A Taste of Italy in WA’s Bavarian Village

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with the town of Leavenworth, in Washington State.

K’s parents, who live in a small condo in downtown Seattle, treat this town as their “mountain oasis.” Nestled among the Cascade Mountains, Leavenworth is a prime location for many outdoor activities. In the winter, you’ll find K’s parents skiing or snowshoeing. In the summer, they’ll be hiking, mountain biking, or tubing down the Wenatchee River. Because they love it so much, K and I decided to spend his birthday weekend with his parents in Leavenworth. And I, too, fell head-over-heels for this mountain town.

But because I’m not the outdoor-sporty-type, I fell in love with Leavenworth for different reasons. First and foremost, this mountain town is modeled after a Bavarian village. Imagine Disney World-caliber without all the cheesiness. Leavenworth’s local businesses take the Bavarian theme very seriously. Even the Starbucks and Safeway stores were designed in the quintessentially-Bavarian style. The downtown area is small, but it boasts multiple beer gardens and knick-knack shops. Plus, majestic snow-capped mountains are visible from every angle. Every time I walk down the main street, I’m overcome with an urge to belt out songs from “The Sound of Music.”

As you’d expect in any good tourist town, Leavenworth boasts a high ice-cream shops-per-capita ratio. Most ice-cream spots are housed within larger candy or gift stores, but I walked by a gelateria the day we arrived in Leavenworth. The Viadolce Gelateria sits in the heart of downtown, its large windows and open door inviting folks inside. Through the windows, I spotted a large case containing more than a dozen colorful gelato bins. Just then, a customer exited the shop, “mmm”ing while he licked a giant delicious-looking cone. I had to practice some serious self-control to walk past the store. But K’s mom loves ice cream almost as much as I do, so I wanted to wait until I could return with her.

The next night, we all enjoyed a nice bratwurst dinner together in the München Haus beer garden. The restaurant is just a block away from Viadolce, so I offered to treat K’s parents to gelato on our walk back to their place. It was a sweltering-hot night (over 100 degrees), and ice cream sounded really good. We ducked into Viadolce Gelateria and surveyed the options.
They carried about 18 different flavors, many of which were fruity “sorbettos”. The Pear looked delicious, but I’ve been disappointed by all pear-flavored gelatos outside of Italy itself. Plus, I had already spotted a bin of Cherry gelato.  Everyone who’s spent time in the Pacific Northwest during the summer knows what a BIG deal cherries are here. K’s and my favorite variety is the Rainier, which is only in-season during the early months of summer. Our local Whole Foods store in Washington, DC does carry Rainier cherries for a couple months, but they cost us ~$15 per pound. At Viadolce, I could get my fix of fresh Washington cherries for a fraction of the cost. I ordered a small size, and the nice man behind the counter asked if I wanted one or two flavors. You know what my answer was. I asked him what flavor would pair well with cherry, and he suggested Panna (Italian cream).

Cherry and Panna

The verdict? There is nothing as refreshing as ice cream on a hot and humid evening. Viadolce’s gelato felt cool and soft on my tongue, and I savored the flavors melting over my taste buds. Unlike most ice cream I find in touristy towns, the gelato at Viadolce wasn’t sugary-sweet. Both the Cherry and the Panna had a subtle sweetness, allowing the flavors of cherries and cream to stand out. A little sign in the Cherry gelato bin had warned that “gelato may contain pieces of cherry pits”, and they weren’t exaggerating! I literally found a couple small pit pieces in my cup. But it was a small price to pay for the authentic flavor of real cherries. While the creamy and mild Panna wasn’t exactly memorable, I would imagine it would pair well with any fruity flavor.

The others enjoyed their gelato, too – especially K’s dad, who proclaimed that the Toasted Almond was one of the best ice creams he’d ever tasted! I’ll have to give that flavor a try next time… when I return to Leavenworth for its annual Oktoberfest Festival! Stay tuned…

The Stats:
Viadolce Gelato
636 Front Street
Leavenworth, WA 98826
(509) 548-6712
http://www.viadolcegelato.com

Manly Wharf’s Gelatissimo

Apologies on the lack of posting lately. Between the engagement, work, and travel, my ice-cream writing has taken a back seat. But don’t you worry… I’ve still been eating my fair share of it!

Now, where were we? Oh yes… Australia.

As you know from the last post, the fiancé (K) and I traveled to Australia a few weeks ago. We spent most of our time in Melbourne, where my sister is studying abroad and my dad’s side of the family lives. Melbourne is a gorgeous city – lots of greenery, beautiful architecture, and a peaceful river running through downtown. But if I were to ever move to Australia, I’d probably choose to live in Sydney. Not only is it the biggest city in the country, but Sydney is one of the nicest metropolises I’ve ever seen. It has the intense energy of New York City, the cleanliness of Singapore, and the urban beaches of Rio de Janeiro. Best of all, K shares my fascination with Sydney and is more than happy to visit whenever we’re in Australia. So before we headed back to the States, K and I spent an action-packed 24 hours in Sydney.

While most of my family members live in Melbourne, a few have migrated to Sydney over the years. My dad’s dearest cousin married a Sydney businessman and raised four awesome boys in the area. She and three of her sons now live in the town of Manly, a quaint beach town in Sydney’s North Beaches. K and I made plans to meet her and one of her sons for dinner in Manly. Traveling to Manly Beach involves a 30-minute ferry ride from Sydney’s main ferry terminal – and this has to be one of the coolest ferry rides ever! Sydney’s ferry terminal is located right near the Sydney Opera House, and you get awesome views of the stunning building from the water!

After a fun (and choppy!) ride across the Harbor, the ferry arrives at Manly Wharf. We had an hour to kill before dinner, so K and I stopped at a great German beer garden before walking along Manly Beach. When dinnertime rolled around, we walked for ten minutes or so before spotting the Thai restaurant my cousin had chosen.

We had a great time catching up with family and sharing delicious Thai curries. But it was getting late, so K and I walked back to Manly Wharf to catch a ferry back to Sydney. The ferry terminal was pretty quiet on a Thursday evening after rush hour, but many of the food and magazine vendors were still open. I had spotted a gelato kiosk on our way in earlier, and I was happy to see it was still open at 9pm!

Gelatissimo in situated right in the center of the ferry terminal building. While surveying their extensive gelato offerings, I suddenly realized that I had an appetite for dessert ;). Italian-based Gelatissimo is an international chain, with locations in Italy, Malaysia, Kuwait, Singapore, the Philippines, and Australia. Gelatissimo serves all the quintessential flavors you’d find in an Italian gelateria, such as Pistachio, Amarena (dark cherry), Panna Cotta, Tiramisu, and Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut). But tonight, I was drawn to several unusual flavors. The Ricotta, Pear & Walnut sounded great… if you like ricotta cheese (which I don’t). The colorful Passion-Fruit sorbet looked quite tempting. But in the end, I decided on two flavors I’d never seen before: Saffron Risotto and Carmelised Fig. While living abroad in Spain, I developed an appreciation for saffron’s deep and slightly-bitter flavor. And figs are one of my favorite “grown-up” foods. I loathed Fig Newtons as a kid (too healthy-tasting for dessert), but now you’ll catch find me eating Trader Joe’s Fig Butter by the spoonful.

 I wasn’t sure whether the two flavors would clash, but I took a chance and ordered a two-scoop cup.

The verdict? So disappointing. I had such high expectations for these flavors, but I was sadly unimpressed by both. Had you not told me what I was eating, I wouldn’t have known there was any saffron or figs in this gelato. The Saffron Risotto was sweet but bland, and the texture was disappointing. Ever since that amazing tapioca gelato in Rio de Janeiro, I’ve been on the hunt for texture-intense flavors. Risotto gelato is a great idea, but it was poorly executed at Gelatissimo. There were a mere few grains of rice in my entire scoop. Likewise, the Carmelised Fig flavor was underwhelming and lacked the crunch of fig seeds. To top everything off, Gelatissimo is quite pricey (almost $7 for a pretty small cup). But don’t worry; this ice-cream disappointment didn’t ruin my night. The ferry ride back to Sydney with its stunning views was enough to put a smile back on my face 🙂

The Stats:
Gelatissimo
Manly Wharf Shopping Centre, Kiosk 2
Manly, New South Wales 2095
Australia
http://www.gelatissimo.com.au

A Cheese-Gelato in Paradise…

(Jimmy Buffet, anyone?)

Presidents’ Day is an interesting holiday. Truth be told, I never paid attention to it when I was younger. In Massachusetts, we always had our February vacation the week of Presidents’ Day. And with no parades or decorations, I’m sad to say that the holiday was simply absorbed into the rest of vacation week. Of course, this all changed when I entered the workforce. These days, I look forward to Presidents’ Day as a chance to escape the harsh D.C. winter and catch some rays in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

My boyfriend first visited Rio de Janeiro about six years ago during a family vacation – and he fell head-over-heels in love (this was before he met me, of course). Now, he can’t stay away from the city. In fact, I will always remember our first Valentine’s Day together; dinner was cut short because he had to catch the red-eye flight to Rio that night. Little did I know that I’d be accompanying him soon enough…

View from the Sheraton

Rio is a special place. It lives up to its reputation as a party-town with beautiful beaches and beautiful people. The famed Carnival takes place in February, but we tend to miss it – which is a good thing! The party never stops in Rio de Janeiro; it’s simply more crowded and more rowdy during Carnival. And hotel rooms become impossibly expensive that week. The boyfriend often spends hotel points to book a room at the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort. The Sheraton is situated at the west end of Rio’s famous beach; quieter and more spacious than hotels downtown, but still within sight and walking distance from the famous Ipanema Beach.

Famous Ipanema Beach

Last weekend was a perfect mix of fun and relaxation. We stayed active by walking through the city and swimming in the ocean. The boyfriend took it a step further, going for a run along the beach every morning. Me? I hit the gym – for about 15 minutes. I was more concerned with reading books on my Kindle and drinking cocktails by the beach. I’m a big fan of caipirinhas – the local cocktail made with lime, sugar, ice and cachaça (sugar cane liquor that reminds me of rum). And Rio is the only place I’ve been where you can actually order cocktails on the beach. Tourists and locals alike rent beach chairs and umbrellas from the dozens of vendors lined up along the beach. Your vendor then periodically walks around taking drink orders, returning minutes later with your coconut water, soda, beer, or caipirinha. The best part? Everything is reasonably priced! The boyfriend and I would spend less than $20US per day on two chairs, an umbrella, coconut waters, his beers, and my caipirinhas.

No tropical paradise would be complete without ice cream, right? When I first visited Rio, I discovered that it’s harder to find ice cream here than in most beach cities. There are more frozen yogurt shops than traditional ice cream ones. I’m not sure why this is, but it may have something to do with Rio’s health-conscious culture? Anyways, Sorvete Itália appears to be the ubiquitous ice cream brand in Rio. Their ice cream and popsicles are found in grocery stores, quickmarts, beach-side snack carts, and in their own stores. Sorvete Itália has over a dozen shops in Rio; the one we visited one night after dinner was located in the touristy Ipanema neighborhood.

Outside & inside views

Sorvete Itália pays homage to Italy in both their products and decor. Their trademark is gelato, but they’re also well-known for great sorbets and fancy popsicles. And their storefronts are inviting and fun, decorated with tile mosaics in the colors of the Italian flag. But many of the gelato flavors, on the other hand, are uniquely Brazilian. Some that caught my eye: Banana Caramelada (caramelized banana), Doce de Leite com Coco (coconut dulce de leche), and Manga com Gengibre (mango ginger sorbet). But the strangest of all was Queijo (cheese). Yes, my translation is accurate. This isn’t cheesecake flavor; it’s cheese. I wasn’t in the mood for cheese, so I went with Macadamia Crocante (macadamia crunch) and Tapioca. The boyfriend, on the other hand, simply couldn’t pass up the chance to order cheese gelato. He’s such a cheese-fan, you’d think he was from Wisconsin.

Macadamia/Tapioca on the left; Cheese on the right

The verdict? I winced while I watched the staff scoop out the gelato; it looked way too soft! Gelato is not supposed to be as firm as traditional ice cream, but this seemed almost melted. Sorvete Itália’s shop had an open storefront, and the deep freezer case was no match for the humid heat of Rio. But what this gelato lacked in firmness, it made up in flavor and textures. The Macadamia Crocante had a rich caramel-tasting base with swirls of caramelized macadamia nuts. It reminded me a lot of Georgetown Candy Co.’s Butter Brittle; satisfying but not life-shatteringly good. The Tapioca scoop in the bottom of my cup, however, blew my mind. The gelato base was sweet and coconut-y, but what set this flavor apart was the abundance of tapioca beads in each bite. I don’t how they did it, but these tapioca beads were soft and chewy – not frozen solid. I must figure out how to recreate this at home, as I’ve never seen this favor in the States. I couldn’t get enough of it. On the other hand, I’d be okay never tasting cheese-flavored ice cream again. The boyfriend loved his Queijo, which had a sweet cream base and little bits of cheese mixed throughout. Traditional Brazilian “queijo” is a mild cheese made from cow’s milk – but I can’t stomach it in my ice cream. I’m shuddering just remembering it. Let’s just say, this was the first time I didn’t pester the boyfriend for more “tastes” of his ice cream. To each their own, right?

The Stats:
Sorvete Itália
Multiple locations in Rio de Janeiro
www.sorveteitalia.com

Crowd-Pleasing Nutella Gelato

What’s your signature recipe? You know – that crowd-pleaser that your friends and family (not-so-secretly) hope you’re bringing to the next potluck or party? For my sister, it’s her amazing chili. For my mom, it’s her lemon meringue pie. Just last night, my dear friends Anna and Meg came over for dinner. And you better believe I was thinking of Anna’s Special K bars when I put her in charge of dessert. Despite her grueling schedule as a first-year resident, Anna somehow found time to whip up a batch of her signature baked goods. She even left the extra ones with me. These bars are like crack. Seriously. I may or may not have downed one before 8:00 AM this morning…

Speaking of crack, let’s discuss Nutella. Specifically, Nutella gelato.

I was late to the Nutella craze. Growing up, we had peanut butter, Fluff, and Vegemite in the pantry – but no Nutella. I don’t think I’d ever tasted it until my senior year of high school, on a week-long trip to Spain with my AP Spanish class. My usual peanut butter was absent from the hotel’s breakfast buffet, so I had to “settle” and spread Nutella on my toast. It was love at first bite, and the rest is history.

Today, Nutella gelato is my signature recipe. It was the first thing I created in my Cuisinart ice cream maker. I consulted a variety of Nutella ice cream and gelato recipes but ultimately decided to create my own version. After reading an article about how dark coffee enhances the flavor of chocolate, I decided to incorporate the Starbucks VIA we always have on hand into the recipe. It was a risky move, but I’ve come back to this recipe time and time again. It’s the quintessential crowd-pleaser. It keeps my family and friends (even the normal chocolate-haters) licking their bowls and asking for more. When my college roommate invited me to a dinner party this weekend, she “jokingly” hinted that I was required to bring Nutella gelato. She laughed, but I could almost hear a threat being implied. The claws come out around this stuff, my friends.

Bring this gelato to a dinner party, and it will become your signature dish. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

Nutella Gelato 
{Makes 1.5 quarts}

Ingredients

  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole)
  • 1 cup light cream
  • 1/2 cup white cane sugar
  • 1 packet Starbucks VIA (Italian Roast/Colombia) OR 3 tsp. instant coffee
  • 1 jar of Nutella (13oz.)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Directions

  • Combine the milk, cream, sugar and VIA in a medium saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking from time to time, until it almost reaches a simmer.
  • Turn off heat, remove saucepan from heat and whisk in the salt, vanilla extract and Nutella. Continue to whisk until Nutella is completely melted.
  • Transfer mixture to large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
  • Pour chilled mixture into your 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 alone for 15 minutes or so. The consistency should be firm but not icy.
  • Serve immediately or transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm (about 2 hours in my case, but a taxi drive and too much time on the counter left our gelato a bit too soft).

Didn’t let it freeze long enough, but this was delicious gelato soup 😉

The verdict?  Nutella gelato never disappoints. Even when someone waits until 4PM to start making it for a 7:30PM dinner (who could that be?), this gelato is heavenly. The recipe uses a full jar of Nutella, and the flavor is wonderfully intense. But it’s not as sugary-sweet as one may expect; the bold Starbucks VIA brew adds depth to the Nutella flavor without adding an overt coffee taste. The gelato never gets quite firm enough in the Cuisinart for me, so I normally pop it into freezer for a couple hours before serving. But this gelato is ah-mazing in any form – even melted from the cab drive over to a friend’s house. The only problem is that there’s never any leftovers…

Living the “Dulce” Life in Buenos Aires

The month of January might not scream “ouce cream” to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but it certainly does in the Southern Hemisphere. While I normally spend New Year’s Eve and Day huddled inside wearing sweaters and sipping hot cocoa, this year I was eating ice cream in sundresses. When my boyfriend asked me where we should spend New Years this year, I told him that Boston or Seattle would be great… but someplace warm would be even better! Here I was, thinking about visiting family in Arizona or friends in Florida. But the boyfriend had grander plans and suggested we use airline miles to fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Now, Argentina was never at the top of my travel wish list (Alaska and Sub-Saharan Africa are!). But my college roommate studied abroad in Buenos Aires, and she still raves about the city. And when my boyfriend reminded me that it would be warm in Argentina during January, I figured that this was the perfect opportunity to see the city while catching some rays. Plus, I needed to practice my Spanish – which has become dismal since my own study abroad time in Madrid, Spain. But it wasn’t until I started reading more about Buenos Aires that I got very excited.

Tango. Wine. Steak. Gelato. What more can you ask for?

Wait… Gelato?

While researching things to do and see in Buenos Aires, I learned that more than one-third of Argentina’s population is of Italian descent. Most of the immigration took place before World War I, but the Italian culture is still alive and well in Buenos Aires. For example? Unlike in most Spainish-speaking countries, “gelaterias” (Spanish for “gelato shops”) far outnumber “heladerias” (“ice cream shops”) in Buenos Aires. I was beyond excited to experience this unique part of Argentine culture for myself.

We had a fabulous four days in Buenos Aires. The weather held up beautifully, and we spent our most of our time outdoors – taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Argentina’s capital. Some of the touristy highlights of our trip included visiting La Recoleta Cemetary (final resting place of Eva Peron), walking along Puerto Madero (popular waterfront area with great people-watching), and exploring Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (world-class art museum with no admission fee!). Perhaps the best decision we made during the trip was shelling out a couple hundred dollars for the New Years Eve package at Complejo Tango. There are many tango shows to choose from in Buenos Aires, but Complejo Tango provides a full-package experience for anyone who is interested in learning and watching tango. The NYE package included a 90-minute beginner’s tango class, three-course dinner, unlimited beer and wine, professional tango show, midnight champagne toast, and – finally – a dance party with a DJ. While the boyfriend and I agreed that neither of us have a future in professional tango, we had a blast learning some steps with other tourists from around the world. It was definitely the most unique New Years Eve I’ve ever had.

Food and wine was a whole other highlight of our trip. We had steak for dinner more often than not. The Malbec wines were fantastic cost less than they do in the States. You don’t have to go far for great food in Buenos Aires. There’s a great cafe or restaurant on every block, it seems. On our first night, we found a great spot just outside our hotel (the Sheraton Libertador Hotel). We had finished dinner early in the evening (especially when you consider that most Argentines don’t eat until 10pm or so) and were in the mood for a nightcap. Il Gran Caffe is a bustling full-service cafe with plenty of seating both indoors and outdoors, situated on a busy city corner. We sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and do some people-watching. The boyfriend ordered a sweet white wine, but had my eye on something else. Walking to our table, I passed several patrons enjoying goblets of gelato. Sure enough, Il Gran Caffe offers six flavors of gelato. In the mood for chocolate, I asked our waiter for a scoop of Gianduia — a Nutella-like combination of milk chocolate and hazelnut gelato. When he told me I could pick another flavor for the second scoop, I blurted out the first flavor I saw: Amarena. It was a risky move, but I’ve never met a gelato flavor I couldn’t stomach.

The verdict? This was not a great first-time Argentine gelato experience! Il Gran Caffe’s gelato is a bit on the firmer side, as I’m sure they purchase tubs of gelato from third-party vendors and store them in their deep freezer. This was more like American store-bought ice cream than premium Italian gelato. Still, the flavors were unique and satisfied my sweet tooth. Now – what was Amarena? I tasted a sweet cream base, and a tart fruity swirl. With the boyfriend’s help, I deciphered that the fruit was sour cherry. Later, I read online that Amarena is a traditional Italian gelato flavor – just one that I haven’t tried before. The Gianduja was good, but not the best I’ve had. The milk chocolate flavor overpowered the hazelnut, and the combination was a bit too sugary-sweet for me. I did like the thin chocolate flakes, though, which are not traditionally part of the flavor. After all, how can you go wrong adding chocolate to chocolate? Still, my first gelato experience in Buenos Aires didn’t blow me away…

Not one to be discouraged, I decided that to find the best gelato in Buenos Aires – I should rely on the locals’ knowledge. So on our second night, I brought up the subject with our friendly old cab driver while he drove us to the trendy Palermo neighborhood. My Spanish is pretty rusty, but the cab driver got the gist of my request: could he please drop us off at a good gelataria? I rattled off a list of ones in Palermo that I had pulled off the internet in the hotel room. The cab driver nodded with a smile and drove on. Finally, he pulled up to the curb outside of Persicco – considered to be one of the very best gelaterias in Buenos Aires. I know Persicco has multiple locations throughout the city, but I can’t imagine any are more busy than the Palermo shop! It was almost eleven-o-clock in the evening, but Persicco was hoppin’. Unlike at Il Gran Caffe, most of the clientle seemed to be Argentine. I didn’t hear any English conversations in the crowd outside or inside the shop. This had to be a good sign, right?

Once inside, I quickly learned that not only does Persicco have gelato-making down to an art, they also have gelato-ordering down to an art. To streamline the whole process and ensure proper payment, Persicco requires you to pay at the register before approaching the bins of gelato. You order and pay for a certain size (not flavor) and are given a numbered receipt. Then, you must patiently wait for your number to appear on an electronic sign (not unlike the ones at the deli) – at which point you may approach the gelato-scoopers, hand your receipt over, and list off the flavor(s) you’d like. The hardest part of this whole process is selecting your flavors. Since my boyfriend was interested in “tasting” the gelato, I ordered a 2-scoop bowl. Persicco’s menu boasts a wide variety of flavors that are conveniently organized into groups. You have your chocolate flavors, your fruity flavors, your dulce de leche flavors… Yes, Persicco has a whole group of dulce de leche flavors – one with chocolate chips, one with brownies, etc. While it was tempting to try two dulces, I opted for more variety and ordered a scoop of traditional Dulce de Leche and another of Coco a la Crema.

Two spoons… to share.

The verdict? Oh my goodness. This is what all the gelato hype is about. Persicco’s gelato is as good as any I’ve had in Italy. The texture is spot-on; thick, creamy and feels like silk as it melts in your mouth. The flavors are intensely luxurious. The Coco a la Crema lived up to its name, perfectly blending the flavor of coconut with a traditional sweet cream base. While this gelato lacked the chewy bits of toasted coconut that I usually crave, the coconut flavor was strong and natural-tasting. But it was the Dulce de Leche scoop that had me swooning. The boyfriend and I agreed that Persicco had perfectly captured the essence of the sticky, caramelized milk-and-sugar dessert found all over South America. The gelato’s flavor was similar to a rich, dark salted caramel with an almost-burnt aftertaste that is quite addicting. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it, and it’s just another reason to add Buenos Aires to the top of your travel wish list 😉

The Stats:

Il Gran Caffe
Calle Florida 700
Buenos Aires, Argentina 1054

Persicco
Multiple locations in Buenos Aires
http://www.persicco.com

Just what the Doctor ordered…

I hope y’all had a relaxing and delicious Thanksgiving! I spent the holiday with my family in Massachusetts. Per tradition, Thanksgiving dinner was held at my cousins’ home near Springfield. Now, I’m big on traditions. My family takes caution when proposing new activitities or recipes around the holidays – for fear that I’ll enjoy it so much that it becomes yet another “tradition.” The family actually calls the special holiday mashed potatoes (i.e. full of cream cheese and butter) “Grace’s potatoes.” And this isn’t because I make them (my mom’s cousin does). But when someone brought the dish years ago, my twelve-year-old self loved them and decreed a new “tradition.” Many years later, I still relish the familiarity and comfort of our family’s holiday activities and dishes. But the most important tradition of all is having everyone at the dinner table. And this year, someone was missing…

My cousin Leah is completing her residency at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She had to work on Thanksgiving morning this year, and it was the first time one of us “kids” didn’t make it home for the holiday. But modern technology made Leah’s absence a little easier to bear… Once our dinner plates were cleared, I pulled out my iPad so the family could “FaceTime” with Leah. It wasn’t as good as having her there in-person, but it was especially nice for those who hadn’t seen Leah since she left for Baltimore. I’m the lucky one who lives just an hour away from Leah. And just a couple Saturdays ago, the boyfriend and I drove down to Baltimore for the afternoon. Leah’s boyfriend, Matt, was also in town – so the four of us explored the city and enjoyed a lovely brunch at Little Havana (which has the best Bloody Marys ever!).

At some point after brunch, the topic of local desserts came up. Leah and Matt raved (no, gushed) about the Baltimore Bomb at Dangerously Delicious Pies. As soon as my boyfriend heard that the pie is made from Berger Cookies (a local specialty), he was determined to try a slice. We followed the GPS to the popular Baltimore neighborhood of Canton, where Dangerously Delicious Pies is nestled in a cute strip of restaurants and shops. Sadly, the store clerk informed us that all of the Baltimore Bombs had been “already sold for the day.” This surprised me, as it was only two o’clock in the afternoon! We all felt deflated, so Leah suggested we find dessert elsewhere. She remembered that Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop was just down the road. Italian bakeries mean one thing to me: Gelato!

Walking into Vaccaro’s Canton shop reminded me of ducking into one of the more modern cafes in Rome. The warm light and golden accents make for an inviting atmosphere. I’d love to come here on a cold, snowy morning to warm up with a latte or mocha. But on this fall day, I made a beeline for the gelato case. Vaccaro’s boasts almost 20 flavors of gelato and sorbet – including many of the Italian favorites like Baci (i.e. Nutella), Tiramasu, Amaretto, and Pistacchio. But it was a different flavor, Almond Joy, that caught my eye. I’m a sucker for ice cream with different textures, and you can’t beat the coconut and chocolate combination. Leah also ended up ordering a cup of Almond Joy (we really are related!), while our gentlemen friends took a different route and enjoyed Vaccaro’s famous cannolis.

The verdict? This gelato definitely lives up to its name; it’s like biting into a cold and creamy Almond Joy candy bar. I’ve tried many coconutty desserts in my time – but none have been as chock-full of coconut flakes as Vaccaro’s gelato is. I wouldn’t be surprised if the gelato-to-coconut ratio is near one-to-one. The chocolate flakes were perfectly thin and flavorful – similar to the ones found in Stracciatella gelato. My only real complaint was that they almond chunks were big and few and far between; I would use almond slivers and be more generous. But compared to your average gelateria, the prices are lower and portions are bigger at Vaccaro’s. Leah was too full from brunch to finish her’s, but you better believe that I found room and polished this baby off 🙂 Yum!

The Stats:
Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop
2919 O’Donnell Street
Baltimore, MD 21224
(410) 276-4744
http://www.vaccarospastry.com
(other locations in Little Italy, Hunt Valley and Belair)

Pumpkin Spice Gelato

Eating pumpkin makes me feel grown up.

As a kid, I didn’t care for pumpkin at all. On Thanksgiving, I’d skip over the pumpkin pie and pile my plate with cake and cookies instead. Something about vegetable-esque desserts just didn’t jive with me, and pumpkin pie never held any appeal. That is – until I caught my mom eating leftover pumpkin pie… for breakfast. I had to be seven or eight years old when I discovered her little secret. On the morning after Thanksgiving, I trudged into the kitchen to pour myself a bowl of Cheerios. My parents upheld a strict “no junk food”  breakfast policy. And there my mom was – in her pajamas – eating a slice of pie. “That’s not fair!” I sputtered, “Why can you eat dessert for breakfast but we can’t?” Always the quick thinker, my mom calmly countered that I was welcome to join her. She explained that pumpkin is healthy and full of fiber, and that pumpkin pie was an appropriate breakfast “once in a while.” You better believe that I sat right down and served myself a slice of pie – the very one I had turned my nose up at the day before. And low and behold, I liked it. Sure, it didn’t compare to chocolate cake or sugar cookies,  but it was a heck-of-a-lot better than my normal cereal. I felt quite grown-up that morning, enjoying a special breakfast with my mom.

Over the years, I’ve become a full-fledged pumpkin fan. When October rolls around, I suddenly become obsessed with anything pumpkin: pumpkin beer, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin risotto, and – of course – pumpkin ice cream.

Last week, when my sister Carolyn was here, we hosted a small dinner party for the premiere of Homeland (our favorite TV show). Carolyn was making her famous chili, so I was put in charge of dessert. And – surprise! – pumpkin was on my mind. I had yet to experiment with it in my Cuisinart, so I scoured the internet for pumpkin ice cream recipes. There is certainly not a shortage of recipes out there, but most called for 4-6 egg yokes. I’m a novice when it comes to making ice cream, and I don’t feel ready to tackle so many raw egg yokes. Luckily, I stumbled across an egg-less recipe to use as inspiration for my own concoction: Pumpkin Spice Gelato.

Pumpkin Spice Gelato 
{Inspired from recipe in New York Times}

Ingredients

  • 2 cups milk (at least 1% milkfat)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin (100%; not the pie filling kind)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1.5 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Directions

  • Combine the milk, heavy cream, 1/4 cup of the brown sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin spice in a medium saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking from time to time, until it almost reaches a simmer. Reduce to very low heat.
  • Place the maple syrup, salt, and remaining brown sugar in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm milk/cream mixture, whisking as you pour.
  • Return the maple mixture to the saucepan and increase the heat slightly (just below medium). Continue cooking until the mixture just begins to thicken. Do not allow it to boil.
  • Remove saucepan from heat and whisk in the pumpkin and vanilla extract. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.
  • Pour chilled mixture into a blender and pulse to liquefy any solids. Freeze mixture in your ice cream maker, 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 be for 15 minutes or so. The consistency should be like firm but not icy.
  • Serve immediately or transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm (about 2 hours in my case). Looks best when topped with a candy corn pumpkin 🙂


The verdict? Not too bad for my first try! This gelato was a little less sweet than most pumpkin ice creams, but I think that’s why this tasted more like real pumpkin pie. The consistency was a bit grainy, which I didn’t mind. If grittiness isn’t your thing, I suggest using a strainer – rather than a blender – to get rid of solids before adding the mixture to the ice cream maker. My guests reported that the spice level was good, but I thought the cinnamon overpowered the nutmeg. Next time I’ll just use more pumpkin spice and reduce the extra cinnamon amount. All in all, this recipe was a keeper. I can’t help but wonder… Will mom approve this for breakfast on November 23rd?