Sweet mem­o­ries of Nanna’s cakes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

Travel is full of lit­tle madeleine mo­ments. Mar­cel Proust’s fa­mous cake and tea episode in In Search of Lost Time has be­come a uni­ver­sal metaphor for how the scent or taste of some­thing en­coun­tered when far from home can take you hurtling back in time and place. It hap­pens to me in Baden-Baden, the spa town on the edge of Ger­many’s Black For­est fa­mous as the 19th-cen­tury sum­mer cap­i­tal of Europe. In the win­dow of a cafe, I spy a cake my Mum used to make from a Barossa-Deutsch recipe passed down from my nanna. She called it yeast cake; folk in the Barossa of­ten call it Ger­man cake. It’s streuselkuchen, with a crumbly top­ping served at Cafe Konig with bustling ef­fi­ciency by Frau Keck.

One bite and I am tele­ported to child­hood, stand­ing by the wood-fired slow-com­bus­tion stove as Mum takes the streuselkuchen from the oven. That stove was cru­cial be­cause this is a rather tricky cake to bake, re­quir­ing end­less knead­ing and prov­ing of dough at a con­stant am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture, a warm fug smelling of vanilla and yeast. “It’s not a patch on your nanna’s,” Mum would usu­ally lament. Pre­ceded into the kitchen by her for­mi­da­ble apron­wrapped bo­som, Nanna was a bril­liant home cook, spin­ning a Miche­lin star-wor­thy meal from the most ba­sic in­gre­di­ents, mak­ing her own bread, cheese, but­ter and blood pud­ding, even trap­ping pi­geons in the gar­den for the pot. How won­der­ful to re­call these lay­ers of mem­ory from a sin­gle bite of cake in far­away Baden-Baden.

I like that the madeleine and streuselkuchen are rather plain af­fairs; my favourite sweet treats in Europe are not the whim­si­cal cre­ations of the Parisian patissier, shaped like Marie An­toinette’s breasts or adorned with frip­peries that might dou­ble as a Mel­bourne Cup fas­ci­na­tor (although these aren’t half bad), but sim­pler, less em­bel­lished cakes such as the slices of retes (strudel) and flodni (wal­nut or pop­py­seed pas­try) in Bu­dapest’s pala­tial cafes, best washed down with a heart-start­ing sip of palinka. Or the gi­ant kur­toskalacs, a tra­di­tional pas­try made by rolling dough around a cylin­der and doused in sugar, sold from street stalls near the Danube.

This north­ern spring, I dis­cover another re­gional spe­cialty in the me­dieval city of Murten in the Swiss can­ton of Fri­bourg, where third-gen­er­a­tion baker Uli takes me into the kitchens of her fam­ily’s Back­erei Kon­di­torei Ae­ber­sold. I would cross the globe again for a slice of Uli’s nidelkuchen. Like streuselkuchen, it be­gins with a bread­like dough, but is topped with three lay­ers of lightly fer­mented cream and two lay­ers of the finest dou­ble cream pro­duced by the cows of nearby Gruyere.

Uli’s cake has inspired me to aban­don Su­doku-style brain train­ing in an ef­fort to find my car keys and rec­ol­lect PINs. I will in­stead ex­pand the madeleine-streuselkuchen experiment. A tour of the cake shops of Europe is bound to jog my mem­ory.

Su­san Kuro­sawa is on an­nual leave. Chris­tine McCabe is T&I’s se­nior con­tribut­ing editor.

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