SweetTooth Hits the Road
From Shanghai with Love
I stepped out of my dessert comfort zone with a recent trip to Shanghai (I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel with the UW men’s basketball team for work). Chinese pastries and sweets are pretty different from American indulgences and I had to try quite a few things before I found one that pleased me. I started with a Shanghai candy store, where I couldn’t tell what anything was and none of the sales folk spoke English…
Pretty packaging, but I ended up spitting out most of the “candy” – which turned out to be preserved olives and other unidentifiable dried and sweetened produce. Hmmm. Next was moon cakes, which I’d had before and not loved – I hoped for some reason they were different when actually made in China:
Nope, still dry, pasty, and not my thing. Ok, on to the next one – many of the breads and pastries had a topping that was always translated as “floss” – pork floss, coconut floss, fiery floss, etc. This turned out to be fine threads of shredded… stuff (usually spicy sweetened pork).
Again, not my thing. I was about to give up on finding a Chinese dessert actually suited to my taste, when I came across these delights:
Sort of a mochi/glutinous rice confection with a generous helping of sugar and cool flavors like taro, green tea, etc. I found them in a few places and they made delicious, filling, portable snacks (not to mention attractive). Overall, though I loved the food in China (I ate so many dumplings I turned into one) I’ll take good old American desserts any day.
Back to LA
One thing that didn’t sit right with me after my last visit to LA was that I missed out on going to Sprinkles, the famous cupcakery (which now also has locations in DC and NYC). To rectify that situation, my friend and fellow sweet tooth Rachael and I struck out for Beverly Hills to visit the original Sprinkles store and first cupcake “ATM”
The ATM is for those occasions when you need a gourmet cupcake and your favorite cupcakery is closed (like at 2 AM). Just choose your flavor, swipe your card, and receive cupcake! We were temped to use it just for the novelty but ended up conversing with the lovely guys at the actual counter in order to get their recommendations.
I ended up with a mini S’mores cupcake (not pictured) and the dark chocolate (left), plus a cinnamon cupcake for breakfast the next morning (right). The S’mores cupcake – with a graham cracker bottom, a chocolate nugget inside the cake, and a marshmallow topping – was easily the most special and the one to get. But cinnamon cupcake was also extremely good, even the next day (if it were up to me, I’d call it a “cuffin” – somewhere between a cupcake and a muffin) and made a pretty special breakfast. All in all, it was worth the trek to Beverly Hills to be initiated into the Sprinkles cult!
Ate My Way Around the Bay
If one way to experience a city is through it’s food, I’d say I have a pretty good relationship with the Mission District in San Francisco. I fell in love with this neighborhood a few years ago, and since then, when I visit the Bay Area, I have to have it on my itinerary. I started this trip at Wise Sons, a Jewish deli/bakery that not only does the most wonderful pastrami but also makes a knockout rye bread. I’ll post the picture just for the heck of it:
But moving onto dessert – I loved their cinnamon babka. It was lighter and more flakey than the versions I’ve had in NYC, and in some ways I liked it better. More pastry, less bread pudding, with a lovely streusel topping, and it was airy without being dry or stale.
Next up was Anthony’s Cookies, which came highly regarded on Yelp. True to their name, they only sell cookies (and milk) and there was a wide variety of flavors and generous samples. The cookies were not huge, and a little on the chewy side – I got the cookies and cream and toffee chip.
The flavor that actually made a better impression on me was one I sampled – the cinnamon spice. After the carb-heavy morning, some coffee was in desperate need, so we headed to Tiny Warrior – a quality coffee shop with a knack for more exotic styles of coffee. I got the Vietnamese Iced Coffee:
Perfectly (meaning lightly) sweetened with “burnt caramel syrup” and nothing like the mostly-condensed-milk versions I’ve seen before, it was made even more complex with plentiful muddled mint leaves. After a few cocktails and tacos, it was time for – you guessed it – dessert! (Yes, this is all one day.) We headed for the winner of them all: Dandelion Chocolate. They make their own chocolate (mostly dark, very complex, deeply flavorful) and also the most wonderful desserts. We got the Dulce de Leche Bar:
This was a life-changing dessert – one of those that makes you realize how many hours you’ve wasted NOT eating it. I also indulged in their homemade marshmallows (highly addictive and amazing), the chocolate malt sandwich (not as good as it sounds), and the OMG Bar (as good as it sounds).
The next day, in Berkeley, I tried to talk myself out of another day of desserts, but in vain. We ended up at Summer Kitchen, and thank goodness we did. Not only was the owner a Martha’s Vineyard wanna-be like me, but she made some amazing desserts (not to mention truly excellent sandwiches). I ate a slice of marble cake for lunch and thought it was one of the best I’ve had.
Moist, dense, and super rich – I went right back into the food coma I’d just recovered from. But it was worth every calorie.
The Sweet Sunny South
On a recent road trip to Chapel Hill NC, I was able to try bakeries in 3 different southern towns: Petersburg VA, Creedmore, NC, and Chapel Hill, NC. I was pretty psyched – to me, Southern baking is the best baking. But perhaps I’ve been spoiled by living in big cities where there’s lots of competition – in any case, I wasn’t particularly blown away by any of the places I visited. However, I’ll share the highlights:
The Buttermilk Bake Shop in Petersburg VA had a nice variety of pies and other treats, and the store was welcoming with natural light and friendly service. The highlight was the root beer cupcake, pictured above, which legitimately tasted like root beer. The pies were less exciting – the crust was a little gummy. Overall, not a bad place to take a break from the road, and they had espresso!
Grammy’s Kitchen in the small town of Creedmore NC had some interesting concoctions. Sadly they had sold out of the Guinness cupcake (made in honor of St Patrick’s Day) but still had green whoopee pies. But the biggest hits in my family were the cookies – an almond macaroon (the whole cookie) and the “potato chip cookie” – you can see it’s already eaten up because we liked it so much. I had never heard of a potato chip cookie, but the baker explained that it had been her grandmother’s recipe back in the day. When I did a search online for recipes, it turns out this was pretty popular among grandmothers! It gives an ordinary Pecan Sandie a more salty, complex taste and texture. After eating one (ok, a couple) of these, I could see that once again, Grandmas know what’s up.
My favorite stop, cookie-wise, was Bread and Butter in Chapel Hill. At first, I wasn’t sure what to think of the place. It was very hot, and the windows were all steamed up. The folks running the place were sitting near the counter, and they sighed when I came in – it seemed like a struggle to come serve me! But strangest of all was the atmosphere of the cafe – it was all UNC students studying silently and I got the feeling that if I spoke I might be thrown out. It was more silent than a library – it felt like a funeral home. BUT, the cookies were amazing (needless to say, I got them to go and ate them outside in the sunshine!). On the left is the oatmeal raisin, which avoided the sins of being too sweet or too hard. Perfect oat-y texture and flavor. On the left is the chocolate cinnamon cookie, which tasted of molasses and complexity. Overall, worth the intimidation factor.
LA Part II
I can fit a lot of calories into one long weekend, so here comes part II of my trip to LA. West Hollywood is home to the beloved (and very popular) Joan’s on Third, which I managed to swing by for a quick treat.
It’s one of those places where you’d have to manage to swing by every week in oder to sample all the goodies, and faced with the pressure to decide I went with the classic vanilla cupcake/chocolate frosting:
I love it when they get the amount of frosting just right! This was how it should be – not a mountain of overly sweet frosting – just a generous helping of velvety chocolate goodness. The next day, I felt the familiar pangs of cupcake longing once again as I recalled it, so this time I turned to Big Man Bakes – a cupcakery downtown. From the website and the sign (as well as the T-shirts for sale) I expected a corporate atmosphere along the lines of Cheesecake Factory. What I found was the complete opposite – the counter was manned by the Big Man himself (along with what I presume were family members):
And the cupcakes did not taste of corporate at all – they were moist (as promised), cake-y, flavorful, and still very good the next day. They also come in mini-size if you want a little snack (or if, like me, you want to try all the flavors).
My dad basically destroyed the chocolate cake/coconut frosting one in the back before I could snap a picture, but for me the highlight was the banana cupcake with chocolate frosting. I made the mistake of just getting the mini-size at first, so on my way out I bought one more large size (big man size?) for the flight home. It was the best part of leaving LA.
LA Part I
On my most recent trip to LA (my 4th time in the city!) I was fortunate enough to come across some of the best food in recent memory. And I have a lot of good food memories. Desserts were certainly a highlight, beginning with the one and only Diddy Riese, and ice cream and cookie spot near UCLA. Apparently everyone from LA knows about it, and there was a long line out the door even in February.
What makes this place special? Mostly that they’ve been there for decades and basically haven’t raised their prices (an ice cream sandwich costs $1.75). Other than that, it’s pretty basic – the ice cream is Dreyers and the cookies are good but not great (although they are very fresh).
I tried another ice cream parlor, this one called Peddler’s Creamery in downtown LA. The name Peddler’s comes from the fact that the ice cream is churned using bicycle power – presumably generated from the bicycle set-up they have in the shop:
You can even earn a free scoop of ice cream by peddling for a 20 minute session. Pretty cool setup, but I was a little disappointed in the ice creams – I would have liked stronger flavors. So what DID stand out to me on the trip? Let’s just say Bottega Louie (also downtown) is the real deal. This trendy and very popular eatery/bar/bakery that combines French baking with friendly service. I wish I could have eaten everything they had on hand, but I stuck to a beignet and some macarons.
I thought the macarons were excellent, but the beignet (with nutella filling) was possibly the best thing I’ve eaten so far this year, and certainly the best thing I ate in LA. This place will be on my return list and I’ll probably dream about the beignets until then.
My family vacationed in Oaxaca (a city and province in southern Mexico) this Christmas, and were were pretty impressed with the food scene. Chocolate mole originated here and it’s used on everything from tamales to enchiladas. Mezcal (a spirit distilled from the agave cactus) is from Oaxaca (as is the “worm salt” they drink it with – literally salt with powdered chiles and crushed agave worm). Fried and seasoned grasshoppers are a popular snack, and hot chocolate is the beverage of choice (we tried a bite or two of the former but had plenty of the latter). But what made the biggest impression on my sister and me were the bananas they served up as dessert dishes. I don’t usually even like bananas, but these were different:
Served baked, fried, with condensed milk, with chocolate – they were all amazingly tasty. Pictured above are baked bananas with chocolate and spice along with cream. The bananas themselves are small, thin-skinned, sweet, and intensely flavorful – very different from the bland industrial breed that’s shipped here. When cooked, their flavor intensifies and they make the perfect snack or dessert (one town we went to even had a little banana truck that went around selling steamed bananas with chocolate and condensed milk – it would blow its steam whistle all around town). We also visited a night market with a popular stall selling deep-fried bananas with chocolate sauce – my sister and I might have bloodied a few fingers fighting for the last bites. With all those bananas, there was surprisingly little in the way of baked goods (they don’t use flour much in Oaxaca), but we did find one place.
Cafe Brujula in Oaxaca city makes one of the best espressos I’ve come across, and arguably the best banana bread ever. You could taste not only the skilled baking, but the ripeness and texture of the bananas. I tried to replicate it when I got home by freezing the bananas first, but with limited success. I have a feeling I won’t come across such goodness again… until my next trip to Oaxaca.
The last time I was in Burlington I was about 10 years old, and pretty much all I wanted to do was eat Ben & Jerry’s. This time around, I was more interested in exploring downtown Burlington and seeing what the local bakeries had to offer… since I can get Cherry Garcia at my grocery store. We came upon Mirabelles Cafe, which as I later found out, was the supplier of my cousin’s wedding cake later that evening. My mom’s eyes lit up at the special – a blintz with a plum compote:
My mother is obsessed with blintzes and this one was THE ONE. She pronounced it the best lunch she had ever eaten (you can see why I grew up believing that leftover layer cake counted as breakfast). I got a more traditional baguette and brie sandwich but made sure to get dessert as well:
That’s the brown butter plum tart and a peanut butter cookie sandwich with peanut butter cream filling. Both of these were outstanding choices – but I have the feeling you can’t go wrong at Mirabelles. Indeed, as I gobbled down the chocolate layer cake at the wedding (my cousin has excellent taste in desserts and managed to get Mirabelles to provide the cake), I thought the only thing missing was a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s…
Thanks to my latest road trip across northern New England, I’ve now been to 47 states (what’s left: Alaska, Kentucky, and Louisiana, in case you were wondering). And part of discovering – and loving – a place is eating. In fact, it’s mostly eating. So in Portland, Maine, as we launched our trip up to Acadia National Park, we fueled up at The Standard Baking Company.
Looks pretty standard from the outside, yes? The inside was a different story. Besides having espresso (much needed after a red-eye flight), they had all sorts of amazing-looking pastries:
I gravitated right away to a morning bun and a chocolate chip cookie, but looked longingly at the breads, tarts, and croissants. But my morning bun was pretty much the best thing imaginable and I had no regrets. The most telling was the cookie, since after I bought it I forgot about it for two days! Yet somehow when I did finally eat it, I still thought it was one of the best cookies I’d consumed in a while – so I can only imagine it fresh. These guys know their stuff and it’s serious baking – definitely way better than your standard bakery.
San Francisco, California
I left my taste buds in San Francisco last weekend (but took home an extra pound or two). Really, San Fran is foodie’s paradise, and I could have spent several weeks (years?) in the Mission District alone. With the sun shining, I started with ice cream. My friend told me the place to go is Bi-Rite creamery, and sure enough there was a long line to prove her right. There were two options – soft serve (shorter line) and the real deal (long line). Naturally I chose both.
The soft serve was actually, IMO, just as good as the regular stuff, unless you want the hipster flavors like strawberry balsamic etc. But just to be sure, we came back later and got a brownie sundae:
The ice cream was good but was upstaged by the toppings: hot fudge, pieces of fresh fudgey brownie, and best of all, the candied pecans. Bi-Rite makes all their own toppings and baked goods (you can order your own ice cream sandwich on their cookies) and everything certainly tasted fresh, not to mention absolutely delicious.
The next day, to balance out the dairy, we visited the Ferry Building downtown (FYI, this place is a foodie’s paradise) and did our time in line in at The Acme Bread Company’s stand there.
Besides the bread itself, the highlight was the cinnamon currant rolls (sold in a double row, not quite a loaf).
Fans of hot cross buns, or sticky rolls of all sorts, would approve. Yeasty, appropriately doughy/chewy, and just the right amount of sweetness. These rolls were sticky enough to be legit, but not so messy that you need a fork – fingers were perfect.
Finally, just to round out the trip, chocolates were in order. We got a few from Recchiuti, including the cardamom, the Kona coffee, the raspberry, and a regular ol’ dark chocolate truffle.
While my friend found the cardamom one too… cardamomy, I actually liked it the best. But really, all were delightful with a sharp yet delicate taste and texture. San Francisco, you have my heart!
Downtown Boulder beckons with many “indie” treats, including bookstores, teahouses, shopping, bars, and restaurants. There were even a few places to grab dessert, including the little side street gem Tee and Cakes.
They specialize in cupcakes, but served up a nice espresso to go with it (much needed, as I was trooping around in the melting snow. The cupcakes come in fantastic flavors like Irish Car Bomb (for St Patty’s Day) and Samoa (inspired by the Girl Scout cookie). I was in the mood for something classic but quirky, and the Hostess Cupcake fit the bill:
Very nicely done! The cream inside tasted fresh, and the chocolate glaze was superbly rich. My only regret was not arriving with more room in my stomach – I would have loved to try some of the other flavors!
Salt Lake City, Utah
Finding an awesome bakery is a sure way to get me out of the hotel when I’m traveling for work, even if it means learning to use the light rail in chilly, snowy SLC. I trekked around downtown in search of Eva’s Bakery, and found the bright storefront easily among the grey buildings.
The inside was equally pleasant, and they had table service in addition to the regular bakery counter. Happy to rest my cold feet, I relaxed into a corner and promptly ordered a velvety, non-acidic Americano. From there I tucked into French Toast stuffed with lemon cream cheese, topped with blueberry compote…
There are no words in any language to describe the magnificance of this breakfast. Amazingly, it was not even terribly heavy – the cream cheese was light (not in calories, but in texture) and the bread was obviously done in house – they had a wonderful selection of breads as well as pastries. I took a kouign amann for later but it didn’t hold a candle to my French Toast. This place is the real deal.
I’ve tried multiple times now to go to Georgetown Cupcake to see what the fuss is all about, but the line has always been way too long. I finally managed it this fall, strategically choosing a chilly weekday in November. In fact, the line was so short that I panicked at not having enough time to consider my options:
So I started with the basics – a vanilla cake and chocolate frosted cupcake. In my opinion, if this one is done right it’s a cupcake shop worthy of my patronage. Next, a seasonal specialty – Maple. And third, an experimental cupcake – the Honey Banana.
I was, in order of cupcakes listed above, relieved, disappointed, and pleasantly surprised. Relieved that the classic combination of vanilla and chocolate was perfectly done (rich, intense frosting and dense cake), disappointed in the Maple flavor (too… maple-y?), and pleasantly surprised at the Honey Banana, which had a lighter texture and more delicate flavor than I was expecting. So is Georgetown Cupcake worth the hype? Overall, I’d say yes, and now that they’re expanding to other cities it’s worth a visit wherever you are.
Princeton, New Jersey
My dad grew up in Princeton and his parents lived there for many years, so I spent a lot of time in New Jersey when I was younger. My family hadn’t been back in a while, so decided to spend the weekend there this spring. We rediscovered all sorts of treasures (PJ’s Pancake House!) and explored a few new ones, starting with The Bent Spoon. They specialize in some very strange ice cream flavors (mine had little nuggets of matzo, since it was just after Passover) along with some bakery goodies.
We all ended up with some variation of chocolate and coconut (I was the only one wanting matzo). The portions aren’t huge but the ice cream is extremely rich and I couldn’t finish mine – not a problem with my dad there to help. Our other stop was a hidden gem – the Trenton Farmer’s Market. None of us knew it even existed, but luckily my old college roommate was there to introduce us to the charcuterie stands, pretzel makers, and Amish bakeries. We ended up buying a whole picnic worth of supplies, mostly from the Stoltzfus Family Bakery. Here’s what my dessert plate looked like:
Those are whoopie pies on the left, apple fritter at the top, oatmeal raisin cookie on the right, and cinnamon raisin bread on the bottom. Each was amazing, but the clear winner (and the one we all fought over) was the apple fritter. Soooo worth going to Trenton for! (And that’s saying something…)
Essence Bakery in Tempe was about a mile from the hotel I was staying at with our men’s basketball team on a recent road trip to Arizona. I read the reviews and decided it was worth a little hike to check out their famous macaroons. Cute place with outdoor seating (and after a Seattle winter, a little sun was enough to entice me to sit outside) and a good breakfast/lunch menu. I started off with the French Toast which came with fruit and caramel sauce:
To be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Bread could have been thicker and maple syrup would have been better than caramel sauce. I was ready to be disappointed in my adventure, but then I dove into the macaroons.
It would have been a mistake to stay in Tempe without enjoying a few of these scrumptious cookies. I’m not even a big macaroon fan, but these were something else. I got the chocolate and the strawberries and cream. Both were excellent (light, crispy, with divinely flavored cream on the inside) but the chocolate macaroon was epic. Definitely a keeper!!!
After hiking in Glacier National Park (where I saw baby mountain goats and grown big-horn sheep), my parents and I stopped in the town of Whitefish for some grub. Although the town had more than it’s fair share of antique stores and pubs, they were severely lacking in the bakery department. They did, however, have ice cream.
Sweet Peaks Ice Cream prides itself on using locally sourced ingredients and keeping a rotation of traditional and creative flavors. I loved the friendly, small-town atmosphere, and the fact that I got to sample almost everything. I finally chose the Cupcake flavor:
It had a strong vanilla flavor, kind of like eating a birthday cake in ice cream form. It was pretty good, but doesn’t break into my top 5 ice cream experiences. Maybe next time I’ll try the lemon-dill?
Chapel Hill, NC
On my yearly visit to my grandmother who lives in Chapel Hill, we ate our fair share of both sweet and savory (savory being the pulled pig pit BBQ that turned out to be the highlight of my trip). For the sweet side of things, we visited Miel Bon Bons in Carrboro. They sell a delightful array of French desserts – from chocolates to cupcakes. True to form, I tried a little of everything.
I had bites of the Passion Fruit cupcake and the Mocha Hazelnut cupcake – both were delightful. But my favorite item was the Truffle de Whiskey, which was not overpowering but still had enough whiskey flavor to make me feel warm all over. They also have other cool flavors like “Honey and Thyme” and “Habano” with mango and lime zest… but I would probably just get a dozen whiskey truffles.
New York City, Part III
How fortunate am I that I got to visit New York three times in the last 7 months? I only had about 35 hours in the the City, but you better believe I maxed out that calories per minute ratio. My first stop was the Hester Street Fair in the Lower East Side – a food market in one of my favorite NYC neighborhoods. I tried multiple treats, but the most impressive was the Prohibition Bakery stand, which bills itself as a maker of “alcoholic cupcakes for adults.”
The cupcakes were small (and I was sharing each one with my sister), but we savored each and every bite. The best was the beer-based cake (the one with the pretzel) and my second favorite was the Irish Car Bomb (the chocolate one… and you could really taste the whiskey). The nice thing about the cakes being so tiny was that we still had room for 2nd dessert… at Grom Gelato in the West Village (another of my favorite hoods).
You get what you pay for (in quality if not in quantity) – this really the best. The ice cream scoopers (or is that gelato spatula wielders?) are trained for a week on their technique (you have to massage the gelato), and the gelato itself is a work of culinary art. And I don’t even love gelato!
A few weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days out at the house my friend’s family rented in Leavenworth. I’ve been lucky enough to vacation with them several times now, and I can always count on good food and good company. Leavenworth, while kitschy, is the perfect place to eat and drink (and the town is small enough that I can hit up every bakery in one weekend).
My first stop was The Danish Bakery, where I gave in to temptation (a habit with me) and bought a loaf of cinnamon bread – like a cinnamon bun but in a bigger, more bread-y form.
I thought it was pretty yummy, if not as delish as a traditional bun. We ate it as a pre-dinner snack, post-dinner snack, pre-breakfast snack… you get the idea. A few tips: eat it soon after buying, because it goes stale quickly (especially the top), and heat your slice in the microwave to soften it up.
My second stop was Bakery Creations, which also had ice cream and homemade fudge. Feeling myself more in a cookie mood, I went with the oatmeal raisin, even though I almost never eat these.
It was actually perfect. Lots of raisins, buttery flavor, chewy texture. And, in my book, oatmeal raisin cookies count as healthy snacks… right?
NYC… Part II
Lucky me, I got to spend a few days in New York this spring break. If this keeps up, I might have to give The City it’s own page! This trip, I only had two and a half days, but as usual I made the most of it. Meaning, I skipped dinner the first day in order to fully indulge in all that Serendipity III has to offer.
Tourists and New Yorkers give Serendipity mixed reviews, with many feeling that it’s an overrated, overcrowded, and overpriced. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s true that it may not be a great experience. However, I’ve been going there since college and I have my routine down: arrive, put my name down, go down the street to Dylan’s Candy Bar, return, get seated, and order the Forbidden Broadway Sundae (NOT the frozen hot chocolate).
There’s nothing I’d rather eat in the world. The ice cream is high quality (read, high fat), the cake is perfectly rich and super chocolate-y, the whipped cream is homemade, and the hot fudge is delectable. Word of warning: share between 3 people or you will be sick.
The next day my sister introduced me to Bouchon Bakery at Columbus Circle. It’s cafe as well as a bakery, and the eating area overlooks the Circle.
We ate a light (for us) lunch, and then chose a few items from the bakery to take to Central Park for a dessert picnic (those are the best kind). My sister loves the chocolate bouchons, I wanted a Linzer cookie, and we went for a caramel macaroon just for kicks.
The bouchon was easily the best. The chocolate pieces inside seemed to melt, even though the air was cold (we overestimated the strength of the sun and had to cut short our picnic). The caramel macaroon was a pleasant surprise, since I’m not a huge fan of this very trendy cookie. The Linzer cookie was made with gingerbread, so I rejected it after one bite. Which was really for the best, since I needed to save some space for my last hurrah…
I hadn’t been here in about 8 years, and I remember not loving it (too much buttercream frosting, as usual!). But I decided to give it another try (and the houndstooth apron was too cute to just pass by), and fell in love as soon as I saw this:
How could anyone look at that and just walk away? I’ll tell you, it was as good as it looks. Just the right amount of salt in the (yes it was buttercream, but that’s ok) frosting, butter flavor in the cake, and right ratio of cake to frosting – unlike the cupcakes. Magnolia used to be located solely in Greenwich Village, but now they’re all over the city… another reason it’s better that I live far, far away.
A Week in NYC… and Everyday a New Dessert
Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to tag along with the University of Washington men’s basketball team on their trip to New York for a week-long tournament. What do I do when the guys are out burning calories at practice?
No, I didn’t eat all of these delectable treats from the East Village’s Dessert Club, ChickaLicious (they were split amongst the family… quickly). But I did keep up a relentless pace all week (eating at City Bakery, 2nd Ave Deli, and Patsy’s) and consumed massive quantities of sugar, butter, and chocolate. I started with Max Brenner near Union Square, where I met up with my sister with the goal of consuming as much chocolate as possible.
Max Brenner, AKA the Bald Man, has created a delicious (and profitable) chocolate culture, where design, taste, and tourists collide to produce hot chocolate served in a “hug mug” – a mug designed to be held close to the heart (and mouth).
I don’t know about the hugging part, but it tasted great (dark, complex, and a little chewy – just how I like it). We also got the dessert “pizza” (toppings served on top of a sweet crust), but I was not as impressed. Stick to what they do best – pure chocolate. Another highlight of the week was Wafels & Dinges, which opened a pop-up stand at the Union Square Holiday Market (where I spent a significant amount of time).
My sister instructed me to order the Spekuloos spread (not the expectorant, as I kept calling it), which is made of crushed ginger cookies. Now, I’m not a big fan of ginger in dessert, but this particular topping really made the waffle (or wafel).
Catch this truck if you can, and order a Belgian Waffle, sweet or savory. And speaking of trucks, we stumbled across the hidden gem of the week, which not even my sister (an NYC dessert foodie) knew about:
Having just eaten at the City Bakery, we might have just walked on by the Treats Truck, but for the free samples (and they let you sample anything you see). After trying a few bites, we couldn’t resist temptation (it didn’t help that my former college roommate and NYC eating partner in crime was with me).
I couldn’t even eat them until later that night, but these two sandwich cookies were the best desserts of the whole week (and that included the birthday cake truffles from Momofuku). Here’s to exploring new sweets (and many happy returns).
New York City – Momofuku
Just when you think you’ve tried everything… you discover Momofuku Milk Bar in Manhattan. And if you haven’t been here, you’ve probably never bought “cereal milk” which is just what it sounds like: milk that tastes like the leftover milk after all the cereal has been eaten. They even have cereal milk flavored ice cream (get a sample, but don’t try and eat a whole dish of it. It’s just too strange). It’s fitting that Momofuku is located in America’s most innovative city, since it is one of the most novel dessert places I’ve visited.
Everything is based on a strong milk flavor, often with a malted taste. Besides cereal milk and ice cream, you can also get milk truffles, cookies, and shakes. We went during the day on a Sunday, so it was fairly quiet, but I’m told that the line generally reaches out the door come evening – perfect for a city that never sleeps. I bought a couple packets of truffles, the best of which were the birthday cake flavor.
How to describe them? First of all, let me just say I’ve never had anything quite so unusual… or memorable… or addictive. I’m still thinking of them several weeks after the fact (and no, they don’t ship them — although you can order the cookies online). Fudgey, milky, and birthday cakey, you really have to try them to understand.
Carrboro, NC – Weaver St Market
One of the highlights of my annual visit to Chapel Hill to see my grandmother is checking out the bakery she’s chosen for me to blog about. There are a lot to choose from, and if I had time I’d stay a week and sample everything. We made the most of our time and stopped in at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro (near Chapel Hill). The market is actually a co-op grocery store, with strong ties to local farmers, but I was focused on the extensive selection of baked goods:
Breads, cookies, cake, croissants, muffins… the choices were endless. My mom chose the lemon bar, and I asked the guy at the counter for his favorite: the carrot cake cupcakes.
The lemon bar was excellent – super lemony, enough to make you pucker up a little. (But, be careful, there was an incident of inhalation of powered sugar.) The carrot cake was perfect – it tasted just like my mom’s (which is perfect). Moist, with the pieces of carrot big enough to chew a little (not all perfectly disguised). The cream cheese icing was a little on the sweet side, but I think most people prefer it that way. All in all, another successful trip!
Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market
I’m a sucker for food halls, especially international, inexpensive, yummy ones that I can walk to on a sunny day in L.A. Lucky for me, when I was there last month I stayed downtown, about a mile from the Grand Central Market, which bills itself as “L.A.’s Oldest and Largest Open Air Market.” Admittedly, they didn’t have quite the same selection of fish, produce, and little goodies you’d find at Pike’s Place, but they did have excellent (and cheap) tacos and a Panaderia (both of which, to my knowledge, you will not find at PPM).
La Adelita not only had a vast array of Mexican pastries, they also served fresh juices (which L.A. seems to excel at). I had fresh-squeezed watermelon juice, which is the number one thing I like to drink when I’m there since I never see this in Seattle. Next, I ate what I think was a pineapple strudel-type pastry:
It just oozed sticky goodness from the insides, and the crust wasn’t bad either. I’m sure you can find better Mexican pastries in L.A., but if you want the experience of eating in an authentic market (and don’t mind sawdust floors and waiting for a food-court table), swing by the Grand Central Market in downtown L.A.
On a recent trip to Arizona – I was traveling with the Husky basketball team – I managed to get away from the hotel long enough explore Tucson’s eating scene. Specifically, I wanted to sample the legendary Sonoran Hot Dog, which is a hot dog wrapped in bacon, enveloped in beans, cheese, tomatoes, onions, mayo, and mustard (those are the minimum toppings). After this turned out to be WAY better than I thought, I made it a point to explore more. The next day, I stopped in for “breakfast” at Le Cave’s Bakery (plan on getting your sweets to go, since there’s no atmosphere (or tables) to speak of.
The donuts here are vegan (hence the title of “vegetable donut shop”), and are the bakery’s main selling point (along with their decorated cakes). And I can see why. The glazed donuts are reminiscent of Krispy Kreme, but better (although not hot).
Also pictured are a couple of mango empanadas and a half-dozen Mexican wedding cookies. All were good, especially the empanadas, which had a short, tasty crust. All in all, a tasty trip for me, not least because of the Sonoran Hot Dog.
The holiday season means I’m spending time visiting friends and family on the east coast, including our the D.C. area. One of my family’s favorite dessert places is Leopold’s Cafe in Georgetown, so we braved the cold and the crowds to pick up some yummies. Leopold’s, a European-style cafe-bakery, serves breakfast lunch and dinner, plus everything in-between. Despite being tucked away in a little courtyard off the main drag (M Street), it’s almost always busy with tourists, shoppers, and students.
The offerings are a bit overwhelming: do you want dark chocolate praline mousse? Chocolate cake with Earl Grey Tea ganache? Caramel pear tart with pistachio crumbs? Or just keep it simple with a scoop of their homemade ice cream? I spent a good chunk of time exploring my many options:
With my chocolate-obsessed sister in mind, I picked out the Chocolate Temptation (a brownie-textured chocolate cake with several more forms of chocolate thrown into the mix).
I presented it to my sister, who pretty much ate the whole thing before I had a chance to get a decent amount down my throat (yes, you did!). But the forkful I did manage to obtain was decadently rich, with various textures and layers of chocolate to make things interesting. Next time I’ll just have to get two.
San Juan Island
Summer’s pretty much over, but I took advantage of one of the last nice weekends of 2010 and headed out to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to hang out with my friend and her family. Food was the main event of the weekend, and after Dungeness Crab, steak, ribs, and cobbler, it’s a wonder that I had any room for anything the next morning. But I had a hankering for a good breakfast sandwich while waiting for the ferry so I decided to check out The Bean.
Maybe I should make a blog about breakfast, just so I’d have an excuse to go back to this little coffee house/bakery and get another egg/sausage/cheese breakfast sandwich. If you’re addicted to them like I am, try one from this place next time you’re in Friday Harbor – it was DIVINE. But on to the dessert. First I tried the white chocolate raspberry scone, but found it to be much too chewy for my liking. So I moved on to the coconut chocolate chip cookie and found it much more up my alley:
Macadamia nuts and coconut make everything better, don’t you think? Get one of these for the ferry ride home, and you’ll wish you’d stayed just a little longer in the San Juans…. at least I did.
Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands
I headed across the pond this June with my family to take a whirlwind roadtrip across the Scottish Highlands. I was not expecting the food to be anything to write home about based on what I’d heard and on my previous experiences in England. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of fresh fish, gourmet sandwiches, and the most delicious scrambled eggs. True, most dinners (and breakfasts) seemed to involve huge amounts of butter, but judging from the quality of their shortbread, butter just seems to be in their nature.
Speaking of butter, we started the trip in Edinburgh, where we sampled the goods at Elephant House:
Devout fans of Harry Potter will know that JK Rowling spent a good deal of time here working on the series, and still visits occasionally. We didn’t see her, but we did see lots of good eats. I chose the elephant shortbread; my sister chose the chocolate bar.
The chocolate bar was bit stale, but the shortbread was excellent (as it was all over Scotland). Actually, it wasn’t as good as the giant piece I ate on the Isle of Skye (and forgot to photograph), but I give them points for style.
Besides trying traditional foods like haggis (which was edible) and blood pudding (which was not), I also wanted to try a traditional Scottish dessert. In Mallaig, we first encountered Cranachan – a mixture of whipped cream, whiskey, honey, and specks of toasted oatmeal, tumbled with raspberries.
My sister loved it (she always did like her whiskey), and while I had to admit the cream was delicious (it’s nothing like American whipped cream from a tin, which they call “squirty cream”), but I felt like the dessert was missing something. Like shortbread.
Visiting my grandmother, who lives in Chapel Hill, is always an occasion for good eating. This was particularly true this spring, as I was there for her 90th birthday celebration. The day before the big party, my mother, my grandmother, and I decided to take a little exploratory trip to nearby Carrboro, where we stumbled upon The Open Eye Cafe.
I almost felt like I was in Seattle – the cafe had art on the walls, specialty coffees, and whole-leaf tea. But what attracted my attention was the display of home-baked goods. My mom and grandmother helped choose three items: a pistachio macaroon, a “nut horn” (that’s what my grandmother called it), and a strawberry cupcake.
My favorite turned out to be the nut horn, which had a butter, nutty, shortbread taste to it. The salesgirl didn’t know what it was called, but told me it had crushed almonds in it. The pistachio macaroon was good, but my mom really liked the strawberry cupcake. The cake part was good, but the frosting was mind-blowing. It had that fresh, bright, genuine strawberry taste – like freshly picked strawberries had been blended into it. Overall, an excellent outing for the three of us (mom and grandmother are pictured below):
But I have to say that the true food highlight of the trip was the mind-blowing pineapple layer cake made by my grandmother’s friend, which I pronounced one of the best cakes I had ever eaten. However, I won’t blog about it, because we like to keep it to ourselves!
New York City, NY
My visit to NYC this spring was far too brief. I had only 2 days to visit every deli, restaurant, bar and bakery on my list, and naturally I didn’t make it to half the eateries I was hoping to. This meant prioritizing. Besides taking advantage of Restaurant Week in Brooklyn, I also managed to squeeze in bagels with lox, a slice of pizza, and the best corned beef sandwich of my life (from 2nd Ave Deli). The latter almost led to tears of joy, and I do confess I considered moving back to New York just for the food.
Choosing a bakery for my blog was more difficult. Seattle has a very manageable dessert scene, but NYC has a seemingly endless supply of places – some that have been around for decades, others that are new and trendy, and plenty of in-betweens. I also had to figure out what type of dessert I wanted – cupcakes? chocolate? cheesecake? I finally just gave up and let my sister choose, and we ended up at the City Bakery.
Since we were there at brunch hours, I decided to try the “Caramelized French Toast” while my sister had the scrambled eggs. (A quick word about the eggs – they were amazingly good and I was trying to figure out what made them so much tastier than what I make at home. My grandmother also used to make truly excellent scrambled eggs, and when I asked my sister if she remembered the secret, she said “really low heat… and lots of butter.”) Anyway, the caramelized French Toast:
The fact that I ate half of it before I could stop to take a picture should tell you something. This was no ordinary French Toast – the outside was indeed caramelized, giving it a very crispy, sugary coating. And I don’t think they used bread! Instead, we hypothesized that it was actually angel food cake, given the lightness and sweetness of the inside. Regardless of the recipe, I could have eaten five of those things (too bad it was about $7)!
I love NY!
San Francisco, CA
I took advantage of Presidents’ Day Weekend to take a mini-vacation to San Francisco. Naturally, I did some research before I went in order to locate the best treats. Upon arrival, I decided to walk around the Mission District in search of some good eats (of which there were plenty). I started with Tartine, a small French bakery/cafe/bar/coffee shop frequented by hipster types. I had originally planned on sampling the area’s tacos, but could not resist the enormous Croque Monsieur – which I HIGHLY recommend… to split! Afterward, I had trouble figuring out how I was going to handle dessert… just looking at the selection made me feel full.
I decided on something manageable: a mini Chocolate-Hazlenut Tart with Whiskey Liquor (to-go, since I was so stuffed from the Croque).
Overall, my friends and I thought it was delectable. Although my friends really liked the whiskey liquor, I found it a little strong. However, the chocolate tasted of the highest quality and the hazelnuts added flavor. The tart shell was pure buttery goodness, with a crumbly texture. Lovely.
My winter vacation spot this year was Hawaii, where I got a nice tan and consumed plenty of calories. I managed to hit some of the more famous dessert spots, including Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, where everyone goes for shave ice. Shave ice, as I was told several times, is different from a snow cone. The ice is shaved much finer, and the syrups are more unique (and, at Matsumoto’s, they are homemade).
There were lots of nifty flavors to choose from, including honeydew, lychee, and green tea. You could also add extras like ice cream, condensed milk, or Azuki Beans (beans that are cooked with sugar so that they become quite syrupy). I decided to skip the extras and order the Matsumoto’s Special: a combination cone with Lemon, Coconut, and Pineapple:
It did taste better than a snow cone, but I have to say, it mostly tasted like sugary ice to me. I think I would have liked it better as a kid! However, my friend ordered hers with condensed milk, which I should have done – it gave it more flavor (and fat!). At any rate, it was a good excuse to tour the beautiful North Shore of Oahu.
Much more appealing to me was Bubbies, which specializes in mochi ice cream:
If you’ve never tried mochi ice cream before, be aware that it’s quite different from your usual ice cream experience. Mochi is a small scoop of ice cream enveloped by a sweet, chewy, rice-based dough. You really have to chew your ice cream, but I love the texture/flavor combinations, such as chocolate/coconut or chocolate/peanut butter. Other fantastic flavors are available (my favorites being green tea, lychee, and passion fruit).
This picture (a container of mochi balls) doesn’t give you a clear picture of what you get inside each ball, but their website does. Check it out, and check out Bubbies if you’re on the Islands!
Our last stop was Leonard’s, a Portuguese-styled bakery specializing in malasadas: no-hole doughnuts filled with custard or sprinkled with sugar.
The bakery, founded in 1952, started making malasadas to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (AKA Fat Tuesday). The malasadas were so popular they made them a staple, filling them with custard or coating them with cinnamon or sugar.
In case you couldn’t tell from the picture, I opted for one with chocolate custard filling. I loved the outside of the doughnut: it was crispy and plenty sweet. However, the custard lacked real chocolate flavor, and after I finished the doughnut it sat like a rock in my stomach. I wouldn’t recommend eating more than one… and next time I’d stick to plain sugar or cinnamon.
A friend and I traveled in June to the Olympic Peninsula to go camping, tidepooling, and vampire-hunting (yes, we are huge Twilight fans). The tiny town of Forks is a requisite stop for all Twilighters (it’s the hometown of Bella, the book’s main character); unfortunately, there’s nothing much to see except for a few Twilight-related stores overrun with teenage girls. The food also wasn’t much to speak of, and we had resigned ourselves to burgers and fries. However, we got lucky that evening when we stopped at the “Smoked Salmon Restaurant and Lounge” for dinner. To be honest, I don’t remember the dinner, but I do remember (and did photograph) the dessert:
Dessert being “Bellaberry Pie” (actually boysenberry) which we ordered without seeing the price tag of $7.00. I have never paid so much for a slice of pie, but I have to say that in this case, the price may have been justified. The crust was sweet, flaky, and buttery – definitely homemade. The filling was perfect – not too tart and not too sweet – and the boysenberry was a new taste for me. Everything tasted fresh and homemade, and needless to say, the pie disappeared pretty quick after I took this picture.