New Yorkers are blessed with excellent baked goods year-round, but at the holidays the best patisseries and pie shops are even more overstuffed due to shopping for parties, hostess gifts and houseguests. Is it worth trekking to Gowanus for a salted caramel apple pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds? Oh yes. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is another rewarding destination this time of year, offering exceptional cannoli, biscotti and olive bread from the old-school Italian Madonia Brothers Bakery. And you've got to throw carb caution to the wind when you come across a Momofuku Milk Bar (five City locations—plus a seasonal spot at the Union Square Holiday Market—and counting), currently featuring apple blondie pie and cornflake peppermint cookies in addition to its usual cuckoo temptations. More traditional bundles of joy are found at Levain Bakery in Harlem and on the Upper West Side, where fresh-baked chocolate-chip walnut cookies are sure to bring kisses from any recipient, with or without mistletoe. Amy's Bread, with locations in the Chelsea Market, Hell's Kitchen and the West Village, is in the spirit of things with candy-cane cashew-butter toffee and mini gingerbread bundt cake. Then there's vegan specialist BabyCakes on the Lower East Side, whose fudgy Christmas cake balls won't make you miss butter for a second. Candy cane crunch is the December mini-cupcake flavor at Baked by Melissa, which has around a dozen locations from SoHo to JFK Airport for easy pickup. If you like your cupcakes colossal, try the burgeoning Magnolia Bakery, which features red velvet with whipped vanilla icing. Or deck your table with dazzling dark-chocolate bûche de Noël (aka Christmas log) from the magnifiqueMaison Kayser, rapidly rising to four Manhattan locations for good reason. At the risk of undergoing a virtual sugar rush, check out our slideshow for more details on other cherished neighborhood institutions, plus a few of the newer bakers on the block.
85 Water St., 718-797-5026, DUMBO, Brooklyn
French baker Hervé Poussot is a master of macarons, the rainbow of colors sure to brighten any buffet table. And when is it ever wrong to pick up a baguette? At Almondine it's always the right thing to do. (Poussot's version tied for second best in all of New York City in a 2013 survey by Serious Eats.) Due to an extended fermentation process, the crunchy golden baton has a deeper, yeastier flavor, the stretchy interior almost dissolving on the tongue. Ripping off hunk after hunk is inevitable. Hurricane Sandy flooded the DUMBO bakery's premises, but steadfast customers and collegial restaurants (including Le Bernardin, where Poussot used to work) raised the funds to help it reopen earlier this year. The line hasn't let up since, though it moves quickly.
18 E. 16th St., 212-633-2253, Union Square, Manhattan
Anyone who's ever said "meh" to chocolate babka hasn't had it at Breads. The braided loaf is moist, rich, dark chocolaty and buttery, making everyone who samples it a convert. It's divine for breakfast, a coffee break, dessert or party gift. Same goes for the chocolate rugelach, tender toylike croissants that can't fail to elicit a smile from the crankiest critic. Master baker Uri Scheft is Israeli born and Denmark trained. The bakery-café, a few doors away from the Union Square Greenmarket, is owned by Gadi Peleg and has a spare, Nordic feel, which contrasts with the lavishness of its merchandise.
75-59 31st Ave., 718-565-6200, Jackson Heights, Queens
Queens denizens are just as particular about their French pastry as Manhattanites and proud of having the authentic Cannelle Patisserie in their midst. Brittany-born pastry chef Jean-Claude Perennou and his partner, Gnanasampanthan Sabaratratnam ("Samba," for short), from Sri Lanka, met while working in the kitchen at the Waldorf-Astoria and can offer cheaper prices for their high-quality gâteau Breton and mocha Christmas log (strip-mall rents aren't quite at Park Avenue levels). Another plus: free parking. Load up the trunk with almond croissants, sourdough loaves, quiche lorraine and coco-fraise cake—layers of vanilla sponge with strawberry and coconut mousse—and drive carefully.
Court Pastry Shop
298 Court St., 718-875-4820, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
There's a certain wistfulness about Court Pastry Shop, whose décor looks as though little has changed since it opened in 1948. Glass display cases are filled with traditional Italian pastries and biscotti and the walls are adorned with innumerable wedding photos and family portraits, harking back to a time when Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill were yet to be gentrified. The bakery is still run by a pair of brothers, Gasper and Vincent Zerilli, whose father, Salvatore, developed the recipes. The 7-inch cheesecake is ridiculously light and fluffy and only $6.75. Another big draw are the lobster tails—luscious, cream-filled pastries sold Friday to Sunday. Other throwbacks include a cash-only policy and no website.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St., 212-219-2773, SoHo, Manhattan
Dominique Ansel has more than the Cronut up his chef's sleeve. Some devotees are just as happy to get the DKA, a caramelized croissant shaped like a muffin. Still others are utterly delighted with the custardy cannelé de Bordeaux and frozen s'mores, torched to order on smoked willow wood sticks. Since Ansel is currently the most celebrated baker in town (even appearing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), you'll almost never be able to waltz in and make a quick purchase. The good news is that the customers in line have a cheerful, we're-all-in-this-together attitude. Once you reach the front, the staff is sweet and seems grateful for your patience. If you're going for another new sensation, the "magic soufflé"—which really is magic, by the way—it's best to eat it hot at one of the tables in the enclosed back garden.
Francois Payard Bakery
Various locations, 212-995-0888 (Greenwich Village branch)
François Payard's realm stretches from several New York City outposts to branches in Las Vegas, Japan and Korea. Somehow the tireless pastry chef manages to maintain quality control, his soft, airy, pretty macarons meticulous, his croissants flaky and fresh. If it's a hostess gift or stocking stuffer you're after, consider some of his signature satiny praline truffles, candy-coated macadamia nut givrettes or scrumptious hot chocolate made with 72% dark chocolate and a touch of vanilla. His smartly mapped out locations—Upper East Side, The Plaza Food Hall, Battery Park City, Greenwich Village, Columbus Circle—offer seating and are also good for light lunches and coffee breaks.
Mazzola Bakery and Cafe
192 Union St., 718-643-1719, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Lard bread is a conversation starter on any occasion. In case you're not clued in, it's more delicious and irresistible than it sounds. At Mazzola the fat, burnished loaf is flecked with bits of cured pork and provolone cheese, its texture more tender than crusty, and leaves behind a hit of black pepper on your tongue. The cozy, old-fashioned corner bakery also has a not-too-sweet assortment of classic Italian cookies and pastries, plus croissants, bagels and pretzels, but it's that lard bread you have to get. One loaf might not make it home intact, so better get two—and bring cash (credit cards are not accepted).
253 W. 11th St., 212-229-2611, West Village, Manhattan
At Tartine, nestled on an idyllic corner in the West Village, take time to sit down for some coffee with your caramelized tarte tatin and reflect on how life is actually pretty sweet. Maritime travel is the theme here, the shelves heaving with model boats and clay lighthouses, the walls sporting nautical art and a Le Havre lifesaver, but you'll want to be moored nowhere else. Locals stop by in the morning for brioche and pain au chocolat and warm up with French onion soup at lunch. While you can get all the baked goods to go and please other people, there's nothing wrong with spending a moment to please yourself first.