Category Archives: Finer Things Club

Today is Swedish cinnamon bun day (Kanelbullens Dag)!

sweden_flagOctober 4 is the date of two very important food holidays: National Taco Day and National Cinnamon Bun Day. We have a lot of coverage on tacos on the blog, but we thought we would supplement our cinnamon bun coverage! The holiday, like most other food holidays, is an invented one, but since its introduction in 1999 it really has taken off in Sweden. Swedes really love cinnamon buns (Kanelbullens in Swedish)in fact, as of 2010, they ate 310 a year! The love for cinnamon buns is shared across Scandinavia (we sampled some in Denmark). Swedish cinnamon buns are indeed relatives of the Cinnabon-style American Cinnamon rolls, but are flavored with cardamon, and topped with pearl sugar instead of icing (to be honest I like the Swedish kind a lot better!). Plus, Cinnamon buns are not just for breakfast, they are perfect for an afternoon coffee break or “Fika.” Here are recipes for classic Swedish Cinnamon buns from KokblogSwedishfood, Salt & Wind, and What’s Gaby Cooking. If you want a little twist, Nami Nami has a recipe for a Finnish Cinnamon Bun variety.

kanelbullenSwedish Cinnamon Buns by Kajak

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Pastry Post-Doc: Yemeni Hawaij coffee spice

flag-of-yemenIn Yemen, there are two famous spice blends called Hawaij (We thought it said Hawaii at first glance, too!): one sweet (for coffee) and one savory (for soup). We are familiar with other Middle Eastern savory spice blends like Za’atar or Ras-al-Hanout, but a formula for a sweet spice blend was something new to us, so we were totally intrigued. Hawaij coffee spice consists of ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and clove (which I am betting smells amazing), and is typically incorporated into coffee as a flavoring. You can make your own spice blend with a recipe from A for Lifestyle or My Name is Yeh. We came across a lot of interesting non-traditional recipes incorporating Hawaij, including donuts, chocolate pots-de-cremesnickerdoodles and ice cream tarts.


Hawaij Coffee Donuts from My Name is Yeh




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The Best Butter is from… Iceland?

icelandWhen we starting making Southern-style buttermilk biscuits for brunch last year, we really started to appreciate the importance of good butter for slathering on a fresh biscuit. The grocery store varieties wouldn’t do – so we needed an upgrade. We started out buying Chimay Belgian salted butter from the grocery store we loved in Chicago, Fresh Farms. However, we couldn’t find it in Cleveland, so we switched unsuccessfully to salted Amish butter roll butter (too pale) and more successfully to Trader Joe’s cultured French butter (pretty good, especially for the price), which tasted similar to Chimay. However, when our last stick from TJ’s ran out we decided to do some sleuthing. Could we do any better? There were many fans of Kerrygold, the Irish butter, but some expressed dismay that the cows’ diets were being changed from grass-only.

SmjorOne name that seemed to rise to the top in discussions of butter was Smjör – an Icelandic butter that contains milk from 100% grass-fed cows. We found Smjör at Whole Foods and it was about the same price ($4.99) as a regular box of Land O’Lakes butter, which was a happy surprise. We tried out Smjör on our latest batch of biscuits, and we can attest that it is as delicious as its reputation! The butter had an appealing, bright yellow color and was smooth and spreadable, instead of flaky as butter can sometimes be. There was a hint of salt, but it was not overpowering. Overall, the taste was really clean and buttery – butter as it was meant to be! You can also get unsalted Smjör at Whole Foods, which may be good for baking. The quality was much greater than the typical grocery store brands, and the price was not much more, so there’s no reason not to stock up. I think we have found our new go-to fancy butter!Smjor2


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Argentine gelato in Evanston at FRÍO

Argentina_flagWe were on our way back from a bike ride when we came across FRÍO Gelato (517 Dempster St, Evanston, IL 60201), an answer to our secret hopes for a cold treat. We are always up for gelato, and FRÍO does gelato with an Argentine twist. Gelato is huge in Argentina, due to the massive Italian immigration to the country. We remarked upon a mysterious (long gone) Argentine ice cream store in Chicago many years ago, so short of a trip to Argentina, we were excited to try some Argentine icy treats.friogelatoAlongside the typical gelato flavors you might expect, there was also dulce de leche, avocado and malbec. You can also get fresh-fruit sorbet flavors, tasty coffee drinks and the classic Argentine mate drink. We were there for gelato, however, so we sampled the dulce de leche and the marsala wine sambayon, an Argentine riff on zabaglione, an Italian custard desert. The gelato was light and creamy, with bold flavors. Though it tasted pretty similar to the Italian-style gelato we’ve had, we really appreciated the fresh ingredients and unique flavor combinations on offer at FRÍO. Plus, if you really want a unique Argentine spin on dessert you can get the gelato between two alfajor cookies!FrioStore

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The Mexican Roots of Modica Chocolate

Mexico FlagItalyThe story of Modica chocolate is one of our favorites, and we are looking forward to bringing it to you in advance of of the most visible Mexican holiday in the US, Cinco de Mayo. So we know that chocolate is a new-world creation, and was popular among Aztecs (where it was known as Xocoàtl) for centuries. So now that chocolate has spread the whole world over, where can you still find the most traditional Aztec recipes? Sicily! No, I am not joking. It turns out that Sicily, conquered many times over, was under Spanish rule while the Spanish were also colonizing the new world, and these colonizers brought back the Aztec recipes for chocolate to Sicily. These traditional recipes are still made in certain parts of Sicily today with nothing but cacao, sugar and (maybe) spices.ModicaChoc

The process of making the chocolate by grinding it on a metate (as it was originally in Mexico) imparts a pleasantly gritty, natural texture to the chocolate, which is delicious and completely unique. A historical and picturesque Sicilian town in the province of Ragusa, Modica, is known for its expertise in all things chocolate, and is home to several longstanding chocolate shops producing chocolate the traditional Aztec way, which has become known in Italy as “Modica Chocolate.”AnticaBonajutoOn our trip to Sicily, we took a visit to Modica to see this piece of chocolate history for ourselves, and stopped at the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Corso Umberto I, 159, 97015 Modica RG, Italy), one of the more famous chocolatiers, in operation since 1880. This shop in particular is known for their wide variety of Modica chocolates made on the premises. The chocolate bars here come in almost every cacao percentage, plus unique flavors like lime, marjoram, almond and orange peel. Fortunately they let you sample, so we were happy to taste a bunch of varieties before we arrive on our two favorite picks: sea salt and hot chili.ADBCannoliWhile you can find good traditional Mexican chocolate in Oaxaca and other places in Mexico itself, what Sicily has to offer is on par with these treats. And truth to be told – we could see that this chocolate and that found in Oaxaca were cousins, maybe even siblings. If you are unable to visit Modica itself, you can get the Modica-made Sabadi chocolate bars at Eataly. P.S. If you visit the Bonajuto shop they also have the best cannoli ever!

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Pistacia Vera – the best Macarons in Columbus

francePistacia Vera ( 541 S 3rd St, Columbus, OH 43215) in the quaint German Village neighborhood of Columbus is an immaculate example of a neighborhood French bakery. There are cases and shelves full of any number of dazzling French pastries and cakes, and hoards of Columbusites of all walks of life noshing on coffee and perfect croissants and quiches. We knew we were going to be spending some time here – especially when we got a tip that the macarons on offer were second-to-none.VeraMacarons Continue reading


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Egyptian-Themed Chocolates and Desserts


flags_of_EgyptOne of the big events in town this Spring is the Ancient Egypt exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. M has always been a huge fan of ancient Egypt, and now the whole city has Egypt on the brain. A box of these gorgeous Ancient Egypt-themed chocolates from Maggie Louise Confections would be the perfect treat before the show – when they popped up on my Instagram feed I was instantly struck by their gorgeous colors! We didn’t find any Egyptian traditional recipes that called for chocolate, but if you are in Cairo, be sure to check out House of Cocoa for all things chocolate. However, there are plenty of other Egyptian desserts that would be great to try including Basbousa, an almond semolina flour cake and Umm/Om Ali, a bread pudding made with nuts.

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What is a Cholado?

colombiaOur over-the-top icy treat of choice in Chicago was the Mangonada, but on a trip to NYC (I think we were driving by this place) we recently learned of a Colombian answer to this fruit/ice/cream/sugar concoction – the Cholado. A cholado consists of shaved ice, topped with fruit syrup, fresh fruit, coconut flakes and sweetened condensed milk (and maybe even a cookie). Though the cholado recipe can vary by region (or country) the traditional syrup flavors include passion fruit and mora (Colombian blackberry). Cholados are also found all over Jackson Heights, Queens if you can’t make it to Colombia, and Serious Eats has a power ranking. Find a recipe for a DiY cholado at Sarepa (if you have access to tropical fruit) or Ezra Poundcake and My Colombian Recipes (if you don’t).


Cholados by lorenalreyes


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Swedish Gooey Chocolate Cake – Kladdkaka


sweden_flagWho doesn’t love flourless chocolate cake? We certainly love it, and apparently the Swedish do as well. One of the more popular cakes in Sweden is Kladdkaka, which basically translates to “sticky/gooey chocolate cake.” The recipes for this cake seemed too easy NOT to try, and were uniformly beautiful, so on a whim we decided to whip up our first Kladdkaka last night. The cake we made really was a dream – that is, if you like chocolate (don’t talk to us if you don’t). We followed the Kladdkaka recipe on Call me Cupcake (as pictured above), which is flourless and gluten free, but other Kladdkaka recipes sometimes incorporate some flour, too. You probably already have all of the necessary ingredients in your fridge/pantry, so there is no excuse not to make this cake!


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Pastry Post-Doc: What are Chinese “German Cookies”?

chinaWe were doing a search for “German cookies” in Instagram when we came across a series of photos of near-identical cookies with the same fork impressions, with Chinese captions. Come to find out that the name for these Chinese cookies, popular around Lunar New Year, is “German Cookies” (德式酥饼). German cookies require little more than potato starch (which can be found in most Asian groceries) and sugar, and you can find easy recipes at Goody Foodies and Bake for Happy Kids (seen below). As far as I can tell, they have no real association with Germany beyond the name. If anyone has any insight into their unusual name, let me know!




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Our Favorite Italian Bakery in Philadelphia: Isgro Pasticceria

ItalyWhen I went to school in Philadelphia, an essential component to my foodie explorations was a monthly pilgrimage to Isgro Pasticceria in South Philly (1009 Christian St., Philadelphia). I used to bring home a box of cannolis from there on the holidays, despite some major flak from the TSA (the major question: Is ricotta a liquid?). Year in and year out, I still think Isgro has the best cannolis, and I think it’s about time they were featured on ETW. Isgro’s is the type of old-school Italian bakery that once graced most major Northern metropolises, and they have been doing business in Philly since 1904. The difference is, Isgro’s is still here, and they are baking up pastries and cookies like it is still 1940. IsgrosStepping into Isgro’s is like stepping back into time, from the retro store, to the gruff but friendly service, to the shelves piled high with cannoli shells. There is definitely too much to chose from, so long story short, get the cannoli. The traditional type, filled with ricotta with chocolate chips my favorite, but you can also get special chocolate or mascarpone varieties.  However, I think the ricotta strikes the perfect balance of a sweet, but not too sweet, filling and super fresh crispy shell, which is filled to order. The filling to order is essential – as it preserves the integrity of the crispy shell. M pointed out that Isgro’s website is and while that is pretty somewhat boastful – we think it’s true!Cannolo1Beyond that, Isgro’s serves a huge variety of Italian-American favorites like pignoli, biscotti, Rum Baba, Sfogliatelle and tiramisu. On the American dessert side they have heaps of fruit tarts, brownies and spritz cookies. On our last visit, there were even special pastries and cookies dedicated to the Pope’s 2015 visit (and Isgro’s was even tapped to make him dessert). Everything we tried there has been excellent, but we keep coming back for the cannoli. If you are in Philly, definitely give Isgro’s a try, if you like cannolis it is an absolute must.We wish we lived closer!

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How to make your own chocolate bar

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner – which means that all things chocolate are now “seasonal.” Whether or not you are into Valentine’s Day, you are probably a fan of chocolate – we certainly are. Really good chocolate is a pleasure year round, and we were fascinated by this video from Eater’s How to Make Everything series about how chocolate is made at a Mexican chocolate farm, starting from growing the cacao pod, through drying, fermenting and roasting the beans. Honestly, it is much more of an involved process than we expected, which makes us appreciate our precious chocolate bars even more!

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Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Back in Chicago

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams now has two stores in the Chicago area – and we were super pumped to try the new Wicker Park location (1505 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago) when Spring-like weather finally arrived. Jeni’s is a Columbus-based ice creamery helmed by ice cream guru Jeni Britton Bauer that has been expanding across the US in the past few years. However, Jeni’s stores all across America have been closed for the past month due to a recall. Now they are all back open – just in time to get a summer ice cream fix.  The key to Jeni’s success is high quality and unusual flavors (check out the menu below).


Jeni’s Wicker park is right in the heart of the main drag on Milwaukee, and I get the impression they are busy ALL the time. When we arrived there was a line, but it moved pretty quickly, and we even were able to find a place to sit. One cool touch is that they make their own waffle cones right in front of you! There is a selection of “signature” flavors to choose from, including wildberry lavender (tastes like Froot Loops), Salted Caramel and sun-popped corn, as well as some limited-edition specials like creme brulee and blue buttermilk frozen yogurt. There are even some local nods, with Intelligensia coffee-flavored ice cream or the option to get a scoop of any ice cream in a cup of Intelligensia coffee.


You can get anywhere between one and four scoops, and we settled on a Trio. We sampled buttermilk orange frozen yogurt, the “Buckeye State” which is peanut butter ice cream with chocolate chips, and dark chocolate. We were happy with our flavor choices, and the peanut butter and buttermilk orange were standouts. We definitely recommend Jeni’s for a summer treat and we are excited to see what creative flavor Jeni comes up with next.



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Chocolataria Equador: Portuguese chocolates with style


We are going to NYC this weekend, home of one of our favorite chocolate purveyors, Mast Brothers (shop located at 111 N 3rd St, Brooklyn, NY, though you can get the bars elsewhere). Along with having superlative chocolate, we appreciate Mast Brothers’ attention to detail with the clean, simple packaging with interesting papers. While in Lisbon, we came across a store that reminded us a lot of the Mast Brothers’ aesthetic, Chocolataria Equador (Rua da Misericórdia 72, Lisboa). Located in the Chiado district in central Lisbon (with another location in Porto), this elegant and minimalist Portuguese store sells dark, milk and white chocolate bars with flavors including sea salt, port wine, crispy rice and hazelnut, as well as pure bars without any add-ins. The the chocolate is from around the world, but the bars are handmade in Portugal, with beautiful packaging. Though a little pricey, the chocolate bars came in a variety of sizes for appetites big and small. We sampled an 80% single origin bar – which was phenomenal – perfect for those who like their chocolate to be intense. Inside the shop, there is also a counter with beautifully-decorated truffles and other tidbits for a sweet tooth, including a riff on the iconic-in-Portugal chocolate umbrella. Chocolataria Equador is definitely a must-visit for any chocolate (or design) lover in Lisbon.

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Speculoos at Maison Dandoy for St. Nicholas Day

BelgiumSt. Nicholas Day (December 6th) is right around the corner, and that means it is time for speculoos! These crispy brown sugar and spice cookies, popularized in the US by the brand Biscoff, are extremely popular in Belgium and the Netherlands at this time of year. Though you can get speculoos stateside, if you are Brussels, you can try a taste of the original old-style speculoos at Maison Dandoy, who has been baking them up since 1829. Speculoos are traditionally eaten with tea and are associated with advent time and especially St. Nicholas Day.

There are Maison Dandoy locations sprinkled throughout Brussels, and we went to the Tea Shop location (Rue Charles Buls 14) in the center of the old town. The tea shop has a restaurant upstairs (another post on this to follow) and a lovely store on the first floor filled with beautifully displayed and packaged Belgian cookies. The speculoos at Maison Dandoy are stamped with a windmill, shaped by traditional molds or even by special springerle rolling pins with designs imprinted on them. You can also get a vanilla or chocolate version of speculoos at Dandoy if you are so inclined, though we are purists and prefer the original. Though of course the original recipe is secret, you can try an imitation Dandoy recipe from Un déjeuner de soleil (in French – auto-translated here. Eat the Love has another speculoos recipe and even more history. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day than with cookies and tea!



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Our favorite Tea Shop in London: Postcard Teas

PostcardTeaunited_kingdomTea in London is serious business, as you may imagine. We went to the big name tea stores, but often felt they were more flash than substance. However, Postcard Teas (9 Dering St, London W1S 1AG) is the perfectly understated answer to the glitzy superstore. Postcard Teas’ stock in trade is in providing a curated variety of teas from small tea farms all over the world. Now these are really small farms, less than 15 acres. Postcard Teas is tucked away on a side street right off of the hustle and bustle of Oxford street. The store is truly an oasis of calm, and is very beautifully arranged with 60 tea varieties in cute tins alongside an assortment elegant handmade teapots from Japan. Taking up one wall of the store are all of the tea varieties available.


The 60 teas available at Postcard Teas range in type and price from tiny tea estates throughout Japan, China, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea. Most of the teas are black, oolong and green, but there are also purh-eh and flavored teas. The choice is almost overwhelming, but the staff is very friendly and knowledgeable. Even for such specialized teas, the cost is pretty reasonable. We also appreciated the nice artwork on all of the tea ins, which each come with information about the provenance of the teas and brewing instructions. The amount of care that Postcard Teas puts into informing its customers about tea is very apparent – they even offer classes!


You can pay to sample any of the teas (£2), but the fee is waived if you end up purchasing the tea itself. This is not just dipping a teabag into some boiling water though. Each tea has a specified steeping time and temperature and the gentleman who helped us at the store prepared our tiny cups of tea with the precision of a surgeon. We sampled the rich English breakfast tea that is a mix of Indian, Japanese and Chinese teas. We also tried a delicate Darjeeling from the Mineral Spring Tea Farm in Darjeeling, India. We really liked both of our choices, and it was remarkable how different each was (Darjeeling is on the left, English breakfast on the right).


The coolest aspect is that you can actually send a “tea postcard” (£8.95-12.50). You can select from one of their tea varieties and put it in a special envelope and mail it directly from a little red postbox right in the store, to pretty much any location. You pay the extra for postage and they take care of the rest for you. We sent ourselves the tea postcards and a few weeks later they arrived – what a nice souvenir! We would highly recommend Postcard Teas to any tea lover visiting London, they truly promote the very best of global tea culture.


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Dia de Los Muertos Macaron Display in London


Dia De Los Muertos Macaron Display – photos by Ganache Macaron

Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead is becoming more popularly celebrated and recognized around the world, which means that a whole new variety of creative treats based on the day are emerging. One of the more interesting Dia de Los Muertos themed creations we have seen is a macaron-themed Day of the Dead display in London. The display is located in the Covent Garden branch of Wahaca, an upscale Mexican restaurant. The macarons were created by Ganache Macaron and the designer Katherine Burke. We think they did a pretty amazing job, and our favorite has to be the giant sugar skull inspired macaron that is the centerpiece of the display (above). If you happen to be in London the display will be up until November 3rd.


Dia De Los Muertos Macaron Display – photos by Ganache Macaron



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A Taste of Rhode Island: Coffee Milk and Coffee Syrup

coffee syrup

Coffee syrup spotted in the wild (Crate and Barrel)

When I recently visited a Chicagoland Crate and Barrel, I was very surprised to see something that I didn’t think existed outside of Rhode Island: Coffee syrup (see context photo above). Namely, this was Dave’s Coffee Syrup, a local brand we encountered in Providence. Coffee syrup is basically coffee concentrate mixed with sweetener. Much like chocolate syrup, coffee syrup can be added to pretty much anything, but it is most popularly mixed with milk to create…wait for it… Coffee Milk! Yes, this drink is exactly what you think it would be. Coffee Milk, aside from being tasty, is in fact the state drink of Rhode Island, as of 1993. One of the most popular coffee syrup brands is Autocrat, keeping Rhode Islanders in coffee milk for decades, though others like Dave’s are starting to carve out a niche for the artisanal coffee syrup market. Visit if you are looking for a definitive history of coffee syrup and milk, including its Italian-American origins.

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What is XO sauce?

Hong KongI have come across Chinese recipes and restaurant dishes calling for XO Sauce, but had no idea of what the cryptic name truly meant. It turns out this sauce is relatively new, and bears an interesting history.  XO Sauce consists of dried shrimp and scallops cooked down with pork, oil and chili (the pork is sometimes omitted). XO Sauce was first developed in Hong Kong in the 1980s and its popularity has spread from there, finding its way onto international Cantonese restaurant menus and beyond. I definitely understand its appeal – it is basically liquid umami with an added kick! So where does the name XO come from? It is apparently derived from an expensive Cognac designation, “XO” which stands for “extra old.” The sauce itself has no cognac, but is meant to evoke the same luxury. Talking c0st alone, this sauce is pretty luxurious – dried scallops are extremely expensive! You can buy XO sauce ready-made in Asian supermarkets or even make it yourself with recipes from Gourmet Traveller and Kylie Kwong.

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Celebrate Bastille Day with Breton Butter Cake (Gâteau Breton)

BrittanyfranceToday is Bastille Day, so it seems only appropriate that we cover our favorite French food group: Desserts. The dessert at hand today is the Breton Butter cake aka Gâteau Breton, a shortbread-like cake with a signature crosshatch design. This is a simple cake from the Northwest of France (where it gets its name from the region of Bretagne/Brittany), an area with a distinct food culture and language. The cake itself really is nothing more than eggs, sugar, flour and (lots of) butter – but sometimes simple things are the best! Check out recipes from Gâteau Breton from Lottie and DoofNot Quite Nigella and Serious Eats.


A slice of Gateau Breton by Jen Steele


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