Being paid to sleuth out the best desserts that Arizona eateries serve up is better than great. It’s possibly the best job ever to exist. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard work – and try not to feel sorry for me here – but I was up to the challenge.
Devoting two weeks to the task, I logged nearly two thousand miles in a car and a few hundred miles on a bicycle in Arizona (my “montecao,” a signature dessert at Gisele’s Bakery in Jerome, tasted especially wonderful after biking up the hill the town is located on).
I visited all kinds of bakeries, restaurants and cafés, ranging from upscale to casual. And a month after my sugary storm, here’s what my sweet tooth is craving.
Recognizing that its dessert menu is such that King Solomon himself would have had a hard time making a decision, the creekside L’Auberge in Sedona came up with the perfect solution – the Chef’s Parade of Desserts. The five “bite-size” portions were really four or five bites each, and were still too much for two people to polish off.
But as far as desserts go, my motto has always been “better too much than too little.” That’s especially true when the desserts in question include coffee bread pudding with pistachio ice cream and espresso Anglaise, Valhrona chocolate cake with peanut butter and blueberry jelly or macadamia nut and cranberry baklava with brandy sauce. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the twist on traditional baklava.
Gisele’s Café and Bakery, Jerome
Husband and wife Jeff and Coleen Hall opened Gisele’s Café and Bakery in May 2006 in Jerome. The cheesecakes, cookies and other sweets are made from 100-year-old family recipes passed on to Coleen by her mother Gisele, after whom the bakery is named.
While the éclairs are tempting, opt instead for the classic French treat called a montecao, a powdery, cinnamon-topped pseudo-sugar cookie that Coleen makes fresh from scratch every morning. Her version is made from a recipe traced back to Coleen’s great-grandmother, who lived in Leon, France. Pair a montecao with a cappuccino – also made from Gisele’s own recipe – and life will be perfect, if only until you eat the last crumbs.
The bakery is closed Wednesdays. And if you can’t make it there in person, Gisele’s will ship its montecaos by the dozen.
Roaring Fork, Scottsdale
At Roaring Fork in Scottsdale, I didn’t even consider getting anything but the Date-Poached Pear (even though my server highly recommended the daily fruit crisp, noting that the “crisp” part was the best he had ever had). After nearly two weeks of indulging my every sweet craving, I was looking for something not so decadent, and perhaps even slightly healthy.
But not even fruit can remain healthy when stuck in a maple cake and drowned first in the most buttery, brown sugar caramel ice cream known to man, and second in an orange glaze that could elevate stale Twinkies to five-star cuisine. It didn’t turn out to be quite the figure-conscious option I had in mind, but two bites into it, and I didn’t care. The maple date cake was every bit as intriguing as it sounds, and the ice cream, made by Phoenix-based Berto’s, would give Ben and Jerry a run for their money.
Arcadia Farms Café, Phoenix and Scottsdale
Arcadia Farms Café, with locations in Phoenix and Scottsdale, keeps its entrées light, but it doesn’t have to. Here, even if you’ve just polished off a 20-ounce porterhouse, you’d make room for dessert.
Initially, I thought a coconut baby cake – coconut layers, vanilla bean pastry crème and coconut icing – was the stuff dreams were made of, but I was wrong. The simple and refreshing key lime tart, with a coconut pecan crust and key lime custard, was in a class by itself.
Better Than Sex Cake Café, Chandler
At Chandler’s Better Than Sex Cake Café, I sampled several types of cakes to see if the place could live up to its naughty name. I really only needed one bite of one cake to decide. But in the interest of thoroughness, I continued.
I tried the café’s traditional, uber-rich, ultra-moist chocolate cake, which is topped with caramel and Heath Bar crunch; its super-spongy yellow cake, blanketed with peanut brittle; and its substantial, sweet-and-spicy carrot cake, crusted in toffee-covered nuts.
While I tried my best to sample every recommended cookie, cake, tart, crisp, cheese and chocolate confection in the state, the above list is by no means exhaustive. And I can’t wait to discover new treats to include in the future.
(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism 2009)