Stork's Bakery is a vestige of a dispersed community. Queens was once home to a thriving German-American population dating back to the mid 19th century. The borough was dotted with German beer halls, butchers, and bakers, while work in German-owned businesses attracted a constant flow of new immigrants. Among them was Karl Stork, who in 1954 opened a bakery on 150th Street in Whitestone. Today, the Queens German community has largely assimilated, or disappeared into the suburbs, and you can count the number of German restaurants on one hand. But Stork's still stands, a tribute to the stubbornness of its owner, Anton Duke, who bought the business from the Stork family back in 1990.
"We do everything the old way," he says. "We never use mixes. We make all our breads with homemade sour [leavening] every day."
If you look over the displays at Stork's you see that this is more a German-New York than German bakery: there are, after all, the black and white cookies. Even so, all of it is resolutely old school. The biggest loaf on the bread shelf is the glossy corn bread, the sight of which will cause the hearts of veteran city bread hounds to beat a little faster. Its name is a little misleading, at first glance. The only corn in the loaf is the cornmeal crust on the bottom. Actually, the "corn" comes from the German word "korn," or "grain." This is really a "kornbrot," made from a mixture of rye and wheat flours. Heavy, dense, and moist, it was a specialty of dozens of the Jewish bakeries that used to dot the city. Savvy shoppers would buy it by the pound, hot from the oven, and rush it home to slather with butter and devour. Of the few classic corn breads still made in New York, this is clearly one of the best, with a great texture, chewy crust, and delicious, almost nutty aroma. I bought a hot loaf, rushed it home, slathered a slice with butter, and devoured it.
The other Stork's breads are also worth a bite or three. The sour rye isn't as dense as the corn, but it has a similar leathery crust. Inside, the crumb is light and the flavor verges toward the delicate. I don't think there's a huge amount of rye flour in this rye, but it still is delicious bread. The seeded and onion ryes have more kick; both would make an excellent base for a few slices of really good ham. Beyond the ryes, the place to head is the pumpernickel corner, where the varieties include plain, onion, and raisin walnut. The last is my favorite, dense and filled with flavor—perfect slathered with cream cheese and jam for breakfast.
I can't help straying from the breads to the sweets, because here Stork's excels in a few ways. I'll skip over the mousse cakes (yawn), pause for a moment over the classic Jewish-American specialties like checkerboard and honey cakes, and head to the German treats. Stork's beautiful pecan coffee cake, rich but not too heavy, is a worthy heir to the great coffee cake tradition brought here by 19th century German immigrants. In the pastry case, the "Schlotfeger" is the German version of a cannoli: a delicate wafer tube covered with chocolate and stuffed with whipped cream and a layer of strawberry jam.
But what really sets the bakery apart are the baumkuchen, or "tree cakes." Stork's is one of the few bakeries in the country that makes them, sending them to customers all over the Eastern Seaboard. The short definition of a baumkuche is a pound cake in the form of a hollow tube, but they're more than that. They're made on a remarkable Austrian machine in the back of the bakery. The key part of this machine is a meter-long metal roller that forms the hollow core of the cake. It revolves and moves up and down, dipping down into a vat of batter then moving up into the oven to be cooked. When that layer is cooked, the roller descends again to collect more batter and then rises again into the oven, the whole process being repeated 20 or so times. When you cut across it, the finished cake has concentric rings like tree rings. The log is usually coated with chocolate or fondant icing and then decorated. Right now, we're in the warm season baumkuchen doldrums; you have to special order them. During the winter, and especially just before Christmas, the Austrian machine performs its dance night and day, while the customer line wraps around the store. The community may have dispersed, but it still knows where to get its baumkuchen.
About the author: Andrew Coe wants to know where to get Jewish corn bread beyond Stork's, Chiffon, Lord's, and Teena's Cake Fair. Taste-off in the works!