IN EVERY MEDIUM, there are artists who have "the line"—an innate feeling for their tools, and the ability to create work that looks natural, comfortable, and effortless. There are kids in junior high who can take a #2 pencil and capture the essence of gleaming chrome, and then there are those tragic figures who blow a fortune on an art degree and break your heart with their awkward faces and stiff still-lifes. Because the former are so rare, it follows that the latter makes most of the creative work we consume.
The pastries at the Sugar Cube are clearly created by someone who has "the line" in her chosen medium. Kir Jensen turned her cult-favorite dessert cart into a proper shop on NE Alberta four months ago, and now five days a week the cases and trays are filled with treats of such consistent richness, tenderness, and curb appeal that I've had to seriously recalibrate my expectations of what baked goods can be. Even scones—all too often the chalky hardtack of a morning in steerage, the hairshirt of breakfast experiences—become delicate and sweet things in her kitchen (the satiny lemon curd doesn't hurt).
Anchoring the savory end of her offerings are strata and quiche ($5.50 a slice) of unparalleled texture and flavor. Fillings vary a little, but tend to favor mushroom, Olympic Provisions sweetheart ham, cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a deft use of goat cheese that brings sharpness and tang to a decidedly rich custard of cream, eggs, and cheese. Encasing the golden quiche is the archetypal flaky, sandy pie crust that can hold such heaviness yet still crumble at the edge of a spoon; it's evenly colored to the core and intensely nutty. (Think back to all the off-blond and near-white pie crusts you had over the holidays. Pathetic. Unacceptable. Unenlightened.)
There are two pies in regular rotation that sum up the Sugar Cube's classical/kitsch personality. The first is Mom's Famous Coffee Mallow Pie (pies are $5 a slice), an acknowledged crib from 1970s birdbrain cookery that uses mini marshmallows, coffee, and Jensen's intuition to create something better than those original Sunset magazine test kitchens could have conceived of, like if Carême made a Twinkie. The second is the Bourbon Brown Butter Honey Pie, an intense and unapologetic riff on poverty pastries like vinegar pie. It's finished with Bee Local honey and Jacobsen salt—both fairly expensive, premium ingredients to work with—a stylish comment.
The Chocolate Blackout cake ($6 a slice) isn't based on an expressive agenda, so much as it's a tour de force of execution and gestalt. Chocolate stout cake, layered with bittersweet chocolate ganache, and topped with liquid salted caramel, is perfect across the board in terms of rich, truly moist cake, intensity of quality couverture, and a complex, near-burnt caramel that can still be heard over it all.
A small assortment of reliable breakfast plates are available in the shop, chiefly based on their savory pies, toasted brioche with spreads ($3-4), and house-made granola ($4.50-5.50). The maple olive oil granola is an upscale blend of almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, coconut, and dried fruit, like something you'd be offered on Virgin Air. Get it with almond milk; the strong and unsweetened acidity of the other option, Straus yogurt, clashes with the mix.
Rounding out the cases are reliably tender coffee cakes, muffins, sinuously sweet and smooth almond cakes, pastries with yolk-like golden dollops of lemon curd, melting brownies, and subtly spiced thumbprint shortbread cookies. Coffee, French press, toddy, and a modest handful of other beverages are available ($2.50-4).
Jensen also has a cookbook: The Sugar Cube (Chronicle Books, 2012, 144 pages, $24.95), a user-friendly tome rich with insight, clear writing, and the voice of experience. One pro-tip alone gives away enough firepower to revolutionize the career of the average home baker (brush your still-warm cakes and muffins with flavored simple syrups: it helps with moisture and depth of flavor)—but I'm reluctant to give away more. From savory stratas to crostatas, her cult-favorite cupcakes, cookies, and pies, it's an information-dense book that presents well and works well. I test drove an intermediate-level recipe for cherry clafoutis with a rolled oat crumble topping, and the delicious results were surprisingly similar in flavor and texture to the food I'd had at the shop—a considerable victory for any cookbook.
The flavors and textures in your financiers, muffins, and snickerdoodles are tuned as well as those of any fine dining pastry program—and have been as consistent. This is a big claim, of course, but Jensen does have a fine dining background, and the product speaks for itself.
Easy street parking. Open Wednesday-Sunday 8 am-5 pm. Whole pies and special orders available.