|The Carrot Cake at Village Kitchen.
Well, it's that time of year again - the end of December. Time to assess the past 12 months and the 1100 or so meals I've eaten, if you consider 365 days x 3 meals/day. (Snacks and whatnot likely take that number much higher!)
As always, I've eaten very well - I've been fed amazing items at friends' houses, in restaurants, at celebrations, by caterers, as gifts, and even at meals I've cooked myself. Some AnnArbor.com readers used to get snotty if I included my own dishes in my end-of-the-year round-up; but I'm not too shabby a cook, even if I'm not a gourmet chef, and I do make some really memorable items sometimes. Why shouldn't I be proud of myself and include them?
So, there's a range of foods and beverages here that showcases some of the most decadent, most delicious, and most special things I've enjoyed in 2013 - things I'd want to have again and again or, in some cases, the best version of something that I've yet made. In honor of the year that's ending, I've decided to give you a baker's dozen (since there seems to be an abundance of baked goods featured!).
And so, in no particular order, I offer my Top 13 of '13!
|Photo courtesy of SequinWines.com
Carrot Cake at Village Kitchen: "... I walked past the dessert case, and became completely smitten with the carrot cake .... This is so rich, so intense, so wonderful! I couldn't resist." Four layers of moist, sweet cake schmeared with luscious cream cheese frosting ... sigh.
Blue Cheese Crostini: Warm, crisp, gooey, rich, addictive. "Even Craig, who loathed blue cheese before he met me, has apparently become a convert and relished these." They'd make a great treat to serve with champagne or sparkling cider - or Sequin Sparkling Rose! - at your New Year's Eve celebration.
Amanda's Kugel: I should include this every year, and so I decided it was time to give my friend Amanda Fisher some love. Amanda is a caterer who offers simple, sophisticated, stellar food. And when she makes her sweet, cinnamon-scented noodle kugel, it's a good day at work. Amanda will be in the kitchen down the hall from my desk, preparing for an event, and we'll be taunted and teased with the aroma of kugel baking. Often, since she's a sweetheart, she'll make one just for the staff to enjoy. And we start calling our co-workers: "There's 'Amanda kugel' in the Conference Room." I'm serious - Amanda bringing us kugel is an event to announce! I brought some home for Jeremy one time, and he was very blasé. "Why aren't you eating it? I'm saving it for you." "Meh, I don't like kugel as much as you do." "But it's AMANDA kugel!" "Fine ...," he said with significant annoyance and irritation at being interrupted in the midst of whatever he was doing. Taste. Pause. "Wow. Amanda makes a better kugel than you do." I know!!! I make some great kugels, if I may say so myself. Amanda's is still better.
Maple Almond Sweet Potatoes: This dish, "enhanced with maple syrup (is) easy to make ahead and to reheat, so your holiday meal isn't any more chaotic than is necessarily inherent to putting on a feast. It was unanimously agreed at Thanksgiving that this was the best sweet potato dish I've ever made. And since I love sweet potatoes and cook with them all the time, that was exceptional praise, indeed!" There have been a lot of other dishes competing for that honor over the years, but this was the sweet potato winner of all time, apparently. That it was made with the beautiful Grade B maple syrup from Sweet Brook Farm that my friend Kate had brought me from Massachusetts only made things - yup, you know it's coming! - sweeter!
Baba Ghanouj at Ali Baba's Restaurant: I'm not usually a fan of eggplant, particularly of baba ghanouj. But that changed one day when my co-worker, Beth, and I ordered take-out from Ali Baba. I'd been there with Craig just recently, and could definitely vouch for how good the food was. But you know me - I like variety. I didn't want to order what I'd already enjoyed, so I tried a vegetarian combo that included baba ghanouj. I wasn't going to let the eggplant deter me, since it came with tabouli, hummus, and warm pita bread that I love. And when I tasted it, I was amazed - it was the best part of the assortment! It was smoky, almost - dare I say it? (I mean it as a huge compliment!) - bacon-y. When I go back to Ali Baba, I will absolutely make sure I order the baba ghanouj again ... something I've never said about any other version that I've eaten.
The Full House Restaurant: Just a good ol'-fashioned burger with no pretense, beautiful in its simplicity. Build a Better Burger, a famous cooking competition, wants 15-ingredient sauces, 86-ingredient marinades, 23-ingredient salad toppings, and 56-ingredient condiments (I exaggerate ... but not that much), combining far too many competing flavors and masking the purity of the burger itself. Full House lets quality ingredients shine so that you can actually taste the beef, the seasoning, the lettuce, the tomato ....
recipe for mandelbrot - Anglicized to 'Mandel Bread' - is excellent. I've prepared a lot of biscotti and mandelbrot in my many years of baking, and this one is absolutely the easiest to mix, to shape, and to slice that I've found. The finished cookies aren't too crisp, either, as some variations on this treat require dunking rather than merely being enhanced by a dip into coffee or wine; these can be eaten 'as is.' And, best of all, the mandelbrot taste really great, too!"
Dimo's Deli and Donuts: "I dare you to walk in that door, smell all the sugar perfuming the air and infusing it with happiness — Craig and I actually stopped and stood still, just to savor the fragrance — and then order anything but an apple fritter. It looks up at you from the display case, makes eye contact, flirts shamelessly; it might even be whispering sweet nothings in French. You can't help yourself. You may briefly think about the consequences, but you know in your heart that resistance is futile. The apple fritter ... has chalked up another notch on its bedpost, having seduced you. But don't feel the least bit guilty for your lack of willpower. It was worth it."
New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck: My BFF Wendy and I made the not-quite-hour-long trek to Hamtramck [ham-TRAM-ick], a traditionally Polish community which is mostly (but not entirely) surrounded by Detroit, for Pączki Day. "In Polish communities, all the butter, eggs, sugar, cream, lard, and other items that are about to become verboten during Lent - as Christians prepare for Easter through a combination of sacrifice, abstinence, fasting, and penitence - are embedded into sturdy, luscious pączki." Thus, while Brazilians have Carnival and New Orleans has Mardi Gras, in Michigan we have Pączki Day on the day before Ash Wednesday. Pączki are reminiscent of, but go far beyond being, mere jelly doughnuts. And the spirit of conviviality and jubilation among fellow celebrants waiting in line to get into the bakery - huddling together happily in the cold, smelling joy as the sugar perfumes the air, cheering as another customer inches back through the crowd after successfully buying dozens of treats to share with loved ones - is grand fun. Partly it's about the pączki, but mostly it's about the experience.
Dino's Lounge at Baconfest Michigan 2013: "... peanut butter and banana cookies with chocolate chips, frosted with strawberry jam and sprinkled with candied bacon." Need I say more??? It had the whole sweet-salty, crispy-chewy contrast party going on, all in one treat!
Pear Compote with Gingered Shortbread Crumbs: "This dessert - sophisticated comfort food - turned out far, far better than I'd even hoped! Sweet pears, accented by the (Gnarly Head) Chardonnay, layered with crisp and buttery cookies ... sigh. I had planned to save some of this to take to work the next day, a treat to look forward to; but it was so exceptionally good that I devoured the entire thing in one sitting!"
Girl Scouts Heart of Michigan Cookie Bake-Off Benefit: I had the enormous thrill of being the emcee for this event, which raises money to support troops for low-income girls, those who are at risk, and those whose mothers are in jail, enabling the girls to have all the fun and all the support of the Girl Scouts at a critical time in their lives. The Bake-off is fabulous - there are live and silent auctions, a raffle, and a competition at which area pastry chefs take Girl Scout cookies and transform them into beautiful new desserts ... as though Girl Scout cookies aren't already one of the greatest foods on Earth! Cheryl Hanewich of The Moveable Feast won not only the 1st Place Judge's Choice Award, but also the People's Choice Award, with this unbelievably luscious combination of cake, cream, caramel, spun sugar, cookies, and just utter deliciousness. There was an extraordinary array of beautiful, decadent treats, but this one - pun intended! - took the cake ... :)
I had hoped to have my "Word of the Year" post ready for the 1st, but there's been a delay. Some pending circumstances might influence my choice, but nothing will be resolved until possibly next week ... I know, what a tease! Just stay tuned ....