Better than Burfis – Sweet Silk’s Contemporary Confections

What happens when, in launching a new product line, you tap into the culinary heritage of your family while adding your own contemporary sensibilities to the equation? If you create something truly original and delightful, you can hit the zeitgeist, delivering the unexpected in a familiar form. Shefalee Patel is doing just that with her confections company, Sweet Silk, introducing a new rendition of the traditional Indian desserts, commonly called burfis, in an elegant, petit four style.

Patel did not begin her career as a baker. For many years she was a civil and environmental engineer, providing planning and expertise for major building developments, a pursuit that kept her on the move to exciting locations such as Dubai. It was there that she was exposed to an international array of fine chocolatiers– Forrey & Gallard, Patchi, Jeff de Bruges and Al Nassma – and she was moved by the exquisite quality and decadence with which they presented their goods. Having been raised in a community that places importance on abundance and generosity in the context of hospitality, Patel felt a connection to and was inspired by these luxurious brands.

Almond Orange Chocolate

Her family hails from the Indian state of Gujarat, and she learned to cook in the kitchens of her parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents. She was especially drawn to baking and felt she had a talent for it; this affinity found its way into lovingly made holiday packages for friends and family. When the economy collapsed and Patel was laid off, she began making party favors for weddings and other celebrations while simultaneously looking to return to her industry full-time. Well, the sweets took off and she left engineering behind.

I met her at the Queens Economic Development Corporation’s Entrepreneur Space in Long Island City where she runs her kitchen operations. We sampled from a box of confections picked up at Indian sweet shops in Jackson Heights, exploring the continuum of traditional recipes and flavors as they migrate across the globe and through generations. These goodies are fun, colorful and powerfully saccharine – friendly katli, little rolls of flour and simple syrup with spices, jelobi, an exuberantly orange funnel cake, varieties of khoya, milk-based sweets, such as gajjar halwa, refreshing ricotta-based squares featuring pureed vegetables like carrot or squash.

Coconut Cashew Truffles

Although the Patel family is from the western-most corner of India, she makes products that echo regional confectionary treats found all over the country – in the South, where nuts and dried fruits are prevalent, in the North, where different kinds of flours (wheat, lentil, chickpea) are blended with spices. There’s also a selection of milk-based sweets. Through experimentation, Patel has been able to focus these flavors into pieces that are refined and intricate, appropriate for small portions. Part of this lies in a restraint from excessive sugar and butter, and also from a belief that the featured flavors should not overpower the base, whether flour, fruit and nuts or milk. She also introduces chocolate, not a traditionally Indian ingredient, very effectively. Depending on who you are and where you come from, you read these treats either as familiar flavors dressed up in fancy clothes or as fudges and truffles spiked with exotic new tastes.

Vanilla Chai Spice

From the Nut & Dried Fruit category, Sweet Silk offers Coconut Chocolate Ganache, a layer of chocolate on a base of coconut, exceptionally moist with an infusion of cardamom that brings its own refreshing essence, Medjool Date Pistachio, Apricot Honey Nut, and Fig Roasted Cashew, among others. From the Milk Based Sweets, you’ll find Vanilla Chai Spice, which has a maple candy quality from vanilla cream infused with black tea, and a sophisticated blend of chai spices – ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and peppercorn – along with Mango Coconut Cream and Mocha Milk Chocolate. From the website, you can order boxed assortments of 6, 12 or 24 pieces. Sweet Silk will also design and package large orders for special events in beautifully adorned boxes customized for the theme, tone, and color scheme of the occasion.

Vegan Fruit Collection

Corners are not cut with ingredients or techniques. The Sweet Silk team makes its own ricotta to achieve just the right texture and flavor and branches its own pistachios, a step that assures a bright green color in the final product. Seasonal ingredients are featured at appropriate times ensuring maximum flavor – currently, this is found in the Mango Coconut Creams.

Look for the Vegan Fruit Collection – no dairy, eggs, preservatives or sugar – which combine dried fruits such as dates, apricots, and figs with spices, vanilla or a touch of honey with an added crunch of pistachios, cashews or pine nuts.

Scenes from Diwali Mela in Jackson Heights

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This chaat walla works in a restaurant that also sells Tibetan fare.

Over the past year or so I’ve taken to calling the neighborhood that radiates outward from the 74 St/Roosevelt Ave. subway stop Himalayan Heights, even giving food tours with that name. The moniker springs from the hood’s  increasing number of Tibetan and Nepalese joints. But this part of Jackson Heights was once known as Little India. With its sari salons and bridal jewelry shops it still has a huge Indian presence.I was reminded of this fact at Diwali Mela. The festival took place along 74 St. on Sunday and featured plenty of Indian food vendors as well as live performances of bhangra dancing. There was nary a momo or cup of butter tea in sight.

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Dosa Delight was on hand griddling up its
namesake Indian rice and lentil flour snacks.

Dosa—the rice and lentil flour crepe—that often takes the form of a huge cone that can engulf an entire dinner table isn’t exactly a popular  street food in Jackson Heights.  That didn’t faze the folks from Dosa Delight though. They were on hand griddling up compact versions of mysore masala dosa, cut into four pieces to make for easier eating. It was fun to watch the dosai being made right in front of my eyes and even more fun to tuck into the incredibly spicy crepe.

The gang  from Al Naimat  Sweets fries up fresh jalebi.

Jalebi, a sugary pretzel-like treat is a staple of neighborhood  sweet shops. The Diwali festival is one the few times one can see them being freshly made. Swooping squiggles of wheat dough are squirted into a vat of oil. Once the frying’s finished they’re given a bath in sugar syrup.

Ful pitha, a Bangladeshi sweet made from toasted rice.

I skipped the jalebi. Minutes later I encountered an entire table covered with Bangladeshi sweets. I chose ful pitha, a rather ornate specimen that calls to mind henna mehndi tattoos. As I sat in the the plaza munching on the sticky rice based treat, I counted myself luck to be in Little India that day.

Sandwich Wednesday: Morning Glory Bakery’s Pork Chop Bun

It’s special, and spicy too.

“Finished today,” the lady behind the counter at Rego Park’s Morning Glory Bakery said when I pointed to the sign behind the counter promoting the new and delicious-sounding pork chop bun. “Come early,” she said as I left with an iced coffee.

Mustard stem, chili, and pork make for a fine breakfast sandwich.

So I returned the next day to find an entire fleet of the sandwich-like buns lining the counter. I was kind of hoping for an entire pork chop, but that’s just way too much to expect for $1.50. Inside the split top bun was  a lively mix of pork, chopped mustard stem, and green chili peppers. A finer Chinese breakfast for under $2 was never had in Rego Park.

Morning Glory Bakery, 93-05A 63rd Dr., Rego Park, 718-830-0888

Sandwich Wednesday: The Pambazo at Tortas Neza

The following Sunday I returned, excited to lose my pambazo virginity. Galdino was excited too, his favorite team, Los Pumas de La UNAM had just scored a goal. I ordered a pambazo ($6), not quite sure what to expect. The first step in making the pambazo is dunking the bread briefly in a guajillo chili sauce, dying it a reddish-orange and infusing it with a gentle heat. The bread, also known as pambazo, is then fried for a bit on the griddle and then filled with a mixture of potatoes and chorizo. It’s topped with crema, queso fresco, and , in my case, a lashing of fiery red salsa.

Unlike Galdino’s other sandwiches, which employ everything from head cheese to chorizo omelets and hot dogs, there is only one type of filling. “This is the original style, the way we do it in Mexico City,” he said as he handed it to me. It is dainty compared to some of his other creations, notably the football sized Torta Puma, but no less messy or delicious. The bread—crunchy and fried in parts, soft  in  others,but possessed of a nice heat throughout—just barely holds up to the hash-like filling of potatoes and crumbled sausage. I’m not sure whether they eat this bad boy for breakfast in Mexico City, but I like to think of it as the best, and messiest, Mexican breakfast sandwich I’ve ever eaten under the 7 train. The carb-on-carb combo gave me plenty of fuel for a long walk down La Roosie.

Tortas Neza, 111th St. and Roosevelt Ave., Corona

Teaching Kids the ABC’s (Apples, Beets and Carrots)

We all know that kids are quite often picky eaters. Their perfect world is a reverse food pyramid. Anyone who has argued in favor of veggies over gummy bears would gladly welcome a way to get kids excited about healthy eating. Lucky for city kids and parents, there’s Allergic to Salad, a series of kids’ cooking classes organized by Stacey Ornstein, a writer, and chef whose past collaborators include Mark Bittman and the Food Network.

Since 2006, Ornstein has been teaching cooking classes around the city. She first started working with Spoons Across America, a New York-based organization pioneering nutrition-based education for children. She currently develops curriculum, recipes, and teaches healthy, international cooking classes in NYC public school after-school programs, summer camps, gardens, adult ESOL classes, libraries, the Institute of Culinary Education, and at various “pop-up” locations. Ornstein also continues her partnership with Spoons Across America, now as Director of Programs.

With the positive feedback generated from her classes and with funds from various sources such as the Western Queens Greening Initiative and ioby.org, Ornstein has recently founded Allergic to Salad. Initially started as a blog chronicling her classes and cooking philosophy, this April sees the launch of Allergic to Salad classes. Currently, funds for another series of classes are being raised through the organization ioby.org. This month’s classes show kids ages 2-3 and 4-10 how to make their own pasta lunches from scratch, not with a box but by filling a bag with ingredients and using a fun shaken’ make a technique.

As the NYC borough with a vast wealth of culinary traditions, one might think that Queens kids have healthy home-cooked meals. But, many families can’t make the kind of schedule that involves cooking nutritious meals each night. The unfortunate consequences can lead to health problems including obesity and diabetes. Classic excuses for a neglected kitchen are lack of time, money, or skill. But, Allergic to Salad breaks down those barriers. Using global inspiration to make everything from chocolate beet cakes to Indian kachori celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi, Stacey proves that both kids and adults can get excited about vegetables if they only give them a chance.

Ornstein takes inspiration from her own childhood for her class philosophy. Growing up, she was always cooking up a storm with her family. Dinnertime was a chance to come together and take turns wowing the rest of the table with edible creations. Nothing had to be complex. Supper could be pasta and a colorfully arranged salad. Whether simple or a little more involved mealtime was a platform for creativity in the family.

Memories of gathering around the the table, ready to try whatever your brother, sister, or parents cooked up, turned Ornstein into an adventurer in food flavors. Her exploratory attitude is reflected in the only two rules of the Allergic to Salad kitchen : “try everything” and “you don’t have to like it.” This combination of curiosity and openness characterizes the tone of class. And it works. One minute kids look at beets with disgust, the next minute when the fiercely pink veggies are in chocolate cakes, they’re eating them up. And just like the bright fuchsia hue of those beets, enthusiasm is contagious. When children proudly bring home a recipe, they want the whole family to get involved and try it.

Collaboration is the key to fostering healthy eating habits in families. When parents see that their children want to eat spinach, half the battle is over. Using whole, unprocessed foods and taking part in mealtime, kids begin to understand the origins of the food they eat. Recipes in the Allergic to Salad kitchen use the most local and readily available ingredients possible. They’re geared to be accessible to all budgets and schedules. With many arguments in favor and excuses quashed, what are you waiting for?

Empire Market, a classic German butcher in College Point

Empire Market is a classic German butcher shop that has been in the College Point neighborhood of Queens for 91 years, owned and operated by the Lepine family, now in its fourth generation of business. The full array of classic German meats can be found here – sausages of every ilk, including frankfurters, bratwurst, cold cuts and kielbasa, as well as good ‘ole pork (ham, bacon, chops), beef and chicken. Empire’s frankfurters appear on “best hot dog in New York City” lists – it’s no surprise since their products are mostly made on-site and, where appropriate, with a smoker, which is rare anywhere these days. Empire is a lively, good-humored establishment with a loyal following of old-guard Germans looking for blood-and-tongue sausage, local home cooks seeking high quality meats, and kids picking up penny candy.

The butcher shop is a legitimate legacy of the neighborhood’s long German heritage. In 1853, with a license from Charles Goodyear, an industrious immigrant from Hamburg, Germany named Conrad Poppenhusen started a major rubber factory in College Point. He built railroads, established ferries, and for his employees, many of whom followed him from Hamburg, he made available educational opportunities and supported the country’s first free kindergarden. At one point, College Point had more bars and beer gardens per capita than anywhere in the country.

Empire Market is a grocery, not a deli, everything is wrapped up to go for preparation at home. The meats are all made without nitrates or other preservatives, and the bacon has been double-smoked, which means you can eat it as-is, if that’s your preference. The widely popular hot dogs and bacon come out of the smoker on Wednesdays, so the best supply is from then until the end of the week. Empire also stocks a selection of traditional German foods, such as sauerkraut, egg noodles, pickles, horseradish mustard and favorite cheeses – including tilsit, a classic that smells like dirty feet but tastes fantastic.

I picked up a container of sauerkraut along with bratwurst in order to make a long-enduring German recipe that’s easy and filling, Bratwurst with Sauerkraut, Apples, Onions and Carraway Seeds – here’s an excellent example of it at Epicurious. A tip from John Lepine: try rubbing the carraway seeds together firmly in your palm, it breaks them up gently through friction. This dish is delicious – especially with the Empire Market supplies – the sour flavor of the sauerkraut balances the sweetness of the apples, all settled in with the rich juices of the bratwurst.

It’s uncommon and inspiring to see a family that has stayed together, thriving, in business for so long. Mike and Pat Lepine, and their sons, John and Michael, continue to serve up hand-made, all-natural sausages using methods unchanged for decades. How lucky for us. Empire Market is worth a trip.

Recipe: Simply Cool Watermelon Agua Fresca

air fryer reviewsOh, yes, it’s hot. Hot all over the country. There are so many culinary tricks for staying cool and comfortable that have made their way to our Borough from the tropical cultures of the world, some of which seem completely illogical. Consuming punishingly spicy dishes. Drinking tea as hot as you can stand it. Our neighbor Mexico gives us an effectively soothing treat we can quickly get behind, a cold, fruity, icy beverage that never fails to cool off the body, agua fresca.

Squeezing fruit into flat or carbonated water, especially citrus – lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit – is so refreshing. Why is that? Is it the hint of sour, the thought of those abundant juices? Agua fresca literally means “fresh water,” and it follows that same, basic principle, mixing fruit with water. I tend to use melons, either watermelon or canteloupe, but there are a million varieties out there. This is a recipe you can do after a long, warm day in the sun or after a long (unfair!) day at the desk.

Agua Fresca

Ingredients

4 cups watermelon, seeded and cubed

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar (the traditional Mexican recipes ask for 1/2 cup of sugar; I don’t like any at all; use to taste)

mint

1 lime

ice

Serves 8 in highball size glasses with ice.

Purée the watermelon, water and sugar (if desired) in a blender.

Put lime slice and 3 leaves of mint in glass and muddle.

Add ice to the glass, pour in the agua fresca, and stir. Garnish with sprigs of mint and slices of lime.

Since we’re dealing with ice on hot days I like to prepare these one glass at a time, but you can also prepare the agua fresca all in one pitcher if you need to.

A Piece of Cake at Sunnyside’s Sugar Room

air fryer reviewsPastry chef Juan Arache is here to say that you, baking novice, can make an absolutely beautiful cake.

That’s because everything you could possibly need – from the materials to the techniques to handy tips and advice – is available at Sugar Room, his cake making and decorating supply store and school located in Sunnyside, Queens.

Arache has been a pastry chef for 25 years and has lived in Sunnyside for 22. He opened Sugar Room in 2002 and does not regret not locating his shop in Manhattan one bit. Business has always been steady, attracting professionals and novices from all over the Tri-State area. Now, in the current economic downturn, customers are opting to give home-baking a try, as opposed to spending hundreds of dollars on custom fondant cakes. Some are even looking to earn a little extra income making cakes for others or to pursue a new career track.

Let’s say you walk into Sugar Room with vague notions of creating a festive and colorful dessert for a 4-year-old boy’s birthday party.

If proper and professional-looking fondant is what you prefer, Sugar Room stocks pre-prepared, ready-to-use fondants in an array of colors. Additionally, you can get silicon molds of flowers, boarders and lettering – simply press the fondant into the molds and out come perfectly carved decoration to apply right to the cake. The staff will suggest the right baking pans and cake recipes for working with fondant to help you towards success.

Perhaps your youngster favors a particular cartoon character or action hero. What about a large cake piled with fun and exciting figures? Sugar Room has the basics – Elmo and Spiderman for sure – but they also cater to more sophisticated interests such as Star Wars, (the scene where Luke duels Darth Vader!), fishing, car racing and volcanoes, to name just a few.

Any cake can be flavored, painted and accessorized with an impressive selection of specialty additions. You can find 300 different sprinkles and sparkles; cake flavorings including eggnog, mango and vanilla butternut; food coloring in pastels and neon; delicious fillings and all sorts of icings in tubes. There are hundreds of shaped cookie cutters and artfully themed cupcakes sets, and for these smaller projects, tons of tiny adornments.

For those with more advanced skills, Sugar Room has cake stands, colors to spray or dust on, edible gold gilding, and all shapes and sizes of frosting bags and tips.

Now you’ve got the bug and decide to build your skills with a course or a class. Sugar Room offers a full program of cake and pastry techniques, designed to give you a solid foundation, whether you’re a novice or developing professionally. You can take a 9- or 20-week course to become fully versed in cake production, or you can focus on particular pieces such as Fondant Tiered Cakes, Royal Icing and Cake Flow, Modeling Paste, String Work, and Piping and Spatula, most of which consist of 2 to 3 classes.

Whatever your aspirations or needs, Sugar Room is an excellent and inspiring resource for those looking to bake something delightful.

Sugar Room, 44-21 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, 46th St. stop on 7 Train, 718-707-2900