Comfort Bread

“Look at them as they once were, and will be again…How entirely contented, and even joyous, are they! The humblest and hardest toilers are radiant with self-satisfaction, as if there were neither labor nor care to-morrow. They drink, and laugh and chat energetically and boisterously, as if they really relished it, and smoke, and sing and dance, and listen appreciatively to music…Dyspepsia and nervous disorders trouble them not. Every day they labor; every night they rest, laying a solid bar of sleep between the days; each year adding something to their worldly store; always living below their means; thrilled by no rapturous glow; disturbed by no divine ideals; speculative, but calm; thoughtful, but healthy; comfortable, but thrifty; resolved to have and own something, if years are given to them, and making their resolution good in real estate, brick houses, and government securities. It is a goodly sight to see the Germans, who eat and drink, but eat as they do everything else, with a purpose. No elaborate dainties, no recherche viands, no delicate entremets for them.”

Junius Henri Brown The Great Metropolis; a Mirror of New York, 1869

In the late 1840s, displaced by famine and by the revolutions erupting across Europe, immigrants from Germany began arriving by the tens of thousands at the port of New York. 

The new arrivals found themselves in a violent, inequitable, filthy, and dangerous city, in the middle of an unprecedented orgy of municipal corruption. Tenement-filled lower wards grew crowded, then unbearable, with New York’s wretched, ever-expanding working class, a polyglot population subject to the highest mortality rate in what was then known as the civilized world. In the thirty years between 1830 and 1860, population density quadrupled citywide (from 9,628 residents per square mile in 1830 to 39,351 in 1860) as industrialization of the city ramped up. Downtown, the city’s infrastructure crumbled under the deluge of immigrants arriving to support industrial expansion, leaving housing and sewers in various stages of collapse. Epidemics—typhus, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis—tore again and again through the densely-packed city, killing thousands.

Contemporaries called it an age of riot.  A snapshot of the era: rival police forces in a bloody brawl on the steps of City Hall, in stage one of an internecine battle that left the city helpless against pervasive crime brought on by extreme poverty, overcrowding, exploitation, addiction, mental illness, rage. Financial panic caused, in part, by massive embezzlement by a cashier in the New York office of the Ohio Life Insurance Company, precipitating a severe depression, the loss of 30,000 local jobs and the failure of nearly 5,000 local businesses. A two-day-long gang battle, a thousand participants strong, raging citywide as a vicious, drunken mob of city’s poorest looted and destroyed public buildings and commandeered private homes before two regiments of state militia were able to bring them under control–not without casualties. And that was just 1857.

Many German immigrants moved on, westward. Those who stayed—mostly urban dwellers back in the old country, too— formed Kleindeutschland, GermanBandInNewYork1876a vibrant collection of German-ethnic subcommunities that collectively encompassed Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By 1855, New York was home to the third largest German population in the world, just behind Berlin and Vienna.

 The first of the nineteenth-century immigrant groups to make a distinct culinary contribution to the city, Germans quickly came to dominate the food-related trades (though fish and oysters remained the province of the Irish). German butchers, brewers, and grocers were ubiquitous by the 1850s. New York’s bakers, for the first half of the nineteenth century predominantly Scottish or Irish, were for the remainder of the century typically German. By the end of the 1850s, writes Jane Ziegelman in 97 Orchard, a study of immigrant foodways on the Lower East Side,  “responsibility for baking the city’s bread had passed into German hands.”

The life of a baker in nineteenth-century New York was brutal. Awake through the night, working fourteen or more hours daily for a pittance, the baker relied for economic survival on the labor of every family member, when there were family members—the long hours, nocturnal schedules, and scanty pay often meant permanent bachelorhood. In densely populated areas, they could be found hard at work in the stoop-ceilinged, dirt-floored basements of one in every three or four tenement buildings, working without running water, sleeping on flour sacks in the hundred-plus-degree heat. Managing the supply of precious bread in chronically deprived communities was never easy, either. Bakers were subject to at least their full share of suspicion and resentment from those who lived a loaf or two away from starvation. 

But German baking, like German restaurants, appealed to the tastes of New Yorkers well beyond the confines of Kleindeutschland. By the end of the nineteenth century, even upper-class types had developed a taste for hamish German baked goods. German bakers brought simple comfort and satisfaction to the people living in this difficult and often frightening world. One of the most enduring specialties they created to cheer the New Yorkers of the era: Streuselkuchen or, as we know them, crumb buns. 

Traditionally made of a yeast dough baked in a square or sheet pan, the buns should be topped with a heavy layer of very big crumbs made of sugar, butter, and flour, mixed at a 1:1:2 ratio. In the New York/New Jersey area, legit crumb buns have at least as much crumb as cake.

Though some excellent recipes use leaveners other than yeast, yeasted versions are probably descendants of the oldest versions of the cake. Convenient, quicker-acting chemical leaveners didn’t become available to home bakers until the last half of the nineteenth century.

Nearly two hundred years later, crumb buns remain a counterweight to the struggles of everyday life, and a chance to remember that even in troubled times, there is sweetness and comfort to be shared.

New York Crumb Buns
Adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe

[cuts into 9 pieces]

For the Bread
2 packages instant yeast
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup, plus 1 tablespoon sugar
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoons salt
1 large egg
2teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup butter, melted

For the Crumb Topping
1 ½ cups cake flour
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 ½ sticks cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

  1. In a small saucepan, heat buttermilk until just warm (no more than 115°).   Stir in sugar and yeast, and set aside for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add lemon juice to yeast mixture. Let stand while you measure 2 cups of flour and salt into a large bowl.  Add yeast mixture, melted butter, egg, and vanilla.  Beat with electric mixer on low until just combined. Continue beating on medium until dough is silky and elastic, about 5 minutes.  Dough will be very sticky.  Leave dough in bowl and sprinkle with two tablespoons flour.  Cover and let rise in a draft- until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
  3. Pulse together crumb ingredients in a food processor, and chill, covered, until ready to use.
  4. Grease an 8 x 8-inch baking dish.  Stir down dough, then push gently to spread evenly into the prepared baking dish.
  5. Sprinkle dough with about a quarter of the crumbs. Cover let rise until almost doubled in bulk, 1 ½ to 2 hours. You can also put it all in the refrigerator at this point, and let it rise overnight. If you do this, take it out about a half hour before you want to bake it.
  6. Preheat oven to 350°.  Sprinkle remaining topping evenly over the cake and bake about 50 minutes*, until topping is golden brown.
  7. Cool cake in pan on a rack until barely warm, then dust with confectioner’s sugar, and cut into squares.

*Watch carefully and/or use cake strips to prevent the edges burning before the bread is fully baked. It’s important to avoid under-baking, since a fully developed structure is necessary to support all those crumbs.