bourbon pumpkin cheesecake

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I know what you’re thinking. A little late for the pumpkin desserts, right? And I absolutely agree with you. BUT, I have made this pumpkin cheesecake four times in the past three weeks – twice before Thanksgiving, and two more on Thanksgiving Day. The first cheesecake I made on Thanksgiving morning fell to its death in the oven as I was taking it out, so that’s why there were two. I experimented, I made adjustments. I burned my hand on the blistering hot rack of my oven. And I did way too much sampling. Therefore, I present to you… bourbon pumpkin cheesecake.

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I’ll be totally honest – I’ve never been much of a cheesecake fan. Only in the last five years have I come to appreciate cheesecake. But I never really go out of my way to eat it, and before three weeks ago, I had never made one. But since I’m convinced that pumpkin baked goods are almost always outstanding, and because I was bored with the idea of a traditional pumpkin pie, a pumpkin cheesecake sounded just delightful. And since I was racking my brain for desserts for this Thanksgiving, I set out for a recipe.

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This is a winner, dear friends. It’s pumpkin and spiced and rich in that cheesecake way, but not as heavy as traditional cheesecake. It has a nice, tangy sour cream top, also giving it a really stunning finish. The pecan-graham cracker crust is just off the hook good – it’s a little nutty but also slightly caramelized, two pluses in my book. And it’s spiked with bourbon, which is what drew me in initially. This beauty is definitely a contender for Christmas. I’m pretty sure you’ll thank me later.   

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bourbon pumpkin cheesecake 

adapted slightly from Gourmet

serves 12-14

for crust:

3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (from about 6 or 7 graham crackers)

1/2 cup pecans (1-3/4 ounces), finely chopped

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar 

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled 

Invert bottom of a 9-inch springform pan (to create flat bottom, which will make it easier to remove cake from pan), then lock on side and butter pan.

Stir together crumbs, pecans, sugars, and butter in a bowl until combined well. Press crumb mixture evenly onto bottom and 1/2 inch up side of pan, then chill crust, 1 hour.

for the filling:

1-1/2 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin

3 large eggs

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2- 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Whisk together pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, cream, vanilla, and bourbon (if using) in a bowl until combined.

Stir together granulated sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and salt in large bowl. Add cream cheese and beat with an electric mixer at high speed until creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium, then add pumpkin mixture and beat until smooth.

Pour filling into crust, smoothing top, then put springform pan in a shallow baking pan (in case springform leaks). Bake until center is just set, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool 5 minutes. (Leave oven on.)

for the topping:

2 cups sour cream (20 ounces)

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)

pecan halves (for garnish)

Whisk together sour cream, sugar, and bourbon (if using) in a bowl, then spread on top of cheesecake. Place cheesecake back in the oven and bake 3 minutes.

Turn off the oven, leaving cheesecake inside to cool for at least two hours, up to three to cool completely. This prevents the top from cracking.

Chill, covered, until cold, at least 4 hours. Remove side of pan and bring to room temperature before serving.

**Cooks’ Note: Baked cheesecake can be chilled, covered, up to 2 days.

 

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fig & blackberry tartlets

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More summer, please! I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. I have a maxi dress hanging in the closet that’s never been worn. And I could really, really use a proper beach day. And a few more bottles of rosé (aka summer drank). Can’t we keep the barbecues going for just a bit longer?

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We spent last weekend camping in Big Sur. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. My love for Big Sur runs deep. It’s been an entire decade since my very first trip down there. And just as long since the last time I camped. I almost forgot how much I love sleeping in a tent and lazy afternoons by the river and a good ole fashion s’more and cocktails by the campfire. I had such an amazing time. I can’t wait to get back there. I think this needs to happen every summer.

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Guess what else needs to happen every summer? If your guess had anything to do with these tartlets, you are correct. I get super excited when the late season figs come rolling into town. And they are abundant at the moment. There’s nothing like a super ripe fig, sweet and jammy and practically bursting at the seams. They are perfect as is, and they are equally wonderful baked with blackberries and hazelnuts in a sweet, buttery pastry. Make it happen.

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fig & blackberry tartlets

from Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater

makes 4 tartlets

for the pastry: 

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour 

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar , plus more for dusting 

1 large egg yolk 

Put the flour in a medium mixing bowl and add the butter. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour. Add the powdered sugar and egg yolk and mix until combined. Bring the dough together and squeeze it into a round. Roll it into a short log, fat log. Wrap the dough in plastic and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill for 30 minutes.

for the filling:

8 ounces blackberries, about 1-3/4 cups 

4 large figs, coarsely chopped  

4 tablespoons blackberry or red currant jelly, melted

juice of half a lemon 

1/2 cup ground hazelnuts 

Place the blackberries, figs, and chopped hazelnuts in a bowl. Add the melted jelly and lemon juice and toss.

to assemble:

4  3-1/2 inch tartlet pans

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Divide the pastry into four equal pieces. Place a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper over the dough. Using the palm of your hand, flatten each piece on a floured board. Line each pan with a round of dough, leaving the excess hanging over the edges. Don’t worry if the dough cracks – just patch it together. Divide the filling between the four tart shells, then loosely fold over the pastry, leaving the fruit in the center visible.

Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake for 30 – 35 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and the fruit is bubbling. Dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm or cool.

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white peach and purslane salad

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The only indication of summer in these parts is the bounty spilling out of the markets right now. It’s been a little foggy and cool the past few days here in the Bay. But we’ve got melons and tomatoes and corn and squash and all sorts of fantastic stonefruits to remind us that summer is in full swing. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been going a little overboard with my produce purchases.

As a result, there have been lots of salads happening here. A couple of weekends ago, I packed a picnic basket full of salads and a bottle of rosé and headed to the park to hang with friends and see the SF Symphony. Now that felt like summer.

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I tend to follow a simple formula when making salads for myself at home. Start with something green and leafy, add seasonal fruit (think figs, peaches, apricots, or cherries for summer), a little bit of cheese for protein and a savory element, toasted nuts or seeds for crunch, and a light vinaigrette to tie it all together.

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Purslane is a new-to-me green. I’d noticed it at the markets, but never thought much about it. So I recognized it instantly in a beet salad I ordered at dinner a few months ago and took quite a liking to it. It has a somewhat unusual texture – smooth, heavy-ish leaves with crisp stems. I picked some up at the market the next day and have been buying it weekly ever since. I did a little research on the interwebs and it turns out that purslane grows like weeds. Like it’s literally a weed. The forager in me loves this. As a matter of fact, I’m now convinced that I must grow my own. I’ll let you know how that goes.

So, a salad of purslane with perfect, juicy white peaches is kind of my obsession this season. I cannot get enough. Some toasted walnuts and crumbles of feta are excellent toppers.  So simple and so good.

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white peach and purslane salad

serves 2

2 heaping handfuls of purslane  (or your choice of greens – spinach, baby greens, etc.)

1 large ripe white peach, sliced

1/2 cup toasted walnuts 

1/4 cup crumbled feta (crumbled blue cheese is also nice)

2 -1/2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup olive oil

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

In a large salad or mixing bowl, combine purslane and peach slices. Set aside.

Pour vinegar in a small bowl. Season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk to combine. While whisking, slowly add olive oil to the vinegar and continue until all oil has been added and the mixture is emulsified. Add additional salt or pepper to taste.

Pour vinaigrette over the purslane and peaches. Toss gently until leaves and fruit are lightly coated. Add walnuts and feta and give one more toss before dividing between salad plates. Serve immediately.

for the babette

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The Babette came to us in the early 2000s. A family friend brought her over one afternoon, knowing that we were suckers for displaced animals. She was one of two cats belonging to a woman who was relocating to the East Coast; only one cat could go on the plane back East, leaving the other an orphan.

She was no ordinary orphaned cat – a Doll Face Himalayan with gigantic blue eyes and an amazing coat of fluff – she was magnificent. I think it was love at first sight for my sister, who decided on the spot that the cat would be hers. We originally named her the Baby because she had the face of a girl we had given the nickname to a few years earlier. We later decided her persona was that of a fancy French lady, so she was eventually dubbed the Babette.

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The Babette was one of the girls. She would sit on the couch with us while we gossiped over cocktails and read magazines in my sister’s apartment. She loved male attention and flirted with all of the boys that came to visit. She liked pretty things. We joked that she would play dress-up and put on vintage costume jewelry and expensive perfume while my sister was away at work.

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She wasn’t like other cats, and interestingly, other cats didn’t quite know what to make of her when she would walk up to greet them, almost as if she was of an entirely different species. Unlike most cats, the Babette was incredibly social and loved being around people and making new friends. She was playful and kept herself entertained for hours – we could always hear her playing and chasing balls around the apartment. Most importantly, she was a devoted companion and really took care of my sister during a very sad time. In my mind she’ll always be a tiny little hero. We’ll love her forever for that.

It was obvious that her age was catching up with her over the last few months. At times she seemed confused and she was beginning to feel frail. But she still managed to leave her perch and sneak outside to sunbathe almost every day. And she was affectionate until the very end. The day before she passed, I found her lounging in her bed on the front porch, enjoying the late afternoon sun. She looked like a glamorous old lady in that golden light. I think that’s how she’d want to be remembered. A glamorous old dame. Our sweet Babette.

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strawberry rhubarb pie

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Ooooh weee. That was quite a break if I do say so myself. It feels like those carbomb cupcakes happened a lifetime ago. I’ve gotta start by saying that I sure have missed you. Not a single day went by where I didn’t think about this place. And I made several attempts to share things here. But nothing felt right. So it seemed like the only thing to do was take a time out.

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But being away for so long was beginning to stress me out a bit, similar to the way cutting class in high school and college would make me feel crazy. One day turns into five and then you find yourself scrambling for an excuse for your absence. I was starting to worry that I’d never find my way back here. But I love this space more than anything, so I knew I’d figure it out eventually.

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I don’t have much of an excuse for our little hiatus. I didn’t skip town or run into any trouble with the law. I did have a mean case of writer’s block. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a grand ole time. There were parties and dance parties and really great shows (Band of Horses and Beach House in the same week!) and brunches and nights out with friends – old friends, new friends, best friends, friends from out of town. I drank fantastic whiskey cocktails. I Instagramed. There were a few serious, not-so-fun moments thrown in there as well. To sum it up, life was just happening.

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If you’ve been tuning in here for a while now, you might’ve figured out that I have a thing for rhubarb. I wait all year for those gorgeous pink stalks to show up at the market. And when they do, I can’t contain myself. One year it was these ice pops, last year it was this boozy fool and a couple of batches of jam. This time around, all I really wanted was a good old fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie.

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I’ve made a couple of strawberry rhubarb pies in my time, and if I’m being totally honest, none of them were great. They were all a little too soupy, a bit too tart. So when I found a recipe that required sauteing the rhubarb, and macerating and draining the strawberries before baking, I was pretty sure I had found a winner. Plus, an all-butter lattice-top crust is always enticing.

I was totally smitten with this pie, but I was convinced that I would love it even more if I swapped out the allspice in the original recipe for vanilla bean. So I gave it another go. And it was just what the doctor ordered. Flaky crust, sweet-tart fruit and a dollop of whipped cream on top is a truly wonderful thing.

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strawberry rhubarb pie 

adapted just slightly from The Wall Street Journal Online

makes one 9-inch pie

for the all-butter pie crust:

2-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

8 to 10 tablespoons ice water, or more as needed, with a splash of cider vinegar

Stir dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

Add butter to the dry ingredients and coat it using a spoon or spatula. Using a pastry blender, cut butter into the flour until mostly pea-sized pieces of butter remain (a few larger pieces are okay; do not over-blend).

Sprinkle 4 tablespoons ice water over the mixture and cut the water in with a spatula. When water is fully incorporated, add more water, one to two tablespoons at a time, and mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining.

Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with drops of ice water if necessary to combine.

Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a flat disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour, preferably overnight. Wrapped tightly, dough can be refrigerated for three days or frozen for one month.

for the pie:

all butter pie crust 

2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered

3 cups rhubarb, cut into ¾-inch pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable oil 

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

1 grind fresh black pepper

3 tablespoons arrowroot (or tapioca starch or corn starch)

1 to 2 dashes Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters (or Old Fashioned bitters)

1 teaspoon orange zest

1-1/2 teaspoons al-purpose flour 

1 egg

1 tablespoon milk or heavy cream

1 tablespoon raw sugar

Preheat oven to 425°F. Butter a 9-inch pie pan.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon sugar over strawberries. Let sit 1 hour.

Roll out one disc of pie dough into a 12-inch circle, about  1/8 of an inch thick. Place disc in pie pan and trim the edge, leaving 1 inch of overhang. Place in fridge to chill.

Roll out the second disc of pie dough and cut into 1-inch-wide lattice strips. Lay strips on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and place in fridge to chill.

Heat vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté rhubarb until it softens slightly, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, sprinkle with lemon juice and let cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together brown sugar, ¼ cup sugar, salt, black pepper and arrowroot.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer strawberries into bowl with cooled rhubarb, leaving behind most juices.

Add bitters, orange zest, vanilla, and dry mixture to fruit mixture. Stir gently with a spatula.

Sprinkle 1½ teaspoons flour and 1½ teaspoons granulated sugar into bottom of prepared pie shell and spread around with your fingertips.

Pour filling into pie pan, arrange lattice on top and crimp edges.

Lightly beat together egg and cream or milk and brush pie top with it. Sprinkle with raw sugar.

Place pie on a baking sheet and bake in the lower third of the oven for 15 minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F, move pie to center rack and continue to bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and pastry is golden.

Allow to cool at least 2 hours. Serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Best served same day it is made.

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crispy stuffed squash blossoms

Don’t you love those weekends when you come home and feel totally recharged? The past two weekends have been that way. One weekend was filled with music and late nights and brunches and dancing followed by a weekend in the mountains involving long drives and junk food, bourbon and rowdiness and spoons. It was a perfect ending to a somewhat uneventful July.

The beginning of July is a blur. I can barely remember what I did or where I was. With the exception of the end, July was, for the most part, unmemorable. What I do remember about July is my squash blossom fixation.

I’d been thinking about fried squash blossoms since last summer, when Adrian and I had dinner at Bar Bambino one night after work. We started with the most incredible ricotta stuffed, battered and fried squash blossoms. They were awesome – hot, crispy, light. They were so awesome that I can barely remember what else we ate or drank that evening. They left quite an impression, so much so that they stayed on my mind for an entire year.

Last summer, I had a really hard time finding squash blossoms at the market. This year is a different story. They’re everywhere. The Ferry Building Farmer’s Market has a vendor that sells them by the carton. And I’ve also spotted them at Berkeley Bowl. They’re even in my own little container garden this year. I’m ecstatic. And I’ve been indulging.

When filled with mozzarella and battered and fried, the squash blossoms are like a smaller, lighter Italian version of the chile relleno. The combination of the warm melted cheese and the crispy outer coating is extremely satisfying. I especially like the addition of anchovy, which makes the filling really nice and  flavorful. If you eat them immediately after frying with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon, I promise you’ll be a happy camper.

crispy stuffed squash blossoms

adapted from Saveur

serves 6-8

24 zucchini blossoms

3/4 pound mozzarella

12 anchovy fillets

4 eggs

1 cup flour

freshly ground black pepper

vegetable oil

salt

lemon wedges (for serving)

Carefully remove the stems and stamens from zucchini blossoms. Swirl the blossoms in cold water to wash. Shake off excess water and pat dry.

Coarsely chop mozzarella and anchovies, and combine in a mixing bowl. Carefully stuff each blossom with mixture and twist petals to retain stuffing.

Beat eggs in a small bowl. Pour 1 cup flour into a second shallow pan and season with salt and pepper. Heat 2-1/2 inches vegetable oil in a skillet over high heat until very hot, about 375°F  if you have a candy thermometer.

Working in small batches, dredge each stuffed blossom in flour; dip into eggs, turning to coat well, then dredge in seasoned flour. Fry blossoms, turning frequently, until crisp, 3–5 minutes. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

NY, I love you

It’s true. I’ve rekindled my romance with the Big Apple. The last time I was in New York was early 2006, which now feels like several lifetimes ago. Back then I was twenty-four and thought that I’d be living there by the time I turned thirty. But life takes its course, and you know how that goes.

Here we are, five years later and it’s exactly four months before my thirtieth birthday. And while I’d had a change of heart regarding my residency (I’m unhealthily attached to the Bay Area), it appears that I’ve fallen in love with New York all over again. Who could blame a girl after five and a half days of New York springtime, non-stop laughs, endless walking and too.much.to.eat? There was Alexander McQueen at the Met, which was absolutely breathtaking. And Music 3.0 at MoMA was awesome, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Except for the fact that I wish I could have stayed for a few more days (or weeks, or months).

So it’s probably no surprise that I pretty much ate my way through the city. I ate everything: bagels, cookies, cupcakes, gelato, lobster rolls, lox, pie, pizza, popsicles, a Reuben, rugelach.

Here are a few of my favorites:

zabar’s

I cannot go to New York without making at least one stop at Zabar’s. I managed to get there twice on this trip. Zabar’s is sort of my Mecca. After we got settled, we hopped on the train and made our way to the Upper West Side. I headed straight to the upper level to wander around their ginormous housewares department. Then I went to get my rugelach. After that I spent about ten minutes admiring the fish counter before finally deciding on the gravlax. There’s nothing like paper thin slices of salt-cured salmon, buttery and tender with little bits of dill. I piled it on my bagel the following morning. It was a pretty great way to start the day.

elsa

I had the best dark and stormy at Elsa, a cute little bar in the East Village. Elsa’s dark and stormy is mixed with their house-made ginger beer, which has little bits of fresh ginger that give it a nice kick without being overwhelming. If I lived in New York, I would start (or end) all of my dates at Elsa. It’s nicely lit and the tables and booths are well arranged and their cocktail list is very enticing – perfect for sampling and staying a while.

katz’s delicatessen

The rumors are true. Everything you hear about Katz’s being the best New York deli and making to-die-for pastrami, all of it is true. My pops slipped me a Benjamin the morning I left for New York and told me to buy myself a Katz’s sandwich on him. So I did. And it was OMG-delicious. I ordered the combo Reuben on rye with corned beef and pastrami. The meat was juicy and flavorful and perfect. It was seriously the best Reuben I’ve ever had. Ever. I had to stop myself from eating the whole thing in one sitting (I happily ate the other half for breakfast the next day). Thanks, Rodney.

four & twenty blackbirds

I’m so glad we made it to this sweet little pie shop in Brooklyn, which is a little off the beaten path. Out of all of the bakeries/sweet shops we visited, and there were many, Four & Twenty Blackbirds was my favorite. I tried three of their pies: salted caramel apple, lemon chess and strawberry balsamic. I actually ordered the strawberry balsamic to go and was so happy that I did (I tore it up in a hungover frenzy the next morning). It was a winner. But my favorite was most definitely the lemon chess. It reminded me so much of my grandma’s lemon pie – silky and lemony without being too tart or too sweet. I wish I could have brought a whole pie back to the Bay with me.

prune

My last dinner in New York was at Prune. I can easily say that it was the best meal I’ve had in a long time. Prune felt like home in the sense that it reminded me of a restaurant that I would find in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley. It’s a very intimate space and the menu reflects the ambiance. Really thoughtful and well prepared without being overly fussy. We started off with roasted bone marrow and fried sweetbreads with bacon and capers. The sweetbreads were out of this world. And the whole grilled fish stuffed with fennel was perfect. Did I mention the leeks vinaigrette? I think they should be renamed melt-in-your-mouth leeks. There were cocktails and a bottle of Graves Blanc somewhere in between it all. We ended with warm ricotta fritters in chocolate sauce. That’s how you go out with a bang.

rosario’s

The first and last time I had Rosario’s was back in 2003, during my first visit to New York. We ended up there after a night of drinking at the bar across the street. That was a magical trip, even under the circumstances that brought us there. Rosario’s is real New York pizza. It has that thin, airy crust, crisp on the bottom, with just the right amount of sauce. It’s dream pizza. This time around, I couldn’t remember where it was so I had to call my sister to find it. Before I flew back home, I made my way to Rosario’s, had a slice of the Sophia for lunch, and ordered five slices of cheese to bring back to the folks, along with a dozen bagels from H&H, two chocolate babkas and cinnamon rugelach from Zabar’s, and cookies and crack pie from Milk Bar. That’s how I roll – with a carry-on bag full of deliciousness in tow.

Oh, New York. Until we meet again…