This past October marked Scoutin’ it Out’s first birthday! One whole year of food thoughts and explorations! This blog has lead me to try some pretty bangin’ spots I wouldn’t have otherwise found, and other places that were not exactly all they were hyped up to be. As I thought about this past year of sweet treat scouting I thought of one such place that was the start to it all: Magnolia Bakery. Since my lackluster German chocolate cake experience last year I have ardently avoided returning and advised others to do that same. Yet I am continually told that a return was necessary to instead try their iconic cupcakes and banana pudding. I was told that despite my cupcake aversion, the ones at Magnolia were worth a try. But even greater was the love expressed for the banana pudding. No one said what it was about the classic southern pudding that excited them so, but I just simply had to give them another chance and try it.
So in the spirit of second chances, I returned. During a night at the Philharmonic with now frequent guest-of-the-blog and good friend Ndeye, she mentioned that despite living in NYC these past few years she had never visited Magnolia and felt that it was somewhere she needed to go before our senior year is up. I mentioned that I had been considering a return visit to give them a shot at redemption, and it was decided that I trip would be made to the Upper West Side location after the show.
One thing that made this location already better than my experience at the Rockefeller Center location was the fact that there was some actual seating available in the small shop. While I cannot imagine sitting comfortably and relaxing while it was busy during the day, the small marble tables and wooden Vienna chairs were cute, quaint, and just big enough for the two of us.
Because it was in the last hour of operation, choices were limited. Out of the cupcakes that were left Ndeye happily went with a red velvet and I, still no red velvet fan, chose a white-out cupcake, which was just a chocolate cake topped with marshmallow-y frosting with chocolate cake crumbled on top. The banana pudding was also purchased, of course, as well as a Snickers icebox bar which consisted of a chocolate cookie crumble base topped by a cheesecake-like slab with scant bits of a Snickers bar crumbled on top.
We began with our cupcakes. The cakes were of average size, but the red velvet was especially piled high with cream cheese frosting in Magnolia’s signature swirl while mine had a dollop of marshmallow more typically in proportion to its size. Because of the reasonable size and ample topping, the frosting to cake ratio was actually rather pleasing as cupcakes go. I usually take issue with a cupcake’s inability to let me get a Perfect Bite, with the malleable frosting sitting on top just waiting to get all over the face when one tries to eat it in conjunction with the cake. This is in addition to the general messiness that comes with consuming a food that has a tendency to produce small crumbs when unwrapped and eaten by hand. While the latter event did occur, we were able to eat these cupcakes while getting fairly well built bites of both cake and frosting.
But neither the cake nor the frosting were anything spectacular. The chocolate was a little overly dense in terms of texture, and it gave me nothing special flavor-wise. It was a chocolate cupcake that you could frankly find at any high school bake sale. A little chalky. A little general. Some higher-quality chocolate and perhaps even more sugar would have done some good. The frosting was similarly shrug-worthy. Marshmallow as frosting is already not my favorite, but I tried to judge it for what it was. Even still, while it was light and fluffy as intended, the flavor was nothing special. No strong vanilla to combat the chocolate. Just a dollop of slight sweetness purely for textural difference. Ndeye’s verdict was similar with her red velvet. While it did what red velvet does, it was general and basic. Neither enticed us to order again.
We moved on to the Snickers bar. Though it was possible eat as a hand-held treat, we took pieces with our forks for sharing. I am glad we did so, for upon separating a piece the chocolate cookie bottom crumbled excessively. Had the bar not been sitting on the table the crumbles produced upon biting would have gone everywhere. This made for a sandy crust that did not satisfy texturally. Because of this failure to execute texturally, it was difficult to fully get the chocolate from the crust. The cheesecake portion was again, simple. Smooth and creamy, but nothing spectacular when it came to flavor. And with just a couple chunks of Snickers crumbled on the top, not every bite contained them. This begged the question: what exactly made this a Snickers bar? There was, in theory, the chocolate included in the bottom crust, but as mentioned this was not particularly strong, whereas in the candy bar is completely enrobed in it and therefore is fairly milk chocolate-forward. And while there was that okay cheesecake layer that I suppose was there to emulate the nougat section, the flavors were not really the same. But there were still two pretty important components of a Snickers that the bar did not include in any way: the caramel and peanuts. Two pretty substantial components to the bar. No caramel drizzled on top of swirled throughout. No peanut-y crunch incorporated, or even peanut butter used to at least include the flavor. So while it was already just a pretty okay bar, it also did not live up to its labeling, which is a pet peeve of mine. Because if you’re going to advertise a baked good as tasting like something, it should be doing its darn best to hit the necessary notes. And if you don’t, it leaves me and many others pretty unsatisfied.
This left us with the banana pudding. Although I have had banana pudding many times over the years while growing up and have developed a love for the comforting layering of vanilla or banana pudding, vanilla wafers, and banana slices, Ndeye had never had it before. Therefore, while I was looking for some specific flavors and textures, Ndeye was trying to see if it was pleasurable at all.
The cup of pudding was nice and refrigerated, and had a slight smell of cold banana. Throughout the light yellow pudding I could see parts of Nilla wafers, my favorite part of the layered pudding. Yet because they were already clearly not layered, I was curious to see how the proportions would play out. As we spooned out bites the pudding was nice and thick, and I could see a fair amount of wafers and bananas mixed throughout. And as we ate it we found the saving grace product of Magnolia. While Ndeye discovered a new dessert that was comforting but light and texturally interesting, I found a pudding that gave me the pleasures of banana pudding that I knew and loved from the comforts of home. The banana pudding was thick and custardy and softened the wafers just enough so they were not sodden, but no longer crunchy. These vanilla bits contrasted with the mushy banana bits amongst the gelatinous pudding making for the textural and flavor diversity that makes a layered pudding so great. This was darn good banana pudding. And while it was again, nothing special, nothing I could not make myself given a kitchen, it was yummy and satisfying and something I would get again when craving a banana pudding and unable to make it myself.
So while Magnolia Bakery once again did not prove itself to be the essential bakery of NYC that it is made out to be due to its ordinary cakes, it gave us one thing for which we would return. It did give us some darn good banana pudding, and even introduced the food to Ndeye with a positive response. Therefore, while I retract my complete write off of Magnolia Bakery, I stand by my original assessment that when it comes to being a bakery, Magnolia does not excel.