Category Archives: Bakeries

Nut-Free Chicago: A Travel “Guide”

Last month, I spent a week and a half in Chicago, where I did just about everything I do in NYC. I wandered aimlessly. I people watched. I browsed clothes I couldn’t afford. I watched way too many late-night Cops reruns. And to my surprise, I dined out a whole hell of a lot. Last time I ventured to Chicago, I subsisted on literally nothing but McDonald’s, Subway, pretzels, Cup Noodles, and water. But that was pre-blog. Now, I’m a practiced diner-outer, and I have a much harder time settling for such a repetitive and high-trash diet. It’s probably a good thing.

But before I got there, I didn’t expect to find all that much in the way of safe restaurants. It took me months to compile even the very beginnings of the NYC-specific list that’s now my pride and joy (half-serious about the whole pride-and-joy thing), so I didn’t expect to get all that much done Chicago-wise in the 10 days I’d have there. I figured I’d bark up a bunch of wrong trees, find maybe a restaurant or two, then resign myself to a week of fast food and Airbnb-home-cooking—but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Chicago’s not at all a difficult city to eat in, and with the help of a list compiled by the No Nuts Moms Group of Chicago, I ended up with plenty of options.

So here they are—all the non-chain restaurants I ate at, and some I called, but couldn’t make it to—in brief-ish (yeah, right), because we’ve all got things to do. And please, pardon the iPhone photos. I didn’t bring my camera.

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Cakes ‘N Shapes

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For my entire childhood, I had a single favorite birthday cake: chocolate, with buttercream icing, screen-printed with whatever strange photo I’d chosen that year. My mom, along with the majority of the adults who attended my birthday parties, preferred the Ciao Bella malted-milk-ball gelato cake we sometimes served, and though I loved that one, too, I thought it no match for my beloved photo cake. I was all about that buttercream icing (and all about getting to choose a photo, too), so for each of my birthdays, my mom would order that same cake from its same bakery—a bakery I don’t think I ever knew the name of, seeing as I was, like, 10—and each year, I’d happily devour it, sans even the slightest bit of an allergy-related trouble.

These days, I don’t do birthday cakes. Or birthday parties, or birthday gatherings, or much of anything birthday-related beyond, say, a nice meal out. (Go figure.) But when I found out about Cakes ‘N Shapes—one of NYC’s few, few, few nut-free bakeries, and home of some of this city’s best custom photo cakes, I’m told—I saw no other option. I absolutely had to get myself a photo-printed birthday cake, if only to see whether it’d be anywhere near as good as those of my childhood. (Plus, I do have this blog to run, after all. That’s how I justify the majority of my ceaseless eating…)

A sticker on a Cakes 'N Shapes cake box

Anyway, I got the cake. This time, I ordered it myself, but my mom paid—birthday perk—and when I called to tell her about the bakery I’d chosen, we discovered that Cakes ‘N Shapes is the very same place we used to get my cakes from. My mom recognized Edie’s (the baker’s) name as soon as I said it, and from there, the rest was instant: of course I’d never had a reaction, of course the cakes’ designs looked sort of familiar, of course it was the same woman doing the baking. I’m not sure how that realization managed to elude me for the entire year Cakes ‘N Shapes spent on my to-try list, but it did.

Back when I was younger, though, my parents had no idea that Cakes ‘N Shapes was a nut-free bakery, nor did I (as I’d had no idea nut-free bakeries even existed). All we knew was that I liked the cakes, and that they didn’t seem to be killing me, and that I wanted to continue to eating them. So we kept ordering them, and then we stopped, and now we’ve bought another. Small world, I guess.

The Cakes 'N Shapes cake I ate at my 12th birthday party

I had an incredibly hard time choosing what to have printed on my cake. When I was a kid, some horrible force compelled me to keep choosing my own goddamn face (see immediately above), but at 21, I have better things to stare at…like these pan-fried noodles from Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, which just might be the dish that’s excited me most in my time running this blog. Yes, yes—clearly, I choked. At the very last minute, I somehow ended up deciding that it’d be a good idea to have a photograph of a styrofoam container of lo mein printed on my 21st-birthday cake. Yes. I don’t want to talk about it.

My idiocy aside, Edie did a wonderful job. The printed photo was high-res and clear enough, and it was reasonably true to its original coloring, too (though you should probably refrain from parading your cake around in direct sunlight for any longer than a few minutes if you’d rather it not turn green, like mine did). It was a pretty cake—as pretty as any lo mein–adorned cake can be, at least—but even discounting its appearance, it was a good cake. Unbelievably moist and springy, the cake itself was flawless. And the buttercream icing was just as it should’ve been. The bonus chocolate icing around the edges verged on too-sweet, but it was great in small doses. And after a few days in the fridge, the whole thing only got better.

A partial cross-section of a Cakes 'N Shapes cake

(I happen to be really into fridge cake. There’s something about the way the cake firms up, the way the icing thickens…honestly, the only thing better than a generous slice of fridge cake is a whole entire fridge cake, eaten directly out of the box with a day-old fork. My point, I guess, is that I might not be the best person to trust on the whole got-better-with-a-few-days’-refrigeration thing. It’s a good cake. A remarkably moist one. And it should probably be eaten fresh.)

That’s about all I have to say, really. Edie makes some damn good nut-free cakes—and though I’ve never tried her photo cookies, her cupcakes, or her free-form cakes, I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re probably pretty good, too.

Find Cakes ‘N Shapes at 466 West 51st Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Be sure, though, to place your order in advance, as Cakes ‘N Shapes doesn’t sell any sort of ready-made baked good.

[By the way: My birthday was at the beginning of May, if that gives you any idea as to how backlogged I am. The fact that I’m over a month into my summer vacation and still struggling to keep up with these posts has finally led me to the realization that I really do need to slow down, so that’s what I’m going to do. I hate rushing through posts almost as much as I hate the posts I produce when rushing, so from here on, I’m going to start experimenting with an every-10-days posting schedule. Maybe I’ll speed back up, or maybe I’ll slow down further. I don’t know. The next few posts are already in my queue, though. So don’t expect instant improvement. Wish me luck. Or motivation. Or something.]

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Baked Cravings

An assortment of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

I don’t like cupcakes, and I don’t know a single post-pubescent with a palate who does. As baked goods, they’re fatally flawed: there’s the dry, crumbly cake that’s no good on its own, but that ceases to even register when eaten with frosting—and then there’s the frosting itself, always present in an obnoxious dollop, always blunt and harsh and critically oversweet, never even a third as good as it looks.

Only bad cupcakes are like that, you might say. And you’d be right. But the vast majority of cupcakes are bad. Yes, I’m sure there are a number of NYC bakeries that have subtle, balanced, pleasant cupcakes to offer, but not to me, nor anyone else who avoids cross-contamination with nuts. At most bakeries—and at virtually all of the good ones—the chance of cross-contamination is just too high. And the few, few, few nut-free bakeries that do exist seem to have devoted all their attention to the whole nut-free thing, and not nearly enough to the whole, uh, what-are-we-actually-baking-and-what-does-it-taste-like-and-will-anyone-but-a-six-year-old-actually-enjoy-it thing.

So I don’t eat cupcakes. Or crave them, really. On occasion, I’ll think back to the cupcakes of my childhood—my pre-careful days, when I’d eat anything handed to me—with nostalgia. But I can count on that nostalgia’s tendency to evaporate the second I bite into one of those jarringly sweet cupcakes of my current life. Wherever they’re from, they all produce in me the same Series of Unfortunate Effects: tooth pain, then moderate annoyance, followed by reluctant admission that cupcakes are probably just one of those things that’s incredible in childhood, but perpetually underwhelming thereafter—like Six Flags, or Christmas.

A tray of cranberry-orange

Now that I’ve effectively stuck my tongue out at Big Cupcake—dedicated readers will probably know where I’m going with this, as I only have about six or seven blog-post formulas, and Hate-Treatise-as-Introduction tends to lead into a post filled with effusive praise—I’ll allow myself to get into what I’m really here to get into, which is, of course, Baked Cravings, a cupcake spot that opened its doors last month, up on the corner of 105th and Lex. (Like 106 and Park, but different.)

Really, this place is exceptional. It has so many qualities of note, and I’m itching to list them all. First and foremost, though, is its nut-free status. Each and every product sold at Baked Cravings—mostly cupcakes, for now—is truly, truly, truly nut-free. Here’s the bakery’s nut-free statement, reproduced in its entirety:

As fathers, Craig and Rui understand the severity of nut allergies. To create desserts accessible for children to enjoy in schools, Baked Cravings have dedicated themselves to build and maintain a nut-free facility. Using only the highest quality ingredients sourced from nut-free vendors, following strict packing processes and conducting regular tests to provide pastries for children to enjoy and parents to trust.

Bang.

(Nut-free facility, nut-free vendors, regular testing for the presence of allergens—there literally isn’t anything else I’d dream of asking for, so I felt a standalone “Bang.” was the most appropriate response. Seriously, though: This is model-worthy protocol, and I’m impressed.)

A close-up of a tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But ignore, for a moment, everything but flavor. (And I do say this with the understanding that ignoring is not something we nut-allergic often get to do. Allergy-friendliness is the most important variable; anything else comes second, if it comes up at all—and I say this as self-appointed Queen of Making Excuses for Shitty Restaurants That Happen to be Able to Feed Me Safely.)

Ignore how cute the cupcakes are. Ignore that they’re reasonably priced, and ignore that they’re made with reasonable (i.e. “real”) ingredients. Ignore that the place is two blocks from the train. Ignore that the guys who run it are probably the nicest (and coolest) people I’ve met in my blog-related adventures—and ignore, too, that they’re obviously passionate about what they’re doing. Ignore the nut-free facility. Ignore the vendor-vetting. Ignore the allergen-testing. Ignore everything but taste of the goddamn cupcakes—the only thing that really matters (because we’re ignoring our allergies here, remember?)—and you’ll still be immensely pleased with Baked Cravings.

I am, at least. And I hate cupcakes. (See? Formulaic as Enfamil.)

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I first stopped by last week, after a (wonderful) lunch at Taco Mix. Stuffed with al pastor, and feeling as we do about cupcakes, neither Sam nor I was all that excited about all the sugar in store for us. But I have this silly blog to run, and Sam’s stomach might be an actual bottomless pit, so we soldiered on.

We didn’t regret it. We sampled seven cupcakes (red velvet, red velvet–strawberry, carrot, vanilla, chocolate, peach, and cranberry-orange), and we both loved nearly every single thing about every single one. The cakes are all absurdly moist—great on their own, even—and the frostings, though sweet, yes, are nowhere near as overbearing as, say, the ones you’ll find at Eleni’s. In fact, none of these frostings are unpleasant in the slightest: compared to most, they’re gentle and delicate, and instead of overpowering the cakes, they do a lovely job of enhancing them.

Red velvet was the first I went for, followed by red velvet–strawberry (standard red velvet, but with strawberry icing). The former, a classic, is just right: fairly chocolatey, with a sweet and tangy cream cheese frosting that’s surprisingly well-balanced. And the latter’s strawberry frosting tastes much more like strawberry + frosting than icky, artificial-tasting strawberry frosting. It’s light and subtle and so, so creamy—far creamier than it is sweet, which I assure you is a very, very good thing.

A peach cupcake from Baked Cravings

Peach, immediately above, is refreshingly real-fruity, too. Its cinnamon- and nutmeg-heavy cake is a little too pumpkin-spicy for me, but I absolutely love its frosting, which is made with bits of honest-to-goodness peach—and I feel the same about carrot, which has never been my favorite sort of cake, but which is topped with a sharp, tangy (cream cheese?) frosting that I can’t stop sticking my fingers in.

To my surprise, both the plain-olds—chocolate with chocolate frosting, and vanilla with vanilla frosting—are remarkably good, too. Faced with options like red velvet and peach, you’d think chocolate or vanilla would amount to throwaways. Not these, though. Chocolate’s deep, rich, and mousse-like, and vanilla…well, forgive me, but I’m going to go ahead and describe this one as the ideal type of the not-too-sweet vanilla cupcake I’ve been chasing since childhood. It’s just what I’ve been looking for in each and every nasty, cloying, piece-of-shit vanilla-flavored confection I’ve subjected myself to over the course of the last decade or so—the 21-year-old’s equivalent of the highlight of the 6-year-old’s day.

Finally, there’s cranberry-orange (pictured second above), the weirdest Baked Cravings offering, and probably my favorite, too. The cake, perhaps the least sweet of the bunch, makes me think “muffin” well before I think “cupcake,” but that’s not a complaint in the slightest. And though the cake isn’t identifiably orangey, it is dotted with chewy bits of cranberry—much more to my taste, anyway. On top, there’s marshmallow frosting, which sounds terrible, but which is actually delicious. It’s sweeter than the other frostings, but it’s not too sweet, and its added thickness makes its added sweetness worthwhile (and then some).

A tray of cupcakes from Baked Cravings

But I’ve gone on too long—half because I’m so excited about these cupcakes, and half because I decided I really couldn’t winnow out any more of these photos. I’ll wrap it up, though. For the greater good.

I’ll end, then, with this: We nut-allergic are usually confined to the bottom tier of the baked-goods world. Sometimes, we’ll find a company that lets us get in on something tolerable, and we’ll get excited. We’ll tell our friends and family, we’ll post the product to a Facebook group, we might even write a blog post about it—knowing full well it’s slop, but grateful for that slop nonetheless. (We’re expert bad-food apologists, after all.) Sometimes, though—very nearly never, actually—we’ll find a company that lets us try some of the good stuff. Not the good-for-a-nut-free-product stuff, but the real-deal good stuff.

That’s Baked Cravings. Baked Cravings, whose cupcakes actually manage to rival all that gourmet danger-food I so loved to eat as a child. That’s a huge compliment, and a two-fold one, too: I mean both that these cupcakes rival those high-end, nutty-bakery cupcakes I was comfortable eating as a less-careful child, and that these cupcakes actually manage to live up to the impossible cupcake-ideal I (and most children) formed in childhood. I can’t say the same about any other nut-free bakery’s, nor any store-bought brand’s. Truly, these are special.

Find Baked Cravings at 1673 Lexington Avenue, on the corner of 105th Street. For now, it’s mostly cupcakes—but I’m told there’s lots more in the works. So go forth. Please. These guys deserve the attention.

P.S. Eleni who?

[Edit: Since publishing this post, I’ve also tried their brownies and their soft-baked cookies, and all I have to say is “wow.” These guys really aren’t fucking around—and I have no reservations whatsoever in announcing to the world that Baked Cravings is by far the best nut-free bakery I’ve ever been to. But like I wrote above, this place is about far more than the whole nut-free thing; I’m eating one of their brownies as I type this, and I can honestly say that it might as well have come from a top-tier (non-specialty) bakery. So good it’s offensive.]

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Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

Yohan Schimmel Knish Bakery's storefront

Before I begin, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The spelling of Yonah Schimmel’s last name varies. “Schimmel” is the more popular option—and it’s the one that the bakery’s own website uses—but the goddamn sign (well, the main one, at least) says “Shimmel,” so I don’t know what to tell you. I’m aware that none of this matters, and that at a certain point, discrepancies like this one just give way to a suite of dead-end philosophical questions (à la “what really determines a name?”)…but shit, man. Look closely at the above photo and you’ll find two votes for “Shimmel” and two for “Schimmel.” That alone makes me dizzy—but the trouble’s everywhere. Compare the Wikipedia page‘s title to its first few words, then join me in my discomfort. (As if.)

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I’ve settled on “Schimmel.” Now that I’ve stopped twitching, let’s begin:

I grew up knish-less. I ate my first ever at Katz’s, and that was a Coney Island (i.e. square) knish, which a purist would certainly dismiss as inferior. I like my square knishes, though, so I figured I might as well try some round knishes, too. And where better to try my first proper knish than Yonah Schimmel, America’s first (and most famous) knishery?

The menu’s small—there are knishes, bagels, and (on the weekends) latkes—so I figured I’d probably be safe. To be sure, though, I did call in, at which point I was told that there aren’t any nuts present in the kitchen. The bagels aren’t made in house (apparently, they come from a place called Natural Produce, which I haven’t been able to find online), but the knishes and latkes are indeed safe. (Safe in theory, at least. There are a few dessert-like knishes that I prefer to avoid, but that’s only for my own peace of mind, really. It’s not that I think I’d react; it’s that I think I’d spend the meal stressing. No point.)

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Anyway. My feelings about this place are so, so mixed. There’s a certain appeal to the fact that the Schimmel family—yes, they’re still in charge—have been serving up these same knishes since 1910. Plus, despite the knishery’s fame, it’s managed to avoid the sort of hype that’s been known to take away from places like Katz’s. (I love Katz’s. But long lines and hordes of tourists? Not so much.) Yonah Schimmel certainly isn’t unknown, but it isn’t exactly a high-traffic spot, either. And despite all the knish-brags that cover its walls, it’s actually a humble little place: teeny-tiny and unapologetically cluttered, with a few tables that don’t quite seem like they’re meant to be sat at. And it’s calm and quiet, too; there’s hardly ever anyone inside.

Here’s the thing, though: The knishes blow. I want to love them. I really do. But they just don’t do it for me, and that’s around 95% due to the fact that the folks at Yonah Schimmel think it’s okay to fucking microwave them. Heads up: IT ISN’T. Without fail, the microwaving absolutely ruins whatever texture these knishes might’ve had—but I can’t really speak to that texture, because I’ve never had an un-microwaved Yonah Schimmel knish. (I’ve shown up early-ish, late-ish, and at whatever hour’s in between the two, but I’ve yet to end up at Yonah Schimmel at fresh-knish time. But I shouldn’t have to show up at some nebulous time of day to ensure that my food will be un-terrible.)

The flavor’s good, though—in most of the knishes I’ve tried, at least. The potato’s very plain, but a little mustard solves that problem; and mushroom (pictured in the foreground of the photo immediately above) and broccoli are both all right, too. Mixed vegetable (pictured below) is a little weird—it comes off like someone emptied the “vegetable” contents of a Cup Noodles into a knish—and they’ve been out of cheese knishes every single time I’ve ever stopped by, but whaddaya gonna do? (It’s not as if I really want a microwaved cheese knish, anyway.)

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I will say, though, that I love the latkes. Microwaved, they’re just as soggy as you’d imagine, but the flavor’s spot-on, and they’re huge, too. I suppose you could take a few home and reheat them properly, but that seems like a whole lot of work for something that’s meant to be a grab-and-go sort of snackmeal. (The same goes for the knishes. I’m just not that motivated. But maybe you are.)

Maybe this stuff is great when it’s fresh. Maybe the knishes are moist; maybe the outer layers of dough stay crisp. Maybe the vegetables become, um…less canned. That’s what I have to tell myself, else I’d have to hate Yonah Schimmel—and that’s just not something I want to do. So that leaves me in a little bit of a weird position, I guess: I’d never recommend going out of your way for one of these knishes, nor would I necessarily recommend stopping in for one if you happen to be passing by. But I don’t know, man. There’s just something about this place.

…And I know it’s totally pointless for me to say that without offering any sort of elaboration, but it isn’t just a turn of speech; I really don’t know what it is about Yonah Schimmel that so softens me. Guess I’ll just have to keep going back, then—if not expressly in the hopes of getting my hands on a good knish, then in the hopes of figuring out why I’m so decidedly un-angry at these shitty ones.

Find Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery at 137 Houston Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge. Bring cash—and if you want any latkes, be sure it’s a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. (By the way, Yonah Schimmel is kosher-certified, but they’re open from 9:30am to 7pm every day.)

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Eleni’s: NYC’s Only Nut-Free Bakery

A wall of nut-free cookies at Eleni's

[Edit: As of the new year—that’s 2017—Eleni’s has closed its Chelsea Market storefront. Everything’s still available through their website, though.]

Eleni’s just might be New York City’s most well-known nut-free establishment. At the very least, it’s the city’s only full-fledged nut-free bakery. And, it’s (to my dismay…) one of the first few Google results for “nut-free New York”—or it was a few months ago, before Google decided to start kissing my ass and showing me (and me alone) my own blog above all else. In any case, Eleni’s is important, so I figured it was about time I write about it.

Boring stuff out of the way first, though. Eleni’s is 100% nut-free, in the most legitimate sense of the term. There are no peanuts or tree nuts allowed in their bakery, and they require allergen statements from all of their vendors, too. They also test periodically for the presence of nuts in both their bakery and their Chelsea Market storefront. (And by the way, all their products are kosher, too.)

img_6613Nut-free chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting from Eleni's

Located within Chelsea Market, Eleni’s is sort of out of the way. On the bright side, though, it’s maybe a 30-second walk from Los Tacos No. 1, which consistently churns out some of the best tacos in this city. That place is seriously delightful, and actually motivates me to deal with the straight-up horrors of Chelsea Market. But I’m here to talk about Eleni’s, so I’d better, um…get to doing that.

Eleni’s sells a pretty wide array of products—cupcakes (traditional and mason-jarred), brownies, popcorn, whoopie pies, chocolate-covered pretzels, and, of course, cookies: hand-iced cookies, soft cookies, crisp cookies, photo-printed cookies, and even colorable cookies. Very obviously, the place is geared toward children—which would be fine by me if its products were good enough to pass the adult (or quasi-adult) taste test. Unfortunately, though, most aren’t.

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Cupcakes and cookies are clearly the bakery’s main focus, so you might expect those, at least, to be good. But they aren’t. The cupcakes, though cute-as-can-be, are ridiculously sweet, and the cookies…well, they’re hit-or-miss. The boxed cookies (i.e. the crisp cookies, which are, I think, the only Eleni’s product sold in grocery stores) are good, but the hand-iced cookies are, again, too sweet (and too expensive). For (what I hope to be) obvious reasons, I’ve never tried the Color Me! cookies, but they seem to be nearly the same as the hand-iced cookies, minus some color. And then there are the soft cookies—good when they’re soft, but rock-hard (and pretty bad) by the end of the day.

Still, the cupcakes (and the super-sweet cookies) are absolutely perfect for children. As a kid, I know I would’ve loved each and every one of Eleni’s cupcakes, should they ever have found their way into my greedy, sticky five-year-old paws. But they didn’t, and now I’m 20, with a palate that’s (only a little) less tolerant of absurd amounts of sugar, so I have a hard time getting through even a single Eleni’s cupcake. Oh well.

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The brownies, though, are another story. They’re rich and chocolatey, without being overly sweet—and all the varieties (chocolate chip, cheesecake, salted caramel, and s’mores) are pretty damn good. Beware, though: they, too, transform into something else by the end of the day, having lost all their moisture (and having become rather icky indeed). If you can manage to snag one early, though, I’d certainly recommend doing so, as it’s not easy to find nut-free brownies as good as these.

I also love, love, love the chocolate-covered pretzels. I don’t have much to say about them—they’re just your average, run-of-the-mill chocolate-covered pretzels, with (fortunately) no frills or added “bonuses”—but I have a special place in my heart for them, given how difficult it is to find nut-free chocolate-covered pretzels. (Seriously. Try looking for safe ones in stores. You won’t find any.) They’re grotesquely overpriced, sure. But they’re safe, and they’re tasty, so I buy them.

Aside from the brownies and the pretzels, though, there isn’t much at Eleni’s that I buy often. I always want a cupcake or two, but I (sort of) know better than to spend any more money on a product I know I don’t like, so usually, I find the self-control to abstain. The same goes for the whoopie pies—I know they’re too sweet, but I always, always want one. As long as I can quickly redirect myself toward the brownies, though, things tend to turn out all right.

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I’ve been pretty mean to Eleni’s, I know. It isn’t my fault their bakers are so heavy on the sugar, obviously—but I do feel bad for hating on the place, given its lovely mission. I mean, come on: it’s a decidedly nut-free bakery. How many of those exist in the entire world, even? New York City has The Donut Pub and Everybody Eats, sure—but the former’s a one-trick pony, and the latter’s gluten-free (and focused almost exclusively on bread, anyway). Eleni’s is, as far as I know, the only nearby business of its kind—so what kind of a person would I be if I weren’t grateful for its existence?

Anyway, I’m (sort of) sorry for trash-talking the place. For those of you who need to steer clear of nuts—which is only, like, 60% of my readership, for reasons that are totally beyond me—I’d say Eleni’s is definitely worth a try. Especially if you’re really into sugar (and especially-especially if you have children).

Find Eleni’s inside of Chelsea Market, which is itself located at 75 9th Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets. (Or, if it’s just the boxed cookies you’re after, check out Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, Grace’s Marketplace, or Morton Williams.)

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Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys

Three everything bagels from Kossar's Bagels & Bialys

I have a huge thing for bagels, and I’ve spent a lot of time scouring this city for some that happen to be allergy-friendly. I’ve found a few, but none that are quite what I’m looking for when I’m craving a classic NYC bagel…that is, with the exception of those you’ll find at Kossar’s. These—these—are precisely the bagels of my dreams.

Before eating at Kossar’s, I spent a few days emailing back and forth with Evan Giniger, who has owned the store since 2013. Rather than trying to summarize, I’ll just paste the relevant bits below. (I’ve taken the liberty of splicing some emails together, but otherwise, what follows is exactly what I received.)

We do not use any nuts in the production of anything we make at the store. We do use seeds though, which you say below are fine.

Some of the packaged products like babka and cookies are made in an outside facility that does use nuts in other products.   While anything we sell does not have any nuts in them and all come in wrapped, we do sometimes sample them in the store, meaning technically would be possible for cross contamination to have occurred outside our store.

We do sell peanut butter and Nutella spreads in the store at the counter and it is possible that a knife might come in contact with one of those.

All of our spreads are prepared in house in a kitchen area that would also prepare things with sesame seeds, Nutella, and things like that.  I can not say for sure that there is no cross contamination and again if you are very sensitive or concerned at all I would avoid them.  We only have one set of knives we use for everything.

So my two answers are no, we do not use nuts in any of our products, but if you are highly allergic, I would advise that you do not take any risks and refrain from eating at our location.

So Kossar’s isn’t the most clear-cut of cases. But Giniger is refreshingly honest and allergy-aware—and the bagels themselves seem to be pretty low-risk, as they don’t (well, shouldn’t) come into contact with any nuts at any point in their production. So I am comfortable eating at Kossar’s…with some limitations. I’m not too bothered by the potential in-store samplings, but I am bothered by the nutty spreads. (The above emails mention only Nutella, but Kossar’s has almond butter, too.) So given the whole one-set-of-knives thing, I avoid not only the spreads, but the fish, etc., too.

Bialys at Kossar's Bagels & Bialys

That leaves only two options for the nut-allergic stubborn person/bagel-craver who wishes to eat at Kossar’s: unadulterated bagels and unadulterated bialys—which is sort of unfortunate, given how much other awesome shit they sell. But it’s fine, really, because their bagels, even plain, are seriously some of this city’s best. Finally, I’ve found them: nut-free bagels that don’t suck. (Take that, Thomas. Also, fuck you.)

A Kossar’s bagel is fluffy, dense, and chewy, just as a bagel should be. It doesn’t need toasting, nor does it need accoutrements (though they’re a welcome addition, no doubt). Inexplicably, it’ll be warm or warm-ish around 4 times out of 5, clock-hour be damned. The everything bagels are perfectly seasoned, with just enough salt to make them interesting—but I don’t mind an undressed plain bagel every now and then, either. (Not if it’s as good as those at Kossar’s, at least. If you think I’m going to eat an undressed plain bagel from Baz, you’ve got another think coming.)

A Kossar's everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from Baz Bagel

When I get bored of undressed Kossar’s bagels, I’ll usually pick up some cream cheese (scallion, from nearby Baz) and dip my bagel(s) into it, like the baboon I really am. (Process pictured immediately above—except it usually takes place while on the move.)  And when I’m in the mood to pretend I don’t have food allergies, I’ll usually pick up some cream cheese and some lox, then take everything home and assemble it to my liking. Sure, it’d be nice to be able to let the folks at Kossar’s do all that for me—but it’s not so bad to have to do it on my own. (Nothing can upset me, really, when there are good bagels coming my way.)

By the way (and this should be more than a “by the way,” but whatever), the bialys, pictured in baskets above, are great, too. The onion ones are my favorite, but the others are good, too—and whichever I end up with, I like to take them home and toast them, patience permitting. They’re just so doughy, almost like an extra-thick, extra-chewy pizza crust. Honestly, they’re right around as good as the bagels. (And that’s a high compliment. Trust me.)

Anyway, I’m absolutely in love with Kossar’s, even though I can’t eat, like, 98% of the things they sell. The bagels are easily good enough to keep me coming back, despite the fact that there literally isn’t a train that’ll take me from my neighborhood to anywhere near Kossar’s. It’s a 30-minute walk—but there’s nothing that can keep me away.

Find Kossar’s at 367 Grand Street, between Essex and Clinton.

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Koffee Kup Bakery

A lemon zest donut from Koffee Kup Bakery

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around Staten Island (don’t ask) when I happened upon a Top Tomato, a supermarket chain that…exists, apparently. I spent a few minutes exploring its aisles, underwhelmed as could be—until I spotted a familiar anthropomorphic cruller, one of which I’d often seen photos in a few of the six trillion godforsaken food allergy forums I frequent.

That thick-eyebrowed, boot-donning cruller is the logo for Koffee Kup, an allergy-friendly bakery based in Vermont. According to Koffee Kup’s allergen statement, none of their products contain any tree nuts or peanuts, which means they should be produced in a nut-free environment. To be sure, though, I sent them an email, to which I received the following response: “While we do not have tree nuts in the plant, we have not yet a full nut free policy for the entire building, so we may have some employee in the breakroom or the like with some.”

Standard, really—and good enough for me. Onwards, then.

Koffee Kup’s donuts come in a whole bunch of flavors: buttermilk, jelly, glazed, powdered, apple cider, devil’s food chocolate, bran and honey, lemon zest, orange, plain…and probably a bunch more, too, because a few of the ones I just mentioned aren’t even mentioned on Koffee Kup’s website. The day I came across them, I picked up a box of the lemon zest donuts (sue me—it was that or orange), and to my surprise, they were actually all right.

A box of Koffee Kup's lemon zest donuts

I have poor self-control, so I dug in right then and there—in the parking lot of Top Goddamn Tomato—and for the first third of my first donut, I was in love. They’re cakey, but not dry (in fact, the texture’s near-perfect), and the flavor’s nice and lemony (though a little too reminiscent of a bowl of Fruit Loops). Two bites later, though, all the sugar in that thing must’ve caught up to me, and I couldn’t go on. That’s one sweet donut…and I say that as someone who’s usually into absurd amounts of sugar. Maybe it was the sun, but yeesh. I wanted to throw up.

I’ve never once learned a lesson, though, so 10 minutes later, there I was, eating another stupid-ass lemon zest donut in the oppressive Staten Island heat. Honestly, though, I feel like these donuts would actually be pretty good in the hands of someone more responsible (read: someone who (a) actually maintains control of his or her portion size, (b) keeps a drink on hand, and (c) knows to avoid the ever-cloying lemon zest flavor).

In any case: a few days later, I found a box of Koffee Kup’s devil’s food chocolate donuts at Stop & Shop, and as I suspected, they’re a lot better than the lemon zest version. They’re incredibly sweet, too, but they’re not Fruit Loopy in the slightest, nor did they leave me wanting to vomit—in fact, I genuinely liked them. Score. (I did eat them indoors, though. In my air-conditioned apartment, with water nearby. Important variables, probably—and ones I’ll need to report to the scientific community, no doubt. Bullshit aside, though: these are some tasty store-bought donuts.)

Variables aside, I took the devil’s food donuts as a good sign, and I’m now in the process of tracking down a few of Koffee Kup’s other flavors. If you, too, are interested, consider heading over to Stop & Shop…or Top Tomato, of course. Other than those two, though, I have no idea where to find these donuts. Good luck.

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New French Bakery

newfrenchbakery

I wish I could say I’d found a nut-free French bakery, but…I haven’t. What I have found is a nut-free bread company that supplies packaged “take & bake” breads to various supermarkets. So French bakery? Not quite. Useful product, though? Definitely.

New French Bakery doesn’t advertise itself as nut-free, but there’s nothing about tree nuts (or peanuts) on any of the packaging. That doesn’t mean all that much, though, so I sent an email to double-check. Within a day, I received the following reply: “Yes, our facility is tree nut and peanut free.” So that’s that, I suppose.

I’ve categorized New French Bakery as “truly nut-free,” but really, things aren’t so black-and-white. These companies exist on an allergy-friendliness spectrum, and I’d say this one’s probably a bit less nut-free (whatever sense that makes) than a company like Enjoy Life, which requires allergen statements from suppliers, employs batch testing, and is generally defined by its allergy-friendliness. Still, a nut-free facility is a nut-free facility—it’d be silly to expect anything more.

I picked up a bag of the French dinner rolls at Gristedes (the only place I can seem to find these things) and froze them that day, as the packaging recommends. A week or so later, I threw a few into the oven for 12 minutes and ate them with some cheese, and they were all right, but certainly not anything worth getting excited over. Had they not been warm, they would’ve been pretty lame—but warm bread is warm bread, so I couldn’t be all that disappointed.

From what I’ve tried, it seems as though New French Bakery’s bread is, at the very least, a few steps above most of the bread you’ll find at the supermarket—and it’s nut-free, too, which certainly helps its cause. It’ll do in a pinch, and it’ll certainly do if you’re accustomed to being denied bread.

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Stern’s Bakery

A few slices of a Stern's seven-layer cake

In the time I’ve spent on this blog, I’ve had a lot of luck finding nut-free kosher bakeries. For some reason, there’s a (relative) abundance of them in and around the city, so I wasn’t exactly surprised when I found out about Stern’s. There’s no such thing as too many when it comes to nut-free bakeries (or nut-free anythings, for that matter)—so of course, I had to give Stern’s a try.

There isn’t much information about Stern’s to be found online. Their factory, located in the very Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, is wholesale-only, but their Yelp page led me to believe they had a retail storefront, too. When I went, though, it was nowhere to be found, no matter how many people I asked for directions. Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe it doesn’t exist; either way, though, pretty much every market in the area had a wide array of Stern’s products, so I still managed to make it home with a sizable haul of baked goods—all with the words “made in a nut-free facility” on the packaging.

The first thing I tried (on my train ride home, of course) was a single-serving Confetti Brownie, which looks a whole lot like a Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownie. At first bite, I didn’t really like it—it was too sweet, and the chocolate tasted too artificial—but the texture won me over, and by the end, I was wishing I had more. The chocolate danish, though, was worlds better. It was moist and thick, with plenty of far-less-artificial-tasting chocolate, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Finally: the black and white seven layer cake (pictured above). Somehow, I actually managed to wait until I got home before digging into this one. Honestly, though, it wasn’t very good. It smelled exactly like a Hostess CupCake, and it didn’t taste much better. It was far too sweet, though I think there’s a good chance the regular seven layer cake would have been better, as it doesn’t seem to have as many layers of frosting (or whatever that stuff is—I’m not sure).

Still, Stern’s is a solid option for (nut-free!) packaged baked goods. Their products are better (and probably safer) than anything made by Hostess, Drake’s, or Little Debbie—and though I like Green’s better, Stern’s is certainly a company I’m willing to throw my very inconsequential weight behind.

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Bagel Town: nut-free bagels (or so they say)

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Another trek—this time, to Long Island. And boy, was it an adventure.

Nut-free bagels are really tough to find. Good nut-free bagels are, as far as I know, impossible to find—that is, unless you’re willing to make your way to West Hempstead, where you’ll find Bagel Town: a nut-free, sesame-free, dairy-free, kosher bakery.

To my surprise, Bagel Town isn’t all that hard to reach from the city. My boyfriend and I took the LIRR to Hempstead, walked for 30 seconds, and got on a bus straight to Bagel Town. 40 minutes on the train, 15 on the bus—not too bad, really. Especially for a good bagel. Right?

I got an everything bagel with lox and dairy-free cream cheese, and it was surprisingly good. It was no Donut Pub bagel—that’s for sure. And it definitely blew the artisan bagels at Trader Joe’s out of the water. No complaints, really. (Actually, one complaint: dairy-free cream cheese. Not my thing.)

As I tend to when I’m eating somewhere so far from home, I ordered way too much: a cake pop, a rainbow cookie (one of those tricolor layer cake whatsits—not sure why they get to be called “cookies”), and two more bagels for the road (one everything, one plain).

I also got what I was told was a chocolate croissant (but which was neither chocolate nor croissant). I didn’t eat much of it, but that was just because each bite felt like a theft from my future self who’d undoubtedly want to reheat the thing at home. (It was an acute feeling. I’m not kidding. I wish I were.) Regardless, it was really tasty—even cold.

The cake pop was decent (honestly, it’s the only one I’ve ever had, so I have nothing to compare it to) and the untoasted bagels (which I couldn’t stop myself from picking at) were good, too. Things were going well, and I found myself wishing Bagel Town were nearby so I could stop by for breakfast—you know, like a normal person.

Now, the first words on their website are “nut-free,” and the same words are printed in big-ass font on their awning. There are signs inside that say the same, too. They seemed confident—and so was I. Until I bit into that rainbow cookie.

I spit it out (not because I knew I was allergic, but because it tasted like cough medicine), and immediately my mouth began to itch. I don’t need to describe the reaction—if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably had a few—but suffice it to say it was wholly unpleasant.

Originally, I thought my reaction was probably to some sort of fruit in the jelly (I’ve had mild reactions to some unknown type of fruit once or twice before), but it didn’t feel like a fruit reaction, nor have I ever ended up with a lip the size of your typical NYC bagel because I’d eaten a goddamn berry.

[Edit: Since writing this, I’ve gone to the allergist, and it would appear that I am not allergic to any fruits. Instead, it seems like I have oral allergy syndrome—but OAS reactions generally aren’t systemic (and this reaction was), so I think I can safely say that whatever it was I reacted to wasn’t a fruit.]

When I got home, I did some Googling, and sure enough, I couldn’t find a single recipe for rainbow cookies that didn’t call for almond paste or extract. Huh. I can’t say for sure that there were almonds in the cookie—perhaps there was some sort of cross-contamination at play, or perhaps it was some sort of almond substitute that caused my reaction—but it certainly seems like there were.

I’ve still gone ahead and categorized Bagel Town as truly nut-free, because that’s how they categorize themselves. I’m not sure I trust them, given the cookie—but they’re still ostensibly a nut-free establishment. One that I don’t quite recommend.

Although there is a pharmacy next door.

…The things I do for bagels.

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