As a Philadelphia native, I have a great appreciation for the sticky bun. It is a Philadelphia tradition, brought over from the old country by the German settlers in the 1700’s but with deeper roots in Europe, where it emerged in the Middle Ages once cinnamon became available. It is comfort food but not anything that was ever made in the home when I was growing up.
According to Clementine Paddleford, a culinary journalist active from 1920 to 1960 who wrote the article “The Recipes that America Loves,” “Sticky buns belong to Philadelphia as much as Independence Hall and the 12th Street Market. Not just any cinnamon bun, this bun of the Quaker City, but a bun unique of flavor, of a stickiness incarnate.”
We had many sticky options available at small bakeries in our West Oak Lane neighborhood, and it was always the reward after church on Sundays to eat the gooey glazed buns with a glass of cold milk. There were four versions of the treat — raisins, nuts (always walnuts), both raisins and nuts, or plain — and everyone in my family liked all of the above. It just depended on what was left at the bakery on Ogontz Avenue as to what my dad would bring home.
Sticky buns in Central Pennsylvania are another sort of baked good entirely. The supreme contender in the field is without a doubt Ye Olde College Diner, which produces 70 commercial-size trays of the popular pastry each day and ship them throughout the state. They have been on the menu at the Diner since the early ’70s and have become an icon for our region. They are not the sticky buns that I grew up with, cut from a roll that causes the finished bun to be spiral in shape, but instead they are long, slender strips that are best “grilled” — cooked in butter on a flat top or in a cast iron pan — and sometimes served with vanilla ice cream.
But the Diner stickies are predated by a particular sticky bun that was developed in this area by Jim Neidigh, who operated several bakeries in town starting in 1955. Old Colonial Bake Shop on Allen Street was a predecessor to Colonial Pastry located on West College Avenue out toward Pine Grove Mills. Jim and Jean Neidigh still regularly make their formula for sticky buns for their family and are training their 20-year-old grandson, Jonathan McClure, in the preparation of the specialty.
“It takes a lot of strength to work the dough,” said Jean, who is happy to pass it on to successive generations of her family.
Their particular sticky bun must be very special, indeed, because it was the incentive for Tony Sapia, of Gemelli Bakers. Sapia sells slabs of stickies on Fridays and Saturdays at the bakery at 129 McAllister Alley in State College and shared his hometown memory.
“Growing up, theirs (the sticky buns made by Jim Neidigh at Old Colonial Bake Shop) were the standard — thick, gooey, fluffy. Lots of stickiness,” Sapia said. “That memory is my inspiration every week when we make the trays of ooooey, goooey goodness.”
Gemelli Bakers’ sticky buns are big and brawny compared with the paler, slender Diner stickies. Cinnamon plays a main role here as well, but Gemelli’s sweet rolls are done to a swarthy turn in the oven.
Another contender in the retail market is a variation on the concept of sticky buns. The inspiration for Bernd Brandstatter’s Cinnabaconroll came to him in a dream, and the large, glazed sweet roll has bacon strips rolled in to the dough. No mini flecks of bacon here; rather, great belt-like straps that whorl through layers of rich sweet dough. It’s a breakfast bun for a mountain climber, oversized and glazed with a vanilla icing. Jawohl!
And then there’s my neighbor, Betty Jean Mincemoyer’s sticky buns, made in the Pennsylvania Dutch/Mennonite tradition, true Schnecken. The word means snails in German and refers to the spiral shape of the bun. There are not too many better neighbors to have than one who calls you on Feb. 21, unaware that is it National Sticky Bun Day, and asks if you would like to have some sticky buns because she sees that the yard is filled with out-of-town cars and the visitors might be hungry. No wonder Mincemoyer is so popular at Zion Lutheran Church in Boalsburg, where she makes a habit of delivering warm sticky buns to the Sunday school class on the first Sunday of each month. What reinforcement! Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall eat stickies.