In Prospect of a Tiny Treat

12 Jan

I’m just going to put it on out there. I’m in love with Carytown, that amazing stretch of quirk in Richmond that extends for blocks to the west of city central. I love its jumbled blend of bistro, bookstore, coffee shop, thrift store, restaurant, theater, bicycle shop, tattoo studio, lingerie store, perfumerie, diner. Each little façade is unique and reflective of its wares.  It reminds me of the time before malls, the few slight memories I have of when shopping was accomplished from store to store connected by sidewalk in fresh air, sans piped in music and sunglass kiosks. Here in Lynchburg, well, take a look at Wyndhurst. Sigh. Can you say shiny package of factory façade cookie cutter boxes? Carytown’s colors and smells take me back to NYC, only in miniature. For someone who isn’t quite ready for a solo exploration of CITY, it’s the perfect size. Relatively easy navigation, public parking, and incredible variety make it a perfect spot for experiencing all sorts of items, cuisine, and interesting people.

This afternoon, I took a walking tour with Maureen Egan of Real Richmond Food Tours, two and a half hours of exploration into some of the variety of food on the palette of the Carytown scene.  We visited several bistros, bakeries, a butcher, and then traipsed over to the VMFA sculpture garden, accidentally running into the director of the VMFA, Alex Nyerges. Even in his jogging clothes, he stopped to chat with our small group and welcome us to Richmond, inviting us to visit the VMFA. That is a mark of a dedicated community servant, at least in my book.

All the places to which Maureen introduced us were unique and interesting, but Dixie Donuts and Carytown Cupcakes caught my heart right away. Specialty shops that play grownup with childhood comfort food are the epitome of creativity to me. Something simple and well loved is transformed into something amazingly unique and most times incredibly delicious. I remember as a child loving certain foods, and taking great pleasure in them, dishes my granny made that still mean “home” to me like angel biscuits, baked macaroni and cheese, jets (peanut butter balls coated in chocolate), and iced boiled custard. As adults, sometimes we barely remember how to relish food like children, unless we are fortunate enough to have them in our lives to re-teach us the abandon that comes with enjoying simple food.

Dixie Donuts is a 50’s retro gourmet bakery featuring some of the most unusual donuts I’ve ever seen. Maureen told us the owners took their concept from Federal Donuts in Philadelphia. They plan to stretch the menu out to Korean Chicken and frites, but honestly, after I saw the sheer variety they offer, I was impressed with just the single focus.  Upon entering we met the manager, Carol, resembling a vintage 50’s model in her kerchief and carmine lipstick.  The décor is right out of an old diner in theme with jadeite on the coffee counter and Atomic wallpaper. The donuts are baked fresh daily and aside from the regular vanilla chocolate iced, double chocolate iced, and sprinkle variety they feature donuts like: French Toast,  Butterscotch, Dulche de Leche, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Oreo, Aztec (chocolate chipotle cinnamon with candied pepitas), Maple Coffee, Samosa, and The Virginian (sweet potato with praline pecans). There was even a “Chihuly” in honor of the Chihuly art exhibit at the VMFA covered in glassy candy bits. I chose a Rockin Moroccan, a chocolate spice donut dusted with cinnamon powdered sugar, pistachio, and a yogurt raisin plopped into its dimpled center.  Peppery spice in the chocolate balanced its richness, but the donut itself was light, slightly crispy on the exterior and not terribly sweet the way most donuts and other bakery treats are in our sugar saturated culture.

Similarly, our visit to Carytown Cupcakes reflected the same philosophy of bake fresh daily and keep it simple, but creative. Those who know me can attest to my obsession with cupcakes. The three edible substances I will not live without are coffee (daily), wine (in moderation), and a cupcake (whenever “treat” is needed). Carytown Cupcakes is in a word adorable. . .it’s total pink Victorian valentine meets Barbie Dream house in its décor. The cupcakery’s expansive display case draws the eye to dozens of little rows of perfectly iced treasures, but the large plate glass window in the back allows patrons to actually watch the baking. Our group was invited toward the long counter to sample as many bites of the daily offerings as we desired. This is where the creativity takes off.

Remember those birthday party cupcakes we all had as kids? The blue iced, box flavored muffins we all thought were outrageously good? Carytown Cupcakes come in flavors I had never even contemplated: chocolate with salted caramel icing, s’mores, red velvet, raspberry lemon custard, Nutella, cranberry pistachio, snicker doodle, hummingbird with cream cheese icing, tiramisu, toffee chocolate, as well as the more simplistic devil’s food with vanilla buttercream. Some were topped with nuts, m&m’s, and even gummi worms. But the true stars were the apple filled, decorated to look like an apple top with yellow or red sprinkles and then the gluten free and vegan varieties which I had never experienced before.

The star of my show? Vegan Lavender Vanilla.  From the moment I put that bite in my mouth I was in complete curious rapture. The lavender is subtle, but enough to waft up into the nose when it’s eaten, like my great Aunt Gladys’ rum cake did when I was a child. The blend of scent and flavor is so different, so unexpected that it actually made me exclaim out loud, (eyes roll back in head, turn to the lady next to me) “Oh….my…god….you have GOT to try this.” And then I promptly took two more samples to study the flavor. Too much lavender and it would be like eating soap, not enough and it’s a slightly lavender colored vanilla cupcake. Upon first bite the lavender fresh edge goes right up the inside of the nose, from the throat up, and then the vanilla edge with a slight herbal touch on the tongue follows. The cake sweetness is buttery, not sugary and so it reminds me a tiny bit of a grainy Portuguese sweet bread in flavor, moist cornbread in texture. The icing isn’t overwhelming at all, that’s the real sweet hit. The balance is beautiful. And the sprig of fresh lavender on top, a nice visual touch. The cupcake clerk chatted with me a bit about it and she let me know they make a whole herbal line of cupcakes, some with lemon verbena, some with orange and rose water. I told her, “You should create a Turkish Delight.” Wouldn’t we Narnians love that?

Having these small treats brought to mind the way in which a tiny fancy sweet can brighten a dull day. Food culture seems to have forgotten that sometimes a little bit goes a long way. It doesn’t have to be enormous and gooey, like some of the desserts I see carried out in virtual troughs at chain restaurants. Sheer overload takes away the specialness of it. It’s a treat. That word means special, occasional, momentary joyfulness. That’s something I am learning a lot about these days, to enjoy the sweet spots of joy and to remember them in the dips and pauses. It must seem silly to contemplate a cupcake, but kids do it. Watch children that aren’t fed sweets as a regular rule. That perfect little stack of cake and fluffy sweet top will yield three to five minutes of sensory elation. It’s the joy of living in their faces. Next time I have a cupcake or a donut, I’ll be more mindful of that. Shouldn’t we all?

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