Saturday, July 19, 2014

Paris Baguette: More bliss than should be legal

There are times, not many, but there are times when I am about to eat a dessert, when I stop and wonder if I am about to cross some invisible line of decadence, go over some cliff of indulgence from which there is no return. One such moment occurred at Paris Baguette, when staring down this beauty, the choux tart:

This tower of delight is one of the larger desserts at Paris Baguette, and certainly the most expensive. As I sat down with my $7 castle of thick custard cream, strawberries, raspberries, and profiteroles stuffed with lightly whipped cream, I did stop and think that perhaps this was too much, even for me. That moment lasted about three seconds, before a man stopped with his tray of goodies that he'd purchased and offered to trade me for the choux tart. And being seated next to the window, it did not escape my notice that several people walking on the sidewalk slowed their pace to gawk at the beauty I was about to devour. It is, in short, a show stopper. But it is merely one of the many, many pastries that Paris Baguette offers, and I've spent many weekends investigating their cases.

Paris Baguette is new to Central Square, and had it not be recommended to me, I would've walked right by it. Why? It is located inside the new H Mart, a Korean superstore. It's not that I don't like Korean food, because I do. It's that I never in a million years would've thought, "Sure, I'll try the Parisian pastries from the Korean store." But as soon as you step in the doors and see the glowing cases of goodies, the dove grey tufted chairs, the beautiful decor, you are going to forget you ever doubted. Yes, this is an international chain of bakeries started by a Korean company that has actually founded the Korea-French Institute of Baking in a word, these folks ain't kidding around about pastry. The cake case harbors everything from blueberry chiffon to berry cream cake to...a caramel cake that has an entire package of Pepperidge Farm cookies on the top.

And those are just the offerings in the cake case. There are three other cases of croissant goodies. You take a tray, a pair of silver tongs, and go down the gauntlet, picking your own. This inevitably leads to a breakdown in self control.

I will say this about their croissant...they're very, very good. Perhaps the best I've yet had in Boston. Flaky exterior with that pull-apart, chewy, moist insides with the usual fillings (chocolate, almond). The croissant has been the Waterloo of many a baker, but Paris Baguette passes with flying colors. You will also find pastries stuffed with green tea, doughnuts with red bean filling, blueberry danish, and just about anything you can imagine that can be done with wheat and dairy products.

But I will say there is one item at Paris Baguette that you must approach with particular reverence, perhaps even on bended knee. The croissant doughnut.

This is mind-blowingly rich. Deep fried croissant dough filled with creme Anglaise. I've eaten two thus far, and each time, I had a transcendental moment, followed quickly by the realization that I'd just eaten more oil and fat than I should probably have in an entire week. It is profoundly decadent, perhaps too rich for some, and certain worth seeking out.

One of the beauties of this cafe is that there is something for everyone (except perhaps the gluten intolerant or dairy averse)...but you can pretty much bring your whole crew, and there is such a plethora of choices that nobody is going to feel left out. And on top of that, they have an amazing drink menu...I had an iced almond tea that came with a delicious cream foam that was infused with almond extract. In the summer they even have shaved ice parfaits. In short, any bakery tour of Boston would be woefully remiss not to include the Paris Baguette. Do go!

581 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 714-3456

Brookline Diner: Best Brunch in Boston!

Obviously, I am the bakery babe, and it's not often that I stop to mention a place that serves absolutely no sweets. But the Brookline Diner is an exception. I LOVE this place. Why? Perhaps it's the endearing way that they forgot to put the name of the restaurant on the outside of the building. I am actually not 100% certain it is named the Brookline Diner, come to think of it...that's just what my friends call it, and I've taken suit.

Now, why the love? When you go on a weekend you will find a packed, one-room restaurant with the kitchen at the back open for all to see. A small place with shabby, wobbly brown booths from the 1970s, with squirt bottles of ketchup, syrup, and hot sauce on every table, with random bursts of art on the wall, and a wood floor that looks like it has survived all manner of tribulation. If you judge a place solely on looks, you might be tempted to keep moving. But consider the line of people that often wait to get into this place on a weekend. Consider too the patrons leaving the restaurant who are stopping just short of patting their tummies and singing a happy song. This, friends, is that mythical brunch place that will fill the tum splendidly without ravishing your wallet.

This mom n' pop restaurant is run by a family who boasts Middle Eastern influences in their food (let me tell you about the hot sauce in a minute), but the majority of the breakfast fare is standard American brunch. Luscious omelets, eggs Benedict for the gods, homemade jam, coffee in plain white mugs that comes with a little dish of plastic "cream" pods, potato hash that has roasted veggies added into the you may have a little surprises of summer squash, spinach, broccoli, carrots, all roasted to perfection and then grilled with potatoes that are creamy soft on the inside and crusty on the outside. In short, they really, really care about the food here, and you will receive a big plate of soul nourishing, yummy food that will fill you up for the day's adventures. Oh, and you'll be paying about 8$ a plate. Yeah, I know. Technically this place should not exist. But it does, and you'd be well advised to pay it a visit.

The eggs Benedict with spinach and mushrooms. I will put this dish up against any over-priced cafe on Newbury Street. Seriously. The hollandaise was tart, creamy, and lemony, with fresh herbs, the eggs were perfectly poached with soft yolks, running over onto the crusty potatoes...and, oh yeah, this is where I tell you about the secret weapon of the Brookline Diner, their hot sauce. It comes in a squeezy bottle next to the ketchup, and it is highly addictive. On many, many visits, I've consumed large quantities, trying to figure out what this smoky hot, vinegary sauce consists of. Finally, I have the answer (well, at least a hint). The waiter is the son of the couple who own this place, and he revealed with much pride that this sauce is his dad's creation, a harissa-based sauce that is a hybrid of Moroccan and Arabian flavors...A healthy squirt of the special sauce on eggs is something out of this world. I'm not kidding, I will travel three stops on the subway in heavy snow just to have the special sauce. 

Now, I can't give you many tips as to the hours of this place, as they don't actually have a website, and I forgot to take a picture of the writing on their door. But! I do have an address. You will need to venture to Central Square for this jewel, and commit to a four minute walk from the subway. Believe me, it is well worth it. 

  • 9 Brookline StCambridge 02138

  • (617) 354-2983

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Petsi's Pies....Pie in my Eye?

Petsi's, oh Petsi's, what is a bakery babe to do with you? As hard as I've tried, my love affair has not yet blossomed. I keep waiting for that visit where I want to scream to the rafters that one and all must visit this pie shop(s)....and yet. And yet.

Well, let's begin from the top. About two years ago, I first went to snag a piece of pie on Beacon Street, and found an extraordinarily small store with a badly lit seating area the size of a port-a-potty. I rolled the dice on a single piece of pie...a chocolate bourbon nut business...that was so chock full of all those ingredients that it took the better part of the day to digest. It wasn't that it tasted bad, it was just that it was so rich, intense, and nutty that there wasn't a ton of joy in contemplating its memory.

Thinking to give Petsi's a second chance, I went to their cafe in Cambridge. A shaggy cafe that looks like it is straight out of there is an acre of homegrown sprouts behind the counter...and on a Saturday morning a little before lunch? Well, they were sold out of pie. That's right. SOLD OUT. A scorned bakery babe is not a pretty thing. What kind of pie place has John Lennon at the cash register looking unconcerned as he announces there's no more pie for the day? Strike two, Petsi's, strike two.

But the bakery babe is not a vengeful pastry goddess. I took part of my vacation in June to walk back to Petsi's original location, and give it a third try. And this time, in sweltering 90 degree heat and high humidity, I stumbled into the little pie shop to find...little in the way of air conditioning. My pie of choice on this visit was peach with blackberries, and it was very tasty, although a bit heavy on the nuts in the crumble. It was, however, at room temperature...which meant, well, I was eating 90 degree pie in a little sweltering badly lit seating area the size of a...yes, a port-o-potty. This is a matter of debate for some, but I stand by the supposition that berry pie should either be well chilled, OR it should be served with an enormous scoop of ice cream or a cold glass of milk...neither were to be had at Petsi's.

Am I too fickle? I thought about it at length and realized that everyone who came in to order pie while I was eating, got theirs to go. And that's the heart of it. This is the sort of place where people drive, squint at the distant rack of options behind the counter, pick up a tasty pie for a family dinner, and keep going. It's not the kind of place where you can oggle the pies up close, and then settle down in a cute setting to have the bakery experience. And for me, that's missing half the joy. I can recommend this as a place to pick up a pie, but I can't recommend it as a place to linger and enjoy a piece of pie.
bakery: 285 Beacon St, Somerville MA 02143
cafe: 31 Putnam Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Singing Beach and Captain Dusty's Ice Cream

Perhaps it is because I have a writer's imagination. When I hear of a beach named Singing Beach and am told that the sand sings when the water washes over it....I immediately think Broadway spectacular of singing mermaids. This, plus the fact that Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea is a forty minute ride on the commuter rail, is what drew me out of the city yesterday.

A lot of commuter rail outings end in tourist traps of a variety that cause me fits of vapors (don't get me started on Salem, MA). But Manchester-by-the-Sea is different. There were a lot of people on the beach for a Monday, true. But most of them were residents of this small, suburban neighborhood that boasts a little harbor, big vacation homes, and a modest downtown. In other words, this really is the kind of place with an ice cream stand, one grocery store, and a handful of restaurants (not to fear, Bostonites, there IS a Dunkin Doughnuts here, if you feel you're about to go into withdrawal).

View from the train
That said, be aware that there are no signs to Singing Beach. You either have to know where you're going or just follow the trail of happy folks carrying umbrellas and chairs. The beach is a nice size, with clean sand, relaxed denizens, a bathroom, a modest drink stand, and not much else. Which is to say that it's very peaceful. If you're hoping for a Ferris wheel, a hot dog stand, or beach concerts, this isn't your place. To wit, you need to bring everything with you that you could possibly want for an afternoon: umbrella, chairs, cooler, food, sun block, amusement, etc. Otherwise, you're going to step on the beach like I did, and realize that you are not going to last more than twenty minutes without shade.

Well, what can I say. It was a glorious twenty minutes before I had to take cover. And more importantly, I tested the theory of the singing sand.


Twas a very subtle singing, friends. Very subtle. But I think you must keep an open mind in order to hear mermaids singing.


And if those mermaids won't sing? Well, lucky for us, just down the street from the beach is Captain's Dusty's Ice Cream, a fair consolation prize by any standards. This little depot does not have a lot of bows and whistles inside. The flavors are written on white board, and there is no grand display case with the ice cream. But that hardly matters. What is important is that Captain Dusty considers this a BABY CONE.

The large was so big that it was threatening to topple off the cone....the first and only time I've ever had to ask an ice cream server to "please, put some of that back in the case." And the taste of it, be it ever so humble vanilla, with no chance of being homemade or designer ice cream, was really glorious when enjoyed on a sunny day walking back from the beach and waiting for the train back to Boston.

The commuter fare to Singing Beach is @$18. 
For more information on Singing Beach:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Clarice Cliff, Queen of British dinnerware, and “Rural Scenes” by Royal Staffordshire

This might as well have been titled “Confessions of a Bakery Babe: I have a problem with British transferware!” I adore it. I see it in vintage stores and my heart starts pittering and pattering. Royal Staffordshire. Johnson Brothers. Anything that looks like it belongs on Beatrix Potter's teatime table, and I’m hooked. So I am guilty of scouring the kitchen section of vintage and thrift stores, turning over plates and reading labels. I know just enough to know that it isn’t common to see Royal Staffordshire dinnerware that has a person’s name signed on the bottom.


Who then, I wondered, was Glarice Gliff? No, scratch that. Who was Clarice Cliff? This was while hunched over at a vintage shop, peering down at a set of dusty and well-loved purple lithographs on Staffordshire china that had pointy handles on the tea cups.

A little research soon paid off. Clarice Cliff has been called “one of the most influential ceramics artists of the 20th Century.” ( Born in 1899, she lived into the 1970s, and rose to prominence in the potteries area of England as a painter of pottery (yes, that really was a career in the early 1900s). She advanced to run a team of painters, all of whom produced hand painted, whimsical designs with bright, bold colors, and a distinctly artistic feel. 

One of many book that has been written about Clarice
That said, I’m not wild about the designs that she is most prized for. But I like her attitude. She was quoted in an interview as saying, “Having a little fun at my work does not make me any less of an artist, and people who appreciate truly beautiful and original creations in pottery are not frightened by innocent tomfoolery.” A woman after my own heart! 

Clarice, herself

But WWII changed Britain, obviously, as well as its tastes in dinnerware. And Clarice moved on to designing transferware for shell-shocked Britainers who yearned for the innocent, pastoral “good ol’ days” of the 1800s. The “Rural Scenes” design for Royal Staffordshire is considered “stuffy” compared to her early endeavors. Well, if the Bakery Babe be stuffy, so goes it. I think these scenes of woodcutters, beehives, cows, and chickens are utterly charming. 

And the purple color tempts me to fall into a mania of collecting that would likely take up a few decades. I am serious. Something this lovely cannot stay in my house, or I will spend the next thirty years hunting down Rural Scenes teacups and bone plates, until I have a complete set. First things first, my dove. There are still a few odd hundred or so pieces of pink transferware that I need to complete my budding collection! 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Luberto's Pastry Shop and Last Stop, Wonderland

The Babe is on a mission this summer: to push my pastry boundaries into neighborhoods I don't yet know, and to kick up my flip flops on some of New England's beaches. After all, this California Girl needs to see the ocean once in a while, and it's easy to become insulated in the obvious Boston places. To wit, this weekend I braved the Blue Line, which it turns out is far zippier and shiny than any other part of the T, and hoofed it to Revere. I had a hot tip on Luberto's Pastry shop, and dreaming of a quaint, Victorian beach town, I anticipated sheer enjoyment.

As a former historian, I tend to ascribe good qualities to places strictly because they are old. And Revere Beach, being the oldest public beach in the U.S., and the town of Revere having been one of the first places colonized in 1624, I was prepared for something with panache and charm.

Oh, girl. When are you going to learn? "Old" in Boston can mean a lot of things other than panache and charm. I stepped off the T at Revere into neighborhoods with broken church windows, balconies slanting precipitously toward the ground, corner grocery shops that looked like you'd better know the owner's name before you went in. It is, in short, not the kind of place where you should plan on taking a leisurely stroll. I made haste to find a public bus and rode the rest of the way to Luberto's, which is situated on the main drag in Revere.

And oh my, was it worth it! Luberto's is a very Italian bakery, with mirrored walls, and a plethora of pastry.

It is the kind of place where the owner's son comes out to introduce himself and shake hands, matriarchs order towering stacks of boxes, and some of the old-time Italians that are still left in this neighborhood sit at the tables for coffee hour.

Everything that you can find in the North End, from ricotta pie to cannolis to Italian cookies to half moon pies to pistachio also at Luberto's. Just minus the throngs of tourists and lack of seating and the prices. For $7.25, I had a Neapolitan, ricotta pie, a bag full of cookies, and a soda.

The macaroons were delicious, the ricotta pie was magnificently smooth, and I had a hard time coaxing myself out of that oasis of goodness back onto the "mean streets" of Revere. But go, I did. After all, there was still Wonderland to visit. As I sat on the bus, I conjured in my mind the lovely sea air, the soft sand, the sparkling, cool, deep blue water...all of the things that this California Girl loves about the ocean.

I can't quite say that Revere Beach lived up to that.

Yes, there is sand. Yes, there are shells. Yes, there is water. But something is missing here that I can't put my finger on. As I watched jet fuel waft down off planes taking off from Logan, and I looked at the dirty sand, and the unfriendly wave break, and the deserted seemed to me that joy and beauty were not at a maximum here. I took out some of the cookies from Luberto's as a consolation snack as I walked back to the T. I can't say I'll be coming back to Wonderland, a stop so ill-named that I have to consider the possibility that it was an ironic title. But if you have a car, I do strongly recommend a trip to Luberto's!

Monday, May 19, 2014

DC and Cherry Blossoms: Pie Sisters Rock My World!

I've never been to DC for cherry blossom season. And even though I went to visit a good friend there at the first week of April, I have to admit I've still not been to DC for cherry blossom season...that's because the flowers were late this year, and I came smack in time for magnolia blossoms, but a week shy of cherry blossoms. Ah well! DC is still one of the neatest cities I know to visit, and when not hearting Lincoln and hearting Washington, and hearting the Whitehouse, I took the opportunity to fulfill two long-held culinary dreams.

I had a veggie dog at Ben's Chili Bowl. And believe me, it was the first chili dog I've had since going vegetarian that satisfied as a taste experience...literally, I wouldn't have known there was no meat in that thing, that's how tasty it is. I found this politico hot dog diner to be a place where it is hard to score a seat, but if you're lucky you might just be sitting in the same spot where the president had a chili dog. Throw in some cheese fries, potato salad, and coleslaw, and you have a party!

And for my other food adventure, I feasted on pastries in Georgetown! Now, truly, and entire chapter could go to Georgetown pastries, and I only had one weekend. So I will simply tell you about the bakery I went to that will now and forever have a pie-shaped slice of my heart: Pie Sisters.

Located on the edge of the Georgetown strip, Pie Sisters is a little shop that does something extraordinary with pies...among other mysteries, they have created cream pie cupcakes. Piecakes, if you will. A little pie crust baked in a muffin tin, stuffed with every pie filling you could desire and topped with flaky pie crust "cookies." They have full sized pies, of course, that you can order by the slice.

But it was the piecakes that got me. I do believe that I may actually have made little gurgling exclamations of joy, somewhat akin to the noise that llamas make when excited, as I caught site of their cup sized mini pies. There is something so utterly alluring to the notion of devoting a store to this one culinary art form. We all know that when pie crust is done right, it is one of the most heavenly things you can eat. And yet, so often it is only in our collective imagination that we have that perfect pie crust that is both flaky and moist, a juicy filling, and perhaps a scoop of ice cream on top. Pie sisters conjures all of that and more, with everything from coconut cream to strawberry rhubarb to bourbon chocolate pecan. And they even have savory pies!

I think pie is a fundamental comfort food, that one dessert that says Americana, remembered and imagined from our childhood, now often lost in the world of modern food experiences. It is really very rare that you sit down at a cafe or a restaurant and say, "I'd like a slice of pie, please." And even rarer that you might look at a menu and see the main accoutrement offered are glasses of milk and scoops of ice cream.

And that to me is the charm of Pie Sisters. You can and should come across town, if not across the country, to sit down in a sweet little cafe, order a piece of pie or two, and don't forget the glass of milk!