There never is a time when sweets are not popular (we're hard-wired to like it: Babies smile when tasting sugar for the first time). But today, even in this age that exalts the scarily transparent size-zero starlet, new temples have been erected where you can worship the apotheosis of the confectioner's art: miniature cakes decorated with swirls of dense, rich frosting; cups of absurdly creamy hot chocolate frothed as carefully as a double cappuccino; farmhouse pies designed to seduce the most jaded city-dweller.
The current cupcake craze started, as many food trends do, on the East Coast: The long lines for the airy pastel-swirled cupcakes at Greenwich Village's Magnolia Bakery were initially engendered when the girls of Sex and the City patronized the place, and they've continued through more recent media shout-outs such as Andy Samberg's SNL "Lazy Sunday" video. Nora Ephron thinks the fad is because of portion control: You want cake, but a cupcake, no matter how lush, reassures you that your indulgence is limited. At Kara's Cupcakes, which may be San Francisco's only emporium devoted solely to the treat (even the famed Magnolia turns out full-scale layer cakes), you can even scale down to mini cupcakes, tiny versions of Kara's full-sized beauties, that can be dispatched in a few bites. The mini cupcakes usually require 24-hour advance notice, but casual visitors to the place might stumble upon a few leftover from a big order, as we did, enabling us to sample many of Kara's 14 flavors.
You could expect a cupcake bakery to be homey and frilly, but Kara's is sleek and modern, setting out its chic-ly decorated wares like jewels in their glass cases. Kara's proudly states that all its cupcakes are made from scratch daily, using locally sourced ingredients, many of which are organic. A list printed in Kara's menu includes South San Francisco's Giusto's Organic Flour, Petaluma's Clover Dairy, and local fruits and vegetables from the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. This may soothe any lingering guilt feelings about your indulgence, which will be inflamed not just by the sight of the glamorous little cakes, but also by their names and descriptions. Who can resist "Buttery Buttermilk Vanilla," which is a "vanilla cupcake with a Madagascar bourbon vanilla buttercream" or the "banana cupcake with a silky soft cream cheese frosting"? Our own favorite, the "Fleur de Sel," is one of Kara's four filled cupcakes, which adds a caramel filling to a chocolate cupcake swirled with dense ganache and sprinkled with a few crunchy salt grains.
Another local spot devoted to sweetening your day is the Bittersweet Cafe, which offers more than half a dozen variations on hot chocolate, including a non-dairy version, the Bittersweet, which is not only the place's namesake but also proudly tops the list (some feel that milk and cream, while adding a lovely mouth-feel, obscure the chocolate flavor). Others include the milky Classic; the intriguing Spicy, flavored with cinnamon and rose and heated with pepper; and the exotic White Chocolate Dream, made with Venezuelan white chocolate and scented with cardamom. If a steaming cup of chocolate doesn't seem to suit the weather (even during San Fran's notoriously foggy summers, a day will arrive that melts the sidewalks), there's the refreshing Chocolate Chai Iced Tea, as well as chocolate milk. (And there are coffee drinks, too.) Atop the long counter are rows of assorted candies, cookies, and pastries, largely though not entirely chocolate-themed, including truffles, brownie bites, pear chocolate ginger muffins, and chocolate nip scones. One long wall of the deep storefront is lined with an amazing array of chocolate bars, more than 120 sourced from dozens of countries. Bittersweet offers no savory foods, but they are not at all averse to your bringing in a sandwich to wash down with a cup of chocolate at one of their cozy, cottagey wooden tables.
Bakesale Betty got her name from the tables covered with flaky apricot-almond and pear-ginger scones, plump oatmeal-raisin cookies, and sticky date pudding packaged with yummy caramel sauce that sold out regularly when she set them up at local farmers' markets and flea markets. Her loyal regulars flocked to the Temescal district in Oakland where she opened her eponymous shop, where she's gradually added new items, both sweet and savory, to her initial list of hits. There are daily lines out the door for the fried chicken sandwich, which can be seen as it's assembled behind the glass wall of the open kitchen: A long French roll is sliced and stacked with tart, crunchy coleslaw and a large fried boneless breast. The popularity of the sandwich alone accounts for the forest of black wooden stools that surrounds the corner store, stretching up and down the sidewalk: Three dozen were counted on a recent visit, when the outside walls were also lined with stacks of empty boxes that recently held ripe strawberries. The brilliant berries now adorned beautiful individual strawberry shortcakes, baking-powder biscuits with a lightly sugared crust sided with a drift of real whipped cream. The Australian-born, bright-blue-wigged Betty honors her farmers' market roots with such seasonal treats as a beautiful fresh apricot two-crust pie the rarely seen two-crust pie should be put on an endangered-species list available by the slice or in its glorious entirety. Betty also puts her buttery crust to good use adorning an old-fashioned chicken pie, which serves several (individual pies must be special-ordered). At first glance there might not appear to be all that much to choose from at Betty's: two or three kinds of scones, six different cookies, two brownies, banana bread, a pie or two, from a rotating list of many more varieties. But each item is brilliantly conceived, carefully concocted, and a perfect example of its kind, not unlike the cupcakes at Kara's and the hot chocolate at Bittersweet: the best of their class.