As if Day 2 of my San Francisco Pastry Crawl wasn’t debaucherous enough, I had one more day of traipsing around the city in store– there are just so many places! I still can’t believe that I had no idea how much SF has to offer– I debated whether to limit the number of locations to visit, but let’s just say that restraint is not my forté… when it comes to sugar. Plus, I consider myself an equal-opportunity pastry eater/forager, so how could I, in good conscience, not give all these bakeries a try? It was the decent thing to do, right?!
I started off another gorgeous, sunny day at a place that I’ve been dying to visit for months– the TCHO Chocolate Factory! Multiple bakeries in the area and in other parts of the country collaborate with TCHO to use their luscious chocolates in a variety of sweets and baked goods, including Smitten Ice Cream, which I visited on Day 1. The TCHO 60% Chocolate ice cream was, in fact, DA BOMB. TCHO (pronounced ‘cho’) is dubbed the “New American Chocolate” due to the amazing product they have created through their innovative and environmentally progressive cacao sourcing and production. I tend to dismiss much of the drivel made in the States that passes for “chocolate”, usually opting for European brands. However, I was lucky enough to get my paws on some of their SeriousMilk Classic 39% milk chocolate disks a few months back, and I can confidently say that it’s among the best milk chocolate I’ve ever had in my life (currently my hands-down favorite for baking).
I had the pleasure of taking a factory tour and tasting most of TCHO’s chocolate varieties, so there was much to write about! After I started expounding on the virtues of TCHO, I quickly realized that, by the time I added in the rest of the day’s bakeries, this blog post would be absurdly long (brevity is not my forté either, in case that wasn’t already clear…) and you might get bored and be tempted to look elsewhere for pastry-based entertainment, so I wrote a separate piece, and you can read all the nitty-gritty details about my visit to TCHO here. Suffice it to say, I love their chocolate even more, now that I’ve learned all about their company, and I’m proud to support them with my dollars because of their efforts to make the best possible chocolate by improving the lives of people at the source, the cacao growers in under-developed parts of the world. Bottom line: TCHO rules as a company, and I highly encourage you to learn more and buy/use/eat their chocolate. It also rules.
One more thing I want to mention, because it, too, rules: TCHO is very active on Twitter and other social media, and I had tweeted them to say that I would be visiting soon and blogging about it. (They are, by the way, very funny and interactive with their followers.) When I was there, I thought, “I wonder who the Twitter person is, and could I meet him/her?”… so I asked. A few minutes later, a friendly, bubbly woman named Ashleigh came out to greet me and we chatted about chocolate, blogging, baking, and San Francisco for several minutes. I was really excited to meet the face behind the charming tweets and Instagram photos, but what was totally crazy was that she was excited to meet me too. Now, I am a relatively new blogger; though I hope this blog is going places, let’s face it— I am currently small beans in the food blogging world. I tried my best to contain my utter amazement that Ashleigh would be interested in meeting me; I am not used to being around people who are so passionate about food and want to connect with others about it. To top it off, Ashleigh very kindly presented me with a lil’ bag of TCHO swag: two chocolate bars, a bag of cacao nibs, and a TCHO button! Seriously, how freaking cool is that, people?! I was so very impressed with this place in every way. They are putting a lot of good karma out into the world, and I hope it comes back to them tenfold—they deserve it.
Alright, moving on to other sugary treats now…
From TCHO, I walked over to Levi Plaza for lunch at Parlor 1255, on Ashleigh’s recommendation. (The Parmesan-Crusted Goat Gouda Grilled Cheese with figs was most tasty. Go get some.) They carry pastries by Starter Bakery, which she recommended as well, but they were sold out of nearly everything, so that will be a pursuit for another occasion. I had such a lovely afternoon walking around the Embarcadero neighborhood, as it brought back wonderful memories of a past time when I roamed frequently in that area. When I was a senior in high school, I interned at the radio station known at the time as Wild 107.7 FM, which was located in a nearby office building. It later outgrew that space and became what is now Wild 94.9 (and I definitely outgrew that music), but I have many fond memories of radio shows, promotional events, and meeting obscure celebrities—good times for my 17-year-old self! Anyway, it was truly a treat to reminisce as I searched for Parlor 1255 on that gorgeous San Francisco afternoon.
From there, I embarked upon neighborhoods hitherto uncharted. This was one of the best things about the whole Pastry Crawl; besides the copious amounts of amazing baked goods, I had the wonderful opportunity to explore corners of SF that I hadn’t been to in years, or not at all in my lifetime. One such neighborhood was Russian Hill, where I found Batter Bakery. I had heard buzz about Batter mostly through TCHO on Twitter, and I was excited to visit their shop on Polk Street.
Batter makes a wide array of baked items: cookies, cupcakes, shortbread, bars, muffins, etc. I wasn’t especially enthralled with the cupcake offerings (I need more frosting!), but I chose a nice variety of cookie/bar specimens. The portions are very generous—great for sharing.
- Chocolate Hazelnut Shortbread: Shortbread is among Batter’s most popular items. This sizable chocolate hazelnut square boasts a delicate, yet firm biscuit texture that was really enjoyable to bite into. It had a pleasing balance of distinct chocolate and hazelnut flavors that were nicely woven into the super buttery cookie.
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Cookie: This was a huge handful of a cookie, and I like a thick, chewy cookie, let me tell you! It was visually appealing, but I’m not the biggest fan of the chocolate/peanut butter combination, so it wasn’t my favorite; me, I need more CHOCOLATE. (However, if you love nothing more than the marriage of chocolate and peanut butter, you will more than likely adore this cookie, so don’t let me ruin it for you.)
- Sand Angel Cookie: Now THIS cookie is a different story! I am still dreaming about it and pining for it. This is one of Batter’s signature items and a top secret recipe—rightfully so. Yeah, I’d probably hold that one close to my heart too if I had been the genius to invent it. The Sand Angel, besides having an awesome name, is a fat, chewy, sand-colored cookie of glorious proportions with beautiful crackles on top and a dusting of powdered sugar. I cannot, for the life of me, place the flavor, but it was so unique and splendid, like a cross between a snickerdoodle and… something else goddamn delicious. I’m guessing there’s plenty of butter, brown sugar, maybe a touch of mild molasses, maybe some caramel, maybe some magic fairy dust… It’s hard to say. I’m still trying to figure it out—this is the kind of thing that I lie awake pondering at night… (Other people do that too… right?!) In short, this is one of the best and most interesting cookies I’ve ever had. WANT. MORE.
- Carmelita Bar: This is a riff on the classic Turtle Bar with its oat crust and layers of chocolate chunks, caramel, and pecan halves. The bar was moist and chewy with a great balance of flavors. My only critique is that I prefer a thicker, heartier bar to bite into, but it was overall very pleasing.
- Honey-Vanilla Shortbread Hearts: These sweet little hearts were absolutely lovely. They were, in fact, an afterthought, and unfortunately I didn’t take the time to photograph them. I grabbed a bag on my way out and added it to my stash, and I’m sooo glad I did. I’m not a huge fan of honey-flavored things, but these were just perfect in every way. The shortbread was truly divine, with its buttery crumble and just a hint of lingering honey. The cookies were almost ½-inch thick, so they were at once dainty and hearty. I shared most of the treats from my Pastry Crawl, but in this case… sharing was not caring…
While chatting with one of the friendly employees at Craftsman and Wolves on Day 2, I had asked her if there were any other bakery recommendations she could offer, and she told me about a brand-new place that had just opened the week prior called Flour + Co. in the Nob Hill neighborhood, another area that I was not especially familiar with. I tweeted with Flour + Co. to let them know I was excited to visit their new shop on my Pastry Crawl, and they were super enthusiastic and friendly.
So after leaving Batter armed with cookies and shortbread, I headed to Flour + Co. without much knowledge, other than a presumably friendly staff. When I got there, I was immediately charmed by the feel of the bakery: warm, comforting colors, a beautiful display case full of mouth-watering treats, an intoxicating “just baked” aroma, and a smiling staff, indeed. In other words, all kinds of warm fuzzies! The name Flour + “Co.” literally denotes flour’s BFFs: butter, sugar, eggs, and milk– I just love that notion, and it fits right in with the homeyness of the bakery.
It was exceedingly difficult to choose what to buy—there were cookies, bars, cakes, breads, muffins, pies, and much more. This place ultimately requires multiple trips to get a handle on things. Plus, there’s also a breakfast/lunch/beverage menu, takeout case, and Stumptown coffee. In the back, there’s an ample seating area where I fully plan to hunker down this summer to wile away many an afternoon. This place just has that kind of warm feel—you will want to hang out all day. Appropriately enough, Flour + Co. is doing something really cool and unique of which I hope to partake: they are hosting community events such as a weekly baking discussion group and French conversation group! How fun is that?!
But back to the food. As I mentioned, it was really hard to choose, and I made the following purchases:
- Monkey Bread: I LOVE monkey bread, and I went a little nuts on the inside when I saw it behind the glass, though I tried to maintain my composure on the outside! If you are not familiar with monkey bread, get thyself to Flour + Co. and get acquainted pronto—it may change your life. Monkey bread consists of small balls of yeasted dough tossed in butter and cinnamon-sugar and piled into a vessel for baking; it is the ultimate pull-apart bread. Normally it’s made in a Bundt-like pan, but at Flour + Co. they make adorable mini portions in muffin wrappers, which are then iced like a cinnamon roll. The baked dough has a wonderful chewy consistency, sweet flavor, and the perfect amount of cinnamon. Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds. And yes, I do wish I had one right now. *drool*
- Orange Cream Cheese Toasty Tart: Another gem—I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. This is, of course, the homemade and much tastier version of a Pop Tart (though I even hesitate to make the comparison because to mention the latter in the same sentence feels wrong). There were three tantalizing flavors: Orange Cream Cheese, Salami & Manchego Cheese, and Nutella Banana Hazelnut, and I was going back and forth between the first two. I settled on the cream cheese, and I’m so glad I did! Whereas I packed up the rest of the treats to go, I ate this one on the spot, accepting the staff’s suggestion of warming it up. Oh, my… The crust was ethereally light and buttery, and a glorious mess of pastry flakes rained down with every bite! The creamy, light interior tasted like an orange creamsicle. I’ve been wanting to make my own toaster pastries for a while now, and I am further inspired by Flour + Co.’s wonderful interpretation!
- Chocolate Caramel Brownie: Alright, this is serious. This brownie is *special*. My all-time favorite brownie ever is from BAKED in Brooklyn, and this is soooo similar; I’ve never tasted anything so close to that perfect brownie specimen. I loved the touch of swirled caramel on top for its flavor and visual effect, and I think there may have been chocolate chips mixed into the batter, though I can neither confirm nor deny this suspicion definitively. (Well, technically I guess I could just ask.) Anyway– To. Die. For. Also, if I recall correctly, this brownie is gluten-free, so gluten-averse pastry lovers can happily partake!
- Oatmeal Praline Cookie: At first glance, this cookie appears quite modest; however, it is full of oats, cinnamon, and a warm, nutty flavor, with a moist and slightly underbaked texture– just the way I like it. Oatmeal cookies are not generally at the top of my cookie hierarchy, but this was a pleasant surprise. Since I require large amounts of chocolate for basic survival, cookies with a chocolate component will always trump non-chocolate varieties for me, but this one definitely lingers in my mind…
So yeah, I’m kind of diggin this place right now. Since my week of crawling, I’ve been back once for lunch and loved it. Again. I highly recommend the turkey avocado ciabatta sandwich… with a cherry hand pie chaser.
After being thoroughly smitten by Flour + Co., I headed to a totally different type of bakery: b.patisserie in Pacific Heights. Opened in February by Belinda Leong and Michel Suas, it is modern, sleek, and very French.
This place has received lots of positive buzz in its young life for rich, splendid pastries such as kouign amann and beautiful works of art such as the Chocolate Caramel Toffee Mousse. When I first got there, kouign amann was nowhere to be found, though there were a few of the mousse cakes left, but in the 30 seconds that I stepped away to take a few photos, some wretched human being snatched them all up! I didn’t even get a photo of the gorgeous little domes, but they look like this.
A great reason to go back for sure, though there was no shortage of other items that I was itching to sample:
- Butter Cake: I gazed upon this somewhat unassuming cake slice with interest—what exactly was “butter cake”, if not a yellow layer cake? I was drawn to it and intrigued by its shape and dense, layered anatomy. I would liken this sugar-dusted rectangle to a croissant bread pudding cake—the layers of rich, buttery croissant dough and warm vanilla and cinnamon melted in my mouth, bite by luscious bite, like little wisps of heaven. No yellow layer cake here! This cake was very luxurious, though not pretentious or overly indulgent—it was perfection. I want to eat it every day. That is all.
- Sugar Brioche Tart: Another serious pastry triumph—b.patisserie has this French pastry business down. This treat consists of a brioche shell cradling a custard-like center, and my favorite part about it is the blurred line where they meet; the cream and pastry sort of melt together into a creamy/fluffy dough situation with an otherworldly texture. And the tart is sprinkled with pearl sugar on top for a beautiful contrasting crunch and added sweetness. This is a most lovely pastry to be enjoyed for breakfast or, well, any time you can get your hands on one.
- Vanilla Cake: Even though I didn’t get to try the Chocolate Caramel Toffee Mousse, I really wanted to try one of the elaborate little entremet cakes that b.patisserie is known for. Chocolate would have been my first choice, but my other love is vanilla, and I was happy to sample this beautiful, layered vanilla cake. It featured delicate, wispy layers of vanilla mascarpone, lemon curd, and cassis (black currant). This little work of art was incredibly light, yet rich, especially considering there isn’t a trace of chocolate!
I spent an exceedingly long time taking photos (partly waiting around to see if any more cakes or kouign amann would come out!), and then I finally set off on foot for Baker & Banker, which I had heard great things about. While walking from Pacific Heights towards the Japantown area, I serendipitously turned onto Fillmore Street, which is closely packed with shops and restaurants. As I crossed the street, I looked up to see Sift Cupcakes, which I’ve heard wonderful things about and had been meaning to visit. It was not on my intended itinerary, and in fact, I realized that there were exactly *zero* cupcakes on my entire pastry crawl, which would be shocking to anyone who’s known me in the past five years! But since Sift happened to be there, I couldn’t resist popping in. However, as I browsed the display case, I realized that the prototypical pink-and-white cupcake shop was no longer interesting to me. Sure, it was cutely decorated and they offered fun, creative cupcake flavors, but the whole thing felt very tired to me. There have been a handful of articles around about the cupcake trend being “over”, and for me, I confess that I’ve kinda moved on and diversified my pastry palate. Nevertheless, I chose three cupcakes:
- Raspberry Champagne: Okay, but I didn’t like the hint of rose flavor that I detected.
- Red Velvet: This is one of the “benchmark” flavors by which I evaluate a cupcake bakery, and this one was just average. I did like the fun shape of the frosting swirl though.
- Samoa: This was a nice tribute to the classic Girl Scout cookie; very rich with a creative presentation.
They were fine, but these sorts of cupcakes don’t excite me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to make cupcakes, and I adore a really special one without doubt, but I find that the really special ones are few and far between these days with the current cupcake saturation.
On to the next stop on my route. I was sadly disappointed by Baker & Banker. I was expecting an actual shop like the others, but it’s actually just a tiny attachment to their restaurant with a small display case and a lot of bakery racks. There were a number of items like cinnamon rolls, cookies, and bars, but with an arsenal of goodies already in my possession, none of these stood out to me. (Maybe I was just cranky and sugar-crashing by that point in the day?! Maybe they were sold out of a lot of things?) One item did catch my eye though: Malted Peanut Brittle! That sounded fabulous… but, sadly, it wasn’t. It tasted neither like malt nor like peanuts. I’m not even sure how to describe it, but the flavor was strangely cloying and not pleasing at all. Boo.
I fully believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Because I took the time to trek to Baker & Banker on foot, my car was still parked a half-block from b.patisserie. When I returned, I sat in the car for a bit to check my social media. Like a memo sent from the gods, b.patisserie had just tweeted that they had kouign amann available fresh out of the oven! My feet hurt and I was tired; that half-block looked really long… But seriously, I was *right there*– I had to do it. So I shuffled back over to the bakery, and sure enough, there they were, still warm.
So what is kouign amann, exactly? Pronounced ‘kween ah-MAHN’, this is a very special French pastry from the Brittany region, whose name means ‘butter cake’ in the Breton language of Celtic origin. (I wrote my college thesis about the Celtic migration to France in the 5th Century– I knew that would pay off someday.) Like a cross between a croissant, palmier, and brioche, I had never tasted anything like it! The exterior dough was all kinds of flaky with a caramelized sugar surface, and the interior was softer and more doughy with a syrupy sugar center. B.patisserie is receiving kouign amann acclaim for good reason—they have perfected this specialty pastry. Game over. Happy girl.
My very last stop was a little farther out in the NoPa (North of the Panhandle) neighborhood: Chile Pies & Ice Cream. Recommended by one of my best friends, I knew it would be worth it, tired and sugar-logged as I was. Chile Pies is the sweet sister of the New Mexico-inspired Green Chile Kitchen, which I definitely need to patronize in the near future. But on this trip, the focus was pie. I loved their southwestern retro shop—a little hipster, a little Santa Fe, a lot San Francisco.
Chile Pies makes sweet and savory pies, as well as hand pies, and they enthusiastically endorse a scoop of local Three Twins Ice Cream to take your pie slice to the next level. I couldn’t shove another bite into my mouth, as I had been sampling sweets all day, but I took home the following:
- Green Chile Apple Pie with Cheddar Crust: Their most illustrious pie, it contains infinite layers of razor-thin apple slices, rather than the more typical apple chunks. I loved that aspect, as it allows the cinnamon gooey pie filling to permeate each and every nook. What makes this pie stand out even more, however, is the cheddar-laced crust and the green chiles mixed into the filling. The cheese crust was a wonderful contrast to the apples’ sweetness—loved it. I was a little mixed on the chiles, but I give it an A+ for creativity.
- Green Chile Chicken Pot Pie: This was dinner the following evening—LOVE. It was probably the best pot pie I’ve ever had! Perfectly-sized chunks of good-quality white meat chicken; no onion chunks (which I hate); the chiles impart a wonderful, balanced heat; the colors in the filling were bright and appetizing; and the flaky crust was utterly delicious. WOW. Want another!
- Cheese & Bean Hand Pie: Okay, so once I got in the car, I realized that I actually was a little hungry for something savory, so I figured this would be a perfect snack to get me through the afternoon traffic as I headed home. What a lovely little revelation, all packed up in its bright orange crust! Said crust was flaky, yet sturdy, and tasted like it had cornmeal in it. The interior was tender and delicious, with a mix of black beans and cheese woven in throughout. Of course, it probably would’ve been even better if I’d had the patience to wait ’til I got home to heat it up, but I was quite content to chow down on that yummy baby pie!
So concludes the planned part of my pastry journey through San Francisco. I would have ended this interminable blog post here, but then I went to the Ferry Building a couple of days later and happened upon a few more items! Check out my accidental Day 4 with final thoughts.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.