2008-11-12 / Restaurant of the Week

Martha's Country Bakery

36-21 Ditmars Blvd Astoria (718) 545-9737 70-30 Austin Street Forest Hills (718) 544-0088 OPENING SOON! 41-06 Bell Blvd., Bayside
By Teresa Barile

t he story of Martha's Country Bakery is as much a story about one immigrant family's hard work and passion for baking, as it is about outrageously delicious cupcakes, pound cakes, fruit tarts and cookies, specialty cakes and more.

Owner George Stertsios recounted how his father and mother Martha, took over a German bakery in Hell's Kitchen in 1969. They took classic

recipes for Linzer tarts, black and white cookies

and chocolate cakes and put their own twist on them. Later, the operation moved to 31st Avenue in Astoria, where a brisk wholesale business supplied dozens of restaurants with their famous baked treats. Slowly, a retail business developed and they needed more space. Martha's Country Bakery on Ditmars Blvd is the first of three locations; the second one is in Forest Hills and the third is opening in January in Bayside. The Ditmars Blvd. shop is ideally located on a sunny corner with sparkling glass windows displaying classic cakes, pastries and puddings created with a modern twist. The offerings are decidedly American, with a nod to old world recipes and tradition.

For customers, it begins at 6:00am when the doors open to tantalizing aromas emanating from the kitchen. Flaky croissants, muffins and sweet rolls are pulled out of the ovens to please the hoards of people on their way to work or school. The coffee is so delicious; always freshly brewed and made from very high quality beans. Dunk a cinnamon stick pastry or a piece of their famous yogurt pound cake into the magical brew and you'll be transported. The charming interior lives up to its name, with hardwood floors, white beadboard paneling and warm yellow walls. Hand crafted wall hangings and the entire décor of Martha's Country Bakery are attributed to Athena Stertsios, George's lovely wife. I love the coffee bar in the back of the café, manned by Pepe, the barrista.

One cannot gnore the star of the show, which is the sparkling display case, some twenty feet long, displaying artfully prepared and displayed cakes, tarts, apple pies, giant cookies, little cookies, mousse pastries, ganache, puddings and so much more. George took my companion and I on a gastronomic tour of all their house made treats, one bite at a time. The single most notable, positive and appreciated aspect of each and every delectable item we tried was the balance of sugar in the recipes. In all too many cases these days, bakery items are overloaded with sugar to the point that you can't taste any of the other ingredients. Because Martha's Country Bakery uses only fine, high quality ingredients, the sugar is kept at a minimum to allow you to taste the butter, chocolate, fruit and flavorings that go into each item, with plenty of sweetness for even the sweetest tooth.

First, we tried some of his father's decades-old recipes for raspberry tarts, made with almond paste in the delicate, buttery crust. A slab of rich chocolate marble pound cake is but one of nine varieties of their famous pound cakes, made moist with high quality yogurt. Banana walnut pound cake gets

even more flavorful from a quick toasting, while chocolate pound cake is rich and moist. Cranberry crumb is one of my seasonal favorites, as is blueberry banana ($4.75 small / $11 large). Classic Bundt cakes practically scream for coffee, in both blueberry Bundt and chocolate Bundt varieties. Caramel walnut crumb cake is irresistible too ($7.95) and is always a welcome treat

at anyone's home. Let's talk about cupcakes. In recent years, these individual cakes, clothed in paper, have seen a resurgence

in popularity. I can say without reservation, that Martha's are the best I've eaten, mainly due to the proper balance of sugar in the real butter cream icing. Never gritty or artificial tasting, the real stuff is awesome, sitting like a little cloud upon a moist, flavorful cupcake. With at least 15 varieties to choose among, you can have a different one each time you visit. From classic vanilla cupcakes to the classic red velvet, and a

choice of frosting, I can't wait to go back for more. Peanut butter, pistachio, black and white, strawberry, raspberry, cappuccino and Oreo crunch are just some of the choices in these addictive cupcakes, offered at just $2 each. Adults and children alike will love a Cupcake Tier for their next birthday or special occasion. Imagine a five-tier serv

ing tray that holds 60-90 cupcakes. You can vary the flavors and each cupcake can be personalized to impress your guests. The staff at Martha's will even deliver this and all other baked creations to your home on party day for your convenience. Next time you're invited to someone's house, why not bring a freshly baked apple pie, piled high with sweet apples in a flaky crust. The almond horn is another classic, along with exceptionally light and creamy cheesecake. While many cheesecakes are cloying, Martha's is very creamy, yet light and delicately flavored. We even tried a wedge of red velvet cake topped with a cheesecake

layer…what a treat! Most cakes are available by the slice to enjoy at the comfortable tables, or take a whole one home to share with friends or family. Another surprise was real banana pudding, rice pudding and chocolate pudding, all made from scratch. I usually avoid these puddings in restaurants as they often taste rubbery

and artificial. Martha's puddings will remind you of your childhood and make you feel warm and happy inside.

Open from 6:00am to midnight, seven days a week, Martha's Country Bakery is an ideal spot any time of day, to have a delicious breakfast, a light lunch of spinach or ham and cheese tarts, a slice of red velvet cheese cake, a cupcake and a cup of coffee or a soft and chewy chocolate chip cookie. Another Marthas Country Bakery will open in January in Bayside, at the former site of Marretta's, another family-run bakery.

In a world full of mass-produced, artificially flavored food, it's important to know that George and the bakers at Martha's Country Bakeries are still preparing each creation by hand, with high quality ingredients and recipes from days gone by, made extra special with an extra helping of love. You can honestly taste it.

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