When I travel, most of the time my first thought is, “Oooh, where are the bakeries??” I have spent many gluttonous weekends (or weeks… don’t judge me) trolling for the most delicious pastries in cities such as New York City, Boston, Portland, and Paris… I recall with much fondness the decadent Sweet & Salty Cupcake at BAKED in Brooklyn, the fist-sized Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie at Levain and the Pretzel Milkshake at Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC, the Throwdown-winning Sticky Bun at Flour Bakery + Café in Boston… and don’t even get me started on the boundless buttery croissants and jewel-like French macarons in Paris…. *sigh*
One of my favorite parts of traveling is discovering the cuisine and sweets of any given destination; no matter where I am, I derive infinite joy from tracking down the best treats and bakeries. I live just outside of San Francisco, and I have to confess (with much embarrassment) that I only recently learned of its culinary bounty. I have been so focused on my sugary love affair with other cities (New York, I’m talking to YOU), that I didn’t even realize what was in my own backyard!
I recently attended an event at the new San Francisco Cooking School, and I learned that in the past five years or so, San Francisco has become “ground zero” (their words) for culinary innovation, creativity, and diversity. Talented chefs are coming here from New York and other culinary meccas to take advantage of the ubiquitous high-quality local ingredients and partake of the vibrant culinary community. (So much so that a Killed By Dessert event was held in May with cross-country chefs participating in an incredible “bake sale” and a spectacular 14-course plated dessert dinner!) And it occurred to me that I was so fascinated by the food scenes in other cities… but I had never really explored San Francisco’s! Apparently, SF has a jaw-dropping number of incredible eateries, and new ones open regularly. Furthermore, several places are hosting “popups”, where guest pastry chefs/bakeries come in to do a short-term run of their own products or develop limited edition products with the host location.
To rectify my gross negligence of this very exciting pastry scene, I set about planning my San Francisco Pastry Crawl of 2013, which conveniently took place over my spring break from work. (The larger-than-expected number of bakeries is the reason it has taken me almost three months to get this blog series posted!) Each food establishment possesses its own character, style, and specialties; some bakeries were very rooted in French traditions, others were distinctly American-style, and still others straddled both. There were ice cream shops, and even a Jewish deli… Let’s just say, it’s a good thing I did a lot of walking.
There were so many places that it quickly became evident that this would have to be a multi-part blog series so as not to bore everyone with one interminable post! I debated how to group the bakeries: pastry style, ranking of preference, neighborhood/location, etc. However, most places didn’t fall into such neat categories, so in the end, I decided to divide them based on days. I “crawled” on three separate days and will recount the experiences in three parts, plus an unexpected Ferry Building excursion, detailed in an Epilogue. (Alright, brevity has never been my forté…) Let the pastry onslaught begin with… cookies and ice cream!
Day 1 of the San Francisco Pastry Crawl was a typical windy, chilly, overcast day in SF, but that would certainly not deter me from indulging in ice cream– pfff! (I used to eat popsicles for breakfast on the way to class when I attended college in Boston, so this was nothing… but let’s discuss the, uh, merits of popsicles for breakfast another time…)
The Mission District is currently a hotbed of culinary delights, both sweet and savory (more on the Mission on Day 2), and my first two stops were located in somewhat outerlying spots of this neighborhood. Anthony’s Cookies specializes in homestyle, comfort cookies that are typically big and chewy– my favorite. I had never heard of this place until receiving a box of them as a gift a few years ago– waaaayyyy better than flowers, right?! Of course I had to make a pilgrimage shortly thereafter, and I really liked the little shop, so I wanted to include Anthony’s on this confectionary exploration, even though I had already been there before.
The bakery is a modest space with a homey wood interior and a long community table where customers can hunker down to gobble up their treasures. Anthony’s serves artisan coffee, uses local ingredients, and writes the cookie flavors on a chalk board. My favorite thing is the intoxicating cookie aroma that envelopes you the second you walk in the door…
Anthony’s offers a rotating variety of classic and seasonal cookie flavors and a few with a twist, of which my favorite is, hands-down, the Cookies & Cream. It is thick, dense, and slightly underbaked, consisting of a brown sugar dough base (similar to a chocolate chip cookie) with lots of glorious Oreo chunks and crumbs folded in. It was also a pleasing size with a respectable diameter– a good handful. If you’ve read some of my past blog posts, you might have learned that I have a slightly unhealthy obsession with Oreos, so these cookies resonate in my soul n’ stuff.
I tried a total of four different cookies, and although the Cookies & Cream was the clear winner for me, I enjoyed each of them. (Let’s just say, I reluctantly shared them all, except the Cookies & Cream, which I hoarded all to myself with no regrets! ;-)) The other cookies were:
- Classic Chocolate Chip: Thick, chewy, and very chocolaty! The exterior didn’t look very chocolaty, though I could detect that there were large chunks of chocolate hiding on the inside. There are endless and very passionate debates about the “best” style of chocolate chip cookie, and for me, this one fit my preferred profile of thick/chewy, versus thin/crisp. My only critiques are that I would have liked more chips showing on the outside and I would have liked a bigger cookie– it was probably less than 3 inches across.
- Toffee Chip: This cookie was visually not that exciting for me, as it was thin and more spread out than the Cookies & Cream and Chocolate Chip. However, I have to say that it was quite delicious! By the look of it, I was anticipating a crisp crunch, but I was pleasantly surprised to bite into a soft, chewy disk of toffee goodness! I loved this cookie– the only thing I would change is to make it thicker, but the flavor was fantastic.
- German Chocolate: This is a fairly new flavor for Anthony’s, and while it was very good, I felt that there’s some room for improvement. It was small in diameter (about 2 inches) with a thick, domed shape, so not as pretty as some of the others to look at. Fortunately, the flavor was really nice with a great balance of chocolate, coconut, and pecans. The cookie dough base was chocolate, with the coconut and nuts woven in. It didn’t have the caramel-y stickiness of German Chocolate frosting, but I enjoyed biting into the thick, chewy texture. This cookie has a lot of potential– I would love to see a bigger version!
I managed to control myself by eating only half of each cookie (except the Cookies & Cream… shhhh) before slinking off to my next destination, Humphry Slocombe. I was super excited to visit this mildly renegade ice cream shop for two reasons: 1) I had been tweeting with them over the previous couple of weeks, and they are hilarious and irreverent– love that! 2) I had just gotten their (also hilarious and irreverent) ice cream cookbook, chock full of splendiferous recipes, such as Harvey Milk and Honey and Peanut Butter Curry, that I couldn’t wait to try! (Sadly, I have yet to bust out my new ice cream maker, but it will happen soon…)
They are especially known for their “Secret Breakfast” (bourbon and cornflakes) and Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee flavors, so I figured I should try one of these. I sampled Secret Breakfast– love the name, by the way– and Malted Dulce de Leche, and although I much preferred the latter, I decided to go with Secret Breakfast to get out of my comfort zone.
The flavor was more or less what I envisioned: heavy on the bourbon with crunchy cornflake clusters (definitely not an appropriate breakfast on a workday). However, I thought the ice cream texture was rather disappointing; I thought it would be thick, creamy, and rich, but I found it to be of a thin, melty, almost icy consistency, which I didn’t grasp from the little sample spoon initially. I had had high hopes, but left the shop a little bummed out.
But I just couldn’t leave well enough alone… I’ll fast-forward to Day 2 for a brief glimpse of ice cream redemption. I was nearby in the Mission District, and I happened to drive right by Humphry Slocombe… so I pulled over for a second try on a whim. After everything I’d heard, I couldn’t give up that easily! I was so happy that this time I walked away with a big ice cream smile on my face. I had the Chocolate Smoked Sea Salt: thick, creamy, dense, rich! It was very chocolaty with a pronounced and balanced smoked salt flavor– delicious and unique! There are lots of other flavors that I want to try, so I certainly plan to return.
But back to Day 1. I had planned on the previous two stops before a dinner date later that evening (yup, ice cream and cookies before dinner… anybody got a problem with that?), and I happened to have some extra time before the reservation… so I decided to roll by one more dessert spot, Smitten Ice Cream. Smitten is located in a converted shipping container in the heart of Hayes Valley, another lively neighborhood overflowing with culinary goodness.
What sets them apart is their method of making ice cream; rather than making large batches like virtually every other place in existence, Smitten has custom-made machines that churn ice cream with liquid nitrogen one cone at a time to order! Watching this process before my eyes was fascinating—each machine has a spiral arm of sorts that blends the ice cream to creamy perfection in about a minute. (I tried to take as many photos as possible without weirding out the girls making the ice cream!)
Because there are only a few machines, they can only make a few flavors on any given day, but that doesn’t seem to deter customers, as the lines regularly snake out the door.
I had the TCHO 60% Chocolate ice cream topped with Malted Caramel Sauce; I have to say that this was among the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had! It was wicked thick, dense, rich, creamy, and bittersweet—absolutely DIVINE. And the malted caramel was thick, sticky, and added a lovely dimension of warmth and sweetness to the chocolate… GAH!!
Needless to say, after snacking on cookies and two servings of ice cream, I was not exactly hungry for dinner…
This was a very tame beginning to the San Francisco Pastry Crawl—check out Day 2, when I roamed the Mission District for viennoiserie (flaky pastry), chocolate, cakes, and more…!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.