Spoonfuls of Germany is my book on German regional cuisine. First released in 2004, re-released nine years later as an expanded and updated edition. While working on the new edition I realized that there were still many more German recipes to discover and stories to tell so I started this blog.
When I was growing up in Frankfurt, Germany, every year from May through early June we had white asparagus for dinner almost daily. And I often complained, “Och, schon wieder Spargel…” (“Ew, asparagus again…”). “One day,” my mother warned me, “You will long for these days.”
My mother was right. Now as an adult living in the United States I do, indeed, long for the white asparagus bounty of my childhood, especially for Cream of Asparagus Soup, which is hands-down my favorite white asparagus dish.
There is no white asparagus to speak of in the United States. Once in a while white asparagus pops up at the grocery store but it has traveled far (most of it is imported from Latin America) and its taste does not compare to locally grown white asparagus in Germany.
The farms around me in Pennsylvania grow green and purple asparagus and for the past two springs I have tried to coax locally grown asparagus into a soup that satisfies my craving for smooth velvety white asparagus soup.
I feel that my soup recipe is as good as it can get so I am sharing it today.The white asparagus of my childhood came from my father’s Schrebergarten (allotment garden) in Frankfurt. There were several long asparagus beds or more precisely, hills, in which white asparagus is grown. Sometimes I was asked to help with the harvest, which was actually fun: spotting where the soil showed a slight bump before the tip of the asparagus would break through.
In hindsight, I find it rather amazing that my father was so passionate about growing asparagus because for him, the immigrant from Tunisia, white asparagus was an acquired taste. He was only introduced to it as an adult but he quickly adapted to the white asparagus craze that befalls Germany every spring.
And white asparagus is the spring food in Germany. Between April and mid-June during asparagus season almost every restaurant has at least one asparagus dish on its menu – cream of asparagus soup, asparagus salad, asparagus with hollandaise sauce or drizzled with melted butter, accompanied with slices of boiled ham and new potatoes.
White asparagus requires soil that is loose and free of rocks. This map shows you where white asparagus is grown in Germany, on a total size of land equaling 35,000 soccer fields. Even that is not enough to satisfy the Germans’ taste for white asparagus, because Germany also imports white asparagus from Greece, Spain and Peru.
Not all white asparagus is created equal. There are three distinct EU classes, which determine the price. The most expensive is the Extra class. The spears must be at least 12 mm thick, practically straight, the tips compact, and only a faint pink tint is allowed on the spears. The next class down is Class I, its spears must be at least 10 mm thick but may be slightly curved and a faint pink tint may appear on the tips and the spears. Class II spears must be at least 8 mm thick and may be less well formed, more curved and their tips may be slightly open and may have a green tint.
The cheapest asparagus is the non-classified Bruchspargel, literally broken asparagus – odds and ends of short and long, thick and thin, and white and tinted spears. It is used for soup.There are two main differences between green and white asparagus. The first one is taste. White asparagus has a much milder, buttery taste than green and purple asparagus with its earthy, robust taste.
The other difference is that white asparagus always requires peeling. Even top-quality asparagus is virtually inedible if unpeeled. White asparagus also needs to be cooked longer than green or purple asparagus.
The farm-fresh bunches of green and purple asparagus that I can buy around here would certainly not qualify for any of the strict EU classes. But when I close my eyes and eat a spoonful of this soup, it is as close as I can get to the taste of real white asparagus soup while being 5,000 miles away.Almost White Asparagus Soup
To create the special velvety texture of this soup, the asparagus should be very fresh. Older spears tend to be fibrous. Use only thick spears that can be peeled; if the spears are too thin, there will be nothing left after peeling.
The soup can be prepared in advance and reheated.
1 large bunch (1 pound/450 g) green or purple asparagus
Snap off the ends of the asparagus and set them aside. Cut off the heads and set aside. Peel the asparagus spears. An easy way to do this is to lie them down on your work surface. Chop the peeled spears into 2-inch (2.5 cm) pieces.
Place the end pieces and the peels a large saucepan. Add 6 cups (1,450 ml) water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and boil, covered, for 5 minutes. Strain the liquid into a heatproof bowl. Discard the peels.
Melt 2½ tablespoons butter in the saucepan. Add the flour and stir in the flour. Cook over low heat until it begins to turn beige, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the hot broth, whisking well after each addition so there are no lumps. Add the asparagus pieces and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered (this maintains the bright color) for 10 minutes.
While the soup is cooking, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small frying pan. Add the asparagus tips and cook over low heat until soft, turning them a few times.
Turn off the heat. Using a stick blender, puree the soup until very smooth. If you don’t have a stick blender, puree the soup in small batches in a regular blender.
Add lemon juice and season the soup to taste with nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Stir in the cream and the asparagus tips and reheat the soup but do not boil again. Serve hot.
The Prologue to The German-Jewish Cookbook describes how Stephen Rossmer, the father and grandfather of the mother-and-daughter team of authors, Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman, bought a black radish at the farmers’ market in Bamberg, a type of radish not available in the United States at the time. It was his first visit back to his hometown in 34 years after he had fled Germany for the United States in 1939 with his wife and toddler, while his parents had perished in the Holocaust. “He peeled the black skin with his pocketknife, revealing the white interior, and sliced it into thin disks. He sprinkled each disk with salt and handed a piece to each of us. (…) It seemed as though this humble vegetable had enormous meaning for him, a memory of food deeply connected to his longing for the lost treasures of the past.”
This made me realize that against better knowledge I had only associated Jewish life in prewar Germany with the big cities further north, like Frankfurt and Berlin. Places like the synagogue in Frankfurt’s Westend neighborhood, where my parents lived when I was born, and the feudal Livingston Stables, aka Rothschild Horse Stables, next to my mother’s office were familiar landmarks during my childhood. However, I would not have associated something as typically Bavarian as a thinly sliced black radish eaten during the savory snack Brotzeit, as a food reference for German Jews. Yet it’s a fact that Jews had settled in Bamberg in the early eleventh century, just like they had in cities all along the Main and the Danube.
It was only one of the misconceptions that this remarkable book set straight for me. Reading it feels like peeling an onion to get to the core, and naturally shedding a few tears in the process.My other big misconception was that there is no distinct German-Jewish cuisine because of the high degree of assimilation of German Jews, as I had myself assumed in a previous blog post. True, most of the dishes in The German-Jewish Cookbook sound very familiar. However, it’s a wrong conclusion that German-Jewish cuisine is not a cuisine in its own right. Gabrielle and Sonya finally told the full story.
And it is as much a book for reading as it is a cookbook. It provides the historic background of German-Jewish cuisine as well as telling the family story – how the Rossheimers and Westheimers were assimilated and prospered as business owners in early twentieth-century southern Germany and were persecuted when the Nazis came to power in 1933. They managed to either leave Germany like Stephen and his young family, or perished, like his parents, family members and neighbors. Gabrielle and Sonya interviewed several of the survivors and witnesses for their book. That generation is almost gone, which makes you appreciate even more that the authors have devoted a good portion of the book to these stories.
The authors are walking a fine here line because almost in each one of the personal accounts, there is persecution, death, devastation, exile and heartbreak lurking around the corner. Emmy Zink, a woman born in 1925 in Schweinfurt whose parents worked for the Schelers, a Jewish family, talks in detail about her mother fattening geese for the kosher household. Inevitably, Emmy’s account leads up to the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 and the latter deportation of Frau Scheler but the authors manage those difficult transitions gracefully.
Another aspect of German-Jewish food history that the book covers is the story of German Jews in Washington Heights, a neighborhood at the northern tip of New York City, where the refugees continued their culinary traditions from Germany. This is all the more important because it is, sadly, now also a chapter of the past.
I have a Jewish friend in New York City who was born in the last year of World War II and grew up in Washington Heights, and she had told me how the more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria had shaped the neighborhood with their shops. It was wonderful to read in more detail about landmark stores like the Bloch & Falk butcher shop. The rye bread from Stuhmer’s bakery in Brooklyn, which Gabrielle’s mother bought at the kosher grocery store, had a paper label baked into the crust. That’s the way almost all the breads were sold when I grew up. This is still done by some bakeries in Germany today but I have never seen a bread with baked-in paper label in America.The authors divide the dishes in to three categories: German dishes that were adapted to the rules of the kosher dietary laws, kashrut; specific Shabbat and Holiday dishes; and German dishes, i.e. dishes that German Jews adopted because they were kosher to start with as they were either meat or meatless dairy dishes. This categorization helped me to better understand the subtle differences between German-Jewish and German cooking.
I have always been a big fan of Mehlspeisen, slightly sweet main dishes like fruit-filled dumplings, bread puddings and other meatless semi-sweet dishes, which for me are the ultimate German comfort food (find an overview of my favorites here). In the book these dishes are listed as meatless dairy dishes and I found the explanation for their popularity amount German Jews intriguing. Their family, Gabrielle and Sonya write, “had not kept kosher for multiple generations, yet we continued to eat dairy meals. That could have been a holdover practice (…) Or perhaps it was simply adoption of a Germany culinary tradition of eating Mehlspeisen (…) for the evening meal. Most likely this practice was inspired by both influences.”
In addition to the Sauerbraten (recipe below) and Twice-Baked Potato Schalet, a scrumptious crisp potato side dish, I tried a few other recipes from the book that were a bit like time travel, as you don’t find them in German cookbooks any longer: Liptauer Cheese, a delicious spread, and Rice à la Trautmannsdorf, a sophisticated version of rice pudding. For a neater appearance I layered it instead of mixing in the berries, as I only had frozen blackberries, which would have turned into mush after thawing.
And I have made Berches, the German version of challah with mashed potato in the dough, many times, even before the book came out, as I have been following Gabrielle’s and Sonya’s blog for years. All of the recipes are keepers.The German-Jewish Cookbook was published in September 2017. My mother-in-law had died earlier that year so I am not able to share this with her. She was a highly accomplished embroiderer of Judaica and someone who not only loved to eat good food but appreciated learning about the stories behind the dishes, I would have sent her the book, and maybe brought along on a visit some of the dishes for a tasting. We would have sat at the end of her long kitchen table and talked about the book for hours. Gladys would have also given The German-Jewish Cookbook five stars and a ‘Mazel Tov’.
This sauerbraten is different from the standard German Sauerbraten in two ways: no cream is added to the sauce (so it’s kosher), and frankly, it does not need it because it is great as is; and secondly, white vinegar is used as opposed to the usual red wine vinegar and red vine. The result is a more subtle flavor, like a pot roast with a sweet- and sour gravy.
Since it was just my husband and myself, I cut the recipe amounts in half and reduced the cooking time.
The recipe called for goose or duck fat, which I could not find this time of the year (our local grocery store only carries it around Christmastime) so I used regular cooking oil.
Gabrielle and Sonya recommend serving this with noodles, Spaetzle, or potato dumplings. I made the Twice-Baked Potato Schalet from the book to accompany it.
1 cup cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon sugar
4 to 5 whole cloves
3 to 4 juniper berries, crushed
½ star anise
2 to 2.5 pounds boneless chuck, rump or round roast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, sliced
¼ cup black raisins
1 tablespoon cooking oil (peanut, canola or light olive oil)
1 small tart apple, cored, peeled, and cut into ¼-inch slices
4 gingersnap cookies
Day 1: Put the vinegar, water, sugar, cloves, juniper berries and star anise in a medium-size pot and bring to a boil over high heat to make the marinade. Set aside and let cool.
Tie the meat with kitchen twine by wrapping it around the length of the meat, then wrapping it crosswise three times; then secure the ends in a knot. Sprinkle the meat with the salt and pepper. Place the meat in a non-reactive container with a tight-fitting lid (no aluminum) and pour the marinade over it (make sure the meat is covered with liquid; if not, add enough water to cover). Add half of the onion and raisins (put the rest of the onion in a storage container in the refrigerator to prevent it from drying out until you need it a few days later). Place a plate on the meat to weigh it down. Cover with the lid and place in the refrigerator to marinate for 3 to 5 days.
Day 1 to 3 (or up to 5 days): Turn the meat upside down twice a day. You can use the twine to lift and turn the meat.
Day 3 (or 4 or 5): Remove the meat from the refrigerator and place it on a plate that has been lined with a few layers of paper towels. Strain the marinade through a strainer into a bowl, reserving the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a heavy enameled pot or Dutch oven that is big enough to hold the meat, heat half of the oil over medium-to-high heat. Add the remaining sliced onion, decrease the heat to medium low, and sauté, stirring, until light golden (not dark), about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, dry the meat on all sides by blotting it with additional paper towels. The surface should be thoroughly dry, so the meat will brown.
Push the onion to the sides of the pot, Increase the heat to medium high, and add the remaining oil. When sizzling, add the meat. Brown the meat, using a meat fork to turn the meat as each side browns. When all sides have been browned, add enough of the marinade to come halfway up the sides of the meat and cover the pot.
Place the pot in the center of the oven and cook for 1.5 hours, check after 45 minutes, and if the liquid has decreased. After 1.5 hours, add the apple slices and gingersnaps to the pot.
Cook for another 45 minutes and test the meat for doneness by piercing it with a meat fork. If it is tender (the fork goes in easily), the meat is done; if not, put it back in the oven for another 15 minutes. Transfer the meat to a cutting board. Let it rest for 15 minutes, then cut across the grain into slices. Place the slices on a serving platter.
Stir the bottom of the pot to loosen the brown bits. If the liquid is too thick to use as a sauce, add a little water, stirring. Drizzle a couple of spoonfuls of sauce over the sliced meat, then put the rest in a gravy boat to serve at the table.
On a recent trip to Germany, my husband and I had to switch trains in the city of Bielefeld. “Look,” he said, pointing to a large billboard as the train approached the station, “Dr. Oetker.”
In our almost 18 years together, the prominent German food brand has not only become a reference for my husband but he has also learned to slowly pronounce the name with its consonant cluster, Doc-tor Oet-ker, without stumbling, which is not so easy for an American.
We both laughed, reminiscing about the first time when I dished up a Dr. Oetker chocolate pudding from a package, and our then 10-year-old son asked whether it was a real doctor who made it.
Dr. August Oetker was a Bielefeld-based pharmacist, who in 1891 developed Backin baking powder with a consistent quality, and based on its success built a food emporium with international presence that is still family-owned.
Growing up in Germany, the products with the blue-and-red logo with a woman’s head at the bottom were omnipresent. And it wasn’t just the products; the cookbooks were part of daily life, too. My grandmother mostly cooked from her 1939 edition of the Dr. Oetker Schulkochbuch (Dr. Oetker School Cookbook), a yellowed paperback that had literally been through the war and looked like it.
In the early days of our marriage when I started to introduce my new American family to German dishes, I brought back a bunch of Dr. Oetker products from every trip to Germany, even cake and bread mixes. Then, in the early aughts, when I wrote my German regional cookbook, Spoonfuls of Germany, I transitioned to making many of those things, such as vanilla sugar, vanilla pudding and vanilla sauce, from scratch because I wanted American home cooks to be able to recreate authentic German dishes with readily available ingredients. And besides, the homemade version often tastes much better.
However on trips to Germany I still load up on a few Dr. Oetker essentials that are not available in the United States, first and foremost pectin for jams and jellies. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I much prefer it to American pectin.
I got an American friend so hooked to German pectin that I had to bring back some sachets for her as well. Hence my suitcase was already quite full. With Easter coming up, I found room to sneak in a package of Dr. Oetker marzipan carrots.
Sure, those cute cake decorations are also available from other brands. It’s a question of loyalty for me.Swiss Carrot Cake (Aargauer Rüblitorte)
A popular carrot cake in Germany is Aargauer Rüblitorte, which hails from Switzerland. It is dairy-free and lighter than American carrot cakes.
4 large eggs
¾ cup + 3 tablespoons (185 g) sugar
1 cup + 1 tablespoon (250 ml) canola oil
2/3 cup (100 g) finely ground raw unpeeled almonds
6 small or 3 large carrots (12 ounces/340 g), peeled and grated (to make 3 loosely packed cups)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of ½ organic lemon
1 2/3 cups (225 g) all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Icing and decoration:
1¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon orange extract
12 marzipan carrots to decorate
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Line the bottom of a 10-inch (25 cm) springform pan with parchment paper and grease the sides.
In a large bowl or the stand mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the oil and beat for 1 more minute.
Mix ground almonds, carrots, vanilla extract and lemon zest in another bowl. Add to the eggs and stir with a spoon until well combined.
In the second bowl mix flour, salt and baking powder and add to the mixture. Stir well until no traces of flour remain.
Pour the mixture in the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour. If the top of the cake turns too dark towards the end, cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.
Remove the cake from the pan and let cool on a cake rack.
For the icing, stir the confectioners’ sugar, orange juice and extract until smooth. The icing should be very thick but spreadable.
Evenly cover the cake with the icing and decorate with marzipan carrots while the icing is still soft. Let set before cutting.
Photo courtesy of The German Society of Pennsylvania.
In my two decades in the United States, I have not associated with any German clubs nor attended any folksy events like Oktoberfest, which for many Americans epitomizes German culture. Not for me. I am not even a beer drinker, as I described in a previous blog post.
I did become a member of the The German Society of Pennsylvania located in Philadelphia. Founded in 1764, it is the oldest German-American association in the US, and it served as a model for later German societies in other American cities. I am utterly charmed by the stately building on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia to which The German Society of Pennsylvania relocated in 1888, and in particular by its library. Unfortunately I live too far away to take advantage of its cultural programs such as lectures, film screenings and concerts.
Photo by Bettina Hess. Courtesy of The German Society of Pennsylvania.
Walking into the Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library with its gallery, wooden glass-paneled bookcases and antique tables, chairs and reading lamps is like entering a time capsule. The library collection with its 50,000 mostly historic books, documents, journals and manuscripts is one of the largest collections of German books in the United States.
When I had the chance to spend an afternoon at the library, I went straight for the small cookbook collection. What interested me most were the German cookbooks published in America. But I got sidetracked quickly. As you can read in my piece for Monument Lab about a German pretzel monument for Philadelphia, I started browsing the legal statutes of the Social Support Association of the Philadelphia Bakers, founded in 1855, and the Golden Jubilee 50th Anniversary Edition of the Confectioners’ and Cake Bakers’ Beneficial Association of Philadelphia from 1922. These guilds and associations played an important role in the city because they also provided social services to members.
Another page that caught my attention in the Confectioners’ Association anniversary volume was an advertisement by a Philadelphia bank offering safe and fast money transfers to Germany. At that time Germany was shaken by instability and hyperinflation, the exchange rate between the dollar and the Mark was one trillion Marks to one dollar. “Do you know what it means to have a family and not being able to buy the most basic foods?,” the ad asks. “We Germans here are able to relieve their main worry by supporting them with money because money can buy anything.”
In the introduction to his German-American Illustrated Cookbook (in German) published in New York in 1888, author Charles Hellstern complains that “the existing cookbooks do not take into proper consideration the climate conditions and products available in America” whereas he tried with “utmost diligence to take what’s good in German cuisine while not neglecting the valuable of the cuisine here.” That’s exactly the point I have been making with my book Spoonfuls of Germany. Not too much has changed since then; many contemporary German cookbooks on the American market are still impractical, largely because they are written for the German, not the American home cook.
Bringing together the Old World and the New World, Hellstern’s book includes recipes for cornstarch cake, cranberry jelly, crabapples (which are virtually unknown in Germany to the present day), summer and winter squash (referring to them as Sommer-Kürbis and Winter-Kürbis, which is highly unusual in German and a real anglicism), and, very exotic even for America, maidenhair fern juice. You find dishes with hominy on the same page as a recipe for large German pancakes (Eierschmarren, aka Eierhaber). In his chapter about cookware Hellstern cautions housewives to put quality first instead of trying to save a few cents. I’d very much like to follow Hellstern’s guidance and buy copper pots but I am afraid the price difference to ordinary pots is more than a few cents nowadays!The United States Cook Book by William Vollmer, formerly “chef de cuisine of several of the first hotels in Europe, now steward of the Union Club in Philadelphia”, was published both as a German and English edition in 1870. For tomatoes, it happily mixes German and English, as in Gekochte Tomatos and Gebackene Tomatos. I assume the odd spelling of tomatoes is due to the fact that the tomato had not yet conquered Germany. Even in its later editions from the early 1900s, Henriette Davidis’ classic German cookbook does not include tomato recipes but the American edition of her book from 1879 already does, because tomatoes became mainstream with the Civil War when canned tomatoes were used to feed the Union army, and from then on became part of mainstream American cooking.
Another special item in the library collection is a handwritten recipe collection and memoir from 1914 by Ernestine Hochgesang Schaefer in German and English. It is intriguing simply in terms of the itinerary of the author. Born in 1829 in Moscow to a father from Bavaria and mother from a French noble family that had fled to Berlin during the French Revolution, Ernestine lost her mother when she was a toddler. The father moved the family back to Germany in 1832 and then to the United States in 1848. One year later Ernestine married Ernst Karl Schaefer, also a German immigrant. He started a bookstore, and in 1851 he joined his business with Rudolph Koradi to found the publishing firm Schaefer & Koradi. Schaefer’s brother Gustav Moritz Schäfer headed the main publishing house in Leipzig, Germany, while Schaefer & Koradi established itself as a leading Philadelphia German publishing house that released, among many other titles, William Vollmer’s cookbook.
After my brief poking around in the cookbook collection I can see how the Horner Library is a treasure trove for academic researchers in the field of German American studies. Heidi Voskuhl, who teaches history of technology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently did research at the library about German immigrant engineers around 1900. What she wrote afterwards about the library refers to engineers, engineering, and industrialization but I think it applies to many other areas as well – that “the Horner Library is a panorama (…) in the ongoing discussion about the place of German immigrants in Pennsylvania and the United States, and the place of German culture in American culture.”
I will certainly return to the library when I have the time to explore some other cookbooks.
The quality of German bread, or the lack thereof, made headlines again in Germany this year, and the bread baking trade was not amused. In early November the weekly Der Spiegel ran an article about the growing number of passionate home bread bakers, a type of counter culture to the rapid disappearance of small family-owned bakeries, the growing number of bakery chains, and supermarkets offering bread at dumping prices (I wrote about this in a previous blog post).
Imagine traveling to Italy and looking forward to delectable ice cream from ice cream parlors often famous for their special flavors. Imagine that instead, all you find are chain stores, and while the ice cream is made on the premises it comes from premixes. As a result it all tastes the same almost everywhere you buy a scoop. That fictional scenario pretty much applies to large parts of Germany’s bread landscape today.Most bakeries in Germany use sourdough and yeast premixes, very few still maintain their own sourdough cultures. I find it very telling that the personal chef of Germany’s former President Christian Wulff made his President’s Bread with liquid store-bought sourdough (which you can buy at most grocery stores). Bread made with these mixes smells good and looks appetizing but it lacks taste and character.
No wonder professional bread bakers in Germany are ticked off by hobby bakers out-baking them in terms of quality, and some even make a career out of it. But it’s a fact – you have to search long and hard to find really good bread in Germany these days.
Those who start baking their own bread, the article in Der Spiegel states, are no longer willing to eat the standard mass-produced bread from the grocery store next door. I can confirm that from my own experience. In my more than ten years of baking our own bread, I have gone from quick loaves with too much yeast to baking slow bread almost exclusively with sourdough, giving it plenty of time to develop flavor. My Pumpernickel Bread takes about three days from start to finish, plus two days after baking before you can cut it.I have gone out of my way for good German bread. From my last trip to Germany, I brought back several bags of different flours that I cannot find in the United States. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the variety of flours in Germany is astounding. If the varieties offered at the average supermarket are any indicator, more people are baking their own bread in Germany than a couple of years ago.
Compared to the hard-core hobby bread bakers in Germany, whom I would not dare to calls amateurs, I still feel like a novice. I only have one sourdough starter sitting in the fridge, and living abroad I am at a permanent disadvantage because of the limited variety of flours available. And it’s not just the lack of flour varieties, the variation between the brands can be challenging as well.
I made the Seeded Rye Bread by German bread blogger Björn Hollensteiner, aka Brotdoc, several times this year, and it was so good, easy and dependable that it quickly became a family favorite. Then suddenly the loaves turned out super dense and compact. I baked it again; same problem. I turned to Björn, a family physician and co-author of bread-baking guru Lutz Geißler’s second book, for advice. He thought the culprit was the brand of flour. It took two more trials tinkering with the formula and mix of flours until I got the recipe to a point where the bread can be reproduced with good results regardless of the brand of American dark rye flour you use.
Rustic Farmer’s Bread from Breadvillage
Baking your own German bread is not for everyone. It requires passion, patience, persistence and flexibility in one’s schedule. I work from a home office and can take quick breaks to run up to the kitchen and tend to my sourdough during the day. And you need to enjoy the entire process, too. After a day at my desk I find it deeply satisfying to pull a loaf out of the oven.
For those who crave German bread in America and don’t have a good bakery nearby, or bake their own, there’s mail-order bread from Breadvillage. Christian Gruenwald, a native of Bavaria, started it because he missed German-style sourdough bread and found that anything labeled “German” in the US did not even come close to what he knew from home. He imports bread from Germany that is free of GMO, artificial ingredients and preservatives.
The bread comes 85% par-baked and you can freeze it upon arrival or pop it in the oven right away. The two breads I tested, Multi-Seed Bread and Rustic Farmer’s Bread, both had a good crumb and crust. I liked them best not fresh from the oven but after a day or so, and toasting made them more flavorful. It’s a reasonably priced option for German bread and if I did not bake bread myself, that’s what I would likely get.
I am intentionally not listing the ingredients in cup measures, as it is too imprecise. Hence you need a scale for this recipe.
200 g dark rye flour
60 g bread flour
260 g lukewarm water
1 tablespoon (20 to 25 g) fed sourdough starter
120 g pumpkin seeds
80 g flax seeds (brown or golden)
1 teaspoon salt
200 g boiling water
½ generous teaspoon active dry yeast
375 g lukewarm water
300 g dark rye flour
125 g bread flour
175 g semolina
1 scant tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds for the pan
Mix all the starter ingredients until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 14 hours.
Roast the pumpkin seeds in an ungreased pan until lightly colored and fragrant. Roast the flax seeds the same way. Do not roast all the seeds together because they require different times. Place the seeds in a heatproof bowl, add salt and pour the boiling water over them. Stir to combine, cover and let sit for 2 hours.
Dissolve the yeast in the water and stir until dissolved. Set aside for a few minutes until it foams. Mix the rye flour, bread flour and semolina in a bowl.
Add the starter mix, yeast mix, flours and honey to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead for 8 minutes at low speed, then add the seed mix and knead for another 1 to 2 minutes until the seeds are fully mixed into the dough.
Grease two 9×5-inch (22.5 x10 cm) loaf pans and scatter some pumpkin and sunflower seeds in each pan. Place half of the dough into each pan and even it out with a wet spatula so it fills the pan. Spray lightly with water and scatter some pumpkin and sunflower seeds on top.
Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours, or until the dough has risen almost to the top of the pans.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (250 degrees C). Place the pans on the center rack of the preheated oven and immediately turn down the temperature to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Bake for 50 minutes, then remove the pans from the oven, unmold the loaves and place them directly on the oven rack. Bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the loaves have a nice brown crust all around.
Let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.
Every year, as summer winds down and I am picking the last, often unsightly tomatoes in my garden, a strange craving befalls me: for a fried sausage slathered with ketchup and dusted with curry powder known around the world as Currywurst, Germany’s most popular fast food.
For me, that’s a strange craving indeed, for several reasons. I did not grow up with Currywurst or hardly any fast food for that matter. I was a teenager when the first McDonalds opened in Frankfurt and I begged my mother to let me buy a hamburger. When she realized how keen I was on that stuff, she put McDonalds vouchers in my advent calendar that year. My mother, being the smart woman that she is, always knew that the best way to get me off something she disapproved of was to deliberately supply it to me. She did the same thing with cigarettes. Fact is, I have not eaten at McDonalds or smoked a cigarette since my teenage years.
Back to Currywurst. It is not the first food that I feel the urge to eat when I am back in Germany; there are many other items on my list of foods-that-I-miss-living-in-America that come before Currywurst.
What is the draw for Currywurst popularity? It is a common phenomenon all over Germany. A recent column in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit spelled it out. Despite vegetarianism and veganism being on the rise in Germany, despite company cafeterias offering more and more healthy menu options, Currywurst, alongside Schnitzel, is what most Germans crave. Volkswagen produces its own sausages from its corporate butchery, more than 6.3 million sausages annually, which is more than the number of its cars sold around the globe. The sausages are renowned for their quality and available not only at Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg but also at other outlets. It is, the column states, “probably the only product from the company that you can trust for the time being.”
So, why do office workers reach for Currywurst, instead of helping themselves to a healthy lunch from the salad buffet? Because there is comfort in the warm, greasy, spicy character of Currywurst. It is comfort food and fast food combined.Currywurst is somehow engrained in the collective German gastric memory. It was invented in post-war Germany. After years of deprivation and hunger, meat as a daily regimen was available again, and not only meat for the traditional roast served at Sunday lunch. There was enough meat again so that you could consume it on the go, from a stand called Currywurstbude, anywhere, anytime.
I can count the times I ate Currywurst in Germany on the fingers of my two hands yet one instance was especially memorable. I spent a good part of the summer of 1991 in Berlin, and whenever we had time my boyfriend and I ventured into East Berlin with friends and explored neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg.
Less than two years after the Berlin Wall had come down, East Berlin pretty much looked like a black-and-white post-war movie set with bullet-pockmarked facades. There were no places to eat. One Sunday afternoon, after walking around for hours, we were hungry and finally found a stand selling Currywurst. It was one of the few foods that were available on either side of the Iron Curtain even during the Cold War although the traditional East German version of Currywurst was without the casing.
It tasted fabulous. It could be that I was just hungry but the fact is, each time I have eaten a Currywurst since, no matter where, I think of that afternoon in East Berlin.
Chefs have concocted all sorts of Currywurst variations yet as far as I am concerned, the original is still the best, and the simpler the better. On a trip to Berlin a few years ago I wanted to see how a luxury Currywurst tasted at the famous gourmet floor (Feinschmeckeretage) of the department store Kadewe. It was a huge disappointment – lukewarm and soggy, and the straw potatoes were even worse. Upon exiting the store and heading back to the subway station at Wittenbergplatz, I walked through groups of tourists happily devouring steaming hot Currywurst off paper plates from the Currywurst stand on the street where it costs half of what I paid.
Of course you can also make the Currywurst Ketchup from canned tomatoes. The recipe for Currywurst is in my cookbook, and my fellow cookbook author Skiz Fernando turne it into a great video clip a few years ago.
First item on my shopping list for today: sausage. There will be Currywurst for dinner tonight.Currywurst Ketchup
To make it worth my time, when canning the ketchup, I make a large batch with doubled or tripled amounts. As the ketchup contains vinegar, it is safe to process in a boiling water bath.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound (450 g) fresh ripe tomatoes or 1 (400 g/141⁄2-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon brown sugar
120 ml (1⁄2 cup) apple cider vinegar
A generous pinch or more of each powdered mustard, ground allspice, cloves, mace (can be substituted with grated nutmeg) and cinnamon
1⁄2 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
If using fresh tomatoes, bring water to a boil in a large pot. With a sharp knife cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. Place the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water. When the skins start to curl after a few minutes, remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and cut out the core. Do this over a bowl in order to catch all the juices. Coarsely cut the tomatoes.
Heat the oil in a small saucepan and sauté the onion until translucent. Add the
tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, mustard, allspice, cloves, mace, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, or until a thick paste forms. Remove the bay leaf and puree the ketchup. Season with salt and pepper and cool. At this point you can puree the ketchup or leave it chunky, which I prefer.
The curry ketchup can be kept refrigerated for 3 to 4 weeks, or canned by filling it in canning jars with new lids and bands processing it it boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Besides German bread and white asparagus, quark is probably the food Germans living abroad crave the most. Quark was the first real food my parents fed me as a baby so it was only natural that I’ve been on a quark quest since I came to America almost 20 years ago.
During the first few years after I moved here quark was nowhere to be found. In my German cookbook, which was first published in 2004, I included a recipe for quark made with rennet. Like other formulas for homemade quark it is a lengthy process and the quark does not hold up well in baked goods.
Since then, quark, both imported and domestic, has popped up here and there but it is still not widely available in the United States – and expensive, unless you don’t mind spending $11 for a pound of quark that goes into a German Käsekuchen (cheesecake). Ricotta and cottage cheese are not good alternatives, they are too gritty even when blitzed in the food processor and they lack the creaminess of quark.
But thankfully Greek yogurt has come to the rescue for all of us quark lovers, flooding the dairy shelves of virtually every supermarket. There are many different brands, and compared to quark Greek yogurt is reasonably priced. It works great in baked goods, both in cake and pastry fillings, desserts and in my favorite low-fat sweet or savory pie crust called Quark-Ölteig in German (find my recipe here).
Most German baking recipes call for Magerquark, which is low-fat quark with less than 10% fat. Yes, that is considered low-fat in Germany! Theoretically you could use 2% Greek yogurt but I find that 0% Greek yogurt works best.If you want your Greek yogurt posing as quark to be really firm, put it in a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth, place the colander over a bowl, cover it and drain it overnight in the fridge. Or, if you don’t have enough space in the fridge, or to speed things up, spread the Greek yogurt on paper towels. They quickly absorb the whey and when they won’t absorb any more, repeat this with new paper towels until the consistency is so firm that it holds together and you can pick it up it with your hands.
But make sure to place the yogurt only on paper towels, it won’t stick to them but it will stick to your countertop and make a mess. Draining or drying Greek yogurt considerably reduces it. If you start with 3 to 3.5 cups you’ll have about 2 cups of really firm quark-like substance afterwards.Generally I don’t bother draining the Greek yogurt; I have baked the German cheesecake above many times with Greek yogurt straight from the fridge and only discard the whey that has formed on top.
However for the cheesecake with fresh juicy peaches I baked today I wanted the quark to be really dry and firm so that the filling wouldn’t get soggy. Taking the draining detour was worth it, the filling came out great.
And I had no difficulty getting the cake photographed by my husband who takes all the photos for this blog. Since he was first introduced to quark with herbs at breakfast on a trip we took to Berlin, he has been a quark lover too.
Before I knew it, he appeared with his camera in the kitchen because once the pictures are in the box, it’s time to dig in.German Cheesecake with Peaches (Käsekuchen mit Pfirsichen)
1 cup (150 g) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (75 g) sugar
A pinch of salt
5½ tablespoons (75 g) cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 cups (500 g) drained 0% Greek yogurt (starting with 3 to 3.5 cups [750 to 850 g] and drained as described above)
2 eggs, separated
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
¼ cup (35 g) cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons (200 g) heavy cream
3 ripe but firm peaches, preferably freestone
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
For the crust, put the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and butter in the food processor fitted with a metal blade and process to a sandy consistency. Add the egg and process until evenly mixed and the dough holds together in a ball. Wrap in plastic foil or place it in a container and refrigerate until firm, 30 minutes to 1 hour. To speed this up, you can also place it in the freezer.
Line the bottom of a 10-inch (25 cm) springform pan with baking parchment and grease the sides.
Roll out the dough to a 10-inch (25 cm) circle on wax paper and place it in the springform pan. The dough is rather soft and if it tears, just patch it back together. Distribute the dough evenly using your fingertips and form an even 1-inch (2.5 cm) edge all around. Prick the dough several times with a fork.
Bake in the preheated oven on the second rack from the bottom for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C).
For the filling whisk the Greek yogurt with the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla until smooth. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they stand in stiff peaks. Wash and dry the beaters of your mixer and in a separate bowl whip the cream until stiff. Gently fold the stiff egg whites into the whipped cream with a spatula, then gently fold this into the Greek yogurt mix.
Spread half of the filling over the cooled crust.
Peel the peaches. If they are ripe you can remove the skin without blanching them beforehand, otherwise dip them in boiling water for a few seconds, then peel. Cut the peaches in half and remove the stones. Place the peaches cut side down into the filling and gently press them down. Cover with the rest of the filling and even it out with a spatula.
Bake in the preheated oven on the second rack from the bottom at 325 degrees F (160 degrees C) for 75 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the cake in the oven with the oven door slightly open for 15 minutes.
Remove the cake from the oven and let cool completely in the springform pan. Gently unmold the cake from the pan and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cutting.
The notorious German precision and efficiency transpires in the language, too. Zartbitterschokolade (bittersweet chocolate), Hähnchengeschnetzeltes (sliced chicken in cream sauce), Sauerkirschmarmelade (sour cherry jam)… why use several words if you can pack it into one long composite noun?
A German food word that could not be more spot on is Stachelbeeren (gooseberries). It literally means thornberries. And nasty thorns they have indeed, which makes picking a painful undertaking, like picking berries off a barbed wire. Even if you try to protect yourself with long sleeves and gloves you will end up with bloody scratches.It was another bumper crop this year and while I was working my way thorough the fruit-laden gooseberry canes last week, I wondered, as I often have, why in the world are they called gooseberries in English. Geese cannot be possibly want to eat them. Sure, a raccoon wiped out my entire crop a few years ago the night before I wanted to harvest them but a goose? No way.
The old German name for the berries, Kräuselbeere, which literally means curled or crimped berries, was is the source of the Medieval Latin name grossularia, which became groseille in French – and gooseberry in English! It should have been grooseberry but the “r” was dropped at some point. Side note for etymology and botany buffs: In French, red currants, also a member of the Ribes genus, are groseilles, whereas gooseberries are called groseilles à maquereau (mackerel gooseberries) because they were traditionally prepared with mackerel.
The first ones to cultivate and breed the initially wild gooseberries in Germany were monks, which is why a regional name for them is Klosterbeeren (monastery berries). From the monasteries the berry bushes found their way into cottage gardens. The name Stachelbeere was first mentioned in writing in the mid 17th century.
This is not the first mystery I solved about gooseberries. Two years ago I found the story how the name of the delectable Hannchen Jensen Torte came about. It lead to the grandson of the lady who started spreading the cake recipe all over Germany interviewing his grandmother about it on video (watch it here). And she even gave me the original recipe written by Hannchen Jensen herself.My other favorite recipes with gooseberries are:
And this year I can add two new favorites to my gooseberry recipe repertoire: Gooseberry Jam with Lemon Verbena and Gooseberry Elderflower Cordial. I made the jam a few weeks ago for guests and got several requests so I had to write down the recipe. Gooseberries and elderflowers are a wonderful combination and since most likely the birds will eat the elderberries before the fruit ripens in September anyway, I did not feel bad cutting a few more of those precious ephemeral flowers off my elderberry bushes.
Picking the gooseberries is only the painful part. The tedious and time-consuming part comes afterwards when you have to remove the blossom ends. And, unless you pass the berries through a food mill or juice them, this is necessary because those hard dry bits in your jam, pie or cake will spoil the pleasure.I can see how gooseberry cultivation started in monasteries. Gooseberries require lots of time, something the nuns and monks had so much more of than we do today. And if you discount the scratches, it is almost a repetitive meditative exercise. While I am writing this, my husband is sitting on the couch with a large bowl of gooseberries in front of him, trimming them with cuticle scissors (no kidding, those work best). Except, he is not meditating. He is watching a Yankees game.
If gooseberries are such a pain in the neck, why do I bother you may ask. The answer is simple: they are utterly delicious. And once the scratches are healed and the jars with all the preserves are lined up in the pantry, I have no regrets.Gooseberry Lemon Verbena Jam
The first time I made this jam I used the whole berries. Since I harvested so many tiny gooseberries, it would have been impossible to trim all of them. Therefore I took a shortcut and passed the cooked berries through a food mill this time. The end result is not quite as pretty as the chunky jam but it takes a fraction of the time.
For either version, I strongly recommend weighing the berries to make sure you have a fruit to sugar weight ratio of 2:1, otherwise it will be too sweet. The instructions for US pectin products tell you that you should not reduce the sugar or the jam will not set but do not worry, gooseberries are high in pectin so less sugar does work.
2¾ pounds (1.25 kg) gooseberries
2¼ cups (650 g) sugar
A small handful (about 24 leaves) lemon verbena (can be substituted with lemon balm), washed and dried
1 package Sure Jell for less or no sugar (pink package)
Process ½ cup (100 g) of the sugar with the lemon verbena in a food processor until the sugar turns a light green and becomes fragrant.
Using trimmed gooseberries: Mix the berries with the flavored sugar in a large saucepan. Crush the berries with a potato masher and set aside, covered, for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until the berries release come juice.
Using untrimmed berries: Place them in a large saucepan, crush them with a potato masher and slowly bring to a boil over low heat. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons water at the beginning to make sure they do not cook dry. As the berries soften, they will release a lot of juice. Cool slightly, then pass through the food mill with small holes. You should have about 5 cups of pulp. Transfer it to a large saucepan and add the flavored sugar.
Mix ¼ cup (50 g) of the remaining sugar with the Sure Jell and add it to berries. Mix well. Slowly bring to a full rolling boil that does not stop bubbling when stirred. Add the remaining sugar and stir well, also scraping over the bottom of the pan, to fully dissolve the sugar. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Fill the piping hot jam into sterilized jars placed on a damp kitchen towel, leaving about ½ inch (1.25 cm) headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars.
Makes 7 half-pint jarsGooseberry Elderflower Cordial
I used a steam juicer to extract the juice. As I wrote on my gardening blog a few years ago, it is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets. With canning and preserving being so en vogue, I do not understand why it is not more popular in America because the yield is not comparable to what you get with a jelly bag, and it’s so much easier.
1 packed cup (70 g) elderflowers, stems removed, washed and dried
1 organic lemon, thinly sliced
1½ cups (300 g) sugar
Mix the juice with the elderflowers and lemon slices in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days. Strain through a fine sieve, then pour through a jelly bag or a paper coffee filter.
Pour the juice into a large saucepan and add the sugar. Slowly bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until the sugar is fully dissolved.
If you use the cordial within a month, let cool, fill in sterilized bottles and refrigerate. Otherwise, fill in sterilized canning, leaving about ½ inch (1.25 cm) headspace. Wipe the rim of the jars clean with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips and wipe dry with paper towels. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars.
The Easter eggs dangling from forsythia branches are like a virtual family reunion across time and space. I would not want to trade them for any Fabergé eggs in the world. The oldest of these hollowed out eggs were painted by my mother’s cousin when she was a young girl in the 1950s. She lived with my mother and her family and that’s how they ended up in my mother’s possession.
When I was a child, every Easter my mother put the eggs on pussy willow branches in a large vase, and I admired them every year. There were at least a dozen eggs back then but only three have survived my parents’ multiple moves, and then mine across the Atlantic.
The Easter eggs I painted with finger paint in kindergarten are from the late 1960s, with a tiny paper flower at the top that has my last name on it written by the kindergarten teacher to make sure every child they took their own painted eggs home. Mine clearly show that I wasn’t much of an artist already then.
The newest painted eggs are from the first Easter with my new American family in 2001. Our daughter, the artist in the family, was eleven years old at the time. I cherish those Easter eggs as much as the others because we only painted Easter eggs together once. Life became too busy after that, between boarding school and college, she wasn’t home much and now she is grown and has lived on her own for several years.
My other German Easter tradition is making Advocaat (Eierlikör). Oddly I only started this after moving to the United States. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I did not even like Advocaat back in Germany.
Advocaat is not just for drinking, it is also delicious on and in cakes. This year I made a classic sponge-type coffee cake that is baked in a Gugelhupf mold.
In Germany it’s a very quick and easy cake because you can buy Advocaat in every supermarket. I make my Advocaat from scratch so it’s a bit more involved. The good thing however, is that there is plenty of Advocaat left over afterwards to sip with the cake, or drizzle some over a slice. The Gugelhupf tastes even better the next day.
Advocaat Coffee Cake (Eierlikörkuchen)
5 large eggs
1¾ cup (200 g) confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
2 cups + 3 tablespoons (8¾ ounces/250 g cake flour)
3½ teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a Gugelhopf form very well.
2. Beat the eggs, salt and confectioners’ sugar with an electric mixer at high speed until thick, about 8 minutes. Add the canola oil in a steady stream while beating for 2 minutes. Add the Advocaat and the vanilla and beat for 2 more minutes.
3. Mix the flour and the baking powder in a separate bowl. Sift it onto the beaten eggs and gently incorporate it into the dough with a whisk until well combined and no traces of flour remain.
4. Pour the dough into the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 60 minutes, or until golden brown and a tester comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then unmold onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.