Bakery Land, New York

Martha's Country Bakery and Black Hound Bakery

My time in New York this summer has largely been spent exploring the streets in search of pastries. Astoria, Queens, where I’m staying, has a miraculous treasure trove of pastry shops, so many in fact that I’ve been puzzling over how they all stay in business.

This area, in and around Ditmars Boulevard and 30th Street, has a strong Greek population, not to mention a remarkable sense of community, and many of the bakeries show that influence. Fresh baked breads compete with flakey phyllo pies for prime positioning in bakery windows. A doughnut and breakfast baked goods carts on 31st Street loses customers around 11:30, when pedestrians shift their gaze to the souvlaki cart on 33rd.

Many of the shops have a somewhat run down, hole-in-the-wall, function-over-form appearance. Then there’s Martha’s. Martha’s Country Bakery, which has two locations in Queens, caught my eye early in my stay, and I’ve been back to try their cakey scones, traditional East coast bakery cookies (the oblong shaped butter cookies with jam in the middle and chocolate and sprinkles on one end for $9 per pound), joyful cupcakes (they had a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting that I just couldn’t pass up), and mediocre coffee and iced coffee (it’s nothing to write home about). But the real appeal is that Martha’s looks more inviting than many of the traditional community bakeries. I wanted to sit in Martha’s and watch the commuters on their way home from the N/W train stopping in for bread puddings at 6 o’clock in the evening. I wanted to sit on the bench and lay my laptop on one of the petite rounded tables that face the bakery counter. I wanted to take my time browsing the rows upon rows of cupcakes, cookies, pound cakes, and decorative cakes.

The problem, unfortunately, when I tried to do this, twice, is that Martha’s air conditioning system can’t overpower the 350-degree ovens, so it was too hot and stuff to enjoy the atmosphere in the late August days. Another time, when the thermometer outside dropped to a comfortable 75 degrees, I tried again and took a seat by the window; but sadly, I found myself dodging big plops of water that dripped from the vents above the seating area.

Still, Martha’s is just too appealing to pass up. There’s no high art food, but comparative to the rest of the area, it has an interior and exterior design, an atmosphere, and sensible prices to boot.

Martha's Country Bakery
36-21 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, NY, 11105.

Last night, the decadent wagon got me.

Because we were in the area, my friend dragged me over to what he called “Bee Cake.” New Yorkers will better know the Second Avenue shop at Black Hound Bakery, though I think Bee Cake is a more memorable, given the boutique cakery’s signature dessert: the busy bee cake.

The two of us shared a mini busy bee cake ($6.50), which is an absolute must for anyone with a taste for marzipan (my go-to everyday sweet is Rittersport dark chocolate with marzipan, so this cake was like a dream come true for me).

Three very thin and silky chocolate butter cake pieces are stacked with two almond butter cake layers, two layers of bittersweet chocolate mousse -- which blends with the cake giving it a gooey undercooked appearance -- and one layer of marzipan. The larger-than-a-fist sized cake is completely covered in yet another layer of marzipan and finished with a smooth poured bittersweet chocolate. Tiny almond petal bees sit atop the pretty little piece of perfection.

Black Hound Bakery
170 Second Ave.
New York, NY

Postcard from Long Island: Wine in the Courtyard

I had the pleasure of attending the largest annual wine tasting event on the east coast last week, Wine in the Courtyard, held at the Vanderbilt estate in Centerport, NY. Spread across the cobblestone courtyard and north estate lawn, the tasting brings local restaurants, bakeries, and wine distributors who bring with them several labels -- not all the wine is native to Long Island, though much of it is.

My two highlights of the tasting were pulled pork and barbecue baked beans from Smoking Sloe’s, a one-year old southern and soul food restaurant, and a Sicilian red wine from Feudo Arancio, a nero d’avola. Even on a hot summer night and in a crowd of about 800 people, Smoking Sloe’s warm, hearty, and meaty plate of pork quenched something needy in me. I tried the pulled pork, which needed no sauce, alongside a helping of sweet and meaty baked beans and collard greens made refreshingly piquant with lots of lemon juice.

After many glasses of familiar Californian wines (I just couldn’t pass up a large pour of hefty Coppola pinot noir), I finally landed upon something a little different, a Sicilian red served at just the right temperature, which on an 85-degree day makes a world of difference. The gentleman pouring the wine first swished my used glass clean with a few tablespoons or so of the wine, then served me a nice 2.5 oz. taste. It was slightly chilled. When another taster asked the man why the red wine was cold, he said, “Wine is made to be served at around 60-65 degrees, an on a hot night like this, anything else is soup!”

I’ve been reading that Sicily, unlike the rest of Italy, lost its international wine presence until only recently. But in the past five years or so, the region has seen something of a Renaissance, and the nero d’avola grape is helping bring it there. Nero d’avola is said to be one of the “new” grape varietals coming from the region, and some compare it to syrah. The wine I tried tasted distinctly like dark cherries and red other heavy red fruits.

The event, run by the Rotary Club of Northport, donates all the net proceeds to charities such as The Gift of Life, The Guide Dog Foundation, Polio Plus, and The Ride for Life. Wine in the Courtyard takes place each year in August and tickets generally sell out in advance for about $100 a pop.

Smoking Sloe’s

847 Fort Salonga Rd.
Northport, NY 11768

Feudo Arancio Nero d’Avola, Sicilia
brought to the event by Port to Port Wines & Spirits
395H Fort Salonga Rd.
Northport, NY 11768