Rosca de Reyes from Panadería Nuevo León, in Pilsen. (Illustration by Jennifer Chavez.)

Chicago: City on the Bake

A sampling of holiday specials from your favorite South Side bakeries

The holidays are an opportunity to reflect, spend time with loved ones, prepare for the coming year—and eat as many pastries and cookies as you possibly can. Honestly, is there a better time of year to visit a bakery? Probably not, and the South Side has a fantastic assortment of bakeries to choose from. Here’s a sampling of some whose holiday specials are particularly worth saving room for this season:

Betty Bot Bakery, South Shore

Betty Bot Bakery specializes in vegan and gluten-free pastries, and owner and baker Betty Alper draws on European traditions around the holidays. Stollen is a German Christmas bread that Alper first encountered in culinary school. “I’ve never actually eaten what we all call fruitcake, but this is kind of like that in a way—but to the max,” she said. “The yeasted dough has dried fruits and nuts in it, and then there’s a center portion of the bread that is marzipan.” After it’s baked, the bread is traditionally soaked in butter—Alpert uses a vegan substitute—and rolled in sugar. Alper also has holiday kringles (puffy iced Norwegian treats with sweet filling), and sufganiyot (jelly donuts made to celebrate Hanukkah) for sale. “We love being a South Side bakery,” said Alpert, who also offers a specialty “atomic cake,” inspired by the University of Chicago’s role in building the A-bomb, year-round.

Betty Bot Bakery, 7100 S. South Shore Dr. (773) 495-4615. Stollen $8, kringel $4, sufganiyot $3. Available starting December 13; all items are vegan and gluten-free.

Majani, South Shore

Majani Restaurant opened in 2017 when owners Nasya and Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel saw a lack of healthy options in South Shore, and they have been serving plant-based and vegan food in the neighborhood ever since. The restaurant’s lemon and strawberry cake doesn’t feature flavor profiles one might expect in a holiday special, but who cares: it’s got strawberry compote, we’re buckling in for a long winter in Chicago, and we all could use a reminder of what summer once was like.

Majani Restaurant, 7167 S. Exchange Ave. (773) 359-4019. Lemon cake with strawberry compote, $70, orders must be placed at least a week in advance.

Masa Madre, Pilsen

Sol Salinas

Masa Madre doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location, instead conducting all its business online. Bakers Elena Vázquez Felgueres and Tamar Fasja Unikel, both of whom are Mexico City natives, started Masa Madre in 2017 by selling sourdough bread they advertised on Instagram out of a Pilsen apartment. Of the name, Felgueres explained, “masa madre is the natural starter you use to make sourdough.”

The pair later shifted to making babka, a Jewish sweet bread that hearkens back to Unikel’s Mexican-Jewish roots and is featured among their holiday offerings this year.

“We started here in Pilsen, and we really like the idea of this mix of cultures,” Unikel said. “Being in a neighborhood that’s pretty much Mexican, and that was Polish before this, I think it’s a great location to have something like this.” The golden-brown holiday babka I tried was flavored with pistachio and cardamom, which tasted faintly citrusy and had a warmth that would pair well with a cozy seat by the fireplace.

Masa Madre, hellomasamadre.com or instagram.com/hellomasamadre. Babka $20; six mini-babkas $21. Order online; vegan options available; pickup in Loop or in Pilsen. Available until December 13; bakery reopens after January 3.

Scafuri Bakery, Little Italy

Luke White

In 1904, Luigi Scafuri, a recent arrival to Chicago from Calabria, Italy, opened this bakery in what was then a neighborhood of Italian immigrants. After the UIC campus was built (and steadily expanded to swallow Maxwell Street and other landmarks of the Near West Side), Little Italy grew smaller, but Scafuri Bakery stayed. For the holidays, baker Juanita Marsden has created two special treats: a yule log cake and a white chocolate cranberry cheesecake. The yule log is a holiday tradition, and is “essentially a vanilla cake; [it] has chocolate buttercream textured on top,” Mardens said. Meringue “mushrooms” and rosemary complete the log. The cheesecake came about on a whim. “I had leftover cranberries,” Marsden said, “and I thought ‘cheesecake!’” The cake balances the white chocolate’s sweetness with the tartness of cranberries, she says. “Tart and sweet, you can’t go wrong.”

Scafuri Bakery, 1337 W. Taylor St. (312) 733-881. Yule Log $30, Cheesecake $36. Orders must be made in advance. 

Panadería Nuevo León, Pilsen

If you live on the South Side, holiday pastries don’t have to stop once Christmas is over. Many Mexican Chicagoans celebrate into early January with the Feast of the Epiphany, the day Catholics observe as the visit of the Three Kings to the Holy Family (and on which children traditionally receive presents in many Latin American countries). This celebration has a special pastry of its own (por supuesto). Abel Sauceda, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, opened Panadería Nuevo León in Pilsen in 1973, where the bakery has been turning out traditional polvorones, grageas, and conchas ever since. For the Epiphany, the bakery makes traditional rosca de reyes, or “ring of the king,” bread. The circle-shaped pastries are decorated with dried and candied fruits and will be available now through the weekend after January 6.   

Panadería Nuevo León, 1634 W. 18th St. (312) 243-5977. Large rosca de reyes $42; small rosca $32.

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Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last coordinated coverage of Beverly for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue. Sarah Fineman is a food & land editor for the Weekly. She last wrote about 200 Pharmacy for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.

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