Portland, ME is a Pajama Jean kind of town. It’s a Pajama Jean town, because it’s a bakery town, a specialty food town, a fine dining town, a fresh produce town and a bagel town. You get the idea. It’s a place where you wonder who makes you more angry: that guy who just got the last Sicilian slab at Micucci Grocery or the sadistic jerk who decided to fasten pants with buttons and zippers. Either way, a weekend in Portland is always bound to be a delicious journey. Although my mom and I planned our girls’ weekend around our Fore Street reservation, some of our most memorable bites were enjoyed in-between meals.
Hype is a dangerous thing. Hype can lead to elevated disappointment. And, in the case of my family, it can cause heads to butt and food tantrums to spontaneously occur. Fore Street is probably the most well-known restaurant in a sea of fine establishments in the farm-to-table-loving town of Portland, ME. There is some serious hype here, but it’s backed up by a wealth of accolades, including chef/partner Sam Hayward’s 2004 James Beard Award. With an ever-changing menu of seasonal selections, noteworthy desserts and housemade chocolates, three flavor-making heating elements (wood grill, wood oven and turnspit) and a shed-sized in-house vegetable crisper to boot, Fore Street is a restaurant I have wanted to experience for several years now. I have been hilariously unsuccessful in making this happen.
I have mixed feelings about the Food Network. I would certainly be lying if I said that I never watch it and that I get all of my cooking information and entertainment from Larousse Gastronomique. While I’m dubious of many of the cooking show hosts, I like Ina Garten’s show and her simple but elegant recipes, and I think “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” is fun. In recent years though, I’ve seen a decline in programming that piques my interest. Commercialization has brought quantity over quality and showmanship over culinary chops.
burnt sugar ice cream
You may have noticed that I have a “thing” for caramel. Ok, it’s an all-out sticky-icky obsession. Since this little blog’s inception, I’ve talked up a cake that was filled with salted caramel; I’ve eaten caramels filled with goat cheese, fig and rosemary; I’ve hunted down caramel-covered apples; I’ve whipped up batches of caramel buttercream and I’ve coated popcorn and peanuts in the sweet stuff. Things might be getting a little boring around here. Well for you, not for me.
Caramel is, really, a very simple concept. I mean, it’s liquefied sugar. But amber sugar tastes a heck of a lot more interesting than regular sugar and when combined with my good friends butter and/or heavy cream, it becomes a silken delight. It’s so magical that depending on the temperature or “stage” it reaches, caramel can be made into a multitude of distinct confections.
Perhaps caramel, like sky-diving or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, is so crave-worthy and attractive because it’s dangerous. It tops many home cooks’ lists of kitchen phobias. Strangely, I take pleasure in watching the colors change from clear to golden and in turning the flame up and watching the smoke rise. When I make caramel, I take it all the way because all of that delicious added fat can hide some of the sugar’s true flavor. I think many fear caramel, because they know that there is a fine line between dark amber and black. Push it. Flirt with it. But don’t reach it. It will give your desserts depth and that roasty, toasty complexity.
caramel popcorn with chocolate and peanuts
It’s still fall, right? Good, because the onslaught of cooler weather, the nor’easter that prematurely ripped the colored leaves off the trees, and the Christmas-themed jewelry and department store advertisements that started running on Halloween (yes, October 31st), were starting to confuse me. Like Spring, Fall in New England is woefully short, but this year, forces of both the meteorological and commercial kind seem to be speeding it along even more than is normal. Although Fall is my favorite season, this rush hasn’t bothered me too much in the past. Snapshots of snow and the holidays to come signaled that winter break was not so far away and that I’d be back
in my kitchen at home shortly.
This year, though, my mind is in a better place. The pressure of academia hasn’t eclipsed my days, and I have been trying to rekindle old traditions and forge some new ones. I went on an apple orchard crawl, during which I visited eight orchards to make up for my absence in the past few years. I made a treat so cutesy for Halloween, you would think it was the work of someone else. And then I made this caramel corn. Although caramel popcorn can be eaten and gifted any time of the year, I see it as intrinsically autumnal. It reminds me of county fairs and Halloween. It’s indulgent and comforting, so it’s well suited for cooler weather, but it lacks the requisite spice and flavors that would give it winter holiday flair.
The Western Massachusetts college town of Amherst is lovely but is by no means a hop, skip and a jump away from my family’s home in Central Mass. Actually, the Pioneer Valley as a whole is beautiful and definitely worth a trip by urbanites looking to see Fall in New England in all of its splendor. During my orchard crawl, I was looking forward to visiting Atkins Farms. It was going to be a trek, but I’m willing go anywhere for apples. Plus, Western MA was near peak foliage, and the drive provided for some much-needed leaf peeping. While Atkins turned out to be a dud, my day was saved thanks to the good folks at Boston Magazine (let’s just ignore the fact that they praised the Atkins cider donuts).