Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pittsburgh Chocolate: Gray Skies, Bright Walls, and Cupcakes

One morning last week, a friend and I walked into a cupcake bakery cleverly called Dozen in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. There were six flavors on display (ranging from "Vanilla Vanilla" to "Chocolate Covered Almond") in the long and narrow space painted the bright blue of child's playroom. I was greeted with a cheerfulness not often found on the East Coast (it's a ten-hour drive from NYC to western Pennsylvania), bought a pastel-frosted lemon cupcake called "The Emily," and was promptly offered a sample of German chocolate cake with a layer of coconut so fully coated in sugar that it could be described as candied. A few minutes later the owner, James Gray (already a favorite of the bloggers at Cupcakes Take the Cake), took a seat at the table next to us, leafed through a dog-eared Martha Stewart dessert book, and gave us the rundown on "the Pittsburgh of the Cupcake Guy." In James's view, the former steel town can't produce a decent bagel, but it gives farmers' sons and daughters a taste of the big city.

Despite my New York upbringing and my elitist tendencies, I like Pittsburgh. That's lucky, because I'm planning to spend the next three years of my life there, working on a master's degree in creative nonfiction and teaching writing to college kids. An hour after I left Dozen, I signed the lease on an apartment with walls that are just as bright as those surrounding the cupcakes (in various shades of blue, green, and even orange). I'll need the color to combat the gray skies during Pittsburgh's long winter, when the sunlight I usually thrive on is unavailable. I'm sure I'll also take refuge in the selection of chocolate that's on offer in the city.

An English professor introduced me to Pittsburgh's historic wholesale food district called the Strip (there are some hardcore foodies among the students and faculty in my program), where I found a shop called Mon Aimee Chocolat. The first sentence on Mon Aimee's website reads "Linger over a cup of Traditional Hot Chocolate, discuss chocolates from around the world, reminisce about your favorite confections from yesteryear, and savor wonderful domestic and imported chocolates." That sounds good to me. Proprietress Amy Rosenfield has been buying chocolate commercially for over ten years, and her inventory includes E. Guittard, El Rey, and Pralus. A shop called The Chocolate Moose (with branches in both Squirrel Hill and Shadyside) sells confections from the Moonstruck Chocolate Company for $2.50 a piece, and the saleslady told that "we've really upscaled the chocolate bars."

It may not get a lot of natural light, but a cacao tree lives at Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory year-round, and in the coming months the well-funded greenhouse will host a traveling exhibit called "The Amazing Chocolate Tree." And the city even has a second cupcake shop, called CoCo's. I've walked by a couple of times and even lingered in front of the counter once, but I haven't yet sampled the bite-sized cakes. I'm sure I'll have another chance soon--CoCo's is a fifteen-minute walk from my new apartment.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who knew Pittsburgh was so full of foody wonder?!


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