When did mediocre start passing for great? When did we start saying it was just plain OK to lie, or accept lies as truth, or say something's great when it's really just mediocre? No, I'm not talking about the McCain/Palin campaign. I'm talking about good bakeries. Like many baby boomers I have a private room in the back of my brain filled with fragrant memories of my childhood bakeries that fed my soul while they were feeding my stomach. I'll never stop searching for that moist delicate Danish Rye bread my mom bought ritualistically every week at Deerfield Bakery. She'd buy "sweet butter" (unsalted) special to schmear on it, then lay on a piece of ham and that was considered a proper lunch in my home growing up. And their cup cakes, pies, and cookies were made with real butter, satisfying you so you never felt like you needed more than one at a sitting.
So what happened? For the last decade I've been searching for that flavor of real butter, real cream, that sublime texture of hand made, not machine punched out, pastries. People will tell me of a place that they think is great but then I go and walk out shaking my head and thinking, "I guess I just have to make it myself." When did our standards get so low and when did we start accepting mediocre as great?
Awhile back I was hired as a consultant at a bakery, which I won't name, and as they were showing me all their ingredients and where they kept them, I noticed a row of spice drawers. Nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, BLOV. BLOV? "What's BLOV?" I asked. The owner said "Huh?" I said, "BLOV? There's a drawer there that says BLOV ... what is it?" Then he said, "Oooooooooh, that's the butter, lemon, orange, vanilla flavoring." That day I knew something had changed in my world ... my tribe was becoming extinct. I exhaled, tried to be understanding, and then thought, NO!
It seems that the downfall of pastries in America parallels the downfall of our health, maybe even our civilization. Do I sound dramatic? It's just that it seems like we just keep getting heavier as the food gets less satisfying and less real. We don't seem to know in this country how to enjoy food and let it really feed us, how to relax, how to savor time with family and friends, how to stay balanced and how to be sensitive to what we need. So I've been hunting for my tribe of pastry chefs making real food, real pastries. The people that bake with real butter, real vanilla, real everything. And I think I found a few. So, in my eternal search for real pastry, recently I found not one but two kitchens to satisfy my over-educated palette and very high standards. Here's the places that are so good it stops me in my tracks when I try to walk on by and I just have to go in, (with credit card not cash because I can't resist buying large quantities) buy things and bring it into my home for my family to savor and hopefully remember some day to carry on the campaign, for good pastry that is.
Pasticceria Natalina is a charming jewel box-like Italian bakery that draws from Sicily for its inspiration. It is owned and run by Natalie Zarzour (and her husband Nick) who was mentored by her Sicilian aunts and grandmother and also goes to Sicily twice a year to refresh her repertoire (I think she's there right now). My favorite item there is her Aragostine (Lobster Claw). This pastry is similar to the Italian sfogliatelle, but it's baked without the traditional cheese filling. Instead, it's split and filled with a cannoli cream and chocolate chips. Also try her candied orange rind, Torrone, and cannoli piped fresh, which she insists you consume within 30 minutes of it being filled. She has myriad traditional Italian cookies, pristinely bagged up. Try her gelati, too. Really try anything ... it's all good.
Pasticceria Natalina 5406 N. Clark St Chicago, Il. 60640
Julius Meinl is a coffee and tea shop from Vienna, the home of coffee cafes, with locations in Chicago (aren't we lucky?). Try their Almond Croissant, which may be the best in the city. It's slit and stuffed with ground almond pastry crème. The pastry chef Nicole Stemler went to French Pastry School in Chicago as did a lot of the pastry assistants, so that's part of why the stuff is so good. They have traditional Austrian pastries as well as seasonal favorites. A plum streusel tart is the darling right now. They boast 50 kinds of tea in case coffee isn't your drink. They also make the pastries for Jolane's Café located, of all places, at the ABT Electronic Appliance store in Glenview. I'll go anywhere for good pastry, even an appliance store ... and so should you.
Julius Meinl Café - Southport 3601 North Southport Chicago, Il. 60613
Phone: 773-868-1857 http://www.meinl.com Julius Meinl Café - Lincoln 4364 North Lincoln Avenue Chicago, Il. 60618
Jolane's Cafe 1100 Milwaukee Ave. Glenview, IL 60025