There is a wealth of new world bakeries that have popped up all around the city and I decided to visit a few to check them out. Some of these bakeries seem to be a spin-offs and knock-offs from the original Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village. I'm not a big fan of the Magnolia Bakery and cannot understand why people wait in line outside and up the street for a darn cupcake with frosting. I guess no one bakes at home anymore. I've had cake and cupcakes from the Magnolia a few times but haven't been impressed. Most of the cakes seems doughy without a lot of "crumb" texture. I am not a scientist but how the "Sugar Association" says a "tender crumb" is formed...
"During the mixing process, sugar acts as a tenderizing agent by absorbing water and slowing gluten development. During mixing of batters and doughs, flour proteins are hydrated forming gluten strands. The gluten forms thousands of small, balloon-like pockets that trap the gases produced during leavening. These gluten strands are highly elastic and allow the batter to stretch under expansion of gases. However, if too much gluten develops, the dough or batter becomes rigid and tough. Sugar competes with these gluten-forming proteins for water in the batter and prevents full hydration of the proteins during mixing. As a consequence, less gluten is allowed to "develop," preventing the elastic dough or batter from becoming rigid. With the correct proportion of sugar in the recipe, the gluten maintains optimum elasticity which allows for gases to be held within the dough matrix. These gases, from leavening agents and mixing, expand and allow the batter or dough to rise. By preventing the gluten development, sugar helps give the final baked product tender crumb texture and good volume."
How about that!
Curious about all these "trendy" bakeries, I decided to set out and sample some of their "home baked goods". For the trendy I tried Billy's and Sugar Sweet Sunshine, I believe both of these were started by former associated of the Magnolia Bakery. Talk about a feud!
For a minute, just think about quitting your day job and starting a bakery. How sweet! Frosting delicious layer cakes and topping gently baked cupcakes with little cherries and sprinkles. Now think about getting up at 3 a.m. in the morning and baking 1000 cupcakes in various flavors. Scoop out some frosting from a huge plastic bucket with a sticky knife and slather it on 1000 cupcakes a day in a small, hot kitchen.
After my two trendy choices I visited the classic Lafayette French Pastry in Greenwich Village and for a unique bakery I walked all the way to The Doughnut Plant in the Bowery. I also stopped into the chain, Beard Papa, for a signature cream puff. With all that walking I can eat whatever I want!
Here are the bakeries and what I really thought. Some people may not agree with me but they never had a cake baked by my Grandmother...
Billy's Bakery (trendy)
9th Avenue @ 21st Street
The interior of Billy's has the same feeling as The Magnolia Bakery. Couldn't they have thought of something original? The shop is as rustic as the neighborhood and decorated with classic 50's formica furniture and terrible seating squished into corners or wherever they could fit a mismatched table. Regardless, the place has a tacky homey feel and character.
I am not a chocolate fan so my choice at Billy's is a white cupcake with with white icing. White on white, I couldn't get plainer. I step to the counter and ask for a white cupcake and the "baker" hands me one with pale seafoam green icing. Uh, I said white! I ask him nicely for one with "white" icing. He then tell me it's "the same, just tinted" as if I was a moron who never looked at a cookbook. I tell him I am aware that it's the same, i just don't like "tinted" foods.
I sit at a formica table at the window and taste the cake. It has a simple flavor, but not much depth. OK, I know, it's a "white" cupcake, how much flavor can it have? The cake seems a bit dry with poor crumble. I am not sure if it is fresh or maybe its overcooked. The icing is very thick and "sugar sweet". It made my teeth ache. The icing overpowers the cupcake. The sprinkles are pretty.
Cupcake Price - $1.75
Grandmother's Test - Failed. My grandmother would have blamed the butter. "They don't make it like they use to".
Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery (trendy)
126 Rivington St (between Essex & Norfolk)
I decided to try Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery after reading about it on Chocolate and Zucchini. Clotilde (she's from France, she should know a good pastry!) didn't say too much about her cupcake when she wrote her review, but instead focused on an encounter with another blogger at the Sugar Sweet. Was this a distraction to her real thoughts?
Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery is located in a gritty lower east side neighborhood. Gritty, yet trendy, just like the bakery itself. Once again it looks like a Magnolia knock-off decorated with odd living room furniture and tables. This place has a bit more seating and is a hair nicer than it's cousins.
My selection here was the same as Clotilde's, a Red Velvet Cupcake. Up until today, I never tried red velvet cake. Basically, I think it's chocolate with red food dye added. Somehow I thought it should have had a raspberry taste. The cake had a good texture with a bit of crumble but a still a little chewy. The frosting is a very, very light whipped butter-cream icing. Maybe too light. You can taste the butter. The cupcake is topped with a few heart shaped sprinkles but was not as pretty as Billy's. Tasty, but I'm not addicted
I and a hog and also tried a bar cookie which had a shortbread base with melted chocolate chips, raspberry jam and a nut crumble topping. This tasted like "goo" and was too wet and mushy to pick up and eat naturally. It didn't taste bad it was just goo. I didn't finish the whole bar and took it home and refrigerated it. It was much better when firm, like candy. It was sweet and edible, but not original.
Cupcake and Bar Cookie Price (with some milk) - $5.00
Grandmother's Test - Passed but I think they mixed the cupcake dough to
long and made it tough. Whereas the bar cookie was sweet and edible, it
didn't set well or sat around too long and got wet from the butter and
jam in the batter.
Beard Papa (chain)
2167 B'way (Upper West Side)
740 B'way @ Astor Place (East Village)
18 East 41st Street @ Cafe Zaiya (Midtown)
Beard Papa is a franchise chain "cream puff" shop and has a few location in NYC. I visited the one on Broadway in the East Village. There are also a few location in New Jersey and locations coming soon to Boston and the Los Angeles area. Their mascot is a bearded old gentleman with a pipe. Doesn't he know about New York's smoking laws? To me, he looks more like the Gorton's fisherman.
When Beard Papa's first opened on the upper west side, you couldn't get near the place with it's lines out the door and up the block. Now, the trend has slowed and having a Japanese cream puff is not an issue.
Did you say Japanese?
Beard Papa is a franchise shop from Japan. They bake their choux pastry shells throughout the day and fill them with whipped cream custard as you order them. Each puff is then topped with a gentle sprinkle of powdered sugar and gobbled up by eager customers. In addition to their vanilla cream filling, each day there is a special flavor such as chocolate, strawberry, royal milk, green tea and coffee. I don't have a clue what "royal milk" is but I bet Queen Elizabeth has it in her tea.
The puffs are on the crisp side with not enough soft interior dough. The filling is light, soft and custardy but lacks depth of vanilla flavor. I didn't feel satisfied after I ate it. Actually, if you're having a party a box of these would be a lot of fun.
Cream Puff Prices - $1.45 each, $1.65 for specialty flavor of the day.
Grandmother's Test - Passed. For a Japanese Cream Puff they pass. For a French puff, Failed. The puff is too crispy and the filling isn't custardy enough. It's a version of a cream puff but if you want the real thing, go to Paris. Now the French can make a cream puff that will make you cry!
Doughnut Plant (unique)
379 Grand Street
Where am I? This is a part of the city I have never been in. I am sort of in the mid-section between the lower east side and Chinatown. It's early evening and I've walked all the way from Soho for a stupid doughnut.
The doughnut plant was started in 1994 on the lower east side with a recipe that goes back to the early 1900's. There is a complete story on their web-sight which is about as ugly as their shop. According to their web-sight the shop is open "Tuesday through Sunday, between 7 a.m. - till we sell out". I would assume you have to get their early in the day to get the unique and popular flavors. The doughnuts at Doughnut Plant are your classic yeast risen doughnuts with one exception.... they have the classic doughnut "hole" but they are square. Many varieties also have filling which surrounds the hole. The fillings range from classic original glazed to a very popular Valrhona-Chocolate plus unique flavors like banana with pecan, rosewater, pumpkin and more. Today their is a sign out front which advertises "lavender flower" but I am too late and they are sold out.
For my selection I get a coconut cream filled variety. The doughnut is a nice size and had a beautiful brown coat and sugary glaze. It's nice to the eyes. On the first bite I realize that this is a "chewy" doughnut, not the buttery soft Krispy Kreme type. As mentioned above the doughnut is square (who said a doughnut had to be round?) with filling pumped in around the hole. The coconut cream filling is sweet and soft but not too runny. There is globs pumped in at each side but I wished there was a bit more. I really like it, but it's still a doughnut. Next time, I have to come back earlier to try a unique flavor.
Doughnut Price - $2.50
Grandmother's Test - Passed. Thats a good old fashioned doughnut, just like my mama use to make. Love the fillings.
Lafayette French Pastry (classic)
26 Greenwich Avenue
Greenwich Village, NYC
I think this Village bakery has been around for a very long time. There is nothing fancy or trendy about this place but it does offer some good looking treats and french specialties. I stopped here for the first time a few nights ago after being disappointed with a meal at a local restaurant. I needed something good and sweet to wash down a drab uninspiring meal.
I made my selection from the window which was a Lemon Meringue Tart. For $2.75 it was bagged up and I took it home for a snack later that evening. The pie was very good with a crumbly crust, tangy lemon and a chewy mound of meringue. This is your typical treat from the corner bakery. My only criticism of the tart was that the meringue was a bit sticky and chewy, not fluffy.
It has also been written that Lafayette Pastry sells some of the best rainbow cookies in NYC. These are colorful dense layered cakes made with marzipan and spread with apricot or raspberry jam in between each layer then coated on the top with chocolate.
Lemon Meringue Tart Price - $2.75
Grandmother's Test - Passed. It's a good tart, how could you screw up Lemon Meringue Tart? I can make it better at home.
[in my opinion...]
None of these bakeries were excellent. The only 2 places I would go back to are the Doughnut Plant, because I would like to try more flavors, and Lafayette French Pastry, because it's in a convenient location in The Village.
In a few days, or sooner, I'll follow up with a recipe of mine that will put all of the above to shame. If you're lucky I might even make some cupcakes!
So where can I find a bakery?