Thursday, February 21, 2013

Birthday Sweets (Bakery Crawl NYC)

our guide for Bakery  Crawl NYC
To celebrate my birthday, Greg and I went on a sweet adventure: a bakery crawl.  We visited five of the top bakeries in NYC, sampling sweets from each.

Stop #1 was Bien Cuit, an artisanal bakery which features authentic French staples like baguettes and croissants alongside dainty tarts.  The name translates to "well done," a term that the French often use to describe the darkest of their crunchy loaves.  It's an apt name for this bakery, where the breads and pastries -- baked to the point of well-done-ness -- have a deep brown sheen to them.  

The tantalizing aroma of fresh-baked treats greeted us as soon as we stepped in, which is no wonder since all of the baking occurs on-site.  Greg and I shared a double-baked almond croissant, which was nothing short of perfection.  The deep brown edges of the croissant lent an almost-burnt quality to its taste, which was perfectly balanced by the generous sprinkle of powdered sugar that coated the entire surface.   The layers inside were rich and buttery and filled with almond slivers and a velvety almond creme.  The shell of the croissant cracked into shards when I bit into it, and I took care to scoop up each piece that fell onto my plate.

Our next step was Crespella, an Italian creperie (the name translates to "stuffed pancake" in Italian).  The creperie is a teeny-tiny establishment with a surprisingly large menu (the menu takes up an entire back wall) boasting upwards of a few dozen varieties of crepes, both sweet and savory.  We were really tempted to get a sweet crepe (we could have chosen from amongst nutella, marmalade, cannoli, and peanut butter, to name a few!) but instead decided on two savory ones: for me, the zucchini, onions, pepper, and balsamico crepe; and for Greg, the scrambled egg, provolone, and pancetta crepe.  The savory crepes at Crespella are made with gluten-free chickpea flour, something we were both intrigued by; we also were beginning to crave some protein to stave off our hunger pangs.  

My dish was artfully served: the vegetables were neatly folded into the crepe, and topping it were a few chopped pieces and a drizzle of balsamico.  I admired the crepe long enough to snap a photo and then devoured it.  The crepe itself was thicker than I expected but cooked perfectly, and the hearty meal was just what we needed to get to our next destination: Levain Bakery.

Levain Bakery is perhaps most famous for its cookies.  This wee bit of a bakery churns out chunky, hocky-puck-size chocolate walnut, oatmeal raisin, and dark chocolate, chocolate cookies.  But what drew us there was the sourdough roll.  On the outside, the roll appears modest: it is lightly freckled with a crisp crust.  But looks can be deceiving: bite into the roll and you'll discover, tucked into its nooks, melted Valrhona dark chocolate.  Or so we learned on Unique Sweets.  By the time Greg and I arrived at Levain, around noon, the rolls were all sold out.  We were terribly disappointed.  

To appease ourselves, we dug into their sour cream coffee cake.  Unlike a typical sour cream cake with a streusel topping, Levain's version has a pocket of cinnamon-brown sugar swirl, in the shape of a smile, adorning the bottom edge of the cake.  This cake was generously sliced and moist and delicious.  It was bitterly cold out, so Greg and I snagged two seats along the short counter to enjoy the cake.  There was a constant buzz of activity in the bakery, with customers traipsing in, eager smiles on their faces; staff on hand taking orders; and bakers concentrated on their trade, removing trays out of the oven.

There was a constant line out the door, so to make room for others, we soon left to make our way to our fourth stop of the day: Petrossian.  The Petrossian Boutique & Cafe is housed on the ground floor of an ornate terra-cotta clad building in the French Renaissance style.  Inside, the boutique is cheery, with an assortment of jams, breads, pastries, and mini cookies lining the bakery counter.  On the wall directly opposite are Petrossian's signature caviar, smoked fish, and other fine foods (Petrossian also runs a restaurant).  Up the steps towards the back of the store is a small but comfortable seating area where breakfast, light lunches, and tea are served.  

Greg and I decided we would have tea and a tart and nestled into a table for two.  We ordered the blueberry tart.  Sweet blueberries and a few giant blackberries were packed inside a golden tart shell.  Sandwiched in-between was a thin layer of marzipan filling, gooey and slightly nutty.  Candied orange shavings added a bright, citrus accent.  Each bite was a new revelation.  The depth of flavors was pretty astounding.  But it was the shell -- buttery, flaky, and tender -- that stole the show.

Warmed from the tea, we headed to Francois Payard.  This, we decided, would be our last stop of the day.  It was nearing late afternoon, and we still had to get ready (and leave room in our bellies!) for our celebratory dinner.  Greg had made dinner reservations for us at a restaurant in SoHo.  The legendary pastry chef's bakery has a charming interior, with a chalkboard menu adorning one wall, and on the other wall, tall shelves displaying packaged macarons, jams, and cookies, and even an antique stand mixer.  

We shared Le Gateau Roule, or the sponge cake roll.  Alternating layers of chocolate cake, raspberry preserve, and smooth chocolate cream were rolled to form a decadently moist roule.  The outermost layer was a dark chocolate ganache, imparting a silky sheen and intensely rich flavor to the roll.  Crunchy chocolate meringue rolls dotted the top of the roll.  It was exquisite.  We were sad to leave.

We ate a delicious dinner and decided to skip dessert, only to head home and eat the roasted pear, caramel, and hazelnut tart that we had taken to-go earlier in the day from Bien Cuit.  As soon as I blew out the birthday candle, we reached for a fork.  I can't think of a dreamier combination of textures and flavors than this tart.  An intensely sweet, smooth caramel filling sat in a pate sucree crust that was baked to perfection, tender yet crisp.  Slivers of roasted pear, nestled in the tart, retained their succulence, and the toasted hazelnuts added some crunch.  It was sublime.  Greg and I were fighting to lick the caramel off the fork.  And that is how we ended this sweet day.  Really, there is no better way to celebrate a birthday than with a sweet dessert and even sweeter company.

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