A Southern Grace: August 2009

August 31, 2009

al baraki


Getting tired of these reviews yet? Tough. I’m having a blast.

Although my list is still pretty long, when I saw mention of Al Baraki on All Over Albany, I took that as a sign that I should seek it out next.

Al Baraki is not a restaurant. It is a man behind a counter in a space half the size of my bedroom. The kitchen portion makes up the most of the room, and there’s a little space to wait for your order to be prepared.

I ordered the chicken shawarma with my standard tomato and lettuce. I asked for the garlic sauce on the side, a request blatantly frowned upon by the cook. He also wanted me to put pickles in the wrap, but since I’m trying to keep things consistent, I resisted.

The already-seasoned chicken was plopped onto a panini press (yes, like at Anton’s, I could watch what was being done)(I was also happy to see the cook put on gloves)(but alas, there was no hairnet) and sizzled. Although I got the small wrap ($4.75 + tax), a whole piece of pita was used. Used and filled. Three of the pieces of chicken were added to the bed of lettuce and tomato and the entire wrap was then placed back in the press and heated through. This was an awesome touch.

I really, really liked this wrap. The seasoning of the chicken was completely different from that of Anton’s (bliss), but just as delicious. I detected some familiar spices, including cinnamon, so you know I was smitten. My only regret was that the hunks of chicken were in finger-form rather than more easy-to-eat pieces. I guess I’ll be seeing that a lot and will just have to come to terms with it.

The pita, although thin, held together until the very end and kept the innards from spilling everywhere. The sauce, I must say, was not a sauce at all, but a thick and highly potent paste similar to that of Beirut Restaurant. The folks at All Over Albany weren’t kidding--the vampires will keep their distance from anyone who so much as holds a container of this stuff!

Yes, that's a vicious kitten wound on my finger.
They're fur-ocious. Get it? Ha.

All in all, this was a wrap that was well-worth the cost. The appearance of the place is a bit off-putting, but I’m ready, willing, able and eager to return.

Al Baraki
185 Lark St.
Albany, NY 12210

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August 28, 2009

brownie fail


Sometimes you have a great idea that works out marvelously.

Sometimes you have a great idea that fails miserably.

Lovely crystalization, wouldn't you say?

This is a tale of the latter.

I hadn’t eaten or given away all those mints I made for Independence Day, and I wanted to get them out of my freezer. My brilliant idea? Use them in cream-cheese swirl brownies.

I picked David Lebovitz’s recipe, knowing it would be a good one. After checking out his ingredients for the cream cheese filling (cream cheese? check.)(sugar? check.)(vanilla extract? mint instead, but check.)(egg yolk? negative.), I decided it was worth a shot to add a yolk and blend until everything came together. Also driving this experiment was my knowledge of the color wheel--red plus blue makes purple, a color I enjoy very much.

Holy lilac-tinted ooze, Batman!

So, what were the results? Thanks for asking! I think the photos speak for themselves, but in case the images aren’t enough, I’ll give you a description of what I pulled from the oven: The outer edges were baked quite nicely, but that’s where the good news ends. The middle was still essentially in liquid form, with the top crust floating on a sea of purple-hued cream cheese. Between the edge and the iceberg of baked brownie crust, a bubbling circle of said cream cheese threatened to take over the entire pan.

Waiter, there's a crater in my brownie...

What was I to do? If I baked it further, the edges would’ve become as hard as a rock. I tried to cut the middle out so it could continue to bake, but that just didn’t work. So, I abandoned the pesky brownies. It pained me, but I did it.

No doubt the batter was undercooked, so I refrained from eating the entire batch myself. 'Tis a sad day when something I make can in no way be salvaged. In hindsight, I realize what I should've done was bake regular brownies and use the broken-down cream cheese mints as a frosting. Duly noted.

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August 25, 2009

worth it


I love it when five ingredients come together to create something that's so enjoyable to put in your mouth.

On the flipside, I hate it when a dish takes a good deal of time and physical exertion to put together.

In the case of pepper slaw, both are true. The question, then, is whether the end result is worth the taxing process.

The answer? Absolutely.

Unless you have a massive, full-size food processor, shredding or grating a head of cabbage is tedious and time-consuming work. To add insult to injury, there's no instant gratification--for the best results, you really should wait for the slaw to chill and marinate.

It's totally worth it, though. After some time in the fridge, the crisp, cool cabbage and crunchy peppers are the perfect accompaniment to many dishes, from hot dogs to ham. Heck, the slaw is plenty tasty on its own. Right now, I'm thinking about a juicy, saucy pulled chicken barbecue sandwich loaded down with the stuff (insert Homer Simpson drool face and noise here).

There are two versions displayed here. One makes use of regular ol’ homegrown white cabbage and green bell pepper (thanks Merlin!) and the other is a bit more colorful, using purple cabbage and some purple bell peppers I bought at my local farmer’s market. Truth be told, the white version tastes better, but I just love that purple hue.

Pepper Slaw
(recipe from Mammicus Maximus)

1/2 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 head cabbage, shredded
1-3 bell peppers, diced

Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt and heat until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the cabbage and peppers and let the mixture marinate for a day or so before digging in.

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August 21, 2009

beirut restaurant


I hate getting lost (but love seeing others in such a state). I pride myself on an innate sense of direction most commonly associated with the male gender of our species. When it inevitably happens, though, I get frustrated and angry (not at myself, mind you, but at the louts who designed the road layout in whatever area I’m currently lost).

So, yes, I got a bit turned around in my efforts to find Beirut Restaurant in Troy, NY. Good things had been said about the family-owned Lebanese eatery, and I was anxious to try their take on the pita wrap. I ended up taking an unintentional tour of the Capital Region, but being the stubborn mule that I am, I drove until I found the place, thinking to myself that it had better be worth it.

It wasn’t worth it. Let me amend that--I’m glad I found the homey little restaurant, but I won’t go back unless I happen to be in the area. I certainly don’t want to smear the place, as the owner and his father are just about the nicest folks I’ve encountered in this area--super-sincere and going to great lengths to please.

Let’s talk about the food. I got the chicken shawarma ($5 plus tax). The pita, although a step up from that of The Phoenicians, was sad, thin, and droopy. The chicken, however, was spiced to perfection with a variety of seasonings that I couldn’t even begin to list. It was moist and succulent, too, but clearly not the shaved-off-the-spit type--it was in big chicken-tender-like hunks which weren’t a joy to rip apart. The tomato and lettuce (the least relevant ingredients, of course, but important all the same) were practically nonexistent. And the garlic paste--good gracious. It’s pure garlic, and simply not my cup of tea.

I hate getting lost.

Beirut Restaurant
184 River Street
Troy, NY 12180
(518) 270-9404

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August 18, 2009

behold, the power of butterscotch pudding


Remember that pudding-based sourdough bread I made a while back? I said that I’d try it again, and I did.

This time, the pudding being put to use was butterscotch-flavored. I know made-from-scratch is always better, but that’s a somewhat complex recipe and the boxed version is awfully tasty. Awfully--such an appropriate adverb since I feel guilty for enjoying something with so many chemicals, modified starches, preservatives, and the like.

But enjoy it I do, and I suspected that it would make for a knockout bread. I considered using chocolate chips or toffee bits as an add-in, but in the end I opted for diced dried apples. Had I used the sweet stuff, the end result might’ve been too rich (not for me, mind you, but for those of typical palates).

The bread was fantastic. There was definitely a subtle caramel-brown sugar-butterscotchy thing going on, but it was never the slightest bit overwhelming. The apples contributed a nice tart zing and the overall texture was lovely.

So soft. So satisfying.

Was it better than the version made with coconut pudding? Gracious, that’s a toughie. If you threatened to take away my cinnamon if I didn’t pick one or the other, I’d have to say the tropical version takes it by a hair (not by a hair found in any of my baked goods, of course)(I always wear a hairnet when I cook...don’t you?).

Butterscotch Friendship Bread
(personalized from this recipe)

1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup pear baby food
1/2 cup milk
1 cup sourdough starter
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 (3.4 oz) boxes instant butterscotch pudding
1 cup chopped dried apples

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease down whatever molds you intend to use (I filled up 8 mini loaves).
In a large bowl, mix the oil, pear puree, eggs, milk, starter, vanilla, and sugar.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, pudding mix, and apples. Add this to the liquid mixture and stir thoroughly.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until done. Apparently, this takes at least an hour for regular loaves, and took around 45 minutes for my mini loaves. Cool completely before slicing.

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August 14, 2009

practically perfect palate pleaser?


Many, many moons ago, the Daring Bakers made Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake. A few months later, the Tuesdays with Dorie group also chose it as a challenge. If nothing else, I’ve revealed my utter disregard for bandwagon-jumping by waiting so long to follow suit.

But follow suit I did. I made the cake. I slathered sweet, cinnamon-laden cranberry relish between the layers. Most importantly, I filled and topped the beast with velvety cream cheese frosting.

My verdict? Frankly, I was let down. I wouldn’t be surprised if I goofed up along the way or missed an important component (to which I’m still oblivious), but for me, the cake was neither impressive nor memorable. Using relish as a filling, however, was something akin to a stroke of genius (that’s as close as I come), and the frosting (always and forever my favorite) was delicious.

At least I can say I did it. I jumped aboard the Perfect Party Cake train, and now I’m jumping right back off.

Perhaps for Thanksgiving this year I’ll try shmearing cranberry relish between the layers of a carrot cake. A carrot cake topped with cream cheese frosting, of course. And, if I'm feeling spunky, plastered with toasted coconut.

It's as if the cake sensed my displeasure and therefore refused to photograph nicely.
How rude.

**Incidentally, today is my little brother's birthday. He would hate this cake, as he is irrationally anti-coconut. Celebrate wisely, Professor, and by that I mean use caution when rounding bases and go easy on the sauerkraut.

[Potentially] Perfect Party Cake
From Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours

2 1/4 cups cake flour (I used 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup cornstarch--could this have been my gaffe?)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
4 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest (I omitted this)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract (I used vanilla)(lemon's not my favorite flavor)

1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
1-2 tablespoons milk
dash vanilla

1 cup seedless cranberry relish, stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter three 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Put the sugar and lemon zest (if using) in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly-mixed and well-aerated. Divide the batter between the three pans and smooth the tops with a spatula.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the tough--a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.)

To make the frosting, cream the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla until smooth. Add the powdered sugar a bit at a time and beat until creamy. Add the milk to obtain the proper consistency.

Put one cake layer on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one half of the relish. Cover the relish evenly with about one quarter of the frosting. Top with another layer, spread with remaining relish and another quarter of the frosting. Place the last layer on top and use the remaining frosting to coat the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but it’s best to let it set for a couple of hours in a cool room. Serve it at room temperature.

They say that the cake is best the day it is made, but I found that refrigerating it made it a better product.

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August 11, 2009

row, row, row your boat


The benevolence of food bloggers continues to astound me.

After I commented on the uniqueness of her cute tart tins, the glorious Nic of the spectacular blog Cherrapeno promptly and generously offered to send me some! From England!

Once they arrived, I set to work immediately, and even though I’ve not used miniature tart tins very often, I was excited to try. I made the same sweet dough recipe that Nic used and filled my little tartlets with some cinnamon-spiced vanilla pudding (my first made-from-scratch batch!). To top 'em off, I nestled straight-from-the-freezer raspberries decoratively into the fluffy stuff.

You can still see the ice crystals! Don't fret, dears--they thawed in no time.

These creamy canoes were quite tasty, and I owe it all to Nic. Thanks again--it's great to have a friend across the pond!

Spiced Vanilla Pudding
(based on this recipe)

1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon butter

Combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a small bowl. Heat milk in a saucepan over medium heat until bubbles form at edges. Pour dry ingredients into the hot milk a little at a time, stirring to dissolve. Continue to cook and stir until mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a metal spoon. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and butter. Pour into serving vessels and chill before serving.

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August 7, 2009



Next up in the hunt for Mediterranean chicken wrap supremacy was Anton’s. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have even known about this place had someone not raved about its gyros. Thank heavens I happened to read that post, thank heavens I was able to find the place, and thank heavens they were open on Sunday.

Folks, this was an entirely different gastronomic experience from my journey to The Phoenicians. I realize that Greek and Lebanese foods and techniques are not completely interchangeable, but good grief--the differences were astounding!

Let me begin at the beginning. Upon entering, I was immediately enamored of this little diner--it consists of a few tables and a countertop, and the “kitchen” is comprised of a deep fryer, a vertical rotisserie, an oven, and a grill. Can you say hole in the wall? I loved it. Also, before I get to the food, I need to mention that Michael Anton, the owner and chef, was extremely garrulous and likeable. Apparently he and his wife opened the place last September and things have been going strong ever since.

Now. The grub. I ordered the chicken souvlaki ($6.75 + tax) with lettuce and tomato, requesting the tzatziki on the side (I’m trying to keep the variables as consistent as possible). Bonus--I got to watch Michael prepare my food! That type of thing always excites me.

The chicken was tossed on the grilled and squirted with some sort of fat-based juice. While that happily cooked, Michael dashed around like a whirling dervish, putting together multiple orders. When the chicken was done and properly finished off with some fresh lemon juice, the pita (which I was thrilled to see was thick and fluffy) was briefly warmed on the grill top and my wrap was assembled.

When I unfurled the foil wrapping, cubes of chicken fell out--it was stuffed to the brim, and that was fine by me. I like getting my money’s worth. First impression, made by my ever-judgmental eyes: Ample, juicy, and seasoned chicken encased in a perfect pita. Second impression, made by my even-more-judgmental tastebuds: Bliss. I’m honestly not exaggerating--I had a moment of absolute delight in which I praised God, Michael Anton, and the Greek nationality in general.

The spicing of the chicken was wonderful, and it was so very succulent. It was so moist and juicy, in fact, that no sauce was required, but I applied it anyway and folks, this was flawless tzatziki. The amount of garlic was right, there was dill and cucumber, and it was oh-so-cool and creamy. I didn’t want the meal to end! Speaking of the end, as sad as it was, it was also grand, because the chicken jus had accumulated at the bottom of the foil, leaving a sopping wet bit of pita that tasted unbelievably amazing.

Incidentally, I now know that one of the best dishes here is the EJ wrap, so that’s something to keep in mind for next time. And there will be a next time.

Complete and utter consumption satisfaction, that’s what I experienced at Anton’s. I may have already reached the pinnacle of Mediterranean wraps, and I'm only on restaurant #2. If it gets much better than this, I may not survive.

(across from St. Peter’s Hospital)
577 New Scotland Ave.
Albany, NY 12208
(518) 453-9191

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August 4, 2009

fingers, strips, tenders, what-have-you


I haven’t had chicken tenders since my undergraduate days.

Here’s what I remember: 1)I typically ate way more at a time than is advised for a person of my size (ah, the perils of buffet-style dining), and 2)honey mustard was a necessity.

So that’s what popped into my head when I received an offer from Applegate Farms to sample some of their organic chicken products. In addition to some wonderful chicken patties, I couldn’t resist requesting some chicken strips. Would they be as fabulous as my memory suggested?

Indeed, the chicken fingers sent along were terrific, requiring no honey mustard. The fact that they’re made from premium cuts of 100% certified organic chicken breast and thigh meat, with absolutely no fillers, binders, or artificial ingredients of any kind is quite the added bonus!

Disclaimer: The idea for condiment art (albeit a less successful attempt)
was shamelessly stolen from

Applegate Farms puts out lots of first-rate products, from deli meats to cheese, and from other frozen meats to the cleverly-titled Joy Stick. I’ll be on the lookout for more of their goods. Not only did they help me fill my belly, but they also brought back some fond college food memories. Is there any particular food that causes you to reminisce?

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