Baking the GDR back to life

This week it’s exactly 26 years since the Berlin Wall came down on the 9th of November 1989. From that day on, Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Mars bars started flooding the former GDR – or from a more positive point of view: from that day on, East Germans finally had the chance to taste the West.

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

But no matter how good (?) a western hamburger tastes, anyone who grew up in the GDR will from time to time long for the taste of those long gone days. It’s getting harder and harder to find, but some bakeries still sell the ‘Backwaren’ as they once were. Or, even better: if you find the right cookbook, you can recreate the pure taste of the GDR yourself. So I tried.

Important first step: finding a GDR cookbook. I already owned a ‘DDR Backbuch’, but this book was published in 2014, in a village near the very West-German city of Stuttgart. It provides some interesting background on baking in the GDR, “where baking happened with a lot of love and dedication”, which makes it interesting but also anything but authentic. So I went to Bibliotheca Culinaria, a ‘Kochbuchantiquariat’: an antiquarian bookshop filled with cookbooks. Yes, you can really find everything you’re looking for in Berlin.

In this narrow shop, there were shelves filled with cookbooks from any country of the world, shelves filled with cookbooks dating back to the 1700’s and a whole wall filled with cookbooks from the GDR. I chose ‘Unser Kochbuch’ (published 1952): the cookbook that virtually every East German household owned. The owner gave me ‘Das Backbuch’ (published 1983) as a gift, telling me that people in the former GDR still use recipes from this book, since they simply taste better. As he told me, for this reason the book is still being published. Happy as a kid I went home, ready to pick something East German to bake.

Much, much more than just a cookbook

Finding a recipe turned out to be a challenge in itself. ‘Unser Kochbuch’ starts with two introductions, one of them by Prof. Dr. phil, Dr. med. vet. h.c., Dr. agr. h.c. (no joke) Scheunert, who tells us a good cookbook is not just a “study book and advisor in the kitchen”, but also “a tool to bridge the gap between the needs of our bodies and the way we fulfil those with the right composition and preparation of food”. Also, he wishes the book the best of luck in contributing to the health of the people. Right. I just wanted to bake a cake.

As well as providing hundreds of recipes, from goulash to coffee, the book also tells the housewives of the GDR how to lay the table and how to preserve vegetables, fruit and even meat. Even though there was always enough to eat in the GDR, some products were hard to obtain. Since 1.5 million East Germans had their own ‘Kleingarten’ (allotment), they could easily grow their own fruit and vegetables. By preserving them, the people of the GDR made sure they had their own supply all year long – perfect to use in their favourite cake. When other ingredients were hard to acquire, they improvised a little more (have a look at the recipe below to see what I mean

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

Oh, the GDR irony

So I picked a recipe that was published in all of my GDR cookbooks: Pflaumenkuchen, or plum cake. A typical autumn recipe, since at the end of summer the East Germans would harvest the plums in their allotments. And here comes the ironic part: I’ve seen plums in every supermarket for the last months, but just this week I couldn’t find them anymore. This was my own GDR challenge: now I had to improvise! I decided to go with pears, completely unsure about the effect this would have on the cake’s taste.

I’ll spare you the baking details, but I’m afraid my skills aren’t nearly as good as those of the GDR housewives (who, by the way, almost all had a fulltime job on top of their domestic duties). So how did my pear cake taste? It might have been better with plums, but to tell you the truth mine mostly tasted very sweet with a very crunchy – in a good way! – crust.  Was this how my Kuchen was supposed to taste?

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

So what does the GDR really taste like?

I decided to go on a short metro ride and pay a visit to Feinbäckerei Wenzel on Frankfurter Allee 47.  Apparently, this baker still sticks to his old recipes – and if he ever decided to do otherwise, he would lose all his customers. Inside the bakery I found a world of GDR sweetness, from Schillerlocken to Pfannkuchen and from Zupfkuchen to Windbeutel – and a lot of customers who were very happy to tell me about their favourite GDR treats. I picked the Pflaumenkuchen and the Frankfurter Kranz, a personal favourite of the girl behind the counter.

To be completely honest (I’m sorry, girl behind the counter): I wouldn’t suggest the Kranz to anyone who doesn’t like a lot of thick, fat butter between two layers of cake – fans of this concept should really try it, though. The Pflaumenkuchen, however, was delicious: very fresh and less sweet than my improvised pear-variety, thanks to the sourness of the plums. The crust tasted a little more like bread and a little less like cookies – which at least makes you feel like you’re not eating something that will make you gain a kilo for every bite you take. Did it have the true East German flavour? Who knows. But for me it is probably as close as I will ever get to tasting the GDR.

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

Curious? Here’s the recipe:

Pflaumenkuchen, as published in ‘Das Backbuch’

(I used half the quantities)

Ingredients for the dough (‘Knetteich’):

  • 500 g flour
  • 1 sachet of baking powder
  • 175 g margarine
  • 125 g sugar
  • salt
  • lemon peel OR vanilla sugar OR 3 bitter almonds (I guess these 3 alternative options are a result of the shortages in the GDR)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 1,5 kg plums
  • 100 g sugar + some extra
  • 200 g flour
  • 100 g margarine
  • salt
  • a small amount of butter

How to prepare the dough:

Sift the flour and baking powder and slowly add the other ingredients. Mix until you have a ball of dough. Lay on a greased baking pan, creating an edge.

Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaan

How to prepare the filling:

Slice the plums lengthwise, remove the stone, cut in half again and put the fruit flat and in a scaly manner on the dough. Scatter a bit of sugar on it. Combine the flour, margarine, sugar and salt to make a crumble mix and spread over the plums. Bake on medium heat (180 – 200 degrees Celcius) for 40 minutes. Take out of the oven and directly pour melted butter over it. Again scatter some sugar on the top.