“Whuh-Oh Wow” Fudge + Agave-Balsamic Syrup

THE HOLIDAY season is upon us.  Brunches (!), lunches, dinners, and other holiday gatherings are calling.  Potlucks require inventive recipes, culinary ingenuity and, in my case, last-minute recipe retrieval.  Why is it that, when faced with a potluck or gift exchange, I always wait until the last minute to figure out what my contribution is going to be?!

But no longer!  With this pretty fail-safe recipe — you just need to set aside about 3 hours to get it made; which gives you plenty of time to gussy up and wrap that last-minute-found-in-the-back-of-the-closet gift — you’ll have a hit to take with you to any party!

It took me quite a while to come up with this recipe, I will admit that.  I initially intended to make peanut butter bacon maple fudge, but realized I was going to a soiree attended largely by vegetarians.  Undeterred, I looked up a few spicy fudge recipes, but nothing was really leaping out at me.  So in g-chat conversation with my friend JM (he’s a big fan of cinnamon and vanilla together), we came up with the idea of balancing spicy with a bit of a sweeter tang.  Voila!  Chili powder, meet balsamic vinegar.

It might take a moment to wrap your head around that one.  But this is where the genius lies: it takes your palate a moment to get it all, too.  First there’s the heady chocolate of the fudge; then the sudden onset of the chili/cayenne mix (“whuh-oh, wow” is how someone described it); then the agave-balsamic syrup sets in with just enough tang to keep it interesting but enough sweet to soothe the chili down.

So if you’re attending (or hosting) a decadent holiday brunch — or if you’re home alone with a mountain of work — this should make a star cameo.  I’m just saying.

“Whuh-Oh Wow” Fudge

  • 12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 4 oz dark chocolate bar, chopped   I used Ghirardelli’s 100% cocoa for balance
  • 14 oz (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
  • dash salt
  • pat butter
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp chili powder *
  • 1 tsp cayenne *

* Adjust spice levels for those with more restrained palates

Line an 8″ or 9″ baking dish with waxed paper and set aside.

Melt all ingredients in a heavy saucepan over low heat.  Stir occasionally.  Remove from heat when melted and smooth.

Pour into lined baking dish.  Cover with foil and refrigerate until firm (2-3 hours should be fine).

Agave-Balsamic Syrup

In a small saucepan, bring the agave nectar and balsamic vinegar to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 9-10 minutes, swirling occasionally (there will be bubbles on the surface).  Remove from heat when the syrup is thick enough to coat a spoon, but not too thick.  It will continue to thicken as it cools.

Place in a jar to keep for later.  I poured my batch in a salad dressing bottle and dropped a cinnamon stick in there, for easy stirring.

NOW, the fun part.

Cut the fudge into squares and refrigerate in an airtight container.  When you’re ready to serve/eat the fudge, pour out the agave-balsamic syrup into a small bowl and garnish with a cinnamon stick.  Using the cinnamon stick, drizzle (or paint) syrup onto your fudge square.



Full Complement

XIX, Philadelphia: “What’s this room? I’ve forgotten my compass.”

THERE are places in every city that are pure magic, where form and design and light come together and create the perfect ambience.  In Philadelphia, one of these such places is XIX on the 19th floor of the Bellevue Park Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the city and yet somehow maintaining its own intact microcosm of preserved enchantment.

The Barrymore Room is a beautiful domed round room where the acoustics allow you to hear the conversations directly across the room from you at the same volume as your own chatter.  Back in the day, the Barrymore Room was the seat of the Bellevue’s High Tea.  Now, the hotel has opened up a balcony off the Barrymore Room, which is available for outdoor seating in warmer weather, and plays up the Philadelphia view at the weekly Sunday brunch.  The ambience of the room is soothing and reminiscent of old luxury.  It’s a marvelous place to sit and toast the end of one week and the dawning of another; it’s the perfect setting for concocting plans and reveling in dreams.

Passing from the Barrymore Room, you enter a tighter hallway with a cooking station to the right; beyond that is the bar, decorated with wine bottles and hosting the dessert display of the Sunday brunch.  Beyond that is another airy, light-filled room.  For brunch, this room is home to the Raw Bar, where oysters and shrimp await you, alongside fresh salads and little bowls of cocktail sauce.

While the ambience of XIX is commendable, so too is the display and the food.  At the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to partake of a multitude of pastries and fruits.  With a Nutcracker themed party going on elsewhere in the hotel, it was no surprise that the main decoration for the Barrymore Room was holiday-themed.  Silent soldiers, red berries in a beautiful vase, sprigs of colorful flowers and the aroma of nutmeg…Not to mention that the croissants and sticky buns were beautifully lit by the light streaming through the large windows.  It was all so appealing, like a Christmas delight long before gift-unwrapping time; guests coming in for the first time oohed and aahed, and stopped to stare appreciatively before inquiring politely after a table.

From the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to help yourself to the Asian Pantry.  Here, dumplings and sushi, dim sum and Asian salads await you.  Chopsticks, wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce all contribute to the experience.  And the Pantry itself, tucked into an isolated cooking station, looks as much like a cooking school master class as it does a part of the XIX experience.  I helped myself liberally to the sushi and the noodle salad, decorating my plate with the dumplings and a dash of wasabi.

Following the Asian Pantry, the Raw Bear Under the Pearls beckons.  There, you are greeted by two crescent-shaped bars filled with oysters and poached cocktail shrimp; they are complemented by red wine shallot vinaigrette, spicy dill mayonnaise, cocktail sauce, and a selection of fresh salads.

At this point in the brunch, you should have had a chance to gauge how full you are.  Your waitress will prompt you to look at the menu and decide on a main course, so be sure to save some room!  My mother ordered the Smoked Salmon Hash, our friend and realtor Mark Wade the American Breakfast, and I the Baked Farmers Omelet (I was after the cheddar cheese baked into the omelet, which beautifully set off the asparagus and potatoes).  Each dish was carefully presented; none bore the ostentation I had been expecting, instead allowing the rustic plateware to bely the flavors to come.

Ah!  Now that you’re settled in with coffee, your appetite happily sated and conversation lazily drifting around what the rest of the day will bring, well, now is the time to find some room for dessert.  Tucked in by the bar, XIX offers quite a dessert spread.  From gilded mini cakes and assorted parfaits to fruit tartlets and fresh berries, it’s your last hurrah.  Take the plunge and sample everything that captures your fancy!  Our table danced with the assorted flavors and colors; we laughed at the whimsy of the presentation even as we enjoyed the richness of the options.

Mmmm.  XIX serves up decadence with aplomb and vigor.  There’s a sense of Old Philadelphia here, a history remembered and delighted in.  Sure, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel is the hotel of Legionnaire’s fame.  But the memories evoked on the nineteenth floor of that hotel are now those of a city past memory: the city of the Barrymores, the Strawbridges and Parrishes; the city of the first Centennial Exposition.  There’s a sense of accrued wonder, of knowledge passed down.  Even as the hum of modern cash registers and elevators rise around you, there’s still a sense of magical displacement.

For one moment, for one meal, you’re as Tracy Lord or C.K. Dexter Haven, and the city is yours to enjoy.


Full Complement · Lunch

Beau Monde, Philadelphia: An Affair To Remember

THE craving for crepes struck today, so I wandered down to 6th and Bainbridge to check out Beau Monde. I’ve been told of this place many times; the first time, Susanna couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant and I walked right past it and ate somewhere completely different before realizing what I’d done.

But this…this was worth the six-month wait. It seems as though Beau Monde and I have been in a strange, self-perpetuating sort of flirtation; we both know we exist, and we look coyly out of the corner of our eyes at each other, but we’re always waiting for the other to make the first move. So today, I decided to take the plunge and commit. I picked up my wingwoman (because every food venture is, at its heart, a romance), and made my move.

Beau Monde, the coquette, played hard to get. We were invited upstairs to the “waiting” bar, to chat and drink coffee until our table was free (by the by, Beau Monde makes its own Bloody Mary mix, which got 4 thumbs-up from those clustered around the bar). The wait wasn’t long–Beau Monde is not an unreasonable flirt–and we traipsed back down the carpeted stairs and deposited ourselves at a window table. A couple of conversation points later (“what’s the meal between lunch and dinner–dunch? lunner? lundinner?”), our two crepes were brought forth with great panache.

And here’s where the romance really kicked in. Beau Monde is a very appealing place. It’s dimly lit, with a fireplace and small candles stacked onto the table once the early evening sets in. Vines scale the walls against gold and green backdrops; the large windows invite a sort of pastoral reflection, even as you look out onto the skateboard shop across the street. Voices carry; conversations build and flow. Our “dunch or lunner” conversation made its way across the tables, and by the time we left, the people next to us were debating the same point. Beau Monde makes you feel wanted, welcome, and adored.

The menu itself is quite extensive, and open to interpretation. The house recommendations really do earn their title, and even so aren’t above a little preening. Ask a server for further recommendations. For instance, my wingwoman got the Mushroom, Swiss Cheese, and Roasted Almonds ($10.50) savory crepe and added grilled chicken. At the table beside us–the same one belaboring the differences between “lundinner” and “dinch”–they raved about the Creamed Spinach, Grilled Chicken, Tomatoes, and Swiss Cheese ($14.75). For me, Beau Monde proposed the Coq au Vin, Swiss Cheese and Herb Butter ($14.00) crepe.


Our love affair will gladden the hearts of statues. “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories” and all that, but Beau Monde has gifted me with a treat that will warm my darkest, hungriest days. The buckwheat crepes are both healthy and light (as declared by our neighbors to the other side), delicious and tender. The crepe itself does not overwhelm its fillings; and the main ingredients, like a sneak preview (Oh, Beau Monde! You classy ecdysiast!), garnish the top of the crepe, tantalizing the senses before you even cut inside.

But Beau Monde does not restrict herself to the savory; she, like any mysterious femme fatale, has depths. She coyly offers soups, salads, appetizers, and fabulously indulgent dessert crepes. There are weekend brunch additions (mostly eggs, but bacon and avocado grace this menu option as well), a wine and drinks list, and two full bars. Milk for tea and coffee is served in a cow milk jug, just like the one my grandmother used to have. Beau Monde, beneath her worldly, cosmopolitan exterior, is the quirky girl-next-door with too-thick eyeliner and a book of scribbled poems in her back pocket.

Just my type of girl.