by Jay Blotcher
the tastes & smells of holiday time really linger in the memory
Come holiday time, a person can be forgiven for being overwhelmed. All five senses are working overtime, in an effort to absorb the insistent joys of the season. Christmas lights assail the eyes, carols tantalize the ears, and a determined day of shopping wears on the feet.
Yet what really linger in the memory after Yuletide, scientists have determined, are the tastes and odors of holiday time. When it comes to time travel, a Christmas cookie can be as effective as Dr. Emmett Brown’s DeLorean. One whiff or nibble and you feel as if you’re a tyke again, encased in your Dr. Denton’s and fighting the yawns so you can stay up and listen for reindeer hooves overhead.
Here in the Hudson Valley, the number and varieties of bakers offering holiday items is immense. Many of these merchants aim to recapture your youth with familiar recipes that conjure retro appeal. Others aspire to create new traditions with innovative goodies. Whether you’re content to stick with perennial favorites or you’re adventurous enough to sample new treats, you’re guaranteed the security of a full tummy throughout all 12 days of the holiday.
The two prominent versions of holiday goods available in the Valley are all-American and European-influenced, the latter encompassing French, Italian, and German baked goods that emphasize the artisan factor of Old World recipes.
In the latter category is CAFÉ LE PERCHE, a Hudson-based shop which proudly calls itself a boulangerie, bar, and patisserie. It’s is modeled after a bakery in the Le Perche region of France. While the main draw is breads baked in a brick-insulated, wood-fired oven imported from France, Le Perche boasts holiday offerings from all over Europe: Panettone, a traditional Italian holiday sweet bread; the Stollen, a German loaf cake with candied fruit; the French Buche de Noel, a rich chocolate cake in the shape of a Yule log; and the Cougneau, a Gallic holiday brioche studded with raisins, said owner Jennifer Houle.
CALICO Restaurant of Rhinebeck has an adjoining patisserie. Pastry chef Leslie Heinsohn-Balassone bakes everything from scratch, insisting on pure extracts, real butter and cream, and fresh fruits, while eschewing preservatives and artificial flavors. Her holiday offerings stem from her own childhood, she said. “We always had fabulous Stollen and all-butter cookies.” Calico’s biggest seller on the holiday menu is the Buche de Noel. Calico offers this pastry sculpture in three flavors: chocolate cake with chocolate mousse, chocolate with white chocolate mousse, and white with raspberry mousse. This elaborate concoction is covered in chocolate ganache and topped with handmade and entirely edible chocolate fences and trees, marzipan snowmen, meringue mushrooms, and sugar holly leaves.
The recently opened COMPARETTO BAKERY in Marlboro prefers a no-frills approach to holiday goods. “We believe in old-fashioned baking,” said Antonietta Comparetto, “because our customer base definitely appreciates traditional baking.” Simplicity is the byword at holiday time, as well. Offerings include strufoli (honey balls), cassata cake (a sponge cake filled with cannoli cream, rum flavor, and covered in white fondant), and ricotta cakes and pies. For kids, there are Yuletide-decorated cupcakes and pastries.
Another bakery celebrating Buon Natale is CAFFE AURORA in Poughkeepsie’s revitalized Mount Carmel neighborhood, Dutchess County’s Little Italy. Simple but tasty Christmas cookies and pastries are lovingly created according to age-old recipes. Down the road is LA DELIZIOSA PASTRY SHOPPE, whose décor and offerings suggest a gustatory return to the past.
In Wappingers Falls, Derek Corsino, chef-owner of CORSINO CAKES has expanded his successful baking operation to include a new storefront. Utilizing fresh ingredients only, Corsino offers decorated holiday cupcakes and chocolate truffles with liquor centers, designed to add a kick to that office holiday party.
Down in Beacon, CRUMB BAKERY and Cafe has distinguished itself with luxurious variations on old favorites. According to co-owner Tanner Townsend, “We feel that food should be fun, and the holidays are the perfect time to play with your food!” Crumb offers seasonal cupcakes and cookies, hand-decorated and available on festive platters for holiday parties.
In Kingston, the stalwart neighborhood bakery is DEISING’S, operating since 1965. They draw from German family tradition and use imported ingredients “in order to recreate old world traditions,” said co-owner Eric Deising, but there is a decided American emphasis. Deising’s rolls out the themed cupcakes as the weather grows nippy, including snowman, Santa, and Christmas tree designs.
Just up the road, on the corner of Wall and Front streets, stands DOMINICK’S CAFE at the heart of Kingston’s Uptown District. The bakers at Dominick’s create amazing Italian specialty cookies, including anisette and lemon cookies, pignoli cookies, biscotti, sesame regina, and the famed Italian wedding cookies.
For sheer variety and shameless indulgence, HUDSON VALLEY DESSERT COMPANY of Saugerties draws plaudits for its from-scratch, all-natural baked goods, utilizing local suppliers whenever possible, said owner Connie Bailey. For the holidays, Bailey applies her creativity to gingerbread houses, panettone, cupcake snowmen, and her “whimsically iced cookies.” These include snowflakes, ginger people of both genders, trees, and stars. HVDC’s biscotti sampler features 48 pieces of four flavors each and will ship anywhere in the country. For Chanukah celebrants, HVDC offers iced sugar cookies and rugelach.
Whether you enjoy Chanukah as The Festival of Lights or harbor a modest case of Christmas envy (admit it), COHEN’S BAKERY in Ellenville and Monticello will transform the holiday as if bubbe and zayde were still around. Choose from traditional Eastern European fare, made without high-fructose corn syrup or trans-fats, including chocolate rugelach, cinnamon bobka, cherry turnovers, honey loaf cake, coffee cake rings, mandelbrot, and a line of sugar-free items.
JACK AND LUNA’S in Stone Ridge serves “good old-fashioned, country-baked items not found in your corner grocery store,” according to co-owner Julie Bowman. But there is a Manhattan flair to the offerings to reassure weekenders. Come December, choose from themed holiday cookies made from scratch and hand-decorated with royal icing, as well as traditional pies such as pumpkin, pecan, and apple. The Jack and Luna Christmas cookie platter is guaranteed to make you as popular at a party as mistletoe.
Also in Stone Ridge is MAD CRAVINGS, the brainchild of Karen Tarlofsky, who operates out of her home. The goods range from “trendy desserts” like whoopee pies and cupcakes to old-fashioned crowd-pleasers like pineapple upside-down cake. Tarlofsky uses organic and local ingredients. For holidays, people line up at her back door for pumpkin, apple, sweet potato, or pecan pies and tarts, as well as rugelach, mandelbread, and assorted cookie platters.
Depending on whom you ask, cupcakes are either still riding high on the trend express or petering out as the “it dessert.” But Maresa Volante’s creations will respark a mania for the portable cakes, on sale at Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz under the name SWEET MARESA’S UPSTATE CUPCAKE. “Every last gram of flour I use is organic, farmer grown, and milled from Ithaca,” she said. “It is super-fresh and light, giving the cupcakes and cookies the perfect crumb.” The herbs, fruits, and vegetables used are sourced from sustainable, New Paltz area farms. Volante began this line in 2001, after turning vegan and realizing the world of baked goods was hostile to her dietary habits. Among the unexpected joys here: pumpkin cake with cinnamon frosting; carrot cake with cream cheese frosting; gingersnap cake; sage cake with nutmeg frosting; pear and clove; fig with marzipan frosting; and Volante’s best-selling chocolate lavender cupcakes.
Up the road from Lagusta’s in New Paltz is THE BAKERY, a neighborhood destination for three decades. The place hums daily as a gathering place, “but it is at holiday time that The Bakery most comes alive,” said owner David Santner. An emphasis on old-fashioned favorites means the shelves are teeming with Stollen, pfeffernuss, gingerbread house kits, butter cookies, and edible tree ornaments, as well as Chanukah-themed cookies.
Further down the road in New Paltz is THE VILLAGE TEA ROOM Restaurant & Bake Shop. Pastry chef Agnes Devereux revels in French baked goods that will have you burbling “Joyeux Noel” to passersby. Her Buche de Noel (by special order only) is a chocolate sponge roulade, filled with a coffee butter cream. The bark is crafted from a rich French chocolate butter cream, decorated with marzipan holly leaves and berries and chocolate-dipped meringue mushrooms. Another equally beguiling creation is the Winter Woodland Cake. This fudgy chocolate cake is filled with chocolate mint butter cream, frosted in a peppermint butter cream, and topped with chocolate-dipped meringue mushroom. Or savor simple whimsy in the Christmas Elf Cupcake.
Josie Eriole at MOXIE CUPCAKE in New Paltz, which just opened its first storefront operation and cafe, has a simple mantra regarding her product: “You can have beauty and taste!” Her bold array of cupcakes bears out that assertion. Moreover, Moxie takes care to use quality ingredients, utilizing organic fair trade cocoa, pure Madagascar Bourbon vanilla bean, as well as locally sourced dairy, eggs, produce, and fruit. The result is a product that straddles the area between trendy and old-fashioned fun. Each season, several flavor variations spring from the fevered mind of Cupcake Gal. Past flavor concoctions have included cheesecake, caramel ganache, raspberry, and pumpkin cheesecake with whipped cream & toasted pecan. Other wild rides for your taste buds include Daydream Believer (banana Nutella), Vanilla Sky, Salt Away my Sugar, Annie Get Your Gun (red velvet), Chocolate Moxie, All that Razz, and Apple Blossom. For the holidays Moxie creates gift boxes called the “Twelve Cupcakes of Christmas,” a delicious combination of nostalgia-driven perfection! This year’s flavors include a pumpkin cranberry cupcake, eggnog cupcake, and gingerbread cupcake. Daily lunch specials feature soup and savory cupcakes such as sausage and pepper savory cup with mashed potato topping and mac n cheese cups. Catering, including custom cupcake towers, is available.
Joining in the commitment to all-natural ingredients is Essell Hoenshell-Watson of The ALTERNATIVE BAKER in Rosendale. “Everything we do is Old World, in the sense that we have built-in purity laws.” The baker will not use bleached and bromated flour, which is common in America but commercially unacceptable in Europe. Fresh butter, eggs, and milk are locally sourced and artificial colors and flavors are barred from the shop. The commitment to European tradition grows more evident toward Christmas. Then, he offers an authentic English favorite known as Dundee cake. This buttercake is riddled with rum-soaked dried fruit, including cherries, apricots, and currants. The delicacy is known better here as Scottish Advent Cake. His holiday cookies include include spice drop, a variation on the pfeffernusse, with clove, black pepper, and star anise. Also available are amaretti (almond meringue cookies) and ginger shortbread with stem ginger. The chocolate mint cake is a devil’s food cake with chocolate mint icing and decorated in crushed candy cane peppermint.
A destination to keep in mind while searching for your baker’s delight is the FARM STAND. Stands throughout the region offer all-American fresh baked goods that include an assortment of pies, cakes, breads, and doughnuts. Some locations to get you started: Saunderskill Farm in Accord, Wallkill Valley Farm in New Paltz, Hurd’s Family Farm in Modena, Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson, Barthel’s Farm in Ellenville, Burd’s Farm in Wawarsing, and the Apple Bin in Ulster Park. Many of the ingredients are coming right off the farm, and the passion of these local bakers comes through in every bite.
TRADITION, CELEBRATION, AND LOVE NEVER TASTED SO GOOD.