November 10, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Counter Space
What Shall I Cook? The Dessert Competition

Contestants competing in the Pillsbury Bake Off baking contest in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York. 1949. Source: Google/LIFE Photo Archive. Photograph by Lisa Larsen

At our recent Kitchen Culture event, a public program in conjunction with the Counter Space exhibition, over 100 people enjoyed an amazing dinner prepared by Executive Chef Lynn Bound of the Art Food cafés and the Cafe 2 team. (Video of the dinner and accompanying entertainment, plus an interview with Chef Lynn, to come in future posts!) The delicious meal was inspired by a recipe book, shown here, with significant ties to the centerpiece of our exhibition, the Frankfurt Kitchen.

What Shall I Cook? is a cookbook published in Frankfurt in 1925, the year the ambitious modernization initiative known as the New Frankfurt (1925–30) began. Written by a woman named Thessa Gretschmar, this compilation of balanced, nutritious meal plans is arranged by the 52 weeks of the year and based on affordable ingredients and seasonal produce. It was published by the Frankfurt Housewives’ Association, which also maintained a regular afternoon Kitchen Radio program on the Southwest German Radio network. Radio reception was one of many innovative features built into the 15,000 modern dwelling units that made up the 15 new public housing estates in the New Frankfurt. Like the electric lighting, gas stoves, and running hot water provided for the Frankfurt Kitchens in these homes, radio provided significant modern lifestyle benefits for working-class individuals and families.

Following our 1920s Frankfurt-inspired dinner, we enjoyed a reader-submitted dessert, a wonderful plum cake that came out of our asking the public: What shall we cook? Our open dessert competition, posted online back in September, called for German recipes of pre-1950 origin that would be suitable for adaptation to our large guest list.

Today we wanted to congratulate the winners of our competition, and to share with you some of their recipes and corresponding stories. We were pleasantly surprised that many of our contestants submitted personal family anecdotes along with historical context for these recipes. Our special thanks to Cathy Kaufman, Chair of the Culinary Historians of New York, who helped our selection as a special guest juror. Without her historical expertise we would not have known, for example, that corn flakes (developed in the 1890s in Michigan) appeared in Germany around the same time as the Frankfurt Kitchen! (They feature in the runner-up recipe, Amy’s Famous Kugel, which we also tasted in modified petit four form.) Here are our top picks, and below the stories/recipes in their own words. Enjoy!


Andrea Bell / Erna Welp’s Pflaumenkuchen (Plum Cake) (1)

Runner up:

Amy Stern / Amy’s Famous Kugel (2)

Honorable Mentions:

Bettina Gronning / Swaebischer Kaesekuchen (3)

Mali Mayer / Auf-Lauf (4)

Jenny Kaschell / Kalter Hund (5)

Angelika Rinnhofer / Chilibread (Nuremberg Gingerbread) (6)

Susanne Goetz / Tutti-Frutti (7)

Chef Arno / Mohr im Hemd (8)

Kirk Simon / Nana’s Fruit Bundt (9)

Andreas Lehmann / Arme Ritter (10)

1. Erna Welp’s Pflaumenkuchen (Andrea Bell writes…)

I hope you enjoy one of my family’s truly treasured recipes.

This is my great-grandmother’s recipe for pflaumenkuchen, or traditional German plum cake. It’s a dessert my great-grandmother brought with her when she emigrated from Germany to the U.S., and then passed down to my grandmother, and then to her son’s wife, my mother. In fact, this recipe is such a part of the fabric of my family that my mother planted an Italian prune plum tree in our backyard so that the fruit would be on hand every autumn. It’s important that this cake be made with the Italian prune plum, because they kind of caramelize and melt into a beautiful fuchsia color, which the buttery crumb around it absorbs. Luckily, we’re in the middle of the Italian prune plum’s short season, which will last through October.

15 Italian prune plums, halved and stone removed, but not peeled
1 stick butter, plus 1/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
Pinch salt
1 cup flour
1 1/2 tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 325° F and grease a 9 x 13″ baking pan and set aside. With an electric mixer, cream together the sugar and butter/shortening until well combined. Add in the rest of the ingredients except the plums, and mix until combined. Spread the batter out on the bottom of the baking pan (it will be a relatively thin layer, so use your spatula to spread it around and cover the entire bottom). Place the plum halves skin-side-up in rows on top of the batter.

Bake for one hour, until it passes the toothpick test. Cool before serving, and enjoy!

2. Amy’s Famous Kugel (Amy Stern writes…)

Kugel is a baked pudding or casserole, most commonly made from egg noodles (Loksehn kugel) or potatoes, though at times can be made of cabbage, zucchini, or spinach. The name of the dish comes from the Germanic root meaning “ball” or “globe,” thus the Yiddish name likely originated as a reference to the round, puffed-up shape of the original dishes (compare to German Gugelhupf, a type of ring-shaped cake). Nowadays, however, kugels are often baked in square pans. Kugels are a staple in Jewish cooking and can be served as a dessert or side dish, the result of many immigrant families having ties to Eastern Europe where the dish originated.

The first kugels were made from bread and flour and were savory rather than sweet. About 800 years ago, cooks in Germany replaced bread mixtures with noodles and eventually eggs were incorporated. The addition of cottage cheese and milk created a custard-like consistency, which is common in today’s dessert dishes. In Poland, Jewish homemakers added raisins, cinnamon, and sweet farmer’s cheese to their noodle kugel recipes.

I first made this recipe, which was passed on to me from my mom, when I was a 23-year-old bride back in 1982. Unfortunately I made it for shiva—the period of mourning in the Jewish religion observed after someone dies, in this case my father-in-law. After 28 years of marriage, my husband’s family just can’t get enough of this recipe, and no matter how much I make, the platter is always empty by the end of the meal. Additionally, though I have written the recipe for many other family members over the years and it’s simple to make, I am still asked to bring this dish to numerous family occasions throughout the year.

Serves 20:

1 lb. PA Dutch Homestyle Egg Noodles or other wide egg noodle, cooked and drained
1 lb. cream cheese (2 8-oz. packages, Philadelphia Brand preferred)—should be very soft; let sit out several hours prior to cooking (this is critical)
1/2 lb. butter—should be very soft; let sit out several hours prior to cooking (this is critical)
1 1/4 cup sugar
6 extra-large eggs
1 qt whole milk (do not substitute)
1 tsp vanilla
2–4 cups Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, crushed (for topping)
1/2 cup cinnamon sugar (for topping)
Aluminum roaster (deep; I use one big enough for a turkey)

Beat cheese and butter well with electric mixer (stand mixer works best) on low, and add a pinch of salt. Add sugar gradually, and beat until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat for 10 minutes. Fold mixture into noodles carefully. Pour into buttered large pan. Pour and fold in milk very carefully. Bake at 350 for one and a half hours.

At the end of the first hour, take kugel out of the oven and sprinkle with crushed cornflakes, followed by an even sprinkling of cinnamon sugar over the cornflake crumbs. Return kugel to the oven for remaining half hour; the sugar will caramelize and you will have a delicious streusel-like crunchy topping.

Kugel can be served immediately or cooled and then refrigerated or frozen.

3. Swaebischer Kaesekuchen (Bettina Gronning writes…)

My mother is German and loves her desserts, fruit, and coffee. Growing up, our kitchen wafted with her rumtopf: a crock filled with fruit and rum that marinates for a few months and, once ready, produces plump, aromatic, and boozy fruit that we spooned over our ice cream or had in a dish with a nice, fat dollop of whipped cream.

While rumtopf takes months, another German specialty, cheesecake, can be made in a few hours and really pays tribute to this contrast of fruit and crème, and also pays a sort of homage to my mother and her continual joy and delight in the simple pleasures of a good creamy fat with fruit.

Cheesecakes have existed since ancient times, but the German Cheesecake is unique in that it has a classic pastry crust, and uses a cheese called quark, which has much less fat than most other cheeses used in cheesecakes. Quark is closely related to fromage frais or cottage cheese because it is not aged, but it does not contain rennet. Truth be told, my mother really hated quark on its own—I have a feeling its lighter fat content wasn’t what she craved (see above!)—but it makes a light filling that goes well with the buttery crust. In this cheesecake there is a nice pastry crust, plenty of eggs, and, of course, the boozed-up raisins can be added in the mix.

For the dough:

300 grams flour
150 grams butter
80 grams sugar
Pinch of salt
1 egg

For the cheese filling (or, topping):

6 eggs, separated
250 grams sugar
750 grams quark
1/8 liter soured whole cream
Pinch salt
1 lemon
50 grams cornstarch
100 grams butter, clarified
80 grams raisins (soaked in a dish of rum and briefly warmed, and then strained and dried)

Knead the dough ingredients into a firm dough, chill, and let rest for about one hour. Beat the six egg yolks and the sugar until slightly foamy. Add the quark, the sour cream, and the pinch of salt. Then, add the juice and the grated skin of the one lemon, as well as the cornstarch, the raisins, and the clarified butter. At the very end, add in the beaten egg whites.

Line the bottom of a baking tray with parchment paper, and top with the dough. Top this with the cheese mixture and bake at 425° F for 40 minutes or so. Then, take the cake out of the oven for 10 minutes. After that, put it again in the oven and continue to bake for 10 minutes longer.

4. Auf-Lauf (Mali Mayer writes…)      

This recipe comes from The Settlement Cookbook (first edition 1903). The Settlement House in St. Louis was an organization that taught German immigrant women how to cook American and be American. At the same time the women taught the instructors how to make some of their homeland recipes that the men (husbands?) still wanted. The members of the board of the Settlement House (all men) would not support the publication of the cookbook. So advertisements were sold to cover the $18 printing costs. Sales of the book were so great that the proceeds helped purchase a new building several years later for the organization. The cookbook was compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander (my maternal grandmother’s aunt) and Mrs. Henry Schoenfeld. A facsimile of the first edition was printed in 1987 by Gramercy Publishing Company. Many editions have been published since 1903, with the last appearing in 1995.

Line a pudding dish with crushed macaroons.

Cover this with fruit (i.e., apples, peaches, or apricots) and sugar.

Put on the back of the stove to heat.

Mix six egg yolks, six tablespoons sugar, six egg whites (beaten until frothy), and some chopped almonds. Pour over fruit.

Bake at 350° until top “sponge” is cooked through.

5. Kalter Hund (Jenny Kaschell writes…)

This is an old recipe of a unique dessert known in Germany, especially in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). I used to have it as a kid in my grandpa’s garden. Also I remember one time when my mum actually made it at home. Unfortunately these days not too many people prepare it at home anymore, even though it is popular. This recipe is adapted from an old GDR baking book.

The dessert is called Kalter Hund, which translates to “cold dog.” It is sometimes also known as Lukullus. It is a cold dessert made of a chocolate mixture and butter cookies. I don’t know much of the historical background of the dessert except that it was “invented” around 1948, when butter wasn’t given out in rations anymore. Fatty food was more available, and people had no problems with overweight, so they enjoyed their buttery/creamy/rich desserts. Old people as well as kids love this dessert. It is sweet and rich. There are various recipes for the chocolate mixture and one should take care to make even layers with the cookies to balance the richness of this dessert. Coffee or rum can be added for more interesting flavors. Basically it is like a cookie/chocolate cake served in slices. The slices are not to be cut too thinly or it will break. To be served cold.

Serves 10 (one loaf pan):

300 grams coconut oil
125 grams confectioner’s sugar
45 grams cocoa powder (high quality for good flavor)
2–3 eggs
2 packs of German butter cookies (leibnitz)
Flavors can be added: either rum, coffee, bitter almond, or lemon

Melt the coconut oil over low heat. Mix sugar, cocoa powder, and eggs together. Incorporate the cooling coconut oil into the sugar mixture (drop by drop).

Place plastic wrap/parchment paper in the loaf pan and assemble the cake: start with a layer of chocolate mixture, and continue with alternating layers of cookies and chocolate mixture. End with a layer of cookies. Cool for two hours, unmold, and cut into 1/2-inch slices (top could be decorated with lines/cakecomb waves or suchlike).

6. “Chilibread” (Nuremberg Gingerbread) (Angelika Rinnhofer writes…)

This is my mom’s recipe for Nuremberg gingerbread. Her mom, who had found it in a cookbook, passed it on to her. I am from Nuremberg and moved to the U.S. in 1995. Last year, I converted my family’s recipe into my American version by substituting all the traditional ingredients with spices and components indigenous to America, adding cocoa, candied chili pepper, and honey and maple syrup from NY. I call this version “Chilibread.” Some of my friends in Nuremberg are now using my recipe (or parts of it) for making gingerbread. It can be eaten right away or stored for months in air-tight containers.

Nuremberg is famous for its gingerbread. As one of the most northern extensions of one of the silk routes, Nuremberg became a wealthy city during the Middle Ages. Spices from Asia were sold at its market, and before long, in 1395, the first commercial gingerbread bakery opened in the center of the city. Since then, Nuremberg gingerbread has become a main export article. Family-run bakeries in Nuremberg praise themselves on having their own “secret” recipes, each one better than the next. Commercial bakeries start making the specialty at the end of August to be sold mainly from fall until Christmas. It is a typical holiday treat, served with Gluehwein (mulled spiced wine), coffee, or black tea with rum.

5 eggs
2+ cups confectioner’s sugar (2.205 cups, to be exact)
2+ cups unpeeled milled almonds
2 tbsp candied lemon peel, chopped
2 tbsp candied orange peel, chopped
zest of a lemon
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp mace
1 packet baking wafers (Oblaten), if available

Chocolate icing:
6 oz sugar
4 1/2 oz baking chocolate
0.4 cups water

Combine eggs and sugar and beat in a stand mixer for one minute. Add spices, citrus peels and zest, and almonds.

If available, spread this dough on baking wafers, about 1/2 inch thick, and place on a cookie sheet. Let stand to dry for several hours. If Oblaten are not available, line the cookie sheet with wax paper before placing the cookies on it. Bake in oven on 220° F for 25-30 minutes.

Ice the cookies while they are still warm, and put on peeled and halved almonds for decoration while icing is still warm. Place the gingerbread cookies in the still-warm oven (remaining warmth from baking); this will help dry the icing.

(For the icing: heat up chocolate in microwave; needs to be completely melted. Bring water and sugar to a boil and keep simmering for 5–6 minutes. Using a whisk, infuse water/sugar mixture slowly into hot, melted chocolate in a very thin stream.)

7. Tutti-Frutti (Susanne Goetz writes…)

This recipe is from an old German cookbook from the town of Vohenstrauss, where my mother grew up. Both my sister and I also own a copy and use it frequently (maybe not the section on how to raise chickens or care for people dying from consumption). An interesting aspect of the recipe is that it uses leftover baked goods (not stale, but could be a day or two old), pointing at a more common frugality in former times. How appropriate for the current recession! A typical German aspect is also that it a comparatively nourishing and filling approach to a dessert. The recipe dates from the 1910s or earlier.

Leftover baked goods (sweet), such as challah, babka, poundcake, or ladyfingers.
Soft raw fruit or canned/preserved fruit
A few tablespoons of rum or fruit juice
Vanilla custard

Moisten the baked goods with the rum or fruit juice and layer them with the fruit in a glass bowl. Cover with the cooled-down vanilla custard and decorate with fruit or whipped cream.

8. Mohr im Hemd (Chef Arno writes…)

In the 1880s, a circus in Vienna featured a North African comic who wore a brilliant white shirt. The Viennese were delighted by the man’s charm, and by his unusual (for 1880s Vienna) coloring. One pastry chef promptly created a hot chocolate pudding with whipped cream that he called “Negro in the White Shirt”; under this name it became a staple in Austrian restaurants for many years.

Serves 30:

1 lb butter, room temperature
1 lb Baker’s chocolate, softened
1/2 lb sugar
24 egg yolks

24 egg whites
1/2 lb sugar
1 lb chopped almonds.
Butter and sugar for molds
5 and 1/3 cups heavy cream (36%)

Cream butter, chocolate, and sugar. Add yolks gradually and cream together.

Beat egg whites. Add sugar and beat to soft meringue. Fold into creamed chocolate, and fold in almonds. Butter suitable molds and sprinkle with sugar. Fill batter into molds and steam until done according to mold size. Whip cream and serve with warm pudding.

9. Nana’s Fruit Bundt (Kirk Simon writes…)

My grandmother grew up in farm country on the German/Austria border. Born in 1898, she was sent to American, alone, at the age of 14. She lived to be 94. She met her future husband on that boat and they eventually opened an inn—The Quakertown Inn in Bucks County, PA—which served traditional German food, basically large cuts of meat and overcooked vegetables. She made many types of cookies and cake, which were traditional and excellent. She would often make a crescent cookie/pastry filled with fruit or nut paste. No recipes were written down, but as a boy I would often help her. I still bake her recipes as best as I can remember.

Serves 10–12:

For the fruit filling/topping: On the stove, lightly cook an apple, two apricots, two plums, a good handful of chopped hazelnuts, and some raisins—sauté in a pat of butter, a splash of brandy, a teaspoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of current jelly. Let cool.

2.5 sticks of butter (All of her recipes use full fat European butter—please don’t deviate or ever use the word cholesterol!)
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp fresh nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking soda

Cream the butter and sugar (She would always use her hands, and it would take 10 or 15 minutes. As I was told, the heat from your hands melts the butter.) Mix in the eggs, milk, and vanilla.

In another bowl—the “dry bowl”—measure out 3 cups flour. Mix in cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda. Using a mixer, add the dry mixture to the wet bowl. Stir in half the fruit mixture. Pour into a buttered/floured bundt pan. Bake at 350° F for an hour. Test with toothpick (it would usually take about 10 minutes more). Remove from pan. Coat with powered sugar. Nana would put the sugar in a colander and tap. Serve each slice with a teaspoon of the remaining fruit.

10. Arme Ritter (Andreas Lehmann writes…)

Literally “poor knights”—probably because these knights are fried—this dessert tastes great with stewed fruit (plums, etc.) or ice cream (which was not available in 1949). This recipe was very popular after WWII (and still is).

Serves 4:

8 slices of old (!) toast-bread
4 cups milk
1 vanilla bean
Grated lemon peel (organic)
2 tsp sugar
8 eggs
Sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle the poor knights

Bring milk and vanilla bean plus some grated lemon peel and one teaspoon of sugar to boil, and let cool down. Remove the vanilla bean and put the bread slices into this milk mixture. Beat the eggs, and put one slice after the other into egg and afterwards into breadcrumbs. Cook the bread slices in butter on both sides until golden-brown, and sprinkle with the sugar-and-cinnamon mix.