The little Berger cookie that could

 

Berger cookies have been a Baltimore staple since 1835. / AFR photo by Domenica Marchetti

Ellen McKay had just enough time for a Berger cookie run before getting her son, Will, to his plane. He was headed back to college in California after a visit with family in Baltimore, Md. She got three extra boxes to freeze for a future care package.

Will grew up in Connecticut, but his mother is a Baltimore native and therefore, almost by definition, a devotee of the Berger cookie. What the madeleine was to Proust, the Berger cookie is to Baltimoreans. When the French author’s narrator dips his shell-shaped cookie into a cup of tea, he is flooded with 3,000 pages of childhood memories.

So it is with the Berger cookie. (The company is called Bergers but to most Baltimoreans, when discussing the cookie, the ‘s’ is silent.”)

For nearly 200 years, this cake-bottomed cookie topped with a generous hand-dipped mound of dark fudge icing has sparked home-town memories for Charm City natives. For a very long time, the cookies were unknown outside the city.

“It was a great little business,” says Charlie DeBaufre, who has worked at the company for much of his life and became the owner in 1994. Customer demand and word of mouth led to incremental growth over the last 15 years. “We had two trucks,” DeBaufre says, “and then some of the major supermarkets said ‘we wouldn’t mind selling your cookies.’ ”

People aged and retired or moved outside Baltimore, but they still wanted their Berger cookies. Those who moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore didn’t want to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to get their cookies, says DeBaufre. So he sent his trucks across the bridge with the goods. Then they got requests from northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, Frederick, Md. Now DeBaufre has seven trucks.

He tried using brokers but, “they don’t care like you care,” he says. “I like having my own trucks and drivers. I like having more control over what’s going into the store.”

What’s going into the stores is an “unusual product,” says DeBaufre. “New Yorkers talk about their black and whites and it’s not a bad cookie, but it’s nothing like mine.”

The cookie is made using nearly the same recipe Henry Berger developed when he opened a bakery in East Baltimore in 1835. There have been a few modifications, according to DeBaufre. For example, vegetable oil has replaced lard in the recipe, reducing the saturated fat content considerably.

“Some people say the cookie is just there to hold the chocolate,” says DeBaufre. “They eat the chocolate and throw the cookie away.” Bergers has even been asked to put together a Berger cookie wedding cake, which DeBaufre describes as a stack of cookies with a bride and groom on top.

Berger, a German immigrant, was a baker by trade and his three sons followed him into the business. The cookies were sold from stalls in the city’s public markets. Today, there still are Bergers’ cookie stands in Baltimore’s Lexington and Cross Street markets.

As they have been since the beginning, Berger cookies are hand dipped. Four employees dip them all – 36,000 cookies a day. DeBaufre says he’s considered new equipment but has resisted. “I have to keep the integrity of the cookie,” he says. Yes, they have trouble keeping up with demand and often run out. But he doesn’t do it just to make money, he says. “I take pride in what I do. When you tell me they’re good cookies, I’m proud.” 

After World War I, George Russell, a young man who worked for the Bergers, bought the bakery. The DeBaufres – who had worked for the Russells – bought the business in 1969.

In addition to expanding distribution outside Baltimore, Bergers cookies are shipped all over the country. DeBaufre says a woman from Baltimore who lives in California sent holiday tins of cookies this year to her clients – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and Stephen Spielberg. “She wanted them to have something they wouldn’t have had before,” says DeBaufre.

You can take the kid out of Baltimore but not Baltimore out of the kid. Josh Charles – a star of “The Good Wife” television show – grew up in Baltimore. De Baufre says Charles was on a TV talk show on his 40th birthday when someone brought out a plate of Berger cookies. “I’ve got to say,” Debaufre says, “they looked really good.” 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to The little Berger cookie that could

  1. Elaine Eff January 14, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Thanks for the reminder ladies, especially now in post holiday diet season.
    My own romance with chocolate likely began with visits to Silber’s Bakery with my mom. My nose pressed to the showcase always warranted a gift of one chocolate topped (swirl on cake cookies) cookie from the saleswoman. (always a female). Berger’s cookies did not enter my life until I became a city market habitue after Silber’s tragically and instantaneously vanished. Northeast Market’s chocolate frosted pound cakes got my attention first. A stop at the Houvardas family’s Lexington Mkt stall was a required act–and believe it or not, still comes with a chocolate topped souvenir.
    The Berger cookie is to cookies what the Smith Island cake is to layer cakes– a vehicle for excellent chocolate. May both Maryland natives live long and find new audiences for many generations to come.

    • Profile photo of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf January 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

      My husband is from a Silbers family but has converted easily to Bergers. Excellent comparison with Smith Island cake. It’s all about the frosting.

    • Susan Cohen January 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

      I also remember as a small child going to the bakery in Brooklyn and looking through the glass case at all the different cookies. I remember one looked just like the Berger. I’m home with the flu now and having a Berger with my tea would be a dream.

  2. Nancy Leopold January 15, 2013 at 6:38 am #

    I, too, came to love Berger cookies (great catch – the silent s) through marriage to a Baltimorean and then rejoiced when they arrived in Bethesda. Now they are expected at staff meetings, eliciting instant smiles even from those determined to avoid the calories.

    • Profile photo of Bonny Wolf
      Bonny Wolf January 15, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      They’re the good kind of calories.

  3. Mary January 23, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    They look like a black-and-white but without the white. A cookie fanatic (with a waistline to prove it!) I thought I was well acquainted with every kind of cookie by now. This one is new to me.

  4. Marty Katz August 20, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    At last report, De Baufre was having huge trouble getting the trans fats out to comply with the rules. He was using margarine in the last couple years.