Posts Tagged ‘Cake Boss’

Oh you little tease.

So I must have passed this place a gazillion times heading toward Route 34, but never went in until last weekend, and only because my friend plays piano there. I wanted to hear ‘Jungleland’. Plus I was starving. A happy accident to have had the opportunity to learn about, and taste, their cheesecake.

Backing up: Portofino is teeny tiny, but in a really appealing way; it feels like Sunday dinner at your aunt’s house. A handful of tables, the music from the piano, warm servers and even warmer owners—this kind of synchronicity makes the food taste even better. I’m sure the dinners are good. But here, today, I’m starting with dessert.

I’m not a cheesecake person—that is, I’m not a New York style-cheesecake person. After only a couple of bites, that cream cheese gets to be too rich. But along with the Ferrari 599 GTO and mozzarella in carrozza, the Italians also came up with cheesecake made with ricotta. It’s creamy without being overwhelming, full of nuance—the Jane Austen of desserts.

Finding it homemade, though, ain’t easy. If you’re lucky, your aunt might make it every Easter. If not, finding a specimen at a Jersey Shore restaurant, one that hasn’t been frozen, is a frustrating challenge.

It’s last Sunday night, at the tail end of the heat wave, and I sit down at Portofino’s cozy bar. While waiting for a snack and a drink, I watch Cake Boss with a woman sitting a couple of seats down from me, and together we groan as we watch him pile on the Rice Krispie treats (you know, instead of actual cake). I comment on the blasphemy of it all; my companion agrees. Turns out we have a lot in common: we’re both self-taught pastry chefs, we prefer authentic ingredients, and we bake everything from scratch. I ask her if she eats often at Portofino, and she looks at me quizzically. “I’m his wife,” she says, aiming her thumb at the kitchen. The owner’s wife, Lena.

She disappears into the kitchen for awhile and I look at the dessert menu. Lots of really nice choices, but I saw homemade ricotta cheesecake, so obviously something had to be done. I ask the waiter if it’s made in house, too, and he says yes. Sold.

It’s the simplest, most perfect presentation: one generous slice on a plate with a little dusting of powdered sugar. That’s it. That’s all it needs. (Heads up, platers: When you have a stellar piece of cake, it doesn’t need to be dressed up like a drag queen. In fact, a heap of ice cream and whipped cream is usually a giveaway that the cake underneath is lacking.)

I talk to the bartender, Jim, about the topic of his senior thesis and eat the cheesecake slowly, licking the fork after every bite. It’s dreamy-light, not at all cloying, not at all dense, and the crust is thin and tender. I tasted citron, an essential ingredient in Italian cheesecake, but it didn’t power through. It was subtle. When Lena came out, I asked if the cheesecake was hers. It was.

Get this: she really liked a cheesecake the restaurant used to outsource, and she was bent on replicating it in Portofino’s kitchen. It took months of work—tasting the original cake, making her own, comparing the two, tweaking. Finally, with the right amount of a special ingredient (Can I tell? I never asked. Curses!), she nailed it. And how.

Portofino is casual, hang-out-with-friends friendly and family-friendly. The homemade pasta on the menu blew me kisses, and I’ll be going back for that for sure. But that cake haunts me yet.


Tinton & Sycamore Avenues

Tinton Falls, NJ

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I cook. this being unusual, when people find out I cook, you would think they’d give me droolworthy accounts of their bubbe’s brisket or of aunt gabriella’s lasagna that she serves pre-turkey every thanksgiving (kinda wish they would). no. instead, they inevitably ask what I think of the smattering of celebrity cooks on TV. have you ever seen that dude with the hair? what’s his name? the hyper one? and when they see my marzipan figures, they ask me about the cake boss. hmmph. (a mini editorial right there.)

so today I give my review of those who stick out in my mind, for good or ill, in no particular order. and I’m not including the dude with the hair (guy fieri, although I like him). grades are included. like they’re all a’shakin’, rattling around the 5 figures they keep in their wallets on any given thursday.

paula deen–A.
she gets an A, and I don’t cook everyday meals with a heifer’s worth of butter, either. but she’s adorable, she came back from broke and raised two sons at the same time, she’s admits she’s a messy cook, and she cares a lot more about the way it tastes than about the way it looks. she’d have to google¬† ‘pretentious’ to learn its meaning. a broad in the best sense of the word.

nigella lawson–A+.
serious win. another broad. she’s addicted to true flavors, she’s about being in the moment as she cooks, and she has a scathing sense of humor. I met her at a local book signing a few years ago. told her I love her cooking, but even more, I love her philosophy: she encourages audacity. on one show she carved a piece of lamb, and then looked at the camera and confided: ‘if you weren’t here watching, I’d be licking this cutting board.’ and all in the queen’s english. rock ON.

giada de laurentiis–B-.
she’s cool enough, but I liked her old show better. with the new one, you can make a pretty strong argument that it’s less about her cooking than about the setting. here’s the dreamy, white, eat-off-the-floor kitchen, here’s the azure pacific through the windows, here’s the pool tucked in among rustling palm trees. oh, yeah—and here’s a bowl of something. in the theatre world, we call this ‘pulling focus’, as in the setting pulls focus from the food. what did she cook? I don’t know—something with cilantro. where’s the remote?

rick bayless–A.
if the man wasn’t already 100% passionate about mexican ingredients, technique and flavors, watching him make guacamole with his daughter will warm you up better than any serrano pepper. he, like giada, cooks in his house, and has an enviable array of toys, like a blender the size of the sears tower and a cooking fireplace in his living room. but in this case—I don’t know why—it works for me. mexican families come to his chicago restaurant when they want to celebrate something special. tells you a lot.

cake boss–C.
he does have a certain carmine-ragusa charm, and my hat is off to him for taking on unusual challenges (I’m going to bring this one up, and you knew I was going to bring it up: a toilet cake….that flushes.) can I pose a teeny, tiny, seemingly irrelevant question? what do his cakes taste like? does anybody care? in order to keep them from collapsing, he builds cakes with more foundation than the sydney opera house. I will admit I have never tried a cake boss cake. a friend of mine did, though. it was designed to look like a scene from the movie the nightmare before christmas. verdict: looked fabulous, was nearly inedible. the cakes are sculpture. sometimes they’re great sculpture. but it’s not the same thing as food. you must factor in flavor and texture. if it doesn’t taste good, it’s no good.

so who do you all like? or despise? I know someone who loves ina garten b/c she’s soothing. that’s nice, I guess, but so’s yanni. the real question is, who makes you want to cook, to try new stuff (hmm…lime pickle?) old stuff (your great aunt’s lemon squares)? who makes you want to taste their cooking, visit their favorite places? my brother and sister-in-law and I have started a trend: visiting bobby flay throwdown locales. nothing but YUM so far. stay tuned.

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