Tag Archives: cake

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?

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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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