MEDFORD — German-born Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman was raised listening to her father’s reminiscences of his childhood in the medieval city of Bamberg, stories that often veered into the realm of food, of tastes he longed for after he, Gabrielle’s mother, and her maternal grandparents left their homeland to escape the Nazis. Gabrielle, 79, was an infant.
The families settled together in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, where more German Jews lived than anywhere else in the world. As Gabrielle and her daughter and coauthor, Sonya Gropman, write in “The German-Jewish Cookbook,” her father “set out to track down traditional recipes of his youth from family and friends and learned to make them.”
Today in Gabrielle’s home in Medford, she and Sonya are preparing bread that may have been part of his childhood. These are ceremonial German loaves the Gropmans make for Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown Sept. 20. Where Eastern European tables typically offer rich, eggy, round challah (circular for the continuity of life), the German bread, called berches (BEAR-chus, see recipe: G7) is always braided as a loaf. It is eggless, mixed with a boiled, mashed potato, which produces a tender, moist crumb and delicious crust.
Sonya, 54, is visiting from Queens, where she’s a visual artist, painter, and photographer. She braids three strands of pliable dough that are pinched together at one end. “Right over middle, left over middle, repeat,” she instructs, then tucks in the ends and sets the loaf on a blackened sheet pan that looks like it’s been around for a century. Gabrielle doesn’t recall where it’s from but the board Sonya is working on came with her grandmother from Germany.
They’re also making chicken fricassee (recipe: G7), a specialty of Gabrielle’s mother. The dish, says Sonya, “is a byproduct of chicken soup,” based on the French classic (frikassee in German), but made with duck, goose, or chicken fat. “There was a French influence in German-Jewish food in the 19th and 20th century,” says Gabrielle.
The pair work seamlessly, sauteing button mushrooms in rendered duck fat (from Wilson Farm in Lexington), whisking a sauce with the stock from cooking the bird, adding a handful of peas, some parsley that Sonya snips from Gabrielle’s garden, and strips of chicken.
They’ve also made a dish they call “wine cream,” from Gabrielle’s grandmother, taken from a splattered page in her handwritten cookbook. The lemon- and orange-scented pudding is served in little cups and tastes like the old English dessert syllabub. Another unusual recipe in the book is Twice-Baked Potato Schalet, made with grated potatoes, onions, and eggs. Meat-stuffed cabbage rolls simmer in a white-wine sauce, rather than in the familiar Eastern European tomato sauce. There is beef tongue, sweetbreads, boiled beef, dumplings, and other specialties from a time gone by.
The duo began researching the book eight years ago and can trace Gabrielle’s family history in Germany on her maternal side to 1688. When Sonya was in college, she interviewed her grandfather about his heritage. She called him “Opa.” “Opa, do you think of yourself as German?” she asked. “No,” he told her. “I’m Jewish.”
He had spent six weeks in Dachau concentration camp after Kristallnacht in 1938, but was released when the family’s papers for immigration to the United States came through. “My father’s response to losing his parents in the Holocaust was to try to re-create good things from his life in Bamberg,” says Gabrielle, but he was also realistic about the horrors. “My mother was from Munich and had no sentiment.”
Gabrielle’s husband, Don, is of Eastern European heritage, so Sonya was brought up on his traditions as well.
She and her mother are a thoughtful team, yet admit that writing the book led not just to laughing fits but also to some slammed phones. They share the world of art. Gabrielle, who for 20 years was administrator of the Harvard Mediation Program at Harvard Law School, does sculpture in various styles.
The pair has traveled to Germany, where Gabrielle showed artwork in her father’s hometown, Sonya participated in a photo project in Berlin, and the two gave a cooking class in Berlin, which is when they realized that Jews in today’s Germany think that German-Jewish food is Israeli food. What they wanted to write, says Gabrielle, “is the way it was.”
These recipes exist in individual families, says Gabrielle, but at some point, the duo decided, if they didn’t write them down, they wouldn’t exist at all.