For German baker, there's no slowing down | May 3, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - May 3, 2013

For German baker, there's no slowing down

In his long career, Ernst Ruckaberle has made pastries for cruise ships, airlines and celebrities

by Jocelyn Dong

Working beneath the skylight in an industrial kitchen recently, Ernst Ruckaberle's gently wrinkled hands deftly molded a lump of marzipan. His movements were quick, efficient, as he transformed the red almond paste into a delicate rose.

At 74, with six decades of baking under his belt, Ruckaberle could be traveling around the world, as he did when he worked as the pastry chef on a cruise ship in the early '70s. Or, he could be resting on his laurels: He's made strudel for Arnold Schwarzenegger, petit fours for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and cakes and cookies for hundreds of TV celebrities.

Instead, Ruckaberle shows up at 6 a.m. seven days a week at the Esther's German Bakery kitchen on Old Middlefield Way in Mountain View, ready to turn flour, butter, eggs, chocolate and sugar into Old World cakes and confections. The German native surveys what's already in the icebox, makes his mental list of what needs to be baked that day, and gets down to business.

At Easter, there are hot cross buns. At Christmas, there is stollen. For New Year's, melt-in-your-mouth doughnuts called Berliners.

And every week, he makes cakes and pastries with such names as zimtschnecke, apfel streuselkuchen and mandelhornchen for Esther's.

"I tried to get him to take a day off," bakery owner Esther Nio said with a smile. "I gave up. He's a workaholic. He can't go home until all the refrigerator is filled up."

The hard-working Ruckaberle has been the backbone of Esther's since he was hired in 2006, just two weeks after selling his business of 30 years, Schroder's Bakery in San Bruno. Schroder's first supplied hotels and then airlines, churning out 8,000 rolls a day, plus desserts. But after Sept. 11 and the avian flu rattled the airline industry, he grew tired of the economic vicissitudes of running his own operation. At Esther's, he hoped to enter a new stage of his life and focus on the craft he's been perfecting since he was 14 years old: making pastries.

None of his recipes — or "formulas," as he calls them — are written down. He works by hand, shunning most machines that are standard in an industrial kitchen. All of the dozens of different cookies, cakes and tortes are made from scratch.

Although Ruckaberle enjoys telling stories and jokes, and likes to show how he can whistle "Happy Birthday" with his tongue curled into a "U," he prefers to work in solitude.

On a recent Tuesday, Ruckaberle filled a paper cone with soft, gooey chocolate and swiftly but precisely decorated a hazelnut marzipan torte with delicate fans. His hands were steady as he placed the chocolate on the white-frosted cake: a quarter turn of the cake stand; another brown fan laid down.

As Ruckaberle worked, Nio praised his expert preparation of the chocolate so that it was neither runny nor too hard. Other bakeries use pre-packaged icing that comes in bottles and every shade of the rainbow. Those, she said, use "chemicals" and don't require the baker to have an intimate knowledge of ingredients.

Both Nio and Ruckaberle lament the standards of today's mass-produced baked goods. They cited the traditional Christmas cake, stollen, which Ruckaberle makes with yeast, raisins, fruit, rum, citron, nutmeg and other spices.

"There is not an item in the baking industry that the people mix up so much," Ruckaberle said, his German accent making his words rumble like a race-car engine. "It's a catastrophe. It's true, yes?"

Nio nodded.

"Nowadays what they put in it is unacceptable," she said of the mass-produced kind.

Ruckaberle starts baking stollen in July and freezes it for the Christmas season.

"The older the stollen, the better the stollen," he said. "When the stollen age, it's so moist, it melts in your mouth."

So authentic is the yeasty cake, people have placed orders for it from Hawaii and Japan, Nio said. Despite the bakery's making 1,000 pounds each year, she said: "We always sell out. We never have enough."

In sticking with the Old World traditions, Esther's has resisted swaying with food trends that invariably come and go. The bakery uses organic flour, Nio said, but she draws the line at offering gluten-free products.

"I say: 'Listen. I'm a German bakery. ... I cannot suddenly become gluten-free. German baking uses flour,'" Nio said, a touch exasperated.

Over the years, the bakery — which supplies local farmers markets as well — has found an audience. Expat Germans flock to the restaurant on San Antonio Road in Los Altos, which also serves food. Israelis, Russians and, more recently, Japanese and Chinese also have become regulars, Nio said.

And that's great for Ruckaberle, who is no stranger to long hours. As an apprentice in Germany in the 1950s, he started work at 1 a.m. every day and made deliveries by bicycle from 6 to 9 a.m., snow and ice not withstanding.

On the cruise ship, loaded with 400 passengers, breakfast service started at 6 a.m. and the final buffet at midnight, with lunch, snack time and dinner in between. He would work every single day for 11 months each year.

"You have to be an idealist to go into this business," said Ruckaberle, whose baking and confectionary training lasted 10 years. "You never look at the hours; you never look at the holidays."

Even these days, he sometimes can't leave his work in the kitchen. He's been known to take bricks of marzipan home, where he forms them into peaches, bananas, flowers and rabbits. Accompanied by a glass of wine, the activity is relaxing, he said.

"It's like art. ... For me, whatever I do, my heart is over there."

When Ruckaberle is not baking, he enjoys swimming, cooking and wine. Each Oktoberfest, he throws a party and cooks ham with breadcrust, cabbage, spaetzle, onion pie, pea soup and other German food for 40.

Talk to the energetic septuagenarian long enough, and it's clear he has no plans to retire. In part, Ruckaberle said, it's because he enjoys a good working relationship with Nio and her husband, Robert. Every day, Ruckaberle and Nio start the day by chatting in German for 20 minutes.

"He's the most amusing person," she said. "This personality you don't find often. There's just one Ernst."

In nearly seven years of working together, they've never had a fight or disagreement, Ruckaberle said.

And besides, if he were to retire, what would he do?

"Many people, they go, 'You're crazy, at 74 years you work seven days.' But I tell them, 'You never know what you miss.' When I go in the morning to work, all the elderly guys with the little doggies, they walk on the street. I say to myself: 'Uh-uh. Not me. I've got to work.'

"It makes me happy," Ruckaberle said, standing in his kitchen and surrounded by stacks of spring-form pans and bags of sugar. "I like to work. I don't have a problem with that."


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