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Street sweets, or things best eaten on two feet

At some point in my impressionable youth, I was told that one should never eat while standing up. This well-meaning killjoy of a tip was probably given to me during one of my mother’s various dieting phases, the idea being that one can’t be fully mindful of what crosses one’s lips unless one is seated, preferably with a knife, fork, and a napkin. There’s a good degree of truth to this, certainly, and I’ll almost always take a civilized sit-down over a standing scarf-down, but honestly, some things just taste better when taken on two feet. Take, for example, the drippy peach eaten over the kitchen sink, or the tip of the baguette torn off outside the boulangerie: really, sometimes sitting is superfluous.

If you'd like further proof, look no further than New York, America’s street food capital. There are carts for nearly everything capable of being eaten out of hand: hot dogs, coffee, deliciously salty soft pretzels, ice cream concoctions in colorful paper, doughnuts, muffins, and, as Brandon and I discovered one nibbly afternoon in Chinatown, a little creation called “hot mini cakes.”

You’d miss them if you weren’t careful, or if you happened to arrive too late in the day, after the last of the batter is gone. But if your timing is just right and your stars are in alignment, as ours were one sunny afternoon, you’ll find at the corner of Grand and Bowery a rickety-looking cart, half wrapped in a blue tarp and parked under a red-and-white striped umbrella. Behind its glass front window, an elderly man in white gloves gracefully turns out pan after pan of “all natural hot mini cakes,” twenty for a dollar.
Alternately known as “egg cakes,” “Hong Kong cakes,” “eggettes,” or “gai daan jai,” these sweet, quarter-sized orbs are made in a two-sided, hinged cast iron pan covered with tiny round wells, something across between a waffle iron, a pancake pan, and a sandwich press. When a customer steps up to his cart, the mini-cake man quietly springs into action, greasing the pan with a wooden-handled brush and filling it with a thin stream of the batter. He carefully closes the hinge and holds the pan over a propane flame, turning it a time or two to evenly brown the cakes. Then, scraping any excess batter from the rim, he turns the finished cakes into a bowl and delivers them to his waiting customer, still hot, in a little waxed-paper bag.

We stood on the corner and popped them one by one into our mouths, the two-tone cakes speckled with pin-sized holes and trimmed with lacy edges that flipped like tiny, soft skirts. Eggy and light, their flavor was unassuming, familiar, and completely delicious—the scent and sweetness of a white-flour crepe melded with the texture of an airy, fine-crumbed cake.

Now, being so tasty—and so mini—these cakes tend to disappear at an alarming rate. In fact, you may find, as we did, that they fall just shy of the afternoon sidewalk-snack quota for two. But you’ll be pleased to note, dear reader, that there’s another street-side treat to be had only a few blocks away.

I’m certainly not the first to sample the delights at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, but I can’t resist adding my voice to the chorus. I hate to think of anyone missing a bite of this fine stuff, or the chance to stroll the Lower East Side with a scoop or two.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato is a skinny storefront at 95 Orchard Street, a sterile white-walled space with a modest display case near the front window and a very big list of flavors. We sampled a few before settling on two small cups with two scoops each: chocolate sorbet and fresh mint gelato for Brandon, and milk chocolate and strawberry gelatos for me. Though lacking the soft, famously elastic texture of Italy’s classic gelatos, these New York-style offerings were enough to send us into small raptures on the street outside. The sorbet was dark with cocoa and impossibly smooth, without an ice crystal to be found—an ideal match for the mint gelato, which tasted like spearmint leaves steeped in fresh, lightly sweetened cream. My milk chocolate gelato made some of the finest chocolate ice cream I’ve ever eaten, and the strawberry was bright and true, finishing with a rush of rich cream. I tried to savor it slowly—a sort of milk-based meditation, if you will—but between the warm street, the softly melting scoops, and my deliciously distracting gelato-eating partner,

I was a lost cause. Really, sometimes mindfulness is overrated. I’ll settle for taste buds, two feet, and the teeming street.


Blogger pomegranate said...

Yay!! We finally get to "meet" the infamous!!

and.. gelato too? *swoon!*

5:09 AM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

Molly, I have to say this - you're so very smitten, it is adorable to read.
Those mini-cakes look like a perfect treat, especially when shared in such good company! 20 for a dollar, what a deal!

5:41 AM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger Nic said...

Oh, I'm glad we got to meet Brandon! What a cutie.
He probably reads this, doesn't he. Well, that doesn't make it any less true. ;)

6:23 AM, September 16, 2005  
Anonymous Luisa said...

Oh, yum. These little cakes sold by the streetside in Chinatown are absolutely wonderful! There used to be (perhaps still is?) a tiny red store-front off of Mott Street where an old lady would make these same cakes until her batter ran out - leaving a sad line of hungry customers out in the cold. The cheapest and most filling meal in NYC could possibly be an order of fried dumplings on Delancey Street for $1, followed by these cakes... So what if you went into carbshock afterwards?

7:28 AM, September 16, 2005  
Anonymous jojo said...

who is the gorgeous man eating ice cream in this picture?!

11:16 AM, September 16, 2005  
Anonymous Lauren said...

Finally a picture of the infamous Brandon. So excited to see that he's as gush-worthy as you've told us.

12:12 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger debbie said...

Love AND Laboratorio del Gelato? I can't think of a better combination.

If they have it, next time try the dark chocolate, and the chestnut. Delirium-inducing, I swear...

12:30 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger Shauna said...

Oh yes, he is adorable. All the swoony sentences (and I can tell from the writing that you're actually containing yourself!) seem justified. As sweet as he looks, I'm still more captivated by the fact that he's up at night thinking about onions!

Street cart vendors in New York make some of the best food in the world. When I worked the only office job I ever had (or ever will) near Columbus Circle, I went to a cart on 61st, near the Park, nearly every day for lunch. Ethiopian sandwiches. Long slices of marinated beef, a tangy garlic sauce, and a thick (think even thicker than you imagine) flat bread, all made on the spot, then rolled into one. I still dream of it.

Now, I couldn't eat it. Or those tiny hot cakes. Oh darn--I'll just have to double up on the gelato!

2:08 PM, September 16, 2005  
Blogger Dawna said...

Hello, Brandon - nice to meet you! The spicy green salsa rocks, by the way.

Molly, with Di Fara pizza and little cakes... you keep piling up the reasons I have to make it to NYC.

2:27 PM, September 16, 2005  
Anonymous gemma said...

Excellent to meet your beau! I'm glad you had/are having fun in NYC. A fantastic city and a lovely boy, what a combination.

2:29 AM, September 17, 2005  
Blogger Zarah Maria said...

Amazing how you can manage to cram so many pretty things into just one post Molly. Just goes to show that some people get it all - but you know what? I think they get it all because they deserve it, right?;-)

5:20 AM, September 17, 2005  
Anonymous moineau said...

Strange, but I promise you I've seen that boy around somewhere. My, he's dashing with a spoon in his mouth, isn't he? Paris is lovely--wish you were here to picnic with me!

2:15 PM, September 17, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Pomegranate, I aim to please!

Tara, I know, I know, I'm oozing smittenness. I'm trying to keep it just this side of disgusting, but it's awfully hard. Thank you for bearing with me--and for finding it adorable, even. And as for the mini cakes--this site is about food, I suppose!--they're one of the better deals I've ever heard of. I mean, 5 cents per cake? Yes, please!

Nic, don't worry. He promises not to let it go to his head...

Luisa, I've heard of this elusive mini cake / egg cake / Hong Kong cake lady, but from what I've read, she has retired. Hers were apparently the best to be found in Chinatown, so I'm sorry to have come along too late! But thank goodess for the mini cake man, I say. And next visit, I'm going for dumplings first. Thanks for the tip!

Jojo, that "gorgeous man" is a wonderfully food-obsessed New Yorker named Brandon.

Lauren, I know--the whole man-without-a-face thing was fun, but really, people like to see mysteries revealed, right? Plus, how could I not use that photo? Really.

Debbie, it is an awfully good combination, isn't it? You'll be pleased to note that I remembered your mention a few months back of Il Laboratorio's dark chocolate gelato, and as we walked up to the storefront, I told Brandon that a taste of it would apparently make sex unnecessary for several weeks. He was skeptical but intrigued, and we would have given it an honest shot, I promise, if they'd had it that day! Sadly, there was only milk chocolate, which was delicious, yes, but not quite orgasmic...

Shauna, I know--it's really about the onions. Swoooon! And as for those Ethiopian sandwiches, wow, those sound swoon-worthy too! Was the bread they used injera, that spongy, sour, hole-filled bread served at Ethiopian restaurants? I wonder if the cart is still there. I see some detective work in my future...

Dawna, Di Fara and mini cakes are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's almost dizzying to think of all the options...

Gemma, so good to see you here, all the way from London! Looks as though we're both getting good doses of fantastic cities, m'dear.

Zarah Maria, you're just too sweet! There is, of course, plenty of ugliness in NYC; I just chose to edit it out. So sneaky of me, I know. I didn't however, have to do any editing of Brandon.

And my dear moineau--woman of mystery, well-chosen words, and now, macarons--yes, you certainly have seen him somewhere, and you had the miraculous foresight to know you might someday see him here. Merci mille fois, ma cherie, comme toujours! So glad to hear that all is well in my favorite city. I'm horrendously jealous. Have a glass of Sancerre for me on the grass in the Place des Vosges, would you?

5:02 PM, September 17, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Molly, you must stop bringing up NYC food experiences that I've never tried--it's making me very mad at myself. What the hell have I been doing all these years? How have I missed out on such treats!? I mean is there a better combination of words than mini+cakes+dollar? I think not. Okay, well maybe love+gelato.

1:27 AM, September 18, 2005  
Blogger s'kat said...

Another post that makes me wish I could get over my fear of New York, if only for the fabulous variety of foods that are available. Those hot cakes look like a lot of fun!

Thanks for sharing the photo of Brandon! I think all the girls reading... and some of the gents, too- are heaving a collective swoon. Nice.

3:56 PM, September 18, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

Molly, like Tara said, you are so darn cute! Its great fun to read your posts now that your head is in the clouds :)
Im very impressed with the food finds you've made in NY. That gelato looks fantasticly chocolatey. I cant help but wonder what the mini cake would taste like with some of that gelato on it :)

11:18 PM, September 18, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Amy dear, don't beat yourself up too much. You've been busy with other NY-area things, anyway, like frozen custard and the best open-faced tempeh sandwiches around. And honey, I know you must have gotten your share of love+gelato, or at least the Swedish version, love+Tip Top.

S'kat, you know, I used to be afraid of New York too, or at least in some respects. Sometimes I'm baffled by its bustle, by all the dirt and trash and smells and tired faces on the subway. But with Brandon's help, I'm seeing it in new, more nuanced way--or some of it, at least...

Michelle, I actually have a couple more NYC food finds to share with you, if I can only find the time to write about them! Grrrrrr. And next time, I'll remember your suggestion: mini cakes and gelato in the same mouthful. Mmm.

11:06 PM, September 19, 2005  
Blogger Pille said...

Hi Molly, that's such a sweet story and yummy pictures! I'm smitten with someone with rather similar locks&looks, and although he has a healthy appetite (and eats everything I make with gusto), he's no foodie (he'd happily eat spaghetti with ketchup for weeks). You're one lucky girl;)

3:45 AM, September 20, 2005  
Blogger Ruth said...

What a wonderful post. Makes me miss New York even more. Plus it gives me some new options to explore next time.

Thanks for sharing

4:40 AM, September 23, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Pille! And you know, the foodie thing is nice, but I say three cheers too for a man who'll eat whatever you cook! Brandon has yet to agree to eat Brussels sprouts, one of my favorite winter vegetables, and he's reticent about raisins and figs. Grrrr.

And Ruth, you're very welcome. Reading this post makes me miss New York too...

6:42 PM, September 23, 2005  
Blogger Rachael said...

I am overwhelmed with hunger reading your posts. There are always so many blogs I just dont ever seem to have time to really enjoy them, so I am super glad I made the journey here today, because it seems like things (food and otherwise) are going really well.

And those mini cakes? Just about the most adorable thing ever!

7:21 AM, September 24, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Rachael, I hear you! I too have a hard time finding enough hours in the day for all the blogs I love to read, so I'm especially grateful that you made your way over to Orangette--and took the time to comment, no less! And as for hunger-inducing posts, your peanut butter cookies sandwiched with chocolate mousse are mighty drool-worthy. Yeow.

10:46 PM, September 27, 2005  
Blogger Rose said...

When I was young and my mom took me to Chinatown a lot and during the winter we used to get a bag each (my brother and I) as warm delicious treats. They were a great end to a child's day in the big city :-)

12:53 PM, September 30, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Oh Rose, what a wonderful childhood memory! I can just imagine being all bundled up against the cold, with a warm bagful of mini cakes! Delicious indeed.

10:15 AM, October 02, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this brandon fellow of yours looks EXACTLY like the old love of my life except his hair is longer and my boy (or rather old boy) is just graduated from highschool. how crazy is that? seriously, THEIR EYES are one and the same!

7:53 PM, October 08, 2005  

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