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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Powell's Sweet Shoppe in Bend, Oregon

One of the reasons I love ice cream is that it's fun. Plain and simple fun. No matter how busy or stressful my life gets, ice cream provides me a moment of escape. It's hard to be anxious while licking an ice-cream cone. Stress and ice cream just don't go together!

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Bend, Oregon for work. It was a quick 36-hour trip during an already-busy week, so I was a bit frazzled by the time the trip rolled around. But I was glad to get the chance to see Central Oregon for the first time. And I made sure to schedule a stress-reducing ice-cream adventure :)

Bend is a small city to the east of the Cascade Range, so it does not suffer from the same rainy, dreary winters that Portland and Seattle do. In fact, the locals boast about the "300 days of sunshine" here. So it's not surprising that Bend is a mecca for outdoors-sports enthusiasts. There's plenty of skiing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and canoeing to enjoy (provided you're not here for work). But I got a bit unlucky; it snowed the entire day I spent in Bend!

Luckily, the snow didn't impede my meetings or my ability to check out downtown Bend. In between work obligations, I drove through the quaint city streets. Downtown Bend is full of cute shops, unique coffee shops, family restaurants, and (of course) breweries! Bend does have a hippy/alternative vibe similar to that of Portland, but I appreciated just how clean and well laid out Bend is. In fact, the town reminded me a lot of Boulder, Colorado and Burlington, Vermont. (I just realized these three cities all start with "B"... Coincidence??)

I noticed a couple small ice-cream shops around town, but I had a particular pit stop in mind: Powell's Sweet Shoppe in downtown Bend.
View from across the snowy street
Oh, the colors! Powell's Sweet Shoppe is overwhelming in the best way possible. It's a small store, but every inch of the space is covered with brilliantly wrapped candies and whimsical displays. It's like a fun penny-candy store meets an old-fashioned soda fountain. Eying the huge array of treats in every size and color, I felt lighter and giddier, forgetting any work stress I was feeling just moments before. This place is every child's dream, and this big kid explored every inch of the store. I saw all the familiar candies (like M&Ms, Jelly Belly, PEZ, and Nerds) and nostalgic candy (Jujubes, Cow Tails, and Necco Wafers), but also lesser-known retro treats like Ice Cubes, and Sky Bars. Powell's website claims they carry 5,000 varieties of candy -- and after seeing the store, I could believe it!

One of my favorite details about Powell's Sweet Shoppe is the movie-viewing area in the back, where "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" plays on a loop. This must drive employees absolutely bonkers, but I loved how it brought such strong memories of my childhood back. That movie is just so timeless.

The fact that I meandered through the isles of candy instead of making a beeline to the gelato case is a testament to how fun this store is. The candy alone could have kept me occupied for an hour. But, alas, I was here for the gelato.

Much like the candy selection, Powell's gelato case included both classic and nostalgic flavors. I counted about 20 options. From Dark Chocolate, Mint Chip and Cookies & Cream to Salted Caramel, Cherry and Coconut Macadamia, there is something for everyone.

I ordered a "small" cup which cost less than $4 and allowed me to pick two flavors. I went with the Crème Brûlée and Almond Crunch. It wasn't until after ordering that I noticed that some of the flavors (including my Almond Crunch) were listed on Leo Leo Gelato signs while others (including Crème Brûlée and some of the more fun flavors) were posted on Powell's-branded signs. I inquired about the difference, and the lady behind the counter told me that only some of the flavors are Powell's own creations while others come from their favorite gelato company (Leo Leo).
The verdict? First of all, there is no real seating area in Powell's Sweet Shoppe, so I had to stand inside to eat this before venturing out into the snow. On a sunny day, it would be fun to eat your gelato while window shopping downtown. Now, onto the gelato... Both flavors were enjoyable, but the Crème Brûlée was hands-down my favorite. While both flavors were too soft (almost like soft serve) and too sugary-sweet for my tastes, I was impressed with the thick, dark-brown swirls of caramelized sugar in my scoop of Crème Brûlée. Although the base wasn't anything special; it was more like a sweet cream instead of the eggy custard I was hoping for. And the Almond Crunch wouldn't offend anyone, the almond flavor was pretty bland. I did like the texture of the bits of almond, though. Nuts can sometimes be soggy, but these held onto some of their bite. While the gelato at Powell's didn't quite knock my socks off, I would go back to try some other flavors. The prices are affordable, and the store is just so fun!

The Stats:
Powell's Sweet Shoppe
818 NW Wall Street
Bend, OR 97701
(multiple locations)
http://www.powellsss.com

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jalapeño-Chocolate Sorbet

They say variety is the spice of life.

This old adage rings true to me. But sometimes I get a little too comfortable with my routine and habits. And that extends to ice cream. Eighty percent of the time, you'll find me eating mint-chocolate chip, caramel or vanilla (with sprinkles) ice cream at home. When I serve myself a bowl, I like knowing that I'll enjoy it. Nothing is worse than a disappointing ice-cream flavor. But nothing is more exciting than discovering a new flavor that I actually love. It's a balancing act that requires an open mind.

So in the spirit of variety, I listened when K requested that I develop an ice-cream recipe inspired by one of his favorite foods: jalapeños.

K wants jalapeños on anything and everything. Eggs in the morning. Sandwiches at lunchtime. With a side of jalapeño chips from Tim's Cascade. And don't even get me started on dinner! When we make pizza at home, he seriously covers every square inch with jalapeño slices. It's a wonder the guy doesn't have an ulcer.

Me? I'm a cautious jalapeño connoisseur. When applied in the right amount, jalapeños can instantly add oomph to salsa, chili, stir-fry, or a quesadilla. But there's a fine line between "yum" and "my mouth is on fire" when dealing with these little buggers. And jalapeños in ice cream? Um... not sure about that. They're not exactly a traditional dessert mix-in. But perhaps that's the point?

Last weekend, we invited two of our closest friends over for dinner. I wanted to make some ice cream (these guests  appreciate a good dessert), so I finally decided to entertain K's request.

I decided to use jalapeños with chocolate when I remembered the Mexican Chocolate I enjoyed at Little Man in Denver, Colorado. The heat from that ice cream came from cayenne powder and a hint of cinnamon. Could jalapeños work, too?
The base of this ice cream was inspired by a David Lebovitz recipe for chocolate sorbet. I'd saved it on my Pinterest page and was happy for an excuse to try it. And because it doesn't use any milk or cream, this recipe could be suitable for those avoiding lactose.

So this recipe meshes two new elements. Hot peppers and a dairy-free chocolate sorbet. Who knew how it would turn out?

Jalapeño-Chocolate Sorbet (Nearly Dairy-Free)
{Makes 1 quart}
Loosely adapted from this recipe

Ingredients
  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup good-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt 
  • 6 ounces of semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 jalapeños, sliced (de-seed 1 jalapeño for medium heat; de-seed both for mild heat)
Directions
  • In a medium saucepan, whisk 1 1/2 cups of the water, the sugar, cocoa powder and salt together. Bring to a boil whisking frequently. Let it boil for 45 seconds or so, whisking continuously. the milk, cream and sugar in a medium saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking until the sugar has completely dissolved.
  • Remove saucepan from heat. Whisk in chocolate until melted, then stir in vanilla extract, the remaining 3/4 cup water, and the sliced jalapeños. Pour the mixture into the blender and blend on a low setting for 30 seconds and then for 15 seconds on a high setting. Chill the mixture in the fridge (should take 2-4 hours).
  • Pour chilled mixture into ice cream maker and freeze per the manufacturer's directions. If you're using a Cuisinart, this means 1) turn on your machine, 2) slowly pour mixture in, and 3) leave the thing churn for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Serve immediately or if a firmer consistency is desired, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm.

The verdict? K is convinced that this sorbet is the best ice cream or sorbet I've ever made - or will ever make. And I, too, was surprised by just how creamy, rich and interesting this concoction was. The cool, refined sweetness of the cocoa and dark chocolate was perfectly balanced with the deep, spicy heat of the jalapeños. And even though this recipe contains no cream, milk or eggs, it was rich, creamy and voluminous. The texture was closer to frozen chocolate mousse than to a traditional sorbet. This recipe got rave reviews from everyone around the table (they practically licked their bowls clean). It will definitely be part of the normal rotation around here. Heck, it might become another routine. And if you're looking for an easy ice-cream recipe that's sure to impress, this one's for you.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dozens of Brazilian Flavors at Mil Frutas

Winter in DC has been rough. Not so much for me (I'd take extreme cold over extreme heat any day) but for K. He's an avid runner but loathes the treadmill with passion. Thus, he continues to run outside when he's in DC -- coming back with a ruby-red nose and shirts frozen with sweat. Needless to say, K was eagerly awaiting our Presidents Day trip to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Like last time, K and I stayed at the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort (thank you, hotel points!). And once again, we spent our days lounging by the hotel pool or down along the popular beaches of Leblón and Ipanema. We both drank more than our fair share of fresh coconut water and cold caipirinhas -- two of my favorite Brazilian specialties.

While it can be difficult to eat healthily on vacation, the entire city of Rio de Janeiro seems to focus on healthy eating and active lifestyles. You don't see much fried food around, but it's easy to spot fresh fruits and vegetables on restaurant menus and in little corner markets. Thus, K and I are able to balance fun vacation indulgences with some fresh produce and super-foods. On Saturday, for example, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at Zazá Bistrõ Tropical in the Ipanema neighborhood. Seated on the restaurant's romantic outside patio, we savored crunchy cassava chips with wasabi mousse, grilled fish, smoked steak and plenty of grilled vegetables. So needless to say, we didn’t leave feeling hungry. But that didn’t stop K from suggesting an ice-cream stop.

Just another reason I love the guy ;)

In my ice-cream research before Rio, Mil Frutas popped up time and time again. Mil Frutas has many locations around the city, and the ice cream receives some glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. K checked his iPhone and lo and behold, there was a shop several blocks away from us!

After an enjoyable stroll down the street, we spotted the well-lit storefront.
I was excited to see just how long the menu is at Mil Frutas. In fact, they might offer more ice-cream flavors than any other place I've been to?

Mil Frutas loosely divides their ice creams into several categories, including “sabores de frutas” (fruit flavors) and “sabores cremosos” (creamy flavors). There are also several "sabores light", but who cares about the diet ice cream flavors? Not me!

I tested K's patience by studying the menu for far longer than necessary. Not only was I trying to loosely translate the flavors from Portuguese to English, but I wasn't sure what I was in the mood for...

Some of the local Brazilian flavors such as Coco, Açaí, and Tapioca sounded delicious. And while I nearly picked Tapioca, I was worried it wouldn't live up to the amazing version I had at Sorvete Itália during my last trip. Other flavors that caught my eye included After Eight (like the chocolate mints), Figo Verde com Marscapone (i.e. Green Fig and Mascarpone) and Banana Caramelada. And I'm sure there were even more delicious flavors that I missed because the Portuguese words didn’t resemble either English or Spanish words.
 
In the end, I decided on Figo com Água de Coco (i.e. Fig and Coconut Water) and Chocolate Branco com Amêndoas (i.e. White Chocolate with Almonds). I figured the flavors might clash, but both  sounded refreshing and light for a warm evening. 
Top half: Chocolate Branco con Amêndoas
Bottom half: Figo com Água de Coco
The verdict? Surprisingly, this this ice cream was just okay. Neither flavor made me swoon, but both were unlike anything I've experienced in the United States. It took me a while to warm to the  Chocolate Branco... it tasted artificial to me at first, but I grew accustomed to it and ended up polishing it off. The almond chunks were soft but retained some of their bite. While I'm not sure what I expected Figo con Água de Coco to taste like, it surprised me! The actual base was icy from the coconut water, and it reminded me more of a creamy take on Italian ice than of traditional ice cream. The best part was the bits of fig seeds in every bite. While neither flavor was memorable, they were light and refreshing. I'd like to give Mil Frutas a second chance next time I'm in Rio; there are so many other flavors to try, and I'm sure some of them are stellar.

The Stats:
Mil Frutas
Multiple locations in Rio de Janeiro
http://www.milfrutas.com.br/

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pitango Gelato... Best Gelato in DC?

Last Tuesday morning, I woke up feeling a bit under the weather. Kevan already had a nasty cold, and I was afraid I'd catch it if I didn't nip it in the bud with plenty of rest and fluids. So I decided it was a work-from-bed day.

When lunchtime rolled around, nothing much in my fridge looked appealing. But I know that food is the best medicine. Growing up, the pinnacle of any good sick day was when my Dad would bring me a de-carbonized ginger ale and the blandest crackers he could find for my lunch. Since he worked from home, our Dad would play the "Doctor Dad" role, catering to us while we'd read on the couch (If we actually had a fever, he'd let us watch TV!). But, alas, Dad isn't in DC, so I was forced to fend for myself. And rather than venturing to the grocery store to find some gluten-free crackers, I opted for a quicker fix: gelato.

There is healthy competition in the Washington, DC gelato market, and one of the crowd favorites - Pitango Gelato - has a storefront just 100 yards from my apartment. And in full disclosure, I'd already been a couple times before I stumbled over there last week. But my first visit occurred long before I started this blog, and the steep prices (over $5 for a small cup) have largely kept me away. But on this particular winter sick-day, I was more than willing to fork over big bucks for some homemade gelato.
Pitango Gelato was actually started in Baltimore back in 2007, but the small chain has really blossomed in DC. And while the original Fells Point storefront remains open in Baltimore, there is a lot of buzz about the four DC locations. The one in my neighborhood of Logan Circle is nearly always open and busy. In the morning, most patrons leave the store not with gelato but with cups of Italian-style espressos and lattes. Pitango is known to make a mean espresso. But, of course, the real focus here is on the gelato (and sorbet).
Pitango Gelato focuses on local, high-quality and often organic ingredients for their gelatos and sorbets. They get all the organic milk and eggs from a family farm in Pennsylvania. Using these fresh ingredients, Pitango makes their homemade gelatos and sorbets in small batches.

On any given day, Pitango offers around 20 flavors in each shop. While some traditional Italian flavors are constant fixtures on the menu (like Stracciatella and Chocolate-Hazelnut gelato or Strawberry and Lemon sorbet), the more-interesting ones rotate on and off. But you won't find anything reminiscent of cotton candy or cake batter here :) The flavors are all refined; the ones that caught my eye today included Walnut and Cinnamon gelato and Quince and Bosch Pear sorbet.

In the end, I decided to go with a "regular" (Pitango's smallest) size cup of Cinnamon gelato and Bosch Pear sorbet. But I was particularly excited by my choices when the lady behind the counter commented "That sounds like a great combo!" while she scooped out my serving. These are the best type of compliments an ouce-cream lover can receive!

Now remember, the prices are STEEP at Pitango; this little cup cost me over $5. But of course, higher-quality and local ingredients do come with higher price tags. And I'm always happy to support a local gelato-maker and family-run dairy farms.
Top half of cup: Bosch Pear sorbet
Bottom half: Cinnamon gelato 
The verdict? The gelato looked so enticingly cool and creamy that I couldn't help but start licking the top of my cup while crossing the street to my apartment building. Even in the freezing temperatures, the gelato was refreshing and soothing on my sore throat. I tried the Cinnamon gelato first; the spice wasn't overwhelming but simply softly accented the sweet cream. And it was a perfect complement to the sweet and sophisticated Bosh Pear sorbet. Pitango's version of this fruit sorbet was just as good as the versions I had in Italy a couple years ago. Both flavors were authentic and true-to-form, and neither was overly sweet. By the time I finished my last bite, I wanted more! And, sure, naysayers may say it was all in my head, but this cup of gelato DID make me feel better.

Now the question remains... Is Pitango Gelato the best gelato in DC? I plan to find out in 2014!

The Stats:
Pitango Gelato
Multiple locations in DC, Reston and Baltimore
(My spot is at 1451 P Street NW in DC)
www.pitangogelato.com

Monday, February 3, 2014

Quick & Easy Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (Vegan, Dairy-Free)

2014 is shaping up to be a busy year. Between greater work responsibilities, more travel, and planning a wedding, I've found that cooking and baking have taken a back seat. Weeknight dinners these days tends to come from the freezer, a can, or (when I've planned ahead) the Whole Foods hot bar. It's only when K comes home for the weekends that I'll get my butt into the kitchen and whip up something special.

While I'm willing to sacrifice home-cooked meals to make room for more work and wedding-planning, I'm NOT about to let my ice cream cravings go unsatisfied! Last weekend, my sister (and co-Maid of Honor) Carolyn, accompanied K and I on a trip to Seattle to take care of some wedding-planning things. While the trip was productive and fun, I came back to DC exhausted and feeling unprepared to tackle a particularly-busy week at work.

Luckily for me, Carolyn had decided to spend a couple days in DC with me before heading back home to Boston. And with such a special guest staying with me, it was time to dust off the ol' Cuisinart and whip up something yummy. I wanted to play around more with coconut-milk ice cream, but I also didn't have much time to dedicate to ice-cream making on a weeknight. After perusing some different recipes online, I came up with my own creation using just a handful of common pantry items.


Making due with ingredients I had on hand, Carolyn and I managed to make this ice cream in about an hour. Not too bad, considering I heated the ice-cream mixture on the stove to dissolve the sugar.

Here's what I did...

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (Vegan, Dairy-Free)
{Makes 2 cups, or 2 Grace-sized servings}
Loosely adapted from this recipe

Ingredients
  • 1.5 cups full-fat coconut milk (1 can)
  • 1/3 cup sugar (or more to taste)
  • 1.5 tablespoons cornstarch 
  • 1/4 tsp salt 
  • 5-7 drops of pure peppermint oil 
  • 1/2 cup dairy-free mini chocolate chips
Directions
  • In a medium saucepan, whisk the coconut milk, sugar and cornstarch over low heat until sugar melts (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and pour mixture into small mixing bowl. 
  • Add salt and peppermint oil and stir to mix evenly. Cover bowl and place in fridge for about 30 minutes or until slightly chilled (shouldn't take long since mixture was heated on low heat).
  • Pour mixture into ice cream maker and freeze per the manufacturer's directions. If you're using a Cuisinart, this means 1) turn on your machine, 2) slowly pour mixture in, and 3) leave the thing churn for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • A few minutes before the ice cream is finished churning, slowly pour the mini chocolate chips into machine.
  • Serve immediately or, if a firmer consistency is desired, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm.

The Verdict? Cool, creamy and minty, this ice cream was the perfect refreshing evening treat. The pure mint extract masked the taste of coconut milk which, in my opinion, was a good thing (Carolyn agreed!). Compared to other vegan ice creams I've tried, this version is much more creamy and thick - which I attribute to using cornstarch instead of eggs here. I can't wait to try cornstarch in other recipes! Overall, this recipe is a triple threat: it's vegan/dairy-free, easy to make, and absolutely delicious to eat. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review of "Ice Cream Magic" Maker: Too Good to Be True?

The temperatures may be freezing here in DC, but my ice-cream cravings know no season. Just this week, I finally got around to breaking out one of my favorite Christmas presents from my mom: Ice Cream Magic. You may have seen the commercial for this product on TV (perhaps many, many times), touting that Ice Cream Magic makes homemade ice cream in three minutes. While I tend to be skeptical of "As Seen On TV" products, I was excited to give this a shot. Heck, I figured, if Magic Ice Cream works, I could make single-servings of ice cream on weeknights (when I'm on my own with no one to share pints with).

Ice Cream Magic's packaging is bright and cheery, enticing one to tear open the box and get into the fun.... Those kids in the pictures are having the time of their lives!

Inside the box, I found a small booklet with instructions and recipes for different ice-cream flavors. The formula was basically the same for each: some heavy or whipping cream, a dash of a flavor extract (usually vanilla), and some granulated sugar. If you'd like to add a mix in, you do so after shaking up the ice cream.

On this day, the Chocolate Chip Mint sounded great. I easily gathered the necessary ingredients around my kitchen:
- 1/4 cup whipping cream
- 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- chocolate chips
I measured out the ingredients into a mug and stuck it in the fridge (the booklet notes that ingredients should be very cold for best results) while I prepped the Ice Cream Magic contraption. After washing and drying the freezing bowl and ingredients lid (the parts which would touch the ice cream), I followed the instructions and filled the base with ice, four tablespoons salt, and four tablespoons of tap water. I then replaced the freezing bowl over the ice, poured in the chilled ingredients and secured the ingredients lid, and finally twisted the outside cover lid.

All parts assembled, I set my iPhone timer for three minutes and started shaking the Ice Cream Magic aggressively and continuously. And, wow, was it a good arm workout! But when my alarm went off, I shook the contraption for an extra minute for good measure. Then, I carefully unscrewed the cover and pulled off the ingredients lid...
That's some sad-looking ice cream
The verdict? Ice Cream Magic is definitely NOT my idea of magic. Not only was it a fairly-tedious process to generate a measly half-cup of dessert, but the actual final product wasn't even as thick as a milkshake -- let alone real ice cream! I was disappointed, but I can't say I was surprised. I advise any parents against purchasing Ice Cream Magic for your kids because -- unless they like ice-cream soup -- they will be sorely disappointed. Always the big kid, I was so frustrated with my lack of real ice cream that I pulled out my Cuisinart and made myself a full batch of mint chocolate chip ice cream. After the Magic Ice Cream fail, I nearly kissed my "big girl" ice-cream maker in gratitude.

The Stats:
Ice Cream Magic is sold online here and here

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best, Worst & Weirdest of 2013

Happy 2014!

As the first week of the new year comes to an end, I thought I'd take the time to post a recap of the standout ice creams of 2013. I explored a lot of new places and took on new challenges with my ice-cream maker, so it was certainly a successful year in blogging :)

While I enjoyed countless ice creams in 2013, below is a recap of the best, the worst, and the weirdest ones. Hope you enjoy this little trip down memory lane...

All-Around Best Ice Cream:

Best New Recipe:

Best Atmosphere:

Worst Ice Cream:

Weirdest Ice Cream:

What were YOUR favorites of 2013?