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