Bakeries are homes to a wide range of products. Shoppers might find staples such as breads, cookies and cupcakes. Or they may also find elegant, custom-crafted creations to finish a meal or complement a celebration. Those are in addition to the muffins, pies/tarts, Danish/Viennoisserie, mousses, soufflés, meringues and frozen products that make up the classic pastry canon.
Mt. Lebanon is fortunate to have four independent bakeries from which to choose satisfying treats. Each offers its own slice of the bakery repertoire.
We’ll make a virtual tour of the fab four starting with the venerable Potomac Bakery on Washington Road near Central Square. The shop has been in existence continually since 1927 and is run by third generation family member Bob Tate. “My grandfather started the bakery. My father came on board after he married my mother. Dad brought me in,” Bob says.
Potomac offers a variety of breads, rolls, cookies, muffins and cupcakes, as well as ultra-gooey desserts such as snowballs and gobs, palm-sized cakes split and overstuffed with filling. There’s a giant brownie creation that includes ganache, chocolate shavings and mousse. And the cream puffs and éclairs are the biggest you’ve ever seen.
The ultra-generous portion size results from Potomac’s niche as a large volume—think 20K cookies at once—wholesale baker for commercial customers around the Pittsburgh area. The baking is done at Potomac’s Dormont location, with goodies brought regularly to Mt. Lebanon. “Large customers ask for new things, which carry over into retail,” says Bob. “That’s how we got into cheesecake and specialty cakes.” Try the ‘Raspberry Explosion’ cake, a yellow cake with raspberry filing, raspberry mousse, cheesecake and white chocolate shavings.
Exit Potomac Bakery and head north on Washington Road to wend your way to Beverly Road and the Party Cake Shop for our next stop. Baker Scott Smith, who was the production manager of BreadWorks for 25 years, and his wife Nancy are the owners. Like BobTate, Scott also is the third owner in his family. Party Cake opened in Brookline in 1961, where the baking is still done. Fresh products are delivered several times a day to the Mt. Lebanon location, which opened in 2007. Nancy manages both stores.
The Party Cake Shop provides a bit of nostalgia. “We are like a traditional bakery from years ago. We have the kind of products one would find when the shop first opened,” says Nancy. “We offer day-to-day items and traditional flavors.” Available in the spacious store are all sorts of cupcakes, doughnuts, cookies and cakes, along with muffins and breads—your basic sweet and sandwich needs.
But you’ll find updates as well. Some of the cupcakes look like adorable, googly-eyed critters with fur made out of spikey icing. Other products are iced in tie-dye fashion with edible glitter. Soon to come? A cupcake with the popular flavor combo of peanut butter and chocolate.
Next stop on our tour is Life Is Sweet on Bower Hill Road just past the Cedarhurst post office. The bakery is the collaboration of Kelly Bareford and Christine Mains. Both live in Cedarhurst; both have a lifetime of interest in baking; both wanted their own business, so there was a match as soon as they met as young mothers at the Mushroom Family Learning Center. As they planned for the opening of the shop in October 2014, the women continued to bake and experiment with recipes, and Kelly took a class with the renowned Callebaut chocolate company.
Their space is reminiscent of a cozy old-time soda shop/café but with today’s amenities such as Wi-Fi. The sweets also are the epitome of down home comfort food: carrot cake, several flavors of muffins, cupcakes and cookies, plus the very popular apple cake and wonderfully chewy, stringy, sweet caramels, served large in twists of waxed paper.
As for the chocolate, you can nibble on chocolate covered Oreos or perhaps hazelnut truffles dusted in cocoa. And don’t leave without trying the bon bons. Kelly uses her own blend of chocolates for an especially rich taste.
Finally, take your chocolate buzz back down Bower Hill Road to Cochran Road and find your way to La Gourmandine at the corner of Cedar. The shop is owned by Lisanne and Fabien Moreau, who have a sister store in Lawrenceville. Both owners were raised in France, although Lisanne came to Pittsburgh regularly as she was growing up because she has family here.
Traditionally, French shops are either a patisserie, for desserts, or a boulangerie, for bread. The Moreaus have aimed for a modern French shop that has both. “We wanted a casual place, where people can buy bread, croissant and coffee every day,” says Fabien. “We want to recreate what we had in France.”
Fabien studied at the famed Lenôtre cooking school. That makes him well qualified to prepare those artful, individually portioned French-style pastries that come in countless flavors and preparations that can include mousse, crème, cake and meringue. Classics such as “L’Opera” —almond sponge cake layered with chocolate ganache plus coffee butter cream glazed with dark chocolate coating— are available. Fabien has even invented his own treat, “La Marquise,” a dark chocolate mousse with crème brûlée and crispy caramel that he says is very popular. Super crispy-crusted breads and flakey croissants are givens.
Goodies at all four shops are made predominantly from scratch from in-house recipes, including, in most cases, time-consuming puff pastry—that feathery light, crisp, layered dough. There are a very few exceptions to the “from scratch” pattern at each bakery, but that does not detract from their shared commitment to baking the highest quality products.
There are some crossovers in what is or is not available. None of the shops does frozen desserts or sugar work. Nor do they have plated desserts, those complex, artistic arrangements of pastry paired with a complimentary sauce, or cookie, or second pastry, or fruit, or chocolate curls, or today’s foams, powders and gels, or all of those. But the creative home cook can easily turn some of the more dramatic creations such as “L’Opera” at La Gourmandine or the brownie at Potomac, into a plated piece with the addition of some of those options. Not surprisingly, chocolate seems to be the overarching favorite flavor everywhere.
Each shop offers unique tastes—not surprising given that certain magic happens when butter, sugar and flavorings blend or when yeast joins flour. So much depends on the fat content of the butter, the amount of protein in the flour or the choice of yeast. As for flavorings, well, there are more than five varieties of vanilla. This chart will help you identify what each shop offers, so you can find just the right product for your family.
Life is Sweet: 412-276-2500; 1105 Bower Hill Road; Mon-Fri, 7 am-4 pm; Sat 8 am-5 pm
Potomac Bakery: (412) 531-5067; 689 Washington Road; Mon-Fri, 7 am-6 pm; Sat: 7-3 pm
La Gourmandine: 412-200-7969; 300 Cochran Road; Tues-Fri, 7 am-5 pm; Sat, 9 am-4:30 pm, Sun, 9 am-2:30 pm