Sunday, December 19, 2010

Zingerman's Cafe: There's More Next Door

My friends and family know I am an inveterate baker. I count my KitchenAid standing mixer as one of the best purchases I've ever made in my life, I've been known to make cookies during finals to avoid stress and studying, and I have for years been tossing around the idea of making my own butter. However, sometimes you can't be bothered to make a cake from scratch, especially if you only want a slice. That's why it's both a blessing and a curse that I live only five minutes' walk from Zingerman's, the infamous deli/bakery/food empire that dominates Ann Arbor food culture.

This won't be a pro- or con-Zingerman's screed, mostly because those debates have been raging for years and I think they're boring. Zingerman's is here to stay, especially with the recent approval of its expansion, and focusing on the product is more interesting to me than analyzing its role in the A2 zeitgeist. As a baker, I feel pretty qualified to assess its pastries, especially I've sunk many, many dollars into them over the last two and a half years.

My verdict, overall, is mixed. I haven't eaten much of what's on the menu, and I seem to have amnesiac tendencies to the goods I've eaten and dislike, always reordering them and then remembering "Wait, I don't like this." Consider the chocolate cake (one irritating tendency of the cafe is to have cutesy names for their products, and I refuse to refer to a chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting as "Hunka Burnin' Love Chocolate Cake"). It looks amazing and each one clearly took a great deal of effort to create. And yet eating it makes me ill. It is just too much - not an excess of frosting, but an excess of degree. It falls, lumpen, into one's stomach, and the pleasure of eating chocolate frosting and chocolate cake disappears.

The raspberry buttermilk cake, to my mind, is tasty but nothing to write home about; I also think that they have skimp on the raspberries to save money. The frosting has a hint of pink but not nearly enough to make it raspberry-esque. Moreover, the cafe has recently raised its cake prices by a dollar while making the slices smaller. Unfair!

Now that I've established my crotchetiness, let me single out a few all-star items. First off: you can't go wrong with Zingerman's gelato. Each flavor that I've had has been delicious, from the standard chocolate, vanilla, and mint; to the more unusual John-Do-Ya (or gianduja, or chocolate hazelnut) and burnt sugar (like a lovely creme brulee); to the truly out there Pawpaw (a local Michigan fruit) and saffron (I could eat it by the gallon).

I'm not a pie lover but the pecan pie hits all the right textures: gooey, moist, studded with pecans with a tasty crust. And the Dirty Sheed: two shots of espresso, some vanilla syrup, and a dash of cream - is the perfect pick-me-up on a hot (or even cold) day. Mix it with a gelato and you're golden.

Perhaps no product frustrates me, and encapsulates my feelings towards Zingerman's, as the Over-the-Moon Pie. A variation on a whoopie pie, it sounds amazing in the abstract: some buttercream sandwiched by two palm-sized circles of chocolate cake covered in chocolate. Delicious, right? But depressingly one-note when you eat it: there's nothing you taste after ten seconds that you haven't tasted in the first two. It's good, but it's not great. Of course, the power of Zingerman's is so strong that I probably average one a week. Maybe one day I'll be surprised.


  1. Wow, my pancreas hurts just reading this.

  2. You start out talking about baking, but then reveal that your favorite thing is the ice cream?

    Why not just come out and say it? You think you're better than Zingerman's.

  3. I dunno if I think I'm better than Zing's. I think I'm better at some things than they are, but they clearly have me beat in a few ways. Definitely the gelato and some of the pies.

    I think my main point is that Zing's is overpriced (also not a very new point). If I'm paying $8 for a piece of cake, that shit better rock my world - and it doesn't. if they cut all their prices by $2-$3 I would have less of a problem. Plus, then the cheapest gelato size would be free. :)