back to essays

A Slice of History (with Whipped Cream)

Quarterly West, Spring/Summer, 2001

Had it not been for the cakes and pastries, I might well have grown up thinking that Jewish life in the old country was only persecution, Nazis, and concentration camps -- in short, the salty taste of tears. My mother's parents had left Russia to avoid pogroms, a brutal 25-year conscription in the Russian army, and a system of segregation and discrimination that required Jews to carry passports for travel in their own country. My father and his parents had barely escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939, and many of their relatives were murdered in Auschwitz and Dachau.

Yet my grandmothers, who could bring only a few possessions with them to America -- a pair of silver candlesticks, a lace scarf -- brought memories of the foods they had enjoyed in their native countries, especially desserts -- and these delicacies, recreated in their kitchens in Chicago and Rock Island, Illinois, told other stories about their former lives.

My Russian grandmother's recipes for sweets showed restraint and an enjoyment of simple pleasures without excess. Baba made cinnamon rolls (Schnecken, or snails, she called them, in Yiddish) for an everyday treat -- yeast-risen, raisin filled buns that were small and hearty, without icing, nuts, or glazes. But only for special occasions or holidays would she make her strudel, rolling the fine dough into a huge rectangle on the long dining room table. She moved around the table, this way and that, plying her rolling pin energetically, then stretching the dough with her hands until it was as thin as butterfly wings. She filled the strudel with jam, or a delicious mixture of apples, sugar, and raisins, and we savored it all the more for the labor invested in its creation.

Germans eat strudel too, of course, but they frequently serve it with generous dollops of whipped cream on top, and it is only one of a vast assortment of rich desserts that include cakes (kuchens), tortes, cookies, and pies. My German grandmother, Oma, brought her version of the renowned Mürbteig pie crust with her from Germany -- a rich and delicate pastry made with butter, flour, sugar, a beaten egg, and a touch of brandy, which she filled with sweetened cherries, gooseberries, red currants, or apples, each in its season. She successfully transplanted "S" cookies, a tender rich butter cookie in the shape of the first letter of our last name, which became the essential element in all our family celebrations. And she told us how to make a beautiful plum cake: overlapping slices of rosy purple-gold Italian plums baked on a circle of sweet yeast dough.

My German grandparents lived just blocks from us, in a brown-brick apartment building on Chicago's South Side, and often I would go after school to sit at the table in the little kitchen and eat my Oma's cherry pie, washing it down with swallows of brash American Coca-Cola. As I savored bites of lush fruit, both tart and sweet, embraced by the buttery pastry, I never realized how fortunate I was even to know my grandparents, never contemplated their wrenching departure from Mannheim just before all the Jews there, including my grandmother's sister, were deported to concentration camps in France.

My father's whole family seemed to adore rich food, especially desserts. My father told me stories about his uncle who used to bribe the express train conductor to make an unscheduled stop in his hometown and stop again to pick him up the next day, just so he could get off and have a piece or two of his mother's red currant pie. My father's cousins, who came to America when they were boys, still bake hundreds of traditional German cookies each year -- S-cookies, cinnamon stars, and chocolate cookies in the shape of shells -- from recipes their mother brought from Germany more than sixty years ago.

In my family, too, we often paid tribute to the culinary memories of my father's boyhood in Germany. My parents grew currants and gooseberries in our backyard, and we'd pick them every summer so my mother could make gooseberry pie and currant jelly. Besides contributing her mother's cinnamon rolls to our family, my mother also learned to make coffee cake with German-style streusel topping that pleased my father. And, at those rare times when there was no pie or kuchen on hand, my father sat down with me at the tiny pink and white Formica table in our kitchen, and served me a humbler treat from his boyhood: thick slices of crusty rye bread, slathered with sweet butter and sprinkled with sugar. On weekends, my father often piled us in the car to drive across town, a 30-mile round trip to Lutz, a German-style bakery and coffee house that served glorious confections -- fine layered tortes and pastries -- with whipped cream, fruit, jam, and chocolate. We sat at a round white-clothed table, each of the children with a china cup full of rich hot cocoa (served with a froth of whipped cream, of course) and one of those gorgeous edible creations. And before we left, my father took us over to the beautiful display in the glass case and let us help him choose a cake or an assortment of pastries to take home. My mother held back, knitting her eyebrows in dismay.

"Eric -- so much!" she'd protest. "Why do we need all that?"

"We'll invite a few people over for coffee," my father would reply, his smile peeking from beneath his dark mustache.

Cake and coffee in the afternoon -- the essential fourth meal of the day for many Germans and Austrians -- was a standard in our house on Sunday afternoons, when my parents invited their friends, many of them Austrian, German, Swiss, or Czech Jews, some with Auschwitz tattoos on their arms. The cake and coffee ritual evoked a kind of elegant life, when people had time to converse at leisure, drink from fine china, and consume whipped cream, nuts, and chocolate on a regular basis. My father remembered all this because he was already twenty-eight when he left Germany. His father had been a music and theater critic in Mannheim, and my father often accompanied him to performances and late dinners with the artists, meeting stars like dancer Anna Pavlova, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and renowned theatrical director Max Reinhart. Though my father's family was not well off, they led a cultured life -- until they were ripped away from it all. But the fine pastries, the cakes and tortes served as a reminder of those elegant times.

Our next door neighbors in Chicago, Henry and Margaret Newman, were also Jewish and had come from Vienna. Henry had been in two concentration camps, and somehow Margaret had managed to get him out. Whereas my family had brought no material possessions to speak of from the old country -- only recipes -- the Newmans had been wealthy in Austria, and my mother recalls that they were able to bring their china and silver settings and even furniture to America with them. They became very good friends with our family, and Mrs. Newman, as we children always called her, quickly established a reputation for her desserts, especially the fine cakes she seemed to make for every occasion. She'd make a Kugelhopf -- a buttery yeast cake with raisins baked in a fluted ring mold -- to eat after breaking the Yom Kippur fast every year, and serve it with generous dollops of whipped cream. My mother was horrified that she'd serve such rich food after a fast, and indeed Mrs. Newman sometimes became ill after eating it -- but she claimed it was worth the suffering.

For coffee parties and other gatherings, Mrs. Newman made a rich chocolate Sacher torte layered with raspberry filling, or a cake of layered wafers, or an apple strudel, again served with whipped cream. But the cake I remember most from her kitchen was a wonderfully light Viennese Chocolate Almond Torte, a flourless cake held together by a delicate bind of ground almonds, sweet chocolate, and beaten eggs. Sometimes she split it open horizontally and filled it with red currant jelly. Sometimes she made a white or a chocolate icing, and decorated it with whole almonds. Most often, she served it in a classic Viennese way: with billowing clouds of lightly-sweetened whipped cream on top.

Mrs. Newman generously passed the recipe to my mother, who approved of the cake because, in truth, it contained no butter or cream, and was therefore not so rich as to offend my mother's more moderate sensibilities. My mother eschewed the whipped cream, of course, instead serving it with a simple dusting of powdered sugar, and Mrs. Newman taught her to lay a paper doily on the top of the cake before she sifted the sugar over it, so as to make a lacy design.

My mother lost the recipe for the torte, or perhaps gave her only copy to me, for I have a tattered index card with the recipe and serving suggestions typed on it, and I've been making the cake for more years than I can remember. Margaret Newman has since passed away, but whenever I make this torte, I think of her in her 1950s kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, melting chocolate and brewing strong coffee, beating egg whites and grinding almonds -- smelling the torte baking in her oven, and remembering better days. Like my father, the Newmans were cultured Europeans who enjoyed such events as opera, theater, and concerts. I imagine her, folding the feathery pillows of egg white into the chocolate batter, and recalling her former life. The coffee houses of Vienna, the music, the intellectual conversation, the richness of a culture that once included and embraced the Jewish population.


My parents still live in the same house in Chicago, next door to where the Newmans used to live, and last spring I went to celebrate the Passover Seder with them. During Passover, we eat no leavened baked goods, because we're remembering that when the Jews fled slavery, they left Egypt in such a hurry that their bread dough didn't have time to rise. And the idea of the Seder ritual, when we tell the story of the Exodus and eat unleavened matzah and other symbolic foods, is to help us experience the liberation, more than three thousand years ago, as if it were our own. The meal is a festive one, so I decided to make Margaret Newman's Viennese Chocolate Almond Torte for dessert, as it contains no flour or leavening.

"Do you know how you're really supposed to eat this?" my father asked as he watched me take the soufflé-like cake from the oven. At 89, he is still very lively.

"Of course," I replied without hesitation. "Mit Schlagsahne." With whipped cream.

"She knows!" my father exclaimed to my mother, as delightedly as if I'd just told him I'd passed the bar exam.

In order to serve the cake with whipped cream, we had to have the Seder dinner with no meat, as my parents keep kosher and don't eat meat and dairy at the same meal. So for the first time in nearly sixty years, my parents broke with tradition and had their first vegetarian seder. Borscht with sour cream replaced the chicken soup with matzo balls, and the brisket was put aside for another night.

Then we came to dessert, and for a moment the world seemed to hold in a tender balance. With each mouthful of the delicate torte and whipped cream, the pain of the past receded -- and we tasted the tangible memories of a splendid time.

# # #