A few years ago I interviewed Graham Kerr, the “Galloping Gourmet” of cookbook and olde TV fame, and he fingered franchise baked goods as hidden-calorie contributors to America’s obesity epidemic. A health advocate by then, he argued that dense, supersized muffins drenched in strudel or glaze were particularly dangerous because of the “it’s good for me” rationalizations people made as they chose anything over candy, ice cream, and fried fare. I remember his theory every time I walk into Panera and see calorie counts admirably posted for the sandwiches–but not for the sugar bombs up front.
So I get it–I see there’s a societal problem. But let’s not underestimate the magical power of a small, lovingly crafted baked goodie to ward off the chills and spiritual hunger endemic to winter in northern climes. If you’ve spent snowy times in cosmopolitan Montreal or Quebec City, you know it’s best to greet those days with a flaky croissant and bowl-size cafe au lait for dipping.
There’s no need to cross international borders to get this powerful mojo, however. You’ll find choice baked goods to grab in many corners of Ann Arbor. Add bonus points in the quest for concoctions fresh from the oven, floating from seductive aromas to solid form on a tiny plate or napkin. Triple the power if there’s a hot beverage at hand for sipping, dipping, or even all-out dunking.
For 2013, here’s a baker’s dozen-plus of treats from locally owned eateries. They’ll do your soul good, and the damage to your diet can be ameliorated afterward by an hour’s penance on the treadmill, with the wondrous taste of chocolate, fruit, rosemary, or thyme–and probably sugar–lingering to fuel you forward.
Chocolate croissants are among the best-sellers at Pastry Peddler, the little bakery tucked away in plain sight on the Packard hypotenuse of the busy triangle with Hill and State. Two thick lines of high-quality semisweet chocolate fill each flaky, buttery square. Chocolate ribbons dance across the baked brown top, for a world treasure well-executed at $2.95 each. (And they make pasties!)
Twinkies may be fossilizing into memories as Hostess plays its rich-get-richer-and-everyone-else-goes-home card, but ding-dongs live on at Big City Small World Bakery at 500 Miller. (They also make pasties!) Big City’s ding-dong is smaller and taller than the Hostess novelty, with an exquisite thin chocolate coating that, thank goodness, has little in common with its namesake’s waxy shell. Inside, creamy and quite delectable frosting binds two layers of chocolate cake. I liked the raspberry version best, with its real food pedigree confirmed by an occasional tiny seed. All are $3.95. See also: Zingerman’s “cosmic cake,” most decadently delicious in burnt sugar flavor.
Weighing in at less than half the price ($1.50 each), glazed little cake truffles gleam in the display case at Cake Nouveau at 1924 Packard. Chocolate and vanilla are always offered, Tiffany told me from behind the counter, with sprinkle colors changing to suit the seasons. A half-dozen more flavors are available on any given day: Aztec hot chocolate was my favorite, with cayenne and cinnamon spiking the heavy-textured compressed cake. (Full-size cupcakes are available on weekends.) Tiffany told me to take a seat on the purple couch, “because it feels good.” I sunk into its overstuffed cushions. Martha Stewart Living magazines on the coffee table rose to eye level. I breathed deep of the cake-baking scents I had noticed upon walking in. You’ll want to do what Tiffany says …
For a touch of veggie in your sweets, head to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday and check out Sherry Toney’s homemade pecan sweet potato pie–a snackable mini version, laced with aromatic nutmeg and allspice, is just $5. Total yum.
Crunchy-oatmeal-wholesome “monster” cookies from Jefferson Market and Cakery slot in at almost but not quite guiltless. The $1.75 treats are baked twice a day–once in the morning and again in time to be warm for the after-school rush from Bach School. Careful driving down West Jefferson Street around 3:45, ’cause the kids (and parents) aren’t all looking as they cross. Owner Mary Rasmussen leaves a big tray of the cookies on the counter by the door, and it’s hard to make it past their winking M&Ms, even if you know hunks of layer-cake slices and scones await further in. The half-tennis-ball-size monsters are gluten free, Mary says, and peanut butter helps make them hearty.
Tea Haus on Fourth Avenue has been a classy addition to Ann Arbor’s culinary landscape. Every table was taken at three on a recent sunny afternoon. Try the French-style macarons ($1.75). Quite different from familiar coconut macaroons, these tiny sandwiches are made of fragile meringue bound by gooey-good icing. Ecru-colored gingerbread macarons had white-chocolate smiley faces and molasses to balance sweetness. Your other bright-colored options might include orange pumpkin chai and green caramel apple–all gluten free, according to owner Lisa McDonald, as is the real rosemary-leaved cranberry bar ($3.50), topped with a generous plop of barely sugared whipped cream.
People’s Food Coop a couple doors down produces varied baked goods for both the Cafe Verde case and wrapped to go in the salad bar coolers. Though I’ve been happy with many choices, the frosted coconut chocolate chunk blondie bar is simple perfection. It costs $1.99 and tastes as pure as the low-syllable-count ingredients listed on its label–just flour, brown sugar, coconut, chocolate chips, eggs, butter, vanilla, and sea salt.
Bridging our journey from sweet to savory is the place with high-quality multitudes of both–in fact, I could have counted from one to thirteen without leaving Zingerman’s Bakehouse and its orange-roofed row of brethren businesses on Plaza Dr. Resisting the spectacular brownies, muffins, and custard-filled sensations, my desert-island Zingerman’s sweet is a timeless classic: the big leaf-shaped palmier, made of croissant dough dressed up for dessert in shiny caramelized sugar glaze. It easily breaks down the middle into two lobes so you can share–even on a desert island you may not want to scarf it all (though if you do, it’s a total deal at $2.95). To sit down pronto to relaxed nibbling, or even warm your pastry in a nearby microwave, head next door to the four-table Swanky Cafe, which smells as butterific as the Zingerman’s cake bakery it’s part of.
For the Zingerman’s savory entry, can I count sourdough rolls that just happen to have huge chunks of chocolate? If not, I’ll go with pogacsa, the tiny, buttery cheese-enhanced national roll of Hungary. They cost just seventy-five cents, and I prefer the version sprinkled with caraway and poppy seeds for extra flair.
I was hooked the first time I headed out Washtenaw almost to Golfside to try Roma Bakery’s zaatar. A staple of the Middle East, it’s a dried thyme mixture atop a cracker-thin crust. Olive oil binds the powdery spice into a pesto-like paste. Add nuttiness from sesame seeds and a bit of char at the edge as they pull it straight from the oven, and you have a highly appealing meal that’s particularly satisfying since it costs all of a buck and a half.
Mediterranean Market has zaatar for the same price, available alongside mozzarella cheese atop a doughy pita. What I most adore here, though, are the luscious lemony spinach triangles that cost just $2 and taste bright as sunshine. Any of the oven-fresh breads go well with in-house hummus that’s not smooth or whipped–rather, it has texture that remembers the garbanzos it came from, with a medium-strong real garlic kick.
A lot of Ann Arborites grew up on Asian buns, and Eastern Accents on Fourth Avenue makes them two ways: steamed and baked. I prefer baked, and BBQ and cheese are my favorite flavors, each costing just $2. A nutty, slightly sweet, and more ornamental bun filled with ground lotus seeds goes very well with tea.
Since we’re talking sweet stuff again, let’s close with a fun item that is destined for staying power (no, not Washtenaw Dairy Donuts, ’cause they’re fried, not baked). It’s a novelty you won’t find just anywhere. It costs six bucks and comes encased in glass from one of the newest sugar shacks in town: the stylish Sweet Heather Anne cake shop on North Main, just across the tracks from the river and currently open for retail sales on Friday and Saturday. It’s cake in a jar, of course! Supermoist circles of chocolate, orange, or other cakes get dropped into Ball-brand canning jars and iced in situ with seductive frosting creations (salted caramel, anyone?). A tiny wooden spoon comes tied on with a fabric bow. Have a bite, say mmmm, put the lid back on, take a brisk walk, and repeat–all winter long.