Classic Cincinnati: What the heck is schnecken?

There are certain things that are just so Classic Cincinnati -- from holiday traditions to food to celebrations. As a Tri-State native, entertainment reporter Brian Mains loves either remembering or learning about them. That's why he decided to write a monthly column celebrating the Queen City's unique heritage. 

What popular Cincinnati food means snail in German and can contain up to 3,000 calories per pound?

Schnecken

If you guessed schnecken, you are correct. (You also may need medical attention if you ever ate an entire loaf of the traditional European sweet bread.)

Many local bakeries such as Servatii and Graeter’s sell the sweet yellow bun, named for its coiled shape that looks like a snail’s shell. During the holidays in the Tri-state, though, one bakery takes the cake.

Busken Bakery has sold an average 6,000 loaves of Virginia Bakery schnecken (three tons at 3,000 calories per pound) between Nov. 1 and Christmas Eve since 2006, according to marketing vice president Brian Busken.

Busken bought Virginia Bakery's schnecken recipe from Tom Thie in 2005 after an accident forced Thie to close his family-owned shop. Virginia Bakery had operated on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton for 75 years.

Virginia Bakery in the 1950s

The recipe, brought over from Germany by Thie's great-grandfather in 1904, had made Virginia Bakery a local legend starting in the 1950s, and then nationally in the 1980s with mail-order sales.

"We shipped thousands of loaves to places like Atlanta," Thie said of Virginia Bakery's schnecken at its peak.

Thie still receives a royalty from Busken for each slab of Virginia Bakery schnecken it sells. He also agreed to oversee the arduous, old-world baking process that first year that his own family was not always so eager to share.

“Someone would show me steps one, two and three and then tell me to go get sugar,” Thie said. “When I came back, they'd be on step eight or nine. This was theirs."

Thie pieced the recipe together himself after he began working for his father, Howard, by greasing pans at 12 years old.

Tom Thie with his father, Howard.

Brian Busken said his company's bakers had to learn the recipe through trial and error during that first season of sales because Thie, like his father, and grandfather Bill Thie, never bothered to write down the entire Virginia Bakery schnecken recipe.

He just knew how much water, flour and yeast went into the “sponge,” a fermented yellow dough that is the base for schnecken. Thie knew how much sugar, cinnamon, egg wash and butter (two sticks) to use. Then, there was the best way to roll the dough, and how to coil it atop a sea of butter at the bottom of the baking pan before putting it in the oven.

“If these coils are too loose, you are going to have a very dry schnecken,” Thie said.

In Thie's opinion, dry schnecken is a sin. Tighter coils trap the two sticks of butter, which saturate the sweet bun while baking. Any butter left on the bottom of the pan then caramelizes to form the top of the schnecken after it comes out of the pan bottom-up. 

The more-than-a-century-old process is probably why Thie, and by extension Busken, doesn’t mind sharing Virginia Bakery's recipe with anyone who will listen. Thie even included it in a book he published a couple of years back, "Virginia Bakery Remembered."

"You could give 10 different bakers the recipe and end up with 10 different outcomes," Brian Busken said.

He said this is why his family still invites Thie into the bakery to check Busken's schnecken-making process. The bakery is, after all, preserving a piece of local culinary history, both men said.

Busken double-wraps each schnecken loaf in wax paper before placing it inside a white box with “Virginia Bakery” stamped in red letters on its top, just like the Thies did.

“We tried to tie the box closed with twine like Virginia Bakery did our first year, but it was too tough and time-consuming,” Brian Busken admitted. The bakery later opted for red ribbon instead.

In "Virginia Bakery Remembered," which Thie co-wrote with Cynthia Beischel, he said he felt the weight of being the last baker in his family and did not want to see his family's recipes disappear. Those recipes, after all, not only have Thie's own family history baked into them, but also Cincinnati's German-immigrant experience and neighborhoods.

By continuing to make Virginia Bakery's schnecken, Busken keeps open a window to the past, and the memories the food brings, with each bite from one of those deliciously decadent loaves.

 

Where to buy schnecken across the Tri-State

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