Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Burdick Chocolate: the apex of lux

There really is no day so dour that it can't be salvaged with a high octane chocolate mouse with almonds for ears and a pretty ribbon tail. Come to think of it, you can pretty much pick any given chocolate at Burdick and come away with a significant yet legal buzz.

And although chocolates are the kissing cousins of baked goods, I review Burdick here with impunity: this is no longer just a chocolate shop, it is also a killer bakery and coffee shop. They've evolved into a European cafe of the highest water, serving sumptuous round mugs of espresso with homemade caramel, among other wonders. And it's an awesome place to sit for an hour and soak in the warm, glowy ambience, amongst happy patrons who fairly resonate from chocolate/coffee highs.

What used to be a selection of one or two tarts has grown to a full blown dessert case that could hold its head high in the Tuilleries for artisanship and quality. Macaroons, mousse cakes, praline, and of course, chocolate, all carefully made. This is the essence of Burdick: they really, really care about what they make. It's the kind of joint where the guy foaming the coffee and the gal putting together boxes of chocolate are uber foodies that crave chocolate the way vampires crave...well, you get the picture. I'm not saying it's an unholy alliance; on the contrary, you can practically hear the heavenly choirs singing after you've had a few goodies.

On my visit, I was in a particular mood for something more mellow. The lady at the counter suggested the raspberry tart, warmed up with a dollop of whipped cream. I ordered this with a steamed milk and honey. Really, for $7, you can't have any more fun than this.

A flaky under carriage topped with warm, tart raspberries and a cloud of whipped cream. And filigrees of golden honey crisscrossed on a half inch layer of decadent milk foam, followed by a deeply lux cup of honeyed milk. Truly, comfort can be bought, people. Especially on a cold Boston day in Harvard Square.

It can be a little crowded on the weekends, but if you come by around 4 p.m. on a weekday, you're likely to score a seat. My favorite maneuver is to sit for a piece of cake and then on the way out peruse the chocolate counter. There are few joys as potent as dangling one of those chocolate mice by the tail, imaging a few chocolatey squeaks of protest, and then summarily devouring the choco bomb in one fell swoop. Trust me, you will practically levitate down Brattle Street on your way home. 
52 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cocktail Cupcake Happy Hour

Cocktail purists and cupcake purists may both say that the cupcake and the cocktail never shall meet, that it is blasphemy to put them on the same plate. I say, bah! On the last Monday of every month, Kickass Cupcakes holds its free cocktail cupcake happy hour. They're giving out three mini cupcakes that all have a heady shot of bon vivant in them.
Regular ol' chocolate liquor here, boohoo!

Tonight's flavors?
Bailey's Irish Cream: Chocolate cupcake, Bailey's Chocolate Ganache center, Bailey's whipped cream.
Rooty Toot Toot: Rootbeer cupcake soaked with spiced rum and topped with spiced rum frosting and a dash of nutmeg.
Leap Year Lemon Passionfruit Fizz: Lemon cupcake soaked with vodka, lemon passionfruit curd center, and lemon icing.
Bailey's Irish Cream Cupcake
It's hard to describe these fresh, lovely minis, except to say that each is a sound smack to the tongue that makes you stop and think that you've been sorely deprived to wait all these years to have a cocktail in your cupcake. Perhaps, indeed, what is most annoying about your average liquor cake is that you don't actually taste the libation in your dessert. But I promise you there will be a hit of vodka in your Leap Year cupcake, and a shot of Bailey's in the Bailey's Irish Cream.

Why choose just one?
If a mini isn't enough, have no fear! All three are available as limited edition regular size cupcakes. And while you're there, consider picking up another of their limited editions: the red velvet.

Or the promising Snowball?

You may guess from the photos what I had for dinner. And while it's not the first time I've had nothing but dessert for a main course, it is a rare treat to have a cocktail and cupcake together in one lovely package. Happy Hour lasts until 8p.m., so stop by if you're near Davis Square!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cupcake Deathmatch! Cakeology vs. Sweet

It's time for Cupcake Deathmatch! I've picked two comparable bakeries from the same part of town and am putting their cupcakes in a deathmatch! Cakeology from downtown Boston and Sweet from Newbury Street. Two well known bakeries that aspire to serve artisan cupcakes, both in the $3 range. Whose cupcake threw down? Read on!

I picked the vanilla vanilla because it should, in theory, be the easiest cupcake possible, and one that is easy to compare across bakeries. But it turns out not all vanilla cupcakes taste like vanilla...some just taste like baking soda. I picked three categories to judge: frosting, cake, and looks.

The frosting was an easy decision. Cakeology had a very buttery, sweet icing with flecks of vanilla. Sweet had brain exploding levels of sweetness and very little flavor. For the cake, Sweet had good texture but almost no flavor, not even a hint of vanilla. Cakeology had a tender crumb, yellow and fluffy, with a good flavor. As for looks, I think Cakeology takes it for their ridged swirl of frosting and the white chocolate shavings on top. Sweet's cupcakes isn't too ugly, but it does look like a snowman melted down on top.

The verdict? Cakeology takes all the marbles with a score of 26 points out of 30. It's official, Bostonians, if you're downtown and want a nosh, go to Cakeology for the goods!

Want to know more about Cakeology (www.cakeology) and Sweet (  scroll down to see my full reviews or click on the "Downtown Boston" tab above.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mr. Whoopi Pie Does Me Wrong!

My feelings on Verna's doughnuts are well known, and I could go on for quite a while on the virtues of their Boston cremes and their cinnamon snails. But what, I wondered, about their cakes? Nobody ever talks about Verna's cakes, but on the side of the building it says, "Verna's, so much more than delicious coffee and doughnuts." I decided to test this theory today, and once I managed to crank my eyeballs away from the doughnut trays, I found a little something staring back at me: Mr. Whoopi Pie.

Cuteness on a scale I dare only dream about, but there he was, oggling me from the display case. I had to take him home, along with a vanilla vanilla cupcake. I watched as the lady behind the counter fairly tossed them both into a paper bag, so I was fretting all the way home that Mr. Whoopi would be crushed. But he wasn't. And neither was the cupcake. That, friends, is a huge red flag. Because if your bakery item can be grabbed by a burly bakery lady and tossed in a paper bag and STILL retain its good looks, that means you're not dealing with anything cream based. You're dealing with shortening that's been whipped into a frosting like lump. One bite of Mr. Whoopi and I had that sinking feeling that what I was gnawing at was actually a now hardened disc of crisco. Oh Mr. Whoopi, you were so good looking, such a charmer, but your guts were made of chemically altered oil that left me feeling cheated. Why, Mr. Whoopi, why!!!

Frosting entirely in tact after being tossed in a bag.

And the cupcake was no better. A bit of a looker, but the entire frosting unit came off in one indivisible hunk of flavorless shortening. I sadly nibbled at the vaguely acceptable cake before sending the better part of both pastries on to clog the landfill (half life estimated to be at least 20 years before that frosting gives up the ghost and degrades).

The moral here? Don't be seduced by sweet talking pastries with oggly eyes? Well, at least you should certainly stick to the doughnuts at Verna's. 

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sweet Cupcakes: Good Eye Candy

Sweet is one of the prettiest cupcake shops you will ever go into. A white and pink jewel box with tall glass jars of candy, gleaming display cases, with lightly stenciled curlicues here and there on the wall. It's the kind of shop that looks like it belongs on Newbury Street, a cool, lovely retreat from a day of window shopping. While I was there, basking in its ambience, I observed a family come in with two young daughters who fairly attached their faces to the glass case and hoovered their way down the cupcake line, debating which gem would be theirs.

What kid wouldn't want this? You can't buy that kind of wide-eyed wonder; and it's only fair and right that Sweet should inspire it.

So you can imagine, as I ordered a box of sweet cakes and hot cocoa cupcakes, that I was hoping to love and adore them. But in the back of my mind was this worry: Why only 2 to 3 stars on Yelp? How could something that looked this pretty be a disappointment to the taste buds? But I put aside my worries, laid down $15 for 5 cupcakes and happily walked back onto Newbury street with a very pretty box of bakery goods.

Once home, I set out the lovelies and gleefully proceeded to devour them. "It's for my job," I told myself, trying to justify the eupohoria of unabashed sugar consumption.

I first tried their vanilla "sweet cake," a vanilla on vanilla creation with a pretty little pink bubble on the tiptop. Within two bites I realized why they were low on the Yelp stars. Mind numbingly sweet frosting and almost no taste to the cake. In fact, as I sampled the first cake and then the second and then the third, searching for some kind of flavor register, I finally conceded that baking soda and an aftertaste that I associate with cake mixes was the only thing I could distinguish. It's not that the cupcakes are bad...I have no doubt those two girls in the store consumed their goodies with complete glee. But for a foodie, it will be immediately obvious that for $3 they might as well have bought a box of Betty Crocker and made an entire batch of similar tasting cupcakes. What's missing? Vanilla and butter. For $3, when I bite into a vanilla cupcake, I expect to taste, what else, vanilla. And it was missing.

I don't regret the experience, however, of visiting their store. Will I be buying their cupcakes again? It depends on who I'm with...if it's tutu and butterfly-wing time with a gang of little ones, I might just swing by and let them press their noses to the case.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Boston Chinatown: Bao Bao Bakery is the Happy Place

Bao Bao did two astounding things: it took me straight to Kowloon and it converted me to bubble tea. For this alone, I can recommend it as the first bakery you should go to in Boston’s Chinatown.

Behind the counter are a phalanx of bakery goddesses, cracking jokes in Cantonese but very happy to help a gaijin visitor who can only point at the goodies and make hand gestures. I highly suspect that they were, among other things, making a wry commentary on my personage, although having failed to learn more than three words of Cantonese, I can’t prove it. But that’s the feeling of Hong Kong I was missing: busy, crowded, and jovial. That’s the intangible fun of Bao Bao. That and the fact that there’s plenty of room to sit, a huge selection of little cakes, buns, savory pastries, bread, and full blown birthday cakes. The boxes are cute, the price is right, and you really find a sense of contentment in the busy shop, sitting at the counter with your cute cake, sipping bubble tea, watching a steady stream of characters go by.

And when I say cute cake, I’m really not kidding. Right in the door, I saw a tray of sprinkled sponge cakes with little frosting chicks sitting on top that are clearly labeled as “cute cakes” that made me feel a little swooney. You can’t find a piece of cake with that much charisma for $2.25 anywhere else in the city.

And while they have a section of perfectly respectable buns and dainties, go to the end of the cases and behold their decorated cakes.

You can argue that the cakes in Chinatown all taste vaguely similar, that the frosting is made of shortening, and the ingredients are not worthy of a French patisserie. But really, who cares? This kind of joy and exuberance is a payoff of its own. And make no mistake, Bao Bao is the only bakery in Chinatown making cakes this dang cute.  

I didn’t know I needed a cake frosted to look like a pouting puffer fish until I saw it. But now that I know it exists, I have to have it for my next birthday cake! 

Now, down to the bubble tea. It’s definitely an acquired taste. If you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently inhale a truckload of tapioca balls. I initially just ordered a peach green tea from the huge tea menu, but the bakery goddess smiled and shouted encouragingly, “bubbles?” I was weak for the picking and nodded. The tea itself was wicked good, sweet and peachy with a jasminey green tea. With the first tapioca bubble that slithered into my mouth I started to think, “No way, I’m not eating this.” But after the second, and then the third, I found that having a sip of tea and then chewing on a soft little bubble of goodness was actually quite pleasant. By the time I was done with Bao Bao’s bubbles, I was thinking about how soon I could have another.   

Five bucks will buy you a venti something or other at Starbucks and not much else. I say take the fiver and head to Bao Bao for "cute cake" and bubble tea.

 Bao Bao Bakery 77 Harrison Avenue

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Boston Chinatown: Treachery at 101 Bakery!!!

It was the perfect bait for the bakery babe…a yellow sponge cake rolled over taro filling, frosted with a neon purple snowbank and topped with a jelly glazed strawberry. The bakery was cute, the cake case was full of wonders, and I laid down my $2 with no second thought: the taro cake would be mine!
The offending party!
But oh-no-no, treachery at the bakery! I should’ve known that when it took me a few minutes to wrestle a forkful of the cake free that I was in trouble. After chewing vigorously for a moment and then feeling desperately that I needed a glass of milk, I thought, “maybe I just need a bite of frosting with it.” But the frosting was in no way fluffy, silky, creamy, or edible. Because that devious beauty had clearly been sitting on the cake shelf for upwards of 3 days. And it was made of so serious a lack of fresh ingredients that my guess is it will still be shelf stable into the next millennia. It was not exactly brick like, but rather so chewy, so heavy, so stubborn, that I really wouldn’t recommend it to even a casual cake enthusiast.
Try at your peril!
The real heartbreak here is that 101 Bakery is one of the nicer looking bakeries in Chinatown. It really is a sweet place to sit and imbibe bakery vibes. The buns and Chinese flat pastries are good, although not what you might expect. Things that look like almond croissants are actually soft dinner buns wrapped over taro, coconut, and bean fillings. That and an iced tea might make a nice stop on your tour of Chinatown. But don’t on any account dabble with the cakes!

Redemption in the baked goods?
 101 Bakery is at 56 Beach St. (between Tyler St & Oxford St), should you want to brave it. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cakeology: Sprinkles are Love!

Heart counts for a lot with cupcakes. I'm not sure it's even humanly possible for a grouch to make good cupcakes, and who wants to find out anyway! No, I think cupcakes need to be made with love. And Victoria Donnelly of Cakeology has it in spades. It's clear from the minute you walk into her little bakery hidden in the heart of downtown that whimsy has gone into every detail. The nearly edible 1970s purple "Cakeology" sign leads you into a violet and magenta wonderland of a cafe, where a bowl of fortune cookies reigns on the counter and each table comes with sprinkle dispensers. That's right, sprinkle dispensers. One with chocolate sprinkles and one with rainbow; because what cupcake can't get a little more swoony with extra sprinkles? That's the love, people.

Double Chocolate cupcake

Mosey up to the counter and you will likely see Victoria at the Kitchenaid, with a speckle of frosting or two on her apron. She's happy to chat about cupcakes with you, and the love for her ingredients really shines through (it's all butter, kids; no shortening here). Need your cupcakes delivered for free? No problem. Need insanely cute pink boxes with Bruce the Panda logo on them? Need help getting them to your car? No problem. It's that kind of bakery.

Vanilla Vanilla cupcake

Now, down to the cupcakes. They carry about 6 regular flavors and then mix things up with 2 or 3 flavors of the day. When I came in, she had just set out a batch of special brownie sundae cupcakes: a chocolate cake base topped with whipped cream frosting, chocolate sauce, walnuts, and a cherry. Tell me who doesn't think any dessert or situation in life can't be made better with a maraschino cherry?

brownie sundae cupcake

After having one of these cupcakes, along with a glass of mango iced tea, you'll start feeling like you just bellied up to the happy sugar bar. Because the cupcakes, no doubt, are very sweet. Or at least the frosting is. Piled gloriously high on such staples as the vanilla vanilla and the double chocolate, prepare yourself for a high octane dose of sugar and butter, followed by a spongy moist cake that carries all that frosting with dignity.

One really could get lost in the sea of chocolate glaze and cream...and those are just the everyday cupcakes. Given the specialty flavors I've yet to try (Margarita, Peach Melba, Earl Grey...), there's no doubt I'll be back for Cakeology's goodies in quantity.

Boston Cream Pie cupcakes