When my wife and I finally decided to live out one of our dreams and travel the U.S., I knew in my heart it was really just a chance for me to eat more bread and pastries. One full calendar year, January 1st 2021 to January 1st 2022 traveling the United States with no permanent home. We, our 2 children, and a van, many cities and one nation we call home. One nation with some seriously talented bakers and some dynamic coffee roasters. Although my wife would hold onto delusions of self growth, fresh starts, new perspectives and even the often misplaced term “adventure”, I subverted our plans into a hedonistic voyage of carbohydrate assimilation the likes of which have not been seen since the kitchen of King Louis VI. Zoom marriage counseling bills considered, it was completely worth it. To find a nobler endeavor than the discovery of the greatest of baked goods, is a venture destined to fail so spectacularly, you will end up depressed, drunk, alone and trying to placate the futility of your attempt by stuffing your face with croissants in the most tragically ironic twist of fate since Romeo and Juliet; whose story may be allegory for a forbidden love of french pastry.
In order to fulfill my bakery dreams I needed a base line. A starting point. Not a physical one. We had that: from the Central Coast of California we would tour north to our first destination, Seattle. But I needed someone to go before me and give me a rough map of where I might start. A guiding star. Not a top ten list with 8 of 10 bakers in Manhattan, but a more comprehensive list including small town bakeries. Possibly a list from someone who has scoured the country with similar taste buds. I thought for sure it did not exist, but David Landsel ( @davidlandsel1 link-tree ) proved me wrong and gave me a starting point. Landsel has been traveling and writing since 1999, and writes about good eats: bakeries, bagels, jewish delis, sandwiches, pizza, barbeque, and butcher shops. I do not agree with everything on his lists, but some of it is gold.
David created a list of 100 best bakeries in America published by Food and Wine. I know I can’t get to all 100, but I’m sure going to try. As of today, I’ve been to 26. By the end of our year I will have visited over 45. What’s better is that along the way I have discovered wonderful bakeries not on the list. Hidden gems.
So, what makes a bakery great?
First, is bread and fermentation. At my home-town bakery even the croissants are sourdough. Sourdough is not a bread type; it’s a baking method based on fermentation. There’s no commercial yeast; just a vat of rotting, wet grains with gluten to be baked into goodness. It is a gift of nature that bacteria in the soil allow our grains to grow in the first place, then bacteria give rise to our dough and it’s airy insides, and last we digest it with the bacteria in our gut. It is the circle of life; which, without bread, is just the circle of misery.
Even non-fermented breads can be incredible. Some recipes don’t allow for natural bacteria methods or leavening at all. I love all types of bread. I am really into thick hearty crusts and the myriad of grain mixtures. From light airy wheats to dense seed and grain mixtures. Thousands of variations exist. It is a literal foundation of sustenance in the history of hundreds of cultures worldwide. Some bakeries make only bread and that is enough. Bread is good. Were I an Israelite and bread rained from the sky, I would already be in the promised land. Milk and honey? Get bent. Bread.
Second to good bread is a proper croissant or danish. The best breakfast I have ever had was a simple, almond croissant and cappuccino. There is nothing more I could ask for. I like crunchy flakey exterior layers and buttery delicate insides. In culinary school I remember making danish and croissants in the first couple weeks of Advanced Baking. The process was so time consuming. I was in the kitchen for more than 8 hours all together. No one one in the class was allowed to use the sheeter (the tool that rolls the dough the desired thickness automatically). All by hand. After folding and rolling the dough who knows how many times and multiplying the butter layers to something like a hundred trillion (which takes a practiced hand that I did not have), I was over it. I couldn’t imagine why anyone worked so hard on something that required so much precision and effort.
After we baked them off, our instructor asked all of us to pick one off the cooling rack and taste it. I still remember that bite. I thought, I can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t work so hard for this. It was a danish with apricot and pastry cream. I almost died… in ecstasy. Croissants and danishes are truly one of the greatest foods ever created. A stunning statement few could argue with. Rich, immensely satisfying and tremendously versatile.
Third after croissants are baguettes. A great baguette is a canvas for all other flavors on earth to be painted upon and yet is somehow one of the most delicious flavors of all by itself.
Next is my body mass index nemesis, the scone. Don’t like them? They wouldn’t be on your list? I argue, you’ve never had a good one. For me, a great scone is a breakfast to be remembered by itself. With coffee of course. They’re the biscuit’s versatile and rebellious cousin. Sweet, savory or both. If you still think scones don’t belong on the list, but you’re obsessed with coffee like it’s a highly addictive drug (which it is), then track down a great scone and pair it with your favorite cup. They are priceless together when done well.
Coming in fifth on my list of what makes a bakery great is desserts, or pastries (apart from croissants or danish). For example: pie. A really great pie is uncommon, delicious and nostalgic. Few make the cut but when they do… step away from my damn pie! Also in this category are: kouign amann, fazualos, tarts, galettes, alfajors, cookies, qottab, financier, pan dulces, shortbread, cinnamon rolls, canelé, sticky buns, bostock, coffee cake, macaroons, macarons, schnecken, palmiers, and about three thousand other decadent options.
Sixth on the list would be foods crafted with the baked goods. Various toasts (not just avocado -I respect the hell out of a bakery that serves just regular toast with butter or jam), sandwiches, salads (house croutons?) or any other creative meal a bakery offers.
The list is not complete. I’m just trying to give you an idea of what I have loved at the great bakeries I’ve been to. There are exceptions and sometimes one baked item is so good nothing else matters. You may bake the greatest spelt brioche any human has ever made. That may be the only item you bake. If it is so good you may be one of the best bakeries in America for that alone. Just because spelt brioche is not on my list doesn’t mean anything. Look, this isn’t realism, it’s impressionism. Use your imagination and squint.
Like I was saying, we travelled. Starting north to Seattle. In Seattle, where food, creativity and passionate people abound, there are good bakeries. More than one. A bunch. Of all I sampled, one stood above the rest. So elevated, it stands above all others I have been to in the 7 months following. It was Sea Wolf Bakery in Seattle. (@seawolfbakers seawolfbakers.com)
Their pastries have an edge of creativity with feet firmly planted on the foundation of great baking skills. Wonderful croissants. In addition to the classic french roll up, they often bake a sweet and savory “croissant of the day”. Brilliant! The sweet of the day is what I tasted first. One bite and I knew this place was special. That’s pear in case you were wondering.
I also tasted the savory of the day baked with goat cheese, dried fruit and seeds. It was likewise amazing with an unexpected flavor and unique filling. I also got a loaf of crusty sourdough bread, a cheddar cheese roll (that seemed to almost dissolve with tenderness while I ate it), a cinnamon raisin snail (well caramelized yet so soft inside and with cream cheese frosting on the side as to not reduce the structure of the dark crust on the outside by just smothering after baking). A lesser bakery would not have put in the effort to bring the snail to that perfect pre-burnt caramelization point and probably would have thrown the frosting on right away, allowing it to soak in and leave you with a wet, goupy, shopping mall-style blob of a pastry; which, is not my jam. If that’s what you want, then eat cinnamon bread pudding. Last, was a total stunner to me. I never before had croissant brittle. If you are also new to it, prepare yourself. They take day-old croissants, cut off the bottom, soak them in some devilish caramel-brittle-candy-liquid decadence and then bake it to create this flat, sticky, crunchy, caramelized croissant-ish dessert. It’s unholy and delectable. It caught me off guard in the best way. And I don’t have a sweet tooth. Bread comes before sweets. I have contempt for baked items that are unnecessarily sweet. They’re gross. This was amazing.
I should have known by the size of the line in the Seattle drizzle. You can’t hide baked goods like this for long. Brothers Jesse and Kit Schumann and their entire team deserve top honors for what they are doing. Thank you for sharing your art with the world.