Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Bakery clicks like clockwork


German-trained Harrison baker needs no alarm to be on time with authentic, `princely' pastries

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] The Noller family, from left, Denise Noller Frazier, Sandy Noller, Dieter Noller and Dianne Noller Wikette.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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The prince of pastry wears nothing but white - pants, T-shirt and apron - in his kingdom that most call Harrison Home Bakery.

On this snowy morning, the prince from Bavaria, Dieter Noller, is holding court with customers Tom Callan and Ham Rolfes. The baker thoughtfully rakes sugary doughnut glaze from Mr. Callan's sweater, while the customer goes on about a muffin he bought in Florida that cost $7. All kinds of healthy stuff in it.

"You should raise your prices,'' Mr. Callan says, sounding half serious.

Mr. Noller laughs while walking away, mumbling something about Harrison being far, far away from Florida. But he should know that no matter what he charges, his doughnuts, Danish, stollen, springerle and other German holiday pastries are golden in this little town west of Cincinnati. His customers are the most loyal of subjects.

This year, the 67-year-old Mr. Noller and his wife, Sandy, are celebrating their 30th year at the bakery. Maybe three decades is enough, because this year they also turned the business over to their daughters, Denise Frazier and Dianne Wikette. Of course, the Nollers still come to work at least five days a week.

"They come and go as they please,'' Ms. Frazier says with a generous pinch of Noller sarcasm. "Like teenagers.''

The sisters arrive at the bakery most mornings by 3:30 a.m. Ms. Wikette decorates cakes, while her sister is in charge of bakery production.

"She still needs another year of training,'' Mr. Noller whispers in his accent, while watching Ms. Frazier heave big wads of doughnut dough on a table.

Everything from scratch

He is a notorious perfectionist who often comes in Mondays - the only day the bakery is closed - to premeasure ingredients for breads and pastries to make production more efficient. He labels the mixed ingredients and stores them in a walk-in cooler.

[photo] Dieter Noller works on making old-fashioned German stollen for the holidays.
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Mr. Noller doesn't make mistakes often. But when he does, like when he forgot 60 loaves of bread burning in the oven the week before, the women at the bakery love to kid him.

"They get the biggest kick out of it,'' he says.

Under Mr. Noller's rule - and he does still rule - they take few shortcuts at the bakery, making everything from scratch. This means the days are even longer during the busy holiday season.

"If I didn't do it that way, our products would taste like the stuff from the grocery,'' he says.

So Mr. Noller makes stollen, the German Christmas fruit bread, much as he learned years ago as an apprentice. He starts by mixing sweet-smelling fermented yeast dough with mace, cardamom, nuts, raisins and fruit soaked in brandy from a bottle over his desk.

The dough slaps around in the big floor mixer for a few minutes, but Mr. Noller watches it carefully - and stops the mixer occasionally - to keep the plump raisins from breaking up.

He turns the golden, fruit-freckled dough out onto the long, smooth wooden table in the middle of the bakery. He lops off portions and weighs them. Each must weight exactly 1 pound, 10 ounces.

Mr. Noller sets a timer to let the dough rest exactly 15 minutes. Then he shows Ms. Frazer, who rolls her eyes regularly, how to roll and fold each piece into a neat log shape. He nestles the dough into oblong metal stollen molds brought over from Germany by a friend. Mr. Noller owns only a dozen of the molds, so he makes relatively small stollen batches at a time.

[photo] Dieter Noller cuts pressed dough into individual cookies to make the German cookie springerle
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The molds are inverted onto baking pans and Ms. Frazier rolls them on a rack into a warm, moist proofing room, where they'll rise for less than two hours.

After the stollen bakes and cools, Mr. Noller will roll the loaves in vanilla sugar. His wife wraps each stollen in plastic and tops it with a pretty bow for customers who begin calling for it the day after Thanksgiving.

Mr. Noller bristles when someone dares to compare his stollen to fruitcake.

"It's more like coffeecake with fruit,'' he says. "Not everyone appreciates stollen the way they used to. But some still do.''

`We've done well'

Certainly, not everyone appreciates hard work like this tireless little baker.

"This time of year, something just goes off in my head,'' Mr. Noller says. "I know it's time to get up.''

Most mornings, he reads for a couple of hours before brewing coffee for his wife, who rises at 4 a.m. He works at the bakery until early afternoon before going home to do chores at his farm, a few minutes away. The baker's in bed by 7 p.m..

His motor always has been running. He began apprenticing as a baker in Stuttgart, near his home in southern Bavaria, when he was 16. Two years later, in 1955, Mr. Noller moved to the United States. He met his wife-to-be at an aquarium shop in Cincinnati. She was there to complain about dead fish. He wanted to meet the young attractive American.

"It's a fish story,'' says Ms. Noller, who mistakenly called her husband "Peter'' on their first three dates.

Her husband sold equipment to bakeries in the Midwest until he tired of the travel. In 1972, he bought the bakery in Harrison.

"We work hard, but we've done well,'' he says.

Mr. Noller maintains his grueling routine even though his daughters technically own the business.

"Every once in a while,'' Ms. Frazier says, "he'll show me how to do something and then say: You better watch. This is the last time I'm going to show you how to do this."

Everyone knows, of course, he'll show them again.

His daughters began working at the bakery before they were 8, folding boxes and cracking eggs after school. They have worked there, full or part-time, since.

"It's like you always hear,'' Ms. Wikette says. "We've got it in our blood, I guess. You have to love this to do it.''

Their younger brother, Andy, decided a while ago he wasn't interested in the family business.

"Some male customers don't think we're serious about this because they think we can't handle it,'' Ms. Wikette says. "They'll say: But you've got children to take care of."

If they only knew who their father was, the doubters would realize the Noller women can handle the bakery and then some.

The sisters come in obscenely early five days a week, then go home to take care of their children (they have three each). They also alternate working half days on Sundays.

Like their father, neither Noller daughter needs an alarm clock to wake her for work. Something just goes off in their heads.

Cookies for Christmas

Three weeks before Christmas, customers begin calling to ask for springerle, the crisp, anise-flavored German Christmas cookies. So naturally, Mr. Noller decides to make his first batch of the season on a Monday, when the bakery is closed. Only he and his wife work this morning in the bakery, which is quiet because the ovens are shut down.

By 9:30 a.m., Mr. Noller, again wearing his white uniform, has gently heated beaten eggs with sugar in a double-boiler. He folds this thick mixture in with flour, ground anise seed and other ingredients to make a moist dough. Since he makes springerles only a few times a year, he consults the plastic-sheathed recipe closely.

Working at the long table, the baker cuts off a hunk of golden-green dough and rolls it into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. Mr. Noller hovers over it, patting and smoothing the dough like a tailor pampering a newly made jacket.

Then he takes the metal springerle mold from Germany that he has used for years - he owns only one - and places it perfectly on the edge of the dough rectangle. Mr. Noller rises on his tiptoes, to press down with as much of his 160 pounds as possible. He gently lifts the mold to reveal delicate imprinted images - a dove, fish, flower and nine others.

Mr. Noller repeats this process to make more than 400 springerle in less than two hours. His wife carefully places the cookies on greased sheet pans, where they'll sit overnight to dry. The next day, Mr. Noller will bake the springerle for less than 12 minutes in a low oven, until they turn crisp and blond, tasting distinctly of anise and the Old Country.

"Springerle are really for adults,'' he says. "Children don't like them.''

Now, he can laugh about that horrible morning a few years ago. He had worked more than six hours to cut a batch of springerle. The next morning, his supervisor was to bake the little cookies. But Mr. Noller smelled disaster when he pulled into the parking lot that morning. The supervisor forgot and burned the springerle. He didn't fire her, and the former employee still comes in to joke about the mishap.

He smiles as he presses the mold down again.

"It wouldn't be Christmas without springerle,'' Mr. Noller says.

His cookies are so authentic, some customers buy and ship them to relatives in Germany for the holidays.

Mr. Noller still hasn't shown his daughters how to make the springerle. But he has plenty of time. At this little bakery in this little town, he's the prince of pastry for life.

Recipes

These reliable home recipes are from the 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking (Bobbs-Merrill; out-of-print).

Stollen

11/2 cups water or milk (105 to 115 degrees)

2 packages active dry yeast

6 to 8 cups flour

1/2 pound raisins

1/2 pound chopped blanched almonds

1/2 cup chopped candied fruit (optional)

11/2 cups butter

3/4 cup sifted sugar

3 eggs

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Melted butter

GLAZE

1 cup confectioners' sugar

4 teaspoons hot milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Combine warm milk or water with yeast and allow to sit 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of flour. Cover and let rest in warm place until light and foamy, about 1 hour. Sprinkle a little sifted flour over raisins, almonds and candied fruit. Set aside.

Beat butter until soft and gradually add sifted sugar and blend until light and creamy. Beat eggs in, one at a time. Add salt and grated lemon zest. Add yeast-flour mixture and enough flour to knead dough until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. Toss on floured board and knead in fruit and nuts.

Divide dough into 2 equal pieces. Roll each into an 8-by-15-inch oval. Fold in half lengthwise and place loaves on greased baking sheets. Brush tops with melted butter. Let loaves rise, covered, until they again almost double in bulk, about 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until bread tests done. When cool, brush with glaze. Makes 2 stollen loaves.

To make glaze, sift confectioners' sugar and add hot milk and vanilla. Stir well to combine.

Springerle

4 eggs

2 cups sifted sugar

3 cups + 1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

2 tablespoons crushed anise seed

Beat eggs until light. Gradually add sugar and beat until creamy. Mix 3 cups flour and baking powder and add to egg-sugar mixture.

Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of flour on pastry cloth or board.

Turn dough onto cloth and knead in enough flour - about 1/2 cup more - to stiffen dough.

Roll dough to fit dimensions of springerle mold, about 1/3 inch thick. Flour mold and press it down hard on dough to get a good imprint.*

Separate squares, place them on a board and let dry 12 hours, uncovered, in a cool, dry place.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Grease cookie sheets and sprinkle sheets with crushed anise seed. Place the cut-out cookies on the pan and bake about 15 minutes, until lower part of cookies are yellow.

Cool and store cookies. Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

*Note: If you don't have a springerle mold, cut dough into 3/4-by-2 1/2-inch bars before baking.



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