"I go to bakeries all day long, because there's a lack of sweetness in my life." That was Jonathan Richman's excuse, mine is slightly less poetic: In the midst of my first Chicago winter, I'm forever stuffing pastries in my face. I suppose it's because there are few things more comforting than the smells that waft from bakery windows, and I need all the comfort I can get before the thaw comes. To justify this glut of baked goods, I've scouted out the best pastries around—so you too can nibble away the winter blues.
Cannoli at Pasticceria Natalina
Hunting for the perfect cannoli in any urban environment is a matter of endurance. First, there's finding a place that actually serves them; then checking to make sure that my precious pastry isn't the soggy, pre-filled variety. In Chicago, it's important to inspect the "pistachios" closely to be sure they aren't actually chopped peanuts, dyed green for effect. I had driven myself half-mad searching for something that even vaguely resembled the Sicilian dessert, settling for some pretty questionable cannoli along the way.
But everything changed when I stumbled upon Andersonville's Pasticceria Natalina. This tiny storefront bakery surpasses even my rigid cannoli expectations: It imports sheep's milk ricotta from Sicily, and the perfectly crisp shells are each filled to order. And the pistachios—well, the pistachios are real. The only catch? I had to promise to eat it right away before it settled and got soggy. No problems there.
Croissant at Vanille Patisserie
Before hunting down Chicago's best croissant, I had to deal with the inevitable crux that all pastry lovers face: What kind of croissant person am I? Do I like big, fluffy, Wonder Bread-like pillows built for sandwiches? Or, do I prefer dainty, buttery things with a glossy sheen? Truth be told, I'll eat any croissant you put in front of me, but I'd go out of my way for one from Vanille Patisserie.
The croissants here stem from a Parisian tradition: buttery beyond belief with that telltale shine. While the outside retains exactly the right kind of crackle, the soft, doughy innards are a reminder that a good croissant doesn't need to be stuffed like a breakfast burrito to satisfy. Those with a sweet tooth can opt for an earthy pan au chocolate or a rich croissant aux amandes (with almonds), but it's hard for those to contend with the simple pleasures of Vanille's original.
Spanakopita at Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop
No pastry quest would be complete without exploring the savory side of things, so I set out to find the perfect spanakopita. None I tasted could hold a candle to Pan Hellenic's crispy version—fresh spinach, dill and onion rolled into feta cheese and wrapped up in flaky phyllo dough.
While many pastry peddlers have the audacity to deep-fry these delicate pockets, this Greek Town staple knows better; Pan Hellenic bakes its spanakopita, assuring that each comes out crispy and never greasy. Make no mistake; it takes one hell of a good spinach pie to stand out among the endless trays of baklava on display here.
Take a Hike scone at Bleeding Heart Bakery
Even the most cynical carnivores amongst us know that not everything that bears the "vegan" moniker need taste like hippie feed. Having spent years in an ambiguous vegan-ish zone, followed by even more years in a decidedly unambiguous hippie-loathing zone, I'm not exactly the target demographic for Bleeding Heart Bakery. But since I happen to have a soft spot for independent businesses, sustainable eating and anything scone-related, I decided to try the pasty that started it all: the Take a Hike scone.
Whole wheat flour, flax, apples, apricots, cranberries and pumpkin seeds mingle to create a bizarre trail mix-meets-apple-fritter sensation. It's ethically sound, chockfull of energy and tasty as hell—other scones don't stand a chance.
The Egg at Sweet Cakes
With bloated muffins consumed en masse at corporate coffee chains each morning, it seemed necessary to scout out something less drab to start the day. Why settle for greasy swells of blueberry-flecked cake when Sweet Cakes offers The Egg?
This homemade corn muffin is enhanced with asiago cheese, but that's not the big surprise: The hardboiled egg hiding inside of the muffin makes this one of the best pastries in Chicago. I have to admit that I'm a sucker for a good culinary gimmick, and finding an egg inside of my muffin is right up there with fortune cookies, the McGriddle and molecular gastronomy. After all, who doesn't love a surprise along with their complete breakfast?