Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Artisanal LA: Plush Puffs Puts the "More" in S'mores

Of the numerous temptations at last weekend's Artisanal LA, the sweets ruled the roost at Santa Monica Place. No less than 34 participants devoted themselves to sharing cakes, pies, cookies, brownies, caramels, jellies, and a host of other toothsome treats. Le Bon Garcon's handmade caramels got my vote for "Best Packaging" and a fabulously buttery product whose cool and silky surface reminded me of those chocolate Ice Cube candies. Sweet Détente offered organic pastries that were presented with a cultural history of each recipe's origin. But it was the gourmet marshmallows by Plush Puffs that completely bowled me over.

Reliving childhood memories of toasting marshmallows at the Plush Puffs booth. Not having had a real outdoorsy childhood, I always toasted marshmalllows on the kitchen range, so this was way more nostalgic than one would think!

Jennifer Leavens and Stacey Webb of Plush Puffs were the most welcoming and sincere vendors that Shiho and I spoke to at the entire show. And, like enthusiastic counselors at Camp Willy Wonka, they encouraged visitors to their booth to not only try every flavor of their product, but to toast said product on bamboo skewers over ramekins that held cans of Sterno.

Jennifer Leavens (at left) and Stacey Webb invited the curious - and just plain greedy! - to try every flavor of Plush Puffs.

In case you haven't heard, bacon is apparently the new chocolate. Almost every dessert booth we encountered had a bacon-enhanced version of their specialty. Plush Puffs also offers a maple bacon marshmallow, which like every other dessert booth we encountered, was out of stock. But no matter. Their remaining flavors took the whole marshmallow experience to new heights, literally.

Let them eat... marshmallow?! Plush Puffs' two-pounder is the size of a layer cake that would make all my birthday wishes come true!

Your basic supermarket marshmallow is stiff, dry, and powdery on the outside, gooey and almost Stretch Armstrong-like within. Plush Puffs are softer, with an almost pillowy texture. The dusting of sugar or cocoa on the Chocolate Chipetta and Simply S'mores varieties is very light, and enhances rather than dominates the creamy marshmallow texture. They are amazing "raw." (Untoasted.) But toasting them really brings out their best qualities.

Stalk of shame: We had to use a new skewer for each flavor of marshmallow sampled and I was somewhat embarrassed by the growing bundle I held in my hand. But not for long.

After sampling such exotic flavors as Strawberry Hibiscus (lovely and light), Orange Honey (perfect for topping baked yams at Thanksgiving), and Chocolate Chipetta (the chocolate is like buttah), I decided that Vanilla Bean was the most iconic flavor of all the Plush Puffs - lightly sweet without that overly sugary burn, what I always wished regular marshmallows tasted like. Now if I can only get away with keeping a can of Sterno on my desk...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bagel Fest at Brent's

Maya and I had been missing Gary L., a curmudgeonly soul who retired from the university a couple of years ago. After years of trekking miserably down the 405, he refused to drive south, but invited us to be his guests at a deli near West Hills where he now makes his semi-reclusive home (oops, now everyone will want to come over - sorry, G!). Although he offered several choices, the conversation kept coming back to Brent's in Northridge, so off we went.

Tucked into a strip mall on Parthenia Street, Brent's looked promising, initially from the large number of people waiting for tables. Usually, a long wait for a table is a big turn-off but since a) we had driven all this way to see Gary and b) trusted his fresser's instincts on good food, we were unusually patient. As we waited, I marveled at the rotating case of oversized layer cakes, a typical mid-century accoutrement in such an establishment. I have always wanted one of these in my home. One of my most favorite sights in the world - next to rutilated quartz and George Clooney, is a well-stocked pastry case.

Ace of cakes: I can see why Wayne Thiebaud loved to paint these.

When we were finally seated, we we given a plate of bright green pickles. Not your average dills in a jar, these had a really fresh, recently brined flavor. Gary was quick to point out their other benefits.

"In sufficient quantity, they are one of the best laxatives you can find," he said proudly. "I think they [work] even better than prunes."

Despite this warning, we managed to polish off about a half-dozen apiece.

Gary's secret to success. Maya said she will stick to applesauce.

Scanning the room eagerly to see what other people had ordered, I was getting a hankering for their thick-sliced bacon, which looked like it would be the perfect combination of chewy and crispy. But when you're with Gary L., more is, well, more. This was the guy who at my wedding, bypassed the more traditional method of dipping strawberries, marshmallows, or pretzels into the chocolate fountain in favor of filling a teacup for himself with the aromatic nectar. We ordered what was politely named, "Fish Buffet for Two," and asked the server if they could make it enough for three.

"It easily serves four," she said with a smile, writing down our bagel choices.

Eating at places like Brent's must be part of what it means to be "the Chosen People." Maya and Gary prepare to dive into the fish buffet.

The table practically groaned under the platter of whitefish, sturgeon, creamed herring, and Maya's favorite, lox. Served along with this were two bagels for each of us - Gary ordered onion bialy - were generous accompaniments of cole slaw, cucumber, and potato salads.

After a meal like this, we weren't good for much else, except to drive around for a couple of hours looking for an appropriate dessert. Although Brent's cakes and black-and-white cookies the size of a dinner plate were tempting, Gary said he knew just the place for designer cupcakes, SusieCakes.

Hard to choose just one. Of each.

We chose twos and threes of the cupcakes that looked most appealing: peanut butter, pineapple upside down cake, red velvet - or "red flannel" as Gary dubbed it - and classic chocolate and vanilla. We then took the long way home, attempting to digest both our enormous brunch and the pastoral scenery. To Maya and I, who never venture farther north than Westwood, the Valley was an unexpected delight of rustic tree-lined streets with quaint cottages next to newer homes. It was, as she said, a "Mental Health Day."

When we finally got back to Gary's house, cups of coffee and a dish of gossip accompanied the cupcakes. We were also greatly entertained by his bachelor's penchant for "shopping the sales," as he showed off numerous cabinets filled with rows of toothpaste, shower cleaner, and other household sundries. But the most fascinating collection of all had to be the array of canned goods, in particular, a lifetime supply of chicken and beef stock. Not only does he pour the stock over pet food for his two dogs, Tahra and Jake, but he makes pots of soup for the whole family as well.

"They don't like the chunky potatoes," Gary observed, as he checked on a roast he had cooking in a Crock-Pot - for both himself and the dogs. "But they love mashed potatoes.

"On weekends, I don't cook for them because the house gets cleaned on Friday," he continued. "On Sunday, I do a scramble with ground turkey, broccoli, tomatoes, and celery. The last one had asparagus in it."

I was about to ask if the dogs' urine smelled different after they ate asparagus, but was distracted by another cupboard full of dryer sheets.

Jake meets soup.