If you are looking for the sweet spot of Highlandtown, it’s Hoehn’s Bakery, right at the corner of Bank and Conkling streets.
The bakery has been there since 1927, when William Hoehn opened the doors and started selling buns, pastries, bread and cakes. His granddaughter, Sharon Hoehn Hooper, now runs it. She has been baking there since the 1970s.
They still use William Hoehn’s tried-and-true recipes, with a couple of exceptions. They have had to change the shortening in the butter cake and smearcase twice—once during World War II, when butter and shortening were rationed, and once a few years ago when Baltimore City imposed a trans-fats ban.
“Other than that, nothing has changed,” says Sharon Hooper. “The sweet dough recipe we use for flat cakes, buns and doughnuts remains the same.”
Hoehn’s Bakery is beloved for its everyday goods, but it is nationally renowned for its fresh peach cake: just google “Hoehn’s peach cake” and you will see. The peach cake, quartered fresh peaches arranged on a slightly sweet, yeast-raised flat cake, is absolutely delicious, and for $5 a slab, it’s a bargain. You could get four to eight servings from one slab, but after a long winter without it, the fresh peach cake is best divided in two and shared with someone you love.
Sharon could paper the walls with the local awards the bakery has won over the years. When Hoehn’s opened, there were bakeries every couple of blocks. Hoehn’s has outlasted them all, a tribute to quality, tradition and neighborliness.
Stepping into the bakery is like stepping back to a simpler time before Hostess and Tastykake established themselves as the national overlords of dessert. The case is loaded with doughnuts, Highlandtown’s official breakfast food, as well as buns, turnovers and danish. The cakes, cloaked in fresh fruit, and the smearcase are closest to the door.
Lifelong Highlandtowners will know what smearcase is. The delicious dessert with the unlikely name is a little like cheesecake, but lighter and less sweet. Hoehn’s sells it with a dusting of cinnamon on top.
Hoehn’s customers are traditionalists. Over the years Sharon and her business partner, cousin Lou Sahlender, have tried to introduce some new products. A sweet deep-fried burrito stuffed with apples and dusted with cinnamon sugar was wildly popular for a while, then fizzled out. They have introduced a bread pudding made from raisin bread and custard, and it remains popular.
“We have had to adapt to the shifting demographics of the neighborhood,” says Sharon. “There are more single people, so we have introduced some products in a ‘mini’ proportion: Pennsylvania upside-down cake, strawberry shortcake, German chocolate cake, black forest cake, and they are selling well.”
The center of the bakery is the oil-fired brick oven that William Hoehn installed when he opened the bakery. It was built in place from plans that came from Germany. The oven is so efficient that when it is turned off for the staff’s annual vacation, it still registers about 350 degrees after two weeks.
Not much has changed in the back room. In professional bakeries all the ingredients are weighed–flour, eggs, milk, yeast, flavorings, all of it. The old-fashioned balance scale that Sharon uses is the same one used by her grandfather. The bins that hold the flour and other ingredients were there in the beginning. The “peel”—the long spatulate pole used to move baked goods into, around and out of the oven, is ancient, but Sharon won’t swear it’s been there since the beginning.
The staff has been there forever. Day clerks are Shirley and Marie; afternoon clerks are Alma and Anna. Mary works in back with Sharon and Lou. Their baked goods are picked by hand and packed in old-fashioned boxes with candy-cane string, and the ladies behind the counter are always good for a chat as they’re wrapping your purchase.
There is a sign over the counter: “It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice.”
That is the best description of Hoehn’s there is.
400 S. Conkling St.
Hours: Wed, Thurs, Frid, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m.