Sift Gluten-Free Bakery in Nokomis, Minneapolis

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

We love gluten, just to let you know where we stand. But we felt that if we turned this review over to the gluten-free beat, such as it is, that we’d be giving Sift (4557 Bloomington Ave S, Minneapolis) short shrift.

We will however give short shrift to the controversy, such as it is, surrounding the steady rise (get it?) of gluten free. Yes, celiac disease is real, and it is miserable. Yes, there are charlatans who will tell you that everything can be cured by eliminating gluten from your diet. Enough said about that.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

On to the baked treats that we picked up just as the sun was rising this past Saturday morning. Sift is a delightful and welcoming space, with a display case filled with an astonishing variety of muffins, bars, brownies, cookies, doughnuts, cakes, scones, and little tiny quiches. The beaming, smiling face that greeted us turned out to be that of Molly Miller, owner of Sift. She was visibly thrilled to be there and was more than happy to share with us her journey from longtime hobbyist baker to semi-pro farmers market vendor to professional baker with her own brand-new shop.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Her enthusiasm is well warranted. Our favorite item was the Ham and Cheese Quiche Bite ($2.50). The crust was chewy and buttery, and perhaps a little corny. The egg filling was creamy and shot through with pockets of melted cheese and bits of smoky ham. Our only gripe was the silver-dollar size. We could have eaten an entire full-sized quiche. On the other hand, if it were bigger, we’d have missed out on the lovely crust in each bite. I guess they know what they’re doing: These things are seriously craveable.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

The Spiced Pear Coffee Cake ($3.50) was delightful. Airy, and rich with cinnamon and cardamom, it had a moist, fluffy crumb and a lovely aroma. For lack of wheat flour, it was missing nothing. We’ve had sweeter coffee cakes, but this one, with its spiced pear, had a sophisticated element that we’ll definitely return for.

The Berliner Bun at Aki’s BreadHaus

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

American sweet baked goods tend toward the garbagey side of things. Cookies, doughnuts, pie, you name it — if it’s made commercially but meant to feel homemade, it’s generally going to be a one-note, sugary slab of sugary sugar. (Commercial stuff that’s meant to feel commercial — and here we mean things like Oreos, Mint Milanos, Nilla Wafers, and so forth — can often be absolutely excellent, but on their own weird terms.)

The problem is this: Sugar is cheap, and it’s addictive, and it blasts so hard that it covers up textural imperfections and cheap, artificial flavors. You would hope that independent bakeries would figure out this problem and move past it, but not all have. Many are mired in a 1980s malaise, throwing bags of white powder at problems that should be solved with butter, real fruit, good chocolate, and the application of time and talent.

WACSO / Heavy Table
WACSO / Heavy Table

Times change, and these days they’re changing for the better. Aki’s BreadHaus in Northeast Minneapolis is among the forefront of area bakeries that bring a sensible European approach to baking desserts, reining in sugar so that it can be a harmonious supporting player, not a cracked-out, guitar-smashing diva. Case in point, Aki’s Berliner Bun ($1.50), which feels much like a bread roll that has made a passionate leap toward becoming a jelly doughnut. The roll is rich, soft, and tender, the jelly is legitimately fruity and sparingly piped, and while the exterior is sprinkled in sugar, the overall experience of eating a Berliner Bun is the enjoyment of a cheerful balance between sweet and savory and tart. The sugary outside is more than counterbalanced by the sheer volume of the rich, yeasty, barely sweet interior.

We’ve picked up on this welcome turn toward subtlely sweet baked goods at other places with a European bent in the area — Swedish Crown Bakery, Fika at the American Swedish Institute, Patrick’s, and the French-inflected Patisserie 46, among them. Savory Bake House also deserves a shout. Their products use sugar judiciously, leaning on good baking technique and quality ingredients to create balanced treats.

The truth of the matter is this: The Europeans have us dead to rights on the question of sugar in baked goods. Too much sugar is like too much of anything else — spicy heat, or fat, or salt, for example — it blasts the palate and destroys other things you might want to taste, such as buttery pastry or natural fruit. Culturally, America has a long way to go before it get to baked-goods nirvana, but at least locally we’re on our way.

Aki’s BreadHaus, 2506 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis; 612.578.7897