It was always a special occasion when the Italian miniature pastries box was set on the dining room table. They weren’t all Italian–the cream puffs and eclairs are decidedly French–and they rarely ever came from an actual Italian bakery. But they were filled with thick sweet custard cream, and topped with chocolate icing and powdered sugar, and they were tiny so they were automatically better, and I loved them all the same. Who doesn’t love pastries? Generally, any sweet baked good can be considered a pastry, from cream puffs to baklava to cakes, brownies, cookies…you name it! But when I think of pastry, I think of the little miniatures that came in a bakery box, tied with thin white and red-striped string, that always meant a special guest was coming over to the house (or, conversely, that my family was the special guest at someone else’s house!) What are some of the things that come to mind when you think of pastries?
The definition of pastry is so broad, and the history of pastries exists from ancient times in every culinary culture out there, so we’ve already covered quite a few national food holidays that celebrate individual pastries. Want to get your hands on a cherry tart or sink your teeth into miniature eclairs? Check out my recommendations from throughout the year:
January 2 – Cream Puff Day
January 30 – Croissant Day
February 21 – Sticky Bun Day
April 10 – National Cinnamon Crescent Day
June 17 – National Apple Strudel Day
June 18 – National Cherry Tart Day
June 22 – National Chocolate Eclair Day
July 5 – National Apple Turnover Day
August 11 – National Raspberry Tart Day
August 28 – National Cherry Turnover Day
October 5 – National Apple Betty Day
November 17 – National Baklava Day
With all of those yummy pastries already highlighted and accounted for, I wanted to take a look at some of the other pastries I loved as a kid and still adore today. Some are very familiar to all; others are new both to me and probably to you. Let’s chow down on some delicious pastries!
Whenever we did get that Italian miniature pastries box at the bakery, everyone–me and my parents included–always fought over who got to eat the cannoli. The cannoli was always the grand poobah of the pastry: a hard, sweet pastry shell filled with super-sweet and super-thick ricotta-based cream, and usually topped with pistachio flakes or chocolate chips. Because one of the things you really want out of a pastry is the cream filling! A traditional Sicilian dessert, cannoli were originally prepared as treats for the Carnevale season, but now, both in Italy and stateside, they’re eaten year-round. Lots of places now make Italian-American adaptations on the original cannoli, using mascarpone-based cream, or even light whipped cream, instead of ricotta-based cream (which of course is an inferior alternative!) There are also mass-produced “cannoli platters, using the broken and rejected cannoli shells as Sicilian tortilla chips, with a big pot of cannoli cream as the dip. If you’re looking for a real authentic cannolo, these options just won’t do! So you’re gonna have to huff it down to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where Circo’s Pastry Shop has been an institution for over 60 years. It’s still a family bakery that serves traditional Italian cookies, cakes, biscotti, and of course, those beloved pastries–including a fantastic cannolo. There are no bells and whistles here, just plain cannoli with exquisite old-world flavors and a hint of powdered sugar on top. Each order of cannoli is made fresh, so the crispy shell doesn’t get soggy. Which means that it’s probably best to head down there, order up a bunch, and eat them all on the train ride home 😀
Circo’s Pastry Shop
312 Knickerbocker Ave, Bushwick
“The family-owned Circo’s Pastry Shop (312 Knickerbocker Ave., at Hart St.) has dished cannoli, butter cookies and Italian delicacies for almost 70 years, and is today run by Nino Pierdipino and his sons Salvatore and Anthony. “We make the best cannoli. Every one is filled fresh to order so that the shell doesn’t get soggy,” says Sal.”–New York Daily News
“The encyclopedic range of baked goods produced by Circo’s today is the result of changing demand sharing shelf space with a commitment to tradition. None of the original Sicilian goods have been discontinued, so there’s still the full range of filled-to-order cannoli, sfogliatelle, and anything else that can be stuffed with sweetened, delicately flavored ricotta. Most eye-catching is the Family Cannoli, a toaster-sized cannolo filled with four dozen ordinary cannoli.”–Bushwick BK
“Founded in 1945, Circo’s is an old-time Italian bakeshop, and its menu—filled with cannoli, rainbow cookies, tiramisu and flavored ices—make it a blast from the neighborhood’s past. Custom cakes can also be ordered from Nino Pierdipino (who was an employee at the shop in the ’60s) and his two sons, who now own and run the bakery together.”–NYC Go
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The cannoli here is amazing. The shell is crisp and thin and the cannoli cream is so light it evaporates in your mouth. They only fill it when you order it which is the way cannoli is meant to be eaten. Those other cannoli out there should be ashamed. They also of course have great Italian butter cookies. I like them all but the ones with jam fillings are are particularly good. You can also get a cafe con leche with that cannoli to go.”–Jeff K.
“The staff is always friendly at Circo Pastry Shop, a breath of fresh air in established Bushwick businesses. The main reason I frequent Circos is for their cannoli, the mini ones they fill while you wait. I have not found fresher or more delicious cannoli (less sweet than other bakeries and pastry shops) anywhere. And, to have found such a treat in my own backyard is even more of a delight.”–Stephanie S.
You may not have heard of this next pastry before…I sure hadn’t. In fact, you could say that the DKA is only made in one city in the world, by one pastry chef in the world: Dominique Ansel. That’s because the DKA is named after him! 😛 The DKA is in fact a Kouign-amann, a round puff pastry with caramelized sugar, and while it originated in France, it’s rarely ever made in lieu of sweeter, fancier pastries. But star pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who left Daniel Boulud’s restaurant to start his own eponymous bakery, takes on the eccentric pastry and makes it his own–literally. The puff pastry dough is incredibly flaky and buttery, and almost melts in your mouth–amazingly good for something amazingly simple. When you’re in the Village, you’ve got to stop into the Dominique Ansel Bakery, and try the very best pastry of the very best pastry chef.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St (between Thompson St & Sullivan St)
“Daniel Boulud’s pastry chef, Dominique Ansel, left the Daniel kitchen to open his own French pastry shop, where he specializes in lovely updates of textbook pastries, like filled choux pastry religieuses, layered cakes, and Bordeaux-style canneles with dense crusts and custardy insides. Go early to get a sugary, buttery kouign-amman.”–The Village Voice
“Finally, you can’t leave without the DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann; $5.25). We’ve long hoped to find a first-class kouign amman in this town, and we finally have one. This king among pastries is so indulgent, it’s almost not fair to everything else in the pastry case. It’s a crispy, insanely buttery flaky caramelized disk of deliciousness, the butter and sugar actually apparent in the softer center. It’s pricey to consider, but hard to regret once you’ve had a bite.”–Serious Eats
“Dominique Ansel’s Kouign Amann (succinctly known as DKA, $5.25) is something pastry dreams are made of. If you never had Kouign Amann think of a buttery, flaky, caramelized croissant except it’s neither of the traditional shape. If you never been to Brittany (or France) and eaten a Kouign Amann, the DKA would be the closest to perfection as you can get.”–The Wandering Eater
“The haute wunderkind behind Daniel’s four-star desserts stepped out of Boulud’s shadow this year, delivering sugary delights like pastel meringue kisses; bright, airy macarons; and chocolate-slicked éclairs from his very own bakery. But it was his exotic offerings that really won you over. Ansel silenced all debates as to the city’s best croissant with his DKA—a caramelized, flaky take on the croissantlike Breton specialty kouign amann.”–Time Out New York
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“If I ever owned a bakery, I would want it to be just like the Dominique Ansel bakery. I came because of Eater.com’s article about the top 10 desserts to try in NYC. The DKA made the list, and rightfully so. Yes it’s $5 for what is essentially a sugared pastry, but it’s worth every penny. I died and went to carb heaven when I took my first bite. It’s really that good.”–Shu Jin S.
“On a whim, I decided to order the kouign amann too. I saved this for when I got home, which was the perfect post-dinner dessert. Having never heard about kouign amann before I visited the bakery’s website, I was intrigued. The DKA was a revelation in French pastry for me. I loved the crunchy, sugary exterior and the soft, almost custardy interior. It really was like no other pastry I’ve ever had before. I’m not one to be a “noisy” eater – one mmmmm will usually suffice – but I found myself making a noise of approval after every bite of this thing. I can’t quite place what I’d describe this as a cross between – a croissant and ?…Regardless, I’m in LOVE! And, at $5.25 each for one of these bad boys, my wallet is in disgust. The cheapskate part of me winces at the thought of shelling out that kind of dough for a pastry, but my heart and stomach think it’s ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY worth it!”–Nina C.
I may not have found these inside of the miniature pastries box, but as a Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn, you can bet I had my fair share of rugelach! An Ashkenazi Jewish pastry, rugelach seems a lot like stuffed Pillsbury crescent rolls: a triangle-shaped bit of puff pastry is filled with sweet filling, like raisins, walnuts, fruit jams, marzipan, or–everyone’s favorite–chocolate. Then it’s rolled up into a crescent or roll shape, baked, and topped with sprinkled sugar or drizzled chocolate. They’re absolutely delicious when you get them fresh, chewy and flaky all at the same time. It’s perfect for this time of year: Hanukkah, which started last night, is a traditional time to enjoy rugelach with your family. But, paradoxically enough, the best rugelach in New York City isn’t made in some ancient Jewish bakery in the Lower East Side; you have to go uptown, way uptown, to a Southern-born African-American baker named Lee Lee. Alvin Lee Smalls, the baker and owner at Lee Lee’s Baked Goods in Harlem, started futzing around with a rugelach recipe he found in the paper over 40 years ago, determined to make it perfect and his own. Buttery and flaky instead of dense and drab, Lee Lee’s rugelach has been catching the eyes of gentile and Jew alike at his storefront for over a decade. The raisin rugelach are his best–he soaks the raisins in honey in order to keep them soft and plump through the entire baking process. They may not be kosher for Hanukkah, but what they are is absolutely delicious. The fact alone that the best traditional Jewish pastry in the city is baked by a black man in Harlem–“Rugelach by a Brother”–is one of the things that truly makes me love New York.
Lee Lee’s Baked Goods
283 W 118th Street
“When thinking of places to get a taste of the best rugelach in Manhattan, Harlem may not be the first place that comes to mind. But this bakery, owned and operated by Mr. Lee, is celebrated as one of the best rugelach spots in the City. This “Rugelach by a Brother,” as a sign in the store proclaims, is praised by many as notably buttery and nicely textured.”–NYC Go
“Alvin Lee Smalls’ obsession with the buttery nuggets began more than four decades ago when he stumbled onto a recipe in a newspaper and launched his quest to create his own version of the traditional Jewish treat. “I didn’t really like it,” said Smalls, 69, recalling the results of the newspaper recipe. “So I [practiced] … for about six months and I ended up making it right.” Years later, Smalls’ dedication would gain him the devoted following that ultimately saved his livelihood: Lee Lee’s Baked Goods on W. 118th St. and Frederick Douglass Blvd.”–New York Daily News
“In one of those unlikely New York twists, the best rugelach in the city is found in Harlem and made “by a brother,” as the window description had it before a recent renovation. Head to Lee Lee’s, where you’ll find perfect specimens of cream cheese dough, apricot jam, and walnuts pressed into service by Mr. Lee. If you time it right, you may get a batch warm from the oven.”–Manhattan User’s Guide
“Pareve, these rugelach aren’t. Delicious beyond belief, they are — particularly when they’re hot out of the oven. These morsels, in apricot and chocolate varieties (which are essentially the same but coated in gooey dark chocolate), are so satisfying and tasty that I can even find the self-control to eat them more sparingly in order to savor the flavor. They are light and moist, but in a crumbly, authentic way with a touch of crispiness and the delicious surprise bites of raisins and nuts. “Most rugelach are made with vegetable shortening, which is much cheaper and longer-lasting. Shortening behaves well at most temperatures and makes crumbly, tender doughs, but has no flavor of its own. Mr. Lee’s rugelach are buttery, magnificent, and fleeting,” says the New York Times.”–Forward
““A lot of the old places are gone,” Mr. Lee laments. Down on the Lower East Side, Kosher bakeries are more memory than reality. So Mr. Lee keeps the Jewish baking tradition alive in Harlem, where he eschews factory-produced doughs and industrial-grade fillings. Good ingredients, good heart, good rugelach-like my grandmother, Mr. Lee puts his soul into every pastry. A single bite brings a sticky smile to my face, reminding me that baking is blind to religion.”–Marcus Samuelsson.com
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“One of my favorite bakeries in all of New York City!! Don’t be influenced by its appearance – I promise its a diamond in the rough! Its known for it cinnamin and appricot rugelach, which is the best rugelach I’ve ever had (and I live in Queens!) It’s different than any I’ve eaten before, and when you get it right out of the oven its light, warm, fluffy, and just a makes you happy.”–Jennifer S.
“On a sidestreet in Harlem is NYC is a still undiscovered spot for the BEST rugleach. Mr. Lee Lee’s bakery is a throwback to the days of yore, when small, quaint places run by independent shop-owners who poured their soul into their product abounded. And make no mistake, this gentleman bakes his rugelach with love, from the crispy, flaky melt in your mouth crust to the nuts and chewy raisins stuffed inside each roll that have your tastebuds screaming –this is one terrific cookie. This is rugelach for those who scoff at calories, diets, who have scoured the earth for good rugelach and have been disappointed. I have read every review on rugelach in NYC and after eating Mr. Lee Lee’s cookie, knew I had finally been granted entry to rugelach heaven. Walk two short blocks from the train- station to this charming nook and you will be transported to another decade where time stands still and the only hum you hear will be the purr from your stomach. I was there one afternoon and three older ladies were just whiling away the time, sipping tea and eating their cake. Mr. Lee Lee makes rugelach in both chocolate and raisin; get both, savor the first, be addicted to the raisin.”–Helen Y.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!