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16th century recipes still tasty today

September 02, 2010

On May 1, 1525, armed peasants forced 50 nuns, including Katerina Lemmel, to leave their German monastery, Maria Mai, and walk 10 miles to exile in a town named Oettingen.

This peasant uprising was an important event in the history of the Ries area in south-central Germany, but it can be hard to relate to something that happened 485 years ago.

ASU professor of art history Corine Schleif and music history scholar Volker Schier, who have just published a scholarly book about the nuns, as seen through the letters of Katerina Lemmel, found an unusual way to bring the book to life.

They organized a “walk and talk” (and eat) during the Rieser Kulturtage, a two-month event celebrating the culture of the Ries area.

During the event, Schleif and Schier led participants in a walk tracing the path that the nuns followed centuries ago, reading from their book at intervals along the way.

They also wanted their guests to experience the food that the nuns ate, and enlisted the help of chefs at the current monastery of Maria Mai and ASU senior student Spring Williams to convert recipes from the era to 21st century tastes.

“Unfortunately there is no cookbook from Maria Mai that has come down to us,” Schier said. “The basic approach was to find dishes and food that were either mentioned in Katerina's letters and could be made out of the ingredients in Katerina's shopping lists that she regularly sent to her relatives in Nuremberg.”

These foods included Nuremberg doughnuts, apple pillows, cheese biscuits and several varieties of pea soup.

Schier, who helped find the recipes, said they came from two sources – a cookbook that was compiled by Sebina Welserin, a wealthy Augsburg patrician who married into a Nuremberg family, and the "buoch von guoter spise" (The book of good food), compiled in Würzburg around 1350 for the protonotary of the bishop of Würzburg, Michael de Leone.

Once the recipes were translated from German, Williams discovered that there were no real measurements in the recipes, and that some of the techniques were hardly suitable for today’s cook, such as cooking over an open fire and using large amounts of lard.

Williams, who is majoring in museum studies, art history, and German, explained: “For example, the recipe for cheese buns said, ‘If you would make cheese buns, then grate an especially good Parmesan cheese and put grated white bread thereon, until it becomes very thick.

“’Afterwards beat eggs into it, until it becomes a good dough. After that make good round balls, the same size as scalded buns, and let them fry very slowly, then they are ready.’"

Other recipes were comparative, with instructions such as "take twice as much flour as you use water and mix until well combined."

Spring, a vegetarian who says she cooks but isn’t “a chef by any means,” prepared the recipes as best she could on her own, then refined them after she tried them out on Schleif’s students and her own friends and family.

“There was this one pea soup recipe, for example, that called for vinegar,” she said. “It did not specify which kind, so I used what I had on hand. It also called for caraway. After trying it everyone agreed that there needed to be less caraway and possibly would be better if red wine vinegar was used.”

The Nuremberg doughnuts were not the typical American donut, Williams said, but like fried finger-shaped pastries that had “the taste of a crispy doughnut in all of its sugary goodness.”

The apple pillows consisted of a puffy dough that was wrapped around an apple slice. “The dough was not crispy but rather like fry bread and cinnamon in flavor.”

Schleif and Schier said they hoped their walk would “help those of our own day experience and imagine the plight of the nuns and that of the peasants. The nuns had worked their way into the spiritual economy of the day. They accepted gifts in exchange for prayers, but the peasants felt disadvantaged and exploited since they were obligated to bring tribute, often leaving little for their own sustenance.

“We both feel strongly that every scholarly project should also have some components that draw broader audiences.”

Those who did not get to participate in Rieser Kulturtage can still think of the Birgintine nuns, who had to leave their spare but comfortable monastery behind (it was nearly destroyed by the peasants) by baking some Nuremberg doughnuts or whipping up a batch of pea soup.

Here are recipes, with comments from Williams, from the era of Katerina Lemmel – still appealing even though nearly 500 years have passed.

Cheese Baskets (krapfen)

2 ¾ c. flour
2 large eggs
1 c. water
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. yeast
2 c. good Parmesan

Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. (If using bread machine yeast add it here and boil water before kneading it in. If using regular baker’s yeast add it with wet ingredients). Knead in wet ingredients and Parmesan. Dough will be sticky. Let rest for 10 minutes, knead again then let rest another 10-15 minutes or until dough has slightly risen.

With two small spoons (or hands, but dough is sticky) make 1 ½ inch balls and place on a baking sheet spaced about 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until tops are slightly browned.

Alternate baking method: Drop balls into hot oil (I used vegetable, but palm oil would be more historically accurate)

Apple Pillows

2 ¾ c. flour
2 large Eggs
1 c. water
½ tsp. salt
¾ c. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
6 medium apples
Oil for frying

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Batter will be rather moist (much like the consistency of sticky pastry batter). Quarter, or eighth, the apples, remove core and peel. Dry off all juices with a towel otherwise the batter won’t stick. Dunk apple pieces in batter; make sure all surfaces are coated. Fry in a pot of vegetable, or palm, oil. Be sure that there is enough oil in the pan that the apples do not sit on the bottom of the pan. Apple pillows will be fluffy, not crispy. Makes about 24+ pieces.

Nuremberg Doughnuts (krapfen)
3 large eggs
1 c. milk
2 tbs. sugar
2 ¾ c. flour
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, set aside. Place a dry pot into a larger pot of boiling water; be sure to have a lid for the smaller pot. In another pan, bring 3-inch deep oil to frying temperature (about 275-300 degrees, best tested with a small piece of dough dropped into the pan).

With a large spoon, scoop out about a 3-inch ball of dough and drop it in the oil, flattening it as it fries. Do not cook dough all the way through, just enough so it can be pulled out in one piece with tongs. Place fried dough in a dry pot inside pot of boiling water, and cover. (You should be able to get through this amount of dough and let it all sit in dry pot for 5 minutes without burning).

Remove all dough from dry pot and cut into finger-width strips; refry until golden brown and slightly crispy. Serve plain, with powdered sugar, or with honey

A Food of Beans or Peas (Ein spise von bonon)

Version with frozen peas:
20 oz. frozen peas
1 c. beer
1/2 tsp. caraway seed ground
1/8 tsp. pepper
3/4 c. breadcrumbs
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 c. water

Cook peas until done. Mix beer, caraway, pepper, vinegar, water and breadcrumbs. Boil mixture. Add peas to mixture. Cook briefly. You may wish to use far less breadcrumbs, and make sauce more fluid. You may also wish to serve the peas and sauce separately.

Version using dried peas:
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds, ground (I would suggest using only 1 or 1/2)
1/4 c. vinegar (mild vinegar like red wine; NOT white)
2 1/3 c. beer
2 slices fresh bread, crumbled
1 tbsp. dried bread crumbs
1 c. water
1 lb. dry peas (equiv. to 6 cups cooked peas)

Soak peas about 8 hours and drain liquid off. Boil in new water until soft. They should be very soft. This takes a while. Mix vinegar, beer, pepper, caraway, and bread crumbs. Boil mixture. Pour mixture over peas. Cook until comes to a boil, or until the peas are soft enough. Add water if necessary; Drained pea water from the first step could be saved and used here.

Leek and Split Pea Soup

3 oz. split peas
1 large onion chopped
2 pints vegetable stock
1 1/2 lb. leeks sliced
Seasoning (I took to mean pepper and salt; but others could obviously be used as well)

Cover peas with boiling water and soak for about 2 hours. (I would soak an extra hour). Drain and reserve water. Fry onion in butter. Add peas, stock and seasonings. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour. If water gets low, add reserved pea juice. Add leeks and cook further, 15-20 minutes.

For a look at the original “book of food," go to:

To read more about the “book of food,” go to: