Remembrance of Sweets Past
The Episode of The Jelly Pies
When it starts getting dark at 4:30 p.m. and winter yanks the rug out from under my mood, I fight back with baked goods. Seasonal affective disorder can't begin to compete with the power of the only-in-Baltimore triumvirate of pastries: peach cake, schmierkase, and jelly pies.
Peach cake is sublime in August, when fresh local fruit tops the barely sweetened quick-bread base; I'm not so interested in it the rest of the year, when the peaches come from a can and something essential is lost in the making. And, despite my German and Polish background, schmierkase just doesn't do it for me any time of the year. For those unfamiliar with schmierkase (often "smearcase" in local bakery parlance), it's a sort of German cheesecake-schmierkase being a type of creamy, fine-grained cottage cheese-on a pastry base, usually with lots of cinnamon on top.
For me, the most effective weapon in the mood-maintenance arsenal is jelly pies: tiny little superflaky pastry turnovers filled with raspberry jelly and drizzled with white icing. It's likely that they are terrible trans-fat-laden time bombs; I don't know, because I don't want to know. Everything else in my diet is so conscientiously organic, whole grain, and high fiber that I feel entitled to the occasional Crisco carousel. So don't rain on my jelly pie parade.
Jelly pies and I go way back. Three-plus decades ago they were the bribe of choice for ensuring Sunday morning good behavior: If my brother and I refrained from whining and/or mischief in church, afterward we were rewarded with a stop at Keller's Bakery (509 S. Camp Meade Road,  859-8228) in Linthicum, home of the most sublime jelly pies on the planet. I have fond memories of the richness of the shatteringly tender pastry crumbling on my tongue to release the tart sweetness of the raspberry jelly, with a counterpoint of pure sugar from the splash of icing on top. My favorite method of consuming them involved rooting through the box to find a jelly pie that had oozed its filling during baking, so that there was a caramelized crust of jelly around the edges of the pastry-those were sort of like Pop-Tarts, only a million times better.
Life for me now does not often lead to Linthicum, and so I have been tasting jelly pies from other bakeries. It's sort of a Proust's madelines thing, trying to re-experience the beloved taste of childhood. It's been a pleasant little project, stepping into the sugar-scented air of various local bakeries; jelly pies are very much a local phenomenon, completely under the radar of supermarket "bakeries" cranking out the factory frozen baked goods. Time seems to stand still inside these small owner-operated shops; there's nothing fancy or pretentious, just cases of succulent, not-good-for-you-but-who-cares pies, cookies, doughnuts, stollen, pastries . . . in short, a quick, inexpensive mood boost in a white box tied up with red string.
As much as I enjoyed my research, the jelly pies I found were always good-what can possibly go wrong with the ageless marriage of fat and sugar?-but never quite right. My favorite Baltimore bakery, the Fenwick Bakery (7219 Harford Road,  444-6410), doesn't drizzle the icing atop its jelly pies, though it does offer to sprinkle powdered sugar over your order (an offer that should absolutely be accepted). The Fenwick's rather dry pastry was the most buttery of all I tried, and I liked how the pies are shaped sort of like another local food specialty: the ends of the turnover are elongated into two very crablike "points."
Woodlea Bakery (4905 Belair Road,  488-7717) makes a monster jelly pie that I really enjoy after scraping out most of the raspberry filling-waaaay too much of a good thing here. Of all the places whose jelly pies I have sampled, Simon's Bakery (582 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville,  667-9832) came the closest to replicating the Sunday morning treat of my childhood. They are tender, very flaky, with a good balance of raspberry and icing, but too large.
Size is an issue here, because the only difference between a jelly pie and a jelly turnover is scale. You should be able to eat a jelly pie in two to three bites, while a turnover requires more commitment. Also, the typical jelly pie order is a dozen, whereas ordering a dozen turnovers could be excessive.
In search of the ultimate jelly pie of my childhood memories, I finally made a special trip to Linthicum, just to visit Keller's. I had to see if my memory was accurate, or if over the course of 30 years I'd elevated Keller's jelly pies from run-of-the-mill baked good to some sort of unattainable perfection that existed only in my mind. The grouchy counter lady, who wanted to hear nothing about my childhood memories of her bakery, swiftly boxed my order. I was out the door in under two minutes, and by the time I pulled out of the parking lot I had already eaten three of the petite pastries. They were as perfect as I remembered: shatteringly tender pastry crumbling on my tongue to release the tart sweetness of the dab of raspberry jelly inside, perfectly counterpoint to the pure-sugar sweetness of icing. Sometimes you can go home again. ★
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201