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Settling the cake vs. pie debate in Jacksonville
The First Coast's bakery scene is heating up
On a quick scan of the dinner menu at Town Hall in Jacksonville, Florida, the starter which stands out from the usual crowd of fried Brussels sprouts, regionalized hummus and truffle fries is duck fat cornbread.
And that’s not just to my eye: According to a sapped-sounding Facebook mea culpa posted by the San Marco neighborhood restaurant, when the item was briefly struck from its lineup, customers responded with “countless messages, emails and requests to bring it back.”
“Well it’s here now,” the beleaguered restaurant announced in July.
Basically, the appetizer is a sophisticated excuse for breakfast-for-dinner: The cornbread planks, slick and cakey as French toast, are garnished with shredded cabbage, red onions, and candied pecans. It all adds up to something like coleslaw and Cracker Jack.
But the plate in total, along with demand for it, yields a more interesting conclusion: This town is mad for baked goods.
Up until recently, all I knew about Jacksonville’s amenities was that they included a set of terrific African-American history exhibits at The Ritz Theater (featuring a pair of animatronic James Weldon Johnsons when I visited) and top-flight disc golf. But fellow Substack publisher Anne Byrn clued me in to the baking scene that’s taking shape there, which seemed like reason enough to detour through northern Florida on a recent reporting trip.
Still, even a food writer is bound to feel a little biggety about eating sweets all day. To make sure my eating tour was in the public interest, I set out to answer the perpetual question of whether cake or pie is the better pastry.
Early December seems like the ideal time to grapple with this riddle, since we’re right between the pies of Thanksgiving and cake-dominant Christmas. (Hanukkah, which has the lock on doughnuts, can start as early as Nov. 28 and end as late as Jan. 3, albeit not in the same year.)
In other words, consider this my obligatory holiday newsletter.
Know also that this survey wasn’t exactly scientific: One of the bakeries I was eager to visit was closed because the owner had contracted COVID, and the exceptional Community Loaves, renowned for its sourdough bread, wouldn’t fit comfortably into either category (That tangy focaccia is stunning, though.)
That said, I stand by the results. Who would fight me during the holiday season?
The bakeries are listed from east-to-west; a complete map with addresses and hours is here. Cakes and pies were rated on a five-point scale.
CAKE: Cinotti’s Bakery
A reminder that pastry isn’t a new preoccupation in the Jacksonville area, Cinotti’s traces its local history back five generations. The staunchly Italian-American bakery has multiple display cases stocked with iced cookies, butter cookies and cannoli, but its cakes are so essential to customers’ celebrations that Cinotti’s has a page on its website explaining why they aren’t cheaper.
Cinotti’s signature chocolate cake is a dense, four-layer affair with chocolate icing stiff as a crooner’s pompadour. It has the faint flavor of artificial extract, which in this context tastes more like upholding tradition than taking a shortcut.
(Editor’s note: I didn’t learn until after I visited Cinotti’s that one of the bakery’s co-owners earlier this year published an anti-LGBTQ meme on Facebook, prompting Equality Florida to call for a boycott. Mike Cinotti then apologized for his wife Doodle Crumbley’s post, saying it didn’t represent the family or their business.
While it’s impossible to judge his sincerity at this distance, eaters who take politics into account when deciding where to spend their food dollars should also be aware that Cinotti’s in May 2020 took an anti-mask stance.)
PIE: Pie Heaven Bakery
“You’re in the pie family now!” exclaimed Pie Heaven’s gray-haired and pinafored sales clerk as she handed over my slice of coconut custard.
Anita Hyde in 2013 opened Pie Heaven in a little blue cottage along Atlantic Beach’s Mayport Road, serving pies both sweet and savory. Generally, the fillings are secondary to the buttery crust she developed with friend and baker Linda Holfinger, but the custard might be an exception.
The cheerful clerk had suggested that Pie Heaven’s homemade whipped cream alone was reason to order a fruit pie off a board listing 22 pie varieties. Although I sidestepped her advice, the rich custard--flecked with nutmeg and textured with flaked coconut--confirmed that Holfinger is skilled at handling fundamental ingredients.
CAKE: SaySo Sweets Filipino and Hawaiian Bakery
As someone who will always choose salt over sugar, it pained me to be the first person through SaySo’s door on the day that it launched a Pinoy brunch menu: I am not in the habit of turning down longanisa.
But since Florence Bermudes earlier this year launched SaySo, the spinoff of a family restaurant that’s been in business for 20 years, she’s come up with every imaginable ube way to get a savory fan’s attention. Among her offerings is an ube bagel.
I instead went with the bakery’s popular macapuno cake, perfectly spongy and striking. Its delicate (and obviously purple) frosting helped make up for its slight dryness.
CAKE: Liberty Bakery
There’s a religious streak that runs through many of Jacksonville’s bakeries. It’s especially pronounced at Liberty Bakery, a drive-thru operation housed in a little white building with a roof that looks like a cornette wimple. (Previously, it served as one of Skinner Dairy’s 20 neighborhood sales huts.)
But the scripture posed around the structure isn’t an impediment to putting a cocktail salute on the bakery’s menu, which also includes breakfast sandwiches, muffins, and sweet rolls. The Galliano-soaked Harvey Wallbanger cake is sunshiny bright in color but oddly bland in flavor.
PIE: 1748 Bakehouse
Rebuilding the historic Springfield neighborhood is clearly a municipal priority: When I arrived at 1748 Bakehouse, a camera crew across the street appeared to be capturing footage for a politician’s campaign.
1748 Bakehouse’s owners Kurt and Allison D’Aurizio have lived in the district for more than a decade. Their version of strengthening community seems to involve more service than speechifying: The two-year-old bakery is a warm hub of support for nearby small businesses, as well as residents looking for coffee at the start of the day or a take-and-bake dinner toward the end of it.
There’s also plenty of pie for customers who order ahead, along with galettes in the countertop showcase for those who don’t. Lovingly handled apples, framed by expert pastry, were fantastic: The lemony notes in the filling asserted Florida deliciously.
PIE: Mixed Fillings Pie Shop
The only bakery at which I sampled multiple pies was Mixed Fillings, since I feared I would be shut out if I didn’t file my order in advance: Mixed Fillings has built up an enormously enthusiastic fan base since Natasha Burton in 2020 opened the pie counter on the backside of a brick building in the Riverside neighborhood.
Burton, a Black woman who trained at Le Cordon Bleu, relocated from Texas specifically to sell pie. Customer favorites include a sturdy “Blurred Limes” take on key lime and a tightly packed pecan pie enriched by brown butter.
My favorite, though, was a chocolate pie in a pretzel crust that beautifully demonstrated the wisdom of matching crust to filling. Admittedly, it was not unlike a cake in its near-brownie consistency: Maybe the best way to settle the ultimate dessert conundrum is to have your pie but eat cake too.
RESOLVED: PIE IS BETTER THAN CAKE.