Twenty five years ago this autumn, I met my best friend. We were five years old and met the way any five year old meets a new friend: a forcible introduction arranged by our parents. It was just before Kindergarten started, where she and I would make up two thirds of the female population of our class, and our parents thought it would be good for us to meet before school started. So my friend was brought over to my house, Lite-Brite in tow, and, as far as we can recall, we sat side by side at our respective Lite-Brites, diligently but silently plugging coloured pegs into the screens.
Now, a common love of Lite-Brite only gets you so far. But from the very beginning we realised we had something in common that all the other children found very weird and slightly suspicious: we got our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. This is a very big deal when you are little and, in our minds, marked us out as rather special people. What it actually meant was that her father was from Germany and my mother was from the Czech Republic. Our respective Canadian grandparents lived too far away to hold much sway over the holidays, whereas our European grandparents lived nearby. So the holiday traditions we followed were theirs and were similar enough for us to feel a sense of a shared heritage.
This sense of heritage extended into the kitchen. As we grew up, we both became keen bakers and cooks. The Czech women I am descended from are famous for their lack of interest in anything culinary so it was my friend I could share my cooking adventures with. We experimented with all cuisines but it was the Central European recipes that bound us together. We could talk to anyone about making a quiche or homemade pasta and find hundreds of books to advise on how to do it perfectly. But, thanks to a dearth of books about Central European cooking, we alone could talk over how to make a feather light dumpling (something I have still to master), debate what the “correct” filling is for rouladen (still no consensus around whether or not there should be egg), and share our secrets for the perfect schnitzel (carrying these to the grave, sorry readers). It wasn’t an everyday thing and it wasn’t the core of our friendship but it was a way to explore our heritage and share it with one another.
We stayed together from Kindergarten to the end of university, moving through four different schools together. We made strudel with my Czech grandmother when we were little, lost our minds trying to get the streusel topping right on fruit cakes when we were teenagers, and caught up during busy times at university over homemade schnitzels. During high school, we co-wrote a food column for our school paper that was titled something like our “German Cooking Corner”. Because every teenage girl is naturally looking for a good Christmas stollen recipe, accompanied by bad puns and hilarious family anecdotes. (For the record, it was an excellent recipe, direct from my friend’s oma, even if it did call for 20 cups of flour. The danger of getting a recipe from a woman who came from a family of 12 and used to run a beer garden, I suppose.)
When I bake, she is always the person I wish was in the kitchen with me. But these days we live in different cities and in different countries. It isn’t so easy to make vanilla kipferl together at Christmas or pflaumenkuchen (the best of all possible cakes) in the summer. But now there is at least one way to bring our kitchens closer together…
Today is the release day for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a book I’ve been eagerly waiting for ever since Weiss announced it was in the works. You may remember Weiss’ excellent memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, or know her from her outstanding blog, The Wednesday Chef. Now she has presented us with this gem of a baking bible, which, thanks to NetGalley, I have been using for months and which served as the inspiration for most of my summer baking. Some recipes are familiar favourites, others I remember from my travels , and some are entirely unknown to me (naturally, these are the ones I’m most eager still to try).
Weiss confidently guides the uninitiated through the wonderful world of traditional German baking. She gathers recipes from around the country (with the odd drift into Austria) and the results are a tempting introduction to the region’s too often overlooked delights. There is an entire chapter devoted to Christmas baking, which is inspired, and I appreciate that cakes and yeasted cakes are handled in separate sections (giving us that much more cake – never a bad thing). Yeasted cakes are something I have yet to master and I am hoping this book will give me the confidence to finally confront them. As much as I love my current plum cake recipe, I know I’d prefer it with a yeasted base.
All of the recipes I tried were excellent. One of the hits of the summer was the recipe for Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices. Made with apricot jam and a streusel topping with nuts, they were the perfect combination of sweet and tart, crunchy and buttery. And they travelled surprisingly well on hiking trips (which were necessary to burn them off as they were very more-ish). I lost track of how many times I used the Sour Cherry Streusel Cake recipe as inspiration, replacing the cherries with whatever fruit happened to be in season (it handled excessive volumes of blueberries very well indeed). I loved the simplicity of the Simple Rhubarb Cake and the equally straightforward Sunken Apple Cake has become one of our go-to recipes (I made it again over the weekend). And, for those who aren’t familiar with it from Weiss’ earlier book, she includes her recipe for plum butter (Pflaumenmus), which is absolutely delicious and so, so much better than any of the store-bought brands you can find.
I’ve only tried a handful of the recipes and I’m eager to move on to more, especially the savories and the breads. If I could whip up fresh rolls for a proper German-style breakfast one weekend that would be joyful (and require much more confidence with yeast than I currently possess). And who isn’t intrigued by a Cabbage Strudel?
These are exactly the kinds of recipes I want to be sharing with my friend. Which is why one copy of the book is on its way to her and another is on its way to me. We might not be able to share a kitchen these days but we can still share the recipes we love.