Friday, June 15, 2018

Summer Ice Cream Favorites and Fluffy Japanese-style Pancakes

It's no secret that my sweet tooth is my worst enemy. Back before Christmas, I gave the whole Keto lifestyle a try, and it was absolute torture. Now, I hear you saying that giving up sugar and carbs just before Christmas is a stupid idea. And you'd be right. But I wanted to test drive the lifestyle and see if it was something I could easily fall into after all the holiday excess.  Needless to say, I never did find my footing. I went running back to sugar like it was a boyfriend I had broken up with for all the wrong reasons, and now we're talking about getting engaged.

My number one weakness is ice cream, especially during the summer months. I will take all comers, from cookies and cream to strawberry cheesecake to mint chocolate chip. So when Hudsonville (a Michigan-based ice cream company I have loved for years) offered to send me some of their best selling flavors, I had no choice but to say yes.

The Mackinac Island Fudge was a new one for me, and I was an instant fan. It has ribbons of the rich buttery fudge that is the signature treat of Mackinac Island in Michigan. To my mind, this was the perfect ice cream to build a sundae with, because it already had the classic flavor profiles we all know and love, but with more interesting textures. It's not quite chocolate syrup, not quite chocolate flakes, but somewhere perfectly in between.

I was honestly surprised how much I liked the The Traverse City Cherry Fudge. I've never been a big fan of cherry ice creams, as they often have an overly artificial flavor to them and can lean extremely sweet. This one, however, had an amaretto ice cream base, which gave the diced cherry pieces a more sophisticated air. The chocolate wasn't heavy handed either, but was perfectly proportioned so as to make it a co-star and not the main attraction.

Lastly was the classic French Vanilla. As much as I love the flavor of a true, rich vanilla ice cream on it's own, I knew I wanted to find a special use for this one. Since I've always got brunch on the mind, I flashed back to the greasy spoon diners of my youth, who used to serve waffles and pancakes topped with a scoop an vanilla ice cream. I had also been wanting to try my hand had making some souffle pancakes, made internet famous by any number of Japanese cafes, where the locals and tourists wait for hours, just to try their fluffy texture.

Going through my cabinets, I zeroed in on one of  the new Nielsen Massey Organic Extracts. This new line features some of their classic extracts (peppermint, orange, lemon, and almond) with all the flavor and high quality of their other extracts, but now formulated with all organic ingredients. Since I am constantly experimenting with my Nielsen-Massey products, I wanted to give one of these new extracts a trial run. The orange one suddenly jumped out at me and the word, "Creamsicle," floated into place in my brain, like a long awaited block on a Tetras board. Creamsicle Souffle Pancakes. I needed to make them a reality right away.

Creamsicle Souffle Pancakes

4 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 egg yolks
6 tbsp cake flour (sifted)
1 tbsp of melted butter
1 tbsp Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean paste
1 tbsp Nielsen Massey Organic Orange extract
2 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp melted Hudsonville French Vanilla Ice Cream

Hudsonville French Vanilla Ice Cream
Candied Orange Peel
Orange Blossom Honey

Place all of the egg whites into a medium metal or glass bowl (do not use a plastic bowl!) and set in the fridge to chill until just before ready to use.

In a large bowl, add the egg yolks, vanilla bean paste, orange extract, butter, and melted ice cream. Sift the cake flour into the bowl and stir to combine until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Add sugar and cream of tartar to your chilled egg whites, then use a hand mixer to whip until they reach the stiff peak stage. Add one third of the egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and carefully fold until most of the swirls are gone. Add in the second third and repeat. Add in the last of the egg whites and repeat until completely combined.

Place a non stick skillet over medium heat. To achieve perfectly round, higher pancakes, you can use ring molds sprayed with cooking spray. For a more rustic shape, simply spoon the batter in small globs into the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, then carefully flip the pancakes (they will appear uncooked on top, but this is ok). Cook for another minute, or until both sides are evenly browned.

Plate and serve immediately. Should yield 4-5 pancakes.

Products were supplied to me by the companies mentioned in order to facilitate the writing of this post, but all opinions are my own.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Chicago's Ultimate Last Minute Mother's Day Brunch Guide 2018 Edition

Downtown Go-To's
Del Frisco’s- Gold Coast, a la carte, special hours
Maple & Ash- Gold Coast, $90 buffet plus all moms receive a complimentary glass of champagne
The Albert- Streeterville, a la carte, special menu and hours
III Forks- Lakeshore East, a la carte, special menu items
Michael Jordan's Steakhouse- Mag Mile, special menu items, special hours
The Signature Room- Mag Mile, $80 buffet, includes one glass of house sparkling wine*
Howells and Hood- Mag Mile, $39 buffet
Cantina Laredo- River North, a la carte, special menu items, complimentary drink for all moms
The Gwen- River North, a la carte, special menu items, all moms will receive a complimentary glass of rose and a box of truffles.
Benny's Chop House- River North, $39 4 course prix fixe, all moms receive a complimentary cake and a family photo
Imperial Lamian- River North, a la carte, special menu items
Portsmith- River North, a la carte, special menu items
Taco Joint- River North and Lincoln Park, a la carte, brand new menu and cocktail packages*
Nonnina- River North, special hours
True Food Kitchen- River North, a la carte, specialty mimosas*
Tortoise Supper Club- River North, $65.95 buffet, special hours
IO at the Godfrey Hotel- River North, $39 buffet
Weber Grill- River North, a la carte, special menu items*
Steadfast- The Loop, $49.99 buffet, additional $14.99 for bottomless mimosas
The Florentine- The Loop, a la carte, special menu items
Roanoke- The Loop, $33 3 course prix fixe*
Cindy's Rooftop- The Loop, a la carte, special menu items
LondonHouse- The Loop, $54 buffet
Punch Bowl Social- West Loop, a la carte or $25 buffet, complimentary mimosa for all moms*
Mercat a la Planxa- South Loop, a la carte, all moms will receive a complimentary mimosa
Acadia- South Loop, $55 3 course prix fixe, special hours

Northside Favorites
Shore Club- Lincoln Park, $45 for buffet, $11 for drinks
The Late Bloomer- Lincoln Park, a la carte, special menu items, moms receive a complimentary cocktail*
Bar Roma- Andersonville, a la carte, special menu items, all moms will receive a chocolate dipped* strawberry
Low Country- Wrigleyville & South Loop, a la carte, special menu items and drink packages
Commonwealth Tavern- Roscoe Village, a la carte, $3 mimosas & $6 build your own bloody marys*
The Second City- Old Town, $40 buffet, bottomless mimosas, and a 45 minute improv performance*

West and SouthTop Picks
Split Rail- Humbolt Park, a la carte, special Golden Girls themed menu
Tuscany- University Village, a la carte, special menu items
Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya- Wicker Park, a la carte free peach mimosa or sangria with every ramen purchase
MAK (Modern Asian Kitchen)- Wicker Park, a la carte, mom's will receive a free bowl with the purchase of another bowl of equal or lesser value
Cafe Robey- Wicker Park, a la carte, special menu items
Eden- West Town, a la carte, special menu items
Nana- Bridgeport, a la carte, special menu items*

Suburban Hot Spots
Prairie Grass Café- Northbrook, $51 signature benedict + buffet*
Pete Miller-s Steak and Seafood- Evanston & Naperville, $49.99 buffet
Perry's Steakhouse- Oakbrook, a la carte, special hours, $4.95 cocktails
El Tapeo- Oak Brook, $45 chef's market table plus one entree, dessert, and sangria
Rackhouse- Arlington Heights, $32.99 buffet, all moms get a complimentary raffle ticket to a prize drawing

*These brunch services have been personally tested and approved by Bunny and Brandy. Check out our reviews of these location for more info!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Weber Grill or Buff-Yay or Buff-Nay?

Brunch buffets can be tricky. Buffets are great for large or mixed groups, especially when those groups contain picky eaters, because chances are better that everyone can find something they'll like. Sometimes buffets are also the most economical option, but not always the most delicious. Sometimes they are overwhelmingly loaded with amazing food, but also with overwhelming price tags. The choice usually boils down to luxury or basic survival with very little in between. Over the years, I've taken mental note of a handful of buffets that I think do a good job of providing quality food for the price they're charging, and this small list usually ends up being some of the places I recommend most often.

After seeing some interesting items on Weber Grill's Easter brunch menu, I was curious to check out their breakfast buffet. I entered into it with a hopeful outlook and a touch of skepticism; hopeful in that I've had Weber's perfectly grilled cuisine before, but skeptical because their website didn't list much more than a few items. I took Starr along with me (she is a burger expert after all) and we settled in for what we hoped would be some delicious meaty offerings.

Weber Grill's interior is a little dark with a definite masculine aesthetic in the woods and red tones throughout. We settled into a comfy booth by a window and our adorably chipper server, Igor, made sure we had water and (in my case) coffee right away. We then sampled a couple of their breakfast cocktails while we created our game plan. The house mimosa was pretty simple, and actually tasted quite fresh. The Backyard Bloody Mary was made with their house mix and boasted a garnish of smoked Gouda, sausages, pickles, olives, and a chaser of Weber's own Backyard Brew. Though I'm not the biggest fan of bloody mary's, this one had a nice briny flavor with just a little kick of spice that I rather enjoyed.

The small selection of buffet items had been set up along the side of the bar, and the kitchen had a few items they could make to order. We decided to have the kitchen fix us up some sweet dishes while we composed our plates. Aside from the normal stuff you'd expect to see on a buffet (fruit, yogurt, cottage cheese, various bagels, pastries, cereals, and muffins), we were a little saddened to find only four hot dishes; scrambled eggs, house potatoes, bacon, and sausage. We took a little bit of everything back to the table and methodically tasted our way through them. What we discovered was that everything was actually cooked really well. The eggs were still moist and fluffy, unlike a lot of other buffet eggs I've come across, and the meats weren't overly greasy. The potatoes ended up being the best part, as they alone showed signs of the Weber Grill I know and love; along with the perfectly crisped spuds, there were chunks of tender steak.

Now, I don't mind a smaller buffet, and the food that was on this buffet was surprisingly good. I was just disappointed that there wasn't anything there that showed off the Weber brand. No grilled meats or veggies, nothing fire roasted or broiled or skewered. Just a simple continental breakfast. Now granted, this buffet will run you less than $20 a person, and for those kinds of prices, I'm more than certain that most people can get their money's worth. I guess I was just expecting to see a little more personality.

Igor cheerfully delivered our freshly made sweet dishes: some French Toast and a Belgian Waffles. Both had been garnished with fresh berries, fresh whipped cream, and came served with butter and maple syrup. Again, these were both plenty tasty, just not very creative, and with so many other restaurants in the area vying for attention, it was hard for me to understand why Weber wouldn't want to add a little more sparkle to their menu. After chatting with a few of the employees there, I came to understand that the buffet was created to offer the guests in the hotel upstairs an easy option, rather than to entice people off the street. This made total sense, and for a "hotel breakfast buffet," I think what they were putting out was pretty good. I just wanted more... fire.

Starr and I decided to stick around for the lunch service, which started at 11:00, so that we could remind ourselves what Weber Grill was really all about. We ordered a Firestarter Sampler, which came with a skewer of shrimp, chicken, steak, and BBQ ribs. Now this was what I pictured when I think of Weber Grill! Glistening meats with perfectly seared grill marks, wonderful marinades, and succulent seasonings, ready to be picked up and consumed in the most primal kind of way.

Starr decided to try out the Pulled Pork Sandwich, which came dressed with their house BBQ sauce and topped with a scoop of creamy cole slaw. This was backyard eating at it's finest, with lots of finger licking and lip smacking and sauce going absolutely everywhere. I went for the Prime Burger, which was topped with bourbon grilled onions, Wisconsin white cheddar, and fried pickles. The cheese had a bit of a mealy texture to it, but otherwise, this was a perfect burger, with plenty of flavor and a perfect char on the outside.

At the end of the day, if you're looking for a breakfast buffet that is quick, good, and not overwhelming to the senses or the wallet, Weber Grill is a great option. But if you're looking to satisfy your carnivorous cravings, get there after 11:00 and order from the lunch menu instead.

I was given parts of my meal free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Day and Night Drinking: Vintage Cocktails and Farmhouse Beer

You know how food bloggers tell a random story about their life before segueing into what the post is actually about? Well, I'm one of those food bloggers now, I guess...

When I was in college in Pittsburgh, there was an Italian restaurant where everyone went when they turned 21. Because most of us had only had beers, hard lemonades, and wine coolers up until that point, we all became obsessed with ordering classic cocktails once it was suddenly legal for us to get wasted. Some TV show or movie would mention a cocktail (like when Sex and the City made Cosmos a requirement of a girls' night out) and then one person would order it, bring it back to the table so that 5-10 friends could try it, and then a craze would ensue. One week, we were all ordering grasshoppers. Another week, it would be a round of Manhattans. Then dirty martinis. Then tequila sunrises. And so on as we challenged the limits of the bartender's handbook.

One night, I suddenly decided I wanted to try something new. I had been watching a lot Jeeves and Wooster and there must have been an episode in which Wooster went to America and indulged in some illegal gin cocktails at a party. I can still picture Hugh Laurie doing a frantic Charleston while spilling a drink all over his white gloved fingers. So I took a chance and ordered a lime gimlet, then proudly brought my prize back to the table, where it was passed around and excitedly sipped by a gaggle of theater majors. The gimlet then became the official cocktail of the week.

Wanting to retain my crown as a drink taste maker, I did a little research before my next trip to the local hangout. The following week, I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a Bee's Knees. The bartender sighed at me and shook his head at my pretentiousness, but he mixed up the cocktail all the same. Sadly, this one wasn't as much of a success as my previous choice due to the bartender being out of honey (which is kind of essential to the flavor) and my crown was usurped by a dancer who introduced everyone to Sex on the Beach.

The same thing would happen with beers. Everyone started off ordering whatever the $2 special was, but slowly we began asking about some of the more adventurous brews. This was before the micro-brew explosion happened, so things like seasonal releases from Samuel Adams were usually enough to impress us. Still, this kind of experimenting taught me that beer could actually be flavorful and complex and didn't just mean sipping vaguely bitter carbonated water that gave you gas and heartburn before it ever got your drunk.

These days, I like to honor my beginner drinking days by mixing up classic cocktails at home or trying new beers with friends. Picking up random finds from the grocery store or liquor store has helped me really identify what I like and what I don't. Still, I'm no mixologist, so I tend to stick to the classics. But now when I go out, I'm now a little more informed when browsing a cocktail menu or a beer list then I was back in my college days.

Last weekend, I queued some Jeeves and Wooster and put myself in the mood for some classic gin cocktails. I recently discovered Eau Claire Distillery, a Canadian company that just debuted its craft spirits in Chicago, and I was anxious to test out two of their signature products: Parlour Gin and Prickly Pear EquineOx.

The gin reminded me of more European styles, which tend to have less sweetness and more of an herbal flavor. I made a twist on a Bee Knee's with it, adding some Earl Grey tea along with lemon juice and honey. I really liked how smooth the gin made the cocktail, adding flavor and not just bite. The bergamot in the Earl Grey really complimented the subtle fruit and herb notes in the gin as well. Now with the Prickly Pear EquineOx, I didn't want to go the expected route and make a margarita. Instead, I used it to revamp my favorite classic cocktail; the gimlet. A little lime juice, a little agave syrup, and a splash of tonic water brought out the sweet fruity flavor of this spirit. I kid you not, this tasted pretty much like the most delicious juicy candy and I had to resist the urge to mix up more of these babies.

I also had the chance to sample a new brew from The Bruery out of California. I am already a huge fan of their Girl Grey, an ale brewed with Earl Grey tea (did I mention Earl Grey is my favorite flavor ever?), so I was interested to try their Saison Ardennes. To be honest, I'm not usually partial to blonder beers, but I am a big fan of sour or tart beers. This saison had a wonderful pucker to it, but it stayed firmly on the more savory end of the spectrum without veering too fruity. The floral and malt forward flavor made this ideal for pairing with simple, hearty food. I really enjoyed this alongside a BBQ chicken flatbread with some pepper jack cheese, which matched the beer's tang as well as it's spice.

I do have to say that my drinking options are much more exciting these days then they were back in college. But I'm glad that I took those years to develop a fearlessness about my beverage choices. When you go out to a restaurant and see a cocktail that has one or two things in it you're not sure about, don't be afraid to ask about them. A lot of the time, I order drinks without really knowing what I'm getting myself into. When it's not good, I know for next time. When it is good, I make note of the cocktail ingredients or the brewery that created the beer, and that gives me a new outlet to explore the next time I'm looking for something exciting to add to my home bar.

I was sent products free of charge by the companies mentioned in this post, but all opinions are my own.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Food News: Brunch Bites Returns to River North + GIVEAWAY!

UPDATE: A winner has been picked and confirmed. The giveaway is now closed, but tickets are still available for purchase.

Brunch Bites is back in Chicago on April 21st for another year of brunchy goodness!

This innovative event features some of River North's finest brunch destinations in a neighborhood-wide food treasure hunt that sends participants on a self guided walking tour in search of delicious food and awesome cocktails. There's 8 participating restaurants this year; 6 returning from last year's line up and two new additions.

Pick up tickets and check out the full list of participating restaurants and what they'll be serving HERE. Jump on it, because last year's event did sell out!

Want to see what last year's festival was like? Check out this post

Want to try your luck at winning a pair of tickets? Leave a comment below this blog post to be entered! A winner will be chosen at random next week. For extra entries, keep an eye on the Bunny and Brandy social media pages! Good luck!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bunny and Brandy's Easter Brunch Guide 2018

Best Bet Buffets
(Prices listed are per adult, prices vary for children)

Howells and Hood in The Loop: $39 

IO @ The Godfrey Hotel in River North: $39 
Maple & Ash in the Gold Coast: $90 ($25 additional for unlimited bubbles)
The Langham Hotel in The Loop: $155 
The Florentine in The Loop: $75 + additional $15 for drinks
Allium in the Four Seasons Hotel in the Gold Coast: $180  (includes tax and gratuity)
Torali at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Streeterville: $155 
Signature Room on the Mag Mile: $80 (includes a cocktail)
Filini at the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Loop: $55

Superb Suburban Spots

Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook will feature a special buffet + signature benedict for every diner for $51 per person
Libertad in Skokie will feature an a la carte menu with special menu items
Perry’s Steakhouse in Oak Brook: will be serving their dinner menu starting at 11:00 am
Tuscany in Wheeling will host a special buffet for $43 per person

Day Drinking Destinations

Cantina Laredo in River North: a la carte menu options with a complimentary mimosa or Bloody Maria
III Forks in Lakeshore East: $45 for one of three signature Eggs Benedicts and a brunch cocktail 
Lowcountry in Lakeview & The South Loop will both feature an a la carte menu with special items and $15 bottomless mimosa packages
Commonwealth Tavern in Roscoe Village will feature an a la carte menu with $3 mimosa bar and $6 bloody mary bar

Exclusive Easter Eats

Home Bistro in Lakeview will feature  a special Southern inspired a la carte menu
BarRoma in Andersonville will feature an a la carte selection of special menu items
Mercata la Planxa in the South Loop will feature an a la carte menu with special items
DelFrisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in the Gold Coast will feature a special a la carte menu
Eden in West Town will feature an a la carte menu with special treats
Imperial Lamian in River North will feature an a la carte dim sum menu featuring special Easter dumplings
Seven Lions in The Loop will have a 2 course pre fixe for $24 plus their regular a la carte brunch menu
TheLate Bloomer in Old Town will feature an a la carte menu with special items and cocktails
KingCrab Chicago in Lincoln Park is featuring their brand new a la carte brunch menu
Nana in Bridgeport will feature a special a la carte menu
Marchesa in River North will feature a special a la carte menu
Porkchop (All locations) will feature a special a la carte menu
Roanoke in The Loop will feature an a la carte menu with special items
Weber Grill in River North will feature an a la carte menu with special items

Friday, March 23, 2018

Recipe: Vanilla Scented Potato Croquettes

I'm kind of obsessed with Nielsen-Massey's Vanilla Bean Paste. I mean, actually obsessed. Sometimes I take the bottle out of my cabinet just so that I can open it and smell it, like it's cologne left by an ex-boyfriend. If I could pour this stuff into a diffuser and make my whole house smell like vanilla, I would. If I soak my hair in it, I would. It's not the same smell as vanilla extract, which is usually great at the front, but has that sharp alcohol bite on the tail end of the scent. The paste smells like you've just walked into a bakery owned by a beautiful French pastry chef who just happens to be single and just happens to be a former underwear model.

Although the vanilla bean paste is my go to flavoring agent for baked goods and desserts, I've always wanted to try using it in a savory context. Imagine that same French pastry chef decided to open a gastro pub next door to the bakery. Same amazing flavors, whole new environment. That's what I wanted to try.

I'd heard of people mixing vanilla into mashed potatoes before, so that seemed like a good place to start. I whipped up a simple batch, using red potatoes to make the mash extra smooth. I actually really liked using vanilla in this sort of way because it made the potatoes seem even more creamy and decadent, even though I hadn't added any cream (like I normally do when making mashed potatoes). The slightly floral flavor really added a depth and a certain je ne sais quoi to the spuds. While they were good with the vanilla added in, but they weren't going to be stealing any spot lights. So I decided to transform them into croquettes.

Now, the first time I attempted to do this, I used the potatoes chilled. Because they were extra creamy, I had a really hard time getting them coated in breading, and they turned out a bit bigger and flatter than I would have liked, almost like chicken cutlets. However, they tasted fantastic, with a lightly crisp exterior and a super creamy interior. Another downside was that they were rather delicate and could only be eaten with a knife and fork. I wanted finger food. So I made a second batch of the potato mixture and froze it. This resulted in the croquettes of my dreams! Crispy outside, impossibly creamy interior, infinitely snackable.

Version #1

Version # 2
To serve alongside the croquettes, I wanted some dipping sauces that were a little sweet and a little savory, but I also wanted to highlight the vanilla flavor at the heart of these magic nuggets. I tried a simple combo of sour cream, yellow curry sauce, and a bit more vanilla paste for my savory sauce. This was the right way to go, as the curry and vanilla made delicious friends, while the sour cream and potato made for a classic flavor combo. For a touch of sweet, I whipped up some home made applesauce (I used this recipe as a base, but subbed out the cinnamon guessed it... more vanilla). The overall combo of these two sauces could not have been better, and I loved that the potato+applesauce+sour cream medley gave off a kind of potato latke vibe.

Check out my final recipe below and then head on over to the Bunny and Brandy Instagram page to find out how to win some fabulous Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean Paste for your own sweet and savory experimenting!

Vanilla Scented Potato Croquettes

1 lb of red potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons of all purpose flour
4-5 eggs
2 cups of unflavored bread crumbs
Frying oil (vegetable, canola, corn, etc.)

Optional serving sauces:
2 table spoons of yellow curry sauce, 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste, 1 cup of sour cream
Homemade or store bought apple sauce with vanilla bean paste added in to taste

Place the potatoes in a pot of water, making sure they are completely covered, and bring up to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender all the way through. Drain and cool slightly.

Transfer the potatoes back into the pot. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the potatoes and vanilla bean paste. Use a stick blender to puree the potatoes until completely smooth. Let the potatoes cool to room temperature. Add in the egg yolks and flour, combine well, and then transfer the mixture into a lidded freezer safe bowl. Freeze the potato mixture for 1-2 hours, or until they achieve an ice cream-like consistency.

Heat frying oil on medium high in a deep pan. Set up a breading station with the eggs scrambled in one dish and the bread crumbs in a second dish. Scoop the potato mixture into the 2-3 inch balls (a small trigger action ice cream scoop or melon baller works well for this, but a large spoon can also be used). Drop the balls into the egg mixture, then transfer to the bread crumbs and coat thoroughly. Repeat this process so that the balls have a double layer of coating.

Add no more than 5-6 balls into the oil at a time and watch them carefully. They will brown quickly and only need to cook for a minute or so on each side. Once the croquettes are browned evenly on all sides, transfer them to a paper towel covered plate to drain any excess oil.

Serve immediately.