⇦ The cannoli at Vaccaro’s.

By Lauren Cohen and Christine Jackson
Photography by Justin Tsucalas

Food & Drink

Sweet Devotion

Local bakeries tie their communities to the past with family recipes and tastes of home.

⇧ The cannoli at Vaccaro’s.

When we want to add a little joy to our day, we surrender to sugar. Pints of ice cream are bought when we’re feeling down. Wedding cakes, Christmas cookies, and Thanksgiving pies fill tables—and bellies—in times of celebration, and no matter what, we always have room for dessert. It’s hard to look at something sweet without a smile spreading across your face—and a major craving kicking in.

“What we do makes people happy,” says Charles Hergenroeder, the third-generation owner of Hamilton’s Woodlea Bakery. “That’s why I like to tell people it’s health food. I say, ‘If you eat this, it’s going to make you happy. And there’s nothing healthier than being happy.’”

“If you eat this, it’s going to make you happy. And there’s nothing healthier than being happy.”

Visiting the family bakeries scattered around Baltimore, there’s plenty to smile about. Across the city, toiling away at early hours and leaning over pastry cases, there are fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and groups of grandchildren carrying on the sweet legacies of those who came before them.

“We’ve seen every single craze in the world, but there’s always going to be people who want baked goods,” Hergenroeder says. “Someone is always going to need a cake. You just have to remain topical and people will continue to come in.”

These legacy shops might come up with new twists on old favorites or add an address, but they remain connected to their family histories. Scattered across the former immigrant communities and working-class neighborhoods that once fueled their businesses, these bakeries offer something beyond what’s available inside a grocery-store pastry case or trendy cupcake spot. For some, that’s a taste of home, for others, a sense of nostalgia. At each, no matter your age or ancestry, you’ll find delicious treats and people who care deeply—both about the food they share and the city they’ve called home for generations.

Cherry-filled turnovers at Simon’s.


Fenwick Bakery

7219 Harford Rd., Parkville | 410-444-6410

Production at this Parkville institution starts as early as 2 a.m., when bakers begin churning out chocolate-glazed doughnuts, gooey pecan buns, cheese Danishes, lattice-topped pies, and the famous seasonal peach cake for the morning crowd. And most mornings, you’ll find Al Meckel, who remembers his first day of work at Fenwick on September 6, 1979. “I was given the menial task of greasing and washing pans,” he says. He later graduated to frying doughnuts, and, in the mid-’90s, became part-owner of the storied bakery alongside longtime cake decorator Claudette Wilson, who retired last fall. Meckel’s mentors, Ed and Walt Uebersax, were the sons of original owners Ernest and Alvena Uebersax—who first opened the bakery on Washington Boulevard in 1913. It changed locations several times before landing at its current storefront in 1971, but many of the recipes remain the same. “I still have the recipes that were written in Mr. Walt’s handwriting,” he says. “I go back and look every once in a while, just to remind myself to do it the same way.” Descendants of the Uebersax family are among Meckel’s regulars. “I like it when they tell me that it’s just like it used to be when their grandfather, father, or uncle ran it,” he says. “It’s gratifying to find out that, in their eyes, I’m still doing it the same way.”


Herman’s Bakery

7560 Holabird Ave., Dundalk | 410-284-5590

Although its full name is no longer “Herman’s Drive-In Bakery,” the retro signage at this Dundalk bakery harkens back to the days when pulling up and parking your car felt like a luxury. “Very few businesses had parking spaces out front then,” says Harry Herman, the third man of that name to run the shop. “We dropped that little phrase after a few years, but we served the neighborhood with all kinds of bakery goods.” Herman’s has been serving up those goods since Harry’s Polish grandfather opened the original shop in Canton in 1923, stocking traditional recipes such as Hungarian strudel and soft, sweet Polish paczki. A few things have changed since then. Dundalk became home in 1958, and, over the years, big sellers have shifted from the old standbys to intricate decorated cakes. Now in their 96th year (and fifth generation), Herman runs the place with his niece Adrienne Porcella, while his other nieces and sister create the bakery’s popular marshmallow doughnuts, buns, and rolls and decorate the elaborate cakes. As for Herman, he prefers the simple products, especially one that has been around since the beginning. “We have something called a jelly turnover. I remember when I was younger, customers would call them penny pies,” says Herman, 70. “Back when they were growing up, they always knew they could buy them for one penny. That’s an item that’s stayed.”

 

“Winter was for cannoli, and summer was for Italian ices.
In between, there were endless pignoli and amaretti.”


Hoehn’s Bakery

400 S. Conkling St. | 410-675-2884

The same hearth oven that William Hoehn installed in the back of a former dentist’s office in 1927 is still churning out daily breads and sweets at Hoehn’s, filling the corner bakery with the buttery smell of rising loaves and sheet cakes. Highlandtown was a different place when Hoehn came to Baltimore from Germany at the turn of the last century, but, 92 years later, his bakery remains a community hub and neighborhood champion. Hoehn began baking for the scores of other German families who flocked to the spot for a taste of home, and his bakery still turns out many original recipes, to the delight of the customers who have been coming for decades. Today, granddaughter Sharon Hoehn Hooper runs the show along with her cousin Louis Sahlender. Hooper comes in early each morning to start the baking and stock the shelves with rye and Vienna white bread, trays of doughnuts, and huge slab cakes in such flavors as coconut custard, blueberry, and just pure butter. Classic German flavors persist today through a generations-old hot cross bun recipe and an updated Christmas stollen, while longtime Baltimore roots shine in the smearcase and moist, sweet peach cake. The flavors change with the seasons, but making things by hand the same way William did is a constant. “Every single bun is rolled up by hand. We do apple dumplings in the fall with an apple peeler that’s over 100 years old,” says Hooper. “We’re really pretty stable in an unstable world. We’re old fashioned, and we’re proud of that. We don’t want to change. We want to do things right.”


Pariser’s Bakery

6711 Reisterstown Rd., Fallstaff | 410-764-1700

Sporting white sneakers and flour-dusted pants, Motti Margalit greets guests from behind the large display cases at this bakery on Reisterstown Road. On any given day, you’ll see him putting out pastries, consulting with clients for weddings and b’nai mitzvahs, or gifting treats to children who come in to visit—a Pariser’s custom that has transcended generations. “People tell me all the time that they remember getting a free cookie when they came to Pariser’s with their parents as kids,” says the Israeli-born owner. “That’s one tradition we try to keep.” Customers also get nostalgic about the fresh-baked challah, classic chocolate-tops, triangle-shaped hamantaschen, beautiful black-and-whites, and chocolate-covered butter cookies rolled in rainbow sprinkles. The bakery’s earliest roots trace back to Hungarian immigrant Adolph Pariser, whose family ran the original business inside a large Penn North warehouse. The flagship eventually shuttered, but Pariser’s grandson, Beryl Zerivitz, relocated the shop to its current location in 1976. Since taking over 12 years ago, Margalit—who grew up working in his parents’ bakery in Jerusalem—has breathed new life into the spot. “I brought over the Israeli style of baking,” he says, mentioning Holy Land-inspired offerings such as pillowy pita, chocolate-chip halva, and flaky bourekas. Though he’s unsure whether Pariser’s will remain in his family in the future, he hopes to keep it in the community. “It’s been part of Baltimore for so many years,” he says. “That’s the part I’m trying to keep alive.”


George Simon of Simon’s Bakery; chocolate-tops at Simon’s; the train garden at Simon’s.

Simon’s Bakery

582 Cranbrook Rd., Cockeysville | 410-667-9832

Walk into this Cockeysville landmark and you’ll find 86-year-old owner George Simon chatting with customers, tinkering with his model trains in the front window, or showing off the antique mixer from the original Simon’s Bakery, which was founded near the Hanover Street Bridge in 1886. “I can remember standing on the support of the mixing bowl as a little kid,” says Simon, whose snow-white hair peeks out of his baker’s cap. “The wheel on the side would spin, the bowl would go down a foot-and-a-half, and I thought I was in Disneyland.” Here, regulars love the croissants, scrumptious crumb buns, dense chocolate cupcakes, and slabs of locally sourced summertime peach cake. But the thin, crispy sugar cookies—an iteration of the local Otterbein’s classic—remain a top seller. “The cookies are what pay the rent,” Simon quips. The bakery was founded by Simon’s grandfather, Bernard Simon, who married into the Otterbein family after immigrating from Germany in the 1880s. The two local dynasties flourished alongside one another, partnering here and there before Simon opened the bakery’s current location in 1977. When asked what he is most proud of throughout his career, Simon remains humble. “A lot of people come in and tell me I’m a legend in my own time,” he says. “But I don’t know about that. I’m just doing what I do.”


Ice-cream sandwich; the gelato case; cappucino with a complimentary cookie at Vaccaro’s.

Vaccaro’s

222 Albemarle St. | 410-685-4905

Nick Vaccaro.

Nick Vaccaro has been working at the Little Italy bakery that bears his name since 1977, but this sweet stop dates back to 1956, when Nick’s father, Gioacchino Vaccaro, founded the original location across Albemarle Street. Born in Palermo, Gioacchino brought his pastry knowledge to Baltimore and created an institution. “Mr. Jimmy,” as he was known in town, spoke little English and made only Sicilian pastries. “If you’ve ever seen the Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi, well, my father looked like the guy, dressed like the guy, and acted like the guy,” Vaccaro says. Customer questions were mostly frowned upon, winter was for cannoli, and summer was for Italian ices. In between, there were endless Italian almond macaroons, pignoli, amaretti, and other bite-sized cookies. When his father retired in the summer of 1980, Nick Vaccaro took over and expanded operations. Vaccaro’s now includes the larger pasticceria at 222 Albemarle, a production facility and warehouse, and locations in Canton, Hunt Valley, and Bel Air. There are fewer types of cookies on the trays these days, and the customers don’t speak as much Italian as they once did, but you can still get the same cannoli Gioacchino began making nearly 63 years ago. And you can also count on the signature St. Joseph’s Day zeppole with its cherry-topped dollop of cream in the pastry case every March. Some things change, but some never will. “What was fashionable back then isn’t fashionable today,” Nick says. “Luckily, the cannolis are.”


Bakers at work at Woodlea Bakery.

Woodlea Bakery

4905 Belair Rd. | 410-488-7717

Preparing the pastries at Woodlea Bakery.

Back in 1943, there were family-run bakeshops around every corner in the Hamilton neighborhood. Many have since closed, but this one has persisted thanks to the descendants of John and Dorothy Hergenroeder and their time-honored recipes. Woodlea still sells the same sweet buns, jelly turnovers, and old-school raisin and rye breads that it has for 76 years. But third-generation owner Charles Hergenroeder also finds it important to change with the times. “My father used to say that his father used to say, ‘Every 10 years you have to reinvent yourself, or you disappear,’” he recalls. Offerings now range from plump apple dumplings and airy cream puffs to the famous strawberry shortcakes and custom cakes. The family expanded with a second shop in Bel Air in 2009, but the original location, where the founders raised their 12 children, still provides many of the business’ beloved treats. “My grandfather was odd in the way that he would work for six hours at a time, and then go to sleep for two or three,” says Charles. “He just never stopped.” That work ethic has been passed on to Charles, who grew up in the bakery and now operates it with his wife, Concetta, and 26-year-old son, Charlie. “All things change, but we’re committed to being a part of Baltimore,” he says. “This is where our roots are.”

Doughnuts at Woodlea.

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