Old World Charm: Racine Bakery supplies all your Eastern European culinary needs

Baumkuchen (yoppy/flickr)

Baumkuchen (yoppy/flickr)

Located on a sleepy, sparse commercial stretch of Archer just a few miles shy of Midway Airport, Racine Bakery serves a Willy Wonka variety of Eastern European specialties. Opened by the Kapacinskas family in 1984, the bakery is still staunchly old country, with linoleum floors, 45-cent coffee, and autumn leaf garland lining its display cases. Community ads in Polish and Lithuanian cover the entryway walls, and peroxide-blonde attendants take orders in Lithuanian.

Dana Kapacinskas and her husband opened Racine Bakery on Damen Avenue five years after arriving from Lithuania, frustrated by the scarcity of employment opportunities they faced as new immigrants with limited English ability. Crafting Lithuanian and Eastern European delicacies from staff and family recipes, Racine quickly became a neighborhood destination spot. Only five years after opening, it relocated to its current larger space in the neighborhood of Garfield Ridge. Since 1989, the Kapacinskas have opened three affiliate locations specializing in baking custom cakes and distributing fresh bread to over one hundred family-owned groceries and delicatessens throughout Chicago.

With thirty staffers and a kitchen larger than most student apartments, Racine Bakery now puts out a jaw-dropping variety of baked goods and dishes made from scratch daily. The racks and display cases of the bakery section are dense with American and Eastern-European delicacies: the usual cookies, cakes, pies, and donuts, along with strudel ($3.99/lb), kolachky (sour-cream dough pastries filled with jam, $6.99/lb), babka (a spongy, yeast-rise Eastern European Bundt cake often served on Easter, $3.69), and a dozen types of bread, ranging from dark rye and sourdough to white country bread ($1.50—$2.50/loaf).

Racine also stocks imported Eastern European dry goods. A freezer contains a half-dozen varieties of pre-packaged pierogi, and glass hot plates keep warm potato pancakes, cheese blintzes, cepelinas (flat, fried potato dumplings stuffed with meat and paté), keburekas (dense, snow-ball sized dumpling), kuegeli (potato and onion casseroles), potato-bacon sausage, and four types of soup ($1.59/pint), among other things.

Dana Kapacinskas is at Racine Bakery throughout most of its hours of operation, managing the bakery, answering phones and taking orders. Despite its commercial scale, Racine manages to retain a mom-and-pop feel that is reflected in its universally homey and hearty offerings.

Made from fresh, non-canned ingredients, Racine’s soups recall Grandma’s kitchen, and its hand-kneaded rye breads are dense, crusty, and complexly flavored. Kapacinskas’ staff cooks and spices meat for pierogis, sausage, and bacon buns. The latter are light, moist, and savory-sweet, bottoms browned and crisped with juice from the cooking meat.

Beyond providing a wide selection of well-executed, basic Eastern European fare, Racine Bakery has drawn the attention of New Yorker and Chicago Tribune food critics as the only bakery in Chicago to make ragoulis (sękacz in Polish), a lighter, dryer, Lithuanian variant of anise-heavy German Baumküchen (tree-cake), on a daily basis.

The traditional Lithuanian wedding cake, ragoulis is made by continuously brushing sweet batter onto a rotating spit over two to four hours. The spike is rotated slowly enough for the batter to form stalactite-like spikes, and the layering of wet onto dry dough creates golden striations similar to the rings on a tree trunk. Not only time-consuming, ragoulis production requires skill, Kapacinskas says, because there is little room for error in timing when to add the next layer of batter; batter applied before the previous layer is cooked will weigh sections down, causing them to fall off; overcooked, the cake will end up too dry. The end product, a hollow, horned column of a length between 16 and 24 inches, vaguely resembles a Christmas tree in shape and is as much of a special occasion staple to many Eastern European families as the Thanksgiving turkey is for Americans. Kapacinskas says many families purchase and decorate ragoulis during the holidays, coating the cake in green frosting and hanging tree ornaments on its horns. Ragoulis is only sold whole on special order at most bakeries, but Racine also sells cross sections by the pound ($9.29/lb). The journey to Garfield Ridge is definitely worthwhile for anyone with a weak spot for quirky baked goods, dense, hearty eastern European specialties, and quality-heavy mom-and-pop places serving a steady core of first-generation immigrants.
Racine Bakery, 6216 S. Archer Ave. Monday-Friday, 6am-7pm; Saturdays 6am-6pm; Sundays, 7am-2pm. (773)581-8500. racinebakery.org