Last year I made an mistake on my birthday—I decided against taking the day off. This year, however, I'm another year older and another year wiser, and I learned from that mistake. I wanted to take advantage of the free week day, so I hopped on my favorite bus—the Concord Coach (they play movies!)—for a quick culinary trip to Portland, Maine. I got in on Monday afternoon so I’d be in place and ready to celebrate my birthday with my cousin come Tuesday morning.
I probably spend 80% of my time when traveling on two of my favorite activities: eating and wandering. That’s precisely how I wanted to spend my birthday. The never-ending winter that engulfed New England this March and April may have deterred others, but I wasn't going to let an unseasonably cold deep freeze prevent me from enjoying the pastries of Portland.
We realized pretty quickly that a bigger challenge than the weather may prove to be the day of the week; turns out Tuesday is not a great day for a food adventure in Portland. But not matter, we were there to make the best of it.
Stop #1: Scratch Baking Co.
Scratch Baking Co. is a neighborhood bakery in South Portland. It opened as 2004 as One Fifty Ate before rechristening itself Scratch Baking Co. a few years later (apparently in honor of someone's new furry friend).
The bakery boasts an solid selection of sweet treats, breads and tasty-looking bagels. They also now operate a “toast bar” a few blocks away that serves sweet and savory toast creations. I’m a bit of a toast junkie, so I was into the idea of a toast bar. Unfortunately, like many of Portland’s great culinary establishments, it’s not open early on Tuesdays. Oh well. (So many things are closed on Monday and Tuesday, frankly, I’m not sure how any one survives there till Wednesday!)
The bagels looked amazing, but we quickly learned that the bakery doesn’t toast bagels—you’ve got to go to the toast bar, which seemed more than a little silly for a place specializing in bagels. Outside it felt more like late winter than early spring, so we felt pretty strongly than any bagel needed toasting, so we opted for a blood orange sponge instead. It proved to be a damn good sponge. As I ate it, I kept hearing what I imagine would have been Mary Berry’s approved critique in my head. The sponge itself was moist and springy. The flavor of the blood orange and raspberry complemented each other nicely, and the cake wasn’t too sweet even with a dusting a powdered sugar. Like I said, a damn good sponge.
Scratch doesn’t offer any indoor seating, so we perched outside on a lovely red bench to enjoy the scone. It was not bench-perching weather, however, so it was quickly time to move on.
Stop #2: Ten Ten Pié
After striking out on warm food at Scratch, we headed for Ten Ten Pié, which takes its name from Spanish slang for “snack”. I’m a longtime snack advocate, so this seemed like just the spot for us. Plus, we’d read it’s known for its hand pies, which sounded hearty and delicious.
I opted for a hand pie with spinach, feta, potato and caramelized onion. The crust on this little guy was perfect: Flaky and salty and delightfully golden. The inside was warm and savory. The potatoes were a little underdone, but otherwise thus guy was satisfying and just what I needed.
I couldn't resist another little treat at Ten Ten, so I chose a visitandine. I hadn't encountered this pastry before, but a bit of research revealed an interesting history. This small round cake is named for its original bakers: the nuns in the Order of the Visitation in France. That original recipe was likely also the inspiration for a similar French cake, the financier, which originated in what amounts to the polar opposite of an order of nuns: the financial center of Paris. A baker named Lasne, who ran a bakery on the Rue St.-Denis near the financial center, is said to have taken the original recipe and baked it instead into small rectangular cakes. This shape was reminiscent of gold bars, perhaps meant to flatter his clientele.
Whatever the shape, this cake is simple and delicious. The use of almond flour and browned butter gives it a complex, slightly nutty flavor. Ten Ten made its version with cornmeal and buckwheat flour, so it has a pleasantly grainy texture and sweet almond flavor. It was topped with a sour cherry, and the tartness played nicely against the subtle sweetness of the cake.
The recipe is simple, but its chemistry is fickle so the cakes must be eaten within a few hours of baking (which isn’t a challenge with something so small and delicious!). If you're curious to learn more about the visitandine or make your own, there's a great write-up in the New York Times by Amanda Hesser (now the co-founder and CEO of Food52).
Stop #3: Standard Baking Co
Standard Baking Co. is often included on lists of the best bakeries in America. These accolades are much deserved for this enticing spot at the edge of the Commercial street main drag in Portland. (Side note: Arcade Bakery from my Pastries in the City post is also on the latest Best Bakeries listing from Thrillist!) This bakery is one of my absolute all-time favorites, so I make a point of visiting whenever I’m in Portland.
Everything at Standard is baked in a 12-ton, stone deck oven, which results in the most gloriously, goldenly crisped baked goods. In describing their goods, Standard’s website states, “Everything we make embodies our commitment to artisanal methods, natural ingredients and delicious food.” This commitment is apparent from just a quick glance at the array of treats on offer.
It being my birthday and all, I may have gone a little crazy. I basically ordered everything that looked good, which I ended up with three treats: a whole lemon tart, a pistachio snail and a pear frangipane tart (and an Asiago fougasse, which we ate immediately and didn't manage to get a photo).
Each pastry was better than the next (even the next day, which is when I enjoyed the pistachio snail and the pear frangipane tart). They all boasted perfect pastry complemented by sweet fillings with depth.
I could go on forever about how good these pastries were, but instead I’ll just let you look at them appreciate them for yourself.
The bottom line is this: do yourself a favor and go to Standard Baking Co. if you ever find yourself in Portland. You won't regret it.
Lunch break: Eventide + Duck Fat
I sometimes wish I could live on pastries alone, but I haven't quite gotten there. So after a full morning of neighborhood wandering and shop browsing, we were ready for some actual sustenance and a protein infusion.
Even after 6+ years in New England, I still have not acclimated to eating oysters (I maintain it's not my fault--I grew up landlocked!), so Eventide wasn't high on my must-eat list. But after learning that they serve a mean hot lobster roll (served on a beautifully soft Japanese steamed bun), I decided it was time. Eventide did not disappoint. It was a damn good roll, filled with lobster drenched in brown butter. We were a couple of happy campers.
I also decided a birthday oyster was in order, which led ordering an oyster shooter. Still not sold on the oysters, but the mignonette/vodka chaser was pretty tasty.
Since were in the neighborhood, we took the opportunity for a pit stop at Micucci Grocery. This place is a gem, with everything from fresh Italian cheeses and meats to a large selection of pastas and sauces. Pretty much anything you need for an authentic Italian dinner. I'm also told they have amazing take-away pizza.
We made one final food stop at Duckfat for poutine and brussels sprouts. I pretty much knew I would love this restaurant from the first time I heard its name, and it also does not disappoint. After such a full day of snacking and pastrying, it was finally time to head for the train back to Boston (and back to reality).
Stop #4: Two Fat Cats Bakery
We left Duckfat and headed back to the car and basically ran right into Two Fat Cats Bakery. This felt like a sign from the universe that one last pastry was in order.
We walked into the bakery and were instantly engulfed in pies—both visually and olfactorily. Two Fat Cats takes pie-making very seriously. The bakery offers 47(!) flavors of pie, with ten-sh different flavors available every day.
While the full pies were a beauty to behold, we grabbed the last slice of cherry pie and made a run for it. Their website promised the pie would be “baked to perfection”, which proved to be accurate. The filling was tart, the pastry was flaky (though I could have used a touch more salt).
I enjoyed the pie (complemented by a glass of prosecco served in a plastic cup with a lid and straw) as the train transported me back to Boston.
Tomorrow, I'd be back to work and back to life with fewer pastries.