Don't Try This at Home
When I was growing up, the idea of buying a cute pink sugar-iced butterfly cookie from a bakery was roughly analogous to the idea of punching a small, club-footed child, taking his money, ripping it up, setting it aflame, and then, in the light of the flickering cash fire, jumping up and down on his whimpering, collapsed body. "What are you, a Rockefeller?" my grandma would mutter, dragging me past the bakery window on our way home to ketchup sandwiches. Thus, I conceived a lifelong idea of Rockefellers, gathered in the marble atrium, lolling on brocade couches, wearing silk top hats, delicately eating cookies shaped like yellow duckies.
I bring this up because I found myself at an all-town garage sale in rural Minnesota a few weeks ago, one of those garage sales that makes you want to crawl into a warm bath with a hot razor. Country Crock tubs lassoed together with rubber bands for only a quarter. Decks of playing cards, nearly intact, for a nickel. Broken things made of plastic and dirt. Threadbare baby clothes from Wal-Mart were as countless as raindrops. My sweetie took one look at this and went to another house to get me a barbecue sandwich. It consisted of a big, sweet bun graced with something from a Crock-Pot, something made mainly of rice and ketchup, with some meat and onions.
When my darling brought it to me, he explained how the woman had placed a ladleful of the mixture on the bun, and then, thinking better of it, scraped it off, and added less. Weighed it thoughtfully in one hand, added more, and then removed it again. The end result was a very meager rice and ketchup sandwich on white bread, which was very much like the ketchup sandwiches we used to have after school at my Grandma Kay's house, where we did our homework beside the window before the sun went down because lights weren't free. Memories flooded back.
If I were a normal person, I would probably add some contact information here on how you can help to alleviate rural poverty. Instead, I came back to the Twin Cities, and I went to 18 bakeries looking for fancy cookies. Hell-bent on throwing my money away, setting it afire, and otherwise giving the bird to ketchup sandwiches, for which I have no nostalgia whatsoever.
So, what exactly do I mean by a fancy cookie? I mean the kind of cookie you're not going to make at home, because it's too difficult. I mean the kind of cookie that is definitely not a plain old lumpy cookie, like an oatmeal-raisin, or a good old chocolate-chip--which are wonderful, but lack that element of monstrous decadence and corruption that can, in perhaps only one or two bites, turn an innocent child into a rapacious beast. I mean the kind of cookie you eat in a marble atrium while Rome burns. Did I find it? Boy howdy, did I, plus lots more. So, without further ado, the best places for fancy, fancy, fancy cookies in the Twin Cities.
A PIECE OF CAKE
Do you know someone whose favorite word is cute, someone who likes ribbons, bows, sparkles, kittens, ponies, tiaras, and ballerinas? Someone who considers a pink tulle tutu, in shades of both flamingo and bubblegum, not merely the frosting of life, but the very stuff of it? If so, run, don't walk, to A Piece of Cake, the most whimsical of all Twin Cities bakeries, and buy that certain someone something that will make her twirl around holding her skirts while swooning and yelping, "So cute!"
Located in Crocus Hill, this wee bakery is as light and clean as a brand-new playhouse, and stocked with so many cute, cute, cute little treats that you feel like there might be a secret door somewhere leading to Barbie's Dream House. My favorite of their offerings are the "melt-aways," round little white balls of butter cookie wearing festive little hats of white icing topped with bright pink, blue, or orange sugar; they look like cheerful little fantasy creatures, ready to roll off to an Easter picnic. Unlike most jaw-droppingly adorable cookies, however, A Piece of Cake's melt-aways are also very tasty; they literally do seem to melt in the mouth in a pouf of butter and giggles.
When I visited A Piece of Cake, they also had some enchanting sandwich cookies that looked exactly like wee slices of watermelon. They were hot pink, with chocolate-chip seeds and a dark green sugar rind. So cute. Parents with girly daughters, fellows with girly sweethearts, attend: If you've got 85 cents for a melt-away, you will really knock your girly-girl's bright-pink socks off with the gift of a few of these sweetie-pies. East Coasters, please note: A Piece of Cake also sells black and white cookies ($2), those huge half-chocolate, half-white iced cookies found in all East Coast delicatessens. I personally have never been a fan of these super-sweet monsters, but I tried one from A Piece of Cake and it was exactly how it's supposed to be, so, if you care, now you know. (A PIECE OF CAKE, 485 Selby Ave., St Paul, 651.846.0016; www.apieceofcakebakery.net)
JERABEK'S NEW BOHEMIAN
For 99 years Jerabek's New Bohemian has been selling baked treats to the residents of the Cherokee/Riverview area of west St. Paul; that's south of downtown, across the Smith Avenue High Bridge, in one of those affordable, family-friendly, tree-filled and tricycle-rich St. Paul neighborhoods that keep the Midwest from being a cold New York. The place functions simultaneously as a stay-for-awhile coffee shop, a vintage clothing and housewares store, and a bakery, and these days owner Mellissa Deyo, great-granddaughter of founder Ed Jerabek, always keeps a couple of captivatingly cute sugar cookies on hand for the adorable-minded.
When I visited, there were sunny yellow, orange, and pink iced daisy-type flower cookies, each with a white circle of icing in the middle, topped with a chocolate smiley face. They were so cheerful and homespun that every time I looked at them I expected them to grab a ukulele and burst into song. At only 75 cents, Jerabek's frosted cutouts (the industry term) cost a lot less than they do elsewhere. Deyo told me that they also do them as wedding favors, which should interest everyone who's ever priced those $4 iced cookies that wedding-cake bakers often offer to add to your bill.
In fact, the price tag of Jerabek's ginger stars is probably my biggest problem with the things. See, I adore these feisty little nutmeg-rich ginger cookies, which pack a nice old-world punch of winter spice beneath a glittering, gold-dust-touched icing lid. Yet, on the other hand, they only cost a quarter! How can anyone really work up into a frenzy of mad, decadent indulgence at that price? The best thing I can recommend is to take a box of these home, and tell your friends they cost $7 each and you had them air-freighted from Vienna. They will believe you. (JERABEK'S NEW BOHEMIAN COFFEE HOUSE & BAKERY, 63 W. Winifred St., St. Paul; 651.228.1245)
At this point, I'm going to note that three out of the Twin Cities' four top fancy-cookie spots are in St. Paul. Do parents in St. Paul love their children more? Children of Minneapolis, rise up! You have nothing to lose but your after-school snacks of raisins and carrot sticks! Furthermore, if you really want to have a fit of jealousy, mash your little noses against the clean glass cases at Como Park's Finnish Bistro, the place formerly known as Taste of Scandinavia. That's where you'll find big white-frosted scalloped ginger hearts, lemon sugar cookies in the shapes of flowers topped with cool and melty lemon icing, raspberry sandwich cookies as pink and lovely as porcelain dolls, frosted butterfly cookies that look like they just fluttered off a Christmas tree, and, be still my grownup heart, iced hearts done in glossy four-color marbling that look like nothing so much as the finest Venetian endpapers in the most valuable Renaissance books.
What's the Renaissance, you ask? Well, a long time ago people were stupid, and we called those times the Dark Ages. Then, some people learned some things, and people got to be much happier. Like how you will be if you manage to convince your dad that if he stops at the Finnish Bistro he could get a takeout salad made of a mixture of baby and adult lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, onions, and olives for $7.95 that will easily feed two adults and two kids as a side dish at dinner, thus reducing kitchen prep time. Then you can add that if he is really strapped for time he could make a whole budget-friendly dinner out of Finnish Bistro soups and bread to go. Now, my Minneapolis children, if you can't wheedle a cookie out of him once Dad's gotten a healthy family dinner on the table for less than 20 bucks, consider networking with some kids in St. Paul, because those kids know a few things. (Finnish Bistro; 2264 Como Ave., St. Paul, 651.645.9181; www.finnishbistro.com)
Sometimes I meet people in the Twin Cities who haven't heard of Blackey's, the Danish and Polish specialty bakery tucked near the railroad tracks between Central and University in Northeast. And when I meet those people, I feel that I have failed. Because Blackey's--I have believed Blackey's to be one of the best bakeries in the Twin Cities for eight years, and sometimes I am just so busy believing it to be good that I forget to write that it is good. But boy, is it good. Their twin strengths are hearty European breads, like their black-as-night, heavy-as-magma rugbröd. It's the Mount Everest of all pumpernickels, in terms of both magnificence and the likelihood of your needing a sherpa to help you finish the darn thing; it weighs as much as an unabridged dictionary, and would feed a single man for a month.
Their other strength, well, besides the best hamburger and hot dog buns (they supply some of the most famous burger restaurants in town), and the excellent doughnuts, their other, other strength is their Danish pastries, made with special imported Danish almond paste and other ingredients. Now, before I ever tried Blackey's, I always thought: almond paste, dry, floury...no thanks! But the things that are made with almond paste that come out of Blackey's are a horse of another color: sweet, light, rich, intense, and as potently focused and unified as, say, a ripe fruit or a wine. They taste wonderful, they taste drive-across-town wonderful, not dry and cakey. That said, I somehow didn't discover their marvelous almond-paste cookies until quite recently.
First, I call your attention to the almond horn, a handful of almond paste and magic rolled in sliced almonds and twisted into an arc, baked and finished by dipping each end in chocolate. The almond part is like teatime with Danish royalty; the chocolate parts are just chocolatey enough to quell a solid chocolate craving, and voilà--more cookie greatness than in a whole factory of Chips Ahoy. There's a "custard lines" ($.80), which looks like nothing special, like some mere sugar cookie. But bite into it, and you find a blob of creamy, creamy custard. The coconut macaroons are textbook perfect, like Mounds Bars hit with a grown-up perfection ray.
Which is to say nothing of the Sarah Bernhardt. Now, part of me doesn't even want to tell you about the Sarah Bernhardt, because if you live in Northeast this is the sort of cookie that will rouse you from your bed in the wee hours with hunger pangs and longing. And if you don't live in Northeast will just make you feel bad. But this thing, it pushes the cookie limits quite beyond all reason. It is a disc of macaroon topped with a blob of the richest, fluffiest, most chocolatey chocolate mousse--yes, I said chocolate mousse, in a cookie--chocolate mousse which is then enrobed in chocolate and finally topped with lavender sugar, so that it looks like a huge diamond glittering on the floor of a sea cave. It tastes like a pastry at a four-star hotel. And it's only $1.35. (Blackey's Bakery, 639 22nd Ave. NE, Minneapolis; 612.789.5326.)
I guess there's only one question left: If you feed such a cookie to your child, will it jeopardize her moral well-being, her ability to financially shepherd her way through life, to empathize with others, and, generally, to grow up nice? After 18 bakeries, I think I suddenly see my grandma's point: Few and far between though they may be, there are some cookies that really are beyond the human understanding of good, and you flirt with them at your peril. But now at least you know where they are.
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