An exploration of New York through cake

New York, a foodie city and mecca like no other, fuelled by coffee and overrun with numerous opportunities to indulge in sugar filled, buttercream topped cakes, cupcakes, muffins at every corner.  You’ll find a cornucopia of cuisines and fusion foods imaginable to cater to every type of palate.  As a vegetarian with a ‘difficult’ diet, it’s the only place I’ve visited where I’ve been spoilt for choice when eating out, the number of vegetarian and vegan restaurant too many to sample in one visit.

My latest NY visit however had a sweet focus; my quest to search out the ‘alternative’ baking scene, by which I mean baking for those with ‘free-from’ diets including vegan and gluten free.

Could Manhattan satisfy my sweet tooth and provide those with a ‘persnickety’ diet a delicious, diverse selection of sweet treats?

If anywhere can, America (and New York especially) can; this is the city where food trends start and where no barrista worth their salt would bat an eyelid when ordering a ‘short, double shot dry soy cappuccino’!

To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult a mission, searching out little independent, quirky cafes and bakeries specialising and catering for special diets. It certainly wasn’t too challenging sampling tasty bakes in the name of research.  New York is the home to such a diverse mix of people, cultures and quirky diets and regimes.  They might take a bit of finding, away from the well-worn tourist tracks, but that’s half the fun when exploring a city and makes it all the more rewarding when you find them.  Just make sure you have a map with you.

I was very pleasantly surprised by not only the range of places and choice, but the quality of the cakes, biscuits (sorry ‘cookies’), cupcakes, muffins and treats.  They were generally as appealing looking as any ‘regular’ option.  You needn’t feel like you’re missing out. As a keen baker and experimenter of vegan and gluten free recipes, I’m always keen to see what is out there and to try new things.  In the UK they can often be hard to come by, and then unappealing with limited choice.

My first stop on this baking discovery was a café/bakery I’ve now visited a few times.  Tucked down a little street in Lower East Side, you’ll find a little pink café with hardly any room for eating in, just a few bar stools.  Formerly ‘Babycakes’, it is now known as Erin Mc Kenna’s bakery after the founder.  They specialise in wheat, dairy, egg, soya free products with no refined sugar.  Their goal was to focus on the underserved people, especially allergic kids, those often unable to indulge and to make eating vegan and gluten free delicious.  They have two rules: 1) to be free from harmful ingredients 2) to have cute uniforms!  They are all natural, organic alternatives and sweetness comes mostly from agave nectar (used sparingly).  Gluten free flours include brown rice and spelt and coconut and canola oils replace animal fats.

Cupcakes are their main thing and I especially like the more unusual flavour combinations and seasonal specials such as carrot cake base with cinnamon icing and pumpkin cake with French toast flavour icing.  For non-cupcake fans there are little loaf cakes and the cookies are chewy melt in the mouth or the cookie sandwiches combining the best bits of cookie and buttercream filling! There is an accompanying bakery cookbook so if you feel inspired and can source the alternative ingredients used you can try and replicate at home.

My second suggestion is also to be found in Lower East Side, the hip, alternative district, with its diverse cultural mix of residents as a result of the many immigrant groups who settled there over many years. It came as a recommendation from a (vegan) New York foodie who lead us on a food related walking tours when I asked him for tips of places to try.  Tu-lus bakery  is another little shop on a leafy street.  Set up in 2010 by a keen foodie and cook who after a diagnosis of gluten intolerance was disappointed at the quality and availability of sweet treats available to buy and turned her hand to create wheat free baked goods to replicate regular alternatives.  There’s a selection of cookies, cupcakes and brownies that everyone can enjoy however I visited in the afternoon and was faced with a rather limited selection which I guess is a positive indictment of their popularity.  According to the menu, I could have sampled dairy-free, vegan cupcakes (however chose the wrong day for those) and the other dairy free options had gone.  I wasn’t disappointed however by the Raspberry Almond Crumble muffin topped with crunchy sugar coated almonds.  The texture didn’t divulge the fact it was gluten free, not at all drying or dense. Sometimes having less choice is easier!

tu-lu's gluten-Free Bakery

Talking of choice, ‘Vegan Divas’ had the biggest selection of vegan baked items and desserts I’d ever seen and products you wouldn’t normally associate with being dairy or egg free, everything from cheesecake, frozen yoghurt, doughnuts, gluten-free, vegan chocolate mousse and a daily special savoury quiche.  We travelled North, to the desirable neighbourhood of Upper East Side in the roads surrounding Central Park to their ‘boutique’ (their description not mine) to yet another small space with very little space to eat in.  Their ethos is to satisfy your tastebuds and to provide tasty alternatives for people who avoid dairy, eggs, and some recipes are gluten-free.

All this walking miles and miles was just as well to burn off all these extra calories. Vegan Divas however also prides itself on its products being low-cholesterol, low calories, high fibre and organic but ‘always delicious’ and there are nut free options too. You can therefore feel healthy and virtuous while indulging.  I stayed on the cake theme and bought a soft, light-as-air Apple Muffin with only 150 calories!  I was really impressed with the texture given the egg had been replaces and that it was such a low-fat and low-cal bake.


My next suggestion was literally stumbled upon during a walking tour through the studenty, leafy, university district of Greenwich Village.  ‘Sweets by Chloe’ was a very welcome discovery and one I would definitely revisit. It occupies the shop next door to the ‘Eat by Chloe’ café restaurant serving brunch and lunch options.   This is a cutesy, pink and chrome, light, bright café and 1950s kitsch.  If there weren’t neon signs up exclaiming the menu is 100% plant based, vegan and kosher, you honestly wouldn’t know, but in their words, ‘you’d better believe it!’  Everything is freshly baked in-house daily and this was vegan heaven!  Towering, brightly iced three tiered cakes looked so appealing behind the glass counter, as did the ginormous squidgy lemon squares, deep filled pies and huge cinnamon buns.   A cupcake was deemed the most easily transportable.  Whilst the ‘chlostess cupcake’ may be their signature bake, I settled for another quintessentially American classic, ‘peanut butter and jelly’.  With so little space to sit inside, and too chilly to sit outside at the picnic tables, I left clutching my pink and white paper bag with carefully boxed up cupcake inside. New Yorkers love their dogs and By Chloe is possibly the only place I’ve come across that caters for those pampered vegan pooches (Chihuahuas and similar) by offering ‘pupcakes’ (organic, whole oat K9 cupcakes) or a bag of dog bones (peanut butter variety naturally). I kid you not!

Just in case you’ve room for one more stop and if you need something savoury to counteract all the (natural) sugar, may I offer a vegetarian kitchen and bakery Peacefood Cafe (there are two locations in the city) which is a great stop for lunch or dinner and they also happen to serve some great desserts and cakes and all are egg and dairy free.  Permanent menu options include cookies, brownies, banana bread, carrot cake, strawberry shortcake (one of my favourites) and ‘cheesecakes’ (the peanut butter cheesecake is another recommendation) and also raw pies.

Prices at these cafes and cakeries are not cheap; expect to pay between $3-4 for a cupcake.  This is Manhattan and a regular, vanilla cupcake at tourist favourite Magnolia Bakery would be equally as expensive.  I did however feel that Erin McKenna’s cupcakes, as delicious as they are, with some interesting flavour combinations, are cheekily over priced at $5, possibly trading on the name. My tip is to buy the ‘day old’ heavily discounted leftovers if available.  They don’t taste at all stale and are half the price.  Needless to say they sell quickly!

I hope you enjoy some of these suggestions and enjoy eating your way around Manhattan as I have.

Ellen Tweney

A keen experimental baker and wordsmith with a passion for travel who loves combining all three.

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