Family bakers' reputation outdoes icing on the cake

JACQUES KELLY

November 20, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The line at the Woodlea Bakery's front door forms at 5:55 a.m.

Nearly an hour before dawn, regular customers wait patiently for their fix of homemade marshmallow doughnuts, smearcase cake and raisin buns.

Come next Thursday, will there be any house in Gardenville without a Woodlea pumpkin pie on its table?

The old-fashioned neighborhood bakery is very much alive in the block of Belair Road, where three generations of the Hergenroeder family work in a cloud of perpetual flour dust.

The patriarch of the family, John Hergenroeder, 84, lives with his wife, Dorothy, atop the bakery in what was once a pair of two-story rowhouses. The couple raised their 12 children there.

The family name is so well known in Hamilton and Gardenville that area pastors have been known to tell their Sunday congregations, "Don't leave early; Hergenroeder's won't run out."

This is the kind of place where 35 cents still buys a bun. It's a breach of etiquette in the 21206 ZIP code if a wedding reception doesn't have a cake from these ovens. Come Christmas Eve, the customers will form a line that goes out the front door.

"Our customers come from Mount Vernon. They come from Carroll County and Annapolis. And we're still very much the neighborhood bakery of Gardenville," says Dolores Hergenroeder Pomles, the oldest of the eight daughters in the family.

She works alongside her brother Charles Hergenroeder Sr., his wife, Pat, and their son, Charles Jr.

It was only about 10 years ago the family stopped boiling their own pumpkins to make the traditional pie filling. "We've switched to canned pumpkin but we find if we let it age a year, it tastes better," says Charles Hergenroeder Jr., 27, who gave up a career with the Xerox Corp. some years ago to return to the 12-hour days that bakers put in.

It's a matter of family pride that much of the bakery's products are made from scratch. The family peels apples for pies, then uses the skins and cores for jelly to fill doughnuts. They grate carrots and coconuts for cakes and chop onions for rolls.

"Our marshmallow doughnuts are a very popular item because we make our own marshmallow. You mix corn syrup with water, whip egg whites and add powdered sugar," Charles Jr. says.

The auxiliary at Zion Lutheran Church, an old, predominantly German congregation, won't let a Christmas go by without ordering dozens of stolens from the Hergenroeders, who make up the yeasty sweet bread mixed with candied fruits, raisins and nuts. Old Bohemian customers request hoska, a braided Christmas bread that is sweet and flavored with rum.

Perhaps the bakery's most highly regarded local favorite is its smearcase cake (in German, Schmierkase), which literally means smeared cheese. The low, flat confection is almost as popular as the Woodlea peach cake, that Baltimore favorite summer dessert.

The firm was founded more than 100 years ago by John E. Hergenroeder Sr., a German immigrant whose first bakery was in West Baltimore at Westwood Avenue and Mount Street. He called his place the New York Model Steam Bakery. As families began to move out to Harford Road, he left West Baltimore and set up a bakery on Hamilton Avenue behind the Arcade Theatre.

"We're still using a brick oven my grandfather bought when the old Bernheimer Brothers closed its bakery," says Charles Sr. The oven, built by the Middleby-Marshall Oven Co., is thought to be the oldest in continuous operation made by that firm.

"That brick oven is the secret of making our peach cake. It's got to be the exact temperature for everything to brown right," says Charles Sr.

The family's clean and ever-busy bakery kitchen -- it never closes, operating 24 hours a day with a staff of 45 -- contains other culinary antiques purchased from other landmark Baltimore bakeries that have closed. The cake decorating table is from Schwaab's, formerly at 33rd and Greenmount. There's equipment from Nate's and Leon's and Miller Brothers. Some of the display cases came from the fondly remembered Silber's.

The name Woodlea Bakery derives from Woodlea Avenue, the street that runs into Belair Road just south of the shop. The 84-year-old John Hergenroeder selected that name to differentiate his operation from that of his father in Hamilton.

Gardenville residents refer to the place as either Hergenroeder's or the Woodlea. But to many more residents of other parts of Baltimore, when they think bakery, they mean the place at 4905 Belair Road.

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