I would like to tell you about my paternal grandmother, Susanne Gengler Schmidt, who was truly the great cook in my family. My grandmother was German and my grandfather Hungarian. We grew up with all these dishes and delicacies that we lumped together as “German food”; it wasn’t until I acquired some Hungarian friends as an adult living in California that I discovered that Grandma’s thin crepe-like pancakes (which we called ‘German pancakes’) were actually Hungarian Palacsinta.
My grandmother made huge pans of strudel with homemade tissue-thin filo dough, using whatever was in season for the filling. She had some sour apple trees so there was often apple strudel but we also enjoyed cherry, cheese, and even a spicy pumpkin strudel that made an appearance in the fall. She made a chicken broth with ‘rivels’ – tiny little dumplings and with it we would often have a homemade bread crusted with kosher salt (appropriately dubbed salt bread). Her goulash, I learned, was more Hungarian than German and generally didn’t contain much more than stewing beef, potatoes and carrots.
We enjoyed chicken Paprikash and wiener schnitzel and liver dumplings. We all loved the homemade sausages (once a year my grandparents butchered a hog and made a lot of sausages. The hams were smoked in a converted section of the garage). The one thing I hated (but everyone else enjoyed) was Hasenpfeffer made with wild rabbit that my father would have caught going hunting a few times a year.
My grandmother always made her own noodles (from scratch!) to go with these dishes and it was not an unusual sight for a grandchild to come running in to Grandma’s and find noodles drying on the backs of all the wooden chairs.
Sometimes there was Sacher Torte and 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.
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 is the only person left who remembers how some of these dishes were made.
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.