I’m experiencing severe New York City withdrawal. It’s been 15 months since I’ve been there, and I don’t know what to do with myself. Thankfully, the light at the end of the tunnel is near– I’m counting down the days until my visit in October! I’ll be there to celebrate the release of Matt Lewis’ and Renato Poliafito’s fourth cookbook, Baked Occasions *and* the opening of their second BAKED location, this one in Manhattan. I wrote my blog post about my visit to BAKED‘s original bakery location in Brooklyn back in February (plus the recipe for their world-dominating brownies), but with my trip looming, I’ve had NYC bakeries on the brain a lot lately– this brought all the pastry memories flooding back from last year’s trip. As usual, I’m behind on my travel posts, and I think it’s about time I finish writing about the mind-blowing places I visited before I have a whole new crop to write about next month! Because naturally, as soon as I got home (as is often the case), I heard about new and under-the-radar bakeries that immediately went on the list for “next time”. Although I have to accept the fact that I cannot hop on the subway to Spring Street for a DKA or the B61 bus to Van Brunt Street for a slice of Aunt Sassy Cake any time I want (pictured above), at least I can preserve those delicious memories on the internets…
I am a little embarrassed, though only slightly, at how much amazing food I managed to cram into such a short trip. I spent 5 days in NYC and Brooklyn while on a trip for work, as well as a couple of days in Boston. I could write for DAYS about all the meals I had– dear god. However, I will spare you the play-by-play and highlight my most favorite places and treats.
Now, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so don’t feel too sorry for me– this is arguably the most exciting culinary city in the country right now. I wholly appreciate the wealth of amazing ingredients and culinary innovation within driving distance at all times. Still, my strongest food attachments are, in fact, in New York. Every time I go, I make sure to visit my nostalgic favorites, but I discover a number of new places on each trip, either by recommendation or sheer luck; my personal list of NYC eateries runs deep. Although many chefs are flocking to SF these days, the epicenter of this modern food revolution resided in New York for years, decades. I first set about exploring my own love for food and pastry by wandering the streets of the West Village, SoHo, and the Upper West Side. At the risk of sounding ungrateful for the culinary bounty in my own backyard, there is no other place, in my opinion, that parallels NYC’s creativity, variety, and history. The legends and myths of New York’s eateries are unlike anywhere else; part of the food experience for me is knowing where chefs came from and how their ideas originated. This contributes to my enjoyment and appreciation of an impossibly flaky croissant or a perfectly moist chocolate cake. Their food is made with love and labor that you can truly taste and sense. San Francisco chefs have certainly toiled for their art– don’t get me wrong. Maybe the difference that I perceive (rightly or wrongly) is that SF seems like a friendlier (more easy going? more welcoming?) city in which to pursue one’s passion for food… or anything, for that matter. New York is the city of bright lights and breathtaking wonder; it will also chew you up and spit you out– it’s grueling just to survive. Much like the ambition of Broadway for dreamy-eyed thespians, it is extraordinarily difficult for aspiring chefs to be noticed and to gain success in a field bursting with tremendous established talent.
The point I’m trying to make is that for me, there is no food city more special than New York. Although you can’t walk a block in SF nowadays without stumbling across a great artisan bakery, cheese shop, wine bar, or bistro, my sentimental favorites continue to reside in NYC and Brooklyn. (If you were sitting next to me right now, you could probably see the little hearts floating around.)
Now that I’ve espoused the unrivaled virtues of New York, how about some pastry recommendations? First off, check out my spotlight post about BAKED in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. I just can’t say enough about this outstanding place. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but please go there and support this business– I am proud to spend my dollars at establishments like this. (And hey, they are coming to Tribeca this Fall!)
Another business for which I have tremendous respect is Dominique Ansel Bakery, a newer bakery in SoHo that has exploded in popularity due to the infamous cronut, the very first croissant/donut hybrid that inspired all the current knockoffs. He specializes in classic French pastry, but twists things up a bit on some of his treats. I was going to write a separate piece about Chef Dominique as well, but since my visit, he has turned out a series of genius-inspired pastries that I haven’t had the chance to sample, so I’ll wait until I get back. I plan to try every single one that’s available next month and report back: Magic Soufflé, Frozen S’mores, Chocolate Chip Cookie Shots, and his latest artistry, the Lobster Tail Pretzel. His creativity is pretty spectacular, constantly skirting the line between art and science (not in a creepy GMO way– he’s pushing the envelope of the pastry world).
Chef Dominique’s pastry case, including his “Paris-NY” second from the right, which is a peanut butter-laced riff on the traditional “Paris-Brest” pastry.
What I did try last summer are his phenomenal kouign amann, (dubbed the DKA), butter croissant, and canelé. If you are not familiar with kouign amann, there is a huge void in your life, and you don’t even know it. I wrote about the best one in San Francisco last year, and I have to say Chef Dominique’s is the best I’ve ever had. It was also the first one I had ever tried, and its magical, pillowy, caramelized pastry sparked a quest to find the best kouign amanns everywhere I go, as well as a desire to learn how to make laminated dough (it shall happen this year). I believe it’s his best pastry, though it tends to linger in the shadows of his more flamboyant creations. The croissant was buttery, airy, and generally excellent, and that canelé… oh, my. It was also my first time trying a canelé (no, I cannot logically explain this), and I was utterly delighted by its unexpected custardy interior encased in a caramelized shell– French pastry at its finest. I’m not quite sure what I thought a canelé was, but I now know enough about them to be pretty damn impressed with this version. Prior to my visit to Dominique Ansel, I didn’t have that much interest in delving into French pastry myself, but he inspired my desire to get my hands dirty!
Clockwise from top-left: Canelés de Bordeaux, butter croissant, DKA (kouign amann) from Dominique Ansel Bakery.
And the cronuts? Oh yes, I had to have one. It had just been released the month prior to my visit, so the craze had just begun, with its ridiculous break-of-dawn lines around the block and constant media coverage. I wasn’t stoked about waiting in line for two hours, but I couldn’t not see what the hype was about– you know, in the name of research. 😉 And so, I got up much too early on a Saturday and rode the subway to Spring Street (with a couple of construction detours, just because New York likes to do that on weekends). The line was already 100+ deep, but I did get my cronut! These are made of croissant dough and fried like a donut, which if you know about pastry dough, is a rather mighty feat. Normally, a butter-laced croissant dough would pretty much disintegrate in hot oil. There is now a myriad of copycat recipes out there that figured out how to achieve this, but he was the first, and his cronut is trademarked. So how was it? I had the second-ever cronut flavor, Lemon Maple. The pastry layers were buttery and sweet and fluffy and magnificent, and the pastry cream oozing out from between them was thick and beautifully messy. It was a very unique pastry, and I’m quite glad that I had the chance to try it. Would I wait in line again? Probably not… but I’ll let you know next month.
One more thing– Chef Dominique is there every day (or at least he was at the time), baking and serving customers. It was an honor to meet him, and I found him to be a kind, friendly, and humble person– he honestly seemed like a shy French guy who was shocked by all the attention. He even took a minute to take a photo with me. I admit, I was a little starstruck!
I would have also written a separate piece about another of my faves, Momofuku Milk Bar, except that so much has already been written about Christina Tosi and her eclectic, science-defying creations, plus I wrote about a number of her creations after attending last year’s San Francisco Killed By Dessert event. Much as I adore her cookbook and treats, this wasn’t actually my favorite visit to Milk Bar. I had been *literally* dreaming about the Pretzel Milkshake that I’d had there in the summer of 2012, and I was exceedingly sad that it wasn’t on the menu when I was there. A couple of things that I tried, the Chocolate Swirl and Banana Green Curry Bread, were a bit disappointing (greasy and weird, respectively), and I actually like my homemade versions of most of her cookies better than the bakery ones.
However, I just loved the Pastrami Pocket, which was also a new item for me. It consists of tender pastrami and sauerkraut wrapped in rye-infused pastry, which I immensely enjoyed for lunch one day. (Her Cubano croissant/pocket, which I sampled at KBD, is to die for.)
I also picked up one of my all-time favorite things, Birthday Cake Truffles– I could eat these by the dozen. A ball of moist confetti cake, intentionally made with artificial vanilla to emulate the nostalgic flavor of childhood birthday cake, is rolled in birthday crumbs and sold in trios. Why I only bought one package will forever remain a mystery. (And no, I absolutely did NOT share them. No regrets.) A pleasant surprise was the Pineapple Truffles, which were rolled in coconut; think of them as little bites of piña colada!
Essentially, my experiences with Milk Bar have been hit-or-miss; I applaud the creativity and rule-breaking in principle, but in practice, some of their stuff is a little too eccentric for me. However, when they get it right, they REALLY get it right– some of my all-time favorite baked goods are Milk Bar’s, and the cookbook has been absolutely fundamental in my personal baking education. In short, even though I don’t love everything they make, I would never conceive of going to New York without visiting Milk Bar at least once.
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the Wafels & Dinges truck here. As my only mobile pastry purveyor, it holds a special place in my heart because of the lengths to which I used to have to go to obtain “de Throwdown Wafel“– a Liège-style Belgian waffle, made with yeasted dough and pearl sugar, and topped with the most delicious substance known to man, spekuloos sauce (okay, Top 5), plus whipped cream. Otherwise known as THE PRECIOUS, it really did change my life in the Summer of 2010. They now have a fleet of trucks and carts all over the city, as well as a new brink-and-mortar café, but back then, I had to strategically calculate my movements so as to intercept the truck at the precise meeting point, as dispatched on Twitter. Like all the places above, a trip to New York is not complete without one of these majestic wafels.
Alright, if you’ve read my blog before, you might have noticed that brevity is, uh, not my forté. I had every intention of writing this piece as a single blog post, but I see now that this has already gotten far too long, and there are several more places I want to mention. My gushing about NYC knows no bounds, so I hope you’ll forgive me and read on. I shall continue with Part 2 tomorrow… 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.