My Sweet Charleston
With all I had read about Charleston over the years – its rich history, beautiful grand houses with manicured lawns, picturesque waterfront, juxtaposition of old world charm and modern ways, beautiful weather all year round, not to mention a wildly growing culinary scene – it seemed too good to be true. Now that I have visited, I actually experienced all of that and still think it’s too good to be true. It’s a city I’d gladly return to, if not just for another few days of Southern hospitality, grits and a whole lot of cookies !
Before we get to the sweet stuff, there’s only one place to begin: breakfast ! And in Charleston, that means Hominy Grill for good ol’ Southern fare. It had been over 10 years (!) since I last had a plate of shrimp & grits, not to mention hush puppies, okra, fried green tomatoes and bean pie. I was a student at Duke University, making the pilgrimage to the famous Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill (make no mistake, no Tar Heel here, a Blue Devil I was !). My breakfast in Charleston took me right back there: a plate of creamy grits, topped with sauteed mushrooms, scallions and crisp bacon (hold the Tabasco), with a biscuit on the side.
Every waiter and waitress seemed to be smiling at Hominy Grill, as they made their way in and out of the kitchen, their blue t-shirts reading “grits are good for you.” You’ll leave with that as mantra, and forever consider macaroni and cheese a vegetable too.
What follows breakfast ? Dessert, but of course ! And so my sweet tour of Charleston began. This foodie town certainly has no shortage of coffee shops or bakeries, easily filling my few days there. When driving between two sweet addresses, a sign for Brown’s Court Bakery caught my eye, almost hidden in a little nook. It was still early, so not all of the breads were on the shelves yet. But what were sitting right at the entrance, welcoming me ? Trays of oversize freshly baked cookies. I went with chocolate chip and cookies & cream. They didn’t last very long.
I had already returned before lunch wanting to buy several more of the chocolate chip cookie. Sold out ! Truly disappointed, I tried to distract myself by peeking around in the back of the bakery to see what else they had. And luckily I did. I found well more than solace in their award-winning French style baguette and my personal favorite pretzel rolls (three cheers for authentic lye !). I also grabbed a foursome of small Hawaiian buns, without knowing much about them. This year-old bakery’s take on a southern specialty, these soft, compact rolls made with potato flour and flavored with coconut were incredibly light, sweet,… and addictive. I will definitely have to explore this tropical treat on my next trip south. And get more of those cookies.
Speaking of which, owner and head baker David Schnell let me know that while his chocolate chip cookie is indeed a perpetually hot item, naturally gluten-free and made with Van Leer dark chocolate, his personal favorite is the monster cookie. Oats, brown sugar, peanut butter, M&Ms, milk chocolate chips and Reese’s Pieces. Yes ! For those of you lucky enough to head to the bakery soon, please have one for me. And keep your eye out for his seasonal kugelhopf, or rather, gugelhopf, showcasing his German roots !
While Brown’s Court wowed me with the stellar chocolate chip cookie (gluten-free to boot !) and high quality breads, my award for best sweet address and feel-good bakery goes to Sugar Bakeshop. From the welcoming mint green decor (the color of owner Bill Bowick’s grandmother’s kitchen) and smiling team behind the counter, to the impressive selection of cookies, cupcakes and jars filled with different colored sprinkles, it’s hard not to be won over by this place. And hard to choose what to get too. I always go with the classic chocolate chip cookie when it’s offered, and I wasn’t disappointed. Nor was I disappointed with the ginger molasses cookie (luckily not too spicy) or the bite-size buttermilk tart or the “pecan chewy” (what old recipe books would call a Texas cookie, below, middle right) or the pumpkin tart either. See what I mean ?!
When I popped behind the counter with Bill (below, top left) and co-owner David Bouffard, to watch a young girl frost cupcakes, I tried to find out their favorites. Not an easy question for them either. The ginger molasses cookie was mentioned a few times, as was the popular lemon cupcake with lemon curd. I have a feeling that answer may change the next time I ask. And perhaps mine will too when I taste those cupcakes.
I’m sure you have noticed what’s missing from my adventure in Charleston here… chocolate ! Kristina Gill, editor of the popular series, In the Kitchen With at DesignSponge.com, luckily pointed me towards Johnny Battles of Sweeteeth Chocolate in North Charleston. I had heard about this handcrafted chocolate a few years back, but never had the chance to taste. Fast forward to a perfect morning hanging out with a lifelong friend of mine from New York, our curious babies (of said chocolate, strange looking utensils and Johnny’s many, many tattoos) and the ever charming Alabaman chocolate maker in his quiet kitchen space (shared with King of Pops popsicles).
With almost a one-man operation, Johnny is making his artisanal “chocolatey goodness with a twist” that’s now renowned across the country. His penchant for savory even more than sweet and real passion for playing with flavors is clear right away when you take a close look at his bars: peanut butter and chipotle pepper, port wine caramel, or ginger and popping sugar. The attractive packaging with a vintage feel also deserves a closer look, not to mention an impressive multi-folded technique for the inside wrapper. Names like The A’Chocolypse and O’Snap, the latter being white chocolate with gingersnaps, only add to the fun. Biggest winner of all continues to be Sea is For Caramel, his dark chocolate bar filled with a thick, chewy, vanilla flavored, almost burnt caramel and a heavy handed sprinkle of fleur de sel.
* My baby girl couldn’t keep her hands off a bin of sweet potatoes below Johnny’s working table. I’ll have to keep my eye out for his next bar using that as ingredient, and naturally named after her… =)
It was a memorable and delicious trip down south and I hope to revisit in 2014. Here are my favorite addresses below that I’ll be sure to return to. Feel free to share your Charleston favorites in the comments too, thanks y’all !
My Charleston Address Book
(and what I’ll go back for at each)
sea is for caramel
59 Cannon Street
ginger molasses cookie, chocolate chip cookie, buttermilk tart
Brown’s Court Bakery
199 Saint Philip Street
chocolate chip cookie, pretzel roll, hawaiian rolls
Two Boroughs Larder
186 Coming Street
oatmeal marshmallow crunch cookie
73 Spring Street
207 Rutledge Avenue
shrimp & grits
Xiao Bao Biscuit
224 Rutledge Avenue
japanese cabbage pancake with pork candy
Butcher & Bee
654 King Street
sandwiches & cookies of the day
544 King Street
oyster lovers, look no further
and last but not least…
mac & murphy
74 1/2 Cannon Street
stellar curated selection of cards and paper accessories, including prints by artist Sam Sidney, who did our fabulous family portrait on wood