Sweet Spots

The Best Baked Treats in Seattle

From towering cakes to ethereal croissants, these are the newcomers and classics to crave.

By Rebekah Denn Photography by Paul Kooiman November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Seattle Met

For all the stress baked into our city’s growth, there’s a degree—350 degrees, perhaps—of redemption. Twenty years ago, there were few arguments over Seattle’s best baked goods. You could easily name the best croissant, the best pie, the best cookie, because they didn’t have much competition. Now, every neighborhood has a contender for the flakiest crusts and richest doughs. Bakers barely even need to explain anymore how to pronounce “kouign-amann,” or how to differentiate between macarons and macaroons. Despite some formidable new rivals, several old favorites still earn a spot on this list of today’s 20 best baked treats. They’re joined by newcomers that hit the sweet spot between creativity and classics.

London Fog Cake from Deep Sea Sugar & Salt

The London Fog (above) figuratively stands above the other tall rounds at this breathtaking Georgetown bakery. Owner-baker Charlie Dunmire invented the oddly lovely, gray-frosted layer cake after being inspired by looseleaf Earl Grey tea. Her goal: figure out how much of the flavor she could recreate in cake form. Between tea-steeped milk, bergamot flavoring in the cream, Earl Grey syrup, and orange peel, the answer is “just the right amount.”

Dahlia Bakery's Triple Coconut Cream Pie

This pie still deserves the fame it won as Seattle’s signature dessert at the Dahlia Lounge, circa 1989, back when Tom Douglas was a young upstart. Don’t bother with the miniature versions now available at Dahlia Bakery in Belltown: They're  cheaper, but the ratio of crust to filling is wrong. You need the full-size slice originally developed by Douglas’s first pastry chef, Shelley Lance, with its pillowy pile of coconut pastry cream, the crust packed with coconut shards, the garnish of toasted coconut and white chocolate curls. If you just hate coconut, have a cookie instead—the chocolate chunk, the fat fig bar, or perhaps the “Nora Ephron” peanut butter sandwich cookies that the late author and director so enjoyed.

Twice-Baked Almond Croissant from Bakery Nouveau

Laminated croissant dough reaches its highest expression with the twice-baked almond croissant, a luxury upgrade from the already-stellar traditional version at this three-outlet bakery. The crescents are sliced lengthwise here and spread with a rich filling that incorporates, among other things, almond meal, powdered sugar, and rum, then soaked in simple syrup and re-baked. Owner William Leaman has branched out into fine chocolates and other treats since opening in West Seattle in 2006. His desserts are all notable, but this croissant, over-the-top without toppling into excess, is a reminder that Leaman was once on the winning team at the World Cup of Baking.

Ginger Biscuit at Cafe Besalu

Back in the day (aka the aughts) Besalu was Seattle’s top spot for superb French pastries, and the line regularly stretched out the door of the tiny Ballard cafe. It’s a credit to the place that, despite stiff competition and new ownership, it still deserves that line. Croissants remain top-notch, but the tender, buttery ginger biscuit, with its golden exterior and a sprinkle of coarse-grained sugar, is the prize. It’s something like a rich, round scone, insides so fluffy they belie the quantity of butter such pastries require. The gentle notes of candied ginger cut the sweetness in every bite. 

Celine Patisserie's Cruffin 

The name is gimmicky, but this laminated dough wound into a muffin shape rates as a modern classic, at least when fresh from the oven at this neighborly French bakery on Phinney Ridge. Specialty cruffins are baked daily, flaky rounds filled with housemade jam and a silky stuffing of mascarpone. Consume them, still warm, at a collegial communal table or two-top.

Sablé Noisette from Le Panier

The thrill of Pike Place Market is how many treasures outnumber the tourist traps. Follow your nose to know you’re in the treasure zone at Le Panier, the “Very French Bakery.” The line advances quicker than you expect; just before you blurt out your order for pastel macarons or pearl sugar chouquettes or epi baguettes, turn to the self-serve shelf at your right and snag yourself a pre-packed half-pound cellophane bag of hazelnut sablé cookies. They’re simple, sandy-textured, smaller than a checkerboard square, but completely satisfying.

Macrina Bakery's Lemon-Sour Cherry Coffee Cake  

The iced lemon cake at Starbucks is a perennial favorite. If only everyone had access to the exquisitely tart version at this much smaller Seattle chain, with five locations from Kent to Queen Anne. Generous slices from a full-size bundt round have the texture of fresh pound cake, jazzed up with dried cherries that are soaked to soft plumpness. Flavors are masterfully balanced between the sweetly caramelized crust and the tangy fresh lemon glaze. Coffee shops that stock Macrina goods find the bundt shape is harder to portion, so you’re likelier to find it on rotation at one of the mothership cafes.

Tahini-Pistachio Bar at Beach Bakery

If heaven had a bakery, it would look a lot like this welcoming oasis in a Rainier Valley strip mall, where the daily pastries span cultures and everything, even normally sickly-sweet Nanaimo bars, are the platonic versions of themselves. Beach is particularly brilliant at bar cookies: the dense crumble of the tahini-pistachio square sent me so sharply back in time that I had a vision of my late Grandpa Herb, standing at the counter of our childhood home eating his favorite halvah candy. Get to Beach early if you want the much-loved PB&J bar that’s basically a transmogrified peanut butter cookie, thick and rich with a sharply demarcated line of jam in the center.

Amandine Bakeshop's Malt Loaf  

To owner-baker Sara Naftaly, this toasty, chewy-sweet loaf is “a bundle of nostalgia.” Even for those who didn’t grow up with British teatimes, the sultana-studded quick bread still evokes warmth and comfort, flavored with “extra-malty wheat,” barley, and subtle surprises like black tea. Naftaly suggests toasting slices and spreading them with “the highest quality butter you can find” (Breton if you’ve got it) along with a little flake salt.

Ube Cheesecake from Hood Famous Bakeshop

Navigate the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entryway into this Ballard bakeshop to see brilliant patterns of ube jam decorating amethyst-hued rounds of cheesecake. The purple ube yam is just one of the Filipino classics championed by Chera Amlag, who owns the shop with husband Geo Quibuyen (aka rapper Prometheus Brown). Even if you didn’t grow up with ube, this creamy cheesecake has all the universal appeal of the classic version, with a refreshingly lighter mouthfeel and some extra oomph.

Baked from the Hart's Sweet Potato Pie 

Bill Hart’s Southern-style pie shop isn’t just homey, it’s actually located in a house. The converted residence between two busy arterials even has a sign asking visitors to keep their feet off the chaise lounge in one of the side rooms. Another good rule at the Mt. Baker store is to purchase whatever the friendly counterperson tells you is fresh from the oven, whether it’s old-fashioned bean pie, chess pie, or the velvety, down-home sweet potato. It carries just the right amounts (meaning less than most versions) of sugar and spice.

Millionaire’s Shortbread at Coyle’s Bakeshop

Owner Rachael Coyle discovered this British specialty when she worked at Book Larder and explored baking via its English cookbooks. The version at her  Greenwood bakery would be blessed by Mary Berry: the rectangle of rich shortbread, the generous layer of caramel smoothed above it, then the capstone chocolate topping. Despite its fancy name, the bar is like eating the highest and best incarnation of a Twix candy bar, elegantly accessible to all.

Molten Chocolate Cake from Hot Cakes

Autumn Martin began selling these little take-and-bake cakes packaged in mason jars at a farmers market stand. Years later, her business model has been polished to a rustic-hip gleam with two dessert “cakeries” plus a vegan ice cream biz,  Frankie and Jo’s. The intense lava cakes still ooze quality as well as chocolate, every warm bite wallops you with a dose of Theo chocolate, whose flavors and textures Martin understands more thoroughly than most; she was the head chocolatier there before venturing out on her own.

The Wandering Goose's Biscuit with Jam and Butter

At Heather Earnhardt’s cozy, narrow Southern cafe on Capitol Hill, the lofty split biscuit bridges the gap between bread and dessert. The surface is golden and buttery as pie crust, its inner depths ethereal as cotton candy. Even Earnhardt’s more sugary options (teetering layer cakes, ginormous cookies) don’t seem as sweet as one of these biscuits, especially when slathered with butter and raspberry freezer jam.

Milk Stick from Fuji Bakery

This low-key pastry has the look of a slim baby baguette or an upside-down hot dog bun. Bite into it and the chew is closer to a dinner roll, with a sweet core of pudding-like vanilla cream. It’s simple, yes, but sublime. A recent sign at the French-influenced Japanese bakery's Chinatown–International District branch (others are in Interbay and Bellevue ) proclaimed its milk sticks are “loved by our young customers.” However, they’re also a perfect match for a cup of adult-strength coffee, even more than Fuji’s fancy fruit croissants and glossy tarts.

Chocolate Croissant at Sea Wolf Bakery

Croissants like these make you salivate on sight, knowing at a glance how crisp and shattery the outer layers will be before breaking through to the airy center. The dough is whorled here into a squat rectangle filled with a not-too-sweet plug of Theo dark chocolate. Anyone who nerds out on the chemistry of baking will appreciate the interior structure of large and small holes, a testament to these croissants’ textbook-perfect gluten network.

Mackles’more from Hello Robin

Robin Wehl Martin’s cookies would taste good in any city, but this chubby chocolate chunk–marshmallow cookie on a graham cracker feels especially symbolic at this mom-meets-Martha-Stewart shop on Capitol Hill. The Mackles’more, a cinnamon-scented, tongue-in-cheek tribute to Seattle’s homegrown rapper, doubles down on its local roots with a wedge of name-stamped Theo Chocolate squished into the top when it’s still hot from the oven.

Standard Bakery's Fruit Danish 

Grocers like PCC Natural Markets sell Pop-Tart-like pocket pies and other desserts from this Pinehurst bakery, but they’re immeasurably dreamier when crisp from the oven at the shoebox strip-mall storefront that’s about one-tenth seating and nine-tenths busy production facility. A visit to Standard’s booth at area farmers markets is even better—and about as space-efficient. Locations like the year-round University District market offer danishes made with fruit from nearby vendors.

The Cookie from Metropolitan Market

Rare is the cookie that’s rich enough to share without feeling deprived. Officially, Metropolitan Market’s chocolate-chunk walnut cookie is five and a half ounces, just over a third of a pound, but in reality the hand-formed cookies are usually closer to six. Each bite virtually guarantees hitting a motherlode vein of melty dark chocolate with the rush of sweetness tempered a little by the sea salt flaked on top. The upscale grocery chain has a reputation for stocking excellent name-brand sweets; it’s to their credit that they developed one of the best in-house. Perhaps a full quart of milk to pour along with it?

Crumble and Flake's Canelé  

The Bordelais sweet is daunting for home cooks, the dark, caramelized crust giving way to rum-spiked innards, both custardy and solid at the same time. Most people “don’t know the exquisite flavor and texture of a true canelé,” says owner Toby Matasar. The finicky specialty is only available on weekends at her modern, takeout-only little bakery, which uses authentic beeswax-coated Parisian molds to produce the proper crunch on the exterior, along with the crowned top and the striated cylindrical base. The recipe is unchanged since Crumble and Flake founder Neil Robertson ran this Capitol Hill shop.

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