a visit to BabyCakes

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

No, these are not from Magnolia Bakery.  They are from BabyCakes, on New York's Lower East Side.  But if Carrie Bradshaw ever went vegan (or developed a wheat intolerance), I can assure you, this is where she would have been snacking, alongside Natalie Portman, Mary-Louise Parker and Jason Swartzman, to name a few devoted fans.  

And, if Carrie had visited BabyCakes, a generation of women would have been downing Frosting Shots instead of Cosmopolitans.   And then Manolo Blahnik would have had to reinforce his stilletos with titanium steel, lest they crumble like empty soda cans under the weight of our behinds, but as BabyCakes, which opened in 2005 - is post-Carrie, we don't need to go there. 

Okay, I know what you're thinking: celebrities endorsements aside, Vegan + Gluten Free = Yuck.  

(Also, When is she going to get off the whole gluten-free thing?  Soon, I promise.  Stay with me here.)

I know that's what you're thinking, because that's what I was thinking, too, when I first read about BabyCakes in the New York Times in 2005, in a small piece titled "Indulgence For Those Used To Saying No".  I happily filed that under "irrelevant" and turned the page.

Fast forward four years and one lactose and gluten intolerant child later to this video.

Skinny as they are, these do not look to me like girls who do deprivation.  And I'll say this for them: they give good video.  

Suddenly, a trip to BabyCakes, "New York's Most Talked-About Bakery", was high on our itinerary.

Did the bakery live up to the hype?  

Well, that depends on who you ask: me or our target audience member, DB. 

You know how men can smell over-eagerness and desperation at fifty paces?  Apparently that radar kicks in well before the tender age of five.  

I was desperate for him to love this place.  And he knew it.

How else could I explain, after days of being told "I'm sorry, you can't have that" in restaurant after restaurant, DB's utter reluctance to sample anything in the bakery?  

The walls were pink, the glass cases were loaded with sweets, the girls were cute in their little uniforms and everything about the joint screamed "SUGAR!!!"  

Okay, it was really agave nectar, but is sure sounded like "SUGAR!!!" to me.  

Maybe if I'd acted in a casual, throw-away manner....

Maybe if I hadn't built it up over the course of the 30 minute walk from Chinatown....   

Maybe if we'd taken a cab.  

I quickly blew $56 on cupcakes and cookies (stocking up for every conceivable treat scenario over the coming week, in duplicate for his brother) and then had to coax  DB to take just one little bite of the cupcake I had travelled 13,000 miles to get.  

There was no joy.  

WB liked them.  

Go figure.  

I had spent the entire morning educating everyone in our party about this place, trilling about how BabyCakes had won NY's Best Cupcake Award.  Not the best vegan cupcake - the best cupcake, full-stop.  Expectations were high.

And at the risk of blaspheming, I have to admit that I was not convinced.  

The chocolate cupcake I had was nice - very good for a gluten-free cake, in fact, but not on par with the non-allergy variety I regularly churned out at home.  The vanilla cupcake was leaden and saw-dusty.  Maybe someone's hand slipped when adding the xanthum gum.

My faith began to waver.  

But, having read the BabyCakes cookbook in advance of our visit, having fallen for the hipster grooviness of baker Erin McKenna, with her fabulous writing style and contagious zeal, having come so far with such high hopes, I had way too much invested in this place to give up after one batch of cupcakes.  

I was determined for BabyCakes to be our personal dessert salvation, whether DB liked it or not.  

Do you see anything wrong with this picture?

And then I tried the Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Faith restored.

They were excellent.  Excellent.  By any standard.  And this comes from a girl who once accidentally doubled the butter content on the Toll House recipe, discovered she like it better that way, and hasn't looked back since.  Even DB could not resist finishing one in short order.  And then another.  And then another.  

Soon, I was back on a second, solo visit to restock on cookies and sample the other wares.

The Chocolate Chip And Coffee Brownies.  Swoon.  Apparently, it took six months of incremental adjustments to come up with the right consistency.  It was worth it. For a tutorial, you can see Erin McKenna teach Martha Stewart to make them by clicking here.

I asked the girl behind the counter, If I were to get one thing, what should it be?  Without hesitation, and in chorus with a colleague who overheard the question, I was told "The Cinnamon Toastie".  

The Cinnamon Toastie.  Oh my.  It was gone so fast, I didn't get a photo, so I used this one from Tara Donne.  You can see Erin McKenna teach Martha Stewart to make it by clicking here.  

The Bake-Off
Back at home, armed with my cookbook and $150 of new pantry ingredients (cruelty-and-allergy-free desserts do not come cheap), I was eager to enter this brave new world of baking.  Morning tea with a bunch of families presented the perfect opportunity. And, to determine whether BabyCakes really had the goods, or whether I was blinded by a zealous faith born out of desperation (not to mention a weakness for good hair and slick videos), I decided to conduct a little experiment:

I would bake four BabyCakes recipes, tell no one  that they were vegan and gluen-free (not words that normally whet the appetite), and let the results speak for themselves.  

With all the concessions and missing out that folks with food allergies have to do in countless social situations, where food plays such a prominent role, I wanted home to be one place where DB doesn't have to hear "You can't have that."  But with food so important to me, I cringe at the thought of serving something that tasted like a compromise.  

Would people notice that there was something different?  Were these baked goods so good, in fact, that they could not only "pass" but really delight people?

The answer was a resounding Yes.

The Apple-Cinnamon Toastie (this is the Cinnamon Toastie, as above, with one cup of roasted apples thrown in for good measure) was a hands-down favorite by any standard.  One friend was so smitten he polished off most of the loaf singlehandedly, but everyone who managed to snag a slice was equally enthusiastic.  A very satisfying result.

The Chocolate Chocolate Cookies were a definite hit with the younger crowd.

The Brownies faired well, but we didn't run out, which I found surprising.  Too much competition?  There were no fewer than NINE platters on the table, as friends came with their own tasty contributions, so it's not surprising that guests didn't sample everything.

I was left with a lot of Banana Chocolate Chip Bread.  Again, too much competition?  Only a few piece were missing in the end (with a thumbs up from one taker), so maybe it just didn't have street appeal.  Not sure.

Most importantly, in every case, people enjoyed the food on it's own merits and were genuinely surprised to learn that they'd been eating allergy-free fare.  

As for DB?  
This time, I tried the non-challant approach.  It kind of worked.  For him, both the Apple-Cinnamon Toastie and the Banana Chocolate Chip Bread were immediately out of the running by virtue of their fruit content.  Should have seen that coming.  The Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies passed muster, but he did request that, in the future, I leave the chips out.  That's right: no chocolate chips.

I was beginning to suspect that he was messing with my head.  

And then we hit on his favorites: the only two desserts I made that day that did not come from the BabyCakes book.  Chocolate Mudcake Cupcakes (from Woolworth's brand boxed mix - an anathema to me, but he loves it) with Marshmallow Icing and my allergy-free interpretation of Rice Krispies Treats.  Recipes to follow later this week.

As it turns out, DB harbors no fantasies about living a parallel life in NY as an impossibly skinny, cool baker with great boots (his father will be relieved), nor is he swayed by the good hair or slick videos.  As good as BabyCakes turned out to be, DB likes Mommy's baking best.  Sorry, Erin.  

And as much as I wanted her to win him over, I was tickled to discover  that his heart - and his tummy - are still mine. And that's just the way we like it. 


  1. The only reason there may have been a crumb left on your table was that there was fair more cakes than guests!! The food was amazing(allergy free or not!!) I certainly ate more than my fair share! You are truly the hills version of Martha!!! Please inivte us back next time you are thinking of baking!!

  2. http://www.slate.com/id/2227216/

  3. Thank you to Anonymous for the link to the article on the Cupcake bubble! I have often wondered how many cupcake shops our culture - and our waistbands - can sustain? But, having said that, for me, a trip to New York wouldn't be complete without at least one vanilla cupcake with pink icing. As long as Magnolia and BabyCakes survive, I'm okay with a bubble burst!


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