Monday, September 16, 2013

Baking My Way Back to Bavaria...Sort Of.

Allow me to set the scene. Season: Summer. Year: 1984. Place: Munich, Germany. Me: A fresh-faced kid and newly-minted graduate of SMU (Southern Methodist University). Dessert: Zwetschgendatschi. It's a mouthful, in more than one way but believe me, I quickly learned how to pronounce it because it became my favorite dessert when I was there.

Almost thirty years ago, I was in Munich working as a writer. I'd only just graduated from college and by happenstance I actually found myself employed in the very field in which I'd gotten my diploma. It's the one and only time I've ever been gainfully employed in my chosen profession: screenwriting. The husband and wife production management team hired me because they were looking for properties they could make into films as actual producers. One thing led to another and I found myself whisked from the superheated July of Dallas to work with them in the fall-like (to me) summer climes of Munich, Germany. Remind me to tell you about that part of the story some day.

I hadn't been out of the country since I was a kid and the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Munich were exciting...as well as overwhelming. I indulged in pomme frittes, bratwurst, pizza mit pfefferschoten, speck and this amazing plum cake with more consonants than I'd ever had to wrap my tongue around in one word before. Fortunately for me, it was much easier wrapping my tongue around the actual dessert! Zwetschgendatschi (pronounced ts-vetch-kin-dah-chee), which translates as "plum cake". I was exceptionally proud of myself when I learned how to pronounce that one.

I was even more proud the first time I asked for it on my own. ("Hast du zwetschgendatschi? Eine, bitte. Danke!") I must have eaten half my body weight in plum cake that summer. I had to, once I found out how short the season was for the plums that make filling. In the U.S. they're generally known as Italian prune plumbs and they're oval instead of round. When baked, they deliver a taste that's not too sweet and have a bit of a tang to them. Of course, I didn't care about any of that back then; I just knew it was one of the most delicious desserts I'd ever had and I wanted as much of it as I could get! My employers/hosts got such a kick out of my love of zwetschgendatschi.

My Munich adventure ended four months after it began. My return to Dallas also ended my career as a screenwriter (I never wanted to move to L.A., so that killed the prospects of my continuing). And it also ended my access to zwetschgendatschi. Not that I didn't try to find it, mind you. I got more strange looks from waitresses and waiters whenever I asked for it. I mean, I knew it wasn't on the menu; I just wanted to know if anyone there knew what it was. Nope. (Granted, I might have gotten a different response had I been asking in South Central Texas, not too far from my hometown of San Antonio, because there's a sizable population of descendants from German immigrants down there.)

I haven't had zwetschgendatschi in almost thirty years but yesterday I ended that dry spell by finally baking my very own!

An Brief Summary of Lame Excuses (in Countdown Order): 4) I'm not a good enough baker to make this. 3) I can't get the same kind of plums, so why bother? 2) I can't find a good recipe for zwetschgendatschi. And 1) I can't spell "zwetschgendatschi" so I can't look up a recipe!  Hey, I said they were lame excuses! 

An Brief Summary of Lame Excuses (in Countdown Order) ends.

When I saw the right plums for sale at one of the stalls in the farmers market that sets up every Thursday in front of Columbia, I swore that if I found a good enough recipe, I grab up some and try to make it. One quick search led me here (thanks, NPR) so I bought three pounds of plums. One of the sellers reminded me how short the season was for these plums and I just knew I had made the right decision. Plus, Michele and I were hosting a gathering of some artist friends yesterday so the game was afoot! Of course, this meant that, once again, I was going to break my own number one rule of never serving a first-time dessert to guests, but I just couldn't stop the momentum. I just had to give it my best shot, if for no other reason than to brush against a long-held memory.

Fail or succeed, I am what I dare. And yesterday morning I dared to be a good baker.

The images below are kind of quick and dirty (I really do need to work out a better lighting/camera situation for this blog) but they illustrate three stage of this project

Square pan will work just as well!
It all stacked up quite nicely!
Cooling on the rack!

Once it cooled down and Michele dished it out, the looks of enjoyment and thumbs up from our guests made my heart sing. I tasted it myself and realized I'd captured yet another flavor of my past. It was Bavaria, Munich, Müenchen, all over again. One friend, Carolyn (who is originally from England) told be that it was the best pastry she'd ever had in her life and that it topped anything her mother or her little sister ever served her – and she considered their pastries tops. She's given to hyperbole but I took it as a high compliment. (She also said that she'd never tell her sister what she'd just told me.)

So, let this be a lesson to me: just bake to the best of my ability, with all the joy and love in my heart, and the odds will be in my favor that I'll end up with something that's delicious and "happiness-making."

Currently listening to: Sonique - It Feels So Good

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