BY SEAN HUGHES
PHOTO BY JILL LIGHTNER
University Way is not known for its charm, so it’s a happy, slightly magical surprise to discover the little red-and-white-striped house just north of 55th Street. The fairytale building is home to Curio Confections, the brainchild of Maria Friedman. Curio is the kind of place where it seems totally appropriate for miniature hot-air balloons to hang from the ceiling and portholes to line one of the walls. A row of jars filled with brightly colored lollipops welcome you; there are marshmallows, nut brittles, nougats, and an overall feeling of wonder at the colors and sweet smells. It’s like going along with Hansel and Gretel to the house of candy and cake, only instead of a wicked witch on the hunt for child-sized snacks, you’re greeted by the offer of all the sweets you desire.
What is this place? “A sweet shop, with quiches for hungry people,” in Maria’s words. It’s a bakery, a confectionary, and a wine bar all wrapped into one. It’s the product of her desire to bring “adventure baking to the masses.” Adventure baking means having fun, winging it, seeing baking as a world of possibilities and not a science. It’s easy to see this spirit in Friedman, who is energetic and excited. This spirit makes Curio Confections the lively, experimental, and wonderful place that it is.
It’s fun to watch visitors enter and see their enthusiasm for a shop like this. First, a glimmer of excitement spreads across their faces. They look at the lollipops and marshmallows, at the cookies and pies. Their eyes light up like the proverbial kid in the candy store. It’s a suspension of the ordinary world-weariness, brought about because Friedman has so clearly gone above and beyond to make Curio Confections special.
Maria started baking when she was five and hasn’t stopped in the intervening eighteen years. For being only twenty-three years old, she’s quite a remarkable baker. She’s mostly self-taught, too. For a couple of years, she worked at Trophy cupcakes, moving up from selling coffee to baking the cupcakes. Then, wanting a change, she moved to New Zealand for a year to work on an organic farm. But the farm job evaporated upon her arrival, and she ended up helping to start a bakery. Back in Seattle, she knew she wanted to have her own bakery and Curio Confections will celebrate its one-year anniversary this May.
Maria wears her pastry nerd flag proudly, in the form of a tattoo that reads “pi(e).” As a child, she was fascinated by irrational numbers, like pi and e, and given to memorizing long stretches of them. Multiple them together and you get a different, more rational thing: dessert. To her, baking is a combination of science and art and a way for her to express those two interests. It’s sculpture, but it’s dependent on chemistry, botany and biology.
With the help of her one employee and some friends, she has built Curio Confections into one of Seattle’s most charming independent businesses. In addition to operating the shop, she caters events and sells some of her confections at DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market.
The results of her endeavors are nothing less than spectacular and the pastry case always contains surprises. Will it be Nougat de Montelimar, biscuits and gravy, Parisian macaroons, peppermint marshmallows, individual pineapple upside-down cakes or Turkish delight?
Cookies are a staple and they (especially the snickerdoodles) are excellent: soft and chewy in the center, thick and substantial. The pies, as you might expect given Friedman’s tattoo, are excellent . Imagine that you had the mother people are always talking about, who made pies with perfect, flaky crusts and cute designs cut out of the top. Then add to that a range of creative fillings. The flavor combinations change every day, so you might find an apple pie with cheddar cheese crust or a chocolate pecan pie or a lemon blackberry tart.
Then come the pralines. They’re little mounds of sweetness that melt away in your mouth, gradually revealing the pecans hidden inside. The sweetness is, as it should be, offset by just the right amount of saltiness to keep the pecans at the center of the experience. They are impossible to resist.
Curio is great to visit any day, but the all-day brunch on Sunday is especially pleasing. On offer is an even-larger-than-usual assortment of baked goods, with something to satisfy sweet tooth and savory tooth alike. Bubbly grapefruit and orange juice mimosas sparkle and pique the palate. The prices are almost too modest—it’s hard not to go back for just one more thing.
Creative, continuously novel confections attract people to Curio Confections. But there’s more than that too. There’s the décor, the great logo, the seasonal decorations, the fires in the fireplace. There’s Maria herself. There are occasional events, like pie-offs—basically pie-baking competitions that involve the consumption of enormous amount of pie in the name of judging. It’s all of this that has built a friendly community and atmosphere around Curio Confections. Unlike the fairytales, you won’t need a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
5509 University Way NE, Suite C
Seattle, WA 98105
Sean Hughes lives and writes in Seattle.