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America's best bakeries

Casey Hatfield-Chiotti
September 24, 2013

Theresa Velazquez’s D.C. bakery business is thriving, yet she has no interest in expansion. “We own this one place, and we really make ourselves part of the neighborhood,” says the co-owner of Baked & Wired in Georgetown, where hazelnut ganache cupcakes are playfully displayed in upside-down coffee beakers.

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Many of America’s best bakeries are family-run establishments that take a similar approach and pride in their community. They’re appealing, one-of-a-kind spots where travelers can break to enjoy made-from-scratch pastries that often highlight local ingredients.

At Standard Baking Co. in Portland, ME, Alison Pray recently debuted Maine miche, an organic whole-wheat bread made with 100 percent single varietal wheat grown by a local farmer. “You couldn’t have imagined this 18 years ago when we started,” she says.

Great bakeries are not afraid to evolve or experiment, reinventing classic desserts as well as offering lesser-known European treats. So on your next trip, head to one of these bakeries for a sweet start to the day—whether an apricot puff pastry tart with almond cream or the gibassier, a French citrus-flavored bread.

Proof, Los Angeles

The owner and head baker at this pared-down Atwater Village bakery has a self-described “low sweet threshold,” but that may just be her secret to success. Na Young Ma’s seasonal-fruit-packed pastries like plum herb galettes and mango hand pies never verge on cloyingly sweet and have attracted celebrity fans like Kristen Wiig. The offerings change daily and often include unorthodox ingredients. Black sesame financiers, for instance, are flavored with nutty black sesame powder, brown butter, and fresh raspberries or candied orange.

Must-Try Item: The flaky twice-baked almond croissant filled with a thin layer of almond cream. proofbakeryla.com

Floriole, Chicago

Originally a stand at Chicago’s Green City Market, Floriole is now a buzzy café in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with expanded offerings of sandwiches, salads, and wood-oven-fired pizza. Baker Sandra Holl’s caramel pecan sticky buns, fruit galettes, and crème fraîche tea cakes use the finest ingredients, from Valrhona chocolate to European-style butter. She has a knack for turning mistakes into inspired treats; a botched batch of pistachio brittle became pistachio croissants with a lemon glaze.

Must-Try Item: Gateau Basque, an almond cake filled with pastry cream and seasonal fruit. floriole.com

Baked, Brooklyn, NY

Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito rocketed to fame when Oprah named their dense, fudgy brownie one of her favorite things. Three cookbooks later, Baked’s owners are still accomplishing their mission of elevating classic American desserts. The Peanut Butter Crispy is an elegant ganache-topped crisped rice cereal treat, and dessert hybrids include the Brookster, a deep, dark brownie shell filled with a chocolate chunk cookie. You’ll find them at the un-frilly Red Hook shop, with its wood-paneled walls and faux taxidermy.

Must-Try Item: A layer of salted caramel oozes throughout while baking, making for an incredibly moist and indulgent sweet and salty brownie.

Salty Tart, Minneapolis

It’s true that great things come in small packages—just consider this 400-square-foot bakery in the bustling Midtown Global Market. French windows on three sides let customers watch chef and owner Michelle Gayer (a three-time James Beard nominee) work her magic on rustic French pastries like seasonal fruit Danishes and pastry-cream-filled brioche rolled in vanilla sugar. Her crisp and chewy coconut macaroons have become so popular they’ve earned the nickname “crackaroons.”

Must-Try Item: Bostock, a French pastry typically made with brioche bread. Gayer’s is toasted sourdough soaked in orange simple syrup, topped with brown butter and blueberries, and baked in the oven. saltytart.com

Vergennes Laundry, Vergennes, VT

The owners of this bakery in a former laundromat are so devoted to serving simple, fresh food that every sweet and savory tart is made to order. Baker Julianne Jones was inspired after apprenticing with renowned Vermont bread baker Gérard Rubaud; Jones was reportedly one of the only students to last the entire three-month stint. Together with her French husband, a candy maker, they created a light-filled space featuring Baltic birch and a wood-fired oven where Jones bakes tartes flambées and perfect Bordeaux-style cannelés—think crème brûlée in mini-Bundt-cake form.

Must-Try Item: The seasonal berry tart filled with blackberries, gooseberries, and raspberries. vergenneslaundry.com

Baked & Wired, Washington, D.C.

As its name suggests, this Georgetown institution takes coffee as seriously as its homespun baked goods. Baristas train for months, and the concrete coffee bar serves only the best roasters in the country (Stumptown, Intelligentsia). Cupcakes are playfully displayed in upside-down coffee beakers, and decadent flavors include hazelnut ganache–topped vanilla cake with a dulce de leche center. Other coffee-pairing options range from breakfast breads to strawberry pistachio pie.

Must-Try Item: The Bee Sting, a shortbread bar with a honey and sliced almond topping, is the perfect balance of salty and sweet.bakedandwired.com

Le Panier, Seattle

This venerable Pike Place bakery opened in 1983 with a commitment to making Normandy-style pastries (one of the owners still makes regular reconnaissance trips to France). Stop in for tarte aux abricots—a traditional fruit tart with puff pastry crust, almond pastry cream, and sour apricots—or the Feuilletés, a Le Panier creation of puff pastry with savory fillings like delicate chicken in cream sauce. The salmon-colored space with a wooden communal table is cheery enough to brighten any gray Seattle day.

Must-Try Item: The flaky jamon croissant topped with Mornay sauce and a sprinkle of Emmental cheese. lepanier.com

Mud Pie Vegan Bakery & Coffeehouse, Kansas City, MO

Mud Pie has managed to do the near impossible: bake vegan goods that taste as good, if not better, than their traditional counterparts. Baker Ashley Valverde says the secret is countless hours of experimentation and the range of vegan ingredients now on the market. Mostess (a twist on a Hostess cupcake) and French Toast (a maple cinnamon, maple frosted cupcake) are among the award winners. Located in a two-story 1880s house, the bakery has an old-fashioned feel as well as ultra-fast Google Fiber broadband Internet.

Must-Try Item: The flaky cheddar sausage scone made with vegan cheddar and seitan sausage. mudpiebakery.com

Sugar Bakeshop, Charleston, SC

Owners Bill Bowick and David Bouffard showcase the desserts they ate growing up, such as a Lady Baltimore cupcake of almond cake with sherry-soaked golden raisins and a meringue frosting (a special treat sold only on Thursdays). The duo meticulously restored the 1940s-era stucco building’s concrete flooring and distressed painted walls. Customers will also appreciate the ivy-adorned walled garden, which provides a dose of tranquility on downtown’s Cannon Street.

Must-Try Item: The sweet and tart cupcakes with lemon buttercream frosting and homemade lemon curd filling. sugarbake.com

Tartine Bakery & Café, San Francisco

While the lines at this Mission District bakery can be an hour long, that hardly detours the fans clamoring to try Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt’s pastries. Inspired by time spent in France, the couple uses only organic ingredients in desserts like a shortbread cookie with kamut, an ancient grain, and local honey. Because the bakery makes small batches throughout the day, Tartine’s doughy croissants laminated in butter can often be enjoyed just out of the oven. Now that’s worth waiting for.

Must-Try Item: Tres Leches Cake made with organic goat’s milk cooked down to a caramel, coconut milk, Bavarian cream, and a puff pastry base. tartinebakery.com

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