Some of the most disappointing sweet treat experiences are when a bakery you thought you could trust turns and does you dirty. The cut is even deeper when the unexpectedly poor-quality goods occur when introducing a location to a loved one. One of the most important qualities in a bakery is consistency; not just in their baked good’s texture, but in their quality as well. Why should I give you my money if there’s no guarantee the pastry will be as good as it was the first time, but rather disappointing as it was the second? In the New York bakery business, there is no room for faltering.
Unfortunately, as recorded on this blog, it is inevitable to come across such unfortunate predicaments as this. Such a let-down occurred a couple months ago when my parents and I were looking for an after-dinner dessert, and I had the idea to go to the Tribeca location of Baked. I had already been to Baked before and had a cinnamon apple cake and lemon bar that really excited me, yet I had not yet written a post about them for whatever reason. I soon discovered after this second visit that it was fate making me hold off on writing this review, for as we would soon find out, the nature of my feelings towards them would soon change.
But to talk about the negative, I must first discuss the positive that spurred me to return in the first place. On a mission to try their sweet and salty cake, a slice that sounded like everything I enjoy in the world, Ndeye and I walked in one day and were met with the news that they were out of stock that day. As a substitute, we went for the caramel apple cake (as it was fall at the time and never am I so seasonal an eater as when the leaves turn), and a lemon bar (a dessert that, in my opinion, is not seen enough and highly underrated. When I was a child one of my friend’s moms made lemon bars for some neighborhood function and they blew my mind. I have sung their praises ever since. Show some love for the lemon bar!). As we took our orders and stepped into the back we were dazzled by the hip chiqueness, the large orange “B” glowing in the back amidst a wall of wood paneling. Orange and wood paneling being two of my favorite design elements, I was feeling right at home.
One reason the tragedy that would occur months later may have come as a surprise was the inherent difference in the cakes bought. This first, caramel apple cake, has intentions far different from your typical birthday cake (the choice made later on). Whereas the birthday cake is intended to be light, tender, and rich with flavor, this apple cake is more akin to a quick bread like zucchini or pumpkin bread. “Breads” like these are truly more like cakes in their sweetness, but just made in loaf tins, and are marked by their high moisture content brought by the fruit or vegetable used in the batter and the pleasant density. It therefore makes sense that this caramel apple cake would simulate loaves such as these, as the use of apples in the batter would add oodles of moisture. Yet it was a novelty. This style of cake is, as mentioned, often in loaf form – but this was a layer cake fully equipped with icing. The icing, too, should have been another tip to me at the time that something was not right.
But for now, cake. Following the realization of the unique structure before us that filled me with excitement (as I am a quick bread fan – nothing says summer quite like a slice of zucchini bread and cream cheese for breakfast…or lunch…or even dessert! And any spice bread from a farmer’s market in fall is sure to be a success) I was gratified in the replication of such an effect. Filled with moisture and flavor, there was an ample amount to dig your teeth into in each bite, sweet apple and cinnamon easing through the nooks and crannies of the cake that had not a crumble to be found. A veritable success.
Aside from the frosting, that is. In theory, I understood why a light, almost whipped creamy type of frosting was used. Combat the denseness of the cake, give a platform to let the caramel shine. But light frosting and I have never agreed. For me, it is frosting like this that makes people think they don’t like frosting, or that it’s unnecessary. It is nothing but a sugary wall that adds nothing to the Real Thing that lies beneath. Not only was this frosting lacking in interesting qualities texture-wise, and the flavor was flat, but there was so little of it. Is this because they knew it was lackluster? And if so, make the effort to up the ante a little! And if you don’t want to do that, just don’t have frosting! Leave the loaf cake in such a form and don’t try to make a layer cake, thereby forcibly adding frosting to something that would frankly be better off without it.
Yet overall, we were pleased. Even greater satisfaction was derived from the lemon bar, which held not only a thick layer of tangy lemon curd, but a substantial block of cookie crust underneath. Normally, lemon bars tend to have but a thin barrier between the curd and the outside world, making them basically a serving mechanism for fruit curd (which I am in no way complaining about). But this bar seemed to want to honor the crust as well as the curd, an effort which, if you have read my opinions on pie, you will know I applaud. Luckily, the crust did not have the same issue as the frosting, and had a great crumbly crunch with a small injection of lemon flavor that played with the curd beautifully. One of the classic downfalls of the lemon bar is the monotonous texture – One uniform curd straight through with little crunch on the bottom. Sometimes this is alleviated with the addition of a crumble topping (as found in the aforementioned lemon bars of my youth), but often this is rejected and a simple powdered sugar topping is favored instead. But this offers no solution to the predicament. While this bar had such a sugar dusting, the base had enough substance that, while chewing, it mixed in with the curd and added some excitement to the traditional fair. We left Baked that day quite pleased, thinking we were fortunate to have found a spot so good so close to our school.
Fast forward a few months later. It is winter, and my parents and I are looking to grab an after dinner treat before they head to a show and I head to a rehearsal. We are in Tribeca, so our options are Billy’s or Baked. Foolishly, or fatefully, I made the call to go to Baked. It had been longer than I had intended, and I hadn’t written about it yet, so I would gather even more samples, expecting them to be further examples of their excellence.
Once again, no sweet and salty cake was available, so a slice of birthday cake was chosen. This would at least give me a chance to compare how they executed different cake styles. There was also a pecan bar that was calling out to me, as I was still in the throes of my pecan pie obsession and would take anything of the sort I could get my hands on. We finished out with a chocolate peanut butter bar, as my mother was there and there is no keeping either of us away from a chocolate peanut butter treat when you give us the option. With these three treats and a hot chocolate for each of us we nestled in the back booth.
A rotating plate system was established. We each started with one item, gave a couple bites, rotated, a couple bites, and rotated again. Each item was sampled in silence, the cold hard opinions to come after each item made its round. But even in the absence of words, there was the knowing Swonger look. We Swongers know our quality sweet treats. And these were not them.
Even upon sight, the cake was unfortunate. There is no room to hide in a vanilla birthday cake, and the proof was right there in the stark white sponge. A line was developed where the cake collapsed into itself forming a streak – a classic signal of tough and gummy things to come. And indeed, the sponge was dense, and not in a particularly moist way. There was just too much chew. Something had clearly gone wrong in the batter mixing process, and the result was a texture that is not fit for any kind of cake, or any other baked good for that matter. In addition to that, the flavor was weak, and the same low-quality frosting was present as with the already discussed caramel apple cake.
The pecan bar that contained all of my hopes proved to destroy them quickly. Dry and bland, the triangle was more of a formation of nuts than any sort of elaboration on them. There was no gooey, pie-like mixture holding it together – though perhaps that is what the flavorless coagulation at the bottom was meant to be. No warm spices shone through. The bottom crust was barely even present. I may as well have gotten some lightly salted pecans from the store.
The best of the three was the chocolate peanut butter bar. Luckily, it is difficult to go wrong with this classic combo. But Baked added a twist in the form of a Rice Krispy Treat bottom. On top of the puffed rice bed was the standard smooth peanut butter and hard chocolate top. The peanut butter was of good enough quality, and the chocolate was, well, chocolate, but neither were particularly outstanding in their field. And the puffed rice, while an interesting textural variation, more diminished the effect of the top two layers rather than enhancing them. But at least the flavor of each part of this bar was there in some way, and there was some good to be found in basically the combination of chocolate peanut butter bar and Rice Krispy Treat.
Ultimately, I felt betrayed. I was so excited to show my parents a great local spot, but we were met with nothing but disappointment. Now, perhaps this was just an off day for them. Or perhaps our coming late in the day was bad timing. But if you are going to be open into the evening hours, I expect the same quality as in the morning. If that quality cannot be kept up consistently, that is a problem that needs to be fixed by either a time change or a change in the kitchen.
But as I think back on that first taste of their icing I had many months ago, I realize I should have known. That no matter how infatuated I was with the other parts of that tasting, icing is truly my own personal litmus test. If I can’t get on board with your icing, everything else should be under scrutiny. Baked was truly a lesson for me. Not only in how I go about future sweet treat explorations, but in returning to those places I have already been, always with a critical eye. Always aware of the possibility to be surprised, for better or for worse.