Today, I found a baker that still sells what used to be a universal specialty across the Low German-speaking world – Heißwecken. As early as the fifteenth century, we can trace the history of this confection, always eaten around Carnival. Today, the word refers to a sweet, rich bun very close to a Franzbrötchen in consistency, topped with sugar and optionally filled with cream.
In 1996, Ernst Helmut Segschneider published the essay Heißwecken als Fastnachtsgebäck im Hanseraum in Günther Wiegelmann’s book Nahrung und Tischkultur im Hanseraum. In it, he traced the history of Heißwecken from the earliest mentions of hete wegghe in the Hamburg hospital accounts of 1447 and 1457. Later sources provide descriptions of the dish: “warm, white bread which is kneaded with melted butter or boiled milk and with which the stomach is filled according to ancient, uncouth habit” (Idioticon Hamburgense, 1755). The wikipedia article on this food is largely based on this essay, and it is remarkably detailed and well sourced for a food entry as a result.
Segschneider argues that the Hanseatic hete wegghe is the origin of the Scandinavian tradition of semla, the sweet, cream-filled bun that occurs across the north under a variety of names. Indeed, one of the earliest Swedish names for this is hetvägg, clearly hete wegghe – Heißwecken. Swedish later adopted the High German term Semmel in place of the dialectal Weck(e), but the two terms were and still are synonymous. Today, both refer to fine, white breadrolls eaten for breakfast. Interestingly, while the tradition of semla is thriving across all of Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, Heißwecken, once ubiquitous across northern Germany, have all but disappeared. The dominant baked good for Carnival is now the Fastnachtskrapfen, a Berliner. Only very traditional bakeries still produce them at all, and I had to check four shops before I found one.
However, the meticulously researched narrative developed by Segschneider looks in one direction only, and thast leaves open some interesting aspects of the Heißwecke phenomenon. There is no reason to think the idea started in the Low German-speaking region of Northwestern Germany to spread across the Baltic. The idea seems to obvious to be a one-time invention. And indeed, the humorous songs of the fourteenth-century poet König vom Odenwald mention the culinary delights of a begozzen semmel – a semmel that has something poured on it. Regrettably, we do not know what, but both milk and butter surely make sense. It is very unlikely this merely refers to bread soaked in some cooking liquid because the name for that kind of dish – Suppe – was already current and the dish was too common to warrant extolling in song. As an aside, one of our sources for the works of the food-minded singer is the Hausbuch of protonotary Michael de Leone, the same man to whose personal library we owe the earliest version of the buoch von guoter spise (an English translation of which exists). Culinary history is rich in unexpected connections like this.
Of course this is a speculative leap of faith. However, it is not improbable at all. German culinary naming conventions in the middle ages are almost nonexistent, so absent an actual recipe, we will find it hard to decide what exactly begozzen semmel meant – or for that matter what exactly the hete wegghe that were served in 1447 looked like. But to illustrate both the folly of attaching too much importance to a name and the perils of postulating the origin of any dish, let alone doing so on a monolingual research basis, we need look no farther that England. To be precise, the fifteenth-century Harleian MSS 279 and 4016. Here, we find a recipe for rastons:
Rastons. Take fyne floure, and white of eyren, and a litul of the yolkes; And then take warme berm, and put al thes togidre, and bete hem togidre with thi honde so longe til hit be short and thik ynogh. And caste sugur ynowe thereto; And then lete rest a while; And then cast hit in a faire place in an oven, and lete bake ynogh; And then kut hit with a knyfe rownde aboue in maner of a crowne, and kepe the crust that thou kuttest, and pile (Note: Douce MS.; pike Harl) all the cremes (Note: Douce MS. cromes) within togidre; and pike hem small with thi knyfe, and saue the sides and al the cruste hole withoute; And then cast thi clarefied butter, and medle the creme (Note: Douce MS. crommes) and the buttur togidre, And couer hit ayen with the cruste that thou kuttest awey; and then put hit in the oven ayen a litull tyme, and take it oute, and serue hit forthe all hote.
And just like that, we have a North European tradition and a very delightful, simple but rich dish to serve on a cold, foggy February day.