“Do you want to come over for plum dumplings?”, I asked my friend Gabriele last week after I found a bag of Italian plums in the freezer that I had bought at a farm stand in late summer specifically to make those dumplings. Of course she said yes. Although she has lived in the United States twice as long as I have, she craves that stuff just as much as I do.
So here we were sitting in the kitchen, blissfully digging in. With this type of food, every forkful brings up memories of mothers and grandmothers in their kitchens who made it for us many miles and many years away. Nostalgia lingers in the air, leaving behind a few sprinkles of homesickness like the cinnamon sugar on our plates.
German cooking has a vast repertoire of these sweet comfort foods yet the German language does not have an appealing name for them, if a name at all. In the south of Germany and in Austria they are called Mehlspeisen, which literally means “dishes with flour” but that’s more a slighty antiquated term for dishes without meat. Sometimes comfort food is referred to as “food for the nervous system” (Nervennahrung), which doesn’t cut it neither.
The dishes are sweet but not overly sweet, mostly eaten warm and thus are also served as a light lunch or dinner, and not only for dessert. Because they are meatless they were the traditional fare during Lent when fresh vegetables were not available year round like they are today.
These sweet dishes are also the classic German children’s food, that’s why they evoke strong memories for many people. A few weeks ago I posted my recipe for Farina Porridge (Grießbrei) and a photo on this blog. German Girl in America, who since last fall has been blogging about her German heritage and about growing up German in America, picked it up on her Facebook page. Surprisingly it triggered many passionate comments, negative and positive. “I’m a bit shocked myself,” she said, “but I’m learning that it’s the everyday memories that evoke the most emotion. ”
Rice pudding (Milchreis), farina porridge (Grießbrei), bread puddings made with old leftover bread and the like are very humble food, cheap and filling. Therefore, with few exceptions such as Apple Pancakes, or regional specialties such as Quarkkeulchen (Potato Fritters) from Saxony, you will usually not find these dishes at restaurants in Germany. They are primarily prepared at home. Note that famous sweet classics, such as the apricot-filled dumplings, Marillenknödel, and the shredded pancake, Kaiserschmarrn, are Austrian, not German.
I have always loved this type of food. It is what my grandmother fed me for lunch after school and I much preferred it over the meat we usually had for dinner at my parents’. Later, as a student, I survived on it. I dreaded the food at the university cafeteria, where in those days vegetarian choices were few and not very tasty. But on Fridays when there was rice pudding on the menu, I always went.
You would think by that time I would have been sick of it. No way. I still love those sweet comfort foods and try new recipes all the time. I am thrilled that the row of elderberries I planted finally yields enough berries to make Elderberry Soup with Farina Dumplings, for which I have my grandmother’s recipe. I am far from exhausting the big repertoire traditional German cuisine has to offer.
Sometimes I add a little twist to old favorites, like flavoring the rice pudding with lavender. And I have learned certain tricks and tweaks such as “cooking” the rice pudding in bed – not a joke!
However I recognize that not everyone is as fond of these sweet comfort foods as I am. Feelings about them run high in both directions.
My godmother, who was a little girl after World War II, will not touch anything with elderberries because that’s all her family had to eat.
Inga Jablonsky, a US-based German-born teacher who maintains a group called German Language and Culture on Facebook, recalls that when she was at the Kinderlandheim, a place in the country where city children were sent in postwar years to fatten up and breathe in fresh country air, “they served us farina porridge with cinnamon sugar every day. I threw it out the window where it landed in the gutter.”
Of course, if you are forced to eat a ghastly version of something as a child you never want to eat it again. However it does make a big difference how it is prepared, and with the high-quality ingredients we luckily have today, I bet these dishes taste different.
As simple and humble as they might seem, those German sweet comfort foods are not always easy to make. It took me quite a few trials to find a formula for potato dough that is not chewy and starchy but melts in your mouth.
My American husband has been a great sport about this. He has dutifully eaten his way across all kinds of sweet German dishes for more than a decade. Sure, we’ve had our cultural divides about when to eat pancakes (see our recent video on the Deutschland.de blog) but he never complains when I announce that there will be a vegetable soup followed by bread pudding for dinner.
Sometimes I find him in the kitchen a couple of hours after such a dinner making himself a turkey sandwich. And afterwards he has… some leftover bread pudding.
Sweet Potato Pockets with Apple Filling (Kartoffelmaultaschen mit Apfelfüllung)
These are different from the ravioli-style pasta pockets commonly known as Maultaschen. Sweet Maultaschen consist of a potato dough with a fruit filling, usually apples or plums. Substituting Quark with Greek yogurt works very well in this recipe.
Many recipes tell you to add flour when rolling out or shaping the dough to make it easier to handle but more flour makes it heavy. I add no extra flour at all and use wax paper or parchment so the dough remains soft and light.
I have also made a savory version of these pockets and filled them with spinach and ricotta. See my gardening blog for the recipe.
The potatoes may be cooked a few hours or a day ahead.
1 pound + 2 ounces (500 g) yellow starchy potatoes
1 large egg (half only, the rest is used in the filling)
Pinch of salt
1 cup (5 ounces/140 g) flour
1 pound + 2 ounces (500 g) tart baking apples
2 tablespoons butter, divided
3 tablespoons sugar, divided
½ cup (120 g) 0% Greek yogurt or Quark
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar (how to make your own vanilla sugar, see here)
1. Cook the potatoes with their skins until easily pierced with a knife. Peel while still warm. Pass through a potato ricer or a food mill. Do not use a food processor, or they will turn gooey. Let them cool.
2. Lightly beat the egg and add half of it to the potatoes together with the salt. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until dough holds together. Then knead with wet hands to a smooth dough. Refrigerate while you prepare the fillling.
3. For the filling, peel and core the apples. Slice them thinly. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet and cook the apples over low to medium heat until they are soft and start to fall apart, about 10 minutes. And 1 tablespoon sugar and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
4. Mix the Greek yogurt, the rest of the beaten egg, the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and lemon zest. Combine with the cooled apples.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a 9×13-inch (22×32 cm) baking dish.
6. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Cut a piece of wax paper about 6 inches (15 cm) wide and place a piece of dough in the center. Place a second piece of wax paper of equal size on top. Roll out the dough to a rectangle about 9 inches (22 cm) long and 4 inches (10 cm) wide. Place one-sixth of the filling in the center along the length of the piece, leaving about ½ inch (1 generous cm) free on both ends. Fold both sides over towards the center and pinch them together to seal. Also pinch the ends together to seal. If the dough sticks to the paper, use a dinner knife to gently lift it up and over.
7. Place the filled pocket in the prepared baking dish. Proceed same with the rest of the dough and the filling. The pockets should fit snugly.
8. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and brush over the pockets. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.
9. Mix the cream with the vanilla sugar and pour it over the pockets. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes more, or until lightly browned and bubbly. Serve warm.
Makes 6 servings