12 DAYS OF BROOKLYN: Good Porches Make Good Neighbors

Day Eight • 12 Views of Brooklyn
Photograph by Joy Makon.  See Who's Who.

Photograph by Joy Makon. See Who’s Who.

dec13 date stamp by Joy Makon DesignBROWNSTONE BROOKLYN, PEOPLE SAY – never mind that some of the rowhouses are brick or limestone, or interrupted by modern condos of concrete, glass and steel and the occasional larger pre-war apartment buildings. In mind’s eye, the long blocks between avenues have a rhythm or regularity that overcomes the variations. One can call the roll of neighborhoods: Albemarle Place, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights…all the way up the alphabet past Prospect Park South and Sunset Park to Windsor Terrace, where among the low-rise blocks are two jewels: Howard Place and, seen here, Fuller Place. Thanks to careful stewardship by the Fuller Place homeowners, the line of contiguous front porches is as pristine as this new-fallen snow.

Coffee Conscious

Day Seven 12 Sips of Brooklyn
The author relaxes at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint.

The author relaxes at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint.

OUTSIDE THE CITY LIMITS, businesses and commuters rely on fossil fuel. Here in New York, we know the true engine of enterprise is coffee.

Years ago, while studying graphic design in Greenwich Village, I frequented a diner on Waverly Place that had a unique dispensing system for its coffee. Order a cup and the counterman would turn the tap on what looked to be an ordinary kitchen faucet sticking from the wall. Out came black java. How cool was that! I visualized this vast network of pipes running through the city parallel to the Catskill water lines, and plotted how to get it supplied to my kitchen. Eventually, I realized it was merely a clever positioning of their coffee urn in the kitchen behind, maximizing space in the limited serving area (my naïveté is best explained by two words: art school).

In the past two decades, coffee in the city has gone from commodity to connoisseur. On the one hand, there is the ubiquitous Starbucks, basically a slicker, upscale Chock Full o’Nuts. For mocha’s sake, there are Starbucks in shopping malls (!) and thruway rest areas. Good enough for a quick joe, but basically homogenized brown water dispensed by undertrained baristas. On the other hand are the coffee bars with more highly trained staff, higher quality product and various levels of design finish or stylish marketing as product differentiators.

I prefer my coffee from what I call the roaster/merchant. These shops work on the assumption that there is a market in consumers who want to drink their java not in some plush salon, but in the roastery itself. These are not your fancy wineries perched at the edge of the vineyard, with peacocks wandering about and classical music piped in. No, these are a few tables pushed up against bean bags hard by the coffee roaster. A certain industrial esthetic predominates.

Grumpy-roasted

Café Grumpy in Greenpoint is an excellent example of the roaster/merchant. Here you know the roasted beans are fresh, having travelled all of 20 feet from roasting to cup. Grumpy embodies a trend in the coffee trade that won’t be unfamiliar to other artisanal businesses. The menu in the shop provides some basic information about the origins (country and region—often down to the specific valley) and its website links to photos of the coffee growers in their plantations, taken by staff who are obviously inspecting the product and working closely with the farmers.

I think this trend appeals to a modern desire by sophisticated buyers to be conscious of where a product is from, who made it and how it was made. In another industry, Apple Inc. has lately been beset by bad press covering the working conditions at its Chinese contractors plants. There is a developing insight that our Western consumption practices have real world consequences for people thousands of miles away, and we want and need businesses to care about this.

Bkly-Roasting-signBrooklyn Roasting Company is located on a cobblestoned street in DUMBO crisscrossed by old train tracks that used to serve the factories of an earlier era. Its  shop has a hard-edged factory feel, with a gorgeous Loring Kestrel roaster and industrial drums under stark lighting at one end and café seating at the other. Its website quotes its “coffeelosophy,” a listing of coffee awareness buzzwords: “best quality Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Organic certified and sustainable coffees.” Currently, it also shows pictures of co-owner Jim Munson on a coffee expedition in Sumatra.

Brooklyn Roasting Company

The roaster at Brooklyn Roasting Company

Today’s coffee houses are open about the details of their production, extending down to their care and concern for the small growers that supply them. That vision appears to go beyond mere coffee political correctness or a clever marketing ploy. The American Revolution (and the modern world) was hatched in the coffeehouses of Boston, London and Philadelphia. The concern shown by these new coffee merchants is for a sustainable future for the entire supply chain that leads to the consumer. That vision deserves to be central to any manifesto crafted in the coffeehouses of the artisan/maker movement growing here in Brooklyn.

For the anthem of the movement, I propose the KaffeeKantate by Johann Sebastian Bach, here performed in a coffeehouse by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir:

Brooklyn Roasting Company
25 Jay Street, Dumbo
718-522-2664

Cafe Grumpy
193 Meserole Avenue, Greenpoint
718-349-7623

Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Gill Sans Ultra Bold, by Eric Gill, Monotype, 1928. 

Ancient Craft, New Artisans

Day Seven 12 Tastes of Brooklyn
Miche, Bien Cuit's signature artisanal bread

Miche, Bien Cuit’s signature artisanal bread

ARTISANAL BREAD MAKING IS NOT FOR SISSIES. The baker’s day starts before the sun rises, and a small batch of handcrafted loaves can take up to three days to make, from start to finish, with repeated fermentation and kneading and rising stages. The natural yeast starter used is a living organism, combining yeast from the air with lactobacteria from the flour and the air to create a fermenting or leavening agent. It’s not called wild yeast for nothing—it can be temperamental, depending on which exact strains of bacteria develop, how they combine with a particular wheat flour, the temperature, and so on. It is the baker’s art to nurture their starter—the mother yeast (madre, if you’re an Italian baker)—like a baby, keeping it alive often for decades, for that is what gives each baker’s breads their distinct flavor and texture.

This was the way bread was made for centuries—and it’s a craft that is still being practiced in some special places in Brooklyn. So forget that 30-Minute Artisan Bread recipe.

Raisin walnut, baguette, olive—just a few of Bien Cuit's breads.

Raisin walnut, baguette, olive—just a few of Bien Cuit’s other breads.

Go instead to Bien Cuit in Boerum Hill or Settepani Bakery in Williamsburg where you’ll be hit by the most intoxicating smells as you walk through the door. Two of our favorite loaves:

MICHE, from Bien Cuit
This is Bien Cuit’s signature bread (pictured, at top)  made from three wheat and three rye flours and fermented for up to 68 hours. It’s round and beautiful with a well-done (bien cuit) crunchy crust and very tasty crumb texture. Master baker Zachary Golper learned to bake on an Oregon farm at 19, where he watched and learned from a man who made bread by traditional European methods: building up the starter over a few days and baking the loaves in a wood-fired adobe oven. Golper went on to refine his craft, working in France and at the Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, until, luckily for us, he and his wife, Kate Wheatcroft, opened up a bakery in Boerum Hill. We’ve heard he never sleeps, and we believe it because starting at 7 am, baskets at the bakery are full of fresh bread, including the miche, $10 for a 1 lb loaf.

PANETTONE, from Settepani Bakery
These festive raisin-studded tall round loaves appear in bakeries and groceries around Christmastime, sometimes in beautiful elaborate gift boxes that look good enough to hold the crown jewels. Many are shipped from Italy, where the panettone was invented centuries ago in Milan. (Like all old Italian recipes, there seem to be a lot of  tall tales about how it came it be.) But nothing beats a fresh-baked panettone, which is what you’ll find at Settepani Bakery.

Rows of Milanese panettone at Settepani Bakery in Williamsburg.

Rows of Milanese panettone at Settepani Bakery in Williamsburg

Owner Nino Settepani (the name means “seven breads”—how perfect) was born in Sicily, but has lived here most of his life. A master baker trained at the French Culinary Institute, he’s been baking breads and pastries of all kinds for over 30 years now. Production of the panettone begins in the fall each year. The first step is to “wake up” the yeast starter that he uses year after year, refreshing it every day to make it strong and active.

Settepani's chocolate panettone comes in a beautiful gift-worthy box.

Settepani’s chocolate panettone comes in a beautiful gift-worthy box.

By November 15, he begins making his first batch of panettone, a process that takes up to 30 hours—mixing the dough, proofing it overnight for 12 hours, mixing it again and letting it rise in a temperature-controlled steam box for another 6 or 7 hours. “It might come out at 2 pm, but lately it’s been 4 or 5 pm because it’s so cold,” he tells me. After that the loaves are baked very slowly for two hours. Each holiday season, Settepani Bakery produces more than 600 panettone of various types. The Milanese has raisins and cut dried fruit in it; the Veneziano, almonds, but no raisins. There’s also a chocolate one. They come in 1 lb, 2 lb and “baby” sizes. The Milanese is $16 for 2 lbs, $10 for 1 lb, $2.50 for the baby.

Bien Cuit
120 Smith Street, Boerum Hill
718-852-0200

Settepani Bakery
602 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg
718-349-6524

Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Gill Sans Ultra Bold, by Eric Gill, Monotype, 1928.

12 DAYS OF BROOKLYN … And Some Are Rainy

Day Seven  12 Views of Brooklyn
Etching by Eric March in an edition of 25, at the Park Slope Gallery.

Etching by Eric March. Edition of 25, at the Park Slope Gallery.

OF COURSE THE STEEPLE IS FAMILIAR. If you’ve ever commuted out of Brooklyn and back to the Seventh Avenue stop on the B/Q line, then you know this view looking south on the avenue. But it takes the artist’s eye and the etcher’s touch of Eric March to show the delicate beauty of a moment when you or I would likely be preoccupied by wet shoes. Even if this particular spire is not on your route home, then almost surely you have one of your own, or two, for Brooklyn lives its nickname as “the city of churches.” How horrifying when the tornado of 2010 attacked not just our trees but our steeples, shaking their bricks and stones, rattling their slate roofs, shackling them to scaffolds for months and months. A few were even removed rather than rebuilt – like yanking a tooth – and still others were humiliatingly reduced. Of course we personalize these losses: Thrilling as the new towers of downtown Brooklyn may be, we know in our souls they are impersonal, godless, compared to our neighborhood steeples. (See Who’s Who.)

End-of-this-World Hot Chocolate

Day Six 12 Sips of Brooklyn
The spicy hot chocolate at The Chocolate Room.

The spiced hot chocolate at The Chocolate Room.

dec11WHAT SHALL WE DRINK AT THE ENDING OF THE WORLD? What better way to honor the end of the Mayan’s Long Calendar (and the destruction of all we know and love) than by serving their favorite beverage: chocolate, preferably hot.

What with Niburu (or is it Planet X?) ready to carom off us in a celestial game of billiards, the impending total blackout, solar flares, devastating meteors and the reversal in the rotation of the Earth, things promise to get pretty busy around here soon. Even NASA is attempting to debunk the rumors, which should only encourage the anxiety: “Man, the government obviously knows all about this and they’re just covering it up to keep the citizens docile.”

So, to stock up for our ultimate Go-bag (in the event that we have to head for our mountain redoubt to rebuild the human race), we went over to The Chocolate Room in the Slope for some hot chocolate. The real star there is the Spiced Dark Hot Chocolate, only available during the cold season or until the collapse of civilization, whichever ends first.

cho-room-choc-mix1236Made with a blend of Belgian chocolate (60% and 72% cocoa), Valhrona (French) cocoa, sugar, cloves and cinnamon, the drink gets its spiciness from Ancho and Chipotle chilis, an authentic addition the Mayans would appreciate. Floating in the middle of the cup was a delicious chunk of artisanal marshmallow.

Spiced Dark Hot Chocolate bears as little relation to supermarket/diner/skating rink hot chocolate as a delay on the F train bears to a collision with a brown dwarf planet. It is rich and loaded with flavonoids and other antioxidants as well as mild stimulants. The science is still out, but there is evidence that chocolate may improve your mood and heart health (when taken in moderation). The chilis also are reputed to have medicinal effects. Of course, the scientists are all busy pooh-poohing the end of the planet, so you can take their advice with a grain of salt.

The Chocolate Room sells its Spiced Dark mix to go in a meteorite-resistant one quart tin for $20 (also available from the website). If you want some marshmallows with that, stay away from those awful pellets sold in the supermarket, and go for Whimsy & Spice’s confections instead. The Brooklyn makers produce marshmallows in cardamom, maple, passionfruit and other flavors. (Available online and from local stores for $6.50 a dozen.)

Torres-hot-choc-mix1541Jacques Torres Chocolate is a true Mecca for chocolate, in solid or liquid state. The classic hot chocolate is rich and creamy, and they also have a Wicked version with Ancho and Chipotle chilis. They’ve thrown down the gauntlet by stating that they never use cocoa powder in their blends, and the packaged version is $18 for 16 oz.

I’ll leave it to the chocolate makers to battle over the nuances of cocoa powder vs. no cocoa powder, I’m heading down to my Niburu-proof bunker for some hot chocolate.

The Chocolate Room
86 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
718-783-2900
269 Court Street, Cobble Hill
718-246-2600

Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street, DUMBO
718-875-1269

Whimsy & Spice
646-709-6659

Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Goudy Oldstyle, by Frederick W. Goudy, Linotype, 1915.

Villabate Alba’s Famous Cannoli

Day Six 12 Tastes of Brooklyn 
Villabate Alba's pastry displays knock you over when you walk in the store. That's the cannoli, top left.

Villabate Alba’s pastry displays knock you over when you walk in the store. The cannoli are top left.

dec11CANNOLI WERE TRADITIONALLY MADE IN SICILY for Carnevale, or Mardi Gras, a final luxurious burst of richness before Lent. But really, aren’t they perfect for any feast? I have to agree with Mediterranean cooking scholar Clifford A. Wright: “A freshly made cannoli is an extraordinary taste of celestial paradise, a perfect conclusion to a feast.”

Villabate Alba, a family-owned Sicilian pastry shop established three generations ago in Bensonhurst, is the place to experience that paradise—and other seasonal delicacies, too. As the Michelin Guide would say, “Worth a special journey” if you don’t happen to live in the neighborhood. (They also ship.) The cannoli have perfectly crisp shells and are filled with ricotta flown in from Palermo. Candied orange rind at one end and a cherry at the other perfect the package.

Marzipan fruits, good any time of year.

Marzipan fruits, good any time of year.

Villabate (named after the village in northern Sicily where the shop’s founders, Angelo Alaimo and his son Emanuele, used to bake bread) is bustling every time you go in. But at this time of year, lines form. You’ll find tables stacked high with panettone boxes and lots of special cookies and sweets traditionally made around Christmas.

Villabate-cookies

Christmas cookie plates, ready to go.

They bake mostaccioli cookies, popular all over southern Italy—and Brooklyn—for the holidays. Apparently these used to be made with grape must (we’re talking back in days of the Roman Empire). They’re redolent of the spices of the Silk Road (think Italian gingerbread), filled with figs and topped with chocolate.

A pyramid of honey-soaked biscuit.

A pyramid of honey-soaked biscuit.

Rococò are crisp wreath-shaped cookies made with ginger and cloves, infused with almonds and studded with whole almonds. Honey balls stacked in a pyramid… The temptations are many. But be careful. You could go into a sugar coma just looking.

Villabate Alba Pasticceria & Bakery
7001 18th Avenue, Bensonhurst

718-331-8430

Photographs by Basia Hellwig. Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Goudy Oldstyle, by Frederick W. Goudy, Linotype, 1915.

12 DAYS OF BROOKLYN: Why ‘Chanukah House’ is Dark in 2012

Day Six   12 Views of Brooklyn
(Used by permission of the homeowner)

(Used by permission of the homeowner)

dec11DANIEL TEITELBAUM GIVES THE HISTORY of the exuberant decorations on his family’s house. “The miracle of Chanukah is supposed to be publicized. That is why Jews all over the world light their menorahs in the windows or doorways of their homes where people passing in the street can see it. We have just taken it a step further.” When their daughter was two years old, “We started with a single dreidle made out of wood and strung with white lights. We then added blue lights that we put up together with white lights around our home. From that time on we tried to add something new every year.” The renown of the house in Mill Basin has grown. “In 2006, we were presented with a proclamation from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz naming our home, the official Brooklyn Chanukah House.” (More about this in our Who’s Who.) This year is sadly different:  “Due to Hurricane Sandy the Brooklyn Chanukah House is not able to put up its display. We suffered significant damage to our home and the repairs will not be completed before Chanukah. We apologize for this and wish to thank everyone for their messages of support. We will be back next Chanukah better than ever. Chanukah Sameach.”

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