‘Tis the season for cookies — not the kind that websites keep warning us about, but cookies shaped like snowmen and Christmas trees, cookies left for Santa (with the obligatory glass of milk), cookies baked at home for gift bags and care packages.
So we here at Friday Food Fight decided it was a good time to investigate the offerings at two bastions of cookie-dom: West Tampa’s much-beloved Alessi Bakery, in business since 1912, and the relative newbie Bake’n Babes, with outposts in Tampa Heights and Davis Islands.
We compared the cookies based on three criteria:
Which would make the most striking display on your holiday buffet table?
Which would make the perfect dessert follow-up to your Christmas goose (or turkey, or lasagna)?
And which would you leave out for Santa?
Because the holidays are a time for sharing, this time around we’ve expanded our tasting posse. Usually just me and my husband, Larry, this week’s team included RTB colleagues Bruce and Audrey, plus Audrey’s husband, Jeff, and their two children, Reagan, 16, and London, 12.
Which way did the cookies crumble? Read on.
One step into Alessi’s and you know you’re in a place that takes the holidays seriously. You’re surrounded by a kaleidoscope of carbs: cakes and breads and pastries and candies, all decked out for conspicuous Christmas consumption. The Alessi deli also serves delicious sandwiches and their deservedly famous scachatta, the room-temperature tomato pie sliced into rectangles for easy eating.
But we were here for the cookies.
We considered a bag of those delectable Italian wedding cookies, but no. Christmas cookies were what we were looking for, and Alessi’s has them in abundance, arrayed under glass at a long counter in more shapes than we knew existed.
Just one example: the elf-inside-a-snow-globe cookie. We had to buy that one. And a Santa. And a Rudolph. And a tree and a stocking and a wreath and a snowman and ornaments in silver and gold.
Appearance: Delightful! A baker with a sense of humor and a flair for design must have been in charge of creating this cast of cookie characters (I particularly liked the slightly startled “Who, me?” expression on Rudolph). Santa’s beard and the wreath’s greenery were expertly applied, as was the decorative filigree on the ornaments (though one of them broke, because that’s what ornaments do). And that elf could be an ornament himself; we haven’t yet wanted to pierce his snow-globe world and take a bite.
Taste: Well… let’s just say that looks aren’t everything. The first cookie I tested had a pleasingly cakey, coconutty flavor, and I enjoyed dipping it into a cafe con leche while taking a bit of respite under Alessi’s airy dining tent. But the rest of the team was not having it. For one thing, all of the cookies tasted the same way to them, and not everyone found the taste pleasing. Audrey also detected coconut — an added extract, perhaps? — but she’s not a fan of coconut so she wasn’t a fan of the cookie. Reagan said, “Chalky.” So did Bruce. ”It’s that cookie that’s in everyone’s house,” said one commenter. “I don’t like it.”
For making a nice impression on the buffet? They’d make for “great decor,” said Bruce.”They’d look good on your table.” “For the price,” said Audrey, “the beauty of Alessi’s cookies would work out.”
For a special dessert? Pretty much no.
For Santa? “He’d give you a lump of coal if you gave him these,” snarked Bruce.
Price: 8 iced cookies @$2.45 apiece + 1 Christmas globe cookie @$3.45 = $23.05.
Owner Julie Curry first made a splash with her baking at a cupcake contest, opened her first shop in 2017, and now operates two Tampa locations, one inside the Heights Public Market at the Armature Works and a Bake’n Babes To Go on Davis Islands. She’s perhaps best known for her highly Instagrammable Freak Shakes, special milkshakes that are often sold to benefit charitable causes. The December Freak Shake is a veritable explosion of cheer, a vanilla shake topped with sprinkles, a gingerdoodle cookie, a Christmas tree cake, a light-up Santa wand, a toy nutcracker and gingerbread man, topped with a sparkler and served in a souvenir Santa boot mug.
But since the Freak Shake is only sold out of the Davis Islands location, we didn’t have to deal with the temptation; our cookie search took us to Armature Works. Here’s the thing, though. The December shake may be the Christmasiest item on the Bake’n Babes menu. They don’t do shaped cookies for the season. They just serve their award-winning cookies the way they always look, and, for our order, gave us a box of six: two Salted Chocolate Chip, two salted Chocolate Chip stuffed with Nutella, and two Fruity Pebbles cookies.
Appearance: There’s not the same “Wow!” factor you get from Alessi’s creations, unless you count the reaction, “These are HUGE!” (Which they are — six cookies were more than enough for our tasting crew of seven.) Actually, they do look kind of festive served up in Bake’n Babes’ signature pink box, and the Fruity Pebbles cookie brings pops of color.
Taste: “You can taste the care that went into these cookies,” said Audrey. Instructions recommended a brief warm-up in the microwave to get the full flavor impact, and for me that took the Salted Chocolate Chip to the next level of yum. Even tasters who weren’t big Nutella fans liked the stuffed cookie (Bruce liked it better than the regular chocolate chip), and the Maldon Sea Salt gave both a spark of contrast. The biggest hit, though — a surprise to me, who’s not a fan of sugary breakfast cereals — was the Fruity Pebbles cookie. “It’s both flaky and dense,” said Audrey. “I like the tiny crunch,” said Bruce. “They’re crispy yet fluffy,” said I. Audrey’s kids thought they might like it even better without the cereal, but all agreed it was their favorite of the three varieties.
For making a nice impression on the buffet? “If I’m going to eat them,” said Audrey, “I’d serve the pink box before the decorative cookies.”
For a special dessert? The Salted Chocolate Chip, warmed up and served with a scoop of vanilla? YES!
For Santa? Yes. He’ll automatically put you on his “Nice” list.
Price: Box of 6 cookies = $25.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Alessi Bakery is a must-visit destination for the holiday shopper, and if you’re looking to make a good first impression with your cookie displays their whimsical varieties will do the trick. But for a cookie that’ll wow your guests with its deep, rich flavor and satisfying texture, go with the recommendation of Audrey and family: “Hands down the pink box!”
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