Never has a nickname been so fitting. Benjamin "Yummy" Hirsch is sitting in his sliver of an office, squeezed in between the retail operation and the production end of his bakery like frosting in a layer cake. The red-haired Hirsch, his beard close-cropped, looks at the near-chaos swirling around him and politely instructs a visitor to move so that an employee dusted with matzah flour and smudged with icing can push by with a tall metal cart stacked with a dozen sheet cakes. Another worker calls out "watch your back" as he holds metal trays high overhead, bearing long rows of jelly rolls and fruit pies.
Industrial-sized tubs of colored sprinkles stand like sentinels at the entrance to the manufacturing part of the floor. In quieter moments Yummy encourages kids to come back and see how it’s done, and even lets them dip a finger into the vat of melted chocolate.
It’s the Sunday before Passover, and peak season at Hirsch’s Passover Bakery, which operates only in February, March and April. The bakery, which Yummy took over from his father and uncle, is a glimpse into another world.
For one, it is known only to the nut-cake cognoscenti, for Hirsch’s Passover Bakery is hidden behind a door marked only with its address: 1018 Clarkson Ave., near 93rd Street. This part of Brooklyn, East Flatbush, used to be largely Jewish. Today the solid old brick apartment buildings are filled with West Indians and African-Americans, some of whom go to work at Hirsch’s in its busy season.
But find the doorway and it opens onto a scene that is nearly wondrous in a world of pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped food. In a dimly lit room are long tables covered with enormous sheets of cake.
All of them are fresh and some are still warm from the oven: sponge cake and marble cake and seven-layer cake and jelly roll and sprinkle-covered chocolate roll and frosted chocolate brownie and black forest cake and sacher cake and jelly-filled nut cake sprinkled in more crushed nuts.
Yummy’s tasting policy is liberal: samples are full-slice size pieces of any cake a shopper wants, and the children who come with their parents want to taste a lot.
Young men and women (at peak season, Yummy’s four young-adult children pitch in, as does his wife, Rita, and as many as 30 employees) stand behind the cakes, and on a ledge behind them rest plastic boxes of Yummy’s other yummies: macaroons, plain and chocolate covered, bon-bon cookies filled with chocolate cream under a chocolate shell, chocolate-dipped leaf cookies, rainbow cookies and nut cookies.
A middle-aged woman, wearing sweatpants and a heavy Russian accent, directs one of the patient young men to give her "dis piece" of the marble cake, not a corner, but in the middle, and then "dat" particular section of chocolate roll. Her tired-looking husband holds a birthday cake they’ve just picked up, frosted so festively that it looks just like a birthday cake would any other time of year.
Making matzah flour and potato starch taste as delectable as non-Pesachdik ingredients do is no small challenge. But Yummy and his team of bakers (whose Jackson Pollockian chocolate-splattered aprons attest to the cakes they’ve covered) and sales people, who are all religious Jews, make it happen. The soft sponge and marble cakes taste just as good as their non-Passover counterparts.
As a visitor tries to get him to answer a few questions, the reticent baking baron apologetically says "Sorry, it’s very busy," between interruptions about whether or not he has the chocolate-coconut macaroons as well as the chocolate-almond ones.
Hirsch’s is primarily a commercial bakery selling countless boxes (Yummy says he’s honestly not sure how much product he moves) of sweet treats (more than 35 varieties) to stores ranging from the Pathmark and ShopRite chains to independent Jewish grocers in Crown Heights, Flatbush and Borough Park.
His father and uncle first opened Hirsch’s Bakery two blocks away in 1951, and branched out into the Passover bakery, buying its current location in 1956. Yummy and his family lived on top of the bakery, and he grew up rolling pieces of dough his father would hand him as he hung around the place. Yummy closed the year-round bakery in 1988, after a fire destroyed the place.
When Yummy isn’t busy baking up Pesach treats, he works as the assistant technical director at Willmark, a Brooklyn manufacturer of food colorings and dessert fillings.
But his favorite thing is potchkeying around with new recipes. To this day, Yummy says, "I love to make a product out of nothing," working his alchemy on matzah flour and oil, sugar and eggs.
This year he perfected potato-starch rolls that taste, he says, just about as good as the more typical type and are proving quite popular.
When he fires up the ovens in February, he begins by baking cookies because they keep the longest. The season is brief. On the last day of chol hamoed, next Tuesday, it will come to an end as Jews everywhere wait for the sun to set and Passover to conclude before rushing out to get fresh loaves of bread: perhaps the one thing that Hirsch’s Passover Bakery can’t provide.