Friday, February 23, 2018

About that last blog post...

I'm in NC, and S just phoned from Germany to say his mom really liked the idea of that lemon cake we made, so could I give him the recipe; and I told him where to find the recipe and didn't even think to say "WTF dude. PIE. It's called PIE." Sigh.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Coming to terms: Kuchen, Torte, and pie

Big news: after 29 years of loving S and learning about him and Deutsche Kultur, I finally understand the difference between Torte and Kuchen, and why certain Germans insist on calling American pie Kuchen (even though they shouldn't).

The epiphany actually came last July, while we were visiting H in Steinebach. I was too busy hiking to blog then, but we finally had an opportunity to take up the question again this past Sunday, when we hosted Kaffee und Kuchen [und Torte und pie] for the neighbors on our block. Guests arrived at 3:45 p.m. We defined terms at 4:00 p.m., then ate the evidence.

Distinguishing Torte from Kuchen: an introduction

We started baking on Saturday afternoon. I asked S if he had a good recipe for Biskuitteig (no, not biscuit dough--sponge cake). He responded, "What are you making? Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden?"

Kuchenboden is cake base (literally, cake floor); Tortenboden is torte floor. Kuchenboden is often a layer of Murbeteig--shortbread dough--topped with a layer of Biskuitteig--sponge cake batter. In Obstkuchen, that Kuchenboden is topped with delectable fruit, often with pectin or gelatin or melted jam on top of the whole shebang to make it shiny.

Here are two photos of non-shiny Obstkuchen I made last summer in Steinebach. There's a layer of vanilla pudding between the cakes and the fruit, and maybe a thin layer of jam too, but I can't remember. There is not any Murbeteig under either Biskuit, but they're both clearly still Obstkuchen.

Thus our definition of Kuchen begins with Fructhkuchen. You use Kuchenboden for Obstkuchen.

Tortenboden, in contrast, is the Biskuit that you would put at the bottom of a Torte--and in the middle of Torte, as many times as you want, and on the top of Torte, if you want it there too. That is what make Tortenboden fundamentally different from Kuchenboden. (If you are thinking that the big difference is Murbeteig, think again; our Bavarian Kochbuch recommends Murbeteig under both Kuchen and Torten.)

Torte is almost always made with layers of sponge cake, with filling in between and optional stuff on top. Kuchen is just one layer of cake--sponge cake if you want, but any other kind of cake is fine too, including Murbeteig all by itself--with optional stuff on top.

Did you catch that?
Torte: layers of cake with stuff in between and optional stuff on top.
Kuchen: one layer of cake with optional stuff on top
In between, Kuchen. On top, Torte.

For Americans, layers of cake with stuff in between is called "layer cake." A layer of cake with stuff on top is also cake. It's all cake. Torte is fancy cake.

So in the context of making Obstkuchen and Torte, the question "Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden" is a weird cultural thing--a sort of cake phoneme--because the cake parts of both Böden are THE SAME THING. Bake a batch of Biskuitteig for Obstkuchen, and voilà (or schau hier): Kuchenboden. Layer those babies, and voilà/schau hier: Tortenboden. Indeed, the recipe we eventually chose for the Kuchen describes the result as Luftigt-leichter Kuchen, perfekt für Torten--"light-as-air cake, perfect for Torte."

I double checked with S. "Did you really say 'Kuchenboden oder Tortenboden'?" "Yes," he said, "because they're different."

Perhaps he was thinking ahead to the Nusstorte (nut torte) I was going to bake. While you probably wouldn't add nuts to Biskuitteig for Obstkuchen, they're certainly fair game in plain ol' non-Obst Kuchen (which remains Kuchen forever and a day unless you layer it--then BAM, Torte).

Here's a photo of a hazelnut-almond Torte I made in Steinebach last summer (and a photo of H helping). The four layers were laced with Kirschwasser and filled with cherry jam, chocolate cream, and sour cherries, then covered with more chocolate cream.

Exceptions to the rules

Rules wouldn't be rules if there weren't exceptions. Here are four:
  1. Tiny Obstkuchen are called Obsttörtchen, because why the hell not? The -chen ending is a diminutive suffix--little fruit tortelets--and because adding -chen changes the German o to an ö, let's change the vowel in English too and call them tartlets. This is allowed only because they're cute, and probably necessary because Fructhkuchenchen is too hard to say (but Obstkuchlein isn't, and it's not like being difficult to pronounce stops other German words from existing). Note that chen in Kuchen is not diminutive--it's Kuch-en, not Ku-chen. I'm going to take a stab at a pun by observing that a diminutive cow might be a Kuhchen--but no German would ever pronounce Kuchen (coo-hen) and Kuhchen (coo-hyen) the same way, so no German would ever find that pun remotely funny.

  2. Linzertorte, already controversial in its own right, is actually Kuchen, according to the in between / on top rule. It's also Kuchen according to the Torte-is-usually-sponge-cake rule. It made me very happy to discover, browsing through the index of our Bavarian Kochbuch, that the Bible of Bavarian cooking calls it Linzerkuchen.

  3. Sometimes Kuchen can have an extra layer of Teig on top--e.g. a layer of Murbeteig on the bottom, with apples on top, and then another layer of Murbeteig on top of that. This is called gedeckter Apfelkuchen--covered apple cake--rather than Apfeltorte, because it lacks the sponge cake that is essential for all Torte (except Linzertorte, which is really a gedeckter Kuchen, and Obsttörtchen, which are diminutive.) I hope you are following the logic here.

  4. Finally, S says there is Bodenlose Kaesekuchen--bottomless cheesecake--which, as you might guess, has no base layer of cake and is entirely made of the optional stuff on top. To confirm, we looked it up in the Kochbuch, where it is called Quarktorte ohne Boden--cheese TORTE without bottom. S says "this is a dumb cookbook."
Why certain Germans insist on calling pie "Kuchen"

Pie has its very own word in English, because unlike Torte and Kuchen, pie is NOT cake. Even assuming all pies had double crusts--which they don't--pie is NOT gedeckter Kuchen, because pie crust is neither cake nor shortbread.

Pie does consist of a base layer of non-sponge flour-based dough, with stuff on top, so it is more akin to Kuchen than to Torte--but that does not make pie "cake" any more than saying humans are "birds" because humans are more akin to birds than to boulders. If German can borrow words like Spaghetti, Toast, and Computer from other languages, it can borrow Pei.

One more rule

Our Bavarian neighbor F arrived on Sunday eager to talk definitions. He suggested that Torte filling almost always involves cream. This would explain why gedeckte Apfelkuchen can never be Torte, even though it's layered. It might squeak past the "usually sponge cake" rule, but the lack of cream keeps it out of the realm of Torte. This might also explain why bottomless cheesecake might be considered Torte, given the creamy dairy content.

Well, you might think that. But if you Google gedeckte Apfe..., oh dear: the search brings up both Apfelkuchen and Apfeltorte, and the photos look identical. To that, we say, "perhaps it's a regional difference" (which is our way of saying "uncle! We give up!").

Test your understanding

After lengthy discussion and Q&A with our neighbors, we gave them a quiz. Can you tell what's what? Answers and recipes are below.

A (left); B (right)



A: Pie. This is pie. It is not cake. It is pie.
C: Pie. Why is this so difficult for you?
D: Obstkuchen.
E: Trick question. There's visible cream and there's presumably cake underneath that, but you can't tell if it's Torte or Kuchen without cutting it open. But by process of elimination in this particular context, you know it has to be Torte. (If this question were on the ACT/SAT, the test-writers would call Torte the "best answer," which would annoy teens who understand nuance and complexity.)

The sacrifices we make for the sake of cultural understanding

Another view of the sacrifices we make

Aha! Layers! Torte!
Appendix: Recipes

We had a gluten-intolerant guest, so we made everything gluten-free. We used gluten-free flour for pie A and Obstkuchen; we purchased gluten-free pie crusts for the pies; and we used ground hazelnuts and no flour in the Nusstorte.

A. The recipe for this lemon custard pie is here. Until last year, it was the only lemon custard pie I had ever made (and I had only made it once.) It's silky-creamy and lemony-tart, with a nice lightness.

B and D: Here's the Biskuitteig recipe I used for the Obstkuchen. This recipe is enough for two Obstkuchen: bake all of the batter in one springform pan and then slice it in half to make two discs. The recipe calls for Speisestärke (starch). In Germany, that would be potato starch. We used cornstarch, but next time I'd probably just add a little more flour. We thought the cake was too sweet, so next time we'll reduce the sugar. S and E were in charge of the topping: a thin layer of jam, a layer of vanilla pudding, artfully arranged fruit, and a pectin glaze on top.

C. Oh my. Oh oh my. This is "Shaker Lemon Pie." Images kept popping up when I was trying to locate the recipe for pie A. Shaker Lemon Pie is stunningly beautiful, startlingly delicious, and super tart--but beware the sugar high. I found assorted recipes online and combined them into this: 5 unpeeled organic lemons (recipes ranged from 2 large to 6 small; some specified Meyer lemons, but we used Eurekas), sliced very thinly with a mandoline, and seeds picked out; toss gently with 1.75 c. sugar, and macerate until sugar dissolves (this takes only a few hours--recipes all said 24-hours or overnight). Stir in four beaten eggs and pour into an unbaked pie crust. (A few recipes said pre-baked. We tried pre-baking the gluten-free crust and it cracked, so that the filling oozed under the crust and glued parts of the crust to the pan. We didn't pre-bake the crust for A and it tasted fine, so next time we'll skip the pre-baking.) Bake at 325oF for 50-60 minutes. (Recipes said 450oF for 15 minutes and then 375oF for 20 minutes, but we had another pie to bake at the same time that required gentler heat. Slow baking worked beautifully.)

D. See B.

E. Here's my version of Nusstorte, adapted and honed over several years from a base recipe by H. Despite all the steps, it's easy to make if you have an electric beater.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Herrsching, Hohenpeißenberg, Wessobrunn, and a REWE

E and I walked a lot this summer. One morning, we walked from Steinebach to Herrsching. Like the walk to Andechs, this walk has become regular enough for us that I didn't take many photos. Here's the most interesting one, a glimpse at how Germany is trouncing the U.S. in environmentally friendly energy.

Solar carport
In Herrsching, we did some essential shopping--breakfast and Gelatine-frei Gummibaerchen--and then hung out along the Ammersee, waiting for S and H to pick us up for our afternoon roadtrip.

The afternoon roadtrip was a compromise. H had been saying for days, "we should really hike the dramatically precipitous trail between Herzogstand and Heimgarten in the Bavarian Alps!" Then she would pause, remembering--"oh, but wait, Liz is afraid of heights. That's really too bad. I guess we can't go." She would say this at breakfast, and then again over afternoon coffee. After dinner, as we discussed plans for the next few days, she'd wax fondly about the razor-thin trail between peaks--"oh, but wait, Liz is afraid of heights. That's really too bad. I guess we can't go." Not one to hold my 95-year-old legally-blind mother-in-law back, I finally declared that YES, if H really wanted to, we would all hike together from Herzogstand to Heimgarten, me included. H was all for it, but inclement weather and insufficient time prevented us from making the trip. Whew.

Instead, we did a leisurely afternoon roadtrip. Our first stop was the pilgrimage church atop the 988 meter high "Mount Parnassus of Bavaria" in Hohenpeißenberg. S, E, and H drove up; I walked up from Peißenberg. As more proof that my camera doesn't do justice to altitude gain, here's a photo looking up up up to the church on the high hill. It looks like it's off in the distance, but it's actually up in the distance. Oh well.

OK, this photo does a better job: see that roof behind the sign, below the road? The hill was steep.

After hiking up and up, with just a little more up to go, I came across some shrooms growing on the trail through the woods.

So that pilgrims heading up to the church don't shock themselves on electric cow fences, someone tied a piece of warning tape on the wire. Underneath was the only way to go.

The view from the top. Those are the Bavarian Alps in the distance. Herzogstand and Heimgarten are in there somewhere.

There are two chapels on top of Peißenberg. The first was built in 1514 and later baroquisiert. The second was added at the beginning of the 17th century to accommodate the pilgrims coming to the first.

Obligatory organ photo. Teeny tiny organ.

After lunch on a terrace overlooking the valley, we headed down and north to Wessobrunn, a former abbey that has most recently been saved thanks to a financial collaboration with a cosmetics company that now occupies the lower floor. An upper floor hallway is open for tours, which we didn't know until we arrived 10 minutes late. We were obliviously not disappointed, but to our good fortune, a groundskeeper spied us from across the parking lot, called to us not to leave, herded us to the abbey, rang the tour guide to let her know she had latecomers, and unlocked the big front door to let us in.

Ca. 1260 Roemerturm says it's ca. 3:10 p.m. Tour started at 3:00--punctually, I'm sure.

The tour paused in a stately room to discuss the long history of the abbey. I was distracted by the dogs chasing animals on the ceiling.

After the tour, we took a quick peek inside the abbeys church.

Obligatory organ photo

A cautionary tale for nuns

On the drive home, we stopped by a REWE to pick up some groceries. It was the biggest supermarket I'd ever seen in Germany, located in a tiny town (Fischen am Ammersee) outside of a bigger town (Pähl am Ammersee, population ~2,500), so clearly a destination grocery store. Its website boasts about its size--over 15,000 articles offered in a 1,200 m2 space, with an additional beverage market over 400 m2. It was so shockingly big by German grocery store standards that I took a photo.

The REWE entrance--a small fraction of the store

The first time I went to Germany with S, in 1991, folks still went shopping for fruits and veggies at the fruits and veggies store (Gaertnerei Maier), and bread shopping at the bakery (Buchner), and meat shopping at the butcher's (Raabe). When S was a kid, his father also went yeast shopping at the brewery ten kilometers away in Inning, and S and his mom bought flour at the mill in Oberalting (5km), honey and eggs at Sanktjohannser's farm in Auing (1.5km), and milk and butter at the dairy in Steinebach (Eberl). They had to drive to some of these--even nearby Auing--"because they were all in other villages." Then along came the first tentative multi-purpose grocery stores in town, Spar and Das kleine Kaufhaus, and later the chain store Tengelmann, and the mom and pop shops began closing up as mom and pop aged out and their kids had no interest in carrying on the family businesses. Then along came Edeka, an even bigger grocery store on the edge of town, and Tengelmann eventually threw in the towel, long after Spar and Das kleine Kaufhaus had folded. With Edeka came the necessity of doing all of the shopping by car, which makes shopping quite difficult for elderly blind women who can't drive--but then along came the Eismann frozen-foods delivery truck. Steinebach still has a dedicated fruits and veggies store, and the best place to buy eggs is still at the Sanktjohannser farm (which now has an egg-automat out front), but the bakery, butchery, dairy, flour mill, and brewery are gone. The REWE in Fischen could swallow five Steinebach Edekas whole and still have room for more.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Annual Andechs trek

In late June, E and I walked through fields and forest from Steinebach to Andechs--a hike of almost 15 kilometers, which took us about three hours. E and I did the same walk last year, and with S and friends the year before starting from Herrsching. E and I thought we had correctly modified last year's route to avoid a pitfall--but alas, once again, we missed some turn and ended up, approaching Andechs, above a creek on a wooded path that narrowed into a trail-less mess of roots and leaves and fallen trees where folks obviously go to get drunk in the woods and smash beer bottles. Maybe we'll finally get it right next year. Nonetheless, it's a great walk to do with a charming teen who becomes delightfully conversational while walking.

Looking back over this blog, I'm shocked to discover that I've never really blogged about Andechs. Going there is such a part of our annual routine that I didn't even bother taking photos this time. This is all I got, from a field just outside of Steinebach:

But here's some evidence of how long it's been our habit: some photos of E's first walk up (starting from Herrsching) back in 2002:

And some photos from August 2016; squint a little and imagine the tyke another inch and a half taller, and you pretty much have this year's hike.

Our destination

Our destination, without the zoom, with kidlet for scale

Schloss Seefeld; one hour down, two to go



Forest road above Herrsching

After climbing out of the get-drunk-and-smash-glass dead-end trail

Almost there...

The Brauerei