Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Back Home Again

A visit to my home state of Indiana is always like a trip back in time. Time seems to move more slowly there. The summer days are hot and humid and this time, stormy. The mosquitoes have landing gear and my hair well, let's just say the flat iron was useless.

But the days also seem longer than normal and I seemed to have plenty of time to search out the best sweets in the area.

While we were visiting, we took a side trip from the family farmhouse in Culver, Indiana to the big city of Chicago which is about two hours north. The chaotic freeway system hasn't improved much since my childhood and by the time we got to our hotel, I was in urgent need of a cupcake to calm my nerves.

Luckily, our hotel, the Hotel Burnham -- another lovely vintage building revitalized by the Kimpton Hotel Group -- was not only a few blocks from Millennium Park, but also a short distance from Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique -- a jewel box of a cupcake shop offering traditional cupcakes but with a twist -- how does lemon drop, orange creamsicle, or banana banana cupcakes sound to you?

The compact shop also offers breakfast cupcakes for those bleary-eyed morning commuters. I know an apple cinnamon, cranberry orange, blueberry vanilla or berry berry breakfast cake would brighten my morning! But breakfast cupcakes aren't the only different twist this group puts on its cakes, the shop also offers 6" cakes and shots of frosting for those of you who need an extra rush of sugar. I'm glad owner Teresa Ging left the world of finance and joined the sweet world of sugar!

Sufficiently revived, we strolled the few blocks to Millennium Park where we were impressed by the Frank Gehry's designed concert pavilion and the nearby aptly nicknamed "bean" -- the Cloud Gate elliptical sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor. It was another hot day and we enjoyed watching the kids splash in the Crown Fountain by spanish artist Jaume Plensa. Although I thought it was a bit creepy to have the kids watched over by two 50 foot glass block towers that projected video images of a variety of Chicago residents -- the kids didn't seem to mind.

The next morning we headed to the Farmers' Market in Daley Center Plaza. It was an amazing site to see the beautiful produce displayed amidst all those concrete buildings. I especially liked how Picasso's 50 foot tall untitled sculpture seemed to keep a safe watch over the market.

At the market I was happy to meet Ivy Tack owner of uppercrust pastry and her beautiful mother selling Ivy's pies and other goodies. Ivy, who had started college intending to be a surgeon, became a different kind of cutter -- a pastry cutter and we are happy she did. Her butter crust pie pastry wrapped around a sour cherry filling was amazing.

Of course a trip to Chicago wouldn't be complete without the traditional munching of popcorn from Garrett Popcorn. I prefer the sticky caramel corn. There seems to be a Garrett's shop on almost every corner -- I couldn't walk more than a few blocks before I was tempted by the smell of corn being popped and coated with some delicious concoction. We stopped in for a "small" bag of caramel corn to munch on as we headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum is a bit overshadowed by the Art Institute of Chicago but it is definitely worth a visit. And it is also worth the trip just for the Wolfgang Puck restaurant that is part of the museum.

Our traditional sightseeing completed, it was now time to hunt down a few bakeries that spiked my interest when researching my trip to the windy city.

Being from Indiana and as a pie baker, I was excited to check out Hoosier Mama Pie Company. I've been following owner Paula Haney on Twitter for awhile and I was excited to hopefully meet her and to taste her pies.

Her shop is located in a very old neighborhood known as Ukrainian Village west of Chicago's downtown. I think this area is now trying to reinvent itself as West Town.

Her shop is a small slice of real estate along Chicago Avenue. We could see Haney in her pink chef's jacket in the back assembling her pies and laughing with her staff. As the counter staff got busy, she came up to help out so I got to meet her. It was fun to chat with her -- she obviously loves what she does for a living. And her strawberry pie with a butter crust was delicious!

Our next stop was to Cookie Bar located in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. A few blocks from Hoosier Mama Pie Company but economically a world apart! I felt like I was in chic Santa Monica -- high-end designer shops lined the streets and lots of beautiful people strolled down the street. So Jeff and Joe, two escapees from the Los Angeles entertainment industry, knew what they were doing when they located and recently opened their cookie shop here.

Their shop has a cool retro 70s look -- I particularly liked the disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Although they have humorously dubbed their shop a bacon free zone -- alluding to the lengths some bakeries will go to distinguish their cookies -- they still manage to offer traditional cookie offerings as well as cookies with a bit more zip such as lemon ginger and raspberry chocolate. Check out their website if you want a good laugh.

Fearful that I might be the cause of Chicago losing its nickname as the city of big shoulders to being called the city of big stomachs, I left a few bakeries on my list to check out on my next visit.

As we headed back to the quiet of the family farm, I almost ran off the small two lane road when I saw a sign for Kountry Barn Bakery. I did a quick U-turn and headed down an even smaller lane to check out yet another bakery.

And I'm glad I did! What a great find. The owner Eileen Mullet was taking a nap after pulling an all-nighter baking pies for the various farmers' markets that she sells at. Her very capable young daughters Vonda and Alisha manned the store while she slept.

They generously agreed to give me a tour of their kitchen and chatted happily about how they help their mother bake. I was impressed by their maturity and was amazed at how they didn't seem to mind being left in charge on a beautiful summer's day.

But I was even more impressed by the goodies in the bakery case. We picked another sour cherry pie to try along with a dozen butter horn rolls. I couldn't resist the rolls -- my mom had made many a butter horn for Sunday dinners when I was growing up. And the prices were very small town -- $3 for a dozen butter horns and the 9" pie was only $7!

They don't have a website but here is a link to their address.

One bite of the sour cherry pie and I was transported back to my own childhood. I've written before about how I miss being able to bake with sour cherries -- we just don't get many of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although I wasn't able to verify with the baker, the crust tasted like the crust my mom would bake using Crisco as her shortening.

It was a lovely way to end our sweet journey back to our childhood.