The Great Schnitten Mystery
My mother introduced Schnitten in a phone call. When she was growing up, her grandmother (whom she called Omale, meaning “little grandmother” in German and pronounced oum a la) baked it for her family. Mother described it as a German dessert that was like a very thin brownie, topped by a raspberry jam layer. I digested the news that Omale had been a baker. It brought me closer to my roots. My dessert-loving roots, that is.
I can trace my passion for desserts back through many generations. My father’s aunt was my role model since she ate chocolate daily, after lunch and dinner, well into her nineties. My dad loved chocolate, marzipan, and the macaroons his mother baked with rosewater. On my mother’s side, my grandmother’s tale of indulging in a cone of chocolate as a child and getting powdered cocoa all over her face made me squeal with glee as did crunching my great aunt’s mandel bread. I have yet to sample any mandel bread bursting with as much almond and vanilla as hers. My mother’s stories of candies she liked in her youth, particularly the time eating Bit-O-Honey pulled out her braces, enchanted me. Throughout my life she has encouraged me to eat more than one dessert at a time. If I have the opportunity to eat several and choose only one, she’ll ask, “Why didn’t you eat more?” If I don’t eat any, she’ll wonder, “Are you feeling okay?”
All of this is to say that one fine day, when I was visiting my mother, I told her that I wanted to celebrate Omale by recreating Schnitten. In her eighties, Mother still eats desserts with gusto. She was a willing participant.
We needed a recipe. However, in German and Jewish cookbooks, our searches online, even a consultation with a cousin, an avid baker of German desserts, turned up Schnitten-less. So my mother resorted to two old standbys, The Joy of Cooking and From Manna To Mousse, a Jewish cookbook. I had my doubts. She had found brownie recipes. Ordinary. Not exotic like Schnitten.
But I couldn’t quit. I last saw Omale fifty years ago, when I was four and she ninety-four. The only things I had learned about her in the years since was that after she fled Nazi Germany for what was then called Palestine, when her sons, daughter, and granddaughter left Palestine for the U.S., Omale couldn’t get a visa right away and went to Cuba for a couple of years before moving to Massachusetts, where she loved taking care of her granddaughter and cooking German Jewish dinners for her family. If she could concoct Schnitten as a newly-arrived immigrant, I could certainly stick to my plans to bake it.
Add in a sliver of hope: chocolate. Instead of the four ounces of chocolate bits The Joy of Cooking recipe called for, my mother and I decided to use six ounces from dark chocolate bars saturated with freeze-dried raspberries. We also substituted two-thirds cup of sugar instead of two cups, and one and a half teaspoons of vanilla, instead of one teaspoon. Substitutions are de rigueur when we bake; we never precisely follow recipes.
As the chocolate melted in a double boiler on the stove, and the chocolate-raspberry aroma wafted around us, my mother said, “Remember when,” and I knew she was going to say, “we made lollipops,” and she did, adding, “They didn’t harden. And didn’t we make fudge?”
“I think we had the same problem,” I said, laughing at the memory of the mushy morsel. During the twenty-five minutes the Schnitten was baking, my hope had risen into more hopeful. Thanks to the chocolate. Its tantalizing smell infused the kitchen; I couldn’t wait to wrap my mouth around the chocolate raspberry confection.
Given our shared history of baking snafus, I should have predicted that our Schnitten would fall into this category. When she took the Schnitten out of the oven, it had morphed into slanted Schnitten—one end deep, the other delicate. The right side of the oven rack had collapsed, tilting downward. My mother’s taste test revealed it was not her childhood Schnitten, which was not cakey.
A few months later, I visited San Francisco’s 20th Century Café for my annual Jewish New Year treat. Offering such homemade Eastern European goodies as apple strudel, pear-almond cake, and poppy seed cake, this corner tea room in the bustling Hayes Valley neighborhood was my favorite place to enjoy Russian honey cake on a warm September afternoon. As a child, my teeth often cringed at honey cake’s too sweet sweetness. Chef/owner Michelle Polzine’s version, with its layers of cake and buttercream, was airy on my tongue. I was sad to finish it and was gazing open-mouthed at the cakes and pastries lining the counter, when I caught sight of a small sign that read “Esterhazy Schnitten” next to a glass dome encasing a slender, rectangular cake.
I gasped. Schnitten?
I asked to speak with Michelle Polzine. I explained about my family’s Schnitten. She said all that it referred to was, simply, a slice. It was not any particular kind of cake. It could be a slice of anything. Schnitten with a capital S had turned into schnitten.
When I got home, I called my mother. I had shocking news, I said. I wanted to make sure she was sitting. She was. The news brought to mind that Omale had called the dessert “chocolate schnitten,” and when she had presented it to her family, had shortened the name to schnitten.
I had solved The Great Schnitten Mystery. And by the way, I did try the Esterhazy Schnitten that day at the café. It wouldn’t have been fair to my upbringing if I had had only one dessert. And while I relished Esterhazy Schnitten’s hazelnut almond flavors, the schnitten I had baked with my mother won my heart. Lighter than a traditional brownie, it brought me closer to my roots. Not just my dessert-loving roots, but to Omale herself. Her perseverance in coming to the U.S. and embrace of German Jewish culture that shone through the cooking she loved to do for her family had enriched me with a lingering, satisfying fullness.
The moment my mother told me Omale had baked Schnitten for her family, I knew I had a story to tell. Both subjects piqued my curiosity. The little I knew about Omale, and my ignorance about this exotic dessert fascinated me. I asked questions about Schnitten’s flavor, smell, texture, and appearance, as well as how long Omale had been in Cuba and what she did when she immigrated to the U.S. I continued to ask questions to verify facts over the time leading up to our baking adventure while the chocolate aroma infused the kitchen. Every so often, I left the kitchen to jot notes in my journal.
Hearing my family’s stories about food, particularly desserts, has always nourished me. I listened to the way descriptions made me experience flavors in my imagination, feel the happiness revealed, and laugh at the zaniness depicted. I learned to experiment with recipes and, most of the time, to transform those headed toward disaster. My mother’s questions about how food tasted and why forced me to examine taste’s multiple layers, vis-à-vis my memory of it, the culture or context behind the taste, its history.
I liked bringing in my background as history and context. I knew that my legacy to dessert-eaters, my mother’s interest in my eating more than one dessert at a time, our history of making mistakes would add dashes of humor. I folded in everything, just as I mixed the ingredients to make Schnitten.
Eva M. Schlesinger is a two-time Moth StorySLAM winner, who has contributed to such publications as the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks To My Mom, and Cooking with The Muse. Recipient of the Literal Latte Food Verse Award, she is the author of Remembering the Walker & Wheelchair: poems of grief and healing and three titles for which she designed the covers: View From My Banilla Vanilla Villa, Ode 2 Codes & Codfish, and Ninnies Who Whinny. Eva is working on a YA novel and short story collection.