My mother preferred cooking gourmet main dishes to baking sweets. She'd much rather make a stuffed pork roll than an iced cinnamon roll. But every once in a while I'd come home from school to the aroma of spice cake or poppy seed bread. Rarely frosted, these treats were simple and satisfying.
Pastry chef Danielle Keene's mom must have come from the same school of thought. Unfussy and not too sweet, Keene's outstanding pastries, some of which are updates on her mother's recipes, are the stars at Bittersweet Treats in Pasadena. Chef Keene was a finalist on season one of Bravo's “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” which is where co-owner Linda Chen first saw her.
A dessert-lover herself, Chen came to like Keene's spirit and approached her about opening a place together. Keene had already proven her chops training as pastry chef at Campanile and Water Grill as well as working at the Little Door. So they chose a location in a mini-mall near Pasadena City College, and Bittersweet was born.
The decor is light and airy with an inviting touch of nostalgia in the form of vintage Bundt pans and muffin tins on the wall. The glass cases display cakes, cookies, custards and bars on pretty-footed cake plates. Most of the offerings change daily depending on the availability of fresh ingredients and the whim of the chef.
After our first bite of crumb cake, we were smitten. As my son said, “There's no frosting but somehow it's creamy.” The texture is perfect. The butter is well distributed, making it light and dense at the same time. The red velvet whoopie pie ($2.25) is so fresh, the creamy filling doesn't squeeze out the sides after biting. The macaroon (the old-fashioned kind) uses unsweetened fresh coconut and some other hocus-pocus for a toasty outside and a creamy center. The cookies are firm, not chewy like the modern trend, and sizable ($1.50). I particularly like the brown butter cookie with its sudden shock of browned butter taste just before swallowing.
It's hard to pick a favorite treat, but the poppy seed cake lingers in my mind ($4). Better than my mom's and prettier than my E-Z Bake Oven creation (but about the same size), the cake-let is topped with a small dollop of tangy lemon cream and candied lemon peel and crackles with fresh poppy seeds as you chew.
There are no ostentatious fruit tarts or chocolate towers here. These are working-man's treats and go well with the LAMILL coffee they serve. The baristas could use a little practice getting the lattes and cappuccinos delivered hotter and quicker, but they opened only a month or so ago so we'll cut them some slack. Bittersweet could give the
down the street a run for its money. It's a great spot for your morning coffee and paper or for afternoon tea with friends. It would also be a good choice for an assortment of treats or a whole pie to go for some special gathering.
The pies, by the way, are amazing. Each cream pie, such as their butterscotch custard with chocolate crust and chopped almond topping, could feed 10 people because it is so rich ($28).
Some people might say some items are too rich. The Mom's magic bar ($2.25), for example, is similar to the beloved Hello Dolly Bar of the 1960s but contains a handful of raw almonds, a handful of chocolate pieces, another handful of coconut and more. Who eats three handfuls of dense food in one sitting? But Mom's magic bar is delicious, and as Mom always said, “It's nice to share.”
Where: 1731 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Prices: Individual treats, $1 to $4; Homemade ice cream, $12 a quart; pies and cakes, $25 to $95
Contact: (626) 796-8655; bittersweettreats.com