and which appeared to be puking itself out of its metal bin, was actually attempting to escape its fate as mediocre gelato.  Having experienced the gelato, I completely understand its plight.

ps. However, if you want a wonderful carrot cake, do visit Pure Bliss Desserts directly next door. I still regret not buying a salted caramel cupcake in lieu of the gelato.

Mid-Week Gelato Quest: Gelato Repeat Repeat

No, that is not a typo. I am outing myself, yet again, for failing to visit a new gelato destination before my weekly quest for gelato perfection post.  It is trickier now that I’m working, and was made even trickier this weekend when I decided to host my own birthday party, which essentially turned one of my free days into a full-on scramble to get food, drink and decor sorted.  I am really seeing a pattern here, and that pattern is that I am a master of excuses.

Instead of broadening my horizons like I am supposed to be doing, I visited Dolce Gelato for the third time (here’s visit 1 and visit 2 if you’re curious). I’ll spare you the lengthy intros and jump right to flavours, because at the very least I did try two brand-new-to-me flavours. Trust me, that’s harder than it sounds.

Where: Dolce Gelato, White Rock

My boyfriend would like to note what a fine hand model he makes.

The Gelato: 

My boyfriend, who always shows more restraint than I, ordered one measly flavour, Bacio. It’s chocolate hazelnut and it tasted like frozen Ferrero Rocher filling, which is pretty much as good as it gets in the chocolate hazelnut world if you ask me. It was velvety, chocolatey, hazelnutty perfection. If you’re in the mood for pure indulgence, get it.

My flavour choices were difficult. I really wanted the Cassata again, but have a tendency to stick with my favourites. Plus, I knew if I was going to pawn this gelato trip off as a new post, I better at least get different flavours.  In the end, I went with the Variegato and the Stracciatella.

The Variegato is a sour cherry gelato and packs some seriously tart kick. I am not always a fan of fruit flavours, but lately anything cherry has been a go-to for me. Aside from the foresta nera (essentially black forest) gelato that I had at Dolce last time, this is the best cherry gelato I’ve had outside of Italy. It was creamy and its sweetness was perfectly offset by sharply sour cherries.  That probably sounds offensive. Who wants sharply sour cherries? I do. They are amazing.

The Stracciatella was a strategic choice. I’m a firm believer that the simpler the gelato flavour, the more challenging it is to do it really, really well. You can’t get much simpler than vanilla with chocolate shavings.  It was very good, maybe not the best I’ve had, but very, very good. The vanilla base was top notch and ultra creamy. For me, it just needed way more chocolate. I’m also a chocoholic so perhaps take that with a grain of salt.

Overall: I don’t regret returning here. It was the only logical choice since we were golfing/Farmer’s Market-ing nearby. Any other destination would have been way too much driving given that it was my birthday and I had no desire to spend the whole day in the car. Plus, for once I actually picked complimentary flavours instead of cramming two things that should never be together into one tiny cup. That’s learning, my friends. After three visits, I still stand by my recommendation for Dolce Gelato. In a word: yum!

 

Mid-Week Gelato Quest: gelato fail

An alternative title for this post could be: the week in which I fail to visit a new gelato destination and instead present you with a gelato post about *gasp* store-bought gelato and my utter lack of motivation. It doesn’t have quite the simplicity nor the ring to it that my actual title has, though, does it?

I had good intentions of going for gelato today, my last day of total freedom before returning to work. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate. But then I got lazy. And it’s hot out. And I didn’t feel like driving. And I couldn’t figure out what to wear to work tomorrow. And I didn’t know if the gelato place would even be any good/worth all the trouble. And, and, and…the excuses could go on forever. At the end of the day, all that really matters is that I didn’t go for gelato.

But we did buy Haagen Dazs Cappuccino Gelato earlier this week because, let’s face it, I always have to have some form of ice cream in the house. I know I promised a quest for gelato perfection and am instead talking to you about commercially produced ice cream masquerading as gelato, but it is all I have. Plus, it still worked for a post-dinner weekday treat.  It tasted like coffee. It was creamy. It was frozen. It was sweet. Those are all winning qualities in a pinch. Perfection? No. Tasty? Sure. Plus you can get a whole pint for less than one small scoop in most gelato shops. Sometimes economies of scale are a good thing.

I know, and I agree, that was a wholly unsatisfying gelato review. You may be pleased to know that, although I failed in my quest for gelato this week, I did manage to locate several promising gelato prospects for future weeks. I also want to be realistic that between starting a new job and some unexpected weekend excursions (which sounds more fun than they really are), I may not get to them as quickly as I hope to. You have my word, however, that I will put more effort into my gelato quest than I did today when, really, I was just too damn lazy.

Too lazy for gelato. What is the world coming to?