Saturday, February 28, 2009

To all bakers besides Joe Logsdon: You have lost

This is an open letter, to the bakers of the world:

You have lost. Joe Logsdon, of La Mie Bakery in Des Moines, has won.

I don't want to sound mean, but really, you should try harder. I have traveled quite a bit- from LA, to London, to Ireland, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Copenhagen- and his croissants, brioche, puff pastry, breads and cinnamon rolls are better than anything you have made, bakers of the world.

Have you ever made any chocolate croissants like his? If so, you've been hiding them from me! When I bite into a La Mie chocolate croissant, the dough fights back. It holds it shape, it resists. It doesn't just yield: it crunches and rebounds, so that every subsequent bite is just as chewy and toothsome as the first, sublimely textured-crunchy and chewy at the same time. And the chocolate! Never too sweet, never even the slightest bit melty, or overly hard. I could wax poetic about the chocolate croissants forever. But I will move on!

And his rhubarb puff pastry- my god! Who else could take some Rhubarb, the most quintessential Iowa foodstuff, and turn it into a masterpiece. At any other bakery, anywhere, the rhubarb puff pastry would be a product that would bring people from miles around. Logsdon turns this humble cousin to celery into one of the best pastries I have had in my life.

Every time I go to the shop, walk in and take a box, I look for the worst thing on the self serve tables. What looks like it is going to be the worst pastry? What is his weak point? Doesn't he suck at making something? I mean, no one can be good at everything.

Or so I thought.

So far, I have just found that the man has no weak spots. He is as proficient in puff pastry as he is in cinammon rolls. He can make a baguette, a dinner roll, a loaf of multigrain bread, like a champion. His baguettes could make the most devout Francophile repent, or the most ardently militant multi-grain bread hater start using them for all of their sandwiches.

"OK Ben", you might say. "He can do sweet pastries; fine. He can do breads, whatever. How are his savories? And who are you to judge, you arrogant blogger you?"

First off, his savories are perfect. His omelets, impeccable. His quiches move me, frequently, to a state near tears. If I ever need to convince a girl that I do have a soft side I will take her there and then order one of his soups. The tears of joy that stream down my face would convince anybody of my softer side.

To conclude: Joe Logsdon's cafe, La Mie, produces the best baked goods, whether sweet or savory. Period. And I will back that assertion to the hilt.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Centro Dinner: La Quercia Acorn Edition

Last Sunday, I got an email from Herb (from La Quercia) mentioning that there was a dinner with Acorn Edition prosciutto products. Of course, I cleared my schedule and jumped into my car last night to join him and some other gourmets at Centro Restaurant in Des Moines.

La Quercia's Acorn Edition products are their cured products made from pigs that have been raised on a diet of at least 60% acorns. This gives the products made from the pork an incredible intesity of flavor, that is further enhanced by Herb's skills as a prosciutto maker. Those products were what was featured at the dinner.

The night started off with some delicious crudites (toasts) topped with headcheese, pate or shredded pork. All three were delicious, with a simple, unadorned "porkiness" that shown through.The crudites were served with a Windmill Chardonnay from Michael~David Vineyard's, who provided all the wine for the event. The chardonnay went very well with the charcuterie, and allowed the meats to shine on their own.


We then sat down, and were presented with the luscious acorn edition prosciutto from La Quercia. It was sublime; just the smell was enough to transport one to rapture. However, when it hit my tongue and just dissolved, I knew that this was what pork was all about. Herb has managed to truly capture the essence of prosciutto with this Acorn Edition.

To go with this sublime prosciutto, we had some Incognito Rose, which was dainty enough to stand aside to the assertive flavors of the prosciutto. I would take a bite of the prosciutto, savoring it as it melted on my tongue. Then I would take a sip of wine, and then a bite of the breadstick, which cleansed my palate completely and allowed me to face the next bite with a blank slate. Each bite was a revelation.


The next course was a frisee salad, topped with a perfectly fried egg and porcetta (thick cut "country" bacon). I boldly sliced through the egg and let the yolk soak into the crisp frisee, which wilted slightly under the heat of the egg.

For my first bite, I boldly speared some of the porcetta, some egg and frisee and took a bite. The creaminess of the porcetta with the egg and the frisee; they were all perfect together. Fried egg may be the hot new trend, but with good reason.

To go with this course, we had the Incognito Viognier, a very high alcohol white wine. It really cut through the creaminess of the yolk well, and didn't have acidity which would have gone badly with the subtle creaminess of the egg and porcetta.

The next course, while good, was my least favorite of the night. Braised acorn pork ravioli, over vegetables. The ravioli wrapper was superb, but the pork filling lacked "oomph"- it could have used some prosciutto in there to give it some flavor. It was served over some vinegary vegetables that were merely OK as well. Overall, the flavors in this dish didn't work together terribly well.
It was paired with a Syrah, which was very enjoyable however.


Then the main course arrived, and I forgot all about the ravioli. A single Niman Ranch pork chop, with gorgeous sear, arrived. It floated on a bed of George Formaro's excellent white beans, which I so enjoy at Centro's sister resaurant, Django. The pork chop had true pork flavor, with an excellent dry rub that complimented the juciness inside. The beans had a delightfully mild spiciness. At the end, I gnawed on the bone like an animal, the chop was so good.

To go with this course, we had the vineyard's masterpiece: Rapture Cabernet Sauvignon. While I enjoyed this wine, I actually prefereed the chop with the syrah from the previous course. I sipped the cab while waiting for desert; a far better use.

As you can see, I drank sparingly of my wines. From left to right: Rose, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (the desert wine)


Our final course: apple tart with vanilla bean gelato and cinammon sugar cracklins.

Let me tackle this piece by piece.

The cinammon sugar cracklins (fried pork fat) were crunchy and delicious; they could have been anything. They added a great crunch to the dish.

The gelato was decadent, creamy and perfect, with a very strong vanilla flavor that complimented the apple tart.

The apple tart was a work of art. The apples were great and not to sweet (that was the gelato's job) and the crust was flaky and delicious. For someone like me, who has a sweet tooth like no other, it was a perfect ending.


As we left, Dave, one of my dining companions, got a bottle of the Cab and had it signed. Myself, I got my menu signed by Herb Eckhouse and David (the winemaker).

Some people get broadway tickets signed, others get baseballs. I get menus.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Just a few things. Bullets will work best here:
  • I am trying to get Europe posted as fast as I can. My goal by the end of this week is to be done with France.
  • Tomorrow, I am going to a 6 course "Acorn Edition" dinner at Centro in Des Moines. It is being hosted by Herb Eckhouse, whom you may remember as the owner of La Quercia. It will feature 6 courses, using pork made from hogs that have only been fed on acorns. Look for updates tomorrow/wednesday!
  • I am winding down the amount of visits currently, as I will be on Spring Break in 3 weeks. Currently in the pipeline is a visit to Pavelka's organic beef and lamb, as well as a visit to Lois Reichert's DAiry in April to help her with the new goat kids.
  • Spring break is going to be pretty quiet, blog wise. I am trying to watch what I eat while I am home, but I will be visiting the bay area for 5 days or so. While there, I look forward to visiting Chez Panisse, Yank Sing dim sum, and hopefully many more places.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Europe: Our Halcyon stay in Pays Basque, France (Days 1 and 2)

NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:



More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1

Zaragoza: Part 2 (Tapas!)

Zaragoza: Videos

San Sebastian (Pinxtos)

I was sorry to see Spain dwindling in the back window of the car as Jean Michelle (Sylvie's dapper and kind husband) whisked us on the motorway out of Spain to the Pays Basque region of France, to stay in their country house in the rural village of Urrugne. However, I realized I wouldn't miss Spain that much. From the back porch of their house, one could clearly see a lighthouse which, I was told, was on Spanish soil. In fact later on in our stay with them we would take a 5 minute ferry ride to get accross the harbor into Spain.

That night, we settled our weary bones into the house. As dinner approached, Jean-Michelle (JM) invited us into the living room for some saucisson and scotch. I wasn't going to argue.


Above, Kyle and JM chat amiably. My conversations with JM were always extremely enjoyable; he speaks a little English and a little Spanish. I speak a little Spanish, so we could chat well enough, but more often than not Sylvie served as a translator.


The saucisson, of course, was delicious. I should mention, before I get any further in this narrative, that Sylvie is one of the most amazing cooks and gourmands I have ever met. She is an effortless host and chef, and I did not have a meal with them that was anything less than amazing. Most of them, in fact were well abnove the level of amazing: they were awe inspiring.


For dinner, she just "whipped up something simple"- one of the most delectable quiche lorraine I have ever had. Rich with egg, ham and cheese, in a delicate flaky crust, it made me realize that this trip was going to be an immense pleasure. I went to bed that night profoundly happy, and slept the deep sleep of the dead- or at least sedated by food.

The next morning I woke up early, with the sun- a habit of mine since early childhood. I walked out of the house with the dog Hugo to go for a walk. I met their donkey, Pepieu (peh-PEW) in the yard. He couldn't join us.


Their house, as you can tell, is gorgeous.


Hugo was kind enough to blaze the trail for me; running ahead and looking back periodically. He was a splendid travel guide as he led me through the sheep fields, up to the top of the hill on which Sylvie and JM have the great fortune to live.


The view from the top was simply amazing. The house on the far right was where I stayed. On the far left, you can see the Spanish shoreline. Pays Basque was an amazingly beautiful place, and my morning walk with Hugo (and in later days with Kyle and Tyrone) would have been the highlight of my day, if Sylvie and JM did not also do all possible to show us even more wonders of their corner of France.


I arrived back to see Tyrone and Kyle digging in to toast and coffee. the bread here was amazing, and the toast, with that rich, creamy French butter, was a revelation of simplicity. Their kitchen, with its big window, let in those sun beams which seemed to warm the body and the soul.

Over breakfast, we discussed our itinerary for the day, In the morning, we would go to the seaside resort town of St Jean de Luz, and then return to the house for lunch. After lunch, Sylvie and JM would take us to Biarrtiz, and then we would return for dinner. It sounded like a plan!


Kyle piloted us expertly along the French roads to St Jean de Luz. He had, it must be said, a lot of fun driving. We stopped in the outskirts at a a bakery. Sylvie would later joke that I visited every bakery in France.

Bakeries are some of my favorite places- I love the smell, the warmth, the atmosphere. The beautiful round boules, the crusy baguettes and most of all, the pastries.


This is a mini apricot croissant.


An amazingly good chocolate and almond croissant.


One of the most amazing things about Europe-I mean, besides the foreign language signs that look silly- are the pedestrian only shopping roads. This is an amazing thing, that makes shopping so much more pleasant. Over our trip, we strolled along more of these wonderful trails than I can remember. Every major city had one.


We walked to the seaside, where we got a crepe with nutella. I am obsessed with crepes, and nutella.


The city was filled with beautiful views of the sea, through the gorgeous condos.

We arrived back at the house in time for lunch. I should mention here that after every meal, we brought out the cheese plate. One of my favorite parts of my days in France was acquiring new cheeses to try. At the front we have some emmental. Working clockwise, the orange one is a fermier, then a basque shepherds cheese, then a goat brie.

The cheese was served on some of the delicious local baguettes, which had great crust and good chew.


For lunch, Sylvie whipper us up another "simple" meal of chicken a la roquefort (chicken with a roquefort sauce) and some tagliatelli noodles. Of course, it was delectable.


The cheesy roquefort sauce coated the tagliatelli perfectly, and the creaminess of the sauce was great with the chicken, which she first sauteed and then stewed in its own juices with the cheese.

After lunch, we all piled into the car to go to the coastal town of Biarrtiz.


Biarritz is a resort town, full of fancy hotels, casinos and beautiful architecture. As you can see, they even had a carousel!


We spent a pleasant 3 or 4 hours walking around the windswept town, looking at the nautical facets of the town, as well as its gorgeous cathedral and grand houses.


Many of those houses commanded noble views, from which the lucky owner could examine the whole sweep of the French coastline. The coastline in the far background of the above picture is actually Spain. As pleasant as it was walking around though, we decided to take a respite in a tea shop.


We stopped at the beautiful Miremont patisserie, where we got some hot chocolate and a pastry.


The pastry was like, almond and pistachio. It was REALLY amazing though.


For dinner, Sylvie made is a traditional Basque dinner, often done by families. Essentially, she whipped up a batch of batter, somewhere between pancakes and crepes. Jean Michelle ladled these out onto an electric hotplate with 6 indentations, where the crepes cooked. Each person then flipped over the crepe, and then added toppings.


As you can see, the indentations formed little pancakes with a radius of about 3 inches.

My favorite way to make them was to flip them over, and then crack a quail egg onto the hotly flipped edge. The heat cooks the egg slightly, and then one adds some ham and cheese. The egg only slightly coagulates.


That was far from the only way to make them though. Sylvie had prepared a huge assortment of toppings. Another favorite of mine was salmon and creme fraiche.


I also tried some with egg and morcilla sausage, which we fried up on the burners.


As you can see, the cheese plate was gradually getting larger, larger and larger. Some additions included membrillo (quince paste), robuchon and a goats milk brie- another type.

And thus ended our first full day at the Lambert's residence in Pays Basque. I will be uploading the rest of the stuff sometime this week- stay tuned!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Europe: San Sebastian, Spain

NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of articles concerning my Europe trip. See below for links to the previous articles:



More Barcelona

Zaragoza: Part 1

Zaragoza: Part 2 (Tapas!)

Zaragoza: Videos

We stayed in San Sebastian for 2 hours. However, in those two hours I had one of the most amazing meals of my life. So follow my narrative as I spin the story of mi almuerzo de pinxtos ("My Pinxtos lunch")


Here we are, arriving in San Sebastian. For those of you who do not know much about San Sebastian, let me enlighten you.

San Sebastian is just south of the French border, and it on the seaside. They are renowned, among other things, for their pinxtos bars. Pinxtos are the western Spanish equivalent of tapas.


While San Sebastian is Spanish, we would actually be driving to the Pays Basque region of France later that day; it was only 20 minutes over the border (from the house at which we were staying in France, one can see Spain). Above, you can see Sylvie, our extremely kind French hostess, who met us at the train station in San Sebastian. I will talk about her more later, but allow me just to say here that she was the exemplar of generosity and kindness to us, and I do not think anyone could have made us feel more welcomed than she did.


As you can see from the above pasteleria, San Sebastian, like the rest of Spain, is a magical place for a gourmet like myself. However, I hadn't seen anything until Sylvie guided us to our lunch spot.


I nearly cried when I went inside. The colors, the atmosphere, the food; it was all nearly too much for poor me. You can see the bartendress above pouring sidra, the traditional Basque apple cider into the glass. I grabbed it, and then I was off!


The pinxtos all come with toothpicks. At the end, the bartender counts all the toothpicks and then charges you the appropriate amount. Essentially, I took this to mean that I could eat as much as I wanted and answer for it later. Above, you can see pinxtos of morcilla sausage, manchego cheese, and at the front, alcachofa: deep fried artichoke heart wrapped in ham.


Above is a closer shot of the alcachofa, once I had bitten into it.


Some of their delicious jamon serrano, ruby red, on a fantastic baguette. You can't see it in this shot, but from the ceiling hung entire legs of ham, ready to sliced to order and plopped on top of a piece of bread.


Another plate of more stuff: I don't really know what any of this was. The black sausage in the foreground LOOKED like morcilla, but was extremely soft, not hard. It had great flavor though.


Same plate. The front thing in the pastry crust was something like an eel salad in pastry sherll. Pretty good. In the background right is brie cheese with sardine on bread. Very nummy.

All that follows are just gratuitous food porn shots. I ate a lot more than what I showed above, but honestly, it looked similar.


Tortilla espanol, waiting to be picked up and eaten.


More pinxtos in the pastry crust.

After this delightful feast, we piled into Sylvie's car and bade farewell to Spain. In hindsight, it treated us extremely well. I enjoyed the laid back Spanish culture immensely, from the coastal attitude of the Barcelonians, to the hectic and frenetic lives of the Zaragozans. I was sorry to leave, but I knew my trip was just getting started.

Mom's Tour of Iowa: La Mie Bakery and Cafe, Des Moines

La Mie is a wonderful place. You step in, and you see all their delightful pastries arrayed out on tables. You simply get some paper and a bag and grab whatever you want. This is a horrbile temptation to me, as you can well imagine.


Above: One of the tables arrayed with sweets. You simply grab as many as you want, and pay at the front counter. It is a temptation most foul.

Today, my mom and I went there for breakfast before she headed back to California. She started with the Rhubarb Tart. Huge chunks of rhubarb decorate the luscious puff pastry, which truly is some of the crispiest and heartiest I have ever had. The pastries as La Mie are never greasy. Rather, they stand up to your bite with a heartiness that elevates them to a masterwork of flour and butter.


Above: My Mom's Rhubarb pastry. Look at those tremendous hunks of rhubarb!


Above: My Mommy enjoying her pastry.

For our "real" breakfast, she ordered the Quiche Lorraine. I opted for the egg white scramble with creme fraiche, smoked salmon and onions, served with a side of their lusciously delicious toast.


Above: My Mom's Quiche Lorraine. It was delicious, but as big as a man!


Above: My meal. Egg white with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, as well as some toast and fresh fruit.

Overall, I cannot recommend La Mie enough. It occupies and incredible space, serves foods, both sweet and savory, that left my mom and I yearning for a place of this quality in LA.