For years, I've preserved the image of a delicious Berger chocolate cookie being made in a time-tested fashion in some cubbyhole of an old Baltimore neighborhood.
I was not disappointed. After four decades of ingesting these heavenly confections, I finally visited the birthplace of these Baltimore originals. The tiny Aiken Street bakery is an enlarged version of my grandmother's kitchen. No machines here. It's all human hands and no preservatives.
The bakery puts out 18,000 handmade cookies a day.
Baltimoreans tend to ram the name of the baked good together: "Went to Lexington Market for a bag of bergerscook
ies." There are no imitations. The bergercookie is a slightly chewy vanilla wafer coated on the top with a slab of remarkable chocolate fudge. Eat one and you'll have another.
I've passed the bakery in the 1800 block of Aiken St. many times and never realized this one-story stucco garage is the cookie factory of dreams. The place is just west of the old Sears North Avenue store, now a state court and office building. The bakery has no sign hanging from the building, yet Oliver residents regularly drop by for a box of cookies or the pound cake and layer cakes the firm also bakes, ices and packs.
The place isn't fancy. Neither is the neighborhood. It all fits the image of a great 19-cent confection. A pound -- 12 cookies -- regularly sells in local grocery stores for $2.29. Eat all 12 of these rich chocolated disks at one sitting and you'll pay for your actions.
"We can't raise the price to $5 a pound. This is a cookie for the average workingman," said Ben DeBaufre, who first began making Berger's cookies 49 years ago. He's now semi-retired but can't stay away from the only job he's ever held.
Ben and his late brother, Charles DeBaufre Sr., bought the Berger name and recipe years ago, after they began working in the Berger bakery. The bakery traces its origins to 1835.
Today, Charles DeBaufre Jr. is the one who wears the flour dust and runs things.
The little factory bustles with camaraderie. The male bakers mix tubs of dough and bubbling chocolate. A number of women decorate the special-order birthday and wedding cakes. It seems like bedlam but the bakery runs smoothly.
The process by which the plain vanilla wafers are coated with chocolate is like something out of pre-Industrial Revolution Baltimore.
One gentleman flips the wafers into a mixing bowl of Berger chocolate. Two helpers hand-retrieve each cookie, trim off the excess chocolate with spatulas and set out the finished products for drying.
When the fresh chocolate dries, the cookies are packed and the packages weighed. They are then rolled into a delivery wagon.
Berger's cookies have always been made in East Baltimore. The DeBaufres still own a stall in the Northeast Market, where they sell their products. Other local merchants sell them, too. This summer, for the first time, a distributor transported the cookies to supermarkets and convenience stores in Ocean City.
There was a time when the Berger cookie was topped with strawberry and rum icing. But no more. Chocolate was always the main seller.
"People don't realize we make so many pound cakes too. The cookie is everything," said Ben DeBaufre.
But the firm's two ovens issue thousands of individually baked pound cakes, layer cakes and other cookies -- almond bars, lemon and vanilla wafers and chocolate chip cookies. There's also a Louisiana ring, a cross between a pound and a layer cake, laced with crushed orange.
But woe unto anyone who expects a Berger chocolate layer cake to have chocolate icing and chocolate cake layers.
Berger's is a proper Baltimore chocolate layer cake.
"Chocolate icing, white dough, the only way we know how to make them," Charles DeBaufre said.