Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mariposa Bakery: Comfort in a Cup for Central Square

Mariposa is easy to walk by, in it's shaded Central Square den. And many a person has no doubt walked straight past, in a sprint for Flour Bakery just a few blocks away. But consider this less glamorous cousin of Flour, this slightly less shiny, less manic, less packed alternative. Because once you make it in the door, you will find a very down home cafe with brick walls and local art, nice counter gals, and plenty of places to sit. And what would make the Babe even happier? You got it: a cafe that bakes its own goodies. Cookies, scones, fudgy brownies, lush coffee cakes. Mariposa's little counter is crammed with homemade beauties.

You can be assured that the baked goods are just as nice as Flour's, although a little less glamorous and certainly less expensive. The portions are bigger and the wait time is about at tenth of what you'll get down the street.

The specialty of the house, I have it on good authority, is the chocolate chip scone, which I snapped up and highed away to a table with a very nice glass of iced tea. As always before biting into a scone, I stopped and wondered if my lips were about to be met with a cement wall of bland gluten. But, NO, Mariposa's scone was sweet, flaky, and tender all at once, with studs of melty chocolate. And the counter girl didn't even blink when I asked for butter to slather on.

All told, it was a dang good scone; definitely in the top five of Boston scones so far. The Babe recommends you put Mariposa and her scones on your list for those days when you need comfort in a cup and a good-vibe cafe for a few hours of hanging out.

Mariposa Bakery 424 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02139 (617) 876-6500

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Flour Bakery: Gird Yourself for Battle, Bostonians!

Flour is THE bakery. The one everyone has heard of in Beantown. The Magna Regina of bakeries. Started by Joanne Chang, Flour has grown from one location to three, with the sticky buns achieving the status of legend after she trounced Bobby Flay in a Sticky Bun Throwdown. Add to that her gorgeous cookbook, Flour, and you have an empire in the making. And it's an empire worthy of the hype. The counter of baked goods is a study in plenty, pleasure, and care. Raspberry bars, "Oreo" cookies, and brownies meet you first at the counter.

But hold out, friends, for the meringues and the bread pudding, which is something of a transcendental experience in the winter.

But the thing that everyone comes to try is truly the sticky buns. So the Babe was honor-bound to try one. It's a tough life, eh?

This bad girl tasted as decadent as she looks. A yeasty, moist coil of bread drenched in a sugary glaze and studded with pecans. All I ask is for a little melted butter to drizzle over it and I'm fairly certain I'll have arrived at the sweet end. Having downed only a quarter of this beauty, and thereby feeling like a sugar comas was coming on, I also ordered one of their ridiculously good sandwiches, the tuna curry dotted with apples and raisins on crunchy grilled bread. Trust me, you want this.

Just don't forget to ask for a to go box. You're going to need help hauling home all of the cookies and goodies you couldn't manage to eat in one sitting.

So, what's the catch? EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN BOSTON WANTS TO COME HERE TO EAT ON A SATURDAY MORNING. I was only at the modest Central Square location, and it took twenty-three minutes of standing in line before I had my sandwich in my clutches. Not that the line doesn't move fast; there is an army of bakery goddesses behind the counter moving at break-neck speed. It's just that you are likely to find twenty to thirty people ahead of you in line or milling around trying to score a table. It's the sort of "problem" every bakery owner would love to have, and there's really no cure for it, short of expanding the seating area to something the size of a football field. This is not to say that on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. you can't swing by and find only a mildly crazy scene, but to go on the weekend is to step into the bakery battlefield. Put on your game face, bring your I-pod, and get ready for the line and the table hawking. It is, in my not-so-humble opinion, entirely worth it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Darwin's Ltd: the ultimate yum in Harvard Square

There's a reason Darwin's has every award sticker known to man plastered on its front door: this joint is the real deal and you will want to get there immediately and stuff your face. But do so with dignity. After all, this deli and cafe was founded by an actual descendant of Charles Darwin. Add in the ambiance of tony Cambridge houses and leafy trees, and you have a hell of a spot to nosh, pick up some extra groceries, or sit and drink a killer cup of coffee.

Seriously, the Babe would not kid about this: Darwin's sandwiches are worth a trip across town. They are, in a word, juicy. My favorite is the Mt. Auborn: turkey and avocado on sublime sourdough that is tweaked with an herb vinaigrette that takes the sammy to another realm...the realm of transcendent sandwich bliss. Get thee there, fight the throngs of locals in line, and order one of these bad boys. You won't be sorry!

But the Babe's mission is pastries, let us not forget, and attached to the deli is a sit-down cafe with a wealth of goodies, made by various bakers around town, that are poised to make your mouth happy.

Tarts, cupcakes, muffins...pretty much, anything short of panna cotta is here.

Creme tart with pistachios, anyone?

Having failed to get off my cupcake kick, I tried a lemon coconut creme and a red velvet cupcake.

I'll admit that as I bit into the first one, I was thinking to myself that I don't trust cafes that don't bake their goodies in-house, and I was speculating that it would be dry from sitting out for a few days, etc. But holy haybales, I was wrong. Lush, tender, moist crumbs, beautiful flavors, icing that evoked Fred and Ginger dancing in full formal evening wear. To be frank, they were bloody delicious, and I intend to eat as many of them as I can lay my hands on.

Just be sure that when you're there, you pray to the gnome that presides over the cafe counter for a place to sit...otherwise, on a weekend you're likely to end up on a bench outside wolfing down your goodies.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Curly Cakes: Boston's ugly ducklings?

Let me pose a rhetorical question. Why rent a store on Charles Street, go into the crazy, difficult business of running a cupcake shop, put all that time and money into decorations, make daffy good cupcakes that are worth a visit...and then BESMIRCH the entire gig by putting plastic cake domes over your cupcakes that are so scratched up and foggy that you can't see the cupcakes clearly? Why, indeed. I present to you the worst cake display in Boston.

The others are only modestly more visible.

Can you hear the Bakery Babe's heart breaking? Deprived of my photo op, I took a bite of an absolutely lovely cake, with a good vanilla taste, and a soft crown of frosting. They were good cupcakes. Really good. But I'm not sure anyone walking off the street would guess, given the murky view. The truly baffling part is that those foggy cake domes are overkill: there's already a glass wall to keep customers from breathing on the cuppies. That said, word of mouth may save Curly Cakes in the end; while I was in the store several regulars came in and hauled off a decent payload of cake. I say, give Curly Cakes a chance. These ugly ducklings might just turn into swans.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tealuxe: The "Real" Boston Tea Party

I aspire to nothing more than a little tea shop populated with old, floor-to-ceiling tea drawers, shelves filled with tea pots, and tables covered with hammered copper. Walk into Tealuxe and inhale, deeply. This is the aroma that tells your brain directly: all is well. Yes, Tealuxe is my happy place. In past incarnations, I would bring homework here and bolster myself against Boston winters and cranky professors with a pot of tea, complete with timer and all the bells and whistles.

Tiger Hill Nilgiri from the Blue Mountains of South India. Victorian Rose Tea, Darjeeling Silvertips, China White really could become lost in one treasure after another being scooped out of little black drawers and packed away in blue tins that will shortly stock your cabinets. That's the beauty of Tealuxe: you can drink a pot on the premises or take home a few tins of tea, a new pot, specialty teabags, and every other piece of tea hardware you could dream of. If you're looking for the real Boston Tea Party, may I suggest starting with a cup of chamomile at Tealuxe?

If you haven't guessed, Tealuxe is part of my "tea and cake" week in Harvard Square. Their Brattle Street location near Anthropologie is the perfect place to pop in, snuffle about in a wondrous world of teas, and then watch people stroll by (if you can snag a spot at the window bar). My favorite tea is actually their blended, frozen Hanna Berry tea with bubbles at the bottom. A light frosty rose petal moving down into a robust raspberry and then to the blackberry depths of tapicoca pearls. Truly one of the prettiest drinks I've ever had, and not at all too sweet.

But woman cannot survive on tea alone, and the Babe oggled the few plates of goodies in the dessert case with a speculative eye. Memories of stomache impactions simmered in my brain...why did I have a little index card in my brain with the note "Don't buy the scone, Bakery Babe!"? But the lovely counter girl saw me waffling and was quick to point out that their scones were made by the Danish Pastry House, a Somerville bakery that I've been wanting to try but have yet to catch a ride to. I was sucked into a blackberry scone that looked to be the size of a sourdough loaf. Bafflingly, Tealuxe does not offer butter and jam with their scones, and you must ask to find out that they do have little pots of devonshire cream. In theory, a blackberry scone and a spoonful of devonshire might be heaven.

Alas, friends, alas. The devonshire cream had clearly been in the fridge for the better part of winter. And the scone, oh my heart weeps to think of it, was a tasteless gargantuan of glutinous blight that could single-handedly funk up my digestion for the rest of April. So let me digress here and opine on the topic of the scone. You have two options. You can go for massive flavor, plump lovely berries, and sugar crunch crust that is so tasty that no other embellishments are needed. Or you can make a plainish little cake and serve it with pots of jam, waxy spoonfuls of clotted cream, lemon curd, whipped cream...oh, the options are endless. Either of those routes will do you proud on the scone front. But woe betide the baker who makes a mega wad of flavorless flour and then FAILS to accessorize with the necessary accoutrement. How Tealuxe, a shop made for tea time, could miss this point is beyond me. Tealuxe, I beg of you, upgrade your goodies! Serve real teatime nibblies! Put some jam and butter on the plate! Give us scones and muffins that are as good as your tea!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Boston's Beacon Hill Chocolates: Killing my budget sweetly

Beacon Hill Chocolates is one of THOSE places. Pink stripes on the wall, mint green fireplace, polished oak wood floor...yep, the Babe wanted to bring her sleeping bag and MOVE IN. But ounce for ounce, it might be cheaper just to check in to the Ritz. Beacon Hill pushes past Teuscher and LA Burdick to charge almost $4 a truffle. But by the time you've been sucked in by their powerful choco-magnet and are at the counter, I'm not sure you'll care. You'll be faced with a collection of chocolates from all over the country, including many New England chocolatiers. And you might just find yourself thinking, "Do I really need to pay rent?" in the face of little pink cat bon bons with red hearts, a herd of bunnies, and some very cute sheep.

Or Easter egg truffles...

Or the whole case...

In an act of saint-like control, I managed to escape having only purchased one black cat truffle. And I have to say, it was good. Really dang good. Not LA Burdick good. Not Teuscher champagne truffle good. But still, highly edible. Whether or not it was worth $4 is really up to just how badly you need your chocolate to meow and swish its tail before you pop it in your mouth.

But if bon bons aren't your thing, this store is jammed with decorative boxes, bags of candy, fresh macaroons, a gelato corner, and just a few Easter goodies...

Philosophically speaking, if you can't find something to like in this store, there's not much the Babe can do for you. Even if you just come in to inhale the good vibes, drool over the chocolate, and plan ways to spend your next paycheck, get yourself to Beacon Hill Chocolates!

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Bakery Babe is burnt by bad cupcakes at J.P. Licks

Don't be fooled by that cute bunny face!

I'm all for big, happy, fluffy cupcakes with lime green and hot pink sprinkles and a plastic bunny ring nestled on top. And I'm a big fan of J.P. Licks' homemade ice cream. You also could say I'm fairly laid back. Like I don't mind all that much if their employees move in a trance of suspended animation whilst engaged in the strenuous task of scooping ice cream (no kidding, I was stuck in a line out the door there a few weekends ago during the hot spell, and in the 20 minutes I stood there waiting, I counted TWO customers walk away from the counter with ice ten minutes a person, I would've been there for, oh, 3 hours just to get to the counter).

But this I could forgive, if the cupcakes they sell for $2.88 were edible. On a coffee break today, I purchased the above-noted vanilla cupcake with the bunny ring, percolating with whispers that J.P. Licks bakes all their goodies themselves. I only had to wait, oh, TEN minutes for the glassy-eyed troglodyte behind the counter to cognate that I was asking for a cupcake, dump it sideways into a bowl, smoosh all the frosting, and make the pointy finger at the money box to give me my dang receipt. Does this make me sound like an old lady? I'm not. But besmirch a cupcake and the Babe holds no quarter!

So, what crime did the otherwise luscious looking cupcake commit? Very simply this. The frosting is industrial-grade crapoo. It tasted, I do not kid you, exactly like the schmoo that comes out of a cardboard Duncan Hines canister. If they didn't get it from the supermarket, and they didn't get it from an industrial vat, then they worked really hard to emulate that chemical taste that sponges into your tongue after you eat a cake-mix cupcake with shelf-stable goo on it. Why would a company that has so much passion for excellent homemade ice cream compromise on their cupcakes? Why raise my hopes and then dash them into the fiery pit? I came to no conclusion as I nursed a stomach ache an hour later. Some mysteries must remain.

So there you have it. The bitter aftertaste of one of the biggest let-downs in my short but glamorous career as a dessert critic. No doubt I will survive to taste-test another day, and no doubt J.P. Licks will survive too; after all, their ice cream is really very good. Just be prepared for a long wait at the counter.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Note to Mr. E. Bunny: Bring Me LA Burdick, I Beg You!

A wall of chocolate bunnies

It's no secret that I find LA Burdick chocolate to be the apex of what a chocolatier can achieve; the added cuteness of their mice truffles makes me cuckoo to a degree that few confections can. And I did think, as I stopped by in Cambridge this weekend to survey their Easter goodies, "Is this overkill?" Can my readers possibly want to see yet another set of photos from Burdick? If you're my kind of chocolate fiend, then yes, you really can stand to see yet another drool-worthy photo montage. Because this, friends, is Easter time, and Burdick is a whole other store for bunny season.

White chocolate bunny truffles
Pretty Easter ribbons, oh my!
Chocolate eggs filled with treats!
Chocolate nest with jelly eggs!
While the Easter goodies aren't cheap at Burdick, they are without doubt, mind-blowingly good. And the large chocolate Easter bunnies cap out at $20, which is comparable to Godiva and some of the other designer chocolate stores in Boston. So splurge a little, I say, and fill your basket with choco bling fit to make the very heavens weep!
Note: Shockingly, I have not been paid a single penny by LA Burdick to write about them. This is pure, unadulterated chocolate lust that can't be bought!