One thing I’ve learned after many years of entertaining at home: Everyone loves dessert. So my advice to you is, don’t skimp. Go big AND stay home. Chicago is filled with fabulous bakeries producing Instagram-worthy, delectable goodies, and they’re more than happy to help you end your party — be it an intimate dinner gathering, a baby shower or a massive festive bash — on the sweetest of notes. Send your guests home with a smile on their faces with treats from some of our favorite dessert palaces.
All Chocolate Kitchen
Not far from the Wisconsin border is an oasis of all things chocolate, including life-size statues carved from chocolate as well as confections, gelato, patisserie, and all things yummy. Chef Alain Roby, who trained in France with the late Gaston Lenôtre, holds three Guinness World Records for his large-scale sugar and chocolate work, and has headed up the sweet table at the NFL Commissioner’s Super Bowl Party for nearly two decades. The man knows his desserts. So when he tells us that their Tiramisu (sold in individual and mini portions) is a best-seller, we want to immediately hop on that bandwagon. Mascarpone, ladyfingers, a whiff of coffee, and a dusting of cocoa powder, and the magic begins. 33 S. 3rd St., Geneva, 630-232-2395
Baker’s Tip: Keep tiramisu refrigerated until immediately before serving.
Bittersweet Pastry Shop
When pastry chef extraordinaire Judy Contino opened this bakery on West Belmont in 1992, she was a pioneer. The reins were passed in 2015 to pastry chef and co-owner Mindy Gohr, who had worked alongside Contino since 2005. Bittersweet celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and along with the gorgeously decorated cookies and pastries, fantastical celebration cakes have long been a hallmark of the bakery, a tradition that Gohr continues. With 16 cake options — including gluten-free red velvet — and 16 filling choices, there are endless combinations. 1114 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, 773-929-1100
Baker’s Tip: Cakes with buttercream frosting should be refrigerated and then allowed to come to room temperature before serving for optimal flavor and texture.
Open since 1998, Delightful Pastries specializes in authentic European pastries, all made in-house without chemicals or preservatives. Executive pastry chef and owner Dobra Bielinski says the mini pastries and eclairs are her best-selling party desserts, and given the incredibly comprehensive assortment available (from tiny tiramisu to mousse cups, petite panna cotta to key lime tarts and mini cannoli), that’s easy to believe. Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St.; 5927 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, 773-545-7215
Baker’s Tip: For a dessert buffet, order four mini-pastries per person (actually, make it five — this is the Midwest!).
This beautiful French-inspired bakery and patisserie had its origins at Chicago’s Green City Market, where co-owners Sandra and Mathieu Holl first plied their delicious wares for a number of years. Their best-selling Passion Fruit Tart (passion fruit cream in a buttery sablé shell, decorated with a dulcey cream made with caramelized white chocolate and sprinkled with raspberry powder) can be served as individual tarts, or purchased as a large tart that serves eight people. Also popular for parties is the decadent chocolate pôt de crème, topped with freshly whipped cream and pretty chocolate pearls — one of the best gluten-free treats around. 1220 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, 773-883-1313
Baker’s Tip: Slice tart with a serrated knife, wiping with a damp, warm cloth each time.
Although known for their crusty loaves of hand-forged sourdough breads, co-owners Ellen King and Julie Matthei also move quite a bit of laminated pastries (spot-on almond croissants and more), muffins, scones, and other breakfast favorites. But it’s their Seasonal Galette (the large 12- to 14-inch size serves eight people) that always proves a big hit at holidays and parties. To serve, warm in a 325-degree oven for 7 minutes and slice. King shares that parties sometimes order two flavors of the smaller galettes, cut them in quarters and serve on trays with a dollop of whipped cream and a mint sprig (for peach, apple or pear), or a sprig of basil or tarragon for the strawberry/berry galette. 810 Dempster St., Evanston, 847-869- 4396
Baker’s Tip: Serve the galettes with bourbon-vanilla whipped cream, or high-quality vanilla ice cream.
Three Tarts Bakery
There may be only two of the eponymous “tarts” remaining of the original three, but co-owners and bakers Ann Heinz and Cate Rooney have risen to the top (bakery pun!) of savvy North Shore hosts’ go-to lists for their “all-butter bakery” concoctions and special occasion cakes. Fall is their sweet spot, as with it comes pumpkin season. Two outstanding pumpkin-focused desserts, perfect for anything from a tailgate to an autumn wedding, are their Velvet Pumpkin Bundt (topped with a praline glaze and toasted pecans, it serves six) and The Great Pumpkin Cake, filled with smooth chocolate ganache and iced with caramel buttercream. Available in 6-inch (four to six servings) and 8-inch (10 to 15 servings) versions, “it’s the perfect antidote to a dreary autumn day,” says Rooney. 301 S. Happ Road, Northfield, 847-446-5444
Baker’s Tip: Pumpkin flavors pair beautifully with Kahluà–spiked coffee.
The Lincoln Park location in particular is a jewel box of a store, and definitely one of the top stops on the afternoon tea circuit. And while every luscious cake, cookie, and pastry here will tempt you, the French-style Macarons are first in class, as their versatility knows no bounds. Bring them as a hostess gift in a lovely gift box, or go for the stun factor with a Macaron Tower, a guaranteed jaw dropper at any party, plus it comes in three sizes. 2108 N. Clark St.; Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St.; 3243 N. Broadway; and 5229 S. Harper Court, Chicago, 773-868-4574
Baker’s Tip: Overwhelmed by the amount of flavors? Red Velvet, Mango Passion, Nutella, and Green Tea are definite musts.
Look to Pros Who Pay It Forward for Your Next Party
These bakeries have you set in the dessert department, but if you’re still in need of some extra help as you plan your next soiree, these party pros who pay it forward will get you covered — plus, they’ll pass along the love in the process.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.