Sweet Cradle of Liberty: My Lovefest with Boston… & Her Pastries

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You know when you go somewhere and it immediately feels like that’s where you were meant to be? This place gets in your blood and reaches to your core, your very soul… You need to be there. That’s how I feel about the city of Boston. I attended three semesters of college there a number of years ago, and I was instantly smitten by this charming town. The historical gravity of the place is palpable (not to mention the countless historical locations that tell the city’s story), and it has a vibrant energy in the air due to the presence of thousands of young people who descend upon the city each September to attend the dozens of universities in the area. I have never seen a city so fiercely proud of its sports teams, nor a place so unapologetic in embracing its quirks. This is where my love of all things Irish blossomed; where I learned to navigate a city on my own; where I reveled in freedom for the first time in my life. OH, and that Boston accent– it is simultaneously dreamy and obnoxious. I once dated a guy there who told me that he plays Dots on Tuesday nights, and I did not have the faintest idea of what ‘dots’ was. “Dots. DOTS— you know, throwin dots on the dot boahd?” And then it dawned on me– DARTS. He was saying ‘darts’ with that godforsaken accent! Why I remember this conversation is beyond me, as he turned out to be a royal jerkoff, but that’s another story entirely. Anyway, I fell deeply in love with Boston and its many foibles– sometimes wonderful, sometimes maddening. Although my school experience didn’t work out there, it was very painful to leave this city that I adored. To this day, I go back every chance I get, and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel there every summer for the past 4 or 5 years. (I do not have another trip in the works at the moment, and it causes me no small degree of existential anxiety.)

Boston Pastries - 66Clockwise from top-left: My favorite gate to the Boston Public Garden; view of Back Bay from the Charles River; swan boat in the Public Garden; flower bed in the Public Garden; intersection of Boylston and Arlington Streets, near the Public Garden; Massachusetts State House; behind home plate at Fenway Park; George Washington statue surrounded by purple allium in the Public Garden.

Boston is a city with a tremendous amount of pride, resilience, and grit. This was demonstrated clearly last year at the 2013 Boston Marathon, when two terrorists set off bombs at the finish line that killed 3 people and injured 264 (plus another murder during the ensuing police pursuit). It broke my heart that anyone would act with such evil intent towards my city, especially on the most joyous day of the year in Boston. However, it was a beautiful and uplifting thing to watch the city band together in love and healing in the aftermath. It was even more heartening to watch the jubilation at the 2014 marathon last month. I wrote more about this topic and marked the occasion with Boston Cream Cupcakes (naturally), which inspired me to finally finish this overdue blog post!

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When I visit, I rarely make plans. I love wandering my favorite neighborhoods all the live-long day and recalling pleasant memories of years past. It’s the kind of walkable, manageable city that you can easily criss-cross on foot, which I prefer any day to riding an underground train. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore– every time I go, I stumble upon a beautiful old church, a historical monument of some kind, or a quaint passageway that I hadn’t seen before. THE FUN NEVER STOPS IN BOSTON.

Boston Pastries - 67Clockwise from top-left: Park Street Church at the entrance to the Boston Common; postcard-perfect Acorn Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood; Trinity Church in Copley Square— one block from the scene of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; Faneuil Hall; Make Way for Ducklings bronze statues in Boston Public Garden… dressed up for Bruins playoff hockey in 2011!

In recent years as I’ve become more involved with the world of food, my focus has shifted a bit. Not that I ever didn’t enjoy sampling the city’s food, but now my main way of exploring is by seeking out Boston’s culinary delights (just like I do everywhere else that I travel to). I have many sentimental favorite places, and on every visit, I discover new ones to add to my tried-and-true list. For me, New York and San Francisco are the food meccas of the United States, but Boston ain’t too shabby. There is a lot of touristy, kitschy food to be sure, but also some real gems on which my mind lingers from thousands of miles away. My single favorite ice cream, favorite seafood restaurant, and one of my top favorite bakeries all live there; there are plenty of good eats to be had!

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As such, I feel it is my duty to share gratuitous food-porn from my beloved city– I highly recommend visiting these places if you live in or plan to visit Boston.

I have to start with Flour Bakery + Café, the brilliant creation of James Beard Award-winning Chef Joanne Chang. She was a math/economics major from Harvard who quit her career in management consulting to pursue a food career. (MAD RESPECT.) She first came to my attention on an episode of The Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay several years ago, in which her famous Sticky Buns soundly defeated his lesser attempt in a head-to-head battle. I immediately made a mental note to visit the bakery on my next trip to Boston. Meanwhile, she released her first cookbook, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe, and I knew there was something special happening here, without yet having tasted the food. Sure enough, once I got to the bakery for the first time, I was head over heals right away. That rightly famous Sticky Bun is an intoxicating pillow of feathery pastry dough, topped with an impossibly decadent layer of sweet, pecan-laced GOO; it was more than I could have fathomed in a mere breakfast pastry. I also tried her delicious Breakfast Egg Sandwich, cornmeal-lime cookie, crispy rice treat, and TCHO Chocolate Chip Cookie. The credo painted on the wall says everything: “Make Life Sweeter… Eat Dessert First!” I wholeheartedly connected with the values of this place, and I knew it would be a staple on every subsequent Boston journey.

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Little did I know how my love for Flour would grow over the years. Ms. Chang’s bakery has expanded to four locations, her recipes are excellent, she’s put out a second book (Flour, Too: Indispensable Recipes for the Café’s Most Loved Sweets & Savories) with a third on the way, and she’s a nice person. I was fortunate to be able to meet her at a book signing on last summer’s Boston visit, and she was extremely friendly, gracious, and appreciative that people came to see her.

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The bakeries have a contemporary/industrial/comfort food ambiance all at once– the kind of place I want to spend my afternoons tucked away at a corner table writing blogs about pastries! The cold display case always features beautiful cakes and tartlets piled high with toasted meringue or fruit, and the pastry counter bursts with scones, cookies, muffins, breads, cupcakes, bars, and viennoiserie; it is quite a sight to behold and always hard to choose! (I could never dream of only picking one item… We all must sometimes make hard choices in life, but this is just not one that I could entertain.)

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Frankly, I could write a novel describing the intricate details of each item I’ve tasted at Flour, but instead I’ll just give you the highlights. (Although I can’t totally understand it, I do realize that not everyone is a complete pastry geek who enjoys studying the layered details of flaky pastry dough and the crumb structure of cake… *shrug*) Besides a Sticky Bun and a Breakfast Egg Sandwich, another classic item which I must experience every time I visit is the homemade Oreo– I find that this practice of quality control helps regulate long-term consistency. (You’ll buy that story, yes?) Said Oreo consists of the telltale dark cookies (big, soft ones) sandwiching a creamy filling, and you can tell that there is nothing unnatural up in there– mmmm. I have yet to make these at home (recipe is in the first Flour book), but one of these days I’ll get there.

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I have to be honest– I visited the bakery 4 times in 3 days on my most recent trip… and I would do it again. There is such an abundance of sweet treats, not to mention all the wonderful savory fare, which requires multiple visits for adequate research! 😉 I tried so many new items this last time, among which, these were my favorites:

  • Kouign Amann (pronounced ‘queen a-MAHN’): Joanne Chang’s version of a Kouign Amann, also referred to as Breton Butter Cake, is a tantalizing swirl of caramelized flaky pastry dough, sort of a cross between a croissant, a brioche, and a palmier. This pastry, which originated in the Brittany region of France, was pretty obscure until a few years ago, but it has gained notoriety at American bakeries thanks to talented pastry chefs such as Dominique Ansel in New York, Belinda Leong in San Francisco, and Joanne Chang. It is incredibly labor-intensive to make and QUITE special. Kouign Amanns usually resemble a “basket” of sorts– the pastry is bundled up with an opening in the top, and its hollow center harbors a tasty sugar syrup. Chef Chang’s version is like a “twisted” Kouign Amann, which features those beautiful, buttery, sugar-crackled layers of pastry, but missing is the syrupy center. But no matter– great fun was had whilst uncoiling the fluffy wisps of dough!

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  • Cinnamon Cream Brioche:This is another standout at the bakery– I only managed to see it once among my four visits because they get snatched up quickly by eager pastry vultures; I was SO happy that this recipe is in the second book. The Cinnamon Cream Brioche is a cushion of soft, buttery pastry whose crème fraîche center blurs the line between dough and cream filling; it exudes a wonderful aroma of cinnamon and vanilla, and every bite is soft, creamy, and kinda sexy. Meow.

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  • Raspberry Pop Tart: Now THIS is a f*cking pop tart! I ate this in my rental car the minute I exited the bakery, and I was really glad it wasn’t my car because there was a shower of pastry flakes all over me and the seat! The pastry shell is thick and hearty, yet light and airy– it’s perfect like that, frankly. The inside oozed a sweet and tart raspberry jam– you know, actual FRUIT. The whole thing was FAT and MESSY and so, so GLORIOUS. *sigh*

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  • Lemon Polenta Cookies: I have to say, these were a sleeper hit. I bought them more as an afterthought– the bakery was out of granola bags that day, so I got these as an alternative take-away snack. I was delighted to discover that they were absolutely lovely: crisp and buttery like shortbread, slightly (but not overly) zingy from citrus, and they had a pleasing crunch and savoriness from the polenta granules. I ate these gradually over the course of the next several days and relished each and every one!

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  • Chicken Egg Breakfast Pizza: I’m not normally a proponent of chicken on pizza; I’ve never understood the appeal of this, personally. BUT, when I saw this gorgeous pizza displayed, I knew it had to be mine. The puffy hills and valleys of the brioche pizza dough were smothered in red sauce, Italian cheese, spiced white chicken, and that perfect sunny egg yolk– I couldn’t resist. And delicious it was– much as I love the Egg Breakfast Sandwich, this has surpassed it and will henceforth be my go-to breakfast at Flour. *drool*

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  • Lemon Meringue Tart: Oh.Mah.GAH. Joanne Chang has a way of making me reconsider what I *think* I don’t like. Lemon Meringue Pie (lemon desserts in general) are rarely at the top of my list, but I was mesmerized by this magnificent tart. LOOK AT IT, FOR GOD’S SAKE. The crisp shell and silky lemon curd are crowned with a voluminous cloud of toasted meringue that is almost too pretty to disturb with a menacing fork. It is a symphony of flavors and textures: sweet, tart, crispy, airy, creamy, delightful.

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Basically, this is hands-down the best place in Boston for baked goods (and one of the best in the country). Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not leave Boston without visiting Flour Bakery + Café. *steps down from soapbox*

Okay, I think I’ve made my point about that. Despite the amount of time I spend at Flour when I visit, there are, in fact, other wonderful places too! My other must-have (and I *am* talking EVERY DAY) is JP Licks ice cream. My love affair with JP Licks dates way back to my college days. This is a Boston institution which originated in one of the city’s annexed outer neighborhoods, Jamaica Plain. JP is a throwback to another time– it remains a down-to-earth, humble, slower-paced, quaint area. There are certainly modern outposts throughout the neighborhood, don’t get me wrong, but the ambiance feels largely unaffected by hipsters and soulless gentrification. Many of the same working class families have been rooted here for generations, and there is a strong sense of local community that continues to help the town thrive. It is officially part of the city of Boston, but it has a completely different feel to me.

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Along the main drag, Centre Street, just before you reach “downtown” JP, a large cow head protrudes out of a brick building above a black awning, signaling the entrance to Boston’s best ice cream spot. JP Licks makes both traditional flavors like Cookie Dough and Mint Chip, as well as funkier varieties (Cappuccino Crunch and Coconut Almond Chip), and my favorite ice cream ever in history is their Oreo ice cream. Let’s get one thing straight: this is not your run-of-the-mill “cookies and cream” situation. Oh no, people. This ice cream is DARK due to the unabashed crapload of cookies infused into the ice cream. The Oreo flavor is so profound and rich– I get chills just thinking about it all the way in California. (Incidentally, Oreo’s parent company recently had a hissy-fit about JP Licks using the name “Oreo”, so they did in fact change it to “Cookies & Cream”, but don’t let that fool you– it remains the same recipe and is far superior to any other.) I’ve sampled several other flavors (including Oreo varieties like Oreo Peanut Butter, Oreo Cookie Dough, and Oreo Cake Batter), but it always comes back to the original, unadulterated Oreo ice cream for me. My daily itineraries in Boston always take into consideration the proximity to a JP Licks shop. And no, I’m not kidding.

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Another spot in Jamaica Plain that I really liked and need to spend more time at is Canto 6 Bakery, whose name refers to the circle of hell reserved for the gluttonous in Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy. (Is there a more brilliantly named bakery out there? I am hard-pressed to think of another equally clever and appropriate name.) I visited there two summers ago, so although a bit more time has passed, I thought it was well worth a mention. They self-identify as a “rustic French bakery”, which accurately describes my favorite type of French bakery: foundations in classic French technique without the unnecessary attitude that sometimes comes with French pastry. (And I say that lovingly as someone who lived in Paris for a year.) The standout item for me was the Croissant Monkey Bread, and to this day, I’ve never seen anything else like it. I couldn’t find it on their current website, but (luckily for me) they had it when I visited, and it was utterly lovely: crisp, puffy, pull-apart croissant pieces– look at all those flaky layers! I now have a laundry list of pastries to try there next time, based on their website menu…

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Back in the Back Bay section of Boston (not far from Flour) is, in my opinion, the best cupcake spot in the city. I’m kinda over cupcakes in that I don’t necessarily seek them out anymore when other more interesting pastries are available, but this girl will never turn down an awesome cupcake! On the same trip as Canto 6, I happened to be in town for the grand opening of Boston’s Georgetown Cupcakes location. My friend and I waited in line for two hours (seriously, we did) to buy cupcakes on the first day, and yes, WE FELT SPECIAL. I’ve tried other cupcake shops in Boston such as Sweet and Kickass Cupcakes, but found them mostly to be mediocre (dry, boring flavors, too sweet, too over-the-top, etc). I knew nothing of the DC Cupcakes TV show at the time, but learned that this new shop was part of that enterprise. Although I’m not super into supporting reality TV ventures, these are damn good cupcakes! (I’m choosing to overlook the fact that these grown women refer to their mother as Mommy in their cookbooks. Icky.) I visited last summer too and have now tried a number of flavors, including Salted Caramel, various chocolate combinations, Red Velvet, Coconut, Boston Cream Pie, and Key Lime. Not a bad one in the house, but I have to say that my favorite was… vanilla. This may sound anticlimactic, BUT I’m always surprised at how hard it is to find a good vanilla cupcake! I could write another blog post entirely about my objections to the characterization of vanilla as plain, flavorless, or boring– this is an egregious sin. So many vanilla cupcakes in the boundless cupcake universe are simply white cake, but at Georgetown Cupcakes, they actually taste like (gasp!) vanilla. *winning*

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There is another place that I would be remiss in not mentioning, although it’s not exactly a bakery. After discovering the Wafels & Dinges truck in New York about 4 years ago, I became obsessed with those lovely things called liège wafels: Belgian waffles made from a rich yeasted dough, with chunky pearl sugar that melts and caramelizes while cooking. There are simply no words for the deliciousness of this waffle variety– in my food world, Belgian waffles have never been the same since tasting these. Forever changed thanks to Wafels & Dinges, I set about roaming the land for wafels in other cities; imagine my delight when I stumbled upon a new place in Boston a few summers ago, while simply walking back to my hotel one night! A tiny shop near Faneuil Hall, nestled among a slough of Boston’s oldest and most raucous Irish bars, appeared before me like a desert oasis: Saus. It seemed that the place had barely opened, but there it was, slingin’ frites, poutine, and the coveted liège wafels!

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Saus is all about condiments– they offer about 15 sauces, with which to smother the aforementioned frites, poutine, and wafels. In the time since my initial visit, I have been there twice more, and each time, they had added all sorts of new and enticing treats. In addition to their original fare, the menu now features sandwiches, salads, and a variety of global dishes. But let’s get to the important part: the WAFELS. They offer up a number of decadent dessert sauces, among which is their amazing salted caramel. I’ve gone on and on about the wonders of speculoos as a topping for wafels (which they have as well), but this salted caramel is utter perfection. I thought that no other topping could rival speculoos, but I have to say that it is a razor-close second, if not an equally worthy topping. (Can we call this personal growth?)

Lastly, I need to mention the North End neighborhood of Boston. (Even though it’s not personally my favorite for dessert, writing an article about Boston pastries without it would be incomplete.) Just to the northeast of the very old neighborhood that harbors Saus lies the North End, the oldest residential district of Boston, dating back to the colony’s settlement in the mid-1600s. (There have been several mass expansion and landfill projects in the intervening centuries.) This is where Paul Revere’s house still stands, where several anti-British acts of defiance took place in the early days of the American Revolution, and where waves of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants rolled through the city over the centuries. After multiple transformations in wealth, population, resources, and public image, today the North End has retained the Italian culture of the most recent immigrant wave in the late 19th Century (though only about ⅓ of residents are actually Italian now), and it is home to countless romantic restaurants and cafés, regular street festivals, and general merriment in the air. I love that you can still hear Italian spoken on the street! For much of the 20th Century, the whole neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city by the eyesore formerly known as Interstate-93, which was torn down during the behemoth 25-year “Big Dig” roadwork project. When I lived in Boston in the mid-1990s, the roads in the downtown area were completely unearthed as a massive central artery freeway was built underground to replace the double-decker above that bisected the city. This endless work was finally completed in 2007, and that part of Boston has been completely transformed yet again (much like the waterfront of San Francisco once the Embarcadero freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake). I vaguely recall an instance of running for my life across a freeway on-ramp to access the North End– it was that dangerous to reach it on foot (or maybe as a college student new to the town, I was simply not aware of other options). At any rate, nowadays the only thing that separates the North End and waterfront from the rest of Boston is the lovely public park space called the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway and a few crosswalks. It’s a beautiful thing.

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But I digress– we were talking about pastries. (I can’t help but get caught up in Boston lore and history!) As any good Italian neighborhood should, the North End is home to several bakeries. There is no shortage of cannoli, cookies, gelato, breads, and cakes. I said earlier that it isn’t my favorite because I don’t particularly care for the genre of Italian-American pastries in general. I find that they often taste artificial, overly sweet, or they are simply flavored heavily with almond or anise, neither of which I like. (I do love gelato, but since my daily ice cream allotment is reserved for the aforementioned Oreo ice cream at JP Licks, I haven’t explored the North End gelato scene much.) But if you DO like Italian-American pastries, the North End is a must! Some of most well-known bakeries include Modern Pastry, Lulu’s Sweet Shop, and Mike’s Pastry. Now, here is where I’ll make an exception– I do crave a cannolo now and then, and that’s when I head to Mike’s. As evidenced by the constant line of hungry dessert-goers snaking down the block, cannoli are their specialty; the ubiquitous filling options include traditional ricotta, chocolate cream, Oreo (!), pistachio, espresso, limoncello, and many others tailored to American tastes. There is also an expansive pastry case overflowing with colorful cookies, cupcakes, pies, biscotti, torrone, marzipan, and more (and don’t forget to pick up a box of house-made pizzele too). There’s a certain pride and confidence gained by carrying the signature Mike’s box tied with twine, which may stem from being the only one to know the secret contents within, or the envy of passersby, or the imminent joy of sharing your treasures with people you must really like…

Whether or not you partake of the North End’s Italian pastries, at the very least, take a stroll down Hanover Street and the surrounding ‘hood for a very authentic glimpse into Boston’s history– there’s nowhere else like it. *sigh*

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Really, I could feed myself more than sufficiently for an indefinite number of days in Boston between these few outstanding places. While the density of amazing food establishments here is not quite on par with New York or San Francisco, I am happy to have my favorites, which just never get old. For savory fare on the casual side, I always visit Wagamama, Otto Pizza, Legal Sea Foods, Upper Crust, and Bertucci’s— some old spots, and some new ones that I’ve discovered along the path of pastries. 🙂

Boston Pastries - 73Clockwise from top-left: New England Clam Chowder at Legal Sea Foods; crab cakes at Legal Sea Foods; 3-Cheese Tortellini Pizza at Otto Pizza; Yasai Yaki Soba with tofu at Wagamama.

Writing this interminable (but hopefully entertaining and educational) blog post has made me yearn ever so much to walk my beloved Boston’s streets, meander through the Public Garden, and just take in the city with all my senses. It truly is a special place, with unparalleled character, history, and energy; if you haven’t been… well, you’re simply missing out. (Let’s just be honest, in true Bostonian fashion.) Go. Eat. Wander… Eat more. 🙂

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.

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