Buttery Cheese Straws

The food: Darina’s cheese straws

The story:

Before I became a writer, I worked for several years in a corporate type office. One of my friends and coworkers there was a woman named Darina, who had emigrated to Canada from the then-named Czechoslovakia at an early age, and brought with her family customs and recipes for special and ordinary occasions. Committed as I was and am to discovering other people’s precious (and sometimes secret) family food delicacies, I encouraged her to bring into work for sharing anything she thought I might like to eat.

She came through with the delicious, rich and addictive cheese straws that she made every year around Christmastime. She brought me some every December for years, and recited the deceptively simple recipe for them from memory when I asked for it. 19 years have passed since I left the corporate life, but I still make Darina’s cheese straws regularly, often after E expresses a craving for a batch, and I still use the scribbled notes I took down the day she gave me the recipe. I use low fat pressed cottage cheese to make them, so the high butter content must be what makes them so rich – maybe they should be called Cheesy Butter Straws instead.

Cheesy Buttery Caraway Cheese Straws (thanks to Darina Phillips)

1/2 lb/250 gr. sweet butter, preferably European style cultured butter, softened
1/2 lb./250 gr. pressed cottage cheese (I used .5% butterfat) such as from Western Creamery in Ontario
1 egg, beaten
2 c. unbleached flour
coarse kosher salt, about 2 T.
paprika for sprinkling
caraway seeds, about 4 T.

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lay parchment paper on cookie sheet(s).
2. Combine butter, cream cheese, egg and flour in large food processor. Pulse just until a large ball of soft dough forms.
2. Cut dough in half. On floured board, roll out half of dough to a 1/4 inch thickness. (Rolled out dough should be about 11 inches square). Sprinkle rolled dough with half of kosher salt, paprika and caraway seeds and press salt and seeds into dough with hands.
3. Cut into 1/2 inch by 5-6 inch strips, and roll each strip with hands to make cylindrical straws rather than flat ones. Place straws on parchment paper covered cookie sheet, about a 1/2 inch apart.

4. Bake in 325 degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove straws from oven, turn – they should be lightly browned on the bottom – and return to oven for 2-3 minutes more.

5. Remove from oven, and let cool on cookie sheet. Repeat steps with second half of dough or refrigerate dough in plastic wrap for a day and do the rolling, sprinkling, cutting, hand-rolling and baking then.

6. Straws are best eaten warm, and can be reheated for 5 minutes in a toaster oven or regular oven. They can also be frozen for later defrosting and reheating.

Yield: 50

Also cheesy and good is the song The Best of Times, from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. I missed the original Broadway production of the show in the 1980’s, but when I caught the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre revival of it in London’s West End last fall, featuring a golden-throated John Barrowman, I fell in love with the charming score. The show is being transferred (back?) to Broadway this spring, with Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge in the lead roles. To whet your appetite for it, here is The Best of Times, sung winningly by John Barrowman and Broadway stars Faith Prince and Marin Mazzie at a tribute to composer Jerry Herman.

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Best Lobster Roll in Toronto

The food: lobster salad/sandwich

The story:

The lobster roll served at Pearl Oyster Bar in New York city consists of a generous scoop of mayo-rich lobster salad served on a split hot dog bun fried in butter, served with frilly lettuce and fresh-cut shoestring fries. The dish is legendary, heavenly tasting, and expensive (usually around $27 for the plate) – a treat I savour whenever I’m in New York.

The exemplary lobster roll from Pearl Oyster Bar

In search of something with which to appease my lobster cravings at home in Toronto, I tried the lobster sandwich at the King Street branch of bakery café Petite Thuet.  I journeyed downtown to the King Street location under the mistaken impression that the sandwich would be freshly made there, only to have the counterman inside the small, stylish shop point me toward an adjacent refrigerated case where premade sandwiches sat inside clear plastic containers.

The $9 price was certainly right, and the bread looked appropriately artisanal and pretzel-ish:

BUT the sandwich was unpleasantly cold, the lettuce wilted, the inner edges of the bread soggy, and the
bread-to-lobster ratio too high in favour of the bread. And not only was the lobster almost lost within all that bread, its texture was more shredded than chunky. So yeah, not a big success.

Another day, another lobster salad for lunch: at Nota Bene, a restaurant with pretensions to greatness on Queen Street West in Toronto, I ordered the $24 Nova Scotia Lobster Salad with Avocado, Maple Bacon, Blue Cheese, and Buttermilk Dressing.

All the listed ingredients were present, but they were overwhelmed by the several handfuls of romaine lettuce that filled the bowl and made the small amount of lobster in the dish that much harder to find.

For an additional $8 ($8!!!) a bowl of pommes frites with pecorino cheese could be had alongside. The frites photographed well:

but were overcooked and hard, and the $32 tab for the salad and frites made Pearl Oyster Bar’s lobster roll with frites look almost like a bargain at $27.

Luckily, further searching led to the discovery of the most reasonably priced and satisfyingly good tasting lobster roll in Toronto: the one I recently assembled – not made – at home, using freshly made lobster salad from Summerhill Market, a gourmet grocery store in Toronto’s North Rosedale neighbourhood.

At $28.99/lb., Summerhill Market’s lobster salad with chives and a scant amount of mayo didn’t seem inexpensive until I unpacked about a half pound of it from the small container shown here, scooped it on Boston lettuce leaf cups over slices of chalah bread fried in butter, and made four pretty little open-faced sandwiches – enough to serve two as a light lunch, for only about $9 per person.

WIth a squeeze of fresh lemon juice over top and a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, I didn’t even miss the frites.

Nota Bene on Urbanspoon

When in Florida

The food: key lime pie and fish tacos

The best key lime pie I’ve ever eaten was made by my friend Fern Rubinstein, who brought a pie consisting of a key lime filling topped with meringue, within a buttery, homemade pâte brisée pastry shell, to a dinner party I had.

So good were my memories of that pie that when I was in Florida recently, I sought out some key lime pie in situ. The closest I got to the Keys was Miami Beach, but a chowhound poster had recommended the pie at Joe’s Stone Crab, so I swung by the restaurant’s takeaway shop in South Beach, and did not flinch at the $6.95 price for a slice of what’s billed as Joe’s Original Homemade Key Lime Pie (pictured above).

I did flinch upon eating it though – for my taste, it was way too sweet, not very limey, and suspiciously green (food colouring alert). I had disregarded another poster on chowhound who recommended the key lime pie at Publix, a supermarket chain in Florida, but I figured it couldn’t be worse than the Joe’s version, so I picked up a slice, for the low price of $2.49, and found it to be markedly superior – it was suffused with a tangy lime flavour, was not excessively sweet, and the colour was more natural. The whipped cream and toasted almond topping added some nice textural contrast too.

Publix Key Lime Pie beats out Joe's

While in Florida, I also visited Havana Hideout, a, well, hideout in Lake Worth made famous by Guy Fieri’s Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Check out the Guy Ate Here stencil on the wall above the blackboard

E ordered a menu item that was actually called “Get What Guy Got.” It consisted of half a Cuban pressed sandwich, 1 fish taco, and some tropical shepherd’s pie.

I went for something simpler (and meatless): two fish tacos with pineapple salsa for only $6.50, less than the price of that awful Joe’s Stone Crab pie slice.

We both liked the fish tacos best – they were fresh and salad-like, the generous amount of pineapple chunks brightened them up, and they represented not only good value but appeared to be made by hand, a quality rarely found in restaurants north of Miami, where, unfortunately, restaurant chains rule.

Miami Slice

The food: artisanal pizza in Miami Beach

The story:

In my continuing quest to locate sources of excellent pizza worldwide – continent wide? continent long? – I paid a visit to Pizzavolante, a stylish but casual restaurant in Miami’s groovy but not totally gentrified Design District (the used syringe lying on the ground that I almost stepped on while walking to the restaurant from our parking spot was a particularly atmospheric touch).

Everything about Pizzavolante looked promising – the industrial chic decor, the blackboard menu featuring reasonably priced and artfully composed pizzas, paninis, calzones and a selection of fresh mozzarellas, the informal but well-informed waiter, the wine bottles repurposed as carafes for ice cold water, the communal seating at long stainless steel tables, the readily available bottles of artisanal olive oil and shakers of Sicilian sea salt.

We started with a side dish of wood roasted local vegetables, a delicious blend of carrots, eggplant, and zucchini glossed with extra virgin olive oil. The plate was small – it’s billed on the menu as an accompaniment to the fresh mozzarella, but at a price of $2, it was a steal.

Less appealing to my palate was the zucchini fritti, which came battered in what appeared to be a cornmeal crust:

For the main event, I ordered a bianca pizza ($15), made with fontina, local cow’s milk and bufala milk mozzarrella, chenel goat cheese, arugula and thyme.

I wish I could say the pizza was as lovely as its sterling ingredient list suggests it should be, but the flavour of the goat cheese overwhelmed the other cheeses, I detected no hint of thyme, and most of all, I was disappointed by the pizza’s crust, which I found to be overly hard, stiff and crisp. According to press material I read on the restaurant’s website, the owner has been making his pizza crust the same way for years, in the New York style, so maybe my disappointment stems from my unreasonable expectation that artisanal pizza joints will serve a gloriously tangy, chewy, blistered crust of the type I adored at Co. restaurant in New York and have raved about previously in this blog.

I loved the roasted vegetables though. And the Caprese salad that someone ordered down at the end of the table looked amazing – and seemed to feature good tomatoes, despite the winter season – I wish I’d tried it. Maybe next time.

Pizzavolante on Urbanspoon

P.S. I was pleased and flattered to be interviewed recently about my fiction writing and teaching by a thoughtful and articulate blogger named Evadne Macedo. You can read the interview here.