In Berlin, I left the hotel early one morning in search of coffee and apples. Anything with apples. Wandering the neighbourhood, I found a sunny little bakery on a leafy street near the Brandenburg Gate. It had a tiny sidewalk patio with four tables and a plethora of potted plants.
Best of all, a sign on the sidewalk said the bakery specialized in fruit kuchen. Sure enough, there on the glass countertop were two large round fruitcakes, one plum and the other apple. But don’t imagine the kind of fruitcake your grandmother made at Christmastime. They were what we here on the Prairies might call “coffee cake” with a cake base, a layer of fruit and a crumble topping. In German, the apple version is called apfelstreuselkuchen. It was delicious, or lecker.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved anything with apples. We had two kinds of apple trees on our farm: a couple of big old crabs and a “pie” tree with large yellow apples, the variety of which no one recalled. We children were allowed to climb the crabapple trees and eat as many as we liked. But we were forbidden to climb the “pie” tree or eat any of its apples without permission. They were seriously earmarked for baking.
When my mother came to the farm as a young bride, she knew very little about cooking. Her mother (my grandmother) was a fabulous cook but she failed to pass on this knowledge to my mom.
So my mom learned to cook from her mother-in-law. My Grandma Ehman was not a fancy cook but a good farm cook — hearty wholesome meals with produce from her own gardens, rich in cream and butter, from simple recipes that reflected her Prairie roots and German heritage. This included apple kuchen, applesauce cookies and apple pie. Her apple jelly was fantastic on toast, with pork chops and sandwiched in the centre of jam-jams. I’m quite sure I was weaned on her applesauce. I have loved anything with apples ever since.
In the early pioneer days, apples were a rare treat. Dried apples were available in country stores, but fresh apples arrived by rail from Ontario. In 1914, pioneer Julie Feilberg, whose family homesteaded at Nokomis, Sask., recorded that a barrel of apples cost $4.25. She bought them as a special treat with Christmas money sent by her grandfather in Denmark.
Many farmers planted apple trees on the home quarter and, by the 1920s, some had opened their orchards for U-pick excursions. This coincided with the spread of automobiles and apple picking became a pleasant family outing.
Then came the legendary winter of 1942, which was so harsh that most of the apple trees on the northern Prairies perished in the cold. Work began in earnest to breed new varieties of apples better suited to the Prairie climate, based on experiments already underway at orchards such as those at the Seager Wheeler farm at Rosthern, Sask., and the Morden Experimental Farm at Morden, Man. Thanks to their passion for apples, I was able to climb a big old crabapple tree in my youth and fall in love with my grandma’s hand-picked apple kuchen.
I was thinking of my grandma that day in Berlin when a little bird landed on my table, brazenly eyeing my cake. I put a crumb on the far corner of the table and we enjoyed our apfelstreuselkuchen together in the morning sunshine.
For the cake:
- 1 cup soft butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1-3/4 cup flour
- 2 lbs. apples, peeled and sliced
Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs. Stir in vanilla, salt, baking powder and flour. Remove 2/3 cup and reserve for the topping. Press remaining dough into a greased 9×12-inch pan. Cover with sliced apples.
For the topping:
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 2/3 cup cake dough
- 2/3 cup flour
Sprinkle apples evenly with sugar and cinnamon. Mix reserved cake dough with flour until crumbly. Spread over apples. Bake at 350 F for 40-45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and the apples are soft.