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Holliswood bakery keeps Old World traditions

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Everyday at 3 a.m. Helmut Steinbrunner arrives at his bakery, Hillside Cakes and Cookies, to begin making rolls, turnovers, Danish pastries and his specialty — more than 40 kinds of Swiss Victorian butter cookies.

He boils the sugar to create a syrup base for his extra-light butter cream, made from a European recipe, as the cakes that will hide under the frosting bake in the rotating oven.

Despite the loving effort that goes into every treat, both Steinbrunner and Hillside Cakes and Cookies may be the last of a dying breed. The bakery, at 204-08 Hillside Ave., near Francis Lewis Boulevard, is one of just a handful of quality mom-and-pop bakeries left in Queens, Steinbrunner said.

The bakeries seem to be a casualty of a generation gap as young people turn to supermarkets for their pastries rather than local bakeries, he said.

“The generations are changing,” Steinbrunner said. “The old-timers are gone. Only the ones whose parents brought them into the bakeries when they were young know what they get when they walk in here.”

Hillside Cakes and Cookies has been a fixture in Holliswood since its opening in 1932, when it was called Hillside Pastries. The bakery is known for its elaborate wedding cakes, fresh strawberry shortcakes and the Swiss Victorian butter cookies, Steinbrunner said.

“When people think about bakeries, it automatically reminds you of European-oriented pastries,” he said. “This has always been a German- and Swiss-oriented bakery.”

Steinbrunner was born in Germany and trained in Europe, where baking is a licensed profession, he said.

“In Europe it’s traditional to learn a profession,” he said. “Over there being a baker is a well-to-do profession. Here they don’t think a baker is a profession.”

After apprenticing in hotels and working in Holland, Canada and other places, Steinbrunner came to Astoria in 1973, where he was thrilled to find bakeries galore that were looking for help, he said.

“Up there there was a bakery on every corner,” he said. “At every intersection there were four bakeries. It was unbelievable.”

Steinbrunner found part-time work at several bakeries in Queens, including Hillside Pastries. In the mid-1980s, he became a partner at the bakery, and in 1990 his partner retired to Florida, and Steinbrunner took over, he said. After he realized his focus was on cakes and cookies, he changed the name of the bakery to Hillside Cakes and Cookies.

Steinbrunner and his small staff preserve the traditions of their trade, making pastries fresh every day, he said. The Danish pastries, rolls and other breakfast treats have a shelf-life of about a day, while the cakes last up to two days.

“We don’t make anything with expiration dates,” Steinbrunner said. “We make everything fresh every day. You can’t say that for the supermarkets. It’s a totally different scenario with a mom-and-pop baker than a market bakery.”

Although making tray after tray of butter cookies and getting just the right consistency for his butter cream can be intensive work, ensuring the European traditions continue in Queens is a labor of love for Steinbrunner, he said.

“You ask people and they say, ‘we used to...’ ” He said. “I don’t want to hear that.”

But interest in his treats is dwindling as some are going for convenience over taste, Steinbrunner said.

“Most people now don’t care about real quality food,” he said. “If it’s sweet, it’s good.”

One myth with mom-and-pop bakeries is that customers will pay more for the quality, but Steinbrunner said that’s not true, but people don’t stop in to find out.

“It’s not that it’s cheaper or more expensive,” he said. “They just don’t have the experience with the local bakeries.”

But Steinbrunner won’t give up, he said. He’s even branching out to the Internet, where he hopes to market tins of his gourmet Swiss Victorian butter cookies nationwide, he said.

“I love making things,” Steinbrunner said with a smile. “It’s such a fun job.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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