Sweets for the Sweet
Bittersweet Treats’ masterly confections persuade even savory foodies that since life is short, it really does pay to eat dessert first (but last works, too).
By Bradley Tuck 02/01/2013
Growing up, it seemed I was constantly enveloped by the scentS of almond essence, butter and vanilla bean and the whirr of a hand whisk. My mother was a baking
fanatic, and barely a day passed without a new batch of cookies, pies, cakes or pastries filling the house with their warm perfume. Maybe it’s because of that exposure that I can say, with a perfectly straight face, “I don’t have a sweet tooth.” Generally, I’ll take a slice of pizza — even a humble anchovy — over a dessert. Cupcakes leave me cold. I am impervious to, even frosty about, frosting. So, when a good friend whose palate I trust kept sending me texts about a lemon--poppy-seed cake from Pasadena that was breaking his heart, I was unmoved. But the texts kept coming. There was, allegedly, a lemon bar for which he would “pawn his soul.”
My friend and I do share a penchant for Negronis, served on the rocks, which qualifies him as a man of taste. So, one blustery afternoon I relented and made the journey to East Colorado Boulevard, across the street from Pasadena City College, and pushed open the door to a jewel box of a bake shop, Bittersweet Treats.
A bright modern interior with high ceilings and an abundance of light through ample windows houses a glass case full of childhood memories — cookies, handmade fig rolls, what looked like peanut brittle with a scattering of pretzels embedded in the toffee. They looked like the confections my mother baked all those years ago, just a lot less haphazard.
Their precision and execution should come as no surprise, because their baker and the owner of Bittersweet Treats, along with partner Linda Chen, is Danielle Keene. Keene has worked as a pastry chef at some of L.A.’s most respected restaurants. After training at Water Grill, Campanile and A.O.C., she has been pastry chef at The Little Door, Blair’s, BLT Steak and Wilshire. The avid foodie TV viewer out there might even recognize her from Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts, where she reached the finals. Linda Chen grew up baking with her older sister and eventually worked part-time in her family’s coffee shop, which she managed after college. It turns out that Chen is an avid Top Chef fan, and on seeing Keene in Just Desserts, she decided to contact her. And so a partnership was born.
As I scanned the glass pastry cases, I was struck by something — the size of the treats. They’re normal size — no cupcakes so large that they’d look at home in a Playboy bunny’s brassiere. No, these desserts (which also include ice cream) are just the right size to have a few bites, with a sip of tea or coffee perhaps. I sat right down and ordered the lemon--poppy-seed cake. It’s wide and low, with a thin glaze of something-or-other and a sliver of candied lemon. To wash it down, a cup of Lamill coffee roasted in Silver Lake. I took my fully compostable fork and parted the icing and the lemon sliver. A plump mound of fragrant sponge dotted with specks of poppy seed accompanied the lemon and icing to my mouth. My eyes rolled to the back of my head. “I don’t have a sweet tooth, I don’t have a sweet tooth, I don’t have a sweet tooth” was the mantra I repeated as I inhaled deeply and exhaled. And swallowed. My friend’s texts did not lie. Our trust built on Negronis would remain intact. This was indeed a heartbreakingly lovely little cake. And I began to realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a sweet tooth. It was that I didn’t have a tooth sweet enough for the majority of cloyingly sugar-loaded desserts that are the norm in the cake and cookie world. I bought a few more cakes to try at home and asked Danielle about her baking. And it all made sense in just three sentences.“I bake the way my mom and grandmother bake, and what I grew up eating. I like to think what sets my product apart from others is that everything is made from scratch and I try not to make things too sweet. That’s a big goal of mine, to not make things unnecessarily sweet.”
I clutched my box of treats tight, all the way home on the bus to Hollywood.
I stopped to buy wine at my favorite wine store and, to the shopkeepers’ delight, gave them my box. Because I can go back to Bittersweet, and love should be shared.