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I grew up eating butter with my bare hands.
Granted, I was two years old at the time, sitting on my great grandmother’s kitchen table in Germany. When I scooped out a handful of butter from the dish and took a bite, my mom tried to tear me away, but my great grandma stopped her immediately. “Let her eat it,” she said. “It means her body needs butter.”
My life mantra was formed from that day forward. I have wholeheartedly believed my body does need butter — at all times — and am on a constant quest to sate the rumbling that happens in my belly whenever I pass a bakery. I consumed inordinate amounts of butter in rapid succession for this story, but did so with great delight.
I revisited longtime stalwarts, like Besalu and Bakery Nouveau, and discovered the new Temple Pastries, fresh from pop-up status and into a location in Seattle’s International District. If you’re willing to travel a bit for baked goods outside the city, an absolute must-try is Left Bank in Olympia. The hour drive is a small price to pay for feeling like you just teleported to Europe.
No matter where I visited, the thing that struck me the most was how well bakeries appear to be doing right now. I went to most on weekdays at odd hours, yet there was always a line, and some were even sold out of items. Clearly, these troubling times are eased just a bit by the warmth and comfort found in baked goods.
Plus, pastry is naturally portable, making it the perfect takeout item. Bakeries have come up with really great systems, too. You can order online and pick up at a table inside, or order from outside walk-up windows. The other thing that struck me was the ubiquitous nature of one pastry, which you’ll be hearing about a lot in this story: the kouign-amann, pronounced “kween-uh-man.” They’re everywhere, and they’re one of the best pastries around.
If you’ve ever wished for a cinnamon roll as big as your face, consider visiting Sea Wolf Bakers in Seattle. The sticky, gooey roll, which is made of croissant dough and studded with raisins, is as big in flavor as it is in size. Though it feels like it weighs 5 pounds, it’s easy to work your way through this simple master-piece. Butter and cinnamon are the two dominant flavors, which is precisely what should be coming through in a cinnamon roll. I opted to go without the cream cheese frosting, which relieved any potential unsavory facial contortions from the overly cloying reality that icing most often brings to the party. If you want a savory option, pick up a loaf of white sourdough, which is easily one of the best sourdoughs in the city. Bonus: it’s also a behemoth specimen, and makes your car smell like a bakery. Open daily. Online orders must be placed two days in advance, but you can also pick up from the walk-up window. seawolfbakers.com
In pastry school, I learned how to make croissant dough, which made my arms feel as if I’d just bench-pressed a semi. But once I took a bite of that tender, airy dough, every complaint I ever made melted away like the butter that was so forcefully smooshed into each layer. At Coyle’s Bakeshop in Greenwood, dough is laminated over three days, which means the butter is lovingly worked into the flour. This all but guarantees your enjoyment of its kouign-amann, which is flecked with black pepper instead of the traditional sea salt, and is a tiny orb of seduction. You’d think there’s not much to such a small piece of pastry, but the golden dough has the perfect amount of chew, and a crust of sugar that shatters like tiny shards of glass beneath the tongue. The pistachio croissant is also quite lovely. It has a kiss of sweetness and a definite whisper of pistachio, even when not quite at the center, where the mix is most concentrated. Walk-up window is open Thursday through Sunday. Online ordering available. coylesbakeshop.com
Whoever thought the simple act of dipping a brioche donut in sugar and crushed cornflakes and filling it with vanilla custard would be such a success? Fuji Bakery on Elliott Avenue West in Seattle, thank goodness. People come just for the donut — including me — but Fuji has plenty of other baked goods. The blueberry Danish, for one, is a great example. But. This. Donut. It works. The crunch is brilliant. You cannot eat just half. It’s addictive. And though it doesn’t show off the Japanese flavors that the bakery is also known for, it certainly shows off the brilliance of the people who masterminded such a baked good. Open daily. Preorder online or walk in. www.fujibakeryinc.com
The kouign-amann looks like a hockey puck at Crumble & Flake on East Olive Way, and tastes like buttery, salty, crunchy, sticky and crackly discs you can just slide right into your mouth. The sugar crust is much thicker than other types of the kouign-amann, and is, thus, more of a challenge to bite into. Yet all that sugar action doesn’t at all make it overly sweet. But here’s the most delightful part: On weekends, you can get the ridicu-lously inventive black sesame kouign-amann. If you love black sesame, you will be very pleased to get a pronounced sesame hit in every bite, which is unexpected. Order online and pick up in store Wednesday to Sunday. crumbleandflake.com
If cakes were dresses, Bakery Nouveau, which operates several locations across the region, would be a couture boutique. Though not a cake shop by any means, it would be a sin not to get at least one slice alongside your twice-baked almond croissant. The praline dream, with a rich, deep chocolate mousse sandwiched between crispy layers of hazelnut and chocolate and a shortbread crust, feels like a very grown-up candy bar. But the absolute star is the pistachio cassis, which is truly a work of pastry art. A pistachio dacquoise is the base for double layers of cassis mousse sandwiched between white chocolate, almond crunch and pistachio paste, topped with a concentrated cassis glaze. What’s more, it feels like something from a shop in Europe. Skip the wait outside the shop by ordering online, then picking up your treats from a table inside. Open Wednesday through Sunday. bakerynouveau.com
Besalu has the tallest kouign-amann in town. These mammoth mounds of butter and flour are three inches high, and are one of the few in town that deviate from the standard butter, sugar, salt formula. Besalu’s are vanilla bean and orange, and the orange flavor comes through in each bite. It is crowned with a sticky sugar crust, which adds subtle caramel notes. The cardamom pretzel is my favorite pastry from this shop. The croissant dough is a thing of beauty; the big flakes of sugar on top add texture, and the subtly spicy cardamom paste twisted through-out is tempered by a lovely glaze. The chocolate babka, a cardamom brioche with a cinnamon, chocolate and pistachio filling, is also a treat, as are any of the fruit Danishes. Open daily for takeout, orders must be placed online in advance. cafebesalu.com
Coming in second to Besalu in the height department, Fresh Flours’ light and airy kouign-amanns measure in at two inches high, and are sweeter than many other versions, with less crunch as you bite in. But you’re still getting an airy croissant, which is also what you get when you order the adzuki croissant, which is like a buttery version of a mochi. It’s filled with sweet red bean pastry cream, and has a slight crunch on its top layer. Even though most people come here for the croissants, it would be a shame to walk away without ordering the black sesame shortbread. It’s an elegant, understated cookie, and is definitely not the kind of cookie that needs to be dunked. There is no icing or fancy sugar layer. It is subdued, but utterly perfect — buttery, seedy, great sesame flavor and not sweet, but sweet enough. Open daily for walk-in or online ordering. freshfloursseattle.com
Temple Pastries opened its doors during the pandemic, yet has beautifully navigated these uncertain waters with untold amounts of flour, sugar and a can-do attitude. The kouign-amann sells out quickly, so I tried the grapefruit fennel tart: a poppy seed short-bread cookie base, atop of which is a fennel bulb-infused bavarois — a thick cream — inside of which is a raw fennel compote, snuggling next to a grapefruit chiffon cake. A superb grapefruit gelée crowns this creative and not-too-sweet dessert. It was a lovely break from all the butter and flour I have been consuming, but then I saw the cruffin: croissant dough puffed up mile high and tickled with sugar. It was tender and springy, with a just-right crunch. The sesame macaron with black sesame praline ganache and a yuzu cremeux center was uber creative, as are the weekend offerings: blood orange and Campari cake donuts, coconut curry puff pastry, roasted white chocolate croissant donuts and savory items, like a Reuben stuffed inside a croissant. Open daily. Order inside in a socially distanced line. templepastries.com
There was a time, prepandemic, when I would wake up in the middle of the night, panicked I’d get to Columbia City Bakery, and there would be no more pistachio snails left. The fear was justified because this actually happened many times. It happened again, so I tried the bostok — sourdough bread dipped in almond orange syrup, slathered with frangipane and baked, then topped in sliced almonds and powdered sugar. It’s like the twice-baked almond croissants you find all over town, but with a unique twist. As of the date of publishing, pick-up orders must be placed online, and are only available on Thursdays and Sundays, but check the website for updates. columbiacitybakery.com
Next to the kouign-amann, chocolate croissants and plain croissants, almond croissants may be the most prolific item on every Seattle pastry shop’s menu. Every bakery has its own slight twist on them, but the format is pretty standard: plain croissant dipped in a sugar syrup and layered and topped with an almond cream and slivered almonds. Ballard-based Rosellini’s has an incredible chocolate almond croissant, which means the croissant is also stuffed with chocolate. The chocolate complements the almond cream instead of taking attention away from it. It has a perfect crunch, balanced sweetness, and airy and light croissant layers. And the kouign-amann is everything you want in one bite — sticky, caramel top, perfectly springy, tender base, perfect height and density. Crowned with big flakes of sea salt, it’s a standout pastry. Open Wednesday through Sunday. Only one person at a time is allowed inside the shop, with a socially distanced line outside. rosellinis.com
If there are just three words that could sum up Left Bank Pastry in Olympia, it would be: “Please go now,” or “just like Europe.” There isn’t anything in this bakery that isn’t sublime. Seattle pastry chefs have even shared on their Instagram pages gorgeous images of the kouign-amann, the bakery’s top-selling item, which they travel here just to buy in bulk. It’s hard not to go back again and again after tasting what is, arguably, the most perfect kouign-amann in all of Washington. These are serious sculptures of dough and butter. They are heavy and dense, yet ridiculously tender and light, with an absolutely perfect crunch on top. They’re definitely sweeter than many others, but the butter cuts the sweetness with its bigness. There is no whisper of butter in this pastry. It’s a full throttle Jackie Chan kick to the jaw in the most stylish, French way possible. Other worthy pastries include the killer cinnamon sugar croissant donut and flaky, rich palmier. There’s a socially distanced line around the block on most days. leftbankpastry.com