Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best Version of Any Classic Dessert You'll Ever Find: Flour & Co.

If you read my blog, you know by now that I eat a lot of baked goods, and desserts in particular.  I have a serious sweet tooth, which I attribute to a mother who always ensured that we had fresh baked goods in the house, at all times.  At a minimum, our cookie jar was always filled with homemade cookies.  And at holiday times, it gets even crazier.  I'm not exaggerating when I say that we routinely have more pies than people at our gatherings.

So, let's just say, I'm no stranger to desserts, and there are ones that are absolute classics for me.  After many disappointing encounters, I have certainly learned by now, in general, you should never order a dish that you have a strong personal association with, as it will never compare to the "right" version in your head. 

For me, there are desserts that certain family members of mine make, that I have never had a remotely comparable version from anywhere.  Every year, for Thanksgiving, my mom makes a pumpkin pie.  It is my definition of what a pumpkin pie should be.  No other pumpkin pie has ever really satisfied me.  Likewise, for Christmas, my mom always makes a pecan pie.  Another classic that I drool over.  I've had some good pecan pies in my life, but again, none have really compared to my mom's version.  And my Great Aunt has a carrot cake recipe that wins rave reviews from anyone who ever tries it.  Again, it doesn't matter how much cream cheese frosting you add, no other carrot cake lives up. 

Or, so I thought, until I started trying the classics from Flour & Co.  They have managed to not only create versions of classics that I enjoy, but, gasp, they have actually improved on the classic desserts I knew growing up.  Pumpkin pie is elevated into Harvest Pie, made with butternut squash, topped with a pecan crumble.  Not the same thing, for sure, but now, I have no desire for a simple pumpkin pie.  Similarly, pecan pie is amped up into Brown Sugar Chocolate Nut Pie, with cashews, almonds, and TCHO chocolate added.  Again, how can I go back to classic pecan now?  And the carrot cake?  Turned into layered decadence.

These treats from Flour & Co are not the prettiest creations, but they totally deliver.  None look nearly as incredible as they taste.  They look likes slices anyone could make.  But let me assure you, no one makes them this good.  It turns out I don't need to venture all the back back to New Hampshire to get a slice of pie or cake I enjoy, I just need to go to Nob Hill, to Flour and Co.

Flour and Co has only been open for a year, but honestly, I can't imagine my life without it.  It is, hands down, my favorite bakery in San Francisco.  Stay tuned for future posts about other areas of their menu, as I'm sure you can imagine, I've been eagerly exploring it all.
Harvest Pie. $4.
Picking this slice of pie was my hardest decision ever!  I visit the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the case was overflowing with options.  They had all of their standard offerings, and a slew of seasonal things.  I thought I was paralyzed with indecision on previous visits, but that doesn't even begin to compare to how I felt this time.

I decided to go for something seasonal, since those were rare, and wouldn't be available for long. And, I asked for a recommendation, which had served me quite well on my other visits.  Without hesitation, the woman taking my order mentioned this pie, a Thanksgiving special.  Deemed the "Harvest Pie", it had a butternut squash filling with pecan crumble top.  I was fascinated, since it sounded a bit like a mix of two of my favorite Thanksgiving pies: pumpkin and pecan.  But of course, butternut squash instead of pumpkin.

Unlike many of their items, this isn't one you'd warm up.  Served on the same little tray as their other goods.  For some reason, eating a piece of pie off a tray, without a plate, felt really strange to me, when eating other things this way did not.  I'm not sure why.

The pie was also no beauty.  Perhaps actually the least tasty looking item in the display case.  It was falling apart like this in the case as well.  But I went for it, knowing that it certainly didn't need to look good to taste good.

The filling was super creamy. It reminded me of pumpkin pie, except it was less custardy and more like a pudding, which is why it was sorta falling apart.  It also was distinctly butternut squash and not pumpkin, which I guess I should have expected.  It was slightly sweetened, but I think most of the sweetness came from the natural sweetness of the squash itself.

The crumble top was sweet, and added a great crunch.  There wasn't much pecan however.  I would have liked to have a more substantial pecan component.

The crust was fantastic, flaky, buttery.  I would have liked more of a back crust though, as I didn't get much pie crust, and unlike some people, I actually appreciate pie crust.

Overall, this walked the line between sweet and savory.  As a dessert, I'm not 100% sure it would have satisfied me.  But it was certainly not a pure savory offering.  I think it would go very well as a brunch item, or perhaps made into a tart.  It would also be really easy to amp up the savory aspects, adding more spices, like sage perhaps, and turn it more in that direction.  Or more dessert-y, with a sweetened whipped cream to accompany it.  I also found myself wanting just one more component, perhaps some sort of cranberry tie in?

That all said, I'm glad I tried it.  I enjoyed every bite, and found it quite fascinating.  It was also nice to have a dessert that didn't really feel that indulgent!  $4 for a slice was a fine price, although a bit higher than some of their other items.
Brown Sugar Chocolate Nut Pie: Pecans, cashews, almonds. TCHO chocolate.  $4.
When I visited at Thanksgiving, I had a very hard time picking between the squash pie and the nut pie.  As you know, I picked the squash pie, but I wondered about the nut pie long after.

When I visited closer to Christmas, I was prepared to order the eggnog pie.  I saw photos of it online, and it sounded so unique.  I entered the cafe, decision already made.  I wasn’t going to be the fool standing there indecisive this time!  Or, so I thought.  And then, they had the nut pie again.  Only this time, they amped it up with chocolate.  I had such a hard time resisting it last time, and now I stood no chance.  But, the eggnog pie was why I was there!

So, I asked the ever friendly staff members about the pies.  They have never lead me astray.  They all told me that the eggnog was good, and it was unique, but … they love the nut pie.  I was powerless.  I had to get it instead.  Perhaps I should have gotten both?

The nut pie is yet another example of Flour & Co taking a standard dessert, and making some tweaks to make it far more interesting, like the butternut pie instead of a simple pumpkin pie.  But this one I was a bit nervous about.  Pecan pie is a classic for me.  I love my mom’s version.  I have expectations when it comes to pecan pie.  And now, I have very high expectations of Flour & Co in general.  I was scared of my own expectations.

I didn’t need to be.  This was a seriously special pie.  One of the best I’ve ever had.

Let’s start with the foundation, the crust.  Super flaky, buttery, even slightly caramelized.  It puts my mom’s to shame (sorry, mom!).  It puts pretty much any pie crust I’ve ever had to shame.  Really quality crust.

Moving on to the filling.  Sweet gooey layer, custard-like, almost like a caramel.  Far more developed than a standard Karo syrup filling.  The TCHO chocolate added even deeper flavor.  Very good.

And then, the nuts.  Instead of just pecans, it also included cashews and almonds.  The pecans were mostly whole halves, the others were chopped.  Although I thought I wouldn’t like the mixed nuts, since pecan is so classic, I found the additional nutty flavor quite nice.  I could imagine other nuts working really well in there too - walnuts, hazelnuts, or macadamias in particular.  What really made this nut pie far and away better than any other that I’ve had before however is the fact that the nuts were toasted first.  This brought out a much deeper flavor from the nuts.  They just tasted, so … nutty.  Sorry, there isn’t a better word for it.

It was a fantastic pie.  Every part of it was so well done, the crust, the custard filling, the nuts.  Each component had something that elevated it above standard.  It was insanely good.

It was very sweet however.  Just eating the pie alone was a bit much, even though the nuts did help balance the sweet filling.  Luckily for me, I had both vanilla ice cream and whipped cream at home, so I paired it with both of those.  A little something creamy to cut the sweet was all it took to make a already great pie even more amazing.

So yes, I loved this.  I’d get it again in a heartbeat.  Although, I’m trying hard to not repeat anything, and continue exploring the menu.  I gave my mom the tip to include other nuts, and to toast her nuts, when making pecan pies next time.  We’ll see how they turn out.

And as always, I appreciated Flour & Co’s portion sizes.  Was it the biggest slice of pie out there?  No.  Was it more than enough for one person, in one sitting?  Yes.  Did I still want more after?  Well, of course, but I’m glad they limit me.  Large enough to satisfying, not too large to make you feel bad afterwards.  A winner, all around.
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Icing.  $4.25.
The final dessert that has a classic place in my family's lineup is carrot cake, using a recipe from my great aunt.  A super moist carrot cake, made with pineapple, nuts, and carrots inside, with cream cheese frosting of course.  Everyone loves this recipe.  Last time my mom came to visit I had her make me a huge one, and I froze all the extra chunks.  I shared some with friends on several occasions, and they all loved it.

So again, I was nervous to try Flour & Co's carrot cake.  Honestly, I have never, ever had a carrot cake that even remotely compares to my aunt's recipe.  Most carrot cakes just don't have much flavor in the cake itself, or are too dry (the pineapple makes a huge difference), or don't have nearly enough cream cheese frosting.  But at this point, I've learned that Flour & Co can basically do no wrong, so I decided to try it anyway.

I had some options however.  They had individual carrot cake bundt cakes, cute little things.  Or, layered carrot cake, available as a slice or whole cake.  I asked what the difference was.  The cake base was the same, basic carrot cake with pecans.  The only real difference was the form, and, the amount of frosting.  The bundt cake, like many of Flour & Co's treats, was smaller, and had only a little dollop of cream cheese frosting.  A guilt free treat.  The layer cake on the other hand, had a generous amount of cream cheese frosting on top, and between the layers.  Since cream cheese frosting is an integral component of carrot cake in my mind, there was no question which I was going for.
Side Profile: extra layer of cream cheese frosting!
And, Flour & Co has done it again.  Why settle for a carrot cake with just cream cheese frosting on top, when you can have an extra tucked inside?  Yes, please!

The cake was moist, and absolutely loaded with shredded carrot.  I do prefer my aunt's version with the pineapple inside, because I like the sweetness and the moistness from the pineapple, but this cake did not suffer from dryness at all, even without the pineapple.  I don't understand why carrot cakes so often suffer from being dry.  It also had plentiful pecans, another component often left out of carrot cakes, or skimped on, but totally essential in my world.  I love the crunch.  There were no raisins, which I appreciated.  I don't hate raisins, but, I do prefer to have them left out of carrot cake.

The frosting was classic cream cheese frosting.  The cream cheese flavor was strong enough to come through, and it was sweetened, but not too sweet.  Perfect compliment, and the ratio of frosting to cake was spot on.

An extra pecan half served as garnish on top, a nice indicator that it would have nuts inside.  The other garnish was candied carrot curls, a fun touch, and totally delicious.

But the most remarkable aspect of this cake, besides the double layers, was the spicing.  I don't know what spices were used, perhaps ginger and nutmeg?  They really made the cake.  I'm not one for spice cakes in general, so I was surprised by how much I liked the spicing, particularly because my aunt's version isn't heavy on the spice.

I'm also amazed at how this really didn't feel that decadent.  How on earth did a double layer cake, loaded up with cream cheese frosting, not turn out too heavy?  I don't know.  Maybe it was the generous amount of carrots (vegetables, right?) or the nuts (protein!), or the fact that it wasn't a sweet overload.  I think that is the biggest difference from the version I grew up with, due to the pineapple, I'm accustomed to a sweeter cake, and this was more spiced than sweet.  And the frosting, while sweet, wasn't over the top sweet.  Don't get me wrong, this was still very much a cake, but, it felt good to eat.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the slice however.  It was huge.  You can see in the top photo that it is a real, serious slice.  Far bigger than any other slice of pie or cake I've had from Flour & Co, and since it was a double layer, it was a very hefty piece.  For once, it actually seemed appropriate to share.  Certain family members of mine, known for their uh, large slice sizes, would probably even agree that this was a bigger than necessary slice.  Since carrot cake keeps well, I figured it wasn't a problem, and served myself just a bit more than half a slice, which looked plenty large to me.  I finished it, satisfied.  And then ... I went back, for "just one more bite".  The next thing I knew, I'd taken down the whole slice.  Sure, there were a few minutes in between my first serving and the rest, but, essentially, it was one sitting.  It was just that good.

The $4.25 price was higher than any other dessert item I've had from Flour & Co, but was totally reasonable given the slice size, and the fact that it included a generous amount of costly pecans.
Banana Cream Pie.  $3.75.
Banana cream pie.  Another simple classic. Almost all banana cream pies I have had in my life have been exactly the same, constructed from a store bought graham cracker pie crust, a layer of Jell-O brand vanilla pudding, some mushy brown sliced bananas, and cool whip on top.  Banana cream pie is certainly not something I'd ever imagine getting from a bakery.  

But, when I saw Flour & Co post on Facebook that they were now making a banana cream pie, I knew I had to get it.  If I can enjoy one made with totally generic low-end components, I could only imagine how much I could love one made with real ingredients.

I laughed a little when I saw it in the case.  The rest of the display was filled with treats that looked so pretty.  Dainty muffins.  Beautiful hand pies and toasty tarts.  Gorgeous multi-layer slices of chocolate and peanut butter cake.  A lemon meringue pie with perfect stiff peaks that most bakers only dream of achieving.  And ... the banana cream pie.  There were only two small slices left.  The crust was crumbling off, the innards spilling out.  Honestly, it looked no different than the pitiful versions from my past.

But, I knew better than to judge based on looks.  The harvest pie wasn't been pretty, and it blew my mind.

I started with the top, fluffy whipped cream.  I wish I'd taken a side profile shot, so you could see, but, like any good cream pie, a majority of it was the whipped cream.  It was good, standard fresh whipped cream.

Below that was banana slices, not too mushy, and vanilla pudding (or maybe pastry cream?).  I felt the pudding layer was perhaps a bit too thin, easily lost amidst all the whipped cream.  I think there might have been honey in here somewhere too.

So far, all good, but not mind blowing.  Clearly steps above Jell-O pudding and Coolwhip, but not in a different league entirely.

And then, I tasted the crust.  This was no standard graham cracker crust.  It is where all the magic to this pie was.  It was buttery.  It was sweet.  It crumbled perfectly with a fork, easily mixing into the whipped cream.  I don't really know how to convince you that a graham cracker crust could be so magically, but believe me, it was.  Or, don't believe me, just go try it yourself.

I got my slice of pie to go, intending to bring it home to eat later, and, to share with Ojan, since I know he likes banana cream pie.  I wanted to take just one bite, perhaps two, to taste it fresh.  Which, I did.  I took two bites, loved it, and sealed it back up.  I had willpower.  Or, so I thought.  The pie didn't make it far.  With every step I took, all I could think about was that crust.  I had to investigate it more.  I'd just take a few more little nibbles, to try to understand the crust better.  It was for my research.  This is what I told myself.  As you can imagine, that slice of pie did not make it home with me.  Ojan did not get to taste it.

So yes, I liked this pie.  It was a simple banana cream pie, but that crust was magic.  I think it would be even better as a layered parfait, so you could have more layers of the magic crust.  I'm not sure I'd get it again, only because I want to keep trying new things, and there have been some items I've tried that I've liked more than this pie.  But, I'd love to see that crust show up again in more places.

$3.75 was a fine price for a slice, although, I did feel like this slice was a bit smaller than others.
Flour & Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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