If there is one thing I regret I did not do while I was still living in Germany, it is that I did not see more of the world behind the Iron Curtain that opened up after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I spent a good amount of time in Berlin in 1991, and I am glad I did because at least I got a glimpse how East Berlin had looked under communist rule.
A region that has always fascinated me is East Prussia, a German province that was cut off from Germany by the Polish Corridor between 1920 and 1945, then was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union after World War II.
I attribute this fascination mainly to the books by Marion Gräfin Dönhoff. Born 1909 into an aristocratic East Prussian family near Königsberg (Kaliningrad), the provincial capital of East Prussia, she ran her family’s estate when her brothers were drafted into World War II. Dönhoff was involved in the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944 but one of the few lucky ones. She was interrogated by the Gestapo but did not get arrested in the merciless hunt for anyone associated with the assassination attempt. As the Red Army approached East Prussia in January 1945, she fled on horseback, riding for seven weeks and several hundred miles to the safe West.
The year after her arrival in Hamburg, Dönhoff started working for the newly founded liberal German weekly Die Zeit. She later became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, and from her retirement until her death in 2002, its co-publisher.
Dönhoff was an icon of German liberal journalism, and an advocate for dialog and peaceful co-existence with communist East Germany. While there were factions in postwar Germany still hoping for a return of East Prussia to Germany, here was an anti-Nazi East Prussian aristocrat who had accepted the loss of East Prussia and her family estates.
There are two chapters in Dönhoff’s books in particular that make me want to visit East Prussia. The first is from her book Before The Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia (Kindheit in Ostpreußen), unfortunately the only one of her books currently available in English. In it she describes how the seasons determined the rhythm of life: the relief when after a long, dark winter spring finally arrives and turns the unpaved roads into knee-deep mud; the short summer nights, and the gentle movement of the vast grain fields in the wind; the bright red berries of the mountain ash trees against the blue autumn sky. I only started relating fully to these descriptions when I moved to the countryside, although, of course, with the worldwide web at my fingertips, it compares in no way to the isolation felt during an East Prussian winter a century ago.
The other chapter is from her book Namen, die keiner mehr nennt (Names that no one mentions any longer), about a 5-day trip on horseback through Masuria in September 1941 that Dönhoff took with her cousin Sissi. She recorded it for her brother Dietrich who was serving in the war. Dönhoff knew that this was the last time she would ride through this quiet and breathtakingly beautiful area with its 2,000 lakes, and this feeling of farewell transpires through her descriptions. But she never explicitly expresses it; there are only a few mentions of troops along the way and villages emptied out of all able-bodied men that remind you that a war was raging in Europe.
Until I get the chance to visit former East Prussia I have to content myself with exploring its food. Although East Prussia belongs no longer to Germany, its food is part of Germany’s culinary heritage. Therefore I included a few recipes in my book Spoonfuls of Germany.
Seafood from the Baltic Sea was big in East Prussian cuisine. In one of my grandmother’s cookbooks I found a recipe for Kulibiak. It is a simplified version of the Russian dish, which French cuisine, under the name Coulibiac, has lifted to utmost sophistication. Recipes know no borders; they have always traveled freely.
To keep warm during the long cold winters, East Prussians sipped a honey liqueur called Bärenfang. And so did we on our Pennsylvania hilltop during these bone-chilling past months. Königsberger Marzipan, a marzipan specialty, is the perfect sweet treat to go with it.
Coulibiac East Prussian Style (Kulibiak)
½ cup (100 g) long-grain rice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup (250 ml) milk
1 small onion
2 whole cloves
1 small bay leaf
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
1 pound (450 g) salmon fillets, skin removed
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped dill, fresh or frozen
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1. Cook the rice and set aside to cool.
2. While the rice is cooking, make the Béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook over low heat until it begins to turn beige, stirring constantly. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened. Stud the onion with the cloves, and add to the sauce together with the bay leaf. Turn the heat to the lowest setting and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often to avoid lumps. If the sauce is too thick, add more milk, one tablespoon at a time. Remove from the heat and discard the onion (or add to another dish) and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and a pinch of nutmeg. Let cool.
3. Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat and cook the onion until translucent. Add the wine and the fish and cook covered until the fish is flaky, turning it once. Let it cool in the pan, then drain. Season with salt and pepper. Discard the liquid. Flake the fish with a fork, mixing it with the onions.
4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
5. On a lightly floured surface roll out one pastry sheet to 10 x 12 inches (25 x 30 cm). Put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
6. Evenly spread the ingredients for the filling on top in the following order, leaving 1 inch free all around: half of the rice, half of the fish including the onions, half of the dill, all of the eggs, all of the Béchamel sauce (give it a good stir before in case a skin has formed on top), the remaining fish, the remaining dill, and the remaining rice as the last layer. Brush any stray bits off filling off the sides.
7. Roll out the second puff pastry sheet to the same size and place over the filling to cover. Seal the seams all around with your fingertips. Pinch the edge with the tines of a fork or your fingers to make a decorative pattern.
8. Trim the excess dough and cut it into strips with a pastry roller or into shapes with cookie cutters.
9. Brush the entire dough with egg yolk. Place the decorations on top and brush them with egg yolk too. Make a couple of incisions at the top to release steam during baking.
10. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden. If the sides brown too quickly, cover them with strips of aluminum foil. Serve hot.
Makes 6 servings
Honey Liqueur (Bärenfang)
Use only top-quality raw honey. We are fortunate to have a neighbor who is a beekeeper – one of the trade-offs of living in the country.
¾ cup (250 g) raw honey
2 cups (500 ml) vodka or Everclear 75% if you prefer it stronger
1 cinnamon stick
Peel of 1 organic lemon
1. Heat the honey with half of vodka in a saucepan over low heat. Stir until the honey is dissolved. Let cool.
2. Put the remaining vodka, lemon peel and cinnamon stick in a sterilized quart jar with a tight fitting lid. Let it sit for 8 to 10 days, shaking it daily.
3. Strain through a fine sieve into a sterilized bottle or carafe. Discard the lemon peel and cinnamon stick. Store at room temperature, otherwise the honey will solidify. There will be some residue forming at the bottom, which is nothing to worry about, just shake the bottle before pouring the liqueur.
Makes 2 cups
Browned Marzipan Confect (Königsberger Marzipan)
1¾ cups (250 g) blanched almonds
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon organic almond extract
½ cup (60 g) confectioners’ sugar, more as needed
Stiff red currant or raspberry jelly for the filling
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1. Prepare the marzipan as described here. Place in an airtight container and let rest overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. On a large piece of wax paper roll out the marzipan about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) thick. Using cookie cutters, cut out simple shapes of your choice (hearts, small circles and squares etc.). Place them on the baking sheet with about 1 inch (2.5 cm) between them.
3. Take a walnut-size piece of marzipan and roll it to a thin even rope using the tips of your fingers and rocking it back and forth on a clean smooth work surface. If the rope breaks, put it back together, knead it briefly and roll it again. Place the rope along the outline of the cut-out pieces and seal the ends together. Repeat with all the pieces until all the marzipan is used up. Unlike dough, scraps can be kneaded several times over. Using a toothpick, make tiny but deep grooves all along the ropes.
4. Preheat the oven to 212 degrees F (100 degrees C). Place the baking sheet on the medium rack of the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes.
5. Preheat the broiler and place the baking sheet on the top rack of the oven. Broil until the tops are lightly browned. This happens very quickly so stand by all the time and turn the baking sheet halfway if the pieces do not brown evenly. Let the pieces cool and harden on the baking sheet until you can take them off the paper without breaking apart.
6. In a small bowl mix the confectioners’ sugar with just enough hot water to make a very thick and smooth icing. Place the icing in a small freezer bag, cut of a small corner and pipe the icing into the inside the pieces. Slightly warm the jelly until it is no longer gelatinous and pipe it into the inside of the pieces the same way as the icing. Let dry for a few hours.
7. Lightly beat the egg white and apply it onto the grooved rim with a very small brush, taking care not to spill any egg white onto the filling. Let dry. Store pieces in an airtight container with wax paper between the layers.
Makes 20 to 25 pieces