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Friday, August 21, 2009

The King is Moist

The Porkchop Express received an email last Spring from one Allison Robicelli of Robicelli's Gourmet Market:
We love bacon so much that we couldn't bear just eating it only for breakfast, lunch and dinner – we needed to eat it for dessert, too. That's why we put it on our Elvis cupcake – banana cake with peanut buttercream, topped with pieces of brown sugar coated bacon.
If you are going to solicit a visit from The 'Chop, this is pretty much the way to do it. And I was predictably intrigued. But also skeptical. Who were these Robicellis, and what was their angle? Trendy hipster douchebags? Underground organ harvesters? In this mixed-up crazy world where “Making Artisan Pickles” is the new “Starting A Band,” nothing seems beyond the pale of the possible. But I remain ever hopeful, especially when bacon is involved, so I headed up to Bay Ridge to see: is this Elvis Cupcake a cheap thrill or the real deal?

Emphatically the latter. The Robicelli's have a wonderful way with frosted deserts, and their bacon/banana/peanut butter combo is the best of a very strong line-up of unusual – and unusually delicious – creations.
Flavor of Love: Bacon Tattoo (note: not scratch & sniff)

We knew those bacon cupcakes were serious almost from go, because their creator – Matt Robicelli – has as serious a bacon tattoo as ever I've seen: a large bacon-wrapped fork-speared heart, that will eventually be surrounded by a meadow of egg-bulbed flowers in a grated Gruyere rainstorm. (Matt referred to bacon, egg and cheese as 'the trinity' more than once.) Add to this his family roots (pig farmers from Cedar Rapids, Iowa), and a bacon cupcake seems less quirk of fate than inevitable necessity. So how did it all begin?
Matt Robicelli talks cupcakes

Unlikely as it is, with an accident: a brutal knee injury suffered on 9/11, while helping to evacuate Tower 7. To that point Matt was an EMT, but his injury (and grueling rehab) gave him pause – as well as plenty of time to mull a career change. Which he soon did, enrolling at Manhattan's French Culinary Institute to pursue his “first love.” He finished a nine month course of study (emphasis: pastry) before setting out to work at a variety of restaurants and kitchens (Lutece, Balducci's, Brooklyn's Greene Grape). Armed with several years of experience and training, he and wife Allison – also a chef, and longtime caterer with Eventfull NYC – decided to open their own gourmet “Mom and Pop” market in the section of Brooklyn they both had been raised.

Hence Robicelli's. Last year, just after the birth of their second child, they opened doors in Bay Ridge in a big bright space atop a full “green energy”-powered kitchen. The store is lined with neatly organized shelves of high-end sundries, selected meats and cheeses, and house-made dishes like the wily Gorgonzola, Roasted Garlic, and Bacon-stuffed Burger. (You sense a theme?) The Robicellis are currently planning an expansion – adding tables and chairs for folks to linger over their growing menu – but the main draw is, and should be, the cake.
The King: a banana, peanut butter and bacon Elvis Cupcake

The flagship creation, The Elvis, is teamwork to a tee, a terrifically moist, not-too-sweet banana cake (Allison's creation) topped with a formidable peanut butter icing (Matt's recipe). The French buttercream – dense, rich, surprisingly delicate – uses Cream Nut PB artfully, imparting nutty balance without a hint of graininess. But the victory lap belongs to the finishing touch, sprinkles made of Berkshire bacon bits caramelized in dark brown sugar. They add depth of flavor, a welcomed hint of salt, and a surprising chocolaty finish – which, by the by, I did, wolfing down an Elvis in Record Cupcake Time. For a desert with pork, fruit and legumes in the ingredients list, the end product is refreshingly restrained, particularly on the level of sweetness. And for a decadent desert inspired by America's favorite Historic Hot Mess, the results are notably harmonious and coherent. But at $2.50, don't take my word; go up there and try one firsthand.
Two from the oven: Bea Arthur (l) and Strawberry Balsamic mingle peacefully

At some point between cupcakes I began to wonder how one decides to make a bacon cupcake. It seems the sort of thing that involves whiskey, the munchies and some sort of patriotic infomercial. But according to Matt his combos draw upon everything from classical food pairings (the chocolate-espresso “Bea Arthur” and incessantly decadent “Strawberry Balsamic”) to pop culture (the “Harry Potter,” the “Michael Jackson”), life experience (the “Dr. Pepper Bomb” and “Irish Car Bomb,” two drinks that, he confides, “got me engaged”) to, well, sleep. “A lot of times I'll have a [cupcake] dream. I wake up and make it.” Sometimes they pan out, other times not, but the winners are added to an in-store rotation of about 30 flavors (and growing).

Which makes it rather tempting to label Matt a Mad Scientist, or some other cliché suggesting a flamboyant alliance between lab technician and desert chef: Frankenstein, Dr. Feelgood and the Wacky Professor wiling away over an oven in deep Brooklyn. But such labels are too easy, and inaccurate. The Robicellis are a very exuberant team of highly skilled bakers. They are certainly playful, at times even goofy, but their cupcakes are not by any stretch a gimmick. All wink-nudges aside, these are well-executed, wholly unique, surprisingly elegant deserts that rank amongst Brooklyn's most memorable frosted creations.

Even their most oddball concoctions display a decisive culinary logic and curious charm. Take, for example, one of the most intriguing ideas we did not have a chance to taste: The Iona, an olive oil and pear cake with blue cheese icing and candied walnuts. Sounds too crazy? “No,” Matt assured me. “It's like a salad.” [pause for emphasis] “But with cake instead of lettuce.”

And that, good reader, is so damn crazy it might just be sane. Deliciously sane.

Robicelli's Gourmet Market
8511 Third Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11209
Open M-Th 10am–8pm, Sa-Su 10am-7pm

Cupcakes are $2.50 – $2.75, save the $3 monthly special whose proceeds are donated to charity. They bake 20-30 dozen each Saturday, and usually sell out by Monday. So call ahead if concerned.



Blogger Geoff said...

Poached pear and Stilton is a classical pairing. And the olive oil will round out the sharpness of the blue cheese. That's not crazy at all, if done properly I imagine it's perfectly balanced.

11:54 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

pizzactly. i really wish they had one on-hand to sample, was definitely intrigued. and from the description the bleu is used with discretion -- just providing a little salt and tang. as opposed to, say, a cupcake topped with a hunk of rocquefort

1:38 PM  
Blogger and this blog said...

ohhhhhh bacon!!!!!!!!

10:09 AM  
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