Do you have food memories from childhood? Really strong food memories that will stop you in your tracks? I do. For me, they tend to be tightly intertwined with smell as well. There have been moments when I’ve stopped, snapped my head up and looked around a little startled because the memory is so strong. It’s a gift and a curse; wonderful because my memories are so vivid and full of color, movement, scents. I can practically taste them. But that’s also the curse … have you ever tried to re-create a childhood taste memory? Sheesh.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my great-grandmother, a woman who provided many a taste memory. In particular there’s a smell, a distinct odor even, that stops me cold and brings me instantly right back to her pantry like some sort of Dr. Who transporter. That bright, sunny room right off the kitchen in the wacky little house my great-grandfather built somewhere in Cleveland. It’s a smell – and I mean this in the very best way – that is a mixture of baked bread, cooked fruit and a hint of mold and sugary rot. (She never considered anything bad, a symptom leftover from a Depression-era childhood, and would regularly scrape the mold off food while Great Uncle Eddie would swoop in behind to run damage control before anyone got sick.) That distinctive scent pops up at completely random times and there have been moments where my mother and I have been known to stop, stare at each other and scream “Grandma Kerka’s pantry!!!” It’s the damndest thing.
My great-grandmother, a Czech immigrant, was a helluva cook but an even better baker. Like many of her generation, she baked by instinct and did it well – a pinch of this, a handful of that, stirred with an old fork or her hands and adapting her recipe based on what she had or what came from her garden. What I remember most is that she didn’t measure. Even as a kid I found this curious. Flour was scaled out in her hands because she just knew. She ran on autopilot, her recipes so familiar there was no need to reference a written document. It’s such a shame really that she didn’t have a little book or card file because though we have some of her recipes, we didn’t get them all.
What we didn’t get before she passed away at the lovely age of 98 was her kuchen, or coffeecake, recipe. Probably because it was something she made weekly that everyone simply took it for granted. I was 12 or 13 when she passed away and getting family recipes wasn’t exactly a priority in my junior-high life but how I wish it was. Ah, to go back and whisper in that 12-year olds ear …. write that stuff down! Nowadays, I’d probably break out the video camera too just to get an image of her flowered housecoat, sensible shoes and soft hands as she patted the dough in to place and gave me fruit scraps, muttering in a language I didn’t understand but pretended to anyway.
Kuchen is a German word for cake and there are numerous variations depending on where you’re from. You know, now that I think about it, I bet all it’s variations and interpretations are much like cobbler in this country. Interesting. Well, in our family, kuchen meant a coffeecake with fruit nestled on top and sprinkled with a heavy coating of sugar. I remember it as blueberry, my mother insists it was always plum and my aunt says it was usually apple. Here’s the problem with taste memories – everyone’s is different and convictions are strong. Chance are good that she made it with whatever fruit she had on hand and that we were all right but try telling that to my mother. No! Always plum!
Recipe-wise I started with my aunt, the prevailing family baker, after a Google search provided far too many options. I needed to be pointed in a clear direction so she sent me several photocopies from Grandma’s local parish cookbook on the theory that one of them had to be close. Sound logic but I have to think that these devout Catholic immigrants didn’t give up cherished family recipes all that easily, no matter the cause. Baking was a point of pride with those gals so I scanned the pages with some skepticism.
My theory was confirmed as her name wasn’t on any of the recipes I received – I knew it – but the pages were littered with names that made me smile like Posedly, Huzl and Mucha. I can just picture tables laden with dumplings, strudel and kuchen at those church socials. One recipe in particular, from a Mrs. Estelle Petrasek, looked promising so I decided to give it a try using some gorgeous plums I’d picked up at the farmers market. Plums … round one goes to my mom.
I made some adaptations, you know, not being a big fan these days of oleo. The cake batter was stiff – oddly stiff. I’m used to a soft creamy cake batter – not the case here. I spread and coaxed the dough evenly into a well-greased pan using my hands, pushed the quartered plums on top and sprinkled them heavily, very heavily, with cinnamon sugar. Into the oven, fingers crossed.
An hour later the most beautiful cake emerged from the oven – the batter had puffed up and browned around the plums, the surface dimpled with jammy fruit and a coating of crunchy caramelized sugar. A heavenly scent wafted through my apartment. Well, it sure looked like I remembered but it was late so I gave it one last happy glance and went to bed to wait until morning to dig in.
In my exhaustion, I hadn’t thought about that caramelized sugar fusing to the side of the pan but that was quickly remedied with a sharp knife and some determination. My office cohorts adored it and praised the cake for not being too sweet. They liked that it was rather sturdy (I might have called it a bit dry) with one gentleman saying “Now this is the kind of cake that goes GREAT with coffee!“ The kicker though? “Oh my god, my grandmother used to make something like this!” Well alright.
Personally, my first taste didn’t quite live up to my expectations – I thought the cake part was a bit dense and perhaps a tad dry. But then again, I was working off a 30+ year memory that has been tinted by more than a few cakes since, most of them soft and sweet. Who remembers what was right anymore, what was an old memory and what was from a month ago? In fact, the more I thought about it, this was exactly the kind of cake I used to pick the sugary coating off first, then eat the fruit topping and then dip the cakey part in my hot chocolate.
Is it my great-grandmother’s kuchen? Who knows. There’s no way to be 100% certain but I bet it’s pretty close. I’d ask my mom and my aunt and countless other great aunts and second cousins and I bet they’d all have a different answer. That’s the funny thing about taste memories. Each and every single one is a unique memory upon itself because it’s yours and only yours. So this one? Yeah, it’s mine. All mine and I’m sticking with it.
Now if anyone can help me figure out how to bottle that smell, let me know because I’m sure there’s a huge market for yeast/mold/sugar/fruity rot scents.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: IMMENSE. As potentially frustrating as this one was for me, it was immensely satisfying. I’ve been thinking a lot about my great grandmother lately. Maybe its knowing that my aunt has recently moved out of her house and has decided she will no longer be the repository of family shit. That would now be me. Knowing that there are boxes and boxes of family photos, most of people I’ve never even met, waiting for me in a storage unit along with other treasures has made me a bit melancholy about it all. Recreating this simple cake she made at least once a week created a strong tie to a woman I didn’t see very often but to whom I’m forever linked. From one set of soft hands to another.
For the cake:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
¼ cup whole milk
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla
zest of ½ lemon
8-9 small plums, quartered
for the topping:
scant ½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the lower third. Grease a 8”x8” baking pan well with butter and set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, milk, cooled melted butter, vanilla and lemon zest.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients.
- Stir to combine; the dough will be quite stiff – use a strong wooden spoon or your impeccably clean hands to work in all the dry bits but take care not to overwork the dough or it will be tough.
- Turn the batter into the greased pan and spread it evenly – it may be easiest to use your hands at this point.
- Place the fruit in 3 or 4 even rows, cut side down, into the batter pressing down lightly to adhere.
- In a small bowl combine the sugar and cinnamon for the topping and sprinkle evenly over the fruit. It will look like a lot – no worries.
- Bake for 50-60 minutes, giving the pan a shake to redistribute the sugar topping at 45 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.
- Remove from the oven to a cooling rack; let cool 5 minutes.
- After the cake has cooled slightly, run a knife around the edge between the cake and pan to loosen the caramelized edges.
- Let cool completely.