Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Caffe Bene

While it's not the nicest way to start a blog post, I have to be honest here: I've had some pretty bad coffee shop experiences. Between Starbucks' obnoxiously large (and noxiously sugary) concoctions, Dunkin's inhospitable seating, and the all-out snobbery I've experienced at independent coffee shops, I was pretty much turned off the entire concept. A small drip coffee shouldn't cost $5.00!! It just shouldn't! I don't care if it's brewed at some exotic location, on top of the world's most perfect mountain, fertilized by poop from a golden camel. I have to admit, it doesn't taste any different to me...

But I still love coffee shops, so I sucked it up and kept paying too much for tiny coffees and braving less than cozy seating areas. This all changed last month when I discovered Korean coffee shops. Since I live in an area that is predominately Chinese and Korean, I wanted to kick myself for not checking them out sooner.

My favorite is one right by my apartment, but Caffe Bene is a chain with locations around New York City, so it's super convenient. There's a large one on 39th and Union in downtown Flushing, and while I'll stick with my favorite shop while in Flushing, this will be my new go to when I'm out and about.


  • There's tons of seating divided up mostly into 4-person tables with comfy chairs. The tables are separated by little dividers to give everyone their own space. There's a separate space off the back blocked off by a glass wall that is silent. I like that they separate the social space from the workspace. 
  • The chairs are really cushiony and comfortable, and the tables are clean, and nicely sized. The whole aesthetic is simple and natural. Chairs are rattan covered, tables are wood, and the walls are exposed brick and covered with shelving. It gives the whole place a cozy bookshop or library feel. Really nice place to work in.
  • The customers are mostly college kids and women in their 20s and 30s chatting in the social area. A few single 20-somethings working in the back area.
  • Don't come for the wifi. It's a beast to connect to, and so slow it's almost useless once you are connected. The seating area was about 70% full while I was there, and I only spotted 5 other computers and tablets being used.
  • There are very few outlets. They're also located away from the individual tables, so you have to sit at one of the 8-person tables to use them :(


  • To be honest, this actually started as an Aztec Dark Chocolate review ;) I'm a card-carrying member of the hot chocolate haters club. I LOVE chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake -all of it. But for some reason, once it's melted and in a cup it turns me off. I think it's the combination of warm milk (milk is gross; warm milk is grosser) and the sickly sweetness of the milk chocolate. Not so with this. It's so dark and rich, the cashier warned me about it before I purchased it. It lived up to expectations: unsweetened cocoa melted in warm milk. It was thick, creamy, and indulgent with all the goodness of chocolate, and none of the things I dislike about hot chocolate. The only downside? A small (pictured) is $5.50. (!!!!!!) Granted, it's so rich a small is enough.
  • I'm not able to sample most of the rest of Caffe Bene's menu. They serve savory sandwiches, macarons, cakes, puddings, and other sweet treats. They are most famous for their belgian-style waffles, gelato, and honey bread (thick pieces of Texas toast style bread with delicious looking toppings like banana-walnut). They also have a huge variety of lattes, smoothies, frappes, bubble teas, and other drinks.

  • On the whole, the prices are comparable to Starbucks with an important difference: almost all of Caffe Bene's products are imported from Korea. As far as I'm concerned, this justifies a price hike. 
  • I haven't tried enough of their menu to know if it's really worth it, but the premium locations, great seating, and environment factor into the price. After all, you're not just paying for a small hot chocolate: you're paying to spend hours working or socializing in prime real estate, using the wifi, and getting quick access to transportation.


  • One of Caffe Bene's quirks are the number of signs. There's a sign every two seats or so. They remind patrons that they are being recorded, that seats are only for paying customers, that they need to clean up after themselves.
  • There are CCTV cameras everywhere. I counted four in the vicinity of my table.

Overall, I reccommend Caffe Bene. They make a mean hot chocolate, provide you with a comfy seat to drink it in, and there's not a pretentious barista in sight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

NYC Life: New York Transit Museum

Worlds' Fair Manhattan-Queens Subway Car
My favorite kinds of museums are the interactive ones. It dates back probably to the Please Touch museum in Philadelphia. I'm a tactile, kinetic person, and touching and experiencing speak to me more than looking.

So when I learned that the MTA runs the New York Transit Museum in a working subway station in Brooklyn, I couldn't wait to check it out! New York schools were off last week, and it was the perfect time for me to see the museum, since it's only open until 4 on weekdays.

Since the Transit Museum is in a real working subway station, this is the entrance:

When you walk down and purchase your ticket, the first exhibit walks you through the construction of the subways. For many of the lines they actually dug pits in the ground, constructed the tracks, and then built back over the top, rather than tunneling through. The construction work was incredibly demanding, and the men were, predictably poorly compensated.

Once you walk out of the construction exhibit, you're in the main hall. There's an interactive exhibit on electricity. It was overrun with screaming and running kids (school's off, remember?) so I didn't get to spend much time there. It looked really interesting though!

Then came the cool part, and the REALLY cool part.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Berries and Cream Hat (Free Pattern!)

I was on the train the other day heading into the city when I saw it. The hat of all hats. The hat of my dreams.

But it was with someone else :(

I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I began frantically Googling to find my own. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I considered calling my Chinese-speaking boyfriend so he could ask the woman where she got it. I am slightly ashamed to admit that when she dropped her hat, it took me a second to alert her because I almost hoped she'd forget it and I could rescue it from subway abandonment.

Hey, the heart wants what the heart wants. Sometimes love is irrational.

I had no success on the Googling front, and quickly came to my senses and decided not to accost the poor woman with questions or steal her hat by "forgetting" to mention she'd dropped it. I'm a hat lover, not a criminal!

Determined to make the hat of my dreams a reality, I devised a simple pattern. It turns out that the seeded rib stitch that is wildly popular for chunky hats this year is super easy. So I made my own in two evenings. And if this hat is the hat of your dreams, you can too!

Chunky Seeded Rib Hat
1 skein chunky yarn (I used Tosh Chunky in "Espadrilles")
Oddments of yarn for the pompom (I used Cascade Superwash in "Cream")
Size 8 straight needles
8 stitch markers

Cast on 80 stitches and work in 2x2 ribbing until the piece measures 6 inches from the cast on edge. On the final row of ribbing, increase by kfb 2 times at the beginning and once at the end of the row (total of 83 stitches)*. Switch to seed rib stitch:

*To knit in seed rib, you must have a multiple of 4 stitches + 3

Row 1: Knit 3, *Purl 1, Knit 3* Repeat from *to* to the end of the row.
Row 2: Knit 1, *Purl 1, Knit 3* Repeat from *to* to the last two stitches, Purl 1, Knit 1

Repeat rows 1 and 2 until hat measures 9.5 inches from cast-on edge.

Begin your decreases.
Setup Row: *Work 17 in pattern, Place Marker, Work 3 in pattern, Place Marker* repeat from *to* to the end of the row
Row 1: Work in pattern until the last 2 stitches before each marker, Knit or Purl two together (in pattern). Work 3 in pattern. Slip marker. Knit or purl two together (in pattern)
Row 2: Work pattern for all stitches.

Repeat rows 1 and 2 until 11 stitches remain. Thread tail through the stitches and tighten firmly. Sew seam using the invisible method. Attach pompom to the top of the hat and sew firmly in place.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Gluten Free Chocolate (Pudding) Mug Cake

As a person on a dessert, dollar, and time budget, and as someone in a relationship with a dessert disliker, I've baked pretty much nothing in the past few months. The amount of bubble tea within walking distance from my apartment and the regular presence of chocolate at grad school (thanks, Professor B!) has left me pretty much satisfied. That said, F out of town for the weekend and a Law and Order marathon on ION pretty much require chocolate cake.

What's a girl to do?

My previous microwave mug cake experiments have been ok, but have never wowed me. They've always come out just short of perfect. A little too rubbery and dense. Kinda ugly. The mug and microwave you use make a huge difference. The microwave cakes I made with my old recipe in my old apartment came out really well. Here, not so much.

I needed a cake that would stand up to the trauma of being microwaved without seizing up into a brick. I was not going to frost it, so it needed to be gooey, but not underbaked and oily. To find something that fit the bill, I thought back to my favorite cakes of childhood. And one stood out: chocolate pudding cake!

I decided to try my hand at making a microwave version, and it was a huge success. The gooey chocolate pudding moistened the lightly sweet cake and made for a home-baked flavored, indulgent treat that wasn't overwhelmingly sweet.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NYC Life: Flushing Chinatown New Year Parade

Queens is what New York City used to me. Or at least that's what long-time New Yorkers tell me. The mixture of cultures and socioeconomic statuses makes it an incredibly diverse place. I'd argue that it's the last in New York with this kind of blend, as wealth steadily creeps outward into areas that were once melting pots.

The 7 train, Northern Queens' main artery is like a world tour. The first few stops get you to Long Island City, a rapidly gentrifying area that's now comparable to Upper Manhattan and the nicer parts of Brooklyn in terms of culture and price. It's starting to share their reputation as the "Manhattan that's not Manhattan." Further out are many mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. In Jackson Heights there's a large South Asian population, and downtown Flushing is predominately Chinese and Korean.

Flushing Chinatown is my neighborhood, and I love it. It's safe. It's affordable. It's clean. It has a big city feel, but small town amenities. Just a 15-minute walk (or 10-minute bus ride) from Main Street are parks and leafy residential areas.  

And since it's a Chinatown on par with the one in Manhattan (some actually argue it's better: more authentic and affordable) the food and culture are unrivaled.

Today was the 16th annual Lunar New Year parade down Main Street from about 11 AM to 12:30 PM. It was freezing cold, but I headed out to see (and hear!) the event. It was hard not to get excited seeing the costumes and floats and hearing the drums and marching band. The parade was full of both the expected, like dragon dancers and red and gold costumed marchers, and the unexpected, like the Mormons!

Keep reading for more pictures!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Squeaky Clean (Pattern + Recipe!)

I had never used a Swiffer Sweeper until I moved into my first apartment. My roommate had one, along with the lavender-vanilla scented wet pads. We "swiffered" every night. While I appreciated the squeaky clean floors, I'm so scent sensitive (scentsitive?) that I found the artificial fragrances totally overpowering. Sadly, the wet pads don't come in unscented :( To add to my scent concerns, I wasn't keen on chucking a plastic pad away every day. Also, the refill pads are pricey! A single one costs between $0.86 and $1.00. If you clean up daily like I do, that adds up to over $300 a year, not to mention the daily landfill waste, and the sickly fake scent. No thanks!

I was resigned to wet-mop for the rest of my life. Or just skip it. Wet mops are gross.

Never one to let a challenge get in my way, I put my thinking cap on. After all, I really liked how convenient the Swiffer was. It's easy to store, lightweight, flexible, and easy to keep clean. No more germy, grimy mop heads or linty brooms. Just a quick sweep, fold it away in the corner, and forget about it.

So I stuck it to the fake-scented, landfill filling man and knitted some cotton Swiffer pads. They're economical, environmentally friendly, and fragrance free.

And I'm sharing my stick-it-to-the-man plan with you! Keep reading for a pattern and a DIY all-natural hardwood floor cleaner recipe!