This past June, in the same week that The Heavy Table made its way through 14 Minnesota- and Wisconsin-made pies, the folks at Serious Eats in New York took on an even bigger challenge. The team visited a New Jersey Cheesecake Factory and tried every flavor of cheesecake on the menu. That’s 33 flavors, if you’re counting. Impressed rather than disgusted, we asked ourselves, What would be the Twin Cities equivalent of such a feat? The conclusion: We’d try every dessert at St. Paul staple Cafe Latté.
Why Cafe Latté? Though the Grand Avenue institution boasts an extensive menu of sandwiches, salads, soups, and pizzas, it’s best known for its rich, toothsome, and generously proportioned cakes. In particular, its turtle cake has a devoted following and attention from the Food Network. (You can find the recipe on the Food Network website as well as Cafe Latté’s site.) But as we discovered during our feast, not every dessert is worthy of such lofty praise.
Budget and time limited our selection to $75 worth of treats (individual slices range from $4.50 to $5.50), but considering that we purchased nearly every cake, cheesecake, and tart in the bakery case on a recent Sunday, we think we got a more-than-representative sample of the sinful and sugary slices Cafe Latté offers. And with a pot of hot coffee at the ready, we dug in — tasting, debating, and, surprisingly, agreeing on almost every favorite.
Best Chocolate Dessert
We sampled four chocolate desserts — Cafe Latté’s famous turtle cake (above), the chocolate buttercream cake, the chocolate chocolate cake, and the chocolate cupcake — and came to the conclusion that all followed the same basic cake recipe. But the dark, cocoa-rich cake didn’t receive universal raves. We found that it was the topping and filling of each slice that ultimately made it a satisfying dessert.
The chocolate buttercream cake was the standout — the light, moderately sweet frosting was on par with the sugar level of the cake and added an appropriate amount of moisture to each bite. Though some felt the buttercream was a bit grainy, overall the cake was the most successful of the bunch. The turtle cake, on the other hand, was often cited as too sweet, depending on how much fudgy frosting and caramel sauce each taste tester got on his or her piece. Deemed a “good milk-and-cake cake” by one, the turtle also was called “unsatisfactory” by another — the same person who said the chocolate buttercream “satisfies the id.”
The chocolate cupcake was in the unfortunate position of being the last dessert sampled, but our raging sugar high couldn’t make us overlook the gritty icing. The chocolate chocolate cake “tastes like competent boxed-mix cake,” according to one, and rated “not interesting” by many.
Though not featuring the same chocolate cake base as the other four, a chocolate tres leches cake also came up for critique. While we appreciated the cake’s light texture, the chocolate flavor reminded us of Chocolate Nesquik, and the cake was cited as “forgettable” by several.
These cakes were labeled cheesecakes, but we didn’t think Cafe Latté was accurate in the description. All four cheesecakes we tried had a whipped filling that was much lighter than traditional cheesecakes, and the crust on most was barely existent. “It reminds me of [a cake] my mom makes with Cool Whip,” remarked one taster, and I assume the Serious Eats crew, if they ever dare to eat cheesecake again, would agree.
We started with the vanilla cheesecake, which had such a mild flavor that one person called it the “Taylor Swift of cheesecakes.” It desperately needed a strong graham crust but, alas, none was found. With the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake, we had the same issue with the texture but enjoyed the fresh berry flavor. The filling of the mango blueberry cheesecake was so light to be almost mousse-like. The mango flavor came through, but the blueberries were few and far between and the crust was non-existent.
Our favorite by a landslide was the pumpkin pecan cheesecake — it was the only sample with a significant crust, the flavor was well-balanced with the appropriate pumpkin-pie species, and the pecans added a nice crunch. While the filling still lacked heft, the overall flavor and similarity to a traditional pumpkin pie more than compensated.
Fresh Fruit Desserts
An Italian fruit tart, a peach strawberry cobbler, and a pear almond tart all found a place at our tasting table, and while no one dessert bowled us over, one certainly stood out as the worst of the three. The Italian fruit tart (above), featuring the familiar topping of strawberries, blackberries, and kiwi, garnered a collective thumbs-down from our crew. “It tastes like it was plastic-wrapped in a bodega,” one declared, while another, still smarting from our pie extravaganza, noted that “it’s like they outsourced it to Betty’s Pies.” Ouch.
The peach strawberry cobbler drew praise for the quantity of fruit, flaky crust and topping, and an effective sugar balance, but some found the consistency to be a bit mushy or jammy. We had high hopes for the pear almond tart and found that it might have been more successful if the added rum didn’t dominate the flavor. Like with the cobbler, the crust was the most favorably mentioned element of the dessert.
The Cafe Latté bakery case featured two fruit tortes that day, and while neither was outright panned, the lemon variety received the most accolades. The soft texture of the sponge cake wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but no one could argue with the fresh lemon flavor of the curd: “Very zingy and convincing!” and “Tangy and pleasant and smooth.” The curd in the raspberry torte, in comparison, tasted more syrupy and artificial, but truthfully, after tasting that lemon curd first, it would be hard to rate any other fruit filling as high.
Top Overall Picks
Our overall winner didn’t fall into any of these subcategories — the coffee cake stands alone. A toffee almond cake (above) was the only variety available that day, and the many happy smiles and enthusiastic yums it earned made it clear that this dessert was a standout. We loved the sweet crust, the nutty but not overwhelmingly almond-y flavor, and the moist crumb. Even the most ardent chocoholics at the table couldn’t dismiss its superiority. Practically tied for first was the pumpkin pecan cheesecake, with the lemon torte coming in third.
While the Serious Eats team may laugh at our considerably smaller endeavor, we left the table feeling jittery and full, but still eager for our next challenge. Thanksgiving, we’re looking at you next.