From cronuts to crack pie: how to eat all the desserts in New York
One city. Three months. 373 desserts. Sound sweet? Yasmin Newman’s sugary sabbatical is captured in her new book, The Desserts of New York. Here, she reveals how you too can eat them all and clues us on to her favourite finds (salty honey pie, anyone?).
What drove you to tackle the momentous task of attempting to eat all the desserts in New York?
Would you believe this wasn't my first overseas dessert spree? Every few years, I try to take a 'food sabbatical', i.e. several months immersing myself in a new city or country through its food. The first was the Philippines and inspired my previous book, 7000 Islands: A Food Portrait of the Philippines. The second was France, where I staged (work experience) at sweet venues across the country, learning the trade, and spent three weeks in Paris eating my way through the city's incredible patisseries. It was a dream.
When my husband and I spoke about another sabbatical, this time in New York to visit my brother, the idea of doing the same – only bigger, more structured and writing a book about it – was too hard to resist. For years, I'd watched on as New York raised its sweet game with creations like cronuts, crack pie, compost cookies and more, and chefs like Dominique Ansel and Christina Tosi dreaming up all these wild new desserts. Each time we visited my brother, I only managed to scratch the surface of all the desserts I wanted to try and I longed for a real seat at the table. So before our second child arrived, we decided to do it - move to New York for three months and eat every single dessert (or at least try – I managed 373). Indulgent? Yes. The best time of our lives? One hundred percent. I also saw parts of NYC I never would have had I not followed a random trail of sweet crumbs all across the city.
We know it’s hard to choose, but if you had to, what would be your top dessert picks?
It is! These are among my top 10:
1. Levain Bakery – The best cookies you will ever try. Full stop. They're mega, weighing in at over 150 grams, more mound than disc – like half a baseball – and so wonderfully gooey. Make sure to try all four flavours. 167 W 74th Street, New York (UWS), plus other locations.
2. Ample Hills Creamery – New Yorkers love ice cream and the selection is second to none, from Van Leeuwen and Ice & Vice to Big Gay soft serve. But my favourite is Ample Hills with its big playful flavours, like Snap Mallow Pop (marshmallow ice cream studded with Rice Krispie clusters), made with all artisan ingredients. 305 Nevins Street, Brooklyn (Gowanus), plus other locations.
3. Four & Twenty Blackbirds – Over in Brooklyn you'll find a few dedicated pie shops turning out some mean US Southern-style pie. Butter & Scotch and The Blue Stove are also favourites, but I had a special moment when I tried Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ salty honey pie – it was the perfect marriage of sweet and salty housed in the most incredibly flaky pastry. 439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn (Gowanus), plus other locations.
4. Breads Bakery – It's famed for its Nutella babka – flaky brioche decadently swirled with Nutella – and it's good, really good. But the real secret is the chocolate rugelach, aka mini croissant-like pastries laminated with chocolate ganache. They're like little mouthfuls of heaven. 18 E 16th Street, NewYork (Union Square), plus other locations.
Did you get dessert fatigue at all during your quest?
I'd be lying if I said never, but I surprised even myself how much I loved – and could hack – eating dessert 24/7. Once I allowed myself, it was almost easy (please note I knew it wasn't healthy and there was an end point in mind!) It wasn't fatigue I suffered from so much as an overstimulated palate: eating in such succession offered little time to truly appreciate how delicious each dish was, and sometimes made amazing desserts appear average by comparison. Luckily, I had a crew of taste testers with me (my husband, brother, daughter, best friend, mother and more) at various points in the trip, who pointed out when something was worthy of more praise!
Which is your favourite NYC neighbourhood and why?
Oooh, that's a tough one too. My love for New York neighbourhoods just about matches my love of its sweets – each neighbourhood has such enchanting characteristics and a distinct feel, and there are so many to choose from. In Manhattan alone, there are 80 – give or take (the boundaries are always changing, and new ones cropping up).
It could be that I lived nearby, but I have to say East Village. It's a fantastic mix of eclectic, gritty and urban (the street art is incredible, as are the vintage clothing shops) as well as a hotbed of cool restaurants. It's also home to micro neighbourhoods, like Little Tokyo (East 9th Street) and Little India (East 6th Street), and every narrow shop space is filled with something completely different to the adjoining one. There was always so much to see and something new each time. Oh, and it was home to some of my favourite sweet venues, including Big Gay Ice Cream and the original Momofuku Milk Bar.
What’s your favourite recipe from the book?
Again, I can't call one, but I do madly truly deeply love my 'chocolate crack pie'. It's inspired by NYC's love of sweet crack: something so addictive you just can't stop eating it. Christina Tosi first coined the term for her crack pie – a delicious smash-up of oat cookie base and ooey gooey buttery brown sugar filling – and now crack-like creations can be found across the city. My pie takes salted crackers, drenches them in melted butter and sugar, and bakes until caramelised, then breaks the crackers into crystalline shards to form a crunchy pie shell. It's filled with chocolate custard that's cooked until just set, then topped with salt flakes to set it all off. It is SO good.
Who was the most sugar-crazed character you met on your quest?
I'm generalising, but Americans are great talkers. So imagine a passionate NYC baker, patissier or ice cream maker amped up on sugar! There were quite a few. However the person who left the biggest impression on me was perhaps Maury Rubin of The City Bakery. We chatted for more than an hour about everything sweet in the city – how New York's sweet traditions go back over a century, the migrant influence, how neighbourhoods had changed over the decades, the first-wave bakery revival in the early ’90s that The City Bakery was part of, the fantastic effect of Union Square greenmarket and the proliferation of farmers’ markets all across the city, and how all these elements have shaped New York desserts today. For a history and culture nerd like me, it was fascinating. I should also add that I was eating the bakery's famed pretzel croissant and hot chocolate all the while (also one of my top 10 faves!).
Do you have another city in mind whose desserts you’d like to conquer next?
The obvious one is Paris. Yes, I've done it before, but not like I did in New York, so I have to do it again properly, right? Its desserts are genuinely out of this world (I'm not calling favourites, New York!). I also like the idea of Tokyo. It must also be noted that Sydney's desserts are becoming one to contend with, too.
This is an edited extract from The Desserts of New York by Yasmin Newman published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $39.99, available in stores nationally.
How to eat them all
1. BE DEDICATED - Divide your time in New York by the number of desserts you want to try. This is your daily goal.
2. CREATE A GOOGLE MAP - Plot your hit list of venues, then access it via your phone. It’s directions, notebook and nearby dessert locator in one, and will become your most valued tool.
3. WORK SMART - Choose a neighbourhood, block out the afternoon and check out all the sweet spots in one hit. Repeat.
4. SEIZE SPARE MOMENTS - Watching the Nicks at Madison Square Garden? Detour past Shake Shack. Walking home? Hey, there’s dessert down the road. Your venue map becomes particularly handy here (see page 20).
5. CHECK HOURS OF OPERATION AND MENUS FIRST - Most restaurants have a different lunch and dinner line up, with the signature typically on at night only. Dessert disappointment is the pits.
6. GO OFF PEAK - Arriving before the shop opens, or making a restaurant reservation for late lunch, early dinner or late at night minimises wait time and greatly increases your chance of getting a seat. Also consider deep winter and high summer when queues actually cease to exist.
7. DINE SOLO - You can often get a single spot at the counter/bar, and without a reservation. Dessert is the only friend you need.
8. OR BRING SOMEONE - You can cover more sweet ground between two (or more) and the memories are really neat.
9. DRESS WISELY - Baggy clothes are your allies. And avoiding scales helps. Also, don’t think about the calories. You can diet when you’re dead.
10. BE CONSUMED - Devour Eater, Time Out, Serious Eats, Grub Street, New York Magazine, The New York Times and more, and get recommendations from local dessert lovers. In the ever-evolving sweet landscape that is
A guide to Washington DC. Neighbourhoods – Logan Circle/U Street
West of Shaw is the Logan Circle neighbourhood, where the main drag of 14th street is lined with DC’s hottest eateries and home décor stores.
If it’s the weekend, start the day like a local with brunch at Le Diplomate.
The French brasserie gives major Paris vibes with subway-tiled dining rooms, gorgeous crown moulding and arguably the best steak tartare this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Walk off brunch with a stroll up 14th street, stopping to admire the quirky vintage home furnishings at Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot and the futuristic-looking light fixtures at Urban Essentials.
Continue north en route to the U Street Corridor, pausing to reflect at the African American Civil War Memorial honouring the free, and in some cases still enslaved, African American men who fought during the American Civil War.
If time allows, stop into the nearby African American Civil War Museum to see historic documents, photographs and exhibits dedicated to the names on the monument.
Once you hit U Street, welcome to ‘Black Broadway’.
The neighbourhood earned the nickname much in part to its native son, jazz legend Duke Ellington, and a host of famous African American artists including Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey who performed in the area’s theatres in the early 20th century.
However, since the 19th century, U Street has been the site of African American owned businesses, rowhouses and restaurants and is home to Howard University, a historically black university.
Stop by long-standing local restaurant (and one of Obama’s favourites) Ben’s Chili Bowl for a signature half smoke sausage, before checking out the line-up at the recently refurbished Howard Theatre, where a large sculpture of Ellington in front of an abstracted piano is erected in his honour.
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Aspen – 13 secrets the brochures won’t tell you
The clichés about Colorado’s shiniest ski town, Aspen, roll as fast and true as a mid-season snowball. Yet the town is not all just about Gucci, private jets and being seen with celebs (actually more difficult than you think). It has a quirky edge that money can’t buy too. Here are a few strange but true Aspen facts that break the mould, finds Steve Madgwick.
1. Aspen's mountains shrines
Among Aspen town’s four mountains resorts, hidden within it trees runs, are 74 makeshift shrines, created and looked after by locals (at last count Aspen Mountain 38; Snowmass 18; Aspen Highlands 12; Buttermilk 6). Musicians dominate, from John Denver to Liberace, with plenty of other pop culture icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, getting attention too. Strangely, there’s even a shrine to golf – who knew it was dead? For more information on this peculiar alpine tradition, see Sanctuaries in the Snow
2. Rent a pet
Brooding over Spot, left in that kennel back in Australia, while you ski your two weeks’ holiday away? Help is at hand. Aspen Animal Shelter offers a ‘rent a pet’ program to soothe your pining soul. Everyone wins: you get your fill and the shelter pooch gets a walk. Aspen even offers free leashes at trail heads, if you feel like a companion for a long walk.
3. Uphilling is the new downhilling
The super-fit humans who call Aspen home apparently don’t class down-hill skiing as good enough aerobic exercise these days, so they’ve taken to skiing uphill as well. If you catch first lifts in the morning, you’ll see solo and tribes of ‘uphillers’, purportedly the fastest growing alpine sport in Colorado. They have special skins which make their skis grippy enough to trek up the mountain. They do still ski down the mountain – probably just for a rest though.
4. Jennifer Aniston. Sorry, who?
You can buy your way into plenty of ‘exclusive’ clubs in Aspen, but your name, no matter how renowned or reviled, won’t necessarily get you inside. Case in point: Jennifer Aniston, who was reportedly refused entry to private members-only Caribou Club because she wasn’t a member. Apparently the doorman didn’t recognise her.
5. Trump fight over lunch
Yes, ‘The Donald’s’ sphere even extends to alpine Colorado. His two former leading ladies, Marla and Ivana, got into an intense squabble (that reportedly turned physical) in Bonnie’s Restaurant (Aspen Mountain) back in the ’90s.
6. Putting the boots into the Highland Bowl
One of the most difficult ski runs around any of the four resorts is the Highland Bowl (requiring a ski cat ride and a 45-minute walk above Aspen Highlands). It’s double-black diamond steep, which usually means that there’s a fair to strong avalanche risk. However, the ski patrol has instituted a ‘boot packing program’. They employ people to stomp down the snow (literally walking back and forth) at the beginning of the season. The resulting firm snowpack is said to lessen the avalanche risk.
7. Thousand-buck wine with a hip-hop soundtrack
The wine cellar at The Little Nell, one of Aspen’s most refined accommodation options, is the total and utter opposite of its five-star persona. Based in a carpark storeroom, the cellar is covered in graffiti scrawled by patrons, plays hip-hop (loudly), and features red-light-district style lighting. In keeping with the ‘Aspen way’, minimum spend is $1000 and there are single bottles inside that could literally bankrupt mere mortals in one fell swoop.
8. Rugby, anyone?
Strangely, for a country that doesn’t embrace the sport, there is a rugby pitch in the middle of town. The field does actually see action, from the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club and their nemeses.
9. Justice for sale?
Not unusually, Aspen’s Pitkin County Courthouse features a statue of Lady Justice holding up the Scales of Justice. What is unusual, however, is that she is not wearing a blindfold. In Aspen, money talks, so they say, the inference being that justice is not blind and, perhaps, therefore for sale.
10. Mammoth find
Rather recently, Aspen accidentally discovered its prehistoric past, by complete serendipity. A building crew in 2010 dug up a juvenile female mammoth’s bones at a reservoir just outside of Snowmass. Find it and they will come: after the initial discovery, more than 30,000 individual bones have been located originally belonging to everything from sloths to camels.
11. A legal ‘high-end’ boutique
Yes, it has been legal to buy marijuana in Colorado (and therefore Aspen) since 2014. The pick of the places to ‘score’ in Aspen is the ‘high-end’ Silverpeak Apothecary. There are a few legal ‘pot’ holes dictating where you can smoke your stash, however. You can’t do it in the shop or indeed public for example (even though you can clearly smell it in the street).
12. Kennedy’s accident
One of JFK’s nephews, Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountains’ Copper Bowl, back in 1997. He was reportedly throwing a football around when he hit a tree at speed. There is no shrine for him on the mountain.
13. Thrifty Aspen
Of course you can find just about any high-end label of note somewhere in Aspen town, but you may also find some of their merchandise at a bargain basement price too, in one of the town’s charity consignment (thrift) stores. You may even uncover that pre-loved Gucci clutch at the Thrift Shop of Aspen, which is across the road from the real Gucci store.
MORE... Everyone does winter... What about Aspen in summer?
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