The week before last, my husband and I visited Chicago for the first time. We found it to be an incredible city: there’s art everywhere, it’s easy to get around, and–ohhh–the amazing bakeries! I visited just three and fell equally in love with each one, walking away with a belly full of delicious sweets and a heart overflowing with baking inspiration. Here they are, listed not in rank of favorites or importance, but simply the order I happened to visit them:
1.) Sweet Mandy B’s is one of the most adorable places I’ve ever been. From the moment I walked under the stained glass cupcake that sits above the front door, I wanted to giggle with joy. Pastel colors everywhere, the word “YUM” plastered to the wall, and a pastry case full of vibrantly decorated goodies — who wouldn’t love it here? Gazing at the array of frosted cookies, cupcakes, brownies and more, it took me a while to choose, but finally I decided on a lemon cupcake with raspberry filling, which I ate in no hurry while sitting on the padded lavender bench and looking out the large front windows at the lovely Sheffield Gardens neighborhood. “Perhaps cupcakes should always be served at room temperature,” I thought as my mouth filled with almost-warm frosting and moist cake. And when I finished it and ordered a giant peanut butter rice crispy treat to take to my husband, I realized what my next trial recipe with sunflower seed butter could be. Thank you, thank you, Sweet Mandy B!
2.) Floriole, just footsteps from Sweet Mandy B’s, has a classy but casual feel; it seems like the perfect place to meet a friend for lunch or, better yet, afternoon coffee and cake. Its counters reveal gorgeous gourmet offerings including clafoutis, crossiants, and even the venerable kouign aman (whose local version I am rather addicted to and have written about before). They also offer an extensive menu of savory meals, and the lively lunch crowd was certainly enjoying it when I visited (and everything looked incredibly delicious!).
But Floriole is apparently best known best for their canelés, which is what I ordered. Tender and flecked with vanilla beans and hints of rum, the caramelized pastry was as delicious as it was beautiful. “This is a special occasion pastry,” I thought as I bit through its creamy center, noticing the precision and practice that must have gone into its creation. But then I realized what my declaration implied: that this very moment was a special occasion. I looked around at all the people engaged in face-to-face conversation, feeding each other from one another’s plates, laughing and catching up. I was reminded of the futility of waiting for some perfect moment to enjoy the things and people we love. Any moment can be a special occasion. And in that spirit, I decided I’d even make my own canelés soon.
3.) Bang Bang Pie Shop is a magical place in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. There’s a remarkably inviting, sweet and simple feel at this bakery. The menu is short, the kitchen is small, and the setting feels like home in all the right ways. The day my husband and I visited, we got to meet one of the kind owners, Dave, and to see his wife (the co-owner) Megan, baking the pies. I learned that nearly everything there is made from scratch by one of the two of them, for instance: the graham crackers for the pie crusts, the butter, and even the coffee beans are roasted by Dave himself.
There were three pies to choose from that day: chocolate cream, blueberry, and a chilled summer pie. (I skipped the chocolate, but if it’s anything like the other two, it’s terrific.) We sat at the picnic tables on the lawn next to a big, beautiful tree and tasted our slices of heaven. The blueberry pie was piled high with sweet, juicy, indigo berries and whipped cream on a rich, flaky crust. The summer pie made my world stop: a crisp but chewy graham cracker crust, creamy ice cream speckled with bits of fresh sage, and a thick layer of cool lemon curd — all topped with fresh berries. It was one of the best desserts I had ever tasted. I’ve long loved lemon and berries, but I’d been skeptical about sage despite its recent popularity in sweets. Watch out: now I’m ready to bake with sage and make my own graham crackers, thanks to Bang Bang.
Food-wise and otherwise, Chicago is a city I feel I could never exhaust and would never want to. It’s the kind of place where, just when you think you’re simply taking a morning stroll, you turn the corner and find yet another vibrant indulgence by surprise, whether scrumptious for the mouth or the soul (we happened upon a farmers market, children playing in a fountain, live music and more). Imagining its winter is the only deterrent.
Maybe next time… I’m determined to return to Chicago for more adventures and inspiration. I missed out on several bakeries I’d still like to try, not to mention the endless activities and places to see. Until then, I’ll remain grateful for all the baking inspiration I came home with from this first visit, and I will surely share my Chicago-inspired recipes and kitchen quests here — albeit daydreaming of all those scrumptious Chicago eats. With thanks to my dear friend, M, whose invaluable Chicago list made this post possible.