Saturday, March 31, 2012

Crema Cafe: A tea and cake kind of day in Boston

Seeking inspiration on this blustery spring day, and having watched far too many episodes of Miss Marple, I thought, "It's a tea and cake kind of day." Or rather, I decided to try as many shops as I could in Harvard Square that sell something like tea and cakes. I picked  Crema Cafe first, and to be honest, didn't expect it to be much more impressive than a Starbucks. Happily, I was wrong.

I walked into a decor that smacked of industrial chic, with  the loft-like seating area above bulging with customers who presumably came for the impressive array of goodies for sale.

I wasn't swayed by the danish, the carrot cakes, the scones...well, yes, I was swayed...but not detained! I had a mission in mind, after all. I'd heard that Crema had good cupcakes. When the counter person told me that all of Crema's goodies were made in-house, I began to gleam and bounce. This was no Starbuck's knock-off. Can you find cupcakes like this there?

A sucker for sprinkles, I went with the "Birthday cupcake" and a glass of Morroccan mint tea, hustling my way past table hawks to grab a spot at the long communal table at the front of the shop. And what I bit into was, well, bliss. But a surprising kind of bliss.

I've grown accustomed to designer cupcakes that have a light, spongy cake and fearful wads of heavy buttercreme for heavy cupcakes, if you will. So, oh, little fairies danced on my tongue as I bit into a substantial, lovely yellow cake flecked with confetti, and then a light-as-air buttercream that seemed the confectionary equivalent of butterfly wings. It really was just that freaking good. A little sip of minty iced tea, a wee slurp of ethereal buttercream, a giant chomp or two of sturdy cake. Looking out at people strolling toward Brattle Street, envoloped in a pleasant warmth that smelled like coffee and onion bagels, I thought I might just have to come back and try everything on the menu, sandwhiches and lattes included. But no matter what else I eat there, I will be making room for a cupcake. Really, I think I may have found the cucpake to beat in Harvard Square.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cafe Vanille: Love and magnolias on Beacon Street

Magnolias in full bloon on Beacon Street
Never fear, this will not be a post about happy young things in J.Crew sweaters necking on Beacon Street in the first flush of Spring. Although there are magnolias bursting with flowers in downtown Boston, the love I refer to is the deepest, the most sustaining and elevating love there is: Dessert. And more particularly, Vanille Cafe on Charles Street.

Perhaps I was somewhat predisposed to love this little shop of edible jewels, after walking throuh the Public Garden and marvelling at the blossoms, revelling in the 80 degree weather, past a sea of pasty Bostonians in various stages of sun worship. But I wouldn't have fallen head over heels without justification, and Vanille has it.

Nestled amidst the Tuttie Frutti tarts and the Annabelle cake (sponge cake topped with meringue and cranberries), live a miriad of drool-worthy French desserts, whipped up by the pastry chefs who own the joint.

And that's just the cakes. The breakfast pastries don't look half bad either.

But the gauteau that won my heart? The chocolate orange cake topped with orange macaroons that have chocolate smiley faces on them. Mind.Blowingly.Good. Chocolate mousse layered with light spongy cake and topped with a waxy layer of dark chocolate. Light yet substantial, chocolately but not to the point of death. It was the whimsy of the macaroons that put me over the edge. This is it. I will be coming back to Vanille at every opportunity to eat this cake.

Not that it's a hardship to amble around Beacon Hill's cobblestone lanes. Cafe Vanille is just the place to people watch and gander at the iconic churches and townhouses that make this one of the cutest three square blocks of real estate in New England.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Sneak Peak of LA Burdick at Copley Square

For those who already have a burgeoning and unwieldy love affair with LA Burdick in Harvard Square, your options have just increased. LA Burdick has picked a quaint little building off of Boylston to serve as headquarters downtown. And by the gods, it is glorious! Just as charming and cozy as the Harvard Square location, but about twice as big with more seating. Pink and gold stripes adorn the walls, elaborate brass chandeliers bob from the ceiling...and, oh my, the chocolate doesn't disappoint either.

The cafe won't have it's license until early April, but the chocolate shop is open for business in all other regards. So stop by for a ganache penguin...

Or one of the other bombastically good bon bons...

And let's not forget the mice...those mind-boggling cute truffles that invoke near holy levels of adoration in this Baking Babe.

Will I report back in mid April on the goodies to be had from the cafe? You bet! In the meantime, check the Easter goodies for yourself.

220 Clarendon St., Boston, MA

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Epic St. Patrick's Day Fail

"Get thee to the Burren," the Bakery Babe said to herself this morning, loaded up with green nail polish and eyeshadow. After all, it's St. Patrick's day and Boston is the place to celebrate it. Armed with my foodie clipboard, I walked down to what is normally a very quaint local pub that is reputed to have some of the best fish and chips in Boston. I'd read that there would be live music, and I thought I'd have half a pint of cider, kick up my shamrocks, and survey the scene. I realized, as I came upon roving packs of college kids in full leprochaun gear that Davis Square might be more of a Paddy destination than I'd anticipated. A man walked by me wearing nothing but a bathrobe adorned with the Boston Celtic's logo. A couple loaded head to toe with green  beads were having what looked like a drunken spat as they tried to make their way toward the next green beer. I won't deny, I became a bit nervous. I don't do well among plastered yahoos in enclosed spaces. But I pressed on, thinking optimistically that perhaps there would be a corner in the Burren where I could obtain fish and chips, then sneak out again. Oh ho ho, the delusions of a hungry blogging babe were soon crushed. The Burren had the front roped off into lines, so that all those thirsty revellers can wait an hour or two before they make their way to the bar. Bouncers in "staff" t-shirts were collecting a door fee, presumably for the U2 tribute band playing inside. Even the next-door, down-on-your-luck, bar-of-last-resort Sligo had a line out front. My half pint of cider and dancing leprochauns all fizzled to the sidewalk.

Trying hard for a consolation prize, I rambled over to Kickass Cupcakes, for a bailey's cupcake or two. Alas, sold out. I ended up with a key lime cupcake that, while very cute, had no shamrock shazam.

And while Dunkin Doughnuts has the right spirit, I'm not certain these Paddy Day doughnuts qualify as a taste experience.

The sad fact of the matter is that I ended up having a burrito for lunch, with guacamole added for a St. Paddy's day splash of color. I retreated home with one lesson learned: St. Patrick's Day in Boston is not for amateurs!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Truffle Deathmatch: the end of my chocolate credibility?

It was a simple concept. Get a milk chocolate truffle from each of the "Big 5" downtown: Teuscher, Godiva, Lindt, Max Brenner, and LA Burdick. Taste test them all at once, and pronounce one the winner of the Downtown Milk Chocolate Truffle Deathmatch. I wasted no time in hoovering some of the city's sweetest truffles down the hatch, careful to grade texture, scent, looks, and price. My conclusion?

The Bakery Babe's Score Card
First place: Godiva
Second place: Teuscher
Third place: Max Brenner
Fourth place: Lindt
DQ'ed for lack of a milk chocolate truffle: LA Burdick

I had good reasons for my ruling. Burdick had only one milk chocolate selection, but it had pistachios in it, and the addition of nuts put the little bugger so far off the charts of numminess that I thought it was unfair to pit it against plain truffles from the other stores. The Lindt truffles were runny and not very chocolatey inside, the Max Brenner chocolate had an aftertaste that reminded me of how my mom's sewing basket used to smell, the Teuscher truffle was very tasty, but it cost three dollars. So I felt confident that the Godiva truffle, in its lux, smooth chocolatiness should easily reign supreme.

But wishing to avoid any shades of autocracy, I foisted the truffles on my friend, the Sultan, and asked for his opinion. The Sultan has often claimed that he will only eat chocolate from Belgium, and in such large quantities as to prompt constant fainting fits onto his velvet settee. Surely he would agree the Godiva was worthy of royalty?

The Sultan's Score Card
First place: Lindt
Second place: Teuscher
Third place: Max Brenner
Fourth place: Godiva data on LA Burdick, as I ate them all rather than give one to him

So, there you have it. Another chocolate afficionado put the truffles in the exact opposite order as I did. The Godiva was too thick and heavy, he intoned. The Lindt was a symphony of goodness upon the royal palate. And Teuscher, were it not so expensive, would've ranked even higher on his list. Befuddled, I grilled him at length, but he wouldn't budge. The Lindt was queen.

I decided then and there that I could not, in all good conscience, declare a winner, as it's clear that the topic is wildly subjective. What is the consolation in this maze of chocolate goodness? You will have to try each and every one of these yourself before you can declare your own personal winner to the Truffle Deathmatch...and that, friends, is not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Godiva: Bliss at the Food Court

You might not expect fabulousness at the food court, as a rule. But right next to the entrance of the snack hive at Prudential, there sits a beacon of happiness for chocolate lovers: the Godiva store. Now, had I walked by and not gone in, I would've thought of gold boxes given as high school graduation presents, and not much more. But the Godiva store is really quite a bit more than just a shop to pick up a box, and Godiva has gone far beyond the little gold boxes.

There is a marble counter where you can watch Godiva chocolate being melted and stirred, all in preparation for chocolate covered strawberries the size of softballs (or, to share, paper cones filled with smaller berries). For a lux treat, you can have a Godiva milkshake (be prepared to part with more than a fiver for one). In the counter display case, one can find all manner of chocolate covered treats prepared in the store, as well as bon bons and truffles that have been "finished," which is to say dipped and dazzled in a little extra chocolate than the ones that are wrapped up in boxes. Although, really, the ones in boxes aren't all that plain!

So how does Godiva chocolate taste these days? I would say that it's a happy medium between what is thought of as American chocolate and the serious bee sting of dark chocolate that European candy makers, like Teuscher, excel at (yes, Godvia started in Belgium, but I think what they sell in America has been geared toward our tastes). For 70 cents, you can have a weighty, satisfying truffle that walks the right line between chocolate flavor and all the other good stuff (butter, milk, etc.).

Also of note? The people working in the store are really nice, and are usually handing out a free sample. For Easter, if you are looking to put together a basket, they'll help you (bring your Amex; one chocolate "Bertie the bunny" is twenty dollars).
800 Boylston Street, Boston

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Quiet Dignity of the Lindt Bunny

The Lindt store on Boylston is a magical time at Easter. Bins and boxes of shiny, metallic-papered truffles overflow from every corner. And squadrons of gold bunnies wait patiently to leap into bags and make someone's Easter a lot sweeter. Compared to the plethora of low-brow bunnies out there, the Lindt bunny really does have a quiet dignity; no googly eyes or pink frosted ears here!

So why am I not over the moon about my visit? I probably should be. I went in on the Lindt bunny's birthday and got a free chocolate bunny for my trouble. And for fifty cents a truffle, I had a small bag of goodies without tipping the monthly budget down a steep slope of ruin.

They looked like they should taste good, right? And what a neat idea to be able to graze around and make up a bag of whatever you like. So what's the problemo? In a nutshell, the fillings are runny and watered down. The chocolate shell itself is certainly more lux than a Hershey bar and goes down smoothly. But the fillings are, sans doubt, cheap and trashy. The Russell Stover Easter eggs have classier fillings.

However, this is not to suggest that there's no joy to be had in stopping by the shop, which looks like a cross between an old time candy store and a Louis Vuitton store. If you have a few dollars and need to get maximum trufflage for your buck, stop by and grab a bagful. If you lust for high octane chocolate, scoot along to Teuscher or Godiva, both of which are within a city block of Lindt.

704 Boylston St
(617) 236-0571

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Teuscher Chocolates: the Sound of Music or the Sound of Bankruptcy?

 Let me pose this question to you. In your hand are three dollars. Nice, crisp, green bills. There are many nice things you could purchase with this money. Now, someone shows you a small piece of Swiss chocolate the size of a quarter and asks if you will hand over your three dollars for it. This is the moment that decides chocolate harpies from regular, sane humans. You should be warned, however, that even a perfectly rational human entering the Teuscher store is likely to walk out a chocolate-crazed zombie with a steaming debit card.

What is it about this subterranean store on Newbury Street that strips the human brain of all control? Is it the little paper flowers that are so kitsch that one expects the Von Trapp family to pop out from behind the counter and sing "The Hills are Alive"? Possibly. But more than this, it is the allure of wondering how those neat rows of chocolates could possibly be worth three dollars each. And if you stare long enough, you'll start to believe they are. Especially with those chocolate ducks oggling you.

They are most famous for their champagne truffles, a triple layer confection that starts with milk chocolate, goes to the most subversively potent dark chocolate you can imagine, and then ends with a light, foamy champagne mousse in the center. Worth three bucks? Hell, yes. It's their plainer chocolates that I'm not so sure about. Their milk chocolate truffle was rather sandy in the middle, and while it did have a certain smack of high-octane chocolate to it, I wouldn't lust for another.

The taste almost seemed like a cross between a bite of chocolate and a shot of it my imagination or does Teuscher put liquor in all of their chocolates? Either way, I think one must be selective at this store. Leave your wallet at home, walk in with only three dollars on you, and walk out a solvent, dignified foodie with your one truffle; just be sure it's the champagne one!

230 Newbury St. Boston

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Devil Fudge at Copley Square

The Prudential Center says this about Truffles Fine Confections: "Truffles specializes in handmade chocolates and gourmet candies. They are dedicated to the ultimate in taste, quality, and freshness." Let's test that theory, shall we? Having entered the waters of confection last week with Burdick Chocolate, I  plan to embark on a weeklong candy jag that I started today by snuffling around Copley Square for high volumes of sugar.

At first glance, the little candy shop inside the Prudential center looked to be packed with truffles, dipped fruit, fudge, and towers of candy. Showing unusual restraint, I picked out a single salt truffle, a chocolate covered slice of peach, and a square of peppermint fudge. The cranky man at the counter seemed to take some glee in informing me that I was about to be hosed for 10 bucks, as he handed over what could not be more than 3 ounces of candy. Still, I held out hope that I was paying ten dollars for what would be the most outrageous piece of fudge I'd ever eaten.

You see, fudge is a bit of a thing with me. I adore the smooth, luscious interior and the sugar crusted exterior. Having failed spectacularly at making even the simplest form of fudge (anything that involves a candy thermometer is a doomed effort in my kitchen), I admire those who can turn out glorious tablets of waxy chocolate goodness. And, on the side, I am a huge fan of peppermint bark. So it was with much anticipation that I sat down a while later and pulled out my goodies.

The peach was acceptable. Chewy and sweet with a chocolate cover that could be considered decent in some circles (read: better than Hersheys). The truffle was very, very salty, and the chocolate was didn't offend, but neither did it impress, and that is a crime, as far as I am concerned, when I have just laid down a good deal of cash. The free truffle sample a door down at Godiva practically sported wings and a halo compared to the wad of mediocrity from Truffles.

But that aside, I decided to take out the piece de resistance, the fudge, with a fresh eye. All would be forgiven if the fudge delivered. Now, as mentioned, one hopes for a soft, smooth texture when it comes to fudge, but as I took the square out of the bag, my fingers detected no noticeable give in the chocolate. In fact, as I became more alarmed and poked at it, there seemed to be a distinct hardness to the exterior. Perhaps it was really, really gooey inside and the outside was supposed to be like that? I attempted to break off a piece and was met with...something the texture and hardness of the devil's hoof. That's right, I couldn't break a piece off. I gnawed at it with my teeth and was only modestly successful at detaching a shard of it. Growing more distressed, I held it by one corner and banged it against the table, only to hear the sound of a hammer hitting a nail. A metallic clang. It was fossilized. I might as well have spent my ten dollars on a cast iron pan and tried to gnaw at it. My eyes goggled, my brow furrowed, my nostrils flared. Burned like a fool on "fresh" fudge that had clearly been sitting in that case for the worse side of three months (since Christmas, I'd wager). Even if I was in gross error, and these were supposed to be squares of chocolate bars rather than fudge, I defy you to tell me that you should be able to bang a chocolate item against the table and have it reverberate like an ice pick. Had I been thinking, I would've taken it home and wedged it under the corner of my microwave that has been rattling lately. Sadly, I hummed "Another one bites the dust" and chucked it in the trash.

And that, dear readers, is all I will say on the many reasons you should light your cash on fire and warm your hands over it before you part with a single clam, buckaroo, or shilling at Truffles Confections. 

But let's part on a positive note. Shortly to follow will be a review of the Godiva store, and in the meantime, here is a little eye candy from the Williams Sonoma at Copley, where the Easter candy is already out.