A conversation I was having with someone recently got me to thinking again about Gitlitz's Bakery, which used to be up on Whalley Avenue. It was the opening of Manjares, a new cafe in Westville, that started it again. I think about Gitlitz's all the time, at least once every three weeks, I estimate, but Manjares got me thinking about it again because I suspect it'll be one of those neighborhood bakeries people get all territorial about (if it succeeds, which I ardently hope it will). There's an article in the Independent about it, if you want to read about Ana and her bakery; better yet, go, because Ana is one of the nicest people I've met in recent years....
But anyhow. Gitlitz's. I remember it was on Whalley Avenue in a building that got torn down a few years ago, a sort of art-deco era strip mall. I could be wrong, but I remember a grocery store/produce shop called Paramount one or two doors down from it. The stores all had neon signs that must have been really glitzy when they were first put up. By the time I was a kid, it was kind of seedy looking over there. But my family adored Gitlitz's. My parents still wax rhapsodic over the chocolate birthday cakes they bought there for my older brother. They remember ordering one cake that was decorated to look like a football field. (This is hilarious in retrospect; my brother is not exactly what you'd call a jock, and I don't think my father could name a football team if you asked him, but I guess that's what it's like if you have a little boy -- you get birthday cakes that look like football fields.) There were little football player figurines on the cake and everything. A few years back I vowed to try to replicate this cake for my father's birthday, which we always celebrate at Thanksgiving, and at the (now defunct) Goatville Trading Company I found vintage football player cake decorations. They were all different sizes, so my cake looked a little weird. And I don't know how to draw a football field anyhow (I'm my father's daughter). But, you know, the point was made; everyone understood this cake was a tribute to Gitlitz's, and it was pretty good, too.
So just now I Googled Gitlitz's Bakery and found that someone on Chowhound.com laments the passing of their coconut layer cake, of which I have no memory (I hated coconut when I was a kid), and that Emily Bazelon has an article on Slate.com where she talks about the babka at Edge of the Woods, which she misses now that she lives in DC, and which apparently is made using the old Gitlitz recipe.
Now, the Gitlitz babka was legendary to me growing up. It was perfect. Chocolatey with no annoying distractions like fruit or nuts. Why have I never gotten a babka at Edge of the Woods? Possibly because I only go there twice a year or something (it's not convenient for me; I have recurring dreams about them opening a branch on Willow Street or State Street); however, I have now determined that I will get my ass up there and buy a chocolate babka soon.
But this was it, for online referenes to Gitlitz's. I felt this was a shame -- a shanda, really -- and determined to put my own voice out there in praise of Gitlitz's. Because if I'm doing a Google search for them, there must be thousands of others doing the same thing. (Ok, maybe not thousands. Maybe six people a year do a search for Gitlitz's Bakery. But they're a demographic, too, and I am catering to them, my fellow Gitlitz devotees.)
The other thing that was so important to me at Gitlitz's was something that we always called a pull-apart cake. I have no idea what the bakery itself called this cake. And I've baked cakes that are similar to it. But I've yet to make one that was as perfect as theirs. It was, I suppose, a Jewish variant of what Midwesterners call Monkey Bread. This was an eggy yeast dough, I'm sure, somewhat dry, that was placed in a tube pan in slabs that had been thoroughly coated with some kind of shortening (butter? maybe, but maybe not) and lots of cinnamon sugar. The cake rose in the pan again before baking, and what resulted when you removed the cake from the pan was a cake that didn't require slicing. Each section of cake came away neatly by hand. Grownups ate this with a cup of hot coffee; I remember eating piece after piece while downing glasses of very cold milk. We had this on weekend mornings. (My mother hated to cook but believed that all meals, should come with dessert, not just dinner. I'm not sure how many parenting magazines would advocate this but my brother and I thought it was just fine.) Pull-apart cake was excellent stuff, and you could eat a lot of it because it wasn't cloying and didn't have frosting to distract you from how good the cake was.
I didn't hear about Monkey Bread until I was in college, and when I tasted it I realized that it was a cousin of my lost Pull-apart cake. I started comparing recipes, and making them when I was home, and while they were all pretty good, none of them were quite what I was looking for. Most importantly, the method of piling all the butter-and-sugar-coated dough balls in the pan was so time consuming, and it meant that the shape of the finished cake was never the same as what I had in mind. And the dough wasn't ever quite the same.
I now wonder if maybe it wasn't just challah dough they used in the Pull-apart cake. I will have to investigate this. If anyone has insight or, even better, recipes....