BY VICTORIA ABBOTT RICCARDI | February 20, 2012 | Food & Drink
Bacon-topped banana cream micro pie at The Langham’s Chocolate Bar
Greek and Turkish confections inspire the sweets at Sofra Bakery and Cafe.
The chocolate case at L.A. Burdick in Cambridge.
Cuppa love: L.A. Burdick’s hot chocolate trio
Nuts Boxes from Tatte Fine Cookies & Cakes
Macarons from Formaggio Kitchen
Milk chocolate tahini bites from Sofra Bakery and Cafe.
It's a busy weekday afternoon in early December, and Taza Chocolate president and co-owner Alex Whitmore and I are standing inside Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge, sampling the shop’s clever riffs on the kinds of sugary morsels you’d find in places like Syria, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon. First up is a tahini shortbread cookie, which offers a rush of roasted sesame. Next is the Syrian shortbread made with clarified butter that all but evaporates on the tongue. Whitmore bites into a ma’amoul, an ethereal Arabic pastry softened with olive oil and spiraled with dates, almond paste, orange, and espresso.
“That’s my favorite; it’s like heaven,” he says. He picks up what looks like a tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter cup, called a milk chocolate tahini bite, and then closes his eyes. I do the same. The candy is satiny smooth, the tahini intense—a bewitching mix of sweet and salty. It’s like Nutella on steroids.
Whitmore and I are on a sweet sojourn to sample some of newest and tastiest baked goods, desserts, and confections in the Boston area. I have asked Whitmore to be my escort because he’s the ultimate candy man. In 2006 he founded Taza Chocolate, his small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in Somerville, with partners Larry Slotnick and Kathleen Fulton. Using organic and sustainably farmed ingredients, he crafts his Mexican-style chocolate into bars, baking squares, and discs blended with spices.
Despite the lingering recession, a new confection shop seems to open each month in the Boston area, and the registers keep ringing. Some of the more recent arrivals include Max Brenner in the Back Bay, offering a choco-licious menu featuring toy syringes filled with a “chocolate potion” for kids; 3 Little Figs in Somerville, with homey baked goods such as the succulent avocado tea cake; and Macaron Sweeterie in Lexington, offering colorful French macarons in flavors like passion fruit, coconut, and honey lavender. Then there is the tidal wave of cupcake shops: Kickass Cupcakes, Isabelle’s Curly Cakes, Sweet, and Cakeology, which opened in the financial district last September.
In our quest for the best Whitmore and I are getting buzzed on sugar—that pristine, white, and sparkling ingredient that looks like crushed diamonds but offers a different sort of high for a more modest price. Sweet treats have become a hot commodity around town, especially now that the low-carb fad has faded away and folks have realized that they can have their cake and—with some caloric juggling—their figures, too. What’s more, sweets are pretty recession proof. When your portfolio takes a dive, what better boost than a gourmet cupcake? At three bucks a pop, that’s an affordable luxury.
Macarons from Formaggio Kitchen
Chestnuts, Cake, and Cookies
After Sofra, next up are the chocolate and pastry cases at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. “They curate the best of the best,” says Whitmore, surveying the imported and local chocolates, like those from L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates in Cambridge and EHChocolatier in Somerville. “If it’s not good, they won’t carry it.” Formaggio Kitchen’s cheesemonger and chocolate and tea buyer, Julia Hallman, hands us a glazed chestnut. Glistening in its translucent sugar shell, the chestnut collapses under the tooth, yielding a nutty sweetness that almost tastes floral.
Another treat is the orange olive oil cake—a moist, coaster-size confection glazed with light fondant and flavored with orange. With a dollop of crème fraîche, it would make a great dinner party dessert. For cookies, the store’s best come from Lakota Bakery in Arlington, where, if you’re willing to make the trek, you’ll find an even more extensive collection of cookies than what lies before us at Formaggio Kitchen. The chocolate- dipped shortbread is meltingly tender, as are the sandwich cookies cradling all kinds of fillings, like mocha cream and mint cream.
Boston's Finest Chocolates
As for chocolates, I’m particularly smitten with those from EHChocolatier; owners Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney have no store, but craft their chocolates and confections in Somerville using fresh herbs, Penzeys Spices, Rishi Tea, and fruit purées from France, along with singleplantation and imported chocolates. Fresh, bursting with flavor, and supremely elegant, these chocolates rival the finest in Europe yet don’t have to travel.
For the obromine freaks like Whitmore and me, L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates in Harvard Square is a prime place to get one’s fix of this natural, caffeine- like compound in cocoa beans, which gives gourmands the equivalent of a runner’s high. Good news: A Boston L.A. Burdick just opened in January. Although everything in this store wins a medal for quality, perhaps the famous hot chocolate takes the gold. Heavy, warm, and so robust it could make a meal (even in the four-ounce demi), it consists of steamed milk blended with different chocolates from around the world. For pastries, the aptly named Harvard Square takes the cake, so to speak. Fudgy, packed with walnuts, and topped with dark ganache, it’s so rich and dense it almost requires a knife. Another favorite is the pistachio Luxembourg, a French macaron that when bitten collapses into a sticky heap, like pistachio marzipan. Then there are the chocolates, supremely fresh and cut and shaped by hand (no molds). All taste exquisite, including the signature ribbon-tail mice with dark, milk, or white chocolate coats and orange, mocha, and cinnamon ganache fillings, respectively.
ChocoLee’s made-to-order beignets have earned a cult following.
Bonbons and Beignets
More artisanal bonbons abound at ChocoLee in the South End (the sesame caramel-filled dark chocolate is fantastic), but it’s owner Lee Napoli’s pastries that shine. Her weekend morning beignets, the size of golf balls, have a cult following. Deep-fried to order, they ooze with chocolate-mascarpone ganache and come dusted with powdered sugar. Her chewy cookies with both milk and dark chocolate chips also have fans, as do her chocolate biscotti, ganache-filled French macarons, and chocolate-topped custard and whipped cream filled-to-order éclairs.
“My rule is everything has to be chocolate,” says the 30-year veteran pastry chef, who teaches chocolate-making classes in the store’s adjacent cafe. I point to a tray of cupcakes and frozen moussicles, and Napoli groans. “If I have to make another cupcake, I’ll kill myself.” Uh-oh, her future looks doomed. Napoli’s chocolate cupcakes are some of the best I’ve ever tasted— exceedingly moist, not too sweet, and crowned with a luscious swirl of creamy, not overly buttery, milk and dark chocolate frosting.
The Unaviodable, Irresistible Cupcake
I also found stellar cupcakes at Cakeology, where self-taught baker-owner Victoria Donnelly offers a rotating roster of flavors, plus everyday favorites including red velvet, carrot cake, Boston cream pie, German chocolate, double chocolate, and vanilla vanilla.
“I describe them as yummy, gooey, moist, and pretty, but not elegant,” she says. True. Despite being the winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2010 (for her sushi cupcake, not available in the store), her treats have a homey look, delicious damp crumb, and a flat, not artistic, iced top. “I tried lots of recipes until I came up with the one I liked,” says the native Brit, who now lives in Dorchester. “I needed the cake part to be squidgy, so I use a combination of butter and oil—butter for flavor and oil for moistness.”
One trend I’m seeing on my confections caper is teensy desserts. Beyond those popular cake pops, Cakeology makes tiddly wink-size cupcakes, as do many of her competitors. While Toscanini’s foresaw the movement years ago with its standout micro hot fudge sundae (served in a Dixie cup with real whipped cream), other sweet shops are doing the same, including Bova’s bakery in the North End, which makes some of the best cannoli around, in miniature and traditional sizes. Bread & Chocolate Bakery Cafe, which has two Newton locations, makes Boston cream pie cupcakes (along with excellent scones and caramel-drenched pecan sticky buns), while the petit four selection at Cafe Vanille on Beacon Hill all but dominates the pastry case. Then there is the French macaron craze, which also speaks to this one-bite phenomenon. In addition to those at L.A. Burdick, you’ll find a tasty selection at the Taj Boston’s afternoon tea and Sunday brunch (the raspberry macaron filled with raspberry jam is particularly good). And this doesn’t include the diminutive offerings from the big guns, like Starbucks, which launched its Petites dessert options last March, and Baskin Robbins, which rolled out its Cake Bite line last October. Clearly, the small plates tapas craze has morphed into desserts.
Batter up! Cakeology’s Victoria Donnelly crafts an array of cupcakes.
Cocktails and Crepes
And desserts, in turn, have morphed into spirits. This is no more apparent than at The Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, where bar manager Michael Mooney whips up outrageously good after-dinner cocktails. For a boozy frappé-like treat, the salted caramel martini can’t be beat. I also loved the fig cookie, a blend of locally made black fig vodka (from Somerville), Frangelico, ginger liqueur, and coffee. For nonliquid desserts, The Bristol Lounge’s Saturday night sweets extravaganza is a sugar lover’s dream, complete with executive pastry chef Tim Fonseca’s Sundaes on Saturdays ice cream bar, where you pick your ice cream, mix-ins, cookie-candy toppings, and sauce.
“We also are offering crepes to order,” says Fonseca, whose favorite dessert is chocolate ice cream. “The most popular crepe is Nutella with chocolate and raspberry sauce.”
The Best for Last
One of our last stops is Tatte Fine Cookies & Cakes in Brookline, though it could be Paris, given the cozy, pastry-packed space with wooden tables. Although Israeli-born pastry chef-owner Tzurit Or has earned accolades for her trademark Nuts Box—buttery, pie crust rectangles cradling handmade caramel and topped with a mountain of toasted nuts—I could not stop eating her flourless Chocolate Halva Bomb, which Whitmore declared “awesome.” The size of an upturned mixing bowl, the smooth Belgian chocolate ganache-covered dome has a walnut-chocolate crust, fluffy Belgian chocolate mousse filling, and a slightly salty center of halva. Swoon.
“In Israel we have lots of chocolate bombs,” says Or, who brought the shop’s bomb pan from her home country. This April Or will open a second Tatte shop in Cambridge’s Kendall Square area, where in the larger space she’ll be able to offer even more sweets, including strawberry bombs and plated desserts like soufflés.
Finally, for an all-out dessert orgy, it’s hard to rival our last stop, The Langham’s famous Chocolate Bar, which has become so popular for its near-infinite display of white, milk, and dark chocolate desserts that it’s now being offered at The Langham Melbourne in Australia.
“We have about 100 items in bite-size portions,” says executive pastry chef Jed Hackney, who easily goes through 100 pounds of chocolate each weekend for the event. “I try to keep the options light, contemporary, and familiar to people,” which means anything from a cotton candy station to a chocolate fountain. Exceptions to this rule are his cold smoked chocolate cake and bacon-topped banana cream micro pie. Delish.
Alas, so many sweets, so little time. More options will arrive this spring, including the infamous Georgetown Cupcake, whose owners are stars of TLC’s DC Cupcakes. Thus, there’s only one strategy: Seize the moment and go get your just desserts.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY TIEULI