In grad school, where I’d listen to lectures on Foucault and workshop short stories, I managed to find, along with new favorite authors, a passion for something beyond the classroom. Some people had exercise; some, clubs or organizations. I had bakeries. Like most big cities, Chicago is filled with small bakeries, and, heady with the smell of yeast, these houses of perfect pastries and bread became my welcome reward for studying and turning in papers.
The routine was this: meet my also-student brother somewhere on campus, toting our bags and books and usually bundled for cold weather, and head somewhere new. Sometimes we’d eat en route, while walking down the sidewalk or grabbing the El; sometimes we’d eat at the bakery itself; sometimes we’d package our desserts and come back to the school food court, killing time before whatever class I’d have. And just like watching movies or sleeping in on weekends, this was a hobby with immediate appeal.
You know, a friend of mine, a Chicago attorney, commutes via long train rides to her job every day, so I asked her once, How do you do it? And she told me this: she embraced it. Rather than dreading the commute, she took back the hours of downtime and used them for reading, communicating, even praying—turning the time into something she looked forward to. I always liked that. I guess you could say, essentially, collecting bakery visits became my method of embracing. Chicago winters seem a little less bitter when you have warm bakery in your pocket, and I stand by that.
There was Sweet Mandy B’s in Lincoln Park, which makes a brownie to rival Nigella Lawson’s recipe—and that’s saying something—as well as killer chocolate coconut macaroons and fluffy whoopee pies; Swirlz, home of the best cupcake frosting I’ve ever tasted and where the owner gave us free samples one night; Pasticceria Natalina, featured in Chicago Magazine; and Dinkel’s, the one with the most seating space and all kinds of cakes. (It’s really a wonder I didn’t gain 20 pounds, but for all the walking.)
This last weekend, I revisited Bittersweet in Lakeview, a charming little spot with striped awnings and glass cases filled with sweet treats. The first time we went, I think it was a Saturday afternoon, and we’d just come from a pizza place (another hobby/obsession). This time, we were just leaving an apartment showing and running down rainy sidewalks where snow was melting, the December weather in the high 50s (!).
When you go to Bittersweet, get a macaron. Bittersweet’s are the French variety, colorful little sandwiches of delicate cookies and delicious cream, and they’re the best I’ve had in the city. The mini brioche was also quite good—flaky layers of dough opening to a rich chocolate center. As another plus, this bakery offers yesterday’s cupcakes at half price, as well as nicely packaged bags of broken pastries for $1.50 a pop. Whatever you order, one thing’s for sure: from the moment you step inside this gorgeous shop, you’ll be swooning at the array of desserts.
But don’t take my word for it: Visit!
Bittersweet Pastry Shop
1114 W Belmont Ave
(between Clifton Ave & Seminary Ave)
Chicago, IL 60657
*Oh, and in case you’re wondering: I liked the chocolate macarons best. Almost enough to make me want to make my own batch, but then I’d eat them all, and, unfortunately, I don’t walk around the city every day now.