power rankings: sweets on the side

Coffee and a donut. Coffee and a danish. Coffee and a biscotti. Nothing elevates a terrific coffee, particularly after a meal, than serving it with a baked goodie. Particularly true for specialty coffees, and luckily many cafes offer a wide selection of tempting sugary goodness. If they broadcast having a pastry chef, you are really in luck. Shoutout to the affogato, but we’re talking coffee sidekicks that you can hold in one hand.

Here is one person’s ranking of the best choices to enjoy with your cappuccino/macchiato/latte/espresso/americano/etc. My faves are, naturally, weighted toward my geographic area. As always these things are purely subjective and your mileage may vary.

  1. Canelé
    favorite example: Little Red Fox, Washington, DC

I got the ugly duckling of this batch. Still delicious.

You may have seen one of these in a pastry case from time to time, though you might not have known what it’s called – or if you did, like me you didn’t (and still don’t) quite know how to pronounce it. If you’re fortunate, you’ve eaten one.

What sets these lovely little examples of French deliciousness apart is the texture. A caramelized outer shell, particularly at the top, with some crunch to it, which yields to a soft, custardy interior. Sweet without being overbearing, usually has a hint of rum or almond. More than one is too much, but an individual piece is just right to have with a cup of coffee. The example in the pic is the only time I got one from Little Red Fox that didn’t look perfect, but that mattered not because as always it was incredibly delicious.

2. Cherry Blossom Pop Tart, Northside Social, Arlington, VA & Falls Church, VA

you may not think this possible, but they taste even better than they look

This is the one time I’m going to be café-specific because I haven’t come across anything like this anywhere else. And even if I did, no one would be able to top what pastry chef Bridie McCulla and her team produce.

Thicker than any other Pop Tart, either the Kellogg’s original or other bakery-made versions, and not as thick as the cloyingly sweet and flavorless commercial bakery single serving ‘pie’ you find in your local convenience store. Delicately thin pastry layers make for a beautiful crust, expertly caramelized. The star of the show is the filling. Denser than a pie filling, and chock full of real cherries, it manages to be both fresh and substantial with just the right amount of spice in the background (my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to pick it out, maybe nutmeg?) to catch your interest. The sprinkled icing artfully balances on the knife’s edge between sweet and too sweet, and together with the filling and the pastry makes for a nicely balanced overall texture. I’ve shared this tart with family and friends, and every single person to try one agreed that they are amazing. Despite my love for the Cherry Blossom Pop Tart, two quibbles keep it from topping this list.

First, it’s big enough that it can be a lot to have in one sitting. Cut it in half and share it with someone else and it will be the perfect coffee partner, but tackle a whole one by yourself and you’d better have been eating very lightly that day. Maybe I’m being too finicky here, but what I’m looking for are things that would be “a coffee and xxxx,” rather than “xxxx with a coffee.”

Second, much like the namesake cherry blossoms that draw scads of tourists to DC’s Tidal Basin, these beauties are a seasonal item. It’s disappointing enough to show up when the day’s stock has sold out, but I’m dreading the day they go out of rotation. It would be great if Northside were to add this to the regular menu (which includes Nutella, Caramel Apple and savory Everything flavor pop tarts).

3. Donuts
favorite example: Hello Donuts, Philadelphia, PA

credit: Hello Donuts Facebook page


Love donuts. Always have, always will. I’ll take one from a supermarket, Dunkin, one of the new string of high-end donuteries popping up seemingly everywhere. Not fussy. A whole donut may be a little bit much for some to have as a coffee sidekick, which is why God created the Dunkin Munchkin and other donut holes.

For me, the one example that rises above the field is Hello Donuts in Philadelphia. Sister to ReAnimator Coffee, they have one outlet in the Kensington neighborhood, and their goods are also sold at ReAnimator’s cafés around the city.

One bite and you can tell the high quality. Yes, this is one of those donut shops with a, shall we say, non-traditional array of flavors on the menu (changed weekly) that features creative glazes and ingredients. But every one I’ve tried was executed perfectly, and the texture is always perfect. Not too dense, and if the weekly menu features a fruit filled variety you have to get one as they are superb.

During the pandemic Hello Donut pulled back to Friday-Sunday operations, though they’ve now added Thursdays and Mondays. Hopefully they can return to daily business at some point soon.

Hello Donut also offers savory filled buns, and on Friday sells fritters. Their products are vegan, as is the case with another donut shop I recently wrote about, Donut Run in the Takoma section of Washington, DC, which combined with a stroll across the street to Lost Sock coffee gives you a terrific coffee and a donut combo.

I will add that I am always a sucker for the glazed jelly donut at Dunkin (usually designated as a Manager’s Special, to differentiate from the jelly donut covered with powdered sugar), but the love many show for their coffee continues to mystify me.

And a shoutout to the good people at Krisy Kreme for giving complimentary donuts to those who have been vaccinated against Covid-19. I grabbed one today.

4. A little cookie or two
favorite examples: Lazzaroni Amoretti; a free little cookie at a café

There’s just something that looks right about an espresso or cappuccino with a little cookie or two on the saucer or a small plate on the side. Just a touch of sweetness and crunch, perhaps in place of putting sugar in the drink.

At home we’ll often have a bag of Lazzaroni Amaretti. Delicate, airy, crunchy little creatures, crumble easily, great almond flavor. If you have an Italian market of any kind near you, or a market that stocks a variety of imported foods, there’s a good chance you’ll find them.

Even better is when you’re having a coffee at a café and it’s served with a free little cookie. A little plain chocolate snap is the usual here, though sometimes you get something a touch more creative. We recently met a friend for a meal in the outdoor seating at DC’s The Coupe, and were delighted to find a couple animal crackers on our saucers (as is the practice at all the outlets in the Tryst Trading Company group).

credit: Yelp

5. White Chocolate Cherry scone, Kaldi’s Social House, Silver Spring, MD

hmm, there must be one in there somewhere….

Another specific, in this case for a reason. Usually a scone is something I’ll get at a coffee shop if I want a baked good to go along with my coffee and nothing else looks better. They’re fine, but nothing special. This one, however, is the exception. I say this as someone who doesn’t like white chocolate, but the flavor combination is spot on, unlike many scones it’s not too dry, and it manages to hit the sweet without being too sweet.

Kaldi’s original Silver Spring location is finishing up a renovation (the rooftop bar, a very popular nightlife destination, is being enclosed to defuse noise complaints). The owner promises a new menu when they reopen, hoping this scone makes the cut.

6. Cupcakes
favorite example: Baked and Wired, Washington, DC

A good cupcake is terrific. A delicious little cake that’s all your own, and fits easily in your hand. Years ago friends showed up their family method for eating one, which is to pull it apart in half, turn the top over and put the halves back together to form a frosting filled cake sandwich. Try it once and you’ll never go back to the usual way.

While the cupcake frenzy that took America by storm 10 years ago seems to have abated, there are still some places putting out high quality cupcakes. The folks at Baked and Wired do a terrific job, and they also make some of the best coffee in DC.

The reason the cupcake takes a humble place in this list (cough cough last cough cough) is that, even more so than Northside’s pop tart, a cupcake is a lot of dessert to use as a coffee accompaniment. A mini cupcake would zoom up the charts, though those are usually found only in a plastic pack at your grocery store’s baked goods section.

Honorable mention to biscotti, including the thinly sliced version made by Almondina, and ginger snaps.

One thought on “power rankings: sweets on the side”

  1. I want them all. My life is not complete until I’ve tasted everything on this list. And thanks for introducing me to the cherry blossom pop tart. A suggestion about the size: cut in half and freeze the other= 2 days of coffee treats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.