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A cake walk through a local bakery: A new book celebrates Brenner’s of Alexandria

Max Brenner at the cake-decorating station of Brenner's Bakery, which operated for decades in Fairfax County. A new book tells the story of the bakery, with recipes.
Max Brenner at the cake-decorating station of Brenner's Bakery, which operated for decades in Fairfax County. A new book tells the story of the bakery, with recipes. (Family photo)

Expert bakers know that if they want tasty bread, they have to give the dough a final rise, a yeasty process known as “proofing.” Marcy Brenner had been proofing her new book for a long time.

“This book has been gestating for 40 years,” said Marcy of “A Baker’s Daughter: Recipes & Memories From a Family Bakery.” It’s the story of Brenner’s, a bakery in Alexandria’s Belle View Shopping Center run by Marcy’s father, Max.

The book is a combination of memoir and cooking class, with chapters that alternate between the story of the Brenner family — a Washington-area baking dynasty — and recipes for such treats as chocolate top cookies, pecan sticky buns and Parker House dinner rolls.

“I call it a narrative cookbook,” said Marcy, 56.

The Brenner baking story began in 1918, when Marcy’s grandparents Louis and Sadie Brenner — immigrants from Eastern Europe — left New York City and settled in Norfolk. Louis took a job at his uncle’s bakery, then opened his own in Southwest Washington. The couple had eight children. Several of the Brenner sons were like sourdough starters, spreading out and opening their own bakeries.

There were more than a half dozen in the Washington area. Most were offshoots of one in Arlington. Another operated in Oxon Hill, Md. After Max stumbled with an unsuccessful doughnut shop, Max brought Brenner’s to Alexandria in 1953 with his brother Willie.

“It used to be you would go to specialty shops to get bread and sweets for the week,” Marcy said. Before the proliferation of supermarket chains, with their in-house bakeries, Brenner’s was a staple in the Fort Hunt area of Fairfax County.

Marcy, the youngest of three girls, remembers her father rising before 3 a.m. to get an early start at the bakery and returning home in the afternoon dusted with flour, sugar and chunks of dried dough.

When she was old enough, she would go in to help. Among her jobs: tying up boxes of pastries. “There was a very elegant brass tube on the counter that held a cone of white string,” Marcy said. To pull the string, loop it around the box, cut it and tie it off in one deft movement was an art form.

Marcy moved away at age 18. Max retired in 1984 and passed the bakery to a son-in-law. In around 2004, the Alexandria Brenner’s closed.

Marcy is a musician and artist who lives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Over the years, she entertained ideas of dipping into the index cards Max had saved with information on each baked good to see if she could re-create the taste of Brenner’s.

But there were some hurdles.

“It was always nutty to think I could just do some math and the recipes would work at my house,” she said. “But it did.”

She had to make allowances for the differences between home baking and business baking, where cookies, cakes and loaves were made in huge batches. The cards aren’t recipes, per se.

“I call them ingredient cards,” Marcy said. “There’s no direction.”

They just outline the amount of different ingredients, from milk powder to “MFB,” an abbreviation for Wesson’s Made for Baking-brand shortening.

Marcy consulted cousins who worked at other Brenner bakeries. Before dementia had claimed too much of Max’s memory, she also consulted her father. Even after his death in 2017, she found herself turning to him.

When Marcy would hit an impasse on a recipe, she’d pause, then say, “Okay, Dad, here we go.”

Said Marcy: “I would put that yeast through my fingers and ask him to help me. And he did. I’m not a loopy person but those thoughts are important to me. I do think our ancestors help us.”

It’s those ancestors who figure so prominently in her book, which was co-written with Kristin Donnan, a friend from Hayfield Secondary School who lives in South Dakota.

“I had all these family stories in my heart and in my head. I just began to connect them,” Marcy said.

She knew she had a recipe right when the smells, tastes and textures would transport her back to her childhood.

Marcy published the 290-page book herself, even taking the pictures of the confections in various stages of preparation. The first five print runs of the book sold out, a total of 1,200 copies.

But just as her father did with his cookies and cakes, Marcy is happy to make more.

“A Baker’s Daughter: Recipes & Memories From a Family Bakery” is $24.95 for paperback, 39.95 for hardcover. For information, and to order, visit brennersbakerybook.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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