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.
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.