Another Tale of Two Bakeries

In food on 01/23/2011 at 7:50 pm

The other half’s busy season has begun, which means weekends are now reserved for sleep and gluttony. Gotta feed the soul to keep up the spirit during those late weeknights. Mostly, we barely have enough time to stock up the fridge. Luckily, the arrival of Dr. Mud finally gave us an excuse to make a special visit to Balthazar’s baking factory in Englewood.

There’s no Chinese bakery near us, so we make do with the few fresh-fried treats at our pan-Asian grocery store’s cafeteria in Jersey City, 555, which recently expanded with a new gigantic billboard, a ‘farmer’s market’ (really just a walk-in fridge room) and a roti and kopi shop (currently not stocked with much of anything). It sounds grand, but it’s actually as sad and pathetic as the ongoing renovation of Route 1/9 right outside its parking lot.

Luckily, looks aren’t everything. The open kitchen behind the hot foods display churns out about fifteen different hot items, mostly Cantonese, but better than the Chinese-American takeout places. Of course, it’s not as authentic as Flushing, but it ties us over. The other half is obsessed with the fried and battered whole shrimp, made spicy with rings of jalapeno. They are a very crunchy and salty umami.

We also like the roast duck, liberally dry-rubbed with five spice powder. On the bakery side, while the steamed bread is too airy, they also continually fry fresh red bean paste-filled sesame balls in between ringing up customers. The other half gobbles those up. I prefer the savory fried mochi, an original concotion I’ve not had anywhere else, stuffed with ground pork and veggies. Along with the egg tarts, these two items are sold as quickly as they are retrieved from the vats of oil.

As crazy and hectic as Jersey City is, once you survive driving through it and surface in Englewood, you have earned your visit to Balthazar, the pan-European (minus Italian) bakery that has become a legend in its own right. It was once an offshoot of the French bistro in Soho, but now supplies many restaurants and gourmet supermarkets with their bread. Its pastries, however, are only available at this location or the always crowded Soho venue.

Lucky for us, Dr. Mud lives within walking distance, so we heeded the warning that there is no place to park at the factory, and ambled to it in the deep freeze. Indeed, all the spots in front and along the two sides of Dean Street are taken up with fancy SUVs or piles of snow.

We were there around 11am to avoid the lines, but once inside we found a couple waiting in the entryway because there was no room to stand in the shop area. There’s a system here though so it’s not as bad a wait as it could be, with several people taking orders, more in the back filling them, and one cashier at the end. There was barely enough time to take in the bevy of options, decide on what we wanted to buy, and snap some shots of the eye-poppingly gorgeous treats lining the entire counter, on several levels. I was even too preoccupied to take photos of the people working the in factory right behind the shop.

I’ll be nice and give your eyes a break, and a chance to wipe the drool from your chin.

Okay, more beauty shots:

Seeing the signature Balthazar yellow just makes me smile. The truck driver kindly waited for us to play tourist before he drove off. Today’s mission was to sample some pastries and get a loaf of the best bread I have tasted so far: pain de seigle. Who knew that was just the tip of the iceberg? Next time we will bring a bigger budget for the other artisan breads and tarts galore.

This is what we ate for our European dim sum back at the bat cave:

Top: Monkey Bread – like a pull apart cinnamon roll but milder in flavor. Thumbs up.

Bottom: Chocolate Torte – very dense, heavy and chocolate-y. Too rich for brunch, but, Thumbs up.

Left: Lemon and Chocolate Madelines – Crisp like a cookie, crumbs like a cake. Double thumbs up on the lemon.

Right: Cinnamon Bun – A flaky type of cinnamon roll. I prefer a dense and QQ bready roll. Maybe the pecan sticky bun would have been preferable.

Top: Mixed berry turnover – Scrumptious, flaky, slightly tangy filling. I would have preferred apple, which I’m partial to. This savory version would be worth a try once I have a disposable income. Two thumbs up.

Bottom: Maple walnut schnecken – The glaze contains a floral flavor that is a little jolting. Perhaps it was lavender? The other half approved. Again, I think this would have been better on a doughier platform. It felt like it was all topping and nothing to counteract the strong taste.

Who doesn’t appreciate a brioche? Well, we ate this in the wrong order. It is very subtle and delicate with a nice sugary crunch, but bland once you’ve eaten other delectables before consuming it.

A family favorite, we always get a chocolate croissant at Whole Foods when we shop there. That one is good, but this one is perfection, crispy exterior, QQ interior, airy and light but still with substantial chew. Quadruple thumbs up.

This is truly unique, a cannele. These look a little unappealing, but one taste and you’ll be hooked. They are caramelized with a thick skin, almost hard. The innards are custard-like, which I cut out and shared with the other half. They require special molds to make, but if we ever get them, we will definitely try to reproduce them. But for now, I’m happy to just buy them at the best European bakery on both sides of the Hudson.

Ingredients: (recipe from food52)

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup good quality dark rum
  1. In a saucepan, heat 1 1/2 cups milk with the vanilla extract and butter. Bring just to a boil over the stove or in the microwave.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks with remaining 1/2 cup of milk and blend well. Whisk in the first milk mixture along with the melted butter. Set aside to cool.
  3. Add the sugar, flour, and rum to the milk mixture. Whisk vigorously so that there are no clumps remaining. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
  4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Remove the batter from the refrigerator and whisk again. Pour mixture into cannele molds about 3/4 of the way to the top.
  5. Bake for an hour and fifteen minutes (sometimes it takes as long as an hour and a half depending on your oven). Remove from the oven when the tops are dark brown (if it’s been an hour and a half and the tops still aren’t brown, cook longer). Let cool, then remove from molds.

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