Every year again this sweet round thing, a fist-sized yeast ball baked in boiling fat and filled with jam, has something special to announce. As soon as it makes its appearance in the shop windows of bakeries and on supermarket shelves in Germany, you know: it’s time again. We are at the height of Mardi Gras, Carnival, the so-called “fifth season”, and for many people the most delightful one. It takes place more or less between winter and spring, far from summer and autumn, and lasts only a few days. But is all the more fun for that, more than the entire rest of the year. People dress up in costumes, party, dance to music, drink. And always and everywhere the round yeast pastry is there, like a culinary escort service. But under different names. Because like the event that it accompanies, and which depending on the locality is called Karneval, Fasching or Fassnacht, the designation of the pastry is also the product of linguistic regionalism.
Sometimes with mustard instead of marmalade
In Berlin the pastry is called a “Berliner” or “Pfannkuchen”; in East Germany, just a “Pfannkuchen”; in Hesse, Rhine Hesse and western Thuringia, a “Kreppel”; in the south a “Krapfen”. The filling also varies. In the north, people use red jam; in the south, apricot jam; in the east, plum jam; and in Baden, Swabia and Franconia, sometimes also rosehip puree. There are even gourmet versions that use champagne mousse. And there is also a sort preferred by practical jokers, which, to the unpleasant surprise of the eater and the general amusement of the initiated, is filled with mustard. It’s Mardi Gras and there MUST be fun. All the more because you won’t have much to laugh about afterwards. Then begins Lent, the Christian fasting period, which lasts until Easter. The Kreppel was therefore originally conceived as the last opportunity to really let yourself go calorically.
Catastrophes in the kitchen and for the hips
In the Middle Ages, monks were said to recommend strengthening yourself with the pastry at the start of Lent. Back then it was not yet round and was not prepared in the oven. The change occurred, according to legend, in 1756, when a Berlin confectioner wanted to serve as a gunner for Frederick the Great, but proved to be unfit for military service. He was, however, at least allowed to serve as the regimental field baker. To show his gratitude, he is said to have given the pieces of dough the form of a cannon ball and, lacking an oven, to have prepared them in a bath of boiling oil. Ever since, Krapfen have been deep-fried and probably have as many house fires on their conscience as do Christmas trees with real candles. Not to mention the catastrophes they can cause for your hips. After all, the calorie content of a Pfannkuchen varies, depending on the filling, between 200 to more than 300 calories for 70 grams, far above that of cheesecake or Black Forest gateau. Thus the Germans approach ever more closely to the shape of their favourite pastry. And if last year’s Fasching costumes becomes too crowded – no problem! It’s Karnaval and you can always claim “Ick bin ein Berliner!” – very round, very sweet and very popular.
You can bake Berliners yourself, but it’s not so easy; here is a recipe.