Today is the publication day of Classic German Baking! I woke up this morning feeling like a child on Christmas morning, all full of the jitters and happy adrenaline. What an incredible journey it's been, from signing the contract in the spring of 2014, through all the months of testing and writing and testing again and writing some more, getting through the cover design, up through today. I poured my heart and soul into the book and feel so honored to be bringing not just these recipes but all this information about the wonderful German baking culture and its inherent coziness and comfort to readers everywhere. Those of you who pre-ordered your book online should be receiving it today or at least this week. As of today, you can find the book in stores. On Goodreads, you can read the first reader reviews. And next week, I start my book tour in the US. Dearest readers, I hope you love the book!
In honor of today, I'm doing a giveaway on Instagram, so head on over there to enter (click!). The winner receives a copy of the book, an antique stoneware Gugelhupf pan, and a little starter kit of specialty ingredients for German baking, which I hope is especially useful with Christmas baking lurking just around the corner. The kit includes almond paste (a recipe for which is in the book), poppy seeds, candied citron and orange peel, Lebkuchen mixed spice (a recipe for which is in the book), baking wafers for Elisenlebkuchen, baker's ammonia (not pictured, because I still have to track it down!), and potash (also known as potassium bicarbonate or potassium carbonate). Sources for all of these ingredients and more are in the book, on page 270.
As I mention in the book's acknowledgments, I could not have written the book without the essential help I received from Maja Welker, a home baker extraordinaire who assisted me throughout all the entire recipe testing process. It's no exaggeration to say that finding Maja felt like some kind of cosmic fate. I quite literally could not have found a better person to work with on this particular book. Maja kept me company in the kitchen and as I researched, got as excited about leavener variations as I did (more even, maybe?), contributed some of her favorite recipes (her Marmorkuchen, marble cake, is the best version of marble cake I've ever had), never lost steam, even in the face of nearly 10 rounds of Pfeffernüsse testing, pinch-hit on our photo re-shoot day when I was actually delirious with the flu, and generally has been an amazing friend and inspiration throughout. Which is why, on this marvelous day, I'd like to publish a little interview I did with Maja, so you can read more about the person who practically overnight became such an integral part of the book.
Maja and Aubrie Pick, the photographer, on the day we re-shot ten (!!) recipes for the book in my apartment.
1. So, Maja, where in Germany are you originally from?
I grew up in Uelzen, a small town south of Hamburg in the Lüneburger Heide, where Heidesand (Almond Sugar Cookies, page 15) and Heidjertorte (Lingonberry Buckwheat Cream Torte, page 119) originate from.
2. And how did you end up in Berlin?
My husband got a job here seven years ago and since I still worked as a freelance translator back then, I just packed up my desk and followed him.
3. What got you to answer my (desperate) call for help?
I had stumbled upon your blog relatively recently (on the day of the Cold Summer Borscht to be exact - where normal people have a visual or auditory memory, I have a culinary one), but was instantly hooked. Within a couple of weeks I had read your entire blog from end (= the most recent recipe) to beginning. When I saw your "Help Wanted" post it seemed as if you had tailored it just for me - but moreover, I felt we had a common style. The recipes on your blog came from real life, were meant for everyday cooking and baking and not just for show. It would have felt difficult to work in the kitchen with someone who wanted every dish and every cake to be perfect and a masterpiece. Since I had gotten tired of the solitary translator work and my other job at Pfefferkontor, a small mail-order spice shop, only kept me occupied three days a week, I decided to jump at it.
4. How old were you when you started baking?
I actually can't remember NOT baking. There is photographic evidence of me at 20 months standing next to my older sister, both of us on chairs to be able to reach the work top, rolling out dough and cutting out cookies. I actually still have some of these cookie cutters and use them every Christmas!
5. Okay, so I guess that partially explains how you got to be so incredibly good at it!
It certainly helped that I like to eat! As you can see above, we were encouraged to help in the kitchen early on. I had barely learned to read when I fell in love with cookbooks (which I still read like novels, picture books and encyclopedias) and whenever I wasn't lying on the living room couch or my bed with an actual novel or a food magazine, I could be found in the kitchen baking. All in all, I spend quite some time there: braiding rich yeasted loaves for Easter breakfast, swirling Marmorkuchen for birthdays, building gingerbread houses during Christmas time - but it almost never feels like a chore. And when you find yourself with your apron on so often and loving it, you can't help but become good at it.
Maja and Bertram's homemade Lebkuchen houses. I mean!!!
5. What role did baking play in your childhood?
My mother was a wonderful cook and baker and we always had home-baked cake or cookies for Nachmittagskaffee (yes, we had some kind of baked goods and tea or coffee every single afternoon!). My father loved cake so much that every time he went grocery shopping he returned with at least one additional package of yeast "just in case you ladies were in the mood for baking a yeasted plum cake or Swedish cinnamon buns". What a shame it would have been to be out of yeast then!
6. And so what role does baking play in your life today?
Somehow, baking is therapy for me: punching and pummeling a yeasted dough, the comforting reliability of a sponge cake, the fascination of Pfitzauf (a Swabian cousin to Yorkshire pudding) rising in the oven - it always works wonders! Plus I discovered that you can make other people really happy by baking for them. In recent years we have basically stopped buying "real" birthday or hostess gifts, and make cookies instead. I had never thought about it becoming an obvious routine until I heard our friends' 5-year-old son say to his parents, "I TOLD you Maja and Bertram would bring cookies." Luckily, Bertram loves to eat and bake as well (although I'd say he has more of a normal person's approach to baking as opposed to my obsession). There are a couple of recipes in our household that he is always responsible for, like Zupfkuchen (Chocolate Quark Cheesecake, page 54), Quarkstollen (Quark-Almond Sweet Bread, page 256) or Nusskuchen (Toasted Hazelnut Loaf Cake, page 42).
A gift for a 4-year-old's birthday...
7. What was your favorite thing about working on Classic German Baking?
Working with someone who didn't take the German cake culture for granted but recognized it for something worth writing home about! And I loved that you are as excitable about small things as I am: the flaky crust of our very first Pflaumenstrudel (and the second! and the third!!), the soft, yielding texture of a well-kneaded yeast dough,... this list could go on for a while.
Testing rhubarb cake with and without Streusel.
8. And, I have to ask...what was your least favorite thing (ack!)?
Having to drop some recipes! It wasn't so hard with a couple of them (a truly disappointing applesauce cake or some of the blander Linzer tortes) but the Rhubarb Meringue Cake? Apfelbrot? Weiße Lebkuchen? None of them made it into the final selection, but they were all delicious in their own right and I will definitely give them second (or third) chances! Oh, and sometimes it was difficult to remember to measure everything carefully. And things like, "How much longer did we bake this version of the cake until the filling finally set?" or "How much cinnamon did I add to this next batch, because the flavor of the last one was much too weak?" I guess I learned that testing recipes for a cookbook is quite different from impulsive home-baking...
Testing Amerikaner with different raising agents.
9. Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
No chance! I couldn't even pick one favorite from each chapter, so I won't try.
10. Which of the recipes in Classic German Baking have become favorites in your home now?
Some of them were favorites even before (like Marmorkuchen (Marble Cake, page 72), Zwiebelkuchen (Savory Onion Cake, page 152) or Schwarz-Weiss-Gebäck (Checkerboard Cookies, page 16). But I have definitely added Quarkbrötchen (Sweet Quark Rolls, page 188), Schwäbischer Prasselkuchen (Swabian Streusel-Jam Slices, page 34) and Salzekuchen (Hessian Potato Cake, page 156) to my monthly rota!
Testing Mohnhörnchen on a weekend.
11. Okay, now the really important questions: First of all, when do you start baking for Christmas?
As we always get together with my sister on the first Advent weekend, I try to have at least 5 or 6 different homemade cookies for our Adventskaffeetrinken ready by then. To be able to achieve this, I usually start preparing different doughs sometime in early November and stash them in the freezer. Nussstangen (Hazelnut-Almond Batons, page 238) are always among these! Other cookies have to ripen anyway, so I start baking Lebkuchen in the middle of November.
12. And what are you planning on baking for Advent and Christmas this year?
The usual: some new recipes, some old ones (the old ones being traditional cookies from Bertram's family, or from my family, the better ones in the "new" category from recent years - it's an ever-growing list!). I never manage to bake all of the different cookies I write down on my "to-bake" list sometime in November, but we usually have between 14 and 18 different kinds. Plus I really want delve into Lebkuchen a bit more this year. And yes, Christmas in our home is mostly cookies - plus Linzer Torte (page 134) and maybe a Baumkuchen (page 259).
As usual, Maja, I'm in awe. Thank you, thank you, thank you for everything!
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