Baking With An Honored Accent

Supported by loyal communities (and by sweet-seeking devotees), ethnic bakeries keep traditions alive—and worth the calories.

Photo by Laura Moss

On Park Avenue, Rutherford’s main drag, the choice is clear. Get your coffee and cruller at Dunkin’ Donuts—or, two doors to the left, at Varrelmann’s, a German bakery doing things pretty much the same way since it opened more than a century ago.

In both cases, the coffee will be fresh, but the Varrelmann’s German cruller (which it calls a St. Joseph’s zeppoli) will be filled with either cannoli cream or Bavarian cream plus three tart cherries representing the Catholic Trinity.

Varrelmann’s delicacy is a harbinger of spring. “We sell so many I can’t keep up,” says Mike Fencik, 61, who co-owns the shop and shares the baking with Kathy Young, 57. “Kathy and I are passionate about them—we can’t make the first batch without having one ourselves.”

Varrelmann’s offers all the comfort classics, like German chocolate cake, Black Forest cake and apple kuchen (cake). “What gives the kuchen so much density is the layers of apples,” says Young. “It bakes very dark and sweet, which is traditional German.”

They make apple strudel all year, adding peaches and cream and blueberry cheese in summer, apple cranberry in fall.

But you might not expect something special when you order a fresh-baked kaiser roll. “People think they’re just a hard roll,” says Young, who follows a century-old German recipe, “but they’re really soft inside. People tell us once they’ve tried ours, they won’t eat one from anywhere else.”

Customers often ask Fencik and Young if they’re married. “We don’t need to be,” says Fencik, with a laugh. “We see each other all day, every day.”

The business partners have records dating Varrelmann’s to 1904, “but Mr. Varrelmann might have opened 20 years earlier,” says Fencik. Rutherford had a large German community then. “Now it’s a mix,” says Young, who grew up working in her uncle’s bakery, Fishl’s, in Ridgewood, then learned German baking from Richard Nagel, owner of Margie’s in Union City.

In 1991, she and Fencik, who had done construction work for her and had a passion for baking, teamed up to buy Varrelmann’s, which had passed to the Judicke family after Varrelmann sold it.

“Our mixers are 95 years old, our ovens are 120,” says Young, adding proudly, “we still do everything the hard way.” 60 Park Avenue, Rutherford, 201-939-0462.

Argentina Bakery
“Quince is a flavor we love in Argentina,” says manager Silvina Fernandez. Every morning, bakers turn out signature factura pastries filled with quince or, to please the many Cuban and Puerto Rican customers, guava. Another specialty is Balcarce (dulce de leche cake) and lunchtime empanadas. 1611 Bergenline Avenue, Union City, 201-601-5801.

Athens Greek Bakery
Owners George and Rena Manalis, of Ridgefield, offer baklava, of course. But there’s so much more, says George, who opened Athens in 1995. Tsoureki—braided, sweet, holiday egg breads—sell well all year. Kourabiedes, butter cookies filled with nuts, are also a staple. Athens also makes savory spanakopitas, individual spinach pies.

“They’re perfect for lunch for one person,” says George. 161 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, 201-287-0399.

Banas Polish Bakery
At Banas Bakery in Wallington, husband-and-wife co-owners Zen and Grzyna Banas, of Little Falls, bake Polish mazureks, or almond-paste cakes, to keep their Polish customers from feeling homesick. But that’s just the beginning. In addition to baking breads and cakes made with common Polish ingredients such as poppy seeds, raisins and orange peel, they stock traditional Polish candies and greeting cards in their tiny, crowded shop. Zen, who moved to the U.S. from Poland in 1976, took over the bakery 25 years ago, when his father was the owner. Ever since, he has been baking fragrant rye loaves as well as an assortment of flavorful pound-cake-like babkas. You don’t have to be Polish to enjoy either. But a lot of Banas’ customers are from the old country, he says: “Polish people come from Linden, from South Amboy. We’re really the only Polish bakery they can come to in the area.” 84 Wallington Avenue, Wallington; 973-779-2165.

Butterflake Kosher Bakery
Butterflake has been in business since the 1940s, selling kosher cakes, breads, pies and cookies. Richard and David Heisler, brothers and co-owners, say their best-sellers are their rye and challah breads, their cream cheese rugelach and chocolate babka. “They’re made with tried and true recipes,” says Richard, “and with attention to quality, which is what the customer wants most.” Butterflake’s well executed recipes (try the black-and-white cookies), regularly attract treat-seekers from as far as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Butterflake ships to all 50 states. Jewish customers are the heart of the business, say the brothers, who are third-generation bakers. But they also have a fan base among nut-allergy sufferers: everything the bakery offers is nut-free. 448 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, 201-836-3516.

Also try:

—Salomon’s Kosher Bakery, known for its holiday selections plus custom bar and bat mitzvah cakes. 300 Gordons Corner Road, Manalapan; 732-536-4500.

Café Vienna

Owner Anita Waldenberger serves salads and sandwiches, but her Viennese desserts are closest to her heart, for good reason. “They’re all my mom’s recipes,” she says. In spring, strawberry cake rolls made with fresh, local strawberries are top sellers. Waldenberger, who’s from Salzburg, near Vienna, is best known for her “very difficult to make” esterhazy torte—layers of cake and almond-meringue frosted with buttercream. 200 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-924-5100.

Choc-O-Pain French Bakery
French-born Clemence Danko moved to Hoboken in 2009 and opened her first Choc-O-Pain there after three years of searching unsuccessfully for a baguette or croissant that met her standards. Her now two Choc-O-Pains—with seating for 36 in Hoboken and 18 in Jersey City—offer delicate petit kouign, a croissant-dough pastry infused with caramelized sugar and studded with raspberry, chocolate chips or apples; tartes, including banana crème and apricot; and flourless chocolate cake All are as delicious as they are pretty. But the standout may be the bread: Choc-O-Pain’s bordelais sourdough boules, baguettes and mini sourdough banana-with-coconut boule, glazed with apricot, undergo a long, slow fermentation process (12 to 24 hours) to get the crumb just right. Croissants deserve recognition, too: they’re ultra-French, which means ultra-buttery with a crisp surface. 157 First Street, Hoboken, 201-710-5175; 530 Jersey Avenue, Jersey City, 201-435-2462; 942 Summit Avenue, Jersey City, 201-420-7111.

Also try:

Antoinette Boulangerie in Red Bank makes French pastries, breads, cookies and tartes. Gluten-free options available. 32 Monmouth Street, 732-224-1118.

Deluxe Italian Bakery
Even amid Jersey’s plethora of Italian bakeries, Deluxe stands out. The Rocobaldo family of Runnemede founded it in 1949, and now brothers Phil and Sam Rocobaldo run it. Deluxe sells its crusty breads to restaurants and shops across the state and into Manhattan. The most popular treats are the cannoli. Customers of Italian descent love the rum cakes—vanilla cake soaked in rum liqueur, layered with chocolate and vanilla cream, and frosted with whipped cream, sliced almonds and cherries on top. 680 East Clements Bridge Road, Runnemede 856-939-5000.

Also try:

—Aversa’s Bakery in Brigantine makes pizza, sandwiches on its own Italian bread and, of course, cannoli. 3101 Atlantic Brigantine Boulevard, 609-264-8880.

Natale’s Summit Bakery is locally famous for its not-especially-Italian “Philly fluff cake,” a pound cake made with lots of butter and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. 185 Broad Street, 908-277-2074.

Scala Bakery in North Brunswick offers a wide selection of Italian pastries, cookies, cakes, pies, bread and more. 1896 Route 130, 732-398-9808.

Italian People’s Bakery & Deli in Trenton is known for its Italian bread, doughnuts, cupcakes and other baked goods, in addition to thick deli sandwiches. 63 Butler Street, 609-394-7161.

Paris Baguette
Yes, the name sounds French—not without reason. The chain, which has four Jersey locations, was founded in Korea in 1988 to offer “global sweets inspired by French and Korean culture and often by American, Latino and other European cultures,” according to California-based spokeswoman Linda Rivera. But owner Young-In Hur’s Korean heritage is on full display in his tidy bakeries, which can be found in France, Singapore and Vietnam as well as Korea and the United States. Among the best-sellers, Rivera says, are the most recognizably Korean: peanut crumb bread, choux cream bread, red bean bread, sweet green pea bread; sweet rice doughnuts and sweet potato cakes. 1739 State Route 27, Edison, 732-248-0044; 1635 Lemoine Avenue, Fort Lee, 201-346-0404; 408 Broad Avenue, Palisades Park, 201-592-0404; 321 Broad Avenue, #3, Ridgefield, 201-313-0404.

Suissa Portuguese Bakery & Coffee Shop
No one who stops by this venerable café in the Ironbound section of Newark can resist the Sonhos (lightly fried dough puffs with sugar), says owner Alvin Pimenta. “The translation of sonhos from Portuguese is like ‘sweet dreams’,” says Pimenta, a Newarker who opened the bakery in 1977. “We do them with cinnamon sugar on the outside. It’s one of the things we’ve become known for.” Pimenta makes them only on Saturdays and holidays, “because they’re special.” Reasons to stop in on other days include pasties de natas, or egg custard tarts, and empanadas of all kinds. 57 Pacific Street, Newark, 973-589-1927.

Sunmerry Chinese Bakery
O Kashi pan, a Japanese dough this 20-year-old bakery modifies for its popular red bean pastries, is also used to make its small, soft Taiwanese breads. Sunmerry bakes Western-style doughnuts, cakes and cookies, but what you’ll search long and hard to find elsewhere are its savory Taiwanese steamed buns filled with green onions, bacon and mushrooms. 2151 Lemoine Avenue, Fort Lee, 201-944-0088.

The Artist Baker
The first sign that the Artist Baker in Morristown is unabashedly American may be its daily tray of chocolate-chip cookies sprinkled with sea salt. But as the name of Andrea Lekberg’s tiny, tucked-away shop suggests, there is creativity in every bite. “When I think of spring baking,” she says, “the first thing that comes to mind is the produce that comes in. Rhubarb for pies; strawberries to top panna cottas; ramps and asparagus for quiche.” In winter, she was making a rye flour brownie with currants, pepitas and coconut; that changed in April to a rye brownie with blueberries, dried bananas and cashews. Winter chocolate mousse became chocolate panna cotta (no eggs, a little lighter, but still delicious and satisfying). Opened in 2009, the Artist Baker is always about reinvention. “It’s part of what makes us an American bakery,” Lekberg says. 16 Cattano Avenue, Morristown, 973-267-5540.

 Also try:

The Flaky Tart in Atlantic Highlands was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker Award in 2015 and 2016. The business, founded and made famous by Marie Jackson, was bought in October 2015 by its two lead bakers, Matthew Rosenzweig and Laura Martelli, who have worked at Flaky Tart since 2009. 145 First Avenue, 732-291-255.

 

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