Sometimes you just have to jump in and go along for the ride, or the sugar high as the case may be.
I tend more towards the savory than the sweet, however, I certainly am not going to turn my nose up at a good cupcake . . . or 10 . . . or 20. My friend Jason approaches pastries (with an emphasis on cupcakes) with the passion expected of a good aficionado, but then applies the studiousness of a scholar. He always travels prepared of with a list of bakeries to try, scouring the world in search of its most delicious treats.
He came to visit the Bay a couple of months ago and I definitely didn’t want to stand in the way of good research. Clearly my only option was to join him on his quest. (Greg joined in on most of the tastings as well, because who wouldn’t?) I think it would have taken me years to gather this much intelligence on the baked goodies of Bay Area without him. Here’s a recap of the bakeries I was able to taste in on, grouped by general area.
This downtown oakland bakery and cafe had a wide range of goodies on offer, including panini and pizza, but we kept our sampling to the pastry case. (I’ll be back for you, savories!) As a group we tried a variety of cupcakes and doughnuts, some of which were beautifully decorated, albeit a bit pricey. Truthfully, some of the most alluring items (I’m looking at you bacon doughnut) delivered less punch than promised on the eye. The standout item was the comparatively more humble looking orange bourbon doughnut for its flavor that popped above all the others. Hands down the group’s favorite!
Here are a few more shots of their treats:
That bacon doughnut looked good, but promised more than it delivered.
We’d hoped to try several pies, but ultimately ended up with only the Chocolate Cream Pretzel Pie, which was filled to order–a nice touch. It’s clear that there’s attention to quality ingredients and both the whipped cream and chocolate filling had a creamy texture, with good chocolate flavor in the filling. Somehow, however, overall the flavor lacked pop. We added a hint of sea salt to the pie at home, and it did give it a boost.
We did have another gripe–they don't necessarily note which pies are out on their menu board. On both occasions we went in, we stood and stared at the menu for several minutes carefully deliberating on our final selections. Despite being the only people in the store and just a few feet from the counter, we were told that our selections were out only after finally attempting to order. This amounted to about half the menu on our first trip.
Ultimately, I wanted to like it more that I did, but I’ll reserve some judgement until I have that Chocolate Raspberry Pie.
This Orinda shop was a really great value option at $2.50-$2.75 per full sized cupcake. The cupcakes had a very homestyle appeal. Of the various I tried, my favorite was the Taste of Persia which topped a rose-scented cardamom pistachio cake with a pomegranate buttercream frosting and fresh pomegranate seeds. The frosting had a really bright, tangy, fresh fruit flavor. I’ll note that Greg found cardamom a little overpowering, but I loved it the way it was.
They also had a couple of boozy inspired special flavors like the Dublin Chocolate Bomb which infused Guinness and Irish Whiskey into the chocolate cake. I appreciated that there were a couple of savory selections as well, like the Cheddar Stout which also used Guinness, but this time in a savory cheddar cake.
They have selections in mini, as well as full sized options. Flavors rotate monthly, so check their site for availability.
Dublin Chocolate Bomb: Guinness Chocolate cake w semi-sweet chocolate chips, brown sugar meringue buttercream w a touch of Irish whiskey, and topped w salted caramel and a sprinkle of crunchy toffee.
Cheddar Stout: Savory Guinness and cheddar cake w sautéed onions, carrots, celery, and rosemary, topped w cheddar cream cheese and a cheddar crisp.
Jason picked up a bunch of pretty little cupcakes from this Berkeley shop before coming to stay with us and we sampled through them at our place. Of those we tried the Bunny Love, a carrot cupcake with pecans and pineapple topped with cream cheese frosting, was my favorite.
This was followed right up by the delicate and lovely Lemon Pistachio cupcake, which combined and light, fluffy cakes frosted with pistachio buttercream.
Here are a few others we sampled.
Cookies & Cream: devil's food chocolate cake frosted with Oreo-vanilla buttercream, topped with Oreo cookie chunks.
Fat Elvis: Banana Cake w chocolate chips and peanut butter frosting.
Chocolate Salted Caramel minis: chocolate cake with salted caramel frosting.
SFI only made it two of his SF stops, so definitely need to explore further since I know there are sooo many wonderful bakeries in the city; however, they were two really good stops.
This modern SF bakery has received plenty of attention, and I have to say I feel like it lived up to the hype. We dropped into their Valencia Street location in the Mission to pick up our goodies. Each item looked a little work of modern art and I loved the new and interesting combinations of flavors, like in the matcha green tea snickerdoodle w bits of white chocolate.
And of course, the much lauded Rebel Within is a must. Anything with a gooey egg is almost certainly going to be good, but it was the moist, savory muffin with green onions, a Parmesan-Asiago blend, and pork sausage that stole my tummy’s heart. We brought this one home and warmed it up gently in the toaster oven. Predictably amazing.
Check out this Eater article for a full breakdown of the Rebel.
This is one is a bit of surprise because pastry is not specifically the focus as it’s primarily a craft chocolate shop, where you can sample your way through multiple single origin chocolates. This is reason enough to go in, but to sweeten the deal there is also a coffee shop and bakery inside. Jason glimpsed the pastries on our way to Craftsman and Wolves and we stopped in on a whim. Lucky for us we did, because their Pancetta Scone was one of my absolute favorite treats of the whole bakery tour. The sweet-savory mixture of Fatted Calf pancetta, major dark chocolate chunks, cocoa nibs, and Deglet Noor dates seemed designed to speak directly to me. Delicious! . . . and it got even better when we warmed it up at home.
I’m also a sucker for doughnut holes, so I snagged a simple cinnamon sugar doughnut hole to nibble on, but I was less impressed on this front.
Jason also highly recommended the Raised Lime Poppyseed doughnut. If you’re not planning on heading to the North Bay anytime soon, they also have doughnut trucks that hit various events around the bay, and according to SFGate.com, they’ll be opening an SF outpost very soon.
This is a lovely little shop in downtown Novato offering a wide variety of cupcakes flavors. Owner Michelle Mahoney was tending the counter when we stopped in a was an absolute delight. She even remembered Jason from the last time he was in about a year before. Moving onto the goodies, the signature vanilla, olive oil, and sea salt cupcake is a subtle and sophisticated elevation of your run-of-the-mill vanilla cupcake.
Hummingbird Cake is one of my very favorite cakes and it happened to be on offer as a monthly special. Cream cheese frosting is the initial draw to the hummingbird cake, and here it tops her delicious version with a banana, pineapple, and pecan spice cake.
Next time around, we’re going to have to stop in for her modern approach to afternoon tea. Flavors are available in mini and full size cakes and there are options for those with dietary restrictions.
In addition to this shop, Flour Chylde also has trucks that head to various farmer’s markets all around the bay.
Jason picked up a single brownie from this Healdsburg shop on his way down to our place. It was a really fantastic brownie though, and worth the mention for its rich, creamy frosting and a garnish of potato chip crumbs to counterbalance the deep chocolatiness with a hint of salt.
It's very likely that we'll be doing this again next year, so please feel free to comment with your favorite spots around the Bay for us to try next time.
Post Script.You might be wondering how we didn’t go into sugar shock from all of these treats. The truth is that we did try to spread out the sweats. We also went on several long hikes and walks to (slightly) offset the calorie surge. Here are a few of the beautiful vistas we got to take in.
Mount Diablo State Park: Summit and Secret Valley Trails
Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve/ Elliott Nature Preserve: Cascade Falls Trail and offshoots
Here I am with Jason, my sugar sherpa