When you compare German cooking to French cooking, some may say at first glance that French cooking is more sophisticated. And on one level that may be true. To be a good French saucier, one has to have a deep level of knowledge about the complex French sauces. But its’ not as if German food is less flavorful, it’s just less fussy. With German cooking, as with other things German, it’s all about efficiency. And one perfect example of that shows up in my family’s German recipes.
Before boullion cubes, the Victorian era cook had to make their own beef stock. They’d get beef bones, feet, maybe even beef heads from the local butcher, and boil them to extract the flavor for soups and sauces. Who has three hours to make your own stock? My good friend Manolo, from Puerto Rico, makes his own sofrito ahead, which goes in rice and beans, and many other of his family dishes, and puts it in one-use portions in an ice cube tray, which I think is brilliant. It’s a similar time saving method that still allows for a home cooked meal.
The German Hausfrau has had a similar shortcut to thicken their sauces and soups since the antebellum period in immigrant America. This particular shortcut is dropping in stale gingersnaps into a sauce, particularly a sweet and sour one, to act as a roux. In French cooking, a roux is the thickener. It involves browning flour with butter or another fat to a dark golden color. The darker the roux, the less thickening power it has. Creole cooking in the South and particularly Louisiana, uses file, a mixture of ground leaves and spices taken from Native American cooking, to thicken their standard gumbos. But the Germans skip all that flour browning and watching by just adding gingersnaps. The cookies also bring a bit of cloves, ginger, and sweetness to create a tangy sauce.
In my family’s recipes this shows up in the sweet and sour sauce that is served with my great grandmother’s sauerbraten. Great Grandma Muchorowski might have even used local Over-the-Rhine company, Streitman Biscuits’, gingersnaps in her Sunday Sauerbraten. Other recipes that pair vinegar and sweetness also incorporate the gingersnap thickening method. I’ve found old recipes for sweet and sour beef tongue sauce that use this. Also, very old local German recipes for mock turtle soup incorporate the little cookie as a thickening agent. A recipe for sweet and sour cabbage soup does similarly. Lubchow’s in New York City, the longest running German restaurant in the Big Apple, used gingersnaps to thicken their sauerbraten. Even noted Louisiana Cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme, served a roast pork with gingersnap gravy at his restaurant, K-Paul’s.
Not only is this a time saver, it’s also frugality. It would take a lot of cornstarch to do the same thickening that a few gingersnaps do very quickly. Leave it to that pfennig pinching Hausfrau to come up with this. Before commercial gingersnaps from Nabisco, they might use stale lebkucken or gingerbread around for the holidays or over the Winter, which is when these sweet and sour hearty meat recipes are served. Other older German recipes call for schwartzbrot or black bread crumbles as thickening agent in sauerbraten. The gingersnap method was so widely used that Good Housekeeping listed 15 gingersnaps as equal to one cup of roux flour.
And the origin of this German roux goes back even further to a dish from Flanders (the northern European area encompasing France, Belgium and Holland called Carbonnade a la Flamande. It’s the Germanic answer to the French Boeuf Bourguignon. Southern German cooking in Swabia and Bavaria use a thickened browne Bruhe or brown broth that’s served over Jaeger schnitzel.
So the next time you have that delicious sauerbraten, thank that nameless Germanic immigrant housewife who invented the GTM – gingersnap thickening method.