Why, oh why, is there no gluten-free red velvet cupcake to be had in this city? I mean, one I can buy. I mean, one that actually tastes like red velvet, with that delicious undercurrent of cocoa and bright red sheen?
Back to that in a moment.
A while back I toured a lovely group of people around NYC’s East Village and Lower East Side, stuffing our faces with gluten-free and (sometimes) vegan sweets from bakeries that have popped up to offer us glutinos the joy of a freshly baked pastry. I’ll soon be reviving this tour and writing a solo article about our “best of” treats at the varying establishments, but am too excited not to share my findings. This is part two, the second after my review of TuLu’s Bakery only a few blocks away.
The group consisted of 7 palates of a wide variety. I was the only solely gluten-and-dairy-free eater, which meant both that I had to trust my cohorts’ opinions when faced with dairy-full foods I couldn’t partake in, and that we had some interesting differences in opinion as to our preferences. Sometimes I’d be the only one who liked a certain pastry – my tastebuds have changed to appreciate certain flavors in a different way. My two sisters (Maggie and Jess) and cousin Amanda are generally allergy-free, but have had some experience with my allergy-restricted food habits and experiments, so they were able to give solid opinions as to what tasted “normal” and what was lacking to their unrestricted palates. My dear friend Erin brought her sister Allison, who is a chef/caterer in CT. Both brought incredible insights and expert opinions to the mix. Finally, Jessica’s friend Ken offered a big, hungry man’s opinion.
- 128 East 4th Street, btwn 1st and 2nd Ave.
- Phone: 212-614-9079
- Hours: 7am-11pm daily
- Average pastry $3
- Family feel
- Baking done on premise
Pinisi Bakery is my favorite amongst the gluten-free bakeries that polka-dot the East Village. Shamefully this is not due to the fact that their pastries are the best, though their rosemary brownie was quite exceptional. And until this crawl I had never been there, so it’s not for a sentimental attachment to an old neighborhood favorite.
My love for Pinisi comes from what they are, and what they don’t attempt to be.
Tucked away on 4th street between 1st and 2nd avenues, with a busily-painted window and flanked by two grey, non-descript other buildings, this isn’t a pastel-pink, cupcake-laden joint like TuLu’s or Babycakes. This is the grandmother, the abuela or avo or however you say grandmother in Italian, of bakeries.
The walls are painted a melancholy yellow, the brown wooden counter just fits your coffee or pastry in a manner that suggests it’s somewhat unimpressed that you’re there. The back of the room is dark and mysterious, just like the basement rec-rooms of my tios in Long Island, where espresso machines and bottle of cognac don’t get enough sleep.
But, my friends, the pastry case. The PASTRY case. You can tell these people know how to bake, or as my friends put it:
- Maggie: I like the feel of this place.
- Erin: Yeah, it’s got an old-world feeling to it. It’s not trying to be chic or modern. This is very like ‘we’re an awesome bakery’.
- Maggie: ‘Yay, come in!’
Pinisi is not strictly gluten-free. In fact, they only have a few GF offerings and a recent post-crawl drop-in (after my cupcake decorating class as Butterlane) left me with only one option – the flourless chocolate cake. My heart was set on that rosemary brownie, so I left treat-less. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy looking.
European classics like rich creamy cheesecakes and Italian cookies sit alongside cupcakes and fruit tarts. Each one looks like something a really talented relative would make with a recipe passed down through generations of migrating cultures.
I am in love with Pinisi because this is what I want my future to hold: a hodgepodge of classics that those of us with food sensitivities can enjoy alongside the rest of them. A friendly staff who insists upon knowing your name and insists upon you calling them by theirs. A place that sticks around long after trends have come and gone.
What my group did sample that day were the three gluten-free options: the epic rosemary brownie, the cocoa-less but stunning red-velvet cupcake, and the classic flourless chocolate cake.
Rosemary Brownie $3
- Made with rice flour
- Ridiculously dense
- Very rich
This was the clear winner in our group, the intense mix of both sweet and savory, and compared with our vegan brownie experience at TuLu’s Allison was happy to note that “this one is definitely a brownie”. The amount of rosemary we seemed to notice actually was determined more by the palate of the foodie than the brownie itself; those of us used to processed foods and sweets were a little less wowed by the rosemary factor than those who pick up every stupid subtlety in their food (um, me). We all enjoyed the flaky top crust, especially in contrast with the creaminess of the brownie that was rich and dense. It did have that grainy aftertaste, in thanks to the abundance of rice flour no doubt, but it didn’t bother anyone and actually contributed instead to the enjoyment of the classic texture.
Vegan Red Velvet Cupcake $3
- Red beet flour which is what gives it its color
- Tofu based frosting
We were all pretty wowed with the vibrant color of this cupcake, which we were informed was achieved with beat flour instead of food coloring. So our hats off to the baker for that. And we were blown away by the fluffy, creamy tofu-based frosting that got as close as possible to mimicking marshmallow. The cake didn’t crumble the way some had at TuLu’s, so we were impressed as we cut into this little red baby.
But, sadly, that’s where our excitement ended.
Now, red velvet is a hard puppy to make to begin with. A level of balance with cocoa has to be achieved in a cake that’s not too dense, and doesn’t taste sweet like a classic chocolate. So there is recognition of the difficulty in this. But the cupcake failed to impress, leaving no cocoa impression whatsoever and being far too dense.
I wouldn’t stop you from ordering a dozen simply for the frosting , though.
Oh, and this unfulfilled desire for the perfect gluten-free red velvet cupcake resulted in my making The Little Red Velvet Riding Hood Cupcake, which is the best cake recipe I’ve ever made and a killer version of this classic. It satisfied all the unrequited cocoa love we’d be missing from the crawl!
Flourless Chocolate Cake: $5
Hmm, there is not too much to report on this classic. Really, we said very little on it. We all agreed it was rather delicious, obviously densely packed with chocolate and some pretty little shavings on top, and easy to make gluten-free since the point is it’s flourless. But no one in our group seemed particularly wowed, and as I couldn’t try it because of the dairy-factor I don’t even have my two-cents to throw into the pot.
- Love the ambiance
- Would buy GF cookies here by the pound during the holidays for friends
- Rosemary brownie was the clear winner
- Recommend buying the tofu frosting by the gallon
- Buy a whole flourless chocolate cake to spruce up and share. Ooh, strawberries!