Baker, Cook, Writer, Pursuer of Gastronomic Joy

Two Little Red Hens

I don’t often find myself in the upper east side, but when I do, I am often there to visit The Neue Gallery. A small, well-curated museum focused on art from Austria and Germany from 1890-1940, it is a wonderful place that can be appreciated in an afternoon visit. And you can always come back to see what they have in their rotating exhibit area every few months. Recently, they had a wonderful exhibit focusing on self-portraits from artists such as Max Beckman, Egon Schiele, and Felix Nussbaum. It was to see that exhibit with friend of the blog Ndeye that me to the east 80’s looking for somewhere to eat on a rainy Friday morning. Naturally, I checked my list of bakeries to see if anything was around that needed sampling. It was then we decided to make a stop to Two Little Red Hens.

From the outside the neighborhood bakery doesn’t look like much. The awning that bears its name is slightly faded and is unremarkable as it is slipped between the other larger storefronts of the block. Look through the window and you will see a small space reminiscent of an old style New England country store with little trinkets adorning the warm wooden shelves and walls and little space to sit. Step inside and you will find a wonderland that, while small, feels just big enough no matter how many people cram in to get a peek at the pastry case. I no longer felt like I was in the UES, but I was transported back to a small town New England. There was an air of welcome that warmed the heart instantly. It was the feeling of coming home again, despite the fact that it was a place I had never been to before.

Not wanting to inconvenience the other patrons who seemed to be coming into the store in a consistent stream, Ndeye and I tried to hastily look at our options and decide prudently. But not only was Two Little Red Hens on my list twice (for cake AND pie), they had a myriad of other items that looked incredibly enticing. In addition, they did not sell cake by the slice, only cupcakes. I have mentioned on a number of occasions my disdain for cupcakes and my refusal to judge a bakery’s cake execution based off one. But I was at an impasse. What was there to be done other than get a cupcake for my sample? I take my work seriously, but as a student on a tight budget I cannot buy a full-sized cake for a sample. However, there was something in the air that told me this was not a decision I need make in shame. I had confidence in the place that this choice would prove fruitful. So, a Brooklyn blackout cupcake was purchased, as well as a slice of apple pie, a cinnamon roll, a buttermilk biscuit with butter and jam, and an M&M cookie. Yes, it was a lot. It was much more than was on the list. But again, something told us that the full array of baking styles deserved a sample. Besides, how could we say no when it all added up to only $20? In New York? In the upper east side of Manhattan? A steal. And that included a small coffee and hot chocolate as well.

The employees kindly rung us up and we were able to snag one of the coveted tables for our tasting. I began with the pie. Ndeye is not a pie person in general and she began with the biscuit to get a layer of something at least akin to breakfast before the storm of sugar to come. The pie was promising on sight. The crust glistened with the granulated sugar that was sprinkled on top, and the apples were not cut too thick, possibly one of the worst textural sins an apple pie can commit in my opinion. The smell was sweet and spicy, like a house getting ready for Thanksgiving. And that is exactly the taste it delivered. The crust was the perfect blend of buttery and flakey, with just the ideal amount of crunch provided by the sugar. This was crust that could easily be eaten on its own – full of flavor and not at all there just to serve the apples. The apples themselves were nothing to scoff at either. Swimming in a sugary, saucy filling, the texture was comforting and melded perfectly with that of the crust. There was a good bit of spice coming through as well, though not so much that it smacked you in the face. This pie tasted homemade in all the best ways. I could taste the love that was put into each bite. This was a pie I aspire to emulate in my own Thanksgiving Day baking, a pie that anyone would be lucky to have at their dinner table.

As I sang the praises of the pie, Ndeye insisted I had to try the biscuit. She constructed a bite laden with butter and jam for me, and I sighed into the tender buttery biscuit. This was not a biscuit that was about the flake, but one that was all about the pillowy perfect bready structure filled with butter and salt. There was so much of those two elements already baked into the biscuit it didn’t even really need any additional butter spread on it. But the raspberry jam was perfect, cutting through the dense decadence to even it out with some fruit. I could imagine this biscuit being used as the bread for a killer breakfast sandwich, housing some soft eggs, a sprinkling of scallions and melted cheddar.

We moved onto our other breakfast-related item: the cinnamon roll. Though I was not much interested in cinnamon rolls as a kid or any cinnamon flavored thing for that matter, I have recently found them entering my cravings more and more. I find it increasingly difficult to turn down a big puffy cinnamon roll when I see one in a baker’s pastry case. Unfortunately, the best part of any cinnamon roll is the ooey-gooey middle, which cannot be achieved or reached without making one’s way through the ofttimes boring outer crust, where I often find a lack of flavor. And so, I started the journey towards the center as I tore of an edge portion. But this outer layer was unlike the disappointing ones of my past. There was not only smooth cream cheese frosting that made it all the way to the edge and a good amount of cinnamon filling brushed on the inside, but the dough itself held wonderful flavor and, most notably, was moist. So often the outside of a cinnamon roll is nothing but hard, crusty, and dry. This piece was just as moist as the middle. Again, the pastry had taste infused with a good proportion of baking spices, as well as a clear amount of handmade love and care. As  I expected, the situation only improved as we moved inward towards the center, reaching the essence of everything wonderful about the pastry.

After three complete successes, it was cupcake time. We unwrapped it and each ventured in with our forks. To the surprise of both of us, we found a filling of chocolate pudding upon breaking through! I do not know why I did not assume this, as chocolate pudding is a classic layer found between the chocolate layers of a Brooklyn blackout when in its proper layer cake form. I suppose I had assumed that the inherent weakness of the cupcake format would cause this vital element of the cake to be forgotten and leave the cake to only be topped with chocolate buttercream. With this joyous discovery our faces lit up and we went in for a taste.

Utter success. The theme of the day Tender, for this cake clearly contained a good amount of buttermilk causing it to be impeccably spongy and moist. Yet it was sturdy as well, not crumbling apart when we unwrapped it nor as we went it with our forks. Every bite was moist and full of chocolate. The pudding was perfectly smooth and there was a good amount crammed into the center of the cake, giving a wonderful, gelatinous bit of textural variation. The pudding was also a lighter chocolate in comparison to the cake, as I find pudding often doesn’t pack quite as strong a flavor punch, but this was a positive as it made the cupcake a microcosm of all chocolate is able to do. This was enhanced with the beautiful buttercream that sat in a crowning layer atop the cake. Smooth and luscious, it added one final chocolate punch to this celebration of the flavor. If I was gonna have to have a cupcake, this would be the one. It was well-rounded in flavor and texture, not dry and messy. Despite being in cupcake form, this was possibly one of the best cakes I have yet had in the city.

To put a period on our morning of food we finished off with the M&M cookie, chosen for its classic, nostalgic nature as previously discussed on this blog. We were looking for something simple, contrary to our usual hopes, that would not try to rise above its childhood-like station. The cookie was on the thin side and filled with only blue M&Ms, an interesting touch. The simplicity in its color was similar to its simplicity in taste and texture. This was a cookie that did justice to what the M&M cookie should be: sweet, chewy, and a perfect amount of M&M’s sprinkled throughout.

This cookie capped off the bakery’s singular feeling of hominess. As we sat there eating, a woman came in whom the whole shop seemed to know, and was treated in a Cheers-like fashion. Everyone who stepped into the bakery had more familiarity and friendliness than found on the city streets. People in line asked for advice about what we were eating. We engaged in dialogue with complete strangers, giving our tips from our discoveries thus far about the Red Hen’s pastry case. This bakery was like a haven from the monolithic oppression of the city’s grey buildings and cement. I could imagine coming to them to have my birthday cake done, because after that first taste of pie I had complete trust in them.

Yet there was one final treat still to be reviewed. As we finished our feast, the miniature red velvet cupcakes were brought out, and we knew our work was not done. Their red velvet cake was the item they were on my list for in the first place, but it had not been available when we first arrived. So, on our way out we grabbed two of the miniature cupcakes and had them as we walked.

It is well known that I don’t think much of red velvet cake. It seems to exist more for flash than actual flavor. However, if I’m gonna have a red velvet cake, it’s gonna be from Two Little Red Hens. There was actual milk chocolate flavor in the cake that was, again, moist as could be. And the perfectly sized dollop of cream cheese frosting on top was an exact balance of sweet and tart rounding out the small little bite. This little cupcake had a distinct point of view and a balance of flavor that I would actually order again full sized.

After hitting every item out of the park that day, Two Little Red Hens quickly became one of my favorite sweet treat locations in the city. They showed excellence in a variety of baking techniques and made me feel not only welcome, but as though I am a friend there. I would trust them to provide the perfect sweet treat for a special occasion or an everyday sugar craving. It is the ideal place to share with a loved one, or to go alone and feel the love the business has to provide. I hope to make my way back up east soon to come home again to Two Little Red Hens.