Little did I know a couple of weekends ago that my chances to scout out the bakeries of New York were soon to be cut short. As a result, my brain is often wandering to thoughts of some of my favorite spots, hoping they are able to weather the storm and remain running (when we can all traverse the world safely again think about giving your local establishments like Butter & Scotch, Two Little Red Hens, The Doughnut Project, or City Cakes some patronage while getting a sweet pick me up to get ya through these crazy days). I think of the places I had planned to visit and the friends I had planned to finally visit with. And while I cannot know when I will be leaving the vicinity of my New Hampshire home again, much less return to the city, I have one final Scoutin’ it Out trip to share.
The day was unseasonably warm (as an increasing number are nowadays), the sun burst forth from the sky, and I met my pal Brianna (previously mentioned vegan By Chloe advocate and whose food Instagram you should give a peek and a follow! A queen of aesthetics and fabulous food suggestions!) to get some vegan baked goods at Peacefood Café by Union Square. This sit-down or take-out joint with a second location on the upper west side boasts vegan main courses from pizzas to sushi, and a dessert menu with a range of cakes, cookies, and pies that I was interested to taste the dairy-less version of. While my experiences at Erin McKenna’s – perhaps NYCs most famous vegan bakeshop – have all been positive, there was one thing they don’t do there that’s a pretty important staple in my diet: layer cake. And with a body that doesn’t particularly lovemy affinity for dairy, finding a viable dairy-less alternative to occasionally opt for when I’m longing for a slice of cake would be a small concession I would be happy to give my dairy-rejecting flesh prison.
We arrived at the simple, semi-modern café, but were immediately met with the pastry case as if we were stopping at a classic diner off the highway on a road trip. Cakes cooling in the refrigerated bottom, muffins and cookies strewn about the room-temp top, we stood for a good few moments considering our options. My cake choice alone left me stuck. I can always count on a go-to chocolate cake, but a soft spot for carrot cake had also been developing in me. Ultimately, I went in neither direction and did what no statistics would have pointed towards and ordered the vanilla cake. Vanilla cake with vanilla frosting. Plain, simple, vanilla cake. Have I ever written that flavor so many times in a row describing an order?! Of course a smaller treat had to be gotten for sampling, and with Brianna’s direction I also ordered a cinnamon bun. For her part, Brianna got a toasty looking ginger and strawberry muffin (a pairing I have had once before in a scone, and was interested to see how it came out this time around), and a grasshopper cookie sandwich, a choice at which I reeled. Cookie sandwiches are a delight, combing two things that I love dearly but rarely get to meet – cookies and frosting. The chocolate cookie was also going to give a taste of chocolate from Peacefood, but mint? I was in the presence of a chocolate and mint lover? Now I am not one to turn away a thin mint, but that’s about where the mint dessert train stops for me. However, on an outing where I was opting for vanilla over chocolate it was already a day of out of character palate explorations. Growth! Change! Experimenting!
We took our goods and found a coveted empty bench in Union Square which was crowded in that special “first nice day after a cold winter” way, despite the winter not really being that cold and barely any snow needing to melt for the grass to see the sun again. Nevertheless, the air was jubilant with the awakening of spring and the beginning of many days of friends gathering on the green for a picnic and a chat. Usually, I find myself unable to enjoy my treats outside due to a phobia of birds, but on so nice a day I felt empowered to try my best to face my feathered foe and enjoy the sun. Brianna and I took our respective cake and muffin out for our first round of tasting for our own picnic.
The layers of my cake were clean and proportionally sound. I was not to be disappointed with the amount of icing, separating the three sponges in two definitive layers of its own, and decoratively dolloped on the top and sides. But while the cake looked moist, it seemed to be to a fault, as a couple thin lines of condensed sponge could be seen in a couple areas. This is usually a sign of a gummy sponge to come, a result of possibly too much moisture and under-cooking or over creaming the butter and sugar at too high a speed. So when I found the cake a little on the dense, gummy side I was not terribly shocked. Though I will always take a dense and moist cake over a crumbly dry one. And, simple as it was, vanilla did come through both in frosting and cake, justifying its vanilla cake label. There was something else there, though. The frosting, closer to textural success in its buttery but light feel, also had a bit of a cream cheese tang to it. Not typically a fan of a cream cheese frosting – the thing for which red velvet seems to have been created to be the non-carrot cake, flavorless carrier – I was taken aback. Firstly, by the good quality vegan cream cheese that was much lighter and less tofu tasting than those I have had in the past (Mind that this is not a knock on tofu cream cheese, of which I am actually a huge fan, it is just that tofu cream cheese is often noticeably different from cream cheese). Secondly, by how much I liked the application. It brought a little something extra and interesting to the otherwise plain vanilla cake. In the middle of sweet and soft, a small cheesy tang hit to switch up expectations. If I ever find myself making a vanilla cake, a cream cheese vanilla frosting will definitely be considered.
Conversely, the muffin was found to be a textural success, but lacking in its advertised strawberry and ginger flavor. Strawberry, I find, is often difficult to properly get into a cake or biscuit, especially when out of season. Unless using fa bountiful amount of highly concentrated freeze-dried, it’s easy to get lost amongst the crumb. This, unfortunately, was the case. While hints of ginger shot through at times, the strawberry wasn’t really part of the equation. It was more of a spice muffin than strawberry and ginger. A good spice muffin. Just not what it was advertised to be.
Cake and muffin down, we moved on to round two of cinnamon bun and cookie sandwich. The bun, squishy and sticky, showed signs of being under baked. The outside was utterly blonde – a far cry from golden brown – and when I pulled it apart for sharing it was more inclined to smoosh in my hand than tear. There seemed to, again, be a moisture and timing problem here. Lined with a good amount of butter and cinnamon sugar the flavor was good enough, but the main descriptor was gummy all over. Decidedly the least impressive of the haul.
Last for the tasting was the grasshopper sandwich of which I was so dubious. I first tasted a bite of chocolate cookie on its own, giving it a mint-less chance to show me what it had. This was a softer cookie, often the case with a cookie sandwich with insides liable to burst out the sides when under the duress of a hard crunch. One of the few instances where a cakier cookie is acceptable, I was happy with the almost fluffy chocolatey barriers. At least the cookie game would be solid. And I knew I liked Peacefood’s overall icing execution from the cake. So it was my tolerance for a chocolate and mint pairing that was to be put to the test. And while the texture of the icing along with the mint did give a brief flashback to brushing my teeth, this was perhaps the most triumphant bite of them all. A thin mint with more textural variety is what we had. The mint didn’t overpower or wash out the mouth. I didn’t feel like I was eating a palate cleanser or a ruined cookie, but found myself enjoying the true marrying of the two. Is it my favorite flavor combo? Certainly not. It has nothingon the reigning chocolate and peanut butter. But perhaps it does have its place. In very specific applications. At very specific times. In expertly proportioned ways. (That means the jury’s still out on mint chip ice cream, you monsters).
This was one of those instances of a surprise star in a scoutin’ out adventure. While the thing I went for was enjoyable but not without some glaring problems, the thing for which I had derision turned out to be the star of the show. A twist I never would have found without the help of a friend. It’s these kinds of sweet treat adventures I love. Where I try something new and am met with a pleasant surprise. Where I can fight my bird phobia, warding off the flight-abled enemy with manic kicking quickly followed by panicked retreats, to enjoy desserts in the beautiful outdoors in the presence of a friend.
Those days may be on hold right now, but there is still opportunity to try something new and improve on the old both inside and outside the kitchen. With a well-equipped kitchen at hand I’ll have plenty to chronicle here as I sauté, braise, cream, and beat my anxiety about the world into new culinary creations and accomplishments! Not to be too much of a New Englander, but busy hands do, in fact, do wonders to curb the dangers of an idle mind. And in a time when it can feel like there are actively few things one can do to see positive results, some mindful time over a mixing bowl or the stove, where in even thirty minutes or an hour you can make something totally new from the fruits of your labor alone, can do wonders in bringing a little light and purpose to the day. So, while I wish I could share some of my own fruits with a wider audience, for now I’m happy to have this place to talk about them with you.