When I was a child, growing up in a predominately German-immigrant neighborhood, we all ate whatever my grandmother cooked and we called it all “German food”. Little did we know!
It wasn’t until many years later that I began discovering that Grandma’s cooking was really a hodgepodge of German and Hungarian cuisine with some influence from a Jewish family Grandma cooked for, before she got married and had children of her own.
One of the first indications that what we were eating wasn’t just “German” cuisine was my grandmother’s pancakes. We called them pancakes and sometimes had them for lunch at Grandma’s. She would put jelly on a big thin pancake and roll it up for one of us to eat on our way back to school – her house was just up the street from St. Leo’s church and school.
In the mid 1960s, my husband and I, now living in Southern California, became acquainted with a group of Hungarian political refugees from the Hungarian uprising in 1956. One of their American-wives would make a dessert called Palascinta— a stack of paper thin pancakes with a filling, such as poppyseed. When the stack was tall enough, the palascinta would be cut into thin wedges. “Hmmm!” I said, “These palascintas look and taste just like my grandmother’s German pancakes…” (I had not yet begun to collect cookbooks).
A few years later, I became friends with a Jewish girlfriend whose youngest daughter was in the same class as one of my sons. I attended the wake and funeral of her father when he passed away. While at the Wake, I watched her aunt making blintzes–particularly cheese blintzes!. When I tasted one of these I said “Oh, this filling tastes just like my grandmother’s German Cheese Strudel”.
I was beginning to learn that what my siblings and I loosely referred to as “Grandma’s German cooking” was far more than that. Grandpa was Hungarian, so she learned to make a lot of Hungarian recipes—especially Hungarian Goulash!
As a young single woman, Grandma had worked as a cook for a Jewish family, acquiring knowledge of many foods and recipes that are served in traditional Jewish families. And then, of course, there was Grandma’s own German heritage.
I think of all the things we ever enjoyed eating as we were growing up and having many meals at Grandma’s was the German sausage, wurst, that would be fried in a skillet and eaten with homemade salt bread. When my grandfather was still alive, the family would butcher a pig once a year; Grandpa and his sons would make hams and sausages and Grandpa converted one of the garages next to the house into a smoke house! My sister Becky remembered sitting on the basement steps watching the men make the sausages.
While most of our childhood memories were intertwined, in some instances one sibling’s memories differed somewhat from another’s. For instance, I only remembered watching Grandma Schmidt make diamond shaped Christmas cookies, that were studded with a mixture of sugar and finely chopped walnuts (and always thought those were the only kind Grandma made.) my sister, Becky, chastised me, saying that Grandma made lots of different cookies for Christmas. Grandma baked, Becky recalled, thumbprint cookies with raspberry jam, and a fold-over cookie filled with apricot or peach jam. Grandma made Springerle cookies that were so hard you could not even bite into them, and a small pill-shaped cookie with colored sprinkles on top. Every family member got a dress box full of cookies for Christmas. All I could say was…I only saw Grandma make the diamond shaped cookies and someone else must have eaten up all those other cookies!
To the best of my knowledge, there are no Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors in my family tree—and yet, my grandmother, who cooked and baked an array of foodstuffs ranging from German to Hungarian, did include some Pennsylvania Dutch recipes in her culinary repertoire. For instance, I have often wondered why it was that grandma—who made hundreds, if not thousands—of butter cutout cookies for Christmas – always made many of those diamond-shaped cookies with a diamond shaped cookie cutter that I now own. There, on page 167 of PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING is a recipe for Mahantongo diamond doughnuts – with the information that the diamond shape for All Saints cakes can be traced to the ninth century. I can’t help but wonder if that’s not the answer. I vaguely remember us going to Pennsylvania and visiting some distant relatives one time. Grandma often traveled with us (or anyone else in the family going somewhere and inviting her along.) My brother Jim has speculated that we must all have some gypsy blood somewhere in our background
In any case, these were some of our memories, of being children growing up in Fairmount, a suburb of Cincinnati, when Fairmount was still a nice neighborhood in which to live, of our relationships with Grandma Schmidt and each other, of going to St. Leo’s – where even our father, Uncle Hans, and Aunt Annie went to school and where we all had the same First Grade teacher, Sister Taursisius, who taught first graders for 50 years, until she retired to the convent in Oldenburg, Indiana.
Fairmount was at that time a stable, friendly neighborhood, heavily populated with German and Italian immigrants, where it was safe for children to play in the streets on summer nights or walk to the pony keg to get a bottle of “pop”, where you knew families for blocks around and very often, the children you went to school with had gone to school with your parents.
Adding to my curiosity about the dishes Grandma served to all of her adult children and grandchildren was a chicken broth which contained something WE called “rivillies” but which, I discovered in one of William Woys Weaver’s books—was a tiny Pennsylvania Dutch dumpling called Rivels or Riwweles which is probably much the same as my grandmother’s Rivellies. We also grew up on Spatzle and homemade noodles, dumplings, sauerkraut and hasenpfeffer. I have a distinct memory of going to Grandma’s and finding noodles drying on all the backs of the wooden kitchen chairs. Ok, I never liked hasenpfeffer—a sweet and sour rabbit that you could smell from the bottom of the steps coming home from school. I don’t recall my grandmother ever making hasenpfeffer but my mother did, when my father went rabbit hunting once a year. I don’t know which was worse—seeing him clean the rabbit in the kitchen sink or finding BBs in the gravy. I loathed the smell of hasenpfeffer cooking on the stove.
When we had this chicken soup with Rivels, we would have hunks of hot homemade salt bread to go with it.
Anytime we had a stew at Grandma’s, it would be Hungarian Goulash. (My mother made a stew that always had a tomato base but it wasn’t goulash). Possibly the most famous of all Hungarian recipes is Hungarian Goulash. Authentic gulyás (Goulash) is a beef dish cooked with onions, Hungarian Paprika, tomatoes, and some green pepper. Potato and/or noodles (csipetke in Hungarian) may also be added according to some recipes. Authentic Hungarian Goulash is Hungary’s national dish and is probably the most famous of all Hungarian meat dishes. Its origin can be traced back, over a thousand years ago, to the Magyar migration across the Great Plains. The origin of the word “gulyas” meant cowherd or cowboy. The men and boys gathered around an open fire under an open sky in the evening and created a meal with meat and vegetables in large kettles suspended over the campfires. The soup was referred to, in Hungary, as “gulyasleves” meaning cowboy soup. Another interesting fact is that the use of paprika was introduced to Hungarian kitchens during the years of Turkish rule and was first referred to as “Torok bors” meaning Turkish pepper. It was only in the 18th century that the name paprika was used.
Hungarian goulash is neither a soup nor a stew; it’s somewhere in between. However, in Hungary it’s considered more a soup than a stew, so look for it among Soups on Hungarian restaurant menus.
When cooked properly, goulash will have a nice and evenly thick consistency, almost like a sauce. In Hungary gulyás is eaten as a main dish. Even in Hungary, most housewives and chefs have their own way of cooking it, by adding or omitting some of the ingredients, or changing something in the preparation process; however they would all say their gulyás is authentic.
This first recipe is an adaptation from one I found on the Budapest Tourist Guide website (the website is no longer valid). To make this Goulash you will need:
- 1-2 pounds of chuck, or any tender cut of beef cut into small cubes
- 2 tablespoons oil or lard
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1-2 carrots, diced
- 1 parsnip, diced (*I consider this optional. Grandma’s goulash never had parsnip in it to the best of my knowledge)
- 1-2 celery leaves
- 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 2 fresh green peppers (sweet bell peppers, not hot peppers)
- 2-3 medium potatoes, sliced
- 1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika powder*
- 1 teaspoon ground caraway seed
- 1 bay leaf
- ground black pepper and salt according to taste
- Heat up the oil or lard in a pot and braise the chopped onions until they are a nice golden brown color.
- Sprinkle the braised onions with paprika powder while stirring, to prevent the paprika from burning.
- Add the beef cubes and sauté until they turn white and get a bit of brownish color as well. The meat will probably let out its own juice. Allow the beef cubes to simmer in it while adding the grated or crushed and chopped garlic (grated garlic has stronger flavor), the ground caraway seed, some salt and ground black pepper, and the bay leaf. Pour water enough to cover the contents of the pan and let it simmer on low heat for a while.
- When the meat is half-cooked (approximately 1 1/2 hour, but it can take longer depending on the type and quality of the beef) add the diced carrots, parsnip and the potatoes, the celery leaf and additional salt if necessary. Taste and then adjust seasonings. You may have to add additional (2-3 cups) water
- When the vegetables and the meat are almost done add the cubed tomato and the sliced green peppers. Let it cook on low heat for another few minutes. You can remove the lid of the pan if you want the soup to thicken.
- Bring the soup to a boil and add (if you are including it) the csipetke dough; allow about 5 minutes for it to cook.
Csipetke (Pinched noodles added to goulash or bean soup in Hungary) comes from the word csípni, meaning pinch in English, referring to the way of making this noodle. Goulash is hearty enough without csipetke, especially if you eat it with bread, so you can skip making csipetke. (I believe that csipetke is similar to my grandmother’s rivels). We didn’t have Rivels, or Csipetke with Goulash; however, the tiny dumplings were always included in Grandma’s home made chicken soup.
You will need:
- 1 small egg,
- a pinch of salt,
- 1 teaspoon water
To make the tiny dumplings, beat up a small egg, add a pinch of salt and as much flour as needed to make a stiff dough (you can add some water if necessary). Flatten the dough between your palms (to about 1 cm thick) and pinch small, bean-sized pieces from it and add them to the boiling soup. They need about 5 minutes to cook.
*One final word about paprika – don’t even bother with commercial American-made paprika. It won’t be the same as authentic Hungarian paprika, which I have been finding more and more frequently in major supermarkets. Look for a red and white and green tin labeled “Pride of Szeged Hungarian Hot Paprika”. The last paprika I purchased was from World Market and a 5 ounce tin was only $3.19.
The following recipe is my Aunt Annie’s Hungarian Goulash – and I am assuming, since she was the daughter of my paternal grandmother, that this was the way Grandma made Hungarian Goulash also:
To make Aunt Annie’s Hungarian Goulash you will need:
- 2 lbs cubed beef
- 1 large onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 carrots
- 2 large potatoes
- 1 cup tomato juice
- 1 cup beef broth or 1 cup water & 1 bouillon cube
- 2 tsp dried parsley flakes
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 ½ tsp salt
Brown beef, add chopped onion, garlic, paprika, salt & parsley. Then add juice and broth. Simmer 1 hour. Add sliced carrots. Simmer ½ hour. Add diced potatoes. Simmer 1 hour.
My grandmother frequently made pans of strudel (generally a fruit strudel) – she had sour apple trees which often became the filling for apple strudel. I remember a cherry strudel and my absolute favorite—one I have never been able to duplicate—was a pumpkin strudel. The raw pumpkin slices were seasoned heavily with pepper, I think. There were enough apples to enlist the help of Grandma’s daughter and daughters-in-law to peel and cook apples to make apple sauce. Any overflow of apples would be loaded into a wagon and Grandma would have one of the grandchildren tote the wagonload of apples to the nun’s house behind St. Leo’s school. The sister who was cook might (or might not) reward you with a cookie. During World War II when sugar was rationed, the apple sauce was made without sugar! When a jar was opened to be eaten, we were allowed to sprinkle a little sugar on our helping of applesauce—we ate it like this for many years after the war (and rationing) ended.
Sometimes Grandma made Sacher Torte; sometimes Dobosh torte. I think we all loved the Dobosh torte the most – seven thin layers of sponge cake with layers of bittersweet chocolate frosting between each layer; the whole thing encased afterwards in the same chocolate frosting.
My grandmother often made doughnuts and on the Feast of the Three Kings, you could expect to find a coin – a nickel or dime – inside your doughnut. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather’s lap in the kitchen on the second floor, overlooking the back yard, while Grandma fried doughnuts.
Most of my grandmother’s recipes died with her – she never wrote anything down…but her youngest daughter in law wanted to learn from Grandma and stood by her elbow watching, repeatedly, to see how things were made. My aunt was the only person left who remembered how some of these dishes were made. In January, 2012, my Aunt Dolly (whose name was actually Evelyn) passed away.
One of my best memories of sitting at the table with my grandmother didn’t involve an elaborate meal, however. Often, when I was spending the night with her, we would have tea with lemon and some buttered saltine crackers as a snack before going to bed.
To this day hot tea and lemon and some buttered crackers are one of my comfort foods.
So this is what eating “German Food” means to me.
–Sandra Lee Smith