Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chicago Bakery Crawl

I met a very dear friend in Chicago for my first weekend away from home (and my sweet baby) on my own.  We had no set agenda, but had three goals in mind...1) catch up (as it had been two years since we'd seen each other), 2) do some shopping, 3) eat great food and explore some of the city's best bakeries.  We were able to accomplish them all and had a very fun and delightfully indulgent weekend together.

These were bakeries or dessert destinations that I had on my list of places I wanted to check out.  I didn't actually think we would make it to all of them.  But, did we ever!  And, we actually came accross another few in the process.

Since this bakery crawl weekend in Chicago, there are a few more bakeries that I've discovered.  I'm lucky that I have reasons to be in Chicago again soon so I can check them out.  Next on the list are Molly's Cupcakes, Swirlz Cupcakes, Bleeding Heart Bakery and Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique.

But, here are the ones we enjoyed on my recent Chicago bakery crawl...

Vanille Patisserie
This was mentioned online as one of the top Chicago bakeries and while they did have some very nice things, we were a bit underwhelmed.  They seemed to definitely focus on events and special orders, so their bakery/cafe presence and selection were not that impressive.  They had a few tables and chairs, but it just wasn't an inviting environment to sit and enjoy a pastry. They definitely focused on fine pasteries and had one of the biggest selections of french macarons that I've seen, especially in the Midwest.  We sampled a chocolate one while we were there and picked out an additional two each to enjoy later.  They were amazing!

They had some of their show cakes and macaron decorations on display and they looked amazing.  The macaron topiaries were my favorite and would be perfect adorning a favor table at a wedding full of little boxes of macarons!

Sweet Mandy B's
I've heard people rave about Sweet Mandy B's and know some former colleagues that got cakes or cupcake displays from them for their weddings.  They advertise offering "old fashioned desserts" and when we got there I now saw where they were going with that.  It was full of bright colors and no nonense desserts. The atmosphere was a mixture of bustling retro bakery and an old fashioned ice cream parlor.  They had whimsical decorations every where you turned and the place was crawling with happy adults and kids satisfying their sweet tooth.

I had read some blog posts that claimed they used purchased frosting vs. making it from scratch.  I actually asked one of the bakers about this and they said it was all a bad rumour and it was really all from scratch.  We shared a buttercream frosted sugar cookie so I could taste the frosting and it was dreamy.

Being that my nickname has always been Mandy, I was interested in the name of the place too and found out that Mandy is the owner's daughter's name - how sweet. 

You saw the bright cheery colors from the time you walked in. They had two shop spaces painted in bright yellow with these teal green awnings.  There was this cute saying on the door - must be their ingredients for a successful business - 3 cups of positivity, 1 cup of goodwill, 4 drops of easy going, 2 cups of good humor, 2 cups of sharing, 1 bag of smiles, and so on. 

I watched someone frost dozens of cupcakes. They didn't get too fancy with anything - there was no piping, no intricate toppings.  Just a quick swirl around with their spatula and a dash of sprinkles.  They are generous with the frosting though!  It seems that they're quite generous with the food coloring as well. Not only were the bakery decorations bright, but so was their frosting - on everything.  I like it when things are colored somewhat naturally, but this went with their whole theme. In addition to cupcakes, cookies and a few other pastries, they had dozens of little cakes with various decorations that were ready to have someone's birthday wish piped on.
We sat right below this sign and we definitely agreed after scarfing down our sugar cookie loaded with buttercream.

This was one of the bakeries that we just happened upon.  It was literally two doors down from Sweet Mandy B's and while I was thinking it would be in big competition, this place just had a different level of class, a different audience and a more expansive menu.  They were a bakery and had a small selection of tarts and pasteries, but also were a full fledged cafe offering coffee, tea, drinks and a yummy lunch menu.  It was a gorgeous open air design to the bakery with outdoor seating and just seemed like a refreshing European cafe where you could sit with a book for hours uninterrupted.  

They are known for their shortbread and while we were on sugar overload from Sweet Mandy B's, we were able to indulge in a sample of the shortbread and it was fabulous.  Instead of the traditional crispy, crumbly shortbread, but was more like a soft shortbread bar or biscuit. 

I loved how they had their water displayed for people to help themselves in these classic glass bottles too. It these kind of little touches that people appreciate.  Well....at least people like me.

I do have some bittersweet memories of this place, but mostly sweet. We used to live one red line stop from this place and I have adored it from the first time I discovered it.  And, to this day, it is still my favorite Chicago bakery.  They just have it all - an amazing selection of pasteries and cookies, an inviting cafe and a cute little shop on the side with all kinds of things you can barely resist. 

I tried to get a full photo of their bakery cases, and this isn't even all of it.  This is filled with all kinds of amazing things that almost look to pretty to eat. I got so much inspiration just gazing at it all.  The top is brimming with cake domes filled with even more.  On top of this, they serve lunches and have an amazing house made gelato selection.

They have a phenomenal cookie decorator that does all their cookies and they are so adorable! All these and more were displayed in the bakery cases and there were dozens more wrapped in cellophone with pretty bows in their gift shop.  Audrey received a pretty cupcake cookie to enjoy when I got home.

We looked through all the lovely things in the shop. The sign on the table encourages you to "bring home something wonderful." I certainly did find a few wonderful things to take along with me - mainly little gifts for Audrey, including a felt cupcake barrette.

This was the end of our bakery tour on day one, so we decided to take some time to rest, enjoy some tea and continue to stare in amazement at all the pastries.

This was another edition to the bakery crawl. We decided to spend our second day shopping the Walton/Oak Street area and a few places along Michigan Avenue. I was told that Sprinkles Cupcakes had just opened a new place in Chicago and I just had to check it out while I was here.  I think the cupcake only bakeries are fun and interesting, but they lack the inviting feeling that many cafe bakeries have and well, they obviously have a lack of selection aside from different flavored cupcakes.  Ever since the Food Network show, Cupcake Wars, started with the owner/founder of Sprinkles as a judge, I thought it would be interesting to see what her cupcakes are like since she critiques everyone else.

We made it to Walton Street and I was searching around for the building and suddenly realized what the round decorations on this building represented.  The line formed outside was also a clue that this must be the newly opened, sought after Sprinkles Cupcakes.  Let me tell you that I thought my friend was going to leave me in line on my own as she thought it was a bit ridiculous to stand in line for several minutes to pay over $3 each for cupcakes.  I thought it was a bit silly too, but just had to since we were already there.
They had some pretty interesting flavors, but the place really was quite impersonal.  All the cupcakes were behind this huge glass window, orders were taken quickly, the floors were concrete, the place was too crowded and your only choice for sitting down was a long bar seating against the window.

We had yet to have lunch, so we decided to get a few flavors to go and enjoy them later in the peace and quiet of our hotel room.  I can't resist getting coconut and we also got a cherry cupcake.  The coconut cupcake was to die for and the cherry one was alright.  One thing we both definitely agreed we did not like is the sugary circle decoration on the top. It must be made of gum paste or something, but it definitely didn't taste good.  I think using fondant or marzipan would be much more chewy and tasty, but they probably need to use a harder, more solid decoration so it will last longer.

Now for some dessert night life.  This was our last evening in the city and we headed to Wicker Park to this dessert bar that I heard about when the pastry chef/owner was on Martha Stewart's show. She's also a three time James Beard nominated pastry chef and when I was told she was sitting at the end of the bar from where we were, I felt I was spotting a culinary celebrity.  

After all our other sweet indulgences the past few days, we didn't want a heavy dinner, so we each had a great glass of wine and got a cheese plate complete with housemade crackers.  I wouldn't have let us leave without getting dessert and we were oh so happy with our choice.  We got the brioche doughnuts with their housemade fudge sauce and housemade caramel corn. It was amazing and a perfect end to such a sweet girls weekend.

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