Americans have deep-rooted nostalgia for classic sweets ranging from cupcakes to doughnuts to chocolate chip cookies to the perfect slice of pie. But then we have the pastry chefs and bakers who are dreaming up the next-level desserts and creative pastries and inventive Viennoiserie that make us stand in long lines and take pictures of them—just look at what they’re doing to croissants. Some bakers are dreaming up completely new hybrids or creations, while others are taking tradition and then modifying or riffing on it. Here are some of the most popular baked goods from around the country, and thanks to social media, many have earned quite the rock star status—although these are more about a sugar high.
Of course we have to start this list with the Cronut. This cream-filled croissant-doughnut creation started the craze of all crazes, a phenomenon that swept across the world (behold the powah of social media), and its creator, Dominique Ansel, has even trademarked it. How many pastries get named one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2013” by TIME Magazine? The line for this hybrid is a phenomenon in and of itself, with people queueing up very early every day in Soho in New York for a chance to try one (the limit is two). It’s quite an experience, with bakery staff offering people fresh-made madeleines, hot chocolate in the winter and lemonade in the summer while they wait in line. People have even met in line who got eventually married, and rings have been offered in Cronuts too. They change the flavor of the Cronut each month and never repeat it, from cherry blossom sour cherry to caramelized malt Valrhona chocolate with Maldon salt. And if you don’t get to try one, there’s always some other amazing item from Ansel’s Willy Wonka-like mind in the case to try, like the Frozen S’more, Magic Soufflé, Milk & Cookie shots and sage-smoked brownie.
The cruffin has been called the “unicorn of pastries,” a supremely satisfying love child of a croissant and muffin, made with layer upon layer of brioche dough laminated with French butter, and formed into a muffin-like shape. If that isn’t enough, it’s then crème-filled with flavors ranging from the popular strawberry milkshake, passionfruit or lemon meringue, to more outré flavors like matcha-prickly pear or ispahan (lychee rose raspberry). It’s flaky, and creamy and covered with sugar, a glorious intersection of flavor and texture. Baker Ry Stephen, an Aussie native, opened popular SF shop Mr. Holmes Bakehouse with business partners Aaron Caddel and Aron Tzimas in 2014, and soon thereafter, the long lines every morning of people hell-bent on trying the cruffin made it like the West Coast’s version of the Cronut. Stephen didn’t invent the cruffin, but with his fine-tuned baking skills, certainly created his own incredible version of it.
N.B. Stephen has left SF and is now in New York working on a new bakeshop concept with Aron Tzimas, while Mr. Holmes is working on an expansion to Los Angeles.
Pastry chef Christina Tosi is one of the country’s most innovative pastry chefs, a two-time James Beard Award winner famous for creations like her Cereal Milk ice cream (made with milk, cornflakes, brown sugar and a pinch of salt), Compost Cookies (complete with pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, butterscotch and chocolate chips), her many layer cakes without frosted sides and…the Crack Pie. It sounds simple: “toasted oat crust, gooey butter filling,” but the buttery oat cookie crust hits the perfect note of salt and the chess pie–like filling is all silky-sweet, a combination so good that it basically gets everyone cracked out on it, enough so that people order the $44 pie to be sent to them via FedEx. Fortunately, this sister bakery of the Momofuku restaurant group has seven locations: five in New York, one in Washington, D.C. and one in Toronto.
One of San Francisco’s most-Instagrammed food items, the Rebel Within is like a savory muffin, with sausage, Asiago and green onion and a moist cake-like texture, and the surprise of a runny soft-boiled egg nestled inside. When you cut into it, your brain cues up the “bow chicka bow bow” as the egg yolk runs out on the plate. It’s one of those culinary mysteries that everyone likes to ponder: how does mastermind William Werner get the egg in there? San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves sells upwards of 150 during the week, and close to double that on the weekend. Once you check the Rebel off your list, there’s an entire case of some of the city’s most cutting-edge sweet and savory items to try, from Thai scones with green curry to Werner’s rather fantastic frittata sandwich on a house-made English muffin. Remember, you can always bring something home for later.
Many people don’t know how to pronounce this eye-catching and obscure pastry from Brittany (say “kween amahnn”) that dates back to the late 1800s—hardcore fans refer to it as KA. This crusty little butter cake—which is what its name means—has some similarities to a croissant and the crackly edges of a palmier, all buttery, gloriously caramelized and sugary. It looks like a blossom, and some pastry chefs are tucking some flavors inside, while Dominique Ansel likes to display the base of it instead. Technically, it’s a challenging pastry to produce, and involves laminating some of the croissant dough with sugar instead of flour, and using salted instead of unsalted butter.
Interestingly, the pastry remains relatively unknown in France, but it has caught on in the United States with fervor. Brian Wood of Starter Bakery helped propel the kouign-amann awareness in San Francisco with his own version of KA at his wholesale accounts all over town, and it seemed to catch on nationally after that. Now you can find KA at finer artisan bakeries throughout the U.S., with many exhibiting their own flavors and creative touches. Here are a few below:
Starter Bakery in San Francisco
They made a s’mores version with a graham cracker base and chocolate and marshmallows inside, and look for their Bananas Foster version or one made with chocolate butter and dough.
B. Patisserie in San Francisco
Vanilla, coconut and other seasonal flavors, including white truffle! Mark your calendar for National Kouign-Amann Day on June 20th, when they make a special box of 20 flavors!
Huckleberry in Los Angeles
Seasonal flavors like Meyer lemon, blood orange and Marsh pink grapefruit.
Patisserie 46 in Minneapolis
You’ll find a version here with apricot jam.
Dominique Ansel Bakery and Dominique Ansel Kitchen in New York City
They refer to it as their DKA, and you can try one made with white sugar at the Bakery, the “blonde,” and the “brunette” made with brown sugar at Dominique Ansel Kitchen.
Crumble and Flake in Seattle
Classic and chocolate with chocolate ganache.
Fluff Bake Bar owner Rebecca Masson admits that she absolutely despises cupcakes, and thinks the ratio is all off—she loves cake and frosting, but the way cupcakes are made makes her want to totally restructure them—which she pretty much did at Fluff Bake Bar. She fills a straight-sided eight-ounce glass cup with layers of cake, frosting, and crunchy treats for a little bit of texture too. Her most popular seller is the Veruca Salt, with layers of devil’s food cake, salted caramel buttercream, pretzel crunch, and Valrhona crunchy pearls. She also does Birthday Cake, Black Velvet (her spin on Red Velvet), and Carrot Cake Cup/Cakes too.