I think about Mr. and Mrs. Robert Maus a lot. They were our jolly German-born neighbors who lived right next door to our house at 86 Elm Place. Retired bakers, having sold their profitable bakery in Newark, New Jersey, they were anything but retired from their art. Still enamored of flour and sugar and butter and cream and fresh and dried fruits and nuts, they transformed, little by little, their concrete-floored basement into a mini version of their former professional premises.Wooden tables, fat legged and sturdy, had unpainted tops that were silken and smooth to the touch, reflecting years and years of kneading doughs and rolling pastries. The ovens were not like ours next-door, small gas wall units that could barely hold a twenty-five-pound turkey, but large “professional” ranges, black with age. The floor felt as soft as the tops of the work tables, surely the result of flour and sugar sanding its surface year after year.
And although from my perspective -- that of a young child -- everything seemed larger than life, my mother assures me that everything was larger than I was used to, starting with the Mauses themselves. They were not like any other acquaintances. I always thought of them as fairytale characters, just as the children’s author Maurice Sendak envisions the bakers in his famous book "In the Night Kitchen."
Although retired, the Mauses baked as if they had customers lined up at the front door. They were always experimenting and trying new recipes and ideas, using age-old techniques that they had acquired in Germany, where they had apprenticed under a "natural" master baker who used only the best ingredients, with fabulous results. Thus the Danish pastries that emerged from those big ovens on full sheet pans, dented and blackened around the edges from many years of use,were delicate and flaky, and filled with sweet apricots and prunes and apples, not out of cans, but fresh and plump.
There were no mixers in the basement bakery: Everything was stirred and kneaded and mixed by hand. Mr. Maus would tell me over and over that that was why his cakes were lighter, his breads higher, his creams fluffier, and his pastries flakier. To this day I believe him, and use his instructions when I bake or cook. His yeast doughs would rise in the enveloping warmth of the big oil furnace that heated his house. He used big yellowware bowls that Mrs. Maus lovingly cared for—there were no cracks or chips in those bowls.Thin, well-washed linen towels were used to cover the doughs, and pans of water were placed here and there in the cellar to create the "humidity" that Mr. Maus knew was essential to the tenderness of a fine yeast bread. His rolling pins were immense -- longer and bigger than any I had ever seen, and when I, as a young housewife,was buying my own baking tools, I looked for the same kinds of steel pans and heavy tin molds and giant wooden rolling pins that the Mauses used. I still have and cherish one of their yellowware bowls, which I use for rising my mother’s babka dough.
Perhaps the most memorable of the Mauses’ recipes, and one that we still use in our family, is this fruitcake recipe. It’s rich and heavy and dark.You must use the best-quality dried fruits and candied fruits you can find; I spend a day just gathering ingredients for my fruitcake-baking day. Then everything must be chopped by hand, pans and tins must be lined with buttered brown paper or heavy waxed paper, and the cakes must be baked for about three and a half hours in a bain-marie.
Here’s the recipe, foolproof, a Christmas gift to you from me and Mr. and Mrs. Maus. Remember, bake this cake right away -- it gets better with age.