Beard Papa's: you can't eat just one
(Okay, maybe that's hyperbole, in which case I'm prepared to be fed alternatives until I recant. Bring it.)
We first heard about Beard Papa's from Richard and Heather, whose enjoyment of all things edible (and enviable location in Manhattan) mean they're excellent heralds for new food discoveries. While visiting them a few years ago, they mentioned their latest find.
"It's this little storefront in Astor Place," said Richard. "You go in and the whole store is bright yellow. It's like a Japanese cartoon. And they have these cream puffs ... they're amazing. Real vanilla cream, and they fill them to order. I've never tasted anything like it."
"Sounds worth a trip," said The Boy. "Maybe we'll stop by tomorrow and get one."
Heather laughed. "One? One? No. You can't just get one. You need at least two. Trust me."
So the next day, after an almost-authentic, overpriced fish 'n' chips lunch at A Salt and Battery in Greenwich Village, we wandered toward Broadway and almost walked past our destination; luckily, the Captain Birdseye logo caught my attention, and we hustled inside.
The selection of treats is quite varied: everything from the puffs (filled with strawberry, chocolate, green tea or earl grey cream, as well as vanilla) to molten chocolate cakes to mango shaved ice. But we'd been instructed to go straight for the original. So we did. Two each, of course.
Real flavor indeed!
The puffs are baked ahead, and then filled while you wait, so there's no time for the choux pastry to get soggy; it's incredibly light and delicate, yet strong enough to hold the filling without falling apart.
And the filling ... ('scuse me while I pause reverently) ... creamy, smooth and thick, but not overly rich or heavy. It's sweet without being overpowering, just enough vanilla to define the flavor withough being strident, and the dusting of powdered sugar on top of the pastry adds an extra edge of sweetness.
As it turns out, Heather was right: it's very important to get two. The first one is so damn good that the only thing to do is cram it into your mouth and revel in the experience. (Be aware that you will roll your eyes heavenward and make noises considered inappropriate in public.)
Once the heady decadence has subsided, the second puff gets more careful scrutiny, with closer inspection of the filling with its tiny black flecks of vanilla bean. And then it quickly disappears the way of the first.
I assume the name comes from the French barbe à papa, which translates as "father's beard" but means cotton candy (which translates to English as "candy floss"), rather than from the French children's series about an amorphous shapeshifting family.
But where, I hear you asking, where oh where can I experience this for myself? If you're in California, Manhattan or Hawaii, you have the choice of numerous locations.
If you live in Massachusetts, there's only one location: the Faneuil Hall food court.
Go now. Go! Run! Hurry!