Food & Drink

New Year’s Cakes: A Family History and a Recipe Adapted for Today

Finkwarder neejohrskoken cookies seemed to be intricately linked to the celebration of his escape from great harm. They expressed our gratitude for his life. . .

 

Poorly trained and pathetically ill-equipped, yet forced to “resist to the last” by fanatic Nazi superiors, some 175,000 men and young boys perished in the Volkssturm during the last months of the war. Their senseless ordeal is perhaps best memorized in Bernhard Wicki’s haunting movie “The Bridge,” an Oscar contender for best foreign language film in 1960.

My father was not one of them, and in my family it was always felt that he escaped almost certain death by a hair’s breath. His mother, for some reason, was always credited with the fortunate hour of his birth, a mere 40 minutes into the year of 1930, when nobody, of course, could have foreseen the dramatic consequences the exact timing would have 15 years later.

In fact, the family probably considered this my grandmother’s greatest accomplishment — ever. She was a stingy woman, even back when she was pregnant with her first and only child. Family lore has it that when she felt contractions coming on, instead of taking a cab to the hospital — as my grandfather had instructed her to do; he was still at his job at a printing plant at 3 p. m. on that New Year’s Eve — she decided to take the tram. Which, of course, was just pulling out of the stop when she arrived with her overnight bag, and so she ran after it, gesticulating until the conductor let her on. Trams were not running very frequently on New Year’s Eve of 1929 in Hamburg.

Despite the physical exertion, she gave birth some 10 hours later — at 12:40 a.m., by her own, never-disputed account. So as a child, I was acutely aware — and repeatedly reminded — of the fact that between my father’s prosperous life and likely early death lay less than three quarters of an hour.

Finkwarder neejohrskoken cookies seemed to be intricately linked to the celebration of his escape from great harm. They expressed our gratitude for his life and, by extension, for my brother’s and my own. Only much later did I realize that the recipe actually hailed from my mother’s family. She was born and raised on a small island in the Elbe river, Finkenwerder, which by that time had become a suburb of the port city of Hamburg. In fact, she lived there almost her whole life, as many generations of her entire family had done before her.

My father, when he married her, easily adapted to the place. He learned to speak the local dialect, threw himself into the community and gradually took over responsibility for his in-laws’ big garden and fruit orchard. Among the things he loved best was local food, such as fried flounder or finkwarder neejohrskoken, the crisp New Year’s cakes the inhabitants of Finkenwerder (more or less the same few families for centuries) had prepared for generations.

With their sweet spicy aroma and heavy with butter, they are not for the faint of heart. That they are baked in a waffle iron speaks to their versatility: You could prepare them without an oven for baking. The recipe is affordable to local farmers and fishermen. The butter that I now use would have been, I am sure, lard, and anise, whose seeds give these treats their distinctive flavor, could be found growing wild even in the inclement climate of northern Germany.

The recipe is among the simplest I have ever come across. It is old-fashioned in that it requires time, and not “largely unattended.” Time is what my ancestors had more than enough of in the winter: hours and hours in the kitchen, by the only hot stove in the farm house, darkness descending outside as early as three in the afternoon.

So there was my mother in the kitchen, under her shower cap. I could hear the radio playing quietly. She would have borrowed one of the really old electric irons from her mother and, depending on which one she had selected, she would produce either triangular, thick cookies or millimeter-thin wafers — the ones we all favored but that would take hours to make. The shower cap was for a reason: My mother got a precious perm every couple of months at the local hair salon and went in every week to have her hair done. Washing it in between those sessions was kept to a minimum, so she needed to shield it from the greasy smoke emanating from the old irons.

I’d drop my school bag and slip out of my coat. Then I’d wash my hands with greater care than usual and slide into the chair opposite hers at the kitchen table. I would start to form the patties from the dough that she would put, one by one, into the iron. In the overheated kitchen, I would beg her to tell me stories about myself when I was little, about herself when she was a girl, and always, always the one of my grandmother, her mother-in-law, running after the tram on New Year’s Eve.

Later, many years went by without my ever thinking about those baking sessions. But when my daughter was a couple of years old and we lived in Brooklyn, I thought it would be nice to have an iron again to make waffles for breakfast for her, and the waffle iron reminded me of the old recipe. It coincided with an urge to celebrate the fact that my father is alive and healthy, as is my brother and our young children.

And I have come to think of finkwarder neejohrskoken, those humble yet voluptuous spicy treats, as a New Year’s charm for us and our loved ones.

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  • Carolyn Hahn January 4, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    What an evocative essay, Agnes. My family did not go through nearly the difficulties your father did, but the essay struck home because I have just gotten done with a week of baking about twelve batches of cookies — one after the other — to give away (my husband actually begged me not to make any, and last year, I didn’t — but this year, I HAD TO).
    I gave them away to my neighbor, Gloria, to the people at my nearby Salvation Army and Holy Name thrift shops, to the staff at Oppenheimer butchers…to the cashiers at Gristedes, to my husband’s co-workers. At some point I did think Why Am I Doing This? But it reminds me of how my mother would make yeasty Christmas bread in the shape of wreaths and snowflakes for all the neighbors, for how my grandmother would send rum balls and peanut brittle from Albuquerque … it’s as if the spirit of my grandmother and mother were being channeled through my hands to my New York “family.”
    And funny how the Gristedes cashiers — like me — remembered they’d all left out cookies and milk for Santa (in my case, getting a note back from Santa — but in my mother’s handwriting — go figure!).

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  • Wendy Brown LaHood December 31, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing a heartfelt example of how strongly traditions connect us to family members today and in our history. For those of us with few or no traditions, it is encouragement to begin our own. Best wishes for a joyful, healthy and peaceful New Year.

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