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L’Shana Tova.

What do we remember about the German-Jewish Rosh Hashanah meal? I don’t remember anything about apple with honey in my household when I was growing up. Or potato kugel. I do remember soup with matzoh balls, and roasted meat of one kind or another, and cole slaw and nudel kugel.

Nudel kugel can be called noodle pudding, because that’s what it really is, and in talking to my cousin Ann today we decided that our grandmother may have called it nudel auflauf. I say may have because, if truth be told, our memories have been diluted by divergences and cross-cultural influences, all of which get incorporated over the decades into our cooking habits and even our language. In my case I have added numerous Jewish holiday dishes from my Ukrainian mother–in-law and from the more widespread ‘American’ Jewish repertoire – which gets me back to the kugel/auflauf. My ‘American’ version includes dairy foods such as sour cream, cottage cheese and lots of eggs. But Ann and I remembered the more spartan and delicious auflauf of our Oma Emma, and it had only a few eggs, some white raisins and perhaps thinly sliced apples and a touch of sugar. Yes it had a modicum of sweetness, but was more interested in being a tender accompaniment to the roasted meat than being a sweet and rich centerpiece.

Let’s move on to dessert. Memory does not fail us when it comes to plum cake.  The most ubiquitous of German cakes or tarts is as Jewish as it is German. Everyone in Europe has always been so enthralled with the small purple summer fruits when they come in season. And here on the East Coast of the United States we also await the short season for Italian plums. I usually bake at least one plum cake every September, maybe two.  I use the short dough known in German as muerberteig, whereas some bakers prefer to make their plum cake on a yeast dough base, the hefenteig. The latter is often made in an elongated rectangular shape. Ours is always round, in an 8 or 9 inch pan. Plum cake is sweet and sour and fruity and ours has a light jelly glaze added on top. It is a harvest food, but also a bright way to inaugurate a New Year.

We are rushing to put the finishing touches on tonight’s holiday dinner and don’t have time to post the recipe – but we will post it soon! In the meantime, here is a wonderful piece posted today by Jess on Sweet Amandine about a gorgeous plum cake made with a hefenteig dough. The recipe is adapted from the brand new book My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss of The Wednesday Chef

Sonya and I are wishing you a sweet and happy New Year!

            [Raspberry patch in my backyard, 2012]

Stephen Rossmer (my father, Sonya’s grandfather) yearned for various things from his Bamberg homeland, which he left as a refugee at the age of 33. The yearning was driven by the loss of his parents who were killed in April, 1942 outside of Lublin, Poland where they had been transported by the Nazis. The garden of their home in Bamberg, shared by two generations of Rossmers who lived in the same building, held special meaning for him. In the mid-1950’s he bought a house in Englewood, New Jersey with a small garden. The house even had timber-framing (fachwerk) with dark brown wood and light buff colored stucco forming irregular triangles. This form of construction was reminiscent of the historic houses in Bamberg.

[Red currants growing in a Munich backyard, 2011]

The square, suburban sized backyard, surrounded by a white picket fence, had nice plantings of rhododendron, magnolia and dogwood trees, and between the “rhodies” were several tall pine trees. I was excited to have this small patch of earth and I began learning about gardening, planting small annuals at the edges of the manicured borders. Before long, my father decided he wanted to grow currants and gooseberries. These two berry variants are common in Germany, and he was thrilled to be able to grow his own. Fresh currants, and especially gooseberries, were very uncommonly sold in the produce stores in the New York area. After a year or two, small crops of jewel-like berries were visible under the kitchen window against the brick back wall of the house. They were easy to pick and good to eat. I recall the berries getting sugared, but not too heavily. They were sweet enough and rather pithy. That is, each had a vigorous and unique tang. Sometimes the currants were served with raspberries, a very common mingling. Before long, my father found out that his berry bushes were illegal. It must have been quite a blow. He did not know that these plants, both gooseberry and currant, but most especially black currant, can carry a blister rust (cronartium pibicola) that is fatal to White Pine trees.

[Left, berries for sale at farmers’ market in Berlin, 2011; Right, red currants, 2011]

In fact, that is why these berries were so scarce in the States. Once he found out about the problem, my father dug up and got rid of his delightful crop plants. He never looked back. Being a good American meant more to him than even these wonderful berries. Today, there are hybridized disease-resistant ribes nigrum, or black currant varieties, and red currants and gooseberries are permitted in most parts of New Jersey. This ‘berry-love’ was not lost on me. In fact, along one side of the house in Englewood, there were a few somewhat straggly raspberry bushes, acquired by my parents from their (German-Jewish) dentist’s property in rural New Jersey. These bushes were tenacious and productive. I moved my first transplants in the 60’s to upstate New York, where I was then living. They have travelled with me as I have moved to Brookline, Richmond, and Medford – all in Massachusetts – in the years since. In Richmond, they grew into a sizable rural raspberry patch and one summer the delectable berries were sold to several restaurants and bakeries in the Berkshires. In my current garden in Medford, this summer – after a non-winter produced a very early, super-abundant crop — I made my usual 8 jars of jam and had enough berries left to make raspberry sauce, eat fresh berries for a couple of weeks, and still have a pint in the freezer. Ancestral berry love continues strong.

— Gaby

The morning coffee was made in this coffee pot at my grandparents’ house. It is a coffee pot/maker, with four different components, all white porcelain. A cylindrical filter sits on top of the pot, into which the coffee (coarsely ground) is added. On top of that, sits another piece –  a shallow cup with a few small holes punched around the perimeter into which the hot water is poured. The small holes allow the water to drip slowly over the coffee grounds. When the coffee is finished being brewed, the filter and water disperser are removed and replaced with a top that has a little acorn-shaped knob. The coffee is then ready to be served from the pot.

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My grandparents had several of these pots, in varying sizes. I’m not sure when they got them (wedding presents, perhaps?), but they brought them when they emigrated to this country in 1939 so they’re probably from the mid-30s. They brought a lot of things – aka stuff – with them, household items and clothes and more, all packed into crates for the ocean voyage. It’s odd to think of people bringing large amounts of their personal belongings (including huge pieces of furniture) when they are fleeing from a place with their lives in danger. But that is what happened. And now, in our family at least, we still have a lot of these things. The kitchen things – cookware and dishes and the like – are for the most part such beautiful, well-made and functional objects that my mother and I each use many of these items in our respective kitchens on a daily basis. This coffee pot is but one example. (My mother has one of the smaller ones).

Surprisingly, I just discovered that the company who made these pots, Walküre Porzellan, is still in business and continues to make this exact same model, the Karlsbader, today.

Raspberries have a special place in the food traditions of central Europe. One of the most common uses for them is in syrup form. Today, one can readily buy tall bottles of raspberry syrup, as well as currant and other fruit syrups that mostly come from Balkan countries such as Slovenia or Croatia. When I was growing up in Washington Heights, the immigrant German-Jewish community had its own provider of this glorious sweet, which in our house was mixed with water to make a fresh and divine soft drink. Mrs. Bauer’s raspberry syrup came in a rather short bottle and it was considerably more concentrated than what appears today. One generous teaspoon of the thick, deep red syrup would flavor a whole glass of water or seltzer and emit a heavenly aroma of raspberry. It was a staple of my childhood diet, a yummy accompaniment to any meal. Of course, raspberry syrup can also be added to iced tea or lemonade. Or, to a glass of white wine to make a Kir (or sparkling wine for a Kir Royale) – or any other cocktail, for that matter. In Berlin, it is often added to Berliner Weisse, a regionally brewed wheat beer.

Now that Mrs. Bauer’s is long gone and I have found nothing as good on the market to replace it (and since I have a massive raspberry crop this year after the warm winter), I am making my own syrup. In addition to using it to flavor drinks, it can also be drizzled over any number of foods – pancakes, waffles, yoghurt, pudding or ice cream.

If you are lucky enough to have access to a supply of fresh raspberries you can pick yourself, all the better.  Here is the recipe:

Raspberry Syrup (Himbeersaft)

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

2 cups raspberries

1) Combine the water and the sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Lower heat and simmer for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

2) Meanwhile, put the raspberries in a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over low heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly and pour into sieve that has been set over a bowl. With the back of a tablespoon or a wooden spoon, press the berries to extract all the juice. Let it sit for another 15 minutes and press again. You should have about 1 cup of juice.

3) Add the raspberry juice to the syrup.

4) Return the raspberry syrup to the stove, bring to a boil and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until syrup thickens and becomes more concentrated. Cool.

5) Store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator, or freeze.

I received a lovely bunch of fresh summer savory in my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box recently. In German it goes by the name Bohnenkraut, which literally means “bean herb”. It is traditionally paired with all kinds of beans, both fresh and dried. After setting the little bouquet of green herbs in a small juice glass filled with water for a day or so (the better to admire the tiny white flowers), I made a simple batch of green beans with Bohnenkraut. The bold flavor of this herb (somewhat similar to thyme) was a marvelous pairing with the beans, it literally was a “summer savory”.

I recently noticed that a good New York rye bread with caraway seeds is much tastier and crisper than a plain white New York rye bread. (Does anyone know why?) It got me thinking about caraway seeds. They are an important flavor addition to many German dishes and therefore also to German-Jewish food.

When I was growing up in Washington Heights, my mother made sautéed potatoes with great regularity – probably three or four times a week. I have to assume that this practice arrived on these shores with her, and that is what she was used to cooking in Germany. Like most of my mother’s food, it was simple and delicious, relying on ingredients that make themselves easily known. She used a black enameled fry pan with tapered sides brought over when they immigrated in 1939. The pan would get a large dab of Crisco or butter, or both; the pan was heated and the previously steamed potatoes were then sliced and laid into the hot fat. The aroma of the butter signaled that these delightful potatoes were on the menu. If I was doing homework on the living room floor, I would head through the swinging door to the kitchen and check out the pan, maybe snitching a slice of potato.

Mom tended to fry hotter than I do, so her potatoes usually had some darker and lighter spots, including some very crisp portions. She would add salt and caraway seeds somewhere during the cooking process. The seeds dotted the potatoes, making a very noticeable pattern which is appropriate because the caraway taste is a very distinctive characteristic of this dish.

In Germany, caraway seeds are also often added to cabbage dishes and to sauerkraut, things I also remember from my childhood. Why, I wonder, is caraway, which is called kümmel in German, so popular? This spice, like so many, has a long history winding from one continent and millennium to the next. Think Stone Age, and Egyptians burying the seeds with their dead. It is related to other spices such as fennel, coriander and anise seed and this whole family of flavorings is considered to be carminative, which means they are soothing to the digestive system. It probably does so well in North-Central Europe because it grows well there, which I think is not the case with fennel and the others. It probably also has a calming effect when eating some rather heavy, difficult-to-digest foods.

Here is a recipe for my version of my mother Erna’s roasted potatoes. I’ve swapped out her Crisco for vegetable oil, but they remain essentially as I remember them from my youth: both crispy and soft, slightly salty and filled with heady caraway notes. They are a wonderful accompaniment to just about any meal, but work especially well with schnitzel, roast chicken, or any type of wurst.

Pan-roasted Potatoes with Caraway Seeds  [serves 4 as a side dish]

1 ½ pounds thin-skinned, waxy potatoes, peeled and cut in half (if using organic, may leave the skins on)

2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil (or 1 tablespoon oil + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter)

2 teaspoons caraway seeds

1 teaspoon salt

1) Steam or boil the potatoes until barely tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from pot. When cool enough to handle, slice into ½ inch thick pieces.

2) Heat the oil (and butter, if using) in a large fry pan. Layer potatoes into the pan and cook on medium heat. Turn frequently so they will brown evenly. When they begin to brown, scatter the caraway seeds and salt over the potatoes and toss. Cook another minute or two. The potatoes should be gently browned around the edges. Eat hot.

Growing up, I often ate the food of my two Jewish grandmothers (and my grandfather, but that’s another story). I loved eating at both households, though their foods were very different. I’m not sure when it was exactly, but at a certain point I realized that the food at Oma and Opa’s house, (Erna and Stephen Rossmer, my maternal, German-Jewish grandparents), was quite different than that at Nana and Zaidy’s (Ida and Max Gropman, my paternal, Eastern-European Jewish grandparents). Their food was unique, unlike most of the food eaten by other Jewish families I knew. True, there was matzoh ball soup at both houses, but even the broth they sat in differed: chicken soup vs. beef soup. I wrote about my Oma’s beef soup – a beef broth, really – for The Jew & The Carrot, the food blog of The Jewish Daily ForwardYou can read the article here (including the recipe for Beef Soup with Noodles). But matzoh balls are pretty much where the similarities both begin and end. I gradually realized that Oma and Opa’s food represented a special cuisine, one which was not well-known and was in fact over-looked.

Both of my grandparents’ families resided in Germany for many generations. When I asked my grandfather to make me a family tree for a school project, he was able to trace our family history back hundreds of years – as far back as the late 1600s on my grandmother’s side. That was when the paper trail ended, but surely they’d been there longer than that. Many other Jews had also been in Germany (and in nearby German-speaking Austria, Czechoslovakia and Alsace) for that length of time, meaning German-Jewish communities were quite solidly established – as were their food traditions

As is generally the case, the cuisine of Jews in Germany reflected the food that was available to them both geographically and culturally. German-Jewish food was essentially German food with a twist – a twist to adapt dishes to conform to kosher law. This may have meant replacing dairy ingredients with non-dairy ingredients, or cooking a dish in a slow oven overnight on Fridays in observation of Sabbath rules. But in general, the ingredients remained the same as those used by non-Jewish neighbors – the same vegetables, fruits, grains, and to a large degree, the same meats. But a cuisine is more than the sum of its parts, more than just a collection of recipes and ingredients. It is a shared experience and a shared history. It was this realization that inspired us – my mother Gabrielle and I – to investigate this topic. We decided to research this food and to reach out to others who grew up eating it – and perhaps still eat it today – as a way to preserve, share and document this foodway.

We would like to hear from you – to try your recipes and hear about your family’s meals! We welcome your comments, questions, stories or recipes.

While we are writing this blog in English, feel free to write to us in German and we will translate (Sie können in Deutsch gern schreiben. Wir werden übersetzen.).

We look forward to hearing from you!

– Sonya

Photos, from top: Beef Soup with Noodles; Bamberg, Germany, 2011 (left: landscape, right: green walnuts on tree); our cousin Ann, gathering walnuts in Munich, mid-1930s.

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