“Welcome to hell,” says Sharon Hooper, as she ushers me through the kitchen door of Hoehn’s, the Conkling Street bakery that has been in her family for three generations. I take in Sharon’s pink headscarf and crocs, and think that this is not hell as I have pictured it. Hell doesn’t smell of sweet yeast dough and fresh peaches, and hell would be hotter and absent the fan whirring above the worn wood floor, each plank laid on an even diagonal. In hell, boiling oil would be for recalcitrant souls, not crullers. And in hell, I’m pretty sure there would be no smearcase cake, the purpose of my morning visit to Highlandtown.
Although I am not one of the many Baltimoreans who ate smearcase cake, our hometown version of cheesecake, before ever tasting New York-style cheesecake, the confection still holds a sweet place in my culinary heart, partly because of what it’s not. Smearcase is flat, not mile-high, rectangular instead of round, light instead of heavy. It has a yeast crust rather than one made from crumbly graham crackers, and it’s got a shade of tartness to it, rather than all-out sweetness. As its name suggests, its origins are German (“case” an Anglicized version of KŠse, the German word for “cheese”), and you used to be able to find it at Rodot’s and Mount Holly bakeries on the West Side, which are, sadly, no longer around. Luckily, Fenwick, Hoehn’s and Woodlea bakeries on the East Side all still sell it.
I bake cheesecake at home, but I’ve never made smearcase. And while I know I could find a recipe online, why do that when I can learn from an actual, human expert? Call me old-fashioned. So I ask Sharon, whose smearcase ranks as the family favorite these days, if she’ll teach me. Sure, she says, explaining that the bakery’s recipe comes from her grandfather, William Hoehn, who brought it from Stuttgart on the Rhine in the 1920s. “It’s one of those things that we’ve never stopped making for 80 years,” she says. If I can get to the bakery by 4:30 a.m., her cousin and baking partner, Lou Sahlender, will show me how they do it.
Lou and Sharon have baked together for more than 20 years, and say they don’t even have to speak to communicate (though, of course, they do). Sharon came aboard at the bakery roughly 30 years ago during her father’s tenure. Lou came later, after working in another bakery as a dishwasher, where, he says, he found his calling after stepping in when the baker didn’t show up. Where Sharon is pale and blond with thick bangs, Lou is broad and stocky, and his 5 o’clock shadow extends past his chin to his shaved head. He’s got a Highlandtown twang and strong wrists. I like him immediately.
After Sharon hands me an apron, Lou points to custard boiling in a caldron-like bowl, and I feel like I’m Hermione in “Potions” class as I watch the thick yellow mass steam and bubble. Smearcase cake, as it turns out, is made of a custard base and a cheese mixture, and Lou explains that we’ll use a chilled version he made yesterday in putting together today’s batch. Because the cake’s crust is a yeast dough, we’ll also use a batch made yesterday. “Otherwise we’d have to be here at 11 the night before to wait for it to rise,” Sharon adds wryly.
I’m a little disappointed that I don’t get to make all the cake’s components, but there’s still plenty to do. We add cottage cheese and sugar that Lou has measured out on a balance, whose surface is as scaly as a rough elbow, to the deep bowl of a giant floor-standing Hobart mixer. Lou pulls a substantial bowl of the cooled custard from the fridge and instructs me to add it by handfuls, a little at a time. The custard feels cool and squishy, but not unpleasant, under my hands. When it’s all combined, the mixture is as smooth as, well, custard.
Lou unhooks the bowl from the mixer and carries it to the long wooden counter that runs along one side of the kitchen. Above it, a bank of galvanized drawers, a little like a baker’s card catalog, is labeled with things like “kimmel” (caraway seed), “tools” and “cinnamon.”
Waiting on the counter are two long pans lined with yeast dough. Lou hands me a dough docker, a small roller with spikes on it that looks like a medieval torture instrument, and instructs me to roll it over the dough to release the air in it. After that we plop handfuls of filling onto the dough until Lou says, “Enough.” Then we spread the mixture with a scraper, making sure the surface is smooth. After eyeing mine, Lou kindly takes over. “You know when you’re born and you know what you’re supposed to do?” he asks. “I think I was born to be a baker. I take a lot of pride in my work. If it don’t look right, it don’t go out.” Besides, he says, if the cake is uneven, “people will look in the case and see which place has the most [filling] and want that slice.”
Lou opens the drawer marked cinnamon and I sprinkle it— “not too much,” he warns— over the cakes before he places a metal rim around the inner edge of each pan to prevent spills and runs his index finger around the rims to create a little moat that prevents the batter from rising up. Lou grabs a long paddle and deftly slides the cakes into the ancient brick wall oven in one fluid motion. I peek in to see the two pans shining under the arch of blackened bricks.
While the cakes bake, we tackle other essential tasks. Sharon shapes bread dough into loaves. Lou rolls out dough for buns. I frost fruit tarts with handfuls of sugar icing. Another woman named Mary fills doughnuts with gooey marshmallow. We drink seriously cold Cokes, even though it isn’t yet 6 a.m.
Throughout the morning, a buzzer goes off, and Lou pushes the small clock’s alarm back 15 minutes every time.
At 7:30 a.m. the bakery opens, and from the kitchen door, Sharon and I watch customers place their orders. “Around here they just call it cheesecake,” she says, as the ladies behind the counter slice the cooled smearcase, my smearcase, into rectangular slices. “Only the people of German descent and older people call it smearcase. From time to time an out-of-towner comes in and asks for cheesecake, and boy, are they startled.” I’d like to hope the surprise is a pleasant one, like a new rendition of their favorite song.
Though Sharon, Lou and Mary will keep working for a few more hours, Sharon urges me to turn in my apron and gather some goodies to take home. I don’t need to be asked twice. I pick out some marshmallow doughnuts, a few crullers and a slab of smearcase, and make my way, in daylight now, to share the bounty of my labor with my family.
Hoehn’s is open Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., 400 S. Conkling St., 410-675-2884.