Most families have favorite recipes that have special meaning for all the kids and grandkids. In family, there’s the iced Christmas cookies my mom had us make every year and which now my sister Jenny makes with her kids and any of the nieces and nephews who are around. There’s the family brownie recipe, the family five-minute fudge recipe, the broccoli-cheese-rice casserole recipe, the chicken gumbo recipe (a mild version that suits my bland Anglo-Saxon palate), the pineapple jello salad recipe, and so on.
In my husband’s family, thanks to his mother’s side of the family, family favorites comprise an entire menu of German Mennonite dishes. To be more specific: Germans-from-Russia Mennonite dishes.
Now, my family has been in North America for so long that we don’t have any ethnic dishes in our family recipe treasure trove. Our recipes all have American names and no special ethnic history. I love our family foods; but in my husband’s family, the names themselves are unique and beloved:
Cherry Moos …
I’ve been learning to bake bread lately, focusing on rolls (let’s hear it for rolls!), and every time I talked about baking in the past couple of months, my husband would say, “You should make zwiebach.”
“What on earth is that?” I asked.
Or my mother-in-law would say, “Have you tried to make zwiebach?”
And my father-in-law would say, “And there’s always Oma’s zwiebach …”
I wasn’t even sure how it was spelled. Curious, I googled “zwieback” and found recipes for something like Melba toast. Then I looked up “zwiebach,” and I found it. Sure enough, it was a roll—a “double bun,” or a roll with a topknot on it.
So when the date rolled around for my husband’s grandfather’s 90th birthday, and I found myself searching for something special I could make, the answer was obvious.
I called my mother-in-law.
“Do you have a recipe for that zwiebach?” I asked.
Mom Nichols had her grandmother’s recipe in a family cookbook she worked on a few years back, so I borrowed the book and read the recipe. It raised a lot of questions for me.
Did I need to knead the dough? When exactly did I shape the rolls? What size should they be? How many rolls would the recipe make?
Because Oma went to heaven a long time ago, and since my mother-in-law has never made zwiebach herself, I scoured the Internet for advice. I read five or so zwiebach recipes, garnered tips from most of them, and then added a sheet containing the best advice to the cookbook containing Oma’s recipe.
As I looked over all the recipes, I realized I was going to have a timing problem—I wouldn’t be home most of the night before the party and wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on the dough for the first rise. Could I refrigerate the dough?
That sent me on a whole new Google adventure. I researched “refrigerating bread dough” until I had a good plan worked out.
- Friday after work: Mix and knead the dough and put it in the fridge.
- Leave for in-laws’ house for dinner and family trip to Boo at the Zoo event.
- Three hours later, return from Boo at the Zoo and remove dough from the fridge.
- Warm the chilled dough and complete the first rise.
- Stay up really, really late shaping dough, completing a second rise, and baking the rolls.
I own three cookie sheets, and I decided to bake all the rolls at once. I wound up with about 36 rolls. All golden brown, plump double rolls with an aroma that drew Chris into the kitchen.
He had to eat one away.
“Is this what they’re supposed to be like?” I asked.
“They taste like Oma’s!” he said.
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Really?”
“Although these are bigger than hers,” he said.
“Are they supposed to be small? Oh, dear,” I said.
“Oh, it’s fine,” he said. “Try one!”
Oh, yes, they were good. But I never had Oma’s zwiebach, so I didn’t know if I’d done what I wanted to do: reproduce a favorite.
The next morning we got into the car with two bags of rolls and drove to Abilene, Kansas, for the birthday party. We got there at noon, and I realized right away that the news that I was bringing zwiebach had spread.
“Heard you brought zwiebach,” said one of the uncles.
“Looks like zwiebach,” said someone else.
But the big test remained. As I watched the zwiebach disappear from the serving table, I also looked around the room to find people eating it. Chris’s grandma had one. Great Aunt Noreen had one. Uncle Kevin had one. Aunt Becky had one. In fact, almost everyone had one.
Had I done it?
I started walking around the room, stopping at each table for just a moment.
“These taste just like Oma’s.”
“ALMOST as good as Oma’s,” said Uncle John.
“Keep making the zwiebach,” said Uncle Kevin.
Well, Uncle Kevin, I will.
I don’t have any German blood, I’m not one of the family, but what better way to let them know I love and respect my husband’s heritage? And my boys are a quarter German. They and their future wives are going to know about zwiebach—with an “h.”
Oh, and Grandma said I can make the zwiebach any size I want.
Oma’s Zwiebach Recipe, revised by her great-granddaughter-in-law
1 cake compressed yeast [equates to 1 packet or 2 ¼ tsp]
½ cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
3 ½ c scalded milk [I didn’t know how to scald the milk so I microwaved it until it was hot]
1 cup shortening [I used ½ cup shortening and ½ cup butter]
4 tsp salt
Dissolve yeast in warm water with part of the sugar. Pour milk on shortening. When cool, add salt and rest of sugar.
Add the yeast mixture and 10–12 cups of flour [enough to make a medium dough that may be sticky. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.]
Let rise until double (about two hours at 80 degrees). SHORT COLD RISE: I let it rise in the refrigerator for three hours. When I took it out, it was almost double. At this point I boiled 1–2 cups of water in the microwave, then put the dough in the microwave with the hot water. The bread was raised double in less than an hour.
Knead down, then pinch off small to medium-sized of dough and put on greased pan. For every ball you roll, roll a second smaller one and set it on top of the first roll. Press down lightly with the knuckle of your index finger to meld the two rolls. Let rise for 30 minutes. Now bake at 375 for 20–25 minutes.