Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

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With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

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Snacks by Subscription: The Nibblebox by Graze

 

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I like to think of myself as selectively sheep-like. I dislike arguments too much to be truly iconoclastic, and I’ll admit there have been a number of times in my life where I’ve given in to the hype and found myself reveling in doing something “trendy.” I remember one class in high school where all the kids stood in a circle, and a good 90% of us were wearing some version of blue jeans and Converse shoes. And I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was amongst that majority. Maybe it’s lame, maybe it’s letting the man get me down, but I think most high schoolers are pro-conformity at times.

So what item of Maggie’s Trendwatch 2014 is on the docket today? Subscription boxes, specifically the “Nibblebox” by Graze. These boxes are all the rage right now, from snacks to drinks to pet treats (no joke, Barkbox is a thing). I’d given a few of these as gifts — most recently going in with my brother on a Julibox subscription for my mother’s birthday, wherein she receives a monthly box full of the ingredients and instructions for curated cocktails. Unfortunately, as fun as these boxes are, in general they’re not particularly wallet-friendly (bang for your buck wise), so I’d resisted the nagging Facebook ads asking if I was really sure I didn’t want to try Naturebox.

What made me finally break down and submit to the tides of trends was an article from (who else) Serious Eats, reviewing a number of popular boxes. They gave high praise to Graze, and with a coupon code that got me a free box, I figure it couldn’t hurt to see what all the hubbub was about.

 

I picked Graze over the other highlighted boxes for several reasons, starting with their emphasis on variety (and ending, in a silly but still true reason, in the fact that they’re originally British). In almost all of my food-related ventures, I’m happiest with a smorgasbord of options — Chex Mix, Frito-Lay Munchies, Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked (unintentional pot-theme acknowledged). You only have to look at my posts about Pike Place or Mad Sq. Eats for proof of my utter joy at all the choices. Graze’s website encourages you to be wild with your choices. After signing up, you indicate any dietary restrictions or allergies, and then dive into the snack selection. Every item has a range of rating buttons — Trash, Try, Like, and Love. The automatic baseline is “try,” meaning you’ll get sent that item once in a blue moon. Like means you’ll get it semi-frequently, and Love means you’ll have it in nearly every box (which, depending on your preference, comes weekly, fortnightly, or once a month). Trash, as you might imagine, means you’ll never see that item in your Nibblebox.

And to make establishing your preferences even easier, each snack has a drop down list of ingredients, allowing you to search by individual components. In my case, that meant calling up all the snacks with orange in them, in order to Trash any that combined it with chocolate (I’m still working on warming to citrus+chocolate). Aside from this, I left most things at Try, enticed by all the potential box-fillers, from savory to sweet, barbecue to curried to wasabi-flecked to tropical in flavor.

 

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

Within a week of my signing up, my Graze Nibblebox appeared, all components aside from the food itself noted as recyclable. Opening up the slim cardboard box revealed four labeled (and decorated) snack packs, with a booklet explaining how Graze works, offering coupons for friends, and providing nutrition and allergen and a “best by” date information for each snack. My free box came with Dark Rocky Road, Pomodoro Rustichella, Summer Berry Flapjack, and Tutti Frutti.

 

So how did the snacks stack up? Overall, I was pretty pleased with the well-rounded nature of the Graze box — three out of four snacks did skew sweet over savory, but they were each distinct in their flavor profiles and textures.

 

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The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

 

My favorite ended up being the Pomodoro Rustichella (cheese croutons, tomato baguettes & tomato & herb almonds), which may be due to having it last after the sweetness of the other three items, or the fact that I generally have oats/unsalted nuts/dried fruit as my afternoon snack, so the Pomodoro Rustichella was a big departure from my routine. The little baguettes looked like the breadsticks you’d get with your school lunch cheese dip and crackers, but they had a much stronger tomato flavor, reminding me of the borderland of a pizza right where the sauce meets the crust (hints of tomato paste, pepper, oregano). The tiny croutons were Ritz-Bitz sized, and only somewhat cheesy, as if just dusted with parmesan. But the best element of the Pomodoro Rustichella was the tomato & herb almonds. I was initially skeptical of a tomato/almond combo, but it was actually a great pairing of the inherent sweetness of the nuts with the acidity of tomato (full disclosure, almonds are my favorite nuts, so I was possibly predisposed to like these). When eaten together, the Pomodoro Rustichella is most reminiscent of a deconstructed take on “Pizzeria” flavored Combos, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The Tutti Frutti (blueberry infused cranberries, pineapple, cherry infused raisins and green raisins) and the Summer Berry Flapjack (rustic rolled oat flapjack with berry-infused cranberries), were both fairly straightforward, with the exception of the Britishism “flapjack,” which does not refer to our American pancakes, but rather to an oat bar made with golden syrup. They both featured “infused” fruit, which is used in a lot of Graze’s snacks, according to their website. I’m not sure I’m totally hooked on the concept — I happen to like the way cranberries taste naturally, and so the ones in the flapjack reminded me most of the generic “berry” flavor used in candy and cereal. In the case of the Tutti Frutti, I thought it actually undercut the simplicity of the snack — if I’m going to have a variety of dried fruit, why not just give me dried blueberries and cherries, rather than “infusing” cranberries and raisins? This was by far my least favorite snack, although I liked the dried pineapple enough to look for other Graze snacks featuring it and move them to “Like.”

 

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The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack had more going for it, since the infused morsels were sprinkled throughout. With the highest caloric value, the Flapjack pack was filled with 3 miniature bars, just enough to feel satisfying, but still sugary enough to seem like an indulgence. Even with the generic berry flavor of the craisins, the flapjacks were soft and fresh, well-preserved in the Graze plastic pack several days after my box arrived.

 

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My favorite snack -- Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe's.

My favorite snack — Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe’s.

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that my favorite sweet snack was the one with chocolate. The Dark Rocky Road (Belgian dark chocolate buttons, cranberries and pecans) was made of simple components, not so different from the trail mixes you can find at Trader Joes. I really appreciated the proportions of the snack — it was heavy on the cranberries, but they didn’t skimp on the chocolate buttons and pecan halves.  Although they don’t list the cacao percentage on the website, the chocolate seemed like it was slightly better quality than a Hershey’s Special dark, and the plain cranberries and raw pecans paired wonderfully with it. The only thing that would have made this better would be to salt the pecans — the chocolate isn’t dark enough to be really bitter, so the contrast of salty and sweet would be more present with a little extra seasoning.
Let’s be honest with each other — these boxes are never going to beat the bulk bins at the supermarket for economic efficiency. But for the curious (and semi-lazy) snacker, Graze offers up a good deal. They allow you to choose your level of engagement with your food choices, from eyes closed eeny-meeny grab-bag to intensive curation through the “Love” rating. Personally, the reason I liked Graze was because it pushed me to try new things, so I can’t imagine picking “Love” for many snacks unless something blew me out of the water. I do have another Graze box coming, but I stepped it back to bimonthly, so that my Graze subscription is only a little more expensive than my Netflix. It’s an indulgence, but a fun one that doesn’t do too much damage to your wallet, and with the option of a free box to start, why not give it a shot (if you want a freebie, click here: https://www.graze.com/us/p/YJV6G1V4U)? C’mon, underneath aren’t we all just a little made of mutton?

 

https://www.graze.com/us/products 

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

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Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

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Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com