Well, I am finally back home, exhausted and happy to be back in my own bed, and my own kitchen, for a while. Over the last month I feel like my life has been a mix of crappy in-flight meals, weird hotel beds and constant jetlag. I have travelled more across the US in the last month then I have in years, visiting 4 cities in a very condensed period of time, quick visits just in and out. First there was the #BakeLikeABrit tour with Bake From Scratch Magazine, travelling through San Francisco, Minneapolis and New York and then this past week I went to Chicago for the first time to work with the guys from Nordicware. Because I am obsessed with baking, I of course took these opportunities to explore as many bakeries as I could possibly hope to squeeze into the small amount of free time I had and thanks to the horror that is jet lag I managed to visit a lot. Jet lag has just one upside, waking up at the crack of dawn, or actually well before it most mornings, meant getting to bakeries as they opened, the key still in the door, fresh baking still pouring out of the oven (one bakery even opened an hour earlier than normal when I accidentally turned up an hour before they officially opened up for the day). Over the next few weeks I am going to write a few posts about some of my favourite bakeries I visited on these trips and first up is my most recent trip, my first visit to Chicago.
I, of course, like most tourists visiting the States, have been initially lured mainly to the coasts. I’ve visited New York multiple times, fell in love with San Francisco the second I set foot in the Mission and even visited DC when I was 18. But for someone who would describe himself as fan of both travelling and of the US, I had never made it far from the ocean. I had many preconceptions of what the midwest would be like, mainly cold but very friendly and maybe with a less exciting food scene compared to say NYC or SF. Im not completely sure where the later idea comes from but thankfully this idea was completely wrong and both Minneapolis and Chicago were amazing food cities with the friendliest welcome I have experienced in the US.
Chicaco was maybe more of a whirlwind than the other places on these trips, I might have been there for five days but the majority of my time I was at the International Homewares Show which whilst fun really could have taken place anywhere in the world, after you've seen one convention centre you’ve seen them all. Thankfully I arranged my travel in such a way that I had a day and a half to explore the city fully and then a few early mornings more to get out to a bakery before heading off to the show. I landed Thursday afternoon with a packed bakery list in hand but also with a bad case of jetlag. I was so incredibly tired I could not imagine exploring the city properly and actually enjoying myself. I ended up dragging myself not to a bakery instead just a classic Chicago style hot dog joint, the Weiner Circle. Always listed as one of the must-try Chicago dogs this was my chosen spot purely because it was lodged in my mind after seeing it in some long ago forgotten movie from the 90’s. With a full stomach and ridiculous levels of tiredness I ended up back at my hotel and crashed out. The morning after, with time running out, I hit the road hard going from bakery to bakery, like some sugar obsessed cookie fiend..
It’s safe to say when I reached out for recommendations, Bang Bang Pie was the place that came out on top. When Erin Mcdowell (baker supremo at food52.com and author of The Fearless Baker) suggested I HAD to go, who was I to argue. I love American style pies, I think they’re the best of American baking and something I wish was easier to come by back here in London, the perfect thing for our cold wet climate. Bang Bang is instantly welcoming, lots of exposed brick, a great playlist, and very strong coffee, this is the sort of place I would hang out at a lot if I lived here. Conscious of how many places I had planned to visit this day I struggled a lot choosing between pie or biscuits for breakfast. Biscuit are maybe more commonplace for that early morning hour, available here as a variety of sandwiches or served up simply with gravy, which I need to fly back to Chicago to try. As I was there for the first time however, I felt I had to try the namesake, the pie. They use a mix of cookie crumb and leaf lard pie crusts and as much as love the former it is the latter that has my heart. I went for what seemed the most breakfast appropriate, the triple berry jam, which despite its name isn't actually that sweet, which makes this pie stand out. The crust is tender, flaky and fully of flavour, the perfect vessel for a simple berry mixture that tastes fresh and bright. It is topped with crumble instead of more pastry making this a surprisingly light slice of pie, this would be heaven in the summer serve a la mode with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. An extra shout out goes to the filter coffee that comes strong and with unlimited refills which helped me stay awake that morning.
Whilst at Bang Bang I got chatting to Michael, the owner, and after giving me a tour of the kitchen he graciously offered to give me a tour of the neighbourhood and two incredible bakeries. The first was Fat Rice Bakery, attached to the very well known Fat Rice restaurant, a Maccanese restaurant that is seen as one of Chicago’s best restaurants. If you know anything about Maccau then you know at one point it was a Portuguese colony and its food culture has forever left its mark. When it comes to baking this is especially obvious. The Chinese love of egg tarts can be traced to the Portuguese introducing them to Macau and even though the Chinese version is different the similarities are undeniable. The version on sale at Fat Rice is more Portuguese in style and is delicious but not the thing I came to try. One of the pastry chefs at Bang Bang had told me about their incredible cured egg snickerdoodle. Relatively unknown outside the states, the snickerdoodle is a cookie I can imagine you grow up on; a simple affair it is a soft sugar cookie rolled in cinnamon sugar, delicious but not necessarily that interesting. At Fat Rice however, they have taken this idea and turned the volume way up. They have kept the base of the cookie basically the same but the gone is the cinnamon sugar replaced with a ceylon tea sugar, delicious. Where it starts to sound a little unusual is the filling as the cookie is stuffed with a cured egg yolk. The yolk basically forms the salty element to balance out the sweetness of the cookie, think salted caramel, or salted milk chocolate. It might sound odd until you have tried it but boy does it work well, I absolutely loved this cookie, it was a genius combination. They also sell their unique take on a Chicago hot dog and whilst it looks utterly opposite to the classic dog it tastes spot on and was delicious, with a strong hit of the characteristic celery salt that defines a Chicago style hot dog. It is the snickerdoodle I will be going back for but next time I really need to go and try the restaurant too.
There is no trend in baking this year that pleases me more than the proliferation of the canelé. Tricky to bake perfectly and needing expensive copper moulds to bake; they used to be hard to find and when you were lucky enough to spy some they were often heartbreakingly bad, soft and chewy, laking that crisp outer shell and depth of flavour. But over the last six months or so it is safe to say they have become a legit trend. Not so trendy that you are sick of the sight of them, they're a little too esoteric and difficult to perfect to become mass market, but enough so that when a craving strikes you don't have to head to bordeaux to find a good example. Cellar Door is a small cafe/restaurant turning out incredible food with a stellar pastry line up to boot.. They have recently expanded their hours, now serving dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, a destination I am told should be on the top of my list for my next stop in Chicago. This visit was a quick in and out, I was there for one thing, the canelé. I’d heard it was the best in the city and was excited to see if it could live up to expectations. The texture and flavour were fabulous, they make a slightly smaller than normal version but this just means you get a higher ratio of crust to interior which is no bad thing in my book. The other thing to note is the restaurants incredible bread. They sadly no longer sell the bread by the loaf but if you are dining in the restaurant you will absolutely fall in love with their stunning sourdough, served with homemade cultured butter. I can happily say they are making some of the best bread I have had the last year, amazing stuff.
Mindy Segal is one of the best known pastry chefs hailing from the windy city, opening her eponymous restaurant in 2005. She was also awarded James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2012 and in 2015 released the brilliant book Cookie Love. Her baking has a distinctly american bent, think cookies, brownies, coffee cakes, and doughnuts. This is a place that speaks my language. And when I am talking about this place I am specifically talking about the bakery outpost in the Revival Food Hall, I sadly didn't have a chance to make it to the restaurant proper but was lucky enough to try a whole host of goods from the bakery. Whilst sat waiting for a friend in the food hall, in a sugar daze from my bakery tour that morning Bo, the pastry chef from the bakery, walked over and introduced himself and handed over an insane amount of baking for me to try, I’m talking something like 10 different cookies, cakes and slices, insane! Thankfully the team at Nordicware were all to willing to sample the goods and lets just say there were very happy that morning. If you have been reading this site or following me online for any amount of time you probably know my aversion to cupcakes. I’m just not a fan. My reasoning is this; there is nothing wrong with cupcakes per se, it is simply that when buying one it is very hard to tell by simply looking whether they will be good or bad and 9 out 10 times I am disappointed by overly sweet and dry cupcakes. So it’s not that I hate cupcakes, it’s rather that finding a truly good example is pretty hard. But when it comes to the chocolate cupcake served here, they’re bloody delicious! The chocolate cake has a deep rich chocolate flavour, not too sweet and the perfect texture. But it is the buttercream where this cake shines. They use a mousseline buttercream which is what I would refer to as a meringue based buttercream and it is perfect for this cake, impossibly silky and just the right amount of sweetness this is one cupcake I would happily enjoy!
It is safe to say that Chicago is a city obsessed with doughnuts. I was given more recommendations for doughnut spots than any other style of baking but sadly I only had time to visit this one spot, so next time I'm going on a doughnut crawl around the city. It was hard to ignore the call of the Doughnut Vault because of the sheer amount of recommendations I received for it. They have two locations, the original tiny store in River North, a cute hatch with barely enough room for a handful of customers at any given time, and the bigger bakery just across the river in West Loop. With a reputation as strong as this place and a space as small, you know what that means; queues. The original location, the vault itself, is well known for selling out every day so bear that in mind. They make a whole host of doughnut styles, from cinnamon sugar coated apple cider doughnuts, to filled berliners, to my new obsession the ‘old fashioned’ that beautiful imperfect doughnut that rips apart as it fries, leading to a crunchy outer shell and a perfectly tender inside, why this style is impossible to find in London is a complete mystery to me, if anyone needs an idea for a new bakery trend here is a sure fired hit! One morning I treated the team to a 12 doughnut selection and I am pretty sure I over ordered, they were done with sweets by this point, I had after all been bringing in baking each and every morning for them to try. Of all the doughnuts I tried my two favourite styles were the jam filled berliners and the old fashioned. It is also important to note that the jam filled doughnuts are a ridiculous size, probably three times the size of a regular doughnut and completely packed with jam, this is definitely a doughnut to share. If queuing isn't your thing then I have a little tip to help you get your doughnut fix a lot quicker. My favourite coffee shop in the city, Sawada Coffee, is owned by the same restaurant group so they have a daily selection of the old fashioned doughnuts and there’s no queue, plus they serve my new favourite drink, the hipster imagined Military Latte, a matcha latte spiked with a shot of espresso and a hint of vanilla. It sounds odd and I am not the type of person to order this sort of drink but I was intrigued and it’s fabulous, with one hell of a caffeine hit
I have followed this bakery on Instagram for years so was excited to visit but my lousy planning and useless time keeping meant this was a more rushed visit that I would have liked. I arranged to meet a friend there early morning but arrived to find the bakery was closed. Thanks to the team they let us in a little early and we basically had the run of the place for an hour. Sadly this was also a visit on my last day and so I was reaching the upper limits of my sugar tolerance and so had to limit the amount of things we could try. A savoury pastry was absolutely the way to start and since the ham and cheese croissants were being pulled from the oven as we arrived, they were the obvious choice and were exactly what I wanted, crisp and flaky on the outside and tender in the middle packed full with cheese and ham this was the perfect breakfast pastry. I took a passion fruit tart and canelé to the show to taste test and the passion fruit tart was fabulous, bright and vibrant, the team loved it! I also thought the canelé was delicious although personally I missed the flavour beeswax imparts on this pastry. Traditionally made with what is known as white oil, a 50/50 mix of melted butter and beeswax, it is believed to contribute to the crisp outer shell but even more so I think it adds a wonderful honey note to the baked canelé that for me, is a big part of the charm with this pastry. I missed it sure but no so much that I wouldn't order these again and again. On my next visit I will absolutely be back to try more of the menu, this is definitely my sort of place.
This is, of course, nowhere near an exhaustive list of Chicago’s bakeries but these were my favourite spots from my recent visit and I look forward to exploring more of what the city has to offer next time. I had high hopes for Chicago and I was happy to find a welcoming city that I cannot wait to visit again sometime soon.