Angel Food Recipes - From a Concentration Camp to a Kitchen Delight


         


 
 
 
 

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Angel Food in a Concentration Camp to a Kitchen Delight

By George Erdosh

Concentration camp food in Germany during the World War II years was not the kind of food you think back with fond memories, yet it's remarkable that one of the most unforgettable meals in my life came from that unlikely setting. The time is 1944, the camp is Bergen-Belsen between Hamburg and Hannover.

But first let's go back a step. An unusual and, to American taste, weird, food from my Hungarian childhood was a sweetened noodle dish, common in the Hungarian culinary tradition. Resourceful housewives developed this interesting dish during the many lean, hungry years in Hungary's turbulent history when protein foods were scarce. Starchy foods filled the gap.

But a good, rich, hearty vegetable soup, followed by this particular noodle course provided a full, contented stomach and nearly complete nutrition-the pasta topping was high in protein. It was an excellent and tasty substitute for the unavailable meat protein.

The housewives generally used either of two toppings-finely ground walnut kernels or finely ground poppy seeds, sweetened with just a dab of sugar. For such fine grind, both walnut and poppy seed grinders were as much part of a Hungarian kitchen as microwave ovens and blenders are of ours.

After boiling it, the cook tossed in a dab of melted, farm-fresh butter with the freshly-cooked pasta (traditionally wide egg noodles) and when the melted butter well coated the noodles, she blended in the sweetened ground walnut having cornmeal consistency or fine pepper-sized poppy seed or served the topping separately. This is an unheard-of combination to our American palate, yet this sweet pasta dessert made an excellent, sumptuous and nutritious ending to a meal.

Imagine the wonderful combination of glistening, creamy-white, perfectly-cooked egg noodles with the generous sprinkle of tiny flecks of terra cotta-colored ground walnuts, or with the even more dramatic black specks of ground poppy seeds, as if a fine drizzle of black mist had covered every surface of the noodles. As kids we thought of ants when eating poppy seed noodles though not in an distasteful way.

Such a down-to-earth dessert cannot compete with the elegance of a creamy Napoleon or a slice of a seven-layer Hungarian Dobos Torte, yet in its flavor the contest would be harder to decide. Its preparation time was only minutes which made it a popular week-day dessert.

How does such a dessert bring up memories of concentration camp food that generally consisted of cooked sugar beets, either as thick, stew-like dish or thin soups accompanied with dark, dense, stale bread? And never, never ending with a dessert that were only in our dreams but with black, weak coffee brewed with coffee substitutes. Desserts were in our dreams and day dreams, as were meat and poultry dishes, potatoes and creamed vegetables, good, hearty soups and fresh ripe fruits, crisp vegetables, cheeses and sausages, ice-cold milk and hot cocoa. We were always hungry, even right after finishing our meals. Food was a constant topic of conversation and never strayed far from our thoughts.

The Bergen-Belsen camp was a working camp where adults had regular 12 to 14-hour work schedule to unwittingly help the German war economy. While the adults worked, we kids - I was nine-had complete freedom to roam the camp and find something to do. We were careful not to go too near the 8-foot barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp and was heavily guarded by armed soldiers and their dogs.

One rainy, gloomy, misty, cold winter day while I tramped around the muddy grounds I happened to come within hearing distance of the fence area and I heard a sound like someone hissing. I looked around but saw no one. No guards, no dogs, not even any of the ever-present camp kids nearby. I started walking but there was the hiss again from the direction of the barbed-wire fence. One more hiss and a wave of a hand directed my eyes to a movement behind a leafless bush on the outside of the fence.

"Hier," someone said in German in a low voice. I didn't speak German but I understood the command. The hand motioned me to come closer. I looked left and right and I still didn't see guards or guard dogs. As I walked closer I saw a bundled-up woman's head about my mother's age through the leafless bushes. Quickly she passed a white package through the barbed wires and immediately disappeared behind the twigs.

I picked up the melon-sized package. It was something wrapped in a clean white napkin, the opposite corners tied together. Without hesitation I hid it inside my coat and quickly walked away from the dangerous fence zone. The woman's timing was perfect-within seconds I saw one of the guards walking the perimeter of the fence but luckily not noticing anything unusual.

I walked back to my barrack, dying of curiosity what may be inside the napkin. It was something soft that felt like a little pillow we used to have back home before the camp. I hid the unopened package under my straw pillow on my half of the bunk bed that I shared with an old woman. Even though I was very curious, there were children, old people and the sick around, and I felt I should only look inside the package in complete privacy. I also thought it was best to wait until my mother got back from work-she would know what to do.

When my mother returned late afternoon, I whispered to her the story of the package during our customary three-minute evening meal. She took my little sister and me outside into the dark while I again hid the mysterious package under my coat. In the relative privacy of the night, she untied the two knots and partially opened the napkin.

There was something wrapped in several layers of waxed paper inside and it faintly smelled like food. All three of us probed the content in the dark with our exploring fingers. It felt soft and sticky with a little oily sense. I licked my finger. It was sweet-a taste sensation I haven't experienced for six or eight months. And there was also the familiar hint of walnut flavor. I grabbed a piece from the package and put it in my mouth. It was cold but it was unmistakably the buttery walnut noodle! And a whole package of it!

There was no question of us sharing the package with anyone. Just a whisper of us having such a package would start a stampede in our barrack and the guards would surround us in ten seconds. The dogs would find the package in another ten.

My mother made an instant decision. She divided the package as well as she could in the dark into three portions, (and chances are hers was by far the smallest) and we devoured the walnut noodles in seconds. No other food ever tasted as good in my life, and half a century later I wonder if any tasted better since.

Who was the German woman who dared to take such a risk? The guards would not hesitate to shoot her on the spot should they discover her passing anything through the barbed wires. Was she perhaps an angel? She must have watched the guards for hours to gauge their timing before she dared to make the risky move. And it was our luck that I happened to be at the right place in the right time.

For weeks after that adventure I hung around the same spot near the fence but no one ever appeared again-except the predictable, clockwork rhythm of the guards pacing the camp perimeters.

Sweet buttery walnut noodles -- will the Angels serve it in Heaven?

HUNGARIAN WALNUT NOODLES (DIOS TESZTA)

Hungarian cooks traditionally serve this lightly sweetened, filling dessert after a hearty soup. The two courses provide a satisfying, nutritious and quick weekday meal. For the freshest flavor, grind the walnuts yourself shortly before serving.

INGREDIENTS: 300 grams (10 ounces) dry curly egg noodles 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1 cups walnut pieces 6 tablespoons sugar

INSTRUCTIONS: Bring a 4-liter (4-quart) pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and boil until tender, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain. Add the butter to the cooking pot and let it melt. Return the noodles to the pot and mix well to coat with butter. Cover and keep the noodles warm.

Process the walnuts with the sugar in a food processor until the walnuts are very fine, about 40 seconds.

Transfer the warm buttered noodles to a large warmed serving bowl. Let your guests help themselves to the noodles and have them generously sprinkle the noodles with the sweetened walnut mixture.

Serves 4.

HUNGARIAN POPPY SEED NOODLES (MAKOS TESZTA)

Poppy seeds must be fresh and must be ground to bring out their full flavor. Every Hungarian kitchen is equipped with a small seed grinder for this purpose, but elsewhere you may not have an easy way to grind these tiny seeds. A food processor whirls the seeds around without breaking them. If you don't own a seed grinder (and how many of us do?) you can buy canned ground poppy seeds, but these are not very good. Grocery stores specializing in Eastern European and German foods often carry fresh-ground bulk poppy seeds. Make sure they are fresh and have no bitter or rancid flavor.

INGREDIENTS: 300 g (10 ounces) dry curly egg noodles 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1/2 cup poppy seeds, or 15 tablespoons ground poppy seeds 6 tablespoons sugar

INSTRUCTIONS: Bring a 4-liter (4-quart) pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and boil until tender, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain. Add the butter to the cooking pot and let it melt. Return the noodles to the pot and thoroughly mix with the butter. Cover, and keep the noodles warm.

Grind the poppy seeds in a seed grinder (or use preground seeds) and mix thoroughly with the sugar. Transfer to a serving bowl. Transfer the warm buttered noodles to a large, preheated serving bowl.

Let your guests help themselves to noodles, generously sprinkling them with the sweetened poppy seed mixture. The noodles look unusual, as if they had been sprinkled with tiny ants, but the flavor is delicious.

Serves 4.


George Erdosh is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

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from the August 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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