Confessions of a Potato EaterBy Saskia Wesnigk
Christmas Eve in Germany is the day that, as far as children are concerned, Christmas happens as it is in the evening that the presents are unwrapped. I was eight in 1966 but it was the same every year: the living room door would be locked and a cloth hung over the frosted glass pane so we could not see even the slightest thing. The tree had been put up and decorated by our parents the night before and an incredible sense of secrecy permeated the house. If the phone rang, an adult had to sneak into the Christmas room and we were not allowed to peek.
Every Christmas Eve we went on a visiting round. We left the house around 11am to see our housekeeper, Frau Krolzik, who always gave my sister and me useful things for our “bottom drawer” like towels and pillow cases which I found terribly boring then but am grateful for today, as they are of superb quality. She had a bowl of the best chocolate and marzipan for us to snack from and we were encouraged for once not to hold back. It was quite heavenly, the local Lübecker Marzipan is a real delicacy.
Next we visited a friend of my mother’s, her husband and son. We called her Tante Elisabeth, though we were not related, in fact she was a school teacher at the same school and they had studied together. Her husband was a sea captain who brought back bananas from South America, told wonderful stories and was full of funny expressions. One of my favourites was: “Jetzt ist Daddeldu!” which is a mixture of German and English, Daddeldu is a German hearing of “That will Do”, so he is saying – now it’s that will do – in other words, time to finish. They were all three of them very overweight and wonderfully kind, Aunt Elisabeth always found out what was important to me at the time and bought me the loveliest presents. One year there were Alice Cooper and Uriah Heep singles, for which she still has my undying gratitude.
After that on we went to our old nanny Oma and her daughters Erika and Anke, where we were plied with milk chocolate Santa Claus figures and nougat stars. Then on to our grandparents on my father’s side who gave us more sweet treats and let us watch children’s television. I remember seeing my first Lassie film on their tiny black and white screen one Christmas and crying when something went dramatically wrong in the story. My grandmother served Stollen with margarine, thin cinnamon flavoured Spekulatius biscuits with almond slices in them and a wonderful drink called Apfeltee – apple tea. She poured it from a proper china teapot into fragile little cups with saucers, so we children got to feel very gown up. The tea was pale yellow, hot and sweet. When I was a teenager, flavoured black tea became all the rage and I bought myself some ‘apple tea’ which was utterly disappointing. Asking Grandmother Hanna how she made hers, she smiled her modest little smile and told me that when she gave us apple tea she also served apple pieces to eat and put the core and peel into hot water with a bit of sugar, lemon and cinnamon. The magic ingredient was simply apple.
Magic Apple Tea
Use all the peel and core from any apple (ideally organic in this day and age), put them into a pretty tea pot and add hot water. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Serve in beautiful china cups with sugar or honey to small children along with very nice thin biscuits, to make them feel that they are having a proper grown-up tea, too.
I wish I had kept any of the many extensive lists I made of the presents I gave to all these lovely people. I know I went to great effort for them, buying and making things I thought they would enjoy with the little pocket money I had. I crocheted a lot, made egg warmers and mittens and created crafty things like straw stars and coasters. I also yearly made a calendar with a drawing for every month for Oma and sometimes for my grandma.
We had to take a nap when we came home from all those sugary visits and were woken up again around 6pm. My mother helped us put on our nicest clothes, brushed and braided our hair and then we waited in the hall while our parents added the final touches to the living room. I remember thinking as I sat outside that room that this is the moment my hair starts to turn grey. Finally a bell rang and the lit candles on the tree shone through the frosted glass. We were allowed in and had to stand still by the tree. Our parents insisted we recite a poem, sing a song or play a piece of music, all the while looking hard into the semi darkness at the tables with presents, many of which were not wrapped up. One year my mother had even written a little play for one shepherd, three angels and a dog which we performed with our collie Tiffany. The angel costumes were gossamer thin dresses with gold stars glued on and we kept them forever in our dressing up box.
After the distribution of the gifts, one at a time of course, we had dinner. My mother, always the pragmatist, never made a big Christmas Dinner. She had two reasons for this, one was that we were already stuffed from the three visits of the day and the other that she did not want to be cooking or working at Christmas. So she made potato salad a day or two before, which always tastes better for resting a while anyway, the children had hot dogs, the parents cold boiled ham or fresh trout, baked in aluminium foil. We all craved something salty by then. Her potato salad was delicious. She made it with fresh cucumber rather than pickled and sometimes added dill or parsley to it as well. For me it was one of the highlights of Christmas.
Christmas Potato Salad
Cook lots of potatoes in salty water and let them cool. Cut them in half and then into slices and put them into a bowl. Peel and cut a fresh cucumber into small pieces and add.
Make a sauce from any of the following to taste: mayonnaise, yoghurt, sour cream, cream cheese, single or whipping cream, quark. Don’t make it too runny. Add to this some salt and a pinch of sugar, lemon juice and parsley or dill.
Add the sauce to the potatoes and cucumber, stir gently, cover and leave overnight in a cool place.
Before serving add some more fresh herbs.
Serve with hot dogs or baked fish for a fresh salty and easy meal.
On Christmas Day we children got up early to play and stuffed ourselves with more sweets. There were always sweets hanging from the tree, but we were not allowed to eat those until an adult said so. This was no problem as every child was given a “Bunter Teller”, a colourful plate full of chocolates, marzipan, nuts and clementines which we could eat at our leisure. My little brother scoffed his in 24 hours, but my sister still had some at Easter, unless he found her hiding place and stole it all.
In the run up to Christmas my mother baked biscuits with us which we cut out with heart, angel, star and moon shaped cutters and later decorated with icing sugar, chocolate sprinkles and hundreds and thousands. She also made black and white dough which was rolled into sausages, placed together and then cut so you ended up with checkerboard biscuits. We all loved to eat the raw dough and so do my children to this day. We don't even wait for Christmas to get the cookie cutters out.
German Christmas biscuits, makes about 90:
250gram plain flour
Vanilla flavouring (you can also use rum flavouring if you like)
125g butter or margarine (add a pinch of salt if unsalted)
Put the flour in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Into this break the egg, the sugar and the flavouring. Around it dot all the fat. Then bring it together with your hands to make a dough. Wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge.
Once chilled, take half of it and roll it out not too thinly on a floured surface, also flouring the rolling pin. Cut out with cookie cutters and bake on baking parchment on metal trays in a pre-heated oven at 180° (gas mark 4) for about 10 minutes. They brown quite quickly!
Take them off the hot sheet and unto a plate when baked, otherwise they keep on baking from underneath. Reuse the parchment.
As soon as they are cold, decorate with icing sugar (put powdered icing sugar in a bowl and drip tiny amounts of hot water into it. Stir until you have reached the desired consistency. You can also use lemon juice for a different flavour, or food dye for colour). Then decorate into the still wet icing with sprinkles of your choice, also almond slices or raisins are nice.
Much faster Cookies/Shortbread (no need to refrigerate), makes up to 60:
150g plain flour
25g corn flour
50g sugar (+ vanilla flavouring)
Make the dough, roll it out, cut the cookies, bake as above but up to 12 minutes.
Another speciality we had was dried fruit, usually dates, plums, apricots and figs which my mother de-stoned and filled with a blanched whole almond. She made a hot chocolate sauce, half dipped the fruit pieces into it and laid them on silver foil to dry. This was called “Vegetarier Konfekt” – vegetarian’s comfit. One time my other aunt Elisabeth was invited over for afternoon tea, painstakingly sucked all the almonds clean and put them on her plate. When someone finally asked her whether she did not like almonds it turned out she had thought they were the stones.
My favourite Christmas snack was and is Marzipan Potatoes. These are marble sized balls of pure marzipan rolled in a dusting of chocolate powder. My home town Lübeck is famous for marzipan and the story goes that its marzipan was better than any other because of a secret ingredient. According to folklore, this secret had been brought to the town by a stork returning from Egypt, where the bird had spent the winter and was only known to one baker, Johann Georg Niederegger. But eventually the secret ingredient was let out – it was rosewater. There is a marzipan museum in town and the shop offers shaped marzipan fruit and veg as well as little animals and even small cityscapes made of the stuff, not to mention enormous boxes of pralines. There is also a marzipan torte, a cream cake so rich that a slice of it probably has more calories than a good dinner.
One Christmas my mother bought me a very unusual present. I was in the habit of drinking the sweet condensed milk, which she had in her coffee, straight from the tin, a habit she intensely disliked and often chided me for but had not managed to stop. Among my presents, lovingly wrapped, was a nice large tin of sweet condensed milk. I went into the kitchen, got the hole punch out of the drawer, punched the prerequisite two holes into one side of the lid and one on the other side for airflow. Then I drank the whole tin in one go. My mother got what she desired, I never had another sip of it ever again.
We had a Meissen porcelain bowl with a lid that rang like a bell, no matter how carefully a child tried to lift it and this bowl always held the best treats. If anyone lifted the lid without first asking it went ‘ding!!!’, and even if it only rang ever so quietly, my mother would say: “Yes, you may have a piece.” Or, as the case might be: “You’ve already had some.” In December this bowl held Quittenbrot – quince bread. Quince are an almost forgotten fruit, they look like a cross between an apple and a pear and are almost impossible to eat raw, though they smell delicious. Apparently they are the fruit that were originally used to make marmalade. We knew a lady nearby who had a quince tree in her garden and let us pick them every year. My mother made the clear orange coloured jelly first of all but with the flesh she made the bread. It was hard work: we had a hand food mill known (officially as it turns out) as “Flotte Lotte” – brisk, rakish, saucy Lottie, (doubly funny as my elegant aunt was called Lotte), into which the quince residue was ladled. Then someone had to sit and crank the handle until their arms got tired when it would be another person’s turn. The resulting goo, a cinnamon-brown gloop was then boiled with sugar in a large pot and had to be stirred constantly with a very long spoon as it bubbled like a volcano and spat molten quince flavoured lava at your arms and face. Once it had cooked enough – how long is enough? – it was spread on greaseproof paper or on greased porcelain plates and either baked at a low temperature or left to dry by itself. Once dry it was sprinkled with very coarse sugar that looked like hail stones and cut into rhombus shaped pieces. Why rhombus I have no idea, but that was the way they had to be. The lid of our Meissen bowl rang a lot when it was filled with this precious confection.
Quince Jelly, quince jam and quince bread:
Take any quince you have and clean them. Rub off any fluff with a clean tea towel. Then cut the whole fruit into small bits, discarding only anything inedible like stem and flower or brown bits. Keep all the peel and the core.
Put the pieces into a cooking pot and well cover with water. Boil gently for 30-40 minutes. Pour the liquid, now the most beautiful orangey colour through a sieve or if you are particular about cloudiness through a muslin. This liquid is the basis for your jelly.
Boil it with preserving sugar according to instructions. I usually add a small amount of vanilla flavouring but nothing else.
If you want to make Quince Jam, keep some of the liquid and add it to the pulp. Push it all through a sieve or a food mill if you have one. Then boil this with preserving sugar. It makes lovely jam, but careful, it does spit hard when it boils.
For Quince Bread push the pulp without added liquid through the mill, then add sugar and boil, stirring constantly – this spits even harder and will burn if you leave it. Once boiled enough, spread it on greased baking parchment and bake gently in the oven until relatively dry. You can add more sugar to this but I don’t think it needs it.
This page was amended on 20/09/2013