I generally stay away from the breakfast bread category. Stuffed with oil, sugar, zucchini, pumpkin, cranberries, and what-have-you, these loaves are really muffins made large, lingering heavily in your belly for most of the day. However, I break my rule for chocolate bread, which rises above the category thanks to the use of leavening. Richly flavored but not too weighty, the loaves make a perfect start to the day, particularly when washed down with espresso. Here are some of the city's best chocolate breads.
The granddaddy of the bunch is the Balthazar chocolate pan loaf ($9), which back in the late 1990s pointed the way for the rest to follow. In texture, it resembles a light brioche, made with cocoa powder in the dough and chunks of bittersweet chocolate that stay gooey in the loaf. The best way to eat it is toasted with butter, but it also makes a highly indulgent French toast. And if it goes a bit stale, you can turn it into chocolate bread pudding, the recipe for which has been an American mainstay for over a century.
Hot Bread Kitchen
Hot Bread Kitchen's new head baker, Ben Hershberger, recently introduced a delicious chocolate cherry bread ($5) to its line up. It's very dense and Mitteleuropean, the slightly tart preserved cherries making an excellent counterpoint to the very generous amount of chocolate chunks in the bread. Warmed up, it really doesn't need any topping, though I wonder how it would taste with a generous spoonful of schlag, aka whipped cream.
Hot Bread Almacen
Bed-Stuy's SCRATCHbread is now open seven days a week at their Bedford Avenue storefront window. It's always inspiring to see what new loaves the bakers are concocting in their wood-fired oven. (Their excellent new whole wheat "hot pockets" are pita breads like Sun Ra would have made.) On a recent morning, the day's special was a "chocolate pizza," ($4) really a big focaccia topped with rosemary, sea salt, and a light sprinkling of cacao nibs, and with, yes, a generous layer of dark chocolate in the center. At first, the flavor center of my brain went haywire, unable to compute all those familiar taste sensations in such an unfamiliar grouping, but then it suddenly decided: amazing, and delicious.
For my weekday chocolate bread, I usually chose the Blue Duck chocolate loaf ($6.99), made out on Long Island and sold in the city through Union Market. Like most chocolate breads, it's usually only available on weekends. However the Blue Duck loaf is so dense that it lasts for days. It's one of the least sweet of the bunch, the only sugar coming from the 72% cacao chocolate. I like to top a toasted slice with cream cheese and blackberry jam, kind of like a deconstructed German chocolate torte—heaven!
Blue Duck Bakery
Available at Union Markets
Post-Sandy Appreciation: The day after the storm, the aroma of baking bread suffused Brooklyn's Smith Street for blocks. The windows of Bien Cuit were so steamed up that you could hardly see within. Inside, a long line of people waited patiently, happily for great bread, pastries, and coffee. New York's bakeries are part of the glue that holds this city together. Here's hoping that all of them come back stronger after the storm.