By Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the vigorous Mother’s Day wake-up call, the burned toast, the tipsy vase, the sticky glass of grapefruit juice.
It’s just that sometimes a mom needs something more.
In my case, the cravings hit about six months ago, when I couldn’t get enough of tart berries, minimally processed. I added unsweetened cherry juice to my grapefruit juice, frozen raspberries to my smoothies, but nothing quite hit the spot, until, finally, my desire came firmly into focus. I wanted rote grutze, the richly colored, intensely flavored berry pudding my German-born grandmother used to make with her own raspberries and currants.
A few things stood in my way: My grandmother, for one. My Oma, who died in 1999 at age 99, was a marvelously confiding person. She’d sit with you in the solid stone cottage in Great Neck, N.Y., that was her home for more than 50 years and weave wondrous tales of youthful rebellion and lost love in Germany, stories that transformed you, a mere fledgling six decades her junior, into a true friend and co-conspirator.
But when it came to her recipes, Oma clammed up like a suspect under bright lights.
Ask her how to make one of her stunningly lovely pastries — any of her stunningly lovely pastries — and her answer was always, “Well, you need some sugar, some butter, flour and eggs.”
I consulted with my aunt Gail in Montreal, keeper of the family recipes, on the rote grutze question, but what Gail had managed to wrangle from Oma was characteristically Sphinx-like: “Bring fruit and a bit of water to a boil; strain; add sugar to taste; thicken with gelatin, tapioca or cornstarch.”
My mother, a keen observer and one of those uncanny people who can taste a dish and recreate it without a recipe, had a few key details to add: The berries, she said, were mushed and strained through cheesecloth. Cornstarch played a role.
“There may be a little zest in it,” Mom reflected.
“There’s lemon, is my guess.”
Ah, the secret ingredient. There are those who suspect that Oma routinely omitted a minor step or ingredient when asked for a recipe.
My third source, the rote grutze recipe in “The German Cookbook” by Mimi Sheraton, dovetailed with the other two, but some questions remained. Sheraton’s recipe offered a puree option, which I bypassed on my mother’s advice. And what about the currants? With no fresh currants to be had at my grocery store, could I substitute black currant juice? Adding to my quandary: Black currant juice tastes foul, sour and stale simultaneously.
I settled for upping the raspberries — the dominant flavor in my memories — and using a small amount of currant juice. Tasting as I went, I swooned over the cooked raspberries and took my mother’s advice, forcing as much fruit as possible through a mesh strainer. Some seeds got through, but Gail says that “straining” shouldn’t be interpreted too strictly.
I had a minor setback when I added a half cup of sugar; the juice started tasting like jam, way too sweet. I’d definitely recommend starting with a tablespoon or 2 of sugar and going from there. But by the time I’d added all the currant juice I’d dared (1/4 cup) and lemon juice, things were looking up, and with the addition of cornstarch the mixture took on the wondrous rosy purple hue I remembered from childhood.
The final result wasn’t quite perfect; Gail says Oma’s notations indicate that 26 ounces fruit go into 2 cups juice, and I’d go with that higher ratio next time for a slightly more vibrant berry flavor. I’d also reduce the cornstarch by a smidge for a little more give in the pudding texture.
Still, chilling solidified and intensified the flavors, sending the sugar into retreat and allowing the berries to emerge, beautifully balanced by the tartness of citrus and currants.
I kept tasting, waiting to sense a significant defect, but each spoonful tasted tart enough and rich enough. Maybe not perfect, but close enough for time travel. For a few dizzying seconds, and then a second more, I was back in my grandmother’s home. Time and space evaporated and raspberries reigned supreme.
1quart ripe raspberries and currants (half and half, see note)
Strip of lemon peel
1 1/2cups water
Sugar to taste (about 1/2cup)
Juice of 1 to 2 lemons
Cook fruit and lemon peel in a saucepan with 1 cup water until juice is released, about 10 minutes. Remove lemon peel; push the fruit through a mesh strainer. Measure out 1 quart of fruit juice and pulp, adding water if you don’t have enough.
Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 cup water in a separate bowl. Return juice to saucepan; add sugar to taste. Simmer until sugar dissolves completely. Stir in dissolved cornstarch mixture. Heat to a boil slowly, stirring until mixture is thick; simmer, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in lemon juice to taste. Pour into glass serving bowl or dessert glasses; chill until set, about 1 hour. Serve with whipped cream.
Note: If you can’t find fresh currants, use 1 quart raspberries and add black currant juice to taste (about 1/4 cup); you may want more lemon juice as well to bring up the tartness.
Makes 8 servings. Per serving: 197 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 4 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Adapted from “The German Cookbook,” by Mimi Sheraton.