For many people over the age of 11, the holidays feel less like a cheerful sleigh ride and more like a grueling biathlon where disappointment lurks at every turn.
It can be tough to believe in the restorative power of holiday cheer: The long lines and the punishing weather, the endless bundling and unbundling and the fastidious holiday decorating, and the inevitable arrival and overstaying of fruitcake and relatives take their toll.
To survive, everyone needs a stress-eating escape hatch -- the one sure thing to turn to when it all gets to be too much. Might we suggest a chocolate croissant? It's the perfect complement to a cup of hot chocolate or coffee, and a good one is sure to cure whatever ails you when this season of light feels a like glimpse into the abyss.
The Venue: Both A Baker's Wife Pastry Shop and Sarah Jane's Bakery are set up to showcase their product. There are no sleek faux-marble tabletops for those looking to sip cappuccinos, peck at petit fours, and while away the hours on their laptops. Hell, in Sarah Jane's there aren't even any places to sit. (A Baker's Wife has a few spots inside.) But hungry customers at both places can luxuriate in a magical bakery smell and childhood memories of wide-eyed perusals of the goodies behind the glass case.
The Weigh-in: Neither of our contenders fits in with the new strain of Minnesota patisseries that chef up fussy, "decadent" pastries to health-conscious, calorie-counting professionals and their pretentiously named kids. No, this week we're looking at two old-fashioned Midwestern bakeries turning out great doughnuts, breads, and bars for the endomorphs, the big-boned, and the gloriously thick. And since A Baker's Wife and Sarah Jane's are already renowned for their top-quality doughnuts, this fight feels like Ali/Frazier III.
Round one: The pastry Buttery or flaky, crunchy or soft? The pastry doughs from these two places serve different tastes. A Baker's Wife offers a crunchy shell and buttery leaves of pastry inside. This rich but not too sweet croissant stands strongly on its own. Sarah Jane's croissant is soft and flaky all the way through, yet it seems to call for a hot beverage to accompany it. A Baker's Wife gets the edge here because of the contrasting textures achieved.
Round two: The chocolate Here again, there is a significant difference between these two shops. Which filling is better -- bittersweet chocolate or milk chocolate? A Baker's Wife's creamy bittersweet filling balances nicely with its buttery pastry. Sarah Jane's filling is also creamy, and milk chocolate graces both the inside and outside. The sweetness works well in part because their pastry is not as rich. Ultimately we both liked the sharpness of the bittersweet chocolate better.
Round 3: The distribution The bête noire of any chocolate croissant is false advertising -- too often, too little chocolate at one end of the croissant or the other ultimately means that the last few delicious bites will actually be heartbroken mouthfuls of dried-out pastry. It's no surprise that both bakeries guarantee that every bite has both pastry and chocolate. Sarah Jane's gets the win here because of the chocolate drizzled on top.
Holiday bonus round: Fruitcake! Imagine our surprise when we saw that both places were offering fruitcake. As far as holiday treats go, a brick of fruitcake is about as welcome as a shark near a crowded beach. Again the two places are split in their approaches. A Baker's Wife has a truly splendid cake. The dense cake, filled with finely chopped nuts and candied fruits, did not last the night at our house. Sarah Jane's is a more Minnesotan version, filled with chunks of red and green cherries, whole nuts, and just enough eggy batter to hold it all together.
And the winner is... A Baker's Wife. Consider this your holiday season survival plan. This shop consistently turns out great doughnuts, croissants, fruitcake, everything. In fact, unless it's a Monday, A Baker's Wife offers sweet relief any time of year.