January may be the new Lent, but instead of sacrificing pleasure to honor the coming feast, we Americans like to rev up for our month of virtuous suffering with forty days of Fat Tuesdays: stuffed turkeys and pumpkin pies, Christmas cookies, eggnog lattes, staff-party cocktails. The closer it gets to the new year, the more we glut so by the time the last Champagne hangover fades we'll really be ready to slim down and heal.
Or at least that's how it works for me. But this year, a mess of sweets-makers set up shop just as the holidays were ending. This past week I set aside my lo-cal shake to test them all out.
Few resolutions could withstand the bevy of beauties at Teacake Bake Shop. There they are, under glass domes, robed in frilly paper ruffs, crowned with fat swishes of pink frosting, bejeweled in sugar sprinkles. Squat and dainty-cute all at once -- like a Beanie Baby -- the cupcakes at this new Emeryville bakery are hard to resist.
The cupcake fad isn't brand-new to the Bay Area, of course, but it seems to be peaking. Actually, the entire nation is being frosted and sprinkled right now. It's all thanks to Manhattan's nine-year-old Magnolia Bakery, which made cupcakes look so damn adorable, and to Sex and the City, which exposed Magnolia to the world and made it acceptable to pay $3 for the treat we brought our second-grade classmates on our birthdays. Magnolia is still going gangbusters, and a September 2005 New York Magazine article reported that bakery cofounder Jennifer Appel is plotting a nationwide franchise of her dissident Buttercup Bakery.
Behind every great cupcake there is a good woman, it seems. Agnes Hsu, who has a master's in nutritional sciences and years of experience in marketing, opened Teacake Bake Shop on December 15. Like Appel, she has designed her small restaurant as a "retail concept," but one offering premium ingredients -- Madagascar bourbon vanilla, Callebaut chocolate, and, most importantly, butter.
Hsu's cupcakes are pretty much in the Magnolia mold, but unlike Magnolia's, they're so moist they don't require a thick covering of icing. Fans of wedding cake will appreciate the white-cake model with vanilla buttercream, while chocolate fans will like the chocolate sour cream cupcakes topped with fudgelike chocolate icing. I don't like either white or chocolate cake, so I licked every dollop of chocolate frosting off my cakes and then turned to the moon pies, two puffy, almost sticky chocolate cookies stuck together with marshmallow cream.
With cupcakes on my mind, it seemed appropriate to swing by the eight-month-old Love at First Bite, a cupcakery tucked back among North Berkeley's Walnut Square shops. Owner Deborah Im baked for friends throughout her years at Cal and law school in New York. She moved back to the Bay Area to practice law, but took time off to open up Love at First Bite.
While Teacake Bake Shop pipes on its icing and delicately scatters on high-design sprinkles, Im focuses more on the taste, mixing up flavors like chocolate-peanut butter, carrot cake, and green tea, and spreading on the frosting with a homier touch. Her basic white and brown models can't match Teacake's in look or crumb, but Love at First Bite's more exotic cakes shine. Of the nine my co-workers and I tasted, our favorites were the Pretty in Pink, with strawberry cake under a vortex of tangy, berry-pink frosting; the moist, dense Pumpkin Bliss, offset by tart cream-cheese frosting; and the Lemon Kiss, which is bright with citrus.
Cupcakes aside, Teacake Bake Shop's real raisons d'être are its "teacakes," Hsu's old-timey name for cookies. Hers are palm-sized, packed with butter, and underbaked slightly to leave the insides dense and tender -- they barely hold together -- inside the thinnest and crispest of shells. Flavors range from classic icebox lemon, rolled in crystallized sugar for an extra crunch, to a spiced-up chai latte white chocolate. Hsu and her staff bake in small batches throughout the day, so the cookie you buy is still likely to be warm from the oven. The chocolate in the mocha chocolate chunk cookie oozed all over my fingers the moment I reached into the bag for it.
Two national companies also have opened "dessert cafes" in the East Bay in the past month. When I stopped in the brand-new CremaLita Dessert Cafe on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue, it turned out to be a national ice cream franchise specializing in "fat-free" and "low-carb" soft-serve, with six flavors spotlighted each day, and a few espresso machines and hand-made desserts on the side. Thanks to a friendly counterperson, I tried every flavor on tap, from the vaguely amaretto to the vaguely chocolate marshmallow. But CremaLita's diet ice cream couldn't resolve the same question I have about vegan cheese and cuddle parties: What's the point?
The point of Moonstruck Chocolates is obvious enough: chocolate as lifestyle. Moonstruck distributes its truffles nationwide, and sells them at a number of upscale local grocery stores, but it's now going all Starbucks with six chocolate cafes in the Portland and Chicago regions. The Bay Area is next -- Moonstruck opened its seventh cafe in Walnut Creek's Broadway Plaza shopping center just before Christmas.
The Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe showcases its truffles like Tiffany does jewels, and they do sparkle inside the long, well-lit glass cases, perfectly molded and whimsically decorated with white-chocolate swirls, gold-leaf dots, and in the case of the pet-shaped truffles, whiskers and collars. Their exteriors, whether milk or dark, are formed of beautiful chocolate. Compared to local chocolatier Michael Recchiuti's truffles, which all but evaporate into a perfumed miasma the moment you bite into them, Moonstruck's interiors come off denser and less aromatic, but they're still a cut above Godiva.
The stuffed chairs and cafe tables are slowly filling up with shoppers and students who have discovered the cafe's mochas and cocoas. Made with a barista's precision, the frothy, smooth cocoas are chocolate-dense, not oversugared. The Mexican Hot Cocoa adds cinnamon and the Chocolate Chai, Indian spices. If you need that extra frisson to mark the end of your abnegation and self-improvement, order the Ocumarian, which starts with a deep rush of Venezuelan chocolate and ends in a low, late chile burn, a little pain to sweeten the pleasure.
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