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

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Review: Sprinkles Cupcakes, or My Adventures in Public Eating

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I’d like to think that beyond providing a shameful tally of my gluttony, this blog also serves as a compendium of “New York Firsts” for me. I live in the city that never sleeps, and goddamit, I am going to have some unique experiences, no matter how early my bedtime is or how retired pensioner-inclined my habits of baking, drinking tea, and playing boardgames are. Well, I stayed true to that attitude during my recent visit to the venerable California-born cupcake chain Sprinkles. Not only did I try a new type of cupcake, but I also had the singular experience of eating in an ATM vestibule. Man, do I know how to party on a Saturday night or what?

Now I know that cupcakes are the hip and happening dessert (after all, they have their own battle show on Food Network — the absurdly titled “Cupcake Wars”), but I’m really not much of a cupcake person. It’s not that I’m against the dish itself — when done properly, a cupcake can be a wonderful melding of textures and flavors that simultaneously evoke the nostalgia for your perfect 1st grade birthday party and more adult cravings like Guinness or bourbon vanilla. But I find that there are so many potential pitfalls that make for unsatisfactory cupcakes — the cake being too dry or flavorless, the frosting being hard or overly sweet, or the inventive combination of a Thanksgiving-flavored cupcake being way better in theory than in practice (savory cupcakes– not my cup of tea … er cake, I guess).

This is why I’ve often been disappointed by the “trendiest” cupcake shops in New York. Don’t tell Carrie or Samantha, but I think Magnolia’s is supremely overrated — their cake tends to be on the drier side, and their frosting, while certainly well-piped and classy yet adorably pastel, tastes largely like pure confectioner’s sugar to me. Recently I also tried the oft-touted Butter Lane — a choose-your-own-adventure cupcake shop in the East Village where you can create your own unique combination from the handful of cakes and frostings they offer. Again, their highly reviewed banana cake was too dense and dry for me, and in terms of frosting, well, I can’t even really remember which one I picked. I think it was the maple pecan, but clearly it didn’t leave much of an impression.

So basically, if you were to offer me an ice cream cone or a cupcake, I’d choose the ice cream 9 times out of 10. But I’ve learned on my NY foodie journey to trust in the palettes of my close friends, and several Californians I know have been after me to try Sprinkles. I tried to go in with an open mind, but if we’re judging a cookbook by its cover, Sprinkles seems to embody all the style-without-substance problems of the gourmet cupcake fad. For one, the owner is a judge on the gladitorial pastry show I mentioned earlier. And Sprinkless most recent innovation? A 24-hour cupcake ATM, which sounds plenty helpful for stoners, but begs the question of how those cupcakes can possibly be anything but stale after hours in a dispensary? It just seems like another blatant ploy to take advantage of the cupcake craze. But then again, maybe, just maybe there was a reason that this cupcake mini-empire was so popular. Worst case scenario, I’d hit up Sixteen Handles on my way home.
First Impressions:

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

Despite being the “progenitor of the haute cupcake craze”, as the LA Times put it, Sprinkles has just one small store in New York. Located at Lexington and 60th, the modest storefront is well positioned to capture the throngs of tourists and shoppers streaming out of Bloomies and the myriad other stores nearby. The outside is decorated with various multicolored dots, which seem to be a piece of kitschy design until you go inside and realize those dots are used to differentiate between cupcake flavors (each color combination is explained via a key on the menu). Inside, the bakery has a small collection of ottomans for seating, some retail offerings (shirts! doggie apparel!), and the dominating white counter/display area for the cupcakes. The aesthetic is the same as you see in a lot of the frozen yogurt shops now — modern, sterile white countered by bursts of bright colors, in this case stripes on the wall (and an intriguing zebra wallpaper).

Although I don't quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious "original cupcake bakery" vibe at bay.

Although I don’t quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious “original cupcake bakery” vibe at bay.

The Cupcakes:

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

To give them credit, Sprinkles does not skimp on varieties of cupcake offered.  There were 8-10 flavors available at the time I went, but if you go on their website, Sprinkles offers a literal calendar of cupcakes, which features flavors of the month, special holiday cupcakes, and on which days those cupcakes will be baked. The sheer multitude of options was a little intimidating, but ultimately Laura and I settled on the January special S’mores cupcake, and the standard menu Pumpkin.

Our cupcakes -- the S'mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

Our cupcakes — the S’mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

The cakes themselves were reasonably sized — unlike the monstrosities offered at Crumbs and a lot of NY delis these days. Sprinkles seems to use the same size muffin tins that I have at home, and while I appreciate the bang-for-your-buck that you get at Crumbs, it’s nice to know I’m not ingesting the caloric content of a Friendly’s Fribble in one go (yeah regional milkshake references!).

Now here is where the story gets a little odd. When we entered Sprinkles, Laura and I saw that there were a number of open spots for us to sit and eat our cupcakes, and so when prompted by the cashier, we decided to have our cupcakes “to stay” — laid out on a small plate with optional fork and knife. But lo and behold, upon turning around, the place was packed to the gills with tweens and families. Clearly Sprinkles is the place to be at 6:30 on a Saturday night. So Laura and I glumly made our way out of the store into the chill night air, carefully balancing our cupcakes on our plates. In retrospect, it seems obvious that we should have just asked for to-go boxes before we left, but we all do irrational things in the face of impending dessert consumption.

We walked down towards the 59th St. subway station searching for a bench. Obviously sitting in the cold wouldn’t be the best experience, but I wasn’t about to eat a cupcake on the platform for the uptown 6. Please, I have some standards. Finally, we managed to find a bench, and noticed it was right next to a Chase Bank. Somehow, the need for warmth clouded all sense of propriety or pride, and in we went, past the sensible public bench seating and into the ATM vestibule. So yes, I ate cupcakes (and messy ones at that) on the deposit slip table of the lobby of a Chase Bank, amidst the stares of a number of banking customers. I can only assume that Laura’s and my giggling and repeated pronouncements of being loyal Chase customers (which is true) is captured on a security log somewhere. Talk about your fifteen minutes of fame. As I keep finding myself saying — only in New York.

The site of our cupcake consumption -- yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles's cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

The site of our cupcake consumption — yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles’s cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

Now as to the cupcakes themselves. The S’mores is billed as a dark chocolate cake with a graham cracker crust, topped with toasted marshmallow frosting. Upon splitting it open, it became clear that the graham cracker crust was not firmly attached the to cake. Most of it ended up collecting at the bottom of the wrapper. To be fair, I’ve had this problem myself when trying to use graham cracker crumbs — too little butter, and the crust falls apart when you try to lift up the cake. However, despite the structural problems, the combination of the dark chocolate cake and the crust was well balanced. The crust was a little dry (hence its crumbly nature), but the cake was nice and moist, with a rich, velvety texture that might have come from the ganache mixed into it. It didn’t have the real bitterness of dark chocolate, but it was sweet without being cloying. I would happily choose that cake as the base for another cupcake combination. Unfortunately, the downfall of the S’mores cupcake came from the marshmallow frosting. I had high hopes because of the visible caramelization of the sugar on top of the frosting, but like many of my experiences with marshmallow fluff, it just didn’t taste like much of anything. Generously piled on top of the cake, the only hint of flavor came from the toasted part on the very top. The majority of the frosting was just a sticky messy that distracted from the superior elements of the cake and crust. While the S’mores was by no means a total disaster, it was far from a successful reproduction of my campfire memories.

Note the proportions of the components -- a thin layer of graham cracker crust on the bottom, a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

Note the proportions of the components — a thin layer of graham cracker crust (seen mostly on the bottom of the wrapper), a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

However, both Laura and I agreed that the Pumpkin cupcake was pretty special. The cake base was evocative of pumpkin bread without the density of your average quickbread loaf. It retained the lightness of an actual cake, unlike Butter Lane’s banana bread cake, which reminded me of a slice from Starbucks with some icing on top. For Sprinkles’s cupcake, pumpkin was the dominant flavor, but there were clear notes of nutmeg, cloves, ginger — all the spices that make you think of fall and winter. Once again the cake avoided being a sugar bomb, with the sweetness coming mainly through the frosting. Now I am a cinnamon fiend, so I was delighted to see that the frosting was not only cream cheese frosting (win), but in fact cinnamon cream cheese. Truly excellent cream cheese frosting creates a marriage of the sweetness of confectioner’s sugar and the tang of the cream cheese, and Sprinkles totally hit the mark on this one. Between the success of the dark chocolate cake in the S’mores, and the cream cheese frosting in the Pumpkin, I’m eager to try Sprinkles’s version of a red velvet cupcake next time.

The Pumpkin cupcake -- richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Pumpkin cupcake — richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Verdict:

All right, Sprinkles, you got me. I now get why you’re so freaking popular. Even with my slightly underwhelming S’mores cupcake, the combination of the flavor options and innovations and the high quality of the cakes themselves makes a second trip a certainty. I’d like to think what really sold me was the fact that the baking itself was clearly still a top priority. It would be easy enough to mass-manufacture these cupcakes, to slack off and know that the brand recognition of Sprinkles would probably be enough to keep turning a profit. But I’m still thinking about that Pumpkin cupcake, several days later, and like I said, I’m not one to linger over cupcakes. I guess it’s kind of like owning up to liking The Beatles — yeah they’re everywhere, yeah, everyone is a fan, but when you come right down to it, they do make some amazing music. I may roll my eyes at the cupcake bloodsport on Food Network, but now I have to admit — the woman behind Sprinkles has some real baker clout.

Sprinkles
780 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)
sprinkles.com