East Bay cookie lovers reach for more than chocolate chips
story and photos* By Anita Chu
Looking for a local cookie of quality? The East Bay has plenty to offer, from virtuosic versions of international classics to inspired originals.
With their distinctive fluted seashell shape and famous role as memory-jogger for Marcel Proust, madeleines occupy a storied position among the world’s cookies. The local story goes back to the late 60s when Don and Sue Morris were part of the famous “Gourmet Ghetto” community in North Berkeley and were approached by Victoria Wise, owner of Pig by the Tail, a French-inspired charcuterie, to create madeleines for her shop. Working from old French recipes, Sue created her own version of the classic, baking the first batches in her home kitchen. Don got the job of driving around the boxes of madeleines, winning fans for the cookies wherever he stopped. Don and Sue named their fast-growing venture Donsuemor, an elegant amalgamation of their first and last names.
Donsuemor’s madeleines are richer and more tightly crumbed than their French cousins. Atsuko Watanabe, the Donsuemor representative, says they are meant to be more like pound cake. While the edges are delectably crisp, ready for a dunk in a cup of tea, the insides remain tender and moist. Donsuemor’s madeleines come in several variations, including lemon zest and chocolate-dipped, although Watanabe indicates that the traditional version, buttery and vanilla-scented, is still the top seller.
As demand for the madeleines grew, production moved to a kitchen in Emeryville. Don, a talented machinist, helped design the equipment that would automate much of the Madeleine making process. Two years ago, Donsuemor moved to its current location, a state-of-the-art facility in Alameda, where over 15,000 madeleines are made every hour.
Just last year, the company introduced a second product to its line: the financier. Made from almonds and browned butter, these miniature French almond cakes have an engaging nuttiness and wonderfully velvety crumb. Befitting a company that has been singularly devoted to one product, Donsuemor spent months developing their financier before unveiling it to the public. Watanabe notes that Donsuemor’s culture has always emphasized family working together to create superior products worthy of Don and
Sue’s first loving efforts. www.donsuemor.com
A Sweet Life with Alfajores
France has its madeleines, while South America has the alfajor, a particularly soft, meltingly tender rendition of shortbread, sandwiching a caramel-sweet dulce de leche filling, and generously dusted over with powdered sugar or coated with chocolate. Although alfajores originated in Spain, they have become primarily associated with South America, where nearly every country has its beloved version of this cookie. In Walnut Creek, a gorgeous rendition of the alfajor can be found in the kitchens of Sabores del Sur. Guisell Osorio, the founder of Sabores del Sur, moved to the Bay Area from Santiago, Chile, when she was a teenager. Longing for her grandmother’s cooking, she asked for the recipes so she could reproduce them. This innocent, nostalgia- inspired request opened up a new career for Osorio. She discovered she loved reproducing her grandmother’s empanadas and alfajores, and started Sabores del Sur in 2002 as a catering company to bring South American cuisine to the Bay Area.
Sabores del Sur’s menu and clientele have steadily grown, but alfajores are still the cornerstone of the business and its most popular product. Despite the clamor, Osorio continues making the cookies by hand, believing that turning over production of these delicacies to machines would compromise their quality. As with many shortbread-style cookies, alfajores depend on a deft, delicate hand to attain their dreamy tenderness, which Osorio and her staff seem to have mastered. She uses no preservatives, so these cookies are to be enjoyed, like all homemade cookies, as quickly as possible.
Adding to their cachet is the limited availability: You’ll only find Osorio’s alfajores at select locations around the Bay Area and by special order. Osorio charmingly revealed that one of her goals is to ship her alfajores to every state in the country; so far she has reached 19. “I see my cookie as my partner,” Osorio says. And a sweeter partner would be difficult to find. www.saborsur.com, 510.406.4980
Another traditional cookie from a treasured old family recipe is at the foundation of a Vallejo-based cookie maker, La Graziosa. The name means “the gracious one,” which is a fitting description for the elegantly formed biscotti, which is twice baked, resulting in a crisp, firm texture.
Biscotti date back to Roman times, where they were originally conceived as hardy rations for Roman soldiers. After the fall of the empire, biscotti underwent a rebirth in Tuscany, where they were flavored with anise seeds and mixed with almonds from the groves of Prato, becoming an elegant after-dinner sweet, traditionally savored with a glass of vin santo.
As William, the company representative, explains, at La Graziosa, biscotti are made in
an extended three-day process: First, the dough is formulated and refrigerated overnight. The second day, the loaves of dough are formed and baked. Then the loaves are stored in racks with a pan of hot water placed underneath and the entire cart covered in plastic.
This overnight “steaming” gives the biscotti a soft texture that La Graziosa believes distinguishes them from other biscotti. On the third day the loaves are sliced into the traditional long, thin, “finger” shape and baked for the second time.
La Graziosa’s biscotti come in two sizes, and the larger, 5-inch versions are perfect for an afternoon spent with a book and a mug of tea. The original anise-scented biscotti remain a favorite, although La Graziosa’s sophisticated orange and dark chocolate dipped version is more popular: Flecked with orange zest and bits of roasted almonds, these biscotti are half-dipped in bittersweet Guittard chocolate. La Graziosa prides itself on using local ingredients and suppliers where possible.
The success of La Graziosa’s biscotti led to customer requests to expand the cookie line and so the menu today includes such American- style items as gingersnaps, Meyer lemon cookies, and chocolatedipped peanut butter cookies. But the biscotti are still the heart of the operation. www.thegracefulcookie.com
Takers for Teacakes
Agnes Hsu’s Teacake Bakeshop carries the air of a beloved grandmother’s kitchen, its cookies and cupcakes decorated in an understated style evoking homespun goodness. The color scheme in the shop is soft pastel and there are glass-domed plates of goodies everywhere. The kitchen is open to the rest of the store, so customers can see the bakers making fresh cookies throughout the day. Hsu prefers to bake small batches over the course of the day, rather than large batches once a day, to keep the stock as fresh as possible, and she feels that customers’ pleasure in seeing their cookies emerge fresh from the oven is worth the added effort.
Teacake Bakeshop’s lineup covers all the classic cookies plus some that Hsu has invented. The chocolate chunk is generously studded with hunks of Callebaut chocolate, while the coffee toffee chocolate mixes the richness of Illy espresso with crunchy toffee bits. There are also two house specialties: the vanilla sugar softies, oversized soft sugar cookies decorated with a swirl of buttercream, and Hsu’s unique cookie sandwiches, made of two crisp cookies filled with fluffy cream.
Hsu’s original operation in Emeryville has expanded to include stores in Corte Madera, Lafayette, and, most recently, Burlingame. Hsu is particularly excited about the Burlingame branch, with its special events room for cooking classes and parties. When she began offering these events at her Lafayette store, both adults and children piled in to learn how to reproduce Teacake Bakeshop’s cupcakes and cookies. In the cookie class, students make cookie sandwiches, vanilla sugar softies, and, of course, the chocolate chunk cookies. “When people walk into the store, I want them to be inspired to bake,” Hsu says, and with her new shop she is more prepared than ever to bring out the inner baker in everyone. Teacake Bakeshop: Emeryville, 5615 Bay St, 510.655.0865; Lafayette, 35 Lafayette Cir, 925.283.9900; Corte Madera, 119 Corte Madera Town Center, 415.924.2000; Burlingame, 1309 Burlingame Ave; www.teacakebakeshop.com •
Anita Chu, also known as pastry girl, is the creator of Dessert First (www.dessertfirst.typepad.com), an award-winning blog dedicated to all things sweet. After graduating from the pastry arts program at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco, Anita started Dessert First to combine her passions for pastry, writing, and photography. Her weekly posts document her adventures in the kitchen through vivid descriptions and mouth-watering photos, along with recipes. Her first cookbook, Field Guide to Cookies, was published in 2008, and her second cookbook, Field Guide to Candy, was published in 2009. Anita’s book and blog have been profiled in the New York Times, Sunset magazine, and the Washington Post, among other publications.