My grandmother was born 100 years ago this Wednesday. Five days later, on August 4, 1914, following the German invasion of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
My grandmother was too little to remember the four years of carnage and deprivation that followed in Europe but her father’s war injury, an open leg wound that never healed, would remain a constant reminder of World War I. By the time my grandmother was thirty, she had lived through two world wars, and was a war widow with three young children.
My grandmother’s life and mine could not have been more different. After my grandfather vanished in the battle of Stalingrad, she led a quiet, uneventful life. She never remarried. She never worked. She took care of her children and her mentally ill older sister, and later of me while my parents were at work.
Nine years after her death, most of the memories I have of my grandmother are connected to food in one way or the other. How we would find small loaves of freshly baked yeasted bread on the kitchen table, dropped off early in the morning on the nights she could not sleep and had spent the night baking. I went to her for lunch after school and she never sat down with me, instead, she always busied herself at the stove. But she listened attentively to me talk about whatever was on my mind. She never gave me grief when I received bad marks on a test. She never got visibly upset about anything. My place at the tiny pullout table in her cluttered kitchen was a quiet refuge, a haven from the routine at my parents’.
Except for cutting out gingerbread cookies for Christmas, which she made in large amounts every year, my grandmother never let me do anything in the kitchen, and she never explained or talked about what she was doing.
Waste, whether food or other, was one of the few things she would not tolerate. That, too, was conveyed in an implicit, unspoken way, and I internalized it early (I wrote about this in a previous blog post).
She had her moments of extreme levity and could chuckle about something she found funny for hours or even days. Such as our dog sitting on her feet tickling her when she picked currants in our allotment garden in Frankfurt where I grew up. While she was very friendly to the dog, I never once saw her pet it. It was as if she was somehow always physically keeping her distance from other living beings. Whether life had made her that way, or whether it was just her character, I do not know. Yet I always felt that she deeply cared about me.
When it came to food, she was unafraid to try new things. Every few years we took her along on a vacation to neighboring European countries or to my father’s native Tunisia. In Alkmaar in the Netherlands, she could not get over the seven-year old Gouda cheese at the famous cheese market.
She never learned to swim and I do not recall her going to the beach with us but I remember how she and my father spent an entire August day on the island of Elba, Italy, in the kitchen of our rental house cooking oxtails that they had found for a bargain at the village butcher. My mother just shook her head and took me swimming.
My grandmother saw the first edition of my book Spoonfuls of Germany published in 2004, with a bunch of her recipes for traditional German foods. A month after she died in 2005, a local newspaper interviewed me, and for the article my husband took a photo of me showing off her Black Forest Cake. I had a hard time keeping it together for that photo.
My husband and I have the tradition of planting a tree on our property after someone dear to us dies. For my grandmother, I chose a linden tree because of the beautiful old German folk song she taught me:
Kein schöner Land in dieser Zeit
Als hier das unsre weit und breit
Wo wir uns finden wohl unter Linden zur Abendzeit.
(No country more beautiful than ours
In this time, both far and near,
Where we are gathering under the linden trees at eventide to have a good time.)
Sitting here on our peaceful, lush green Pennsylvania hilltop during this gorgeous summer, I realize once more how damn lucky I am to live in this time and not in hers. Each time I walk by my grandmother’s linden tree on my way to my garden where, among other things, I grow the red and black currants, elderberries, gooseberries and raspberries for the jams, jellies, cakes and desserts I learned to appreciate because of her, I imagine my grandmother nodding in approval, saying, “Life has treated you well. Enjoy it.”
I do. I owe it to her.
Thumbprints with Red Currant Jelly (Fingerkolatschen)
I made these for my grandmother’s birthday because they were her signature cookies. Always made with homemade red currant jelly, of course!
When I was a kid, their name sounded like “Fingergulaschen” to me, and I always thought they were called like this because the red jelly filling looked like someone had badly cut their finger into, well, goulash.
Only a few years ago I realized the name comes from the central European pastry, kolaches. I suppose my grandmother picked up the recipe when she and my grandfather moved to Silesia in the late 1930s.
2 sticks + 1 tablespoon (250 g) unsalted cold butter
2 2/3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (200 g) sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
About ½ cup red currant jelly, preferably homemade
About ½ cup Swedish pearl sugar
1. Cut the butter into small cubes and put them in the food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the flour, sugar, baking power, and salt, and process to a fine meal. Add the vanilla extract and one egg. Separate the other egg and add the egg yolk. Set aside the egg white on a saucer or a soup plate. Process until the dough holds together in a ball.
2. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Shape walnut-size balls and place them on the baking sheets. Gently press your index finger in the center of each cookie to create a deep dent. Dip your fingertip in flour in-between to prevent it from sticking.
3. Place the baking sheets in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes. If you do not have a large enough freezer to fit a baking sheet, place the cookies on large plates in a single layer.
4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
5. Take one baking sheet out of the freezer. Put some pearl sugar on a saucer. Take one cookie and dip it into the egg white with the dented side down, then gently press it into the pearl sugar. Place it on the baking sheet flat side down. Repeat with the remaining cookies, leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) between them.
6. Using the smallest spoon you can find, put ¼ teaspoon or less of red currant jelly into the dent. Do not overfill the cookies or the jelly will ooze out. Bake in the preheated oven on the middle rack for 15 minutes, or until lightly colored. Transfer to a cake rack and cool, then store in airtight containers.
7. While the first baking sheet is cooking, dip, coat and fill the cookies as described in step 4, and bake the same way.
Makes about 50 cookies
July 26, 2014 at 6:29 pm
Lovely post about your special grandmother and the love your family felt through the food she prepared for you. Those cookies look absolutely gorgeous and I bet they taste delicious.
July 29, 2014 at 1:55 am
Thanks Judy, what can I say, they are almost gone.
July 26, 2014 at 6:39 pm
It was with great pleasure as well as a dose of sadness that I read your entry today. I’m from Mainz and have lived in Oregon for decades now. My grandmother was born in 1900, and when I watch the movie “The White Ribbon”, I often think of her being the age of the protagonist. My grandmother was 14 when WWI broke out. I can really relate to what you say about your grandmother. And I also make current jelly here in Oregon, and think of her and my aunt’s jams and jellies. Lovely to read your blogs entries. You really touch my heart with them.
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July 28, 2014 at 9:55 pm
Ich habe gerade das Lied, “Kein schöner Land in dieser Zeit” gesungen und konnte nicht glauben, dass ich sogar noch die Melodie wusste… das Besondere? Ich habe es seit 40 Jahren nicht mehr gesungen, noch daran gedacht! Und ich lebe seit 1994 in NY und komme aus Bad Homburg.
Ihre Webseite habe ich durch die HOPE HILL FARM hier in Pottsville, PA gefunden als ich mir die leckeren Lavender Rezepte durchlies!
Mein Mann liebt die deutsche Küche und ich würde mir sehr gerne ihr Buch kaufen.
Wie einem eine solche Kleinigkeit wie ein Heimatslied doch Freude machen kann.
Ich würde mich riesig freuen von Ihnen einmal zu hören und wer weiß, vielleicht kann man sich sogar mal treffen.
Mit freundlichem Gruß,
August 4, 2014 at 4:35 pm
What a wonderful post about your grandmother and as well I agree with Bettina: “Kein schöner Land…” is a wonderful song that brings back many memories to me, too.
August 31, 2014 at 10:59 pm
I was raised by my German grandparents in Nuernberg. We had a Wochenend Haus in der fraenkischen Schweiz where all the goodies were grown. Rhubarb, Gooseberries, red and back currants, apples, plums, Mirabellen, pole beans, strawberries. The adjacent forrest provided us with ample mushrooms and heather. Jellies, apple cider, applesauce were made by her. Cookies like the ones in your article I remember well. Those memories are priceless. My grandmother appeared reserved but I knew she loved me dearly.
September 1, 2014 at 7:12 am
Dorisa, that sounds like a real paradise, thank you for sharing this. And yes, it was also a different generation, much less display of emotions than today.
October 17, 2014 at 10:20 am
Hallo Nadia ,Sie erinnern sich sicherlich . Ich schickte Ihnen mal (via Facebook) ein Käsekuchenrezept bestehend nur aus Mager-Quark , Vanillepudding-Pulver , Zucker und Eiern .Es ist auch ein altdeutsches Rezept meiner Großmutter ,dass meine Mutter immer zu besonderen Anläßen , in Erinnerung an ihre Trierer Mutter für uns herstellte ,zusammen mit uns Kindern . Ich habe es in der Familie , in meinem Freundes-Kollegen-Kreis wieder in Erinnerung gebracht . Witzig war , als ich es in der Klinik (ich bin Kinderkrankenschwester) für meine Kollegen mitbrachte ,und unser Chefarzt aus Luxemburg in helle Begeisterung ausbrach und rief , das ist der Käsekuchen meiner Mutter !!! Wie das Leben so spielt , ich stamme aus Trier ,der ältesten Stadt Deutschlands , und das Land Luxemburg und Stadt mit gleichem Namen grenzt direkt an Trier . Die Dialektsprache , heißt Mosefränkisch , dieser Käsekuchen ohne Boden , also ein typischer Kuchen dieser Gegend , Und nun erhielt unser Chef dann in Hamburg ,wo wir nun leben ,das Rezept seiner Mutter . Wir waren Beide sehr gerührt ,auch unsere Kollegen .
Nun war ich schon zum 2ten Mal in den USA ,in Maryland -Salisbury , jetzt im September . Ich feierte auch meinen Geburtstag ,und wollte meinem Freund diesen Kuchen backen , aber wir fanden keinen Quark . Im Internet wurden wir fündig , wo eine religiöse Gemeinschaft Naturprodukte herstellte und auch verkaufte . Es kostete 0,5 KG 15 Dollar und dann 6 Dollar Zustellgebühr in unserem Fall dann bei einem Kilo Bedarf 30 Dollar . Es gab aber keine Garantie für den schnellen Versand ,so dass ich es
dann schweren Herzens unterließ und anderen Kuchen kaufte .Was ich nicht verstehe ,dass es so schwer ist ,ein solch einfaches Naturprodukt in den USA zu erhalten . Im Koffer mitbringen darf ich ja nicht . Haben Sie noch Ideen ,wo ich Quark bekommen kann ? In Amerika leben doch viele Deutsche !
Zum Schluß vielen Dank für die schöne Geschichte ihrer Großmutter , viele liebe Grüße aus Hamburg , Ihre Monika-Josefine Thömmes
Kann ich ihr Buch über Sie bestellen ? Ich hätte es gerne ,
October 19, 2014 at 10:50 pm
Monika-Josefine, klar ich erinnere mich an Ihr Rezept. Ja leider, Quark ist in den USA immer noch kaum zu finden und wenn, dann sehr teuer, Kuchen backt man damit bestimmt nicht. Ich verstehe es auch nicht richtig, warum es hier keinen Quark in großem Umfang gibt und habe zum Thema auch schon einmal einen Blogpost geschrieben: https://spoonfulsofgermany.com/2013/07/28/all-about-quark-the-food-that-is/ Deutschen Käsekuchen kann man allerdings auch wunderbar mit Greek yogurt backen, den gibt es heute überall zu kaufen. Ich habe ein Rezept dafür auf meinem Blog: https://spoonfulsofgermany.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/german-cheesecake2.pdf – Es freut mich, dass Ihnen der Blogpost über meine Großmutter gefallen hat. – In Deutschland können Sie mein Buch bei Amazon bestellen, es ist dort eigentlich immer vorrätig. Achten Sie nur bitte darauf, dass es die (neue) Taschenbuchausgabe von 2013 ist.
October 17, 2014 at 10:24 am
Ich lese gerade meinen Beitrag mit einem etwas merkwürdigen Deutsch , dass ich so nicht schrieb . Soll ich es lieber auf Englisch übersetzen ? Monika Thömmes
March 21, 2015 at 12:52 pm
My dear mom was born in 1891 and was the best baker I’ve ever known She is why I am so proud of my German Heritage. Her cooking and baking, were, basically: a handful of this, or a bit of this. Sometimes she would say: a “hotel” cup of this! Her “Gramma’s Stew’, with pickling spices, was the BEST, as well as he Pumpkin Pie Filling, with molasses.
March 21, 2015 at 5:19 pm
I have never heard of a “hotel” cup before. Hope you have at least some approximations of her recipes.
March 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm
My Mom at the end had one large currant bush that would bear fruit one time each summer. When the house sold, my sisters excluded me from the closing so I never met the new owner. The next door neighbor told me My Mom had given him her recipe for currant jelly. Mutti passed about a year later. I miss those cookies and jelly etc, she had made.
March 23, 2015 at 8:55 am
Rosi, thank you for sharing this. What memories those small cookies can trigger. I do hope though that the neighbor gave you the jelly recipe.
February 2, 2019 at 4:55 pm
First I just wanted to verify the cookies are to be baked at 400 degrees. This seems an awfully high temperature for baking cookies. Is this because they are frozen?
February 2, 2019 at 5:38 pm
Pamela, Yes 400 degrees F is the correct temperature. It’s not only because the cookies are ice cold but also because they are quite thick. But of course every oven is different, and the type of baking sheet (light or dark) makes a difference too. With these cookies I always stand by to take them out if they brown before the full 15 minutes are up.