Much of my Spring Break week back in April was spent exploring corners of San Francisco in search of the city’s best baked goods. Why I had not done this earlier, I really couldn’t say—I was thrilled to discover the baked wonders offered up by so many talented confectionary alchemists! On Day 1 of my San Francisco Pastry Crawl, I indulged in ice cream and cookies… right before dinner. (I still maintain that this was a perfectly good idea.) Fortunately, I had a few days to recover, which was a good thing because the forthcoming Day 2 was much more gluttonous. This second leg was focused on the Mission District, which many currently consider to be the delicious epicenter of culinary ingenuity in San Francisco.
The Mission is a vibrant, bustling, urban neighborhood with heavy multicultural influences, particularly of the Latino persuasion. At most hours of the day, there are people out and about interacting with food: enjoying the multitude of taquerias and restaurants, buying beautiful produce at the small, local markets, imbibing in wine or cocktails, or happily licking cones of artisan ice cream. This is a section of the city that always feels full of life—people are soaking up their surroundings all the time. Not only are the natives living life, but the actual neighborhood itself is filled with bright colors in the form of murals painted on many a wall, and vivid awnings framing the doorways. More than perhaps any other San Francisco ’hood, the Mission possesses so much character and vitality—I feel it every time I set foot there, and it always puts a smile on my face. And on a gorgeous day like this one, the colors pop more than ever. May I say that a more lovely day in SF had never been seen—it was perfectly warm with a brilliant blue sky stretched out above me. But don’t worry, that brief “summer” was short-lived; the regularly scheduled cold, foggy days resumed shortly thereafter—lucky me to have that particular week off! I’m pretty sure it was a sign that I was meant spend my life trolling for sweets, no?
I became somewhat aware of the Mission’s culinary activities last summer at the San Francisco Street Food Festival, a gathering of the city’s most illustrious food vendors who bring their sweet and savory wares to the streets of the Mission for one glorious day. I was in awe at the variety, creativity, diversity, and quality of this amazing food scene—who knew?! This event prompted me to start a “research” process that several months later culminated in this Pastry Crawl. Here, I also first became acquainted with the brand-new San Francisco Cooking School, where I’ve since taken a handful of classes and plan to take many more. It was at these classes that I learned more about the city’s thriving culinary revolution. Although SF is teeming with wonderful food establishments all over, the Mission is an especially populous hub giving birth to an astonishing number of places that are reinventing traditional cuisines and rewriting culinary rules. My brain was buzzing with glee as I discovered more and more places that I wanted to eat!
On this day, I strategically started at lunchtime with an actual *meal* to make sure I would eat something other than pastries that day. Everyone knows that the East Coast and Los Angeles are dotted with many wonderful Jewish delicatessens; sadly, San Francisco has a glaring absence of them. And truthfully, I’m not that big on Jewish deli cuisine, BUT I had been hearing about a relatively new place in the Mission called Wise Sons Deli that serves ginormous matzo balls—wait, in San Fran?! I had been meaning to investigate, but the place is only open for brunch and lunch, so I hadn’t made it out there yet. This was the perfect opportunity, and it just happened to be down the street from Humphry Slocombe, facilitating my ice cream re-do from Day 1…
I loved Wise Sons from the moment I walked in—they have Hebrew newspapers and posters plastered artfully on the walls, old-school family photo frames hung up, funky hanging lights, and the best thing maybe ever in any restaurant: there’s a sign over the door that says, “In America, you can eat challah every day.” Was that a tear in my eye? What, huh? No, it was just an eyelash. A really big eyelash. Let’s just move on.
Anywho, I know I’m focusing on sweets here, but I just have to mention that the matzo ball soup and the corned beef sandwich were OFF THE HOOK. It’s true, you get a giant matzo ball in the middle of your soup bowl, and it’s just the perfect balance of fluffy and dense. (Matzo ball aficionados know how hard it can be to find the right texture—score for Wise Sons!) I had a half-sandwich alongside it, as I didn’t want to fill up on, you know, real food—had to leave as much room as possible for dessert! My only complaint was that for the not-so-modest price, the sandwich portion was rather skimpy. Most Jewish delis stuff so much sliced meat into a sandwich that you literally cannot get your mouth around it. (And I use the word ‘literally’, literally, not figuratively.) Now, I believe that no human being really needs to eat a sandwich that massive, but at least you get what you pay for. The corned beef at Wise Sons was wicked tasty and moist (and they cut it extra-lean like I asked… for an extra buck), but they could have thrown another slice or three on there. Still, I was thrilled to have such a high-qual deli nearby, and I plan to return for many more succulent dishes, such as Pastrami Cheese Fries, Matzo Brei, and Challah French Toast!
What I didn’t initially think about when I walked in there was… dessert. Little did I know! The crowning jewel of the meal was—wait for it… Chocolate Babka. Yes, there was a whole Seinfeld episode about babka, and rightly so. In contrast to the meager corned beef portion, the babka was a hefty chunk of fluffy, chocolate-swirled goodness. Babka is an Eastern-European yeasted cake made with a dense, sweet dough, sometimes braided or twisted, and most often flavored with chocolate or cinnamon. It’s a Jewish deli staple, though many versions have evolved into commercialized loaves that barely resemble their original cake ancestors. I was really hoping that this would not be the case with this glorious wedge; although I don’t eat babka often, I have a particular affinity for it because my mom made it from scratch when I was growing up, and no other incarnation has ever compared in my opinion. Anyway, I gladly scooped up a piece of the beautiful babka for later consumption… and I’m very pleased to report that, besides a bit of drying out on the exterior after toting it around for a few hours, it was pretty fantastic! The inside boasted layer upon moist layer of the soft dough with gorgeous cocoa swirls and flavor laced throughout. So. Happy.
After that bit of warm fuzziness, I rolled by Humphry Slocombe for that second redeeming ice cream (soooo glad I did!), and then it was time to get serious with this pastry-hunting business. My first stop, a place that I was super anxious to visit, was Craftsman and Wolves, which just celebrated its 1st birthday. What a curious name—I had to learn more. (It apparently signifies the pastry craft and its challenges.) Opened by 2013 James Beard Award nominee William Werner, this was probably my very favorite of all the places I visited on the entire Pastry Crawl; if I were ever to open my own bakery, this is the type of place I would want it to be. (That’s not to say that the rest of the crawl was downhill from there, trust me.)
It’s hard to define CAW as French or American, or formal or casual; it straddles both extremes of these descriptions. It’s definitely more contemporary than traditional, but their mad pastry skillz are most certainly built upon a strong foundation of classic pastry. The shop itself is a spacious establishment of modern, sleek concrete and wood with glass panes lining the pastry counter, juxtaposed by the pleasing warmth and comfort of a tall red brick interior wall and exterior façade. Also contributing to this was the super friendly staff—the young lady who took my order was extremely helpful in recommending pastries, and when I told her I was visiting bakeries in the city for this blog project, she even suggested a couple of other bakeries that I should visit. One more nice feature: Craftsman and Wolves offers “high tea” for small groups, by reservation. I thought this was a nice throwback to traditional pastry roots!
But let’s get real—I came for the pastries. They offer a rather mind-blowing selection of traditional and modern treats (both sweet and savory), serving breakfast, lunch, and the recent addition of dinner items. CAW is known for pastries with a contemporary twist and for combining unusual flavors to create treats that you didn’t even know you wanted, such as cube cakes and their peculiar invention called the Rebel Within, which consists of a sausage-studded asiago cheese muffin encasing a poached egg whose yolk is still runny when you bust it open– genius! I didn’t try the latter on this trip (in hindsight, an inexplicable mistake), but I’ve got my eye on it for a return trip in the near future. It was incredibly hard to choose *only* a half-dozen items—whilst peering through the glass at the bounty of baked delights, I wanted to sample nearly everything. They make a variety of classic French-style pastries, such as croissants (in several varieties), gougères, and tarts, as well as American-style items, which they often make with a twist.
They also run the gamut as far as fanciness: casual, homey treats like cookies to Asian-inspired scones to sleek, beautiful, modern cakes. Now, I usually reserve those gorgeous cakes for window-shopping—I feel like they’re too pretty too eat, and it never occurs to me to actually, uh, buy one. And as usual, at first I simply admired their beauty with my eyeballs; however, I then remembered how much I sorely regretted not getting one when I pastry-crawled in Paris over the holidays. I was kicking myself for being in that amazing pastry city, and not partaking of the cake artistry, and I didn’t want to experience that cake-envy again… so this time I purchased a precious mini Chocolate Caramel Vietnamese Cinnamon Cube Cake… and I was so glad I did.
So let’s just dive in, shall we? As I said, it was incredibly difficult to choose, and I definitely have another reconnaissance mission to do at Craftsman and Wolves. (For example, I later looked at the menu on their website and saw “warm sipping caramel, salted butter, croissant shavings”… Yeah, THAT needs to happen.) But here are my preliminary selections:
- Smoked Cheddar & Hot Pepper Gougère: For those unfamiliar with gougères, they are basically savory “puffs” piped with a pastry bag, hollow and slightly doughy on the inside like a popover, and usually make with some kind of cheese. I’ve made them at home before, but they were just tiny gems; this thing was bigger than the palm of my hand! The gougère’s exterior had a pleasing crispness, which gave way to that airy interior, and in every bite I could taste the delicious smoky cheddar and pepper flavor.
- Valrhona Chocolate Chip Cookie: God help me, this is probably THE BEST chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had in my life. I had to meditate upon that statement for a while—after all, this is a pretty serious assertion, right? But after thinking about it, I can say it with confidence: this cookie had *everything* I look for in a chocolate chip cookie, and then some. I like a thick, chewy, hearty cookie—no dainty, crisp wafers for me; the Valrhona cookie was about 4 inches across and close to an inch thick—a GIANT handful of a cookie! It was laced with chocolate chunks and tiny chocolate bits throughout—no dough lay untouched by chocolate. And the best part: when I bit into it, it was impossibly perfect in texture. The cookie was soft, chewy, slightly underbaked, and the chocolate melted so lovingly in my mouth. Excuse me, I need a sec to commemorate my cookie. (*moment of silence*)
- Peanut Butter Cocoa Shortbread Sandwich Cookie: This rectangular treat seems to be CAW’s take on a homemade Oreo, with a twist. Apart from the cookie separating from the filling (no big deal), it was a rather lovely interpretation of the iconic American classic. The chocolate cookies were dark, crisp, and not too sweet, while the peanut butter filling added a little saltiness and had that Oreo-esque firm, yet creamy texture. A great treat!
- Croissant: I figured that I should pick up a few croissants on this excursion, being that it was a pastry crawl. (I typically skip croissants, like the fancy cakes, because they are notoriously rich and indulgent. But in the name of public service, I felt that I couldn’t exclude them from this thorough report on SF pastries. You’re welcome.) It was a fairly petite size with plenty of crisp, flaky layers, but I found it a bit on the dry side and lacking in butter flavor.
- Chocolate Croissant Stack: While I wasn’t totally wowed by the plain croissant, I really enjoyed this one. It’s like an alternative take on a pain au chocolat, featuring layers of cocoa between layers of croissant dough, all packaged up in a neat, little square. The pastry layers were abundantly flaky, and the cocoa added a pleasing sweetness—this is a wonderful light dessert or breakfast.
And saving the best for last…
- Chocolate Caramel Vietnamese Cinnamon Cube Cake: This sleek mini cube is truly cake art— it is an outstanding fusion of artistic creativity, baking science, and a little exotic twist. Even though a couple of months have passed since I ate it, I still reflect upon this little cake with wonder and obsession admiration; I want to intimately understand its inner workings. The exterior of the cake has pristinely cut straight edges, and it is dusted all over with Vietnamese cinnamon, which is a beautifully balanced variety of cinnamon that I prefer for most of my baking. The inside was a complete mystery; I was so curious about the texture of the cake—spongy? airy? dense? You know the expression “burning a hole in your pocket”? That’s exactly how I felt about this cake, as I carried it around with me that day—it was burning a very impatient hole in its box! When I finally cut into it at home that evening, I was absolutely enamored— a pretty spectacular little number, indeed. (I confess that I ate it in secret and didn’t share a crumb… shhhh.) The texture is a bit difficult to characterize, other than, you know, DREAMY; there is a layer of very moist chocolate cake on the bottom (not visible from the outside), which is encased by a caramel “housing” that I can best describe as rich, creamy, and slightly springy, perhaps like a firm mousse? How it holds that perfectly square shape is beyond me—I was expecting a more traditional layer cake for structure, but it seems to defy nature a little. I must say, I’ve never had anything like it—light, yet utterly decadent. *sigh*
I’ve heard that when people love their first child wholly and unconditionally, they often cannot conceive of how they could possibly have enough love left in their hearts for a second child… that’s how I felt after leaving Craftsman and Wolves. My soul was so full of chocolaty, flaky, beautiful, baked goodness that I must have had something akin to a baker’s “glow”, and I was even a little exhausted! But, just as parents find room in their hearts for all their children, there were more bakeries to fall in love with, though CAW would ever remain in my heart…
Right next door was Dandelion Chocolate, a rare bean-to-bar chocolate maker that opened in November. The shop is less than a year old, but has already generated a huge buzz because of their high-quality product and fascinating process. The space is quite large, with a modern café feel in the front and a sleek industrial look in the back area, the chocolate processing equipment visible behind the pastry/coffee counter.
Dandelion does a wonderful job of educating customers about their chocolate-making process with beautiful displays of real cacao pods (that you can even buy) and descriptions of their exotic origins. I probably could have spent an hour hanging out there, reading all their displays! They also encourage customers to taste their different chocolate bars, ask questions, and watch the chocolate-making in action, or even take a chocolate-making class.
I didn’t buy any bars on this particular visit, though I’d like to experiment with their products in future baking projects, but I did indulge in a couple of decadent chocolate pastries:
- Chocolate Caramel Tart: Oh, my… this was a diviiiiine little gem. It was visually pristine and elegant, and its chocolate and caramel flavors betray any adjectives that I could come up with. The tiny tartlet featured a delicious, buttery crust with a nice snap, cradling an ethereal chocolate ganache layer (slightly gooey/melty, yet firm) and a fantastically oozing caramel filling. Oh, and a sprinkling of salt flakes on top gave it that lovely sweet and salty element. So much richness in a few small bites—pastry perfection, truly. Almost too beautiful to eat… almost.
- Chocolate Fudge Brownie: This one was tasty, but not my favorite. It was sooooo dense and rich—a little overkill for me. Now, I should probably mention as a disclaimer that I would likely have had a different opinion if I hadn’t eaten it after a slew of other pastries; it’s possible that my palate was just on sugar overload… I will say, however, that this was probably the coolest-looking “brownie” I’ve ever seen, with its crispies bunched on top—how beautiful and creative is this?? A little much for me, but a very impressive pastry creation nonetheless.
Lastly on this very, very, VERY obscene sugar coma-inducing day, I visited the iconic Tartine Bakery. This is a veritable institution of San Francisco, known for its amazing breads, croissants, cakes, and tarts. Tartine rules French pastry and has been instrumental in spreading the gospels of classic pastry throughout San Francisco, long before these newer places moved in.
Here, too, it was extremely difficult to choose, but I definitely walked away with some lovely treasures:
- Devil’s Food Cake: Given what I just said, I wouldn’t have thought to buy an American-style cake at Tartine necessarily, but its darkness really drew my eye, and I had to be one with this gorgeous slab. It was blanketed in chocolate crumbs like a Brooklyn Blackout Cake, and the interior was super moist and very dark and chocolaty, much more so than what I think of as “devil’s food”. The cake was extremely rich with its layers of dense ganache filling, though it was not terribly sweet—it was all about the chocolate!
- Buttermilk Scone: When I encounter buttermilk pastries, I’m generally pretty optimistic that they will be awesome, and this was no exception. Buttermilk contributes to a moist texture and rich flavor in baked goods. This giant scone did, indeed, boast a delightful creamy flavor and pleasingly tender crumb; I especially loved the contrast of the soft inside and crunchy exterior, which was topped with sparkling coarse sugar.
- Croissant: One word… AMAZING. This behemoth was literally bigger than my hand, its infinite flaky layers giving way to unparalleled buttery softness inside. Each layer on my tongue was a buttery pillow—delicate and fluffy, and so very comforting. The outside was a touch overdone, but no matter! ’Twas one of the best croissants I’ve ever had in my life, even taking into account the ones I’ve enjoyed in Paris. I felt a little guilty, because I did a head-to-head comparison of Tartine’s croissant and Craftsman and Wolves’, and much as I adore CAW, this wasn’t a fair fight…
- Double Pain au Chocolat: Similar to the plain croissant, the chocolate variation was nearly the size of my head—I’m pretty sure I have never seen croissants of this size in my life. Sadly, I did not experience this pastry under optimal conditions. I was beyond sugared out by the time I had sampled so many other items, and I just couldn’t shovel anything else in my piehole that evening. Thus, I stored the croissant in a zip-loc bag to enjoy the next day. I did this with a heavy heart, as I knew that it would get soft overnight; however, the alternative was to allow it to dry out in its paper bag, which just wouldn’t be civilized. When I purchased it, it was perfectly crisp and flaky… In hindsight, I should’ve just forged ahead and tasted it that evening for the sake of my “research”; I’m sure I won’t make that mistake again. Anyway, I did eat it the next day, and it was still buttery, chocolaty, and delicious, but I would definitely like to go back for another one with a fresh, eager palate sometime soon in order to get the full effect.
Thus ended Day 2 of pastry madness. As you can likely surmise, the Mission District is rich with fabulous treats, and I’m sure there are still many places to discover. I would be remiss in not mentioning Bi-Rite Creamery here, by the way– some of the best ice cream in San Francisco, but I just couldn’t eat more that day. Stay tuned for the adventures of Day 3– mwah!
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.