Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Cecille and I flew to Vienna together. She had arranged with a former college roommate, Patricia, that we could stay with Patricia and her husband, Joe. He was there on a Fullbright. Friends of theirs vacated a large apartment on Praterstrasse, so we were able to rent it for $500 per month. This was an enormous sum of money back then, but we were able to live frugally; I lost only $500 over the summer.

I reported for work soon after we arrived. Schlögl u. Faber was a large wholesale/retail bakery on Rennweg. I started to work at 4 AM, so I had to get up at 3 AM and walk several miles, starting on Praterstrasse, past the Stadtpark, then left on Rennweg, past the Hotel Belvedere.

On the way, I passed another bakery, and once I peered inside. It was really old-fashioned. Pastries were set to proof on planks of wood, which were held on long, horizontal poles that spanned the width of the bakery. So, proofing was not done in proofing rooms. The whole bakeshop was a proofing room.

My bakery was shaped like a two-story horseshoe. On one side was the bread bakery. And the second floor were the bakers’ quarters. Everyone slept together in one room on metal cots lined up. Oh the leg of the horseshoe was the retail shop, the cake decorating area, the pastry ovens, the cake batter mixer, and the sheeter for rolling out the pastries. Above us, lived the women.

One day, at the end of my shift, I heard a violin. I looked up at the womens’ quarters to see a lovely young woman playing the violin while sitting in a window. In Vienna, women spend a lot of times at their windows. There are even cushions designed for sitting in the windows; they are called Fensterpolstern.

Between the legs of the horseshoe were storage and bread crumbs and croutons manufacture. One of the major items made by the bakery were breadcrumbs, an important ingredient in Viennese cuisine. They are the foundation of Apfelstrudel, of some dumplings, and of Wienerschnitzel.

My main job was manufacture of golatschen. I made 2,000 a day with another fellow. Golatschen, filled with powidl (red plum), topfen (sweetened cheese), or mohn (poppyseed paste) are Viennese “Danish.”

At this point, I need to give my customary lecture about “Danish.” The dough was invented in Vienna. In fact, in Denmark, Danish dough is called Wienerbrød or Viennese bread.

The croissant and the baguette (which we call French bread) were also invented by the Viennese. Croissants and Danish are very much related, as they are made with yeast-leavened dough that is sheeted or rolled out with butter to make multiple layers. In France, all pastries made with croissant or Danish doughs are called Viennoiserie.

There are more than several stories about the origin of the croissant. One has it that Viennese bakers heard the Turks tunneling under the city’s walls and sounded the alarm. A Viennese baker eventually developed the pastry to commemorate the victory against the Turks. Another story talks about a Polish general who, hired to defeat the Turks, was paid in coffee. He established coffee houses and developed the croissant to go with the beverage.

Neither story is likely to be true, but they’re still fun to tell.

The golatschen (called kolachi in the old Czechoslovakia) were unimaginative visually. Made of squares of dough topped with a dollop of filling which was then enclosed by folding the corner in, the flavors were distinguished by cutting a circle, a square, or a rectangle of dough and gluing it over the corners to seal them together. The two bakers I worked with once asked me, “Do you think we could make a go of it making golatschen in the U.S.?” Being an agreeable sort, I responded, “Why not?” In retrospect, however, I believe that golatschen would never sell. This is because Americans want to see their fillings. They want them displayed. To us, seeing a big blop of cherry preserves is better than hiding it inside the dough. We want to see value, we want to trust, but verify.

Viennese, on the other hand, are content to trust.

An alternate interpretation, less economical and more psychological is as follows. Vienna is the home of psychoanalysis, as Sigmund was Viennese, after all. In fact, Freud could never have succeeded if there weren’t a lot of neurotic women who wanted to employ his services. He found, then, that they tended to hide their feelings. In the U.S., in contrast, we tend to show our feelings, and we have less need for psychoanalysis. Thus, the Viennese hide their fillings and their feelings, whereas we Americans display our fillings and our feelings. I don’t believe a word of it. But pop psychology is entertaining.

We also made apple strudel. Not the housewife method, which involves pulling the dough until it is so thin you can read the Wiener Zeitung through it. Instead, we rolled the dough out and enclosed apples and bread crumbs inside. We sold it to the coffeehouse at the Stadtpark. We sold it for 15 cents a portion and they sold it for $2 per portion. It was good, but not great.
We made punschkrapfen. Now there’s a fun item. Definitely blue collar. You take all the scraps of cake and puff pastry and you mix them with sugar syrup and rum. The sugar syrup we made from candy scraps we purchased from a nearby candy factory. And the rum, well, it tasted a lot like Uhu Glue. We lined sheet pans with cake (biscuit) and smashed the brown paste on top, then we put another sheet of biscuit on top of that. We put a sheetpan on this and then jumped up and down on the sheetpan to press the layers together.

This cake and punsch sandwich was cut into cubes, dipped into pink fondant, and sold individually as a POS item at the cash register. Years later, I tried to make and sell this item—in Texas, in D.C., in New York. Americans won’t buy stuff like that. It’s too sweet, too rummy, too unfamiliar.

There were four of us working in the sweet goods bakery. Technically, we were considered to be Zuckerbäcker, because we made cookies, cakes, and pastries. One of us decorated the wedding cakes; he was the head Zuckerbäcker. Another specialized in cakes.

He had a mixer all to himself. He made typical Austrian tortes. The nusstorten, made with hazelnuts, almonds, or walnuts, were basically biscuit type batters with nut flours replacing half the wheat flour. A Haselnußtorte for example was made with hazelnut flour and iced with whipped cream.

This of course was not the cream from cows. It was really what we call in the U.S. baking industry a “topping”. We made it by heating milk, sugar, and egg yolk together like a crème anglaise, then homogenizing palm oil margarine into it. It actually tasted pretty good. We chilled this in milk tanks, then whipped it as needed.

The cake baker also made an Obsttorte. This consisted of a yellow cake iced with whipped cream and topped with a very attractive fruit gelée mandala. He would arrange sliced fruit (mostly canned) in a ring on top of the cake, then mix a carrageenan solution with a calcium chloride solution plus a fruit flavored syrup to make a gelée that set into a limpid stained glass window.

The vast majority of bakeries in Vienna sold pastries made with shortening. Only the very best such as Demels used butter; this was one of the oldest and best bakeries in Vienna. It was owned by a Swiss company and it was frequented only by the wealthy.

I remember reading an article in the New York Times once about Danish in Copenhagen. They were visiting one of the best bakeries, and they stated that none of the Danish were made with butter. They got brushed with butter as they came out of the oven. How sad.

At some point during the summer, one of the local T.V. stations decided to do a story about an American college student spending the summer making Viennese pastries. They walked into the shop, looked around, sniffed, and said haughtily, "Dies ist kein Demels" (This is no Demels,)

They came with their camera crew, and the bigshot said, “Here’s what we want you to say. I’m a pre-law student at Yale university. I got this job through the Austro-American Student Society. I am so glad to be here, learning about the glories of Viennese pastry.”

I responded, “I am not a pre-law student at Yale university. So I cannot say that. Certainly I got the job through the AASS and I am certainly glad to be here.”

He responded, “Well, then say nothing. We’ll say it for you.”

That evening, I was walking by an appliance store and I saw the story in the window. This experience made me realize how undependable the media sometimes are. Although there are many ethical people in the business, I have no doubts that many stories we hear or read are deliberately altered to fit what the viewer or reader wants to hear.

This reminds me of an interview that Bill Moyers, whom I idolize, conducted with Sarah Chayes. She quit her NPR job because her stories about Afghanistan were being consistently distorted to match what listeners want to hear. She’s living in Kandahar province, working with Afghani women to link villages to Western markets.

Sometimes I would wander over to the bread area, which was right across the central area where the delivery vans pulled in. In the breads area, they had two very large mixers with bowls of perhaps 500 gallon capacity. They would meter the flour directly into the bowls from a silo overhead. Flour was pumped into the silo from the street. Every morning at close to noon, right before the bread bakers quit, they would leave a hundred pounds of dough in the bottom of the mixing bowl and then meter the flour and salt onto that. That way, every batch had a slightly sour flavor.

Acetic acid, produced by the bacteria in the sour, is an excellent anti-staling and anti-mold agent. Acetic acid releases hydrogen ions that drive down the pH and change the solubility of proteins in the gluten matrix. This makes the bread softer and it stays soft longer. The acetate ion inhibits mold cell wall formation. It is a preservative similar in function to propionic acid that has been the traditional bread mold inhibitor.

We used eggs from Czechoslovakia. At that time, it was a Communist state, and the state-run farms produced cheaper eggs than the privately owned Austrian farms. However, they were not refrigerated, nor were any eggs in Europe for that matter. The whole refrigeration practice started with the growth of large poultry farms. As more and more hens were “cooped” up in cages stacked many rows high in large buildings, Salmonella, which was traditionally limited to ducks and other waterfowl, became endemic in chickens as well. Refrigeration became necessary to damage Salmonella cells so they could not grow in the human gut.

Also, modern egg production techniques and supermarkets demanded increased consistency in quality.
However, in those days, the eggs arrived in cardboard crates and before we used them, we cracked them open. This was usually the responsibility of someone who was paid a very low salary. There was a Yugoslav girl who had the egg-cracking job. She would sit at a table in the courtyard and crack each egg into a small bowl, then transfer it to a larger container. This way, if there was a green egg, it did not get mixed in a ruin the entire batch.

When hens are allowed to run free, they lay their eggs here and there. The person who gathers the eggs might miss one for weeks and then one day find it. If it’s also cracked, it’s almost a sure thing that you will have a green egg. And it stank.
The Yugoslav girl also was responsible for dusting the Apfelstrudel with confectioner’s sugar before they were sent out to their destinations. One Saturday morning, she dusted the entire weekend’s production with baking powder. I never saw her again.
Cecille and I had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. We went on numerous jaunts with our friends, Patricia and Joe. I remember visiting Neusiedlersee which is right on the border with Hungary. This large lake is only about 8 feet deep at the deepest spot and it is rimmed with reeds.

We also visited Lenz, the town on the Danube that is famous for the classic cookie, Linzeraugen. This is a butter sandwich cookie with a filling of raspberry, plum, or apricot jam. The top cookie has windows cut out of it and it is dusted with confectioner’s sugar for maximum color contrast.

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