Grandma always made you feel she had been waiting to see just you all day and now the day was complete – Marcy DeMaree.
My paternal grandmother, Susanne Gengler Schmidt, was the acknowledged 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 ‘rivvels’ – 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. I don’t remember Grandma ever making this dish but my mother certainly did. It was the bane of my existence in my childhood, to come home from school and the smell of sweet and sour rabbit cooking on the stove wafted throughout the house.
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 Sachertorte and sometimes Dobos torte. I think we all loved the Dobos 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 Dolly is the only person left who remembers how some of these dishes were made. Amongst my mother’s recipes, I found a recipe for Dobos Torte written by Aunt Annie (Grandma’s daughter) and addressed in the corner “Dear Vi” – my mother.
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 favorite comfort foods.
When I was a very young child and my grandfather was still alive, Grandma’s kitchen was on the second floor, at the back of the house – with a window overlooking the back yard. I have memories of sitting on Grandpa’s lap while we sat in his rocking chair, watching Grandma make doughnuts—which were undeniably best when hot and sprinkled liberally with sugar.
On summer nights, we all sat outside on the second floor front porch, waiting for the ice cream man to come up Baltimore Street. No TV! No radio! Just sitting and talking and cooling off after a hot summer day.
My grandfather enjoyed, I recall, a dish made up of cooked potatoes, noodles and eggs— that he liked to eat with milk, but I have never seen a recipe and have never quite duplicated it. It might have been something thrown together with leftovers…or maybe you needed homemade noodles to make it right.
He also smoked a pipe…and once, when my mother was very sick – long after Grandpa had died – she sensed a presence by her bed and smelled pipe tobacco.
The Christmas before Grandpa died, I remember him lying in his bed. Grandma and Grandpa gave me a baby doll for Christmas in 1949; I named the doll Susann, after Grandma. Grandpa passed away in February, 1950.
After Grandpa died (I was 9 at the time) Grandma moved to two rooms on the first floor of her house on Baltimore Avenue. She took the two front rooms and rented out the two back rooms (we shared a bathroom with the tenants). She was then able to rent out the entire second floor to another family, while my uncle Hans and Aunt Dolly and their sons lived on the third floor until they were able to buy their first home. Grandma had a kitchen and a combination living room/bedroom with a trundle bed to accommodate a visiting grandchild. The hub of activity was always Grandma’s kitchen.
I went to Grandma’s once a week to spend the night – starting out some time in grade school. I continued this weekly visit all through high school—until I got married, and then Becky and her children and Jim & I would go to Grandma’s for dinner on Monday nights.
When we were all young children, it as considered a great privilege to go downtown with Grandma. She bought most of her produce at Findlay Market and patronized a butcher shop that was in the area of Findlay Market. We carried fresh vegetables home in oilcloth bags that Grandma made on an old treadle sewing machine that may have been grandpa‘s before he died. He was a tailor.
It was only in later years that my siblings and I, along with our cousins, realized that one of Grandma’s greatest gifts to all of us wasn’t in her cooking – delicious though it was – but rather, in her ability to make each and every grandchild feel special. We each grew up believing WE were grandma’s favorite. It wasn’t something she ever said – it was something each of us felt.
She was our anchor; she went to bat for you. She’d stop whatever she was doing to make you a chicken-and-lettuce sandwich, first going out to her garden to pick some fresh leaf lettuce…she would take you downtown with her, to see a movie and maybe get a grape juice drink and a hot dog afterwards. She’d make hot tea with lemon, and you’d have that as a bedtime snack, along with butter and crackers (real butter—Grandma didn’t believe in oleomargarine). She loved to travel, to see things—whether it meant traveling to Niagara Falls with a carload of grandchildren or getting on a streetcar and making a Sunday trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. (My brother Jim thinks we must be part gypsy since we all love to travel and move around to different parts of the country).
I can remember a few occasions of becoming sick at school and at least once two older school girls walked me up the street to Grandma’s. Grandma put me in her bed with a hot water bottle and gave me an Alka Seltzer; then I curled up sumptuously on her bed, dozing while I could smell the cotton cloth of clothing being ironed, and hear Grandma’s daytime radio soap operas, like Stella Dallas.
My brother Bill tells a hilarious story of the time he and our cousin Johnny, one hot summer day, found a tool in Grandma’s basement that Johnny figured would turn on the water faucets at the Junior High school up the street. The two boys went up to the school and turned on all the outside water faucets. They were having a wonderful time dancing in the spray of water as it flooded the parking lot, when they noticed police cars and fire trucks ascending the hill to the school. The two boys quickly turned off the water and taking a back trail, hurried back to Grandma’s, where they sat (completely drenched) on a side step. Of course, the police and firemen arrived, having been advised by other children that Billy and Johnny were the culprits. When the authorities approached Grandma, she would have none of it. Brandishing her broom, she insisted “her boys” (although dripping wet and looking mighty sheepish) hadn’t left the property all day. After the police and fire department left, Grandma shook a finger at the two boys. “Don’t either of you DARE to leave this yard for the rest of the day” she warned. And they didn’t.
My sister, Barbara recalled that applesauce making was a family project in which everyone was put to work. Even small children could help peel the apples—although the actual cooking of the sauce was left to grandma and her daughter and daughters in law. (When there were too many apples or maybe Grandma had her fill of making applesauce, a grandchild would be sent down the street with a wagonload of apples to give to the nuns at St. Leo’s, our parish church).
What I do remember about the canned applesauce is that, during the War years, it was made sans sugar. We had jars and jars of applesauce in the cellar, long after World War II was over, all of it made with sour cooking apples, none of it sweetened. You sprinkled a little sugar and cinnamon on the applesauce as you were eating it.
Joyce Brothers wrote “Becoming a grandparent is a second chance for you have a chance to put to use all the things you learned the first time around and may have made mistakes on. It’s all love and no discipline. There’s no thorn in this rose”. (From “A TRIBUTE TO GRANDMOTHERS”. And now that I’m a grandmother myself, I know this is all true.
The following recipe for Dobos torte is in Aunt Annie’s handwriting. Aunt Annie was Grandma’s only daughter. Here then, is Grandma’s recipe for
You will need:
12 TBSP sifted cake flour
12 TBSP sugar
12 eggs (separated)
½ tsp vanilla extract
Beat egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Fold in flour, a tablespoon at a time. Then add vanilla. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites last. Pour about 5 TBSP in each 8 or 9 inch cake pans (that have been greased and floured). Bake 10-13 minutes at 350 degrees. This should make about 12 layers.
Icing for Torte:
½ lb butter (2 sticks)
1 box powdered sugar (1 lb)
3 TBSP unsweetened cocoa
Cream together and moisten with black coffee to spreading consistency.
The Wilton Book of Classic Desserts offers recipes for Dobos Torta and Sacher Torte (amongst others). To make the Wilton Dobos Tort you will need
1 recipe Genoise*
2 recipes uncooked chocolate butter icing**
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. coarsely chopped almonds or hazelnuts (optional)
Butter well and dust with flour the bottom of three 8” layer cake pans, buttered, lined with waxed paper, then buttered again and dusted with flour. Spread 3-4 TBSP of Genoise batter in each and bake in 400 degree oven for about 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Carefully remove from pan and peel off paper. Place cakes on racks to cool. Repeat until all batter is used and you have 8 to 12 layers.
Place a layer on a cake plate, spread with icing and cover with a second layer. Repeat until all layers are used. Do not ice top layer. (reserve about 1 cup of icing for side of cake.)
Melt the sugar without stirring in a skillet until it carmelizes. Spread this quickly on top of cake with a hot knife. Mark the cake into serving portions with radiating lines like spokes of a wheel using the hot knife. Ice the sides of the cake with the chocolate icing and if you wish, press nuts into the iced sides. Chill 12 to 24 hours before serving.
*To make Genoise (delicate butter sponge cake)
You will need:
6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 CUP sifted flour
½ cup clarified butter, melted and cooled***
Combine eggs, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and stir till just combined Set bowl over saucepan containing 1” to 2” hot water (water should not touch bottom of bowl). Place over very low heat for 5 or 10 minutes or until eggs are just lukewarm. Stir mixture several times to prevent it from cooking at the bottom of the bowl.
When mixture feels lukewarm and looks like a bright, yellow syrup, remove from heat and beat at high speed for 10 or 15 minutes or until it has tripled in volume and draws out in ribbon form when a spoon is pulled out of it.
Sprinkle the flour, a little at a time, on top of the whipped mixture. Fold in very gently. Then fold in the butter. DO NOT OVERMIIX.
Pour the batter into well buttered pans dusted lightly with flour, and bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until cake pulls away from the sides of pan. Remove from pans immediately and cool on rack. Makes two 9” layers, three 7” layers or one 11”x16” sheet.
**To make the uncooked chocolate icing you will need:
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 TBSP hot water
1 ¼ cups sifted powdered sugar
¼ cup soft butter
1 tsp vanilla
Melt chocolate in top of double boiler; add hot water and stir until smooth. Remove from heat and blend in the sugar. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add butter a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in vanilla.
Makes enough icing for 2 layers or 24 cupcakes
^This recipe precedes salmonella in eggs. Suggest you use the equivalent of one egg in egg beaters as a substitute if you don’t want to chance using raw egg.
***To make clarified butter:
Place any amount of butter in a deep pan. Melt over very low heat and continue cooking until the foam disappears from the top. The liquid butter must not brown. When the butter looks perfectly clear, remove from heat and pour through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a container, leaving sediment in the pan. (if only a small amount is being made, simply pour off the clear butter, leaving the sediment in the pan). Clarified butter, well covered, will keep for months in the refrigerator. It is pure fat from which all solids and water have been removed.
Sandy’s Cooknote: Aunt Annie’s recipe may be a lot simpler but I have provided all the instructions provided in “The Wilton Book of Classic Desserts” that I have “rediscovered” on my bookshelves. The book was edited by Eugene an Marilynn Sullivan and published by Pine Tree Press for Wilton Enterprises. My copy has a 1970 copyright date.
What makes the book remarkable are the many classic desserts – such as Dobos Torta or Sachertorte and breaks the directions down so that even a novice cook can follow the instructions and make a successful dish. I’ll tell you more about the book another time, if you are interested.
This is as close as I can get to providing an authentic recipe that was made, often, by my grandmother—I can’t remember the cake ever being round, though – in my memory, Grandma made the sponge cakes in loaf pans and the finished cake of many layers was a medium loaf pan size.
Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!