December 18, 2011

USA: Appealing to Nostalgia for the Old Country

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / NY Region / December 18, 2011

At Varrelmann's Bake Shop in Rutherford, N.J., Michael Fencik bakes German stollen. 
He and a partner have owned the bakery since 1991 . Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

By Tammy La Gorce


A SIGN outside Varrelmann’s Bake Shop on Park Avenue in Rutherford reads: “Try our German apple cake.”

At this time of year, though, chances are that customers visiting the 109-year-old shop are looking for something else in addition to, or even instead of, that cake. Like a handful of other New Jersey bakeries with deep European roots, it caters to the nostalgic — in Varrelmann’s case, German transplants, and their children and grandchildren, whose Christmas sweet teeth can be sated only by authentic German stollen. That specialty is a dense, buttery sweet bread full of fruit and sprinkled with vanilla sugar ($16.95 for a one-pound loaf; $32 for a two-pound).

“We have people move away from the area, and they’ll come back this time of year and say, ‘Oh, thank God you’re still here,’ ” said Michael Fencik, 57, the co-owner with Katherine Young, 53. He is of Slovak descent, she of Austrian. The partners, who both live in Lyndhurst, bought the bakery in 1991 and obtained the recipe from Ms. Young’s former employers at a German bakery in Union City, which has since closed.

For practical reasons, Mr. Fencik is in charge of perfecting the several hundred stollen the shop sells during the holidays. “You have to be able to pull 50 pounds of dough out of the mixer,” he said. Experience is also crucial: “The sponge has to be just right — you can’t overmix it. And while it’s baking, it has to come out of the oven three times to be washed with butter.”

Varrelmann’s sells other Old World specialties, like German spritz cookies ($13.95 a pound) and strudels (several flavors; $11.50 for an eight-inch), but stollen is the runaway holiday favorite. Which is unfortunate for Mr. Fencik. “It’s a difficult item to produce,” he said. “Nobody wants to work that hard anymore. But people love it.”

Ania Bednarczyk at Banas Bakery in Wallington. Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times 

The story, with a different accent, is similar at DiPaolo Bros. Bakery in Newark, where fanciful gingerbread houses top a long strip of bakery cases.

“Business is grueling at Christmas. You’re working 16-hour days. But we look forward to it,” said the owner, Frank DiPaolo of East Hanover. Mr. DiPaolo’s grandmother opened the shop in 1961, and his father, Francesco DiPaolo, who died last year, took it over in 1972 after immigrating from Italy.

“It’s been a tradition to make everything they had in Italy for Christmas — struffoli, panettone, Yule logs filled with Italian cannoli filling,” Mr. DiPaolo said.

DiPaolo’s is open even on Christmas Day, Mr. DiPaolo, 39, said. The weeks leading up to it can be a study in customers’ degrees of separation from the old country.

“People come in asking for the honey balls,” Mr. DiPaolo said. “That’s the new generation. The older people know it’s struffoli” — a plate of small, stuck-together balls of dough that have been fried (or baked) and coated in honey and nonpareils ($10 for a small plate; $15 for a large). The shop sells roughly 1,000 during an average December, Mr. DiPaolo said.

DiPaolo’s best-selling holiday item, though, is the Italian cookie tray. “We’ll go through a couple thousand of those,” he said. (They are priced from $9 to $40 for one to five pounds of butter cookies; higher-priced anise cookies, biscotti, pizelle, pignoli and other varieties average $13 a pound.)

Not included in the typical DiPaolo’s tray, because they are large and relatively exotic, are mostaccioli cookies — diamond-shaped, cakelike almond spice cookies dipped in rich chocolate — and rococo rings, donut-shaped almond spice cookies (both $8 a pound). “Those are real authentic for the holidays. It’s kind of an old-school thing,” Mr. DiPaolo said.

Equally devoted to old-world holiday specialties, but Swiss ones, is John Cioffi, owner of the Swiss Pastry Shoppe in Scotch Plains. Mr. Cioffi, 74, of Cresskill, is originally from northern Italy but apprenticed under a Swiss chef before taking ownership of the bakery in 1987; the shop, which is 57 years old, is certified kosher.

Mr. Cioffi bakes two holiday stollen: the Dresden, or German, version has almonds and sometimes marzipan, and the Swiss uses walnuts ($14 for one pound; $23 for two).

“I sell probably 800 stollen every year, mostly for older people looking to carry on their traditions,” he said.

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