I’ve gone to Masse’s Pastries for desserts ever since I’ve discovered it by accident while searching for bakeries that sold macarons in the Bay Area. It’s a small little shop located next to a deli in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto where vendors usually gather on Thursdays for farmer’s market, perfect for picking up local tomato juice and freshly baked loaves of bread after dessert. While it’s often a hit or miss with their selections, Masse’s Pastries is the closest thing that offers aesthetically appealing European pastries next to the patisseries of Japan and Hong Kong.
I brought A. to the shop around late afternoon when it was deceivingly sunny outside for such a frigid day. People bundled up in heavy coats and scarves chatted animatedly while queuing in line, eagerly eyeing the two glass displays filled with fruity Charlotte, French Bûche de Noël, colorful macarons, and an assortment of cookies. On the very bottom roll sits the rotating selection of individual pastries, ten petite princesses dressed up in chocolate ruffles, vibrant raspberry reds, neon green mint, and soft guava orange mirrors. Seeing as how some rows are already empty, I felt like some may have already taken off with the shop’s earliest suitors.
As I near the glass case, I await for the customary explanation as to what each was since pastries are never labeled at Masse’s. Though of course, I’m proud that I can name at least six different ones without asking as I’ve been here so often. After deliberating for a while, I go with the lingonberry mousse, mint chocolate mousse, pistachio macaron, grapefruit macaron, swirly pistachio almond cookie, and a slice of a fig bar. I know what you’re thinking, but I assure you this is less than I usually order for myself (which always draws exclamations of surprise from other customers when I sit down and devour all of it). Not a huge fan of sweets, A. orders a coffee and just two macarons, pistachio and lingonberry.
We bring the silver platter of sweets to the table and I take the cushion seats by the window. It lets me see people come and go, mull over the pastries they want, and observe their expressions of joy when it’s either set on a dainty white plate or wrapped up in a box. Berkeley locals (or so I presume) chat over warm drinks as Christmas songs softly filter in the background whilst the staff busily prepare the desserts and fire up the coffee machine.
The lingonberry mousse cake is light and tart, surprisingly tasty since I’ve never regarded their fruit flavored pastries to be the star of the show; when you’ve tasted Hidemi Sugino’s entremets in Ginza, everything will pale in comparison. The lining of almonds slices are soft and chewy, the sponge cake moist but not quite melt-in-your-mouth, and the thin layer of crushed lingonberries on the base sharp but pairs beautifully with the airy mousse. The fresh sour berries on top lend an extra pop of flavor to the sweet jelly mirror. Judging that A., self-proclaimed dessert skeptic, has taken more than a few forkfuls, I would say that this was an excellent choice.
I delved into the colorful mint chocolate mousse next, peeling away the surrounding soft chocolate to unveil its layers; a white minty mousse and chocolate mousse supported by a moist and crumbly chocolate cake. While I love chocolate, it was a bit too rich for my taste when sampling all the layers together and I found myself draining my cup of water in between bites. I adored the refreshing minty layer and the dewy cake however.
I’ve always had mixed experiences with macarons here, but nonetheless order some every time I come ever since sampling a delectable mango one. Unfortunately, the pistachio studded macaron was too cakey, and while the grapefruit is slightly better, it didn’t recapture that bliss of texture. The candied citrus peel hiding in the soft buttercream between the puffy grapefruit cookies was novel, but both were entirely too sweet. A., who has spent a year in France eating more than her fair share of macarons, also declared the pistachio to be quite mediocre, although the candy red lingonberry one was a little better.
I finally moved on to the more modest swirly pistachio cookie and fig bar. Whereas the macarons had a generous dose of sugar, the pistachio cookie was almost bland. It was perfectly solid and crumbly, and would have been perfect for dipping into tea or coffee. But perhaps the most stellar choice next to the lingonberry mousse was the fig cookie. It was a rust colored little roll covered in tiny cinnamon sugar crystals, and pulls apart like light puff pastry in spite of its solid appearance. The fig filling was rich but not overly sugary, and it was a delight to crunch into the abundant seeds.
While it wasn’t an entirely fulfilling visit this time, Masse’s is still worth visiting when I’m hunting for European pastries with more exotic flavor pairings. There’s always something new to discover in the rotating selection of mini cakes, and it’s a nice way to while away the late afternoon in a cozy shop bathed in winter’s best sunlight. More people pile into the shop as A. and I get ready to leave to check out the farmer’s market. Perhaps they’re all going in to pick up their orders of Christmas cakes? Whatever they choose, I hope they will find it a more satisfying affair.
1469 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709