Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011
In 1926, Paul Helms of New York took an early retirement and moved his family to Southern California and its mild climate. Helms started construction on a building between Washington and Venice Boulevards in 1930 and, on March 2, 1931, the Helms Bakery opened with 32 employees and 11 specially-designed delivery coaches (trucks). By the next year, the Helms Bakery had become the “official baker” of the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics when Paul Helms won a contract to supply bread for the 1932 games. Early Helms vehicles sported the Olympic symbol, and it also appeared on Helms bread wrappers.
Despite having never been sold in stores, Helms baked products soon became known to millions of consumers. The Helms motto was “Daily at Your Door” and every weekday morning, from both the Culver City facility and a second Helms Bakery site in Montebello, dozens of Helms panel trucks, painted in a unique two-tone yellow and blue scheme, would leave the bakery for the greater Los Angeles Basin, some going as far as 60 miles to the eastern San Gabriel Valley. This is remarkable because the network of freeways had not yet been built, so the trip would take an hour or more. Each truck would travel through its assigned neighborhoods, with the driver periodically pulling (twice) on a large handle which sounded a distinctive whistle, or stop at a house where a Helms sign was displayed. Customers would come out and wave the truck down, or sometimes chase the trucks on adjacent streets. Wooden drawers in the back of the truck were stocked with fresh donuts, cookies, pastries and candies, while the center section of the truck carried dozens of loaves of freshly-baked bread. Products often reached the buyers still warm from the oven.
I specifically remember climbing up into the cab and with extra wide-eyes watching the Helms man pull out the drawers marked fresh doughnut and brownies. All of Helms’ products had a distinctive taste, but the brownies were something of a comfort food that I can still taste and smell in my memory. They were a chewy, fudgy brownie loaded with black walnuts and iced with a rich type of butter cream frosting.
As more women entered the workplace, the freeways got more crowded and the bakery’s driver’s union wages became prohibitive. Alas, in 1969 the last Helms truck left the depot and the final whistle was blown as the company’s doors were closed for the last time.
Some of these fond memories were brought back when I was having a nostalgic conversation with one of my clients last week. She told me that her dad loved Helms’ brownies as much as I did and asked if perchance I happened to have a copy of the original recipe. As luck would have it, I did. Now I feel like singing a couple of choruses of Memories.
Helms Bakery Brownies with Butter Cream Frosting
Makes about 12 brownies
3/4 Cup (1-1/2 Sticks) Margarine, Cut in Chunks
3 Ounces Unsweetened Chocolate
1 1/3 Cups Sugar
1 Teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Chopped and Lightly Toasted Walnuts
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
- Melt margarine and chocolate together in medium saucepan. Blend in sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour and nuts.
- Pour into prepared pan. Bake until it is crispy at the edges and feels fairly firm in the center, about 30-40 minutes. Cool 30 minutes before cutting.
Butter Cream Brownie Frosting
Makes about cup of frosting—enough to frost 12 brownies
3 Tablespoons Butter, Softened
3 Tablespoons Choclatique Red (Rouge) Cocoa Powder (Unsweetened)
1 Tablespoon Light Corn Syrup or Honey
1/2 Teaspoon Pure Vanilla Extract
1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1 to 2 Tablespoons Milk
- Cream butter, cocoa, corn syrup and vanilla in small mixer bowl.
- Add confectioner’s sugar and milk; beat to spreading consistency.