While we continue to hunker down at home, the competition to secure flour and yeast has become more challenging perhaps than buying hand sanitizer. I go through waves of intense cooking and baking, trying to conjure inspiration to keep my meals interesting, even when everything else in life has become so routine (and other times when I am not inspired and just have smoothies or oatmeal for dinner). I have spent the past year or so trying to recreate many of my grandmother’s recipes and being stuck inside now during COVID19 has encouraged me to make more. She was a voracious cook who commanded her kitchen: you didn’t wander around because she would insist on putting together or finding for you whatever you thought perhaps you might want to eat (in a quantity larger than you needed). And, I never left her home without tins of her mandelbrot.
Last spring, when I was in Dusseldorf visiting a dear friend, I felt deeply connected with my grandmother’s food. Kuchenech, across from where I stayed was a tiny, vibrant bakery carved out from a drab auto body shop. It was uniquely stylized in vintage decor in many forms of one shade of red: red pinstripe walls and pillows, the red haired owner, and a red trimmed exterior. Inside (on non-red shelves) were spectacular traditional German cakes that were reminiscent of ones my grandmother made (she had one that we always just called “kuchen”). Disappointingly, I didn’t get to try any at Kunchenech because none were vegan.
I also visited Hinkel, a very popular, old bakery in the city. I felt like I had stepped into my grandmother’s kitchen. It was a Friday afternoon frenzied atmosphere that almost effused a panic as to whether anything would be left by the time it was my turn. The cookies, cakes, breads were all hers: it was as if the bakery had simply used her recipe box. From poppy seed cakes to cookies to heavy breads with seeds and nuts, it was my grandmother’s baking. This familiarity was bizarre, unnerving, and exciting.
It was my second trip to Germany and while this visit didn’t have the emphasis or gravitas of my previous one that focused on exploring historic and modern Jewish life in Berlin and Munich, it was hard to avoid those feelings in Dusseldorf. Most of my time was spent cycling around the relatively quiet city, exploring cafes and museums. The Jewish community in Dusseldorf is tiny. There are two synagogues and less than 1,000 people. I went to a Shabbat dinner that was filled primarily with Russians and a smattering of Israelis and a couple of Germans. Though German was perhaps the third spoken language at the meal. The synagogue was behind an enormous steel door in which you entered into a courtyard that was surrounded by the synagogue, offices, and the small dining room. About two dozen of us were crammed into two long tables in the narrow dining area that did not allow for anyone to pass behind you–you were stuck in your seat for the duration of the night. The guests were a bit wary of me initially–who was this random person in a non-touristy German town coming to a Shabbat dinner. Not speaking Russian or German didn’t help the situation.
As I continue to make my way through my grandmother’s recipes, the cake that I made for this post is actually not like anything that I had in Dusseldorf. It was sent to me by an aunt recently and was cryptic, with an incomplete list of ingredients and no instructions. I had to figure out what was missing (enough liquid!) and how to put it together. I improvised and fortunately, it all worked out well. It’s easy to make and delicious with a cup of tea.
I hope you continue to stay safe and well during this challenging period and perhaps find time for some inspiration in your kitchen.