Possibly an unpopular opinion, but I like winter. Crisp air, moody grey skies, a fluttering of snow — it’s magical. That said, as I stomp through the slush of three-day-old snow, I have to admit that a tropical vacation doesn’t sound so bad (this is why spring break was invented, right?). Though I do have a warm locale on the books, that’s not for a couple of months, so I’m looking back to spring break last year and a belated but much-deserved coffeeshop feature: South West Collective in the Cayman Islands. If you’re planning a trip to the Caribbean, both this little group of islands and this hip coffeeshop are definitely worth a visit. If not, just pretend you can feel the warm tropical sun on your face and a tasty latte on your tongue.
For fruity cocktails and cabanas selling fresh fruit juice, the beach is a pretty sure bet. But this may not be exactly where you’d expect to find a hip coffeeshop. Luckily, South West Collective fills all of the aforementioned needs (and considering the size of the Cayman Islands, it’s pretty easy to make a trip there no matter where you are on the islands). Located in Georgetown, the capital of the largest island, Grand Cayman, this hip, light-filled spot is right in the middle of most of the hustle and bustle going on in the islands. In case you’re (unsurprisingly) not familiar with the Caymans, this tropical paradise is a trio of tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea, just west of Cuba. A British territory, they’re known for their beautiful beaches and abundance of sea turtles. Hardly a wonder, then, that many cruise ships stop off on Grand Cayman. South West Collective is right in the middle of Harbour Place, the bustling, colorful area of Georgetown where the cruise ships come to dock. As you sip your coffee, peek into the many shops nearby, or take a look at the local markets going on most days (trust me, there’s more than enough to look at!).
The coffeeshop itself is on the second floor of a collection of shops and restaurants. With naval-inspired blue and white décor, comfy seating, and stunning ocean views, it’s the perfect place to take a shopping break and watch the magnificent cruise ships glide into port. The menu is stocked with all your favorite hot and cold coffee drinks, plus fresh juices and smoothies and a mouthwatering selection of housemade toasts, sandwiches, soups, salads, and more. There’s even a chill bar and foozball area in back if you’re in need of something stronger than coffee!
I know hot coffee isn’t exactly tropical, but even in the heat, it was well worth ordering a latte, in my opinion — it was delicious enough to be worth a little extra sweating. And Cayman may not be the most common tourist destination (though I would argue that equals extra points in its favor), but I would highly recommend adding it to the vacay list. With a surprisingly diverse crowd, gorgeous beaches and water, and lovely hotels and restaurants (and of course, those turtles), it’s definitely worth a stop. And hey, you already know where to get your coffee there.
What would a trip to Paris be without le café? Despite Paris’s vibrant café culture, it’s generally accepted that the coffee itself isn’t all that great. But in the past few years, the third-wave coffee movement has hit the city — with vigor — and these days there are legit roasters and more coffeeshops than even I could manage to hit in one trip. That’s not to say I didn’t try — I had a mile-long list going into my trip, and I drank enough coffee to fuel endless trekking around the city (which is a lot). Though I don’t want to think about how much of my trip budget went to coffee breaks, this did leave me with a pretty good sampling of the Paris coffee scene. Unlike years past, it’s pretty easy now to find a good latte or filter coffee in Paris (and the list of places offering alternative milks is also growing), not to mention that there’s a collection of friendly, charming cafés to visit. My list was a good one — I don’t think I drank a bad cup of coffee on my trip. That said, I narrowed it down to my top five picks for the best Paris coffeeshops (though the full list of spots I visited is included as well — all of which I would recommend, honestly). Thankfully, there’s never a need to wander Paris under-caffeinated again!
This might just be the tiniest coffeeshop in Paris — it’s also one of the cutest, and serves up delicious coffee to boot (no pun intended). Nestled in an old cordonnerie, or cobbler’s shop, in the Marais, this petite blue café has just enough room inside for the counter and a couple of tables. They manage to fit a lot of charm into a small space, though, with rustic-chic décor, art on the walls, and fresh flowers — plus delicious coffee and pastries, of course. Get a flat white to go as you meander through the Marais, or take a moment to perch on one of the outside seats and enjoy the charming street.
Books and coffee — what’s not to love? Near Bastille in the hip 11e, this charming café is stocked floor to ceiling with books and filled with plants. It’s definitely worth taking your coffee to stay here — grab a seat at one of the eclectically mismatched tables or sofas and enjoy the tranquil vibes as you sip your café from a pastel-hued cup and munch on a house-made treat (I highly recommend the carrot cake — it was scrumptious). Though I generally think the rude Parisian stereotype is a myth, it’s also worth noting that the staff here are lovely (not a surly waiter in sight).
It should tell you something that I went out of my way to return to this little café several times during my trip. There are actually two locations, though I only checked out the bustling café near the Latin Quarter. This was one of the few places where I found a nearly-American-size latte (which is likely a point against me in javaholic cred but was a plus in my book). In any case, the coffee is delicious and the space lively and inviting. If you’re feeling peckish, definitely try the brownie, which is essentially death by chocolate and worth every bite. Strada is a little out of the way of the typical tourist spots, but if you’re exploring the Left Bank (which I highly recommend) — especially Jardin des Plantes or the ancient Roman Arènes de Lutèce — it’s definitely worth a stop (or two).
You can’t visit Paris without stopping into this friendly spot in the Marais. It’s the sort of place where the patrons are regulars and the baristas chatty. I was barely there a minute before I was chatting about my trip with a fellow patron and the baristas, and the owners themselves are often behind the bar, making drinks and talking to people. With Aussie and New Zealand roots, it’s a favorite gathering spot for the expat crowd in Paris, and for good reason. Don’t miss the delicious waffles with your flat white, and if you’re looking for a little guidance around Paris, they also host bike tours around Paris and Versailles.
If you’re looking for a mean flat white and a tasty bite in the up-and-coming Oberkampf district, look no further than Café Oberkampf. This Aussie-inspired café serves up top-notch coffee and fresh, healthy eats in a bright, friendly setting. It’s another tiny spot, but it’s definitely worth grabbing one of the few tables and staying for brunch or lunch. Their specialty is the tartine (an open-faced sandwich or toast) — a perfect accompaniment to a delicious cup of coffee.
There you have it — the best Paris coffeeshops! Here’s the list of all the coffeeshops I visited. Anyone fancy a cuppa?
**This piece was originally written for Citizen Fare online magazine — it’s quite a bit longer than usual, but I promise it’s a good story! **
First of all, I should probably offer a confession: I have a slight addiction to caramel. Maybe a bit more than slight. Sweet, sticky, scrumptiously rich and oozy — what’s not to like? As ubiquitous a flavor as it is, though, most people probably don’t think much about what’s actually in caramel (or maybe that’s exactly what you spend your days pondering — whatever floats your boat). News flash or not, these are the facts: most caramel is made with butter, cream, sugar, and a bucket-load of other additives, which sadly lands it on the no-no list for vegans and those with non-dairy and other diet restrictions. Or at least, in today’s buzz of the all-natural and plant-based, this reality is food for thought.
Better than simply thinking about food, though, is eating it, which is where Bloom caramel comes into this picture. An organic, dairy- and gluten-free, vegan caramel sauce, Bloom caramel contains exactly five easy-to-pronounce ingredients: pure cane sugar, coconut milk, vanilla, salt, and spices. Currently, you can find it in vanilla, salted, cardamom, ancho chili, matcha, salted coffee crackle, chili cinnamon, and even stout beer flavors.
The sweet concoction is the brainchild of Chris Bailey, a Portland chef and food entrepreneur. With a background in food research and product development at the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University, Bailey was familiar with the process of launching edible endeavors and had previously created a line of vegan, gluten- and dairy-free soup starters. The leap to caramel, borne from the same principles, hit a sweet spot.
“For me the root came from the desire to offer options that serve the vegan/vegetarian community,” Bailey says. “I think it’s important to have a vegan-friendly, lactose-free caramel alternative.”
Coconut might not be the first ingredient to pop to mind when thinking of caramel. Yet there’s no denying that coconut’s star is rising on the buzzy health and wellness scene, and Bailey spotted a perfect time and environment to launch his vegan caramel recipe.
“We see [coconut] being utilized more, whether it’s coconut milk, coconut oil, coconut water, so having primarily coconut-based caramel fits that growing awareness of coconut and also alternative milks.”
That said, don’t be fooled into thinking you have to say farewell to any of the sugary goodness of traditional caramel in order to make it vegan. Just the opposite, in fact.
“With products like Bloom, I don’t consider [it] a substitute,” Bailey explains. “I mentioned ‘alternative’ — this is something that people who aren’t vegans can enjoy, too, because there’s such a different flavor profile to it. It’s just as satisfying as a traditional cream- or butter-based caramel.”
“The name Bloom was meant to evoke [a] healthy, alive feel, something always growing and buzzing to it.”
In addition to the vegan, non-dairy factor, a key aspect that sets Bloom apart is the actual making of the caramel. Bloom is clearly a labor of love of its creators, and its production speaks to the attention and conscientiousness of the philosophy behind the brand. Every jar is handcrafted in Portland, Oregon, produced on a limited scale in roughly 30-gallon kettles in the Bloom test kitchens — which may seem large but is practically home baking compared to the massive mechanized production of most mainstream brands. That personalized approach and care is at the heart of the Bloom identity.
“Right now it’s still a very small-batch, localized process,” Bailey says. “We have more control [and] quality assurance — we see what’s going in, we taste every batch here in North Portland. We’re actively overseeing the process [so] we have control over the ingredients that go into it and make sure everything is as consistent as possible every step of the way.”
Let’s not forget, the ingredients are the key to a product — at least, if you care about that sort of thing (which Bloom clearly does). The recipe seems almost laughably simple, which is exactly the beauty of it. They slowly caramelize pure cane sugar, then add in coconut milk, double-fold vanilla extract, a hint of sea salt, and organic spices. Voilà: creamy caramel goodness. On top of that, almost all of the ingredients are local, sourced from suppliers in and around Portland and the Pacific Northwest region. Circling back to the authentic and hands-on core of the Bloom character, the caramel is very much a product of and linked to the community it originated in, to which Bailey gives a generous slice of credit for its quality.
“The Portland community is really thoughtful and educated around food,” he says. “I think it speaks to the landscape [and] access to good food. Portland is nestled right by the Willamette Valley and these verdant growing regions, so it really starts from the ground up — you have these farmers and a robust presence of accessible fruits and vegetables, which leads to these handmade items. It’s part of a bigger landscape of just good products. From there it encourages more craft artisans who all share a similar value system of [considering] what goes into their products and what they’re making.”
In other words, every step of the way, the caramel is laced with a purity and care rather unique in today’s manufacturing scene. That might seem like a lot of hoopla for a sugar sauce, but it makes for one darn delicious outcome. And in Bailey’s view, this is what truly makes Bloom stand out.
“I think the depth of flavor we get really speaks to the ingredients we use: pure coconut milk, organic cane sugar, double vanilla and Oregon sea salt — the sea salt really makes a difference, too.”
Which brings us to a very crucial point: what does this stuff actually taste like? Sure, we all know what caramel tastes like, but coconut caramel? (Also, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a world of difference between true caramel and caramel-flavored). Despite the recent craze around everything coconut — milk, oil, butter — it can be a somewhat polarizing flavor. Not everyone wants his or her coffee to taste like an Almond Joy or piña colada (spoiler alert: it won’t).
“I think people are surprised by the flavor of the caramel. They think of coconut, and they think it’s going to have that artificial suntan-lotion-y flavor; they appreciate the deep, more nuanced flavor,” Bailey says. “We have a steady vegan community here that’s only growing, but even in the non-vegan community [the feedback] is really positive.”
I don’t pretend to be a food expert (though I am a self-professed caramel-aholic and have a near-infamous sweet tooth). And in the interest of full disclosure, Bailey did send me free “samples” of Bloom caramel — which turned out to be full-size jars of each flavor. Let’s just say the first two jars were half-empty within two days. There is a slight hint of flavor different from typical caramel, but it’s not overtly coconut-y (and certainly not essence of sunscreen). The taste has a lusciously smooth, rich, almost buttery note, followed by a spike of spice depending on the flavor — salted and cardamom are my favorites so far. Best of all, there’s none of that sickly sweet fake taste you get with many caramel-flavored sauces and syrups. And considering that the vanilla caramel won a Good Food Award this month, I’m clearly not the only one hooked on Bloom. If you’re not sure how to use it, Bailey has a few suggestions: in coffee, for dipping, as an ice cream or other dessert topping. Or take a page from my book and just eat it with a spoon from the jar (I highly recommend).
Now that your mouth is presumably watering, how do you get some? Though currently mostly centered in the Pacific Northwest, Bloom’s reach is expanding, and the sauce can also be found in specialty food stores from Atlanta, Georgia, to the greater DC area to Brooklyn, New York, and even Vancouver and Ontario, Canada. A list of stores where it’s available will also soon be posted on the Bloom website, and it can be ordered online. And Bailey doesn’t see an end to the Bloom story anytime soon, with plans for more flavors in the works, as well as a line of syrups perfect for coffee. The company is even exploring a maple caramel made with maple sugar, following requests from outlets in Canada (I’m keeping an eye out for this one — maple is my jam).
“There’s a big coffee culture here [so it’s about] getting more of the product in [café] hands and seeing how they can use it,” Bailey says. “There are a lot of cheap substitutes to caramel, so we’re never going to compete against the $2.99 Smucker’s caramel that’s loaded with substitutes — nor do we want to. [We’re trying to] make people aware of the capability of how far caramel can go.”
If this caramel is anything to go by, that’s pretty far. Whether you’re vegan or dairy-free or not, you’d have to possess a completely AWOL sweet tooth (and/or dead taste buds) to not enjoy this crave-worthy sugary concoction. But don’t take my word for it — there’s enough caramel to go around. And though it’s certainly a sweet treat, you can rest easy knowing there’s nothing artificial or funky in it. That kind of gives it a freebie pass, right? According to Bailey, the Bloom philosophy is all about authenticity and life, which is something we can all get behind — especially when it’s a caramel-icious sweet life.
“The name Bloom was meant to evoke [a] healthy, alive feel, something always growing and buzzing to it.”
Let me just preface this by admitting that I am a diehard candy lover. I beeline for pure chocolate, not cookies and pastries. However, there’s an art to the perfect French macaron that’s impossible to resist. Delicately crispy and sugary with a soft, slightly chewy delectable center — what’s not to love?
Let’s also get this out of the way right off the bat: we’re not talking about macaroons here. Not the chewy coconut cookies typically found in the U.S. French macarons are delicate sandwich cookies made with almond flour, egg whites, and sugar and filled with various fillings. (Curious to give it a shot yourself? Check out this recipe.)
As far as I can remember, the first macaron I tasted came from the famed Ladurée (the queen of macarons) in Paris. These little cookies are notoriously difficult to make — delicate and requiring a precise technique — and they’re not extremely common in the U.S. I made a batch for French class once, which turned out quite tasty (if I do say so myself) but, unsurprisingly, not nearly as pretty as those at Ladurée. All this said, I couldn’t help wondering: where can one find the best macarons in Kansas City? Can KC’s baking best compete with Paris’s patisseries? Since I’m obsessed with all things French (if you don’t know this yet, it’ll become obvious very quickly) and love research that requires sugary material, a KC macaron quest was clearly in order.
I sought out all the macarons I could find in KC (not counting frozen or pre-made varieties, of course) and came up with six contenders. For the general good, obviously, I rigorously tested all the possibilities. The results? Read on to find out.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the “part I” in the title — stay tuned. Let’s just say part 2 might involve questing for macarons in the true macaron Mecca: the City of Lights …)
*Ranked #6 to #1 — though I should note that all are perfectly tasty options if you’re looking to satisfy your sweet tooth (it’s hard to go truly wrong with macarons, after all)*
A sweet-tooth staple in Kansas City, it’s hard to find anything this Swiss confectionery doesn’t do well. That said, I (shockingly) wasn’t blown away by their macarons. The flavors here go the classic route — chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, lemon, strawberry. The cookies themselves were tasty, but they were a little too crunchy, not delicate as a masterful macaron should be, and there was a little too much filling. While I was looking for a pillowy, gently sweet interior, the filling in André’s macarons was almost custardy. If you’re craving a mouthwatering chocolate cake or quiche, André’s has you covered; for macarons, I would go elsewhere.
If you’re looking for candy heaven, look no further than Lolli & Pops. This mint green wonderland is stuffed with every type of candy you could imagine. While I would consider it more of a candy store than a bakery, they do have macarons also, which I obviously had to try. These get the award for prettiest (or at least most colorful) macarons — the glass case is lined with rows of swirling blues, vibrant pinks, sprinkles, glitter, you name it. They also get points for inventive flavors, including s’mores, blueberry French toast, strawberry cheesecake, chocolate hazelnut, lychee raspberry rose, cotton candy, and more. When it comes to macarons, though, their candy focus shows through. I tried the s’mores and chocolate hazelnut, both of which were quite tasty — just not very macaron-y. They weren’t delicate as a macaron should be, and the fillings were more like a candy bar than the light, sugary taste of a macaron. Bottom line: Lolli & Pops knows its candy, but perfect macarons aren’t candy.
Since Our Daily Nada (where I work) sells Bloom cakes and macarons, I can vouch for the artistry of this bakery. For this search, though, I went straight to the source. With flavors such as crème brûlée, white chocolate raspberry, vanilla, chocolate, pistachio, and salted caramel, Bloom toes the line between classic and creative. The tastes certainly don’t disappoint, flavorful yet subtle. However, the cookies themselves were too chewy, almost hard, not the feathery sweet and lightly chewy of a top-notch macaron. Overall, a good option (it’s not as if I didn’t eat them all, of course!), but not the award for best macarons in Kansas City.
I know, I know — Whole Foods is heaven for overpriced granola-crunchy yummies, but fine pastries? Hear me out. I wouldn’t have expected WF to hold a candle to other bakeries in the macaron department, but these cookies were actually what launched my KC macaron quest in the first place. Like I said, I’m usually more of a chocolate than a cookie person, and I hadn’t had a macaron in years when I bought a couple on a whim at Whole Foods recently. But seriously, these macarons are delicious — nay, scrumptious. Daintily crispy outside, pillowy and chewy inside, with just the right amount of sugary filling. They’re not overwhelmingly sweet or rich, but the flavors are noticeable (and yummy). With pistachio, salted caramel, chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, and red velvet flavors, the red velvet with cream cheese icing — though not a traditional macaron flavor — was my favorite. Talk about the perfect end to your next grocery trip.
If you want to feel like you’ve stepped into a French country village, head to Annedore’s. Nestled in a quaint cluster of shops in Westwood Hills, this charming confectionery deals in exquisite chocolates, gelato, and of course, delectable macarons. I had heard rave reviews about these cookies, and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only are they beautiful, they’re also the perfect amount of subtle sweetness. Even better, you can actually taste the flavors — the pistachio truly tastes like pistachios, the coffee like coffee, and so on — rather than simple sugary-ness. With chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, lemon, raspberry, caramel, lavender, coffee, champagne, cookies & cream, and birthday cake varieties, the caramel and pistachio led the pack, in my humble opinion. The only downside: they were a tad too chewy, not quite melt-in-your-mouth delicate. That said, they were still delicious and some of the best macarons I’ve ever tasted.
And the grand winner! Au Bon Macaron is a bit like the magical (macaron) rainfall. Or pot of gold? Anyway, chef Barbara Shaw is serious about her macarons. First of all, they come in about every flavor you could ever think of — over 50 varieties, from traditional vanilla and pistachio to inventive options like sesame praline, banoffee, mint chocolate chip, strawberry hibiscus, bourbon pecan, and lavender honey. You get the idea. Second of all, they’re insanely delicious. Though the lavender honey reminded me a bit of soap, the toffee nut was caramelly and delicious, crisp on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, with bits of toffee crunch in the middle. Because two definitely wasn’t enough, I also tried the maple bourbon caramel, peanut butter, and sesame praline. All were melt-in-your-mouth delicate and scrumptious. The maple bourbon took the cake (er, cookie), though — with a gooey center, subtle caramel taste, and festive confetti stars (full disclosure: it got a little squished on the way home, but that didn’t make it any less delicious!). Au Bon doesn’t have a storefront, though you can order online; I found them at Banksia bakehouse in downtown KC and Made in KC marketplace on the Country Club Plaza. For both flawlessly constructed macarons and creative flavors, Au Bon Macaron comes out on top in Kansas City’s macaron arena. Consider your macaron dreams fulfilled.