But one thing that does seem to cross international lines successfully is baking. [...] And even though the world is mired in cultural misunderstandings, wars, and hostility, perhaps the United Nations might consider sending an International Baking Brigade around the world to promote cross-cultural baking traditionals.
David Lebovitz knows what he's talking about. Perhaps if I could get all the people who are not so happy with America to come on down and sample the sugary grain product-alicious bakery world of NYC, they'd be happier. Or fatter. Or both. Or maybe they'd get angry for getting fat and hate America for it's tendency to make everything fat, from people to pigeons. Hm.
Well. Melody had no objection to our bakery hunt on Friday night, during which we traveled at 1.75 bph. By the way, "bph" is now an official part of the limited Robyn lexicon: "bakeries per hour". I think that's the highiest bph I've ever taken part in, although I could've done more. How many hours did this unfold over?
FOUR. So how many bakeries is that? SEVEN. And how many of my brain cells did I kill with sugar in the process? MORE THAN SEVEN. Of course, I don't know the real answer because I killed too many brain cells. By the time this blog is near the end of its life, I'll be smashing the keyboard with my arms because by that time my brain will have the composition of a sugar cube to the millionth power, surrounded by cerebal fluids.
We started at the new Cafe Zaiya at 69 Cooper Square between 7th Street and St. Mark's Place, a little shop that mainly sells Japanese baked goods plus some convenience foods, such as onigiri, sandwiches, bento boxes, and curry and rice combinations. Because I'm overly obsessed with japanese food, I went there earlier in the day for lunch to, ye know, scope out the new place and make sure it would be a fit destination for me to bring Melody. (YES, IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MY MIND CONTROLLING GLUTTONY.)
That night with Melody, I got a sweet potato mushipan (steamed cake) and Melody got a yakimochi (grilled rice bean cake filled with red bean paste). I've only had steamed Chinese cake before; the Japanese kind is denser, or at least this one was, and I LOVED EVERY BITE. But you know what would make it possibly better? If I totally abused/Americanized it with toasted nuts, topped with buttercream frosting or whipped cream. The cake is perfectly delicious (as in, soft, moist, not crumbly, densely spongy) on its own but I've decided that just about everything can benefit from a smidgen (or a few smidgens) of whipped cream. This red bean bun? WHIP CREAM IT! This muffin? WHIP CREAM IT. This scone? Oh, you better whip cream it.
Melody's yakimochi, although very different from most Japanese desserts, would've also gone well with whipped cream. Surely you know what mochi is--a delighfully soft, squishy ball of pounded glutinous rice filled with dense red bean paste that when held in your hand can feel like you're holding a small, fuzzy creature, if the creature is blob-shaped and has no appendages. Now imagine black sesame-dotted mochi, grilled until it becomes thin, crispy, and golden, enclosing soft, sweet red bean innards (not that they'd be "outtards"...outtards?). It's good.
And that was the first bakery. Don't worry; not every place was as mind blowing. I'm completely biased when it comes to Japanese baked goods though.
The next stop after walking down St. Mark's Place was Black Hound on 2nd Ave near 11th Street. Even though I've been here three times before, I've only bought something once (the first time, I just took a sample; hell yeah, I'm a free loader). Cost prohibitive-ness prevented us from indulging in the window display's bee cakes (normal bees: suck! bees on cake: adorable!) but we took a look inside so I could weep at the sight of this cake:
I'm sure it's worth $7 (hell, not like I'd make it), but you know...I'm cheap. They also had insanely cute, dollhouse-esque cookies on display.
As a testament to my gluttony, I don't find tiny cookies very appealing. This is unfair, as I've eaten tiny Japanese cookies, usually in the form of a koala filled with chocolate, but flowers and sticks aren't that endearing. My mind is full of fluff: "Entertain me with cute smiling animals and miniature chocolate-coated cookie mushrooms!" These cookies would be nice to serve at a party.
I don't do parties. Moving on...
We headed back to St. Mark's Place to check out JAS Mart and the accompanying Italian Tomato, where they were selling ginormous Mont Blancs. If you recall, I had a Mont Blanc for the first time a few weeks ago, and it may have been the most delicious dessert I've ever had that included chestnut in it (and I've had glazed chestnuts, which are pretty damn good, but don't measure up to confections involving cake and cream).
As much as I would've liked to buy that Mont Blanc, I do have an infinitesimal bit of self-control. Also, I don't like Mont Blanc so much (or any cake for that matter) that I'd order it in ginormous, slice-able form. If you want your own 6-inch Mont Blanc, you can order them for the Christmas season from Italian Tomato starting on December 1st and if you order before the 19th, it's $20 instead of $22! I'M SHILLING FOR THE CAKE, YEAH. Actually, I've never had Italian Tomato's Mont Blanc (or any baked goods), so maybe I shouldn't say anything. Strangely, even though I've had access to Mitsuwa's Italian Tomato (and the neighboring St. Honore bakery), I haven't tried many of their cakes. My mum and I usually go to Whole Foods for cakes and pastries since it's much closer. (Note to Ridgewood, NJ: get a Japanese bakery!)
Japanese people seem to have a penchant for puddings and custards that go beyond your basic (and usually boring) vanilla and chocolate. Even though I don't like brandy, I'd like to try this panna cotta sometime. Rarely do I get a craving for pudding-like desserts, but after I actually eat one I realized how much I've underestimated their satieting properties when it comes to quelling dessert cravings that leave me roaming around the city, foaming at the mouth, lunging into bakeries with crazy eyes...oops, too much information. WHAT A FOOL I HAVE BEEN. And look, there's a plop of whipped cream! It must be good!
We're on three bakeries so far, yes? Damn, are there really four more? (Yes.) Out next stop was Amy's Bread on Bleeker Street in the West Village after a short stop at the Union Square Whole Foods where Melody picked up a box of tea (although the mob-like line went quickly, it probably looked odd for us to wait in line to purchase one box of tea). The temperature that night, while not baby penguin-freezing cold (surely you've seen "March of the Penguins), gave my hands had that numb, not-so-good pulsating blood flow feeling. I'll leave you to recreate the experience as you wish, perhaps by sticking your hands in a bucket of ice.
So, back to Amy's Bread. To me, Amy's Bread is a consistently good bakery, but not really good. There isn't anything that I've loved so much as to try more than once, but I've been there at least five times by now. They sell a wide array of baked goods including bread (no, really?), cake, muffins, cookies, rolls, biscuits, and various sweetened breads, so there's something for just about everyone, unless you have celiac disease, in which case you're just fucked! (Is there a better way to say that? Nope.) You should check out Risotteria instead, or Babycakes, which I have yet to try out.
I had my eye on the monkey cake since the last time I went to Amy's Bread and read the description, basking in the cake's glow (or maybe that was the light in the display, who knows): Banana cake with walnuts, covered with cream cheese frosting. Mmm...well, it sounded more appealing at the time. Overall, it was good, just not good enough that I'd remember it forever in my dreams and scribble its name in notebook, surrounded by tiny floating hearts. Neither the cake nor frosting were too sweet and neither component was objectionable; the cake was moist, although I would've liked more banana, and the cream cheese frosting was...cream cheesy. Actually, I would've liked it if the whole cake were sweeter, which means it's probably good for any normal sugar-tolerant human being. But still; no floating hearts. (On an unrelated note, one of the best desserts I ever had before my whole food obsession was the banana cream pie from Village Green in Ridgewood, NJ. I might even eat there this week, if it's open and I'm not dying from post-Thanskgiving food coma.)
One of the things Melody absolutely had to try was a cupcake. Any cupcake. From a good bakery. The cake of her black and white cupcake was noticeably dry (it literally gave off crumb-babies) although she said it had good flavor. She said the frosting was especially good, so I'll definitely try it someday. She was also a big fan of the biscotti.
"There are two Italian bakeries right across the street. I've actually never tried them before..."
"Well, let's GO!"
Ah. Melody had her mind in the right place.
We stopped into Pasticceria Bruno, where they had these adorable baby fruit tarts. What makes them adorable? You could eat them in one bite! ...or possibly choke on then. Pick one.
For whatever reason, I'm not a fan of Italian desserts or even Italian food. Yes, it's awful; god knows I have access to craploads of Italian food and desserts in NYC and I've been inside a fair share of Italian bakeries. It's not like Italian pastries aren't appetizing, but there isn't usually this one item that jumps out at me, shouting "YOU MUST EAT ME OR BE DEPRIVED OF MY DELICIOUSNESS." Either nothing is very appealing or too many things are medium appealing (someone, please give me a better adjective). While I love fruit tarts, I almost never eat them as my mum or brother usually buy them. However, when I was little (before I had any notion of calories and spending money on ingesting the calories) one of my favorite treats was getting a fruit tart shaped as a basket from Mistuwa's Parisienne bakery. Seriously, I always got that miniature custard-bucket, probably along with oobanyaki.
But we're talking about Italian pastries. Actually, there were plenty of delicious looking desserts; I just didn't want any of them to a great degree. However, Melody was blown away by the pumpkin raisin walnut biscotti she got from there, meaning I'll have to go back and try it.
Still going down Bleeker Street, we hit Polka Dot Cake Studio, a bakery with a a small display case but managed to fit in a few tables, chairs, internet kiosks, and a small freezer for ice cream/gelato from Il Laboratorio del Gelato (which didn't have anything in it that night). They had some cupcakes so Melody and I shared a red velvet cream cheese frosted cupcake.
This was almost the antithesis to the Amy's Bread cupcake, while still retaining it's...cupcake-ness. The cake was super moist to the point that I thought I could squeeze out cupcake juice, whatever the hell that is. Although it was kind of like a moist steamed cake, it still had crumbs. (I'm not sure how else to describe it.) The frosting was just sweet enough, smooth and creamy with a hint of cream cheese tartness. Thumbs up for Polka Dot!
Believe it or not, we've arrived at the final, 7th bakery. Still going down Bleeker Street, can you guess where we ended our tour?
I've been to Magnolia bakery four times before, getting something three of those times, two times which involved cookies and the other time, banana pudding. The vanilla cupcakes were good with frosting so sweet it makes your teeth hurt (which is why a lot of people hate it; eh, whatever floats your boat). Chocolate cupcakes were less impressive. I thought the banana pudding was beyond awesome until I made my own and realized i liked creamy, viscous pudding more than airy, light pudding.
Magnolia gets a lot of flack for being overrated and not worth waiting for. As much as I love bakeries, there isn't any one bakery I'd wait in line for. At certain times of the day (perhaps when it's actually "day" and the sun is out) there will be a line snaking outside of the front door full of people who want to grab some of the self-serve cupcakes, from which you can only buy 12 at a time lest you want to be sodomized by the cupcake overloads. I think that Magnolia is overrated, but nothing could really live up to so much hype, especially when the hype is over cupcakes. (In a similar vein, I think Coldplay is overrated. They're still good, but they can't live up to all that hype. Or maybe that's just my opinion. ...yeah, I just compared Coldplay to cupcakes.) Can you imagine someone going ga-ga over a plain, frosted vanilla cake?
On that note, Magnolia was giving out fresh quarter-cupcake samples and they were amazing. Uh-may-zing. Yeah, I had to phonetically spell that out for you. There's a huge difference between "cupcake that's been sitting out for a while" and "cupcake that was just birthed from the oven." If the cupcake hadn't just been birthed, it sure tasted like it had: the cake was just the right amounts of softness, airyness, sweetness, moistness, and buttery taste, which was condensed in the crispy top of the cupcake to form "the cupcake top of crazy, buttery deliciousness." On top of the quarter was a dollop of maple buttercream frosting, which was tastier than their regular tooth-ache inducing frosting (hey, I still love it). God knows why they don't make cupackes with that frosting on it. It's kind of funny how that sample was one of the memorable foods I've eaten lately.
I couldn't bear to get a cupcake since I figured they wouldn't compare to the sample I had, so I got two cookies from the homey American cookie jars. They're rather small but for $0.50 each, you can afford to sample a few. As a lover of all things pumpkin, I highly recommend the iced pumpkin cookies, which are soft, kind of like moist miniature scones. The molasses cookie was good too, but I've been spoiled by ingesting way too many of Anna's molasses cookies from two summers ago. So. Freakin'. Good. Crackled with sugar sprinkled on top, these babies are heaven straight from the oven.
...whoa, I think I'm done with this post. For a while, I thought the bakery hunting was never going to end.