American cafe culture has come a long way in the last two decades: corporate coffee has spawned near two generations of independent cafes that offer more than the old standby of roadside diner joe and pie. But in Europe, grand salons with wrap-around pastry cases have more in common with jewellery stores than store-front bakeries. How do you decide what to order with your caffeinated afternoon pick-me-up?
Here are a few ideas. Consider it a starter list for your carb- and sugar-fuelled tour of Europe rather than a definitive guide. And don’t feel compelled to stick strictly to the list – should a neighbouring confection in the pastry case call your name, get that instead. Better yet, get them both.
Eccles cake in London
Don’t be fooled by the ‘dead-fly pie’ nickname, bestowed on this dense buttery pastry because of the currants that are wrapped inside. Skip the common supermarket versions and head for St John Bakery (www.stjohngroup.uk.com/bakery/pastries) in London, where Eccles cake is served with Lancashire cheese.
Croissant Ispahan in Paris
Yes, eating croissants is required. And, yes, they should fall apart on the first bite, covering your shirt, your plate, and your useless napkin in a sea of paper-thin crumbs. There are hundreds of croissant options, but the heavenly Ispahan variation at Pierre Hermes (www.pierreherme.com) in Paris combines the essential flaky pastry with regionally harvested raspberries, rosewater, marzipan and possibly the tears of angels.
Medovnik in Prague
Layers and more layers of honey cake alternating with a filling that sits somewhere between whipped cream and condensed milk. The Russians have an origin story about this cake, as do the Ukrainians, but you’ll find it at most corner bakeries in Prague. Head for the Cukrarna Hajek (www.cukrarna-hajek-hajkova.cz) or, for a more classical vibe, the Café Savoy.
Cannoli in Italy
It’s unlikely, but the time may come when you tire of gelato. The solution is clear – switch to cannoli. It’s a crispy (when super fresh) fried dough tube filled with sweet ricotta. Sometimes the cookie-like pastry is dipped in chocolate and there are variations in filling flavour. The best places will fill your cannoli after you order it. If you’re in the Sicilian pastry’s homeland, try the Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto in Taormina.
Fächertorte in Vienna
The Sachertorte gets all the love in Austria and, sure, having a slice in the cafe at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher is a fun touristy experience. But that’s not all the Austrians, those under-recognised masters of European baking, have on offer. Highly recommended is the Fächertorte: it’s three layers – yellow cake, poppy seeds and apples – wrapped in brioche like pie crust. Get it at the Gerstner Bakery (www.gerstner.at) on the Kärntner Straße in the heart of Vienna’s fancy shopping district.
Prinsesstårta in Sweden
History suggests that the ‘Princess Cake’ got its name because it was a favourite of three turn-of-the-century Swedish princesses. Certainly it’s very pretty with its bright green marzipan concealing alternating layers of sponge cake, jam, vanilla custard and whipping cream. Get a slice of royalty-approved Prinsesstårta at Taxinge Slott Café (www.taxingeslott.se) in Nykvarn. It’s an hour outside of Stockholm and is absolutely worth the trip.