One of my favorite cookbooks is Classic German Baking (2016) by Luisa Weiss, considered to be one of the definitive books on the subject. It is one of those narrative cookbooks you can’t put down: It brilliantly explains how an afternoon cake or plate of Christmas cookies can solve most everything, but also how recipes illuminate the history and culture of a place. Spoiler alert: German treats are far less sweet than American desserts, which makes them that much more addictive.
Weiss was an early food blogger, writing the award-winning Wednesday Chef for more than a decade. After ten years in New York City, she moved back to Berlin, where she had spent a large part of her childhood, and wrote a bestselling memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, which tells the story of her life split between continents and divorced parents. It’s also a love story: she first met and fell in love with her husband Max when she lived in Paris, but they went separate ways. She became a book editor in New York before reconnecting with him years later in Berlin after a broken engagement. They got married in Italy and now have two sons, ages 8 and almost 4.
As someone who feels caught between cultures, I’ve been drawn to Weiss’s cross-cultural life. How do you find where you belong? Can you hop between continents and still feel like you have a home? I realized, as she did, that a family spaghetti sauce can taste the same in any city and any kitchen around the world, and the act of making it is incredibly comforting as you search for home.
I have baked many of the recipes in her book: apple and plum cakes, butter cookies and pretzels, and even the strudel, which seems complicated but produces the most luxurious and easy-to-work-with dough. Baking, whether it’s recipes from your home culture or one that you are curious about, is one of the best ways to travel without leaving home (hello, 2020).
I talked to Luisa about coffee and cake culture in Germany, how she chooses which recipes to bake at Christmas, if there will be another cookbook in the future, and why she feels so settled in Germany.
Watch the full interview, or read the highlights below.
Let’s start with an overview of German baking. Can you talk about coffee and cake culture, and what it means to many Germans?
Yes, absolutely, it is considered one of the meals of the day—you have breakfast, lunch, kaffeezeit [coffee time], and then dinner. For many Germans, there is still that moment in the afternoon when you take a break and have a snack. I talk about my father-in-law because it always cracks me up. He’s a car mechanic and has his own shop, and at 3pm every day, they put down their tools, go out to the corner bakery, order a big piece of cake, eat, and go back and finish work. Certainly on the weekends, this time is still relatively sacred. You always have a chance to stop and invite people over. Socializing will revolve around coffee and cake together. Now that we’re all home more, baking is a nice way to spend the time.
You have talked about how many bakeries use frozen dough, and some of that tradition is disappearing. Have you noticed a bakery renaissance at all?
The proliferation of chain bakeries in Germany has been the biggest problem where the goal is to produce food as cheaply as possible. This is where you see the frozen rolls coming from Eastern Europe, even China, and being sold for pennies. For a long time, I didn’t see an urgency in the general public to safeguard and respect the traditions that I think were getting lost. But the last few years things have changed. For example, in Berlin, which was always infamous for having really terrible bread, there are some amazing new bakeries, some of them run by immigrants and also Germans, who are making incredible artisanal sourdough bread. Germany has this wealth of knowledge and handicraft and artisanship that needs to be respected and honored.
What are some of the greatest bakery hits that people love the most in Germany? And, what are your sons’ favorite recipes?
Germans love their fresh rolls on a weekend and of course, fresh pretzels are a big thing for kids. They love a lot of the yeasted sweet cakes. Even though they are still being made at home, people buy them a lot in bakeries and even the chain bakeries definitely have a tray of bienenstich [honey-almond caramel cake] with cream filling or poppy seed rolls with streusel on top. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’d have it with coffee. We’re a tea family, and our kids are really into tea.
My kids love [all sorts of] pretzels—it’s not just pretzels but pretzel rolls, twists, braids, pretzel croissants, which are salty and have an additional layer of flavor. They also love rosinenbrötchen [raisin buns], which is a classic kids’ treat in Germany, a white fluffy roll made with enriched, yeasted dough with raisins in it.
I think we did a good job covering the German baking tradition in the book, although it’s hard because there’s so much and I had to limit it. But the next one would beg to have a German cooking element.
On the flip side, what are a few of your favorite lesser-known recipes that are in the book and why?
I love the savory chapter. Those were a revelation to me, all the savory, yeasted tarts filled with everything from scallions and bacon and savory streusel on top. There’s an onion cake called zweibelkuchen [savory onion cake] always eaten here during the harvest time, and the cabbage strudel is just amazing.
One of the things I learned while writing this book is that strudel is actually really easy to make. It looks difficult but it’s not. You can fill it with all kinds of things—fruit, or quark, which is a fresh cheese, but also things like mashed potatoes and cabbage. I always thought if I could just get people to love strudel with this book, it would be worth it.
What are your must-bake items every year out of a list of 24—yes, I counted!—Christmas recipes?
I try to make the old-fashioned gingerbread, lebkuchen, every year. It requires a bit of advance planning because you let the dough ripen for a couple of months before baking it. The dough is a dream to work with, especially with kids, you can roll it out and cut it and roll it again, and it doesn’t really suffer. They travel really well and are great for shipping. Two months is the ideal amount of time [to let the dough rest], but you could also make it the day before. It won’t have as much round, rich flavor. The flavor will be fine and it will taste like gingerbread but the longer it ages, it develops this whole other level of flavor.
I love the—it’s difficult to pronounce—the lebkuchen-powidltatschkerln [plum-filled gingerbread pockets]. They’re little rye cookies that you fill with plum paste and pull together and crimp. They’re delicious and chewy and fruity. I also love the biberle, which my friend [and cookbook assistant] Maja introduced me to, a really thin gingerbread dough rolled around a log of almond paste. They look like [the snack food] Combos, and they’re spicy, gingerbread-y, rich from the almond paste, and just such a delight.
I also love the elisenlebkuchen [glazed flourless Nuremberg lebkuchen], a traditional round gingerbread baked on a wafer. If you leave out the wafer, it’s actually gluten-free, with a lot of ground nuts, spices, almond paste, and chopped up candied orange peel. Then you can cover them in a sugar or chocolate glaze.
I love every recipe in this book and we worked so hard on getting them all right, but it’s particularly hard to pick out a favorite in the Christmas section!
This reminds me about a reason why I love German baking—in America, the cookies and desserts can be overly sweet.
It is true and I think it’s why we’re able to have cakes and treats on a regular basis. In the yeasted cake chapter, I talk about how they are just slightly sweetened bread doughs. They’re so fruit-forward that having a piece of pflaumenkuchen [plum cake] with a yeasted base and plums on top is a treat but it’s not heavy or all that rich. It’s a nice pick-me-up in the middle of the day and won’t give you a crazy sugar high and then crash. Even the tortes and cakes that are a little more special occasion-y, like the poppy seed tortes [mohnstreuselkuchen] or linzertorte [spiced almond jam tart], there is much less sugar than in American baking, which is why Germans are simultaneously totally transfixed by American baking and also kind of appalled because it’s so creamy and impressive but it’s also so tooth-achingly sweet.
I think many people feel a longing or dream of a life in Europe. Why do you think you feel so settled in Germany, even though you will always also be American?
I was born in Berlin, but I was raised by an Italian and an American. We also lived in Boston, my father and I. I grew up in somewhat of a non-German bubble within the city of Berlin. This was during the height of the Cold War, when west Berlin where we lived was filled with Americans, French, and English people who had very little to do with the Berlin population. I wonder if that helped me feel so at home here. All I can say is that I’ve felt believing and feeling deep in my soul that this is where I belong. It feels like home on such a deep, profound, personal level and I can’t really imagine calling anywhere else home. They were very hard years when I wasn’t living here but I knew I wanted to be here and couldn’t figure out how. I was so sad and couldn’t see a path to be where I belonged. I feel so fortunate that I was able to identify that and actually move here. I feel at peace now, which is everything.
When this is all over and we can travel more freely, where are some places in Germany that you want to visit?
Because of that global background, I have spent very little time traveling in Germany and I’m extremely embarrassed by it. But high on my list is Hamburg, and it’s not even that far from here. And also the Black Forest—the food offerings in southern Germany are legendary.