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Mimi Schwartz is the author of When His­to­ry Is Per­son­al. She is writ­ing here as part of Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

When I was doing research in the late 1990s for my book Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times, every­one I met from my father’s vil­lage seemed to serve me linz­er­torte. Not the fan­cy cakes of Vien­na and Berlin, intri­cate and airy — but sol­id, earthy ones made by the descen­dants of farm­ers’ wives and cat­tle deal­ers, who lived on the edge of a Ger­man for­est so thick it looks almost black. Hence the name Schwarzwald, or Black Forest.

I ate this Black For­est Linz­er­torte in scores of liv­ing rooms and kitchens on three con­ti­nents — served by vil­lage Jews who fled the Nazis, and by their for­mer Chris­t­ian neigh­bors, still in the vil­lage today.

When my father was a boy in the ear­ly 1900s, Jews made up half of his vil­lage of 1,200. Six­ty years after Hitler, the one Jew­ish fam­i­ly were new arrivals from Rus­sia, and they served me choco­late-cov­ered prunes. The Kur­dish fam­i­ly liv­ing in my uncle’s for­mer house served Turk­ish cof­fee with bakla­va. All deli­cious — but with­out a shared history.

Only in the homes of those who remem­bered life before Hitler did food became the bridge to the good mem­o­ries that my father invoked in Queens, New York — to where he fled, and I grew up. He talked about how he’d go to the fields with a book in one pock­et, and a slice of linz­er­torte in the oth­er” and how every­one got along before Hitler.” Years lat­er, I heard his echo in Wash­ing­ton Heights, as eighty-six year-old Sophie Mark, my father’s class­mate, apol­o­gized for not bak­ing a linz­er­torte (“arthrit­ic hands”) and rem­i­nisced about their vil­lage where Each knew each. The whole town, the Gen­tiles too. It was very nice. Then Hitler came.”

When I vis­it­ed the vil­lage in 1995, food became the way we trav­eled into that for­mer world. The farmer’s daugh­ter, a Catholic who refused to join Hitler’s youth group, con­jured up the Jew­ish mat­zoh with its flat brown bumps. It was like poet­ry.” And the for­mer mayor’s wife remem­bered berch­es, the bread that every­one pre­pared at home: We Chris­tians made it with milk. They used water, some­thing about no milk and meat. But we all had it baked by Otto, the bak­er, in his oven on the village’s one street.”

Dis­tinc­tions of we” and they” made my Amer­i­can guard go up: Did every­one real­ly get along? Was this nos­tal­gia for a past that nev­er was? But then out came the linz­er­torte, some say the old­est cake in Europe, and it was home-baked and served with a smile. I bit into the famil­iar wall of ground almonds, flour, cocoa, with a hint of cloves, cin­na­mon and lemon, and reached the rasp­ber­ry jam. I nev­er had to fake my plea­sure. Here was the linz­er­torte I grew up lov­ing in Queens, baked by my moth­er and aunts with the fam­i­ly recipe that had crossed oceans. And some­how, long after Hitler, in homes of Chris­t­ian strangers in the Schwarzwald, I tast­ed con­ti­nu­ity and caring.

With each bite, I lis­tened more care­ful­ly, with less skep­ti­cism, as those who had been good neigh­bors (none from the Nazi Par­ty) remem­bered their shared lives, side by side for gen­er­a­tions. Like my father’s next-door neigh­bor who point­ed out the win­dow where, as he remem­bered it, his moth­er and my grand­moth­er sat in the gar­den togeth­er, knit­ting and drink­ing a kaf­fee on a warm sum­mer day. It all seemed pos­si­ble, even what Sophie and oth­ers said about their friends: What could they do? They were help­less like us! 

My friend Suzanne, from pre-war Vien­na, liked to say, But this is not a linz­er­torte served in the great cafes I knew as a child.” No, this is the recipe of vil­lage women with no time for the ele­gance of a dozen per­fect strips of dough for lat­tice­work, no access to exot­ic spices, no incli­na­tion to waste egg yolks for whipped egg whites only. But they did mea­sure and stir some­thing reli­ably deli­cious and share it with we” and they,” as if the plea­sure of eat­ing togeth­er real­ly mat­tered. As if how else can we go on?

The recipe is sim­ple and fool­proof — and I bake it often. It has nev­er failed me.
 

Black For­est Linz­er­torte — serves 8 to 10

Cook­ing Implements:

  • 1 ten-inch spring­form pan
  • Waxed paper

Ingre­di­ents:

  • 1 cup but­ter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. grat­ed lemon peel
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ cup sift­ed flour (start with two cups)
  • 1 cup unblanched almonds, ground
  • ½ tsp. pow­dered cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. pow­dered cloves
  • 1 tsp. cocoa
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 12 – 13 oz. rasp­ber­ry pre­serves (I like Bonne Maman)
  • A sprin­kle of con­fec­tion­ers sugar

Direc­tions:

1. Beat but­ter and sug­ar togeth­er until creamy.

2. Add lemon peel.

3. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

4. Grad­u­al­ly add flour, almonds, spices, cocoa, and salt.

5. Beat until thor­ough­ly blend­ed and smooth. Note: If dough is very soft, chill for 20 – 30 minutes.

6. Sep­a­rate ¼ of dough for lat­tice on top.

7. Roll the rest into a ¼ inch thick­ness between sheets of waxed paper.

8. Line the pie dish with the dough. If your pan is not no-stick, rub a lit­tle but­ter around first. Note: If it doesn’t roll per­fect­ly, no prob­lem. I often do it piece­meal, espe­cial­ly on the walls.

9. Add rasp­ber­ry jam and spread out evenly.

10. Make strips from the remain­ing dough and lay them across the torte. I usu­al­ly do a pin­wheel, but any design will work.

11. Bake in the oven at 300 degrees for about an hour.

12. Sprin­kle with a lit­tle con­fec­tion­ers sug­ar for effect.

Mimi Schwartz is a pro­fes­sor emeri­ta at Stock­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her books include the award-win­ning Good Neigh­bors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s Ger­man Vil­lage); Thoughts from a Queen Sized Bed (JCC book club pick) and Writ­ing True: The Art and Craft of Cre­ative Non­fic­tion. Ten of her essays have been Nota­bles in the Best Amer­i­can Series, includ­ing four from this book.