In the bakeries of this diverse borough,
the winter holidays are celebrated with butter, sugar, eggs,
nuts and candied fruits, from which are created a rich variety
of festive cookies, cakes and breads. True, Hanukkah treats have
come and gone, but these annual specialties can be enjoyed by
A well-stocked cookie jar is the best way to prepare for unexpected holiday guests. (Actually, it may be the best way to prepare for most unexpected things.)
Cookies seem inevitable at Bensonhurst’s Alba bakery, even if you came for the pizza rustica, a flaky Christmas pie with a marvelously smoky, prosciutto-studded ricotta filling ($21.50 and up). Chances are manager Sal Alba will fill your hands with delights like his buccellati ($7.75 per pound). These rolled cookie-dough gondolas, filled with figs and walnuts and covered with rainbow sprinkles, are like the original Fig Newton, and so much chewier and figgier.
And don’t miss the Rococco - shatteringly crunchy wreath-shaped cookies studded with darkly toasted almonds, also topped with the obligatory rainbow sprinkles ($7.75 per pound).
This pastry-like bread originated in Dresden, Germany. Its flat, folded form symbolizes the blanket of the baby Jesus, studded with candied fruits that represent the gifts of the Magi. Like many holiday breads, stollen ages well, making it an appealing substitute to the proverbial brick-like fruitcake, should you wish to give a baked gift that, in a pinch, could be re-given.
Paper-wrapped loaves of marzipan stollen made in Brooklyn are $12.50 at Park Slope’s new foodie destination, Blue Apron Foods. They are wonderfully buttery yet not heavy, sweetened by a rich marzipan filling, golden raisins and a snow shower of confectioner’s sugar.
The stollen recipe at Leske’s was brought to Bay Ridge from Germany by baker-owner Robert Rosenhammer’s father. Perhaps more typical, this version ($9.50) is also addictively rich and just sweet enough to deserve a good cup of coffee. The dense, almost flaky dough is dotted with brightly colored candied fruits and almonds. Granular sugar on top soaks up butter from the loaf, creating a delightful sugary crust.
This sweet, enriched Italian Christmas brioche is usually baked in tall cylindrical pans. Since it is supposed to be labor intensive, it is often easier to find boxed, imported loaves - a suitable substitute if you can’t get to a bakery that takes on the challenge.
At festive Settepani bakery in Williamsburg, Chef A.J. brags that no commercial yeast is used in his glorious, tall panetone ($12). He says that he’s been using and replenishing the same natural yeast starter for 15 years. Buy two of the beautifully packaged breads - one to give and one to keep. (It will stay fresh for six months!) The bread is springy, just this side of dry, studded with fruits soaked in brandy for three months.
Equally wonderful is the almond-topped Italian fruitcake ($15), which lasts at least three years, judging by the soft, well-preserved specimen Chef A.J. has held onto that long. For the indecisive, the bakery also sells a holiday sampler tin of several miniature cakes ($15).
Buche de Noel
Funny how in America we have a television channel that features a burning yule log during the holidays, while this time of year in France most patisseries create a rolled, filled cake decorated to look (often uncannily) like a log.
For those who prefer the cake version, Sweet Melissa’s on Court Street makes their yule log from a light, tender hazelnut cake with an intensely nutty taste and texture. (Call for prices.) The cake is rolled around a chocolate mousse filling and frosted with chocolate ganache that’s ridged like tree bark. Meringue mushrooms and little marzipan elf boots, fruits and holly complete the log-like look.
At Chez Isabelle, in Park Slope, choose a chocolate, mocha, raspberry or peach buttercream log ($13.50 and up). I love the Grand Marnier soaked into the yellow sponge cake, but to give a seasonal spin to a child’s December birthday, order a buche that’s light on booze, since the soft cake and mousseline buttercream will otherwise delight all palates.
Decadent and dense, cheesecake just screams holiday. In Bed-Stuy, Shakoor Watson adds his spiced sweet potatoes to the mix, to create an incredibly moist, addictive cake with a light cream cheese flavor and a salty, buttery graham cracker crust. (Shakoor’s sweet potato cheesecake is $5 for a hefty piece and $45 to feed about 15 people.)
This traditional Sicilian Christmas dessert features a little bit of sponge cake, a rolled candy covering and a ricotta cheese filling.
At Villabate, in Bensonhurt, the thin layer of cake is beside the point - your attention is demanded by the achingly sweet marzipan wall, and once you break in, an oozing, milky, barely sweet imported ricotta filling that could make you cry with pleasure ($18 and up). Beautiful, sticky candied fruits gild the lily.
Since we can’t eat cakes and cookies all day, even in December, the holidays also inspire some plainer - though just as special - baked goods.
Chestnuts are harvested in the fall and in the streets of Europe they are roasted all winter. Due to a major chestnut blight in the early 1900s, we don’t see many vendors of these rich, mealy-sweet nuts. But luckily, Brooklyn’s famous wood oven bakery, Royal Crown, makes a crumbly, dense, rusty-brown, round chestnut bread wrapped in a fig leaf ($4.75 per pound).
The bread has a coffee-caramel flavor, with the rich sweetness of chestnuts in the form of chestnut flour and chestnut paste. (They claim it’s 95 percent chestnut!) The bread keeps well, and is equally at home beside an oozing triple-creme cheese, a nutty Stilton, a baked apple or a rich swirl of Nutella.
At Leske’s, you can buy limpa, a sweet, Swedish rye bread, year round. But only during the holidays can you enjoy their vorte limpa ($6), a spiced version with a candied citrus rind that I find particularly well suited to grainy mustard and cheese.
Of course, all these bakeries and more have wonderful offerings year-round. But nothing marks the season as deliciously as those sweet, rich specialties that appear after Halloween and are gone by the first week of the New Year.
You may find that these traditional cookies, cakes and breads are self-fulfilling prophecies: if they don’t taste like holidays of your past, they just might taste like the holidays of your future.
Where to shop
It’s a good idea to order these holiday specialties in advance, since many sell out quickly or are not available at the counter.
Alba, 7001 18th Ave. at 70th Street, (718) 232-2122
Blue Apron Foods, 814 Union St. at Seventh Avenue, (718) 230-3180
Chez Isabelle, 427 Seventh Ave. at 14th Street, (718) 832-0127
Leske’s, 7612 Fifth Ave. at 76th Street, (718) 680-2323
Royal Crown, 6308 14th Ave. at 63rd Street, (718) 234-3208 or 6512 14th Ave. at 65th Street, (718) 234-1002
Paneantico, The Royal Crown bakery and cafe, 9124 Third Ave. at 92nd Street, (718) 680-2347
Settepani, 602 Lorimer St. at Skillman Avenue, (718) 349-6524
Shakoor’s Sweet Tooth, 555 Throop Ave. bet Halsey and Hancock streets, (718) 574-2580
Sweet Melissa’s, 276 Court St. at Butler Street, (718) 855-3410
Villabate, 7117 18th Ave. at 71st Street, (718) 331-8430