Bright Lights, Big Sugar: Pastry Crawlin’ in New York & Brooklyn (Part 2)

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So. I ate a load of pastries in New York last summer, and I’m just now finishing my write-ups– before I finally head back next month! Always late, this one… In Part 1 yesterday, I wrote about my kouign amann, pastrami pocket, and favorite brownies from Dominique AnselMomofuku Milk Bar, and BAKED, respectively. Oh, and the magical liège wafels from Wafels & Dinges— god, I love wafels. Also, lots of kvelling about how much I love New York. This second part will cover some other prominent NYC bakeries, but also some smaller, lesser-known ones.

Recommended by a couple of friends, a new place for me on this trip was Empire Cake in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. Empire specializes in stunning decorated cakes (I couldn’t peel my eyes from the displays!) and mini items such as cupcakes and reinvented American “snack cakes”. They have put an updated and natural spin on treats such as Twix, Ho-Hos, and Snoballs, and I much prefer these homebaked versions, thank you very much!

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First off, let me say that I was thankful to have a friend to share these very rich treats with! The Salted Caramel Cupcake is a dark chocolate cupcake filled with gooey salted caramel and topped with oh-so-decadent ganache. More about cupcakes in a moment, but this was definitely one of the better ones I’ve had. The Red Velvet Snack Cake and Brooklyn Blackout Snack Cake were also both great– and I’m very picky about my red velvet. However, my favorite item from Empire was the homemade “Twix” bar, which is just what you’d think– a cookie layer topped with caramel, then enrobed in chocolate. Twix is my favorite commercial candy, and this was soooo much better in every way. Empire is also really well known for their wide selection of cookies, which sadly, I didn’t try. Gotta make tough life choices sometimes…

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Speaking of cupcakes, I’ve realized on recent pastry expeditions that it seems I’ve transcended cupcakes, with which I used to be rather enamored. I’ve sampled many cupcakes in New York over the years, and with a few exceptions, I’m just over it. I’ve never understood the fascination with Magnolia Bakery— I tried them on two separate trips and found them to be dry and boring both times. Same with Buttercup Bake Shop and Sugar Sweet Sunshine. Blah. (Let’s not even talk about Crumbs.) However, one of the aforementioned exceptions is Georgetown Cupcakes. I was lucky enough to be in Boston in Summer 2012 on the very weekend of their grand opening in that city, and I was impressed with just about every flavor that I tried. I have visited the NYC location a couple of times, and they have been very consistent. In my humble opinion, Georgetown makes one of the best vanilla cupcakes I’ve ever had– it’s not plain or dry or “white cake”; it actually tastes like… vanilla. This may seem like a trivial thing, but SO MANY places get it wrong. I also love their chocolate, red velvet, key lime, and coconut. Besides vanilla, my favorite is the salted caramel– it is a perfectly balanced sweet n’ salty gem that I still think about. All are moist and flavorful, and I love their signature frosting swirl. I was so impressed with Georgetown that I immediately bought their first cupcake cookbook (and was gifted the second one– woo hoo!), which is great… if you overlook the creepy stories about their “mommy”. Anyway, if you’re not sure how to sift through the saturation of cupcakes in the city, Georgetown is a great bet. (I can also recommend Sweet Revenge in the West Village for its cupcake/wine pairings, though I didn’t stop there on this visit.)

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On the more classical side of pastry, I visited some French pâtisseries (in addition to Dominique Ansel) on this trip as a contrast to the many American-style bakeries. I tried the vanilla and caramel French macarons at both François Payard and Mille-Feuille, which were all tasty, pretty, and had good macaron texture. The butter croissant at FP was very light and airy, which was nice, but I prefer a little more butteriness. The Chocolate Caramel Pecan Tart at M-F was utterly decadent– hard to eat towards the end of this gluttonous trip! My favorite thing there was the Cheese Brioche; it was a light, wispy brioche pastry with a crunchy, crusty, cheese topping and the perfect amount of salt. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a savory brioche, and it was more memorable than the macarons. I liked both bakeries, but wasn’t blown away by either; it may be worth another visit, especially to Payard– I may not have chosen the best items to sample…

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From there, I walked to Chelsea Market in the Meatpacking District, one of my favorite places to wander and take in the sights and smells. This food hall is a recent New York institution, residing in a building with a fantastic history. Originally housing the National Biscuit Company (present-day Nabisco) from the 1890s until the 1950s, the building and surrounding factory district fell into a state of disrepair in the mid-20th Century when manufacturing moved to outer-lying areas. The NBC had built its baking empire in this neighborhood, with several multi-floor bakery buildings to produce the treats that would endure to present times; that’s right– Oreos, Nilla Wafers, and Mallomars were born here! The building was eventually sold and redeveloped, experiencing a wonderful culinary renaissance, along with much of the Meatpacking District. It was revived as Chelsea Market, home to 35+ food vendors and shops, but it retains much charm from its past, including exposed brick and pipes and old signs. One can easily spend the better part of a day exploring the building’s nooks and crannies, not to mention gorging on grilled cheese at Lucy’s Whey, stracciatella at L’Arte del Gelato, or any number of other items that strike your fancy.

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A newer spot in the market which I visited for the first time on last summer’s trip is the Doughnuttery. This little outpost produces tiny doughnuts that are “uniquely sugared”– that is, the freshly-fried doughnuts are immediately tossed in your choice of over a dozen flavored sugars. (Super fun to watch the doughnuts float along the river of oil in the open frying channel!) I am not generally a huge doughnut person, but I could not resist trying these! My friend and I sampled a minimum-order half-dozen baby doughnuts covered in “Speckled Strawberry” (strawberry, lemon thyme, sprinkles) and “Cacaoboy” (cacao nibs, chocolate cookies, mesquite). I can safely say that I’ve never had doughnuts like these, and they were terrific! They also sell the sugar mixes, so I didn’t really have a choice but to pick up some Speckled Strawberry and PBCP (peanut butter, cayenne, pretzel) to take home. I’m sure you can understand… 😉

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Over in Midtown, I couldn’t pass up Bouchon Bakery at Rockefeller Center, even though its original bakery is located not far from home, in Napa Valley. I rarely get up there, so it had to happen in NYC! Ohhhhhhh, so many treats… It’s a good thing that some of my coveted items were prepackaged, so I could take them home to share, but I still got my fill. The fresh treats: one jumbo Birthday French Macaron, whose white cream filling tasted just liked birthday cake frosting; an “Oh-Oh” (Bouchon’s version of the Ho-Ho), consisting of cream rolled up in chocolate cake and dipped in chocolate, was way more decadent than the original Hostess snack cake; and finally, the “Better Nutter”: swirled peanut butter filling sandwiched between two large, chewy PB cookies. I loved them all, but the Better Nutter was unexpectedly my favorite of this group. It fills up your whole hand, and its unadulterated peanut butter flavor and chewy/creamy texture contrast are heavenly. Also amazing are the TKOs, Bouchon’s homemade Oreos, which were sold out on this occasion.

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The rest of my items came home to California… but they didn’t last long. The deliciously crisp and sweet/salty toffee was among the best toffee I’ve ever had, and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups put Reese’s to shame with its dark chocolate and rich, salty peanut butter. As good as all these Bouchon items were, my very favorite was the “Fuhgeddaboudit”. So unassuming in its gold foil wrapper, it will capture your heart with its gooey mess of rice crispies and caramel enrobed in milk chocolate. Dear god.

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By this point on my journey, I was pretty saturated with sugar, but… I had two more stops to make. Whenever I go to New York, my last destination is the Upper West Side. I always visit Levain Bakery on my way out of town to pick up their unparalleled cookies to take home. Sometimes I share them… sometimes not so much. (I reserve the right to horde Levain cookies when I damn well please.) Now, when I say “cookies”, you more than likely have a certain idea of what a cookie looks like based on your presumably numerous interactions with various cookies throughout your lifetime. Let’s say, on average, 3-4 inches in diameter and about ½-inch thick, right? Well, prepare to have your conception of a cookie obliterated. Levain cookies are about the shape and size of a scone. Yes, that’s right– I said SCONE. Never have I encountered such a specimen in my life, and cookies will never be the same. The hallmark of Levain cookies is their crisp exterior and their soft, thick, gooey, melty, buttery interior– ever-so-perfectly underbaked… These mere words are actually kind of pathetic representations of the cookies’ magnificence– in truth, you must taste one to comprehend it. Living in California, I find myself from time-to-time thinking, “How dare Levain make those insane cookies so far away from me. HOW DARE THEY.” It just isn’t right to be 3,000 miles away. (By the way, Levain does ship their cookies, but they are prohibitively expensive…)

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Oh, I guess I should mention what I ate there, huh? Levain is most famous for their Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies; there has never been, nor will there ever be a better chocolate chip cookie in existence. They have perfected it– THE END. I am not a fan of nuts in my cookies, but it just doesn’t matter with these. Their gooey, doughy chocolaty-ness burns an imprint on your brain that ruins all other cookies forever– no other paltry chocolate chip cookie imitation will ever satisfy your craving ever again. (*sobs into pillow*)

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I also bought a Chocolate Peanut Butter cookie, which is the Holy Grail of chocolate chip/peanut butter anything. This is generally not my favorite flavor combination, but if I’m going to eat it, this is precisely what I would want. Levain also makes a Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookie, which I inexplicably didn’t purchase. (The only reason I can think of is that in my irrational state of perpetual sugar coma by the end of my trip, I just wasn’t thinking about the long-term consequences of my decisions.) I had also wanted to try the Chocolate Chip Brioche, but they were out when I was there. I hope to catch them next month, if the pastry gods are favorable.

Last, but definitely not least, is Aroma Espresso Bar, an Israeli café with a handful of NYC locations– my happy place for treats from my homeland. Aroma is sort of like Israel’s version of Starbucks, but so much better. They serve hot breakfast, fresh sandwiches and salads, good coffee, and a variety of yummy pastries. On my way out of New York, I always pick up a cheese bureka and a couple of chocolate rugelach… ALWAYS. You can read more about burekas in my post about the incredible foods of Israel; suffice it to say, this feta-stuffed puff pastry triangle is one of my favorite things on the planet Earth. The rugelach are perfect little rolls of soft pastry and cocoa– they are Israeli-style rugelach, which resemble tiny croissants more than the typical New York-style rugelach cookies. Together, my bureka and rugelach accompany me on the plane back home… but they never make it back to California.

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Honorable mentions:

Bien Cuit in Brooklyn makes a lovely, crisp Chocolate Chip Shortbread and an array of beautiful bread loaves, though I didn’t sample the latter.

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Betty Bakery in Brooklyn makes a load of stunning decorated cakes and whimsical cookies and snack cakes. Unfortunately, I was there right at the end of my trip, so I was completely stuffed, and I couldn’t take home the best of their treats, because they were too perishable. I shall hopefully return next month for one of their “Ring-a-Dings”, but I did enjoy the tiny palmier and pistachio-ginger cookie that I had.

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Il Laboratorio del Gelato‘s black sesame was among the most unique frozen desserts I’ve had. It had a great dense texture and strong sesame flavor– very good, but small doses for me.

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City Bakery is known for their pretzel croissant, which was pretty good, but not nearly as pretzel-y as the one made by Bill Corbett at Arlequin SF in San Francisco.

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There you have it– that’s a lot of New York pastry… and this barely scratches the surface. I know that in the grand scheme of things, having such an abundance of bakeries to choose from is a good problem to have; and yet, whenever I visit, I find myself agonizing to pick and choose my poisons. I have a lengthy list of new places to try in October, including some Eastern European and Mexican bakeries, which I’m especially excited about– we’ll see how many I can get to! I didn’t write about Eataly here because I didn’t sample the pastries, but I will most certainly be doing so next month. The new destinations on my list include: Breads BakeryRobicelli’sLa NewyorkinaZucker BakeryAmple Hills CreameryCanelé by CélineÉpicerie BouludLafayette BakeryMorgenstern’s Finest Ice CreamOvenlyChikaLicious Dessert Club, and the Wafels & Dinges brick-and-mortar café…. I’m already full. 🙂

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.

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4 Responses

  1. Dafna, I have been researching places in New York (for next month’s trip) and I remembered you had gone. Perfect timing and great ideas!! As always, I love your posts and to see what you loved and didn’t in New York. 🙂

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