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December 21, 2017:

A local ‘gem’ wins N.J.’s best bakery showdown

It’s official – Sweet Melissa Patisserie in Clinton Township is New Jersey’s best bakery.

The charming little cafe, with its delectable French-inspired cakes, pastries, tarts and cookies, bested nine other finalists in our epic month-and-a-half-long search.

Melissa Murphy Rafano stood in shock as we walked in the door to make the announcement, then burst into tears.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I heard screaming and said, why are people screaming?” said Christy Jackson, who works at Sweet Melissa.

“I love the pastry,” said Maureen Chatfield, former owner of Chatfield’s in Gladstone and New York City. “Her apple tarte tatin is ridiculous. It’s the best I’ve ever had, and I was in New York for 15 years.”

“There are not many people who bake this well,” Kim Crawford of Neshanic Station said succinctly.

Jenny Plassche was in the bakery with her daughter, Grace, who said that when she comes home from college, Sweet Melissa “is the first place I go.”

Sweet Melissa Patisserie opened at its current location in May 2016, but owner Melissa Murphy Rafano is no baking neophyte. She and her husband, Chris Rafano, operated Sweet Melissa Patisserie in three Brooklyn locations for 16 years before moving to New Jersey.

Along the way, Murphy Rafano wrote The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, published in 2008.

Hunterdon County was a natural for both business and home because Melissa keeps a horse there.

The bakery is small and country-cute, with croissants, tarts, donuts and other items beckoning sinfully behind display cases. The selection is not expansive, but quality, not quantity, is the byword here.

“I’m most passionate about the croissants,” Murphy Rafano said. “We make everything here – our own bread, our own jam. Our bacon is crazy. When we use chocolate, we use Belgian . . .”

“There are not many people who bake this well,” said Kim Crawford of Neshanic Station, joining in the raucous celebration. The assistant judges who joined me on the visit to Sweet Melissa in the final round strained for superlatives.

“Best eclair in the U.S., period,” said Tim Drag. “And they had pastries here I didn’t even know existed.”

“A showpiece of artistry around butter, sugar and flour,” added Joanna Allgood. “It was hard to find something less than perfect here.”

“The raspberry donut was an epiphany. . . perhaps the best donut I have ever eaten,” said Rick Rubenstein.

Jim Zilinski said the shortbread cookie  – “perfectly balanced with a nice buttery flavor” – was probably the best he’s ever had, and Craig Gately called Sweet Melissa “a gem of a find.”

“After tasting the various offerings, I felt I just witnessed the pastry equivalent of Don Larsen throwing a perfect game in the World Series,” Tim Drag said.

There are macaroons and macarons, cookies and croissants, peppermint marshmallows and French meringues. A maple black pepper bacon and cheddar croissant? Sure. A Flourless Fallen Chocolate Souffle? That, too.

My favorite things here? Where do I start? The 5 berry lavender donut, quite possibly the ultimate jelly donut; the sticky-sweet cruller, which bears absolutely no resemblance to your average diner cruller; the pear-cranberry pie with ginger snap crumble; and the marvelously-named Trouble Bun, a brioche stuffed with vanilla custard, baked, then rolled in vanilla sugar.

Good luck finding some of Sweet Melissa’s pastries – Kouign Amann (a round crusty cake with sugar and butter folded in); financier (almond cake); canele (a pastry flavored with rum and vanilla); merveilleux (made with two meringues welded with whipped cream) – in New Jersey.

Sweet Melissa also operates out of the Stockton Market Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Rafano had one of the funnier lines in my sugary search for the state’s best bakery.

Asked by Drag if the judges could get some steak knives to cut the pastries, Rafano cracked, “We don’t sell steaks.”

Murphy Rafano’s mom, though, had the best story.

“She was born on Thanksgiving,” said Pamela Murphy, joining in the celebration inside the bakery/cafe. “I had dinner, had the pie, then went to the hospital. I didn’t give her a middle name because I knew she was going to be famous.”

Our epic search for N.J.’s best bakery began early last month, with a call for nominations. About 400 bakeries were nominated; every one was put on a ballot, divided into four regions. More than 30,000 people voted; the top six vote-getters in each region became 24 of our semifinalists; I picked the other 26. Every county was represented among the semifinalists. I visited all 50 semifinalists over three weeks, then picked ten finalists, which were re-visited with teams of assistant judges.

In all, I drove 3,564 miles and sampled 750+ items. No, I don’t know my blood sugar level, but my blood pressure held steady. More or less.

Website: nj.com

By Peter Genovese
Photo: NJ Advance Media for NJ.com