When my mom went to work as a bank teller, my two little sisters and I found ourselves with a whole hour of unsupervised time after school. We were now latchkey kids. I begged my mom to put my house key on a chain I could wear around my neck, as I imagined any self-respecting latchkey kid would. I think I lifted this image from the cover of Reader's Digest, or Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, two of the many magazines I read in the bathroom.

My mother's after-school absence encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen with a battered Better Homes cookbook. Here, undeterred by adult instruction, I found that I could bake almost anything by following recipes obsessively. My most triumphant moment as latchkey baker was pulling a pan of gorgeous cream puffs out of the oven. The rain hammered sideways into the front window as my sisters and I hunkered down on the couch. Slowly, deliberately, we savored bite after bite of the airy wonder, pleased as shit with ourselves.

Sitting in the window of Cafe Besalu, I taste the same delight in James Miller's pastries. Old trees line Ballard's 24th Avenue N.W., speckling the cafe with shadows. The open kitchen basks in warm spots of light, under which dough rises, and Miller is actually cutting up cold butter with two knives. Perhaps this basic technique is what reminds me of my latchkey days--no one had taught me any shortcuts, so I simply obeyed every tedious step the cookbook commanded, not knowing I could make a faster, albeit inferior, pastry.

Miller, a tall, dark-haired, slender man in a white shirt and apron, wraps his long fingers around a stiff piece of dough and massages it into pliancy. Besalu's view of the kitchen and stunning pastries make it an utterly pleasant place to linger over an Americano ($1.75) and a ginger biscuit ($1.75), which is much like a cream scone, with chunks of crystallized ginger. The barista and co-owner, Meg Hagele, is completely understanding when a customer requests LOTS of whipped cream on top of his orange-current brioche ($2.50). I shocked myself by ordering a chai tea one day ($1.75) and was, in turn, shocked by its spicy, housemade goodness. That made me so happy, I gobbled up an Appenzell nut twist ($2.50), rich with hazelnuts, cinnamon, and butter, and returned for a slice of the pear frangipane tart ($3.25). I also ordered quiche Lorraine ($3.50) to go, and was delighted to wait a couple minutes for it to be heated up in a real oven, preserving its perfectly flaky crust and firm, creamy interior. There are, of course, many more pastries I could write small pastry poems about, but I will leave them in their fully realized state in the pastry case and summarize with this haiku:

Pastry case, beacon

In the rain. One hundred watt

Brioche in my mouth.

Yummy House Bakery is what I would name my bakery if Sam Poon hadn't already done it. Poon is proud of his current Hong Kong-style cakes and buns, such as the eggy egg tart ($2.25). Unlike other bakeries in the International District, his wares are much closer to Hong Kong-style, according to his homesick patrons. I've never been to Hong Kong, but I can certainly understand the pastry pangs one might experience after I sampled Yummy House's very pretty chestnut cake ($2.50 a slice). The frosting has more in common with the kind of light, not-so-sweet whipped cream that tops European-style cakes than the toothache-inducing buttercream slathered all over American cakes. Yummy House bakes signature sponge cakes, made with egg whites and without butter, for an airier foundation for the fresh fruit, nuts, pretzels, and other fantastical toppings piled imaginatively high. For a mere $17, you can walk away with a cream cheese cake, festooned with said pretzels--genius! Milk tea, with or without giant black tapioca pearls, comes with a super-wide straw, customized for milk tea sipping. Look for Yummy House's new retail store in the massive new Uwajimaya.

Cafe Besalu

5909 24th Ave NW, 789-1463. Tues-Sun 7 am-3 pm, $.

Yummy House Bakery

522 Sixth Ave S, 340-8838. Daily 9 am-8:30 pm, $.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

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