Category Archives: Sweets

Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Cakes ‘N Shapes

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For my entire childhood, I had a single favorite birthday cake: chocolate, with buttercream icing, screen-printed with whatever strange photo I’d chosen that year. My mom, along with the majority of the adults who attended my birthday parties, preferred the Ciao Bella malted-milk-ball gelato cake we sometimes served, and though I loved that one, too, I thought it no match for my beloved photo cake. I was all about that buttercream icing (and all about getting to choose a photo, too), so for each of my birthdays, my mom would order that same cake from its same bakery—a bakery I don’t think I ever knew the name of, seeing as I was, like, 10—and each year, I’d happily devour it, sans even the slightest bit of an allergy-related trouble.

These days, I don’t do birthday cakes. Or birthday parties, or birthday gatherings, or much of anything birthday-related beyond, say, a nice meal out. (Go figure.) But when I found out about Cakes ‘N Shapes—one of NYC’s few, few, few nut-free bakeries, and home of some of this city’s best custom photo cakes, I’m told—I saw no other option. I absolutely had to get myself a photo-printed birthday cake, if only to see whether it’d be anywhere near as good as those of my childhood. (Plus, I do have this blog to run, after all. That’s how I justify the majority of my ceaseless eating…)

A sticker on a Cakes 'N Shapes cake box

Anyway, I got the cake. This time, I ordered it myself, but my mom paid—birthday perk—and when I called to tell her about the bakery I’d chosen, we discovered that Cakes ‘N Shapes is the very same place we used to get my cakes from. My mom recognized Edie’s (the baker’s) name as soon as I said it, and from there, the rest was instant: of course I’d never had a reaction, of course the cakes’ designs looked sort of familiar, of course it was the same woman doing the baking. I’m not sure how that realization managed to elude me for the entire year Cakes ‘N Shapes spent on my to-try list, but it did.

Back when I was younger, though, my parents had no idea that Cakes ‘N Shapes was a nut-free bakery, nor did I (as I’d had no idea nut-free bakeries even existed). All we knew was that I liked the cakes, and that they didn’t seem to be killing me, and that I wanted to continue to eating them. So we kept ordering them, and then we stopped, and now we’ve bought another. Small world, I guess.

The Cakes 'N Shapes cake I ate at my 12th birthday party

I had an incredibly hard time choosing what to have printed on my cake. When I was a kid, some horrible force compelled me to keep choosing my own goddamn face (see immediately above), but at 21, I have better things to stare at…like these pan-fried noodles from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, which just might be the dish that’s excited me most in my time running this blog. Yes, yes—clearly, I choked. At the very last minute, I somehow ended up deciding that it’d be a good idea to have a photograph of a styrofoam container of lo mein printed on my 21st-birthday cake. Yes. I don’t want to talk about it.

My idiocy aside, Edie did a wonderful job. The printed photo was high-res and clear enough, and it was reasonably true to its original coloring, too (though you should probably refrain from parading your cake around in direct sunlight for any longer than a few minutes if you’d rather it not turn green, like mine did). It was a pretty cake—as pretty as any lo mein–adorned cake can be, at least—but even discounting its appearance, it was a good cake. Unbelievably moist and springy, the cake itself was flawless. And the buttercream icing was just as it should’ve been. The bonus chocolate icing around the edges verged on too-sweet, but it was great in small doses. And after a few days in the fridge, the whole thing only got better.

A partial cross-section of a Cakes 'N Shapes cake

(I happen to be really into fridge cake. There’s something about the way the cake firms up, the way the icing thickens…honestly, the only thing better than a generous slice of fridge cake is a whole entire fridge cake, eaten directly out of the box with a day-old fork. My point, I guess, is that I might not be the best person to trust on the whole got-better-with-a-few-days’-refrigeration thing. It’s a good cake. A remarkably moist one. And it should probably be eaten fresh.)

That’s about all I have to say, really. Edie makes some damn good nut-free cakes—and though I’ve never tried her photo cookies, her cupcakes, or her free-form cakes, I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re probably pretty good, too.

Find Cakes ‘N Shapes at 466 West 51st Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Be sure, though, to place your order in advance, as Cakes ‘N Shapes doesn’t sell any sort of ready-made baked good.

[By the way: My birthday was at the beginning of May, if that gives you any idea as to how backlogged I am. The fact that I’m over a month into my summer vacation and still struggling to keep up with these posts has finally led me to the realization that I really do need to slow down, so that’s what I’m going to do. I hate rushing through posts almost as much as I hate the posts I produce when rushing, so from here on, I’m going to start experimenting with an every-10-days posting schedule. Maybe I’ll speed back up, or maybe I’ll slow down further. I don’t know. The next few posts are already in my queue, though. So don’t expect instant improvement. Wish me luck. Or motivation. Or something.]

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CLIF Bar

Two CLIF Bars: one Coconut Chocolate Chip, and one Chocolate Brownie

When you live with food allergies for long enough, you inevitably come to associate certain visuals with danger—logos and packages that provoke in you not hunger or craving but fear, resentment, maybe even a sneer or two as you push your sorry cart down the aisle. Me, I have tons of such visual queues: the quadricolor KIND logo; the death nugget that is the Ferrero Rocher; those chicken stock–looking cartons of Almond Breeze; anything wrapped in that paleyellow color that (for whatever reason) evidently means “I contain almonds”; the plump, happy shape of a jar of Nutella

You have yours, too, I’m sure. Maybe the insistently “rugged” beige sack that holds the CLIF Bar is among them. It was for me, at least. But not anymore—because I’ve just found out that CLIF Bar & Company is actually a rather allergy-friendly brand with a very reliable labeling policy. Their website’s Dietary Considerations page has a column for “allergens: contains” and one for “allergens: may contain traces of,” and as I’ve been assured by a few different CLIF employees, you can assume that bars without nuts listed in either of those columns weren’t made on shared equipment with anything nutty, and that they should be safe from trace amounts of nuts, too. (Of course, you’ll always find the most up-to-date information on the label itself. If the label and the website disagree, the label absolutely takes precedence.)

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That—the fact that there are nut allergy–friendly CLIF Bars on this planet—is the good news. The bad news? There are only four nut-free flavors, and one’s seasonal. (There are some nut allergy–friendly Luna Bars, Zbars, and BUILDER’S Bars, too, but those aren’t the subject of this post, are they?) There’s Apricot, Chocolate Brownie, Coconut Chocolate Chip, and Hot Chocolate—the seasonal flavor that supposedly exists but that I’ve never actually seen (and believe me, I’ve looked). All four contain soy, and all may contain traces of wheat and dairy (with the exception of Apricot, which is dairy-free)—and all (like most CLIF products) are kosher, too. Not perfect for everyone, I guess, but pretty accommodating nonetheless.

As for taste, CLIF Bars are…well, they taste a lot like you’d expect. They’re marketed as that impossible triad: easy, healthy, and tasty (“CLIF BAR is a great-tasting energy bar made with a nutritious blend of organic rolled oats and wholesome ingredients for sustained energy”), but what are they, really? There’s no denying that they’re easy—to find, to cart around, to eat, whatever. Good for you, though? Well, not particularly. They’re packed with sugar—like, candy-bar levels of sugar, which means that if you’re looking for nutrition, you’re probably better off staying away. Actual nutritional-value aside, though, CLIF Bars do have a little of that health-food grit to them—but for what they are (or what they’re meant to be, I guess), CLIF Bars do taste pretty good.

I haven’t tried the Apricot bar (apricots tend to make my mouth itchy), but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of the Chocolate Brownie and the Coconut Chocolate Chip, and I have to say, I definitely see the appeal. They’re sweet, but not too-too sweet, and both have a nice, chewy texture to them, too. Which I like better changes by the week, but right now I’m going to have to go with Chocolate Brownie (because, uh, I like cocoa). Preferences aside, though, both are pretty good. They’re ridiculously filling, at least. And I’m a sucker for the novelty of eating normal-people foods—especially those particular normal-people foods I’ve spent my life afraid of. So there’s that.

Find CLIF Bars wherever. (I buy them exclusively at NYU, with whatever Dining Dollars [i.e. campus currency that disappears at the end of the semester] I don’t spend on shampoo and Chick-fil-A, but they’re available at just about every store on the planet.)

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Baked Cravings

An assortment of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

I don’t like cupcakes, and I don’t know a single post-pubescent with a palate who does. As baked goods, they’re fatally flawed: there’s the dry, crumbly cake that’s no good on its own, but that ceases to even register when eaten with frosting—and then there’s the frosting itself, always present in an obnoxious dollop, always blunt and harsh and critically oversweet, never even a third as good as it looks.

Only bad cupcakes are like that, you might say. And you’d be right. But the vast majority of cupcakes are bad. Yes, I’m sure there are a number of NYC bakeries that have subtle, balanced, pleasant cupcakes to offer, but not to me, nor anyone else who avoids cross-contamination with nuts. At most bakeries—and at virtually all of the good ones—the chance of cross-contamination is just too high. And the few, few, few nut-free bakeries that do exist seem to have devoted all their attention to the whole nut-free thing, and not nearly enough to the whole, uh, what-are-we-actually-baking-and-what-does-it-taste-like-and-will-anyone-but-a-six-year-old-actually-enjoy-it thing.

So I don’t eat cupcakes. Or crave them, really. On occasion, I’ll think back to the cupcakes of my childhood—my pre-careful days, when I’d eat anything handed to me—with nostalgia. But I can count on that nostalgia’s tendency to evaporate the second I bite into one of those jarringly sweet cupcakes of my current life. Wherever they’re from, they all produce in me the same Series of Unfortunate Effects: tooth pain, then moderate annoyance, followed by reluctant admission that cupcakes are probably just one of those things that’s incredible in childhood, but perpetually underwhelming thereafter—like Six Flags, or Christmas.

A tray of cranberry-orange

Now that I’ve effectively stuck my tongue out at Big Cupcake—dedicated readers will probably know where I’m going with this, as I only have about six or seven blog-post formulas, and Hate-Treatise-as-Introduction tends to lead into a post filled with effusive praise—I’ll allow myself to get into what I’m really here to get into, which is, of course, Baked Cravings, a cupcake spot that opened its doors last month, up on the corner of 105th and Lex. (Like 106 and Park, but different.)

Really, this place is exceptional. It has so many qualities of note, and I’m itching to list them all. First and foremost, though, is its nut-free status. Each and every product sold at Baked Cravings—mostly cupcakes, for now—is truly, truly, truly nut-free. Here’s the bakery’s nut-free statement, reproduced in its entirety:

As fathers, Craig and Rui understand the severity of nut allergies. To create desserts accessible for children to enjoy in schools, Baked Cravings have dedicated themselves to build and maintain a nut-free facility. Using only the highest quality ingredients sourced from nut-free vendors, following strict packing processes and conducting regular tests to provide pastries for children to enjoy and parents to trust.

Bang.

(Nut-free facility, nut-free vendors, regular testing for the presence of allergens—there literally isn’t anything else I’d dream of asking for, so I felt a standalone “Bang.” was the most appropriate response. Seriously, though: This is model-worthy protocol, and I’m impressed.)

A close-up of a tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But ignore, for a moment, everything but flavor. (And I do say this with the understanding that ignoring is not something we nut-allergic often get to do. Allergy-friendliness is the most important variable; anything else comes second, if it comes up at all—and I say this as self-appointed Queen of Making Excuses for Shitty Restaurants That Happen to be Able to Feed Me Safely.)

Ignore how cute the cupcakes are. Ignore that they’re reasonably priced, and ignore that they’re made with reasonable (i.e. “real”) ingredients. Ignore that the place is two blocks from the train. Ignore that the guys who run it are probably the nicest (and coolest) people I’ve met in my blog-related adventures—and ignore, too, that they’re obviously passionate about what they’re doing. Ignore the nut-free facility. Ignore the vendor-vetting. Ignore the allergen-testing. Ignore everything but taste of the goddamn cupcakes—the only thing that really matters (because we’re ignoring our allergies here, remember?)—and you’ll still be immensely pleased with Baked Cravings.

I am, at least. And I hate cupcakes. (See? Formulaic as Enfamil.)

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I first stopped by last week, after a (wonderful) lunch at Taco Mix. Stuffed with al pastor, and feeling as we do about cupcakes, neither Sam nor I was all that excited about all the sugar in store for us. But I have this silly blog to run, and Sam’s stomach might be an actual bottomless pit, so we soldiered on.

We didn’t regret it. We sampled seven cupcakes (red velvet, red velvet–strawberry, carrot, vanilla, chocolate, peach, and cranberry-orange), and we both loved nearly every single thing about every single one. The cakes are all absurdly moist—great on their own, even—and the frostings, though sweet, yes, are nowhere near as overbearing as, say, the ones you’ll find at Eleni’s. In fact, none of these frostings are unpleasant in the slightest: compared to most, they’re gentle and delicate, and instead of overpowering the cakes, they do a lovely job of enhancing them.

Red velvet was the first I went for, followed by red velvet–strawberry (standard red velvet, but with strawberry icing). The former, a classic, is just right: fairly chocolatey, with a sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting that’s surprisingly well-balanced. And the latter’s strawberry frosting tastes much more like strawberry + frosting than icky, artificial-tasting strawberry frosting. It’s light and subtle and so, so creamy—far creamier than it is sweet, which I assure you is a very, very good thing.

A peach cupcake from Baked Cravings

Peach, immediately above, is refreshingly real-fruity, too. Its cinnamon- and nutmeg-heavy cake is a little too pumpkin-spicy for me, but I absolutely love its frosting, which is made with bits of honest-to-goodness peach—and I feel the same about carrot, which has never been my favorite sort of cake, but which is topped with a sharp, tangy (cream cheese?) frosting that I can’t stop sticking my fingers in.

To my surprise, both the plain-olds—chocolate with chocolate frosting, and vanilla with vanilla frosting—are remarkably good, too. Faced with options like red velvet and peach, you’d think chocolate or vanilla would amount to throwaways. Not these, though. Chocolate’s deep, rich, and mousse-like, and vanilla…well, forgive me, but I’m going to go ahead and describe this one as the ideal type of the not-too-sweet vanilla cupcake I’ve been chasing since childhood. It’s just what I’ve been looking for in each and every nasty, cloying, piece-of-shit vanilla-flavored confection I’ve subjected myself to over the course of the last decade or so—the 21-year-old’s equivalent of the highlight of the 6-year-old’s day.

Finally, there’s cranberry-orange (pictured second above), the weirdest Baked Cravings offering, and probably my favorite, too. The cake, perhaps the least sweet of the bunch, makes me think “muffin” well before I think “cupcake,” but that’s not a complaint in the slightest. And though the cake isn’t identifiably orangey, it is dotted with chewy bits of cranberry—much more to my taste, anyway. On top, there’s marshmallow frosting, which sounds terrible, but which is actually delicious. It’s sweeter than the other frostings, but it’s not too sweet, and its added thickness makes its added sweetness worthwhile (and then some).

A tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But I’ve gone on too long—half because I’m so excited about these cupcakes, and half because I decided I really couldn’t winnow out any more of these photos. I’ll wrap it up, though. For the greater good.

I’ll end, then, with this: We nut-allergic are usually confined to the bottom tier of the baked-goods world. Sometimes, we’ll find a company that lets us get in on something tolerable, and we’ll get excited. We’ll tell our friends and family, we’ll post the product to a Facebook group, we might even write a blog post about it—knowing full well it’s slop, but grateful for that slop nonetheless. (We’re expert bad-food apologists, after all.) Sometimes, though—very nearly never, actually—we’ll find a company that lets us try some of the good stuff. Not the good-for-a-nut-free-product stuff, but the real-deal good stuff.

That’s Baked Cravings. Baked Cravings, whose cupcakes actually manage to rival all that gourmet danger-food I so loved to eat as a child. That’s a huge compliment, and a two-fold one, too: I mean both that these cupcakes rival those high-end, nutty-bakery cupcakes I was comfortable eating as a less-careful child, and that these cupcakes actually manage to live up to the impossible cupcake-ideal I (and most children) formed in childhood. I can’t say the same about any other nut-free bakery’s, nor any store-bought brand’s. Truly, these are special.

Find Baked Cravings at 1673 Lexington Avenue, on the corner of 105th Street. For now, it’s mostly cupcakes—but I’m told there’s lots more in the works. So go forth. Please. These guys deserve the attention.

P.S. Eleni who?

[Edit: Since publishing this post, I’ve also tried their brownies and their soft-baked cookies, and all I have to say is “wow.” These guys really aren’t fucking around—and I have no reservations whatsoever in announcing to the world that Baked Cravings is by far the best nut-free bakery I’ve ever been to. But like I wrote above, this place is about far more than the whole nut-free thing; I’m eating one of their brownies as I type this, and I can honestly say that it might as well have come from a top-tier (non-specialty) bakery. So good it’s offensive.]

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Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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A while back—when it was still cold out, of course—I decided it’d be a good idea to hop on an early-morning Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. I had no plan, nor anything to dabble in, so I ended up spending the whole day wandering. In the midst of those wanders, the wind got to me: my fingers and toes went numb, and so I decided to pop into some random supermarket to warm up (and gawk at food). It was there that I found these pretzels.

As a reflex, I pick up every bag (or tub, in this case) of chocolate-covered pretzels I see—and with the exception of Vermont Nut-Free’s, I’ve never come across one without a “may contain” warning for tree nuts. But as you’ve probably predicted, this tub of pretzels was unlike those others. It had no such warning, so I had no choice but to take it home.

In general, I’m one to go by labels. Unless I’ve found some specific cause for concern—the product in question is particularly high-risk, or it’s coming from a teeny-tiny company that makes a bunch of nut-containing products, too—I’ll dig right in to any packaged good whose label has no mention of tree nuts. I do that knowing full well that companies aren’t required to label for shared facilities, shared lines, etc., because…well, I’m just not a company-caller. (Many are—and if you got all your impressions from food allergy–themed online communities, you’d think that most were. But I really doubt the practice is all that widespread, especially among those who haven’t self-selected into allergy-related Facebook groups.)

The way I see it, if I adopted a set of food-safety standards so high that they required me to always confirm that a product comes from a nut-free facility before allowing myself to eat it—and if I were to really abide by that rule, and carry it out to its logical conclusion, which is some sort of obligation to make sure everything I put in my mouth is, as far as I can tell, free from all possible cross-contamination—I’d soon find that my standards were not only impossible to meet, but that they’d necessarily lead to something like a near-infinite regress of uncertainty, too. [Here, I will—for the first (and hopefully last) time—share a meme on this blog.]

Think about it. There’s just no way to confirm that a product is safe. What if the employee I spoke with was wrong? What if Nabisco has told me that my graham crackers come from a nut-free facility, but they don’t mention (or even know) that the flour that’s gone into those same graham crackers was itself processed on shared lines? What if a factory worker ate some almonds with his lunch? And what if I want to eat out? Am I going to ask a restaurant to provide me with a list of every single product that’s gone into my dish, and then proceed to call each and every one of those manufacturers before deciding whether to order? And what about that manufacturer’s suppliers?

Fuck no. All food comes with risk. I’ll survive. (Plus, my allergist’s on my side. So take that.) [Edit: For more on all this, read the comments on this post.]

Ingredient information on the back of a Herr's chocolate-covered pretzels tub

That all said—and yes, this whole post is just an excuse for the above demi-treatise—I did contact Herr’s about these pretzels—not as a precaution before eating, but as a precaution before sitting down to write this blog post. (Seems weird to throw a product post together without having spoken to the manufacturer. No matter how comfortable I feel at a restaurant, I wouldn’t publish a post on it without having gotten some summarizable allergen information out of one or two of its employees…or its website, I guess.) And eventually, I was able to find out that these chocolate-covered pretzels are, in fact, nut-free.

Originally, I was told (via email) that these particular chocolate-covered pretzels are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility, but that obviously wasn’t true, given that the label has a “may contain” statement for peanuts. I replied and said as much—and then, a day or two later, I got an unexpected phone call from a very apologetic (and very, very informed) Herr’s employee who’d evidently been tasked with setting the record straight. So: These pretzels—the ones that come in the red tub pictured at the top of this post—are made in a tree nut–free facility that does indeed handle peanuts, and they should be 100% safe for those with tree nut allergies.

By now, it’s beside the point, but the pretzels themselves are fine. They’re just about what you’d expect, really: thin, sour-ish pretzels, covered in a fair amount of sub-par “chocolate.” (It isn’t actually chocolate, but rather a chocolate-flavored coating.) They’re nothing to go out of your way for, but they’re nonetheless palatable. And even though they’re a little on the expensive side, they’re certainly less bank-breaking than Vermont Nut-Free’s. I don’t love them, and I’m not sure I’d buy them again, but…they’re chocolate-covered pretzels, and they’ve temporarily relieved me of my craving. I don’t ask for much more.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure where you can find these pretzels. (Remember: excuse, demi-treatise.) They aren’t listed on the Herr’s website, nor can I find much of anything about them online. With regard to potential allergens, the pretzels that come in the above-pictured red bucket aren’t necessarily the same as any of the other chocolate-covered pretzels sold by Herr’s. Rest assured, though, that these do exist, and that they (in particular) are safe.

They’re out there. I swear.

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SunButter

A Jar of Natural Crunch SunButter

I know what you’re thinking: “What’re you doing blogging about SunButter? It’s a peanut butter substitute, and you’re only allergic to tree nuts!” But you, who were almost certainly not thinking the above, can rest assured that I’m well aware of my ability to eat peanut butter. I’ve chosen to post about SunButter because it’s both (a) decidedly tree nut–free, too—and thus well within the scope of this blog—and (b) damn good, to the extent that I often freely choose to use it instead of its more-allergenic cousin.

Before we move on, though, let’s go back—to the school cafeteria that served me the majority of my age-3 to age-14 lunches. Toward the beginning of my time at that school, nuts weren’t banned. There’d be the occasional offering of nut-containing macaroons or baklava, and there was always peanut butter around, too. Eventually, the administration instituted a few peanut tables (at which you were required to sit if you wanted to eat peanuts), but that rule didn’t last long. By the time I was 7 or 8, they’d outlawed all nuts—but I never really thought of that change in terms of myself or my own allergies, really, given that there were never all that many tree nuts in their cooking to begin with. The only real day-to-day difference was the glaring absence of peanut butter.

But I liked peanut butter, so I was as annoyed as any of the nut-unallergic kids. (My grade had one other nut-allergic kid, whom I’d always look to—across the room, as we didn’t really know each other—for reassurance before I’d be willing to bite into my own serving of the school-birthday food in question. I don’t think he ever did find out that he was my food-allergy guinea pig. Oh well.) And my school’s introduction of SunButter did approximately nothing to make me feel better. In fact, I hated it. We all hated it. It tasted funny—like it’d been left out in the sun, we 2nd-Grade experts at observational comedy declared. And our school had us all scooping the stuff out of a big ol’ communal tub, too, which really didn’t help.

The reason it sucked, though, was because it was peanut butter we unallergic were after. SunButter isn’t made from peanuts; it’s made from sunflower seeds, and it tastes like it’s made from sunflower seeds. I don’t know what it’s like for people who’ve never eaten peanut butter (or for people who haven’t had peanut butter in years), but I do know this: If you have a decent sense of what peanut butter tastes like, and you’re expecting SunButter to taste the same, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s approximately the same—the texture’s essentially identical, and the flavor is rather similar—but the difference is noticeable enough to produce that dreaded effect of off-ness that you’ll get from nearly every single allergen(s)-replaced product out there.

So because of that—because I was a little repulsed by SunButter as it comes across when it’s meant to pass for peanut butter—I’ve spent the better part of the last decade staying far, far away from the stuff. Last year, though, when I gave Free2b’s sun cups a try, I was forced to reconsider. I absolutely loved the sunflower-seed butter they’d used—and it tastes just like the SunButter I used to hate. Something had to give.

The deal, I think, was that I’d recently grown to appreciate sunflower seeds, so when I bit into that sunflower-butter cup, it was a sunflower-y flavor I was hoping for. I wasn’t expecting peanut butter, nor was I expecting a seamless substitute; I was expecting ground-up sunflower seeds, and that expectation made all the difference. And sure enough, when I (for science) closed my eyes and forced myself to expect a Reese’s Cup, the Free2b cup turned unpleasant.

I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that if you treat SunButter like a specialty item—if you go into it expecting something decidedly different from peanut butter, that is—then 10 times out of 10, it’ll taste great. You have to want all the differences, though. Compared to peanut butter, SunButter is earthier, sourer. Deeper, more nuanced. And ever-so-slightly funky, too. Truly, it tastes just like sunflower seeds—and once you’ve come to terms with that (ultimately delightful) fact, this stuff really starts to rival peanut butter.

A SunButter-and-jelly sandwich

I like it fine on its own, and it’s good on bananas, too, but in my always-humble opinion, SunButter performs best in an SB&J (that’s a SunButter-and-jelly sandwich—keep up). The sandwich, like (well, because of) the SunButter itself, won’t taste right if it’s specifically peanut butter you’re after, but again: If you expect somewhat of a riff on a PB&J—and if you’ve really, truly gotten yourself ready to accept the sunflower seed as your Lord and Savior—then you’ll be handsomely rewarded with what I’m going to have to insist is an objectively superior sandwich. (Sorry. Can’t explain why. It’s just better.)

Anyway. SunButter comes in all your standard peanut-butter varieties—natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added—and each and every one is entirely free from peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, egg, sesame, and soy. I like the crunchy best (though it only comes “natural,” and so it does separate), but all are fine, really—provided you, like me, have turned yourself over to the Almighty Sunflower.

Find SunButter at Whole Foods, Best Market, Target, Walmart, Fairway, or Foodtown. Grab a coupon, though, because this stuff is expensive.

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Shake Shack

Two Shake Shack hamburgers

A month ago, I had absolutely no interest in Shake Shack. I’d eaten (without issue) at the Madison Square Park location a few times in my less-careful, have-a-reaction-every-once-in-a-while days, but the burgers never really did much for me. Accordingly, the older, more-careful me never really cared enough to look into the question of whether Shake Shack might be an allergy-friendly chain.

That said, comprehensiveness is my fetish, and Shake Shack’s been getting harder and harder to avoid. Shacks are popping up everywhere, and I see the chain mentioned a whole lot in the NYC-specific food-allergy Facebook group I frequent, too. So after a fair amount of foot-dragging and dilly-dallying, I figured it was probably time I at least devote some effort to finding out whether Shake Shack might be a viable option, regardless of whether I had any personal interest in stopping by.

So. Is Shake Shack nut allergy–friendly? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but…well, it’s complicated. Shake Shack was created by Danny Meyer, who happens to be the guy behind Blue Smoke, and who happens to seem to really know his shit, food allergy–wise. Pretty much every restaurant Meyer touches turns to food-allergy gold, and Shake Shack is no exception. There are two types of gold, though: we-don’t-have-any-of-your-allergens-on-site gold, and damn-right-we-have-your-allergens-here-but-we-know-how-not-to-let-them-near-your-food gold. And like Blue Smoke, Shake Shack falls into the latter category.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that the folks at Shake Shack are allergy-aware enough to make me feel comfortable with all the nuts they have lying around their kitchens. (Some Shake Shacks have very few nuts; others have plenty. It varies by location—but what doesn’t vary is the fact that all of the chain’s locations are, on the whole, pretty allergy-friendly.) They’ll encourage you to let them know if you have any food allergies—which they’ll always make note of on your ticket—and they’ll be happy to change their gloves and keep a special eye on your order, too. Very Danny Meyer indeed.

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Even more of a help is this chart of theirs, which accounts not only for dishes that explicitly contain nuts, but for those that contain ingredients processed in shared facilities, too. So if an item isn’t marked as a risk on that chart, it really is safe to eat—provided that the folks who prepare your food are competent and responsible, at least. (As the above-linked page notes, though: “Only standard Shack menu items are listed above, and menu options can vary by Shack.” So the chart doesn’t list the billion-and-a-half concrete mix-ins that might be offered, which are where a lot of the Shake Shack tree nuts come from. The same page actually advises those with food allergies to stay away from all Shake Shack concretes. Fair enough.)

Here is, for good measure, what I was told when I wrote to Shake Shack for some further information:

If an item is not flagged with any sort of symbol at https://www.shakeshack.com/allergy, then it means that the ingredients do not contain the allergen and the ingredients are not processed in a facility that contains the allergen. There can be tree nuts present at some of our Shacks as mix-ins with our concretes, so please check the menu at your preferred Shake Shack to see if cross contamination may be a concern at the Shack, and always let a team member know about any allergies when you are ordering.

I asked, too, for some further information about in-restaurant cross-contamination, and this was the response I received:

The issue of cross-contamination with our frozen custard items would be most prevalent when ordering concretes at Shacks which offer walnuts or other tree nuts as mix-ins. I would not recommend ordering concretes in these cases. Tree nuts are not offered as mix-ins with shakes, and every Shack has one shake mixer that is utilized solely for shakes that contain peanut butter, using other machines for all other shakes.

These two answers are about as good as I could’ve hoped for, really.

Two Shake Shack hamburgers with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion

Anyway. There’s a surprising amount of food I can’t eat at Shake Shack, but I guess that’s what happens when a restaurant’s diligent about flagging each and every menu item that contains something that was made in a shared facility. I can have a few of their burgers. I can have a few of their hot dogs. I can have their fries—but only plain, as the cheese sauce may contain nuts. I can’t have any of their chicken or sausage, and a lot of the desserts are a no-go, too. But surprisingly enough, I can have a few of their shakes, floats, and ice-cream cones, so long as the Shack in question doesn’t handle things in such a way as to make cross-contamination with the other ice-cream items likely.

(…Undoubtedly, Shake Shack’s menu is more of a minefield than I’m used to. Still, though: I’m plenty comfortable. But onto the food.)

Regardless of what Anthony Papaya King–Loving Bourdain says, I maintain that food-wise, Shake Shack is nothing extraordinary. But! The vast majority of burgers (and burger chains) are nothing extraordinary, and I’d be lying by omission if I failed to mention that Shake Shack beats pretty much all of my favorite burger spots—and by a landslide, too. It’s way better than your average diner. It’s way better than Five Guys. It’s way better than Big Daddy’s. It’s way better than The Burger Bistro. And it’s cheaper than all of the above, too. And now that I’ve said all that, I might as well just admit that…well, I actually really, really like Shake Shack. For what it is, at least: a fast-food burger joint that’s just plain better than its fast-food competitors (and a lot of its regular-restaurant competitors, too).

The burgers are what I have the most experience with, so I’ll start with those. Despite their wishy-washy (Martin’s) potato buns, they’re really very good—better without the elective pickles pictured above, actually—but for once, I’m finding myself on Team Cheeseburger. Shake Shack’s cheese isn’t as gross as the American you’ll find at most burger joints; in fact, it’s actually pretty good, and it adds some welcome flare (read: salt, grease) to an otherwise-uneventful-ish burger. ShackSauce—basically mustardy mayo—helps, too. And they’re generous with the onions, which is always a plus. The patties themselves are great, though; it’s not as if their flavor needs to be masked.

Though less fun, the hot dogs are also good. Again, I wish the buns weren’t so potato-y, but the dogs themselves are great, if not quite as tasty as the ones you’ll get at Crif Dogs. They’re split down the center, but they still manage to maintain their snap, and with a topping or two—I happen to like Shack Sauce and a pickle spear—they’re just about perfect. (For those with nut allergies, the Shack-cago Dog’s out—but only because its relish may contain trace amounts of nuts. It’s easy enough to ask them to hold the relish, though. And anyway, the onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt, and mustard are all safe.)

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And the fries, too, are great, especially if you’re into crinkle-cut—though I do wish I could get in on the cheese sauce (which is made of actual cheese, and which is therefore a permissible topping, thank you very much). They’re crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, just as fries should be—and though they’re a little thicker than the sort of fries I’m usually into, I do have to say that these are some of my all-time favorites. (Hint: ShackSauce. Try it.)

As for desserts, I’ve only tried a few. I do stay away from the concretes, but the shakes seem safe enough (as per the email I shared above), and they’re plenty tasty, too. There isn’t much to say—they’re thick and creamy custard-based milkshakes, and I love them very much—other than this: As those with nut allergies know, it’s just really, really nice to be able to partake in dessert, especially when that dessert didn’t require any special planning or consideration on your part. Another point for Shake Shack.

So maybe 12-year-old me was a little too hard on Shake Shack. Maybe—just maybe—she didn’t quite know everything. But right now, a burger chain’s noteworthiness is about all she’s willing to concede. Try her again in another decade, will you?

Find Shake Shack just about everywhere.

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Sweet Middles

Three crème brulée Sweet Middles

I find a lot of decidedly nut-free nonsense in the bowels of this city’s low-end supermarkets. Lofthouse cookies, Everyday Favorites (i.e. Maplehurstcupcakes, box after box of shitty (nut-free) donuts…there’s no shortage. I hardly ever buy any of it, because I’m well aware that all of it is sub-par and way, way, way too sugary—but every once in a while, I “forget” all about that and let myself be marketed to.That’s how I end up with something like a box of Sweet Middles on my kitchen counter. Waiting to be sampled. Waiting to be photographed. Waiting to be written about. Waiting. Waiting.

…Well, now I’m here.

Most of Our Specialty‘s products—cakes, flatbreads, pizzas—aren’t made in a nut- and peanut-free environment, but Sweet Middles are, lucky us. There’s no allergen information to get into, really: just a little nut- and peanut-free logo on each box. And for better or for worse, that’s all it takes to get me to pull out my wallet. So now, I’m the proud owner of my very own box of crème brulée Sweet Middles.

The back of a box of crème brulée Sweet Middles

And what is there to say, really? They’re exactly what they look like: ridiculously over-sweet (and overpriced) supermarket “cookies” that I would’ve been guaranteed to love at age 9 or 10, but that sort of just hurt my teeth and make me feel bad about myself at 20. They’re basically just semi-hardened globs of super-sugary icing wedged between sets of soft-baked cookie-ish things. I haven’t been able to detect any crème brulée flavor (nor any flavor beyond that of pure sugar, really), but it’s possible that it’s there, I guess. (And it’s possible, too, that the other flavors are better…but I’m inclined to doubt.)

Honestly, though—and I’m so, so ashamed of this—I don’t quite hate them. While they’re, yes, so sweet that I haven’t been able to bring myself to take even a single full-sized bite, there’s definitely something that’s keeping me coming back for additional nibbles. And after a few days of on-and-off wrestling with these stupid things, I’ve figured out what it is: their striking similarity to the Mrs. Fields cookies of my pre–careful eating childhood. (As a kid, I was obsessed with both the Mrs. Fields cookie-and-icing sandwiches and the Auntie Anne’s pretzel bites that you’ll find at, like, every single mall on the planet. But neither of those vendors is allergy-friendly in the slightest, so I’ve since decided to abstain.)

With a lot of water—and I mean a lot—I can even get through a whole serving (that’s one cookie, I think). Slowly, slowly, slowly, I will make my way through this $6 box of shame. And then I’ll be free. To never, ever, ever buy a box of Sweet Middles ever, ever again. But then, I’ve learned this before. A million times, at least. So really, between you and me, I’m not feeling all that hopeful about the whole well-at-least-I’ll-learn-from-this thing. Oh well.

Find these half-delicious, half-painful cookie monsters at Key Food, Gristedes, D’Agostino, or Fairway. (Actually: 2% delicious, 18% genuinely painful, and 80% just plain bad.)

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Hershey’s Cookie Layer Crunch

Two bags of Hershey's Cookie Layer Crunch

I had no plans to post about these, but…well, I got kicked out of a Facebook group for responding to a question with (correct) information on them, and I’m still a little salty, so enjoy the fucking post. [This isn’t that type of soap box, so I’ll just leave it at this: Some people are just so terribly misguided that (a) there really is no reasoning with them and (b) it’ll be a huge relief when you end up getting removed from their heavily moderated echo chamber of a Facebook group.]

Bullshit aside, this is a brand-new line of Hershey’s products, and it’s way, way better than the vast majority of the Hershey’s lines I’ve tried. And it’s not just me. These bars fared better in the consumer-testing process than most of the other products Hershey’s has ever released. (By the way, in case you’ve made the mistake of leaving that link unclicked, I’d like to inform you that the ad-article it leads to includes such absurd word heaps as “world leader in snacking expertise,” “textured snacking experience,” and “the growing demand for multi-textural eating experiences.” That’s all from one paragraph, too. Go forth.)

But regardless of those consumers’ pre-release opinions, I have a lot against Hershey’s chocolate. (There isn’t much to explain; their chocolate just sucks.) But I’ll eat the occasional Hershey’s product—usually a Kit Kat, a PayDay, a Reese’s Cup, or (my favorite!) a Whatchamacallit—because (a) I’m human, and (b) Hershey’s is one of the few food allergy–friendly chocolate-bar companies on the American mass market. Sue me.

Now, Hershey’s isn’t the ideal company, or anything—not by food-allergy standards, nor by any others, really. They don’t always label for shared lines and facilities, but they’ll issue a warning whenever they feel there’s any chance of cross-contamination. That is, in fact, what most companies will say in response to the question of whether they label for shared equipment, etc.—”we use our discretion,” basically. The question then becomes one of whether you, the food-allergic, trust the company.

Personally, I trust Hershey’s—which is to say that if a Hershey’s label doesn’t warn me to stay away, then I’ll feel pretty confident in digging into the labeled product. They have plenty of products I can’t eat, but I take that as a good sign, actually. A lot of products with a “may contain” warning means a willingness to issue such warnings when they’re called for. So I’m on board.

Anyway. With regard to these particular products—all three Cookie Layer Crunch varieties, I mean—I’ve been told via phone (and on a few separate occasions, too) that the absence of any sort of advisory labeling does in fact mean dedicated lines. There are, then, no peanut or tree nut products made with the equipment that’s used to make any of the Cookie Layer Crunch bars. (Cookie bars? Bar cookies? Cookies-in-bars? I don’t know.) So do with that what you will.

A vanilla crème Hershey's Layer Crunch bar

Again—and I think this is worth emphasizing—I hate Hershey’s chocolate, especially when it’s prominently featured in whatever bullshit Hershey’s confection I’ve decided to shove into my mouth. I haven’t so much as touched a plain old Hershey’s bar since my last stay at The Hotel Hershey (circa 2007), where they give those things away like they don’t cost anything to make. (Oh, wait…) In any case, their chocolate’s just plain bad, and I’ll only bother with it when the other ingredients at play are hefty enough to make it worth my while. Fortunately, though, these Cookie Layer Crunch whatsits meet that criteria.

They come in three varieties—Vanilla Crème, Caramel, and Mint—so I suppose I should go one by one. I’ll start with my least favorite, then: Caramel, described on the label as “milk chocolate bars with shortbread cookie bits and caramel.” Unfortunately, the shortbread cookie bits don’t taste much like shortbread—or like much of anything, really—and the caramel is overbearingly sweet. I will say, though, that the chocolate involved (in this bar, and in the other two as well) is significantly better than the chocolate Hershey’s uses for their other product lines. It’s not as sour, nor (quite) as artificial-tasting, and it’s significantly creamier, too. But overall, these things taste just like ROLOs. And I’m sorry, but that isn’t a compliment.

I do have some nice things to say about the other two varieties, though. Vanilla Crème (pictured below—sorry about my fingers) is approximately as cloying as just about every other Hershey’s product out there, but it’s somehow not nearly as offensive. And in fact, it’s my second-favorite of the three Cookie Layer Crunch varieties.

The label calls them “milk chocolate bars with chocolate cookie bits and vanilla flavored crème with other natural flavor,” and (aside from the natural-flavor mumbo jumbo) and if you ask me, that’s a pretty reasonable description. The chocolate cookie bits are a lot more flavorful (and a lot more satisfying) than the shortbread cookie bits, and their texture’s key to the balance of the bar. And by some sort of miracle, the vanilla créme isn’t sickeningly sweet; in context, it works—and it’s pretty similar to what you’ll find in an Oreo.

The inside of a vanilla créme Hershey's Cookie Layer Crunch bar

My favorite, though, is definitely the Mint: “dark chocolate bars with chocolate cookie bits and mint créme.” Unfortunately, the packaging doesn’t lie—they really are green on the inside. But surprisingly enough, they’re delicious. They taste a whole lot like Thin Mints (which are pretty allergy-friendly, by the way), though with way more chocolate to them…and that‘s a compliment.

As with the Vanilla Créme, the cookie bits in the Mint bars are nice and chocolatey, with a satisfying crunch to them. They’re actually rather indispensable, and they go a long way toward making these bars so pleasantly Thin Mint–esque. The mint créme is good, too—it’s refreshingly minty, and there’s just enough of it—and it complements the (slightly) dark(er) chocolate nicely, too. I’m not even a huge mint fan—York Peppermint Patties are too much for me, I won’t chew mint gum, and I didn’t switch to mint-flavored toothpaste until well into high school—but these really do it for me.

All right. That’s enough, I think. I always feel sort of dirty when I confess to even half-liking a Hershey’s product. But these are new, and I kind of like them (well, two out of three of them), and they’re pretty allergy friendly, so…I’ll get over it. They’re pretty easy to find, too. Try CVS, Duane Reade, Walgreens, or the godforsaken Hershey’s Chocolate World in godforsaken Times Square—which is where I thought I had to go to get these. (Fucking oops. Long story. Stay away from the Hershey’s store. Please.)

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Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips

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I have no idea what possessed me to go out and buy a bag of Ghirardelli’s milk-chocolate chocolate chips—maybe it was the pressure I felt to get on with it and finally buy something from the brand-new Target that recently opened near my apartment, or maybe it was the downright vitriolic Ghirardelli-related debate I came across in one of the many horrifying allergy-related Facebook groups I like to browse when I’m feeling particularly masochistic. Whatever the reasons, I bought a bag. And ate its contents. Then bought another. And another. And now I’m here, weeks later, still hooked, blogging.

The Facebook argument—and I’m probably aggregating three or four arguments here, because, like most special-interest online forums, these Facebook groups make me lose (a) my mind and (b) my desire to get it back—was, of course, about whether Ghirardelli’s chocolate chips are safe for those with nut allergies. I love myself, so I didn’t weigh in, but I guess now’s my time.

After reaching out to Ghirardelli, I received the following reply (which is 100% consistent with everything I’ve been able to find online, too):

Ghirardelli Bars and Squares are made in a facility and on shared equipment with products containing the following tree nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and coconut. Peanuts are no used in the manufacturing of our Bars and Squares.

The chocolate chips (60% Bittersweet, Semi-Sweet, Mini Semi-Sweet, Double Chocolate and Milk Chocolate) do not contain tree nuts or peanuts; moreover, the chocolate chips line does not make products containing tree nuts or peanuts. However, our chips are produced in the same facility as our Bars and Squares.

The Classic White Chips are produced in a facility and on equipment that makes products containing peanuts and tree nuts.

So while I probably wouldn’t risk it with Ghirardelli’s bars or squares, I’m entirely comfortable with their chocolate chips (with the unfortunate exception of the Classic White). Of course, these chips aren’t made in a dedicated facility—but they are made on dedicated lines, which is good enough for me. (Plus, with how good these chips are, I can’t even fathom opting to use a dedicated-facility brand like Enjoy Life. There just isn’t any competition between the two products—especially if your only allergy is to nuts.)

Of course, you should always defer to the label for the most up-to-date information. Ghirardelli’s great about labeling issuing “may contain” warnings whenever there’s any sort of cause for concern, so the allergen statement will be sure to let you know if the above information has, for some reason, changed.

Anyway, I should probably get to talking about chocolate. Ghirardelli’s is great, and these days, I straight-up refuse to bake with any other chips. The semi-sweet chips are absolutely perfect for brownies—last week, I used them in this recipe, and the brownies ended up being some of the best I’ve ever had—but the milk-chocolate chips are the ones I’ll eat by the handful. They’re smooth and sweet, but not at all cloying—and they are, of course, totally free from that artificial Hershey-esque flavor all reasonable people hate so much.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s an open bag of chocolate chips in one of my cabinets, and I have to, um…get to that.

Find Ghirardelli products just about everywhere.

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