Every year when my birthday rolls around, as it did last week, I find myself pining for the bake shop of my youth: Baumann’s Bakery in the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia.
Baumann’s was an old-fashioned German bakery in an old-fashioned, largely German neighborhood. The green-sided shop with big plate windows was on the corner of Tabor and Cottman, with the entrance right at the corner. For my entire childhood it was our go-to bakery.
Whenever anyone in the family – my parents or the three children – had a birthday, my mom would order a Baumann’s birthday cake, even if we weren’t having a party and there were only the five of us to eat it.
The 10-inch layer cakes were decorated with colorful swirls and flowers – and our name, written in loopy icing!
Our name in print (or icing)
I passed Baumann’s several times a day on my way to and from school (we also went home at lunchtime). It was always a thrill to see my cake on display in the window, with “Happy Birthday Barbara” embossed on it in pink icing (I wasn’t Bobbie until my teens).
After my mother discovered the cakes could be customized with more than just a name, my sister, whose birthday is right before Halloween, would often get a chocolate-iced cake decorated with pumpkins and ghosts. My dad’s cake sometimes had icing tennis rackets to reflect his favorite pastime.
Baumann’s is gone now, but its memory lingers on. The bake shop made wonderful cinnamon bread, raisin tea cakes, tasty Linzer torte cookies, and killer cinnamon sticky buns loaded with pecans. The filling in their custard and whipped cream doughnuts was so fresh they kept them in a refrigerated case.
Our favorite dessert of all was Baumann’s butter cake.
Imagine a thin, yeasty base topped with a layer of buttery, melt-in-your mouth, vanilla-scented custard. The top was slightly browned, letting you see the luscious yellow, moist filling. It was baked in a sheet pan, and you ordered a hunk of a certain size, which was cut off, weighed so you could pay by the pound, and packed up in a square cardboard box tied with string.
I have never found anything like Baumann’s butter cake anywhere else.
Determined to recreate it myself, if necessary, I searched for a “German butter cake” recipe. Most of the recipes sounded like ordinary cakes made with butter – not a custard-topped yeast cake.
One recipe called “St. Louis-Style GooeyButter Cake,” sounded promising, but it used cream cheese in addition to the butter, something I knew Baumann’s hadn’t done. And it was based on yellow cake mix, not yeast dough. I tried it, and it was delicious – but it wasn’t Baumann’s butter cake.
“Philadelphia” is the key
Then inspiration struck. I did a Web search for “Philadelphia butter cake.” Success!
Sort of. Again, it was a delicious cake, and it was pretty darn close to the Baumann’s version. I thought it was too thick. I made it in a 9 x 13-inch pan as the recipe directs. Using two 8 x 8-inch pans would probably make it a little thinner, which I will probably do next time.
I’m not sure when “next time” will be. This is an extremely rich dessert, and the recipe makes a large cake. (If you make two smaller cakes you can probably freeze one.) But if you’re planning a special meal and want to impress your guests – or if you want to wow someone who grew up in Philadelphia – give this yummy confection a try.