New Year’s Eve would not be complete without the traditional Berliner, known in much of the south as a Krapfen and in Berlin, confusingly, as a Pfannkuchen.

Berliner, Hamburg Christmas market 2019

This sweet fritter has an august lineage, going back at least to the sixteenth century. Hence Marx Rumpolt:

Make a dough of milk, eggs and good white flour, add some brewer’s yeast to it and make a good dough, not too stiff. Do not oversalt it. Leave it in a warm place to rise… (there follows a raisin fritter recipe)

Take such a dough and roll it out, wrap cherry sauce in it, cut it up with a pastry wheel, deep-fry it in butter and serve it warm, sprinkled with sugar. These are good Krapfen of cherry sauce. You can make them with all kinds of sauces.

(Rumpolt, Gebackens #41 and 42)

This is basically how we still make Berliner. Krapfen by the lights of the sixteenth century meant all kinds of filled dough pockets, usually deep-fried, but also boiled or baked. The use of leavened and enriched yeast dough with a sweet filling (the ubiquitous and popular cherry sauce) sets this recipe apart. Today, Berliner are usually filled with jam, but also with alcoholic confections, chocolate spread, and – by tradition – one of each batch with mustard. Like their close relative, the donut, they have entered a spiral of escalating adornment with coloured frostings, sprinkles, and other fanciful additions, but the traditional style is still either powdered sugar or a plain glaze. Berliner are traditionally circular and quite possibly always have been. A foldover shape is known as a Tasche, and usually filled with things like marzpian or fruit preserves.

Deep-fried Taschen from the Hamburg Christmas market 2019

The Berliner has become part of modern folklore and integrated into the time zwischen den Jahren though, like the donut, it is today available year-round. Its most famous appearance on the international stage was in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s famous speech at the Schöneberger Rathaus in West Berlin. Contrary to the popular urban legend, his words “Ich bin ein Berliner” were not misinterpreted by his audience. In Berlin itself, they are known only as Pfannkuchen. Neither is the sentence grammatically wrong – unlike “Ich bin Berliner“, it is ambiguous, but clear from the context. Kennedy likely added the indefinite article ein to parallel the correct translation of the Ciceronian civis Romanus sum he was referencing in his speech. Classical education was ubiquitous enough in 1963 for listeners to have faulted him for failing to do so.

KN-C29248 26 June 1963 President Kennedy’s address to the people of Berlin. Rudolph Wilde Platz, West Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Modern Berliner recipes do not differ materially from the 1581 version, though they are usually more detailed and precise. The 1891 Davidis-Holle Praktisches Kochbuch has instructions for making them in the classic fashion:

196. Berliner Pfannkuchen (Krapfen). For the dough, 1/4 l milk, 250g clarified butter, 1 egg and 5 yolks, 50g yeast, 50g sugar, a teaspoon of salt and 1/2 kg of fine flour. Further to fill them, any kind of preserve: three-fruit mus, currants, cherries, jelly that is no very firm, of best of all, a fine fruit jam.

Flour and butter are warmed before beginning. Then the eggs are beaten and the lukewarm milk is mixed in along with the yeast, butter, sugar and salt and made into a light dough with the flour. This is beaten until it throws bubbles and no longer sticks to the spoon. Then it is placed on a floured board to rise slowly. Once this is done, it is rolled out half a finger thick and you use a teaspoon to lay on preserves without liquid or a fine jam of apricots, skinned plums etc. on the dough in rows about 7cm from the edge and at about similar distance from each other. You fold the edge of the dough over the fruit always grasping it with both hands, and press it together all round the elevations formed by the fruit using the tips of your fingers. – Now you cut rounds with a cookie cutter or a glass and lay them on boards or pieces of paper that are dusted with flour to let them rise in the warmth. Meanwhile, heat butterfat (Schmelzbutter) to a high heat (kochend heiß) and let the Kuchen fry in it one after the other, floating on one side, as many at a time as will fit. Further proceed as described before (the previous entry describes general procedure for frying leavened doughs). The Pfannkuchen must attain a dark yellow colour and are rolled in powdered sugar while still hot, strewn with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or which is finer still, covered in a glaze of your choice. They are eaten fresh.

There is very little to add to this. Other than first cutting out the rounds and then adding the jam, this is how I make mine. Bakers producing larger quantities usually inject the jam after cooking, using an electric pump. That leaves holes in the side which sometimes betray the filling – not a problem as such, but it can spoil the surprise if you have a mixed batch.

Happy New Year 2023. May it bring you all good things.

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