Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chocolate Club Today: Alma Chocolate

 sandwich board

Sadly, my chocolate club has disbanded.  There are days that it would be awfully nice to go around the corner, knock on my friend’s door, and call the chocolate club to order.

Usually, at those times, I just open my chocolate drawer.  Don’t tell me you don’t have one!  If not, you should seriously consider establishing one.  A false-fronted drawer might be particularly nice.  I just tuck chocolate bars in amongst the papers.

But some days call for a more intensely chocolate-centric activity, even if it is without a friend.  On those days, I’m lucky to live in Portland.

alma interior 
Alma Chocolate
Because those days I can go to Alma Chocolate.  This snug shop feels a bit like a clubhouse--a clubhouse where I’m sure anyone would feel welcome.  The women who work there dispense information and great comeback lines (something I always appreciate) with equal grace and speed.  They are smart and cheerful.  But why shouldn’t they be? They’re surrounded by chocolate!

Alma sells a small selection of other people’s chocolates, such as Taza, the Mexican drinking  chocolate whose first ingredient is actually chocolate (Ibarra's is sugar).  Taza's drinking chocolate tablets come in various flavors, such as a cinnamon (more subtle than Ibarra’s ‘cinnamon flavor’), guajillo chili, salted almond, salt and pepper; and even yerba mate.  It makes delicious hot chocolate.  It also fits nicely into my chocolate drawer, scenting my papers lightly, and dusting them lightly with sugar.

taza 3

Taza’s new factory (located in Somerville, MA) was hard hit by floods this past summer.  They’ve cleaned up, but it does seem the least we can do is lend a helping mouth. 

An added bonus Cathy and I would have appreciated: each wrapped tablet actually contains two tablets! Do you know how hard it was to break those thick Ibarra tablets in half?


But you’d be remiss if you went to Alma and only picked up chocolate for your drawer back home.  If it’s summer when you go, if you’re lucky they’ll have choco-pops—a frozen drinking chocolate that might remind you of your childhood fudgesickles.  If you have a very optimistic taste memory!

Personally, I like ice cream anytime of the year.  Alma started a CSI (no, they’re not solving crime, that stands for Community Supported Ice Cream) earlier this year.  Sadly, I didn’t sign up in time.  But they often have pints available for those of us who weren't quick enough.  Some of my favorites so far: Coconut sorbet with Marcona almonds, vanilla ice cream with cocoa nibs and Alma’s delicious candied orange peel, and their exquisite rum raisin.

alma bonbons

And then there are her bonbons.  My favorites these days are the cardamom with burnt sugar sesame brittle and the Sabrina (marzipan and fig).    I’m waiting to be there when the star-anise infused 'Collette', studded with candied orange peel is in stock (Alma rotates the bonbons seasonally).  I’m pretty sure it will be a favorite.

And her toffees.  The toffees’ sweetness is balanced in different ways: spicy (the ginger almond) or salty (pistachio). 

And her caramel sauces (I’m holding my breath for the smoky lapsang souchong to return). 

And her beautiful gilded chocolates.  They are made with single origin chocolate that is poured into molds (everything from little birds to Buddhas; the molds are made here in town) and then gilded with 23K gold leaf.

Now that the days are shorter, I find an afternoon stop for one of Alma’s hot drinks is the perfect fortification for the long evening ahead.  You can choose from shots of elixir-like drinking chocolates, or such things as a Chocolate Cloud (essentially a chocolate cappuccino) or the Caramelita (chocolate, steamed milk, and their Habanero caramel sauce). 

alma menu
And they’re the only place I’ve come across outside Torino selling Bicerin, an espresso (from the well-loved local Spella, which has its own little clubhouse of an espresso bar downtown) layered with drinking chocolate and a heavy cream swirl.

mayan milagro

Last time I was there I opted for the Mayan Milagro: ground almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, chiles, steamed milk, and a heavy cream swirl.  Actually, I had it as a Mayan shot, so the milk and cream were left out.  Served in a demitasse, it was rich and complex.  The ground almonds added texture, qualifying as food in my book.  Sitting at their little counter, lingering over each spoonful, I couldn’t help think that my chocolate club was alive and well. 

Though I probably should consider boosting membership.

empty cup

Alma Chocolate
140 NE 28th Ave.
Portland, Oregon 97232
(503) 517-0262

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foodie For a Day

 original pancake house
Iknow, it looks snobby.  But the Original Pancake House is just good.

I probably should take some time and consider carefully what I want to say in response to today’s Oregonian piece ‘Non-Foodies Food Guide’, by Lee Williams.  On the other hand, I’m so disgusted I could spit.  And what the heck—who doesn’t like occasionally reading a temper tantrum?  I hate linking to it, but I will (it has three sections): You Might Be a Foodie If…; The Non-Foodies Food Guide; and Four Foodie Fallacies Busted

First off, a disclaimer.  I’ve never liked the term ‘foodie’, and never called or thought of myself as one.  It just sounds goofy and superficial.  But I’ll go ahead and be a foodie for one day, in solidarity.

 And now the rant.  Williams starts off with these lines:
“I am not a foodie.  To me, food is what you eat, not what you pray to.  Call them gourmands, connoisseurs, picky eaters, or just plain old snobs.  They leave little room on their plates or in their hearts for fast food, family dining, and the untrendy.  And they can be pretty mean to some places we love.”
Little room on their plate for family dining?  Foodies (think Jamie Oliver) have made it their mission to encourage family dining.  I suspect if you polled the nation, you might just find that there’s a higher percentage of foodies sitting down to family meals than non-foodies.
And I resent having ‘fast food’ used to denote cheap, corporate food.  I eat fast food all the time.  A piece of toast with butter.  Pasta boiled while I quickly make tomato sauce.  An apple from the fruit bowl.

Then Williams goes on to highlight (they’re not calling it a review—the Oregonian is sinking to have highlighters instead of reviewers) a few local chains and restaurants: Shari’s, Dutch Bros. Coffee, Taco Time, Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen, and the Old Spaghetti Factory.  The highlights sound a bit like press releases to me.

Amusingly, the Oregonian also notes the website for The Dussin Group, which owns Old Spaghetti Factory.  They neglect to mention that the Dussin Group also owns Fenouil and Lucier, restaurants some might consider, well, foodie spots.  Maybe even snobby.  Certainly expensive.

(whoops...they actually do mention this...and go on to note that while they've gotten 'foodie chatter' foodies have ignored the Old Spaghetti Factory.  I wonder why that would be?)

Chris Dussin is quoted in Four Foodie Fallacies Busted as being sick of foodie buzzwords such as ‘local’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘fresh’.  Meanwhile, though Fenouil’s menu avoids the actual buzzwords, I suspect the non-foodie (who’s supposedly being addressed in the article) might find these items from the restaurant’s tea list snobby: ‘Caffeine free peppermint leaves from Oregon with notes of chocolate’ or ‘Spring harvested full leaf China green tea with perfect alignment’.  Or how about the dinner menu: ‘Cattail Creek Lamb Tartare vadouvan, cauliflower, brioche croutons’ (I had to look up ‘vadouvan’—it’s an Indian spice mix).

Back to my rant.  Each of the five restaurant highlights follows a set format.  They start with three or four paragraphs about the restaurant.  These paragraphs celebrate such things as availability (Shari’s is open 24 hours), and serving size (Sayler’s is home of the 72-ounce steak challenge).  The fact that Taco Time and The Spaghetti Factory make their sauces onsite is mentioned. 

What’s missing?  Not a single highlight says anything about what the food tastes or looks like.   Something I kind of like to hear about if I’m choosing a place for lunch.  I guess that makes me snobby.
After the short highlight, Williams offers one more tidbit: ‘For the foodies’.  For example, about Shari’s, we’re given “Remember pie? It might be the ultimate comfort food.”  Yeah, I remember pie.  The Oregonian just published an article about pies in Portland. The seven spots they covered included two carts, one local ‘artisan' bakery, two cafe-bakeries, and one local old-school bakery.  No mention of Shari’s, even if they do sell pie-on-demand. 

The odd thing is that while the piece is called the ‘non-foodie guide to food’, Williams just can’t keep away from foodies.  The Taco Time highlight, for example, starts with “Did you hear about the latest foodie craze? Gourmet taco trucks.”  Do the non-foodies the article is ostensibly directed towards really care? 

Another thing that bothers me (but tell us how you really feel, Giovanna) is the idea that these places warrant newspaper coverage.  I don’t care if people eat at them.  I happily had coffee this summer at a Dutch Brothers in Grants Pass, where I watched the end of the Netherlands-Brazil World Cup semi-final.  But it's not a place that needs to be profiled.

I also don’t need a guide to the elevators in town with the best muzak (because all that classical music is so elite, and jazz is just snobby).  This is probably the place where the non-foodie would say something about food not being art.  Of course, people said that about rock and roll as well as about jazz once upon a time.  And food certainly is culture.  If I’m going to spend money and time reading a newspaper piece, I’d kind of like to have it informative and thoughtful.  Not flip and mean.

Then there’s the whole idea of allowing people (foodies or non-foodies) to decide that good food and the people that make good food are somehow elitist.  People! Do not fall for this! 
So if the piece was meant as light-hearted and entertaining coverage of places many people—non-foodies—like to eat, why not stick to that?  If it was meant to be informative, why not include some non-foodie spots like the Original Pancake House

The Portland location of this non-snobby local chain is the Original Original Pancake House.  It’s the kind of place that is full of regulars: 90-year-old guys out for their morning walk, groups of businessmen combining breakfast and meetings, 20-somethings nursing hangovers, and soccer moms treating their kids.  And oh.  They also serve pancakes and waffles that live up to the hype—fluffy Dutch Babies, pecan waffles studded with nuts, and even the ever elusive buckwheat pancake.  And if you go in the summer, if you can stand being a snob, you might also enjoy their local peaches and blackberries, served in a huge dish with a bowl of whipped cream and another bowl of confectioners sugar.

But what bothers me the most, I think, is the idea that the way to write a fun piece is by tearing down something or somebody else.  The attempt to put a wedge between people, to make people draw lines (which I’m guilty of today, as I call myself a ‘foodie’).  Sadly, this seems to be the way this country operates these days.  If you’re not with us, you’re against us.  Who does this remind you of?  Consider this bit from You Might Be a Foodie If:   ‘You hate American cheese.  And, honestly, America.’

I read this as ‘you hate American cheeses.’  And I thought to myself, what are they talking about?  Us foodies love American cheese.  But I was thinking of places like Cowgirl Creamery.  My son explained to me they meant American Cheese.  As in processed cheese, cheese food, or, my favorite, cheese analog.

Less amusing is the bottom line here.  Us foodies apparently hate America.

The foodie community in Portland is full of people who care deeply about what they do.  People who are concerned about natural resources, education, immigration, animals, and getting food to the hungry.  People who are generous and have a sense of humor.  People who eat good food, but also enjoy the occasional candy bar from a gas station.  But they aren’t dogmatic about it.  They are also concerned with beauty and deliciousness.  What’s wrong with that?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chocolate Club

Back for Seconds

ibarra chocolate 3
I've never been much of a joiner. Even when I was a kid, I only managed to be a part-time girl scout, joining just around cookie sale time, and quitting soon after. It's not so much that I'm like Groucho Marx, suspicious of any club that will have me as a member. I'm afraid it has more to do with my attention span. Or lack thereof.

But there was a club, years ago, that I was not only a member of, but a founding member. And I stayed in it until we disbanded, unofficially. The club's membership never rose above two. But it didn't really need more than two members. Because the dues we paid (I think a quarter a piece) were enough for our purpose.

View Chocolate Club in a larger map

The club existed solely to enable me and my friend, Cathy, about 7 years old at the time, to walk a couple of blocks from our homes to De Alba Tacqueria.

de Alba
De Alba Tacqueria was on Grove St. just north of Virginia St, in one of the small shop spaces at right
Sadly, I have no memory of the tacos they sold there; I'm sure they were delicious. Instead, Cathy and I bought a tablet of Ibarra chocolate, that cinnamon and almond scented chocolate used primarily to make Mexican hot chocolate.

ibarra chocolate 1

I don't remember actually making, not once, Mexican hot chocolate.  The Ibarra chocolate came in a bright yellow hexagonal box, but I’m sure I never bought a whole box.  The tablets, six to a box, were loosely wrapped in paper (unlike today’s boxes, with their hermetically sealed tablets).  It’s interesting De Alba was willing to sell separate tablets.   Did so few people buy Mexican chocolate then?

ibarra chocolate 2

I do remember taking our chocolate tablet back to the church on the corner. We had a few secret hideout spots there.

chocolate church path 2

My favorite spot was on the side of the church, behind an iron gate.  There was a staircase on the side, which no one ever seemed to use. 

chocolate church hideout

Sitting on the stoop, we broke our chocolate into wedges, and nibbled away, talking about what I don't remember. I'm also not entirely sure how often we met. Did we have a set day? A call to chocolate? Or did it all come down to when we had the dues available?

chocolate stained glass
 The view as we reclined with our chocolate
What I’d completely forgotten was the view we had as we sat back and ate our chocolate.  You have to wonder what sort of effect this early combined exposure to religion and chocolate had on me.  I do remember that those chocolate afternoons were peaceful ones.  And the Church of Chocolate does have some powerful alliteration!

Cathy, if you’re reading this I'd love to hear what you remember. And I wonder if it might not be time for a Chocolate Club meeting. I think I have the dues saved up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Zigomar Cake

Z is the Life

It’s bad enough that I’m behind in my blogging.  Here’s what really hurts: I’m behind in my cake making!  When I wrote my post about 10 cakes to bake in 2010 I thought it would be a cinch.  Of course, I made that list in January, in winter mode.  Most of the cakes didn’t tempt me at all for the past 5 months.  Others required candied citron, so I’m patiently waiting until Buddha Hand citrons turn up in the market.

So here I am.  Three months to go (two of which have other baking duties), and 6 cakes (7, since I actually listed 11) left.  Guess I’ll be busy this month!

zigomar unfrosted

I’d planned on finally baking the Zigomar cake last week, when my in-laws were visiting.  I don’t know about your life, but mine seems to get away from me.  It’s a shame, really.  They would have appreciated the ‘Z’, and my father-in-law would have particularly appreciated the chocolate.  If he could look past all the rum (he doesn’t like alcohol—I know, right?).

I’m not completely sure why, of all the cakes in the Pellaprat book, the Zigomar attracted me as a child.  The romantic in me (the one who’s married to a Czech man with a last name starting with ‘Z’) likes the fact that in 5th grade I wrote a report on Czechoslovakia, complete with many National Geographic photos.   She also likes the fact that my parents, for my 21st birthday (before I’d set eyes on my future husband), gave me a garnet ring made in Prague, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Finally—and I admit, it’s a huge stretch—she wonders if maybe it was the swirly ‘Z’ atop the cake that called to me.

Zigomar slice

Because I can’t imagine I would have actually liked the cake for my 8th birthday.  The flavors are deep and complex.  The cake, a dense torte, is flavored with ground almonds, unsweetened chocolate, cinnamon, lemon (rind and juice), and a whopping 1/2 cup of apricot brandy.  Though I substituted Slivovitz—partly as a nod to the Czechs, but mainly because I had it on hand in (one of ) my liquor cabinet(s). 

zigomar slivovitz

The butter cream is also boozy.  Believe it or not, there was a time when that was not a selling point to me.   You make rum butter cream, and then flavor 2/3 of it with chocolate.  Half of the chocolate rum butter cream has espresso added to make mocha rum butter cream.  The layers are separated by the various flavors.  It’s a cake to eat on a rainy afternoon, when you can mull it over.  And hope that rain comes a day or two after you bake it, because these flavors mellow and mingle, and the cake just gets better.

The cake calls for fine cracker crumbs.  But what kind?  I was pretty sure Mr. Pellaprat didn’t mean Cheez-Its (Amelia Bedelia could have a field day baking this cake!).  I asked my mother-in-law, and she suggested fine bread crumbs or crushed lady fingers.  I also considered zwieback, but guess what--Nabisco has stopped making them.  (For anyone missing them, King Arthur has a recipe for zwieback on their site).  Finally I remembered I had an opened package of Dutch rusks in my pantry.  They worked perfectly. 

Zigomar slice 2
Sadly, my cake decoration skills are, well, non-existent.  So I will only show you the cake by the slice.  When my son, looking at the cut cake, asked “is this a noodle on top?” (referring to part of the ‘Z’) I made a note to self: take a cake decorating class.

And what about that name?  I found two Zigomars, and they’re a bit at odds with one another.  The first showed up on a website about ‘the European Wold Newton Universe”.  (I must admit I knew nothing about that—if you didn’t either, check out the Wikipedia article on the Wold Newton Family—and by the way, how can you not love how far a cake can take you?).  

 zigomar cartoon 1

This Zigomar, apparently, was a fictional (adventure comic strip) ‘cruel Romany crime lord’, who terrorized Paris.  I kind of like his organization’s password: “Z is the life!  Z is the death!”  This Zigomar character made it into the movies early on, appearing in the 1911 ‘Zigomar the Eelskin’ and the 1912 ‘Zigomar contre Nick Carter’.

The second Zigomar was a character in a 1930s Serbian adventure comic strip.  The Serbian Zigomar, according to “fought crime wherever he encountered it, ably assisted by his Chinese companion, Chi Yang.”  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a Zigomar vs. Zigomar comic. 

zigomar cartoon 2
(If your Hungarian is good, you may enjoy this site, which has an issue of the Zigomar adventure comic online).

So which one is the cake named for?  I could imagine it either way.  Named for the Serbian Zigomar, because why would you name a complex and delicious cake after a cruel dude?  But maybe the cake is an homage to the Romany Zigomar: “Z is the life!”

If you want to tackle this cake, here’s my adapted Zigomar Cake Recipe.

Zigomar Cake Recipe

Adapted from 'Modern French Culinary Art by Henri-Paul Pellaprat

Pellaprat calls for apricot or peach brandy in his recipe.  I didn’t have either, and Slivovitz worked well.  I imagine Kirsch would also be delicious.  His cake is coated in a chocolate fondant icing.  This certainly would make a spectacular cake.  It also would make the cake take approximately 5 times as long to make as to eat.  I think the three flavors of butter cream (you flavor the rum butter cream along the way) make enough of a party.  You will need to reserve some butter cream, with lots of chocolate added, to make a proper ‘Z’ on top. 


Lastly, this cake, like so many, is so much better the second day.  Please consider making it a day (or two!) ahead.  Or at least squirrel away a slice to eat by yourself once everyone’s gone.


5-1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, separated

10 large eggs, separated

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups ground almonds (I used almonds with skins)

1/2 cup Slivovitz

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup crushed Dutch rusks or zwieback crumbs, sifted

2 cups Rum butter-cream (recipe follows)

1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts

1 teaspoon instant coffee

  • Preheat oven to 350°, butter a 9-inch springform pan.
  • Grate 4 ounces of the unsweetened chocolate; set aside.
  • Beat egg yolks until they are well-mixed.  Gradually beat in the sugar, beating until thick and lemon-colored.
  • Add the 4 ounces grated chocolate, cinnamon, lemon rind, lemon juice, ground almonds, and Slivovitz to egg yolk mixture, and mix well.
  • In a clean bowl, add the salt to the egg whites, and beat until they stand in soft stiff peaks. 
  • Fold egg whites into cake batter in three parts, alternating with the crushed rusks.
  • Pour batter into baking pan, and bake in oven for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. 
  • Cool cake in pan for 10 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool completely.
  • Once it is cooled, split the cake into 3 layers.
  • Melt 1 ounce of remaining unsweetened chocolate and set aside to cool slightly.
  • Set 2/3 cup of rum butter cream aside.  Add the melted chocolate to the remaining rum butter cream.
  • Spread 2/3 cup chocolate rum butter cream over the first layer of the cake.  Cover with second layer
  • Spread the reserved white rum butter cream over second layer and sprinkle with the chopped pistachios.  Cover with third layer.
  • Add instant coffee to the reserved chocolate rum butter cream and spread it over the top and sides of the cake.  Set aside a small amount to use to decorate the top of the cake.
  • Chill the cake 1 hour for frosting to set.
  • Melt remaining 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, beat into the butter cream you set aside for decorating.  Pipe an ornate ‘Z’ in the center of the cake.  If you can.


Rum Butter Cream

Adapted from Susan Purdy’s A Piece of Cake

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks; 1/2 pound or 230 grams) softened but not melted, cut up

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar (3-1/2 ounces or 100 grams)

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 cup water

4 large egg yolks

3 tablespoons rum


  • Put the butter in a mixing bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until it’s soft and creamy.  Set aside.
  • Combine sugar, cream of tartar, and water in a small saucepan.  Stir, then cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear.
  • Raise the heat and start cooking down the syrup.  While it’s cooking, wipe down the insides of the pan (with a pastry brush dipped into cold water) several times.
  • Bring syrup to a gentle boil, and then boil without stirring for 6 or 7 minutes, or until it reaches 238°.
  • While the syrup is boiling, put egg yolks in a heatproof bowl and beat with electric mixer for several minutes.  The yolks should form a flat ribbon when they fall from the beater.
  • As soon as the syrup reaches 238°, turn the mixer to medium-low speed and pour the hot syrup into the yolks an a steady stream.  You need to  direct the stream between the bowl and the beater, or threads of the sugar syrup will harden.
  • Do not scrape the last bit from the syrup pan—it will be hardened.
  • Continue beating the mixture until the bowl feels cool to the touch.  This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.
  • Stick your finger into the butter cream to test the temperature—it should be cool to touch, or it will melt the butter.
  • With mixer running, add the butter 2 teaspoons at a time.  It’s a bit like making mayonnaise.  Keep adding the butter, beating after each addition. Once the last butter is added, beat 3 minutes more or until it’s smooth and fluffy.  Beat in the rum.


Note: It’s not the end of the world if you end up with hardened threads of sugar syrup on the sides of your pan, as long as most of the syrup went into the egg yolks.  You will end up with a winter wonderland effect, with icicles on the beater and side of the mixing bowl.  Try not to cut your tongue on them.

buttercream icicles

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Man with Greens or Portland 10

I’m sure you all know this famous Elliott Erwitt photo, Provence 55.

provence 55
It’s one of those iconic photos—the kind that made an entire generation of Americans assume that all Frenchmen rode around on their bikes, carrying baguettes (without crunching off the heels! How did they do that? Clearly French people have more self-discipline than I do.).

They also always wear berets—which leads me to another question.  Is there a word like ‘shod’ for hat-wearing?

Dorie Greenspan wrote a post about Provence 55 last year on her blog. She also included the link to a slideshow of Erwitt’s work.


This next photo is of a common Saturday morning view on Portland streets.  In case you were wondering, it is not an Elliott Erwitt photo.   It's a Grace Zivny photo, taken out the car window on my iphone. I did direct the shot.

Portland 10

What do you think.  Lacinato kale and collard greens? Or Swiss chard?

Just so you know, all Portlanders do not wear shorts and tennis shoes.  But many do.  And don't worry--the photo is cropped.  We obeyed all rules and etiquette of the road.
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