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Blame Max Brenner for all those sugar-buzzed kids in Bethesda

Max Brenner Chocolate Bar opened up earlier this month right next to Jaleo in downtown Bethesda. The only reason I knew is that my friend The Chicken sent me some photos of the s’mores pizza and crepes she’d shared with her kids. Their verdict? Pretty good but stomach-ache inducing. I decided to check it out, with bottle of Pepto at the ready.
This part of Bethesda’s generally overrun with harried parents chasing small children, strolling small children, and wrangling small children. Not surprisingly, many of those families are taking their kids here. At one point during my last visit, I got worried about the safety of their fondue grills. Open flames and kids amped up on sugar/caffeine–hmmm. Here’s to hoping that the tables aren’t wobbly.
Despite the high prices, small portions, and long lines, this place will likely succeed in this location. Here’s why:
  • It’s family-friendly, although some kids may be asking their parents what a “chocolate syringe” is. See photo #2 above.
  • Although you can eat-in, you’re not paying for a waiter. You order at the counter, then they bring your goodies to you.
  • There was a gap in the market for a dessert bar in Bethesda. Sure, there’s Georgetown Cupcake, Tout de Sweet, Fancy Cakes by Leslie, and various froyo options. But none of them offer a proper sit-down experience. No wonder Washingtonians (Bethesdans?) are lining up for $15 crepes and $8 milkshakes.
Although I did manage to avoid a gastrointestinal fail on both visits, I can’t see myself returning here often. There’s a big novelty factor that wears off fast. The first time I went was to check it out. The second time was to take an out-of-town guest. Everything that I ordered was good (lava cake combo the first visit; milk chocolate fondue the second). Nothing that I ordered was to-die-for. But if you’re a kid, it’s probably heaven.

Which donuts are worth the hardened arteries? Brunch at Golden Brown Delicious.

Golden Brown Delicious is one of the latest restaurants in DC to offer the crowd-pleasing fried-chicken-donut combo. One of the chefs  behind GBD is pastry maestro Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch & Barley.  So I was looking forward to tasting her handiwork.

Every bite of this donut includes the perfect key lime curd.

Every bite of this donut includes the perfect key lime curd.

The star of our meal was the key lime curd brioche donut, thanks to its mouth-puckering filling. I have a hard time finding lemon/lime desserts that meet my stringent tartness requirements. This one did.

Mr X-sXe was particularly interested in the tres leches donut. He’d gotten addicted to the same flavor at Doughnut Plant in NYC, where the tres leches had literally left him speechless the first time he bit into one. Although it wasn’t bad, GBD’s version didn’t live up to that gold standard: it needed more filling to balance out the dryness of this cake donut.

While too treacly for my taste, the glaze on the bourbon butterscotch brioche donut was a nice foil to the saltiness of the bacon. This one’s for die-hard fans of salty-sweet concoctions.

Assortment of donuts from Golden Brown Delicious in Washington, DC.

Clockwise from left to right: the tres leches, bourbon butterscotch with bacon, and key lime curd.

My one regret is that we didn’t try the passionfruit flavor while we were there. The lady at the register mentioned it was one of her favorites.

PS: If a restaurant’s fried chicken leaves you pining for Popeye’s, it probably shouldn’t be one of the headliners. Unfortunately, there was nothing remarkable about the bird here. Fortunately, the creamed kale and biscuit sides rescued the savory part of the meal from bland-ville.


Michel Richard knows his way around a dessert

Napoleon a la Michel

Now that’s a napoleon (mille-feuille)!

A while back, I had the good fortune of stuffing my face at a work lunch at Central in downtown DC, a Michel Richard joint. The chef’s known for his playful turn with foods (as well as looking a lot like Santa Claus).

A profile of Richard that ran in The Washington Post many years ago revealed one of his culinary inspirations: KFC’s fried chicken. Yup, his haute cuisine is inspired by the Colonel. That gives you some insight into why his creations, sweet or savory, are big on contrasting textures and often have a crispy element.

Michel's crunch bar from Central

Those of us who didn’t order Michel’s crunch bar were jealous of those who did.

Without further ado, here’s a rundown of the 3 Central desserts we tried.

The restaurant’s best-known treat is Michel’s chocolate bar, the chef’s Kit Kat-inspired happy ending. This was chocolate-y without being cloying, and had a nice crispy texture. If you’re unsure which dessert to try, go with this one. It was the all-around favorite.

The gimungous size and presentation of my napoleon made for some envious looks around the table. But the layered pastry and cream, while delicious, needed a little kick. A drizzle of chocolate or fruit puree, or even the traditional napoleon icing, would’ve made for less monotonous eating. It’s unusual that I don’t finish a dessert, but I left some of this on the plate.

The disappointing lemon bar from Central.

The lemon tart didn’t find many fans at our table.

My comrades in gustatory indulgence who ordered this lemon tart weren’t super happy with it. It’s a layer of shortbread topped with bland lemon mousse topped with meringue. Next to the more showstopping dessert options, this one’s a dud.

A peek at Central DC's kitchen.

Central’s kitchen, where the pastry magic happens.


Suspend your disbelief: this prune cake’s actually really good


A steaming bowl of mashed prunes isn’t exactly an auspicious start to a cake. In fact, it can do the opposite of whetting the appetite.

Yet this prune cake with buttermilk icing from the Pioneer Woman’s really, really good. Like a mild spice cake without the annoying cloyingness you can get from too much molasses and/or brown sugar. The buttermilk icing gives the entire thing a caramelly finish.


I suppose if she called it dried plum cake, it wouldn’t sound that much better. Seriously, though, no matter your feelings for prunes, this is a cake worth trying if you’ve got some extra buttermilk in the fridge.

You can cut back on the sugar without hurting the taste (I cut back to 3/4 cup for the cake and 3/4 cup for the icing. I didn’t end up using all of the icing.). Provided you don’t over-mix the batter, you get a super fluffy, moist cake that will having you re-evaluating your preconceived notions of prunes.


Some gelatin desserts are more socially acceptable than others

Buttermilk panna cottas

Buttermilk panna cottas, accessorized with lemon cookies from Trader Joe’s.

Making this buttermilk panna cotta (inspiration: a recent Cupcakes and Cashmere post) brought me back to my childhood, where rainbow jello was on heavy rotation.

Ok, so maybe the only thing they have in common is the jiggle. But that’s what I was reminded of by the texture of this gelatin-based panna cotta, something you’d serve at a dinner party for grown-ups. Whereas rainbow jello is something you’d serve at a dinner party with guests whose ages are in the single-digits, or with a tongue-in-cheek 70s theme (break out the avocado-green Tupperware!).

rainbow jello

Half the fun is peeling apart the Technicolor layers as you eat it. Photo from

Bemoaning the lack of jello dessert options at your local restaurant? One of the places you can still find jello options in abundant supply, apart from your local senior center, is K&W Cafeterias. I head there whenever I’m visiting my hometown in NC and need a cheap comfort-food fix.

K&W cafeteria congeal menu

The full range of congeal options at K&W Cafeterias. Would you like yours with cottage cheese?

At K-Dub, they call jello congeal, not a word you’d normally associate with anything you put in your mouth. If that doesn’t make you think twice about that green, gelatinous cube with mandarin oranges suspended within like a Damien Hirst shark tank, I’m not sure what will.

But back to the panna cotta. It’s not as solid and chewy as your typical block of jello, but it’s definitely got a jiggle about it. If you like the flavor of vanilla yogurt, I recommend trying the recipe mentioned above. It’s dead easy, just requires a few ingredients, and foolproof. I didn’t even bother straining the mixture, and it turned out just fine. Like yogurt, it’s best served up with a compote or fresh fruit. I liked it with strawberries and mangoes (if available, buy the champagne mangoes, with the yellow-orange skin. They’re sweeter than the larger ones with red-green skins and have a buttery texture).

buttermilk panna cotta avec fruit

Buttermilk panna cotta tastes like yogurt, so buddy it up with fruit.


Sweet streets of NY, Day 3: More Donut Gluttony, and a Gourmet Take on Hostess

These may be some of the best donuts ever to cross your lips. Starting at 9 o’clock: the coconut cream, pistachio, creme brulee, and tres leches.

Doughnut Plant, Chelsea store

Smitten with the Doughnut Plant cake donuts we tried at the Stumptown Coffee pastry case, we decided to head to the mothership herself to see what other flavors we could stuff down our gullets. We ended up at the Chelsea location (there’s another one in the Lower East Side). The funny thing is that there’s a Dunkin’ not far from the store where you can get a donut for less than $1. But why would you do that when you can pay $3 for the best donut you’ve had in your life?

Glowing Sign at Doughnut Plant

The décor makes you feel like you’re entering a Willy Wonka donut factory. Donut pillows on the walls, donut tiles on the booths, and a giant, glowing donut menu. The only part that falls a bit short is the donut display itself, where a sample of each of the flavors of the day were crammed into a small glass case. You kind of want to see them in their full glory on platters, or at least in a bigger display case, lined up like soldiers.

On this visit we had the pistachio, coconut cream, crème brulee “doughseed” (mini-donut), and a reprise of the Tres Leches (at Mr. X-sXe’s insistence). Unlike the other cake donuts we’d tried, the pistachio didn’t have any filling, which meant it was somewhat dry and uninspiring. The crème brulee, the flavor that piqued my interest in the Doughnut Plant in the first place, was good but not as sublime as I’d built it up to be in my head. The coconut cream was generously filled and fluffy on the outside. Delicious as it was, it still couldn’t touch the blackout cake donut, which remains my favorite.

There are many, many options to maintain your sugar rush at Empire Cake.

Empire Cake, Chelsea

That night we met up with a friend, JDang, who suggested checking out Empire Cake, which she’d passed on her walk to meet us. It’s a charming shop (but what shop filled with cakes and pastries isn’t?) on 8th Avenue. Their specialty, apart from custom cakes, are their gourmet versions of greatest hits from the possibly-soon-extinct Hostess, like the Ho-Ho (Swiss roll), Snowball, and Twinkie.

Imitation is flattery: a homemade version of the Hostess Snowball surpasses the original.

We tried a pink Snowball. It tasted like a homemade, less artificial version of Hostess’ own, one that doesn’t make you wonder about the chemicals involved in making it shelf-stable. But to be honest, we went to Empire Cake post-dinner, post-donuts with food fatigue, so our taste buds were maxed out for the day. You just might have to go there to judge for yourself.

Related posts:

Sweet Streets of NY, Day 1 Spoils

Sweet streets of NY, Day 2: The Sugar Binge Continues


A trip to the Asian grocery store reveals a deficit of delicious desserts

Here’s why you usually don’t see anything beyond mango sticky rice,* green tea ice cream, and fried bananas on the dessert menu of your favorite Asian restaurant. Desserts are not our forte.

What follows are exhibits A, B, and C of the freezer case at Great Wall, an Asian grocery store in Falls Church, VA. A few observations below on what’s wrong with Asian desserts.

Taro root popsicles at the Asian grocery store.

(1) Fruit is not a dessert. Most Asians eat fruit for dessert. Which is a lot healthier, of course, but a few oranges wedges aren’t going to satisfy any craving for a cookie.

(2) Some Asian desserts are so bad, they border on the offensive. Mochi doesn’t taste like anything and it’s a digestion/choking hazard. No, I don’t want fibrous taro root in my cake. Please keep your durian out of my ice cream. There’s a reason some Asian countries ban that fruit from being taken on public transportation (it’s that pungent).

Durian frozen desserts at the Asian grocery store.

(3) Care for a side of the toots with your sweets? Because many Asian desserts (mochi, red bean buns, moon cakes, shaved ice) come with beans as a topping or filling. Confusing and not delicious, right?

Beans do not belong in desserts.

*One of the lone beacons of light among Asian desserts is mango sticky rice (thank you, Thailand), which done properly can be divine. As can anything made with coconut milk. As long as it doesn’t also have taro root, beans, and/or durian in it.


Don’t throw away those corn cobs

Jelly made from corn cobs.

Some of the more unusual sweets appearing on Pie V. Cake (Coke and peanuts, orange slice cake) were introduced to us by coworkers. Such is the case for this corn jelly, which came to us by way of Mr. X-sXe’s coworker.

When I first heard about it, I was a bit wigged out–picturing someone boiling the cobs leftover from a grillout. Not so. You boil corncobs after slicing off the corn, then add the thickeners like pectin to turn it into a jelly. No cooties are involved. I’m not sure what recipe was used, but here’s one to try.

The resulting jelly has a flowery, honey-like flavor. We weren’t sure whether it was better eaten like JELL-O, as a jelly, or as a condiment. In retrospect, it would’ve been really good on biscuits.


To juice or not to juice?

The wheatgrass shot from Puree Juice Bar, Bethesda, is the least-disgusting wheatgrass juice I've ever tasted.

After watching the documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” Mr. X-sXe ran out and bought a juicer. This purchase was a point of contention, since he tends to get obsessed with one food craze, only to eventually abandon it for the next best thing (see Kombucha, Yonanas, yogurt-making).

A couple months later, I’m still undecided on whether the juicer was a good idea. On the upside, it’s inspired us to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into our diets. There are green veggies I don’t love eating that I will happily drink. But most of the roughage is purged, so you lose an important benefit from eating fresh produce. I can’t help but think of my immigrant parents tsk-tsking at the amount of waste. (gardeners: the leftovers make a good compost.)

As for juicing as a weight-loss solution, we haven’t been use our juices as meal replacements so much as supplements. In “Fat, Sick,” the guys go on a crash diet, drinking only juice for months. I’m way too into my solids to give them up.

Our green mocktail. See recipe below.

Back to Mr. X-sXe’s adventures in juicing. In a misguided attempt to be healthy, his first recipe involved Brussels sprouts, onions, kale, carrots, and asparagus. DO NOT DO EVER MAKE THIS, UNLESS IT’S IN THE NAME OF REVENGE. This “juice” stank up the entire house, literally, but he drank it anyway. Afterwards, sulfuric fumes emanated from his pores.

Since then, our rule-of-thumb has been this: don’t juice onions or cruciferous veggies. The key to tastiness seems to be adding a sweet base to blend with other ingredients.  You can try sticking with similar color groupings. For example:

Green juice:

  • Green apples
  • Spinach or chard or kale
  • Cucumber

Red juice:

  • Beets
  • Red apples
  • Strawberries

Orange juice:

  • Oranges
  • Carrots
  • Mango
  • Ginger (use sparingly)

This recipe below is a modification of the green juice. It’s really tasty–surprisingly, there are no odd flavors reminding you that you’re drinking something healthy. The fennel is not overpoweringly licorice-y, while the mint leaves a clean feeling in your mouth. “Even the burps taste good,” Mr. X-sXe commented.

Green Mocktail Recipe

  • 1 bulb fennel (2.50 for 2 bulbs at Trader Joe’s)
  • 1 bag baby spinach
  • 6 granny smith apples
  • 1 package fresh mint leaves, stems removed
  • 1 package fresh pineapple (at least 1 pound): cheaper if you buy an entire fresh pineapple for about $3 and let it ripen for a few days
  • 1 cucumber
  • 2 limes (rind and white part cut off)
  • Kosher salt for the rims, if you wanna pimp it out

PS: If you can’t be bothered to buy a juicer, try Puree in downtown Bethesda. They have some really delicious concoctions. Their juices don’t come cheap, so we tend to go for the stuff we can’t make at home, like the wheatgrass shot or orange lassi (not a yogurt drink), which is so rich that it goes down like a dessert.


The DC cheesecake truck

In a few short years, DC’s gone from having only dirty-water dog trucks to no less than 40 types of roving foodmobiles. One of them, the Sweetz Cheesecake Truck, sells only its namesake. That’s pretty ballsy when you consider how polarizing cheesecake is.

These strawberry and lemon-blueberry cheesecakes survived a Metro trip and car ride home.

Chances are, you know someone who doesn’t do cheesecake because it’s too rich—or they hate cream cheese—or both.  Let’s consider the usual suspects: Cheesecake Factory is the Ben & Jerry’s of cheesecakes* as far as density, so it can take a couple sittings to finish a single piece.

Meanwhile, Junior’s is the gold standard of the classic cheesecake but again, it’s not exactly light fare. This is probably why cheesecake is dessert anathema to even the most dedicated sugar addicts.

These individual cheesecakes from the Cheesecake Truck, however, are the antithesis of the heavy cheesecake. Lots of air whipped into the cake keeps things light. Depending on which flavor your get, it’s sitting on a chocolate cookie crumb or graham-type crust. Each is about 3” in diameter—intimidating at first, until you realize how easily your fork sinks into it. Pretty soon, you’ve polished off one on your own.

Flavors vary every day/season. I tried the black forest, strawberry, and lemon-blueberry. The black forest (chocolate, cherries, chocolate-cookie base) was my favorite. It didn’t last long enough to make it into the photo.

*Ben & Jerry’s has very little air in their ice cream.