“Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?” sings Ella Fitzgerald. Well, the answer to that is easy. With the summer heat gone, New York is ideal for strolling and for eating. And both can feature dessert. I spent 10 days in September 2012 sampling as much as I could.
One of the many things I love about dessert is that it can be had with lunch and with dinner, as a snack, as breakfast, and even consumed in liquid form.
Let’s start with the liquid. Do you remember as a kid when you first heard about this thing called hot chocolate? Do you remember how you envisioned it? Silky smooth and warm, rich and creamy. Not exactly melted chocolate, as that would be too hard to drink. But simply liquid chocolate perfection.
And then someone gave you a cup. If you’re like me, you were bitterly disappointed with the thin watery milk and the faint chocolate-like taste. I’ve since discovered that there are awful and not so bad versions, but there is nothing like the hot chocolate of my childhood imagination.
And then I found Max Brenner (841 Broadway). I did not want to go into this restaurant, and when I did, I did not want to like it. But oh, I did.
Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man is a chain. Tourists and children love it. It is packed. It is loud. It has a shop inside the restaurant. It has its own merchandise of candy and mugs and body scrubs and candles. It has frighteningly large portions of frighteningly calorific food. This is not my kind of place.
But I heard their hot chocolate was good, and it is my duty as International Eating Expert to check these things out. On top of an overwhelming list of other chocolate drinks, they have several kinds of hot chocolate — Swiss, Mexican, and variations with cappuccino, marshmallow and even crunchy chocolate wafer balls.
But I was captivated by the Italian Thick Hot Chocolate on the menu ($5.95). It is available in dark, milk and white, but of course dark is your only real choice.
It is liquid chocolate perfection. The drink had just the right amount of sweetness with detectable nuances of the chocolate. It was thick but not unctuous, and, surprisingly, did not leave me wishing for a glass of water. It stayed hot and the last sip was as good as the first. I have craved it every day since.
This is a sweet treat not to be missed. For a more New York experience though, my advice is to order it at the bar and then escape the restaurant and sip it outside while people watching in Union Square.
Whether after a meal, or as a snack on its own, New York does not disappoint the sweet tooth. Since autumn is harvest season you have even more choices than usual as the city’s pastry chefs take full advantage of green market goodies. This fall had an exceptional peach harvest, and peach compotes, crisps and pies were featured on many menus.
Yet in September and even October, some summer sweets are still available, like this exceptional strawberry tart with mint ice cream from Gramercy Tavern ($12; 42 East 20th St.).
North End Grill in Battery Park City (104 North End Ave) has a stunning lemon meringue pie ($8), as well as many seasonal offerings.The Dutch (131 Sullivan St.) has great pie ($10) all year round with both seasonal and inventive flavors (coffee cream anyone?).
A meal at Momofuku (Noodle Bar, 171 First Ave) means you can enjoy the ever-changing flavors of soft serve afterward (e.g. peanut butter and ritz cracker twist, $5). Or go directly to the Milk Bar (251 E 13th St. and other locations) for a slice of crack pie ($5.25).
Another advantage of NYC in the autumn is that on a nice afternoon it is still warm enough for ice cream. You have almost limitless choices. The artisan delicacy of earl grey tea or barrel-aged vanilla at the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream truck ($5; several locations). The sugary soft serve with candy confections of Big Gay Ice Cream (125 East 7th St and a truck) — I tried the Salty Pimp (vanilla soft serve, dulce de leche and sea salt dipped in chocolate, $5). Wild flavors like apple calvados or classics like passion fruit at Il Laboratorio del Gelato (about $5; 188 Ludlow St). The Coolhaus Truck ($6; often at Union Square) or Melt Bakery for ice cream sandwiches ($4; 132 Orchard St.).
If you’re too chilled for ice cream, how about a Wafles & Dinges liège waffle with spekuloos spread ($5; several carts). Or anything chocolate from Jacques Torres (factory at 66 Water St in DUMBO, plus other locations).
Sweets can also be had for breakfast. Doughnuts are a classic choice, and NYC’s best are from Doughnut Plant. Try a Matcha Green Tea Cake doughnut or a peanut butter and banana cream filled yeast doughnut, or something more traditional like Valrhona chocolate ($3-4; 379 Grand St and 220 W 23rd St, plus at shops like Dean & Deluca).
Stop in at Maialino (in the Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Ave) for a morning latte ($4.75) and a toffee glazed brioche bun ($4). If you’d like to taste this at home, try my adapted Chelsea bun recipe below — a very reasonable facsimile.
The sweets of New York are inviting in any season, but especially so in autumn. Eat (or drink) up!
Caramel Chelsea Buns, inspired by Maialino
2 ¼ cups flour
¼ cup sugar
1 package Quickrise yeast
1 tsp salt
¼ cup milk
½ cup water
2 tbsp butter
3/4 cup butter
1 3/4 cup brown sugar (preferably muscovado)
Mix flour with sugar, salt and yeast. Heat 2 tbsp butter with milk and water until it is about 125 F (not much more or you will kill the yeast). Add to flour mixture and stir. Add egg.
Knead 10 min, adding more flour if needed.
Place in a bowl, cover with a tea towel and let rise for 10 min (or until dough doubles in size) in a non-drafty place (in winter — heat oven to 100 degrees, then turn heat off).
Melt butter on stove top and add brown sugar. On medium high, heat mixture so that the sugar starts to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Stir frequently.
Take 1/3 of this mixture and put it in a 9×9 pan. Add 2 tbsp water and stir.
Roll out dough into a rectangle. Spread remaining sugar and butter mixture on dough. Roll up into a tube and then cut into 9 pieces.
Place in pan, sugared ends facing up and down. Cover and let rise 40 minutes, or until they rise enough so the pan is full.
Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Cool slightly before serving.