At Christmastime, I miss the old Hutzler’s department store terribly.
Unlike my mother and grandmother (and countless other Baltimoreans), I never rode the streetcar downtown to shop at the original Hutzler’s on Howard Street or grabbed chicken chow mein or a shrimp salad sandwich (15 cents extra for toasted cheese bread) at the Quixie lunch counter in the store’s basement. But I have my own memories of the Towson branch.
There was the Sugar Plum Castle set up just after Thanksgiving for child shoppers, where one year I purchased a package of golf balls for my dad and an antique blue hairbrush set my mother still uses. There was breakfast with Santa in the Valley View Dining Room, and the talking reindeer, Tinsel and Beau. And all year-round, there were quirky things like the glassed-in area off the men’s department where bespectacled gentlemen in cardigans sold coins and stamps as the York Road traffic scooted by. Or the dreary room on the fourth floor, where rows of single stem roses in vases awaited judges’ ribbons from the annual rose show. There was a notions department where you could buy buttons and hairnets. And on the first floor, tucked away behind rounded glass counters, were long drawers that held ladies stockings, embroidered handkerchiefs and cotton gloves. There was a spectacular candy counter. And back behind the lamps and the luggage, removed from the whir of the escalators, was the bakery.
During the 1970s, our next-door neighbor and surrogate grandfather, William Hastings, managed the restaurants for Hutzler’s, and our neighborly friendship was forged on his back patio over glasses of iced tea and bakery goodies he brought home for my sister and me. At Easter, he gave us a lamb-shaped yellow cake with woolly coconut icing and black licorice eyes. One year we celebrated Halloween with a sheet cake whose icing bore the silhouette of a witch riding her broomstick. Another year, plastic toothpicks topped with orange and black jack-o-lanterns, arched-back cats and skulls and crossbones crowned the tops of chocolate frosted cupcakes. My mother still recalls a birthday cake with white icing and lavender-colored roses that she ordered from Hutzler’s to take to Pittsburgh for my Great-Aunt Catherine’s birthday. And for years I was allowed to choose my just-after-Christmas birthday cake— always chocolate cake with chocolate icing, yellow roses and green cursive birthday wishes— from the small bakery in Hutzler’s Towson store.
But our favorite treat from the bakery was cinnamon bread, a splurge that didn’t require a holiday. Slightly sweet with yeasty lightness and a spiral cinnamon swirl through its middle, cinnamon bread was a flexible indulgence— perfect for breakfast, but equally good as an afternoon snack with a cup of tea or a mug of slightly bitter hot chocolate. Everyone in my family loved cinnamon bread— my father, who never met a sweet he didn’t like; my mother, who would rather eat bread than cake; and my sister and me, who devoured the bread toasted and buttered, unrolling the spiral center to eat the butter-sodden middle before working our way out to the crust.
Before Mr. Hastings retired, and before a local chain began operating the store’s bakery, he gave us the recipe for Hutzler’s cinnamon bread. My mother taped the card to a page in the red spiral bound notebook she uses for copying recipes because it was too large for her recipe box. There is nothing that says the recipe is from Hutzler’s: only the words “White Bread/Cinnamon Bread” typed across the top in 10-point Courier, with a greasy drop smudging the typed list of ingredients.
When I went to make the bread recently, I found my own copy of the recipe written in loopy handwriting in green ink near the beginning of a small red recipe notebook I started in high school, right after the recipe for “Aunt Elva’s Applesauce Cake” (an odd entry because my Great-Aunt Elva was a scandalously bad housekeeper, and I can’t imagine ever asking her for a recipe). I hadn’t made cinnamon bread in a while, and I was surprised to see just how simple, if somewhat strange, the recipe is.
The bread calls for generic shortening (though I use butter) and one entire ounce of yeast (that’s four 1/4 ounce packets— a lot). It also suggests you add a teaspoon of dry Diamalt, a malt extract most commonly used in beer-making, to the batter, though I don’t recall ever doing such a thing. The recipe also leaves the measurements of cinnamon and sugar necessary for filling the bread to the baker’s individual hand.
I called my sister Kathleen to confer about the recipe, since she is the one in our family who most often bakes cinnamon bread, but she told me she uses a recipe she found on http://www.breadworld.com, the Web site for Fleischmann’s yeast. Kathleen’s cinnamon bread is excellent, but I wanted to remind myself of the original love affair, so I followed the very sketchy directions and came up with three loaves of very fragrant, light as air, almost brioche-like cinnamon-laced bread.
I can’t bring back Hutzler’s. I’m not really sure I can bring back their cinnamon bread, either. But here is an offering, buffed up and polished for the holidays, my Christmas present to you.