We live in a time and place suffused with treats. They pop up everywhere, their richness seeping into napkins, rendering the paper clear. Oozing creamy and fruity fillings, hissing gently as their foam subsides, they loiter row on row, rack on rack, as eager and ubiquitous as mercenaries before a crusade.
It kind of makes you lose perspective. What do treats mean in a country whose average citizen, according to the USDA, consumes nearly half a pound of sugar every day? A country that devours five billion pounds of french fries every year? We did not always eat like this. There was a time, a sweet-shoppe and soda-fountain time, when treats were not for every day. World wars made self-indulgence seem like sacrilege and sacrifice seem noble — plus, back then, biblical precepts still echoed in which all rewards must be earned. Tortes, back then, were only for weddings, wakes, and birthdays.
Boniere Bakery, on Alameda’s inadvertently retro main street, comes from that time but persists in this one. Founded in 1876, it is California’s oldest surviving bakery and does not try to hide its past — except that its original German name was changed in the 1940s to a French one, to suit wartime alliances. Striped wallpaper, pink on pink, warms a small storefront where stools line a counter facing the window and glass cases yield a virtual edible timeline. Traditional cupcakes. Brownies. Coconut kisses: nude muffin-shaped tangles of sugar-swept pale shreds, each bite at once tropically wild and controlled. Fruit tarts reflect owner and baker Donna Meadows’ fondness for things French: the shop’s most popular is almond-pear, a combination that sounds random but, on tasting, reveals itself to be like two friends — one passive, one aggressive — who realize they should have gotten married years ago. Thin pear slices snuggle into a mellow-yellow crumbly bed, the blended perfumes surprisingly insistent.
Ever since Boniere was taken in hand four years ago by East Bay-bred, European-trained Meadows, cofounder of San Francisco’s late Flying Saucer bistro, its reputation has lured patrons from far afield. A retinue of the bakery’s holiday fruitcakes is delivered every year to waiting mouths in Europe. But it is a stream of locals that trickles in and out while Tuffy and I linger here. They know what they want. They know the clerk. They order cakes to pick up later, cups of coffee and focaccia sandwiches to take out. A man chats up the clerk about Hearst Castle and the central California coast and will not stop. Bakeries have this effect. I know; I used to work in one. It comes with the easy, safe intimacy of selling sweets: Offering humble luxuries — lustrous gold squares and fleeting red-and-yellow gems that travel in pink paper boxes — bakeries make a small town out of any town. In Alameda, this is not a stretch. Outside the window across which the bakery’s name is painted in vintage script, pedestrians amble unrushed. Jimmy Stewart in a string tie would not be out of place, were he not dead.
“Do you know the Madonna Inn?” the customer persists, his workpants spattered with dried paint. But the clerk does not. She has never been to San Luis Obispo. “Every room is different!” He is kinetic, as if sugar kindles contact highs, stroking his wallet as she writes his order on a pad and his daughter gallops behind him making animal noises while licking frosting from a cupcake. “One room looks like a cave!”
Behind the counter, in the shop’s bowels, the original ovens shine dully. Meadows still uses the old works daily to craft an increasingly French-influenced bill of fare whose most-requested standouts are a flourless chocolate mousse cake and the opera cake, whose ribbonlike slender layers exhale chocolate and espresso. Both are as artful without as within, capped and coated in almost-black satiny chocolate whose texture reminds you, elementally, of why you used to love to play in mud.
The west side of Adeline Street across from the Berkeley Bowl is pretty much as far as Berkeley gets from Jimmy Stewart, alive or dead. Jimi Hendrix spent part of his toddlerhood right nearby, in a housing project at Derby and Martin Luther King. But now traffic roars past, bound away. This lonely sidewalk offers little that beguiles.
Faux-brick walls and shiny festoons of copper molds shaped like lobsters, chickens, rings, and fish lend a ruddy blush to this roomy bakery-cafe with ample seating both indoors and, in good weather, out. Glassed-in shelves bear cakes whose ineffable richness makes choosing feel absurdly Herculean, as if asked to pick a winner among epics. Daily specials and regular fare ranges from puddingy fruit clafoutis to seedy rolled rugelach to dense fresh-ginger cake that bites back to little chocolate pies that look like Ding Dongs but are a far cry.
Elizabeth Kloian launched the business three and a half years ago, running it alone for the first two years from a small Oakland kitchen before moving into the Adeline Street space, which formerly housed a cafe. Kloian learned most of what she knows as a child, at home.
“My grandmother was an old-world cook of the first order, and if you think of apprenticeship in the traditional sense of the word I apprenticed with her,” reasons the Berkeley High School graduate. “Before the age of Cuisinart, you had to have exquisite food. But to do that back then you had to have technique: how to stand when you want to cut things very fine, how to hold your tools.” Such skills, learned at the knees of someone who had never known any other way of baking, made for a sturdy foundation. But “because this is a very Berkeley bakery, because I’m a Berkeley kind of gal,” expect the unexpected. A strand of red paper Chinese lanterns plays sly counterpoint to the huge French-style coffee cups, tubular Italian sugar packets, and other continental touches. Only organic milk is used here. And the bakery’s name comes from the novel Watership Down, in which it designates a crossroads.
“When we first opened, people used to come in and say, ‘What kind of bakery is this? Is it French? Is it American?’ At first I was taken aback by these questions,” Kloian recalls. “I knew it was a Berkeley bakery, but it was something more.” Yet she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what until, traveling in Budapest not long ago, the answer suddenly struck her: Austro-Hungarian. “When I walked into the bakeries of Budapest I’d gasp and say, ‘That’s my visual aesthetic That’s my cake.'” Sampling their wares, “I said, ‘This is exactly how sweet I like my cakes to be.'”
And yes, Crixa’s droll sophistication bespeaks a displaced civilization fogged by war and dreams.
As Tuffy and I tuck into Jamaican rum chocolate mousse cake and chocolate marble coffee cake, the couple sharing a caramel cake at the adjacent table is discussing a forthcoming sally to SFMOMA.
“You don’t think I can handle Marc Chagall?” the woman demands.
Tuffy’s rum cake is seductive in the same way sangria is — so agreeably pleasant that you don’t realize until halfway through that you’re drunk. A “lot of booze,” as Kloian puts it, goes into creations like this one, whose bottom cake-layer is its rummiest, with an assertive mousse heart linking it to a lighter top layer. In my generous wedge of coffee cake, its top dusted with paper-thin almond shavings, quiescent yellow clouds mingle with potent bittersweet ones. In contrast to the rum cake’s moistness, the coffee cake is almost dry, but not: rather a texture calibrated precisely to complement coffee. Both slices, as is typical here, come with dollops on the side of unsweetened whipped cream, an effective palate-cleanser if an ironic one — pure cream to dilute the effects of yet richer stuff.
“When you look at the Chagall you won’t even know what you’re seeing,” gibes the man at the adjacent table in a too-loud voice, the classically self-conscious Berkeley voice. “Without me there to explain it, you’d have no idea.”
Crixa’s flourless chocolate cake is less showy than Boniere’s. Unfrosted, unadorned but by the faintest dusting of confectioner’s sugar, it commands attention in the way classic clothes and primary colors do. The absence of flour affords an unexpected lightness, bringing it all down to bold essentials. Best assayed by minute spoonfuls, its intensity blasts through the mouth like a hot wind.
An almost-flourless version at Oakland’s venerable La Farine is fudgily compelling and attractive in an old-fashioned way, topped with firm white rosettes. But intensity comes in plainer packages too, as proven by the behemoth almond biscotti at Berkeley’s Art of Baking, which offers a range of cakes and succulent breads and whose owner, Peter Conn, has trained bakers for Il Fornaio, created specialty desserts for San Francisco’s Campton Place Hotel, and taught at the California Culinary Academy. Studded with whole nuts and lodged at the perfect midpoint between crunchy and crumbly, this is a fearless, forthright pit bull of a biscotti, a best friend of a biscotti, a shoulder-to-cry-on of a biscotti. In a self-indulgent world, what would Buddha order? One of these.
Jonathan Kauffman is on vacation.