Luisa Weiss launched Classic German Baking at Powerhouse Books last night, in conversation with David Lebovitz. It’s a book that was formulating in her mind long before it was sold – in Weiss’ earlier career as a cookbook editor, she saw that no one had really written about German baking for an American audience. She mentally flagged it as a book she’d like to find an author for – only for her publisher to bring it up years later, with her name on the hypothetical front cover.
In the interim, a lot had happened – she’d become a successful blogger, written a memoir, started a family, moved to Berlin, the city she was born in, and found herself immersed in the serious culture of German home baking. “Germans really do bake at home – every week, enormous quantities. People take enormous pride in making their own cakes, and at Christmas, baking and handing out cookies is an important part of the gift-giving culture.” This extends to everyone, from a 70-year old surgeon who has a baking get-together with a friend from his youth every year, to families that start their holiday baking in November. Luckily, many traditional recipes date from times when fat was expensive, so they’re moistened with eggs and/or honey instead – which helpfully keep baked goods from going stale for weeks or more. (Also, lebkuchen dough needs two months to ripen, so you’d better start yours now if you want it for 2016.)
It wasn’t hard to figure out what to put in the book – “The nice thing about German baking is that it’s a very traditional foodway. I knew going in that I would have to cover certain yeast cakes, certain Christmas cookies…I had a sense of what I had to include.” From there, it was a matter of making sure there was enough regional diversity (both in terms of regions within Germany and related traditions like Austrian strudels and tortes), and balancing the more difficult recipes with ones that would be approachable. “I saw this a lot when I was an editor - sometimes cuisine-based books are trying so hard to be correct that it gets impossible to actually make anything.” But it’s not all slice-and-bake cookies. “The most fun part for me was cracking the code on recipes that I thought of as being like Mount Everest, the ones that I thought you might need to be an old Viennese lady to make at home. When I got one right it felt like the heavens opening. But I thought, if I’m bringing German baking to Americans, it has to be worth it, it can’t just be an apple cake.”
Weiss’s initial recipes were sourced everywhere – friends, grandparents, the internet, antique books and magazines, the back of the marzipan package. Except for dinner rolls, though, you won’t find many savory bakes in this book. “German bread baking is very different, almost impossible at home, almost nobody does it.” What you will find are sweets that are lighter than you might imagine. Because many of these recipes are created for Europe’s all-important afternoon snack tradition, they go heavy on the fruit, yeast, and quark rather than sugar. And the tradition is still alive and well with everyone from Weiss’s father-in-law and his colleagues at an auto shop to the Parisians dancers that Lebovitz apparently hangs out with.
It’s lucky that these are light, because over 18 months of researching, testing, and re-testing, she made a lot of sweets. Lebovitz pointed out that testing savory food is convenient because you can eat it for dinner, but if you’re testing cakes and cookies, you end up with a lot of excess. Weiss said she felt awkward giving away the imperfect versions, but Lebovitz said, “Oh, I got over that REAL fast.” As Weiss pointed out, even if a coffee cake has ¼ teaspoon too much cinnamon, the general public will probably appreciate it anyway. A good note when it comes time to put together your own bunter teller (a mixed holiday cookie plate, which of course has it’s own German phrase).
Weiss and Lebovitz, who met through blogging a decade ago, also bonded over the myth of their perfect European lifestyles (if you’ve read their blogs, you know where that comes from). “The problem with living abroad is that you’re not allowed to complain!” said Lebovitz. “I have so many opinions about living in Germany but I don’t want to sound like a crank,” Weiss said. She misses the fresh vegetables and good Indian restaurants in America, but says “I kind of like the fact that there are certain things I can only get here, and certain things I can only get in other places. It’s like gelato in Italy – you can get good gelato everywhere now, but I really only want it when I’m in Italy.” From the Mediterranean to Germany and beyond, though, they do get a good afternoon snack.