Thursday, November 29, 2012


While in Boston for Thanksgiving, I visited Sofra (menu), a Middle Eastern cafe/bakery on the outskirts of Cambridge, MA.  Situated in an otherwise nondescript part of town, Sofra overwhelms the senses with an assortment of baked, prepared, and cooked-to-order items.  We tried the lamb schwarma, oatmeal fig cookies, shakshuka, semolina pancakes with pumpkin preserves, and stuffed sausage flatbread.  All were very very strong.

Having thought at length about the construction of the bakery/cafe, Sofra got so much right that I would call it revelatory (another similar cafe that comes to mind would be Flour Bakery).  Seating for 15-20 was in low informal tables with stools.  There was a stand-up bar for quick mezze noshing.  They filled in their countertop display with baking racks of pies, cakes, spice mixes, preserved and pickled goods, and premium grab-and-go snacks liked cocoa-covered hazelnuts.  The cafe was bustling and busy, with about 400 sq. ft for the cafe area and 400-700 sq. ft in an open kitchen where eight or nine bakers/cooks jockeyed for space.  Perhaps most importantly, there was a sense of expectancy among the customers awaiting their food that created a good vibe, akin to a surfer watching for a wave to crest.

On the non-pleasures of good eating

At a certain point that I wish was more rare than it is, eating becomes more cerebral exercise than gustatory enjoyment.  Like a fine wine taster who never smiles, our food fetishization movement has improved the general quality of food depth and breadth in America, but has also produced a rising number of palates that are benumbed by over-tasting.  Exhibit A would be chef Jonathan Benno in this video claiming to have eaten "one of the best meals that I've ever had" (at Neta) while being entirely solemn bordering on funereal.  If the future of food consumption is filled with silent somber contemplation, does this defeat the purpose of breaking bread with anyone but yourself?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Week 82

The Product: "Pecan Pies so good Martha Stewart wet her pants a little bit."  Also, the Savory Red Dragon Hand Pie (Tofu, spicy fermented black bean sauce) was a real attention-grabber and had flavor to match.

Da Crew: Many thanks to our ever-fabulous crew for going above and beyond the call of duty: Andy, Chef Matt, Ali R., Sara & Jeff, Matthew & Nancy.

Our awesome customers: Marybeth and Allen, AS, Steve, William, Beth, Alaila, Lailitree, the Stock-Hoffmans, SMW&EB, SMG&EC, Chris, Jennifer S. & her mom, Kevin & Esme.

Hand Pie Cuteness

Giveaway winner Jennifer S. and her Mom

This Week: Everyone is taking off next weekend for Thanksgiving, but we will be at the South Durham pre-Thanksgiving event on Tuesday from 3-6:30PM.  Please use this sheet if you would like to pre-order a pie (for pickup in Downtown or at the South Durham Market):

Track of the Week:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chef Matt has a blog!

Check it! And add it to your RSS.........

Week 81

Thanksgiving on the way: Thanksgiving is almost here.  We got pies just for you:

The Product: Chef Matt hooked us up with some Smokey Greens and Mushroom Hand Pies.  Very popular.  The Pumpkin Chai Sweet Vegan Hand Pie Part II was strong too.

Da Crew: Big up big ups to Ali R., Chef Matt, SZ, Andy, Sara & Jeff, and Jamie.  Ali R. and Andy get the Berenbaum's Green Beret award of the week as they rolled nearly forty pounds of pie crust by hand (the Ninth Street dough sheeter was broken).

Shouts to our customers: AS, Aaron, HM, Elizabeth&Elisabeth, Jeff B., Ian et al., Leah.

Phrase of the Week: "Fiscal Cliff Diving"

Track of the week (selected by Chef Matt):

Sunday Sunday Sunday: Sunday the fun continued at Fullsteam Brewery for the Sweet Relief Bake Sale for Hurricane Disaster Aid.  We donated 25 hand pies and local folks really brought out some awesome treats.  There were rochers from Katie of Rose's; Nutella cookies from Kelli of Toast; handmade Moonpies; Whoopie Pies, Cheese straws; and Caramels from Burgeoning Baker; Mince Pies and Apple Caramel Pies from Shoofly Pies; Jam from This and That Jam; Black and White Cookies and Taylor Ham and Egg Sandwiches from Guglhupf; Duck Pastrami Sandwiches from G2B and a whole bunch more.  I heard they raised over $2,500 so good on 'ya.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Happy as Pie: Thanksgiving Pre-orders

We typically don't do full pies, only tartlets, but Thanksgiving is calling our name.  We rolled out some of our favorites (Chocolate Chess, French Coconut, Pecan) for you to enjoy.

Here is the order form:

Suggested price: $16-20.
Four pick-up times/locations.

Questions? berenbaums at gmail dot com

Madeleine Studies

Ali R. sent me this amazing article from Slate.  In it, the author, Edmund Levin, attempts to reverse-engineer Proust's madeleine.  Having done a lot of experimentation on the madeleine myself (and I'm still tweaking the recipe), I thought I would weigh in.

Here is the primary document, from Remembrance of Things Past:

She [Marcel's mother] sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane …. and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.

A cake with that kind of density is more like a cookie than a cake.  Some modern madeleine eaters treasure the cake for it's softness, but I would assume that the cake as it was during Proust's time of wood-fired ovens was harder, hence the need to dip it in the tea to soften it.  Because choux pastry is so laden with butter, to bake it consistently at high heat (400-425 degrees) and retain its soft texture without burning it, you need an extremely precise oven (i.e. gas-fired or electric) and constant temperature, which is difficult to attain with wood fire.  Hence, the cake must have been baked at a lower temperature (300-350 degrees) for a longer time, thereby explaining the dense/dry/crumbly crumb that Proust so enjoyed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Week 80

The Product: Rave reviews this week on Chef Matt's Shepherd's Pie Savory Vegan Hand Pie.  The Plantain Chips he made were bomb too - perfect combo of sweet, spicy, and salty.

Da Crew: As always, many thanks to our fantastic, hardworking crew: Chef Matt; SZ; Ali R.; Andy; and Jaime.

Shouts to our customers: Marybeth and Allen; Ian Et al.; the Stock-Hoffmans; Billy.

Track of the week (Selected by Chef Matt):

Friday, November 2, 2012

I Read Mitchell Davis' Dissertation...

...So sprinkle some confetti on me! Having written an unpublished dissertation, I know from experience that no one save for the author reads dissertations, even dissertation committee members, spouses, friends, and admirers. If you are thinking about gaining a PhD, be prepared for the fact that your dissertation chair will likely not think about your dissertation as an intellectual product, but only as a laundry list item that needs some stylistic critique and armchair quarterback-, backseat driver-type comments.

Yet after a brief email exchange, I was motivated to read Beard Foundation Executive Vice-President Mitchell Davis' doctoral dissertation in Food Studies.

His thesis goes like this: Food, like other cultural products, exists within a discourse that is both structured and structuring (Bourdieu). People are affected by food enough to write about it and food writing affects what chefs cook, and what diners believe about what they are eating.  Davis' paper provides a history of the food writing industry, especially New York food criticism, and in particular food writing at The New York Times.

Davis finished this monograph around 2008, and reading it in 2012 gives one the sensation of looking at the last fifty years of American food writing as a prelude to our current moment of a Food Network Society.  The dissertation creates a theoretical framework for what (I hope, at last) is the zenith of American food fetishization circa 2011-2012 (can it get any more crazy than it is?).  It is as if as Mitchell Davis created his theories, the gustatory landscape was self-propagating his conclusions an an exponential rate.  The unanswered question, of course, is, what was the revolution that could condense 50 years of food writing into a hyperfestishization of food in 2011-2012?  We have certainly been building up to it in the years after the downturn of 2008 (did the recession increase our awareness of what has value in the world (i.e. food?); are more smart people underemployed now and as a result turning to the previously "dirty" industry of food service?).  But if gastronomy writ large (and especially food writing) is some kind of complex system, the system has reached a threshold state and proliferated, pollinating and expanding exponentially.

Though Davis' restaurant review analysis is thorough and edifying, I would enjoy the opportunity to counter his thoughts (collected in the last twenty pages) on American cuisine.  This question is frequently brought up on his very fine podcast, Taste Matters: What is American food?  Though many would ascribe American food to our ideology, traditions, aesthetics, and general "American" disposition, I would argue that deep structures and regional tastes exist in and apart of our cultural production.  What I mean is that on some kind of biological level, our palate and other sensory organs differ in such a way that American tastes can be defined, even when accounting for regional differences.  The palate, like the psyche, is symptomatic of pathological behaviors of taste.  What could be the cause of this I don't know (the water?).  But I do know that specific attributes of American food demarcate it from other international foods in such a way as one could compare and contrast: the density/lightness; the colors; the blandness/piquancy; the flavor combinations; the degree of saltiness; the oiliness; the brightness; the char; the consistency/inconsistency of the flavor palette (do the flavors come through like notes or like a chord?).  This is a difficult question to attack, but I think Pandora has already done a pretty good job of it with regards to music -- why not food?