The people of Chicago need to come to terms with the fact that they do not know almost anything about the art of pastry." That's what Natalie Zarzour told me in 2011, shortly before shutting the doors for good on Pasticceria Natalina, her superlative but notoriously dear Sicilian pastry shop. Among the dupes she lumped all but two professional pastry chefs in town and a handful of food writers, me included.
Her rant at the time was a defense of the prices at her little Andersonville storefront—her critics failed to appreciate the high cost of research, labor, and proper ingredients; the neighborhood was so fucking cheap. But if that attitude imparted a palpable bitterness to the cassatines, the neighbors could hardly be blamed, could they?
Cassatines—little green marzipan cakes—were, along with cannoli, something of a signature at Pasticceria Natalina, and I still mourn the day they disappeared along with it. Then last year Andersonville lost another signature green-marzipan torte when the neighborhood's 88-year-old Swedish Bakery closed. Zarzour probably thought that place was bullshit too, but Swedish Bakery had earned the love of the people though decades of customer service and relatively affordable crowd-pleasing sweets, particularly its signature prinsesstårta, "princess cake," a traditional torte with whipped cream and fruit preserves layered atop sponge cake in a mammary-shaped dome covered with a vivid jacket of green marzipan. The prinsesstårta was said to be a favorite of the Princesses Margaretha, Martha, and Astrid of Sweden, but at Swedish Bakery it was there for all who wanted to feel a little bit like a princess.
Wouldn't you like to feel like a princess? Here's how: Some midafternoon when you can sneak away from whatever soul-smothering drudgery extorts your time and energy, take a seat at a sunlit table in Lost Larson, a new bakery in Andersonville that somehow captures the separate essences of what made both Swedish Bakery and Pasticceria Natalina special. In particular, treat yourself to a cup of coffee or tea and a duchess cake, which is what pastry chef Bobby Shaffer calls his tribute to Swedish Bakery's beloved prinsesstårta.
Shaffer—who led the pastry department at Curtis Duffy's late, lamented Grace and then at upstate New York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns—builds upon his sponge with raspberry jelly with whole raspberries and white chocolate marzipan mousse set in an almond-milk mousse, sprayed with green-tinted cocoa butter, and crowned with jewels: a perfect ruby- red raspberry set on a marzipan blossom, with a glimmer of gold leaf. A mouthful of it is a silky-soft cloud of gentle, creamy sweetness that is just the reward you deserve.
In Sweden this sort of afternoon (or morning) break is known as fika, a respite with coffee or tea and some kind of life-affirming indulgence from the bakery. It needn't be as fancy as a duchess cake. Shaffer offers a wide range of sweet and savory pastries, among them open-faced sandwiches constructed on an assortment of hearty, tangy sourdough loaves. Warthog Hard Red Winter and Glenn Hard Red Spring Wheat Berries along with Brassetto rye from downstate are ground daily on the massive granite mill positioned in full view at the rear of the shop. A long fermentation unlocks the nutrition in the bran and produces an exceptional tang in all varieties of these dark, hearty loaves.
The counter at Lost Larson buzzes with activity. White-clad pastry chefs and counter servers—among them Shaffer's sister Bree, the general manager—hustle the goods, explaining, plating, or boxing the various pastries under the glass. There are likely to be piles of glistening cinnamon and cardamom buns, the latter another Scandinavian standard: twists of sweet burnished dough dotted with sugar gravel, their soft folds releasing gusts of warm spice. Lovely chocolate tart shells containing hazelnut praline and passion-fruit ganache topped with a hypnotic spiral of salted caramel share space with an unlovely loaf of zucchini-flecked custard cake that sags in upon itself yet reveals luxuriant pleasures with the first forkful.
It's well past midsommar now, and Shaffer has seized the season, embedding brioche with apricot and thyme-infused honey or strawberries and custard. Singular fruit tarts—say, blueberry with almonds and whipped vanilla cream, or strawberries and cream blanketing deposits of luxe custard—are bound by a pastry crust that stands upright but melts into sweet, buttery crumbles that send a jolt to the pleasure center of the brain as soon as they hit the tongue.
Pastries are made all day long to ensure freshness, though a few offerings get better with age. Both the personal pucks of sugar-dusted lingonberry pound cake scaled with shaved almonds and the chocolate bread pudding made from repurposed croissants improve over days, increasing in density as their fillings distribute their moisture.
Occasional savory pastries like a cheddar-kale scone make me eager to see what else Shaffer is capable of down this road, though the four open-faced sandwiches on offer are showcases for the remarkable whole dark loaves displayed on shelves behind the counter: pickled herring, wild-foraged ligonberry jam, and crispy onions grace sunflower-seed rye; avocado, green garlic, asparagus, and thinly shaved sour pickles are gracefully arranged atop limpa bread baked with orange peel and anise; shaved smoked ham, Havarti, and tomato are complemented by stout slices of country loaf.
Beverages are a bit more focused, but well selected: Stumptown coffee, foaming lattes or matcha lattes, and ligonberry-hibiscus lemonade are all appropriate liquid fuel for a proper fika.
Just as Pasticceria Natalina was, Lost Larson will be one to watch closely, not only for how it changes with the seasons but for Shaffer's plans to introduce chocolate in the fall (he spent six months working for Spanish pastry and chocolate lion Oriol Balaguer). Also like Natalina, here the pastry isn't cheap. But something else eases the pain: like Swedish Bakery, Lost Larson is a cheerful spot to seek refuge, minimally designed but bright and full of good feelings, proof that Andersonville really can have uncompromising pastry in a welcoming space. I may know nothing about pastry, but I know at least that much. v