I’ve had some pretty weird projects to do for school; I’ve compiled a Top-Secret dossier of my adventures in sub-saharan Africa where I was betrayed by my tour-guide-turned-lover Laurent and killed by Somali pirates; I’ve prepared a 3 course meal in order to better understand the human digestive system; I’ve starred in a short film in which I play a jilted girlfriend who dies in a car accident and proceeds to haunt her guilt-ridden ex-boyfriend.
Never before, however, had I been assigned to eat cake for grades.
The goal was simple: eat cake at two different establishments, compare and contrast, leave with a better understanding of why a cake from Dufflet Pastries is five bucks and a dessert from Cluny Boulangerie is $8.00. I also may have stopped by Nadege on my quest for cake ($15.00) to see what all the fuss was about. I was not impressed, but that’s a story for another day.
Needless to say, I’m a little sick of sweets at the moment.
Le Fancy Shmancy Sweet Shop: Cluny Boulangerie
Kelly and I had just aced our mock interview (although we may have missed the point completely and mocked everyone, including ourselves…) and were on our way to Roselle for a celebratory treat. Alas it wasn’t meant to be because apparently Roselle is closed on Tuesdays… Who closes their shop on a Tuesday?!?!
Luckily Kelly is well-versed in the language of Toronto sweet shops and quickly suggested Cluny as an alternative. Delicious baked goods AND the chance to finally visit the distillery distict! Hooray!
We strolled through the cobblestone streets, my giddy enthusiasm hampered only by my winces of pain as I meditated on my decision to wear patent leather pumps, my only pair of professional-looking shoes, and a hand-me-down from my ex-boyfriend’s grandmother who most certainly wishes me ill. My musings were interrupted by our arrival and I gawked at the itty bitty cafe.
We had been whisked away to Paris. The soft lighting cast the room in a warm brass glow and the decorative tables lent a certain je ne sais quoi. Marble counters ran the length of the walls and a window behind the counter gave us a glimpse into the spacious kitchen beyond. The stainless steel espresso machine gleamed in the romantic lighting and I instantly felt at home. And, best of all, running the length of the counter was a brightly lit refrigerator housing dainty pastries, small cakes, tartlets, croissants of various shapes, sizes, and fillings, and sandwiches. Separated by yet another slab of marble and a sneeze guard, large macarons in pastel shades lay neatly in a box, their flavors proudly displayed on hand-written chalk signs. I don’t think I had ever been more ready for a pause cafe.
The whole effect was ruined, however, when the server opened her mouth and said “Hi there, how are you doing today?”
I had gotten so lost in the french-ness of it all that I fully expected the people who worked there to be French (and rude by proxy, because…well…French people).
I loved everything about this place: the copper cups hanging from the ceiling, patinas decaying in that Alsace-Lorraine paysanne style that the French prefer over polishing their copper; the beautiful tiled floor (I always get a kick out of hearing my heels tapping away on stone floors); the beautiful assortment of jams and preserves, cookies and packaged candies and chocolates for sale; and especially those gigantic pillars flanking the exit.
That last one was a joke. The pillars were hideous and if they hadn’t been supporting the entire building I would have bulldozed them already.
TASTING THE GOODS
Behold: the glory of the Cluny fridge.
Like a good French pastry shop, Cluny had a lovely assortment of their own takes on classic cakes and tarts. From eclairs to religieuse, they ran the gamut of flavors and colors. I’m a big fan of colorful tarts and that lime green cakey thing naturally caught my eye.
Nicknamed the “Key Lime My Way”, the server boxed up the small cake, charged me $7.50, a smile, offered me coffee, and sent us on our way:Despite the cuteness of the box, it was freaking impossible to open and I ripped the lid in my haste to get to the cakey goodness. Blue inked drawings of antique coffee pots, rolling pins and other baking paraphernalia decorated the off-white carton, and it was stamped on top with Cluny’s signature seal. We sat outside on their 12 seater terrace in surprisingly comfortable wrought iron chairs on a windy October afternoon. It was overcast and grey, but my brightly colored lime and coconut cake made my day a little sunnier:
Thick, luscious, and tart lime curd over a coconut, hazelnut, puffed rice shortbread crust, covered in a thin layer of hazardous-waste-green gelatin. The garnish was simple, a wedge of lime and the most perfect raspberry I’ve had past the month of July. Word of advice, don’t try to eat the little paper Cluny seal. It’s not edible.
The curd was absolutely divine: it wasn’t too sweet and tasted intensely of fresh, real lime while the crunchy crust offered texture and contrast so I actually got some use out of my teeth. Key lime pie is one of my favorite desserts and this little cake did not disappoint. Yes, I felt snobby and hoity-toity, but as a hoity-toity snob I was perfectly fine with this. I pretended to be french while eating my pastry (I also splurged on the most perfect Earl Grey macaron. Subtle hints of bergamot, not too sweet, I was in heaven) and Kelly pretended to understand me and we spent an altogether delightful afternoon in the Distillery.
What’s “Curd”?: Dufflet Pastries Exasperation
I’m not kidding, the young lady behind the counter at Dufflet actually asked me that.
Where Cluny was able to pull itself together and present a picture of competency, Dufflet was like the younger half-sibling who couldn’t seem to roll out of bed on time or find a decent shirt to wear (or at least one that wasn’t stained or smelling faintly of BO).
Walking into Dufflet was like walking into a dorm room: the walls were this awkward shade of light green that wasn’t quite Lime or Neon, but rather a pastel snot color. Posters hung haphazardly on the walls in unattractive clumps, reminiscent of cluttered band posters for concerts that already happened. A wooden barquette ran the length of the wall and the tables in the seating area fit maybe 20 cake-eaters at any given time plus an additional four pastry munchers at the bar in front of a large window overlooking Queen W.
The cakes…well, they looked like they were masked by a talented 12 year old. Heavy dabs of buttercream, dry and cracking frosting, cupcakes piled high with icing, all looking worn and tired behind a fridge door collecting condensation. Call me a snob but I was ready to leave right then and there. Unfortunately I was having little success finding a pastry shop with any sort of Coconut-Lime cake and Dufflet miraculously had exactly what I was looking for:
I asked the girl behind the counter if she had anything with lime and coconut but, being brand new, she had no clue. Calling over her coworker, she repeated my query and he pointed me towards this little cakelet (not a trademark Dufflet Cakelet TM). I then asked what it had inside and whether or not there was lime curd and was met with blank stares. Fighting the urge to sigh dramatically I got a list of ingredients and sat down. The little cake was plopped rather unceremoniously on a heavy ceramic plate–the kind that was wildly reminiscent of my days at summer camp–handed to me at the cash with nary a “bon appetit” and that was that.
The cake was simple: three layers of coconut sponge filled with lime mousse, and glazed with white chocolate in an assortment of shapes, colors and consistencies. I have to congratulate Dufflet for coming up with 3 different ways to top this itty bitty cake with white chocolate but I also have to deduct points for the garnish being the most interesting part.
This cake had no texture to speak of. It was mushy and soft and, although I am a big fan of mushy foods, I would appreciate a bit more contrast and consistency in my desserts. Each bite was a soft pillow of overly sweet coconut sponge and lime mousse that tasted like bottled lemon juice concentrate (which, incidentally, was the source of the lime flavor). Although there was real cream, eggs, wheat flour, and sugar in this dessert, there was also an assortment of unpronounceable modified ingredients, the origins of which are questionable at best.
On the bright side, the bathroom was very clean and smelled nice.
The Great Divide: Comparing the two
Lime and Coconut, a la Moi
Key lime pie is one of my favorite desserts and I think both shops could have utilized the traditional pie ingredients to better effect. For example, Cluny’s Key Lime My Way could have had graham cracker crumbs in the crust (and since they’re fancy maybe they could use home-made graham crackers made with locally sourced honey or something equally pricey). Dufflet, meanwhile, needed some crunch to make the little cake more interesting; perhaps some toasted coconut flakes as a garnish and a graham cracker galette underneath to give the dessert more structure. I also found that my taste buds got a little lost in the huge mound of key lime curd at Cluny. Since they used a raspberry as a garnish, perhaps add a layer of Ontario raspberry coulis for a contrasting flavor, tartness, and color. Otherwise that little raspberry on top is superfluous and a little lonely.
I liked the curd at Cluny and the coconut sponge at Dufflet so my cake incorporates the two. Three layers of white-rum-syrup soaked coconut sponge with key lime curd, frosted in coconut whipped cream:
And so, to Conclude:
It’s easy to say that Cluny is better than Dufflet; it uses fresh, real ingredients, more care is taken with each individual dessert, there is clearly a higher skill level involved, and the atmosphere of the shop is much more pleasant. But Cluny is a) in the Distillery district, a tourist trap, and b) a side-show to the Cluny Bistro, a ridiculously fancy restaurant that charges $15.00 for an appetizer and has a Sommelier on retainer. Dufflet, in comparison, is located in the heart of the Queen West fashion and design district. The demographic is completely different and they offer a different service. They have large, affordable, and tasty customized birthday/special occasion cakes that are made in a central kitchen in Etobicoke; this brick and mortar storefront probably isn’t making them that much money and it’s not their main focus.
Although as bakers we would like to be able to use natural ingredients at all cost, industrial grade baking doesn’t have that luxury; it’s too expensive and doesn’t keep. Although their storefront needs some work (a fresh coat of paint would do wonders…), Dufflet has created an excellent product line and a dedicated following. Their cakes are perfect for the busy parent who doesn’t have time to bake a cake for birthdays. They look homemade, and are tasty and affordable and don’t pretend to be anything they’re not.
I really appreciated the care and attention to detail in Cluny’s products. The flavors shine through, the chefs use fresh, top quality ingredients, and the atmosphere made me want to stay longer than the hour and a half we spent on their terrasse. Will I go back? Absolutely. Will it make my wallet cringe? Of course. Will I regret it?
(All photos taken by yours truly)