Sweet memories of Nanna’s cakes
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.