A Sweet Finish

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San Francisco’s boutique desserts tempt the taste buds of those in search of the city’s artisanal after-dinner offerings.

By Damon M. Banks

Macarons_Assorted (c) Frankeny Images-1
Macarons from Tout Sweet Pâtisserie | Frankeny Images

The faint of heart or those sticking to a strict no-sweets diet might find it difficult to turn a blind eye to the many irresistible dessert offerings that line the charming streets of San Francisco. Around every corner awaits another decadent delight ready to be discovered.

Full of flavor, wildly inventive and handcrafted under the exacting eye of local shopkeepers, the city’s boutique desserts provide the highest level of satisfaction when it comes to indulging a sweet tooth. These creative temptations will win over hearts and taste buds alike, elevating the post-dinner treat to a highlight of the meal.

The Bay Area was always synonymous with world-class cuisine, but this dessert fascination has seen exponential growth in recent years. “San Francisco is a great dessert destination because we take desserts seriously,” says pastry chef Lori Baker of Baker & Banker, a seasonally driven restaurant in Lower Pacific Heights that serves classic American desserts with a sophisticated twist. “Now, most restaurants have a dedicated pastry chef, and since we have such amazing produce, we can use it to make even better desserts than you can get in most other cities.”

From chocolate and candy to baked goods and ice cream, the city has no shortage of boutique companies with owners who put their hearts and souls into these localized sweets, yielding a product that is uniquely San Francisco.

 

Chocolate Cravings

For years, chocolate and San Francisco have gone hand in hand. It’s a culture deeply embedded in the city’s history, but in more recent years, boutique outposts have taken this sweet temptation to a new level with single-origin beans and intense, focused flavors in both pure chocolate and baked goods.

“We’ve seen that people are definitely more aware of where the food is coming from; sustainability and farm-to-table have become the ‘norm’ for us in the Bay Area,” says Alise O’Leary Inzerillo, sales manager at Tcho Chocolate.

Tcho chocolate bars
Tcho chocolate bars

“The Bay Area has a very open-minded and thoughtful way of consuming food: It’s not just something as simple as ‘chocolate,’ ” adds Shiaosan Williams-Sheng, who makes chocolate and works in research and development for Tcho, which recently relocated to Berkeley from its Pier 17 location in San Francisco. “I think there is a very palpable curiosity towards the flavor, but also the story itself, the design and the people behind the product.”

Founded in 2005, Tcho’s “new American chocolate” has since become a popular choice among locals for the company’s artisanal approach to creating everything from drops for baking to flavor-infused bars for nibbling. Tcho takes an intrinsic approach to chocolate, honing in on the inherent flavors found in cacao. Throughout the city, visitors can find the chocolate at shops and cafes like Blue Bottle Coffee, as well as restaurants that incorporate the product into their baked goods and desserts.

“Our chocolate is used by many of the city’s best pastry chefs, and our chocolate makers are some of the best in the business,” explains Inzerillo, who once worked as a pastry chef. “A new favorite for summer is the Strawberry Rhubarb Pie bar, while the all-time favorites remain the Mokaccino bar and the Drinking Chocolate Crumbles that make the best darn mocha or hot chocolate you’ll ever drink.”

Though Baker & Banker doesn’t use Tcho for its selection of artisanal pastries, the baked goods are mouthwatering nonetheless. The options range from savory breads and tarts to sweet sticky buns, cookies and crumbles, but the piece de resistance is the signature XXX Chocolate Cake, which deserves every bit of the praise it receives. Three layers of devil’s food cake, chocolate cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake come together flawlessly, topped with a glaze of chocolate ganache. This crowd-pleasing dessert is always on the menu—or at least as long as it lasts each night.

Baker & Banker’s signature cake layers devil’s food cake, chocolate cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. | Courtesy of Baker & Banker
Baker & Banker’s signature cake layers devil’s food cake, chocolate cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake. | Courtesy of Baker & Banker

There’s one bakery, however, that visitors and locals alike are probably familiar with. Located on the third floor of Macy’s Union Square, Tout Sweet Pâtisserie is a wonderland of sugary creativity, known for bringing out the child in everyone who enters. The brainchild of celebrity chef Yigit Pura—who won Bravo’s “Top Chef Just Desserts” and is releasing a book, “Sweet Alchemy,” this summer—Tout Sweet’s colors, variety and exhilarating atmosphere are unparalleled.

“Tout Sweet Pâtisserie is armed with sweets to make your inner child smile from cheek to cheek,” Pura says. “We have a really wide and colorful array of tasty sweets, such as our French macaron, our ‘petit gateaux’ (small cakes), ‘verrines’ (layered parfaits), large celebration cakes and, not to mention, our playful sweets and retail gifts.”

 

Fresh From the Oven

It’s no secret that some of the best bread and bakery items also originate in San Francisco. While New Yorkers claim their water is the reason for their unmatched bagels, many chefs in San Francisco believe their water is also part of the reason for the stellar baked items being produced here locally. The water flows deep into the city’s pores, helping grow a bounty of fresh produce used as ingredients in San Francisco’s sweets.

“We have access to so many fresh fruits, nuts and spices, which allows us to excel with seasonal desserts in the Bay Area,” Inzerillo says. “This combined with the diversity of people makes for a variety of delicious selections.”

“San Francisco is also home to some of the best farmers markets in the nation,” adds Pura, whose love for the city has made his name synonymous with the emerging San Francisco food scene. “I find myself constantly inspired by the selection of fresh produce that is readily available.”

Cherry galettes at Tartine Bakery & Cafe | Photo by Chad Robertson
Cherry galettes at Tartine Bakery & Cafe | Photo by Chad Robertson

One example of locals using homegrown inspiration in their baked goods is at Tartine Bakery & Cafe. Pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt joined her husband, the renowned master baker Chad Robertson, to make magic in the kitchen at their popular eatery.

“One of my favorites [at Tartine] is the tres leche cake, which is a traditional Latin American cake that seemed fitting to offer here since we’re located in the Mission neighborhood,” Robertson says. Taking this dessert a step further, he sources goat milk from Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, Calif., then cooks it down with sugar to make ‘cajeta’ (sweetened caramelized milk), which he then adds to the cake to give it his own specialized touch.

Since many visitors find it difficult to choose from the extensive menu, Robertson offers another popular suggestion. “Our fruit galettes are great in the summer since they change each season,” he says. “The cherry galette with Kamut dough is even included in my newest book ‘Tartine Book No. 3,’ and is made by applying the basic Tartine galette technique. … We use Kamut flour and replace the water with kefir cultured cream, which yields an extremely tender and flaky crust with a rich depth of flavor.”

A hallmark of San Francisco chefs—like Tartine’s twists to traditional baked goods—is to take something familiar and transform it into the extraordinary. The team at Baker & Banker is also beyond passionate when it comes to food and the entire guest experience, embracing the concept wholeheartedly.

“We’ve seen a lot of evolvement in pastries over the past few years, including the use of savory ingredients and new techniques consistent with molecular gastronomy,” Baker explains. “We love being creative, and a favorite is serving some of our best desserts in jars—such as the coconut cream pie. … I put layers of pie crust, coconut custard, coconut brittle, whipped cream and coconut macaroons to create a cute dessert that is also fun to eat.”

San Franciscans are known for their adventurous palates, so naturally there’s an innate curiosity about internationally inspired sweets. Pura has built on the United States’ love affair with macarons by offering customers his own version of the French favorite. Available at Tout Sweet in a variety of colors and flavors, these tasty treats satisfy the entire family. Crafted using a three-day process, the macarons are made with ingredients from local artisanal farmers for a flavorful bite into the sweet confection.

“Our French macarons are our signature menu item and we also have a rotating selection of 10 to 12 seasonal flavors, but I think our cakes and small cakes are something that really sets us apart from others in the city,” Pura says. “We wanted to bring a little taste of Paris to San Francisco and each dessert, be it a cake or a bit of a cookie, brings its own flair and personality.”

 

A Frosty Revolution

The sense of adventure that’s characteristic of the San Francisco food scene also extends to its successful ice creameries. Chefs continue to push the envelope in terms of inventiveness, and a shining example of this creativity can be found at Hayes Valley’s Smitten Ice Cream.

There’s no denying the sweet luxury of enjoying a scoop of ice cream on a summer day, but Smitten takes it a step further by crafting made-to-order mixes and then instantly freezing the concoction with a blast of liquid nitrogen. A seasonal option is available monthly, in addition to a rotating array of regular favorites like salted caramel, classic vanilla and chocolate made using Tcho bars.

Humphry Slocombe is one of the many ice creameries in the city serving creative flavors.

More traditional ice cream varieties can also be found in the city, with patrons waiting in lengthy lines to get a scoop of the handmade, small-batch offerings at Bi-Rite Creamery, which uses organic milk, cream and eggs from Straus Family Creamery just 45 miles away. Another beloved hot spot, Humphry Slocombe is among the top purveyors serving inventive flavors; its Secret Breakfast ice cream is one of the most talked-about Bay Area delights. Incorporating bourbon and cornflake cookies, it’s boozy, creamy and crunchy all at once.

Ice cream is a summertime favorite addition to the desserts for guests at Baker & Banker and its flavor combinations won’t disappoint. “We also make all of our own ice creams, with our most popular flavor recently being the rich toffee crunch ice cream that is served on top of a peanut butter banana chocolate crisp,” Baker says. All of the flavors are made in-house, and several of the other ongoing favorites include the vanilla bean and salted caramel.

With all of the incredible dessert options available in the Bay Area, the only challenge is choosing just one of the inventive offerings dreamed up by the city’s skilled chefs and culinary masterminds.

“San Francisco is such a foodie city—there is literally something for every culinary taste,” Pura says. “The dessert and food scene in San Francisco has become bolder and more fearless in these recent years.

“Residents since 1849 have been pioneers, and we certainly aren’t afraid to speak our minds and opinions,” the pastry chef continues. “We dare to think out of the box, and there are many restaurants that do this while still embracing the mantra of sourcing locally and organically. It’s the best of both worlds.”