Boss of Hoboken, or, Tale of Two Bakeries

In food on 09/16/2009 at 5:57 pm

This morning we ventured to Hoboken, boyhood home of high school dropout and only child Francis Albert Sinatra. They should really just rename the town Sinatraville. But it was not for a pilgrimage to visit the haunts of ol’ Blue Eyes we wandered into this tiny hamlet in the shadows across the Hudson. It was because I wanted to eat a lobster tail made by the Cake Boss.

Sfogliatella is one of the most difficult pastries to make. It’s the Italian version of croissant dough, though crispy instead of soft and buttery. It mimics the look of a lobster tail, with a creamy or custardy filling. But the work it takes to roll out the dough, schmear it with lard and refold and re-roll makes my head spin. Then you shingle the dough, cut it a certain way to get the layers, and then inject it with another dough that poofs open the inside while it bakes. When it finally cools, you pipe in the filling.

I watched a mini-marathon of the TLC show and was quite amused by Buddy the baker who runs the joint, right across from old city hall. The other half is not so impressed by his mafioso management skills. Okay so he is a little obnoxious in that Jersey machismo way, and employs other thugs (unlike the hipster crew of Duff of Ace of Cakes – Note to TV producers: it would be funny to see them do a tag team cake-off) to do his bidding, but it seems like he really knows his stuff. Even his cannoli filling sounded good to a cannoli hater like me, mostly because it was mainly ricotta, cream cheese and butter, not sugary weirdness I’ve had in little Italy.

Hoboken is right on the water facing mid-downtown Manhattan with great views of all the landmarks like Empire State Building. The city itself is merely ~12 blocks by 16 blocks. The feeling is a mix of Brooklyn Heights/West Village/Willamsburg with the never-ending beautious blocks of townhouses in various stages of renovation. The eatery selection is electic. We had lunch at one of the many tiny restaurants book-ending the blocks, Sri Thai: frog legs (tastes like white-flesh fish, stringy like chicken) with basil and bell peppers, and soft-shell crab with tangy sweet mango salad. It was good, but not Sripraphai great.

Carlo’s is at the south end of town, and looks as pretty as a picture. The same cannot be said for the weird tense vibe inside with the gleaming countertops and very tanned help.

don't judge a book

There was a sign plastered on the wall: beware! you may be filmed if you set foot inside. Some specialty cakes were displayed in front that looked better on camera. We decided to buy a lobster tail, a cannoli, and on a whim, a red velvet cupcake. They offered the cupcake with a buttercream or cream cheese frosting. We chose the latter.

Coincidentally, we had parked in front of another bakery that people raved about online, saying it was way better than Carlo’s. Giorgio’s has that old-time cobwebby look, which makes it more ‘authentic.’

the realer deal?

When we walked inside, there was a pleasant bell chiming our entrance. No one was in there, not even a counterperson. There were barely any pastries in the cases. It was dark and gloomy, but it felt so much better than the kelig lights at Carlo’s. There was a black and white monitor where I could see myself. I finally said, “He-llo?” A robust girl emerged and cheerfully handed us our sfogliatella and cannoli. We left feeling much more small-towned.

So the taste test commenced. Here is Carlo’s:

lobster left, cannoli right

Here is Giorgio’s:

Picture 4

First, the sfogliatella. Carlo’s dough was much fresher and crispier while Giorigo’s looked prettier but was over-browned. The texture of the latter was hard to chew and rubbery. Maybe it was just old? The filling in Carlo’s was custard while Giorgio’s was fresh whipped cream. The former was too heavy, busting out of its shell. Giorgio’s filling was light and tasty. However, neither was something that was worth eating despite the amount of work it took to make it.

As for the cannoli, Buddy is proud of his 25¢ annual cannoli throwback day where their custom is to fill the cream to order. I thought we were going to get a freshly-filled one, but the mop-haired server was too busy flipping his hair out of his eyes, so he just grabbed a pre-filled one from a tray behind him. The shell is also harder to make than you realize. Buddy showed how he folded thin sheets of dough and cuts through many layers at once with a ring mold. Then he has to wrap them individually around a metal cylinder, drop them into a massive frying basket that takes the whole batch of 50 or so out at once before they’re burnt.

Carlo’s cannoli was definitely up to snuff, the best one I’ve ever had. The filling was light, not too sweet, with just enough tang from the cream cheese. The other half didn’t like it because it had too much cinnamon in the dough. We both didn’t like Giorgio’s at all, another soggy old pastry with the typical gag-inducing sweet gluey/gummy mess, like bad taffy with too much vanilla extract and again with the cinnamon.

The verdict: neither are worth the money (between $2-3 per pastry, by weight and individual pricing), but maybe I’d line up for that annual 25¢ special at Carlo’s if I could find out when that was. Oh, and the red velvet cake? Let’s not even get started on that soulless dry imitation of the real thing.

Uncle Phaedrus describes these sfogliatella recipes. I’ll try doing the same thing with pre-packaged phyllo dough. I’m not masochist when it comes to stuff like this. But first I gotta reverse engineer Carlo’s cannoli filling. That would definitely be a better option than the clumpy custard he uses.

“The ones I’ve had from commercial Italian bakeries seem to use the same dough they use for making their sfogliatelle pastries. The dough is a bit tricky to make, but I’m sure phyllo dough could be easily substituted. The filling (usually) is a mixture of stabilized whipped cream and pasticciera cream (pastry cream), or sweetened, whipped mascarpone, or just stabilized whipped cream.

I do not have a recipe for the filling, I usually just fold some stabilized whipped cream into the pastry cream to lighten it (about 1/3 stabilized whipped cream to a bit less than 2/3 very thick pastry cream).

Source: Immigrant’s Kitchen Italian by Cassandra Vivian

Recipe #1
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup semolina flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup lard or better, melted

Combine flours, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Add butter,
cutting it into the dough until blended. Slowly add water. Knead until firm.
Form into a ball, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

1 cup milk
1/4 cup semolina flour
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon of either
candied orange peel
lemon zest
candied fruit of choice
pinch of cinnamon
confectioners sugar
parchment paper, optional

Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add milk. Bring to a boil and slowly add
semolina flour. Stir constantly so as to avoid lumps. Simmer three to four
minutes, remove from the heat, pour into a bowl and allow to cool.

After five minutes add ricotta (which has been passed through a sieve), egg,
sugar, candied fruit, and sugar to semolina. Beat well. Set aside.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Divided it into two equal parts. Place on a
dusted pastry board and roll with a rolling pin into an 18 inch square. It
will become very, very, thin.

Brush the thin pastry with butter. Begin at one end and roll it like a jelly
roll. Cut the roll into a number of 3-4 inch pieces. Pick up one piece of
the dough in your hand. Press your thumb in the center of the pastry and
push it down to form a hole like a cup.

Fill the cup with 2 tablespoons of filling. Fold the cup until the open
edges touch. Gently press the edges together to seal the pastry. Set it in
front of you. Gently pull out the sides of the front to form a shell. Brush
the top with beaten egg yolk.

Repeat above until all pastry and filling are used. Preheat over to 425
degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Place the shells on
the paper and bake for 15 minutes or until brown. Let the pastry cool on the
cookie sheet for five minutes. It will harden a bit. Then place on a rack.
When ready to serve and completely cool, sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Recipe #2

1 cup water
1/2 cup ricotta
1 pinch salt
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup semolina
1 cup, 2 oz. flour
6 oz. butter
2 oz. strutto (reconstituted pork fat)
1 pinch cinnamon
3 oz. candied orange peel, diced
1 egg yolk

Bring the water to a boil, add a pinch of salt and pour in the semolina,
stirring so as not to form lumps. Cook, stirring for about 8 mins., stirring
constantly. Let cool. Make a fontana with the flour. Put half of the butter,
a pinch of salt and as much water as necessary to knead the dough to a
smooth and elastic consistency. Wrap the dough in a towel and let rest for
an hour.

Sift the ricotta; mix with the semolina, 6 tbs. sugar, a pinch of cinnamon
and the candied peel. Roll out the pastry with a rolling pin to obtain a
25×18-in. rectangle, 1/16-in. thick. Cut the pastry vertically into 4 strips
and place one on top of the other, brushing each one with melted butter. Let
rest for half an hour, and then roll up the stack of dough.

Slice the roll into 10 equal pieces with a very sharp, floured knife. Place
the pieces on the pastry board and roll them gently with the rolling pin,
first vertically, in an upward direction, and then in a downwards direction,
to give them an oval shape.

Turn the ovals over, place a bit of ricotta filling in the middle of each
one, brush the edges with egg yolk, then fold the dough over and press to
seal. Brush the sfogliatelle with melted strutto and place on a paper
greased with butter. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 425ºF for 20 mins. Remove
from the oven. Brush with melted butter again, lower the temperature to
350ºF and bake for another 20 mins. Let cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s
sugar and serve.”

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