Where pies go when they die

“This must be where pies go when they die” reads a small hand-painted sign next to the door at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in Park Slope. And truly, it must be.

It’s also not far from what I imagine one version of heaven might look like either, depending who you are. If you like a pie shop that’s simple and cozy, just perfectly worn in and charmingly old fashioned, where you can sit at an old wooden table and be wrapped in the smells of butter and vanilla and coffee while you dig a fork into a wedge of pie so good it feels like God himself might’ve slipped it down to you through a break in the clouds, then yea, you must be where pies go when they die.

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Pecan pie’s never been my favorite but this bittersweet chocolate pecan could change my mind.

I know I tend to speak in hyperbole when it comes to food, but the pies at Four and Twenty Blackbirds are deserving. I’ve had seven or eight different kinds, sometimes at the shop on a little white plate with a metal fork, other times in a to-go container when I couldn’t stay, and sometimes from the plastic packaging they come in when you order from grocery delivery service, Fresh Direct. They’ve all been delicious.

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Coffee custard pie with fresh whipped cream. A dream.

Their chocolate chess pie was velvety and rich, the chocolate custard like a perfect pudding cozying up to a buttery, flaky crust. The Salty Honey pie was pure decadence, all butter, caramelized sugar and honey, sea salt sprinkled on top like snowflakes. The matcha was silky and calming, the bittersweet chocolate pecan gooey and indulgent, the coffee custard like a perfectly, creamy coffee in pie form.

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Lemon lavender pie, not at all floral, just creamy, summery sweet.

Every time I’ve gone to the little shop on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn, I’ve wanted to stay for hours. And every time I’ve had a mouthful of Four and Twenty Blackbirds pie I’ve thought, “My God this tastes like heaven.”

Portuguese pastry perfection

This is the face of an addict, a pastel de nata addict.

The face of an addict, a pastel de nata addict.

With its resplendent blue skies, abundant sunshine and cool Atlantic breezes, Lisbon had me smitten almost from the minute I stepped off the plane.  But the moment I held a pastel de nata in my hand and felt its flaky crust and warm, custard filling in my mouth? Wooo! That was something else. That, my friends, was love.

Pasteis de nata, traditional Portuguese custard tarts, are everywhere. All the cafés and bakeries have them, and in the morning, people leaning over counters, sipping coffees and scarfing down pasteis, are a common sight.

Production line of deliciousness.

Production line of deliciousness.

I tried my first at Manteigaria, a Lisbon bakery that makes them fresh in-house, all day long. When a friend took me there my first night in town (remember: any time is a good time for pastries), bakers filled tray after tray of creamy custard treats.

Little cups of sugar and cinnamon dusted happiness.

Little cups of sugar and cinnamon dusted happiness.

The best pasteis de nata have flaky, buttery crusts and custard centers that are smooth and creamy, sweet and subtly eggy in flavor. The tops are slightly charred so the sugar caramelizes and gives each tart the burnt-sweetness that goes so well with a sprinkle of cinnamon and powdered sugar.

During my week in Lisbon, I had these pastries for breakfast in the morning and snacks throughout the day, at cafes all over town, and with varying degrees of deliciousness, and while it’s worth noting I never once had a bad one, Manteigaria’s pasteis were some of my favorite.

Cranking out pastry perfection since 1837

Cranking out pastry perfection since 1837

The title of absolute best, however, is an honor that most Lisboans reserve for Pasteis de Belem, a bakery in nearby Belem that’s been turning out these little tarts of perfection since 1837 when monks from the neighboring Mosteiro do Jeronimos started selling them as a means of making money. The old-timey café is a bustling scene of pastry gobbling tourists and locals, while the glass counter in the front keeps a steady crowd of admirers snaking out the front door.

Ladies and gents, THE best, the one, the only, the pastel de Belem

Ladies and gents, THE best, the one, the only, the pastel de Belem

When I made the pilgrimage to the famed pastry shop (and the monastery down the street, thank you very much) and finally got my hands on one of their baked treats, I immediately understood what the fuss was about. While other pasteis had been good, this one was perfect. The crust, made of layers of delicate, thin pastry dough, was buttery and crisp, and the still-warm custard center, made of egg yolks, sugar and at least some small part of heaven itself, was velvety soft and sweet without being cloying.

Call them pasteis de nata or de Belem, I’d gladly eat these every day for the rest of my life, just like I did during that that delicious week in Portugal.

The forgotten spotted dick

Forget “Dick in a box.” I have (spotted) dick in a can. And it’s expired. Read on.

When I say that certain things really only happen to me, I’m not being melodramatic. They really do just happen to me.  If you don’t believe me, stop and ask yourself when the last time was that you pulled out an expired spotted dick from your kitchen cabinet. Never, you say? Wait, what the hell is a spotted dick and what was it doing in the kitchen cabinet anyway, you say?

Yea, well, welcome to my life. Things get weird. I find expired spotted dick in my kitchen cabinet. It’s totally the norm.

If you’re thinking that spotted dick is something freaky that I now own as part of my new single-girl-in-the-city life, well, first of all, you’re a perv, and second, spotted dick pudding (cause yes, that’s the full name) is actually a British dessert, a sort of custardy cake speckled with dried fruit. The particular one that I have is made by Heinz and comes in a can, and unfortunately, because it was hidden behind a box of quinoa and a couple of soup cans, went unnoticed and expired a few months ago. Woops.

I originally bought it at Myers of Keswick in the West Village way back when I bought the treacle sponge pudding I wrote about here, but alas, it was forgotten and now who knows what’s going on inside that can.

It’s a shame too, because it would’ve probably been pretty hilarious if next time one of my friends—or God forbid, my mother—called and asked what I was up to, I answered, “Oh you know, just hanging out, eating some spotted dick.” I mean really, these things only happen to me.

To puff or not to puff? That is NOT the question

Boston Cream Puff

I’m not really sure how authentic Boston cream puffs are or if they’re even a very “Boston” thing to eat or if Mike’s Pastry, in the city’s North End (i.e. Little Italy), is more than just another touristy place to go for sweets like cream puffs and cannoli. But you know what? I don’t really care!

When a soft, doughy pastry is filled with custard and covered in chocolate, what else do you need to know aside from when can I have one?

During my recent and first-time visit to Boston, I made a stop at Mike’s Pastry and decided that a Boston cream puff in Boston just felt like the right thing to do. And you know what? I was right. That cream puff, whether it was traditional or not, touristy or local, was plain ol’ simple delicious. The pastry-custard-chocolate combo is always an easy choice for me, and at least for one afternoon, that’s all I needed to know.

Pastelito pit-stop

So. Many. CHOICES.

While New York is far from lacking in places to get baked sweets—what with cupcake shops, bakeries, patisseries and all other manner of baked-good providers available everywhere—if there’s one thing I miss about Miami, it’s the ready availability of Cuban bakeries.

I miss pastelitos, dammit.

Growing up in Miami, these pastries were always around, whether you were Cuban or not. During high school my sister even worked at a Cuban bakery called La Rosa, where the uniform was a terrible, oversized magenta smock that I loved to make fun of her for. But if she came home with a box of pastelitos? Well, then my tune changed to a little butt kissing.

During my latest stay in Miami, the last thing I did before leaving the city was making one last stop at La Rosa to pick up some of my favorites. Continue reading