New York has no shortage of good desserts, but how many would you call essential? What are the sweets you need to know to see how we do dessert in this town? A few months ago, we asked ourselves that question. Then we got to tasting.
Here are our answers: each of them crave-worthy, and collectively a way to showcase the range, depth, diversity, and technique of the city's dessert world. These desserts aren't simply favorites of ours; they also help define, in their own way, our city's past, present, and future through sweets—while also being jaw-droppingly delicious. Some bakeries and restaurants here are citywide household names; others sit more under the radar. But they're all the ones we think of first when we direct anyone to some dessert.
Dominique Ansel Bakery: Kouign Amann (DKA)
Before the Cronut, Magic Souffle, and the Cookie Shot, viral pastry pro's real big success was this special Breton pastry. Forget the lines for those sweets—this is the pastry you really want from one of the city's finest french bakeries, and it doesn't require camping out at 6 a.m. to get one.
The kouign amann features buttery croissant dough baked with sugar in special steel rings for something like a croissant but even more dense and rich. The crust is gorgeously caramelized, more than any croissant, every bite has a satisfying contrast of flaky crunch and buttery dough. There are other kouign amanns in New York, but this one's the first, and it's still the best. New batches are baked several times a day for freshness.
Dessert Club ChikaLicious: Bun Chika Bun Bun
The whimsically named Bun Chika Bun Bun at this mad-cap East Village bakery starts with a large choux puff and a crunchy craquelin coating. The choux, which sets on a buttery speculaas cookie (like Biscoff), is then heated up for your order.
Inside that puff lies a small pool of cinnamon butter prime for spreading on your cinnamon-spiced cookie. With alternating gooey, crunchy, and crackly textures, and three nationalities of baking traditions, it's an undeniably unique dessert.
The Bun Chika Bun Bun is a play on the name of ChikaLicious co-founder Chika Tillman. And despite plans for an international expansion, you can find Chika (and husband/partner Don Tillman) just across the street from Dessert Club on most nights at their dessert-only restaurant, Dessert Bar. Tillman introduced the dessert-only restaurant concept to New York, and after ten years it's still going strong. No sweets-centric trip to the city should ignore it.
Otto: Olive Oil Coppetta
Otto, Mario Batali's casual Italian restaurant, serves great cheap pasta, good wine, and always-satisfying vegetable dishes. But the real reason we keep going back is pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman and her incredible gelato, widely regarded by ice cream fans as some of the city's best.
Her olive oil coppetta is the pinnacle of cheffy ice cream sundaes, and at this point, an enduring New York icon. Though the components change with the seasons, the base is always the same: a sweet-savory olive oil gelato full of grassy, butter notes. Then come the contrasts, like a tangy citrus curd (often lime) and a flaky citrus granita (passionfruit also makes appearances). Fresh fruit like strawberries, a summery basil syrup, and a small scoop of sorbet at the bottom of the glass all add class while drawing out subtle flavors in the ice cream.
Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies: The Swingle
Everybody in New York already knows (or should know) that Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies in Red Hook makes the best damn key lime pies anywhere—and yes, from real key limes. You can find those pies at restaurants across Brooklyn, where they manage to win over even the pie-averse. But you may not know that Steve's sells a second product—only out of the Red Hook store—that some consider even better than the plain pie: the Swingle.
The swingle is a single-serving four-inch key lime pie—tart lime curd, buttery graham cracker crust, and all—frozen and enrobed in high-end dark chocolate, then shoved on a popsicle stick. As with key limes, Steve's doesn't skimp on chocolate, and it adds sweetness and richness to the refreshing curd while crumbly crust brings in hits of salt.
City Bakery & Birdbath Bakeries: Pretzel Croissant
City Bakery's cult favorite pretzel croissant combines the buttery, flaky pleasures of a quality croissant with the satisfying crunch of a perfectly blistered bread crust, all while you enjoy the subtle burnished flavor of pretzel and the salty finish of a Cape Cod potato chip. Dollar for dollar it's one of the city's most satisfying pastries, a savory breakfast that pays tribute to (and improves on) New York's many pretzel carts.
Best of all, it's easy to find, either at the City Bakery mothership or at one of the one branches of the Birdbath Neighborhood green bakery empire. During the winter months, we suggest pairing it with City Bakery's impossibly thick and rich hot chocolate. In the summer? Fill it with ice cream.
Levain Bakery: Chocolate Chip Cookies
Tourists and New Yorkers line up side by side for these cookies, which are really shaped more like monster-sized scones. The secret to these cookies is an incredibly craggly crust with toffee-like flavors baked in, then a nearly-raw crumb at the center. Imagine a cookie dough-flavored chocolate chip cookie and you can see why this one is such a hit.
That dough features plenty of plump chocolate chunks; other versions include lots of nuts. In our 2010 tasting of the city's best chocolate chip cookies, Levain came in third, as that distinctive raw dough center turns off some eaters. But it's certainly the city's most distinctive chocolate chip cookie, and in my survey of some New York pastry chefs' favorite desserts, it came up top time and time again.
Gotham Bar and Grill: Tarte Tatin For Two
New York fine dining institution Gotham Bar and Grill has done this tarte tatin for two for years now and can't keep it off the menu—it's that well executed. It's so beautiful that the wait staff bring it out whole for display, roast chicken-style, before plating it back in the kitchen. At $28, it's certainly an extravagance, but certainly a worthy one. French pastry doesn't get better than this.
Imagine the best flaky pie crust of your life brushed with a burnished coat of glazed puff pastry. Inside, soft baked apples glow, their texture offering just a little resistance to a fork. Pastry chef Ron Paprocki tried over a dozen varieties of apples before finding the organic Braeburns that held up to the baking process.
Francois Payard Patisserie: Chocolate Desserts
For the serious pastry connoisseur, Payard is a must, and no one comes close to the exacting detail of his high-end desserts. While Laduree's new Soho location offers some competition, Payard has called New York home for the past 15 years. His chocolate and nut desserts in particular are hometown heroes.
Many of Payard's pastries are seasonal, but two of his best creations are always available: the peanut-centric George V and the hazelnut-based Louvre. The George V features dark chocolate mousse, crunchy peanuts, a barely-molten caramel, and vanilla mousse to balance all the dark elements. The whole pastry is then covered by a super-shiny layer of dark chocolate glaze. Even without the peanuts, the vanilla and dark chocolate mousses and caramel are a winning combination, but their crunchy texture keeps this pastry exciting.
The Louvre features alternating layers of airy chocolate and hazelnut mousse coupled with a crispy hazelnut wafer and hazelnut dacquoise. Like the George V, the exterior is draped in a beautiful dark chocolate glaze. The Louvre is just as complex as the George V, but distinctly lighter. The crunch of the hazelnut wafers within the mousse is subtle. If you love hazelnuts, jump at this one.
Andre's Hungarian Bakery: Chocolate Kugelhopf ("Babka")
There is much good chocolate babka (a braided Eastern and Central European loaf cake flavored with chocolate or cinnamon) in town right now, from Breads Bakery's hazelnut-inflected version to Zucker's beautifully woven layers. (And Green's classic version available in grocery stores and specialty shops hits the spot, too.)
You can't go wrong with them, but if you're willing to head out to Rego Park in Queens and take two steps from the R train, you'll find a babka-like dessert that's even more delicious: the kugelhopf from Andre's. More croissant-like than the typical babka, the kuglelhopf has a dense, well-baked outer crumb and soft, almost cinnamon-roll-like inner layers. The crust gives off an incredible aroma, the chocolate filling isn't too sweet, and the contrasting textures are irresistible.
The babka costs $12 but weighs in at a whopping 750 grams—over one and a half pounds!
Mister Softee Cone with Dip and Extras
No dessert is more inexorably tied to New York—save for maybe Fudgy the Whale—than Mister Softee's soft serve ice cream. It's easy to find throughout the city during the warmer months and the soft, creamy ice cream and toppings always satisfy. Of course, every cone of Mister Softee also comes a healthy serving of childhood nostalgia, making it one of the best summer comfort foods the city has to offer. Just make sure to check out our secret menu so you don't miss anything.
Mister Softee needs no improvement, but for a fancified version, be sure to try Big Gay Ice Cream's super-premium soft serve made with upstate New York's Ronnybrook Farms milk. Topping upgrades include classics like the Salty Pimp: squiggles of dulce de leche, chocolate dip, and a flourish of sea salt. Big Gay Ice Cream has two stores in the city, but only the West Village location offers interior seating.