Sweet Surrender

Several years ago, while researching bakeries in Los Angeles, I tasted dainties from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley. While I did not find a lot of great bread (which will come as no surprise to anyone searching for a decent loaf of Italian), I did enjoy excellent pastries at small, boutique bakeries: butter-drenched brioche tarts at EuroPane in Pasadena; lip-puckering lemon tarts at Michel Richard in Beverly Hills. And yet I found only two larger bakeries of substance: Sweet Dreams, in Santa Monica, which closed within months, and Perfectly Sweet, in Eagle Rock, which, lucky me, was but a 15-minute drive from my house. This meant that, when I did not feel like baking (which is not often, hewing as I have to a four-pans-of-something-sweet-in-the-oven-a-week schedule since age 7), I could whiz up to Perfectly Sweet and score a dozen Sarah Bernhardts (almond meringues filled with chocolate mousse and dipped in bittersweet chocolate) or a quintessential, not-too-sweet carrot cake.

Then the bakery moved to Alhambra, which somehow sounded like the other end of the Earth. While I still accompanied brides-to-be to Perfectly Sweet to taste-test the exquisite wedding cakes (made from scratch and, at $3.50 a serving, priced at about half of what other bakeries charge), I stopped making Perfectly Sweet a constitutional, until I recently craved a Sarah Bernhardt and decided to clock the odometer: 11 miles, an eminently doable distance for such divine sweets.

The air in Perfectly Sweet smells like cocoa, and the room has the look of a French farmhouse, with five wooden tables inside (and as many outside), buckets of fresh lavender, and turn-of-the-century tin signage. The large open kitchen, hung with copper pots and complicated cake molds, allows a view of five bakers turning out an incredible array of goods. Yet there is no rushing, no hustle, no kitchen radio blaring. Instead, each baker appears quietly consumed with what he is doing right now: unmolding a mousse cake as delicately as taking a baby from a bassinet, piping rosettes of butter-cream onto roulades, peeling petals from a peach-colored rose. It’s Zen baking.

And there is owner Mary Aqleh, hand-dipping truffles. Whereas many bakeries attempt to branch from pastry to bread -- a bad idea, as great bread-baking is an art that requires years to perfect, if not the thumbprint of God on one‘s forehead -- Perfectly Sweet’s outgrowth has been more natural, into artisan candies: apricot white-chocolate truffles that taste like a full cream version of Raisinets, chocolate truffles whose solid exteriors give way to interiors as supple as soft butter (and so rich, one friend commented, they go ”straight to the circulatory system“), blocks of English toffee that put Almond Roca to shame. The toffee is also mixed into the almond brittle cake, swirled into chocolate ganache and slathered between layers of devil‘s food; one couple I know who ordered this for their wedding said guests claimed it was the sexiest food they’d ever eaten.

Most people stop into Perfectly Sweet for cups of coffee and individual desserts, which are lined up like bright jewels inside the glass case: delicate mousse cakes 3 inches across, dotted with raspberries or swirled with peanut butter; the signature ”clouds,“ lemon, orange or espresso butter-cream sandwiched between almond meringues; bright lemon tarts and dense truffle cakes; too many cheesecakes to list; gingerbread boys and girls; a tres leches cake that tastes of caramel and oats. Sitting with a cup of tea and a dramatically splayed almond tuille filled with pastry cream and fresh berries, I recalled what I had first thought about Perfectly Sweet: that the desserts are so good, they may tempt Angelenos to adopt the Continental habit of a pastry every day at 4 p.m. Or 10 p.m., which is how late Perfectly Sweet stays open.

As I was leaving (with a take-home carton of the yearned-for Sarah Bernhardts, plus a pound of truffles nestled in a shiny gold box and tied with grosgrain ribbon), I complimented Aqleh on the new location and apologized for not stopping in more often, as it had just seemed so far away.

”If it‘s easier, you can go to Wild Oats or Bristol Farms,“ she said. ”We supply many of their cakes.“

It’s an option. Then again, there is such peace and plenty at Perfectly Sweet, I believe I‘ll drive.

126 W. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 282-9400. Open daily 7 a.m.--10 p.m. Individual cakes and tarts, $3.50--$4; candies, $19.50 a dozen; larger cakes and pies, $12.50--$40. MC, V.

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