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America, baking, butter, cake, cooking, dessert, recipes

Ich Bin Ein Kuchen

08.06.08 | Comment?

You know how families have those classic recipes, the ones that are passed down through generations? Maybe there’s a grandmother that made Apple Pie That Brought the Family Together, and then she taught her daughter how to make it and that woman taught her daughter and it becomes the family legacy with ‘secret ingredients’ and exciting stuff like that. Or there’s your father’s (hey, we’re equal opportunity) famous cake, or chili, or that lasagna that’s more of a home than the house is. And every time you eat lasagna at a restaurant you end up disappointed: it doesn’t taste right. There’s something missing. Only Grandma/Mom/Dad has The Recipe.

Yeah, our family doesn’t have one of those. Our rotation of dinner recipes was simple, quick, functional. The meals rotated between chicken teriyaki, chicken cooked in tomato, crock-pot beef Stroganoff, grilled chicken or lamb chops, take out pizza. The dearth of exciting recipes was a due to time constraints but ,according to my mother, more so that I “wouldn’t eat anything.” So pretty much, it’s all my fault that my family never made poignant edible legacies. That’s it—pass the buck.

My grandmother, Nana, is a good cook, and even though I was picky, somehow she managed to always please me. (I think grandparents have special powers.) The way she cooks is the way her food is eaten: quick and simple. Latkes and brisket are gone in a flash, and the only evidence of her perfectly-cooked steak is its empty, juicy pan. I frequently requested a dish I still call Nana’s potatoes: sliced potatoes sprinkled with Parmesan and baked. But the closest thing we have to The Family Recipe, at least in my book, is Nana’s Kuchen (German for ‘cake’).

Nana makes kuchens and other foods and freezes them until she needs them (you should see this woman’s freezer—instant dinner party in a box.). Her kuchen is not a dense, moist pan of butter and sugar sagging beneath a spackling of frosting. It’s light, crumb-y, pleasingly dry, topped with sliced fruit and sprinkled with a touch of sugar. It’s not smack-you-in-the-mouth, feel-the-cavities-form sweet, but just enough to make you notice that it’s sweet. And it’s perfect a la mode.

Once I got into food and cooking, I had to have the recipe. I would mention this, mouth full, on every occasion we had dessert, but still, no recipe. And then my sneaky mom got a hold of the recipe. And then about a year ago, freed from the apparent burdens a once-picky eater, she made a kuchen. Without me. And sent me a picture of it. Thanks Mom.

Of course, I would only remember that I wanted to make a kuchen when I ate one of Nana’s, and then Mom would mention vaguely, “Oh, I have the recipe somewhere.” ‘Somewhere’ turned out to be the haphazardly disorganized yellow plastic box buried in the bottom of our hutch beneath never-used printed recipes and Cooking Light compilations. Helpful.

The other night we had six guests over for dinner, and I decided that the perfect end to a meal of Game Hens in a Moroccan Tomato Jam, Saffron-Spiced Rice, and Rosemary Focaccia would be a Tangerine-Chili-Ricotta Frozen Yogurt atop not one but two different types of kuchen.

You can plop pretty much any type of fruit on top of a kuchen. Plums, peaches, raspberries and blueberries always work particularly well. I’m tempted to try putting on sliced grapes, but when I told my mom that she made a face of confusion and mild disgust. I got the same look when I suggested banana, but I feel like the dough is essentially a big pancake, and banana pancakes are good, so why not?

I’ll just make a grape or banana kuchen and keep it all to myself and ignore the picky eaters who are crimping my gastronomic lifestyle.

Nana’s Kuchen
½ cup butter
¼ cup sugar plus 3 tablespoons for sprinkling
1 egg
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
fresh fruit, like plums, peaches, nectarines, sliced, or any kind of berry—go wild

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Set aside. In another bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg. Stir in the flour mixture. Add the vanilla and mix well. Pat the dough onto the bottom of a p-inch layer cake pan. Arrange the fruit atop the dough, sprinkle with 3 tablespoons sugar and a teaspoon of cinnamon (optional). Bake for 1 ¼ hours, but check at one hour because mine came out with slightly crunchy, dark brown crusts.
Optional: spread the top with ½ cup of beaten apricot jam while the cake is still hot for a nice glaze.

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