This article was originally published in the April 2018 Princeton Echo.
Confession time: This Catholic didn’t give up sweets this Lenten season. But if I had, by day two I know I’d be praying to another “holy trinity”: cookies, chocolate, and all the cake.
But for those who admirably did (and others like me with a devilish sweet tooth), I spent a Saturday afternoon finding the best places in downtown Princeton to satisfy that 40-day old hankering.
First on the list, Princeton’s newest dessert cafe on Chambers Street: Milk & Cookies. It’s the brick-and-mortar location of a popular cookie delivery service founded in 2016 by Princeton resident Lauren Ariev Gellman.
She welcomes me with a big chocolate chip cookie — a good deal at just $2 each or $20 per dozen. Generously studded with velvety disks of fine Guittard chocolate (the same brand rumored to be used by New York City’s famous Levain Bakery), Gellman’s take on the American classic is tasty without being over-the-top, as comforting as it is delicious.
“I love this chocolate,” says Gellman, who orders 500-pound bags of the stuff from California. Another quality ingredient is the homemade toffee inside her toffee chip cookie.
Unchanged from Milk & Cookies’ roots as a delivery and catering company, the shop’s cookies are still baked inside four “gigantic” ovens at the Griggstown fire station, pulled out when they’re just crunchy enough to handle several dunks in milk without losing their chewy center. The cafe pours six different types of milk to fit most tastes and dietary needs (soy, almond, whole, 1%, skim, and chocolate). There are also a variety of gluten-free and vegan cookies — in fact, Gellman and one of her three daughters also follow gluten-free diets.
“I’ve been gluten-free for 10 years, so I had to figure out how to make good gluten-free cookies,” she says, developing new recipes with King Arthur’s flour mix.
In addition to baking classics (and their gluten-free versions) like no-fuss sugar and oatmeal raisin, Gellman likes to experiment in the kitchen.
Her latest flavor creation? “London Foggy.” Inspired by the London Fog latte, the dough is infused with Earl Grey tea leaves and finished with a lemon glaze. Gellman is a tea person herself, and the drink is also one of her daughter’s favorites.
Pun intended, all three of Gellman’s daughters are smart cookies — her eldest, 22, is a graduate student at Stanford, while her middle daughter, 19, is a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. Her youngest daughter, Audrey, 16, is a student at Princeton High School and helps run the store most days. One of her classmates designed the menu board hanging above the counter.
“I had a dream of a shop for a long time,” Gellman says.
Her mother, a social worker, and father, a designer and chairman at Pratt University, raised her and her four siblings in Brooklyn. Before Gellman got into the cookie business, she ran an alternative high school and worked as a book editor. She graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and has a Harvard graduate degree in education. Gellman, who is divorced, moved to Princeton with her daughters three years ago.
“My daughters and I have always baked cookies together. Two of them are grown up and out of the house, but I wanted to keep baking cookies. I had to figure out a way of doing it so I didn’t eat them all. So I do this,” she chuckles.
Future plans for the pastel pink and turquoise cafe include savory treats like cheese puffs and espresso drinks. Gellman also envisions the cafe as a community space for meetup groups and cookie-decorating birthday parties.
As I get up to leave, I notice silly-patterned socks tacked on the wall: little cookies dancing with glasses of milk. Might be a nice gift for my best friend, the biggest cookie fanatic I know.
Gellman lifts her foot and rolls up a pant leg. Of course she’s wearing a pair.
Milk & Cookies, 14 Chambers Street. Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 603-COO-KIES (266-5437). milkncookies.online
I spend the rest of the afternoon peeking into Princeton’s many other dessert shops. Some of these are more well-known than others, and the ones featured here are all deliciously different.
The Little Chef Pastry Shop
There’s European disco-tech playing inside and chef Edwige Fils-Aime is bopping to it, piping napoleons and rolling out dough for tomorrow’s croissants.
From the outside, it’s hard to tell but this quiet, unassuming shop on Tulane Street has become the local mecca for French pastries and delicate mousse cakes — raspberry, passionfruit, and chestnut, just to name a few. (A three-inch tart is $8 to $8.50; croissants are $3 to $3.50).
By 2 p.m. that Saturday, most of the croissants in the warming cabinet are sold and just a single eclair is left. So if the rich taste of butter or chocolate or tropical fruit is what you’re after, this is the spot to celebrate the end of Lent, preferably before noon.
Little Chef Pastry Shop, 8 South Tulane Street. 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 609-924-5335. littlechefpastries.com
Smoothie & Salad Market
Don’t be fooled, the healthy fare in this new storefront gives way to a selection of wholesome desserts like vegan chocolate-fruit-nut balls and finally a back room that’s essentially a full-stocked candy shop: think barrels of peanut butter cups and baskets of old-fashioned taffy. From bubble-gum cigars to Pop Rocks, it’s a trip down memory lane for candy fanatics of all ages. At $10.95 per pound, you can fill a bag with favorites — special desk treats for an afternoon pick-me-up (and to curry favors from unwitting coworkers).
Salad & Smoothie Market and The Candy Shoppe, 6 Spring Street. Also accessible from Hinds Plaza Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 908-455-5990. thesaladandsmoothiemarket.com and thecandyshoppeprinceton.com.
D’Angelo’s Italian Market
As I wait in line behind a horde of Penn State basketball players, I feel like a Lilliputian in the land of Gullivers. They say you are what you eat, so I order a mini cannoli ($1.50 for a plain one). While I crunch on chocolate morsels enveloped in the rich cream filling, the cashier tells me their homemade cannoli are most popular, followed by their tiramisu. Though the tiramisu isn’t made in-house, one of the tallest basketball players leans over and bellows, “It’s delicious.”
In the market area, near the check-out line are a variety of Italian candies — from marzipan to chocolate-hazelnut.
D’Angelo’s Italian Market, 35 Spring Street. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 609-921-0404. dangelomarket.com
Italian cannoli, French eclairs, the only logical next stop is this Austrian gem on Nassau Street — and tortes galore! A couple stellar reviews steer me towards this “authentic Viennese cafe with an American twist,” whose owner, Anita Waldenberg, grew up in Austria and bakes the cakes herself.
Her most popular seems to be the linzertorte — a dense shortbread-like tart with thick ribbons of raspberry preserves — and the marzipan cake featuring a generous layer of sweet almond paste sandwiched between delicate slices of cake. Dessert here will set you back $2.50 to $7.50.
Cafe Vienna, 200 Nassau Street. 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. 609-924-5100. cafeviennaprinceton.com
Thomas Sweet Chocolate
Hollow chocolate bunnies that stand 18 inches tall ($46.99). Handmade chocolate eggs filled with peanut butter, coconut or vanilla creme. Carrot-shaped gummies and orange jelly beans packaged to look like fresh carrots. Quite the upgrade from the plastic eggs I remember stuffed with stale candy and bunny-shaped convenience store candies nestled in papier-mache. The treats on these shelves could have transformed any Easter basket into a gourmet gift.
Though an employee tells me I’ll probably have to wait a week or two after April 1 for their Easter goodies to go on sale, I think a small box of truffles could also do the trick. Though I’m stuffed like a creme egg at this point, I can’t help but sample one (alright two), before leaving.
Thomas Sweet Chocolate, 29 Palmer Square West. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 609-924-7222. thomassweet.com.
This famous gelato shop bakes up chocolate cupcakes with an espresso-laced chocolate frosting that tastes of straight sin. I could make a pint of this frosting disappear with a spoon. The proportion of cake to icing is approximately one to one, and normally that would turn me off (I’m a cake person), but these cupcakes are an exception and, at $1.50 for the small size, a bargain.
In the baked goods case, I spy a cranberry-oat cake that looks sad and forlorn, maybe a bit lost next to the more-popular cookies ($2.50). Out of pity, I order one. (I also feel pre-diabetic at this point, and think this might be lower in sugar.)
At first bite, the texture reminds me of a blondie. Then I hit a tangy burst of whole cranberries, and the oats introduce a decadent, nutty depth. Chewy and dense, the curious “cake” toys with my taste buds, teasing me for thinking it would taste like cooked muesli. I wonder how an oatmeal dessert can taste so magical…
I float on my gluttonous sugar high, likely far from heaven’s gates.
The Bent Spoon, 35 Palmer Square West. Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. 609-924-2368. thebentspoon.net.