Food and the City: All Things Sweet

Original Glazed Doughnut

In my mind, one of the most defining (and endearing) features of American cuisine is its shameless, over-the-top sweet tooth: giant chunky cookies with a tender heart, proud muffins that could feed a family of four, voluptuous cakes slathered with frosting, life buoy sized doughnuts, velvety ice-cream loaded with goodies… I love them all, and I was determined to use my vacation in NYC to get a taste of some of my favorites — the keyword here being “a taste”, so as not to spoil my appetite when there were so many other things begging to be eaten just a block away.

Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery

I had heard and read so much about The Cupcake Craze that this little piece of pastry stardom could simply not be overlooked — I know, I know, this is so 2003, but you’ll have to excuse this Parisian girl, said craze hasn’t reached us yet (and who knows if it ever will). I knew about the Magnolia Bakery of course (and was even given their first book as a gift) so I went to check it out on my very first day if only to see the line. But there was none at all, which was sort of a disappointment: it would have been fun to watch, a bit like the line outside Pierre Hermé‘s boutique. I did enjoy the magic marker sign that said “Limit: one dozen cupcakes per customer”, but was somehow none too tempted by the girly-girl pastel swirls that they sported.

I held out instead until the next day, when Maxence and I were strolling around the Lower East Side, and I (ahem) steered us towards the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery on Rivington, recommended by Andi for its “delectable cupcakes done right”. This bakery was in fact started by former Magnolia employees, and I had heard that their cupcakes were tastier, and that the service and prices were better, too. We stepped inside, took a deep long whiff of the sweet baking smells, and chose to share a sexy red velvet cupcake, with satin buttercream frosting and little heart-shaped sprinkles — I mean, with a name like that, it simply must be shared, right?

Delicious and moist and certainly the perfect first bite into the World of Cupcakes, but the real highlight was this incredible happenstance: as we were walking out, a girl sitting at a table near the door, neatly sharing assorted cupcakes with her boyfriend, looked up at me and asked: “Excuse-me, are you Clotilde?”. Completely taken aback, I was amazed to realize that this was Molly, whom I had almost met in Paris, whose blog Orangette I faithfully read, and who had in fact recognized Maxence from a pic she had seen on C&Z! Molly, visiting from Seattle, happening to be at the exact same moment in the exact same NYC bakery as yours truly, visiting from Paris? I mean, what were the odds? We chatted for a few moments, decided that New York was a small city when you knew where to eat, talked about cupcakes, blogs and the world’s best pizza and then went our separate gastronomical ways, leaving me with the lingering suspicion that I had maybe just dreamed this utterly improbable and delightful encounter.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

Next stop just a few blocks away (and this is when you really start to understand why we just shared a tiny cupcake) was Il Laboratorio del Gelato, a place where they hand-make and serve high-quality, Italian-style gelato in a rotating selection of seasonal flavors.

We decided to sample Black mission fig and Maple walnut, in a cute baby blue plastic cup with matching spoons which I just had to save. At first we were blown away by the price ($3.25 for two rather small scoops, even by French standards) but immediately afterwards, sitting on the epitomic NYC stairs facing the gelateria and spooning away with rapture, we were blown away tenfold by the incredible intensity of both flavors, full-bodied and strong, which tasted precisely like the original ingredients they were meant to portray (a fig, a walnut in a spoonful of maple syrup) only in a refreshingly light-textured yet luscious form.

Doughnut Plant

A few days later, I returned to the Lower East Side without Maxence (who had flown back to Paris for he couldn’t stay around as long as I did) to do a little shopping in the boho chic boutiques (side note: you may be interested to learn that the French equivalent of boho is its close syllabic cousin bobo, a derisive portmanteau of bourgeois and bohème). I took this opportunity to visit yet another sweet landmark of this neighborhood, namely the Doughnut Plant, which Samantha had effortlessly sold me on as the purveyor of — quote unquote — doughnut perfection.

They had a sign outfront that said “New! Fresh Corn Cake Doughnuts!” and that sounded interesting enough, but the bulk of my doughnut culture comes from the beignets aux pommes that my dad used to buy for us at the Jardin d’Acclimatation when I was 6, and the fondly remembered and sorely missed Krispy Kreme in Mountain View, Ca. And what I have learned at my own expense from the latter outlet, is that however intriguing and fun a special “limited time only” doughnut may sound, it will never ever hold a candle to the Original Glazed.

With this lesson in mind, I purchased a plain, regular doughnut, stepped out into the bright sunlight, stood for a moment to capture the gigantic confection for posterity (as pictured above), and took a few bites as I walked away. Verdict? Well, Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed will remain my personal doughnut ideal, but mainly for size reasons: I prefer a smaller loop — easier to eat and a better glaze to dough ratio — but this certainly delivered the kind of spongy, chewy, deep-fried and tooth-achingly sweet pleasure that one would expect from a quality doughnut.

Levain Bakery

Finally, the fourth and most indispensable chapter of my sweet quest was The Ultimate Cookie. If I could only eat one type of baked good for the rest of my life, I believe I would choose the chocolate chip cookie, crispy on the outside and still a tad raw on the inside — kind of like the ones they give you as a welcome gift at Doubletree Hotels in the US. But I can’t be allowed to think about this agonizing question for too long otherwise I start to yearn for canelés and financiers and every single item in my mom’s baking repertoire, her tarte aux fraises in particular. Anyway.

A kind reader named Marc had pointed me to the Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side, tempting me with a simple and straightforward “if you want the best cookies of your life”. I happened to be right in this area after a hazardous crossing of Central Park, thoroughly deserted under the pouring summer rain, losing all sense of direction several times (man, this thing is huge, they should call it Central Rainforest!) at the great peril of my pink ballet flats which have yet to recover and forgive me.

But it was all worth it in the end, as the sun started shining again when I reached the other side, and more to the point, when I realized that the commended Levain Bakery wasn’t afar. I walked down the steep stairs, taking care not to fall on the slippery steps (very much aware that a sprained ankle would hinder my cookie enjoyment), and contemplated my choices: Oatmeal Raisin, Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Chip Walnut and — I felt my heart tighten in my chest — Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip. Nested in its increasingly see-through paper bag, this bulky half-pound little guy accompanied me for the next two days (and in fact all the way back to Paris), good-naturedly allowing me to tear off the occasional bite or two from its generous flanks. And this was exactly my kind of cookie — crispy chunky chewy and all manner of adjectives rhyming with “-y”.

I see on their website that they will Overnight FedEx their cookies. Hm. I may have to enquire about the rate for France, as I can already sense the first symptoms of all-American cookie withdrawal…

Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery
126 Rivington St (Btwn Essex & Norfolk)
(212) 995-1960

Il Laboratorio del Gelato
95 Orchard Street (Btwn Broome & Delancey)
(212) 343-9922

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street (Btwn Essex & Norfolk)
(212) 505-3700

The Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street (Btwn Amsterdam & Columbus)
(212) 874-6080

  • http://the_samantha_files.typepad.com Samantha

    Corn cake doughnuts… did they have corn kernels in them or was it corn meal? One of my absolute favorite breakfasts as a child was when my mom would make pancakes with niblets corn in them. A little maple syrup on the top… yum. Hmmm, maybe I’ll make pancakes for dinner!

    I agree, Mark’s doughnuts at the ‘Plant’ are big… I usually will cut them into thirds. Dave prefers cake doughnuts, but I just love those huge puffy yeast doughnuts. I had originally heard about the Doughnut Plant through a great tv special with Molly O’Neill… I think it was a ‘Taste of New York’. The owner, Mark Isreal, used to make the doughnuts in the basement of his apartment building that he had turned into a kitchen, and would deliver the doughnuts on his bike. I just love that story.

    And Levain bakery… aren’t those cookies amazing? Well, once you send me your address so I can send off the present I already have for you… maybe I’ll put some of those cookies in the package!

  • http://stacyinthecity.livejournal.com Stacy

    I’ll have to try out these places!

    Also, NYC, as big as it is, is really just the smallest town in the world. I run into random people in random places so often!! What are the odds? Such a small town.

  • http://thehungryrose.blogspot.com Rose

    Wow, you really know how to sweeten up your travels!

    Wish I could have been in NYC when you came…it sounds like you had one heck of a time. I’m really not surprised that you bumped into Orangette herself. New York is curiously small.

    Being the native New Yorker and foodie I am, I’m a bit dissappointed I’ve only been to one out of the four places (Il Laboratorio)!

    Speaking of donuts, there’s a chain of dounut shops in Asia (originating from Japan) called “Mister Donut” and they’re donuts are AMAZING (perfectly fried and not too dry or moist)

    They have a website: http://www.misterdonut.jp/ (but it’s only in japanese). I had my first taste of one in Shanghai last year and I’ve had two in Japan this trip and I’m trying to find their shop in Taipei now to ge another “donut fix”.

    I know this has nothing to do with NYC but, if you ever make it to East Asia, I highly suggest a stop at any Mister Donut.

  • http://www.xanga.com/chef_kayenne kayenne

    mister donut are found all over the philippines! well, in manila for sure, that is! though the quality have gone down through the years. also got another one called dunkin donut. c”,) donut shops are sprining up all over the place nowadays, thanks to those who wanted to franchise krispy kreme here, but weren’t allow to do so.

    how big were the levain cookies?

  • http://orangette.blogspot.com Molly

    Clotilde, I’m so glad to hear that you were as blown away by our chance meeting as I was! For a good hour after we left Sugar Sweet Sunshine, I was shaking my head in disbelief! Really, what were the odds?! At any rate, it was truly lovely to meet you and Maxence and to chat a bit. I’m sorry that we couldn’t make it to Otto, but I see from other bloggers that you had plenty of company there! We’ll just have to find another time to get together, whether in New York, Paris, or maybe even Seattle…

  • Jenji

    What a fantastic, serendipitous meeting! You couldn’t have planned anything better… and with a red velvet cupcake in hand, yet. Will have to read this week’s missives only after lunch, so that I’ll be too full to bolt out of work immediately and go to these places!

  • Carrie

    It’s so nice to hear someone in New York is making Red Velvet! My family is southern, and the inimitable taste of red velvet cake comes to mind on at least a weekly basis. I’ve made it for colleagues and for students, and after a few puzzled bites, they start to enjoy it, and then, even more puzzled, they find themselves asking for seconds. For the uninitiated, red velvet cake is a dense, sour-cream-based cake with a little cocoa and a little cinnamon — not enough to be called “chocolate” or “spice” cake, and it’s colored with two full ounces of red food coloring. (I’m sure it causes cancer or something, but you can’t eat it often anyway.) Almost always, it’s given a treatment of thick cream-cheese frosting, or at least a killer buttercream, but, since I get headaches just thinking about that much butterfat, I make a stovetop powdered sugar frosting. I keep hoping it will become a fad in the city. That, and really good nut brittle with molasses… One of the weirdest things about America is how very little people in one area of the country know about foods in the other areas of the country! New Yorkers imagine there isn’t a “traditional” American cuisine other than hamburgers.

  • Carrie

    I posted the red velvet recipe to the forums here:
    http://chocolateandzucchini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=4879#4879

  • http://www.vivaepicurea.com Heather

    What a lovely experience! And you know what? I’m not surprised in the slightest. I lived in NYC for six years and consistently ran into old friends or friends of friends in the oddest places. When I go back, it seems I always bump into someone. Your story is unique though… what fun. If you’re still there & you like another American favorite (burgers) check out the Corner Bistro at the corner of Jane & West 4th & 8th (it’s a wonky corner). It boasts the best jazz jukebox in town & serves up a messy but incredible burger.

  • Marc

    Clotilde, I am thrilled to see that you loved the cookies at the Levain bakery. They are definitely among the greatest I have had the pleasure of tasting in my life. I’ve just returned to New York after a 2-year stay studying in Paris. While the foodie scene here is wonderful, I still long for those French treats that I loved, especially from Pierre Hermé and the like. I’m sorry I missed you when you were in New York but hope to see you on a future visit to Paris. Merci pour le blog — c’est un petit souvenir quotidien de Paris ;)

  • http://www.supereggplant.com Mariko

    What a wonderful report! I, too, saved my little cup from “the lab.” Alas, my trip to NYC was several years ago. If I go again, I would like to go to Beard Papa for some cream puffs.

  • elizabeth

    Your enthusiasm and delight are infectious. I note your kindness. And I note your little bites of these ENORMOUS, very sweet treats.
    Even thinking of one bite, my teeth ached. Am I just a cynical girl who has never quite “gotten” the whole Magnolia Bakery thing? The red in the red velvet scares me!
    I think American desserts are too sweet and too damn big!
    But the gelato sounded quite nice…
    And I look forward to savory posts.

  • http://richardab.typepad.com/iheart RichardAB

    Certainly no NYC bakery can make a pastry like those found on every street corner in Paris. How about a tarte au chocolat? NEVER! You also can’t beat the prices in paris, even with the weak dollar.

    I am surprised to see how many people stand in line at the Magnolia Bakery. It’s just a cupcake. I can make that. I don’t really think their cake has a good crumble. New Yorkers love to stand in line!

    Another unimaginative spin off of Magnolia bakery is Billys Bakery on 8th Ave, where not as popular his baked goods are almost identical!

    Happy Eats!

    http://richardab.typepad.com/iheartnyc

  • http://sabbathmeals.typepad.com balabusta

    I have passed that Doughnut Plant place so many times! It’s right next to Kossar’s, the place where you can buy what Mimi Sheraton, and more to the point, my husband! believe to be the only authentic bialys in the world. Next time, next time, you can’t eat everything!

  • laura

    Funny about donuts – my favourite donut ever was in Paris – in a little bakery on the Ile de St Louis… It was cut in half, with some sort of jam in the middle and the outside was covered in sugar. Not the powdered kind…

    Maybe it was after a morning of walking around Paris that made it taste so good?

  • http://livejournal.com/users/lazysundae alexis

    you went to all my spots!! i love love love sugar sweet sunshine. i just started reading your blog about a month ago – keeps me sane at work.

  • nbm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my town. I was afraid, somehow, it would disappoint.

  • http://www.crookedbrook.com chef ‘em out

    How could NY disappoint any body interested in food?

  • http://www.myboulangerie.com Julien

    Hi Clotilde,

    I don’t know whether this place was on your list (it might be just an online store, I’m not sure), but I thought you’d be glad to know that beyond delicious doughnuts & scrumptious cupcakes it is also possible to get aboslutely delicious & authentically French pastries — in the USA! … Some American friends in NYC had a sampler delivered to me for my birthday — and I was amazed : croissants au beurre, pains au chocolat, brioches, even palmiers … all pangs of homesickness dissipated with each bite I took! The place is called MyBoulangerie.com — do you know it?

  • Julien

    Oops – this was my first post — and apparently I linked the store’s website (www.myboulangerie.com) to my name my filling in the URL field … RichardAB, you should really try this place, you’ll be pleasantly surprised — just as good as the bakeries you mention back in paris … sans the “atmosphere” as Arletty would say, but c’est la vie, right!?

  • http://www.TheDishsDish.com jilly

    i am obsessed with SSS cupcakes because they use cake mixfor the stumps instead of stiff cupcake batter. check out my foodie website if you get a moment!

  • http://richardab.typepad.com/iheartnyc/ Richard AB

    I did my own bakery review for my blog this weekend and hit 2 of the same places you went to (Sweet Sugar and Doughnut Plant). I liked the Doughnut Plant but only had so-so feelings about Sweet Sugar Sunshine.

    Here is the link…

    http://richardab.typepad.com/iheartnyc/2005/07/a_tale_of_five_.html

  • Nicholas

    To weigh in on the red velvet discussion, while red velvet might be something new to people downtown, those who have spent time in Harlem will know this cake well. I had my first slice at Make My Cake on 110th and Lennox.

  • Joseph Millak

    Can anyone help me,from my past i remember an Almond tasting Brithday cake filed with Raspbury jam filling and a Chocolate Panhache Frosting with Marzign Flowers . I belieave the bakery was St Josephs Bakery, long sence closed.I can’t find a listing. the era of this cake is from 1950′s to early 60′s..Does anyone rember such a place or the cake..GEEE i wish i had some now..lol thanks Joe

  • http://weingolb.blogspot.com Marcus

    I was shocked to find this post by you from last year. Raving about Doughnut Plant but then opting for Krispy Kreme! I must respectfully disagree.

    But perhaps the Plant hadn’t come up with their outrageous filled holed doughnuts when you visited. Quite a curiosity. Which makes its success even more astounding, no? Please do check out my current assessment!

    http://weingolb.blogspot.com/2006/11/gourmet-donuts-defined.html

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