In a city where a single cupcake can set you back five dollars, it's more important than ever to remember a basic point: Dessert doesn't have to be expensive to be good.
Not to knock the work of talented pastry chefs in New York, but for our everyday sugar rush, we're looking for something less glitzy; two or three bucks would be nice. And these days it's amazing what you can get on the cheap. This list below includes some staple cheap eats, but also touches on sweets from high-end bakeries that usually charge much more. Want the fine French pastry for cheaper than a croissant, or an easy snack from a vaunted Daniel Boulud spot? These budget sweets are excellent introductions to the more pricey items at the city's most renowned bakeries.
We don't pretend this list is comprehensive. But we can say that the 15 sweets below—all $3 and under at time of publication—are excellent examples of their forms, each far more satisfying than many other sweets at twice the price.
Old Fashioned Doughnut From Peter Pan ($1)
Pretty much all doughnuts fall in the $3 and under category, and New York has no shortage of fancy doughnut shops these days, but we always come back to Peter Pan as the alpha and omega of doughnuts in New York. We can't help but be charmed by the W-shaped counter and the staff in matching pastel uniforms; Peter Pan just feels the way a doughnut shop should feel.
Not that any of that would matter if the doughnuts weren't up to snuff. Fortunately, they are. Well, the cake doughnuts at least; disregard the yeast varieties which are too sweet and lack character. The cake styles, on the other hand, are dense and just a little crumbly, with a hefty bite that's never dry. The crusts are full of pebbly peaks and valleys, and thick sugar glazes add a deep, satisfying crunch. Stick to the Old Fashioned, with the barest hint of spice, for best results.
Canele at Cannelle Patisserie ($2.50)
Our pick for the best French bakery in Queens, with locations in Long Island City and Jackson Heights, sells fine French pastries for as little as half the price of their Manhattan and Brooklyn competition. We rate their flaky, buttery pain au chocolat as one of the best of its kind in the city, but the real star is their perfectly caramelized canelé. The pastry's small size means you get some crunchy, crème brûlée crust and vanilla- and rum-scented custardy center in every bite. It's the perfect single-serving snack.
Chouxquettes From Mille Feuille and Patisserie Des Ambassades ($1)
Here's a French pastry that gets too little love in New York: chouxquettes, i.e. cream puffs without the filling. Each light, airy puff of pâte à choux is only mildly sweet; crunchy white sugar pearls on the crust take the puffs into dessert territory. When fresh, the eggy interior contrasts perfectly with its crisp exterior. You'll get two puffs for a buck at Mille Feuille and three at Patisserie des Ambassades.
Triple C From Liddabit Sweets ($2.50)
The "Triple C" ($2.50) from Liddabit Sweets doesn't fit neatly into any dessert category. Is it a candy bar, a cookie, or something else? Answer: all of the above. (Okay, it's a luxed-up Twix bar.)
The crunchy treat begins with toasted coconut mixed into soft caramel, which is layered on a fresh butter cookie base that snaps clean on first bite. The whole deal is then dunked in dark chocolate that's just bitter enough to keep the caramel in check while sticking in confection territory. In other words, everything good about a Twix but better, plus coconut.
Rugelach From Lee Lee's Baked Goods ($1)
Everybody knows about the rugelach at Zabar's, but if you're looking for true rugelach excellence, head to Lee Lee's in Harlem, where some of the city's best run you a mere dollar a piece.
Baked throughout the day, each rugelach has a buttery, heavily caramelized base that reminds us of the edges of a well-baked chocolate chip cookie. All the filings are top notch, but the well-rounded chocolate is our favorite. Prefer fruit rugelach? The apricot filling has a nice habit of bubbling out during baking, which makes for a chewy, candy-like coating along the crust.
Egg Custard Tart From New Flushing Bakery ($1.25)
Chinese bakeries everywhere make "Portuguese" egg custard tarts, looser and more vanilla-scented than the dense and eggy Hong Kong versions. New Flushing Bakery's, though, is indisputably the best: full of vanilla, almond, and buttery accents, full-bodied but not heavy or overly sweet. It's the crust that makes this tart: dozens of paper-thin layers of laminated dough that separate and crisp up into something that crackles and shatters on first bite. That crust holds up just well enough to deliver its payload, then melts in your mouth—a level of pastry quality that goes above and beyond the expected Chinese bakery norm.
New Flushing Bakery's tarts are baked throughout the day, and often as not the ones we receive are still warm from the oven. This is a big part of what makes them so incomparably good, so make sure to ask if any are still warm when you place your order.
Chocolate-Covered Pretzels From Roni-Sue's Chocolates ($2)
Pretzel people know that the Pennsylvania Dutch brand Martin's makes some of the best hard pretzels around, available in plain across the city's Greenmarkets. Really, the only way to improve on them is by coating them in a thick layer of dark chocolate.
The problem with most chocolate-covered pretzels is that the bready bits underneath lose some of their snap. But with the extra-crunchy Martin's pretzels, that's not a problem, and Roni Sue's coating of chocolate brings just the right amount of sweetness and creaminess to the robust crunch. You're looking at one of the best portable desserts across the city.
Paris-Brest 'Eclair' From Beard Papa's ($2.50)
International chain Beard Papa exemplifies the budget gourmet approach we're taking in this guide. It's easy to underestimate, but when you break down the components of their desserts, you won't find any shortcuts. Beard Papa's pâte à choux pastries are baked throughout the day for freshness, which means that no matter when you visit, you'll get crispy exteriors with delightfully eggy centers. And, of course, the signature Beard Papa move: fillings injected to order.
Beard Papa's cream-filled "eclair" dipped in dark chocolate has everything you could want from a pastry. The pâte à choux is fresh, crunchy, and fragrant, and there are two layers of textural contrast: a lightly sweetened vanilla pastry cream filling and a lush chocolate dip. In terms of deliciousness per dollar, Beard Papa is in a class of its own.
Double Chocolate Brownie From Sage General Store ($3)
This little brownie is so rich, and comes loaded with such a deep, complex chocolate flavor, that it could pass as the base for a plated dessert in a fine restaurant. It decidedly belongs to the fudgy school of brownies, with just enough flour to distinguish it from actual fudge, and it draws its potency from an ample helping of Valrhona chocolate. This buttery number easily earns a place on the short list for best brownie in New York, regardless of price.
Pâte de Fruit From Epicerie Boulud ($1)
Sometimes you just want a single sweet bite, and in such cases, a buttery French pastry is probably too much. That's why we love the super-concentrated flavors of Epicerie Boulud's pâte de fruit. Each wobbly square is only two or three bites, but those bites are packed with fruit flavor made with nothing more than fruit juice, pectin, and sugar. Flavor offerings vary, but the orange-hued mango is tangy and light on the sweetness, and the raspberry has a precise, elegant tartness.
Black and White Cookie From Glaser's ($2.50)
The black and white cookie is one of the quintessential treats of New York, and though most are dried-out husks of over-baked flour, a few bakeries still make excellent versions. One of them comes from the 113-year-old Glaser's Bake Shop on the Upper East Side, where the black and whites are soft and cakey but just a hair more firm than actual cake. The fondant icing isn't too sweet, and the chocolate tastes like real chocolate, not wax. It's a great cookie on any budget; the nostalgia comes free.
'Tiramisu' From Paris Baguette ($2.50)
This dessert has little in common with traditional tiramisu, save for some sweet mascarpone cream and the suggestion of some layers. But instead of booze-soaked ladyfingers, Paris Baguette uses buttery laminated dough for what's effectively a well-executed croissant, with a hollow, airy center and a thick dusting of dark cocoa powder. That bitter cocoa is a nice match for the mascarpone, and it leaves the dessert chocolatey enough to satisfy a sweet tooth but still light enough to enjoy with lunch.
Spongecake From Kam Hing Coffee Shop ($.70)
Eggy, fluffy, light-as-air sponge cakes are everywhere in Chinatown, but for the best taste of this barely-sweet breakfast treat, you have to head to a slip of a storefront called the Kam Hing Coffee Shop. There, the little cakes are always fresh from the oven, so they're always at they're warm, fragrant best, though take note: the shop starts to run out in the afternoon.
In the past few years Kam Hing has introduced all sorts of variations to the plain cake: chocolate chip, green tea, even strawberry. They're fine, but since they're baked in smaller quantities, they're less likely to be fresh than the plain versions. The simple eggy cake doesn't need any fussing, anyway.
Dou Hua From Sun Hing Lung Co ($2)
Dou hua is as simple as dessert gets: creamy soft tofu and some sugar syrup to sweeten it. But it's all about quality—that tofu better taste fresh, silky and rich with a balance of nutty and vegetal notes. Most tofu-makers in New York make second- or third-rate stuff: grainy or bland or overcooked until the soy milk loses all its vitality.
At Sun Hing Lung Co, a tiny factory in Chinatown, the tofu is as fresh and beany as it should be, and the syrup that comes on top is just sweet enough to make the thing feel like dessert. You can buy a quart of this stuff for just a handful of quarters, making it one of the cheapest and tastiest desserts per ounce in the city.
Italian Ices From the Lemon Ice King of Corona ($1.25)
Quality Italian ices are few and far between these days; most are mass-produced and candy-sweet, barely worth eating. Then there's the Lemon Ice King, a 60+-year-old Italian ice shop holding down the Italian American fort in Corona, still serving sterling Italian ices for as little as five quarters.
There are dozens of flavors to choose from, but classic lemon is still the best. It's clean and bright, from fresh, unadulterated juice, and there's only enough sugar to quiet down the aggressive citrus edges while keeping the ice tart and refreshing. Italian ices at the King are invariably creamy and soft, and the telltale Italian ice grain doesn't over-crystallize into obnoxious crunch. If you're seeking to fix a taste memory of what Italian ices should be, look no further.